Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Ar an 6 Márta thug Comhairle na mBreithiúna tacaíocht do na treoirlínte úra atá le leibhéil na ndámhachtainí i gcásanna díobhálacha pearsanta a ísliú. Beidh éifeacht aige seo ar chomhlachtaí árachais agus beidh ísliú i ndán maidir le costais éilimh. Tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuil buntáiste anseo do chustaiméirí. Lé rófhada tá na comhlachtaí árachais ag glacadh lámh ar chustaiméirí maidir le costais árachais agus caithfidh stad iomlán a theacht air seo anois. Caithfidh na treoirlínte úra seo costais árachais a ísliú do na custaiméirí.

The Judicial Council voted at the weekend to adopt new personal injury guidelines. This will see a reduction in personal injury awards, including for minor injuries. These new guidelines will replace the book of quantum, which sets general guidelines for awards in general injury claims. The Government approved these new guidelines on Tuesday. We welcome that and Sinn Féin supports these guidelines as we facilitated the passage of the Judicial Council Act in 2019.

We did so because we were told that would result in a reduction of the cost of insurance for hard-pressed consumers. These new guidelines reduce the cost of personal injury awards by more than 60% in some cases. Immediately after we heard the news that these new guidelines had been approved, representatives of the insurance industry went out spinning and spoofing. On the national airwaves, insurance industry representatives refused to commit to immediately reducing insurance prices despite these guidelines slashing the cost of claims. This stance was in complete contrast to previous claims from the insurance industry.

I will read into the record what industry representatives told the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach in 2019. In July that year, the CEO of Allianz told the committee that, "when we price insurance, and we are pricing insurance for the next 12 months, we have to set out our premium on the basis of what we expect to happen in terms of the number of claims over that 12-month period". The insurance companies therefore are not looking at past costs but at the future cost of claims. As a result of these new guidelines, those payouts have now been substantially reduced.

In fact, representatives from the industry went even further in telling us the levels of price reductions we should expect as a result of reduced personal injury awards. In October 2019, the CEO of Zurich Ireland told the committee that if soft tissue personal injury awards were to fall by 50%, then reductions of up to 15% in the cost of motor insurance would be expected. Regarding public liability insurance affecting businesses, he stated that we should expect reductions of 20%. Indeed, he said that the committee should ask serious and hard questions of the insurance industry if that did not happen. We know these guidelines go beyond the 50% reduction that he had suggested. Motorists should be experiencing real reductions in premiums today, tomorrow, next week and next month. It should also include business renewals. That is what was said straight from the horse's mouth when the industry wanted us to pass the legislation and wanted the Judiciary to cut the awards.

We have passed the legislation and the Judiciary has cut the awards but the industry is trying to wriggle out of the commitments it has made. The insurance industry will see the expected cost of claims significantly reduced. From today, the money those companies will have to pay out on awards will be significantly reduced from what was previously the case. Therefore, we should see an immediate reduction in the premiums being charged from this point onwards. This is the road we have gone down. The industry has nowhere left to hide and insurance companies must commit to immediate reductions in insurance premiums for motorists and for businesses.

Does the Tánaiste believe that the new guidelines should result in immediate reductions in insurance costs for consumers? What role will the Government play in ensuring that these cost savings for the insurance industry will be passed on to consumers in the form of lower insurance premiums? Did the Tánaiste or anybody in the Government get commitments from any of the insurance industry companies that there would be an immediate reduction in insurance premiums, as there should be?

I thank the Deputy for again raising this important matter of insurance. The Government is pursuing its action plan on insurance reform. The objective of that action plan is to make insurance more available for people and businesses and to reduce the cost of premiums charged to people and businesses for motor insurance, home insurance, public liability insurance, employers liability insurance and indeed all forms of insurance. A major part of the Government's action plan on insurance reform was to replace the old book of quantum with these new personal injury guidelines. I am glad the Judicial Council has now issued these new guidelines, which does result in a reduction in payouts that people will receive. The reductions will vary depending on how those are measured, but on average it will probably be something like 50%. That is significant.

This is of course only one part of a wider range of reforms and we have always said that there is no single reform which on its own will reduce insurance costs to the extent that we want them to. If one were to look at the pie chart of insurance costs, however, the biggest part of that would be the payouts paid to people who have been injured. Other things such as legal costs and the costs to the insurance companies in respect of their profits and reinsurance are all in and around 10%, whereas the payouts account for 40% to 50% of the cost of insurance. We therefore expect and anticipate that reducing payouts should result in a reduction in the cost of premiums for people.

