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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 16 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 6

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

On Monday, Oireachtas Members from County Meath heard that the HSE intends to move imminently into the final stages of implementation, as it calls it, at Navan hospital. By September, the HSE intends to close all intensive care unit beds in the hospital and to close the emergency department and replace it with a medical assessment unit. This clear intention was restated yesterday at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health by Mr. Paul Reid, despite no additional capacity in place in Drogheda and no additional GP or community capacity even planned.

At the same time, the Minister for Health and the three Ministers in government from County Meath act like commentators. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, was on local radio this morning and said she is frustrated by the process. What exactly does she think her role is? How does she think the people of County Meath feel? Instead of pausing and pausing again this process, the Government needs to stop it and invest in emergency services at Navan. On behalf of the Government, and as all of County Meath looks on today, will the Minister commit to that?

The situation, as the Deputy knows, starts and ends with patient safety. The Deputy and I heard directly at that meeting from national clinical directors and the clinical director for Navan. What they said to us is that a small number of people from Meath attend that hospital per day, perhaps as low as five, and because it is a small hospital with a small emergency department, those patients are at risk in a significant way. We all accept that those clinicians are giving us that advice only in consideration of patient safety and that we must all have that first and foremost in our minds.

As was raised and covered at the meeting, concerns are being raised about making sure that if those patients were to be transferred to the much bigger emergency department in Drogheda, there are resources in place to deal with it. This is not a debate about only Navan hospital. We need to consider both hospitals and make sure everything is in place. Whatever is done, the Deputy can rest assured that it will begin and end with patient safety in mind, with which I am sure the Deputy will agree.

The ESRI energy poverty report brings home to us that not only are we facing a crisis, we are in the midst of an economic and social crisis in this country and we must use every tool in our economic arsenal. We feel we should have an emergency budget or an early budget. Failing that, we think there is scope for the Government to implement targeted measures similar to those that have been implemented in our fellow EU countries, including price caps on energy. We ask the Government to consider that. The Minister for Finance has the power to do that and would be following other EU countries that have done so.

There is also scope for increases to the fuel allowance and a doubling of energy bonus payments. Will the Government heed the advice of the ESRI and get to grips with the energy poverty people are facing by introducing a summer welfare bonus, expanded access to fuel allowance and price caps to protect people from the pressures they are feeling every day?

I would argue we have already introduced an emergency budget. Some €1 billion worth of budget measures kicked in only in January. Since then, we have approved a further €1.4 billion in additional emergency measures after the budget, including the reduction in VAT, the reduction in excise on petrol and diesel, the €200 discount on electricity bills for every household and the additional €100 in fuel allowance. As I mentioned earlier, while I am not ruling out further interim measures, we do not plan any at the moment. We are working towards a significant package in the budget, which is now just over three months away.

The Deputy is right that other countries have imposed price caps but they do not work very well. For example, the UK has had to keep on increasing the price caps. Why is that? We do not control the price of oil or gas. It comes in from other parts of the world. The amount that the retailer charges can be capped but if the retailer cannot buy the petrol or diesel at that level, there will be no supply at all.

What governments that introduced price caps have had to do is keep increasing them and that does not work for people.

I would argue that the measures the Government has introduced to date are not working. Indeed, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report published today is sending a clear signal to the Government that the measures it has brought in so far are not working. The ESRI has recommended a number of targeted measures which it believes is the way out of this crisis. One is an emergency Christmas-bonus-style double welfare payment and another is an expansion of the fuel allowance to include those in receipt of the working family payment. Will the Tánaiste commit to looking at those two measures and to bringing them in before October? This crisis is really going to hit people in the coming months and waiting until January to bring in measures is not going to be good enough for people.

As the Deputy mentioned, the ESRI recommends a number of measures in its report. I was interested to hear spokespeople for the ESRI talk in interviews about discounts on energy bills - one of the things we have done - as another option and one that benefits lower income households more than higher income households, proportionately. They also talked about increasing income tax credits, which is a form of income tax cut and they also talked about reducing PRSI. There are lots of options on the table and lots of ways that we can help people with the rising cost of living but we are working towards a budget package at the moment.

October is too late.

