Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

International Programmes

I welcome my friend and colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Colm Brophy, to the House.

I thank the Minister of State for taking time to discuss the Palestinian vaccination programme. I am aware Ireland has contributed and plans to spend €50 million in support of global public health, which includes COVAX. Our money is being used to fund this initiative. We have a responsibility to ensure equitable access to Covid vaccines. Ireland should be actively addressing obstacles to equitable access, such as Israeli discriminatory healthcare practice. What progress has been made to vaccinate Palestinians under this programme?

Israel's decision to exclude Palestinians from its vaccination distribution programme is not the first time Israel has denied Palestinians lifesaving medical treatments. We are aware from WHO reports, including one conducted in 2017, that only 54% of Gaza patients who applied for permits to access healthcare in Israel and the West Bank received approval. The report shows 54 Palestinians, 46 of whom had cancer, died in 2017 following denial of or delay in their permits.

Even by Israel's poor humanitarian standards, denying Palestinians access to lifesaving medication seems callous. It is insulting to repeatedly hear praise for Israel's vaccination roll out success when the reality is very different. It has minutely controlled their lives while denying any meaningful responsibility for their welfare.

Having regard to the vast funding we give to COVAX, we need to ensure our Government calls for the removal of any barriers to access. It is our prerogative to understand where our funding is going and where access to this funding is being obstructed. Amnesty International, among many other organisations, condemned the Israeli Government's decision to bar Palestinians from receiving the vaccine. It described the Israeli action as evidence of the institutionalised discrimination that defines Israeli Government policy towards Palestinians.

There is no legal or moral justification for Israel's action. The fourth Geneva Convention asserts that any occupying power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining the medical and hospital establishments and services with particular reference to taking the preventative measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics. Even the Oslo Accords oblige both sides to co-operate in combatting epidemics and assist each other in times of emergency, having regard to the countless examples of discrimination and barriers to access necessary medicines.

How will we encourage equitable access for Palestinians when Israel continues to be praised by the international media? The situation in Gaza is dire - I was there and it was an horrific experience to see the people there. Gaza suffers from electricity cuts that last 12 hours per day. Thanks to Israel's air, land and sea siege, as well as multiple military assaults on a crowded enclave, there is a severe shortage of medicine and medical equipment along with significant poverty and unemployment. According to the Palestinian health ministry, the territories have been in financial crisis, leaving them next to no funds to purchase vaccine doses. Quarantining and maintaining sanitation in Gaza is extremely difficult.

We need to understand where our funding is going. In this blatant barrier to access the benefits of our funding, it is paramount we condemn Israeli discriminatory practices and understand what the Department has done to put an end to illegal barriers to accessing the vaccines, which has been and continues to be supported by Irish funding.

I ask the Minister of State what more we can do to ensure equitable access to vaccinations for Palestinians in the occupied territories. I welcome the opportunity for the Minister of State to put on record that Ireland will step up to its responsibility to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for Palestinians.

I thank Senator Black for raising this important matter. Ensuring there are vaccines and that they can be distributed equitably has been at the centre of Ireland's global public health and development assistance responses to the pandemic. The development of vaccines has been remarkably fast.

However, the vaccine roll out is complex, as we are aware, with countries at different stages of vaccine approval and global supply shortages. This means that access to Covid-19 vaccines varies widely between countries, often reflecting income levels.

It is important too to invest in the capacity of healthcare systems, so that vaccines, once approved and received, can be delivered to people in a timely and safe manner.

The principle underpinning our approach to that equitable vaccine distribution is both the right thing and the smart thing in helping protect the most vulnerable everywhere and in also protecting ourselves. That is why Ireland is a strong supporter of the COVAX facility as the best way to achieve an equitable allocation of vaccines to low and middle-income countries, places such as the occupied Palestinian territories, according to an agreed set of governing principles developed by the World Health Organization.

COVAX centralises the procurement and allocation of vaccines so that the unit price of vaccines for less well-off countries is minimised. Working with partners, it ensures that needles, personal protective equipment, PPE, and other necessary ancillaries are also procured and distributed. Housed within the Global Vaccines Alliance, Gavi, COVAX aims to deliver 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to 92 low and middle-income countries. It has also negotiated options for a further 1 billion doses.

On 3 February COVAX confirmed that the occupied Palestinian territory was a priority participant in its programme and would receive 277,000 vaccine doses in quarter 1 and quarter 2 of 2021. It is expected that the Palestinian Authority will shortly receive its first COVAX consignment, following quickly on the first COVAX vaccine delivery shipped this week to Africa. Given the importance the Government attaches to equitable access to vaccines, Irish Aid last week allocated an additional €5 million support to the global vaccine effort. Some €4 million of that allocation went to COVAX for vaccine procurement and distribution and €1 million to the World Health Organization for its role in ensuring fairness and transparency.

As the Senator outlined, this will bring Irish Aid's investment in global public health in 2021 to more than €50 million, which includes support to Gavi and the Global Fund, whose work is essential in ensuring that public health systems can mount vaccine campaigns.

