Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

On promised legislation, I call Deputy McDonald. By the way, 30 Deputies have indicated.

I return to the matter of the leaving certificate examination. Students are in a position now where it is unclear when they will return to the classroom. This year's sixth years are doubly disadvantaged because, of course, their fifth year studies were hugely disrupted last year and now they find themselves in a hugely pressurised position where their learning has been absolutely disrupted. They have made clear that they need clarity at this point. They need to know that there will be fairness at play and that they will be afforded a level of choice to sit the traditional examination if that is possible in the summertime or to have an alternative continuous-assessment grading system also. The Taoiseach is now honour bound to make clear to students that that level of choice will be granted. Any pretence now that we will have business as usual come the summer has absolutely zero credibility. These young people have really suffered and they are suffering now with the lack of clarity and with the anxiety that they are experiencing, as are their families and the teachers concerned.

The Deputy's time is up.

Can the Taoiseach may clear now that choice will be given to these leaving certificate students? Can he give them that level of reassurance and clarity today?

The Government is acutely aware of the enormous stress and anxiety that has been placed on leaving certificate students this year, particularly as they were in fifth year last year when schools closed as a result of the emergence of the pandemic and, because of this acute phase of the pandemic, schools have not been in a position to reopen. That creates real difficulties and challenges for the students concerned. The Minister consistently has engaged with all the partners in education in relation to this, including the students' representatives, and is listening very carefully to the voices of the student representatives and of students more generally as they are articulated across the country. The Minister has been engaging with the partners in education and with the national advisory committee that represents all of the stakeholders in relation to the examinations, and will be, when they have decisions taken-----

Last week, the Deputy was really on a rant about consultation in education.

The time is up. We cannot have a lengthy debate about the matter.

The Deputy was the person who consistently argued about the need for consultation. To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Foley, she has been consistent on consultation.

We are now way over time.

What I am saying is that consultation is under way and it is happening. When it is right and when the Minister has concluded those consultations with the partners and with the State Examination Commission, and with the advisory committee, they will-----

The Taoiseach is way over time.

It is a very sorry-----

Deputy McDonald is out of order. The Deputy should not be interrupting me in that manner.

It is a very sorry state of affairs when a Head of Government finds questions asked as a rant.

Will Deputy McDonald resume her seat?

I did not say that.

I would ask the Taoiseach to withdraw it.

I said last week Deputy McDonald-----

I am entitled to be treated with some level of respect.

Hold on a second now. Deputy McDonald-----

Please, please.

That is what happened last week. The Minister for Education was attacked last week wrongly for not consulting by the Deputy.

The Taoiseach uses the floor to answer questions.

A Deputy

There is ten minutes gone on this issue with one Deputy.

The Minister is consulting with the partners-----

The Taoiseach is a disgrace.

Please, Deputies.

-----and is engaging, and we will respond appropriately.

Not alone is the Taoiseach incompetent but he is ignorant.

Deputy McDonald is eating into her own members' time. I call Deputy Nash on behalf of the Labour Party.

As long ago as last April, I wrote to the Government and the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, requesting that regulations be drawn up to allow the Garda to enforce travel restrictions against non-residents of the Republic who were transiting through or visiting the State- people were transiting through with absolute impunity - and those who had no business being here. Ten months later I have yet to receive a response. Unfortunately, this is emblematic of the lax attitude and a deeper malaise at the heart of the Government in terms of contrary views on how the pandemic should be managed.

The Government, however, has now accepted the Labour Party's proposal that checks should be set up 5 km from the Border with Northern Ireland. Will the Taoiseach inform the House as to when the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, will sign those regulations and what sanctions will be contained in them?

We have no more than one minute for each question and answer. Will Members observe no more than one minute please?

I thank the Deputy for his query. The broad range of regulations, which will emanate from yesterday's Government decisions, will be drawn up, hopefully, by the end of the week.

