1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the number of special advisers and political staffing appointments in his Department. [54768/21]View answer
Ceisteanna - Questions
1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the number of special advisers and political staffing appointments in his Department. [54768/21]View answer
The requirement for specialist policy input and advice is a matter for each individual Minister to consider having regard to the area of responsibility and the support in place in the relevant Departments in line with the terms of the Public Service Management Act 1997.
As outlined in the programme for Government, a number of reforms have been implemented to ensure openness and co-operation within Government. These include the establishment of an office of the Tánaiste and an office of the leader of the Green Party within the Department of the Taoiseach, located in Government buildings. There are 16 special advisers employed within the Department of the Taoiseach, covering the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party, including the Government Chief Whip.
They work with the various office holders in the Department. I have previously set out details of these appointments to the House. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has also published the list of special advisers approved by Government, including those assigned to work in my Department, which is available on the gov.ie website and which is updated periodically.
Other politically-appointed staff in my Department include a Government press secretary and two deputy Government press secretaries, one each assigned to the Office of the Tánaiste and the office of the leader of the Green Party; a personal assistant to both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste; and two civilian drivers for the Government Chief Whip.
I thank the Taoiseach. It is an unprecedented number of advisers. I would say it is the highest in the history of the State. When the Taoiseach was in opposition he asked an awful lot of questions, as did his colleagues, as to why they were all required. The Taoiseach has gone and beaten the record. It includes 16 names, as the Taoiseach has outlined, I do not believe that this includes some other drivers. On top of that there are other offices. If you add in those who are working in secretarial roles, assistant roles, driver roles, and the Government press secretaries and advisers to the Attorney General etc., how many are there in total? This is so we can clearly see what the overall cost is. I have a cost of €3 million per year. Is that accurate? Is there a system of reviewing how this is performing? Surely the Taoiseach has some system of managing it and looking at the performance. It is a significant cost. Perhaps the Taoiseach would outline to us what this is.
Will the Taoiseach confirm that every aspect of all of the communications from all of these advisers, including WhatsApp, emails, messages, voice notes, and other electronic messages, is available under freedom of information and under parliamentary questions?
I was very intrigued by the announcement made by the Taoiseach at the end of September on the comprehensive review of Irish planning legislation, which is to be led by the Attorney General. In principle, the review of planning legislation is something I welcome. I did a review of An Bord Pleanála a number of years ago. It is intriguing that this proposed review is to be led by the Attorney General. Is this in accordance with the Cabinet handbook? What is the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, whose remit covers planning, responsible for? Why is he not leading this review ? Why is the Attorney General leading it? What resources are being put into the review and how many people are involved? What are the costs of it? Have additional resources been provided? There are three special advisers in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Department that covers planning. Are they involved in this review or are their roles being duplicated? Why was the Minister with responsibility for planning not in charge of this? Why is the Attorney General in charge of this? The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage decides what legislation he or she wants. The Minister is in charge of policy, not the Attorney General. The Attorney General is not the policy chief. He advises the Government legally, so why is he leading on this? Is this a dangerous precedent? Has the Taoiseach seen this before? I admit that Attorneys General always advise legally, but they do not lead on policy. How is it that the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, who is responsible for planning, is being absolutely bypassed here and a role is being set up for the Attorney General to do this when in reality it should be a member of the Government who has responsibility for it?
Does the Taoiseach have a special adviser on disability matters, or have any of the Taoiseach's special advisers ever suggested he heeds the call of disability organisations and advocate groups for his Department to co-ordinate implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, and disability matters generally? There are people dealing with different aspects of disability across a whole series of departmental silos, and as a result we do not have a rights-based approach to disability matters in the context of the UNCRPD. For example, I met a woman recently who spoke about her son who has Down's syndrome and who is constantly having his medical card entitlement reviewed. In our own area at the moment there is a door-to-door transport service called Accessible Community Transport Southside, ACTS, for people who are wheelchair users and those with mobility issues. The service's lack of funding means several thousand people with mobility issues or who use wheelchairs and cannot use public transport are going to lose the service through the lack of a relatively small amount of money. I could go on. The problem is that all these things are dealt with by subsidiaries of departmental silos rather than having a co-ordinated approach, which the Taoiseach's Department should lead, towards ensuring a rights-based approach to disability matters in line with the implementation of UNCRPD.
