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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Vol. 1022 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation

I want to return, if I can, to the Milne family - to Ryan and Kyle and their parents, Gillian and Darren - whose circumstances were outlined earlier. Gillian and Darren have struggled for years to secure the appropriate services and school placement for their young boys. In his response to Deputy Bacik, it sounded as though the Taoiseach was laying culpability for this at the feet of schools. I want to challenge that. I accept absolutely that the legislative framework has to ensure inclusion, and not for one moment will I carry the can for any school that would seek to exclude a child. However, there has to be a level of honesty here. There is absolutely an issue around resourcing, also. Furthermore, the courts in this land have found that the Government has broken the law in respect of the Disability Act 2005. The State has not been honourable-----

We are over time. The Taoiseach to respond.

-----in honouring the law in respect of those with disabilities. What is the Government's plan for increased resources in order that Kyle, Ryan and others like them can avail of the services that they are entitled to?

I would ask everyone to comply with the rules, because we are eating into the time of the other Deputies.

To be fair to Deputy Bacik, she decided to prioritise this issue for Leaders’ Questions. I thought I had dealt with it comprehensively at that point. Deputy McDonald is wrong to put words in my mouth, as she sought to do. I have not apportioned culpability to anybody. However, I stand over what I said earlier. There has to be a collective obligation in terms of accepting children with special needs into all schools. The Minister will be meeting with the Milne family on Thursday. It is not a question of resources. I am clear about that. Resources will be provided. The issue in many respects is expanding the existing special schools, creating new schools and working with other providers to make sure we can create a sufficiency of new places in new schools, which we are going to do.

Deputy Bacik raised the issue of passports yesterday. I ask that we might have a further articulation of the issue in the House and I call on the Government to make time for statements on it. First-time applications for passports were taking 40 working days in 2021. We are all now dealing with cases where first-time applications are taking 12, 13, 14 weeks and more. There is a serious issue at play for people who want to travel next week and the week after and who are fearful that they just will not have their passports on time, even though they applied in good time. Can consideration be given to alleviating the pressure on the Passport Office in Dublin by, for example, putting a printing machine in place in the Cork office? There was one there before. Such a machine could be used to serve the Munster region and beyond. This is a worthwhile proposition.

It would have to be in Mallow.

I have no issue with resourcing the Passport Office in Cork even more.

The one in Donegal, too.

Does everyone want to leave Cork?

There has always been great capacity in Donegal in respect of these issues.

Pat "the Cope" Gallagher was a great man for the passports.

He was almost legendary. The debate will be organised next week. That was agreed yesterday with the leader of the Labour Party.

At the weekend, the Business Post reported that the introduction of a vacant homes tax is in doubt. When my colleague, Deputy Cian O’Callaghan, asked the Taoiseach about this yesterday, he said that information collected by revenue related to local property tax is being analysed to assess the merits and inform the design of a vacant property tax. This seems to suggest that the Taoiseach believes the merits of a vacant homes tax are in doubt. His Fine Gael Government colleagues have been promising to introduce one since 2016. It is already six years overdue. Very simply, is the Taoiseach in favour of a vacant homes tax? Will he commit to introducing a vacant homes tax and when will that be done?

The issue is that the Housing for All strategy includes an action for the Department of Finance to collect data on vacancy with a view to introducing a vacant property tax. That has been our position. As the Deputy knows, local property tax, LPT, returns include questions such as whether a property is vacant and the reason for the vacancy if the period vacancy if the period of vacancy exceeds 12 months. The aim was to provide an indicative profile of vacant residential properties which will help to inform policy. Revenue has completed preliminary analysis of the LPT returns received to date. This has been shared with the Department of Finance. It suggests that levels of vacancy are low across all counties. Revenue will publishing a profile of the occupancy data from the LPT returns in due course.

On my way to Leinster House today, I visited Cherry Orchard Hospital, where medical scientists are on strike in relation to pay and retention, among many other matters. On the way here, many of us would have seen a lot of flags around the place indicating support for front-line workers. There are two such flags in Kilmainham, which I go by everyday. I always think of that time when front-line workers protected all of us in the context of Covid-19. It is absolutely shambolic that 2,000 medical scientists are on strike for better pay and conditions when they were at the front line in the fight against Covid-19. Those workers have a justified pay claim. That pay claim needs to be dealt with.

I dealt with this on Leaders’ Questions when it was raised by Deputy Paul Murphy. As I said, there were talks yesterday at the Workplace Relations Commission. I hope that those talks will continue in order that we might get a resolution to the outstanding issues.

