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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 22 Jun 2022

Vol. 1024 No. 1

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

The cost of living is pushing households to breaking point. People struggle to put food on the table, to put fuel in their cars and to put a secure roof over their heads. A report published by EUROSTAT today shows that Ireland had the highest prices for consumer goods and services in the European Union last year. Meanwhile, we see the biggest squeeze on incomes in a generation. Speaking on the radio this morning, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, reiterated that the Government has no plans to intervene before the budget unless things get worse. The Minister knows that people cannot afford the basics. He knows that, for many households, it would be a crisis if a child were to need a new pair of shoes. Families across the State are increasingly relying on food banks. Just how bad do things have to get before the Minister's Government acts?

Let us be very clear. As the Deputy knows, Government is acutely aware of the pressures families and our people are under. Inflation is not just an issue in this country, but worldwide. It has been brought about by the war in Ukraine and issues with regard to supply chains, food and energy in particular. We have already introduced approximately €2.4 billion worth of measures to try to soften that blow.

We will not be able to remove the effects of inflation completely. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste have been very clear that we will be doing more but we need to do it in a focused, targeted and strategic way. One of the best ways to do that is to take a whole-of-government approach at the budget this year. The measures we have already introduced are really significant and are significantly more than our nearest neighbours. We are aware of the pressures families are under and we will be introducing more measures, particularly at budget time.

Yesterday, along with other Opposition speakers I called for a debate this week on the operation of An Bord Pleanála. I am asking the Minister to commit to having that debate at least before the summer recess. We are all conscious that the drip-feed of allegations about impropriety or conflicts of interest have the potential to undermine seriously public confidence in our planning and construction system. This is at a time when the President has rightly described us as having a housing disaster and has referred to our housing policy as a series of failures, which is a matter of real concern.

We are all conscious that the Minister ordered an inquiry by Remy Farrell SC and that the six-week period within which the report is to be provided to him concludes at the end of this week. We are all concerned that we will not have time before the summer recess to see that report and to have a debate on it in this House. In the context where an internal interview is also under way into the same allegations of An Bord Pleanála, it is incumbent that we have a commitment from the Government to having a debate on this.

I thank Deputy Bacik for her question. Obviously, the independence of the board and the position the board has are of crucial importance. I take the allegations very seriously in that regard. That is why a number of reviews and investigations are happening, including the specific one by Remy Farrell SC. I have not yet received the report. I know there was a vote in the Dáil yesterday to have a debate on this in advance of getting the report. If we are reasonable, which the Deputy is being, we need to be able to get the report and review it. I would welcome input from others when we have that report. Should I be in a position to publish it - I see no reason why I would not be - it would be appropriate at the correct time to have a debate, but obviously not in advance of the report being sent to me and being considered. I will keep the House informed of the progress in that regard.

The Minister is due to receive that report six weeks after it was initiated, which is tomorrow. Is it on course to be delivered to him tomorrow? How long will it take for him to review it and to inform us what actions he will take on foot of the report? What will the Government do to ensure that all the allegations in the public domain will be properly investigated?

There have been some comments that the terms of reference for the senior counsel review are somewhat restricted. They are not at all. Term 5(a) states the senior counsel "shall exercise such discretion in relation to the scope of his examination of the matters of concern as he considers necessary and appropriate". Term 5(b) adds further to that. Where other allegations have come into the public domain, they are also being investigated. I have not received the report which is due within six weeks. The senior counsel can, if he sees fit, seek an extension to that if more work is being undertaken or if he has not concluded his work. I have not yet received a request to extend the timeframe. If I do, I will certainly let the House know and let spokespeople know. As for how long will it take me to review the report when we get it, I do not know the scale or size of the report yet. Let me receive it first. I will keep Deputies informed the progress.

I want to raise a crisis situation facing hundreds of apartment and duplex owners in a major housing complex in Dublin South-West. Because of fire safety defects when they were constructed, they potentially face being locked out from accessing their apartments with the common areas being closed down by the fire officer. They are being told that each apartment and duplex owner will have to pay €15,000 to remedy these issues. Many of the people simply do not have that money; it is simply not possible. This is not their fault nor is it the fault of others in similar circumstances to them across Dublin and throughout the country. They did not know this when they bought their apartments; they could not possibly have known. They are the victims of an era of self-certification, poor regulation and shoddy building practices. The State needs step in here. We need to have a redress scheme to enable the work to be done.

