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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 14 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 4

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Home Care Packages

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy English, for attending to deal with this issue. I know he gets this. We made representations to him and the Department previously regarding meat factory workers, and that issue was resolved. While I do not want to compare the issue I am raising tonight with the plight of those in the meat industry, it still surrounds the issue of visas and non-EU workers. I would appreciate the feedback of the Minister of State.

Initially, I want to flag a couple of the positive things that have been achieved by the Government in the past two years. We have gone from 19 million hours to 24 million hours in 2020 and again in 2021, funding was provided for 24 million home care hours, which is most welcome. I understand there are more home help hours being delivered to more patients than ever before in the home, as it should be and as Government policy requires.

That said, yesterday I attended a briefing with my local HSE management. In the three hours I and my Oireachtas colleagues were there, we spoke about the well-documented recruitment crisis in the HSE, with anywhere between a 15% and 25% vacancy rate across the country in respect of the filling of various vacancies. While this difficulty in recruiting employees is obvious among consultants, therapists in disability services, psychologists and other professional fields, it is perhaps most acutely felt in the area of home care. I say this because those other posts I mentioned are in short supply globally and the State’s critical list allows those posts to be filled by international candidates, including non-EU applicants. A non-EU person can also apply for a post in a nursing home care setting and as a healthcare assistant in a hospital setting. However, non-EU candidates cannot be recruited for home care supports.

This policy is discriminatory and flies in the face of what we, as a State, are trying to promote, which is to keep people at home for as long as possible and to target care and support in the home as much as is practicable. I genuinely do not understand why the critical skills list is not amended to reflect the fact we have hundreds of thousands of hours allocated and approved in home care but we cannot source the staff.

I can list dozens of individual cases, as most Deputies can, regarding the much-needed hours allocated to various people where, for one reason or another, the HSE is failing to allocate a carer to them or to arrange for a service provider to be contracted to do the same. I think of one lady in particular who is 92 years of age. She is a dementia sufferer who has been waiting more than 12 months for a carer. After many representations and having waited that length of time, she eventually got half of her entitlement but is still waiting for her full allocation. This is being felt right across the board.

I understand that the reluctance up to now may have related to the fact that certain providers do not meet the same pay and conditions standards set by the HSE itself. These contracts and working visas require a minimum salary of €27,000 in other circumstances and while this approximate salary is not as high as the HSE hourly rate of €16.50 an hour, nonetheless, it is a reasonable starting salary for many of these workers.

I urge the Minister and the Department to revise the criteria for the critical skills occupation list. Let us deliver the whole allocation of hours and get the urgent care that these elderly and vulnerable people need.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. He is right it is one that we are aware of, as a Department and as a Government. It has been raised often through questions in the House, with the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, also saying that this is something he felt might be addressed and looked at through the permit process this year. As the Deputy knows, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is working in the area and has put together the strategic workforce working group to look at this. It is due to report back in September. As I will be taking a Topical Issue matter on that later, I will not give the full answer in respect of it now. However, it is an issue she is trying to address. I have engaged with her on it to see if, before September, there are ways we can bring forward solutions under the categories the Deputy has mentioned in regard to permits. It is something we are aware of and are looking at.

The Deputy is right that many families are waiting for support. The funding is approved through the Government and its Departments, but it is having the personnel to implement this that we need to try to address. We need to look at it as a combination of solutions. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is taking the long-term view on how to address this permanently through a workforce planning process. Hopefully, that report will give us something to work on come the autumn.

In regard to the issues around the upcoming review of the permanent situation and how it can be addressed, I want to explain what the permits scheme is about. Ireland's employment permit system is designed to accommodate the arrival of non-EEA nationals to fill skills and labour gaps for the benefit of our economy in the short to medium term, but this objective must be balanced with the need to ensure there are no suitably qualified Irish or EEA nationals available to undertake the work and that the shortage is a genuine one. The Deputy will know this as he has often engaged with the system, and quite successfully too.

The system is managed through the operation of the critical skills and ineligible occupations list which determines employments that are either in high demand or ineligible for an employment permit, where there is evidence that there should be sufficient availability of those skills in the domestic and EEA labour market. In order to ensure that the employment permit system is aligned with current labour market intelligence, these lists undergo regular evidence-based review guided by relevant research and published stakeholder consultation, and incorporate the views of the economic migration interdepartmental group, which includes representatives from the Department of Health.

