Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 30 Sep 2021

Vol. 1011 No. 8

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Following on from the final matter raised on Leaders' Questions, yesterday the Taoiseach could not give an cast-iron guarantee that there will not be any blackouts as a result of electricity shortages. Yesterday it was reported that the Tánaiste was saying he was reasonably confident that there will not be any problems. People want more than that. People want to know there is a guarantee that there will not be blackouts. All the while, ordinary people are seeing prices increase and hikes in their bills because of the failure to plan adequately for demand largely driven by the proliferation of data centres in recent years. I note, in particular, the work of the RTÉ journalist, Mr. Philip Boucher-Hayes, in highlighting this issue and, again yesterday, highlighting how the Irish Academy of Engineering wrote to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in 2019 and received no response. It is a very serious issue. Despite the slew of Fine Gael Deputies coming out yesterday and backing the continued construction of data centres, it is clear that we need to have a conversation about the demands placed on the energy infrastructure into the future.

The time is up.

Failure to tackle this will simply lead to serious increased problems in bills.

Sorry, the time is up.

Can I finish and ask this?

You cannot. You are over time.

Could the Tánaiste support a debate in this House on the issue of the threats to our energy supply?

It would be appropriate and reasonable to have a debate on that. I am sure that can be taken up by the Business Committee.

As I said earlier, based on the presentations that I have seen from EirGrid, the regulator and the Department, I am confident that the plan that is being put in place will enable us to avoid blackouts or brownouts this winter but nobody can absolutely guarantee that because we need those two power stations that are out of action, in Huntstown and in Cork, to be back in action in October and November to avoid it.

The issue of price is a different matter. The issue of price is driven by a very significant increase in gas prices across Europe which unfortunately is not something that we can control.

Data centres make up approximately 11% of our electricity demand here in Ireland. One large power station is enough to power all of them. Of course, the increase in the number of data centres planned over the coming years is an issue. We need to make sure that data centres are part of the solution, as well as part of the problem, which they are.

As the Tánaiste will be aware, the march for maternity care will take place on Wednesday, 6 October, at 1 p.m. outside the gates of Leinster House. Yesterday, the Better Maternity Care campaign group met with the HSE to discuss a roadmap for maternity care and, yet again, the group was left utterly frustrated and angry. Indeed, "heartsore" was one word used by Ms Linda Kelly, a member of the group.

At the meeting, the HSE confirmed that the current guidelines - these very restrictive guidelines - will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Despite all the cross-party support for a return to normal pre-Covid practices for maternity care and birthing partners, why is there still no roadmap for better maternity care? Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister for Health to meet the Better Maternity Care group as soon as possible?

I am frustrated about this too, but not in any way as frustrated as someone who is pregnant or their partner must be when it comes to this issue, which has been going on for a long time. Our vaccine programme is an extraordinary success, with more than 90% of over-16s fully vaccinated and the number of cases stable, albeit still high. We are on track to open the remaining parts of our economy and society on 22 October, including the ending of restrictions and capacity limits in hospitality and the opening of nightclubs. In that context, it is hard to understand why we cannot have a return to normal when it comes to partners visiting pregnant women in hospital. This is something that I will discuss with the Minister for Health. I will probably see him today or the next day and I will let him know that the Deputy raised this matter again.

Sticking with the issue of the Attorney General, given that the Tánaiste was not provided with details of other private cases that Mr. Gallagher was involved in, how can he possibly state that there would not be a conflict of interest? This type of situation arises regularly for barristers, and the standard approach is for them to hand over a case to a colleague. That happens commonly. One has to wonder why a case such as the one in question, which involves the State's corporate watchdog investigating the largest media company, was not handed over. Given that the Tánaiste was part of the decision, will he tell the House whether the retention of private work was a condition of Mr. Gallagher's accepting the role of Attorney General?

Once again, I wish to state clearly on the record of the House that I am confident that the Attorney General will avoid any conflict of interest. As I said earlier, he is a man of the highest integrity and I am confident he will avoid any such conflict.

