Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 29 Sep 2021

Vol. 1011 No. 7

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

When a government is elected, there is a basic expectation it will cover the basics and get them right. That includes putting roofs over people's heads, ensuring access to healthcare and, of course, keeping the lights on. It is now apparent the Government fails, even on these most basic of tasks of any government. I heard from his responses earlier today that he clearly does not appreciate how anxious people are in regard to rocketing energy costs and the threat of power cuts this winter. I find it extraordinary that he is prepared to leave households in the dark in order that he can roll out the red carpet for data centres, yet this is his proposed course of action.

The time is up, Deputy.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan's, attempts to reassure people this morning, if that is what he was at, fell flat. On the basis of pure common sense, given that we are where we are, why will the Taoiseach not introduce a moratorium on the development of new data centres, at least until a proper impact assessment has been carried out?

In fairness to Deputy Kelly, he understands the seriousness of the issue. He raised it on Leaders' Questions, whereas Deputy McDonald did not think it was serious enough to do so.

That is the reality.

I want to make a point through the Chair.

I thank the Taoiseach for mansplaining the importance of a public policy issue to a mere woman like me. You are very good, Micheál. Go raibh maith agat.

The bottom line is that in the order of priorities, the Deputy did not see it as a priority issue today. That is her decision. That is her option and I fully respect that-----

There was a two-hour debate on it this morning.

The budget will be an opportunity to offer protection from the rising costs of energy. As for my commitment and our commitment to the provision of energy-----

I am really concentrating to understand the Taoiseach's answer. I hope I can do it.

-----the Deputy should be in no doubt about the Government's commitment to the security of energy and protecting people across the board.

Will the Government consider a moratorium?

It is not an issue-----

-----of rolling out red carpets to anybody.

Okay. If you say so.

That is just classic political sloganeering, which is the hallmark of the Deputy's approach to every issue.

Political insults seem to be the Taoiseach's preferred mode.

Please, Deputy.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about a sensitive and emotive constituency issue relating to the review of the national development plan, NDP, which I understand is to be launched next week, on 4 October. On numerous occasions I have raised this issue with him but I raise it one last time in the hope he will be able to resolve it. It relates to the Dean Maxwell nursing home in Roscrea. A submission has been made in respect of the NDP from a group at the home. It is a comprehensive submission and I ask the Taoiseach to seriously consider it and ensure it is announced as part of the new NDP. We need more public nursing homes and, in particular, a new unit in Roscrea. This issue is the biggest priority for the people of the town. I urge the Taoiseach to ensure it happens because, according to both HIQA and a letter from the Minister for Health to the group at the home, this unit will close to long-term residents on 1 January 2022. That cannot happen. The town needs its nursing home, and a long-stay one at that. Will the Taoiseach please ensure it happens?

As the Deputy will be aware, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, met public representatives from the area recently-----

She said we would have to wait and see.

-----in respect of the plans for Dean Maxwell. The HSE has produced its set of proposals in regard to the nursing home as well, and the Minister for Health is certainly taking on board the views that have been articulated but wants to create a sustainable and viable future for that centre in Roscrea. He has met local representatives as well as Members of this House. The Deputy is well aware of what is going on.

I am not. That is why I asked the question.

I call Deputy Cian O'Callaghan.

A number of young people experiencing homelessness have come forward and reported that after seeking help from a homelessness organisation, they were subjected to serious sexual assault. This highlights how crucial it is that everyone working with vulnerable people on our streets and in emergency accommodation be Garda vetted. It is also critical that the national quality standards framework for homelessness services be applied to all services and emergency accommodation for people experiencing homelessness and not just some providers, as is currently the case. In addition, services and accommodation for people experiencing homelessness must be inspected regularly to ensure compliance with these standards.

Will the Government commit to ensuring that everyone working with people experiencing homelessness is properly Garda vetted? Will it further ensure that the national quality standards framework is applied to all providers of services and accommodation for people experiencing homelessness?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The issues that have arisen surrounding the charity, Inner City Helping Homeless, need to be examined and dealt with. I understand legal processes are under way in respect of the future of the organisation. It operated outside of the scope of mainstream homelessness services provided by local authorities and voluntary NGOs, which are subject to a range of oversight arrangements and standards. That is an important point. In the context of the homelessness issue, there are many strong conventional providers and we have to be alert to new groups appearing overnight to deal with homelessness issues more generally. That has been an ongoing issue. The organisation did not receive statutory funding from the local authority for its services. Issues have been raised around the role of the Charities Regulator in this case, while the Deputy and others have raised the Garda vetting issue. There is a concern that not all of those working in homelessness services are being vetted, and the time has come to examine that issue-----

The time is up, I am afraid.

