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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 3

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

I move:

Tuesday's business shall be:

- Motion re Sittings and Business of the Dáil (without debate)

- Regulated Professions (Health and Social Care) (Amendment) Bill 2022 (Second Stage, resumed)

- Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 [Seanad] (Second Stage)

Private Members' Business shall be the Motion re National Retrofit Plan, selected by Sinn Féin.

Wednesday’s business shall be:

- Motion re Referral to Joint Committee of proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of the Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 3) Regulations 2022 and the Planning and Development (Solar Safeguarding Zone) Regulations 2022 (without debate)

- Screening of Third Country Transactions Bill 2022 (Second Stage)

- Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill [Seanad] (Second Stage)

- Taillte Éireann Bill 2022 (Second Stage)

- Bretton Woods Agreements (Amendment) Bill 2022 (Report and Final Stages) (to be taken no earlier than 6 p.m. and to conclude within 60 minutes)

- Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021 (Report and Final Stages) (to conclude within 90 minutes)

Private Members' Business shall be the Motion re Tackling Ireland’s energy security – a Roadmap for Self-sustainability, selected by the Rural Independent Group.

Thursday’s business shall be:

- Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill [Seanad] (Second Stage, resumed, if not previously concluded)

- Screening of Third Country Transactions Bill 2022 (Second Stage, resumed, if not previously concluded)

- Tailte Éireann Bill 2022 (Second Stage)

Thursday evening business shall be Second Stage of the Pensions (Amendment) (Transparency in Charges) Bill 2021.

Proposed Arrangements for this week's business:

In relation to Tuesday’s business, it is proposed that:

1. the ordinary routine of business as contained in Schedule 3 to Standing Orders is modified to the following extent:

(i) proceedings on any second reading motion on a Government Bill shall, if not previously concluded, be interrupted either at 5.30 p.m., or one hour and 40 minutes after the conclusion of Parliamentary Questions to the Taoiseach pursuant to Standing Order 46(1), whichever is the later, and Government business shall not be resumed thereafter; and

(ii) private members’ business may be taken earlier than 6.12 p.m. and shall, in any event, be taken on either the adjournment or conclusion of Government business as provided for in paragraph (i), with consequential effect on the commencement time for Parliamentary Questions to the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications and for topical issues; and

2. the Motion re Sittings and Business of the Dáil shall be taken without debate.

In relation to Wednesday’s business, it is proposed that:

1. the ordinary routine of business as contained in Schedule 3 to Standing Orders is modified to the following extent:

(i) Parliamentary Questions to the Taoiseach pursuant to Standing Order 46(1) shall not be taken; and

(ii) the sitting shall be suspended pursuant to Standing Order 25(1) at the time when Parliamentary Questions to the Taoiseach would normally be taken;

2. the Motion re Referral to Joint Committee of proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of the Planning and Development Act 2000 (Exempted Development) (No. 3) Regulations 2022 and the Planning and Development (Solar Safeguarding Zone) Regulations 2022 shall be taken without debate;

3. proceedings on any second reading motion on a Government Bill shall, if not previously concluded, be interrupted either at 6 p.m., or three hours and 56 minutes after the conclusion of the SOS, whichever is the later;

4. in relation to proceedings on the Bretton Woods Agreements (Amendment) Bill 2022, the following arrangements shall apply:

(i) Report and Final Stages shall be taken either at 6 p.m., or on the adjournment or conclusion of proceedings on the second reading motion on a Government Bill three hours and 56 minutes after the conclusion of the SOS, whichever is the later; and

(ii) Report and Final Stages shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after one hour by one question which shall be put from the Chair, and which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Minister for Finance;

5. the proceedings on Report and Final Stages of the Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021 shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 90 minutes by one question which shall be put from the Chair, and which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Minister for Transport; and

6. the weekly division time shall be taken on the conclusion of proceedings on the Road Traffic and Roads Bill 2021.

