Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 4 Nov 2020

Vol. 1000 No. 2

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I want to address the ban on the sale of essential clothing for children, which has caused a lot of stress and distress for families throughout the State. We are heading into a very cold winter. Children grow and they need new coats and shoes. Parents across the land are frustrated that they have no option but to buy online. That suits some people but it certainly does not suit many others, particularly low-income families. People scratched their heads in amazement when they heard the Minister of State, Deputy English, proclaim that clothes are not essential. They are very much essential and, coming into wintertime, warm clothing is particularly essential for children and babies. A bit of cop on and common sense needs to apply in this matter and also a bit of thoughtfulness for families with young children. What is the Taoiseach going to do about this issue?

First of all, the Deputy will be happy to hear that I agree with her that clothes are essential, particularly for children. The Deputy was in favour of the level 5 restrictions, as advised by NPHET, which include the closure of non-essential retail. Retail outlets have provided a number of options, such as click and collect, where people can make a telephone call, order clothes and call in to collect them. There is also the online option. I accept that while it is being well used, it is not available to everybody. Some shops also do deliveries. In addition, the Community Call initiative offers assistance to people, particularly vulnerable and senior citizens, in getting shopping delivered to them. I recently met a number of Community Call volunteers in Dublin City Council, including one from Raheny GAA club, who told me that they are doing a lot of shopping for senior citizens in their areas.

My question relates to the proposed amendment to the Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) Act 2018 to introduce provisions to regulate the affordability clauses in hire purchase and personal contract plan, PCP, financing arrangements, particularly as they relate to the motor industry. More than 76,000 people are on PCP contracts and the value of loans outstanding is some €1.5 billion. The Tutty report in 2018 advised that legislation be introduced in this area. Many people who have such contracts have lost their jobs as a result of the Covid crisis and are having to seek help from the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, because they are unable to get any forbearance from some of these companies. Will the Taoiseach give this issue his personal attention?

I thank the Deputy for raising an issue that is very important to many people in our society.

I will certainly engage with the Minister in this regard but the heads of the Bill are expected shortly. I will keep a sharp eye on that for the Deputy.

They have been expected "shortly" for a while.

I understand that the word "shortly"-----

I call Deputy Cairns.

The Government's recent acknowledgment of people's rights to their own information through personal data access requests is very welcome. I, and many others, presume that this right applies not only to the data from the mother and baby homes commission, but to data relating to the Ryan report and the McAleese archives. These were sealed a very long time ago. Will the Taoiseach confirm that all survivors of institutional abuse will be able to access their own personal data?

I am of the view that the general data protection regulation, GDPR, applies to requests for access to personal data. This is also the view of the Attorney General. I was involved in the establishment of the Ryan commission, which was then the Laffoy commission. As Minister for Education and Science at the time, I opened all of the files to historians at the time and gave them access.

I am asking about access for survivors.

I know. I am going to come to that. I have no interest in any records being put into a vault to which no one has access and left there for a long time. As a Government, we have decided to establish a national centre in which the archives of the industrial schools, Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes will be held. It will not only be an archive. We will try to be creative. This is where the story of dark chapters of our past will be told. Clearly, there will be legal issues involved. The expansion of GDPR is interesting and affects how we will affirm the rights of people to access their own personal data, which is now a legal requirement at European level which should be adhered to.

Donald Trump tweeted this morning that "they are trying to STEAL the Election". Of course, the man trying to steal the election is the candidate of the far right, Donald Trump. He now wants to go to the Supreme Court to stop the counting of ballots. I have no faith that Joe Biden or the Democratic Party can stop this election from being stolen. It was their dreadful pro-big business, corporate campaign that let Donald Trump get this close in the first place. I support the call of the Socialist Alternative organisation in the United States for mass demonstrations and civil disobedience should he try to steal the election.

The programme for Government says that we will "Strongly advocate for democracy and democratic values". I hear muttering from some Trump supporters on the floor of the Dáil, by the way, but this is what the programme for Government says. Will the Taoiseach also support the call for mass demonstrations and civil disobedience should Trump try to steal the election?

First of all, the election is not over. The last time I listened to coverage of it was early this morning and it seemed the race was going to very tight and there were many votes yet to be counted. The United States is one of the oldest democracies in the world. It has always managed its elections in a peaceful and democratic way and I have no doubt that this will be also be the case on this occasion. We should not jump to conclusions. It is a fraught time for all of those involved in the election. It is a tense time, given how close it is. The sensible thing to do is to allow the electoral process in the United States to take its course. We will see, perhaps later this week, who has actually won the election.

