Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I have repeatedly drawn the Taoiseach's attention to the rents people are paying. I put it to him today that as we emerge from the pandemic, our people face a cost-of-living crisis. Rents are soaring, people are being ripped off by greedy insurance companies and they now face multiple hikes in energy bills. To add to all of this, the Taoiseach now proposes to increase the tax on people's family homes.

His Government, the same Government that allows wealthy investment and property funds to accumulate billions in profit without paying one cent in tax on their massive income from rent, and without paying capital gains tax or corporate tax, is going to squeeze ordinary homeowners on the one asset they have worked their whole life to have - their family home.

The time is up, Deputy. Thank you.

Will the Taoiseach explain to us-----

The time is up.

-----why the hard decisions he and his Government take are always at the expense of families and workers? Will he please explain the rationale, as we look to get back on our feet, behind-----

Please, Deputy. You are taking other Deputies' time.

-----increasing the tax on people's family homes? Could we have the justification for this action, this decision, from the Taoiseach, please?

The Deputy is being politically dishonest. How do I know this? The evidence is very clear as to what her party does when it has financial responsibility. Just one hour's drive from this building, in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin runs the Department of Finance. It is the largest party in five out of 11 local authorities. It has no problem whatsoever with an annual tax on the family house calculated on the basis of its value. In fact, in eight of the 11 council areas that tax bill will increase for 2021 and 2022. Just look at one council area, Mid Ulster. If you own a house valued at £150,000 in Mid Ulster, you have to pay £1,192 per year in property tax. For 2021-22 the local council decided to freeze the rate. The Sinn Féin councillor who was tasked with responding to this said that not raising the rate would be like asking council officers to do their job with one hand tied behind their backs. In the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon council area, where the Deputy's party holds the position of lord mayor, the owner of a £150,000 house faces an annual bill of £1,360.

What does the homeowner get for that?

You get services here as well. We want to give councils the opportunity to provide services locally. Sinn Féin will vote against this but wants the services at the same time. That is hypocrisy. That is dishonesty. This is what Sinn Féin does as a party. This is what it votes for locally. I actually agree with the Sinn Féin councillors in the North. I do not fault them. They are correct.

Taoiseach, thank you. The time is up.

It is utter hypocrisy and political dishonesty on Deputy McDonald's part to come in here and make the assertions she continually makes.

Now, could we hear Deputy Alan Kelly, please?

I was enjoying that.

We all know there is so much hurt out there felt by the survivors of the mother and baby homes and their families. They feel let down by the report of the commission. They also feel let down that the three members of the commission would not come before the Oireachtas children's committee to discuss their findings. Last night, however, Oxford University advertised an event to be held by the university at which a member of the mother and baby homes commission, Professor Mary Daly, will speak virtually. Is it not wrong that a member of the commission will speak at an academic event about the findings of the mother and baby homes commission but the same commission will not come before the Oireachtas children's committee, before which it has been repeatedly asked to appear? This is not an academic exercise; it is people's lives and their lived experiences. Will the Taoiseach today join me in requesting publicly that, considering this commission member's decision to appear at the Oxford event, she and her colleagues now appear also before the Oireachtas committee, where the elected Members of Dáil Éireann will get to ask questions rather than people signing up online for an academic exercise at Oxford University?

Collectively, we have to work this out and make up our minds on the types of inquiries we want in this country. I say that genuinely because the commission of investigation model was introduced, as the Deputy will know, to make for a better type of inquiry. In some cases it has worked; in other cases it has not worked. The commission rarely comes before Oireachtas committees because that creates-----

Why are they going to Oxford?

I do not know the circumstances of that at all.

Is it not strange?

Through the Chair, could I make my point? I have no responsibility for the individuals concerned.

The Deputy knows that. I would have no issue with the commission coming before the committee and giving its perspective on this. However, we have an issue as to how we are to proceed if we are to initiate further inquiries into different issues, be they social or historical issues going back a long time or current issues. The current situation is not satisfactory.