Account is also taken of upskilling and training initiatives and other known contextual factors such as the ending of the pandemic unemployment payment schemes, the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis and their impact on the labour market. Currently, home care workers are not eligible for an employment permit, as Deputy O'Sullivan correctly flagged. While submissions from the home care sector were considered, the most recently concluded review announced last October did not recommend removal of the occupation of care workers and home care workers from the ineligible occupations list as the evidence suggested that the contracts of employment on offer and employment terms and conditions being offered are factors in the recruitment challenges faced by the sector rather than a demonstrable labour market shortage. Since then I have engaged with some of the providers in the sector to try to analyse this data with them and to highlight that it is a concern for us that a high percentage of the workers in the sector work part time which points to the possibility that maybe there is an option to have long-term contracts or full hour contracts as well. They understand our concerns and I understand they are now preparing a submission for the next review which will come up quite soon.

In order to add or remove an occupation from the lists, evidence is sought demonstrating that recruitment difficulties are solely due to genuine shortages across the EEA and not to other factors such as salary or employment conditions. This is what I outlined in my meetings with the sector and also in conversation with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. Sectors in general are also required to engage structurally with the public employment service of the Department of Social Protection. The review process invites stakeholders through the public consultation to provide data to substantiate claims of lack of skills or labour available in a detailed evidence-based business case. While Deputy O'Sullivan correctly highlighted the need from the client point of view and from the point of view of patients who need help and home care, we also expect the providers to show they have made every effort to source staff and to provide good pay and terms and conditions within Ireland and the EEA and to engage with the Department of Social Protection. A longer term approach is required, as was touched on at the start by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, but in the short term, there will be an opportunity when we open this system again for review of employment permits to make those conditions and have evidence to show it. I hope to have that review open within the next couple of weeks. Then we will be able to judge that over the coming time period and make a decision. Hopefully, it will be timely. In doing that, I will consult directly with the Department of Health and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to see if we can find a solution.

I thank the Minister of State. Deputy Marc MacSharry has a Topical Issue matter along similar lines. I welcome the fact the review is coming up in the next couple of months. I hope and pray this suggestion will be taken into consideration. It has been made by a number of Deputies over the past few months. If there was ever a no-brainer, and I do not like to use that kind of language, this is a no-brainer. The Minister of State said the sector must demonstrate that the requirement is there for the additional intake of employees from non-EU countries. The most demonstrable fact of that is that hundreds of thousands of hours are not being utilised. If there was ever a business case to be made, surely that is it. I hope the Department takes that into consideration.

I have to agree with the Minister of State, Deputy English on the role of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, who has done a good job since assuming office. She has increased the budget considerably and the number of hours since taking over, as I referenced in my opening statement. She has accumulated an additional 5 million hours per annum, which is much needed. Those hours are useless unless people can avail of them. I genuinely hope this can be looked at.

I am aware of the advisory group deliberating in the next couple of months. It is now very important that we get people the care they need. As I said earlier, national policy is to keep people at home as comfortable as possible, giving them their care needs in their own homes as well as possible. This kind of move would provide for that.

As I said, I understand the visa requirement is that these employees would earn a minimum of €27,000 but the sector needs to work on that. Given that many of its staff are part time, it might be able to expand the workforce, improve pay and conditions by doing that. Even a rudimentary sum done on €27,000 a year at 39 hours a week shows it would be equivalent to about €13.50 or €14 an hour, which is above the minimum wage but below the HSE wage. However, €27,000 is not a wage to be sniffed at.

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for raising this scenario. We know there are many people who have been approved for hours and need help and it is Government policy to keep people at home as long as possible and to give them the care and support they need to be able to do that. We are very much focused on that and we will work with officials and all Departments to try to make it happen.

Currently, Department officials are actively engaged with the Department of Health in regard to the recruitment challenges outlined and my Department is a member of the cross-departmental strategic workforce advisory group chaired by the Department of Health. Areas being considered by that group include recruitment, retention, training, pay and conditions, and the career development of front-line carers in home support and nursing homes into the future. In some areas where we sanction the use of a permit, it involves training as well. Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned the rate of €27,000, which was set for healthcare assistants last April and which was more than a year ago. That does not have to be the exact amount of money. It can vary for different sectors and different areas but we try to be at the high end. We do not want to undercut the market by bringing in talent from abroad. A figure of that order sounds appropriate.

The group the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, chairs provides a forum for agreement on strategic approaches to address these workforce challenges in the sector and will develop a set of recommendations for the Minister of Health's consideration outlining the group’s key findings and a proposed action plan to support implementation of these recommendations by September 2022. Naturally we hoped that report would have been finished in time to feed into our review of the permits but it does not look like it will be.

The timing of our next review of the occupational list in regard to permits will be kept under consideration by my Department in the context of clearing the current employment permits backlog. It is intended to have it open in the next few weeks if we can do so. We usually have it open around June or July most years, and again in the autumn. When open submissions will be invited from sector representative bodies and interested parties via the public consultation forum accessible on my Department’s website throughout the consultation period.

