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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 13 Jul 2022

Vol. 1025 No. 4

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

The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, told the Dáil last week that, out of respect for the House, he planned to publish before the summer break the regulations banning the sale of turf. We still have not seen those regulations. We are told the Cabinet has approved the new restrictions. Are we going to see them before the break? Will we have an opportunity to debate them? Have Fianna Fáil backbenchers seen them? Does the Taoiseach's party intend to support this proposition? Given his acknowledgement that the cost-of-living crisis will continue for some time, does he really believe this is an appropriate time to prevent people who have no affordable alternative from purchasing turf to heat their homes? Why does he refuse to do the one thing that is proven to reduce turf use, which is to provide households with affordable alternative sources of heating?

The Government is finalising regulations relating to measures to enhance air quality. The Deputy did not mention air quality in his presentation. Does he have any-----

I asked a question.

Deputy Carthy had 50 seconds to ask it.

I know that but the Deputy cannot be just defending the coal industry all the time because that is what goes to the-----

I asked about alternatives. Why is the Taoiseach not putting alternatives in place?

The issue in terms of these regulations is smoky coal, which is killing people. That is the big picture.

The way to resolve that is to provide people who use solid fuel with an alternative.

Let the Taoiseach respond, please.

The Deputy's party just keeps ducking and diving. He refuses to accept responsibility, which he should, as a legislator, in respect of the need to protect people. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is one of the biggest killers in Ireland. The town of Enniscorthy had air quality measures similar to those of New Delhi in the middle of winter because of smoky coal. That is the real target of these regulations.

The Taoiseach should provide alternatives.

In respect of turf, representatives of my party and others have made very sensible ideas and suggestions and those will be reflected in the regulations in the context of the traditional turbary rights of bog owners being protected.

Thank you, Taoiseach. The time is up now.

Are they going to be published?

Before the summer break?

Yesterday, I spoke of the Government being long on ambition but short on delivery in a number of areas, notably on the climate catastrophe. Europe’s temperatures are reaching record highs this week across the Continent. Human activity has warmed our planet at a rate not seen for 2,000 years. The consequences are unthinkable and the imperative to act is indisputable. Last week, I asked the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, if negotiations on sectoral emissions targets were being jeopardised, specifically by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I reminded him that a reduction in emissions targets for one sector would raise targets for other sectors to what Professor Hannah Daly has called implausible levels. We now know that the long-promised sectoral emission targets will not be published this week, as previously thought. Our concern is that in the last sitting week of the Dáil before the summer recess, we do not yet have clarity on when those targets will be published or whether we will have an opportunity to scrutinise them and, in particular, to see whether the targets for one sector will be set at a level so low that it will jeopardise the possibility of targets being reached in other sectors.

The setting of such levels is extremely challenging. The Deputy heard the remarks of the previous speaker. She and I are at one on the climate crisis. I am not sure that is true of those seated to her left in the House because all I get from them are reasons we should keep delaying doing anything. It is urgent. We are very late to the table. In a global sense, climate change is happening before our very eyes at a much more rapid pace than people even predicted. I was struck recently by the US envoy, John Kerry, saying in Davos that people should be reminded that the measures we take now will not protect us from negative consequences of climate change; they just protect us from the worst consequences. There will be consequences. We see it all over Europe. We hope, however, that the work on the ceilings will be completed before the end of the month.

The Taoiseach says all the right things when it comes to climate. He talks about the stark challenges and urgency. Where is the urgency when it comes to setting the sectoral targets? The longer it takes to set those targets, the more onerous it will be for us to meet them. Is his Government too afraid to deal with the issue of agriculture? Are discussions with the agriculture sector and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine holding up the establishment and setting of these sectoral targets? We need each sector to play its part when it comes to meeting our climate targets and our climate challenge. Is the Taoiseach up for that challenge?

Yes. The Government has demonstrated that it is up for the challenge. In the two years it has been in office, it has done very significant work-----

It has been one year since------

-----in terms of legislation, the funding allocated to active travel and rewetting our bogs. There are huge resources going into biodiversity now, contrary to what was happening before, in terms of the National Parks and Wildlife Service being established as an agency by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. There is significant work going on across the board, including the agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES, initiative that has been announced by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which will address climate, biodiversity, sustainability, water quality, farming practices and the remuneration of farmers to protect and act as guardians of biodiversity. All of that is important. It is important to bring people with us. No one was in any doubt that there would be significant challenges but also negotiations and engagement between the different sectors-----

-----and calculations because these ceilings have serious implications for every sector. It is not like switching on and off a light.

