Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Ardóidh mé ceist an Bhreatimeachta leis an Tánaiste agus muid ag díriú isteach ag an deireadh seachtaine agus an t-am ag éirí gairid. Dúirt an Tánaiste féin go gcreideann sé go déanfaidh Boris Johnson an géilleadh atá riachtanach leis an socrú a aontú. An gcreideann an Tánaiste é sin fós? With regard to Brexit, the Taoiseach is today attending the European summit. We are at a very crucial time. The news with regard to the Irish protocol in the last 48 hours is very welcome. We should not have been forced into that position but it is good that the issue has been resolved. The outstanding issues with regard to the future trade arrangements are still to be resolved. The Tánaiste said yesterday that he believed Boris Johnson would make the necessary concessions. Does he still hold that view? Can he give us any more insight as to where he thinks things stand in advance of the Sunday deadline?

I am glad that an agreement to implement the Irish protocol was reached this week. It is the coming to fruition and the outcome of the agreement we made with the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, three years ago. I said at the time that it was bulletproof, and it turned out to be bullet proof. Some people doubted that at the time but it has now proven to be so. All that was promised, including that there would be no hard border between North and South and that the common travel area between Ireland and Britain would be maintained, has been done and is being honoured by the UK, the EU and Ireland.

I do not have any read-out on the dinner last night. I was not there and those who were have kept what transpired close to themselves. It is impossible for me to comment on it but I can say that they did at least agree that it was worth continuing the talks. The talks will continue at least until Sunday. As is always the case in negotiations such as this, a bit of compromise from both sides is required. Final decisions can only be made by the principals, in this case Prime Minister Johnson and President von der Leyen. I hope we will see a positive outcome.

I again raise the issue of St. Brigid's District Hospital in Carrick-On-Suir. I take great interest in health issues but, in my time in politics, I have rarely seen an issue on which people have been misled so much. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, gave a commitment to Deputy Cahill that it would reopen in July. A number of commitments were given to all public representatives. I also have correspondence from July. Up until recently, we understood from our conversations with the HSE that it was to reopen. This is a very sensitive matter in that county for palliative care and respite. The idea that we will just purchase beds in other areas is not on. It is also not on that the HSE, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, would treat public representatives in a way whereby until literally hours or days ago we were being totally misled. I ask the Tánaiste to look into this. How all of a sudden is this facility being closed despite assurances being given to members of the Tánaiste's own party and Government that it would reopen?

As I mentioned, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, spoke to the Deputy about that this morning. I am advised that it cannot reopen as a district hospital because the infrastructure is too old and inadequate in the modern age, particularly now that the issue of infection control will be so important. However, it will be reopened as a community healthcare facility, improving services in the area, particularly for those with chronic diseases like diabetes.

Many works need to be done by Irish Water. Despite it being a semi-State body, the State seems to abdicate all responsibility to Irish Water. I recently asked Irish Water who is responsible and it informed me that at the end of the day, the State is. Some urgent issues have gone unaddressed for years. Shannonvale has a green space that used to be the heart of the village but now it is unsafe and unusable because of a treatment plant that floods the area consistently. In Belgooly, malodours from the waste water treatment plant are so bad, people have to keep their windows closed. Many people want to move from there, but the value of their homes has decreased as a result.

The Glengarriff road in Bantry, the gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way and the main road into tourism town of the year, is so bad it is damaging cars but road works cannot go ahead until Irish Water completes its works first. None of these projects are on its capital investment programme, meaning they simply will not be done. At what point will the State intervene?

While I am familiar with all those places, I am not familiar with any of the particular Irish Water projects in them. I will certainly inform the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, that the Deputy raised them in the Chamber today. I will see if he can provide a written response as soon as possible.

Next year Irish Water will get a significant increase in its capital budget, giving it more resources to invest. That does not mean that every project that needs to be done can be done next year or the following year, but it means that more of them can be done.

Last week the Government voted down the motion where we called on it to acknowledge that hundreds of student nurses and midwives were working and are being exploited and to pay them. The Tánaiste should not try to obfuscate. In doing that, the Government betrayed the programme for Government commitment, specifically to return the support of healthcare workers who protected us all. The Government then made the decision to take away the healthcare assistant rate that it had been forced to give them in the early period of the pandemic.