I will happily engage with the various sectors to make a very strong case. However, it will be important that we capture the evidence that shows every effort was made to try to recruit people on decent contracts, with decent pay, locally and within Europe. It is important they engage with the Department of Social Protection and the EURES advertising portal.

Inland Fisheries

I do not like to raise issues such as this one but I am very concerned about what is going on with Inland Fisheries Ireland, in particular in regard to the Department and the CEO. The amazing thing is allegations were made of 16 uninsured vehicles, one which was in a crash and was not insured; locally arranged leasing of Aasleagh Lodge to a member of the staff as a guest house with no transparency, no process or no financial arrangements and inappropriate disbursement of Dormant Accounts Fund money to a club that did not exist at the time, but which was then created. Except in the past year, the protection crews in certain coastal areas did not do any work, resulting in the need to mobilise a mobile response unit at a considerable cost. What happened then? There was no investigation into the CEO or the Department but the Minister appointed somebody to investigate the board. To be fair to the board, it had signalled all of these problems and issues but could not get a response from the CEO. The board did everything that was asked of it. It was a marvellous board and it had a great chairman, but there were difficulties with the CEO and the Department.

As the Acting Chairman, Deputy Durkan, knows, because he is here as long as I am, the State is never investigated or prosecuted or has anything done to it. It amazes me that this is put into the statement on internal control, which is submitted on 31 March every year, that the matters of concern are then reported to the Comptroller and Auditor General and that the board instructs the CEO and executive to arrange an external investigation into these matters and submit the report to the board and the Comptroller and Auditor General. That proves the board did everything right. Why then did the Minister need to appoint somebody to investigate the board? Why does he not get somebody to investigate the CEO or the Department? The only place this goes on is in Russia with Putin. It would not happen anywhere else. It is going on in this country.

I want to ask a few questions of the Minister. Where were the auditors and when they saw these problems, what did they do about them? The Comptroller and Auditor General is preparing a report. Where is that report at this stage? Why is this not sent to the Standards in Public Office Commission? Why are they not investigating this? Maybe the Garda Síochána should be investigating it.

What does the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, do? He appoints someone to investigate the board. The board, that is there in a voluntary capacity, is a well-run board that did a great job. There have been many difficulties with the chief executives, there have been many difficulties with the Department and now we have a situation where the board is being investigated.

I am sick and tired. I am coming into this House for a long time. I saw what went on with the local authority. We saw the "RTÉ Investigates" programme. What did the public service do? Like it always does, it covered up. Nothing has been done since the "RTÉ Investigates" programme. If it was the Acting Chairman, Deputy Durkan, or if it was Deputy MacSharry or any other Deputy in this House, we would have the Standards in Public Office Commission down on us in a minute. They would not have to be even told. Where are they now? Why are they not investigating Inland Fisheries Ireland? Why are they not investigating the local authorities? Are there two laws in this country? Is there one for the public service, one for the elected representatives, one for the board members and one for the CEO? That is all I want to say for now.

I thank Deputy Ring for raising this issue. I will answer it on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who, due to Covid, cannot be here. I will have to go through his script. I might not be able to answer all the questions the Deputy has raised.

Deputy Eamon Ryan was not coming anyway.

I might not be able to answer all the questions the Deputy raised but I will certainly bring back the rest of them to the Department as well.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, I thank the Deputy for the opportunity to, once again, set out the factual position on this issue.

At the outset, it is important to note that these matters were originally raised in Seanad Éireann on 5 May last. Subsequently, the assertions made were the subject of inaccurate media reports relating to Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI. These reports suggested significant irregularities have been identified in the organisation, including issues in relation to the Dormant Accounts Fund, procurement, vehicle insurance, use of IFI vessels and the leasing of a property. These assertions were fully addressed on a number of occasions in both Houses setting out the detailed factual position.

The fact is that these issues have been previously considered and addressed through, inter alia, the then chairman of the board's statutory statement of internal control, external audit reviews, correspondence between IFI and the Department, and the IFI board's own assessment of these matters which the Department has accepted.

In particular, it should also be noted that the suggestion made in Seanad Éireann on 5 May 2022, and carried in various media reports, that IFI grant aided, via funding from the Dormant Accounts Fund, an angling club that "did not exist" is entirely inaccurate. IFI has confirmed that the club in question was established before funds were applied for, has a club constitution, bank account and tax clearance certificate, and is affiliated to the Irish Federation of Sea Angling Clubs.

It has also been suggested in the various media reports that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, had appointed a senior counsel to examine these matters. The Minister wants to make clear this is inaccurate. As set out above, the Department fully accepts the former chair's and board's assurances that these issues-allegations have been addressed, are being addressed or should be entirely refuted.