In relation to Thursday's business and the business for Tuesday 27th September, 2022, it is proposed that:

1. the ordinary routine of business as contained in Schedule 3 to Standing Orders shall be modified on Thursday to the extent that topical issues pursuant to Standing Order 37 shall be taken either at 7 p.m., or on the conclusion of Government business, whichever is the earlier; and

2. oral Parliamentary Questions pursuant to Standing Order 46 shall not be taken on Tuesday, 27th September, 2022.

Is the Order of Business agreed? Agreed.

Last January, the HSE published a review of a junior doctor’s treatment of child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, patients in south Kerry. That review found that 46 children suffered significant harm as a result of inappropriately prescribed medication and a further 181 children were put at risk of harm. The HSE confirms that it has commenced a review of the files of patients treated by this same doctor in north Kerry over five years. A five-year review is far too narrow and will not get to the bottom of the scandal. These failures were systemic and date back well beyond the five-year timeframe. Since 2007, approximately 7,000 children have been through the CAMHS system in Kerry, so the sample needs to be extended to a full review of all north Kerry CAMHS cases over the past 15 years. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that this happens so families finally get the answers they deserve.

First, again, in the Maskey report, Dr. Seán Maskey, who carried out the lookback review at south Kerry CAMHS, previously reviewed not just files in south Kerry but also a small number of files in north Kerry. Dr. Maskey included 35 files from north Kerry CAMHS in his review. For completeness and as matter good practice, the HSE is currently screening files in north Kerry so it can identify any remaining files where the doctor involved may have had an involvement at any level. The HSE expects that many of these files will have previously been identified. This is not a review; it is a preliminary screening. Once files have been screened, any cases where there may be a potential for a clinical concern will be examined by Dr. Maskey. The HSE has asked Dr. Maskey to do this work given his experience, knowledge and his familiarity given the work he has already done. Dr. Maskey indicated that he will be available to undertake this work in the coming months. The HSE is currently approximately halfway through the preliminary screening.

I thank the Taoiseach. His time is up.

Over the next three days, thousands of SIPTU members working in the community and disability services and section 39 organisations will be taking targeted strike action in counties Cork, Kerry, Mayo, Galway and Donegal. While many public servants are balloting over the Building Momentum agreement, section 39 and community workers remain outside any formal pay negotiation mechanism and have not seen any restoration or, indeed, increase in their pay in nearly 14 years. What will the Government do finally, if anything, for these workers in order to ensure they stay in this sector providing services for the most vulnerable in our society? These organisations are losing workers to the HSE and to people and organisations outside the sector. We are facing an absolute crisis in the sector heading into this winter and into 2023.

Every effort should be made through the normal industrial machinery mechanisms in this State to resolve this issue. The HSE believes this industrial action will significantly impact on the children’s disability network teams and other multidisciplinary services, potentially leading to appointments having to be rescheduled and so on.

I acknowledge the important role that section 39 workers and organisations play in our health and disability services. They have a key role to play in providing services to people, both those with disabilities and older people. As the Deputy is aware, it is a complex area, with about 2,240 organisations under section 39 across the country employing about 100,000 staff. In our view, it is just like previous occasions in that when issues arose they were resolved between union and employer negotiations involving the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and others.

House prices have never been so high. The number of people who are homeless has never been so high. Young people living at home in their late 20s and into their early 30s are talking about emigrating to find somewhere affordable to live and be able to move out of home, and increasing numbers of them are doing so. In the most recent election, Fianna Fáil promised 10,000 affordable homes each year. Last year, zero affordable purchase homes were delivered by the Government. This year, the Government has promised more than 4,000 affordable and cost-rental homes will be delivered, yet the capital expenditure on housing is running at more than 20% less now than it was at this time last year. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is not answering questions about how many affordable homes have been completed this year. Will the Taoiseach answer the question? How many affordable homes have been completed so far this year?

The Housing for All plan that the Minister published last year represents the most substantial policy response and funding response to the housing crisis that we have seen in the past decade. No political party in the Opposition has produced anything near the substance of the Housing for All plan.

The Government is not delivering on it.

None of them has done so.

Does the Taoiseach have an answer to the question?

Sinn Féin launched its housing plan yesterday.