On 14 July, I raised with the Taoiseach the gross abuse of power by a retired Kerry judge, James O'Connor. I explained how he had abused his position, persistently and completely inappropriately, to pursue a vulnerable woman, who was before his court on a family law matter, for a sexual relationship. During the summer, I was contacted by another woman, who told me a very similar story relating to the same judge. She too was before him on a family law matter.

He approached her repeatedly, he got her number and then he persistently pursued her. There are multiple incidents, so I will not go through all of them. I will quote one incident she related to me. She said:

He rang me another day and said he had stuff for my case. He told me to meet him at the back door of the courthouse. I went to the back door. He was waiting. He said he did not have the paperwork with him. He brought me in there to get the paperwork. Then he lunged at me. I pushed him and left. He obviously felt he could have done anything he wanted to.

That is Ms B. in Michael Clifford's story in The Examiner today. There is also a Ms C.

The Deputy's time is up.

There is clearly a repeated pattern of abusive behaviour by James O'Connor. What is the Government going to do to stop this type of thing happening again?

The Deputy has raised a very serious issue. The first case, when I read up on it and so forth, went to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. The existing mechanisms and investigative authorities have not been in a position to bring this to what one would anticipate the conclusion should be. Governments do not engage in the operational side of prosecution and so forth, but this matter raises very serious issues on which I will be consulting with others in terms of how to deal with them. However, there is an overall issue that the Oireachtas and the Executive cannot investigate every case. There is a real issue here regarding the authorities and how diligently assertions and allegations of this nature are followed up and dealt with comprehensively, because they have not been dealt with comprehensively in this case. I am very concerned about it and about what I have read today in the articles the Deputy mentioned. I will give further consideration to this and revert to the Deputy.

As the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, pointed out on Monday in his statement on contact tracing in schools, there is a substantially higher risk of transmission of Covid-19 in households compared to other settings, including schools. As a result, families with somebody who is immunocompromised will not now be told if their child is a close contact, exposing vulnerable people to Covid-19 infection. The CMO said that while a public health risk assessment will be carried out to protect vulnerable children in special schools, no such assessment will be carried out if a child's brother or sister is a close contact in a mainstream school. How can this be right? The policy must be looked at again, even until the immunocompromised people have received their booster Covid shot.

We have to be careful. Some people keep second-guessing public health advice. The bottom line is that the schools have fully reopened safely after the summer break. From the start of the pandemic schools have consistently operated on the basis of public health advice, and it has been a consistent principle that the Minister for Education and the Department of Education operate in accordance with the public health advice that is given at any point in time. Following a review, NPHET has recommended that from 27 September routine contact tracing of asymptomatic close contacts among children in settings such as childcare facilities, primary education and social and sporting groups will no longer take place, with the exception of children in special education settings. That is the advice that has been given and the Department has issued updated guidance to schools on foot of the change. The balance is correct in that decision.

Thank you, Taoiseach. The time is up.

That is my observation on it. The Deputy is entitled to raise questions. I fully understand that, but there is a balance here. I would argue that accepting the public health advice has worked so far in dealing with that.

The Tánaiste told me last week that the review of the national development plan is imminent. I again raise the plight of the people of Tipperary town. I refer to Jobs for Tipp, the March for Tipp, the task force, the Chamber of Commerce, Councillor Annemarie Ryan and others. It is vital that the bypass is included. Hopefully, it will be in the footprint of the new M24 which will go from Limerick to Waterford. Something has to be included to relieve the people, businesses and households of Tipperary town and let them live without fumes and large trucks. The extra traffic since Brexit is desperate. Will the Taoiseach please ensure that the funding for the M24, especially the part around Tipperary town, is included in the review?

All the Deputy's colleagues in the constituency have raised this issue consistently. I know the Deputy is a tremendous supporter of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and all his policies.

Some of them, yes. Ba chóir don Taoiseach an cheist a fhreagairt seachas a bheith ag magadh fúm.

Nílim ag magadh. I will follow up by saying that the Deputy will be glad to know that he is an enthusiast for bypasses.

I know. It is not funny.

In December 2018, the then Minister for Health-----

Tá an Taoiseach balbh now.

Please, Deputy. I call Deputy Joan Collins.

In December 2018, the then Minister for Health pledged to introduce stand-alone legislation in 2019 to allow healthcare workers to go about their work and people to access reproductive health services without intimidation. Those pickets are still taking place. We are receiving emails from women and men who feel they have been stigmatised, shamed and intimidated as they access reproductive healthcare. The legislative programme for this autumn states that the safe access to termination of pregnancy services Bill is to be introduced, but it is only at preparatory stage. I ask the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health to make this an urgent Bill and to bring the heads of the Bill to the Dáil very quickly. It is three years now and that is too long.