As the Taoiseach is aware, I and many other Opposition Deputies have raised the issue of the Minister, Deputy Ryan's, controversial appointments to the Climate Change Advisory Council. I wish to raise these matters again today in the hope the Taoiseach will address our specific concerns. As the Taoiseach is aware, the Government rejected a Sinn Féin amendment to the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill last year that would have brought the appointments process to the advisory council in line with other public bodies. Specifically, our amendment was based on the process of appointments to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Like his Minister, the Taoiseach has yet to explain why he continues to oppose an open and transparent system of appointments to the advisory council. This is a serious matter. The manner in which these appointments were made flies in the face of public administration norms and undermines the important work of eminently qualified people. The Taoiseach argues the appointments follow the letter of the law, but he does not acknowledge that his Government, which drafted the legislative provision, enabled the Minister to appoint party members as advisers in the first place. This is particularly relevant as the same legislation provides for the advisory council's significantly enhanced oversight functions. These are valid questions by the Opposition. Rather than play the man, surely the Taoiseach should now play the ball and explain why he and his Government opposes an open and transparent process of appointments to the Climate Change Advisory Council.
Deputy Kelly said that this Government is breaking all records when it comes to advisers. I do not accept that. To be fair, Deputy Kelly's party pioneered the whole idea of special advisers and programme managers.
It was a good idea.
When former Deputy Dick Spring became Tánaiste, he insisted on a very strong political advisory capacity behind the Government to implement the programme for Government. I agree with the Deputy that it is an important aspect of modern government, and that was an initiative taken by the Labour Party at the time. This is in line with that. We are a three-party coalition. If Deputy Kelly was in government as the leader of the Labour Party, he would demand the exact same accommodation in respect of advisers as the Green Party or the Fine Gael Party currently have. It is completely in line with the Public Service Management Act 1997. The limits are there. This is in accordance with those limits. It is also transparent and public. It is all done under the terms of the Public Service Management Act 1997. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste of the day, and their party leader in Government, may have more than two special advisers. A Minister of State who attends Cabinet may have two special advisers, and the Minister of State who does not attend Cabinet can have one special adviser. All special advisers must be formally appointed by the Government. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has published guidelines setting out the arrangements for the staffing of ministerial offices for the Thirty-third Dáil.
On the issue of communications and texts, communications in respect of Government business must be available for freedom of information requests.
Deputy Kelly asked about the planning review. This was done in consultation with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien. He is very keen this would take place. There is a very strong legal dimension to this with regard to the Acts and the laws that have been passed over the years. The need to streamline these from a legal perspective is very important. That is the exercise under way, and I believe it is a worthwhile exercise. Deputy Kelly himself had raised with me some time ago his sense that the An Bord Pleanála structure needed increased capacity. Deputy Kelly had identified to me that An Bord Pleanála was losing cases in the High Court a bit too regularly. That is the context for this review. It is not just about An Bord Pleanála; it is the full gamut of the planning system.
The Minister, ultimately, retains policy primacy in this and he has consulted with the Attorney General and he is satisfied that the Attorney General should lead the legal overhaul and consolidation of the Planning Acts. It is very important that we get this done. It has to come before the House and ultimately the Government has to decide and the Minister has to be satisfied from a policy perspective of any changes that may emerge from this. Obviously, if this is to manifest in legislation, which we hope it will, we will then be able to bring that before the House.
One of the challenges that we have in this country is getting major infrastructural projects through in a timely manner. Deputies will come into the House on a regular basis and will complain about how long the metro, or you name it - a whole range of projects - is taking. Housing is even taking an inordinate length of time to get done. We have an issue in getting projects developed, planned for and provided in a timely manner. In some instances it is taking the best part of a decade to get things done. On the Maritime Area Planning Bill 2021 about which there was a row earlier, one is still looking at years before wind energy projects will actually come on stream. I am very conscious of that delay which is now endemic in how we do infrastructure projects in this country and it is very problematic for our future development.
On Deputy Boyd Barrett's points, one of the big innovations of this Government was to move disability from health as a core responsibility to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth - it is a long title - to try to give a singular focus to the question of disability. Operationally, the HSE will be involved in the delivery of services but from a policy perspective, there will be one key Department which will have the function of co-ordinating and developing policy and initiatives for people with disabilities. The Deputy has referred to a Down's syndrome child, for example. I would have thought they would have received the domiciliary care allowance and have automatic entitlement now to the medical card and certainly to the GP-----
The mother says they will have to come back to review it.
----- card, I think, but I will have to check that. That should not be happening.