They most certainly have not.

What is the number?

In addition to the importance of the plan, there is the legislation that has been passed in the past two years.

What is the number?

Covid did hit construction in terms of the two lockdowns-----

The Taoiseach has been asked for a number but he is not providing it.

-----and then there is the current situation in terms of energy prices but, notwithstanding that, we expect to reach our target this year-----

What is that target?

-----of about 25,000 houses built in the country.

Which target is that?

On the affordable side, very good progress has been made on affordable housing-----

-----despite the opposition of Deputies to the Land Development Agency, LDA, and various other organisations.

Very good progress has been made on affordable housing and also on cost rental, in terms of social housing and right across the board.

What is the number?

Can Deputy McDonald give me the number of houses to which Sinn Féin has objected?

The Taoiseach was asked a very simple question.

(Interruptions).

That is not a result. Sinn Féin opposed planning applications.

Please, can we stop bickering and get on with the questions?

One would expect a bit of decorum from the Taoiseach.

A Cheann Comhairle, may I make a point of order? I have noticed in the past half hour that every time I get up to speak there are interruptions and heckles and the Deputies are not being pulled up.

There are insults from the Taoiseach's side of the House.

I have a copy of the Sinn Féin housing policy that was launched yesterday-----

(Interruptions).

I do not want to see the Deputy's housing policy. We are listening to Deputy Boyd Barrett.

There are many groups that have good reason to come out onto the streets in a cost-of-living demonstration this Saturday but one group that has better reason than most comprises the thousands - probably tens of thousands - of residents in multi-unit apartment complexes who are locked into contracts for district heating systems. This week in my area, hundreds of tenants in areas such as Honeypark and Cualanor were shocked to find that their bills had gone up by 140% overnight. They cannot switch provider. They are not regulated by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU. They cannot query their bills. They are completely locked into these arrangements. Tuath Housing, Respond and Clúid Housing wrote to the Minister in May, saying that many of their tenants have faced increases in recent months of 600%, way in excess of what anybody else has faced. Companies like Kaizen Energy and Veolia Ireland are charging unit rates of three, four and five times the highest rates of the other providers.

Time is up, Deputy.

Will the Taoiseach take urgent action to control the cost of energy for people on district heating systems?

I will engage with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, who has responsibility for energy, regarding the specific issue the Deputy has raised in terms of district heating.

The Government will have a whole series of measures to try to reduce pressures on households and protect jobs, as I have said. We have already allocated about €2.5 billion over the past year. We will have a cost-of-living package next week along with the budget, which is designed to take pressures off people. In regard to this specific issue I will engage with the Minister on it.

More than 9,600 people in fuel poverty have been waiting some two and a half years to access the retrofitting programme under the warmer homes scheme. While this scheme is great for those who are lucky enough to avail of it, it is of little use to address the cost of electricity today. There are 2,900 participants on the rural social scheme, many of whom are involved in outdoor maintenance work which normally winds down during the winter months. I ask that these staff be redeployed as an emergency measure to install attic insulation, attic door covers and lagging jackets in the homes of those in fuel poverty over the coming weeks. These are the simplest and most significant measures that can be taken to reduce the cost of heating this winter, saving older people and families money, reducing their risk of illness and reducing overall energy demand in the country.

The Government is investing in retrofitting on a massive scale. Some €8 billion will be allocated out to 2030. The revenue has to be generated to allow that to happen. That is giving certainty to the industry and allows the supply chain to scale up, creating thousands of high-quality jobs and delivering a critical national objective. Demand across Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, retrofit schemes has been exceptionally high since the Government's announcement. As of the end of August, more than 30,000 applications for support had been received, a 140% increase on the same period last year, and 13,500 home energy upgrades had been completed, which is up 70% compared with the same period last year. Of this number, 2,769 homes had been upgraded under SEAI energy poverty schemes, which is almost three times the number of homes upgraded in the same period last year. Latest projections from the SEAI indicate that the target of 27,000 home energy upgrades will be delivered this year. That compares with 15,000 upgrades last year.

I thank the Taoiseach. The time is up.