The Department has appointed Mr. Conleth Bradley SC under section 18 of the Inland Fisheries Act 2010 - which section is entitled "Removal of Members from Office", members being members of the board of IFI - to carry out a review of the exercise by the board of its functions under the Act.

The focus of the section 18 review by Mr. Bradley SC is quite specific and relates to issues raised in correspondence between the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and board members of IFI during the period 1 Feb and 27 April. It includes letters of 4 March and 7 April from the Department to the then chairman of the board, Mr. Fintan Gorman, the letter of 22 April from the then chairman to the Department, and email notifications and subsequent letters from other board members.

As part of the review and as required under section 18(4) of the Inland Fisheries Act 2010, IFI board members - including those who were members between the above dates but who have since resigned - management and personnel are required to co-operate with the review and provide assistance to Mr. Bradley SC. Engagement with all relevant persons is a matter for Mr. Bradley SC before he completes his report for the Minister.

The review does not in any way relate to the matters raised in both Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann and in subsequent media reports during May 2022.

It is important to note that these matters are addressed in audit reviews and in the statement of internal control, signed off by the chairman of the board earlier this year, and which is required to form part of IFI's annual report for 2021.

The chairman’s report on behalf of the board indicates that issues identified have been addressed, IFI assets are being appropriately managed and other allegations can be fully refuted by IFI. I reiterate that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his Department have fully accepted the assurances of the board in this regard.

As members of this House will be aware, annual reports and accounts, including annual statements of internal control, are prepared by all public bodies, including IFI. These documents are required to be submitted annually, as a matter of course, to the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General before being laid before both Houses.

I emphasise that the suggestion that matters already addressed in the relevant IFI statement of internal control and audit reviews have been subsequently specifically or explicitly submitted to the Comptroller and Auditor General outside of the well-established and normal process is simply untrue. IFI's normal annual submission, including the assurances on behalf of the board, to the Comptroller and Auditor General was made on 31 March last.

Meaning no disrespect, I do not accept what the Minister of State, Deputy English, has said. I accept one point.

Like many other Ministers in this Government run by the Civil Service, the Secretary Generals and officials within the Department, I reject what is in that. In fact, I will refer this to the Standing in Public Office Commission for investigation because it needs to be done. I may even send it to the Garda Síochána to get it to investigate the matter because I am not happy with the reply here tonight.

I want to put this on the record of the House tonight. The chairman and the board - every one of them - cannot be wrong. They did not just step aside because everything was perfect in the board. These were decent honourable people who were prepared to give something to this country and who wanted to do something for the inland fisheries but the Department had to be putting its oar into it. The chief executive had to be putting his oar into it. When they identified problems, these problems were never dealt with. Exactly like the reply again tonight, the problems were not dealt with or answered.

Of course, the Minister of State skipped over everything that I mentioned here in relation to the insurance, Aasleagh Lodge and inappropriate distribution of Dormant Accounts Funds. Of course, Deputy English did not answer any of these. I will have to get somebody else who will investigate it. I will have to get somebody who will look into this because this is not acceptable. This is not acceptable of State agencies and of county managers. It is not acceptable that there is no law or order for these people. The general public out there will go up the road tomorrow morning and see ten squad cars out with their posts up but when there is a crime to be committed in the middle of this city tonight, there will be nobody out there. When it is Revenue, the staff can be got.

I am really annoyed. I am angry and I am not letting this go. There was an honourable decent board there that was treated badly by the Department, and now by the Minister. When the board cried foul, the Minister investigated the board and did not investigate the CEO or what was going on.

I am disappointed with the reply tonight but I am not surprised. I was hoping the senior Minister would be here tonight. I accept he has Covid. I do not mind that but he probably would not have turned up anyway. Somebody else would be sent in to read out the public service script.

I can only apologise that the Minister is not here. I can only give Deputy Ring the script because I do not have the details. I would not have the knowledge of this to be able to give the Deputy any other answers. I tried to address some of the issues the Deputy raised as best I possibly could but, as I said, I will bring back his concerns to the Minister. The concerns are genuine and I will make sure that they are dealt with as well.

I reiterate that the current review under section 18 is not focusing on the "potential irregularities" raised by the Deputy or to a similar assertion made previously in the Oireachtas which gave rise to subsequent inaccurate media reports.

Nor does the review include other allegations, made in anonymous disclosures earlier this year, against a senior member of IFI staff that is already the subject of a separate independent internal investigation in IFI and in respect of which the relevant staff member remains on suspension. This investigation is entirely within the remit of IFI and neither the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, nor his Department has any role.

