Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I raised with the Taoiseach on a number of occasions the need to end restrictions in maternity hospitals for pregnant women and their partners. I am sure the Taoiseach has heard, as I have, the really heartbreaking stories from many people about the hardship this has caused. Put simply, partners are not visitors and they must have access, along with the pregnant women, for appointments, scans, labour and postnatal care.

The Taoiseach has confirmed on a number of occasions that it is his view, shared by the Chief Medical Officer; the head of the HSE, Mr. Paul Reid; and the Minister for Health that there is now no reason for restrictions to be in place. Yet as we meet today, these restrictions are still a reality. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene and bring together the masters of the maternity hospitals and managers of hospitals with maternity units.

This situation needs to be rectified without further delay.

I agree 100% and I agree with and support the Chief Medical Officer's view that, given the situation with the suppression of the virus and the vaccination programme, there is no good public health reason for these restrictions remaining in place. I urge that, where appropriate, all maternity services relax their restrictions. The updated national guidance issued by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre says it is generally appropriate to facilitate attendance by a partner through active labour and childbirth, at the 20-week anatomy scans and on daily visits, for example, to a child in neonatal care. The chief clinical officer of the HSE has written to the hospitals seeking confirmation that maternity services are implementing the current national guidelines. I will talk to the CEO of the HSE again to make sure this is applied across the country.

What the hell is going on with antigen testing? Last October, I was the first person to raise this in the Dáil. It is so long ago that the Dáil was sitting in Leinster House. I use these tests every week after I return from Dublin in order to protect those around me. Professor Nolan's comments about snake oil were totally inappropriate and unwarranted. I understand the Chief Medical Officer has written to the Government on its comments on antigen testing on Monday. There is complete confusion out there. We use these tests for hauliers and we deem them good enough for hauliers. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is depending on these tests being rolled out in order for third level institutions to come back in September. A whole range of other actors across a range of industries are dependent on the roll-out of these tests. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health have made positive comments on antigen tests, yet we have absolute confusion and a lack of authority and consistency of approach on how they will be used. They are being used across the world. We know they are only one tool but they are an important tool. The mixed messaging coming from the public health teams and the Government has to stop. We need consistency in our approach.

It is not mixed messaging.

There has been a bit of difference of opinion from the get-go. The Deputy knows that. The Deputy asked what is going on but he knows exactly what is going on.

I do not. If I did, I would not ask the question.

People have different perspectives on the efficacy of antigen testing. I support the roll-out of antigen testing, as does the Government. The Government and the Minister established an expert group made up of a range of different disciplines and chaired by Professor Mark Ferguson, the chief scientific adviser and the CEO of Science Foundation Ireland. It has made a number of recommendations. It produced a majority report as there was some dissent and some reservations were articulated.

What are we going to tell businesses and students?

Therefore, it has already been operational in certain sectors such as meat plants. At European level, for example, the European Commission has promoted the use of antigen testing and has made supports available.

What are we going to tell people?

If the Taoiseach and Deputy Kelly want to have a chat about it, they should do so outside.

When I asked the Taoiseach about planning on the site of a mass infant grave at Bessborough, he told me it was inappropriate for a member of Government to intervene on planning matters. How does he reconcile this with his statement yesterday on Glanbia? Is that an appropriate thing for a Taoiseach to do? I presume the Taoiseach is aware that Glanbia is in partnership with a Dutch company and that in the past few years, the Netherlands has reduced its herd by 190,000 while we have increased our herd by 500,000. It seems that the Netherlands has actively found a country with lower environmental standards and low milk prices. The Taoiseach has framed this development, a subsequent increase in the herd and profits going abroad as a positive step for Irish agriculture. Farmers deserve more respect. It is obvious that we need to pay farmers a fair price for their product instead of continuously forcing them to intensify. Can the Taoiseach explain how increasing the herd, which will lead to an increase in emission fines, is a positive step for Irish farming? What will he say to young farmers who will see our dairy sector facing legal restrictions, like those faced by farmers in the Netherlands and elsewhere in the EU? The Government is pitting farmers against environmentalists. What is the Government playing at?