This is a very important issue and the Minister for Health is committed to progressing that legislation. I will certainly raise the urgency of the issue again.

Will provision be made for the continuation of compensation for local authorities in Longford and Offaly for the loss of commercial rates revenue as a result of the escalation of decarbonisation and the closure of power plants? The Loughrea power station in County Longford was the largest rate payer in the county at €1.2 million annually. That compares dramatically with the average rate bill locally which is just €1,800. The report from the Just Transition Commissioner, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, was very specific on this point. He was adamant that it would be unfair if provision was not made centrally to compensate local authorities for such a significant loss in revenue, especially as the planned closure was brought forward from the original planned date of 2027. Bringing forward the closure decision has undoubtedly posed large financial challenges for Longford County Council, which is already operating in a very challenging socioeconomic environment.

I accept the bona fides of Deputy Flaherty on this issue of the impact of just transition on commercial rates in Longford and Offaly county councils. The Lanesborough plant in Longford accounted for 15% of the rates base while in Offaly the Edenderry and Shannonbridge plants together accounted for almost 25% of the local rates base. In recognition of this, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, provided compensatory funding in 2021 equivalent to 100% of the rates that would otherwise have been due, with €1.4 million allocated to Longford and €3.3 million to Offaly. It was intended to be a once-off allocation to support the two authorities. However, recognising the challenges in 2021, during which local authorities continued to support the national effort to combat Covid-19 and the reopening of society while delivering key services to the public, compensatory funding is now again under consideration for 2022 as part of the Estimates process. I will relay what the Deputy said to the Minister in respect of this key issue.

I warmly welcome the appointment of Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh as chairperson of the Shannon Group He is a man of real substance and has a proven track record in business. He is also a proud west of Ireland man who knows the importance of balanced regional development. In addition, he has a deep understanding of aviation and how it works. I am looking forward to working with Mr. Ó Céidigh in the time ahead. Aviation is of critical importance for an island nation so it is important that the Government continues to support the sector and that, as we emerge from the pandemic, an enhanced support package is made available to our airports and airlines. What work is under way to provide funding to underpin and re-establish key strategic routes? In the case of Shannon Airport, those key strategic routes are to Heathrow, Boston and New York.

I note the Deputy's comments in respect of Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh and we wish him well in that role. He came to it through the Public Appointments Service process and has a deep commitment to the region and to aviation.

The Government has provided substantial supports to airports and airlines, particularly through the EWSS programme and through capital investments in airports. We are looking at further measures to see what we can do to underpin the return of growth to the aviation sector because connectivity is key to the regions and the mid-west in particular. We are conscious of the role aviation can play in the economic recovery of the country and the mid-west in particular.

It is significant that no Minister, including the Taoiseach, can assure the people that we will not have blackouts during the winter. That is significant and a clear case of mismanagement. The red carpet is rolled out on the demand side and the Government dithers on the supply side. Renewable energy support scheme, RESS, auctions have been postponed. Wind Energy Ireland maintains that offshore projects under the watch of this Government have been delayed due to the lack of a framework and the microgeneration scheme continues to be promised mañana. I ask the Taoiseach to expedite the implementation of the offshore wind legislation. Those in the sector maintain that because there is no framework, projects are being delayed. When will the microgeneration scheme be introduced? We have not seen that legislation.

The legislation has been published. As this is something that had been going on for years, on becoming Taoiseach I insisted that with the help of the Office of the Attorney General we would get it drafted and dealt with. It has happened and it has been published. I appreciate the Deputy's point. It is open to every Oireachtas Member to get this Bill through now in a timely manner. That is a matter for the Oireachtas. We will work with the Oireachtas to do that. I support the Deputy's point that it needs to get through as quickly as possible and if the Oireachtas comes on board, we can do that. The same applies to microgeneration. I do not believe the Deputy's points accurately reflect the commitments I gave this morning. I made it very clear that any risks or issues would be dealt with through demand management with large producers of energy and those with backup generators. That is what we will do with any issues that may arise.

I seek an update on the restoration of the Gaeltacht allowance paid to teachers and the disparity that exists for those who joined post July 2011. Our Gaeltacht communities in Mayo are an incredible asset to our county from both a tourism and a cultural perspective. We need to ensure that our teachers do not feel disincentivised from taking up employment in these areas. I understand that, in 2017, schools that were previously categorised as Gaeltacht schools were given the option to opt in or out of scéim aitheantais scoileanna Gaeltachta. However, I was advised that teachers in the schools that opted out continued to receive the Gaeltacht allowance, which is viewed as incredibly unfair to new teachers who are teaching in the schools that remained. I would appreciate an update and for the matter to be addressed as part of budget 2022.