To be clear, on behalf of the Minister, the statutory provisions of section 18 are very specific, concentrated entirely on the performance of the board, and could not encompass in their scope the issues raised in both Houses - and already fully addressed in the view of the Department - or independent investigation of disclosures under way in IFI.

The focus of the review is entirely on the functioning of the board.

I can assure the Deputy that the potential matters to which he refers have been fully addressed within the normal annual control processes.

No, they have not. I want to put that on record. It is a good board. What the Minister of State is saying tonight is wrong and it will have to be corrected elsewhere.

It is essential that the examination of the quite separate matter of section 18 of the Inland Fisheries Act 2010 proceeds in an independent and impartial manner without distraction and is not diverted by attempts to raise unconnected matters that have already been fully addressed. I accept that Deputy Ring holds a different view. I will pass that back to the Department. I can only work with what I have on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. However, I will pass back his annoyance with the answer, as well as his disputing of some of the facts. I have no problem with relaying that message.

Agriculture Industry

The third Topical Issue matter is in the names of Deputies Carthy, Kenny and Mairéad Farrell.

The other Deputies are not available so I will be raising this Topical Issue matter on my own. I raised this issue, and asked my colleagues to do so as well, because many farmers all over the country are concerned about the rise in the price of agricultural diesel.

Last night, I attended an Irish Farmers Association, IFA, meeting in Ballymote mart. There were many farmers there who are concerned about the rising input costs for their work. This morning I heard on the radio that farm incomes are up, and we welcome that. Farmers in some sectors are doing much better than they had been from the point of view of the prices they are getting. It was acknowledged by the farmers last night that cattle and sheep prices are up. Although those prices are up, they have not doubled. I say this because the cost of everything else seems to have doubled and more than doubled. Certainly, the price of fertiliser has doubled and, in some cases, tripled. The price of agricultural diesel was something that they had a particular focus on because we are coming into the time of year when many farmers are trying to get their silage cut and wrapped. All of those costs are going up as well.

The farmers focused particularly on diesel. They made the valid point that the price of agricultural diesel is approximately €1.50 per litre at the moment. Therefore, 1,000 l of diesel costs them €1,500. This time last year it cost €0.78 per litre. It cost €780 per 1,000 l. It has therefore doubled in price. There was a man present last night who is in the road haulage business and has trucks. He is buying white diesel as well. The cost of white diesel has also gone up, although it has not gone up to the same extent. If there was a pro rata rise with agricultural diesel costs doubling, one would expect that road diesel would double as well and would be over €3 per litre now, but it is not. As we know, it is still very high, at approximately €2.10 to €2.15 per litre around the country. This is an issue on which there needs to be a focus. The Government may say that it has done little bits of tinkering around with excise duties but the reality is that enough has not been done to help this sector, which needs a break in regard to these costs, particularly the costs around agricultural diesel.

The other issue that was acknowledged by farmers last night is that there is pressure on the farming community across Ireland and indeed across Europe to be more self-sufficient, to grow more food and to produce more food. This is particularly the case in the context of the crisis in Ukraine. The outcome of that is that we have a food security crisis as well as a cost-of-living crisis and an oil crisis. That puts pressure on the farming community to produce the goods. If they can produce the goods, they will do so. They will do their very best to do that. They are prepared to do that. However, they need a break in regard to the input costs anywhere the Government can help them, particularly around the issues of fertiliser and diesel. The Minister of State will acknowledge that the same problems are found in his constituency, where farmers are paying very high prices for diesel. The Government needs to sit up and listen to this plea. It needs to do something to get that cost down. There is no point in taking it down by 5 cent or 10 cent per litre and then coming out with a carbon tax that puts it back up by 5 or 10 cent per litre, which has happened in the past. We need to get something real that will have a benefit to farmers so they can see that their Government cares about ensuring they will be in a position to increase their production, to grow more food and to ensure there will not be a food security crisis across Europe.

I thank Deputy Kenny for raising this important issue. As he correctly said, it is an issue in many parts of the country, including his area of counties Leitrim and Sligo and my own area of County Meath. Farmers, like anybody in business, are under extreme pressure with the price of energy, the price of fuel and the prices in general. The Deputy is right that there have been some good times, given the recent increases in the prices they get for their own products. However, those increases have been a long way off from being double, which is what the farmers are having to pay for fertiliser, foodstuffs or energy.

There is pressure on the agricultural sector. There is no doubt about that. It is an important sector to Ireland. We want to protect it and to continue to work with it. When we came out of the last financial crash, we saw that agriculture and food production were major assets to this country. They are playing a major role in the current jobs-led recovery too. We want to work with this valuable sector and to address some of the costs pressures it is under.