There is widespread global support for COVAX. The EU announced that it would double its contribution to the initiative from €500 million to €1 billion. When taken with the commitments of individual member states, that will bring the EU pledge to COVAX to €2.2 billion. In addition, the US has pledged $4 billion, $2 billion of which it has made available for early disbursement.

Ireland continues to monitor issues around vaccine roll out in the occupied Palestinian territory mindful of the unique challenges that this context presents. The Palestinian Authority launched its own vaccination programme on 2 February administering doses to front-line healthcare workers, although it is very concerning that the programme is being suspended due to supply shortages. However, I am hopeful that with the impending delivery of the first COVAX consignment and the approval of new vaccines, availability and distribution to the occupied Palestinian territories will improve in the second quarter of 2021. Separate to the COVAX mechanism, 44,000 vaccine doses have been provided to the occupied Palestinian territory to date: 2,000 doses from Israel, 10,000 from Russia and 20,000 from the UAE to Gaza. Israel recently announced it will vaccinate 100,000 Palestinians who work in Israel, with that programme beginning this week.

The Government remains mindful of the importance of an equitable roll-out of vaccines in the occupied Palestinian territories, and all other developing contexts. I can assure the Senator of our continued attention to this issue in the months ahead.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is imperative to remember at this time that despite the Palestinian Authority and Hamas supposedly being the official governments of the West Bank and Gaza, there is no doubt that Israel is really in charge. Israel controls the borders, currency, central bank and even collects taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, PA. It maintains the right to carry out military operations on Palestinian land and controls the amount of freedom, or lack thereof, that Palestinians are granted.

Israel continues to contravene the legal agreements made in the Geneva Convention. This House has a duty to give the full story and shine a light on its illegal and discriminatory barriers to access the Covid vaccine. I urge the Minister of State's Department to engage with COVAX to ensure Palestinians receive their supplies in a time-sensitive manner. I urge the Government not to exalt Israel's vaccine regime but condemn its discriminatory practice against the Palestinians.

I thank the Senator again for her contribution and for raising the matter. It is important to put on record that we are engaging with COVAX all the time. COVAX falls within my area and I am constantly engaging with them on vaccine distribution in a general context. I fully take on board the importance of fair and equitable access, particularly for Palestinians. COVAX also has to operate very much within the international context of ensuring that for the millions of people around our planet there is fair and equitable access to vaccines. It is something we as a Government are committed to and engage all the time with COVAX on.

We will continue to play our part to ensure fair and equitable access for Palestinians and our partners in the other developing areas. We are conscious of potential shortfalls in the supply of vaccines to vulnerable populations and we are hopeful the COVAX-type initiative will increase that vaccine supply. Our representatives in Geneva are working on an ongoing basis with the agencies involved and with the COVAX initiative. Similarly in respect of the Palestinian occupied territories, our representative in Ramallah is liaising with the Palestinian authority. On the Senator's central point of engagement, it is there and the Government is committed to that engagement. We are also working with our multilateral partners, such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNWRA.

A truly global response is needed. We believe COVAX is key to that response. As Dr. Mike Ryan always says, no one is safe until everybody is safe, so we will continue that engagement.

Forestry Sector

It is great to be able to raise this issue in the House this morning. It is nice to have one of our own Senators, Senator Hackett, here in the role of Minister of State. I know the Minister of State has a keen interest in this area. I studied horticulture in my college days so I take a keen interest in the area. In the middle of a pandemic and with so many problems out there, it is an issue people might not take much heed of. However, as the Minister of State will know, many people are affected by this horrible fungal disease called ash dieback.

Going back to my college days, there was not much talk about ash dieback, but people have become more and more aware of the problems that exist because of it. It was about 2011 or 2012 when it was first established that we had ash dieback in this country. Some of the people I spoke to in the sector tell me we could have lost almost 90% or even 90%-plus of our ash tree population inside ten years.

This disease is a major source of concern in the forestry sector. We have many forestry owners who invested heavily and planted substantial areas of ash. As the Minister of State knows, the reconstitution scheme was suspended in 2018. We have this new scheme up and running now and many people tell me they are not happy with the scheme as it operates.

Many farmers as they got older put some of their land into forestry, particularly into an ash plantation. In many cases, it was to create a little nest egg when they came to pension age. Many of those people were of modest means and it was an investment for later in life. That little nest egg would have given them no major financial concerns as they moved into their later years.

They have now been left with what is probably a worthless product. It is useless. It is worth nothing financially.

The individuals affected have a bigger problem, however. They have large sections of land that have been badly affected by the fungal disease. This is a danger because, as the Minister of State knows, mature trees that become infected rot. In many areas with really small plantations, particularly along roadsides, farmers are living in terrible fear that the trees will fall. As people, including the Chairperson will know, a tree growing on one's land is one's responsibility, not that of the local authority, Transport Infrastructure Ireland or any other body.

I want an update on the current position regarding this major problem of ash dieback. Is there anything else we can do for the people affected to take them out of the misery they are in? I hope that we can in some way be of assistance to the many thousands of people affected. A person in the industry told me yesterday that up to 20,000 people could be affected. While there are probably 30,000 ha of ash plantation in the country and 20,000 may seem like a very big number, many of the individuals have very small plantations. There is a significant number of people affected.