The Tánaiste cannot really say that, though.

I am not aware of the detail of any particular case in which he is involved. I am certainly not aware of any agreement made prior to his appointment of the nature the Deputy mentioned.

Contrary to what I believe the Tánaiste stated, data centres are contributing to the global surge in demand for energy and, consequently, the price hikes. Setting that issue aside, what is undoubtedly the case is that energy prices for ordinary people are going through the roof. Many have seen two, three or four energy price hikes this year alone. The Tánaiste stated that the Government could not do anything to control the hikes because they had to do with wholesale energy prices. The Government can do something about it, though, and I suggest it does, namely, through the carbon tax. We have always believed that the carbon tax was an unfair and regressive tax on people who have very little control over the amount of energy they use because of a lack of insulation in their homes and so on. In the context of surging energy prices, which will rifle people's pockets, the Government should defer any talk of adding to that burden by increasing carbon tax in the forthcoming budget. Will the Tánaiste commit to that?

I will say to every Deputy in advance that I cannot make commitments today in respect of the budget. The budget will be announced by the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Donohoe, shortly.

Regarding data centres, the Deputy is right. Data centres and, more importantly, the retention of data - it has to be retained somewhere - are contributing to the increased demand for electricity in the world and will continue to do so as long as we decide to retain data. The same applies to electric vehicles, electric heat pumps and the electrification of industry. We are encouraging people to go electric. The solution is not to shut down industry, to tell people not to replace their oil heating systems or get electric vehicles or to cancel the electrification of railways. The solution is to produce more electricity, particularly from renewable sources.

The carbon tax is an important climate action measure. The majority of climate scientists, including many Nobel prize winners, are adamant that climate action cannot be achieved unless carbon taxes and carbon pricing are part of the solution. However, a proportion of those receipts will be ring-fenced to assist people in fuel poverty in particular.

Every day, we hear about staff shortages across the hospitality, health, haulage, racing and retail sectors, all of which are alarmed by the unfolding situation. Meat factories across Tipperary and the wider country are finding it impossible to fill the jobs that would allow them to continue production. I have been contacted by the managements of ABP Food Group in Cahir and Nenagh and Rosderra Meats and Ashbourne Meat Processors in Roscrea. They are concerned about the shortage of workers. Their problem centres around work permits. Unless permits are fast-tracked to allow non-EU citizens to come to work in Ireland, our meat factories will stumble into crisis. Meat factories have been in this position for a number of months. Many former workers have left the country and new staff are not available due to permit delays. This is an unacceptable situation and is reducing productivity, restricting exports and damaging the competitiveness of the industry. We need swift and decisive action.

There are many lessons that the pandemic has taught us, one of which is the value of migrant labour to Ireland, be it people from Brazil or people from central and eastern Europe coming to Ireland to take up employment. That labour has been significantly reduced in large part by the travel restrictions that were in place and the number of flights that were cancelled or air services that are no longer flying. With international travel, including aviation, reopening, there will be increased opportunities to source labour and skills from abroad once again through the employment permit system. A review is under way and is nearing completion. We expect it to be completed within the next two weeks by around mid-October. At that point, the Minister of State, Deputy English, will be able to make an announcement.

The social welfare officer and the community welfare officer are a very important part of resourcing vulnerable people. From next week, offices, including in my county, will stop contacts totally. Officers used to come to villages but then retreated to their offices before Covid. Now someone has to call a call bank, the call will be logged and a community welfare officer may or may not ring him or her back. Vulnerable people go to these officers, who do a great job - they did a great job during Covid as well, as did the local offices and staff - for help, but that help is being shut off from them. The Minister for Social Protection is also the Minister for Rural and Community Development. Please, look after these people. They are vulnerable. We cannot have the kind of change where they have to ring a call centre, wait on the phone and then might or might not get a call back. Face-to-face contact is vital for people who are vulnerable and in a bad situation.