I never said to the Deputy that it was inappropriate for politicians to make-----

He did say that when I asked him about the social housing development-----

I did not interrupt the Deputy. I never said that about Bessborough because politicians write to planning authorities every day of the week to make observations.

The Taoiseach said it was inappropriate.

Their observations are not ones that have to be taken on board but politicians are entitled to make observations. That is a fact so I would not have said that.

This is a parliament and we are entitled to articulate perspectives. This Government has brought in a landmark climate change Bill

How does the Taoiseach propose to deal with developments like this?

I did not interrupt the Deputy. I will deal with her questions. This Government has brought in a landmark climate Bill with significant challenges. We want to bring people with us on this journey to meet the significant challenges that will face many sectors, including agriculture, in meeting our climate change goals. We need to bring people on board and that means balance in the public debate. That is what I said yesterday in an even-handed tone and in a reasonable contribution in which we had good exchanges. The Deputy wants to treat farmers with respect and so do I. I invite her to talk to some of the farmers involved.

What do you say to young farmers who will be left facing the legal restrictions we are seeing in other countries?

It would be useful for you to engage with them.

The Netherlands has reduced its herd.

I point out to the Taoiseach and the Deputy that we are not here to have a conversation.

There needs to be a conversation about this.

It might be better if Members did not speak directly to each other but spoke through the Chair.

The Taoiseach's behaviour in relation to An Taisce is reminiscent of Donald Trump.

The emergency powers handed to the Garda and the State last year are due to expire on 9 June but it is rumoured that the Government is thinking of extending them yet again. We have seen how the so called Covid powers have been used to harass Debenhams workers and to ban a car-based protest by taxi drivers. We have also seen 40 gardaí with six police vans physically breaking up a Debenhams picket in Waterford on Monday night. Socially distanced protests on the current housing crisis, for example, have been effectively criminalised without any serious scrutiny. Despite repeated promises to the Policing Authority, the Garda has still not provided a detailed breakdown by ethnicity of how these powers have been used. There is evidence of serious age and class bias as over 2,000 fines were handed out in the northern region of Dublin and fewer than 300 fines were handed out in the better off eastern region.

Does the Government intend to renew these powers? If so, will the Taoiseach at least insist on full advance scrutiny, including at an all-party committee and in debates in the Dáil?

I come from a different perspective than the Deputy when it comes to An Garda Síochána. I have seen a consistent approach from the Deputy that always seeks to undermine An Garda Síochána and to cast it in a bad light in terms of being, as he said, biased or against young people. That is an outrageous thing to say. An Garda Síochána is not biased against young people. I have seen gardaí doing fantastic work with young people in disadvantaged communities, working with them in sport and working to help them get through the challenges that many young people have faced in difficult circumstances in difficult communities. It is quite wrong of the Deputy, because of his political views and ideological disposition-----

Can the Taoiseach answer the question?

I am answering the question straight on because I know what the Deputy is at. What the Deputy is at is not sincere but is about painting a bleak and dark picture of the Garda being anti young people, racist or whatever. That is wrong. I disagree with it and I am convinced that the motivation behind An Garda Síochána with young people is a positive one. I have seen evidence of that

Will the Taoiseach please answer the question?

Unfortunately, the Covid restrictions-----

The Taoiseach said he was answering the question and he did not answer it at all. The question was if the Government will renew the powers. It is a serious civil liberties issue and the Taoiseach entirely diverted from it by pretending I was saying something I was not saying. Will you please answer the question? Are you going to renew the powers?

Will the Deputy resume his seat?

Certainly. Can we get an answer?

Stop interrupting the House, Deputy.