Perhaps I might come back to the Deputy on that. I have a note on Gaeltacht learning periods and the grant that was funded by the Department of Education up to the 2012-13 academic year. The rate of the reintroduced student grant for 2021 has been set at an average of €650. I think that is different from the issue of the Deputy is raising, which relates more to the allowance for teachers in Gaeltacht schools.

Baby Kate Mynard is an adorable child from Dunmanway in west County Cork. She has a disease called spinal muscular atrophy, a rare disease that causes loss of movement. Quite often with these diseases, there is no cure or treatment. However, in Kate's case there is a treatment - a miracle drug called Zolgensma. If Kate receives treatment with this drug, she will experience an incredible improvement in her life and in her outlook. I urge the Taoiseach, as leader of Government, to intervene here and ensure that cost is not what stops baby Kate, or indeed baby Theo Whelan, from receiving this miracle drug, Zolgensma.

I thank the Deputy for raising the case of Kate Mynard from Dunmanway and the issue of access to a particular treatment and a particular drug. I will investigate this to ascertain the availability of that, the position of the treating consultants, whether the company has applied under the existing processes and so on. I will talk to the Deputy in more detail about it.

Baby Kate turns two in April, at which point it is recommended that Zolgensma is no longer to be used. Therefore, there is a sense of urgency about this.

No autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit or classroom is available for primary schoolchildren locally in Carrick-on-Suir. Parents in the area have been turned away from other schools farther away because of lack of spaces. We have heard of people waiting for two years or more. Some children may have to travel even farther to Waterford city, Dungarvan or Kilkenny, which, as the Taoiseach will appreciate, is unsuitable for many children. It is distressing for parents to have to put their child on a bus to go to a school farther away to say the least. The parents concerned have set up a Facebook page to raise awareness of their situation. Since appearing on local radio, they have become aware of more than 20 families in this situation, some with more than one child.

How can the Department claim to know enough about St. Brigid's in Carrick-on-Suir that it can close it and yet children in need of ASD units or classrooms are being totally overlooked? Parents should not have to form a pressure group to bring a service to their area. Is the Taoiseach aware of this situation, and what is being done to address it? Can he guarantee the people of Carrick-on-Suir that it will be resolved?

Whenever such an issue arises, I work with the Department of Education, the Minister for Education and the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to deal with the issue. I do not know whether any specific primary schools have applied for an ASD unit. I ask the Deputy to give me further details on it. That would be the normal route. The NCSE would assess the demand in given areas and would approach schools with a view to providing ASD units. There is no issue with resourcing ASD units. A total of 269 additional special classes have been opened this year, which brings the total number of special classes nationally to a new high of 2,118 for this school year. They will provide 1,600 additional places throughout the country. The additionality is being provided. The extra classes are being opened. Schools need to apply for the ASD units. If the Deputy wants to work with us on it, there will be no issue.

I raise the ongoing issue regarding the publication of new wind farm guidelines. When can we expect these guidelines to be published? There are many issues and people in rural communities have no protection from wind energy companies coming in and constructing monstrous turbines against their wishes. In respect of an application for wind turbines in Lemanaghan, County Offaly, there have been 2,300 objections, including one from me. The site is important for its heritage, history and archaeology. There are no protections because we have no guidelines. These guidelines are long overdue. I ask the Taoiseach to give a specific timeframe. This matter is of concern to many Deputies across all parties. I call on the Government to publish the guidelines urgently.

The Deputy is referring to the updated guidelines.

They are draft guidelines but we need updated ones.

I know that and the Minister has committed to producing those updated guidelines. I will revert to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, in respect of those.

We have all witnessed the Brexit chaos in Britain at this point, but we have an impending disaster as we face into Christmas, which could even impact the Santa Claus supply chain. The issue relates to people looking to import items. On 1 July, stringent new EU customs rules were introduced. Certain companies have failed to prepare and may not necessarily be providing the correct information. This is not being filtered, particularly when it is posted from Britain. It means we have a stockpile here and there is a major hold-up. It is taking significant time for An Post and customs to have their stuff returned to Britain.

I know An Post is engaging with the Irish customs, the Royal Mail and other non-EU carriers but we need to engage with the British Government and with customs and we need to get it sorted.