The Business Post reported that there was a lack of oversight in regard to procurement of personal protective equipment, PPE, in 2020. The figure referenced in the article was €770 million. In the HSE response to a parliamentary question I tabled last year, the figure was €1 billion spent on PPE. We all understand that, at that time, PPE was very difficult to get and it was needed in the health system. In the reply to the question I tabled, it was broken down that most of the PPE was unsuitable. It cost the State €8 million a year to store some of the unsuitable PPE. Surely there has to be an inquiry in respect of the money spent on unsuitable PPE.

I will get a more detailed reply from the HSE on the issue of the procurement of PPE. It is important to point out that, in the midst of a pandemic, actions were taken on a set of principles and making sure that we would have a sufficiency of supply of PPE.

A lot of rubbish.

I will get a more detailed response from the HSE on the matter.

Thousands of people marched in Navan last weekend to protect the emergency department in Navan, which provides life-or-death treatment and services for the people of County Meath. There was palpable anger that, at a time of key overcrowding, the Government was going to take capacity out of the system. Amazing data that blow the HSE figures out of the water have been provided by 23 hospital consultants. The HSE states that five patients travel from Meath to Drogheda every day but the 23 hospital consultants in Drogheda have used the hospital's own data systems to show that up to 47 patients could travel from Navan to Drogheda every day. I received a reply from the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to a question I tabled on this matter who stated that the review into the closure of Navan emergency department would take just a couple of weeks and that preparations for closure can proceed in parallel with that review. Is it not outrageous to review something but continue to close it at the same time?

I have long enough experience in health to know that different consultants can produce different perspectives.

Just like different Ministers.

The data come from the integrated patient management system.

The Deputy asked a question; I am trying to make a point in reply. As he will be aware, other consultants were arguing very strongly for actions in respect of Navan and they argued differently from the consultants to whom the Deputy has spoken.

That is fair enough. That is the way the world works. There is no one uniform view in respect to the configuration of services from the medical community in Navan or the north east. I have said before that we need to learn lessons from previous configurations. The centralisation of cancer services, for example, was opposed left, right and centre up and down the country by protests. As Minister for Health, I experienced protests in many locations. Ultimately, some of the decisions taken proved to be beneficial and had better health outcomes. That said, in other areas we learned as well that it led to too much activity or overcrowding in certain other locations so there has to be balance and we have to learn lessons from previous reconfigurations to make sure that we can get the optimal-----

Time is up please.

-----treatments in Navan and other locations across the north east.

There is much concern about the level of policing in our cities, towns and villages or the lack thereof. People feel intimidated by gangs of young people taking drugs and engaging in antisocial behaviour of all kinds. Indeed, in many cases people are afraid to walk down the main streets of their towns and villages. This is a pity. The lack of gardaí is staggering. We never had such a scarcity. I salute the work they do but there are not enough of them and they do not have not resources. The public feel we are not serious about dealing with this issue here. We get pious platitudes but people are being intimidated in many towns in County Tipperary and throughout the country. An Garda Síochána seems unable to deal with it. There is no willingness on the part of the Government to deal with it.

I assure the Deputy that this is an issue we are prioritising. We had a budget of €2 billion for An Garda Síochána last year. A significant amount of that went to increase Garda numbers. Templemore college has reopened. We have had three attestations this year already and from September and October we will have 200 gardaí coming out of Templemore every 12 weeks. This will significantly increase our numbers. We had a competition that yielded 11,000 applicants interested in joining An Garda Síochána.

Separately, the new operating model will mean, where we have a consolidation of various different types of work within An Garda Síochána such as human resources or finance, more gardaí who are in the system to go out on the beat on the front line. That will make a huge difference and will impact communities throughout the country as well as the significant increase in numbers.

Just over two years ago there was a serious mudslide at Shass Mountain, Drumkeeran, County Leitrim when approximately 55 ha of agricultural land was completely destroyed. It is unusable. Approximately 15 farmers were affected. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan, set up an effective working group, for which I thank him. It was very important. Leitrim County Council did sterling work on the Dawn of Hope bridge and the roads. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine ensured that CAP payments up to this year would be paid under force majeure. However, last November, eight months ago, the Minister visited Drumkeeran and met the farmers affected and said there would be a compensation package. Since then no offers have been made. Farmers have lost patience. I do not blame them. It has been far too long. I ask the Taoiseach to raise this issue with the Minister and ask him to make good on his promise of compensation in the immediate future.