Under the Coroners Act, it is the duty of a coroner to hold an inquest when a body is found in his or her district and when a person dies in State custody or detention. Given that the mother and baby homes commission has reported on mass disappeared infants' and children's remains in unmarked graves, there is a legal obligation for inquests to be carried out for each deceased individual. We know this relates to a large number of coroners in every relevant district and would be unprecedented in the use of resources. There is a legal obligation, however. Will the Taoiseach ensure that coroners carry out their duty to ensure that survivors get justice?

I will make further inquiries on this. There are clearly legal obligations but that in itself is an enormous challenge going back to the early decades of the State from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The 1940s in particular saw an appallingly high infant mortality rate in mother and baby homes. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is developing a broad base response to the commission's report. How to deal with this will form part of it.

We all know money makes the world go around. However, we should ask ourselves what makes money. What makes money is work and the productivity of people who carry out that work. The Debenhams workers will be 300 days out of their jobs next week. After an arduous 300 days, they are left with no compensation according to the collective agreement.

Will the Taoiseach commit to translating the €3 million that was recommended to bring them back to school, to send them back to education, into actual cash so that these workers and their families can have some peace of mind and some justice from the 300 arduous days of struggle they have carried on? Will he give them some sense that they are being regarded seriously by the Taoiseach and his Government?

The Deputy is well aware that the Government has honoured its statutory redundancy commitments to workers in Debenhams. The Government is the only party which has honoured its commitments in respect of the workers concerned. The Deputy is correct about the deficiencies in whatever collective agreement had been previously entered into at the time.

We have gone through this with the representative bodies and the trade unions every way we can and we have pursued every avenue. That €3 million is not statutory redundancy. It is a measure to provide some recognition to the workers of the challenges they face as a result of being made redundant. We have a broad statutory redundancy scheme that applies to all workers who become redundant as a result of company liquidations. We have been clear and consistent from the outset as to what we could do within the legal framework available to us.

My question is specific to the Government's vaccination roll-out strategy, particularly the fourth vaccine candidate from Janssen and Johnson & Johnson. Most of the Deputies present may not be aware but it will only require one injection rather than the usual two. Were it to be approved, it would greatly accelerate and simplify the vaccine roll-out process. The US Food and Drug Administration is likely to approve this vaccine candidate in the next ten days or so.

From his European contacts, does the Taoiseach have any visibility as to when Johnson & Johnson will submit its literature concerning this vaccine candidate to the European Medicines Agency for approval? If the Taoiseach has any thoughts on this, it would be much appreciated.

I agree with Deputy Berry in terms of the significance of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, particularly if it emerges that one jab would be sufficient in terms of its efficacy. From my understanding, it will be early April when it comes to authorisation by the European Medicines Agency. It could happen that it comes earlier but that is the timeline that I have right now. It may improve.

The European Commission's engagement with Johnson & Johnson is a professional one and one with which it is satisfied in terms of the engagement with the company, its commitment to delivery schedules and so forth. There is no doubt that it is an important development in the mass vaccination of our population.

Many of the Taoiseach's responses have been illogical and inconsistent. Since the start of the pandemic, I have raised the issue of utility companies and pass through charges. Every business, from hairdressers to big hotels to shops, which is closed is paying a fortune on these charges to utility companies. One businessman wrote to me, telling me he pays €4,000 a month on gas and electricity, just for the privilege of them coming to his door.

Why does the Taoiseach not pass legislation in emergency measures to stop these companies robbing these businesses? They cannot pay the money when they are closed - they are dúnta and obeying the Government's advice. Numerous businesses, such as shops and hotels, those with one employee to those with hundreds of employees, are closed but paying these charges. Big business has been raping this country for years and getting away with it but we cannot pass legislation.

We have a regulator who is asleep at the wheel. We must have legislation to stop this happening. These businesses will be broke. They are broke as it but still paying this money that they cannot earn. They have been closed by the Government. They should be allowed to have respect from these companies which they deal with in good faith at all times.

