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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 22 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 5

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

With the budget only days away, tens of thousands of homeowners and tenants living in defective buildings are nervously waiting to hear what the Government's plan is. Families living with defective blocks in the county in which I live, Donegal, and in Mayo, Clare and other counties, want to know whether the new scheme will be open in January and will have sufficient funding to provide real redress to the thousands of affected homeowners. Families are living in apartments, duplexes and houses with fire safety issues and other structural defects. They are waiting to hear the Government's response to a report of the working group on defective buildings. Will there be a redress scheme for them come January? Will it be sufficient? Will it provide 100% redress? Will it be retrospective in order to cover costs already incurred? Can the Tánaiste tell the families anything about what the Government intends to do for these categories of homeowners?

I am afraid I cannot give the Deputy a definitive response. I certainly hope and expect that the mica scheme will be up and running in the new year. I will be very disappointed if is not. There will need to be a scheme to help people who live in apartments that have defects. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is working up the proposals around that now, which will be considered by the Government.

I spoke earlier about the rising costs of childcare. A constituent has contacted me because, despite staff seeing a very welcome pay increase at the crèche her children attend, a sizable fee increase has been imposed upon parents. The concern she and many constituents, and others throughout the country, have is that crèches and childcare facilities may have signed up to the new core funding model without passing on any benefit to parents. Indeed, parents are now seeing prices and fees rise in childcare facilities.

Is the Government planning to make accessible to parents any list of those facilities that sign up to core funding? How is it proposed to link the core funding allocation with the reduction of costs to parents? Parents are hearing, even from the Tánaiste just now, about reductions in cost that will come about but we need to know when and how that will happen. When will parents actually feel the benefit? When will their children be able to access affordable childcare?

As far as I understand it, the deal for this year is that the Government will provide additional funding to childcare and early education providers. There are pay increases for the professionals who work in that area. In return, fees are supposed to be frozen for this year. Not everyone has signed up to that, but I understand the vast majority have. If there are instances of fees being increased, that is a problem and I am alarmed to hear it. If the Deputy can provide me or the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, with some more information, we would be interested to see it. There are providers that did not sign up to the deal but most did. In my view, it would be a breach if they took the extra money and their staff got the increase, but parents then also had to pay a fee increase because that was not the deal.

Hundreds of children who are Irish citizens born through surrogacy have no legal relationship with their mothers or some of their fathers. Those families pinned their hopes on this being finally resolved following publication of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on International Surrogacy report. However, they have been left feeling confused and worried by the contradictory statements from the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Butler, in the Seanad yesterday and the Department of Health yesterday evening. I would appreciate it if the Minister for Health could confirm that the assisted human reproduction, AHR, Bill will provide for international surrogacy arrangements, including the retrospective recognition of parental rights. When will it happen?

I thank the Deputy and the committee for doing what was a very thoughtful and useful piece of work. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and I have gone through the committee recommendations in detail. We have paused the AHR Bill. We need that Bill and it is very important, but I would like to include whatever is agreed on Committee Stage in it. The Bill will require significant amendments on Committee Stage. That is what we want to do. However, as the Deputy will appreciate, there is substantial complexity involved in the recommendations made in the report. Before the summer, we tasked the three line Departments to come back to the Government with legislative proposals in respect of the various recommendations. We are awaiting that report. I would like to see those proposals come back in a way that means we can proceed through Committee Stage this year. I am very keen that the AHR Bill is passed in this Dáil term. We can wait until close to the end of the term, but we need it for other AHR reasons. It is an ongoing process. That is the intent.

Earlier this year, the Government announced a pandemic recognition payment, broadly welcomed by this House, for front-line workers who worked during the pandemic. However, a whole section of workers have not received this payment. They are largely HSE staff but they also include section 39 voluntary workers, members of the fire brigade and workers in private nursing homes. They have not got the pandemic payment, which is quite incredible after nine months. What gets even more bizarre is there is now a tendering process for the administration relating to those who have not received the payment.

There is to be a situation where a tendering company will probably end up getting more money than the people who were trying to protect us. That is bizarre to say the least. I would like to hear the Minister's comments on that.

