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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 15 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 5

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

Next Saturday, supporters will be travelling to Dublin from Derry, Clare and Cork to watch their county teams play in the all-Ireland quarter finals. They will be faced with rip-off prices in the city next weekend. Hotels are charging more than €400 per night and hostels are charging eye-watering rates for bunk beds. One hostel is charging €167 for the pleasure of sleeping in a bunk bed with nine other strangers in a dormitory. That is absolutely crazy. It is what is happening in this city in 2022.

Last month, the Minister extended the reduced VAT rate to the hospitality sector until next March. We know this comes with a price tag for this year and next of €500 million. Two weeks ago, I stood here and asked the Minister, who introduced this tax rate, to engage with the industry to ensure it is passing on that saving to customers. Has he done that? More importantly, what is the Government going to do to tackle the rip-off prices people are being charged?

Is the Deputy against the extension of the reduced VAT rate?

The Minister knows I am for it.

He needs to be clear on what his view is in this regard. Is he against the extension of the 9% rate for hospitality?

Is the Minister giving way?

This is a sector that went through such a difficult period over the past three years-----

I agree with the extension. What I disagree with is hostels charging €167 for a bunk bed with nine others.

The Deputy must allow the Minister to answer.

We have put in place a measure to give the sector the opportunity to recover from the awful effects of the pandemic.

Of course I remember the issue that Deputy Doherty raised with me, but this is why the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, who is directly responsible for dealing with our tourism sector and its future development, and her officials have been engaging with representatives of the hospitality sector to make clear to them the price they will pay in future for putting in place prices that do not deliver good value and that discourage domestic and international tourism here. The greatest losers from unaffordable pricing in this regard, if it takes hold in Irish tourism-----

-----will be those involved in Irish tourism.

It is already here.

I thank the Minister. The time is up.

A bunk bed for €167.

Regarding the 9% rate of VAT-----

Please Deputies, the time is up.

-----I am ever more confused about where Sinn Féin stands on it. It is a measure put in place to support a really important employer in parts of our economy.

A bunk bed for €167.

Deputy Doherty, please. I call Deputy Bacik.

I raise the issue of the failure to deliver progress on Ireland's climate action plan in 2021. Among the more than 100 measures on which we did not see delivery on time was the move to ensure sufficient availability of electric vehicle, EV, charging points for those who wish to switch to EVs. This is being raised with me constantly in my constituency and it is an issue for many people around the country. Many who wish to switch to an EV cannot be facilitated in doing so because of the lack of publicly-accessible charging facilities. We do not see any sign of urgency in the Government's response to this in the roll out of a national strategy, or, indeed, at local level in Dublin City Council, DCC, and other councils. We must see urgency. We need to see the Government ramping up the installation of public charging points in urban and rural areas to enable the switch to EVs. We must also see more urgency in the switch to active transport measures. I raised before - I know the Minister is personally supportive of it - my idea of a bike-to-school scheme and the incentivisation of the purchase of bicycles for schoolchildren to encourage more cycling. It would be similar to the bike-to-work scheme.

The ESB is involved in an expansion of the number of recharging points available. An advertising campaign is being run to draw attention to the recharging points in place and, I am sure, those new ones to come. I take Deputy Bacik's point, however, that we need to see an expansion in the number of these charging points and more available in suburban parts of our cities and in our in towns and villages. I have no doubt that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will be pressing the ESB, with the funding that is available to it, to make more of these charging points available. I fully support all the initiatives underway now to change the way in which our kids can go to school. It is good to see the greater numbers of people on our buses and Luas trams, which is at least helped by the lower level of public transport fares now operating.