I will take this question. I thank the Deputy. It was a very effective working group and a lot of good work was done. Great credit is due to all partners, including Leitrim County Council. I have engaged with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, this week in regard to the compensation issue. My understanding is that there are negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on that. We are looking at wider issues regarding land use around that tragic event in Drumkeeran. I have been asked to convene another meeting of the inter-agency group, which I will do once I have more responses to the issues that were raised.

I welcome Elaine Dunne, Connie Hannon and Fiona Bowe from the Federation of Early Childhood Providers who are in the Public Gallery. The early childhood care and education programme, ECCE model of childcare was introduced in 2010 and it was replicated on the basis of the Northern Irish system. Since 2010, the capitation funding per child in ECCE has risen from €64.50 to €69. This is measly when compared with the doubling of capitation funding in Northern Ireland in that same period. Budget 2023 has to ensure that childcare becomes more affordable for parents but, equally, it must ensure that the model of childcare in Ireland is properly funded and that we break the cycle of measly funding. The federation is looking for an increase in capitation in budget 2023 from €69 to €76 per child. Failure to secure that funding and address the funding deficits could, they estimate, result in the closure of 260 centres. We value this sector like gold, yet we pay them peanuts. This has to be the budget that properly funds it and I ask the Taoiseach to speak with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and ask him to go out to the gate and meet the sector’s representatives.

Core funding is worth up to €221 million to the sector. Obviously there are implications in terms of affordability and so forth. Last year, we allocated very substantial funds specifically for staffing, training and to create career pathways within the early childhood sector. In work under way within the Government legislation committee, GLC, this year the Government has signalled that it wants to deal more substantially with the affordability issue and the cost-of-living issue, and also ensuring that while doing that, the capacity of the providers to provide services in a sustainable way is not just maintained but is ensured for the future. There has been a great deal of progress over the years in early childhood care. We have come from a situation where it was never a State system to start with, so there are multiple providers, community-based and private. They work through the various schemes. We have to improve it and the Government has identified childcare as a key issue for the next budget.

I wish to raise the issue of ChildVision, which is based on Model Farm Road in Cork, in the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind facility. It provides support for more than 60 children. It does not get State funding of any description; it operates on voluntary contributions. It requires approximately €144,000 per annum. It looks after children with complex needs such as impaired vision. One child is percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy, PEG-fed, another child has epilepsy, another with Rett syndrome, another with Char syndrome and another has cleft lip. It supports these children who have quite complicated medical needs, and to their families, with no funding. The HSE met with them but gave no commitment on funding. Will the Taoiseach engage with the HSE to require them to have this reviewed? It is contributing hugely for the benefit of these children and for their families.

I am aware of the organisation. It is a wonderful service. We have the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind as well, which does wonderful work. That is a long-established centre. I certainly will talk to the HSE regarding the requirements of ChildVision and, in particular, the children they look after.

Next week marks 18 years since Mary McAleese, in her first term in office as President, signed the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, EPSEN, into law in this country. That was on 19 July 2004. It was brought into law because the Government at the time acknowledged the failings in supporting our most vulnerable children. Successive Governments have failed to commence the Act fully, meaning a failure of support for our children. This year is no different as we see continued failure in appropriate planning and placement. It is remarkable to have 18 years of failure. We are now at a stage of organising a review of EPSEN. Is there any point at which the Government will issue an apology for this 18 years of failure?

To be fair, on any balanced, objective assessment there has been very substantial investment in special needs education in this country over the past 20 years. In particular mainstreaming special needs education started in the late 1990s through the provision of a pupil-teacher ratio for children with autism. That started in 1998. SNA provision was implemented and now has many thousands of workers. This year there was an increase of 10% over last year. The legislative template as enshrined in the EPSEN Act was not fully commenced over the years by different Governments. I have views on that myself. While that did not happen on the legislative front, it is not fair to say that in the educational world substantial progress was not made; there was. There needs to be more and the Government is taking steps with further legislation, for example, on school admissions and so on.

I hope that in his first opportunity to engage with Boris Johnson's successor the Taoiseach will prioritise legacy issues and remind the British Government strongly that it must take on board the concerns of victims and survivors.

