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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 15 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 2

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

A response to a parliamentary question put by my colleague, Deputy Ward, showed yet another increase in the number of children awaiting psychological treatment. Of the 13,000 waiting on treatment, more than 11,000 of them are children, almost 4,000 of whom have been waiting over a year for an appointment. This represents a 7% increase between January and May this year. This is not sustainable and immediate action is required. There seems to be a persistent crisis in the provision of mental health services across the country. The HSE invested €38 million in fees and salaries of trainee clinical psychologists over the past five years, yet did not directly recruit one newly qualified clinical psychologist. The psychologists and resources are there but the ability and will to hire them is not. At this time, when we are experiencing an unprecedented demand for psychological support in primary care, what action will the Government take to make real efforts in addressing vacancies in psychology services and to reduce the waiting list to deliver these services?

I appreciate there are many shortcomings in our health and mental health services, in particular, but it is important to acknowledge that what the Deputy said is not true. There have never been more people working in the health service. The HSE has recruited more staff in recent years than ever was the case before, a significant proportion of whom are clinical staff.

Am I to take it that the Tánaiste is saying that the HSE did not provide accurate content in the reply to that parliamentary question?

The Deputy can only ask one question.

No. The Deputy gave the impression that there was no willingness to recruit staff into our health service. I am saying that is factually incorrect. There have been significant increases in the number of people working in our health service. On the issue raised by the Deputy, I do not have a detailed answer to that, but I will ask the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to provide that.

We know that inflation will likely reach the 10% mark this year. That is an extraordinary and alarming figure. We know that already the cost-of-living crisis is biting hard on so many households, families, and individuals across the country. In the face of this, the Government has only committed to an increase in the minimum wage to bring it to €11.30 per hour, amounting to an inadequate response. There has been a real cut in wages for the lowest paid in our society and, furthermore, people will have to wait six months before they see any increase in the money in their pockets. My colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, raised this issue with the Tánaiste this morning. The Labour Party wants to see a meaningful increase in the minimum wage. We want it brought to the living wage of €12.90 per hour. We want that ambitious and radical measure taken by the Government, because we believe Ireland needs a pay rise. We want to see people having more money in their pockets to enable them to meet the scary increase in the cost of living that is frightening so many families and individuals as we face into this bleak winter. Will the Tánaiste commit to a meaningful increase in the minimum wage?

Yesterday, the Government accepted the Low Pay Commission’s recommendation to increase the minimum wage by 80 cent per hour, to €11.30 per hour. It will not take six months for people to experience it. It will kick-in in January. Most people who are paid the minimum wage are not paid monthly but are paid weekly or biweekly. Therefore, people will see the increase much quicker than in six months' time. It works out as an increase of €30 per week for someone working full time, or €1,660 per year. It is the biggest increase agreed by any Government. No Labour Party Minister ever signed off on an increase greater than that-----

There was not 10% inflation.

-----but I accept that it is occurring at a time of very high inflation. It is an increase of 7.6% at a time when inflation is close to 9%.

Therefore, it is not the final answer with regard to the work we will do to help people on low pay. People will see further action taken in the budget on tax, welfare and helping with their bills.

This will bring them to a point where we are fully protecting them from inflation.

Without discussing the specifics of the case, this week an incident occurred in the north inner city in which a young man who lost his life was taken from a flat complex. I send my deepest condolences to his family. Please tell me the Government is aware of the increase of addiction in the city, that it has a plan to do something about it and that it understands the urgency of the need to invest in more medically supervised recovery beds. There is a need to provide medically supervised injection centres. In their absence, we have unsafe injecting in parks and flat complexes throughout the city and the country. Is the Tánaiste aware of the urgency? Will we see an increase in funding for medically supervised injection beds in the budget? What will we do to ensure people can access treatment where they need it?

I join the Deputy in extending my condolences to the family and friends of the man who died in those tragic circumstances. It is Government policy to bring in supervised injection centres. We have plans to do so at Merchant's Quay. The Deputy knows the difficulties and complications that have arisen around this but we certainly have not given up on it. The policy remains an objective. I absolutely agree that we need to continue to invest more in drug treatment centres and drug treatment beds. It is money very well spent. The fact we can rescue people from addiction makes a huge difference not only for them but for their families and the communities around them. If we do not do so, the costs we bear in terms of the criminal justice system, emergency departments and homeless services are enormous. The benefits of the investment phenomenally outweigh the costs. The Deputy can be confident that we will continue to invest in this area.