I agree with the Deputy that community welfare officers around the country do an excellent job helping people at a time when they need help the most. My understanding is that they are trying to move towards a more efficient service that involves greater use of telephones and electronic communications but will still provide for in-person clinics where necessary and even home visits on occasion, but I am not across all the detail of that. I will let the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, know that the matter was raised and ask her to revert to the Deputy directly.

The Irish Sign Language Act establishes "a scheme to provide Irish Sign Language support for children attending recognised schools ... whose primary language is Irish Sign Language". The Geary family campaigned for this Act and, a few months ago, appeared on "The Late Late Show" with their twin boys, one of whom, Callum, is deaf, to highlight the fact that he is still not able to access adequate Irish Sign Language support in school. Why is that the case? There are graduates with first class honours degrees ready and willing to work, but the Department of Education refuses to sanction new positions. As boards of management can only employ these graduates as special needs assistants or under specified grants where there is no holiday pay or maternity pay, they cannot get qualified staff. Unless the Department moves on this issue, the Geary family, who played a part in putting the legislation on the Statute Book in the first instance, will have no option but to go to court.

I understand that the Department of Education is aware of this case. It is important that we provide adequate therapists within schools.

We are working with the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, on this issue. Workforce planning is also required to ensure we have sufficient new therapists coming on stream. Suffice it to say, the Department is aware of this case and will engage with the parents as, I understand, it is already doing on an ongoing basis.

The State is investing, and has invested, significant sums in retrofitting schemes. In the programme for Government, €8.7 billion is earmarked for investment in the retrofit of up to 500,000 homes between now and 2030. Thankfully, supports are available under the home energy upgrade for people on lower-to-middle incomes, who account for approximately 17% of households in the State. However, there is a gap between affordability and the grants awarded by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland or under any other scheme. Can the Tánaiste outline the Government's proposals to bridge that gap to make it more affordable for middle-income families to upgrade their homes and thus reduce their carbon footprint and energy costs?

I thank the Deputy. As he mentioned, we have ambitious plans to retrofit as many as 500,000 homes between now and 2030. This will be hard to do, particularly at a time when we need to build hundreds of thousands of new homes as well, but we are determined to press on with both objectives.

I am not as up to date on the issue as maybe I should be, but I know some work is being done on a loan scheme for people on middle incomes and people who do not qualify for the means-tested payments. People could use the savings that arise from retrofitting and reduced energy costs to pay off the loan. As I said, work on that scheme is under way at the moment.

The programme for Government recognises that our official development assistance programme is an essential element of our overall foreign policy. A fortnight ago, Christian Aid Ireland produced research on Ireland's role in facilitating tax avoidance by multinationals in developing countries, with particular reference to a company operating here in a number of locations. The positive impact of Ireland's overseas development assistance is being undone and our role in tax avoidance deprives these countries of much-needed tax revenue. It is the same as trying to fill a leaky bucket.

In response to questions on the Christian Aid Ireland research, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, recently committed to propose legislation to address tax avoidance where such avoidance was not covered by an existing agreement. I would like to know if legislation is to be brought forward to address the tax avoidance identified by Christian Aid Ireland.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I have not had an opportunity to study that research. I have seen some news reports, but I do not know about it in any detail. In almost every budget and finance Bill there are proposals to close loopholes where tax avoidance and tax evasion is occurring. I am confident the Deputy will see some measures in that space in the Budget Statement and also in the finance Bill. We have already closed off loopholes in regard to stateless corporations, the double Irish and other avoidance opportunities that existed in the past. I am confident the Deputy will see more of that in the upcoming finance Bill.

I would like to raise the issue of Riversdale Community College. I visited the school in the last couple of weeks to check in on the works going on with Danu special school. To say I was shocked to see the condition of the school is an understatement. It resembles a building site with only one way in and one way out. This work was due to start in the summer but it appears now that it will continue up to next April, May, June or July. Nobody knows when it will be concluded because the communication with the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, DDLETB, is absolutely shocking. The substantive issue is much worse. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, have both visited this school. As they know, the roof is leaking like a sieve and there are buckets all over the school. The school received confirmation that some work is to be done to the roof but it is unsure, again because communication with the DDLETB is poor, where the work will be done. This is galling for parents and students-----

Time is up, Deputy.