I welcome the Government's plans to increase the amount of microgeneration of energy across the country. This is a good thing. Anything that diversifies and democratises our energy supply is something that should be incentivised and supported. Every Deputy in this Chamber is aware, however, that there has been a massive increase in energy costs, in particular electricity costs, over the past few months. However, there has not been a concurrent increase in the feed-in tariffs that energy companies are willing to pay micro-producers.

Does the Taoiseach accept that the energy companies cannot have it both ways? They cannot increase the price they are charging to consumers, while not increasing the price they are willing to pay these micro-producers. I would be grateful if the Taoiseach could take this matter up with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government approved the microgeneration support scheme in December of last year. This scheme provides supports for up to 380 MW of microgeneration by 2030. To facilitate export from microgenerators, on 15 February the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications signed regulations to transpose Articles 21 and 22 of the recast renewable energy directive. These regulations place an obligation on suppliers to offer the clean export guarantee, CEG, tariff to new and existing micro and small-scale generators. Under the climate plan, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, is to complete the implementation of an interim microgeneration system and market change solution, which is on target to be completed in quarter 2 of this year. This solution will facilitate households to be remunerated by their suppliers for the excess renewable electricity they provide to the grid via the CEG tariff. The CRU published a decision on an interim and enabling framework for the CEG that outlines the arrangements for the implementation of the CEG, including eligibility criteria and the remuneration methodology. I will take the matter up further with the Minister.

For more than 20 years, Pat and Nuala Geoghegan from Askeaton, County Limerick, have been calling for a public inquiry into the blood samples that went missing during one of the biggest ever investigations into industrial pollution. The Taoiseach already knows about this saga because he met the Geoghegans when he was Minister for Health. He called for a review on 1 April 2003 into the missing blood samples and then did a U-turn a month later and stopped that review. The Taoiseach had three meetings with the Geoghegans at the time and was accompanied by the then deputy chief medical officer, CMO, Dr. Tony Holohan. Was this review stopped at the behest of Dr. Holohan? The Geoghegan family has evidence that it was. They have written information which states that it was stopped by the then deputy CMO. It is 20 years later and the Geoghegans are outside the gate today protesting. Will the Taoiseach meet them and listen to them? Will he carry out the review he promised nearly 20 years ago, please?

The Deputy has raised an issue from 20 years ago and given a perspective on it. I am not in a position-----

I raised it here six months ago.

-----here and now to confirm whether Dr. Holohan was the person who allegedly stopped that review.

Will the Taoiseach meet the family?

The English Language Students Union of Ireland has highlighted that more than 2,000 people whose stamp 2 visas are due to expire and who want to continue to study here in Ireland are facing having to leave the country for three months and will possibly lose their jobs and accommodation in order to comply with visa requirements. I spoke recently to the labour rights officer of the union, who expressed anxiety that these students are feeling especially around the accommodation issue with the ongoing housing crisis. True to form, the Department of Justice has issued a typically heartless response, saying there are no plans to further extend these visas. That is a nonsensical position to adopt. Will the Taoiseach have a word with the Fine Gael Minister for Justice and ask her to overturn this decision?

The Minister made the point yesterday that there have been nine extensions in recent years. There has to some framework governing the issuing of visas and the expiry dates relating to them. Nine is a fairly significant number of extensions. I will discuss the matter again with the Minister.

My question is also about passports and the serious backlog relating to them. We know there is a huge issue with children's passports and new passports. One of the serious problems I am facing is that the online application system is indicating dates for the arrival of people's passports. However, some passports tend not to arrive for weeks after the specified date and many people are missing holidays as a result. I know the staff are doing their best. The other issue, which is also serious, relates to the phone lines. One could be on the phone to the Passport Office all day. Could we have a discussion on this matter? Is there anything else the Government can do? I have contacted the office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, several times.

It has been agreed that there will be a debate on the Passport Office next Thursday.

I did not know that. Is it next Thursday?

Yes. As I said yesterday, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of passport applications compared with last year. There will be a debate next Thursday.

Every day, we read evidence that our planet is burning up. Today we see that four previous records were broken last year, namely, those relating to CO2 concentrations, sea levels, heat and acidity of our oceans. The fact is that global action is not matching what is needed. I welcome today's debate on just transition. However, an integral part of just transition has to be climate action. When will we see the sectoral allocations relating to the climate budget? It is these allocations that will trigger a decisive shift to action? The challenge for every one of us is to make sure that in ten or 20 years’ time, we will be resilient, prosperous and competitive in a zero-carbon world. Work in that regard has to start as a matter of urgency.

