Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 24 Jun 2021

Vol. 1009 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Yesterday we heard that the Tánaiste's Cabinet colleague, the Minister, Deputy Harris, suggested that alternative sites were being examined for the future national maternity hospital. Tallaght, in particular, was mentioned as a possibility. Can the Tánaiste confirm whether the Government is indeed looking at alternative sites and, if it is, which sites, and what stage is that at? If an alternative site was to be chosen, how long would it delay the project? Will the Tánaiste confirm, so we are all crystal clear on it, who is leading this on behalf of the Government? Is it the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, or the former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris?

I am not aware of any plans to look at alternative sites for the national maternity hospital. The Government considered it some time ago and decided, for good, clinical, patient safety and patient quality reasons, that all four maternity hospitals should be relocated and co-located with adult hospitals. That is the case in Limerick, with University Maternity Hospital moving to the Dooradoyle site. It is also the case with the Rotunda Hospital moving to the Connolly Hospital and the tri-location of the Coombe with the children's and adult hospitals in St. James's Hospital. The most obvious and best fit for Holles Street and the national maternity hospital, notwithstanding the enormous complications, is St. Vincent's hospital. I am not aware of any plans to look at alternative sites.

It is worth noting during Pride month that the UK has now changed its discriminatory policies against gay men donating blood. Gay and bisexual men in Ireland currently must abstain from any sexual contact for a minimum of 12 months before meeting the criteria for donating blood. The same criteria do not apply to other blood donors. This ongoing ban discriminates and stigmatises individuals and feeds into negative stereotypes of whole communities. A review of the science by the advisory expert group to the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, IBTS, is currently under way but no end date has been given for the delivery of this service. With the UK and Northern Ireland moving to a more tolerant and evidence-based position on blood donations, will the Government commit to the removal of the current discriminatory practice and its replacement with an evidence-based individual risk assessment model for all blood donors?

As the Deputy will appreciate, the IBTS makes its decisions based on scientific and medical evidence. There is no reference to the Government in that regard and the service does not require the approval of the Government and it is not a Government decision. However, I echo the Deputy's comments and ask the medical people, scientists and experts in the IBTS to have regard to what is happening in the UK and other countries that are taking an approach based on individual risk rather than picking out particular groups in the way the Deputy has, very articulately, explained.

Heads of State are today meeting at the European Council. As they do, variants of the virus are rampaging through the global south. I ask again what is the position of the Irish Government on the TRIPS waiver? It is fair to say the vaccination programme here and in other wealthy countries are going well but if perfect incubator conditions are being created in less prosperous places throughout the world, we are all at risk. As a former and potentially future Head of this State, what would be the Tánaiste's message on the TRIPS waiver and whether Ireland should be demonstrating leadership in that regard?

My view is simply that a TRIPS waiver is not enough to do what needs to be done, which is to make sure that the global south can manufacture vaccines and administer them across their populations. A TRIPS waiver is not enough in that regard. It is proverbially like giving somebody the recipe but not the kitchen. They have not been given the materials or know-how to produce vaccines. The first thing that should happen is export bans should stop. As trade Minister, I have instructed my officials to vote against export bans, and we have. It is all very well for countries such as the United States to back a TRIPS waiver while banning exports at the same time. We must get rid of export bans. The best thing we can do is to work together and with industry to license this intellectual property to the global south and help to build the necessary factories, provide the money and know-how to do these things, and then help them to provide vaccines to their populations. A TRIPS waiver on its own might make us feel good but it would not do much good. It needs to be a part of a comprehensive solution and we are working towards that with the WTO.

A story in today's edition of The Irish Times tells us that more than 3,000 999 calls reporting domestic violence were cancelled by the Garda in 2019 and 2020. There is talk of disciplinary action. Would the Tánaiste agree that the number of cancelled calls speaks to something more than sloppy policing by particular members of the Garda? At best, it speaks to me of a failure on the part of the leadership of the Garda to instil and foster a culture of making protection of women and children a high priority. At worst, it could even speak to a culture of misogyny.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties now believes that the very first event organiser of a street protest since the onset of the pandemic to face a €500 fine is Ms Aislinn O'Keeffe of Limerick. She is alleged to have organised a socially distanced protest involving no more than ten people on a wide city street on 18 March on the issue of opposing femicide and domestic violence. She refuses to pay the fine and awaits a court summons. Would the Tánaiste agree with me that prosecution would be a bad look for the Garda in this instance?