Today a very sad report was published showing that in 2020 the number of people experiencing homelessness who died on our streets or in homeless services increased by 80% compared with the previous year. I extend my sympathies to the friends, families and loved ones of all those who have died in homeless services and on our streets. The interim report on mortality among the single homeless population by Dr. Austin O'Carroll shows that the median age of someone who died while living in emergency accommodation was just 43 years of age. It also shows that most deaths occurred among people who were experiencing homelessness for 18 months or more. The report shows that there are critical gaps in mental health and dual diagnosis services for people experiencing homelessness. What is the Government doing to reduce the number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness? Will the Government commit to eliminating homelessness?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I presume he is referring to the Dublin Region Homeless Executive's report on deaths among the homeless population in Dublin. It was prepared by Dr. Austin O'Carroll, who is a founding member of the Safetynet GP services for homeless people. The Minister has a copy of the report and will meet Dr. O'Carroll this Thursday to discuss it. It is an informed and evidence-based review of the deaths occurring among users of homeless services. In the Government's view, the findings and recommendations involve a key role for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will work with colleagues in other Government Departments - because this is a whole-of-government approach - to act on what is contained in the report. An unprecedented €218 million has been allocated for homeless services. We are getting family homelessness down. It is down by about 39%, with overall homelessness down by 19%, but that is not enough. We need an interdepartmental, multidisciplinary approach to address the issue of homelessness and issues surrounding health and the protection of those who are homeless in respect of mortality and severe illness.

Next is Solidarity.

People Before Profit, even.

Sixteen years ago today a young man called Terence Wheelock walked into Store Street Garda station but he never walked out. Three months later he died, having been in a coma due to the injuries he received while in custody. GSOC investigated this killing and concluded that no problems were found. GSOC is currently investigating the killing of George Nkencho and I can predict what its findings will probably be. Is the Taoiseach happy that gardaí investigating gardaí, particularly when it involves a death in their custody, is sufficient? Will he support me in calling for a public inquiry into the death of Terence Wheelock 16 years later? In recent weeks the family have acquired new evidence, including the cord from his tracksuit with which he allegedly choked himself. Will the Taoiseach now support the call for a public inquiry into this death and indeed into the death of George Nkencho? This is very important to our having faith in An Garda Síochána and to understanding that gardaí investigating gardaí is not sufficient.

These are very difficult situations for the families concerned. I do not accept the Deputy's assertion that GSOC is not independent. It is chaired by an independent chairperson, a judge. One of the difficulties we have, it seems to me, is that if, say, GSOC or HIQA carries out an investigation and its report is not deemed satisfactory or does not find what people want to be found or what Deputies or Senators believe should be found - and people might have a preconceived view as to what happened - we cannot have a public inquiry every single time after we have statutory agencies established which are independent. We really have to work out a system in this country-----

Thankfully, we do not have that many deaths in custody.

The Taoiseach, without interruption.

I am not just talking about deaths in custody.

I am speaking generally, across the board. We have a number of inquiries under way. Every month someone in here wants a public inquiry into something but they are extraordinarily long and enormously expensive-----

We cannot have a lengthy debate on this important matter.

-----and their results are never satisfactory anyway to those who seek the inquiries.

Just like the Taoiseach's answers.

There is a challenge here. I am trying to be fair. We need to engage on this. Otherwise, it is the easiest thing in the world for people to come in and call for a public inquiry. GSOC is independent, or does the Deputy think it is not?

I think it is not.

Should we abolish it then?

No. I think that when there is a death in the custody of the Garda there should be an investigation that is entirely independent.

Deputies, there is no provision to have an across-the-Chamber conversation.

Of course, it should be investigated properly and by an independent body.

Good God. Will people please have some regard to the proper processes? Deputy Peter Fitzpatrick is spokesman for the Regional Group today.

In the programme for Government promises were made to develop the health service into a state-of-the-art service. Part of this was to increase the capacity and number of ICU beds. Obviously, when preparing the programme for Government, none of us were aware of the devastating effects that the Covid pandemic would bring upon us.

Will the Taoiseach confirm how many operational and permanent ICU beds were available at the end of 2019, just before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic? How many operational and permanent ICU beds are currently available to the health service? Will the Taoiseach confirm that the current number of available beds in ICUs is permanent and will remain in place once we get over the worst of the pandemic?

I am concerned that the Government has spent vast sums of money fighting the effects of the Covid pandemic. An additional €4.4 billion was spent on the health service to fight the pandemic. We need assurances that this additional investment in the health services will reap benefits for the long term.