I appreciate the points raised by Deputy Bruton. We are running out of time. The planet is set for significant changes, and the Cabinet sub-committee has been briefed by experts to the effect that our children's children will bear the brunt of this. There will be an onus on all of us. The Deputy is correct in what he says. The carbon budgets were approved by the Houses on 6 April. The Minister and the Department are working with all other Departments, including the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Transport, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Housing, Local Government and Heritage, with a view to preparing a recommendation for Government approval on sectoral ceilings. We will take on board what the Committee on Environment and Climate Action has recommended but it is no longer enough to do our best; we must do what is necessary. The committee believes that the carbon budgets and the sectoral ceilings should reflect that spirit of urgency and ambition. It will be very challenging; of that there is no doubt.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the murder of the crusading South African journalist, Henry Nxumalo, a man whose pioneering reporting helped to document the horrors of apartheid South Africa. Nobody was ever held accountable for his death. It is obvious why Mr. Nxumalo was murdered. It is equally obvious why another apartheid regime, Israel, last week murdered the brilliant Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, as she helped to document in detail the atrocities carried out by that regime. Her protective flak jacket was marked with the word "Press" and she was standing with other journalists but she was murdered in cold blood. She joins a long list of journalists and other members of the media murdered by the Israeli military. Israel is not listening to the words of the international community. Decisive action is needed. Will the Taoiseach indicate what are the next steps in the context of holding Israel to account?

The Irish Government has consistently raised this issue at the EU and the UN Security Council. Everybody in the House should raise the issue with those who have influence over Israel. There is increasingly institutionalised discrimination within the West Bank and the occupied territories. That is not acceptable. I hope Sinn Féin would do likewise when it meets representatives in the United States, for example. I hope it has been as strong as it is here in the context of the Palestinian question when it meets Members of the US Congress on Capitol Hill. I do not know whether the Deputy has got any feedback from her discussions with those representatives on that. The murder of Shireen Abu Akleh has to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. What happened subsequently at her funeral must also be condemned. There has been increasingly aggressive activity in the occupied territories in recent times.

In September, an "RTÉ Investigates" programme concerning the disposal of perinatal organs at Cork University Maternity Hospital drew outrage and caused untold hurt to the families involved. These are all families who lost babies in tragic circumstances and who opted for post-mortem examinations to help them get answers to why those babies died. They signed consent forms stating that organs had to be disposed of in a sensitive manner by burial or cremation and that they would be contacted before that happened. That did not occur. It is shocking that babies' organs were disposed of along with medical waste. In the aftermath, the Minister for Health said there would be numerous reviews and that these would be conducted in a timely manner. The families involved have been told for a third time that there will be a delay in furnishing them with the report of the review team, despite the fact that it is complete. That is unacceptable. I spoke to one of the women involved on Monday and she was deeply upset by this. We need an assurance that this report will be published or given to the families as soon as possible, that there will be no further delays and that the reason for the delays is uncovered.

I will engage with the Minister on this issue.

We will ask what the delay is with the publication of the review team report. It would seem to me that what happened was not in conformity with established protocols and decisions that had been taken a long time ago arising out of a State inquiry into the disposal of organs of deceased babies. I will engage with the Minister and come back to the Deputy.

As the Taoiseach is aware, the British Government has now come up with a new variation on its already despicable proposals for an amnesty for people who committed murder during the Troubles. The British Government is now proposing that those who assist a new independent recovery body and co-operate will not face prosecution. The British Government is now introducing a charter for the perpetrators of murder and other heinous crimes. We will have a coalition of murderers from the state forces and murderers from the paramilitary organisations. Yesterday at the event to mark the 48th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings where 33 innocent people were killed and hundreds injured, the Taoiseach said that the Stormont House Agreement needed to be implemented, and that we need to ensure that the rights and concerns of victims are centre stage in all processes. A very firm rebuke must go to the British Government regarding this variation on its already discredited amnesty proposal.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue with me. We are considering the United Kingdom Government's published proposals in detail. I have no doubt that we will have a very comprehensive range of issues to raise and questions to ask. There is also a broader question of process. It has been our consistent position - I have communicated this to the British Prime Minister - that the basis for progress on legacy issues is the Stormont House Agreement that was reached between the two Governments and political parties back in 2014. If a significant unilateral departure from that agreement is now being proposed, this would need to be discussed by both Governments and with all the parties.