There is a Cabinet social affairs subcommittee which has dealt with disability in the past and it is an opportunity to co-ordinate with other Government Departments. It is an area which demands co-ordination at the same time-----
It is not happening.
-----from transport, to work, to education and right across the board. One of the bigger areas that I am interested in - I am interested in all areas of special needs and disability - is employment. That area needs to be worked on much more pro-actively in getting agencies and Government Departments employing more people more quickly in respect of disabilities.
Deputy Mac Lochlainn raised the area of appointments, and these were transparent and in line with the legislation. He said that he put forward an amendment. There was a debate in the House on that amendment and his amendment lost. There comes a time when the Deputy must also accept parliamentary democracy at work. The two people concerned have considerable expertise in the area of environment and climate and have considerable academic experience which the Deputy seems to have ignored. He accused the Government of playing the man and not the ball. I argue from the outset of this that he has attempted to create a controversy and undermine the reputation of the individuals concerned and that is not fair.
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [55668/21]View answer
3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [56127/21]View answer
4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [57325/21]View answer
5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [57328/21]View answer
6. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education last met; and when it is next due to meet. [57356/21]View answer
7. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education last met; and when it is next due to meet. [57357/21]View answer
8. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [58660/21]View answer
9. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will meet next. [58662/21]View answer
10. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education will next meet. [58665/21]View answer
11. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Education last met; and when it is next due to meet. [59098/21]View answer
I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 11, inclusive, together. The Cabinet committee on education oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education including the management of Covid-19 in schools. This Cabinet committee last met on 13 May. I have regular engagements with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments. In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Government Departments since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020 and there have been bilateral meetings between myself and the Minister for Education and also with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.
There are eight speakers and I call Deputy Mac Lochlainn now, who has one minute.
Contact tracing in schools effectively ceased at the end of September. Since then the level of infection has more than trebled among primary school children although in the absence of properly collected data by the health system, the incidence rate may be higher. No satisfactory explanation has been provided by the Government as to how schools went from being safe to unsafe virtually overnight. We support the Government in its intention to keep the schools open but what we cannot understand is why the Minister for Health has not reinstated fully resourced schools-specific contact tracing. Why is that left to principals and parents? Surely it is the HSE that must lead testing and tracing in our schools, including risk assessments and referrals for PCR testing where a child is a close contact. Antigen testing should supplement not replace PCR testing. It is not the job of educators to carry public health duties and we all know how stretched the school system is. The capacity issues for PCR testing also need to be addressed in this context together with outstanding issues in regard to supply and distribution of antigen tests. What update on both can the Taoiseach provide us with?
Finally, on the roll-out of high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filtration in classrooms, CO2 devices monitor air quality but HEPA filters actively remove contaminants from the air. Does the Taoiseach agree with that and what does he intend to do about it?
I dropped my own children to primary school this morning and was speaking to my wife, who is a teacher in another school in Nenagh, at lunchtime and the volume of children and teachers who are out of school is something that all Deputies are experiencing and hearing about and it is the same thing across the country. We need to work together to try to find as many solutions as we can.
On antigen testing the Ferguson report recommended it last April. I presume the Government is open to tweaking the system because it needs to be tweaked and the antigen tests need to be based in the schools instead of being posted out afterwards and this is my honest assessment. This is something we all must collectively change.
I also ask the Government to consider buying HEPA air filters as they would be a good investment throughout this virus. We should just do it. Ventilation is critically important.
On vaccines, post-Christmas, now that we have a report from the European Medicines Agency, will that vaccination be done through the schools?
Finally, on the leaving certificate, I heard, accept and, in fact, agree with what the Taoiseach said earlier, probably, but is there are a continuing analysis of the fact that so many students at leaving certificate level have missed so many hours and days and teachers have also been out of the schools?
On repeated occasions I have raised with this Government and the one previous to this, the fury of parents, the school community and local residents at the decision of the Christian Brothers to sell off the school playing fields of Clonkeen College in Dún Laoghaire. The Government has failed to intervene and the Christian Brothers are continuing to push through with that decision to sell off to private property developers the school playing fields.
In the past week the parents were absolutely shocked to get a letter from the Christian Brothers, from the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, saying that it was not reappointing a board of management to the school but was going to have one manager and no board. This is despite the fact that the parents and teachers have put forward representatives who could have formed a board. The trust is empowered to do this under a statutory instrument brought in in 1998 by the former Minister for Education, Michael Woods, which means that the school simply has to notify the Government - I would like to know if it has done so - that they cannot supposedly find suitable people for the board. This is retaliation by the Christian Brothers against the parents, teachers and school community because they oppose what the Christian Brothers are doing. Will the Taoiseach intervene and prevent them from doing this because this has wide implications for other schools?