Without question, Covid-19 has had an extraordinary impact on the country, no less so than on the health services. We have to learn lessons from the Covid-19 experience in respect of our health services. I believe we are learning lessons. It has resulted in unprecedented spending on our health services which has resulted in an increase in ICU beds as well as overall bed capacity.

The important thing now is that we embed that into the system for the long term. That will involve a broad-based revenue approach to ensure we have resources to support an enlarged and expanded health service into the future. The Government's objective is to enable us to provide for and continue to increase expenditure in health services.

One area developed is the community diagnostic framework.

The primary care relationship with the HSE has been transformed. There are many positives which come from this as we move out of Covid-19.

Last week in the House, the Taoiseach said he did not want to see any man or woman working in the arts to be discriminated against. There is consternation in the arts industry this morning after the announcement yesterday that the lower paid, those earning under €20,000, have got nothing. They are the most vulnerable and the most in need of supports. There are three different layers for different turnovers and grant aid but there is nothing for those earning under €20,000. This has been going on for the past 12 months and it should have been sorted out long ago. I have raised this many times.

What the Taoiseach said last week must be lived up to. These are ordinary dancers, players, singers and artists, ordinary decent people. They need support because we will lose them. We will lose a wealth of talent and entertainment value to our people who need it so badly. Will the Taoiseach please look after this cohort of the lower paid? They are not big lobbyists. Senator Eugene Murphy is chairing a committee with them now with which I am involved. They need support.

Under the plan, there will be supports for the music sector and the arts sector more generally. There will be a pilot scheme in terms of a basic income for artists which the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, along with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, is developing. That is a basic income guarantee pilot scheme. In addition to that, the music and entertainment business assistance scheme, MEBAS, has been introduced to support, say, the guitarist in a given situation or the wedding band or musicians who perhaps did not get the same levels of supports because they did not have premises and so on as various schemes had different conditions. The MEBAS is being introduced to deal with that situation. I will ask the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, to correspond with the Deputy on it.

Baineann mo cheist le foiréigean baile agus le foiréigean inscne agus an tuarascáil atá geallta ó Tusla maidir le leordhóthanacht na tithe éigeandála.

My question relates to a promised report from Tusla on the adequacy of accommodation for victims of domestic and gender-based violence. It has been promised for some time. I understood it was to be published on 17 May and then somewhat later than that. Will the Taoiseach give me an update on the stádas na tuarascála sin?

Ní féidir liom uasdátú cruinn a thabhairt don Teachta inniu. Níl an t-eolas sin agam ach déanfaidh mé fiosrú air seo agus tiocfaidh mé ar ais chuig an Teachta maidir le dáta don tuarascáil sin.

I just want to bring to the Taoiseach's attention the new national trauma system, especially for children, which came into force in March of this year. Last weekend, a child from Listowel, unfortunately, suffered a major head injury after being hit by a car. The National Ambulance Service advanced paramedics assisted the boy at the scene, assessed him and decided he required to be airlifted to Temple Street Children's Hospital to be assessed by neurosurgeons there.

This was the first and successful test of this new national trauma system. The previous national protocols would require that a patient, particularly a child, would be assessed in the local hospital and then moved to Temple Street if required. The new national trauma system enables clinicians to get the patient to the right location and into the right care in a speedy fashion.

I compliment Keith Synnott, the national lead for trauma services, and, obviously, the National Ambulance Service for the work it does-----

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

-----and Temple Street hospital. I wish the boy a speedy recovery.

There is no question there.

Well, I did not hear it. Anyway, go on.

My understanding of the question is the need - it is an important point - for best protocols and practice in terms of dealing with trauma and emergency care. Getting a patient to the right place as quickly as possible is essential to better outcomes. It is important that a child or an adult would not be unnecessarily diverted to another hospital where that optimal care would not be available.

I too affirm and salute the work of Keith Synnott and the entire strategy which the Minister and the Government have endorsed around the national trauma centres, as well as the creation of such centres whereby people who need to be in them as quickly as possible get there. That is something I passionately believe in myself. I thank the Deputy for raising it in such a constructive manner.

I wish to raise an issue on behalf of Mayo's island communities. The Clare Island passenger ferry and road transport service tender was recently published. It is a five-year tender from 2021 to 2026 but, dramatically, falls short on the expectations of the Clare Island community. Twice daily return services will not suffice from my engagement. That equates to only 728 sailings per annum to Clare Island. This is especially hard to swallow when compared with Tory Island which has over 1,800 sailings; Cape Clear, 1,400; and Sherkin, 2,231.