In the programme for Government, a commitment was given that affordable housing, in particular rented accommodation, would be pursued. Rents have never been higher in Dundalk and they show no sign of levelling off. It is getting to the point where it would be cheaper to repay a mortgage on a three-bedroom family home than it would be to rent it. This situation is unacceptable. I have no hidden agenda but I have promised my constituents that I would ask the Taoiseach this question. What measures is the Government taking to ensure that rents are affordable for those who are seeking a home and that the cost of new homes is within the reach of young families who are looking to get into the property market?

People are frustrated and are getting mixed messages. I promised my constituents that I would get the Taoiseach's message so I ask him to answer my questions.

I accept and I appreciate the Deputy raising what is a very important issue that I dealt with earlier in the House. Absolutely in terms of restrictions on rent increases, we want to continue with this. The Minister is examining how he can do whatever he can to keep increases to the lowest level possible and to protect from eviction tenants who have been affected by Covid in terms of their incomes or who are facing homelessness. In terms of affordable homes, a range of initiatives has been undertaken to make housing more affordable. The past ten months have been dominated by the Covid crisis, which has restricted some housing construction and has impacted our targets. We are providing unprecedented funding to get more houses built and to support affordable housing with a view to trying to make it affordable for younger people.

On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I compliment and thank the Taoiseach for his observations yesterday on An Taisce with regard to the 100 high-end jobs and thousands of farm families. I am worried because the two Green Party Ministers of State came out and literally attacked the Taoiseach. I am worried about the comments made by the Minister, Deputy Ryan, at the launch of the OECD report on Monday with regard to removing the VAT exemptions on fertilisers and animal feeds as well as tax concessions on fuel used for farm operations. What will happen our farmers? We will end up with a crisis in agriculture such as what we have in housing if this madness is not stopped. The Taoiseach mentioned the climate change Bill. We are trying to amend it. It will have a devastating impact on rural Ireland and our ability to get food on the table. It will destroy our primary sector, which has taken us out of recession after recession. We need more reflections such as what we had yesterday. I would like to see some action taken against the Green Party Ministers of State who seem to have been picking at the Taoiseach because he was trying to get balance.

To be fair, I do not think anybody is picking on anybody. In my view we need sustainable farming into the future but it has to be sustainable and changes will have to happen in respect of issues regarding fertiliser, animal feed and how slurry is spread. Many interventions are happening and we can accelerate them. We need more environmental afforestation. Today, we will meet the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, on this issue and how we can support greater planting of native trees, which would have a beneficial impact on sustainability and on farms, and increase income supports for the farming community to protect biodiversity and enhance sustainability. For agriculture to survive it has to be sustainable and the consumers will be demanding products that are respectful of climate change and sustainability.

The Taoiseach may be aware that tomorrow workers in Marks and Spencer will return their ballot papers, which will be counted on Monday, on a voluntary redundancy package. I do not expect the Taoiseach to comment on this. I am fully aware it is between the stakeholders. What has been drawn to my attention is an exclusion clause in the agreement with regard to any worker out of work for longer than six months, which I am informed is a standard clause. I am not commenting on that either. What I am commenting on is that those who have been out because of the pandemic seem to be captured by the clause. If I am correct I would be horrified at this interpretation. People were advised to stay at home and work from home or not work because of the pandemic and underlying conditions. The specific net question I am asking the Taoiseach is whether he is aware of this and, if not, could he inquire about it and come back on it.

I was not aware of it and it is a fair point. We have intervened in a range of areas to facilitate situations impacted by Covid across the board from the courts where people have been impacted by Covid and we have taken measures with regard to redundancy. I take the Deputy's point and I will inquire into it.

On Saturday, 1 May, during a bank holiday weekend, an impromptu meeting was organised at very short notice between the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, NPHET officials, Dr. Tony Holohan, Dr. Ronan Glynn and HSE officials. I thank those who represented these organisations and the Ministers for organising this impromptu meeting, which was constructive. The proof was in the pudding a few days later when test centres were rolled out. It was a very important intervention. It is important to point out the community in Donegal has reacted very positively over the past week to ten days to ensure we continue to try to suppress the virus. Businesses are responding in a very proactive way and are getting ready for a busy tourism season. My question is on the vaccine roll-out. We have incredible proactivity among GP surgeries. Today, I spoke to one medical practice that has not wasted one vaccine. The centre in Letterkenny needs to move to a seven-day week. The rule on retired GPs over 70 not being allowed to administer vaccines has to be looked at again.