I want to raise with the Taoiseach again the question of HEPA filters in our schools. Yesterday the Minister for Health told RTÉ radio that the expert group within the HSE had looked at this, namely HEPA filters in schools, in great detail and its advice to the Department of Education and to the Department of Health is that they are not recommended. Exactly what the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, was referring to there is not clear from anything that is published on the relevant websites. The NPHET expert group on ventilation recommended back in March that HEPA filters would be useful for schools, particularly for winter months when it is not possible to have windows open all day.
The report stated that HEPA filter devices "may be useful in reducing airborne transmission in spaces with insufficient ventilation". Yesterday, Dr. Kim Roberts, a member of the expert group, spoke at a press conference we organised about our ventilation Bill and the need for HEPA filters in schools. The Department of Education, in May this year, said that, in a certain scenario, consideration should be given to a room air cleaner with a HEPA filter. When will the Government change its position and invest in HEPA filters for every classroom?
I want to raise the situation in the early childhood years sector. We have seen good interventions by the Government over the past week in addressing substitute teacher shortages in primary schools and, yesterday, in secondary schools. Some of those measures are very positive and will lead to a huge influx of people back into classrooms, stabilising the whole system at a time when we really want to keep schools open. It very much concerns me, however, that the incidence of Covid in crèches and childcare settings has increased by 500% over recent weeks. It should be noted that this is consistent with other age cohorts. Covid is simply on the rise. The same actions the Government is taking to address staff shortages at primary and secondary level must now be taken in the preschool context. In a recent SIPTU survey, one third of childcare managers said their facilities are now at risk of closing and 61% said they will have to reduce capacity if all things remain equal. We need to get the students in their final year of preschool studies in our third level centres back in.
Contact tracing was removed from the primary school context in late September, when the rate of Covid infections was in a very different space.
Go raibh maith agat, Deputy.
Tracing should be brought back in now to alleviate the pressure so many primary school teachers, principals and parents are facing at this time.
What is the Government doing to increase the number of apprenticeships, especially in construction trades? This is of crucial importance for building new homes and for meeting our climate change and retrofitting targets. Apprenticeships in key construction trades, such as bricklaying and plastering, are at only some 10% of their 2004 levels. In other countries, such as the UK and Norway, public contracts for large infrastructure projects include a clause that a percentage of the workforce must be made up of apprentices. In South Australia, for example, 15% of labour hours on specified public contracts are for apprentices and other targeted groups who need upskilling. What is the Government doing to increase the number of apprenticeships in key construction trades? Will it consider similar clauses in public contracts to ensure a percentage of the workforce is made up of apprentices?
I have raised with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the need to intensify co-operation and collaboration on an all-Ireland basis in the whole area of further education. In fairness, the Minister, Deputy Harris, has indicated strongly his interest in this specific area. In the context of the establishment of the new Department and the shared island initiative, further education could be a real beneficiary and its further development would be of major benefit to students for generations to come on a cross-Border and all-Ireland basis. At present, there is cross-Border co-operation on an ad hoc basis. As we move forward, we should have structured co-operation on an all-Ireland basis. Cavan Institute, the first board of management of which I had the privilege of chairing, became the first dedicated post-leaving certificate college in 1999. It is the leading further education provider in the southern Border region. Specific arrangements should be put in place to intensify and lead co-operation on an all-Ireland, cross-Border basis by having specific sister college arrangements with similar institutes in Northern Ireland.
Thank you, Deputy.
It is an area we need to drive forward and to which we must give momentum.
In September, the German federal Government spent €200 million on air purifiers for schools and childcare centres. Here, HEPA air purifiers could be provided for every Irish classroom at a cost of approximately €12 million. However, the Government has decided not to take this step. I find this incredible, given that Covid is an airborne disease and our school buildings house school communities of approximately 1 million people, five days a week and for six hours most days. Members of the State's expert group on ventilation, a subcommittee of NPHET, has been critical of the Government's failure on this front. Indeed, four of them were forced to go public yesterday to challenge comments made by the Minister for Health on this issue. Children have been asked to forgo Christmas parties and pantomimes and they are shivering in the cold in their classrooms. People are doing that. When is the Government going to do the right thing by them and put air filtration systems into every classroom in the State?