The cost-of-living crisis has dominated discussions in the Dáil, and rightly so, because so many people are fearful of what they face in the winter. It is the reason so many people will come out on the streets for the cost of living coalition's demonstration on Saturday, 24 September. The other connected crisis that will also prompt people to join the demonstration is an ever-worsening housing and homelessness crisis, in particular the spike in the number of people being evicted because landlords are selling properties. People are terrified they will face homelessness over the coming months through no fault of their own.

I want to make a very specific and positive proposal. The Government has had a windfall in corporate tax receipts. I understand we cannot depend on this over the long term but the Government could use this money to purchase properties where people face evictions into homelessness through no fault of their own. It would be a good investment. It would stop people going into homeless services and save money on homeless expenditure, the rental accommodation scheme and housing assistance payments. I ask the Government to consider a major programme of purchase in these situations.

I thank the Deputy. We will certainly give it consideration. The Government has been criticised in the past, by the way, for buying properties on the private market for social housing as opposed to building them. The Deputy may even have been one of those who has been critical of us for doing so.

I have not, actually.

Sometimes it does make sense to buy properties on the private market, in the instances the Deputy has mentioned, for example, or where a particular type of property may be needed for a large family or a family who has a member with disabilities. What the Deputy has said about corporate tax is also valid. We should not rely on our corporate tax receipts to fund day-to-day spending. Capital is not day-to-day spending. Once we buy something, we do not have to buy it twice. Once something is built, it does not need to be built twice. Many people are pushing the narrative that the Government is somehow being reckless in committing corporate tax receipts to day-to-day spending. In reality we are not doing so. We are massively increasing capital budgets across the board, building new schools, new hospitals and more social housing, and purchasing private assets in some cases. This is not spending that has to be repeated.

The school bus service is in disarray at present due to a decision that was well-intentioned but has had unintended consequences. It has left many parents without the transport for their children to go to school that they had in previous years. Yesterday evening I received a call from the principal of a school with an ASD unit where transport for pupils has been approved but is not now available. Four children will be withdrawn from that school. It is a rural school that has an ASD unit. The service will fall if a bus is not provided. The escort on the bus has been interviewed. A contract has been signed. Everything is in place but we do not have a bus to bring the children to school.

I thank the Deputy. I am very alarmed to hear this situation has arisen in his constituency. I am sure we will have to find a solution to it. If I have picked up the Deputy right, it is not so much an issue of finance as the availability of a bus. I cannot give an answer on it here but I appreciate the fact he has raised it. Perhaps we will engage offline or with the Minister, Deputy Foley, to see whether we can come up with a solution.

I rise to plead with the Government to do something meaningful to help family carers. I am wearing their badge. It is a small token of what I can do. In successive budgets they have not received the recognition they deserve, especially when it comes to getting payments such as fuel allowance. There are strict criteria. Carers play an important role in keeping people in their homes where they are happier and live longer and where they do not block up badly overcrowded emergency departments or hospital beds. Family and child carers are in a very difficult situation looking after loved ones. Family carers need special supports in the budget because of the cost of living, the cost of oil and the cost of travelling to people's homes. I salute them and the dedicated work they do. Will the Government please give them the due recognition they so richly deserve in the budget? I sympathise with Catherine Cox on her recent bereavement. She is an organiser.

We very much value the essential work that family carers do. Of course we will give consideration in the budget as to how we can help them out. Everyone, particularly carers and some other groups, are feeling the bite of the cost of living much harder, especially people who have to be at home a lot and generate costs relating to heating. We will absolutely bear this in mind in the budget package. I point out that anything we do in the budget will be additional to what we have done for carers in recent years, which should not be forgotten. There has been an increase in the carer's allowance and the carer's support grant. More respite is being provided throughout the country. There has been a relaxation of the means test to qualify for the carer's allowance, which was pioneered by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. There is also the extension of free GP care to recipients of the carer's allowance, which was introduced by the Minister, Deputy Harris.

On 9 August approximately 80 students on Dublin Business School's applied social care programme were sent an email notifying them the CORU board did not deem the programme as sufficient to meet its requirements to provide an approved qualification at this time. This came as a big shock to the students. I heard the Minister, Deputy Harris, on the radio on 31 August explaining the situation. He recognised that the main priority of the students was to try to get registered. I have received an email from Sarah Downing of the Fatima Day Care Centre. On Tuesday she received an email from Dublin Business School stating it had no further update to provide from Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, and detailing the transfer options being investigated. She has sought a transfer to another college. At this stage the students still do not know what is the situation. Will the Minister give us an update on it? What is he doing to intervene, especially with regard to the college as it is something in which he can intervene?