I thank Senator Murphy for the welcome and for raising this matter. Ash dieback has had a devastating effect on ash plantations throughout the country and I am well aware of its impact on landowners and farmers. As the Senator highlighted, the effects on native trees across the countryside, whether they are in hedges or standing alone, will be apparent very soon.

When the disease first presented, almost ten years ago, it was thought that eradication was an option. My Department introduced an Exchequer-funded reconstitution scheme in 2013 to restore affected forests and it has paid out some €7 million to forest owners since. While the scheme was a reasonable response at the time, it became evident, given the progression and reach of the disease and based on the scientific knowledge available, that a review of the scheme was needed. The original aim of the scheme, namely, eradication of the disease from Ireland, was no longer achievable and the disease is now considered endemic here.

Given that the scientific outlook had changed, a new approach was clearly needed. A review was undertaken to decide on the best approach. This included stakeholder and public consultation and detailed field consideration of damage-level evaluation, together with an examination of a broader range of silviculture and management options available to forest owners. Advice from Teagasc and international experts was also received. Current support schemes were examined to ensure their continued relevance and value for money, and to ensure that the forest owner was provided with a broad range of silvicultural and management measures.

On foot of the review, a new ash dieback scheme, known as the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, was launched in June 2020. This approach aims to encourage the active management of ash plantations in the context of the control and spread of ash dieback disease. It categorises plantations into three groups based on plantation age and tree size. Various support options are available depending on the category into which an ash plantation may fall. The scheme aims to promote the vigorous growth of ash through thinning to realise as much of the potential value of the crop as possible. It allows landowners who wish to continue growing their ash forest where the presence of the disease is low to continue to get paid their ash premiums. Since its launch in June, over 268 applications have been submitted. We have begun to issue approvals and this will continue as applications are assessed. This, of course, is a demand-led scheme and, because ash was normally a small part of a bigger plantation, many landowners may not opt to engage with the scheme.

Ash has major cultural significance in Ireland, most notably in hurling, so we are very interested in exploring whether a resistant strain could be developed. The Department has invested heavily since 2013 in breeding ash for resistance. I understand there are many projects at an advanced stage. A very small proportion of ash trees, amounting to about 1% or 2%, show natural tolerance to the pathogen. This means they show minor symptoms and that the disease does not have the noticeable impact on their growth or health that is has on other trees.

Teagasc is working to identify such trees and to build up a gene bank with the ultimate goal of producing tolerant ash seeds that we will be able to use to restore ash trees to Irish forests and hedgerows. Furthermore, there is a National Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, working group that specifically addresses genetics and the important role that plays in adaptation, tolerance and resistance, which has recently released a note entitled, Breeding for Tolerance to Ash Dieback Disease.

In summary, we will continue to support those landowners who wish to manage their ash plantations affected by the disease through the reconstitution and under-planting scheme. I believe that this is a proportionate and innovative response that offers support to affected landowners.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply and update on the 2020 scheme. The number is still small in terms of the amount of people who have sought assistance but I do accept that quite a number of them might not engage at all.

I am delighted that the Minister of State mentioned the traditional making of the hurley stick from ash. I do not know what the phrase the clash of the ash will mean any more but we will have to make something about bamboo because it is now being imported from China to make hurley sticks. The importation of bamboo and the danger of outside pests being brought into the country that could do more damage to our horticultural industry concerns me as well.

I again ask the Minister of State to see if there is any more tweaking she can do to the scheme to help these people because they have told me that for a lot of them engaging in the scheme as it is, or seeking assistance from it, does not make much sense. The tree family of ash is a beautiful horticultural thing and very much part of our countryside. We all hope that we will reach a situation, and it was great to hear about research, where the ash will come back to take its rightful place in the Irish countryside.

I thank the Senator. The scheme is quite new. It has only been running for six or eight months so I suggest that we give it time and there is no reason we cannot look at things further down the line.

The other day I saw the television programme on bamboo now being used to make hurleys and the Senator raised important points about the importation of wood, trees or, indeed, other plants into this country. Ireland as an island has a very high status in terms of plant health and, indeed, one of the highest in Europe and the world. We want to retain our status so we have to be very careful about what we bring into our country. I thank the Senator for raising the point. I hope that we end up being able to develop or pick out the varieties tolerant to ash dieback. I concur that ash plays an important role in our country and it would be really sad to see it gone.

I thank the Minister of State and I thank the Senator for raising such an important matter.

Project Ireland 2040

I welcome the Minister of State. The west of Ireland is a wonderful place to live and County Galway and city is a wonderful place to live. I would like to concentrate on Galway City and suburbs. We have huge positives in Galway City and the suburbs, including the National University of Ireland, Galway; the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, and the exciting plans for a technology university in conjunction with Sligo and Letterkenny institutes of technology; a thriving foreign direct investment, FDI, sector; in normal times a thriving and exciting night life; and our cultural arts sector with its arts festival, the Druid Theatre Company and Macnas. In sport we have the Galway racing festival. We have Connacht Rugby and its recent plans, including €20 million that I helped secure last year.