The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, could not be here today. I will give the answer on his behalf and on behalf of his Department. The Government understands the background to this Topical Issue matter and recognises that there is a real issue with the rising cost of fuel for the agricultural sector, as Deputy Kenny and others have genuinely raised. However, it has to be stated at the outset that we are living in unprecedented times. While the Government is doing everything within its power to assist the economy as a whole, including the agriculture sector, there are limitations to what it can do. In other words, it cannot completely insulate completely sectors of the economy from the impact of issues such as the war in Ukraine, which are completely outside of its control.

As regards the application of excise on agricultural fuels, the Finance Act 1999 provides for the application of excise duty in the form of mineral oil tax, MOT, to specified mineral oils used as motor or heating fuels. MOT is comprised of a non-carbon component and a carbon component. The carbon component is commonly referred to as carbon tax. The non-carbon component is often referred to as excise, fuel excise or fuel duty.

Diesel used for certain purposes, for example in agricultural machinery, may qualify for a reduced rate of MOT. Such diesel must be marked with prescribed fiscal markers and is referred to as marked gas oil, MGO, green diesel or farm-agricultural diesel. The current reduced rate of MOT that applies to MGO is €111.14 per 1,000 l. This is considerably less than the standard rate of MOT on diesel used as a propellant which is currently €405.38 per 1,000 l.

In March of this year, in response to the global fuel crisis, the Minister for Finance introduced cuts to MOT rates on petrol, diesel and MGO. He introduced a further cut to the MOT rate on MGO from 1 May to run until 11 October this year. This rate cut applies to the non-carbon component of MOT and fully compensates for the carbon tax increase. As a result of the measures introduced, all MGO users benefit from a cut of more than 5 cent per litre inclusive of VAT from 1 May until 11 October. In addition to benefiting from the reduced MOT rate on MGO, farmers may also claim a tax deduction for expenditure incurred on MGO.

In computing their taxable farming profits, farmers may also benefit from a relief provided under section 664A of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997. This relief allows a farmer to claim an additional deduction for MGO, which amounts to the difference between the carbon tax charged and the carbon tax that would have been charged had it been calculated at the rate of €41.30 per 1,000 l of farm diesel, which was the 2012 baseline figure.

It is also worth mentioning that the MOT law provides for a relief from the carbon component of MOT for biofuels that are made of biomass of animal or vegetal origin. This means that a fuel that is entirely made from biomass would be liable for the non-carbon component of MOT only. In the case of such a biofuel used in place of MGO, the MOT carbon component would be fully relieved. For blended fuels containing biomass, the relief applies to the portion of fuel that meets the biofuel criteria set out in the MOT legislation. The biofuel relief is intended to promote a higher level of biofuel in fuel sales and supports the Government's commitment to incentivising the use of greener alternatives to fossil fuels.

In conclusion, and in response to Deputy Kenny’s questions, the Government will continue to engage with all our stakeholders and to work with our European partners to respond to this crisis, using all of the tools at our disposal. There will be more initiatives brought forward in the summer and in the budget.

I accept the reply that the Minister of State has given on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Changes were made. We can read out at length the data and the tables regarding the various taxes and tax rates, etc., but the reality for the farmer is that when they go to fill a 5-gallon drum with diesel, it is costing them twice the price. That is the reality. There needs to be a check on that.

From speaking to the farmers last night, and from speaking to other farmers since then, I emphasise that farmers need to see a reduction to below €1.20 per litre. That is what they are asking for. It is at €1.50 per litre now. It needs to go at least below €1.20 per litre. That is still a very large increase on what they had this time last year. However, that is what they are asking for. I am asking the Minister of State to bring that message back to the Minister for Finance. That is the message that we need to get through. We need a reduction in agricultural diesel, in green diesel, to below €1.20 per litre and to keep it at that in order that farmers will be able to be productive as they can be into the future.

If farmers cannot buy the diesel they need to be able to cut their silage, raise their animals and do all the things they need to do, there will be a fodder crisis next winter and there will be knock-on effects from that. One of those effects will be harvest problems. The question will then arise as to where we will get our food.

While there may be headline figures showing that farming family incomes are up, the reality for many farmers, certainly in my part of the country and especially for farmers who are dependent on sucklers and sheep, is that their incomes are very low. Even if incomes trebled from what they are now, never mind going up by 30% or 40% on last year, those farmers would still on low incomes. In fact, if one added up the hours they put into their work, they are on well below the minimum wage, as bad as it is in this country. They need a commitment that the Government will bring the price of agricultural diesel below €1.20 a litre, which is what I am asking the Minister to do.