There were eight speakers but the time is limited for the Taoiseach to respond.
First, I noticed references in a lot of contributions to the Government having ended contact tracing or the Government having decided this or that. It was a decision the Government took at the time, on 27 September, following, and in line with, recommendations from NPHET, to cease routine contact tracing. It was public health advice.
It was a Government decision.
Does Deputy Murphy accept it was based on public health advice?
Does the Taoiseach accept it was a Government decision?
What I do not accept is the deliberate narrative created by Deputies that it was a decision taken without any reference to public health whatsoever. This is from the very same Deputies who will argue consistently for the need to adhere not only to public health advice but to even more severe public health advice in respect of zero Covid and so on. When it suits them, they turn it all around and say that anything they do not like is done by the Government, not on the basis of public health advice. It was the Government working on the advice from public health that took this decision because, at the time, the view was it was leading to disruption within schools and children being out of school. The Deputies cannot have it both ways, but Deputy Murphy tends to have it both ways and each and every way every time he comes in here.
The Taoiseach can check the record. We are extremely consistent on this.
In terms of HEPA filtrators and ventilation, guidance has been issued to schools and an expert group was formed. The fundamental view of that group, by the way, is that the most important ventilation is fresh air. That is the most basic rule of thumb it has applied. On the costings, people have magically come up with a figure of €12 million. I have been given an estimate that it could cost up to €80 million if every single classroom were to be ventilated with a HEPA filter. Again, that can be worked through. What cannot be argued with is that hundreds of millions have been allocated to our education system for Covid preparedness. The fact there are up to 35,000 CO2 monitors in schools throughout the country, in almost all classrooms, has been very important. I have touched base with some schools in this respect and they have found it very useful in terms of managing their way through this. In respect of air filtration in schools, there is a facility there to avail of that, working with departmental technical people who will advise schools that are in difficulty in regard to ventilation and help them to put in ventilation systems. That facility is there and there is also the minor capital works programme and so on. There is a sufficiency of capital there for people to have bespoke solutions for their particular school, because every school is different.
The most important advice to give to schools and preschool settings is that where children are symptomatic, they should not be sent to school. That is the most fundamental advice. As I keep on saying, one of the biggest issues for the past three months has been respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, in terms of children getting ill and being hospitalised. RSV and other respiratory illnesses have been the dominant issue this winter among children, which has proved challenging. The symptomatic advice applies across the board and will be very helpful. Someone said earlier that parents were sending children in with a spoonful or two of Calpol. That is not the thing to do.
Antigen testing has been introduced and 8,000 tests were dispatched. I take Deputy Kelly's point and will follow up and reflect on it. The target now is to get to the Christmas break, recalibrate and review how we deal with the next semester. The advice we have received this week from the public health doctors is that they believe children should reduce their socialising. Why? They showed us graphs yesterday, which they published, showing that infections among five- to 11-year-olds are going through the roof in terms of numbers, or had been for the past number of weeks, as well as among their parents. They are the two big bars in the graph showing where the numbers have gone up. They want to bring that level down, just like we did in the rest of the population. Two weeks ago, our public messaging worked in terms of making a statement asking people to follow the advice on working from home and our exhortations to people to reduce their socialising. That has led to a moderation and stabilisation of hospital and ICU numbers, but we are still at too high a level of incidence. The same advice now is being applied to children from the public health doctors, namely, that if we can reduce socialising overall, we could turn that curve the other way, which is down, in terms of those case numbers.
Thank you, Taoiseach.
I did not get to every question. In response to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, we are working on apprenticeships. There has been a big change in the new scheme we have introduced.
Deputy Brendan Smith made a very good point on further education. There needs to be more structured co-operation and I am working on that through the shared island initiative. We are endeavouring to get the various education institutions together and we will support partnerships. I would be interested in a further education partnership. Work is under way in terms of third level and research partnerships. Further education partnerships would be something we would look favourably on, in particular in Border areas where there is a lot of co-operation. I accept that needs to be more structured.
We need to move on.
Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about Clonkeen College. I will follow that matter up with the Minister for Education. Some clause in the 1998 Act has probably been invoked, and therefore a manager has to be put in place. That appears to me to be regressive. Let me follow through on that. I do not have the full answer here. I will alert the Minister for Education to the issue.
