Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 1 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Today the Government is cutting the rate of payment available to employers under the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. It will be cut by a quarter for workers whose weekly wage is below €203 and by 40% for other workers. This is a one size fits all cut. We know that the recent public health restrictions are affecting certain sectors more than others. The public guidance is to work from home and reduce social contacts. Thankfully people are responding to that public health guidance. The impact of it is being felt particularly in the hospitality and tourism sectors. We can see the images on social media from this city and elsewhere of empty restaurants and all the rest, yet these supports are being cut as of today. In the case of jobs in the context of such high rates, December is what is needed to carry the hospitality sector through in January and February. Will the Government not suspend the reduction in these supports until the end of the year?

I agree with the Deputy that it is commendable that the public have responded to the public health measures of recent weeks in terms of reducing socialisation and general congregation. That does have an impact on certain sectors. About a quarter of employers on the EWSS are in hospitality while about 40% of employees are in companies in the hospitality sector. The EWSS is an economy-wide scheme which applies to all sectors, some that are doing very well right now. It has been the most successful intervention the Government has introduced, the objective being to keep jobs intact with companies so that when better times arrive they can be very viable and rebound. That has worked since March. We have always stepped up to the plate in terms of intervening in the economy to protect jobs. In that context we are keeping this under continuing review and will revert back.

Senator Rebecca Moynihan has raised an issue with me which I want to raise with the Taoiseach in respect of the impact of new travel rules on women who are travelling to the UK for terminations. It is not clear if those travelling for essential medical treatment not available here are required to have a PCR or antigen test when returning home. Guidance is needed on that. It adds a layer of stress to women. Second, the Health (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2021 for mandatory hotel quarantine was published yesterday. The original legislation exempted those returning into the State from medical treatment. It said a person is an exempted traveller if they are returning to the State having travelled to a State for an unavoidable, imperative and time-sensitive medical reason. The new legislation is different from the old version. Given that this has changed, which has caused concern for a number of women who will be left in the situation, I call on the Taoiseach to ask his Minister to change the wording to what it was previously. The new wording will cause concern to a number of people.

I will certainly discuss what the Deputy has just raised with the Minister for Health. Obviously in the course of such legislation there are always exchanges and clarifications and, if necessary, amendments if they are desired to facilitate situations such as the Deputy has referenced with be facilitated. I will discuss this with the Minister.

Everyone wants the schools to remain open. We have seen schools, principals and teachers, parents and children doing their absolute utmost to make sure that happens. I think they will continue to do so but Government has a role to play as well. The Government has not taken its full responsibility seriously. I am talking primarily about the issue of filtration. The Minister for Education has said that natural ventilation is best but there are a few issues with it. It has proven not to be effective to date. Some schools cannot provide natural ventilation. It is cold. We are in the middle of a very cold snap. I have had a child say to me that Mondays are their favourite day because they get to sit beside the radiator on a Monday. I ask the Taoiseach to re-examine the issue of filtration for schools, look at the international expertise, take on board what they are saying and implement a filtration strategy even if it is just on a precautionary basis.

The school authorities, the Department of Education and the Minister have been guided all along by public health advice. In respect of ventilation, there has been guidance issued to the schools advising that the first and most effective form of ventilation is fresh air. I take the Deputy's point that there can be caveats to that in certain conditions. The Minister is providing for technical advice to schools in terms of bespoke measures that might be required in certain school settings around ventilation and that resources will be provided also to facilitate certain bespoke solutions that might be required. Every school is different. About 35,000 CO2 monitors have been issued. I spoke to some teachers the other day. Some are saying to me that it is working in their schools but every school's situation can be different. We will continue to be responsive to measures that schools may require.

Those who are under the age of 25 normally receive a reduced rate of jobseeker's allowance. However, those who are deemed to be living independently receive the full amount of €203 as opposed to €112.70. Those who are deemed to be living independently would include those who access the housing assistance payment, HAP, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, council housing and so on. It has come to my attention recently that young people under the age of 25 who are homeless do not receive the full amount. They receive the reduced amount. It would seem to me that if someone is homeless, by definition they do not have parental supports. It is wrong and unjust. Homeless young people should be entitled to the full jobseeker's allowance rather than the reduced rate. I believe all young people should be but there is a particular case here. We are debating the Social Welfare Bill this week. I would be interested in the Minister's comment on this. Would she agree with me that this is an injustice towards young homeless people and something that should be corrected?