The Government persists in compounding this dishonesty with claims, such as the one today that most student nurses across Europe do not get paid. I will give the example of Germany so that we can get some facts on the record. In Germany for the degree course, first year students get paid €750 to €800 a month, second year students get €800 to €900 a month and third year students get €930 to €1,030 a month with no fees. Why can we not do what they do in Germany for student nurses and midwives? Why does the Government not stop the spin to deflect away from what it did last week?

That is totally misleading. I said nothing in my earlier contributions about other European countries. I do not know where he is getting that from.

The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, did.

As the Deputy knows well, the motion he tabled last week was not funded and was non-binding. Had it passed, it would not have been worth a single euro to a single student nurse. The Deputy has spun it in such a way that it created a false impression.

The Government does not respect the democracy of this House.

He has to shout me down because he cannot hear the truth.

The programme for Government mentions fisheries and the protection of fisheries 12 times between page 7 and page 106. It pledges to:

Ensure protection of the interests of the Irish Fishing industry by insisting that a Fisheries Agreement with the UK is concluded as an integral part of an overall EU Free Trade Agreement with the UK ...

Seek EU Commission contingency supports and market-disturbance funding for the fisheries sector to mitigate against the impact of ... Brexit.

Our fishing industry in Killybegs, Howth, Castletownbere, Dunmore, Kilmore and Duncannon are all waiting with bated breath for news on a deal. In coastal areas fishing is not just an industry; it is an entire community whose very survival depends on them fishing. They deserve to know their fate. I ask the Tánaiste to give an update.

I very much agree with the Deputy's sentiments. We will do all we can to protect our fishing industry and our fishing communities around the country. As Deputies are aware, negotiations are still under way between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Among the issues still being discussed is the issue of fishing rights from 1 January onwards. We are in a difficult position. The United Kingdom has left the European Union and in doing so it takes its waters with it. Up to now, we have been catching about 35% of our fish in UK waters and that may not be open to us in future. We are doing our best in the circumstances to retain access to as much of those waters as possible.

Students in third level and their families need to pay for accommodation along with enormous fees . The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has given no instruction to the colleges to return. I ask the Government to consider some kind of support packages for struggling families and students who have paid enormous accommodation costs as well as college fees. They are now being asked to pay for the next semester from January onwards. It is very unfair. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. We need to look after our young people. Other Deputies mentioned student nurses. This is shocking. They had a traumatic enough time in the past year and they face further uncertainty next year. Their families need to get some come-back on this funding. The private providers will not help out either. They are just taking the money. Students are at home, sometimes struggling to study from home, and not living in the rented accommodation. It is certainly very unfair.

I know the Minister, Deputy Harris, is working this issue. He has provided an increase in the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant and a partial rebate of some student fees. Different situations arise in different circumstances. In some cases, the accommodation is owned by the college and in other cases it owned by a company and people have entered into contracts. I know it is an issue the Minister is working on.

In the months since the Government came into office, complaints against telecommunications providers - in particular Eir but also Vodafone and others - have rocketed. The programme for Government commits to giving ComReg additional powers. Yesterday the chairman of ComReg called for those powers, in particular powers to levy administrative sanctions and fines. When will the Government introduce legislation to give effect to that?

The Deputy is right about the major issue with poor customer service from telecommunications companies, which has been highlighted by all Deputies. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I met the CEO of Eir to discuss this matter a few weeks ago. ComReg and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission need more powers to levy administrative fines. I will be preparing that legislation with the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, and will bring it to Cabinet before Christmas. We will ask the House to have it enacted by the end of February.

Nine Deputies are offering and with their co-operation, we will get to them all.

The move back to level 3 restrictions has been welcome for many businesses and I encourage the public to shop local as we approach Christmas. I have received several phone calls about the lack of guidance over stage schools in level 3. Some gymnastics clubs and drama classes state that they can open, but it looks like they are using the previous level 3 guidelines. The new guidelines state clearly that no organised indoor gathering should take place and that for outdoor sports, it is individual training only. This means, for example, no dance classes, ballet, gymnastics, basketball, racquetball, squash, Zumba or drama. Gyms, leisure centres and swimming pools can open for individual use only. This does not include other leisure facilities.