Last month, I welcomed the announcement by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, of €740,000 funding to Mayo's islands, with over €500,000 to Clare Island. However, significant infrastructure projects are required for Roonagh Pier which services Clare Island and Inishturk. In addition, a helipad with neighbouring Inishturk needs significant upgrading to allow the Coast Guard helicopter to land.

Will the Government resolve the issues concerning Clare Island residents? Will it look to provide an adequate ferry transport service?

I thank the Deputy for raising an important issue for the residents of Clare Island and for those who travel in and out of the island. I will certainly consult with my Government colleagues on what further enhancements can be provided to facilitate ease of travel.

The Government has committed to introducing a statutory sick pay Bill. Consultations have been ongoing with stakeholders. Will the Taoiseach outline the current status of this Bill? Will he provide a timeline as to when it will be brought before the Dáil?

I think I spoke on that yesterday in the Dáil. Work is progressing on it. It is under the auspices of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and his Department. The Government is committed to it.

I want to raise the issue of Shannon Airport again.

It has become increasingly clear that the separation of Shannon Airport from the DAA in 2012 has not delivered on the long-term benefits that were initially claimed, promoted and predicted. Shannon Airport is also in double jeopardy because even now, as we reopen airports and flights are on the horizon, its status as an international airport is being mismanaged and its functions delimited to those of a regional airport. In the programme for Government in 2021, the Taoiseach stressed the importance of connectivity to our overall economic development as an island nation. He stated that he was committed to delivering on the capital programmes required to support services at our State and regional airports. I urge him, along with the Minister for Transport and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to reinvest in Shannon Airport and to support policy to reintegrate it into a national airport authority.

We have invested in Shannon Airport and we will continue to do so. I had a very constructive engagement with all of the public representatives, including Senators and Deputies, from the mid-west region last week in respect of the absolute need for connectivity and enhancing connectivity between Ireland and the rest of the world but particularly between the regions, and in that context Shannon is very important.

On the broader issue, the decision was made a number of years ago to create an independent airport authority and that continues in respect of the broader economic development of the mid-west. For now the Government is focusing very clearly on ensuring both the support of the airport with both capital and current funding to enable it to leverage, attract and incentivise airlines to use the airport frequently to get people into the region.

Epidyolex is a cannabis-based medication used to treat particular types of severe seizures. I have been working with a young 14-year-old girl and her family for a long time on enabling her to get access to this life-changing medication. Her father has previously appeared on the media where he gave a heartbreaking description of his daughter's situation and how it has been made so much worse by HSE inaction and bureaucracy. This young girl has an aggressive form of cancer and as a result also suffers from drop seizures. As a result of the cancer she has had to have one of her legs amputated. She cannot use her prosthetic leg until her seizures are under control and she can have more than half a dozen seizures a day. The best medical advice is telling us that if she is given access to Epidyolex, this cannabis-based drug, she has the best chance of getting these seizures under control. I have raised the reimbursement of Epidyolex on numerous occasions in this House. I have tabled parliamentary questions for the Minister for Health and I have written directly both to the Taoiseach and to the Minister on this issue. Every time this issue is raised, the HSE come back with the same, standard, bureaucratic, kick down-the-road answer. Can the Taoiseach ensure that Epidyolex is reimbursed to the people who need it so badly?

I thank the Deputy as I know of his commitment in respect of this case. My sympathy goes out to the family and to the young girl as well who is going through considerable trauma. I will engage with the Department of Health. Quite a number of patients on medical cannabis get reimbursed if the product is imported under an import licence. The medical cannabis access programme has now been developed. I will engage with the Minister and the HSE in respect of this particular case and I will talk to the Deputy again about it.

The Taoiseach will be aware that there are very significant intergenerational issues in respect of home ownership. Will he take measures to promote downsizing by people? In Ireland, 70% of us live in homes that are larger than our needs, which is more than double than in the rest of Europe. For people in my age bracket, 90% of us live in houses larger than our needs. That means that every year 2 million bedrooms are empty at a time there is a crisis. The reality is that if someone seeks to downsize, everything is stacked against that person. He or she will lose out if he or she releases money and then has to move into a nursing home as every penny of it will then be taken and the person will not get the relief that would apply. Few options are being developed for people who want to downsize by our councils or by our planners.