Despite warnings from the Minister for Justice, Hallowe'en once again proved to be a torturous ordeal for many people throughout the country, including people in my own county of Tipperary. Weeks before 31 October, there was an ongoing barrage of fireworks in every town, village and city across the country, instilling fear in the elderly, intellectually disabled people, those with autism, young children and animals. Hallowe'en night itself was a living nightmare in many places with our essential service providers being attacked in some areas. There have been reports of fireworks having been thrown at moving vehicles, thrown from bridges, tossed into people's back gardens and even pushed through letterboxes. This is not Hallowe'en fun; it is criminal damage and malice. Fireworks are supposed to be illegal in the Republic of Ireland. Why then are they so freely available? We need a more determined effort to prevent the import of fireworks. We need to be seen to enforce the laws already in existence. We have 12 months to address this issue. I ask that some measures be taken to improve enforcement of the law.

I join with the Deputy in articulating our disgust at the unacceptable use of illegal fireworks in communities across the country. I agree with him about the frustration of many living in different communities at their indiscriminate and intimidating use. The Minister for Justice and her Department run a safety campaign aimed at ensuring public awareness of the dangers of illegal fireworks and bonfires. I will discuss this matter with the Minister for Justice with a view to a crackdown on this kind of behaviour. It is not acceptable. It not only endangers communities, but undermines them and creates fear and insecurity among vulnerable people. We simply need to take a stronger and more robust approach to dealing with it.

Approximately a month ago, I raised the issue of a Tipperary town task force with the Taoiseach. The people of Tipperary town and western Tipperary are very vibrant and fair-minded people. They want engagement. Groups such as Jobs4Tipp, March4Tipp and a new committee of the chamber of commerce want to engage but they do not want the streets dug up again until such time as an inner relief road is in place to alleviate the traffic congestion in the town. I ask the Taoiseach to engage with these groups and with the people and representatives of Tipperary. If he cannot visit, will he commit to a virtual meeting to discuss these issues? The county council intends to once again dig up Main Street in Tipperary town in January, which will destroy whatever business is left in the town. As we await a plan and design for a relief road for the town - and I am not referring to the bypass, which is not to come for a long time - will the Taoiseach meet those people virtually, if he will not visit? I will keep raising this because these people deserve no better. They have not had jobs or factories over the years. They have had to help themselves. They have great community spirit and need to be helped.

I have no difficulty working with any Oireachtas Member from Tipperary, or indeed any local authority member, in respect of any specific issues. The Deputy seems to be raising an issue with which the local authority is dealing. The local authority should consult, engage and deal with the issue. I will, however, take advice from Oireachtas Members. We can talk about it again and determine how best to proceed.

Will the Taoiseach engage with them?

Many young boys and girls cannot do their driver tests because of this second lockdown. They have been waiting for months, even though they have their 12 lessons done. Many who live in rural Ireland cannot go to work or to their apprenticeships. Some who have actually passed their tests cannot get their licences from the National Driver Licence Service, NDLS. Will the Taoiseach provide some exemption to allow these people to drive until they have an opportunity to do their driver tests, once they have their 12 lessons done? It is very unfair on these young people. We need to give these people a chance to get out there in the world and to go to work. I ask the Taoiseach to do something for this cohort of young people in rural Ireland who are stranded and who cannot go to work or to wherever else they would like to go. An exemption could be made for daylight hours to allow them to go to work while prohibiting social use at night.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. We are all determined to deliver all public services for citizens in a safe way. The driver testing service was closed during the last lockdown, which led to a considerable backlog. I will discuss the issue with the Minister to see if we can find a way to deal with the issues the Deputy has raised. Perhaps the Deputy could communicate details of any particular cases he knows of that illustrate the difficulties people are experiencing to my office or that of the Minister.

I can then discuss those with the Minister.

Yesterday, a 92-year-old woman living in a residential nursing home said, "Did I ever think I would be all alone in this world at 92 years of age?" Notwithstanding the guidance that has come from the health services, and we all agree on the fundamental safety measures that need to be in place, is there anything more we can do to be able to alleviate some of the loneliness and isolation that these elderly people experience now? Are there other testing measures that can be put in place or can more personal protective equipment be used? Could we do other things? We must look at everything so our elderly people do not feel abandoned and families are not left in such turmoil.

The first obligation of a Government, the health services and public health authorities is to protect people's lives and health. That is why the very difficult measures that apply to nursing homes, and particularly visits to such homes, have been introduced. That said, there have been various innovative mechanisms found to try to deal with the isolation described by the Deputy. In particular, last week we launched the third pillar of the living with Covid-19 plan, which deals with community resilience and how groups or people in the community can help those who are isolated, not just in their homes. It is difficult in the lockdown period but outside level 5, certain musical performances can happen and other engagements can take place.

Unfortunately, when community transmission levels are very high, they create dangers and vulnerabilities for those living in residential homes and it is very important that we protect them. It is very difficult for all concerned, including families and the rest of us.