They have been closed by the virus, not the Government. That is an important point to make.

(Interruptions).

The Government is providing unprecedented resources to many businesses across the board. Utility companies should not be charging-----

(Interruptions).

Will the Deputy let me speak?

Utility companies should not be charging for gas or electricity that people are not using. I will ask the Minister to engage with the utility companies on this. People should be charged for what they are using. We have provided rates relief which is extensive and significant in terms of the amounts of money involved. We have also provided supports through EWSS, the employment wage subsidy scheme, CRSS, the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme, and the pandemic unemployment subsidy.

A married couple with two children, earning more than €28,000 a year, cannot get on the Donegal County Council housing list. The thresholds across the country are supposed to be reviewed by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage as it is its responsibility. Will the Taoiseach ensure that this review takes place? There is no way that a married couple which earns €30,000 per year, or even €40,000 a year, could buy a house in Donegal with their own means. The only option for them is the council housing list which they are disbarred from because of the Government's policy.

The Minister is reviewing the threshold. It is a low threshold. That said, we have many people on the social housing list which is why this year the Government has allocated a record €3 billion to housing and announced a record programme of social house building for the next 12 months.

Undoubtedly, that has been impacted by Covid and level 5 restrictions. However, we hope to pick that up during the remainder of the year and get a record number of social houses built this year to eat into those waiting lists.

Does the Taoiseach agree that a necessary element in delivering an all-Ireland response would be the sharing of information on travellers? We are all aware that the Northern Executive Minister of Health, Robin Swann, has been looking for this information and this issue to be dealt with since last March. We have heard from the Department of Transport and members of the Government, including the Taoiseach, that there is a GDPR issue. I welcome that the Taoiseach said something rather positive about his interaction with the Northern Executive. Will he tell me what is the update and what is the lie of the land on this so we can cut off things such as the back door through Belfast and provide a proper all-Ireland response?

The sharing of data will not cut off that gap. The Northern Ireland Executive wants us to share data on passengers coming in through Dublin Airport and who transit on to Northern Ireland. We are working to provide this. There was constructive engagement. Sometimes I am somewhat surprised by the public statements because they do not reflect the private conversations that have been had. I will put it that way to the Deputy. I raised this issue at meetings with the First Minister and deputy First Minister and said we want to engage constructively. Our officials have engaged constructively on this and we want to find a resolution as quickly as we possibly can. The decisions we took yesterday will accelerate this. This is the position.

Earlier today, the Taoiseach mentioned the closing down of pubs and that he felt he was right to do so. However, 60% of the cases now being diagnosed are of the UK variant. Last year, I told the House more than once that the virus was not growing in the back yard of pubs and rather that it was coming in on airlines. The Government did nothing about it. The virus did not walk across the Irish Sea. We are an island country. I have to say that people are dead and some people will never again be the same after having the virus. Special needs schools are closed. Is the Government's belated attempt to do something about the virus coming into this country a charade or only an attempt to cover up for not doing what it should have done all along? It is very easy to close down pubs. It is very easy to close down the country and that is what the Government has done. It was not the virus that did it.

It has been stated here on several occasions, not just by us but by many others, that when the public houses were closed down there was a concerted effort by the Government to blame the public houses for the spread of the pandemic. That was proven to be grossly untrue because of the facts. The pandemic grew out of control when all of the public houses were closed. At the same time, the spin from the Government was to victimise, demonise and put down our public houses because of some reason best known to the Taoiseach and the Government. I would like the Taoiseach to answer this charge if he could, please. I want to know what set had the Government not just against rural publicans but urban publicans also?

The point has been made.