There are three groups of people involved and I am not satisfied with the progress regarding the group whose payments are still outstanding. The vast majority of people working within the public system have now been paid. I believe the figure is 97% or higher. There is another group of people comprising non-HSE staff. This group includes Defence Forces and fire brigade personnel and others and needs to be paid as a matter of priority. There is then a third group comprising private sector workers. The HSE has a genuine concern that it may end up overpaying or incorrectly paying third-party private providers in respect of which it does not have the same level of transparency as it has with section 38 and section 39 bodies. I raised this with the HSE again this week. The proposal from the HSE, which I fully understand because if it gets it wrong, the first thing that would happen is that the Committee of Public Accounts would call it in and haul it over the coals for not having sufficient audits-----

The time is up.

May I just finish on this? I have asked the HSE to turn it the other way, that is, to have the private nursing homes assess themselves, to make the payments and to then carry out an audit to make sure the payments were correct.

I raise with the Tánaiste today the matter of the deliberate and outrageous ramming of a Garda car in Cherry Orchard on Monday evening, which I utterly condemn. Is it a disadvantaged area? Yes, for sure. Is that an excuse? No. There are plenty of disadvantaged areas across all our constituencies where that type of behaviour would not be accepted or tolerated. Of particular concern to me is that there was a very isolated and vulnerable Garda response. We are very lucky that no member of An Garda Síochána was injured. In light of the budget next week, can the Tánaiste offer any reassurance to the House that An Garda Síochána will be adequately resourced to stamp out this type of thuggery and that those who perpetrate it will individually be held to account?

I thank Deputy Berry for raising this issue. We have all seen the video footage of what happened in Cherry Orchard. We are all taken aback and rather shocked at the scenes we saw and unreservedly condemn what happened. I have visited Cherry Orchard on a number of occasions. I spent time there with the former Minister of State, Catherine Byrne, before the pandemic and I have spoken to Senator Seery Kearney, who represents the area, in recent days. Cherry Orchard is a good community full of some really good people. They should not have to put up with a small number of people essentially wreaking terror on the majority of decent people who live there. It requires a response from the Government that is tough on both crime and the causes of crime. The Deputy will see a response from the Government in that regard in resources for the Garda and in measures to reduce disadvantage, which drives crime in some parts of our city.

I have spoken here in the Dáil about how Ireland can become fuel independent like other parts of the world. Drilling off Barryroe is our biggest hope. The company, Providence, is ready to go but this Government is holding it up. In response to Deputy Mattie McGrath last week, the Tánaiste said that Providence needs to demonstrate its financial capital if it is to be accepted for the next stages of drilling at Ballyroe. This was his second time saying this. He also said it in an interview with The Currency, an online subscription newspaper, in June. What he is saying is completely incorrect. In July 2021, the Department asked the company to demonstrate its financial capability, which it immediately did. Having heard nothing from the Department for nine months, the company wrote to it in March of this year to inquire as to the status of the licence undertaking. The Department wrote back to ask Providence for new financial capability documents as the previous ones were then nine months old. The company immediately provided the Department with the relevant and up-to-date financial capability information. Since then, it has had no response from the Department. Who is misleading the Tánaiste with this information, which he has although no one else seems to? Will he clarify what he is saying about this company or correct the record of the Dáil as to his previous statements?

I am not directly involved in this area. It is a licensing issue between the company and the Department. Despite what some have suggested, it is not a matter for the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to decide yes or no on. It is a licensing matter between the Department officials and the company. As the Deputy pointed out in his remarks, it relates to issues around finance. The company says it is providing information but the Department is not happy with the information that has been provided. My understanding is that is where the matter lies, between the section in the Department and the company.

My question relates to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. Built into that Act was a provision for review, particularly of the operation of Part 4. Here we are five years later and that review has not been completed although I understand an independent reviewer is in place. What is the status of the review? When will it be completed and published? Is it going to take into account the recent report from the University of Limerick, funded by the Department of Justice, entitled "I Must Be Some Person: Accounts from Street Sex Workers in Ireland", which was published in August?

I am afraid I do not have an up-to-date note on that. I will ask the Minister, Deputy McEntee, to contact the Deputy directly.