On 15 February, the retired journalist, Frank McDonald, wrote to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, regarding a disturbing pattern which he had noticed when reviewing the minutes of the meetings of An Bord Pleanála. He noticed that "Decisions on SHD schemes, particularly those of a high-rise nature, were made by panels of three that consistently included two particular board members rather than being allocated randomly among board members, contrary to assurances given to the Oireachtas by previous chairpersons of An Bord Pleanála". This is a very serious allegation. The random allocation of files to board members was one of the key mechanisms used by An Bord Pleanála to ensure the fairness of and confidence in the planning system. Are these specific allegations, regarding files on strategic housing development schemes not being allocated randomly, under investigation?

Given the seriousness of the matter raised by the Deputy, I will ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to refer to him directly. We take very seriously the integrity of An Bord Pleanála, the justified reputation for integrity which it does have. I am confident in their decisions and how they make them, but I accept that the Deputy is raising an important point. I do not have a detailed note available on that matter raised but I will ask the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about it and ask him to respond to the Deputy.

The announcement by the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, on Monday that 97% of junior doctors had voted in favour of industrial action demonstrates how frustrated and demoralised they are with their treatment by the HSE and the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly. Figures today show that 1.3 million people are still on waiting lists. The average time spent waiting to be seen in emergency departments is 11 hours, and it is longer for those aged over 75. Therefore, it is no wonder that representatives of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, have said that nurses are at the end of their tether, cannot provide the clinical care required and are burnt out physically and mentally. Is it not time for urgent action to be taken by the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to meet the demands of the front-line healthcare workers? We need a firm commitment to establish a comprehensive, single tier and universal health service that is free at the point of use. Is it not time to take over private hospital capacity and bring it into public ownership to provide the extra capacity urgently required to resolve this escalating crisis?

We of course appreciate how hard our doctors and nurses are working in providing the medical care so badly needed after the demanding years we have been through. We can see the impact that is having on waiting lists. Regarding the industrial action referred to by the Deputy, and taking the national consultant hospital doctors, NCHD, issue, which is now the subject of potential industrial action and unrest, the number of such doctors that we have in our health system has now gone from 6,091 to 7,720. That is an increase of more than 1,600 over the last number of years. The number of people working in our health service, that is the numbers of front-line staff, including nurses and doctors, that we have, is I think nearly at an all-time high.

So are waiting lists.

This has been put in place to respond to the waiting lists, which we will get down as the year goes on.

I thank the Minister. The time is up.

I urge those who are so concerned about their work and conditions to engage in the processes available in the State for the resolution of these matters and in the wage discussions now underway.

We were told that the inflationary spike we experienced last year would be transitory. We appreciate now, however, that inflation is firmly entrenched in the global economy and it is having a massive impact on the cost of living for everyone in the country. The US Federal Reserve is also meeting tonight and that organisation will likely increase interest rates in America by up to 0.75%. The European Central Bank, ECB, will likely do something similar next month. I am aware that the ECB has operational independence, but the Minister is also the chair of the Eurogroup. Therefore, I would be grateful to hear his thoughts on where he would see the ECB's base rate being at the end of this year and if he would advise those Irish mortgage holders with variable rates of interest to consider fixing those rates between now and then.

We are seeing many indications now from central banks all over the world that they are going ahead with interest rate changes and also withdrawing the major emergency funding plans they had in place during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not for me to speculate, and it would not be appropriate for me to do so, on what the ECB will do. I must recognise its independence. Mortgage holders in recent months have been making decisions anyway. We have seen the majority of new mortgages taken out by people agreed at fixed rates, which is a matter for them to decide, of course.

I am glad the Minister is taking this question, because it concerns an area where we know the cost but not the value. I refer to home care hours. This is a crisis all over the country, but I am going to focus on Galway. The battle there is a twin crisis. The first aspect is to get enough hours allocated. When hours are allocated, however, there are no home carers. The Minister may not have this before him, but certainly the Taoiseach and many other people, including all the TDs in the area have. Most unusually, a doctor in Connemara has put his thoughts on paper to tell us he is seriously worried about the situation. One example concerned someone with dementia, who had no care hours allocated. On top of that, there is serious concern about the son who is looking after that person. This is just one example.