I thank the Deputy for his very valid point that the intervention that weekend by the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, Deputy McHugh and all of the Deputies in Donegal, with the Chief Medical Officer, who made himself available on a bank holiday weekend and we appreciate him doing that, and the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, was important in creating awareness and led to action on the testing centres. The positive response from the community in Donegal is acknowledged and appreciated. I take on board what Deputy McHugh has said. With regard to the vaccine roll-out I hear what the Deputy has said regarding GPs aged over 70. It is a fair and valid point. I will bring it back to the HSE with regard to the operational roll-out of the vaccine.

I compliment the Taoiseach on his comments on An Taisce, which is trying to sabotage our dairy industry. I want to raise the issue of the medical assessment unit in Nenagh hospital. The unit was set up to take some of the pressure off the emergency department in Limerick. Unfortunately, it is not being staffed adequately. We need a permanent consultant to be appointed there. Last week, it was closed for two days. As we stand here, it is closed and it was also closed yesterday and Monday. I am told it will also be closed tomorrow. It was operating very efficiently. In order for it to fulfil its purpose I ask the Taoiseach to ensure the HSE appoints a permanent consultant for the medical assessment unit in Nenagh.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I am a great believer in medical assessment units. They were a great innovation. They have been in operation for almost ten years and they work. In respect of Nenagh hospital, I certainly will engage with the Health Service Executive in respect of making sure the resources are provided that can underpin the sustained and continued availability of the unit on a full-time basis.

This is the time of year that Deputies will be receiving correspondence from local schools about teacher and special needs assistant allocations. In my area of Wexford I am already working with St. Fintan's National School in Taghmon about its teacher allocations and Glenbrien National School about the provision of teacher hours. St. Fintan's faces losing a teacher and an administrative principal role despite having more than the required enrolment number this year to retain numbers. Taghmon is a very socially disadvantaged area of Wexford. This raises serious issues about the impact of this loss in the community. In Enniscorthy, Glenbrien National School is allotted 17.98 special education teacher hours for the entire school. This means that only a proportion of vulnerable children can get daily support, leaving others adrift. They are desperately appealing for a review to be carried out on their appeal by the National Council for Special Education. These schools, and parents throughout County Wexford, cannot operate without these extra special needs assistants and extra special education teacher hours. I ask the Taoiseach to raise these issues with his colleague, the Minister, Deputy Foley. If we are all in this together then schools must be functionally resourced to ensure the same.

Teacher allocations to schools throughout the country follow a broad pupil-teacher ratio model. This year, the Government reduced the pupil-teacher ratio in a significant move at budget time, which has been important, and provided a range of resources to schools, particularly during Covid-19. With regard to special needs assistant allocations, the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, the Minister of State with responsibility for special education, Deputy Madigan, and the Government have supported that there will not be a reduction in the special needs assistant allocation for the forthcoming school year because of the situation pertaining around Covid.

My question to the Taoiseach is on a subject that has been well worn over the past week and rightly so. Has a conflict of interest been determined in situations whereby investment funds can freely enter the housing market in such a way as to distort it, to prevent private home buyers from acquiring a home of their own, to prevent local authorities from acquiring houses in line with the requirements, and to prevent approved housing bodies, all to the frustration of Government policy? Can action can be taken in this regard?

Action will be taken in respect of that matter. We do not want investment funds competing with or crowding out first-time buyers or, for that matter, councils. We want councils to build more houses and to commission the building of more houses. We want county and city councils the length and breadth of the country to get involved in direct build and to commission builders to do that.