As all of us in this House know, the current British Government legislation would allow murderers to give themselves immunity from prosecution. It is absolutely deplorable. In a good interview, Ms Sandra Peake, the chief executive of Wave, spoke with Mr. Rodney Edwards. Ms Peake stated that referrals from victims of the Troubles in need of mental health support have doubled in the past year due to the UK Government's proposals. She stated that "anxiety for victims has been very much to the fore in the past 12 months, and we are not seeing that abating at all." Of course, there is the total lack of co-operation by the British Government in regard to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the Belturbet bombings. It is deplorable that the government of a democratic country would not co-operate with a sovereign government and parliament in a neighbouring state where we know state forces were involved in the murder of innocent people.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. He will be aware of my view that the proposals that emerged in terms of amnesties or qualified amnesties are unacceptable. The Deputy is correct in saying that the views of victims and the families of victims should be uppermost and paramount in any legacy policy or scheme. I do not want to get involved in what is happening in the UK in regard to an election of a successor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Suffice to say that we would like this to be an opportunity for a resetting of relationships but also a return to adherence to the agreements that have been entered into between two sovereign states, between Europe and the UK, and in respect of legacy agreements that have been entered into by the families of victims, political parties in Northern Ireland and governments of the UK. In other words, what has been agreed should be adhered to unless we collectively agree to change.

I welcome Charlotte and her mother, Emma, who are mental health youth campaigners, to the Public Gallery as guests of Deputy Martin Browne.

Yesterday, during the debate, the Taoiseach praised the Government for being "extraordinarily diligent and dedicated" in the area of mental health. I will quote the Taoiseach some facts. Under his Government, there has been a 40% increase in the number of children presenting to emergency departments for mental healthcare; more than 4,000 children are waiting for appointments with the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS; there are fewer CAMHS beds in operation today than there were when the Government was formed; there are over 2,000 young children waiting for an appointment with Jigsaw, some for 20 weeks or more; and there are 10,500 children waiting on primary care psychology, 4,000 of whom have been waiting for more than a year. Does the Taoiseach stand by his comment yesterday or does he accept that his Government has been a complete failure in the provision of children's mental health services?

I stand by the comments that I made yesterday. I met with Jigsaw at the weekend, actually, and had a very good discussion with young people who have used the Jigsaw service and are advocates for it. Of course, there is significant room for continued improvement and enhancement of services. Particularly post-Covid, there has been an increase in anxiety levels and mental well-being issues. That is definitely the case, particularly among young people. That has created additional pressures, not only on CAMHS but also on the NGO sector. One of the interesting issues that arose was the referral process, particularly for young people, from services such as Jigsaw to CAMHS. These are issues that we need to resolve because there is not uniformity across the country.

I thank the Taoiseach.

I will say this. The Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Butler, is working flat out on all of these issues and her diligence cannot be called into question.

This is national Traveller Pride Week. There are so many different issues one could raise but a particularly vulnerable group are those Traveller women in prison in Ireland. Traveller women are between 18 and 22 times more likely to be in prison than a non-Traveller woman like me. In the general female prison population, 85% have addiction issues and 60% of sentenced women have mental illness compared with 27% of men. This is compounded by the scourge of short sentences being used by the courts. Some 90% of female prisoners are in prison for less than 12 months as compared with 70% of men, meaning it is impossible to address addiction or mental health issues that underlie so many issues. Traveller women's specific pathways to drug use and crime are absence of community supports, domestic violence, partner involvement in crime, and rates of perinatal death and bereavement. They are a particularly vulnerable group and one that has to be named in the Dáil. There has to be a response. The penal reform policy is due and I ask if the Taoiseach can provide an update on it.

There is a need for a comprehensive review of the needs of the Traveller community. I met recently with members of the Traveller Visibility Group who had particular concerns around a growing crisis in mental health among young Travellers in particular. Across all policies, be it housing, criminal justice, health or education, I believe we need a comprehensive review and to listen and engage more with Traveller representative organisations. Without question, that applies to the issue the Deputy has raised and I know the Minister for Justice will respond to that. However, there is a broader issue, it seems to me, following engagements I have had with the Traveller community that we need to comprehensively review. There is an otherness developing. Basically, the stock approaches are not working.

Farmers are going through a most horrendous time in this country with crippling fertiliser costs as well as the price of green diesel going up €1 per litre due to carbon tax and VAT increases on fuel as the Government stands idly by. I met members of the IFA and other farm organisations in west Cork over the weekend. They told me of the mental stress farmers are going through as many are on the verge of losing their farms, livelihoods and homes.

Another crisis that looks like being thrown at farmers by the Government is the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act, in which the Government states that the sectoral emissions ceilings range for agriculture will be equivalent to a percentage emissions reduction of between 22% and 30%. Farm groups in west Cork have told me the 22% target would have a significant social impact on rural Ireland and would be nearly impossible to achieve, never mind dreaming of a 30%. Last night, on Virgin Media's "The Tonight Show", the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, suggested that farmers would be expected to reduce cow numbers. Does the Taoiseach agree with the Minister suggestion? What will the sectoral emissions ceilings be set at this year? Will it be 22% or less?