I would prefer not to comment on any individual case that is before the courts. I can say that any inappropriate cancellation of 999 calls is a serious issue. The Garda Commissioner has assured the Minister for Justice that when somebody calls 999, they can expect and trust that a member of the Garda will help. That should always be the case and should always have been the case. The Garda Commissioner is before the Policing Authority today and will give a full account of the serious shortcomings that occurred, outline the steps that have been taken to ensure they do not happen again and will answer questions on the matter.

Lenders are turning down mortgage applicants because their employers were availing of the wage subsidy scheme. In some cases, the people applying for the mortgage were not even aware that their employers were availing of the scheme. The lenders are using the wage subsidy scheme to reject mortgage applications. These lenders assume that any company availing of the employment wage subsidy scheme is about to fail. That is not true, as the Tánaiste knows. Some of the largest employers in the country are availing of the scheme.

As the Tánaiste is aware, we are in the middle of a housing crisis. It has been reported that lenders are cancelling mortgage facilities to applicants who were already given the go-ahead. That means people are losing their homes and deposits. What is the Government going to do to ensure lenders are not using the wage subsidy scheme to blackball mortgage applicants?

I thank the Deputy. This matter has been raised by Ministers in our interactions with the banks.

As the Deputy knows, it is a tricky issue. If somebody is in receipt of the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, by definition, the company he or she works for must be down 30% or more in terms of turnover. While that does not mean that person's job is at risk, it means it is more at risk than someone who works for a company that is not in receipt of the wage subsidy scheme.

Banks cannot turn a blind eye to that when it comes to calculating risk. We need to be honest about that. Again, however, I understand the case the Deputy has made. In our engagement with the banks, we make the point that while this is a commercial decision for them and they must assess it as part of their risk calculation, they need to be sensitive to people and have regard to that.

We are moving to the Rural Independent Group and Deputy Mattie McGrath.

There is absolute chaos in driver test centres around the theory tests. I have been raising this issue with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for months in this House.

Four people turned up at the Clonmel test centre last Tuesday morning, from Cork, Dungarvan, Cahir and Clonmel, and it was locked. I have been digging and the staff in my office, Ms Triona O'Flynn and others, have done great work on this. The office in Clonmel will only open for two days on 24 and 26 June and on 1, 8, 19 , 22, 24, 26 and 30 July. That is seven days in total for the month of July.

The Tánaiste has lovely acronyms and buzz words such as build back better and saying the economy taking off like a rocket. He heard Deputy Fitzmaurice and others saying that construction workers, farmers and people trying to get a college cannot get their theory tests. How are we going to build back better or take off like a rocket? I hope the Tánaiste is not too fatigued after his Ard Fheis on top of building 40,000 houses. I would say he is on cloud-cuckoo-land. These centres must be opened. I met with the Road Safety Authority, RSA. It met me when the Tánaiste would not meet me. I thank it for that but it most open these centres and let the people get their tests.

I understand that we are now up to approximately 50,000 tests per month. The driver testing services is scaling up again, both in terms of the online theory tests and the physical tests, and will be hiring more drivers to do exactly that.

When a person applies for a Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant, a few sections on the form ask if he or she has any siblings over the age of 16 in third level education. A person can then input details and submit his or her application. However, because both of the students who are applying or going into the next year do not have the registration confirmed yet by the colleges, they are not linked. This creates an internal review, which means there is a 30-day wait for a further decision. Both students need to create an internal review and get letters from the colleges. Even if only one student does it, it means that the second will not get the increase of what is available due to two siblings attending college.

This year will be a nightmare. Many internal reviews are going to happen come September as a result of a change in circumstances and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, being stopped. I call on the Tánaiste to make sure a team is tasked with linking students together, which was stated on the original SUSI grant applications, and sending a double consent form for both students to sign to give permission to share information in order that they can register for college and both go automatically. That will streamline the system and make everybody's life easier.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is currently carrying out a broader review of SUSI. I appreciate the issues the Deputy has raised in the Chamber. I am not 100 % briefed on them so I will not say any more than that. I will certainly tell the Minister, Deputy Harris, that the Deputy raised the issue in the Dáil and ask him to contact the Deputy directly.

I will start by acknowledging the successful roll-out out of the vaccination programme. This morning, I had the pleasure of attending the vaccination centre at the Aviva Stadium. I acknowledge the hard work, dedication and friendliness of the front-line healthcare workers there and right across the country.