There must be serious and credible engagement with victims and families. It is essential that both Governments and the parties in Northern Ireland have real and considered discussions on any way forward on this deeply sensitive issue. Crucially, victims and families must be brought into the consideration of any way forward. I have met many of those groups in recent months. They are not happy with the manner in which the British Government approached this and their views must be uppermost.

Nahid Bashardost is an Afghan woman journalist who has highlighted human rights abuses widely in recent years and is now in fear of her life from the Taliban. I ask the Taoiseach to use his good offices to facilitate an early application for asylum here, given her record and given the existence of humanitarian grounds.

The situation facing women in Afghanistan is truly appalling. The vista ahead of them is an appalling one. Notwithstanding criticism from some in the House about western engagement with Afghanistan over the past 20 years or so, one of the benefits that arose was the liberation of women to a certain extent particularly with access to education and schools. The Taliban is back in charge with its very regressive views on women in general and women's access to education. I ask the Deputy to provide the details and the Minister will certainly follow through.

I ask for an update on the status of the Protection of Employees (Collective Redundancies) Bill. Figures this week show that the administrators who looked after the sale of Debenhams in Britain made £5.3 million in fees alone. It makes you wonder how much KPMG made out of the disposal here. Workers here received a training fund after a year on the picket line and protesting. What is the status of legislative protections for workers? We need to ensure that we never again have cases such as Debenhams and Clerys. I stood with the workers from Debenhams at the gates of Leinster House last week. They know this legislation will not apply to them, but they want to ensure that what happened to them - they were treated disgracefully as the Taoiseach has acknowledged - will not happen to another group of workers. We need to progress this legislation as a matter of urgency.

The legislation is at heads of Bill stage.

As the Taoiseach knows there is a chronic crisis with the cost of living at the moment, much of it brought on by the war in Ukraine and other issues. He will be aware from his party's commitments in the election of another group in society who have been suffering with the cost of living for many years, members of our Defence Forces. We have procrastinated over the commission on the review of pay for members of the Defence Forces for some considerable time. The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, and PDFORRA have gone to the European Court to secure the right to collective bargaining which they still cannot do without the permission of the Minister. When does the Government propose to address the chronic crisis for members of our understaffed by 1,000 Defence Forces? Recruiting at the moment is like trying to fill an empty bucket when these people cannot survive. There are many in my constituency and in the Taoiseach's constituency. We would like some dates and some tangible action that will be taken to address this issue.

I take the point the Deputy has raised. There are issues. There have been some adjustments in respect of some members of the Defence Forces. The Commission on the Future of the Defence Forces was established by the Government to undertake a comprehensive examination of all issues relating to our Defence Forces. That independent commission has reported. It was established within the first six months. There was widespread consultation and nearly 500 public submissions. It conducted site visits to a large number of military locations, meeting more than 1,000 Defence Forces members and their representative associations. Considerable change has been recommended. It will be coming back to Government. Parallel with that there will be an examination of the broader pay structure and the collective bargaining issue.

Farmers are under savage pressure with the increased costs of fertiliser, fuel and electricity. I welcome the €1,000 proposed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine for 10 ha. While it is not an awful lot, it is a lot in a way. There are many farmers in east and south Kerry who do not cut their own fodder on their own land because the land is not suitable. We rely on people like Finbarr Marshall from Ballygarvan and Flor O'Brien from Kenmare to draw the fodder from other places like Cork. Will the Minister include something for those people? Will the payment be made as soon as possible because many farmers just do not have money to carry on?

I thank the Deputy for his question. As he knows this is a challenging time for the cost of inputs, particularly fertiliser. I have been engaged closely with the fertiliser suppliers to ensure security of supply. They have worked very hard to ensure that is the case. I also introduced the scheme to pay €1,000 on up to 10 ha to support farmers to cut hay and silage this year. As the Deputy knows, we cannot do everything but we are working hard to understand the challenges there. That scheme will be a really important support to encourage farmers to grow. It applies to beef farmers, sheep farmers and those with tillage land who grow fodder. It will be paid in the latter part of the year. It is not possible to pay it in advance. Knowing that support will be there gives confidence to the sector to make preparations to grow the grass, grow the fodder and will help to cover the cost of that.

Please do something for the farmers who cannot grow their own stuff.

