Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 16 Dec 2021

Vol. 1016 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Gabhaim buíochas, a Cheann Comhairle, agus guím Nollaig shona ar fhoireann Theach Laighean agus tá súil agam go mbeidh Nollaig álainn acu ar fad.

A Thánaiste, the Women of Honour group has set out their view that a review, as proposed by the Government, does not go far enough. It is clearly inadequate for an internal review to be held with no power to compel witnesses or apportion blame. If these serious allegations are to be addressed and learned from, Women of Honour want to see a robust and independent investigation that will identify the issues and put in place mechanisms to ensure no other women are treated in the same way again. I urge the Tánaiste to listen to these concerns now and act urgently to take them on board. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment that he will speak to the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, to establish an independent external investigation without any further delay?

I beg the Ceann Comhairle's indulgence to allow me to wish a merry Christmas, a restful break and a prosperous new year to everyone in the House, including all the staff and anyone who may be watching at home. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his stewardship, leadership and the extent to which he has maintained order in this House in the past year. I also thank all the Members and the Houses of Oireachtas staff for the phenomenal job they have done in the year gone by. It is great to be back in the Chamber and, whatever happens as a consequence of the Omicron wave in the coming weeks, let us not go back to the convention centre. This is our Parliament and this is where we should stay.

On Women of Honour, I am aware concerns have been expressed about the terms of reference for an independent review into systems, policies and procedures in the Defence Forces and that there have been calls for a commission of inquiry with investigative powers. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, will meet with Women of Honour today to discuss these concerns. I am told there is no issue with legal representatives attending should they wish to do so. The review group will be totally independent and will be given any access it requires to records and personnel, in the Defence Forces and the Department, to undertake its role and fulfil its duties properly.

I wish the Ceann Comhairle and his family a happy Christmas. His innate patience entitles him to a very good present from Santa Claus this year.

I will ask about the vaccination roll-out programme. The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, in responding to me last week when I asked him to consider establishing a community vaccination and testing centre in Drogheda, seemed to agree with me but it seems the HSE, naturally, does not think the town of Drogheda, the largest town in the country, should have a vaccination centre when it should. The Tánaiste will know there were massive queues, for example, in Simonstown vaccination centre in Navan, which is half an hour away from Drogheda, last Sunday. Many people from the Drogheda area went to that centre, which covers an area with a population in excess of 100,000 people. It created queues of up to five hours.

As the Tánaiste knows, Drogheda is Ireland's largest town. He visited it a couple of weeks ago for a very important jobs announcement. I ask him to back our calls and advocate for a centre for Drogheda. The 50 to 59 age cohort is particularly affected as many of them in the area were vaccinated late in the summer after others in the 50 to 59 age cohort. Those people in Drogheda got the Janssen vaccine, and we know its efficacy waned very quickly. The Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, announced plans last night to boost the vaccination programme, if I can use that term, but I noticed he did not include Drogheda on the list of new vaccination centres. He needs to do so in the interests of that cohort and the national roll-out of the vaccination programme. The area is entitled to it given its size and scale. I would appreciate it if the Tánaiste would engage with the HSE in that regard.

I understand three new centres will commence operation in the coming weeks; Richmond Barracks, the RDS and one in Cork city centre. Drogheda is not currently on the list but I agree with the Deputy that it is a very large town. Indeed, the entire south Louth and greater Drogheda area has a population of well in excess of 50,000, if not more. Perhaps it is an appropriate place for a centre. That is an operational decision for the HSE, but I will certainly make sure its chief executive is made aware that this matter was raised in the House and a centre has been suggested.

I want to be associated with the Ceann Comhairle's remarks, especially the thanks he has given to all the staff here.

I will ask about the latest house price increases. They have increased by 13.5% in the past year and rents have increased by 7%. Almost 9,000 people are living in homeless shelters, including 2,500 children. The Government has failed abysmally to meet any of its housing targets over the past year. In the first nine months of this year, less than one third of the social homes to be delivered were constructed. Only 25 cost rental homes were tenanted this year. During the previous election, the current Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, promised 10,000 affordable homes each year. This year, zero affordable homes were delivered - none at all.