Worryingly, however, we have seen the increased transmissibility of the Delta and Delta plus variants, both in the UK and in other jurisdictions. I acknowledge that it is the objective of Government to want to reopen schools and colleges in September. It is important to remind ourselves that we must protect young people who have underlying health conditions, however.

The European Medicines Agency has approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children between the ages of 12 to 16, and indeed, Belgium has already begun rolling out the programme that age cohort. Does the Government have a plan to do likewise in this State?

My expectation is that we will approve the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children and young adults aged between 12 and 16. It is already approved for those aged over 16. We will aim to vaccinate them later in the year. I cannot give a date on that just yet. Obviously, the aim is to move down through the age groups and vaccinate people in their 30s now, moving into those in their 20s and then to people aged between 16 and 20. It is, however, the expectation and intention of the Government that we will vaccinate those aged over 12 but it will be later in the year. I cannot put a date on it yet because there is uncertainty around supply.

The past year has shown us the value of vaccination programmes. Given an unprecedented level of uptake in our flu vaccination programme in the winter of 2020-2021, can Government give a commitment that such a programme will continue to be free at source for the general population?

We had our best flu vaccine programme ever last year and, ironically, it was the year in which we had zero flu. That is the way these things go sometimes. It is probably the first time in a very long time, if not generations, that no case of influenza was recorded in the State during the winter period. We are not making the assumption that will be case this winter. There is a real risk, not just of new variants of Covid-19, but also the return of respiratory viruses such as flu and respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, which were suppressed last year.

It is the plan of Government to have a similar vaccine programme for influenza this winter on a similar scale to last year. One thing we must look at, though, is the nasal spray for children, which we did for the first time last winter. The uptake on that was actually pretty low. We will need to see if perhaps there is a better way to do that.

The Supreme Court has overturned the High Court decision to strike down the sectoral employment order, SEO, for the building sector. I very much welcome that. I am glad that the State took that challenge.

I am aware, however, of local authorities using contractors who are paying significantly below the rate set out in the SEO. I have seen payslips from workers who are being paid €10.50 per hour for doing work the SEO states should be paid at a rate of €19.37 per hour. That means that after deductions, workers are coming out with €372.36 for 39 hours' work.

What is the point of the SEO if local authorities are paying contractors who are going to undermine the rate? The SEO sets the minimum. Not only are these workers not getting the rate but they are not getting the contributions into their pension either. I ask that the Tánaiste examine the evidence, which I will share it with him, but also that he sends a directive to the people who are spending State money to the effect that they need to use it to support the SEOs, not undermine them.

I join the Deputy in welcoming the fact that the State's appeal was successful and now gives us assurance that SEOs are constitutional. We plan to have some more of them. The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English, has launched the process to have one quite soon in the area of childcare.

I will be happy to receive that evidence and information from the Deputy. Of course, local authorities and public bodies should be compliant and should not pay below the legal minimum rates. They are not just agreed rates or union rates. They are the legal minimum rates in those sectors and they must be applied.

Today at noon the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, announced the preliminary review of the steering group on the Department's review of the school transport scheme. It is hugely significant in the context of John the Baptist Community School in Hospital, County Limerick. For the forthcoming year, it will facilitate students who are attending their second nearest school to be able to avail of school transport as a concessionary. That is to be very much welcomed.

It is going into the rural areas of Ballyneety, Knockea, Ballybricken, Caherconlish and Fedamore in east County Limerick, which will make an enormous difference to these people. I have been working with the parents and the school on this for a long number of years. They have this peculiarity where their nearest school is measured from the general post office, GPO, in Limerick city but their main nearest school is their local school, namely, John the Baptist Community School.

Thank you, Deputy.

I have a quick question for the Tánaiste. The Government is looking at increasing the capacity limits on public transport from 50% to 100% as we go into August.

We are over time, Deputy.

Currently, school transport is operating at 50% capacity. Bus Éireann has informed me that if the capacity on school transport is not increased, it may not be able to facilitate students.

The Deputy must put his question. We are way over time.

Will school transport capacity be reviewed?

I am afraid I have not yet seen the report to which the Deputy referred, which was released in the past couple of hours by the Minister, Deputy Foley. It seems that his long-standing advocacy on this issue has borne some results. I am glad to hear there is some welcome news for school pupils and families in the Limerick area.

Public transport capacity will be reviewed in the context of schools and colleges going back in September and October. We just do not know where we are going to be in terms of vaccinations and the virus by then, but we certainly are aware of the problem.