I thank the Deputy. She is correct that I was very concerned to hear about this situation. It relates to a situation where a QQI-accredited programme is still a valid programme but CORU, the independent regulator, has expressed concerns about its ability to put the students on the register. My understanding is that individual meetings were to take place between the college and students to look at the options. There were also refunds on the table. The Deputy is correct that people being able to progress their careers is the most important issue. I understood those individual meetings were under way and I will come back to the Deputy specifically on this. I will inquire today as to where this matter is at.

We sound like a broken record in the Dáil today speaking about school transport. Of course the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Government are to be complimented on the scheme itself but it has left many families who had been concessionary ticket holders without transport to school.

I will give the Tánaiste one example of a family that have been loyal Bus Éireann users for the past 15 years, have always paid for their ticket and now they have no transport to school. The mum is a carer and the father is self-employed. Their daily lives have been thrown into disarray without school transport. I ask the Tánaiste to see to it that the Minister has the ability to give the capacity for all of those concessionary ticket holders, who are historically users and are dependent on their school bus to have a way to school.

We will certainly work on this issue over the coming weeks. I know the Minister, Deputy Foley, will testify before committee about it. There are an additional 21,000 tickets this year and plans were made for additional demand. Unfortunately, those 21,000 are not enough. Everyone entitled to the service, as I understand, will get it. However, we have a particular issue with - Deputy Smyth put her finger on it - people who had concessionary tickets in the past, had a reasonable expectation that they would into the future and now do not. That is the crux of the issue that we need to solve. The Minister, Deputy Foley, has the full backing of the Government in trying to do so.

I will speak on the same issue, which has affected all of us all over the country. I realise and accept that a review is taking place and is due to report fairly shortly. I request that the matter be resolved in good time for those left standing, for want of a better word, and for those, some of whom were children in very sensitive cases, who were asked to leave the bus, even though their immediate next-door neighbours were on the same bus and there were vacant seats all around the bus. We must try to ensure that whatever we do, we do not have a situation whereby a child of 12 or 14 years of age is asked to get off a bus and walk home.

It is past time already, given that the new school year is now well under way. I do not know exactly all of the rules and regulations around school transport. I know most Deputies here do. It would not be as big of an issue in my constituency, perhaps, as in the Deputy's. I do not, however, see the logic in telling somebody not to get on a bus if the bus has empty spaces on it. Whatever the rules and regulations are, there is also the rule of common sense. If there is a vacant seat on a bus, why would one not allow someone to use it?

In the past year, on numerous occasions, I have raised with the Minister of Justice and, indeed, the Minister of Transport, the need for a public transport policing service to be put in place in this country, especially as we have seen, over the past number of months, serious attacks on people both on the public transport service and on some of the drivers of buses etc. A driver in Cavan was seriously attacked.

I understand, if media reports are to be believed, that the Taoiseach is taking an interest in this at present. There is a bit of mixed signalling coming from the Government, because every time I have asked about it, I have been told it was not something the Government was considering. Perhaps the Tánaiste could clear that up. Is the Government prepared to put in place a proper public transport policing service to protect people and keep them safe on our public transport system throughout the country? As we encourage more people to use public transport for carbon reasons, we also want to ensure that it is safe and secure for people to use.

I acknowledge that many people feel public transport is unsafe, especially at night and for women. That is a real problem and it is not just a perception. People see incidents occur on the Luas, buses and on trains and it makes them very worried. It also very much goes against what we are trying to do in encouraging people to use public transport more often, which is why we brought down the fares in the past year. Ultimately, a decision on whether there is a dedicated transport police is a matter for the Garda Commissioner, rather than the Government, but, obviously, there is an interaction between the Government and the Garda Commissioner as to what we think is sensible. It is not so much whether one calls it a transport police, it is more that we have a more visible presence of members of the Garda in and around stations, Luas stops and places that are known to be areas where public-order incidents occur. Whether it is a dedicated division is not really the most important point. The most important point is that people see and feel and have a visible experience of more security and more gardaí on public transport and at stations and stops.

I understand thalidomide survivors are meeting the Taoiseach today. This is a long-overdue meeting. It is welcome but I ask that the Tánaiste and this Government step up to the plate and give thalidomide survivors, who have fought for more than 60 years, what they deserve. They deserve an apology and statutory redress. I seek a commitment that this will happen.

I was not aware that meeting was happening today but I am glad to hear that it is. It would probably not be right for me to prejudge the outcome but I hope it is a positive one. I know there was an arbitration process under John Rogers SC many years ago, which did not come to a conclusion. I hope we will get a conclusion on that issue under this Government.