This is very frustrating for schools that have essentially remained closed since March. It is frustrating when their teachers are being asked to go to school to teach dancing, which is absolutely wrong when the same children cannot attend their weekly dance and drama classes. I ask for clear guidance on this because there has been considerable confusion about level 3. Even though we are glad to have the shops open, it is important.

Last week in response to my Topical Issue matter on dancing, the Minister confirmed that the Arts Council would publish new guidelines this week. Today the Arts Council has advised community centres, which require the guidelines for insurance reasons to allow one-to-one dance practice to continue, that they will not have those guidelines for a number of weeks. The Arts Council has cited approval from the Taoiseach's office as a reason for the delay.

It is imperative that we get this confusion cleared up and have the Arts Council guidelines published in the next week. Until then, the Minister has confirmed that the Sport Ireland guidelines are applicable, but it would be helpful if we could get the guidelines published.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. As I understand it, individual and one-to-one training is allowed indoors, but not groups or classes. I will, however, get that double-checked with the Department of the Taoiseach and confirm it with the Deputies as soon as possible.

I want to ask about the Oriel Residential Care Home in Carrickmacross in County Monaghan. It is a beautiful, state-of-the-art building which is lying empty, with no staff and therefore no service users. The facility cost €1.5 million, and is a seven-bedroom residential care centre for people with physical and sensory disabilities. I understand the HSE has given a figure of €1.1 million regarding the annual running costs for the group home. Will the Tánaiste give us clarity concerning monies being ring-fenced for the running of this centre? The gates are closed, but service users badly need the facility and we want to see it open sooner rather than later.

I share Deputy Smith's sentiments. We all want this facility open as soon as possible. I am afraid I do not have information on this matter today, but I will let the Minister know the issue was raised by the Deputy and ask that she receive a written reply as soon as possible.

Last night, the 'Belfast or Blind' bus no. 63 arrived back in Cork and Kerry. It was the second of two buses in three days which were full of people relieved to have had eyesight-saving surgery in Belfast under the cross-Border directive, where those people in the Republic on a waiting list for operations, such as for a cataract, can have the procedure done in the North and then be reimbursed. In recent months, in respect of the thousands of people in pain and going blind, I have tried to get clarity regarding if and what type of a scheme will be in place in the months to come, but to no avail.

On 25 November, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, told us that the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has tasked departmental officials "with examining the feasibility of implementing" a cross-Border-type arrangement. The Minister of State went on to say "That work, which is detailed and complex" was underway, and the Minister for Health sent me a letter to the same effect the other day.

In The Southern Star, my local newspaper, this morning the Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard, stated my call for clarity on the scheme and its continuation was grossly irresponsible and that I was scaremongering, that Fine Gael had secured a deal last year and that he had no doubt that deal meant things would continue as before for everyone seeking surgery abroad. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, were unable to announce any new cross-Border deal in the last two weeks. Can the Tánaiste explain the new cross-Border scheme to which Senator Lombard has referred?

I cannot give as clear a reply as I would like because some of these issues are still being worked out. I can say that the cross-Border directive ceases to apply to Northern Ireland and Great Britain when those areas leave the European Union on 1 January. It will continue to apply for people travelling to other parts of the European Union, but we are trying to put alternative arrangements in place to maintain the status quo when it comes to cross-border healthcare. Existing arrangements which see people, for example, in Donegal using Altnagelvin Hospital for cancer or cardiology services and people from Northern Ireland using Dublin hospitals for cardiothoracic surgery, will all remain in place.

We will provide a scheme for residents of Northern Ireland which will be the same as the European Health Insurance Card, EHIC, scheme. People living in Britain will no longer be eligible for EHIC, which is the new version of the old E111 form, but residents of Northern Ireland will still have it and we will fund that from the Irish Exchequer. It seems that under the common travel area, CTA, arrangements that Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and Britain, and vice versa, will continue to be able to avail of each other's health services, but that might not apply to people resident in one jurisdiction travelling to a private hospital in the other jurisdiction. I think that is the question which the Deputy is asking and that has not been worked out yet I am afraid.