We absolutely appreciate the value of home care and the difference it makes to those families who need this support at difficult times when they are vulnerable. The Department of Health has allocated a large additional budget to provide more home help hours. As the Deputy may be aware, the challenge we are facing is in recruiting the staff needed to provide this care. I will have to follow-up on the specific matter the Deputy raised concerning her city and constituency to be able to give her the answer that is deserved concerning this local issue.

I hope the Minister will follow up on my issue, which I have previously raised with the Taoiseach and concerns St. Rita's respite care centre in Tipperary. It is a fabulous centre that does excellent work with young people with special and additional needs. It does not have enough funding to provide extra summer camps and young boys and girls have been refused places, to the anguish of their parents and those at St. Rita's. The people in the centre want to embrace and help children and their families, but they do not have the funding to do so. I would appreciate it if the Minister could follow up on this with the Minister for Health. As I said, it is a wonderful respite centre and young children are being denied respite services for the summer due to a lack of funding. I do not know if it is not being spread out or not getting to them but the centre needs funding for additional hours to engage with the people. The summer camps only run for a week, but it is a help.

I know how important the summer camps are at a time when schools are closed and families need some additional support to get through a summer that can sometimes feel very long. I am sure the matter is being progressed if the Deputy has already raised it with the Taoiseach, but I will also follow up on it with the Minister for Health.

I wish to ask the Minister about Shannon Airport. Its management team has made an application to Government under the Brexit adjustment fund to try to secure European hub connectivity, something that is all the more important since Brexit. I understand it is targeting airports like Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt and Schiphol in Amsterdam. I understand the matter is before the Minister's Department and the Minister, Deputy McGrath, along with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is considering this. Will they give any positive indication that they have looked at this? Will he say something about the precious Heathrow slots? The agreement with IAG and Aer Lingus winds down in September. Will the Government provide any clarity that there will be a guaranteed Shannon-Heathrow service beyond September 2022?

The Government will do all it can to support the development of Shannon Airport. It is a critical airport for aviation and for supporting the local economies to which the Deputy referred. The Government has not made a final decision on how funding from the Brexit adjustment reserve fund could be used against airports like that, but I will keep in mind what he has said.

I am aware of the end point that is coming up regarding the Heathrow landing slots. I was involved in negotiating the agreement many years ago. We will certainly make the case, and assist our airports in making the case, for the preservation of those slots in the years ahead. It will be outside of the agreement we put in place at the time of the sale of Aer Lingus, but as the Deputy and those running Shannon Airport know very well, the best guarantee of being able to preserve the loss is ensuring they are active with passengers flying in both directions on those routes, which Shannon Airport is excellent at doing.

Every day, for understandable reasons, we hear Deputies from every party raise very serious concerns about the cost-of-living crisis and the true stories that are happening in our communities and constituencies. While we acknowledge the welcome intervention by the Government thus far, does the Minister plan, in the lead-up to the budget for next year, a substantive intervention regarding changing our income tax rates and bands? That could provide a reprieve and release for all in society, in particular the coping classes and squeezed middle who perhaps do not qualify for as much as others.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. We are now at a very early stage in putting together budget 2023. The programme for Government is very clear. We want to put in place an environment that ensures that as wages go up, those who are working so hard for those wages, in particular at a time when the cost of living is going up, also see higher wages feed through into an improvement in their take-home pay. That is a point on which the Government has agreed and that I am making in regard to the role of personal taxation decisions in this and other budgets.

I am very much aware of the role that indexation can play in helping at a time when the cost of living is increasing, but these are decisions that have not yet been made and will not be made for some time. Along with the Minister, Deputy McGrath, I will need to put this together in a way that continues to be affordable and safe for our country through safe national finances.