I could continue with more details. Everything that can be done is being done to expedite these issues.

I ask the Taoiseach again today about discrimination against bus drivers aged over 70. I salute every man and woman in Bus Éireann and private companies who bring our children and grandchildren to school and home safely. There is chaos at the moment in regard to tickets. Many companies have two or three drivers who are approaching 70 and they will no longer be able to carry children to school when they reach 70. This is discrimination. We have raised this issue countless times. The Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, said the Department would look at this and change it. Drivers are willing to do two medical examinations a year, or three if necessary. It is not a question of having unsafe people driving. These people who are retired and like to undertake part-time work are fit, well and able to do it and they provide a valuable link in the current circumstances. They can bring kids to swimming or matches but they cannot bring them to school. It is nonsensical. It needs a change, a stroke of a pen, to allow over-70s with medical certificates to drive school buses and private buses.

I have sympathy with Deputy McGrath's position on this issue and what he advocates. There were obviously safety reasons for that age limit being introduced in the first instance but the world has moved on in that people are living longer and have better quality of life as they age. That should be taken into consideration. The Minister is looking at the issue and I will engage with him again on it.

At a recent meeting of Leitrim County Council, a number of councillors proposed and passed a motion that the HSE immediately reopen day care centres for older people which were closed due to Covid-19. I fully agree with Councillor Enda Stenson's statement that it is time to put Covid-19 to bed and reopen day care centres for the elderly throughout County Leitrim. I am not going to name the closed centres but many day care centres for older people throughout the country as well as in my constituency have not reopened. This is unfair and unacceptable. Many older people are not getting out of their homes and are developing mental health problems and becoming depressed. As one older person said to me, day care for the elderly is at the bottom of the pile. That seems to be the case.

I ask the Taoiseach to do what he can to reinstate these vital services.

I thank the Deputy for her question. At this point, Covid-19 should not be used as a reason to keep day-care facilities closed. A great deal of work was done to reopen these facilities and many supports were provided. There may be other local operational reasons for that but at this point, while this may not be the case in the future, Covid should not be a reason. I will engage with the HSE on exactly the points the Deputy has just raised and will ask it to look at the centres concerned.

I thank the Minister.

The HSE’s national women and infants health programme has recommended that women only be able to avail of home births if they live within 30 minutes of a maternity service. If this recommendation was implemented, it would eradicate the choice of home birthing for a large proportion of women living in Ireland. For example, in west Cork, where I am from, any woman living west of the town of Bandon would be affected, including in the towns of Clonakilty, Bantry, Skibbereen, and they would not be able to avail of a safe supervised home birth. My sister, who lives in New Zealand, has availed of four safe, successful home births. She lives an hour and a half from her nearest maternity service. We cannot allow this recommendation to be implemented. Women deserve choice and we need to ensure they have the choice of availing of a save home birth, no matter where they live in Ireland.

The Deputy will be aware that there is an unprecedented level of roll-out in maternity care, including midwifery-led care. The next phase is home birth. The service is now being supported and has been integrated into the hospitals. We are aware of the recommendation in respect of geography and it is a matter on which I am more than happy to continue the conversation with the HSE. This is occurring in the context of a very rapid expansion of maternity services, which is critically expanding choice for women as regards birthing options.

The Taoiseach will probably have passed the old engine site near Midleton on his visit to the town recently. There are 56 ha of highly serviced land lying idle for the past 12 years. It cannot be used because the road outside needs a major upgrade, which was planned but has been stalled. Thousands of houses were also planned for the area and the road is quite dangerous. Will the Government revisit this issue to see if the upgrading of this project can be restarted?

I have memories of that site. Ultimately, Amgen was not in a position to locate there. In the first instance, it is a very valuable site that will ultimately land a significant project. In turn, it will become a catalyst for acceleration. The Deputy is asking that the road be done now and have it approved and upgraded. I do not disagree with him but there are constraints on the funding, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, and all of that. Nonetheless, I do not disagree with anything he said and I take his point.