Deputy Cathal Crowe dealt with contact tracing, five- to 11-year-olds and other school measures. The new substitute teaching measures will make a difference. Deputy Crowe has been to the fore in coming up with innovative solutions, and I pay tribute to him for that. They have borne fruit.
We need to move on to Question No. 12.
12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will provide a progress report on the programme for Government. [57018/21]View answer
13. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will provide a progress report on the programme for Government. [57204/21]View answer
14. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will provide a progress report on the programme for Government. [57673/21]View answer
15. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Taoiseach if he will provide an overview of the progress made to date in relation to the programme for Government. [57668/21]View answer
16. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the programme for Government. [57669/21]View answer
17. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will provide a progress report on the programme for Government. [58666/21]View answer
I propose to take Question Nos. 12 to 17, inclusive, together.
The Government has been working hard to implement the commitments in the programme for Government across a wide range of issues in all Departments. The ten Cabinet committees established by the Government reflect the full range of policy areas that it will work on during its lifetime, as set out in the programme for Government. Cabinet committees meet regularly to continue this work. The strategy statements which have been prepared by Departments reflect the key national priorities as outlined in the programme for Government.
My Department has been involved in progressing some key programme for Government commitments in recent months. They include ongoing monitoring and management of the impact of Covid-19; the provision of Covid and non-Covid healthcare; driving the delivery of our shared island commitments on a whole-of-government basis through the shared island unit in my Department; the establishment of a unit in my Department to help to support social dialogue; the implementation of the Housing for All strategy, which is driving the delivery of key housing related commitments; a major review to inform the revised national development plan, which was published in October; the delivery of the economic recovery plan, which was published on 1 June, after which a progress report will be compiled in the coming period to outline the considerable progress the plan has made in transitioning Ireland's economy; and the development of a well-being framework for Ireland, the first report of which was approved by the Government and published in July. A follow-up phase of considerable consultation and engagement on the initial well-being framework is under way.
The national digital strategy, which is being actively developed, will set out our overarching vision and ambition to position Ireland as a digital leader to the benefit of our people and the economy. We published the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill, the climate action plan 2021, the marine planning framework and the Maritime Area Planning Bill. There has been engagement with European Union leaders to advance a range of high-level objectives in the programme for Government, in particular regarding Brexit, Covid, the EU budget and the EU green agenda. The commitments also include the implementation of Global Ireland 2025, supporting the work of the United Nations through our membership of the UN Security Council, the establishment of the Future of Media Commission, the completion of the work of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality and ongoing oversight of the implementation of a policing service for our future, including the Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. The Government will continue to work proactively to ensure the delivery of every aspect of the programme for Government.
I welcome the Ceann Comhairle back.
On the commitments in the programme for Government on defects, the Housing Agency has been tasked with overseeing the pyrite resolution scheme. Over 2,000 families in Dublin and north Leinster have availed of the scheme. The Housing Agency does the testing, makes the prognosis, engages with building contractors and assists with rental accommodation. From start to finish it is involved in the process. Why is the Housing Agency not overseeing the defective concrete blocks scheme in Donegal and the west of Ireland?
If the Government is so confident that the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, SCSI, figures it is standing over today are fine, why does it not ask the Housing Agency to get the deal out there? The outdated numbers from the SCSI for a typical average house to be demolished and rebuilt refer to houses that are 2,300 sq. ft. On the SCSI's website, that would cost €317,400, based on the numbers given today. I hope those numbers are wrong. The campaign rejected a proposal of €108 per sq. ft. The Minister assured them that would not be the figure. The proposed scheme is even worse than they thought. I ask the Taoiseach to clarify urgently that this information is wrong. Why is the Housing Agency not operating the scheme in the west of Ireland as it does in the east to ensure that families who are traumatised do not have to carry this burden?
The Taoiseach might clarify to the House that the proposal going out to primary schools is that face masks will be mandatory, and not advisory, from third class up . I ask the Taoiseach to clarify that because there is a lot of confusion out there, as I stand here. There is a different view about the matter.
Will legislation on the Limerick mayoral election be passed early next year? Will the election go ahead after the summer break next year? Will the Taoiseach finally put this matter to bed? A number of councillors in Limerick have come together to ask that the election go ahead. If it does not, it is unlikely that it will go ahead at all, given when the local elections will be held. The people of Limerick have voted for this and deserve it. It should go ahead. Can the Taoiseach clarify that?
According to the Business Post, a package on energy is being put together. Will the Taoiseach outline whether it will involve VAT or taking some money from the PSO levy? What is being considered in regard to the package we all know is necessary in terms of dealing with the cost of energy bills heading into winter?