-----who can see the great work being done on the Danu special school that is being built at the moment in the same complex.

It is going to be a brand new, up to the range-----

The Deputy might want to submit a more appropriate question to the line Minister.

It is important that we get this done.

As mentioned by the Deputy, I have visited Riversdale Community College, where I saw first-hand the work under way in regard to the new Danu special school. There is an emergency works scheme in place to which the school can apply for funding in relation to the roof, which should not be substandard. If there are leaks, it needs to be fixed. I advise the Deputy to encourage the school to apply for funding under that scheme. On the building works, I will ask the Department to ensure they are expedited.

Government approval was granted recently for the drafting of a Bill on assisted human reproduction. This comprehensive and far-reaching legislation encompasses the regulation for the first time in Ireland of a variety of practices, including domestic surrogacy. The publication of the Bill has been highlighted as a priority and the programme for Government commits to its enactment. Provisions outlined within the general scheme will ensure that assisted human reproduction practices are standardised and will have the necessary oversight. The Bill will promote the health and safety of parents, donors, surrogates and, most importantly, children. I would welcome an update on the status of the Bill.

I thank the Deputy. An extensive amount of work has been done on this issue by my Department with the Departments of Health and Justice. The line Ministers have met on three occasions in regard to this specific legislation and how to advance the issue. The special rapporteur for child protection, Professor Conor O'Mahony, provided a detailed report on options in regard to providing full legal provisions here. The Attorney General has reviewed that report and has met with the three line Ministers. The matter was discussed at Cabinet prior to the summer recess. The Departments of Health and Justice will be bringing forth proposals in the near future on foot of the report.

Over the last couple of months, we have become all too familiar with scam telephone calls and text messages. This week, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, published data which showed a 40% increase in fraud by comparison with this time last year. This month alone, I have received ten scam text messages and dozens of scam telephone calls. My constituents report being inundated with scam text messages and telephone calls to the point where they are now sceptical of every call and text they receive. That is wrong. These text messages and telephone calls are from people purporting to be from reputable bodies such as the Department of Social Protection, An Garda Síochána, the HSE, An Post and delivery services. Besides being terribly annoying, they are a threat to the vulnerable among us, in particular older people who might not be tech savvy and as such fall victim to some of these scams. People who are living alone are feeling harassed and intimidated by the frequency of these scam text messages and telephone calls. What action can Government take to crack down on these scam text messages and telephone calls, many of which are falsely claiming to be from Government offices?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I was struck by the CSO data as well and by anecdotal evidence from people telling me about an increase in the number of scam attempts to which they have been subjected. I am not entirely sure what the Government can do about it, particularly when so much of this originates from overseas but I will discuss it with my colleagues at Government level to see if we can respond in some way.

It is now over ten years since 23-year-old Shane O'Farrell was killed in a hit-and-run by a known criminal who should have been in prison at the time. The litany of State failures in this case have been well rehearsed in this House and both Houses have supported calls for an independent public inquiry. In February 2019, rather than establish that public inquiry, the Government established a scoping inquiry, which, amazingly, 31 months later has yet to report. We learned last week that the Department of Justice in a briefing to a party that is essentially keeping the Government in power omitted significant information. If the Department can withhold information in that context how can his family or the public be confident that it is committed to the full facts of this case emerging? Will the Government commit to a full independent public inquiry into the death of Shane O'Farrell and the actions of all relevant State bodies both and after the killing?

I thank the Deputy. I am afraid I do not have an update on that important matter, but I will let the Minister for Justice know it was raised and ask her to come back to Deputy directly on it.

Today, I want to raise a very serious situation that is developing at University Hospital Kerry. The situation is chaotic at this stage. The emergency department has been under severe pressure for some time now, but this week surgeons in the hospital wrote to GPs asking that non-urgent referrals for surgery not be sent to them because there are already 2,200 people awaiting assessment at the hospital. The situation has been deteriorating for some time and it now deserves intervention at the highest levels of government. I met the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, earlier this week.