There is Galway United FC with Pearse Stadium at the heart of GAA in Galway. There is dog racing, Galway Bay and Lough Corrib. We have a rail link to the heart of the city with a motorway to Dublin and Limerick, going through Tuam, giving access to Shannon Airport, Dublin Airport and Ireland West Airport in Knock.

Like any city and its suburbs, we have challenges with traffic, housing, wastewater, water and amenities. We have many plans submitted such as the Galway city ring road plans which are with An Bord Pleanála. There are exciting applications under the urban and rural regeneration development funds, as well as for projects such as the Martin roundabout upgrade and access to Ardaun, a potential growth area in the city, a rail passing bay in Oranmore and a greenway over the Corrib railway viaducts. There are also various public transport initiatives in the city to improve walking and cycling, including the development of 11 city centre cycle routes, the Dublin Road bus corridor, the Moycullen to city greenway, the Ceannt Station upgrade and a Barna to city greenway.

We have a number of positives and potential projects or initiatives, including the Galway Airport site which is jointly owned by the city and county councils. There are regeneration projects, including at Ceannt Station, the docks and Headford Road. We have a large number of IDA Ireland lands, including 240 ha in Athenry and 80 ha in Oranmore. We have a plan for Ardaun, identified as the main growth area in Galway city and county. We have the Athenry-Oranmore economic corridor.

The national development plan and Project Ireland 2040 have identified Galway city's suburbs as a growth area. The 2016 population of Galway city was 80,000 people. By 2040, projected increases predict that the population will be at 120,000 people.

We all preach balanced regional development and moving the focus and growth from the Dublin and Leinster areas and spreading it around to different cities in the country. One major limitation on reaching that target in Galway is wastewater treatment. There is the much talked about and long-awaited plan for a Galway east main drainage wastewater treatment plant. This plant would encompass Athenry, Oranmore, the east of the city and the Ardaun area, identified by the Department, in conjunction with the city and county councils, as the growth area for our county.

We need the Department to focus on pushing this plan with Irish Water and the local authorities to progress it. It is absolutely vital. Not only will it allow growth in that area, but it will also reduce pressure on the Mutton Island facility which is the main wastewater treatment plant in the city. It will allow the city area to develop, as well as reducing pressure on areas such as Barna and Knocknacarra. It is badly needed in terms of housing. We cannot talk about housing unless sufficient wastewater treatment is in place. We need action and progress on this.

I thank Senator Kyne for raising this important matter. As a past student of NUI Galway and having lived in the city, I concur with his sentiments on what the city and county have to offer.

Project Ireland 2040 is the overarching policy and planning framework for social, economic and cultural development. It includes a detailed capital investment plan for the period 2018 to 2027, the National Development Plan 2018-2027, and the 20-year national planning framework. The Government has brought forward the national development plan review to 2021 and recently extended the timeline for seeking feedback from stakeholders. We welcome all contributions that can inform this developing project as it progresses.

The Government's core priority is to strengthen the alignment of infrastructural investment with spatial planning and regional development policy, as well as to ensure we get the right development in the right place at the right time. The national development plan review will allow us to advance the programme for Government priorities, including climate change, compact urban growth and housing among others, with a new timeline to 2030.

Project Ireland 2040 is a whole-of-government strategy spanning the breadth of Departments and agencies. In order to co-ordinate and drive implementation of the national planning framework, in tandem with the national development plan, governance arrangements were put in place in the form of the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board which includes high-level representation from across the Government.

It is co-chaired by the Secretaries General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and has met regularly since 2018. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage's implementation support role is primarily focused on strategic and spatial planning, and has focused on bringing forward the institutional, regulatory and investment measures required to deliver compact and regional growth objectives, as set out in the NPF.

As with all public spending departments and agencies across government, there is a wider role in the implementation of the NPF and the NDP through the significant capital investment programmes, for which my Department is responsible in the areas of water, housing, the urban and rural development fund, as well as local government expenditure, which I will now address.

The Senator has made very valid points in respect of water services. Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. As part of budget 2021, funding of over €1.4 billion was secured to support water services. This includes €1.3 billion in respect of domestic water services provision by Irish Water. The overall investment will deliver significant improvements in our public water and wastewater services, supported by improved water supplies right across Ireland, including rural Ireland, and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in our rivers, lakes and marine areas. The prioritisation and progression of individual projects is a matter for determination by Irish Water. Indeed, the Senator has made very valid points in respect of Ardaun, Barna and east Galway in terms of progressing that.

On the important issue of delivering social housing supports for the Galway area, my Department has made substantial funding available, including substantial capital investment, to both local authorities and partner organisations, such as approved housing bodies. Social housing targets are in place for both local authority areas, and because these targets are challenging, the Galway social housing task force has been in place since 2019 to support the work of local authorities and other stakeholders.