Of course, it is not the apartment owners' fault. I assume the Deputy is aware that I established a working group on fire defects for apartments that has been working over the course of the last year. Most importantly, included in that have been the residents represented by the Apartment Owners Network and the Construction Defects Alliance. They put together the terms of reference; that was not influenced by me. I expect to receive the report very shortly. I take this issue very seriously. It is not the fault of the residents or apartment owners. When I receive it, I will bring the report to Government and we will consider what action we will take to help homeowners in this space. It has been a very extensive process with over 28,000 submissions received. We have the widest survey of the types of defects within these apartments and the report will reflect that. I will keep the House informed of progress.

A few weeks ago when headlines were dominated by queues and chaos at Dublin Airport, there were 35 people on trolleys and chairs in the emergency department of University Hospital Galway, a scene which was most likely replicated in other hospitals throughout the country. This did not feature in the media at all. We are now experiencing a summer Covid wave with cases in hospital rising significantly in the last week and expected to rise further in the next few weeks. The Chief Medical Officer has stated that hospitals are under increased pressure and the only certainty is that we will need to live with this virus for a long time with surges in hospitals at certain times of the year. The problems with overcrowding and the lack of capacity in University Hospital Galway will only get worse as the year progresses. I ask the Minister to outline what is being done to improve capacity and reduce overcrowding in emergency departments throughout the country in the short and medium term.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has asked the HSE to prepare a comprehensive emergency department plan to address the issues in individual hospitals. He visited the emergency department in University Hospital Galway earlier this year. With the increase in the number of Covid patients over recent weeks, the consequent ongoing requirement to provide separate Covid and non-Covid pathways is putting pressure on the capacity to deliver. As I mentioned earlier in a response to a previous question, we are committed to resourcing those plans to take any measures we can to alleviate pressures on emergency departments, including University Hospital Galway. I will advise the Minister for Health that the Deputy raised the matter here today. We will keep him informed of progress in that regard. It is a very serious issue but we will provide the resources to our emergency departments throughout the country to help move that process forward.

Farm contractors and forestry contractors made a presentation in the audiovisual room here some months ago. They represent a vital component within the industry. They were pleading with the Government. They asked to meet the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, who has ignored them, and the Minister for Finance. At €1.51 per litre, agricultural green diesel is now three times the price it was last year, with the additional cost of the AdBlue. This industry is vital for the delivery of our crops, our harvest, our food supply and timber for building. They want a certain amount of fuel ring-fenced for the harvest to ensure they can continue. Nothing has been done and no heat has been taken off them. It seems the Government is not interested in them. Is the Government trying to create a situation where it will starve the people and there will be no food? What is happening seems obvious to me. It is the same as it is doing with its policy of inward immigration. It is madness, to be honest. However, Ministers will not even meet the people and listen to them. They are elected to represent the people in Government and they have a duty to meet these incredible organisations. When will Ministers meet them?

Deputy Mattie McGrath is well aware, this was discussed yesterday and earlier today, of the measures we have introduced to help different sectors. If there is a specific request with regard to any sector, I will certainly raise that with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Forestry licensing in 2021 was 56% higher than in 2020. It is a very important component and part of our materials for the delivery of housing and other infrastructure. We are supporting those sectors through the measures we are taking during this cost-of-living crisis. If the Deputy has received a specific request, he should pass that to me and I will discuss it directly with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and we will see if we can arrange a meeting shortly.

Last night, I received a devastating response to a Topic Issue matter I raised about the closure of the catheterisation laboratory, cath lab, at Sligo University Hospital. There were no new proposals offered; just excuses. I was told about the existing link with University Hospital Galway but the recent national heart attack audit confirmed that the average travel time between the two hospitals is three hours, which is double the maximum recommended time of 90 minutes.

There are six specialist heart units in Ireland. There are two in Dublin and one in each of Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Galway. There is nothing north of Dublin and Galway. Why are heart patients in the north west being discriminated against? Will the Minister confirm whether the national review of the specialist cardiac services will include the provision of these services in Sligo?

I thank Deputy Harkin for raising the matter of the mobile cath lab at Sligo University Hospital. As the Deputy knows, it is operated by a private company. The company concerned has advised it is to cease its provision of mobile cath lab services at Sligo University Hospital, and other hospitals in the Irish market, at the end of June. As a result, the Saolta University Health Care Group is working with hospital management on contingency measures to ensure adequate services are provided to patients. The HSE has advised that all options have been explored in relation to the continued provision of cath lab services in Sligo University Hospital after the cessation by the current service provider later this month. I will bring the points the Deputy has raised directly to the Minister for Health.

The Minister for Health has just left the Chamber.

I guarantee the Deputy I will do that. I know this is a serious matter for her constituents and for Sligo University Hospital. I will ask the Minister to respond directly to the Deputy on this serious issue to see what else the HSE can do to ensure the provision of services continues.