Last week the Health Research Board, HRB, issued a report on drug treatment from 2015 to 2021. To say it made for sombre reading is an understatement. One of the main findings of the report relates to cocaine use in Ireland. Treatment for cocaine use soared by 171% over an eight year period and cocaine has now overtaken heroin as the main problem drug in Ireland. While I, along with my party colleagues and many other Deputies in this House, welcome the harm reduction policy of the HSE and the Department of Health, we need to go beyond that because it is largely lip service. We need to talk about drug addiction in a very frank way, particularly in the context of the Citizen's Assembly. Having read the HRB's report, it is clear that we are losing the war against drugs, whether we like it or not. It is a losing battle and we need to change direction.

I agree with everything the Deputy has said. The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, is taking the lead in this area. Additional investment is going in and some important things are happening, including for example, the opening of additional rehabilitation beds for men and women around the country.

Deputy Kenny is absolutely right that this matter will be looked at by the Citizen's Assembly. My view is that it needs to be primarily treated as a health issue rather than a criminal issue. Obviously there is a criminal element when it comes to supply and distribution but for people in addiction, we need to be addressing this issue first and foremost as a health issue.

I ask the Tánaiste to address an anomaly that is occurring in Tipperary and across the country. Experienced drivers are being forced to stop driving school buses once they reach 70. It is not viable for younger people to obtain a D licence due to the costs involved so the bus and coach industry is losing out due to this ridiculous age restriction. A significant number of drivers on school runs are retired people who choose to work part time. This type of work lends itself to such employees. The irony is that drivers who are over 70 can continue to work in the private hire sector once they are annually certified as medically fit to do so. We have a situation where drivers over 70 can drive a full-size bus to the UK or any part of Europe but they cannot do a school run. They can also work for State bodies such as Transport for Ireland, TFI. There is a staggering contradiction here that needs to be addressed. I urge the Tánaiste to ask Bus Éireann to review its policy and to restore the dignity and respect for drivers reaching 70 years of age.

I will ask Bus Éireann to take a further look at this. The Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, announced that from Monday, 21 February 2022 the age at which an applicant for a driving licence must supply a medical report is going to increase from 70 to 75. Drivers under 75 will no longer have to supply a medical report confirming their fitness to drive unless they have an identified or specified illness or are required to do so by law. In addition, drivers aged 70 and over may continue to apply by post to renew a licence or learner permit and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, believes that between February and August this year there will be in the region of 15,000 applicants per month who are aged 70 or over.

Bus Éireann has no current plans to increase the age limit from 70 to 75 for school bus drivers. That does seem a bit inconsistent, given that the Minister of State has changed the rule from 70 to 75, so I will definitely take that up with Bus Éireann.

The Tánaiste is completely out of touch with reality regarding the hardship people are facing. The ESRI report published today is shocking and finds that people could be paying more than €2,000 extra. What about the squeezed middle, particularly those with mortgages to pay, given the predicted increases in interest rates? The average mortgage interest rate in the eurozone is 1.46% while in Ireland it is 3.64%. What is wrong here? That rate is going to increase. The banks are exiting even though we bailed them out. The public had to take the pain there but the banks are getting away scot-free. They are giving no rest or breathing space to hard workers who want to have their own homes and pay for them. People have had no problem doing that but they need a break here. They need some kind of parity with our so-called great friends in the EU that ye all talk about. Everything is twice as dear or more than twice as dear here. Why is this happening in Ireland?

Deputy McGrath must be the one who is out of touch if he needs an ESRI report this morning to tell him that we have a cost of living crisis.

I did not need it. I am saying that the Tánaiste might read it.

Anybody filling their car with petrol or diesel-would have known that for months.

He should give it to his friends and his party, so they might read it.

Anyone looking at their utility bills over the past couple of months would know that. They would know we are facing a cost of living crisis, that we have high inflation and that it is largely driven by energy prices.

The Government should take note of it.

On interest rates, the Deputy knows the answer to this. We have higher interest rates in Ireland relative to other countries and there are three reasons for that. They have higher bank charges than we do. In those countries they have bigger markets so there is more competition, and also in Ireland, for very good reasons, we make it very hard to repossess properties and evict people-----

What about the vulture funds?

-----which means often debts go unpaid for years and years. The truth is that the cost of that is socialised.

The Tánaiste is really out of touch.

We have seen media reports in the last week on a new investigation report into abuse in HSE residential services in Donegal. Shockingly, ten more perpetrators, along with Brandon, have carried out up to 40 incidents of abuse. What is even more shocking is that these incidents were all on file with the HSE. Management knew about them, just like in the Brandon case. That needs to sink in. The HSE was aware of all of these incidents of abuse. Families were not told and some only found out this week. Will the Government now ensure that there is a fully independent public inquiry into the management of disability services in Donegal and nationally as a matter of urgency?