As the Senator has quite rightly pointed out, the overall NPF strategy is for better balanced development between the regions and greater focus on Ireland's cities, where 50% of the development overall is targeted, with 50% of that city growth to be supported to take place in the four cities outside of Dublin, which is key. As a key driver of the NPF, the €2 billion urban and regeneration fund is focused on supporting high-quality, applicant-led projects. The Senator has quite rightly articulated that there are a number of exciting projects in Galway for which he has been advocating. I hope that there will be positive outcomes on those in the next few weeks.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. My focus is on who will deliver and drive the main drainage scheme east of Galway city. The Minister of State talked about the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. However, on specific projects, co-ordination is needed between his Department, Irish Water, and in this case, Galway City and County Councils. While they are separate local authorities, they share some of the land, for example in Ardaun, and some of the same priorities, and they work well together. Therefore, somebody needs to drive that. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Minister for Finance are both shareholders in Irish Water. That is important. It is true that they have responsibility for projects, but they are also the shareholders.

I propose that the Minister of State's Department take a lead in the development of a multi-agency working group encompassing his Department, the two local authorities in Galway, Irish Water, Irish Rail, ESB and the Department of Transport to drive projects like this one, which is vital to provide homes for our young people into the future. I ask the Minister of State to explore that option with his Department and to come back to me as a priority, because this vital project must be advanced for Galway city and county.

I am happy to do that on behalf of the Senator. Obviously, he has spoken quite strongly on the infrastructural gap that needs to be filled. Irish Water is a key component in delivering that. If the infrastructure is not there, development will be held back and the city will be unable to unlock its potential, provide alternatives such as affordable homes to people and improve infrastructure in general. I will raise the issue with the Minister. Obviously, he has primary responsibility for Irish Water within the Department. I will bring the issue to his attention and will work with the Senator to try and progress some structure along the lines that he has outlined.

Local Authority Housing

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I want to raise an issue which resonates right across the country. It concerns income thresholds for social housing. I have a simple request for the Minister of State.

The Government must urgently raise the income limits for social housing. I was concerned by the reply of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to a parliamentary question last November in which he stated that the current income eligibility requirements provide for a fair and equitable system of identifying the households facing the greatest challenge in meeting their accommodation needs from their own resources. I respectfully say they do not. In the course of their local constituency duties Members meet families, week in, week out, who are just above the criteria and have no prospect of securing long-term housing solutions.

I met a couple this week who live in my village. They currently pay rent of €1,400 per month. They have three children and are working people. They have no prospect of putting a deposit together for a house. They are excluded from social housing because they earn in excess of €33,750, the income limit for Limerick. I could have chosen any county, but I wish to discuss Limerick because that is where I am from.

The Minister of State will be aware that rents rocketed under the previous Government, of which he was a member. He will be aware that, in Limerick, rents increased by 45% between 2016 and 2021. According to Daft.ie, the rent for a family renting a three-bedroom house went up from, on average, €799 per month to €1,160. We all know the impact of that big increase and additional cost on families. It means that not only can they not save for a deposit, but they have to go to community welfare officers just to get by, each week and each month. As matters stand, these people have no hope. They are trapped. They are locked out of the social housing system and are trapped with unscrupulous landlords. The couple I mentioned had their rent increased by €200 in December. When they pointed out that the landlord could not do that, as it is illegal under the pandemic rules, he said: "No problem, I will put the house up for sale and you will have to find somewhere else to live". That is the reality at the hard edge of living in rented accommodation.

The problem is that the market is skewed entirely in favour of landlords. Indeed, I would welcome a comment from the Minister of State on that increase in rent, because I have one word for it. An increase of 45% in rents in five years is greed, pure and simple. The Government must respond urgently to this issue. I have some simple requests. The Government must raise the limits, and do so without delay. It must ensure that the working family payment, formerly known as the family income supplement, is not included when calculating income. That is a massive punishment. It is bad enough that people are on low pay and that the Government has not addressed the issue of low pay in the economy, but the Government also punishes them by throwing in that calculation to exclude them from qualifying for social housing. We must also look at the adult income for adult children in households. We know what is happening. Adult children cannot move out of the household because the cost of rents is so high. It is like a perfect storm.

When this Government was formed there was an expectation that there would be a review of the income limits and that they would be urgently moved up, but it has not happened. Instead, the issue is part of a wider review. That wider review is absolutely no use to working families who are being thrown off the housing lists because they receive a small, moderate increase in their income. They are locked out of the housing assistance payment, HAP, and all supports. There are tens of thousands of families in this predicament of having no supports, and the Minister of State knows it. They are locked out of getting a mortgage and they are locked out of social housing. It is grossly unfair. I hope to receive a positive response from the Minister of State.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is unavailable this morning and he asked me to respond on his behalf.

Applications for social housing support are assessed by the relevant local authority in accordance with the eligibility and need criteria set down in section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011, as amended. The 2011 regulations prescribe maximum net income levels for each local authority, in different bands according to the area concerned, with income being defined as assessed according to the standard household means policy. Under the household means policy, which applies in all local authorities, net income for social housing assessment is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI and the universal social charge. The policy provides for a range of income disregards, and local authorities also have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short-term or once-off in nature.

The income bands are expressed in terms of a maximum net income threshold for a single-person household, with an allowance of 5% for each additional adult household member, subject to a maximum allowance under this category of 10%, and 2.5% for each child, subject to a maximum allowance under this category of 10%.