We will move on. I ask for the co-operation of all Deputies, as we are almost there. I call Deputy Tully.

A number of towns and cities, or parts thereof, have been designated as smokeless zones. This seemed to be working well initially. However, there has been a recent significant deterioration in air quality, as evidenced by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, monitoring stations. Those stations confirmed that there was widespread pollution between 16 and 30 November from the burning of non-smokeless fuels or smoky coal. One coal merchant told me that he is doing everything right. He is paying his taxes, including his carbon taxes and VAT, he is only selling the correct fuel in the right area, certified by the EPA, and he is employing several people. He is in danger of losing everything, however, because people are selling coal, which is not certified by the EPA, cheaper than he can buy it. That coal is being sold door-to-door at night from vans. I asked the local authority about enforcement, but I have been told it has not been given any additional resources to deal with this issue, and it is not able to do so. More needs to be done, therefore, if we are serious about climate change and climate action and about protecting businesses which are struggling to survive.

There has been a deterioration in air quality recently. Some of that is down to meteorological conditions, but obviously the backdrop is pollution from cars, which has probably gone down because fewer people are travelling in their cars, and the increased burning of smoky solid fuels now that more people are at home. The difficulty is that this is not just because of smoky coal. A large and growing part of it is down to people burning other solid fuels, such as wood, turf and peat briquettes. In respect of their impact on air quality, those fuels are just as bad and arguably worse, but we have decided not to ban the sale or burning of wood, turf or peat briquettes for reasons which the Deputy will understand. It would be dishonest to claim to people that a nationwide ban on smoky coal, or enforcement of that, would solve the problem of people burning the other solid fuels which are just as bad.

It has been stated here before many times that student nurses are doing essential work and should be paid. I welcome the statement from the Minister for Health, when answering a question from Deputy Cullinane, that the review of student nurse allowances will finish this month. I asked the Taoiseach this question, but whether he misunderstood me or I was unclear, I will try to be more straightforward now. The review is welcome and needs to happen. Could we also look at whether it might be possible for this allowance money to be paid up front? Many nursing and midwifery students in third year in the Dundalk Institute of Technology, DKiT, have raised this issue with me and asked if this might be possible.

We can certainly look at that. As the Deputy knows, however, the review is underway and I do not know what the outcome will be. The issue raised by the Deputy can certainly be examined.

I raise my concerns regarding the ongoing review of the county development plan for County Meath. Significant decisions are being made today concerning rural, one-off planning. Our colleagues on the county council have concerns regarding the nature of the deliberations during Covid-19. The national development plan is also being reviewed and in terms of the hierarchy of documents, significant decisions are being made on rural, one-off planning which will devastate rural communities. The Tánaiste and his Government should seek to suspend the ongoing review of the County Meath development plan until the national development plan has been reviewed because the implications of the current proposals for rural communities would simply be devastating.

This is a matter for the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. I am not across the details, but I will let him know this issue was raised and ask him to contact Deputy O'Rourke.

I raise the issue school buildings and the impact on school placings, particularly regarding Pelletstown Educate Together National School and the Edmund Rice College on Mill Road. Both of those are in the process of getting new school buildings, but are worried about delays, those which have already happened and any that might happen in the future. The impact of these delays on the numbers of pupils these schools can accept for 2021 will be significant. I spoke to the vice principal of Pelletstown Educate Together National School recently and one concern is that the school will not be able to accept junior infants because there is no space for the two Portakabins required. We know a builder will be approved soon, but meanwhile there needs to be a guarantee for both those schools that there will be new buildings on site for 2021.

I met with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, last night on this issue of school places in the Dublin 15 area, with particular emphasis on Edmund Rice College and Pelletstown Educate Together National School.

Those projects need to go ahead. Work needs to start on the new schools on the new permanent sites. The Minister, Deputy Foley, has agreed to come back to me on the matter as soon as she can. We are all on the same side. We all want to get those schools under construction and we all acknowledge it is overdue. If the schools are to be asked to take students in next year, they will need a guarantee that the new buildings will be available. We are working to make sure we can do that.