There are tens of thousands of vacant and derelict homes throughout the country and the Government has done nothing to tackle this. When will the Government bring in a vacant homes tax to bring those homes back into use?

It is planned to bring in a vacant property tax in the budget, so it will, in essence, be legislated for this year and will most likely be applied from 2023. Revenue is collecting data at present as part of the current revaluation to find out why places are vacant. There is not very accurate data on how many vacant properties there are or why they are vacant. They can sometimes be vacant for a good reason.

I acknowledge the increase in house prices in the year gone by, but I will point out there is one area that is positive and that we should not allow to go without mention. It is that 31,000 new homes commenced construction in the past 12 months. That is a considerable turnaround on where we were only a few years ago. Some 31,000 homes are being built at the moment, which is an increase of 49% on last year. To see a 50% increase in new homes being built during a pandemic is very significant and perhaps gives us a little hope for the next couple of years.

I will associate myself with the Ceann Comhairle's earlier remarks on fellow Deputies and staff.

They have done a tremendous job in an extremely difficult year.

Earlier this year, the Government brought in legislation around ticket touting that banned above-price resales. It was progressive legislation, but there is also a practice going on, which I never heard of until recently, called "price scalping". This happens when something is in demand and there is not enough supply, for example, in relation to gaming consoles at the moment. The sting is that somebody buys the console for €500 and sells it to one of the high street shops which buy and sell products and which I will not name. The initial buyer gets a 10% premium and the company, which is not far from here, sells it for an exorbitant price, up to 175% of the retail value. If you go online or down to that shop, the product, which normally costs €500, costs €880. It is profiteering and touting by another name. Are there plans to ban this practice?

I had not heard of that practice, or at least not that term. As the Deputy mentioned, we brought in ticket touting legislation, which was the big consumer legislation for this year. Next year we will have a new consumer protection Act which will replace the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act. It is being led by my Department and the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, in particular. It is the big reform of consumer law. That will happen next year and that might be the opportunity to deal with it.

I want to be associated with the remarks about the staff and everybody in the House all year. I have a question on the unprecedented rise that has happened and is happening in the cost of construction materials. Building suppliers are getting daily notifications of price increases coming in January. Building contractors who are building some of the 30,000 homes the Tánaiste mentioned for local authorities throughout the country are trapped in a fixed-price contract. They cannot recover any of these increases.

Lately, the Office of Public Procurement issued a circular about tenders or contracts that have not yet been signed or contracts that are out for pricing and how to deal with the variation in prices in those contracts. There is a cohort of builders in this country comprising small and medium-sized contractors trapped in contracts that have no flexibility to give them something back towards the increases that have occurred. Has the Government any plans to facilitate this?

The Government is aware of the issue. It is complicated because it depends on the contract. Some contracts allow provision for inflation and some allow claims to be made for additional cost, while others do not. We have run into an issue around school-building where contractors tendered for a certain amount, believing they could build a school for that amount and make a reasonable profit. Now, because of the increased cost of building materials, they cannot build a school without making a substantial loss that they cannot bear. We are examining it but also want to make sure we are not taken advantage of and do not find that even more or all of the cost is passed on to us. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, in particular, is working on it.

On behalf of the Rural Independent Group I thank the Ceann Comhairle and want to be associated with all the remarks to the staff and everybody else. I wish everybody a happy, holy, peaceful and restful Christmas.

My question concerns a restful Christmas. The Brothers of Charity do sterling work throughout the Twenty-six Counties and have for decades, but they are starved of funding at present. The worst area is respite. Families who have challenging young adults, and maybe adults, need respite. What keeps them alive is the weekend they get every month or two months. It is being hammered and the Brothers of Charity need the funding. They have dedicated staff and I thank them. They will be working over Christmas. The families need respite. In County Tipperary it is an acute problem. They are not getting respite, parents are getting sick and are under huge strain. In a year when the Government has spent about €5 billion extra on top of what the HSE always had, I cannot see why this valuable organisation should be starved for cash.