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the local connection rule and the commitment on page 55 of the programme for Government to introduce a social housing passport to allow a household to move from one local authority housing waiting list to another. The local connection rule is still causing significant issues and problems, perhaps not on the same scale as last year, but people are still being refused emergency accommodation because of the rule. People have been told to leave emergency accommodation because of this rule. It creates a huge problem for people in emergency accommodation who want to progress out of it and into more permanent housing. The rule makes no sense. It can mean that a person who is originally from Dublin and has moved to Galway to take up a job is recorded on some database as having his or her last employment in Galway. If the person moves back to Dublin and become homeless, he or she is refused the services and supports he or she needs. It is a bureaucratic rule and it needs to go. Will that commitment in the programme for Government be realised? What is the Government doing to sort out and get rid of the rule?
I welcome the Ceann Comhairle back.
Today is the last day of national diabetes awareness month. I am the chairperson of the all-party Oireachtas committee on diabetes. The Taoiseach will be aware that my colleagues and I meet regularly with various organisations to discuss the issues facing people living with diabetes here in Ireland. Those same people are keen to see the expansion of digital health services, the delivery of care more effectively, the empowerment of patients to access their medical records and the provision of more services to patients in their homes and communities. They would like to see more investment in modern e-health and ICT infrastructure, in line with Project Ireland 2040 and the e-health strategy for Ireland. Significant progress on medical ICT infrastructure was made during the course of the pandemic, with GPs improving e-health measures and providing for the secure electronic sharing of patient information and lab results, etc. The electronic health record system, with its individual health identifier programme, is being rolled out within Children's Health Ireland and the initiative should be expanded across the HSE hospital network. Perhaps the Taoiseach could give an update on this area and raise the matter with the Minister for Health.
The income threshold for fuel allowance will increase to €120 in January and the overall rate of payment will also increase. That is proof that carbon tax can be used to protect the most vulnerable in society. When it comes to assessing those who qualify for fuel allowance, I am asking that we show far more flexibility and discretion. I also ask that payments such as carer's allowance and child benefit be disregarded when assessing who does or does not qualify for fuel allowance, especially when the only income of the household is a social welfare payment. I will give an example of the type of individual who calls to my office or contacts me about the fuel allowance. She is a lady over 66 years of age whose only income is the widow's pension. She has a son with intellectual disabilities and she is getting the half-rate of carer's allowance. That is her entire household income, yet she does not qualify for fuel allowance. I am asking for more discretion and flexibility.
Renters need protection. They need the Government to lock up the house and keep the rent increases out, but it appears that the Government has left the front door on the latch and the back door swinging wide open. The following is a quote from the Irish Independent website this morning regarding the proposed rent cap legislation: "Landlords will be able to hike rents by multiples of new rent control caps if they have not increased rents in several years." Is that quote correct? If it is incorrect, can the Taoiseach explain how it is incorrect? The website also says that the Government's stated aim is to cap rent increases at 2%, but with this legislation a 5.9% increase would be possible in some circumstances. Does the Taoiseach disagree with that? If so, can he explain what is his basis for doing so? Clearly, what is needed is a three-year rent freeze, at least, with no loopholes, no exemptions and no get-out clauses for landlords.
We are out of time so I will allow 30 seconds for each of the Deputies.
It is good to see you back, a Cheann Comhairle. The Taoiseach knows there is a crisis in the horticultural sector as a result of peat shortages. Successive Governments over recent years have allowed that crisis to fester by not preventing the export of peat, not investing in finding alternatives to peat and allowing and forcing companies to import peat from the far side of Europe. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan, has the report of a working group he established to examine this matter and proposed recommendations to resolve it. I have asked about this previously. He has had the report for almost six weeks. Will the Taoiseach ensure that the Minister of State publishes it this week and that the Government immediately sets about implementing its recommendations?
The programme for Government has a commitment to universal healthcare. In light of the announcements yesterday, one has to wonder if that is going to be healthcare by Lidl's middle aisle. The way the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, attempted to explain this U-turn and retreat from the previous policy that the Government would subsidise antigen testing by saying that the market has done it by itself really required a brass neck. Does the Taoiseach not accept that price gouging will still take place for those who do not manage to get the antigen tests in the middle aisle and that we need to provide antigen testing for free as part of the public health service, as is happening in the NHS in Britain?