I noticed the Minister, Deputy Ryan, getting glossy photos taken in front of electric buses this week. These buses are welcome and will reduce emissions. However, in the same week, two bus services in my area were curtailed. The 68X route, which operates from Newcastle to the city centre, has been discontinued. Newcastle is one of the areas of highest population growth not only in my constituency but also in the State. The 51D service between Clondalkin and the city centre has also been reduced. People in Newcastle and Clondalkin who use these services will now have to find alternative ways to get to work or for their children to get school. More than likely, this means they will have to travel by car, if they can afford the petrol. This will increase emissions and the cost of living. Will the Minister speak to the Minister for Transport and ask him to meet the National Transport Authority, NTA, to discuss restoring these routes?

That is a decision made by the National Transport Authority rather than by the Department of Transport or the Minister, Deputy Ryan. I am sure the Deputy has raised his concerns with and given his views directly to the NTA. I am sure that if this is a matter that is important to him, Deputy Higgins is also engaged with and following up on the matter. I will ensure the National Transport Authority is aware of the concerns the Deputy has, but decisions regarding individual routes are not ones made by the Department of Transport. It is an operational decision the NTA makes in response to the level of passenger and commuter demand it believes is there.

There are two banks exiting the Irish market in the coming months, leaving thousands of individuals and businesses looking for a new financial provider and home for their savings and investments. Will the Minister please inform the House what he and his Department are doing to support people who have to switch banks, to protect customers and, ultimately, to ensure the Irish banking sector is sustainable into the future?

This is a very important issue and was the subject of a retail banking forum convened in Tullamore a few weeks ago by me and the Department of Finance. I and my officials have engaged directly with the banks that are here and those that are leaving to make it clear this massive moment of change in the Irish banking system has to advance in the most orderly way possible. It is going to be a challenge. Critically, in recent weeks the Central Bank has met all of the banks to emphasise to them the need for a resource to be in place to manage all of the accounts that will be changing across the coming weeks and months. I appreciate the Deputy raising this issue because it will be a huge moment of change later on in the year, and my message to all of the banks involved is that they need to have the staff and focus in place to make sure the transition is implemented as smoothly as possible for the sake of their customers.

I would like to deal with the issue of the Irish protocol. Britain has shown itself not to be a great supporter of international law, as Boris Johnson clings on to power with the help of the ERG and puts himself in the same bracket as Erdoğan, Putin and Viktor Orbán. Like most occupying forces, the rule of law was never top of the agenda for Britain in the North. That can be seen from the damages awarded to the Ballymurphy families, and this is only one of many examples. We have to deal with the spurious argument that the Tories are putting out regarding their defence of the Good Friday Agreement and the fact they are not dealing with the financial realities and benefits of the Irish protocol in the North. We need a piece of work, a very short document, from the Government that blows this argument out of the water. That is necessary and it would be vital as part of starting the move towards planning for Irish unity, which is the only real solution.

The Government could not be any clearer in its response to the actions that have been taken unilaterally by the British Government. We believe it is a clear breach of faith with regard to the protocol that was negotiated over many years. We believe the action and harm it could cause to our country and to the economy and stability of Northern Ireland is immense. I join in what the Taoiseach said yesterday in calling on the British Government and Ministers involved in this to reconsider their actions.

We will continue, through the European Commission, to make the case for the protocol being the best possible solution to deal with the consequences of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement and our membership of the Single Market. The protocol is needed and must stay in place and any change that takes place regarding its future has to take place inside the framework of the protocol itself being preserved.

Thirty-five children with cystic fibrosis have been excluded from accessing the drug Kaftrio. The reasons for their exclusion are primarily price and age. This is an ongoing dispute with the HSE and the manufacturer of the drug, Vertex. The families of those 35 children have been requesting a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, as soon as possible to clarify the situation. As the Minister will understand, the families do not want a protracted series of events going on for years, as has happened with other drugs in the past. A number of families have contacted me and other Deputies here to say they want this drug to be available for the 35 children. They are being excluded generally because of price and age but they want to get this drug as soon as possible.