It is important, however, that we are honest with people. The Deputy already knows, but he will not want to admit, that the new guidelines do not take effect immediately. They do not apply to claims which have already been assessed by the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB. The guidelines also do not apply to cases which are already before the courts. No Government can change the rules or guidelines retrospectively. We can only change them for new claims or at least for claims which have not yet been assessed. That is the plan. We must pass legislation to bring these new personal injury guidelines into force and we will do that as soon as possible. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has approval to do that by legislation within weeks and I hope we will have the full co-operation of the Opposition in enacting it.

Even then, however, it will not apply to cases already before the courts or which have already been assessed by PIAB. The legislation will only apply to cases which have not yet been assessed. As a result, and there is no getting around this aspect, there will be a time lag between the present and the time when we will see premiums coming down. It is simply not honest to suggest that the reduction announced at the weekend can suddenly result in premiums being reduced next week. The changes have to become law first and that law cannot apply to claims which have already been assessed. That would be changing the law retrospectively, which as the Deputy knows is unconstitutional.

I do believe, however, that this development will result in the costs of premiums coming down, but there will be a time lag between now and when that happens. I anticipate and I will be looking out for renewals in the months to come and over the year to see whether costs have come down. We will be holding the insurance industry to account on that issue. I have met representatives of the insurance industry, as has the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming. We will be meeting them regularly. The Minister of State is going to meet the CEOs of the insurance companies individually and we will be impressing on them our expectation that as awards do start falling that premiums should fall as well. We are seeking individual commitments from each of the insurance companies that they will do that.

With respect, the Tánaiste obviously does not know how insurance works because he just gave the line of the insurance industry when he said that there will be a lag period and that reductions will happen but will take a while to work through. I quoted for the Tánaiste what the representatives of the insurance industry had told us. Let me quote those words again. The representatives said that, "when we price insurance, and we are pricing insurance for the next 12 months, we have to set out our premium on the basis of what we expect to happen in terms of the number of claims over that 12-month period." The reality is that over the next 12 months, the cost of awards will be coming down. The announcement at the weekend will be given legal effect within two weeks.

The amounts paid out by insurance companies in awards will be reduced and therefore the premiums which people will enter into today, next week and next month should reflect those reductions. It is really important for the Government to understand that aspect and to ensure that the insurance industry is passing those reductions on straight away. When the representatives of the insurance industry wanted this legislation passed, which this House did, they told us that if we are not seeing reductions of 15% in motor insurance and 20% in public liability insurance then the politicians in this House should be asking those representative serious questions. The reality is that the awards are being cut straight away, because anything which is already assessed by PIAB has had a premium charged for it by the insurance companies. The insurance companies have counted that cost in previous premiums. Will the Tánaiste support the call for immediate reductions-----

Deputy Doherty's time is up. I call the Tánaiste.

I do not speak for the insurance industry. Perhaps Deputy Doherty does. He is very keen to quote the representatives of that industry on any occasion. I do not speak for the insurance industry. Perhaps the Deputy does, but I do not.

The personal injury guidelines were announced at the weekend. I do not know if the Deputy's contention that they will become law in two weeks is true. We must enact legislation in this House first, then we need it to go through the Seanad and then it needs to be signed by the President. The resulting law will also not apply to claims which have already been assessed. Therefore awards will be made in a week, in a month and in two months which will not fall under these new guidelines. There will be a lag period. I want to ensure that period is as short as possible.

We will be putting pressure on the industry, holding it to account, holding its feet to the fire and seeking from it commitments that premiums will decrease as awards decrease, but the awards have not yet decreased.

I want to ask about vaccines and I preface my comments by saying I am very much pro-EU. I am a former MEP and I know that Ireland is part of the EU bloc. It was very important for us in regard to purchasing power for vaccines. However, yesterday I appeared on RTÉ's "Drivetime" programme with Cormac Ó hEadhra, along with the EU health spokesperson, Stefan De Keersmaecker. To say Mr. De Keersmaecker's commentary and answers to questions was underwhelming would be an understatement. I asked the following fairly direct question, which was relayed to him. How could AstraZeneca continue to honour its contractual obligations to the UK but let down the EU? The Tánaiste has asked this himself. How is this allowed to happen? The response from Mr. De Keersmaecker was that the European Commission was "talking very seriously" to AstraZeneca.