An inspection undertaken by HIQA at St. Joseph's Hospital, Ennis, in March found that some patients had gone a period of months without showering. We have had Joe Duffy telling us to wash our hands every day on the radio. The latter has been drilled into us and yet the necessity of washing themselves was denied to patients at St. Joseph's in an attempt to curb the spread of Covid within the facility. Ultimately, there were 32 positive Covid cases and six deaths at St. Joseph's. I ask that the Government investigate the circumstances around this as a matter of urgency and engage with senior HSE management to ensure that it never happens again in any public hospital.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It would be unacceptable if persons were not afforded the opportunity to wash. I will certainly talk to the HSE about the matter and get its perspective on what transpired.

Among the many cohorts of students whose needs are not met by the educational system is that comprising those who are described as gifted children. The Centre for Talented Youth has stated that there needs to be appropriate educational challenge and that these learners need to feel valued and be surrounded by peers of equal academic achievement. The programme for Government refers to implementing a strategy to support gifted and talented students. These children are like all other children. They will experience difficulties as they go through school but their circumstances are rather unique. When those circumstances present, it becomes more difficult for these children to reach their full potential. After all, that is what we all want. These children need to be challenged in a way that will encourage them to continue to learn. Many are homeschooled by parents who are continually striving to meet the educational needs of their children.

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

What progress has the Government made in respect of the strategy in this regard?

I agree wholeheartedly, and have for quite some time, about the needs of gifted children and the need to have specific measures designed to support their academic and social development within schools. It can be challenging for them within the school environment, for obvious reasons, in terms of the numbers attending in a given class. There are also the difficulties that can arise for a gifted child in the context of being advanced in many of the subject areas, which gives rise to attention and a raft of other issues. I will revert to the Minister for Education in respect of the issue that the Deputy has raised in terms of the specific measures that are in place and what else can be done to support gifted children and their families.

A fortnight ago, the hopes of many pregnant women and their partners were raised on foot of some of the speculation and leaks relating to maternity restrictions only for them to be dashed the following day. What happened the following day was that what is in effect throughout most of the country was dressed up as an advance and as something new. I am one of those partners who, I have to say, was deeply disappointed. I was looking forward to attending a 34-week growth scan but it does not look like that will be possible now. The Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, referred to his frustration with hospitals for failing to implement access in respect of 20-week scans and neonatal visits. To be honest, while that frustration is not misplaced, it is far from the whole picture. Ambition needs to be raised much beyond that. The Chief Medical Officer, the Taoiseach and the World Health Organization say that partners should be treated not as visitors but as an essential support to pregnant women.

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

We need look much beyond that. Will the Government direct the hospitals to put in place a minimum standard-----

Please, Deputy, your time is up.

-----well beyond that relating to 20-week scans and neonatal visits?

I have already dealt with this matter. I agree 100% that this should be facilitated. I will engage with the HSE. The Chief Medical Officer has made it clear there is no public health basis for any restrictions now on visits by partners. I regret what has occurred in the Deputy's situation. He should be in a position to attend that scan, as should many others also.

In 2016, I introduced the Civil Law (Missing Persons) Bill 2016. There is one part of the jigsaw missing in this area, namely, a central database for unidentified human remains that are found. We have had a number of cases in the past few years, such as the recent case of the late Denis Walsh in Galway. Mr. Walsh's remains were found in 1996 but the family was not informed until 2021 - 25 years later. There was also the case of the late Aengus Shanahan in Limerick, whose remains were found in 2001 and whose family was not notified until 2018. Joseph Reilly went missing and his remains were found in 2007 but the family was not informed until 2017. The problem is that there is no centralised database for storing information. Once human remains are found and not identified, the information stays local. There is a need for a centralised database of unidentified human remains and I am asking what action will be taken in order to establish one.

That is a very fair point. The Deputy has been working in this area for quite some time. A number of us have engaged with the people who have been deeply affected by this. I will work with the Minister in respect of evaluating whether we can fill that gap in the shorter term.