This Thursday, Cork City Council will open a portal for affordable housing in Tower in Blarney. Some of these affordable housing units will be sold for over €300,000. As the Taoiseach knows, house prices in Dublin are much higher than they are in Cork but still, South Dublin County Council and Fingal County Council can sell similar sized houses for €30,000 less. I have a simple question for the Taoiseach. What is the maximum price that a three-bedroom affordable family home should be sold for in Cork?

I believe the price in the Boherboy affordable scheme is much lower.

I am talking about the Tower scheme.

The Boherboy scheme is in Cork also, as the Deputy is aware, and the prices are lower. Obviously, it depends on location and a whole range of factors, such as input costs and such matters. I pay tribute to Cork County Council for moving on the affordable schemes a bit faster than other local authorities. That is what we want. There is no one uniform price.

A price of €300,000 is not affordable.

There are different levels of affordability in different locations, taking into account the costs involved in developing a particular site and so forth. Our main aim and target is to get housing as affordable as we possibly can for people and, through other schemes such as the first home scheme, to make houses that young people wish to buy affordable also. It is not just the affordable housing scheme the local authorities are doing but also the first home scheme, the shared equity and help-to-buy schemes and a range of other measures that we are deploying to make housing more affordable for people.

At what price does the Taoiseach consider these houses should be selling?

We are not auctioneers.

They are supposed to be affordable housing, a Cheann Comhairle.

We are not here to provide auctioneering advice. I call Deputy Mythen.

As the Taoiseach is aware, hundreds of children were turned down for discretionary tickets for school buses for this year alone and my own constituency of Wexford is no exception. For example, Mairéad has two children, Aoife and Michael, who have been travelling for the last five years to the same school. Aoife has had open heart surgery and lung surgery. Mairéad will have to work fewer hours in order to bring her children to school. Anna, who is a teacher, travels 30 km to work each day. It is not possible for her to collect and drop off her daughter to school each day. Her daughter has travelled for the last three years on the same bus. Then we have Ben, who had a brain tumour as a child and has mobility problems which he has surmounted and overcome. His position in a mainstream school is very important to Ben and his family but he has been refused a discretionary ticket. I ask the Taoiseach to look further into supplying additional school transport as there are many cases like this replicated across the country and in many parts of rural Wexford.

As the Deputy knows, the Minister waives all fees for the school transport scheme. This measure is saving families up to €650 a year. This very substantial cost-of-living measure should be acknowledged in any comment on this scheme. It was coupled with an increase in the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance and the extension of the school meals programme. Over 124,000 tickets have issued, an increase of 21,000 over last year, and it is higher again if we include special needs children. We have 21,000 more children on school buses this year, which is a 20% increase. There are issues as a result of that, particularly in terms of those who may have applied late with regard to tickets and so on, but we are doing everything we can. The Minister will be engaging with the education committee tomorrow in the House and working across government in terms of improving the situation for those who still have not got discretionary tickets. Because of the increase, some people lost out, which I acknowledge, but we are trying to resolve that.

Two and half years ago, Covid struck our shores and thousands of people have died since. Some 63% of those who died in the first four months of Covid in Ireland died in nursing homes. That figure compares to 41% in the UK and 47% in Sweden. The fact remains that we need an investigation into these deaths. If these were children, I would not have to stand here to ask this question. The Taoiseach said in January of this year that he was considering a variety of options to meet the needs and concerns of families whose 22 relatives died in Dealgan House nursing home in Dundalk, so why has nothing happened? I have put down questions to the Minister for Health. As far as I am concerned, his reply to the last question was a stonewalling answer to the families. It is insulting them and they feel very much aggrieved by the Minister for Health's lack of action in dealing with this issue. It is unacceptable. If these were children, we would have had an answer long ago. I think people will accuse the Minister at this stage of being ageist in his approach to all of these deaths-----

Thank you, Deputy. We are over time.

-----and his lack of accountability to the Oireachtas in dealing with them.