As the Deputy will appreciate, I cannot give that commitment tonight, as much as I might want to do so. I will take his very clear request back to the Minister for Finance and the Department. This issue has been flagged in the engagements that have been taking place with the agricultural community over the past few weeks. The Deputy has proposed a clear target of bringing the price below €1.20. I certainly understand the pressure farmers and contractors are under, as does the Minister. Like many others in various sectors, it is very hard to make ends meet and make business pay. Even though farmers can receive a decent price for their product, the input costs have increased dramatically for everybody in farming, as they have in other sectors.

This issue has been well flagged and identified by the Government. There has been a response, as I outlined, to try to take some off the pressure off, not just in regard to fuel costs but in different ways as well. The whole area is being kept under review by the Government. All the Departments have been feeding into the budget process over recent weeks and will continue to do so through June and July, focusing on how best we can respond to this issue and the pressures it is putting on the sector. The farming sector is very important, as the Deputy noted, because of the need for food security and the food shortages we will see coming out of what is happening in Ukraine. The matter certainly will get attention from the Minister and I will be sure to convey the points the Deputy has raised. I will make sure the Minister hears them first-hand.

Home Help Service

I welcome the opportunity to make a few points on this issue. In the context of a previous matter, another Deputy appealed to the Minister of State to make work permits available to people who are prepared to join the workforce in Ireland as carers because there is such a shortage of staff in this area. I would support that as something which may help to address the problem. We are reaping the rewards of a very short-sighted approach taken some ten to 12 years ago, when financial challenges were to the forefront and when the HSE, in effect, changed its strategy of recruiting home help workers into its permanent staff and instead farmed the service out to private agencies. This led to a growth in such agencies, which are being paid X and are paying the carers who provide the service Y. We are seeing a mass exodus of staff from the private agencies offering home help care. While the HSE is beginning to try to recruit in order to ensure that we have appropriate staff numbers, there is a crisis in the here and now.

I offer one example of a dependent person needing home help provision who will not recover. In this instance, it is not a rehabilitation situation; it is about the provision of care to end of life. This individual has a very generous package of 42 hours per week, but only 26 of those hours can be delivered because of the shortage of staff prepared to do the work and who are available, either through agencies or from the HSE. This person's situation is indicative of an emergency that will lead to an exponential growth in the numbers attending hospitals unnecessarily, in the delays for discharge and in demands for nursing home beds. All of this, in turn, will put our entire health service into chaos.

While I am conscious that public pay talks will be commencing soon, we cannot wait two years for agreement. We need to be prepared to pay home carers an appropriate level of remuneration and expenses consistent with the astronomical rises in fuel and other expenses relevant to this area. This is not something that can wait for reviews, sub-committees, consultants' reports or anything like that. Somebody has to take the bull by the horns and take action now because, otherwise, it will cost too much in terms of the spin-off problems that will arise in our wider health service. We must increase the pay rates and remuneration for home care staff and ensure that they receive adequate expenses to look after the people who are rehabilitating at home and, in line with our national policy, those who are in the twilight of their lives and require full-time care at home.

In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, she is making all the hours available. The problem is we are not paying the correct rates to get the job done. There is a superficial granting of hours, as in the case of the poor patient to whom I referred. That individual has been given 42 hours but, in reality, only 26 can be delivered. This is unsustainable. I would like to see us dealing with this crisis with the same gusto, can-do attitude and speed with which we were prepared to take measures in the management of the Covid crisis and, indeed, in welcoming our Ukrainian friends who have been running for their lives.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue, which affects many people, and their families, who are in need of home care throughout the country. It is an issue that has been discussed a great deal in this House with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, who has been addressing it in a number of ways. The Minister of State could not be here tonight and has asked me to take the matter on her behalf. I certainly will convey the Deputy's clear message to her.

The Government is very much committed to the development of improved community-based services, shifting care to the home and offering greater choice for older people to be able to remain at home for as long as possible. We want to ensure the people who need that care can receive it, including the person to whom the Deputy referred, for whom more than 40 hours was approved. In budget 2021, the Minister of State secured additional funding of €150 million for home support to progress the development of a reformed model of service delivery to underpin the statutory scheme for the financing and regulation of home support services and provide 5 million additional hours of home support. The funding secured in budget 2021 to provide those additional 5 million hours has been maintained for 2022. In 2021, some 20.4 million hours were provided to more than 55,000 people. This is approximately 2.9 million more hours, or an increase of 17%, compared with 2020. That increase was needed because, as the Deputy noted, demand is up. Preliminary activity data currently available show that in the period to the end of April 2022, some 6.9 million home support hours were delivered nationally to just under 55,000 people.