I am sorry, but if talking very seriously to the company is the extent of what the EU is prepared to do, our colleagues in the European Commission need a different dose. They need a dose of reality because that is not good enough. They obviously do not know the level of frustration in this country, and indeed in other countries, and obviously feel this approach will get us there. It will not, however. The President of the European Commission texting the Taoiseach yesterday with good news of 46,500 new vaccines does not cut it because the text back to her should have asked what about the 653,500 vaccines, net, that we are still down. On top of this, we know that the EU has exported 34 million doses of vaccine to other countries, including 9 million to the UK, for instance. The UK and the US, in essence, are not allowing any exports, yet the EU is allowing exports to those countries.

I am asking the Tánaiste to say, on behalf of our country, that the way in which the EU is dealing with vaccines needs to be recalibrated, more ambitious and certainly more clinical. We need a summit on vaccines. The Government should demand it. I would not mind if part of that was face to face to get into the detail of this because we need to do three things as a result of this. We need to ensure we protect current supply in the EU as much as possible, and I am not into vaccine nationalism. We need to make sure, most importantly, that the contracts are honoured. Finally, we need to put together plans to increase manufacturing throughout the EU for our citizens.

I am pro-European too and a big supporter of the European project and European integration, but like the Deputy I do not believe that necessarily means one cannot criticise the European Commission on occasion, and perhaps this is one of those occasions. I very much support the fact that we took the decision to adopt a common European approach. I was Taoiseach during the first wave of this pandemic and I remember what it was like when every individual country was competing with one another and struggling to get personal protective equipment, PPE, to protect staff and to get reagents, ventilators, swabbing kits and testing kits. I know that in that scenario, it is more likely that the big countries with the big buying power will do better. Had Ireland gone on its own on this occasion, we may have found ourselves at the back of the queue. I think we were right, therefore, to be part of a European approach. That does not mean we have not all along been exploring other avenues. We have been, and the Taoiseach has gone into some detail on that.

It is evident that we have a problem here. While Pfizer and Moderna are honouring their contractual commitments with the European Union, give or take a day or two or a few glitches, AstraZeneca has not and that is an enormous problem we are now facing. I am seeking explanations too because I can understand how AstraZeneca might run into problems with supply, manufacturing or quality control, but I do not understand how this big successful company can honour its contracts with the United States and the United Kingdom but for some reason not honour its contractual commitments to the European Union. Thus far, the answers it has given are not satisfactory. The Government does not find them satisfactory and the European Union does not find them satisfactory either.

In terms of action that can be taken, there is provision for export bans. That is a European law and as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I have signed it into law in Ireland, although it does not arise here as no vaccines are being made in Ireland at the moment. The European Union and member states have the power to ban the export of AstraZeneca vaccines and Italy has been the first to do exactly that. We are, of course, ramping up manufacturing supply to the extent that we can, but bear in mind there is not a huge amount of spare manufacturing capacity in Europe. Plants that manufacture medicines and vaccines are already manufacturing medicines and vaccines, and we cannot stop manufacturing life-saving medicines that we need now. That needs to continue, but all those things are being explored. Even from my Department, €100 million is available in state aid for companies that want to scale up and manufacture Covid-related products, whether PPE, testing kits or vaccines, as the case may be.

I thank the Tánaiste for his frankness but I want to know what we are going to do here. Everyone knows that AstraZeneca is letting down the EU. I was shocked by the response I got yesterday. It is simply not good enough. What are we going to do? We are a small country but we have big capacity. This needs to be dealt with at a European level. It cannot be a situation where this company is honouring its contracts to Britain and the US, with exports going from Europe to Britain and the US, and our contracts are being failed. It is simply unacceptable. There needs to be a European action plan for this immediately. Will the Government look for this to happen? Will it look for an EU summit on this to happen immediately? If we do not act and protect our citizens, we are failing them. The EU, at the moment, by allowing the company to behave like this, is failing its citizens while allowing exports to countries outside the EU.

The provision for export bans exists and Italy has started down that road. I understand there is going to be a meeting of Heads of State and Government to discuss vaccines quite soon but I do not know the date for that.

Tá an clár vacsaíne faoi lán sheol. Tá an chéad dáileog faighte anois ag formhór an lucht cónaithe in ionaid chúraim fadtéarmacha, oibrithe cúraim shláinte agus daoine atá 85 bliain d’aois nó níos sine. Is léir go raibh frustrachas faoi leith ann nuair a d’athraigh comhlachtaí an sceideal seachadta. In ainneoin seo, dáiltear 95% de na vacsaíní a thagann chuig an tír ar dhaoine laistigh de sheacht lá. Fógraíodh dea-scéal inné go mbeidh 46,500 dáileog bhreise den vacsaín Pfizer le fáil ag Éirinn roimh dheireadh na míosa. Ina theannta sin, táimid ag súil le cinneadh ón EMA faoin vacsaín Johnson & Johnson. Má mholtar an vacsaín sin tiocfaidh dáileoga go hÉirinn i lár mhí Aibreáin.