I thank the Deputy. As he will be aware, I have met the families. There has been extensive engagement and extensive work has been done. The issue we have in Ireland, as the Deputy will be very well aware, is that any review that seeks to make findings against people becomes very legalistic very quickly and, ultimately, does not give the families the answers they want. I have stated here several times and I will state again that these families deserve answers. They are asking very reasonable questions and they deserve answers to those questions. I am engaging with the Department. The Department is seeking a way of doing that in a way that gets the families the answers they deserve but does not end up getting bogged down in years and years of legal debate, injunctions and so forth, which, unfortunately, can happen if this is done incorrectly.

One of the objectives of the programme for Government was to ensure that early intervention services for young children with disability would be available universally across the State. This is particularly important in terms of the various therapies that children get as outpatients. I accept that this is not just for one Department. What is being done by the Government to reduce the length of time it is taking to recruit people to provide these therapies and to make sure that, for example, absences such as illness or maternity leave are covered fully?

There are huge gaps in the service, particularly in my constituency, where there are waiting lists to which we see no end.

First, I accept the points the Deputy is making. There are huge gaps. In my view, the roll-out of the progressing disability services, PDS, model has been very problematic and challenging over the years. I would have had my own views prior to coming into government in terms of the PDS model. I have engaged with the Ministers for Health and Education, the Minister of State with responsibility for special needs education and the Minister of State with responsibility for disability services, Deputy Rabbitte. We have had a number of meetings. Our first decision was to make sure special schools would have therapy supports restored to them that had, as part of the wider PDS model, been taken from them and spread to that wider model. There is a philosophy behind the PDS model, which I have to acknowledge, but I believe there needs to be strong multidisciplinary teams in education settings. That is a view I have. Recruitment is an issue.

Thank you, Taoiseach. The time is up.

Within different parts of the health services, therapists can be recruited more easily than seems to be the case for the disability sector. That is a challenge. We are meeting regularly now to try to deal with this and the HSE is part of those meetings.

I have heard what the Taoiseach has said on the issue I raise but I am really at my wits' end in trying to get answers from Bus Éireann for parents in Roscommon and Galway regarding school transport. I acknowledge the waiving of fees. It would have been a roaring success had the capacity been put in to make it work. It would have worked very well. I have one case, for example, involving a child whose mother died last year. The mother would usually have done the application and Bus Éireann told the father that, under the circumstances, it would issue a ticket. That ticket has not issued and I cannot even get hold of someone in Bus Éireann to get an update. I ring Athlone and Galway and am given a number for Dublin. When I ring Dublin, nobody can speak to me because of the general data protection regulation. The communication has been really poor. I do not know whether additional resources were put into Bus Éireann before the announcement on waiving school transport fees was made. It has been a real mess. I ask, in regard to additional capacity for school transport and also in respect of communication, particularly with parents, that things be done far better as we move forward.

Thank you, Deputy.

I would appreciate if the Taoiseach would not respond with reference to the figure of 21,000. Contact is the issue.

The Deputy cannot raise this issue and pretend there is no extra 21,000 places, which everybody in the Opposition seems to want to do. I am not saying she is doing that.

I am asking about contact with Bus Éireann. I acknowledged the waiving of fees.

In that specific case, the Deputy acknowledged the person should be getting the ticket.

I cannot speak to anyone in Bus Éireann.

If Bus Éireann said it was going to give the person a ticket, it should give them the ticket. I do not dispute that. It is a matter at a local level in terms of operations. The more fundamental point, to be fair, is that the company needs more buses, and it is securing more places on buses, because of the exponential growth. The easier thing would have been to do nothing and everybody would have gone along normally with the normal places.

Doing it right would have been a better option.

I have acknowledged the waiving of fees.

These are decisions that will be long lasting and will leave a legacy in terms of how we deal with climate change and getting people out of cars and into buses. The decision was taken to do it and we did it. It has caused challenges; I do not dispute that. We will sort those challenges out in the coming short while.