Like Deputy Berry, I will refer to the incident in Cherry Orchard this week, which the Commissioner has described as "disgraceful" and in which two female gardaí were subjected to a horrifying ordeal when their car was rammed. Gardaí have questioned the deterrents available. It is appropriate to mention that Deputy Griffin proposed a Bill to deal with and specifically address this issue seven years ago. The Garda has stated that investment in equipment including body cams, better driver training and stronger vehicles, not just family saloons, should be part and parcel of what is provided to An Garda Síochána by the State. Notwithstanding what he said to Deputy Berry, will the Tánaiste give a commitment that the budget and future direction given to the An Garda Síochána will include provision for suitable vehicles to stave off such attacks in the future?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I neglected earlier to convey my best wishes to the gardaí subjected to this unprovoked and highly dangerous attack and to the people living and working in the area who I have no doubt were very frightened by the scenes we have all seen. With regard to Garda resources, the total budget will be decided in the Estimates and we will know what it will be on Tuesday. How it will be deployed in different parts of the country is ultimately a matter for the Garda Commissioner. I know the Minister, Deputy McEntee, intends to visit Cherry Orchard in the coming days to hear from the community. I am sure, once that visit is done, she will come back with an increased understanding. I know she is determined to make a difference.

The inability of people to access a driving test in south Dublin is an issue I have been raising for years. At the moment, 10,000 people are on the waiting list for the testing centre in Tallaght. This is the longest waiting list in the State. It represents 12% of the State-wide waiting list. The centre in Deansgrange in Dún Laoghaire has the third longest waiting list. In June 2021, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said the backlog would be cleared within four months of exiting the Covid situation. Clearly, this has not happened. Given that south Dublin now has two testing centre waiting lists in the top three longest in the State, will the Government commit to examining the feasibility of an additional testing centre to relieve the pressure in Tallaght and Deansgrange, allowing people access to a driving test without waiting months or possibly years?

A number of backlogs built up over the course of the pandemic, including in the areas of passports and work permits. We have managed to get through most of them. The passport situation is much improved and delays in getting work permits are now down to four to five weeks. This is clearly one area in which there is still a backlog and that needs to be dealt with. I do not have detailed information on south Dublin but I will make the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, aware that the Deputy raised this issue. We will see what can be done. It is important that people get a timely driving test.

It is not just about the freedom they need to be able to get around, look after relatives or bring kids to school. There is also the issue of being able to work and access the workforce. There is a constitutional right not to have the right to work denied. We need to work on this and I thank the Deputy for raising it.

I wish to raise the 9% VAT rate in the hospitality sector in the context of next week's budget. We have yet to see evidence of a recovery in either the hospitality or tourism sectors post pandemic. The Government demonstrated its mettle by delivering unprecedented supports during Covid to protect jobs. We all know about the summer price hikes and increases in hotel rates in Dublin but Dublin is certainly not Ireland. Protection of the 9% VAT rate is about jobs in rural and regional Ireland outside of Dublin and city centres. The sector does not just comprise hotels but also cafés, restaurants and pubs. I appeal to the Tánaiste and Members within the Government who frame the budget to support the people who provide employment in our regions, particularly those in the hospitality sector.

I thank Deputy Dillon for raising this matter. The 9% VAT rate will remain in place, at least until the end of February. Any decision on extending it would be made either on budget day or at a later point. That is a matter under consideration. I had a chance to visit Kerry with Deputy Griffin on Friday and I met with some of the people involved in the hotel business and the tourism industry. I had the chance to do the same in Kilkenny only a few weeks ago. I do not agree with the charge that all or most hotels are engaged in price-gouging. I do not think that is true even in Dublin. It may be that a small number of hotels in the city centre that took advantage of a couple of busy weekends and sold the last couple of rooms at a ridiculous price. In doing so, they have done reputational harm to the industry. I have never believed in collective punishment and I do not think the fact that some hotels may have behaved in that way should be the main reason we make any decision on this matter.

Among those attending the cost-of-living rally this Saturday will be the homeowners whose lives and houses have been torn apart by pyrite and mica. There are huge problems even as things are, as outlined by my colleague Deputy Doherty. Construction inflation is proving to be a huge barrier to homeowners accessing the redress scheme. Has a request been made to the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland to report on all the counties currently in the scheme, given the time that will take? There will be huge problems if that request has not been made and if we do not have the new figures. Builders are rightly giving a price for jobs and the amount being allocated to homeowners is no way matching that. Not only are we not getting 100% redress, we are getting further and further away from it. This is having a huge impact on homeowners.