I thank the Deputy for raising that issue. There is a reduced payment for young people who are living at home. I will check out the issue on somebody who is homeless. If the Deputy wants to give me the specific details of that case I would be happy to follow it up and come back to him.

Page 28 of the programme for Government states that the Government will continue to prioritise reform of the insurance sector with particular emphasis on motor, public liability and employer's liability. I spoke to the Department of the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, a few weeks ago and mentioned a trampoline park in Dundalk. In fairness the Minister of State has given us a bit of help for outdoor activities and leisure but for some unknown reason we just cannot seem to do the same for indoor activities. The trampoline park has contacted insurance companies in the South but there was no interest whatsoever. When she contacted the UK, it said that Ireland is in a very dodgy situation. Imagine calling us a dodgy situation. They said it would be at least two years before they get involved in Ireland because of the high payout of insurance at the moment. Can the Minister of State give me an update? This trampoline park is closing on 12 December. Can the Minister of State help us to get some kind of insurance policy? This trampoline park is doing a lot of good for people with disabilities and those on social welfare.

I thank the Deputy for raising that. He has raised the issue with me and we have been working on it. Yesterday I personally had a meeting with Insurance Ireland, which represents all the major insurance companies in Ireland, the Alliance for Insurance Reform, which produced a list of specific areas where there are problems, and Brokers Ireland. All three of them and myself met yesterday to discuss these pressure points. Work is continuing on it. A number of areas have immediate deadlines. The brokers are trying to source insurance wherever possible. We do not have a solution to date for that particular list which we examined yesterday. We are working on it. For the record, insurance is one of those areas in which we actually had a hard Brexit. The trade and co-operation agreement, TCA, covers lots of areas but essentially, although in the financial services most companies were able to plan and move staff here and get authorisation in advance, that sector of the economy actually had a hard Brexit.

What additional employment and other supports will be put in place to assist hospitality businesses such as hotels, restaurants and pubs that have seen bookings for events wiped out over the last few weeks and in the run-up to Christmas? The worry is now keeping employed at a time when there had been a staffing crisis in the industry. The Irish Hotels Federation is reporting a loss in revenue of €90 million for hotels over the last couple of weeks and room occupancy rates of 35% for December dropping further to 14% in January and February.

From Clonakilty to Kinsale, back to Bantry and throughout the rest of the country, hotels face a very bleak six months until next summer. Many of them have been in contact with me continually. Does the Taoiseach intend to extend the current EWSS supports for hospitality at the current levels until April 2022? Does he agree that the waiver of local authority rates should be extended for hospitality businesses up until June 2022?

As I said in response to an earlier question from Deputy Doherty, the Government has not failed throughout the pandemic to intervene in an unprecedented way to support businesses, including hospitality businesses, throughout the country. The EWSS has been the most successful and effective scheme in underpinning companies. It is an economy-wide scheme. The Government is keeping it under review in light of current circumstances.

Deputy Kelly asked me about the Omicron variant in the context of education. I did not get the chance to say to the Dáil yesterday that one case has been confirmed and that the Chief Medical Officer has issued a statement in respect of that. One case has been confirmed from the S-gene deletion cases we spoke about yesterday. In that context, we will keep the economic support interventions under review. We understand fully the EWSS affects about a quarter of employers in hospitality.

Yesterday an Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation protest at Sligo University Hospital was averted at the last minute because there is to be an emergency meeting of the Workplace Relations Commission and an independent assessment of staffing requirements. We should never have allowed this situation to fester to this point. Today's Trolley Watch figures show a total of 25 patients waiting for a bed at Sligo University Hospital. This is the third-highest number in the country, just behind Limerick and Letterkenny. The north west is coming out on top. This is a pattern; it is not just about today's figures.

There is also a major issue at Sligo over the employment of agency staff. I have received many emails on this matter from individuals at the hospital, who say that as permanent staff, they have to work around the availability of agency staff. Surely it should be the other way around, or there should at least be some parity of esteem. I am asking for immediate action to be taken in respect of those waiting for beds.