The income bands and the authority area assigned to each band are based on an assessment of the income needed to provide for a household's basic needs plus a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation throughout the country. It is important to note that these limits introduced at that time also reflected a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation, in order to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn, promoting sustainable communities and providing a degree of future proofing.

Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. The current income eligibility requirements generally achieve this, providing for a fair and equitable system of identifying those facing the greatest challenge in meeting their accommodation needs from their own resources. However, as part of a broader social housing review and reform agenda, a review of the income eligibility criteria for social housing supports in each local authority is under way. The review will not be completed until the impacts of parallel initiatives on affordability have been considered as these will inform where the thresholds should lie.

These initiatives include the €200 million local infrastructure housing activation fund and the €310 million serviced sites fund. From this sum, €50 million has been allocated in 2021 to deliver more affordable homes. In addition, eligibility conditions for other key affordability initiatives, such as the national cost rental policy and the new affordable purchase shared equity scheme, which are included in the forthcoming affordable housing Bill, together with the Rebuilding Ireland home loan and the help to buy scheme, will all be factored into the work to ensure supports are targeted and given to those who need them.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I have to say I am deeply disappointed with it. It is almost a carbon copy of a response given to my former colleague, Deputy Murnane O'Connor, in November. I say with all due respect that the response will mean absolutely nothing to those working families who are locked out of public housing and locked out of the mortgage market. As I said, and I do not think the Minister of State will be able to disagree with me, these are people who are struggling to provide for their children each week. They are low-income people who are excluded and locked out because of the ridiculously low thresholds.

The Minister of State did not address the issue of the 45% increase in rents over the past five years. There is only one way to address this, which is to raise the thresholds to include these people and give them some hope of a better future. I have to say, to be honest with the Minister of State, this speaks of a Government that has not changed housing policy. It speaks of a Government completely out of touch with tens of thousands of working people throughout the country who are looking for hope and inclusion from the Government. Unfortunately, the Minister of State is telling me once again this morning that they are excluded.

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to comment on this matter. The Government is providing affordable homes for people. We have a Bill on this which will give an opportunity to families to get on the property ladder. We also have rent pressure zones, which refer directly to the issue raised by the Senator. They now cover almost three quarters of all tenancies in the country and they limit the scope for rental increases. A recent report has shown how rent increases have stabilised over recent quarters.

With regard to lower-paid workers, the Government and the previous Government collectively increased by 30% the minimum wage to target people and give them an opportunity to increase the money they take home. The review has to look at all of these aspects. It is very important that we get the review done and see that those most in need get the best possible resources and support. Through the affordable housing Bill and rent pressure zones, as well as the ban currently in place to protect people through Covid, we will ensure those in most need to get the key resources.

I thank the Senator for bringing up such an important issue this morning and I am glad to hear a review is under way.

Parental Leave

The reason to raise this Commencement matter is to call on the Government to deliver wholly on the purpose of the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act to facilitate working parents to balance paid employment and responsibilities to their children in a fair and equitable way. At present, each parent is entitled to two weeks' paid leave for children born from November 2019.

The amendment extends this to five weeks for each parent, and under the EU directive it could extend further to seven or nine weeks.

The Act currently does not acknowledge or provide for one-parent families where one parent is doing the job of two. That is one in five families in the country. It takes into consideration families that were two-parent families where one parent dies but not when they both remain alive, which it should from an actuarial perspective. This legislation currently overlooks lone parents and this must be addressed. As a State, we cannot assume all families are headed by two parents and families have always come in all shapes and sizes. We must ensure we can support them in what they do rather than in their composition.

One-parent families doing the job of two parents should get the same amount of leave as two-parent families and the State should treat all families in a fair and equitable way. This is not just about equality as it is also about social justice. These parents are doing it all - parenting, working and everything else - but they are more vulnerable to hardship and poverty. The consistent poverty rate for one-parent families is 17.1% versus 5.5% for the population as a whole, according to 2019 figures. These people are five times as likely to experience deprivation and we know 86% of one-parent families have women as the parent, so we know they are more likely to return to work before their baby is six months old. They are also less likely to be in employment after nine months because of childcare needs. Let us remember that part of the legislation's purpose is to promote participation by mothers in the workplace, and it is another reason for the amendment.

I understand how we got here and I agree with what we are doing in trying to ensure we share the care, as it were. Much of the focus of this legislation is about that and trying to bring more equality between men and women. Ireland has huge progress to make in this area, including behavioural change, in trying to ensure duties are shared between the sexes. Covid-19 has shown us that. It is possible nevertheless to support that objective and one-parent families.

I have provided two options to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the relevant Oireachtas committee. They could look at transferring paid leave, and where it is not an option, additional leave could be provided for the relevant parent. This is to ensure we meet all the obligations and objectives of the legislation. I sincerely hope we can find a workable solution to this matter. The State should recognise all families and children equally.

I thank Senator Currie for raising this important matter and all her work in the area to date, which is very valued and important. We are now more conscious than ever of balancing work and caring responsibilities and the burden this places on working families. The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed our working and home lives, enabling new ways of working that may eventually assist women to continue their careers who would otherwise have left the workforce due to family obligations. This is a particularly acute challenge for lone parents, who as the Senator notes tend to be women.