I do not know if that has been done but I will ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to get back to the Deputy directly. I accept the point she is making. Construction inflation is running at about 12% a year at the moment and that would have to be reflected in any scheme the Government provides.

I raise the Garda Commissioner's decision to remove a chief superintendent from Tipperary as part of its amalgamation with Clare. Unfortunately, we are seeing a very significant increase in crime in our county. In the last week or ten days, representatives from community groups in four towns - Ballina, Nenagh, Thurles and Cashel - have reported very significant increases in antisocial behaviour. The activity of rural gangs is again on the increase. One constituent whose house has been called to three times is now sleeping in an outhouse for fear of her private dwelling being broken into. She feels she would be able to make an escape from an outhouse so as not to be held captive in her own home. Taking a chief superintendent out of a county is definitely not the way to increase resources. We need extra Garda resources in Tipperary. A county of our size needs and deserves its own chief superintendent.

As we both know, Tipperary is a very large county geographically and has benefited from increased Garda resources in recent years. I agree with the Deputy that more will be necessary. He can be confident that will be the case. The number of people going through Templemore is going to increase very significantly in the coming months. I cannot comment on the issue of the chief superintendent directly. It is probably a matter for the Garda Commissioner rather than the Minister for Justice but I will alert the Minister to the fact that it was raised here today and perhaps she can contact the Deputy directly.

In early January, the Government announced plans for a special tax-free €1,000 pandemic bonus payment for front-line workers who worked in Covid-19 environments, risking their lives and those of their families to keep the rest of us safe. Nearly nine months later, thousands of workers who are not paid directly by the HSE, such as those working in the private sector, in nursing homes, agency staff, people working in long-term residential care, people working in home help, carers and others, have not received this payment. When will these people see this payment in their bank accounts? We need a date from the Department of Health and we need it to stick to that date. Otherwise, the Government will have to intervene and sort this out as soon as possible. Surely that is the least we owe these people, who risked their lives for us.

As I said earlier, I am not satisfied with the rate at which this payment is being rolled out to staff in nursing homes. I have asked for it to be prioritised for the Defence Forces, the fire brigade and other public sector workers but also for those who worked in the nursing homes. The HSE is concerned because it does not have the level of transparency over these private businesses that it has over community organisations. I have asked for a self-assessment approach whereby the money will be paid out but then, critically, there will be a very detailed audit of all that money afterwards so that any overpayments can be reclaimed and to ensure full transparency from those making the assessments.

I raise the issue of section 39 workers, some of whom are considering taking industrial action in the coming weeks because of the situation they are in. They cannot get a pay rise or increments. We all know and understand that the work they do is vital to our society. They work with people with disabilities, children with autism and so on. Most of them are professionals who are very qualified, such as nurses and other healthcare professionals. They do this work through a block grant that comes from the Government to the organisations and that block grant has stayed the same since around 2008. Those organisations therefore have huge problems retaining staff because the staff go off to other places where they can get increments and increasing salaries. The ones who are loyal and stay are on very poor wages and need an increase. In the budget, will the Government commit to providing some increments to ensure people in those positions, that is, section 39 workers, can have a future there?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Section 39 bodies and agencies are a very diverse group. They range from very big healthcare providers, hospices or disability service providers to some very small charitable groups with only a small number of employees. It is a complicated area. I think both the Deputy and Ministers across Cabinet would agree that in the real world, if the HSE is increasing its salaries, then healthcare and disability service providers that are section 39 organisations have to do the same or they will lose staff. That would apply in hospices as well. It is something we are going to examine. It would make sense to increase the block grant to take account of the fact that a public sector pay deal has just been done, which section 39 organisations will effectively have to pay. The difficulty we have as a Government is that we can increase the block grant but we have no guarantee that it will be passed on to staff.

As Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Tánaiste will know we have nearly 2.5 million people working in the country and record low levels of unemployment. That is posing a recruitment challenge for organisations right across the country, including community employment organisations. I have been approached by Erins Isle, my local GAA club, and by many other community employment organisations in my area, asking for a full review of the community employment schemes. Community employment schemes have many different shapes and sizes. They can be large NGOs with large payrolls and paid staff. They can be small parish halls or services that perhaps should be provided by the State, such as meals on wheels. We have to review community employment. We have to review the difference in payment between that scheme and some other social welfare payments and we have to better resource our community employment.