I thank Deputy Pringle for raising this issue. Earlier today I had a meeting with the HSE to get an update on that validation report. I have sought further information which the HSE will revert with in the next ten days and I will keep the House updated.

As we gather here today, every 48 seconds someone dies of starvation in the horn of Africa. On Tuesday last Deputies were invited to a very stark briefing organised by Dóchas. We were addressed by the Dóchas CEO, Ms Jane-Ann McKenna, and four of the aid agencies operating in the horn of Africa, that is, Goal, Trócaire, Concern and Oxfam and were told that 181 million people in the horn of Africa face starvation due to food shortages, climate change and political unrest in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The number of people facing extreme hunger has doubled in the last year. The UN estimates that 750,000 people across five countries are facing immediate starvation. I know that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Irish Aid officials are doing their best in very difficult circumstances but we need to redouble our efforts. The alarm for famine has been sounded in the horn of Africa. I ask the Tánaiste to provide an update on what the Irish Government is doing to assist people in the horn of Africa.

We are very aware of the risk of famine that now arises from the food security issues that have been thrown up by Putin's invasion of Ukraine. I attended talks in Geneva earlier this week where this was very much on the agenda for trade ministers.

On our humanitarian response, I am not sure exactly what is planned. I know that we have something planned through our overseas development aid budget but I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Colm Brophy, to come back to the Deputy on that with a bit more detail.

Apropos of the issues that dominate the public debate inside and outside of this House with regard to the dual issues of inflation and housing, and recognising the difficulties overcome by the Government, the successes of Government and the accelerated plan that is now showing results, and notwithstanding the Opposition's claim that the Government has been in government for ten years, six of which were controlled by the IMF - everyone knows that except the Opposition - notwithstanding the success so far, can I ask if it might be considered to set up a task force to examine the obstacles to an accelerated housing programme at this moment? As the Ceann Comhairle and I know, there are many such obstacles in planning, in appeals, in the various systems and judicial reviews around infrastructure development, in procurement and so on that are holding up the advanced acceleration of a housing programme, which we urgently need.

We need to do everything possible to accelerate the number of new homes being built. As I said earlier, it is accelerating. Some 25,000 new homes were built in the past 12 months, 35,000 are under construction and 45,000 are going through planning. One can really see that pipeline coming through. It took us a while to get there, and we are still only getting there, but it is coming through. There are more things that need to be done to speed it up. The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, are working on reforms to our planning laws because often it is planning issues that delay the construction of new homes. They plan to bring in statutory timelines for An Bord Pleanála so that decisions do not get stuck in An Bord Pleanála for too long. They will also seek to change some of the rules around judicial reviews so that more important housing developments and infrastructure developments do not get caught up in the courts for too long.

The Coombe Hospital operated an antenatal clinic outside of Naas General Hospital before it closed at the start of Covid-19. This was a godsend for mothers-to-be from north Kildare and beyond. I have been in touch with the HSE, which says it might open it in the wider midlands area. It worked for people in Naas. The people in north Kildare believe, as I do, that if it ain't broke don't fix it. If we are to live with Covid, as the Tánaiste has said, it means making it up to our women who lost out hugely in previous waves, with many of the partners banished during antenatal visits and with many women left to labour alone. One thing is for certain: we will still be having babies. How will the Government make it up to women and guarantee that the Coombe antenatal clinic will reopen in Naas General Hospital?

I acknowledge Deputy's Cronin's comments on the service. The midwifery-led service from the Coombe Hospital has been a huge success. I know it was valued greatly locally. We are in the middle of a very significant expansion of maternity services through the 2016 national maternity strategy. I will seek an update from the Department and the HSE about the ongoing provision of community-based care, which does form an essential part of the agreed new model of maternity care.