Problems with our healthcare system predate this Government. One might expect the Government to be uniquely qualified to deal with it given that it includes three previous Ministers for Health in the Cabinet, along with, of course, the Minister for Health, and yet problems persist and get worse. The people tasked with implementing Sláintecare have resigned. The IMO is balloting for industrial action. Non-consultant hospital doctors and medical scientists are on strike today. Nowhere is the problem more manifest than in University Hospital Limerick, UHL, where overcrowding continues. I welcome that an expert team was sent in there. I called for an independent review. When will this expert team report? To whom will it report? Will its report be published? What are its terms of reference? Will it include looking at whether some of the model 2 hospitals in the region now need to be upgraded to deal with the population in the mid-west?

We need a long-term solution as well as a short-term solution to the particular problems of overcrowding in UHL.

There is no doubt but that there are significant pressures at UHL. Overall, despite all of the negativity around health services, the bottom line is that in the past 20 years, Ireland has moved from 16th to first in the European Union league table of life expectancy. That is due to a whole range of public health measures but it is also due to investments in our health services, including cardiology, oncology, stroke treatment and so on.

We need to maintain that position.

However, we have real issues with emergency admission. Population growth has also played a role. The Deputy is correct. The problem is that the recruitment of senior clinicians tends to be in tertiary hospitals. All the various colleges, including anaesthesia, talk about the need for high-volume activity located in the tertiary hospitals. We have had this debate for 25 years.

When are we getting the reports of the expert group?

There are two aspects to the expert group. One is to have an immediate impact in terms of systems and flow through the hospitals. I will come back to the Deputy with details of the report.

I wish to raise a sensitive issue with the Taoiseach. Widowers, widows and guardians must produce affidavits and death certificates every time their child's passport is being renewed. It may be a reasonable position to prevent fraud etc. but I am sure the Taoiseach will agree it is excessive and upsetting when those documents must be produced every single time the passport is being renewed. The Department for Foreign Affairs website states that if one of the two guardians is deceased and no other guardian is appointed, the living guardian is the sole guardian and an original death certificate must be produced every time. Will the Taoiseach be caring and compassionate and do something about that? It is painful and traumatising for the person who is surviving to have to produce those documents on each occasion.

That is a very fair point. I will talk to the Minister for Foreign Affairs about the point the Deputy has raised. There is validity in what the Deputy has said. I would like to hear the counterargument. The Deputy makes a very fair point.

Householders in County Clare are anxiously awaiting admission to the enhanced defective concrete block scheme. Further laboratory analysis of affected homes in County Clare has taken place and categorically demonstrates the presence of pyrite. The work was carried out by Clare County Council, in conjunction with the engineer, Mr. Simon Beale. It clearly warrants the immediate extension of the defective concrete blocks scheme to County Clare. Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House that the enhanced defective concrete block scheme will be underpinned by legislation as opposed to a statutory instrument? Will he also confirm that pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill will take place? When does he expect this legislation will come before the House?

This may seem like a small matter but for the people of Kinsale, Piper's show wagon is a big deal. It is iconic. Despite over 2,000 people signing a petition for the show wagon to be returned to Short Quay, Cork County Council is refusing to allow that to happen. It had been there since 1932.

For the people of Kinsale, the show wagon is iconic and has sentimental value. There is tradition associated with it and there are fun memories associated with it. More importantly, it has over 90 years of history. I cannot believe it has come to this but I am asking the leader of the Government to intervene because Cork County Council is not for moving.

The Deputy has made an eloquent case for the retention of Piper's show wagon in Kinsale. I ask Cork County Council to have a heart. We will engage on the matter. We must have a community-based response and if 2,000 people have signed a petition relating to something that has stood in Kinsale for 90 years, it merits a warm-hearted response from the authorities.

All the Cork Deputies are smiling.

They absolutely are. Deputy Barry confirmed recently that he kissed the Blarney Stone.

On the point raised by Deputy Carey, I hope the legislation will be forthcoming in the next number of weeks. I will double-check that with the Minister. We will reflect on the request for pre-legislative scrutiny. Everyone should be aware that pre-legislative scrutiny will delay the scheme for months and months. We will be attacked when the scheme is not operational and houses are not being done. I am anxious to get moving and get things done in this regard. There are approximately 300 houses in Donegal on which works could start. We need to start.

Will the Taoiseach confirm there will be legislation as opposed to statutory instruments?

There will be primary legislation.

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