Overall, with regard to the allocation of resources and recruitment, there has been very extended financial provision, both last year and this year, for the acute hospital service. An increase in capacity has been provided for across the country. I do not have the specifics for Sligo hospital. Close to 4,500 staff were recruited in the HSE this year, and over 6,000 were recruited in 2020. Between the two years, about 11,000 have been recruited. A significant number of additional nursing and medical staff are included in those figures. I will ask the HSE to focus specifically on Sligo to determine how we can help further and alleviate pressure there in the next while.

I want to raise the issue of the defective concrete blocks scheme that was launched yesterday. Significant concern has been expressed to me about the sliding-scale element, which I understand was introduced at the last minute. I had a call this morning from Ms Mary Hanley, the vice-chairperson of the pyrite action group in Clare. She has a 2,500 sq. ft house. On the sliding scale, she will be asked to pay €67,000 for her house. I welcome comments made by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, this morning on local radio. He said he was open to a review. Does the Taoiseach support the Minister in this? Will he arrange to have the sliding-scale element of the scheme reviewed and removed? Could he clarify when County Clare will benefit from the scheme?

Again, figures are being plucked out of the air and tossed about the place in the context of the mica scheme. My understanding is that a house of the size just referred to could be entitled to up to €300,000 for a rebuild, plus the €20,000 for rent and storage. This is a very expansive scheme, and is much better than the previous one. We have listened and taken on board a range of issues that homeowners brought to our attention through the working group. The Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland will be updating its square-footage rate. It does so annually. We have made it very clear that we want to be governed by the methodology that it uses objectively on the square-footage rate. That has been built into the Government decision. We need to be very careful about throwing figures out and saying people will have to pay X, Y or Z. That is not the intention at all.

My colleague Deputy Kerrane produced a wonderful document on tackling the cost of living. In a two-week period, over 14,500 people responded to a survey on the increased cost of living and 77% of them noted the increased cost had a negative impact on their mental health. The Government's response to mental health has failed. In budget 2022, the Government announced once-off funding of €10 million, which was to be spent by the end of the year. Community groups that applied for this funding have not heard anything back. The closing date was in October. The groups found the process complicated and time-consuming. Even the HSE has said in its emails to the groups that they should not shoot the messenger. Therefore, the HSE is embarrassed by the process. It is now December and the clock is ticking. Can the Taoiseach guarantee that the once-off funding that has to be used by the end of the year will go to the groups that need it?

I thank the Deputy for his question. On the €10 million that has to be spent by the end of the year, I have another meeting at 2 p.m. today. Local organisations were not contacted. We will be using Mental Health Ireland to allocate the money. When €10 million is allocated on budget day and has to be spent before the end of the year, an awful lot of work has to be done. However, community organisations will get the opportunity to apply through Mental Health Ireland, and we are working out the details. There is a guarantee that the €10 million will be spent before Christmas. The other €10 million, announced by the Taoiseach earlier in the year, will be allocated in the new year. Let me refer to one of the areas we are prioritising. Working with Jigsaw, we are going to provide supports for second and third level students. Considerable work is being done. I can guarantee the Deputy that when I am given money for mental health, I will certainly spend it.

I have just come from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health, at which a presentation was made by the various community task forces across Dublin city and throughout the rest of the country. They pointed out the serious pressure they are under given the lack of funding increases since 2010 and the increased pressure from the drug barons, who are now targeting families, including women and children, to pursue their nefarious campaigns. Individuals have been threatened with violence on numerous occasions. There are children who have been put into care because of the continuous threats and physical attacks. Is it possible to encourage an increase in funding or whatever resources are required to combat this extraordinary campaign?

I fully appreciate the issue raised by the Deputy. I am aware that the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, is working on this. We are considering ways in which we can give additional supports to the community task forces. The Deputy is correct in identifying the huge scourge and devastating damage being done to many families, particularly young people, because of the proliferation of drugs, including cocaine, which is being used far too extensively across our society. Drugs are being peddled by drug gangs for enormous profits, thereby doing enormous damage socially and individually. Young people's lives are being really damaged. It is a serious issue facing society.

At the recent Carrickmacross–Castleblayney Municipal District meeting, members unanimously passed a motion of concern regarding the new N2 project, in respect of which the Government has committed over €100 million under the national development plan. The concern is that no works are taking place on the stretch of road from the motorway to the roundabout in Ardee, which poses the greatest risk to commuters. Could the Taoiseach discuss this matter with the Minister for Transport and re-examine it because there is genuine concern about it on the ground?