In the forthcoming budget, will serious prioritisation be given to reducing the personal income tax burden on householders? As far as I am concerned, we live in an economy that has far too high of a burden of personal income tax on people who are working hard and are trying to put bread on the table and to keep the lights and heat on. Certainly, there is an opportunity to reduce the burden of the universal social charge and to look at bands and the potential introduction of a third rate. Is this a priority of the Government as we approach the budget?

There will be an income tax package in the budget. It will be the largest income tax reduction package in any budget for quite a number of years. I guarantee the Deputy it will never go as far as we want it to go, which is always the case, but it will be significant and, of course, the objective is to make sure that people get to keep more of their own hard-earned money and especially that people on middle incomes do not see any pay increase, overtime or increment that they get mostly being lost to tax, PRSI and the universal social charge, USC. The shape of that has to be decided but it will form part of the budget and the help that we will provide people to help them with the rising cost of living.

I wish to raise with the Tánaiste the failure of the HSE to provide home help for elderly people to stay in their homes. I have raised this several times already this year. People are being approved but still there is no home help arriving. It is a natural desire for elderly people to want to stay in their homes. Elderly people in places such as Killarney, Rathmore, Headfort, Kilcummin, Curragh, Castleisland and Killorglin are waiting for extra hours and some of them that do not have any home help at all are waiting for the home help to materialise. They are finding they have to go into hospital more often and it is a disaster. I ask the Tánaiste what is happening. I have been promised by the Taoiseach that it was being sorted out. It is still not sorted out. Is the Government paying the home helpers enough? Is it covering the extra costs for travelling out to houses? I know one woman whose daughter has cancer and is begging and hoping to get home help to help her to keep her mother at home. I ask the Government to do something.

I appreciate the problems that we face in providing home help for people who need it. As the Deputy says, it is a vital service. It keeps people out of hospitals. It makes considerable sense that we fund it well and, indeed, we do, but there is a shortage of people willing to work in the area. Among issues being examined at present by the Minister is whether we need to improve pay or mileage rates to encourage people who might be willing to work a few more hours per week to provide that service.

I have to say I welcome the Tánaiste's statement that capital expenditure is not day-to-day expenditure and that we should use funds available to proceed with that. I also formally welcome the decision to proceed with the reopening of the railway line from Limerick to Foynes. That is very progressive but is it not logical to extend that line directly to the main sources of rail freight along the west coast - because that is the big justification of it - in Ballina and Westport, by reconnecting and reopening the short piece of line between Athenry and Claremorris, which would immediately then connect Ballina, Westport and all the main towns and cities of the west coast to Foynes? This should be done in the interest of regional balance and transport connectivity. Can we expect that the Government will be equally brave with that small section of line, which is even cheaper, and proceed with it immediately?

I have not seen the numbers but if they add up it would make sense to do it. We want to move freight off the roads and on to rail but we do not want to spend considerable money building a train line which is uneconomic and then requires many more subsidies. As the Deputy points out, capital is a one-off, but subsidies are not.

Thus, if we open a rail line and it can wash its face that is one thing but if we open a rail line and have to keep subsidising it every year that is a different thing. That is why the numbers would have to add up.

Can the Tánaiste show me any rail line that we do not have to subsidise every year?

That is a fair point but-----

The most heavily-subsidised rail line in this country is Dublin to Cork.

The Luas is the example - both lines.

I raise the case of people living in 32,000 apartments built with defects. It is something I have personal experience of. The report of the working group has been really widely welcomed by many of the constituents I am dealing with who are in this situation but it is not helping them foot the bill. Many cannot afford the remediation work and they are worried; they are worried about their safety, the costs and their insurance cover. They need help and need it now. If a tax credit for owner-occupiers was introduced in this budget, it would provide some help for some of these people immediately and it is just one of the recommendations in the report to help people in this situation, including people who have already completed works. When will this report and its recommendations be looked at and adopted?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of defective apartments. It is a big issue in my constituency too. Many of the homes in my constituency were built around the same time as many of those in her constituency and unfortunately there are a lot of problems with fire risk, water ingress and other issues. We helped people with pyrite, we are helping people with mica and it is important we do the same for people in our cities who have been affected by defective apartments. I do not have a timeline on the consideration of the report but it is fair to say once the budget is done it is going to be very high on the Government's agenda. We want to see people getting help no later than next year.