On page 46 of the programme for Government, it states there will be an increased focus on rare diseases. In response to a parliamentary question in June relating to the licensing of the drug patisiran for the treatment of amyloidosis, the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, stated that once negotiations between the HSE and the manufacturer are complete, the drug will be formally considered by the HSE drugs group.

Thousands of people have signed an online petition calling on the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to provide patisiran to patients, including Mr. Pat Tinsley, who is from Newbridge. People living with amyloidosis fear for their lives and although patisiran may be costly, we cannot put a price on life. As late as yesterday I got more paperwork indicating that this is not going to happen any time soon. When will the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, do something about this please?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Substantial additional funding was provided in the budget to deal with approval of new medicines, but there are procedures through which those medicines must be approved. That is enshrined in legislation that was passed by these Houses. Those procedures must be followed. We will keep a very close eye on this and ensure these matters are progressed as quickly as possible. I understand, in the context of rare diseases, orphan drugs are very often the only lifeline for people in alleviating the distress that such conditions can cause. I will look into this and speak with the Minister about it.

We all watch with pride the decrease in the number of reported cases of Covid-19 and we look forward to coming out of level 5. I am conscious that we must have a Christmas that is as normal as possible after the year we have all had. Will the Government look at how we can safely provide a way for the selling of real Christmas trees, which is a sustainable industry in Ireland? The Taoiseach knows Christmas trees are sold throughout the country from various outlets, including casual trading, filling station forecourts and hardware stores. I know in some places people can choose a tree from a grower's premises.

More than 400,000 Christmas trees are harvested annually for the Irish export market, providing great value for the local and national economy. This week I have had several phone calls from growers seeking to know the guidelines in this context. There will be seven weeks to Christmas from next Friday. This is a seasonal market and the growers are worried. They do not want to go against the guidelines for level 5 but which of those apply to sellers of Christmas trees? It is important that we make Christmas special this year, particularly after the year we have had.

Level 5 does not ban trade in any particular commodity but it places restrictions on where the trade can occur. I thank the Deputy for raising the matter for an important sector, and it is a significant industry over the Christmas period. The objective is to get to the end of November and leave level 5, and that would give us greater flexibility for the remainder of December with respect to retail and trade and give people opportunities in the lead-up to Christmas. The means by which people trade has not been banned, except the restrictions on non-essential retail in certain locations. I will continue to engage with the Deputy on this. Once we get out of level 5, we will be in a better position to deal with matters like this.

I raise again the matter of St. Brigid's hospital in Carrick-on-Suir in Tipperary, which remains closed eight months after being shut in anticipation of its use for Covid-19 patients. This hospital was being used by people in south Tipperary, south Kilkenny and north Waterford for rehabilitation, respite, convalescence and palliative care. When it closed, the people in the areas understood those reasons and accepted them, but after nine months the facility has never been used and the people have real worries about its long-term future.

I raised the matter before and received commitments that the facility would reopen after the Covid-19 pandemic. I do not accept that answer any more. This pandemic could be with us for another 12 to 24 months but St. Brigid's hospital has been vital for a wide catchment area. It helped families with members who were very ill and who wished to be nearby. All reports indicate that helps in such cases. People cannot be expected to do without the service in their area or to travel 20 or 25 miles in some cases to visit their loved ones, especially when there is no public transport as such. The people of south Tipperary and the wider area deserve much better. They want a straight answer on the question of when St. Brigid's hospital will reopen. There should be no more spin. It should be reopened and the staff should be allocated to the facility.

I will engage with the HSE and see what the updated position is on the facility.

We have got that same answer four times.

In the programme for Government there is a commitment to look at legislation relating to dog welfare. Over recent months there have been serious issues relating to Ashtown dog pound and disturbing news of an ongoing Garda investigation into the treatment of dogs brought to the pound. I am very aware of this matter from my time as a councillor and it was brought before us on many occasions. To be honest, I would be horrified if my dog ever ended up in that pound.

There is current legislation on dog welfare but, unfortunately, it goes across several Departments, including those dealing with agriculture, community development and rural affairs. We really need to figure out a way of getting all the dog welfare legislation under one Department so we can look at the related matters, including databases and chipping of dogs. The regulations around dog breeders must be rectified as soon as possible, as there are serious concerns about the sector.

I agree with the Deputy and have a particular interest in the topic. Animal welfare is a priority of the Government. The legislation needs strengthening and the Government has committed to doing this to ensure best practice, particularly in ensuring the very best welfare for animals. We will keep an eye on that.

Epidiolex is a cannabis-based medication that can be used to treat two severe forms of epilepsy. It is available to children over the age of two and eligible adults. I have been contacted by the parents of a 14-year-old girl who has an aggressive form of cancer. She has been suffering from seizures and she drops suddenly to the ground when they take hold. She has an average of approximately five seizures per day and the parents have been told this is a long-term illness. She has been prescribed Epidiolex by her consultant and it is approved by the European Medicines Agency. The consultant has stated the prescription of this drug is straightforward and it can be supplied by a European supplier.