I find it very difficult to comprehend what has just been said given all that has happened in the country. I know that in earlier stages of the debate Deputies Danny Healy-Rae, Michael Healy-Rae, Mary Lou McDonald and others called for the pubs to be opened, saying they should have been opened a long time ago. Have you learned anything from what has transpired? Human behaviour in all settings affects the spread of the virus. We do not blame publicans at all per se. In some cases, there were people who in certain settings breached the regulations and the rules. People in this House know that. Across the country, guidelines were not adhered to and rules were not adhered to in many settings, not just in public houses and hospitality but in many settings. We did not open wet pubs prior to the Christmas period because the evidence was there that it would be a contributing factor to the spread of the virus. The virus spreads through the congregation of people in many different settings. Yes, travel has to be dealt with also.

The Taoiseach is probably familiar with the Coonagh to Knockalisheen road in Limerick. It is one of only 13 projects specifically mentioned to progress during the national development plan. Furthermore, 30% of the project has already been spent, that is €17 million out of €58 million, with advanced works already concluded. We can see that works have been done. Page 26 of the programme for Government states the process of review of the national development plan and updating of the national planning framework will not frustrate or delay existing projects. One of these existing projects is the Coonagh to Knockalisheen road. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, is delaying signing off the project. It is vital. It was part of regeneration. It was introduced by the previous Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government. Is it a commitment in the programme for Government and will it be signed off so it can be completed?

Last week, I raised this issue with the Taoiseach and told him there would be a meeting on Friday. That meeting with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, took place and there is only one word to describe it, which is disastrous. He walked into the Moyross community and told them what was best for them and did not listen to what they said. This road is critical infrastructure for the regeneration programme in Limerick. We are now in a situation where if this road is not delivered the whole project will be torpedoed. The community feels abandoned and totally disrespected and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, did himself no favours on Friday. The Taoiseach said he would speak to him. I ask him to intervene personally and deliver this piece of infrastructure.

I thank the Deputies for raising the issue. I understand the concerns of the Deputies about this. It is in the programme for Government that the review of the national development plan would not frustrate existing projects that are under way. I will certainly bring the views of the Deputies to the Minister and will engage with him on the matter.

The Covid crisis has certainly taught people the value of the natural environment. When we start to plan our recovery we need to make changes to embed better environmental approaches, particularly on climate action. I remind the Taoiseach we have lost a lot of ground on this. Only 3% of the promised electric vehicle charging points for public use have been rolled out in the past 15 months. Retrofitting has collapsed. My question to the Taoiseach is whether we can ensure some of this work is included because it is safe to put electric vehicle charging in public places, even under level 5. When will we see a new climate action plan? Can we publish a retrofitting wave early so that large swathes of our cities and country could adapt better environmental practices in their homes?

I can definitely see the Deputy, given his former role, is on top of the detail of this area. I will pursue the issue on electric vehicle charging points in the current situation. I will make inquiries in this regard. The Minister is anxious to proceed with the new climate action plan as quickly as possible. There will be a series of Cabinet committee meetings in respect of this issue and, of course, considerable progress has been made on the wider legislation following engagement with the Oireachtas. There will be further amendments to ensure as progressive a framework of legislation as we can possibly have in this area. With regard to retrofitting, I do not accept that it has collapsed. In fact, we have invested strongly in the midlands, for example, for a significant, expanded programme for retrofitting.

I want to raise with the Taoiseach the ongoing flooding at Lough Funshinagh in County Roscommon. One family home has already been abandoned and 600 ha of farming land and livelihoods are under water. As I stand here, two additional family homes are under immediate threat of flooding. These are the homes of an elderly couple in their 80s and a mother in her 70s. So far, a hosepipe at both homes is the only thing protecting them from these floods. What as public representatives are we doing here today when elderly people in their homes are at risk of flooding? This has gone beyond a joke. These homes are under immediate threat. I ask the Taoiseach for action, not for meetings or reports but action.

I want to see the OPW-----

Go raibh maith agat. We are over time.

We need this water drained and we need it today.

I will engage with the OPW in this regard to get alleviation as quickly as possible to the couples and landowners involved, and to the people living in such dreadful and very stressful situations because of the flooding in that particular area.

Unfortunately, we have run out of time. There are 16 names left on the list, so I will put them in for tomorrow.