The Indecon report on the cost of disability was commissioned in 2019 with the aim of better informing relevant budgetary allocations for 2020. Two years later, it is unacceptable that the report is still not published in time for the 2022 budget. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, stated in the Chamber last November that the disability capacity review was completed and would be published in due course. That was eight months ago and there is still no sign of it. This delay is unnecessary, unethical and unwarranted and it is increasing frustrations for my constituents in County Clare. The failure to ratify the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in a timely manner is a further unnecessary roadblock to progress. Will the Tánaiste intervene on these serious matters and ensure the publication of the two reports and the ratification of the optional protocol are accelerated with the utmost urgency in time for budget 2022?

These are separate but connected issues, as I am sure the Deputy will appreciate. I do not know when it is intended to publish the Indecon report but I will check it out and get back to her by correspondence. The Government is keen to build on our ratification of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities by opting into the optional protocol as well, but we need to make sure we are ready to do so. I do not think we are quite there yet but we have never been closer.

I want to raise the massive elephant in the room relating to the national maternity hospital. I refer to the settlement of a case this week concerning the death of the baby of a couple, which I raise with the permission of their solicitor, on the basis of exceptionally poor clinical judgment, erroneous advice and exceptionally poor risk management by the hospital. It conceded liability in full at 3.55 p.m. yesterday, with nobody there from the hospital to pay any respect to the couple or give any serious apology. Everything that can be done should now be done to protect Ms Price, Mr. Kiely and their baby son, Christopher, whose name should never have needed to be read into the record of this House, from ever having to see this happen to another couple.

What happened to them should never happen again. We are having the wrong conversation on national maternity hospital. We need to talk about clinical management and the risk to women. We do, of course, need to talk about where and on whose land the new hospital should be built and under what governance it should operate, but unless we also talk about ongoing risk management and how women are treated holistically, we are having the wrong conversation.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I know something about the very sad case she raised but I do not know all the details of it. That is why I will be restrained in my comments. It was obviously an enormous tragedy for the family and I can only imagine what it is like to be told your child will be born with a severe disability, or perhaps not born alive, and to go ahead with a termination believing it is the right thing for all those involved, only to be told later there was a mistake in the test and that your child would have been born healthy. I cannot imagine it and I do not think someone could ever get over it, quite frankly. I welcome that the national maternity hospital has conceded liability. Once again, it is sad that liability, where it is conceded, is only admitted at the last minute and perhaps could have been done sooner. I would encourage anyone involved in such cases to be as sensitive and honest as possible in their dealings with those involved.

Affordable housing is badly needed in Galway city. Residents in the Mervue area have raised concerns that the build-to-rent nature of the proposed development at Crown Square will result in sky-high rents that ordinary working people, including the children of locals, many of whom want to continue to live and raise families in the Mervue area, will be unable to afford. Build-to-rent development goes against the Government's national planning framework, which encourages sustainable living in town and city centres. There are also concerns regarding lower standards in build-to-rent apartments. We need good-quality apartments that people can rent at an affordable price and can afford to buy. Does the Tánaiste have concerns about the lack of affordable apartment buildings in Galway?

I have read a little in the newspapers about this development but I do not know the details of it and I do not, therefore, want to comment on it. A lot of apartment buildings would not be built at all were it not for the fact there was an investor willing to invest in them and pay upfront to provide the finance for them. Nobody would win if there were fewer apartments built. It would drive up prices and rents for everyone and we need to bear that in mind. We also need to bear in mind that there are people who need to rent for one reason or another for a period in their lives, if not for a long period. I do not like to see some politicians referring to people who live in apartments or people who rent as transients. I thought that was a very strange comment. What we need is for people not to oppose every type of housing development because they do not agree with a particular type of housing. We need more types of housing of all sorts in all places.

In the past week, we have been reminded of the very worrying rise in knife crime across our capital city, following a number of high-profile incidents. What stage is the Government at with the new violence reduction strategy it promised? Will the Government consider a knife amnesty, which has worked before in this jurisdiction, when it was used in Limerick, and has been very successful in Scotland? Unlike some parties in the House, the Government parties do not walk away when it comes to matters of criminal justice in this State. I want to know what succour the Government can provide for the victims of knife crime and, more importantly, what protections it can provide to ensure this worrying rise in knife crime is stopped in its tracks.

I will have to come back to the Deputy on that question as I do not have an up-to-date note on it. I certainly share his concerns about increases in knife crime incidents in our cities and elsewhere in Ireland. It is a complex problem and it does not always respond to simple solutions.