In fairness to Santa Claus, he overcame the Covid-19 crisis and he will overcome the supply chain issue as well. I have no doubt about that. On wider issues, Brexit continues to have an impact and in many ways Covid masked some of the issues that have arisen from it. The issues are mainly in the United Kingdom in the operation of small to medium-sized businesses there, for example. Their capacity to supply the European market and Ireland has been affected. Many of our SMEs are finding the timelines longer in terms of receiving orders and supplies from customs in the UK. I am conscious of the issues the Deputy has raised.

When will Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party stop discriminating against people in County Limerick? We brought forward an amendment to the Project Ireland 2040 plan and the Government voted against it. The Government is stopping people building in towns, villages and rural areas because of a lack of investment. All of the investment to upgrade infrastructure is going into the cities. When you look at the towns and villages around County Limerick, the Government is saying it will invest in the upgrade of the existing structures but it will not allow for any additional capacity. That means SMEs and all the businesses in our towns and villages in County Limerick cannot go to the banks and tell them that their businesses need to expand because of extra footfall. The Government has stopped any expansion of any business in any town, village or rural area because of the lack of infrastructure. All of the funding is going to the cities and unless you are within 15 minutes of a city, your existing sewerage systems will not be upgraded. They will say there is existing capacity and that extra capacity will not be allowed on top of that.

There is no agenda in this Government in discriminating against Limerick or rural areas in general. There is an unprecedented capital investment programme in local infrastructure the length and breadth of the country. The issue will be delivering in terms of the capacity constraints in the economy, including the availability of labour and other issues. The town and village renewal programme will result in investment in towns and villages in Limerick and across the country and that is being provided for. The urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, funding to Limerick was significant-----

They will not increase capacity. They will only upgrade the existing capacity. The only upgrades are in the cities.

Let the Taoiseach respond, please.

The URDF has allocated substantial money to Limerick, as the Deputy knows.

Towns and villages.

Towns and villages are being funded through the rural communities development project.

Upgrading is being done but extra capacity is not being allowed for. That means you are closing us down.

Maybe the Deputy should put down a Topical Issue matter and he will get more time to deal with it. We are out of time with three Deputies remaining. If they each ask their question in 30 seconds, we will take them.

Temperatures are due to drop and the basic needs of some children are not being met. Heat is very important. We had an impassioned and emotive debate on child poverty in the Dáil this week, which brought up the matter of the basic needs of children such as food and heat not being met. Electricity, fuel and gas prices are surging. If someone loses his or her job today and he or she has to go on jobseeker's benefit, he or she is not entitled to get fuel allowance for the first 13 months. Will the Government look at this and reconsider the eligibility criteria for people who have recently lost their jobs to get fuel allowance?

Some weeks ago the Government approved a transfer of Shannon Heritage sites out of the Shannon Group to local authorities in the mid west. This was a positive development. A lengthy due diligence process is under way, which we thought would end around 31 December and which could now run until March. In that interim period from January to March, Shannon Heritage and Shannon Group are talking about closing these sites again. This is unthinkable, commercially unwise and represents a head in the sand approach. They are also turning away commercial bookings and I am hearing from staff that they will desist from taking employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, supports for their staff. As the helmsman of Government, I ask the Taoiseach to do everything he can at the Government end of things to expedite matters. The region and the workers will lose out.

A constituent of mine, Eileen, is a 76-year-old woman with chronic rheumatoid arthritis. She requires two carers at a time to operate a hoist so that she can be cared for properly. There have been numerous occasions when she has been left with no care; once for a whole weekend. Carers on holidays or sick leave are not replaced or sometimes only one turns up when two are needed to operate the hoist. She has ended up with bed sores as a result of inadequate care. I am afraid she is not the only one and that many other. might not be in a position to speak out about their situations. What efforts have been made to recruit more carers? There is a crisis in the sector. When will home care be put on a statutory basis as per the programme for Government?

On Deputy Ward's questions, in the context of the budget the fuel allowance supports and the variety of supports that are there to help low-income families with heating will be looked at, given the rising costs and so on.

Deputy Crowe raised the issue of the transfer of the heritage sites. It would be unthinkable if an organisation was not going to operate them. No one in government said that just because we are transferring from one entity to another, they should close in the interim period. That is not a runner. Neither did anyone say that if the EWSS is available, it should not be used. I will ask both Ministers involved to engage and make sure that does not happen. It should not happen.

Deputy Tully raised the issue of home carers and she made a legitimate point about the difficulties with getting a workforce in. There has been a dramatic reduction in hours in recent months and that has meant there is a need to get more home care personnel. In the short term we will have to look at the work permit issue, the facilitation of more people to become involved and the training of others. Legislation is on target to put home care on a statutory basis.