The cost is prohibitive, unfortunately. It costs €1,200 for a single bottle which lasts three to six weeks. In an answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has informed me that the HSE has received two applications for the reimbursement of the cost of this much-needed medication. If this was processed under the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013, parents could then access this medication and potentially transform the life of this young girl. She is very sick and she needs urgent help. I ask that the bureaucracy be stripped away and this application be processed to allow this drug to be reimbursed by the HSE.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue on behalf of that young girl. I will certainly do what I can on this matter. I will engage with the HSE and the Minister for Health. I know the Deputy has sent the details to the Minister for Health, so I will pursue this issue with him. This concerns the procurement of medicinal cannabis and the associated cost, and I will pursue this issue.

Many farmers are stuck in the forestry felling licence backlog, with some people waiting two years and more. Will this Government now take urgent action to clear the backlog? Genuine applicants from west Cork have been caught up in this delay for months. One person has his forestry rotting in the ground due to the impact of a storm and it has not been possible to get a felling licence. Some 500 jobs in GP Wood in Enniskeane are hanging in the balance because of this debacle. There was no indication at the meeting of the agriculture committee yesterday of a solution to this problem being near at hand. I call on this Government to grant an amnesty regarding the granting of applications in the system for more than four months. A forestry felling licence should be automatically granted in those cases, and it would go a long way in clearing the backlog. Will the Taoiseach's Government support this amnesty?

Governments are constrained by the law and by the courts. This Government has taken urgent action and we have passed an Act in this regard. We know there have been serial objections to every felling licence application. I think that is wrong and inappropriate, and also, in its own way, brings the planning processes into disrepute. The forestry industry is an important one which creates thousands of jobs and is important for housing and construction. The new Act, therefore, will improve the functioning of the forestry appeals committee. I will talk to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and see how we can ensure we accelerate the alleviation of the backlog.

The programme for Government commits to ending the admission of children into adult psychiatric units by increasing inpatient beds, as well as examining the model used in assigning these beds. The truth of the matter is that there are no inpatient child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, beds in County Wexford. Children requiring inpatient care for their mental health must travel to the Eist Linn facility County Cork, which is a round trip of 348 km. That must be undertaken while coping with suicide ideation or a complete mental breakdown. This practice is unacceptable. This failure of young people has been ongoing for more than a decade. Many local parents and campaigners have been highlighting this issue relentlessly in recent years. When will CAMHS inpatient beds be provided in County Wexford? Children cannot continue to be shipped far from home or put into adult units while already facing so much trauma in their lives.

I was at a meeting during the week of the Cabinet subcommittee on social affairs and equality which dealt with the area of mental health. The Minister for State, Deputy Butler, give a comprehensive presentation. One of the issues discussed was the need to continue to strengthen CAMHS, which has been improving in the area of dealing with waiting lists. The south east, in particular, however, has had challenges for some time in respect of appointments and the service itself. It is a priority of this Government to see if we can deal with that issue as quickly as we can.

What plan has been put in place for small-time retailers who may be opening sometime soon? While we promote, tell and encourage people to shop online, most of these small-time retailers in my constituency of Meath West do not trade online. Even if they did trade online, they could not compete with the corporations and big companies. I spoke to a small retailer in Oldcastle this morning who pays €2,500 each year to Meath County Council for rates. There are hundreds of such businesses in counties Meath and Westmeath. Those small businesses pay the main rates base in those counties. If we do not look after them, the rates base in Meath and Westmeath, and similar counties, will be destroyed in the long term when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. We must, therefore, get a plan in place and look after these small retailers. This is their second busiest month of the year and December is not too far away.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Government waived commercial rates on such businesses for all of this year, and we have also introduced an unprecedented set of measures to support businesses during this global pandemic. These are difficult circumstances indeed for such businesses, particularly when we are in level 5. I refer to the high level of restrictions in place as a result of moving to that level, which is designed to get the virus incidence and case numbers way down so we can reopen the economy and society more fully. It is something on which we are continuing to focus.

That is why, for example, we wanted to be scrupulously fair to small retailers by ensuring that multiples could not continue to trade in what have been termed non-essential items while smaller business were closed. People started picking holes in that approach as well, however, in respect of undermining that strategy. I have noticed, across the board, that people want us to relax every single measure in isolation. If we do all that, collectively we will end up with no level 5, level 4 or even level 3 for that matter. It is a challenging position for people to be in, unfortunately, but we are doing everything we can to help small businesses.

Seven Deputies have not been reached, and that concludes Questions on Promised Legislation.