I do not need to remind the Tánaiste about the very significant hardship and sacrifice that huge numbers of people have undergone as a result of the Covid pandemic. With a motion that People Before Profit is putting before the House tonight, we are proposing that for many of those who have made that sacrifice and suffered that stress, anxiety and hardship, we need to offer them a better future as we move out of Covid, and in particular in the area of education and access to higher and further education and apprenticeships. That is critical for the 80,000 people who have recently applied to the Central Applications Office, CAO, such as the leaving certificate students and so on. It is critical to the tens of thousands of people in third level who have seen their education experience greatly diminished over the past year, to thousands and thousands of people who may have to reskill and retrain because their livelihoods have been decimated as a result of the pandemic, and for the ability of our society to thrive and prosper socially and economically after Covid-19.

It seems, however, that we are not offering that better future to all of those people as we move out of the Covid pandemic. Rather, we are putting multiple obstacles and hurdles in their way as they try to access higher and further education or apprenticeships and complete their education to the highest possible level. Some 80,000 people will apply to the CAO, 25,000 of whom will be disappointed and potentially demoralised because we do not provide enough places in higher and further education or enough apprenticeships.

Our third level students and postgraduate students are suffering the highest fees levied anywhere in the European Union now that the UK has left. Many of our postgraduate students are living in absolute poverty on miserable stipends while suffering extortionate fees. Many of those who want to return to education to reskill or retrain are blocked from doing so by these high fees and the cost of accessing further education later in life.

The Tánaiste's Government has tabled an amendment to our motion. I appeal to him to withdraw it and to say that this is the time for courage, vision and payback for those looking for a future on the other side of Covid. We ask the Government to allow open access to third level and higher education and apprenticeships, to scrap the fees that make life so difficult for our students and to give decent supports to people in postgraduate education who are trying to do the research we need, and which we will need even more after the Covid crisis.

The Government is committed to education and to improving education in Ireland at all levels over the coming years. Education is the great leveller. It raises people up, gives them opportunities and allows them to learn more, earn more and build a better life for themselves and their children. That is why I am proud to have been a member of governments that introduced two years of free preschool education for all children. Investment at that age provides the best return and I am really glad that we prioritised that. I am also proud to have been a member of governments that ensured that more people can now access further and higher education than was ever the case before, these people coming from more diverse backgrounds than was ever the case before. I am glad to have had the privilege to be part of the governments that achieved that. As the Deputy will know, we are now investing in increasing the number of apprenticeships and types of apprenticeships. We now offer employers further incentives to take apprentices on. That is what we are actually doing.

We can, however, only do things that are realistic, practical and affordable. While I understand the motives behind the Deputy's party's motion tonight, and I can certainly see how they would be very appealing, I am not sure it is very realistic to abolish the leaving certificate and fees and to give everyone access to any course they wish. That is not practical. Not having a leaving certificate or some other form of assessment at the end of school would create great difficulties. I do not know how we would sustainably fund third level and higher education of the quality we would like. When countries such as Italy have attempted to introduce open access, they have ended up with very high drop-out rates. That is not desirable either.

Once upon a time, it was considered unthinkable that there would be open access to secondary education. We now look back and see it as monstrous that we would ration or limit the number of places available in secondary education. It is just as irrational and, frankly, lacking in vision to believe that we should still ration or limit access to higher and further education, education which benefits both those who desire access to it and our society as a whole. It is not the case that we have done what we should do with regard to investment in higher education. Some 50% of lecturing staff in this country are on part-time or temporary contracts, including 35% of lecturers. Postgraduate students are living in poverty. The drop-out rate in this country is terrible. One-sixth of all first-year students in higher education drop out. A National University of Ireland, Galway, survey of students in that university found that a third of students suffer from depression because we are not supporting them in accessing higher and further education and allowing them to sustain themselves.

I thank the Deputy. Vision is one thing. I believe everyone in this House shares a vision about education. I have gone through some of the things we have done to widen access to education and to improve education over recent years. There is, however, a difference between vision and practical action. Practical action requires more than a motion of one or two pages. If the leaving certificate were to be abolished, the system of assessment to be put in its place would have to be set out so that people could judge whether it would be better. If fees were to be abolished, how much that would cost would have to be calculated and how that would be funded at a time when we are already borrowing €19 billion a year would have to be shown. That is not sustainable. One would need to show how that deficit could be reduced while also finding additional money to do other things. If there was to be open access to third level education and if people were to be allowed study whatever course they want, it would need to be shown where the laboratories, anatomy rooms, dentist chairs and practical placements for apprentices would be found. All of this seems to be absent from the motion the Deputy is to put forward tonight.