As the Minister with responsibility for gender equality and for children, Deputy O'Gorman recognises the importance of supporting all families. A broad range of family leave amendments have been developed in recent years intended to provide support and options for parents in balancing their work obligations and their family life. Various forms of family leave, combined with access to childcare, are a very important in ensuring women remain part of the workforce and can help prevent them falling into the poverty cycle.

In November 2019, the Parent's Leave and Benefit Act 2019 introduced two weeks of paid leave for each parent, and this leave must be taken in the first year after the birth or adoptive placement of a child. The intention of this leave is to enable parents to spend time with their child in the earliest years. This leave is deliberately non-transferable between parents to ensure both parents are encouraged and supported in taking time out from work to spend time with their child. It is an entitlement for each parent in their own right, regardless of whether they are in a relationship or live together. The Act was drafted in such a way as to comprehend the broad complexion of family life that exists and allows for an entitlement for the spouse, civil partner or cohabitant of the parent.

It is important to note that entitlement to parents' leave is for the individual parent, it is not an allocation per family.

In recognition of the unique pressures that Covid-19 has placed on new parents, in December 2020 the Government approved proposals that each parent will be given an additional three weeks of paid parents' leave and the period in which it can be taken will be extended to the first two years after the birth or adoptive placement of a chid. This change requires legislation to be enacted and its drafting is now well advanced. I understand that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, hopes to be in a position to bring this to the Government in the coming weeks. The Government recognises that many parents are awaiting the introduction of this leave and it is being given a very high priority in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. I understand that lone parents are shouldering a tremendous burden in the current climate, and often during this time without the support of grandparents or other family members who would otherwise be able to help with childcare or other needs. The National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020 has specific actions designed to reduce poverty of female-headed households, including lone parent families, and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has decided to extend the lifespan of the strategy until the end of this year to enable actions interrupted by Covid-19 to be brought to a conclusion. An independent evaluation of the strategy will take place this year, which will help to feed into the development of the future strategic policy for gender equality. Any future strategic policy will continue to place a particular emphasis on the most vulnerable women and girls, including lone parents.

I thank the Minister of State. From his answer it is not looking like this amendment is going to happen at this time. In his response the Minister of State stated "It is important to note that entitlement to parents' leave is for the individual parent, it is not an allocation per family." In these instances, however, such parents are doing the job of two parents. They are under a lot of pressure and I believe we must take a broader perspective on this to look at the poverty rates and employment rates for lone parents. This will have benefits holistically. I do not agree that it is as simple as it being for the individual parent. I am not trying to take parents' leave away from anybody. This is about additional need and additional supports where additional supports are needed.

I thank Senator Currie. I will raise that with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. Senator Currie has articulated very strongly the merits, as well as the concerns lone parents have where they find themselves in very challenging circumstances and in need of key support, which I fully appreciate. I can see from running and living through a very busy constituency office, as the Senator also does, many of these concerns coming in from families of all types in this modern era. I will raise the point on the amendment the Senator has proposed. I will write to the Minister to explain what the Senator has articulated here today and I will revert back to the Senator on it.

Employment Rights

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, to the House.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad this morning. Senator Seery Kearney and I wish to address the issue of the precarious nature of employment being experienced by front-line delivery workers who work in the gig economy. The Minister of State will be aware from going through Dublin city that the streets are empty except for front-line workers such as the emergency services, taxi drivers, bus drivers and bicycle delivery workers. The bicycle delivery workers have provided a vital and essential service to all of us during the pandemic by bringing us groceries and our favourite takeaways to the comfort of our homes or places of work. We thank all of our front-line workers.

As I understand it, Deliveroo was set up by an American banker who moved to London, could not cook his own dinner and was frustrated with the poor quality of delivery service available in the UK. He smartly developed a software-driven delivery service that is more efficient, more convenient and smart. When one looks behind the software app, one has to look at the human experience of these workers in the gig economy. These workers are categorised as being self-employed but as part of a subcontracting culture, many young foreign students who come to Ireland to learn English and have a cultural experience are taking this part-time work to pay their way. They are providing us with a vital service but they are in a no man's land in which the company does not provide them with any employment rights or insurance cover if they are robbed, mugged or in any way injured carrying out their work. Senator Seery Kearney will set out our request to the Minister of State.

On Friday of last week, the UK Supreme Court found that Uber drivers were entitled to employment protections and were not self-employed. The argument in the case, which was supported by the GMB trade union, was that these drivers were workers who were deserving of employment protections. We saw a similar announcement from the Italian courts yesterday. The UK ruling arose from the fact that there are three categories of employment status in the UK, namely, employed, employee and a hybrid status that marries the gig economy flexible model of self-employment with basic employment rights. We do not have that third category of employment in Ireland.