As the Deputy will appreciate, given the sensitivity of the matter and the really important healthcare decisions that are made when a new drug is made available, it is not a decision the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, himself or even, I believe, the Department of Health makes. There is an outside body that advises them on the purchases of new drugs that should be made, to whom they should be available and how. Healthcare is a guiding principle when those decisions are made. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is aware of the Deputy's need to meet. It may be more appropriate that the meeting takes place with those who are involved in making the decision rather than the Minister himself, but I will pass on the request Deputy Kenny has made to the Minister.

This is not a new drug. It is a drug that has been-----

I call Deputy Murnane O'Connor.

This morning I met with the INTO. The first issue I wish to raise with the Minister is the need to reduce class sizes by two pupils in budget 2023. The other issue is that the number of pupils at primary level looking for behavioural and emotional intervention has significantly increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, referrals to child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, and other services have risen by 40%. As such, the INTO is now looking for a national framework to be put in place to inform the development of counselling services for primary school children and the introduction of on-site school counselling in primary schools, in line with international best practice. I will also speak to the Minister, Deputy Foley, about this. I firmly believe funding needs to be put in place for this.

The Minister, Deputy Foley, is aware of this issue. She is aware of the importance of class sizes and the role they play in delivering the kind of education our young girls and boys need. I am sure she will listen very carefully and try to respond to the issue the Deputy raises.

I raise the issue of University Hospital Limerick. Unfortunately, I feel myself having to raise it almost every week. Today there are 100 people on trolleys in our hospital; yesterday there were 105. There have been 915 already in the month of May, a higher number than for any month previously. It is an ongoing crisis. University Hospital Limerick has 530 inpatient beds, with 76,473 presentations to the emergency department in 2021. Compared with St. James's Hospital, which has 698 such beds, with an emergency department attendance of 48,397, that is where the Government's problem is. The only plan the Government has is to deliver a 96-bed unit in about three years' time. The Government and the Minister have confirmed that, of those 96 beds, 48 will be new beds. I want to know what the Government will do now because we cannot go on with a situation in which there are 100 people or more on trolleys in the hospital every single day.

Thank you, Deputy. You are out of time.

Every month this year the numbers have increased. They increased in January, February, March and April. May has historically high numbers already.

You are out of time now, Deputy. I am sorry. You should submit a Topical Issue matter if you want a more detailed debate.

I have already submitted a Topical Issue matter for response from the Minister for Health. He stood there, walked out the door and left it to somebody else to respond.

The Minister, Deputy Donnelly, is very much aware of the pressure patients and staff in University Hospital Limerick are facing. If those beds are delivered as quickly as possible, it will help with the pressures Deputy Quinlivan has raised. The Department of Health is looking at what additional measures can be put in place to deal with the real challenges there at present with hospital conditions and waiting lists. I am sure the Minister would have given the Deputy a comprehensive answer to the question when he raised a Topical Issue matter on it. Many of my colleagues have raised the issue within the Government, and I will certainly give any help I can to the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, in making progress on that.

The last chance he got, he did not even mention it.

As the Minister will know, the price of a litre of diesel and a litre of petrol at the pumps is up at around €2.15, €2.20 and, in some cases, even more. I very much welcome the Minister's intervention on 9 March with the financial resolutions that were brought before the House. They made a very big difference at the time and were very important to people. Unfortunately, the prices have crept up again. There is nothing wrong with governments adjusting and adapting as things evolve. I ask the Minister to bring forward further financial resolutions between now and the summer recess to try to help hard-pressed motorists who are really feeling it at the pumps at the moment. It is very expensive for people to get from A to B. The right thing to do would be for the Government to react further and to do more to intervene.

We absolutely appreciate the huge challenges many are facing with the rising cost of living. Deputy Griffin will know the measures we have put in place to reduce excise are among the biggest excise reductions governments across Europe have put in place. My focus at the moment is on how we can support again and intervene again when we prepare and deliver the budget. I believe the budget is the right point at which we can put in place further measures. Of course, I will take on board the views Deputy Griffin has put forward.