I will talk to the Minister for Transport about that.

There should be consultations between Transport Infrastructure Ireland, if it is responsible for that stretch of road, and the community groups representing the residents and the general community. That is how the matter should be progressed.

On page 50 of the programme for Government the national drugs strategy is mentioned and it is stated that community involvement in the strategy is supported and should be enhanced. The drugs task forces from across the city that I have spoken to in the past while have cautioned that the community-led approach is being undermined. The community representatives have been removed from the decision-making process. The drugs task force networks did not even get a response to their invite to the Minister of State to attend a meeting with them. That tells you all you need to know about the Government's approach to the community element of task forces. I remind the Taoiseach that in October 2019, all the former Ministers of State with responsibility for drugs policy called on the Government to restore confidence in the national drugs strategy. They said, "At national, regional and local level, decision-making authority is being taken away from the strategy's partnership structures and is reverting to the Dept of Health and the HSE, who now make the key decisions centrally and without consultation with communities." I understand that the national oversight committee with responsibility for the national drugs strategy will meet on Friday and will probably agree to further gut community involvement in local and regional task forces. Will the Taoiseach commit to refocusing the national drugs strategy to ensure the community groups remain central to the strategy?

That is unfair on the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan.

He did not respond.

He is very focused on this issue and genuine about the wider issue of drug abuse and the development of a drugs strategy, which will involve and-----

Will the Taoiseach ask him to respond to the task forces then?

-----has involved community groups and the community inputs. That is critical to the ground-up approach to dealing with this scourge, as I referred to earlier, and will inform the strategic framework.

Last June it was announced that the Owenacurra mental health centre in Midleton was to close on 31 October last. That has not happened. It seems there is no suitable place for the residents to move to. Obviously, this has caused a lot of angst, uncertainty and worry among residents and their families. There also seems to be an issue with the future policy on the mental health residential centres across the country as to whether they are to be kept in existence. I acknowledge the role the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has played in this and the support she has given, but at this stage the residents and their families on the committee need certainty. What will happen with the site? Will it be built on? Will it be residential? The HSE is doing its best, but the matter has dragged on and on and certainty is required soon.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue again. As he will know, we have had extensive collaboration and meetings on the Owenacurra site in Midleton. I am conscious of the fact that 19 people call Owenacurra their home. As the Deputy will know, however, the centre was built in 1960. It is not fit for purpose any more due to asbestos and fire safety issues. The Mental Health Commission contacted Cork County Council in March of this year to explain that it was very concerned. We are looking at solutions, as the Deputy will know. I wish to put on the record that for six residents living in Owenacurra, their physical health is now more of an issue than their mental health. Six of the residents are transferring into nursing homes under fair deal. I will not go through the details on all 19 residents but, as the Deputy will know, the HSE, under community healthcare organisation 4, is currently looking for a premises in Midleton as a community residence. There are no issues with community residences for mental health. We have 1,200 community residences dotted all over Ireland, with many residents living in the communities, and that will continue.

The Government made an announcement yesterday evening that nine-year-olds must wear masks in school all day, every day. This has serious repercussions for many mothers, parents and youngsters because many of them have asthma, Covid and respiratory conditions affecting them. The Minister for Education has said they must go to school unless they get a letter of exemption from their doctor, but no one contacted the doctors about this. In our area you must have an appointment with a doctor. The doctor will not give this letter of exemption otherwise, and that will cost parents money they do not have at present. The more serious aspect of this is that the Government has not contacted the GPs or the medical profession as to what to do about these letters.

That is fine, Deputy. Your time is up.

It is very easy to make an announcement if you do not do the background work.

Please, Deputy. I call on the Taoiseach.

This is a serious matter, and many mothers have been on to me this morning.

I dealt with this earlier at some length during Leaders' Questions. The Deputy may not have been in for that. I will give the Deputy a word of advice. He may not have intended to imply this, but anybody with Covid should not be in school, so any child with Covid should not be-----

They are recovered from Covid and they have not had time-----

Please, Deputy.

You cannot be in school with Covid. We accept that.

They are recovered from it but they are still not 100%, if the Taoiseach understands me.


Please, Deputy

They have respiratory problems and they cannot wear masks for six or seven hours every day.