Tom worked in the Irish Prison Service as an assistant chief officer based in A block in Portlaoise Prison. This block houses some of the most notorious and dangerous prisoners in the country. Prisoners include Kinahans, Dundons and many more criminals who are household names. This is a high-pressure environment in which violence and threat to life are real and constant concerns for prison officers. It is alleged that in October 2018 a prisoner came to the governor parade of Portlaoise Prison and told the governor that three officers were constantly coming into his cell. He said that he felt these officers wanted him to do damage to Tom, the assistant chief officer. A high-level meeting between the governors was held afterwards regarding what the prisoner had said. However, it is alleged that no action was taken. Tom, who was a target according to the prisoner's words, alleges that he was advised to carry on working and that he must wait until a written complaint was made before action was undertaken.

Tom worked in this extremely pressurised environment for another 16 months until finally a prisoner came forward to make a category A complaint. This is the highest category of complaint a person can make within the Prison Service. That complaint was investigated by an external investigator named John Naughton. A number of prison officers and prisoners, including Freddie Thompson, a convicted murderer, were interviewed. Other prisoners confirmed what Thompson had alleged and said that many prisoners cannot handle these situations and will turn to violence. A governor also gave evidence. He told the investigator that some of the initiatives he had introduced were subversively resisted by some of the prison officers. The three senior officers who were the targets of these remarks also gave evidence. One stated that, on his arrival to the block, one of the basic grade officers told him that the officers did not like him, did not send for him and did not want him, that he would not be staying there and that they would run him off A block. Shockingly, Mr. Naughton's independent report into the situation found that it was undeniable that some officers were making comments to deliberately undermine the work of senior officers and that there were grounds for the initial complaint. We know this information because Mick Clifford of the-----

I am listening carefully to what the Deputy is saying. He is treading very closely to identifying people and there is a Standing Order on that. We will stop the clock for a minute as I am not going to use up the Deputy's time. The Deputy cannot identify people. I have been listening carefully and I am just putting the Deputy on notice in that regard.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I have made a special effort not to mention the names of individuals. I am quoting from a report carried out by an independent investigator, John Naughton, into these matters. The reason we know this information is that Mick Clifford of the Irish Examiner has done extensive work on this story. He has reported these elements of the story in the Irish Examiner. Following that report, it is alleged that the staff members in question were not sanctioned, that they continued to work within the prison and that the only action taken was to require these officers to attend a workshop.

This is not good enough. Does the Tánaiste not agree that there needs to be a full investigation into what happened here?

I am sorry to hear about Tom's experiences and the issues the Deputy raised. As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle alluded to, however, these are specific allegations and they involve unnamed individuals who could perhaps be identified as a result of the comments the Deputy has made. I am not familiar with and I have not read the report the Deputy referred to so I am not in a position to offer further comment. I will let the Minister for Justice know that the Deputy raised the issue and perhaps she can engage or correspond with him directly.

These are serious allegations and I have thought long and hard about raising them on the floor of the Dáil. The reason I have done so is because I have called the director general of the Irish Prison Service a number of times to see if I can discuss them with her. I have also put a question to the Minister for Justice on why actions were not taken on foot of the Naughton report. The Minister has not given me any information as to why actions were not taken. I followed up on the matter as best I could via all the avenues that one would expect a Deputy who seeks to have justice done for individuals in the pay of the State to do but so far I have found that doors have been closed to me. That is why I have no option but to raise the matter here with the Tánaiste.

These are allegations that people in the pay of the State have undermined other people in the pay of the State to a level whereby this has cost them dearly and they are no longer working. I also know of a protected disclosure that has been made by another prison officer from the same prison and of other individuals at that prison who are out of work as a result of this situation. There is a systemic problem here and the only way to resolve it is for the Tánaiste to take the bull by the horns, work with the Minister for Justice and ensure that there is an investigation into this matter.

I am sorry I cannot be more helpful on this matter. These are serious allegations. Any allegations that are made have to be investigated. People against whom allegations are made have the fundamental right to answer those allegations and to be considered innocent until proven guilty. That is why I would rather stray into this space, not knowing the specifics and not having heard from any of the people involved. I appreciate that the Deputy has tried to raise this matter through other means and has chosen to raise it in the Chamber. I will see the Minister for Justice later today and let her know that the Deputy is concerned about this matter and would like a more detailed response if that is possible.