In my meetings and correspondence with Deliveroo, I have argued that it is not acceptable for a company to establish a business model that does not take cognisance of the different types of employment status that apply and are lawful in a country. Its business model relies, as Senator Fitzpatrick has said, on riders scrambling for deliveries to maximise their incomes during their shifts. There are accidents and in recent times we have seen a sinister development involving criminal and anti-social elements. Deliveroo's business model also facilitates unlawful working by default. Deliveroo's insistence that drivers are self-employed allows someone else to register under a driver's name on the app and carry out the work. This means people are working outside the scope of the permissions of their visas. I do not blame the drivers for doing so and I do not have an issue with it per se because these services are a lifeline for communities and the food businesses within them. However, this practice leads to a reluctance to come forward and report attacks when they occur. The drivers are policing the city themselves by designating areas in the city as red zones to which they will not deliver. As a consequence, the communities in question are being stigmatised and denied a service.

I have written to the Minister for Justice and consulted the Garda and Dublin City Council on this. I have highlighted to the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English, the feasibility of adopting the hybrid category of employment. I have looked at submissions on rights, taxation and supports and I believe we can hold companies such as Deliveroo to account. We can oblige these companies to provide supports to their workers, who are generating profits for them. We need to engage with the model of the gig economy as a new mode of working, while also ensuring we do not facilitate a race to the bottom through the exploitation of these vulnerable workers.

I thank Senators Fitzpatrick and Seery Kearney for raising this important topic. I extend my sympathies to those workers who have suffered from such appalling violence in the course of their work. No one should have to contend with such violent situations. In particular, I offer my sympathies and those of the Government to the family and friends of Thiago Cortes, the Deliveroo cyclist who tragically died in a hit-and-run accident last August. Although An Garda Síochána is heavily involved in supporting public health restrictions, it is continuing in its duties to prevent and investigate crime, including assaults on delivery workers and vulnerable members of our communities.

On the matter being discussed today, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the employment status of any individuals of groups, as there are existing mechanisms in place for such determinations. The issue of determining employment status is within the remit of the Department of Social Protection, as I am sure both Senators are aware. Where an issue arises with the employment status of an individual, cases are forwarded to the Revenue Commissioners and the scope section of the Department of Social Protection, or both, for investigation. This investigation is carried either solely by the recipient, or jointly by the labour inspectorate of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC.

In most cases, it will be clear whether an individual is employed or self-employed. Where there is doubt in relation to the employment status of an individual, the relevant Department and agencies will have regard to the code of practice for determining the employment or self-employment status of an individual. This code was drawn up and agreed in 2007 by the relevant Departments in collaboration with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and IBEC.

New unlegislative forms of working arrangements are emerging as the labour market adapts to the opportunities presented by digitalisation, broadband and globalisation. This includes the emergence of more freelance-type working arrangements known as the gig economy as well as new forms of trading known as the sharing economy. It is important that policy adapts to provide social protection for workers in these new and emerging forms of work while not stifling social innovation. The Department of Social Protection, through its Scope and employment status investigation unit, ESIU, is revising and updating the code of practice for determining employment and self-employment status of individuals to reflect new working models and also recent case law in the determination of employment status.

Ireland has a robust suite of employment rights that protects all employees equally. Therefore, once it is clear a person is working on a contract of employment, written or verbal, on a full-time basis or part-time basis, that person has the same protection under employment law as other employees.

All employers carry the same obligation when it comes to compliance with employment rights. Where an individual believes that he or she is being deprived of employment rights applicable to employees, the person may refer a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, where the matter can be dealt with by way of mediation or adjudication leading to a decision that is enforceable through the District Court.

Ireland has always resisted the creation of sub-categories of employment as this will inevitably lead to a race to the bottom where hard-won employment rights are gradually eroded. Therefore, the Government has no plan to create a third category of employment.

I have been in many cases in the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Labour Court. The difficulty is that one can satisfy the criteria of being self-employed while, in fact, be working unlawfully. There is a problem in the model that we have. With due respect, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment needs to address the fact that the gig economy works very differently and Deliveroo is relying on our current criteria for self-employment in order to facilitate the avoidance of rights.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, but I concur with Senator Seery Kearney. The world has moved on. The gig economy is real, it is alive, and a great many of our citizens are earning an income and a living in the gig economy. The Government needs to respond to that reality.

I appreciate the Minister of State coming to the House, I appreciate that the House has given time to this important issue but I would ask the Minister of State to continue to engage with me and Senator Seery Kearney on this issue.

I also acknowledge that Deliveroo has been in contacted with both of us. I want the company to work with the workers and the Government to address this issue in a sustainable way for everyone.

It is not clear under what criteria a person would be deemed to fall into this third category of employment where he or she would neither be an employee nor self-employed. We would essentially be creating a lesser category of employee who we acknowledge is not self-employed but to whom we would not afford the same full suite of employment rights to which he or she is currently entitled.

It is important to reiterate that the Department of Social Protection is engaged in revising and updating the code of practice to reflect the new working models and also recent case law which the Senator alluded to in the determination of employment status. That code is being updated by way of an interdepartmental working group in consultation with the social partners and it is expected that that update code will be published within the coming months.

I will feed in what has been said by both Senators here today on foot of this Commencement debate to that international working group. If the Senators want to put something formally by way of a written submission, I will ensure that is taken on board also.

Sitting suspended at 11.45 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.