Given the new public health measures and the injunction for people to reduce their social contacts, I have asked the Taoiseach on a number of occasions to resurrect supports for musicians, entertainers, taxi drivers and people in the night-time economy. On 2 November, the cross-party group on music and entertainment wrote to a number of Ministers asking that those sector-specific supports, particularly the part-time self-employed scheme, would form the basis of an income support whereby musicians, entertainers and taxi drivers, as was the case previously, could earn up to a certain amount and get some support, given that their work has dramatically reduced as a result of the public health measures at a time when they would have expected to make quite a lot of money coming up to Christmas.
The Taoiseach has very little time to conclude.
I remind Deputies that the original question was about the programme for Government. The key elements of that programme have been groundbreaking and significantly developed. Delivering Housing for All is the biggest State investment in housing in the country's history. I suggest that Deputy Cian O'Callaghan refer to the Minister with the specifics because the Minister is adamant that the local issue does not arise anymore and the accommodation should be provided.
We have confronted and responded to the climate and biodiversity crisis. Other parties have not; they are playing politics with it. The Government has decided to go for it and has passed the law and passed the climate action plan and the carbon budgets. We need those who are against the climate and almost in denial about the climate to come on board, because this has to be an Oireachtas approach.
Managing the country's safety through the Covid pandemic has been a significant achievement of the Government so far. We have rolled out one of the most successful vaccine programmes globally. We have plotted the country's social and economic recovery, which has been significant since the spring, with unprecedented direct financial supports and Ireland's largest ever capital investment programme in the national development plan. We are also developing and delivering the most significant initiative on North-South relations in decades through the shared island initiative. We are embedding health reform in the lessons learned from Covid-19.
In respect of bespoke measures for the entertainment and music sector, the Minister has announced some schemes. We will continue to work on that and the Government will keep it under review in terms of more bespoke models to support those who may still be under pressure in the current situation.
Regarding peat, let me be clear that the Government cannot break the law and cannot advocate breaking the law.
I am only asking the Taoiseach to publish the report.
This involved court actions. People never tell the straight story here. The courts arbitrated on peat and anything we do must be in line with EU directives and EU environmental law.
Absolutely. Will the Taoiseach publish the report?
I have no difficulty with publishing the report, but Ministers are coming together to see if they can get a resolution to this for the horticulture sector.
Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked about the income thresholds. I understand his point about more discretion and flexibility in respect of the fuel allowance. I will talk to the Minister for Social Protection in that regard and to other Ministers regarding the measures we are introducing to reduce the overall levels. The increase in the income threshold will be made retrospective to budget day, but I realise the Deputy is saying that it is not enough and that we need to do more.
Deputy Devlin spoke about diabetes, a very important issue. Again, I will work with the Minister for Health and the HSE to expand diabetes services. Progress is being made.
With regard to renters, I have not seen the article mentioned by Deputy Barry. I will have to see it before I can comment on it.
What about the Limerick mayor?
I am not finished yet. My apologies, but I am going in reverse order.
Okay, good stuff.
To respond to Deputy Mac Lochlainn, we gave a fair bit of time to the defective block issue. It is a comprehensive scheme.
What about the Housing Agency?
We asked for specific submissions from parties, but the Deputy's party decided not to respond to the Minister.
What about the Housing Agency?
The Housing Agency is central to it.
Why is it not running the entire scheme?
Deputy Kelly raised the Limerick mayoral office and the election. We are working on the legislation and I take the Deputy's point. Certainly, 2022 has to be the time to get that legislation passed by the House and developed. In respect of masks for nine-year-olds, it has been advised that this will be required.
I am just asking the Taoiseach to clarify it.
It has been advised and it will be required. We are not going to regulate it in law with legal regulations. We have to work with children and be practical about this, particularly children with special needs.
It is mandatory however.
I think I have responded to everybody.
I asked about the antigen tests.
I have dealt with antigen tests all day. The important point regarding antigen tests is that up to 130,000 have been given out free through close contacts. I am sorry; I am wrong. Some 100,000 have been given for free to close contacts, 130,000 for food production and the agriculture sector and approximately 22,000 for higher education. They were all freely dispatched. Some 8,000 in respect of primary schools were dispatched free yesterday for close contacts of children. There are many antigen tests being given out free to targeted groups, which makes sense. The overall price range has come down to between €2 and €3.
Go raibh maith agat, a Thaoisigh.
The alternative would cost approximately half a billion euro if we were to make them free over 12 months. We have to allocate and use our resources wisely as well.