How we have appraised infrastructure projects historically has not been appropriate because we have done so in a very narrow way and applied a short-term view. We often do not take the wider and longer-term benefits of infrastructure into account and we have got it wrong time and again. Projects such as the western rail corridor will not add up if we look at them through a narrow lens. There are multiple broad and long-term benefits of projects such as the western rail corridor. That project, in particular, is a force multiplier.

Phase 1 of the corridor, from Limerick to Galway, has been completed. It made a mockery of forecasts and the traditional analyses we applied to these infrastructure projects. We need to consider this project which, as I said, will be a force multiplier for the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues. We need to take this project seriously because it will open up the west of Ireland for development. I want to put that project on the Minister's radar.

I thank Deputy Leddin. There is no question but that there are benefits to improving our infrastructure across the country and ensuring it supports regional development, in particular. That is why we have taken specific measures around the urban regeneration development fund. Almost €2 billion has been provided to our regions to provide compact urban growth. We need to improve our public transport capacity, in particular our rail capacity. The Deputy has specifically the western rail corridor. I and the Minister for Transport believe the western rail corridor certainly has merit. We will work through it as a Government to see how we can progress it further.

I raise the issue of adult education tutors who work with the most marginalised groups and students but suffer basic unfairness in the terms and conditions of their employment. These workers pay the Teaching Council but do not have the status of teachers. They see pay inequality among their colleagues across the education and training boards, ETBs, and there is no pay parity between pre-2011 and post-2011 entrants. They do not have an incremental salary scheme. They work in the public sector but do not have public service contracts. There is uncertainty over their hours and during the summer months they are laid off and must sign on. Will the Government step up and provide basic fairness to these important educators.

I thank the Deputy. I have met groups in my own constituency of Dublin Fingal, including Prosper Fingal. They have been encouraging and I know a campaign is under way within those companies to address pay, in particular. It is a matter the Government will consider seriously. The provision of these services is crucial and the work these tutors do on behalf of vulnerable adults and children, in particular those with special needs, is absolutely critical. We need to ensure those tutors are supported. The matter will be considered by the Government in the coming months.

The HSE reports for 2016 to 2020, the period for which the most recent figures are available, show that there were abuse concerns expressed in the cases of 16,000 vulnerable adults over the age of 65. The human rights of these older people have been ignored and trampled on. The concerns relate to physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse in HSE settings. We need to vindicate the rights of those older people. We need a statutory safeguarding authority with sweeping powers to protect and vindicate those rights, and hold the perpetrators accountable.

In January, the Taoiseach told me that options were being considered to meet the concerns and needs of the families of the 23 who died in appalling circumstances in Dealgan nursing home in County Louth during the first outbreak of Covid-19. We have heard nothing since from the Minister. What is the outcome? What is going to happen? Will this Government be seen to act to vindicate the rights of those people?

I thank the Deputy. We certainly need to ensure we vindicate the rights of those people. I know the Deputy has raised the issue of Dealgan nursing home directly with the Taoiseach in the past. My understanding is that it is intended that the group set up to consider the issue will formally submit its report to the Minister for Health shortly. I will raise the matter directly with the Minister on the Deputy's behalf to ensure he is given an update. Any abuse of anyone, but in particular vulnerable adults, is absolutely reprehensible. That is why the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health have taken this matter seriously. I will seek an update from the Minister and revert to the Deputy.

I raise the ongoing chaos at the Passport Service again because nothing has improved since the most recent time I raised the issue. It seems that documentation is still not being checked until the passport target date, which means that people who applied in plenty of time must go to the end of the queue when further information is requested. We are now in the peak summer season. We are now moving towards the end of June. Families are having to cancel holidays at the eleventh hour. Members of some families are not able to travel with the rest of the family because their passports did not arrive on time. It seems that none of the improvements we were told would be implemented have been. People are at their wits' end and stressed to the hilt waiting for the Passport Service. When they ring, they get no response. They are trying to chase their applications but are getting no response. This should have been foreseen. What urgent action is the Government going to take to rectify the situation?

There is no question but that there have been issues in the Passport Service. I have experienced that myself through contacts I have received from my own constituents. There have been improvements in recent weeks, as I think the Deputy will recognise. One of the particular issues relates to first-time passport applications where errors may have been made and not picked up soon enough. Families are only receiving the news that there are errors weeks afterwards. The Deputy has raised a very valid point. To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, I know the service's resources have been increased. Approximately 5,000 passports are being issued per week, which is a significant level. However, this is a time when people want to get away on holidays if they can. We need to make sure the Passport Service can respond to the increase in applications. That is what we intend to do. In fairness, on the issue of first-time passports for children, I recognise that people are still having issues. We are determined to get to grips with the issue.