I want to raise the issue of the public liability insurance crisis, which is impacting on businesses, community centres and community and sporting organisations. They are being charged either astronomical insurance premiums or they are not getting quotes at all. I know of a rural community centre in Louth with a turnover of €6,000 that is paying substantially more than €2,000 a year in public liability insurance. The organisations operating in that centre also need their own insurance. I am aware of a community organisation with responsibility for a small piece of ground that is now being charged approximately €3,000 a year for public liability insurance, when the cost previously was €600 to €800. We need to deal with the duty of care issue and the duty of play issue, which relates to personal responsibility. Another factor is the insufficient number of underwriters in this particular part of the industry. What does the Government propose to do to address these issues and what is the timeline for action?

We are taking a number of actions in this regard. The Deputy will be familiar with the new personal injury guidelines that have just been agreed by the Judicial Council. We anticipate that this guidance will bring down awards and should, therefore, also bring down premiums. We are advancing the Criminal Justice (Perjury and Related Offences) Bill 2018 to enable us to take a harder line against people who make bogus or exaggerated claims. We are also reviewing the duty of care legislation to rebalance the responsibility in a way that ensures a fair balance between community centres, for example, and other businesses and people who might sustain injury. There is a list of actions under the action plan for insurance.

Tourism continues to be a shining light throughout County Cork. Walking tourism in west Cork is now worth €14 million to the local economy and is growing from year to year. We have some spectacular walks, including the Beara way, Sheep's Head way, Seven Heads walk and Mizen Head walk, to name but a few. A total of 695 landowners, mainly farmers, maintain these west Cork walks for the public to enjoy. West Cork Development Partnership has successfully administered this walks scheme for many years but it has only two part-time recreation officers to look after the 695 existing landowner participants. For a similar scheme in Leitrim, where 25 landowners are involved, there is, rightly, one full-time rural recreation officer to administer the scheme.

For the future of the successful walks scheme, be it the Beara-Breifne Way or other routes under the West Cork Development Partnership, at least four full-time rural recreation officers are needed. Will the Tánaiste work with the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, and the many County Cork Oireachtas Members who attended a Zoom meeting on the issue this morning, to organise a meeting with the aim of working towards a solution on this crisis issue for the greater benefit of tourism and farmers in west Cork?

I will certainly raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and let her know he raised it in the House. I understand there is a review under way at some level but I am not across the details of it. I had the pleasure of walking a section of the Beara-Breifne Way around Millstreet. I would love to do the whole length of it, from north to south, some time. It is a walk with huge potential. I will let the Minister know the Deputy raised this issue in the Dáil.

I want to raise an issue I have raised numerous times with the Tánaiste and his colleagues, and one which is also in the programme for Government, namely the commitment to the medical cannabis access programme. Obviously there was good news in January from the Minister for Health that the funding would be obtained via the HSE service plan. Will the Tánaiste give campaigners a commitment on when the programme will be rolled out because this campaign has gone on far too long? Families in desperate situations have gone through a licensing system which is very cumbersome and bureaucratic and does not really work. If this programme gets up and running, medical cannabis products may be issued under prescription for the first time. It would give hope to the people who have been campaigning on this issue for the last five years.

I thank the Deputy. I am afraid I cannot give him a date here. I would like to be able to give him a date and a clear commitment but it is just not an area directly under my responsibility. I am very aware of the Deputy's advocacy on this issue and his commitment to it. I will certainly let the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, know it was raised again and ask them to get back to the Deputy directly.

We are out of time now but with the Tánaiste's co-operation, I will take the last speaker, Deputy Ward.

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. This week I met the Therapists for Change group, which represents psychotherapists. Its main concern is the HSE's over-reliance on charities to provide mental health services, where the prevailing culture is that pre-accredited and post-accredited psychotherapists are expected to work for nothing. Pre-accredited counsellors and therapists are caught up in this unpaid system but they must do this unpaid time in order to get a job. Group members have a couple of asks. One is that the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, meet them, and they have sent a letter off to her today. The second question relates to when CORU will open up its registers to counsellors and psychotherapists to allow the HSE to recognise psychotherapy qualifications and employ psychotherapists directly.

The best way to bring this forward is probably for the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to meet with the group. I will let her know he raised this matter today and ask her to do that.

Sitting suspended at 1:13 p.m. and resumed at 1:55 p.m.