I thank the Deputy for raising that question. There is no organisation left starved for cash after this budget. One of my major priorities in funding this year was respite. The real issue is we have to reduce staff in buildings where we have the virus. I am happy to say all the organisations are working hard to bring it back up to 100% capacity to ensure families get the respite they need.

I give best wishes to everybody inside and outside the House over the festive season. There is a cohort of families who will find it difficult over the Christmas season. Five weeks ago in Leaders' Questions to the Taoiseach I raised the inability to recruit and retain staff in the crucial area of home care services. Despite the increased allocation of hours in the budget by the Government, people depending on home care services received cuts in their approved home care package due to the incapacity of private home care companies to provide these packages. Then we saw the HIQA report of 5,000 patents waiting to get the home care packages because of lack of capacity.

The Ministers have gone outside the box with Student Universal Support Ireland and social welfare for people to come into this field, but they are bringing them into the same bad pay and conditions in the private health companies that have caused people to leave. Is the policy of the Government to recruit carers directly to the HSE to provide crucial services for people who are at a loss?

I thank the Deputy for her question. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party, I wish everybody a happy, peaceful and restful Christmas and thank everyone in the House for the work they do.

The Deputy's question has been raised many times in the House. It is important to record that this year we have already delivered 2.5 million more home care hours than last year. A total of 55,000 people received home care every day in this country. I thank the Government for increasing the budget to €666 million. Funding is not the issue and the list of those waiting for funding has dropped by 88%, but there are 5,300 people waiting on home care supports. As we speak, Anne O'Connor, the chief operations officer of the HSE, and industrial relations, IR, in the HSE are having a meeting. I know for a fact that community healthcare organisation, CHO, 4, Cork and Kerry, is recruiting 300 staff into the HSE and we are doing targeted recruitment in areas, especially rural areas, where there is a lack of carers. We are trying to think outside the box and I am working on this every day to try to make a difference.

Like others, I wish to extend the Christmas cheer, thank the staff and my fellow Deputies and wish everyone a joyful and restful Christmas. Vaccine efficacy wanes over time and the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, and the European Medicines Agency, EMA, say the Johnson & Johnson vaccine needs to be boosted after three months. The EMA even said it should be two months. The booster roll-out is progressing well but is focusing on cohorts by age. We are dealing mostly with young cohorts who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, are now in need of a booster and will be at the end of the queue. Can we look at reassessing the need for a booster and having a roll-out based on need and vulnerability? That would mean recognising the younger cohorts who are more vulnerable at this time.

I thank the Deputy. I do not have it in front of me but there was some revised NIAC advice today on that issue. When it comes to the third or booster dose, they are working down through the age cohorts, from 50-somethings through 40-somethings and 30-somethings and then those aged 16 to 29. We are saying to pharmacists and doctors to use common sense and discretion and, if they have vaccines they can use, to use them. I understand NIAC has identified those who received the single-dose Janssen vaccine to be prioritised. They are not at the end of the list. I think they are at the same time as the 30-somethings but I will get the Deputy the exact information on that.

I send good wishes for Christmas and the new year to the Ceann Comhairle, all of the staff and everyone here. I raise a matter relating to non-EEA doctors who are working in Ireland. Under the current rules, a non-EEA doctor cannot get a stamp 4 residency permit unless he or she has been working here for more than five years. The Tánaiste talked earlier in the week about changing the rules so that a non-EEA doctor can get a stamp 4 permit after two years. That would allow such doctors to get onto specialist training programmes. When will those rules be introduced? What kind of timescale is being considered? It is an extremely important matter. More than 6,000 doctors in the healthcare sector are not in specialist training. Can we bring in these changes on the earliest possible date and will the Minister give us a timeline?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. Non-EEA, non-European doctors make an enormous contribution to the Irish heath service. They have been doing service jobs in hospitals throughout the country for decades. They have also done a phenomenal job during the pandemic. Non-European doctors are not always treated very well in our system. It is hard for them to get consultant posts or to get on specialist training schemes. The Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, and I are working on it and will change it. We have already changed the system to allow for a two-year work permit so a doctor does not need to change his or her work permit every time he or she moves hospital every six months. In addition, we are going to offer stamp 4 visas to non-European doctors who are here for more than two years. That will allow those doctors to qualify for specialist training schemes and apply for consultant posts on the same basis as an Irish or EU citizen, once they have been working in our system for two years. We will be implementing those changes in a matter of weeks.