I also called for a full briefing for County Kerry Oireachtas Members from the South/South West Hospital Group and University Hospital Kerry to discuss this matter and see if a plan can be put in place to address the issues. It is totally unacceptable and the people of County Kerry deserve a better health service than they are getting.

I have had a chance to visit University Hospital Kerry in Tralee on a number of occasions and it is a very fine hospital. However, like many hospitals, it is under a lot of pressure at the moment. I am told that this morning there were more than 19 patients on trolleys, which is a lot for a relatively small hospital. As is the case in most hospitals across the country, we have seen a big increase in waiting lists because of the backlog of unmet need and care that it was not possible to meet during the pandemic period. I recognise the Deputy is raising these concerns in the House. A task force on waiting lists has been established in the past couple of days but I will ask the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to pay particular attention to the situation in County Kerry, which I am aware has deteriorated a lot in recent weeks.

It is becoming very clear that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine are now looking for cow numbers to be reduced. This is at a time Brazil is cutting down rainforests to increase its cow numbers and despite the fact farmers here were advised to increased production only two short years ago. They were told the Chinese would drink a lot of milk. We all know what the Chinese have done to us now.

They are still drinking milk.

Clearly, farmers have invested a lot of time and money in their herds and in environmental protection. Why are they being treated like this? Irish farmers, and all the people of Ireland, are under the same sky as other countries. Why are farmers here being treated like this after all they have spent, having been advised to do so. What is the Government at?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I wish to put on the record of the House the ambition Irish farmers have. First, I would like to say how proud we are of the fact we produce some of the most sustainably produced food in the world. We feed multiple millions more around the world than we do in our own population. We know we too have a role to play in making our food production even more sustainable into the future. I am very proud of the fact the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the first Department to publish its roadmap for how we will meet the challenges and targets ahead. I refer to the Ag Climatise roadmap, which has 29 clear points set out for how we will navigate agriculture into the future and meet the ambition we all have to make our food even more sustainable into the future.

We are all under the same sky.

I wish to raise an issue I have raised in the House on numerous occasions, which is the roll-out of rural broadband. One thing Covid did was show how important that infrastructure is for rural areas. For businesses to prosper and for people to be able to work from home, that roll-out is essential. I had a businessman on to me last week and it typifies what is happening on the ground. John Hanly's woollen mills employs 35 people in a rural area. He was told his connection would happen between January 2023 and December 2024 and the contractor might be back to him with a further delay to that timescale. This timescale is completely unacceptable. The roll-out of rural broadband must be accelerated. It is essential to allow business and people to operate in rural Ireland.

The national broadband plan, NBP, is an enormous undertaking. It is a €3 billion investment in rural Ireland. It is one I strongly support and one I fought to ensure would happen while I was Taoiseach. It is now very much under way. However, it takes time and the objective is, or at least was, to connect approximately 100,000 homes, farms and businesses every year but even at that rate, it is going to take between five and seven years. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to connect all homes, farms and businesses in the first or second year. It will take time. Unfortunately the plan is currently approximately six months behind schedule, principally due to the impact of the pandemic. While approximately 110,000 homes, farms and businesses were supposed to be connected this year, it is more likely to be closer to half that. The company does intend to catch up, however, and we are doing everything we can to help it do so in 2022 and 2023. There will be no additional cost to the taxpayer as a consequence of these delays.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply to Deputy Duncan Smith earlier on the maternity question. He mentioned nightclubs, and of course tonight 450 people will be able to go to the Button Factory nightclub. They will have to show proof of vaccination and do an antigen test. There will be CO2 monitoring and good ventilation but no social distancing. Maybe there will be a pregnant lady there with her partner. I hope they have a good time, especially if it is their first baby. They can go to the Button Factory tonight but it they go to a maternity hospital tomorrow they will not necessarily know whether they can be together if the woman is in labour or if there is a miscarriage. I received a letter from the HSE earlier this week, which states nominated support partners do not need proof of vaccination and do not need to do antigen testing. We have 92% of people vaccinated and I assure the Tánaiste women and their partners would much rather just show proof of vaccination and be able to be together, as they will be able to do tonight in the Button Factory. This must be resolved. It cannot go on any longer. I am aware the Tánaiste has stated his support but I would be obliged if he would do so again.