The opportunity to do that is with the Minister who has responsibility for both community development and social welfare. I ask that this be communicated to her.

I thank the Deputy for his question. A review of the community employment scheme was published just before Christmas last year. We have initiated a number of changes to eligibility for the scheme, both late last year and again this year, to ensure services are in a position to continue throughout the country. This year also saw the end of a very long story involving community employment supervisors' pension gratuities. We finally got to that gate and payments have started. My officials have met with union officials in recent weeks regarding the issue the Deputy raised and there is an agreement to meet again before the year is out.

As Deputy Tóibín is not present, I will move on to Deputy Griffin.

I thank the Tánaiste for visiting County Kerry last Friday. It was a long day with many engagements and he met and listened to a lot of people, which I appreciate.

Did the Deputy and Tánaiste call to Kilgarvan?

We missed Kilgarvan on this itinerary but we will get to it the next time. We visited Fitzgerald Stadium, which is the home of Kerry football. We did not get to meet the Sam Maguire Cup on this occasion but I assured the Tánaiste that the people of Kerry are giving it the best of hospitality. We did meet the Clifford brothers. The Tánaiste saw the condition of the stadium, which requires substantial investment. In that context, I want to ask him when the next round of the large-scale sport infrastructure fund will open. It is an excellent fund for projects of that scale and a stadium such as Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney, the home of Kerry football, certainly would be in line for an application under the fund. It is important that the next round be progressed.

It was a real pleasure to spend the day with the Deputy and his team in Kerry last Friday. We did not get to Kilgarvan but we did get to Castlemaine. No visit to Kerry is complete without a visit to Castlemaine.

The large-scale sport infrastructure programme is being discussed at the moment between the Departments of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and Public Expenditure and Reform. We have a difficulty in that a lot of allocations were made for some really important projects around the country but very little of that funding has been drawn down so far, largely because of the increase in construction inflation. Our first priority is to try to find additional funds to get some of those projects going. The worst thing is to allocate a lot of money and then see none of it drawn down. If we can square that circle and provide additional funding to get some of those projects going, we can then open the fund up to new applicants.

Having visited Fitzgerald Stadium with Deputy Griffin, I can see there is a major need there for capital investment. Kerry is a leading county in both sport and tourism and it needs a modern, state-of-the-art stadium. We can all agree on that. I know the people of Kerry will put money on the table and be able to raise a lot of money, but they will need a bit of help from the Government too. I think that will be forthcoming in due course.

As the Tánaiste will be aware, I have raised issues relating to Go-Ahead Ireland in this House on previous occasions, including the poor quality of bus service it is providing to users in Dublin and across a wider area. My office is inundated with complaints about the company from the public. It is not just routes 111, 63, 59 and 75 in my area; there is a problem with the service throughout Dublin. Yesterday, for example, the 9.05 a.m service leaving Prosperous, County Kildare was cancelled and the 10.05 a.m. bus was full, leaving five people behind. The 4.23 p.m. bus leaving UCD at Belfield was cancelled for the third day in a row, leaving students stranded. This morning, the route 270 service from Dunboyne to Blanchardstown was cancelled. When commuters asked about the next service, they were told it was also cancelled.

Everyone understands there will be issues on occasion but there seem to be cancelled services by Go-Ahead Ireland every day. We were initially told the reason was the Covid crisis and then that it was due to staffing and operational issues. Last week, there was a cyberattack and, today, it might be the rain. Whatever the reason, it is not acceptable. There are too many issues and they must be resolved. Will the Tánaiste raise this with the Minister for Transport?

It is not good and it is not acceptable that those services should be cancelled in that way. As the Deputy said, there will be problems from time to time but if the problems become too frequent, there is something else going on. I certainly will alert the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that the Deputy has raised the issue and ask him to talk to the him directly about it.

We have concluded right on time. I thank everyone for their co-operation.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 1.05 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 1.46 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 1.05 p.m. and resumed at 1.46 p.m.
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