I wish the Ceann Comhairle and all the members of staff a very happy Christmas. What is the Government currently doing to replace the mobility allowance and the motorised transport grant, which were discontinued for new applicants in 2013? An indication was given at that time that an alternative scheme would be put in place. We are now almost nine years on and that has not happened. It is inequitable because some people who were in receipt of the allowance prior to 2013 are still receiving it, and rightly so, but those who would have been entitled had the scheme not been suspended are not considered for any supports. There is a need for personal transport because not everyone is in a position to access public transport. The disabled drivers and disabled passengers scheme needs to be revised because "the limited medical criteria for eligibility ... [are] excessively restrictive". That is a quote from the Ombudsman's recent report, Grounded: Unequal Access for People with Disabilities to Personal Transport Schemes. The report highlights all of these issues. What does the Government plan to do to address these issues and to ensure equality and, indeed, quality of life?

I thank the Deputy for asking those questions. On her first point, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and I are currently putting together proposals that we hope to bring forward in the new year.

On the primary medical certificate, I have awarded €8 million this year for respite houses and centres so they can upgrade their transport systems. I know the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, is looking at the primary medical certificate.

I raise a difficult case on which I have been working all week. It relates to a constituent who simply has not been able to access particular services for an eating disorder. I give thanks for the efforts of the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and even more welcome has been the wider funding. The issue is being resolved. However, this is a clear case of an individual and a family who have been caught between the stools. The person in question is over 16 but under 18. There has been a failure within the health service to apply an element of flexibility, common sense and joined-up thinking.

As I said, this case has now, thankfully, been resolved, largely due to the efforts of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. However, there are dozens if not hundreds of young people throughout this country who are facing these barriers every day. We need to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. We come across issues all the time when somebody ages out at 18 and transfers from child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, to general adult mental health supports. We know the services for eating disorders are not as robust for adults as they are for under-18s. We have seen a spike in eating disorders in the past two years, especially for young girls aged 13 to 15. The national implementation and monitoring committee is the oversight body for Sharing the Vision. A CAMHS subcommittee has been set up and it will look at the age groups and examine whether CAMHS should continue treating its service users until they are 21, 23 or 25. We know, for example, Jigsaw offers supports to people between the ages of 12 and 25. It is something we are keeping under review.

It will take a while. If inpatient supports are provided, it would not be feasible to have a 13-year-old or 14-year-old girl with an eating disorder on the same corridor as a young man of 21 with psychosis. We will have to look at many elements of this issue. We will address it under the mental health Bill I will be bringing to the Dáil next year.

This morning, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, indicated that inflation may cap out at 6%. That is an alarming and stark figure, because while many of us can stand up in here and talk about any manner of public policy, inflation will impact on our competitiveness, public pay policy, the pay policy of private companies and our ability to spend the significant amounts that many of the Ministers sitting behind the Tánaiste have allocated. Will the Tánaiste outline how the Government intends to identify the underlying causes of the inflation? I welcome the announcement of the €100 grant as a token towards addressing fuel costs. I also ask the Tánaiste to take into account those people who use prepay cards in their consumption of electricity.

I thank the Deputy. The underlying causes of inflation are largely international and outside our control. They relate to supply chain difficulties that arose particularly during the pandemic, when supply chains were disrupted. A post-pandemic international economic boom occurred when pent-up demand was released when lockdowns were eased. Central banks have also printed trillions of dollars. When central banks have very low interest rates and print trillions of dollars through quantitative easing, things that cannot be printed become more expensive. We know that from history. That is why central banks will have to rein in quantitative easing next year. Central banks in the US and UK have already increased interest rates to help bring inflation under control.