Away from politics, I had reason to take my car for a national car test, NCT, last week. I was also in the accident and emergency department of University Hospital Limerick. More is known about my car's service history and performance, which is transferable to the next owner, than is known about the patients in the accident and emergency department at the hospital. Information is not transferable. There is no integrated information system to comprise a GP's notes, a referral and a stay in a different hospital network. What is the Government going to do to ensure an integrated system? We talk about hospital structures, trolleys and beds but unless there is information sharing, where are we going?

In advance of raising this issue, I spoke to a number of doctors. They tell me that when someone in an accident and emergency department is being triaged, time is wasted trying to verify the patients' dates of birth and previous history. Has a patient diabetes or heart disease? All of that information should be on a screen in front of the staff of accident and emergency departments.

There is more known about my car than about the patient. What is going to happen on the creation of a fully-integrated information system in healthcare?

I happen to agree with Deputy Cathal Crowe. It is a very fair point. We need integrated information systems in our health service. The HSE is working on that very piece but it is about how we can share information between our GP and the local hospitals as well. Much of it is paper-based and the systems do not speak to each other, where there are systems. It is something that is being worked on by the HSE. I do not know how far down the road we are in that space but it is obviously crucial the technology keeps up with the patient, that we have integrated systems where patients records can be kept and where they can be transferred and accessed by health professionals. I will bring the matter the Deputy has raised directly to the attention of the Minister for Health.

He might look at the Estonian system because the government there has mastered it.

I will tell the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

I have a few specific suggestions on housing that would dramatically increase the supply of homes for sale and long-term rent on the market. Will the Minister look at providing better incentives to property owners to make their properties available for long-term rather than short-term rental? In this context, will he look at something similar to the €14,000 rent-a-room disregard? This could dramatically increase the supply of long-term rentals that are currently only available for short terms.

The other aspect was whether the Minister will prioritise bringing forward grant aid for first-time buyers to renovate derelict properties. That is really important. Will he also bring forward incentives for people who own these properties to sell them to first-time buyers?

Last of all, I welcome the Croí Cónaithe scheme and it is very important but will the Minister also ensure the provisions of this scheme are made available in respect of old cottages and farmhouses, which are our rural architectural heritage, in the open countryside as well as in towns and villages?

I thank the Deputy. On his last point, I will very shortly be announcing the Croí Cónaithe towns and villages fund. It will focus first on the centre of towns and villages. We will see how well that works. What this will do is provide a grant in the region of €30,000 to people who want to buy properties that are either vacant or derelict to help defray the cost of doing them up and getting them livable, on the basis they are living in them. We also provide a scheme under repair and lease for social housing, which is working very well. We have increased the limits to €60,000, where people will get an allowance to do up those properties and then rent them to the local authorities on a long-term basis. The Croí Cónaithe towns and villages fund will be launched in the coming weeks and will have a very significant positive effect on tackling vacancy and helping people own their own homes.

The long-term rental issue the Deputy raised in connection with the income disregard is something that will be considered in advance of the budget.

In responding to an Teachta Tóibín on a previous question, the Minister quite rightly praised front-line healthcare workers but we must value the work they do not simply by our words but by our deeds. Why then is it the case that six months on from the Government agreeing to pay the pandemic bonus only one third of healthcare workers have received that payment? It is just unbelievable. That needs to be expedited and everything possible that can be done should be done to ensure they get their payment.

I also ask the Minister to expedite the special leave with pay payment for front-line healthcare workers with long Covid. That is due to expire at the end of this month. It needs to be extended. We cannot leave front-line healthcare workers who have long Covid improperly supported. Will the Minister tell us if that payment will be expedited for front-line workers with long Covid beyond the end of June?

I thank the Deputy. It is one question on one issue.

The special leave with pay scheme for healthcare workers was, as the Deputy rightly says, due to end at the end of June. My understanding is the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, is working with the Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to address the issue before the end of next week and we would like to see that extended. On the fact that only a third of healthcare workers have been paid the bonus due to them on foot of a Government decision in recognition of the work they did through Covid in very difficult times, I certainly am disappointed with the slow rate of payment. One third of workers being paid so far is not acceptable, frankly. The HSE needs to speed up and prioritise the payment to those healthcare workers, who deserve that payment. I call on the HSE to prioritise this and do everything it possibly can to ensure those payments are made to workers who deserve them without any further delay.