I want to raise the issue of Aer Lingus workers, many of whom are in the Tánaiste's constituency, as well as mine, so I am sure they have been in touch with him. Once again, they are having difficulties accessing their basic social welfare entitlements. This time, the UP38 forms are being filled in incorrectly. An email I received from one of the workers states:

If these forms were filled out right by Aer Lingus staff could have money owed to them in their bank accounts within 24 hours. Staff are desperate as they were counting on this money for Christmas.

I ask the Tánaiste to engage with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, to issue an instruction that these forms be processed even if Aer Lingus refuses to fill them out correctly. Failing that, I ask that he engage with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, who can instruct Aer Lingus to fill out these forms correctly. It is unfair. These people are not looking for anything they are not entitled to. They have been on lay-off for a long time. Christmas is coming and they desperately need this money.

I thank the Deputy for the question. I am aware of this problem. Some of my constituents have been in touch with me about it too. I will engage with the Minister for Social Protection on it. It needs to be sorted out before Christmas. I agree with the Deputy in that regard. I do not understand why this is still a problem. Other employers do not seem to have such a difficulty filling in these forms correctly. I do not want to finger Aer Lingus unfairly without knowing all the facts but it does seem strange that this is a recurring problem with this particular company for months now.

Given the importance of the housing issue, what is the status of the proposed affordable housing amendment legislation and what impact is it expected to have on the housing issue?

I am advised the legislation will be in for the next term, dealing with both cost-rental and the shared equity scheme so that more people can qualify for affordable housing.

I want to raise the issue of equine welfare, particularly in urban areas on public lands and in public parks. I am sure the Tánaiste has heard of My Lovely Horse Rescue, which does great work in the area of animal welfare. It has noted an increase in recent times in the number of animals and horses being left in parks and public spaces and on State land. Last weekend, it filmed a video throughout the South Dublin County Council, Fingal County Council and Dublin City Council areas. There were 100 horses loose in Dunsink and others were tethered with no access to water. There is legislation in place but it is not being implemented as it should be. I ask the Tánaiste to raise at Cabinet the need for the establishment of a multi-agency to enforce that legislation. Many animals are not microchipped or licenced. I propose that the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Senator Hackett, who has responsibility for public land, would take up this matter.

I listened to "Newstalk" this morning and I heard the representative of My Lovely Horse Rescue setting out the animal welfare issues relating to horses, which was quite shocking. I was struck by the remark that it is possible to buy a horse in Ireland for as little as €10, which is extraordinary. I know some horses are well looked after but a lot are not and that is not right. In this country we have a particular attachment to horses and we hate to see them maltreated. The law is in place but, as the Deputy stated, it is not adequately being enforced. I will raise the issue with my colleagues, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, to see what we can do better.

There is great cause for positivity at the moment. We are on the verge of rolling out a vaccine. Hopefully, in the not too distant future we can get back to some semblance of normality. That is to be celebrated, but one group remains very concerned, namely, those who suffer from cystic fibrosis, CF, which is a chronic lung condition. As we know, Covid-19 attacks the lungs in particular. My question relates to the priority list and groups. It must have been an incredibly tough task to prioritise particular groups above others. I would like the Minister for Health and the Tánaiste to examine the priority groups to see if those suffering from cystic fibrosis can be bumped up the list. Currently, persons aged between 18 and 64 suffering from CF are seventh on the list. How fast can we expect the vaccine to be rolled out to those seventh on the list? If there is any delay, can those suffering from cystic fibrosis, of whom there are not a huge number across the country, be prioritised?

The Deputy will be aware that there are 15 levels in the prioritisation schedule agreed by Cabinet last Tuesday. The schedule is based entirely on medical and scientific advice and Government did not alter it in any way. We are very much guided by the doctors and scientists regarding vaccination, starting with those at most risk, which is those aged over 65 in nursing homes, moving on to healthcare workers and then others based on age, disease status and risk profile. As we said at the time, nothing is set in stone. I hear the case that the Deputy makes in regard to people under 65 with respiratory illnesses such as CF, who are definitely high risk. When I speak to the CMO next week it is one of the issues I will raise with him. We need to be flexible and to potentially change the schedule as science and knowledge develops.

Sitting suspended at 1.07 p.m. and resumed at 1.27 p.m.