As the Tánaiste has already heard in the House many times this morning, household energy bills have gone through the roof. Electricity and fuel costs have been hyped up with massive Government taxes, which take people's household bills beyond reach. Farm contractors, hauliers and ordinary mothers and fathers are not able to keep up with the cost of fuel. An even bigger concern is the huge amount of businesses in west Cork which contact me on a daily basis from Bandon, Clonakilty, Skibbereen and Bantry and its surrounds. They are telling me they will have to close their businesses this September or October if the Government does not step in. Businesses such as restaurants, fast food outlets, cafes and pubs tell me their electric bills have gone from €2,000 or €3,000 every two months to €5,000 or €6,000 every two months. They cannot and will not survive the green agenda's taxes on fuel and energy to pay for pet projects to keep the Green Party aboard the sinking ship. What will the Tánaiste tell those businesses in west Cork which are facing closure in the months ahead? These are businesses, I may add, which are decades delivering jobs and services in their rural communities. What answers does the Tánaiste have for the struggling businesses which simply cannot pay their electricity bills to keep the lights on?

I say to these businesses that we understand the pressures they are under. This is why we reduced excise and took 20 cent off petrol and 15 cent off diesel, but unfortunately we do not control those prices as they are internationally determined. This is why we put in place the 9% VAT rate for the hospitality sector, which is particularly important given the tourism hot spot that Cork south west is. That will run into next year. It is also why we reduced the VAT on electricity and gas to 9%, which is the lowest it has ever been, in order to help people with those particular bills. Just today, with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, I announced €55 million in funding for businesses to help them to invest in smart meters, in heat pumps and in green energy and renewable energy to help them reduce those costs in the long term.

With regard to the cost of living crisis, does the Tánaiste agree that the most effective way to help families and individuals who are in employment, in their current difficulties, would be to increase the threshold at which people enter the top rate of income tax? Currently it is just over €38,000 of earned income for an individual and double this for a couple, at which they enter the top rate of tax.

I also wish to raise the issue of overtime. I have heard the Tánaiste speak about this before. Those people who are in employment and in a position to work overtime often see more than half of that earned income going to the Exchequer in some form of tax or universal social charge. The most effective way to deliver an improvement in their standard of living would be to raise that threshold at which they enter the top rate of income tax.

I do not think there is any one single way that is best to help working families or middle-income people with the cost of living. There are a number of different ways. I have never been in favour of just one solution or saying there is just one solution to these challenges. Obviously, one way is through pay. This is why we increased the minimum wage this year and why I announced just this week plans to introduce a living wage. This is why we are currently in discussions with public servants around pay increases for them. The other way is to reduce costs such as for childcare and healthcare. We have done some things in that regard but we need to do a lot more in the forthcoming budget. Yes, part of the solution is reducing income tax for middle-income people. The average salary earned by a person in Ireland who works full-time is about €45,000. If he or she gets a pay increase this year, and most will, the person will lose 52% of that in universal social charge, income tax and PRSI. I think this is unfair. I do not understand why the party opposite thinks it is fair. I think this should change. One of the ways we could improve that is by raising the standard rate cut-off point.

In many elements of healthcare at the moment there is a real crisis in recruiting staff. The Tánaiste will be aware that there are millions of home help hours that cannot be provided because we cannot recruit the staff. There are some 700 vacant posts in network teams supporting children with disabilities. Yesterday I met with the Irish Pharmacy Union and there is a real crisis in recruiting community pharmacists. A range of solutions are needed. Partly it is to do with terms and conditions of employment, but many of the organisations that represent patients and workers in these areas advocate that we look at including some of those professions on the critical skills list. Is this something the Tánaiste would consider? I am not suggesting this as an alternative or substitution for measures to deal with the recruitment and retention issues, but given this crisis where children with disabilities are going without hundreds of thousands of hours of therapy between them because we cannot fill posts, as with home helps, pharmacists and many more, is this something the Tánaiste would look at as part of the solution?

I invite the Minister for Health.

The Tánaiste is the Minister responsible in this regard.

On the critical skills permits, we could certainly examine that. This falls under the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy English, but obviously, he reports to me. This is something we could definitely examine.

I wish to raise the issue of public transport for the Cavan-Monaghan area and specifically the Bus Éireann Expressway route No. 30 that takes people from Donegal, through Cavan and on to Dublin. Over the past weeks it has been aired very robustly on the Northern Sound airwaves how people are being let down entirely by this service. One can imagine that in a constituency like mine we very much depend on this critical part our public transport. We depend on it for the airport and we depend on it for hospital appointments. I have anecdotal experience from people living in the area of where the bus either failed to turn up or turned up too late so that people had to ring to make other arrangements to get the airport or they were going to miss their flights.

Will the Tánaiste make an intervention with Bus Éireann to see what can be done so that we can have a reliable form of transport that people can depend on?