Will the Government give an early signal to the tourism and hospitality sector that the 9% rate of VAT will be continued for 2022 and, ideally, beyond that? As the Taoiseach will be aware, the reduced rate, from 13.5% to 9%, was introduced in respect of 2021 as a stimulus to the industry but most operators have not been able to benefit from that yet. There will be a difficult and long recovery road ahead. Right now, businesses are taking bookings for weddings and selling holidays abroad for 2022 and yet they do not have certainty in respect of the VAT rate. It would practical and helpful if the Government, rather than waiting until October, gave a clear signal now that the 9% rate will be kept for 2022.

The Government fully understands, and I fully accept, the enormously negative impact that Covid-19 has had on the hospitality sector - pubs, restaurants, hotels, travel, the tourism industry more generally - and music, entertainment and the arts. Those sectors have suffered more than most as a result of Covid-19. In the context of the national economic recovery plan, we are clear that we have to make sure that not only as we lift restrictions do sectors come back working again but that we can underpin the restarting and rebooting of those sectors of the economy over the medium term in order to generate employment and strengthen those parts of the economy again. That is the agenda.

There are four Deputies remaining. If they will agree to put their questions in 30 seconds - we will put the 30 seconds up on the clock - I will take them. If that is not acceptable, I am afraid we will have to move on. Is that agreed? Agreed. The first Deputy up is Deputy Bríd Smith.

We will have another go at asking the Taoiseach this question. The emergency powers conferred on gardaí last year are due to expire on 9 June but it is rumoured that the Government wants to extend them even further. If that is so, will the Taoiseach insist that, at the very least, we will have full scrutiny of such an advancement and will he also create an all-party committee and have a full Dáil debate on this matter before the emergency powers are extended?

There will be full scrutiny and there will be a full Dáil debate on any legislative proposals the Government has in respect of the Health Act. That Act was necessary in the context of Covid-19.

Our country is at a crossroads when it comes to objectors. We have An Taisce. There are serial objectors throughout the country. People in places such as Mayo are objecting to developments in Kerry.

First, the Government must withdraw funding from An Taisce. Second, the people who are objecting in this fashion should be obliged to pay for their objections. These objectors have inflicted pain, misery and misfortune on poor people in Kerry who just want to build a home for themselves but who have been denied by such objectors.

Our planning system is there to vindicate citizens' rights and I have always respected that. It is the right of our citizens to use the planning system. That can never be tied to the provision of funding to any organisation and I would never advocate that. In terms of the broader debate, I had an interesting exchange yesterday with Deputy Kelly on the need to consistently look at our planning frameworks to make sure they are efficient, effective and expedient and that they can facilitate different perspectives much more effectively than is currently the case.

A number of my constituents who registered for the Covid-19 vaccine and entered their Eircode postcode received a text telling them that they will be getting the vaccine on a particular date and at a particular time but they will have to travel 60 km to 100 km from their home to a vaccination centre in either County Meath or County Dublin and not in County Cavan, where they live. Not only do they have to travel, but people from the same household are being given appointments several hours apart. Why, if the HSE is asking for an postcode, are people from the same household not being given appointments close together? Why are people being asked travel long distances? Some do not have their own transport or access to public transport.

That is a matter for the HSE. I do not know whether Deputy Tully has discussed it with the executive or referred it on but that is an operational issue on the ground. We do not want people travelling such long distances. Generally, that is not the policy.

Many of us have been absolutely shocked by footage circulating in recent weeks of violent anti-social behaviour incidents across the Dublin region. In particular, a racist incident involving children in my own constituency in Leopardstown last weekend has shocked many. In that context and as per the programme for Government, what is the status of the forum on anti-social behaviour and where is the youth justice strategy that has been promised?

The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Deputy James Browne, is developing a national youth strategy. This is a progressive and positive piece of work in terms of affirming the positive dimensions of youth and giving the necessary supports to young people more generally. In respect of anti-social behaviour, there has been a worrying increase in certain areas and in the wanton nature of that behaviour in terms of putting people in danger. The Minister for Justice along with the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, and An Garda Síochána are working collectively on a range of strategies to deal with it.

That concludes our elongated session on promised legislation.