As to planning, if one wants to adapt one’s home to make it into two homes, it is very hostile to this. There is no favourable tax treatment, particularly for acquisitions. In short, we are locking people in to homes that are often larger than their needs.

I agree with the Deputy and I have pushed this point both with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Minister and other colleagues. Cork Corporation introduced a very good scheme two to three years ago and won a national award where it facilitated and incentivised downsizing for people who bought their houses from the corporation many years earlier. Time had moved on and in a deal with the corporation, a substantial number of residents downsized to apartments that are now provided by the corporation but the houses were released back into corporation stock for reletting.

There is enormous potential for voluntary downsizing and it should be incentivised across the board where people could voluntarily enter into agreements that would not disadvantage them if they engaged in a downsizing experience or initiative. The Deputy has summed up the issue. There needs to be a comprehensive approach to ensuring that there is a clear pathway that would facilitate people to downsize because it would free up spare housing stock that is not currently being utilised.

Last Monday week, Cork County Council published findings from a comprehensive independent report compiled by the All-Island Research Observatory at Maynooth University. This research proves that County Cork has been underfunded by successive Governments for decades. The independent report states clearly that Cork County Council have received the lowest CLÁR funding per capita in spite of having the highest population. The report states that we have the fourth lowest LEADER funding in spite of being the largest county. It also states that County Cork gets the lowest share of grants and on this point states that it got a very significant shortfall in rural regeneration funds, town and village funds, local improvement scheme, LIS, funding and greenway funding. The report shockingly states that Cork county roads will need €750 million just to catch up with the rest of the country. We have now fallen 52 years behind other counties, a point I have consistently raised here. County Cork has been treated appallingly by successive Governments and this independent report proves it. I asked the Taoiseach for a task force to deal with underfunding in County Cork a number of months ago, which he refused. I ask again whether he will set up a task force. Will he also consider launching an independent investigation as to why Departments have been found to underfund County Cork?

I have not seen that report and I do not buy it, by the way. People can commission reports to get the outcomes that they might want. I have not seen it and I would like to see at first. Yesterday there was a very significant announcement for Cork in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan 2021 in respect of public transport. The urban regeneration and development fund allocation has been substantial. I will have to see that reportto analyse it. No one in Cork County Council has approached me about it from officialdom nor has this been consistently articulated at all down through the years.

By the way, to wrap up, I checked with my two offices and they did not get any calls from the Deputy last week.

On a point of order, excuse me, that is a disgraceful comment. I can prove it from the records of my phone that I rang the Taoiseach’s office in Dublin last Friday. He also misled the Dáil yesterday by saying that I rang him looking for favours from him as I never did. He will have to prove that but this matter is going through the Ceann Comhairle’s office at the moment.

Please, Deputy Collins. I call Deputy Aindrias Moynihan.

I did not raise this issue.

The leaving certificate and leaving certificate applied, LCA, classes will start their exams next week. I wish all classes every success with their exams. They have had a very tough, twisted and dizzy road going through both fifth and sixth year to arrive now at exams that they thought might never have happened. Go n-éirí go geal leis na daoine seo atá ag déanamh na scrúduithe ardteistiméireachta agus LCA an bhliain seo tar éis dhá bhliain aisteach a bheith curtha díobh. There is an increased number of CAO applications and additional students looking to move on into further education. Will there be additional opportunities in apprenticeships, post leaving certificate, PLC, courses, college places, options available for students facing into those exams and options after the summer.

I appreciate that this issue been raised and I think the Deputy is the first in the House to wish the leaving certificate cohort of this year the very best in their examinations. He is correct in saying that dhá bhliain aisteach a bhí ann. They have had two very strange and difficult years because of Covid-19 both in fifth year and in the leaving certificate year. We wish them the very best as they prepare for their examinations. The Deputy is also correct that there has been an increase in CAO places, partly we suspect because of the Brexit effect, but that being said, we do need to increase places. We increased places substantially last year.

As part of the recovery and resilience plan announced yesterday, we will provide significantly more places in apprenticeships, further education and higher education. The Minister with responsibility for higher education is working on a plan to increase places, given the demand that will be there and the pressure that will be on.