The positive news from the ESRI is we anticipate inflation, which is now very high, will top out and start falling next year. The Nevin Economic Research Institute, which is run by the trade unions, has made a similar prediction that would see inflation come back under control next year. That said, we need to help people with the cost of living. That means pay rises, which kick in in January. There will be welfare and pension increases in January. There will be tax cuts for middle income workers and we will help to reduce the costs of public services.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir. I am told I test the patience of others more than most, so thanks, apologies and best wishes to the Ceann Comhairle, all the Oireachtas staff, the Tánaiste and all Members.

I raise the issue of the TRIPS waiver. The Seanad has spoken. Experts have told us the EU is involved in a stalling tactic. We know what Mary Robinson has said. We are told the existing provision for compulsory licensing will not do the business. We are only talking about that dealing with the patent aspects of intellectual property. We would still have considerable issues over trade details and secrets. We would be dealing with the matter with a patent-by-patent and country-by-county approach, and that would not work. COVAX is not going to cut the mustard. The Government needs to follow the Seanad. I ask that the Tánaiste and the Government would meet with experts such as the People's Vaccine Alliance. We need to act now. We are dealing with Omicron and whatever comes next.

I thank the Deputy. This is a European competence, as a trade issue. The position of the European Union is that compulsory licensing is a better approach than the TRIPS waiver approach. However, neither is a silver bullet and neither will result in vaccines being produced all of a sudden on their own. What is required is a comprehensive response. That is what the Government and I support. We will consider any proposal that is presented to the WTO that would result in more vaccines being produced. As was the case with small pox and polio, we will not defeat this illness on a national basis. It must be done on a global basis.

I too wish the Ceann Comhairle, all the staff and people who work here, especially the wonderful ushers, everyone here and their families a very happy Christmas and every good wish for the new year.

Two weeks ago, the Government supported a Sinn Féin motion calling on the Government to protect community, not-for-profit employment services and to suspend all plans for tendering out of the local employment services and job clubs. Several of the Tánaiste's Government colleagues in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have spoken out against the tendering process and in support of the local employment services and job clubs.

We had a motion passed unanimously in Cork City Council this week seeking the same thing. We had a report from the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands and from the Committee of Public Accounts, of which Government Deputies make up the majority. They concluded, the Committee of Public Accounts in particular, that JobPath has not delivered value for money for the taxpayer, and, with a 7% success rate, I do not think it has delivered for the jobseeker either.

If Government Deputies, councillors, the Committee of Public Accounts, the social protection committee, the workers and the unions are asking the Government not to go ahead with this tendering, why is it continuing to do so? It is also regrettable that the Government passed a motion in this House that it does not intend to do anything about.

My understanding is that the hands of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, are tied in this matter. It is a legal requirement that the service be put out to tender. It cannot just be handed to a group because one likes or knows them or because one thinks they do a great job. There has to be a competitive process. That is the advice the Minister has.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and all the staff for their support and patience this year and wish everybody a very merry Christmas.

This week, Balance for Better Business reported that the target of 30% female representation on boards in our 20 most successful listed companies has not just been achieved but has actually been surpassed. That is a huge achievement. As the Tánaiste knows, I came to the Dáil from the corporate world and it is my firm belief that this progress needs to be replicated in all companies across Ireland.

Earlier this year, I tabled a Bill in collaboration with the National Women's Council of Ireland that would require gender quotas at boardroom level for all Irish companies. This is a recommendation from the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality and it would be the quickest way to get to a point where business is a more diverse and inclusive space. Will the Tánaiste, as Minister responsible for enterprise, lead with me on this important issue?

I thank the Deputy for the work she has done on this matter. I share the objectives of the Private Members' Bill, namely, the Irish Corporate Governance (Gender Balance) Bill 2021, which is designed to increase the participation of women at the highest levels in the corporate world. I look forward to meeting with the Deputy on the Bill and having it debated in this House in due course.