I am very concerned that the citizens information service is being downgraded in Carlow-Kilkenny. I know this is happening because my local service in St. Catherine's community services centre has been totally downgraded and has no development manager. Why was it decided to limit and dilute this service for the community that was traditionally provided by trained volunteers? Why were the volunteers who were operating so successfully not communicated with in advance? Is there a future for local citizens information centres when they are being closed? The decision to have paid staff leading the service, taking over from expert volunteers, is nothing short of a reduction in service. I want to know why that decision was made. It is unacceptable and the people of Carlow-Kilkenny are absolutely up in arms over it. We really need to address it.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is, in my view, a serious development that needs review. The citizens information service was one of the more outstanding services provided. I said last week in the House that when I was Lord Mayor of Cork, I gave the freedom of the city to the late Maureen Curtis Black, who was a pioneer of the citizens information service and a volunteer in it. Civic engagement is always very important in society and where we have volunteers, we should cherish them. I will go back and raise this with the line Department.

Earlier today, the Taoiseach commended public servants on their response in handling Covid-19, and rightly so. Many of those public servants, however, have still not been paid the pandemic bonus payment. Members of the Defence Forces and the fire services have not been paid, and then there are tens of thousands of agency workers, nursing home staff and many others who have also still not been paid. My understanding is that the Government is now looking at hiring a consultancy firm to figure out how those staff are going to be paid. We have still not worked out how they are going to be paid, never mind when they are going to be paid. This stings for those workers still waiting. Can some clarity be given regarding the timeframes for when these workers will be paid? I ask this because the situation is unacceptable.

As the Deputy is aware, the vast majority of HSE and sections 38 and 39 staff have been paid. I am not satisfied that other arms of the State, including the fire brigade and the Defence Forces, for example, have not been paid. I have communicated in recent days with the Deputy and the HSE regarding this point. When it comes to paying private businesses, I am not satisfied with the pace at which this has happened. However, the HSE is concerned, and it is right to be, that if it makes payments to private businesses and it overpays, representatives of the organisation will be dragged in here and in front of the Committee of Public Accounts and made to account for not having the requisite processes in place. What the HSE is trying to do is the right thing. It is trying to ensure that there is absolute transparency and that the money paid out is the right amount. I agree with the Deputy that the pace at which this has happened has not been fast enough and I am engaged with the HSE to that end.

I thank the Minister.

Last but not least, I call Deputy Higgins.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I raise with the Taoiseach the serious backlog in national car test, NCT, appointments. The Covid-19 lockdown obviously had a part to play in creating the backlogs, but these do not seem to have been caught up with. The fastest appointment it is possible to secure at my local testing centre in Fonthill is in March 2023, some six months away. People are contacting me because they are concerned about being stopped by members of An Garda Síochána with an out-of-date NCT certificate on their vehicle, even though they have an appointment booked for the nearest available date. In fact, one of my constituents was stopped by members of An Garda Síochána and was issued with penalty points for having an out-of-date NCT certificate, despite having an appointment booked. Given the circumstances and the backlog, this seems unreasonable and unfair. At the height of the pandemic, we extended the validity of NCT certificates and it is clear we need to do something now to support people in this situation. What can we do to assist the Road Safety Authority, RSA, in providing a timely and efficient NCT service?

I take the Deputy's points and I will talk to the Minister regarding this issue. A priority waitlist for test appointments has been established to allow vehicle owners to avail of any test cancellations. The average waiting period for a test appointment is now just under 24 days. The Deputy referred to an appointment in March, so I will need to follow up on this. The average waiting time now compares with 12 days pre-Covid-19. The pandemic was responsible for much of this situation, as the Deputy is aware. I will, however, come back to her concerning the overall point. The RSA has statutory responsibility in this area. I am told the average waiting time for an appointment is 24 days, but I will check this in the context of the case highlighted by the Deputy and perhaps someone in the RSA might be able to shed light on this issue.

I wish to make a point in light of comments made at the start of this. It has become very much a part of daily life here that the Chair is routinely ignored by people who should know better, regardless of who is sitting here. I took the comments made by the Taoiseach and the Chief Whip earlier to suggest that I was not doing enough to protect them-----

No, that-----

-----from the Opposition. Now, I will review the video of the contributions together with the Clerk of the Dáil and I will correspond with the Taoiseach afterwards.

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