I dealt with that in response to Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. Notwithstanding the huge input costs, this year will be a good year for dairy farming, not horrendous, devastating or catastrophic.

That is shocking.

There are concerns.

There are costs.

Notwithstanding that, and the Minister has taken steps, we need balance in the debate. That is what I am saying. I understand fully the concerns farmers have in respect of emissions ceilings.

Get the wellies on and go and meet them.

I fully respect those concerns but we are also providing over €1.5 billion in environmental funding to the farming community and we are willing to work with the it. Farmers here are efficient compared to other farming systems across the world.

What is the percentage?

We do not yet have agreement or finalisation on the various sectoral emissions across the economy. It is not only one sector but a whole range of sectors on which we must get finalisation of the figures.

Will the Government consider changes to the PRSI pension system to allow for pension schemes with fewer than 100 members? This is, unfortunately, no longer allowed and we now have a situation in which business owners who could previously use these one-member systems to focus on their pensions late in their career can no longer do so and the pension providers offering to sell them are now being threatened with lawsuits by the Pensions Authority. This issue needs to be sorted as quickly as possible for the business community, particularly small business owners.

I will engage with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, in relation to that and revert to the Deputy. He raised a reasonable point.

I raise with the Taoiseach the intellectual disability services. We have many services in Carlow for intellectual disabilities that are a fantastic service and resource. I have met with representatives of BEAM Services in Bagenalstown, the Delta Centre in Carlow and the Cairdeas Centre in Tullow. I am very worried because they are finding that the cost of living - heating, ESB and transport costs - means they need more funding. I ask that the Government provide extra funding for these service providers.

Will the Government see what it can do with regard to the pay disparities between section 38 and section 39 organisations, including in respect of maternity leave and sick leave?

As usual, the Deputy's feet are on the ground and she is engaged with the communities across her county. She raised a fair point in terms of cost-of-living issues for service providers, such as BEAM Services and the Cairdeas and Delta centres. In the context of a cost-of-living approach by the Government, we will examine what we can do for the sector.

We are aware of the issue of pay disparity.

There was a resolution of that some years back, or at least a partial resolution. Some of the bigger organisations like SIPTU had arrived at agreements with the Government but there are still obviously concerns in regard to the disparity between smaller organisations.

There are over 1,000 children awaiting speech and language assessment in County Wexford. Some 382 children are awaiting initial speech and language therapy in the county and 466 are awaiting further therapy. The stress and strain this puts on these children, their families and therapists on the front line, who are doing their level best to make their way through these long lists, is unimaginable and unacceptable. Monitoring, prioritising and hoping for the best are not working. What are the Government's immediate plans to deal with this situation in County Wexford? What is the plan and what additional resources are being supplied to deal with this urgent issue?

Resources are being and will be allocated to this area. We have had recent meetings with relevant Ministers with responsibility for disability, health and education in my Department, and with the HSE. There are a number of aspects to this. Resources are being allocated and the recruitment of therapists is important, but also models of how the system works and models of operation. It is not just all about resources and we have to examine the manner in which the service is provided.

We are out of time but we will take 30-second questions from the two remaining Deputies. I call Deputy Ryan.

Last week, the local mental health charity, Hope(D), which is based in Newbridge, announced it will be winding down its service and closing at the end of the summer. It needs just €40,000 to secure a service for the rest of the year. People leaving HSE mental health service facilities at Naas hospital are given a leaflet along with some tablets, if they are lucky, yet the HSE refers service users to Hope(D) while providing no funding. Last night, a train service through Monasterevin was closed due to a tragic incident, and my thoughts and prayers are with the family of the deceased. I ask the Taoiseach to personally intervene to save this vital, life-saving service before it is too late.

The St. Margaret's service in Blackrock, which caters for people with intellectual disabilities - people with very complex needs - and their families, has made an urgent request for the publication of the action plan for the disability capacity review. The review was published in July 2021. The Department of Health said the action plan would be completed by December 2021 and there is no sign of it. It is asking very particularly that this be done as a matter of urgency so the needs and the residential and home support places, both existing and new, will be catered for and provided for in budget 2023.

In response to Deputy Ryan, I did not get the name of the service.

It is Hope(D).

I will pursue that with the HSE and will contact it in regard to the service. I am not aware of the background to the decision-making there.

The “Disability Capacity Review to 2032 - A Review of Social Care Demand and Capacity Requirements to 2032” was published in July 2021.

The action plan was due in December.

No, the disability action plan was also published in July 2021. The framework plan was published alongside the terms of reference for an interdepartmental working group to develop this action plan for submission to the Cabinet sub-committee on social affairs and equality.