As the Deputy acknowledged, we are now up to 30% female directors on ISEC companies. We are moving up the EU league table in that regard. It is not enough, however. There are still five all-male boards of listed companies and it is still the case that 34% of listed companies have no females on their senior leadership teams. That is not acceptable and needs to change.

I thank everybody and wish them a happy Christmas and a restful break.

It was good to get an update earlier on the vaccines. Indeed, pharmacies in my constituency have outlined the additional support from relationship managers that they have received.

I wish to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, about preparation for the Omicron wave with regard to therapy staff and the provision of therapy services. In my area in Dún Laoghaire, Carmona special school, Saint Augustine's School and Ballyowen Meadows Special School are all struggling with issues generally. Now that they are going into a period of particular uncertainty, however, could the Minister of State please outline her plans to make sure therapy staff are retained, not just in these schools but across the board?

We are out of time so I will go to the three remaining Deputies for 30-second questions. I call Deputy Tóibín.

Guím beannachtaí na Nollag ar gach uile dhuine anseo.

The British Supreme Court ruled this week that the PSNI was wrong not to investigate allegations of torture against the hooded men 50 years ago. These men were selected for torture during internment in the North in 1971. Separately, the survivors of the Miami Showband murders are to receive at least £1.5 million in damages due to a decision in the Belfast High Court. Separately again, the Glenanne Gang member, Garfield Beattie, was returned to prison for threats against the Aontú deputy leader, Councillor Denise Mullen. Her father, Denis Mullen, was murdered by Beattie in her presence when she was four years old. Garfield Beattie stated that, “Every Catholic murdered in Armagh and Tyrone was by British Army weapons.” I have scanned the Government for any reference or statements on this in the last week and there are none. How can the leadership of a country not reference what is happening so seriously to its citizens on this island?

I do not have time to wish everybody a happy Christmas in 30 seconds but I do anyway.

It is unfortunate that in the last session of the Dáil, I must raise the issue of households in County Mayo not having drinking water. I refer in particular to the people of Cleragh and Lisduff just outside Kiltimagh, who have fought for the last ten years for clean water. All they want is to be connected. Will the Tánaiste intervene with Irish Water and Mayo County Council to ask them to get their act together? These people should not have to go around with buckets and barrels to get water in this day and age.

As Fine Gael Whip, I wish everyone a very happy Christmas. I hope everyone gets time with their families and loved ones over the Christmas period. I also thank the Ceann Comhairle for being a very fair referee in here. He does not have goal-line technology but he always gets the calls right - most of the time anyway. I thank him and all the staff in the Houses who do a fantastic job. Hopefully, we will get the call to see Darren Brady and co. this evening for a short while. This is the final question on promised legislation of the year.

The Deputy's 30 seconds are nearly gone.

Questions on Promised Legislation have kind of become like "Angela Scanlon's Ask Me Anything" over the last while but this question is on the payment of wages (amendment) (tips and gratuities) Bill. Further to the changes he is bringing about in government, what are the Tánaiste's plans in 2022 in that regard to protect front-line workers in the hospitality sector?

Starting with Deputy Carroll MacNeill's question, I believe the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has the answer.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle very much. Today at 2 o'clock, I am meeting with all the heads of the HSE from right around the country to first and foremost understand their plan with regard to how they are addressing the virus, but most importantly also to note that the therapist staff, who are part of my 91 network disability teams, are to remain within the teams and therapy is to be delivered as an essential service.

Good. The Tánaiste might respond to the other questions.

With regard to Deputy Tóibín's question, I understand that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, referenced that matter. I will let him know it was raised again in the Dáil, however.

I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and let him know about the issue regarding Kiltimagh to see if he can intervene with Irish Water in that regard.

The payment of wages (amendment) (tips and gratuities) Bill will be published in the next session. We intend to get it enacted hopefully before the summer tourism season.

Sitting suspended at 1.07 p.m. and resumed at 1.38 p.m.