I thank the Deputy and absolutely agree with her sentiments. On 22 October, we are going to remove almost all legal restrictions that were introduced as a consequence of the pandemic. No social distancing will be required. Hospitality venues will be able to return to the capacity they had pre-pandemic. People will be able to order a drink at a bar. In that context, it is hard to justify the continuing restrictions on partners attending hospitals with their pregnant partners. Again, I share the frustration. We as a Government do not want to overrule doctors and nurses or take away their autonomy to make decisions they have to make at local level in a hospital, particularly if there is an outbreak or a cluster. However, that should be exceptional and it seems to be more than exceptional at this stage. I share the Deputy's frustration and I will certainly raise it with the CMO and the Minister for Health again.

I raise the lack of day care services for people with dementia in County Wexford. It is my understanding the county has never had such a service, even though the frightening statistics say there are 11,000 new cases of dementia per year throughout this State. That is almost 30 citizens per day. The Alzheimer's Society of Ireland recently conducted research into caring and coping with dementia during Covid-19 and found family carers to be at breaking point, with their own mental and physical well-being seriously affected. These families need this service now more than ever. Will the Tánaiste outline what plans there are to provide these services in County Wexford, as they are already available in other constituencies?

I thank the Deputy. I appreciate this is an important issue for him and for the people of County Wexford. I am aware Deputy Kehoe and the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, have an interest in it too. I do not have an up-to-date note with me but I will certainly let the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, know he raised it today and ask her to get back to him directly.

We have only two Deputies remaining. If they can ask their questions in 30 seconds, we will take them.

In 2011, the Fine Gael Government promised the roll-out of broadband, particularly in rural Ireland. The same was said by the following Government and it is being said now by this coalition. However, in spite of what the Tánaiste said in reply to Deputy Cahill earlier, the evidence on the ground is that businesses are suffering badly. Deputy Cahill gave the example of a business in his area. Likewise, a company employing 50 people in Tullow, County Carlow, which relies heavily on broadband, was promised it would have it immediately. Then it was told it was included in the NBP. What interventions will this Government make to speed up the process of delivery? The way it is being rolled out just is not good enough.

The Government gave a commitment to support independent living for elderly and disabled persons, yet waiting lists for housing adaptation grants and housing aid for the elderly continue to increase in every local authority. Louth County Council alone has 743 older people waiting on grants to adopt their homes. Of those, 481 were carried over from last year. The Government gave the council an increase of €50,000 this year. That is the equivalent of two wet rooms when there is a waiting list of 743 people. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment to increase the housing adaptation grant to local authorities this year and give a decent grant so that they can get through those waiting lists?

On the housing adaptation grants, I agree it is a useful mechanism to enable people to stay at home, which is what we all want people to be able to do if they have a disability. In the medium term, it can save costs for the Government and the taxpayer because it reduces the need for residential care.

There have been increases in the housing adaptation grant in recent years. I do not have the figures to hand but I know that there have been increases. I cannot make a commitment relating to the budget but I know that it is something that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will want to prioritise, if he can, within his allocation.

On the NBP, if Deputy McGuinness sends on some more details of the particular business, I will check it out. It is difficult to comment on any particular customer but the contract is signed. It is a €3 billion project and represents the biggest investment in rural Ireland since rural electrification. Thankfully, it will not take as long as rural electrification, which took decades, but it cannot be done quickly. At its fastest approximately 100,000 premises will be connected but because of the pandemic, we will do well to hit half of that this year. It is intended to speed it up in the coming years and there are a number of interventions that the Government is assisting the companies with in that regard. I will send the Deputy more details on that.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. We move immediately to No. 5a.