Significant inroads have been achieved in reducing waiting lists for funding approval for new or additional service from more than 7,800 in January 2020 to 302 in April 2022. This reduction has been achieved through a combination of validation of the waiting lists and availability of additional funding to address those waiting. However, there can be a lag between funding approval and the delivery of home support hours. Certain geographical areas that are experiencing increased pressures due to staff availability are particularly affected. At the end of April, provisional information shows there were 5,344 people for whom funding for home support had been approved and who were waiting for a carer to be assigned. It is important to note that the total number of people waiting for home support has reduced from more than 9,000 at the start of 2020.

Supporting egress from acute hospitals is a key priority of the Government, and each community healthcare organisation area has dedicated staff working closely with the hospitals. As of 7 June, 531 patients nationally were waiting to be discharged from hospital. A total of 96 patients were waiting to be discharged home with home supports, with 59 waiting on a carer to become available. Transitional care funding continues to be in place on a demand-led basis to support patients discharging from acute hospital to long-stay care and for patients who require convalescence care before returning home.

The HSE continues to advertise on an ongoing basis throughout the country for healthcare support assistants and to recruit as many suitable candidates as possible. Due to the nature of the role, this recruitment is normally conducted at a very local level. In addition, approved private home support providers continue to recruit home support workers. The Minister of State is very much aware of the strategic workforce challenges in the home support and nursing homes sector. In recent weeks, she has had meetings with the HSE to discuss the potential of a renewed focus on advertising these positions locally. There is a renewed effort to recruit the staff to provide the care. She has also established a cross-departmental strategic workforce advisory group to examine issues such as recruitment, retention, training and the career development of front-line carers in home support and nursing homes into the future, with a view to ensuring that solutions can be identified and implemented.

It is also expected that the pay and conditions for these workers will be examined. The Deputy asked that these facets be examined. He also said an urgent decision was needed, but this work now looks like it will be due to complete early in September, with recommendations being provided. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, wishes to achieve the goal of ensuring there is an adequate supply of appropriately-skilled healthcare support assistants. That is a key aim of this initiative. Hopefully, therefore, the report and this work will bring some success in September.

I also engaged with the Minister of State regarding the permanent option. We made changes in April 2021 to the healthcare assistant role in nursing home settings, but not in home settings. This aspect is one that can be reappraised in the next review, which will commence soon. A major part of the focus, however, must be on the terms and conditions and what contracts are on offer. I refer to them being full time, because the terms are generally concerned with those types of contracts.

Unfortunately, we are doing exactly what I said we should not do, in respect of having a group for this, a chat about that, an expert group on the other and a cross-departmental team on something else. The reality is that this is a problem now. When we get to early autumn and into winter, it is going to be a much worse problem. We must pay home carers more money and remunerate them for adequate expenses, especially given the astronomical rise in costs. If we do not do that, then we will have a major problem in our hospitals, nursing homes, etc., later this year. It will be much worse. It is already bad, but it will be much worse then.

My point is that when we want to and when we are under the glare of the international spotlight regarding our reactions, which we all welcome in respect of helping our Ukrainian friends, we can pay thousands of euro every week to house people and to ensure they are looked after. Indeed, if the Secretary General of the Department of Health needs an extra €80,000, we can do that overnight as well. It is as clear as the nose on my face why there is a recruitment problem in this area. Let us address it, look after people who are rehabilitating and in the twilight of their lives and keep the pressure off our hospitals and nursing homes. They are already under pressure. The Minister of State will bring what I am saying back to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. I understand she is otherwise engaged this evening. I very much hope, however, instead of there being the usual administrative merry-go-round, which we tend to embrace and then say something has been dealt with, that we can use the same can-do, let-us-get-it-done attitude as we did when dealing with Covid-19 and the Ukrainian refugee crisis. I do not see the same level of urgency and the same can-do attitude manifested when it comes to looking after our own and I would like to see it in this instance.

I thank Deputy MacSharry again. He is asking a fair question regarding whether we can get some quicker decision-making on this matter as well. It is not just an issue concerning pay and conditions, but the Deputy has identified these aspects as the main reason. Part of the work the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is doing involves trying to determine these reasons. It also includes travel arrangements, the hours on offer in respect of full-time versus part-time work and the unsocial nature of those hours. It is also difficult work and a difficult service to provide. Not everyone is fit to do the work of a carer or a healthcare assistant in a home or nursing home. It is only certain individuals who can do it. The Deputy raised the point that these people need to be well paid and looked after. I will certainly bring the Deputy's points back to the Minister of State. She is determined to resolve this issue. I will also bring back the suggestions made by Deputy MacSharry. We must try to get some urgency in addressing this matter. I thank the Deputy.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 10.44 p.m. go dtí 9.12 a.m., Dé Céadaoin, an 14 Meitheamh 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.44 p.m. until 9.12 a.m. on Wednesday, 14 June 2022.