Last week's recommendation from the Mental Health Commission to drastically reduce beds in Bantry General Hospital's mental health unit from 18 to 11 is a huge retrograde step for mental health services in west Cork. The hospital covers a population of 180,000 from Castletownbere to Kinsale, as well as parts of Kerry. Following its inspection in 2019, the Mental Health Commission found the unit in Bantry to be 88% compliant and recommended investment be made. It was the same in 2021 when the unit was again found to be 88% compliant but previous recommendations for improvements had not been implemented as no finances were spent on the unit. What is extraordinary is the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Butler, and the Taoiseach were both in Bantry Hospital recently and to the best of my knowledge both walked past the mental health unit and never went in.

We only have a matter of hours to set the wheels in motion to save the seven beds in the mental health unit in Bantry as the HSE can appeal this restriction by the Mental Health Commission by Monday, thus giving time to get immediate funding in place to rectify the shocking wrong being done here. Will the Tánaiste step in here and contact the HSE immediately to appeal this decision on bed closures in Bantry?

I am not familiar with the report so I am reluctant to comment on it. I will let the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and indeed the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, know the Deputy raised it in the Dáil and we will see what response is possible.

We only have hours to save the beds.

I raise the situation of families with incapacitated children. I have a family in my constituency whom I know well, whose child, due to the exceptional care she has received, has reached the age of seven years and made her first communion earlier this year. This child cannot walk, cannot talk and she has no swallow but due to the exceptional care her mother has given her she has managed to survive. However, this family are under huge financial pressure. Earlier this year the husband received a bonus at work and because of this his wife's carer's allowance was cut to €46.50 per week. She gave up a very good job to look after their child and they are saving the State an absolute fortune by looking after their child at home. They have other expenses with other members of the family that have increased because of the huge care they are giving to this child. Medical cards for incapacitated children are not means-tested. I ask that in the budget due the week after next, there would not be a means test for carer's allowance for families who have an incapacitated child. It is a very small cohort of families who are affected and the difference to the Exchequer would be very small. I ask that the Government give this consideration in the budget.

I thank the Deputy for sharing that story. I should say that the domiciliary care allowance, DCA, is not means-tested but the carer's allowance is. I would love it if it were possible for there to be no means tests but unfortunately they are necessary because financial resources, even in a very wealthy country, are limited. However, sometimes means tests are too mean and when knocking on doors over the summer I came across a number of examples where people have lost eligibility for the carer's allowance or a student grant because they got a pay increase, a promotion or worked overtime. That is not fair and we must take that into account across the budget so means test thresholds are realistic. As wages, rise, the thresholds should rise too.

We are out of time but we have two Deputies left, so I am going to take them together. I call Deputy Carey, to be followed by Deputy Ó Cathasaigh.

I raise the Croí Conaithe housing scheme that was set up to tackle the blight of vacant and derelict homes. It was launched in July and was very welcome but its criteria are very restrictive. Properties must be in areas with a population of 400 people. I ask that the criteria be re-examined and that rural areas outside towns and villages be included in the scheme.

It is a full 129 years since the Industrial and Provident Societies Bill was enacted and it remains the main legislation governing co-operative societies in Ireland. We have a proud history of co-operatives in Ireland. They play an integral role in the form of housing co-operatives, food producer co-operatives, group water schemes or locally-owned co-operative shops. On the energy side, community-owned renewable energy co-operatives helped insulate from the fluctuations in energy prices internationally and provide a cheap, clean and secure energy supply for communities. However, co-operatives have been hindered by being based on a literally Victorian-era legislative framework. We in the Green Party are delighted to see progress on the co-operative societies Bill and we have engaged with the Department at several stages on it. Will the Tánaiste provide an update on the timeline for when he expects the general scheme of that Bill to be published?

Deputy Carey asked about Croí Conaithe, which as we know is a grant of between €30,000 and €50,000 to repair and bring back into use a building for residential purposes in small towns and villages. The Deputy proposes extending it to rural areas. I like that idea and think it makes a lot of sense but we need to take a little time to see what the take-up is like on the existing scheme. We do not know yet whether the €30,000 to €50,000 is going to be enough to move the dial or what the take-up is going to be. However, in principle, if it works and if we get take-up in the towns and villages, why would we not extend to rural areas too? That makes sense to me but let us see what the take-up is first before we start changing the scheme. I do not think that will take too long; we will know in a matter of months.

In answer to Deputy Ó Cathasaigh's question, I signed off on a memo in relation to that Bill only in the last couple of weeks. We expect to have heads of new legislation early next year. That will be the general scheme and will go to committee for scrutiny. We agree we need to update our legislation in that area to bring it more in line with company law and the protections that come with that.

I thank the Tánaiste and everyone else. That concludes Questions on Policy or Legislation.