Significant delays are being experienced in issuing decisions from An Bord Pleanála. Many of those decisions relate to strategic projects. Loads of constituents are in touch with me around this issue. Has the Minister plans to improve the situation there to get these decisions out more quickly? Many of these relate to commercial developments that are really needed and we must make more of an effort to turn around these decisions more quickly.

Deputy Carey raises a very good point. It is about the resource of An Bord Pleanála to ensure it has the people it needs to process the work it has. I provided for an additional 42 posts over the last number of months at inspector level and senior level in the board to beef up the team there and speed up that work. I have received another workforce plan from the board for further resources that are required to work through what it has. We need an efficient planning system. We cannot have decisions delayed interminably in the board and I want to see that improved. We have made one very significant change, namely, the large-scale residential developments and bringing the strategic housing developments, SHDs, back to local authority level. That will free up some capacity too and ensure planning decisions are made at a local authority level first. Then if they must go to the board, they go to the board. The Deputy raises a very fair point.

In light of the concerns reported recently on the strong possibility of rationing of energy in the coming autumn and winter, is the Government completely satisfied the amount of gas coming into Ireland through the Moffat interconnector is absolutely guaranteed to continue throughout the winter? If not, what contingency plans are in place in the event of any reduction of, or disruption to, supply?

I thank Deputy Stanton for raising this point. On 14 June, the Government approved a package of measures to secure electricity supplies and to help mitigate rising household electricity bills. The ongoing supply of fuel, gas and oil is something that has been discussed at Cabinet level. We are confident the situation is stable at the moment but it is something we must continue to watch. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is certainly keeping the Government and Cabinet abreast of that situation. It is a very volatile environment we are living in, especially right across Europe. We saw what happened very recently with gas supplies being reduced to Germany. It is an absolute priority for us. We as a State need to ensure, and we will continue to ensure, we have energy security within this country.

Earlier on, the Minister spoke about the need to develop our rural towns and villages as it is a critically important part of our country's development. I am really beginning to question the capacity of Irish Water to play its part in that. The people of Gort in south Galway have been without a drinking water supply since 2 February when Irish Water issued a boil water notice to almost 3,000 customers there. Almost five months later, that supply has not been restored. Despite my best efforts at engaging with Irish Water, nothing of any great certainty has been given to me about when the service might be restored. Will the Minister engage with the CEO of Irish Water to determine the definitive timeline for when the supply of drinking water to the town is restored and that there is ongoing communication and engagement with the people in that town to keep them abreast of what is happening? I have seen nothing but a deep disrespect for the people of that town in terms of how Irish Water has engaged with them and this long-running saga of almost five months must be brought to a close.

First, I assure Deputy Cannon that I will make contact myself with Irish Water on behalf of his constituents in Gort. I can give him an update on it that the filtration system has been replaced and both filters are now in place. They have been linked to an automatic alarm system. There is a three-day sampling and testing programme that commenced in conjunction with the environment regulation team in Irish Water and that just happened on Tuesday, 21 June. There were no issues highlighted. Irish Water continues to liaise with the HSE and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to ensure the notice is lifted as quickly as possible. On completion, Irish Water will liaise with the HSE and EPA on the lifting of that notice. I will personally take that matter up on the Deputy's behalf.

Part of the Government's response to the cost-of-living crisis to date has been supports available through the local community welfare officer. However, the figures speak for themselves and we have seen a fall in the number of exceptional needs and urgent needs payments made. In the period 2016 to 2019, there were between 90,000 payments to over 100,000 payments made. Last year it was 55,000 and to date it has been about 18,000 payments. This should be a cause of concern, especially the figure for heating and household bills with about 1,000 payments made in the first four months of this year. That should be ringing alarm bells. I welcome it is now an additional needs payment - that seems to be a change on the Department's website - with income limits.

It is very helpful and I welcome that. I ask that this be advertised. Could this support also be put online? I spoke with a women in her 50s last week who is a lone parent who has worked all of her life. She does not want to go to the local community welfare officer in person. Given that online services are available for the Department of Social Protection, and given that these emergency payments are going to be needed in the weeks and months ahead, could that be brought online?

I thank Deputy Kerrane for raising this matter. One of the reasons we have seen the reduction in these payments being made over the past number of years is because there are more people working. More than 2.5 million people are working in the State, which is the highest we have ever had. That said, there are people who still need to access support by the State and the supports are there. As for making sure that people know about them, I have listened. There have been advertising campaigns on radio, which I am sure the Deputy has also heard. The Deputy's specific point is well made, however, with regard to others who may not have access to technology and so on. I will speak directly with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, on the Deputy's behalf.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 1.11 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís at 2.13 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 1.11 p.m. and resumed at 2.13 p.m.