I wish to return to the issue of the emerging duopoly in our banking sector. A local businessman said to me recently that the two banks will do what they want and I had to correct him and say they are already doing what they want. In theory, we have supervision from the Central Bank, but in reality those two banks have been allowed to do what they want, and it will hurt rural economies. It is already hurting them. The supervision from the Central Bank is supposed to prevent what has happened, but the banks have pulled out of many communities and continue to do so. There is no understanding of the communities or their economies in which the banks operate. Has the Governor of the Central Bank been in Ireland for the past three years? Is there any link between the Central Bank and supervision of those banks? If not, they are bound to take advantage of the fact they now have an effective duopoly in Ireland. That is all brought about by the policy of the Minister's Department. Is the Minister happy with the supervisory regime in place for the banks, given the emerging duopoly?

We cannot stop a bank leaving if it decides to leave. The Central Bank cannot do so and the Government cannot do so, and the Deputy knows that. Looking at the supervisory measures that are in place, a central bank cannot stop a bank if it decides it is going to close a branch, and I think Deputy McNamara is aware of that.

Am I happy with the supervisory efforts of the Central Bank in recent years? Yes, I am. Proof of that is that, despite the many challenges we faced during the pandemic, this time around our banks were not part of the economic and financial difficulty we faced. In fact, they played a role in delivering solutions that were needed at a very difficult time, and I believe that the way in which our banks were regulated leading up to that point played a vital role in that.

We are out of time now but I will take 30-second questions from each of the three remaining Deputies.

I wish to raise another cost-of-fuel issue, specifically as it pertains to the fishing sector. I raise the plight of the small inshore boats, specifically those punts that fish for crab and lobster. Those punts are generally run by outboard engines. Those engines are available only in petrol form, so the fishers cannot avail of the VAT back that the fishers on the bigger boats that are run by diesel are able to avail of. It is an anomaly. I am looking for a level playing field for those small sustainable fishers in the inshore sector. I would like to see them get VAT back on the petrol they use, just for that sector.

One of my constituents contacted me last week. She is a medical card holder. She has a severe toothache and has been in pain for six months. She requires a wisdom tooth extracted, which has been referred to a dentist who is a specialist in that. The other day she rang to see where she was on the list. This is six months later, with five infections and five doses of antibiotics. If she were to pay, she could jump the queue. As a medical card holder, if she could afford to pay she would have done so, but she cannot afford to do so. This dentist is totally wrong. This should be provided on the basis of need, not the ability to pay. Our health system and our dental system should be on that basis, so-----

I call Deputy Danny Healy-Rae.

Members of the Minister's Government have said they have secured four or five gas-fired generators to complement our capacity to generate electricity this winter.

Where are we going to get the gas from? To this end, I am asking the Minister and his Government to support Shannon LNG's application for a terminal in the Shannon Estuary. The Taoiseach promised to support this application during the last election when he was canvassing north Kerry with Deputy Foley. Will he support this application or not? The position we are now in with gas coming from Russia and different places means that security of energy is vital for the people of this country.

The Government is well aware of the importance of energy supply for any economy, particularly a small open economy like our own, and is taking measures to ensure that in the time ahead we can preserve continuity of energy supply even at a time when we know that prices are changing. I am aware of the very specific issue being raised by the Deputy and, indeed, Deputy Griffin has also raised this issue with me on a number of occasions. The Government has a clear view on the role that LNG can play in the future and I know that the Minister, Deputy Ryan, the Taoiseach, and the party leaders will consider the options that are needed to ensure we have better energy supply in the time ahead.

On the question that was put to me by Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan, my understanding is that from a VAT directive point of view, the particular petrol rebate he is referring to is not permissible but I will check on that and revert to the Deputy because I know that it is an important matter for the boats and vessels he is referring to.

I will ask that the Department of Health to revert to Deputy Tully on the dentistry matter that has just been raised.