Please, Deputy. There are other Members.

In all our exchanges throughout the pandemic I accept that the Deputy has a unique insight into and a unique perspective on the pandemic right across the board. This is a new one on me, but I just wish to make it very clear that anyone who has any symptoms at all, not just Covid symptoms, should not be in school.

I said they had it, not now.

I hope the Deputy agrees that the public health advice is that people should wear masks. Pragmatism has to obtain-----

I hate to interrupt this fascinating exchange-----

Will the Taoiseach take this up with the doctors?

-----but may we move on, please, to Deputy Alan Farrell?

There is no point in smiling about it. It is a serious problem.

Please, Deputy.

I know Deputy Healy-Rae is a good friend of the Minister, Deputy Foley. Maybe he could have a chat with her.

I am, and I am a good friend of the people who ask me to do things for them and to raise things in here on their behalf. It is no good to me to see the Taoiseach smiling about this. The Government will do nothing about it, God damn it, man. The Government has not-----

Deputy, you are out of order.

I have answered the question. I answered it earlier.

On Monday I was contacted by another parent in my constituency highlighting waiting times for those who have completed the assessment of need process and are waiting for their initial appointment with the given disability team in the constituency, of which there are three. I am sure the Taoiseach is acutely aware that a child with developmental, learning or behavioural difficulties is now expected to wait up to 36 months, three years, for clinical assessment following the assessment of need. That is an eternity for a child in primary school, and it is getting worse, not better. The children of my constituency and of Ireland are being let down by this service, and many are having to resort to private assessment, as the Taoiseach will know, which is prohibitively expensive. Will the Government do more to assist in the provision of timely clinical support for parents of children with disabilities?

Additional resources have been allocated in the form of additional therapists being recruited. We will continue to prioritise this because it was an initiative of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, that led to a rapid decline in waiting times for assessments of need. There had been very long waiting times for them.

I accept that, but that has moved the problem.

The next stage is, having reduced significantly waiting times for assessments of need, that there has to be a corresponding reduction in intervention wait times, with intervention coming soon after the assessment is made in order to help children with particular and additional needs. I accept that point. We will-----

I call on Deputy Clarke.

In the programme for Government, the Government speaks of fairer and affordable care and extending medical cards to those with a terminal illness, but there is little to no evidence of that for a constituent of mine, Ms Madden, who has a very modest income with the Department of Education. Despite having breast cancer, which has spread, and having undergone aggressive, life-saving treatment, this lady has been refused a medical card. Her essential injections are €1,000 each and she needs a minimum of six. Bed costs, medication costs and travel costs all add to the never-ending and mounting medical bills that are simply beyond her means. Nobody in the medical card section seems capable of producing a comprehensive list of outstanding requirements, but they are absolutely capable of moving the goalposts at every given opportunity. This is causing untold stress and anxiety for a woman who is literally fighting for her life. Why is this continuing to happen to ladies like Ms Madden, and how many more people out there are in the same position?

I do not have the background to the case but, from what the Deputy has said, the person in question should get a medical card.

There is ample provision in the policy framework for that person to get a medical card.

It is not in place, though. That is the issue.

The Deputy might forward the details to the Taoiseach.

That would be helpful.

Yesterday we heard about the revised terms of defective block redress for counties Donegal and Mayo, largely very positive, with a huge amount of work gone into them.

The grant cap has increased from €247,00 to €420,000, which is far more realistic. The focus now should turn to counties such as Clare, where we also have a very bad problem with defective blocks. The process is moving along very well. An application was submitted by the council in July of this year. My problem is that officials in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage are suddenly raising the bar. The standard for assessing defective blocks is IS465, which was devised in 2018. It is the metric by which the schemes in Donegal, Mayo and other counties have been gauged, but it seems like the bar has been raised for Clare at the eleventh hour. We cannot allow that to happen. A letter will be issued today or tomorrow to Clare County Council outlining what they need to clarify to join the scheme. The requirements set out in the letter must be in line with the requirements of the schemes in counties Donegal and Mayo. Some political intervention will be needed. I have been speaking with my colleague, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, on the issue. The same standard has to exist in all counties.

That sort of detail is an issue that has to be worked through between the Minister, the Department and the county council involved. If the Deputy has raised the issue with the Minister, I am not clear on the response he may receive. I will follow that up with the Minister.