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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 6 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 6

Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation

On Friday, a Danish vessel with a cargo of blue whiting was prevented from landing at Killybegs Harbour due to the approach that has been taken by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority with regard to how fish are weighed. Yesterday, a Norwegian fishing vessel was also prevented from landing at Killybegs. Some 54 workers were told that there was no work for them in the processing factory and were sent home. Today, as we speak, the same Norwegian vessel, the Ingrid Majalla, is pulling into the port of Derry, which operates under the same EU rules as Killybegs. Some 950 tonnes of fish will be offloaded from that vessel. Later today, there will be 40 lorry loads of fish will be transported from Derry to Killybegs for processing. That is an example of stupidity and madness. The situation is unacceptable. We understand that a third fishing vessel has decided not to even to attempt to land at Killybegs and is steaming back to Norway. There is a huge damage to our industry and to jobs. I ask the Taoiseach to instruct the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to intervene because there is a solution available that the High Court has identified.

The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, has been very active in engaging with the fishing industry in respect of all these issues and in ensuring a pathway to a more structured relationship with the European Commission into the future than we have had in the past, which has caused many of these difficulties. The Minister is very aware of these issues and is engaging with all concerned to bring about a resolution in respect of them.

What is the Government going to do about it? These are jobs. The Taoiseach is talking about climate change. There are 40 lorries driving from Derry to Killybegs. It makes no sense.

In his powerful address to the House this morning, President Zelenskyy made clear that there is more Ireland can do to support Ukraine, and that our leadership does matter. We know that we can expel the Russian ambassador from Ireland. I ask the Taoiseach again to do so. We also know that all Russian banks should be excluded from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, SWIFT, and an embargo should be placed on Russian oil and gas. The Ukrainian ambassador, Ms Larysa Gerasko, also highlighted actions we can take. In particular, I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that all Irish ports are closed to Russian vessels and goods in light of reports that there is a Russian-registered vessel at one of our ports this week.

I also wish to ask whether the Government is going to act to ensure that existing sanctions cannot be sidestepped. In response to a question from my colleague, Deputy Nash, last week, the Governor of the Central Bank confirmed there are 15 to 16 out of 33 Russian-linked section 110 special purpose vehicles, SPVs, in total in the International Financial Services Centre, IFSC, connected to persons against whom sanctions been levelled. Can we legislate to ensure that this practice is stopped?

We are doing everything we possibly can to make sure that the sanctions have effect and that assets that are meant to be are frozen. That is happening in terms of the sanctions we have already introduced. President Zelenskyy was very clear in stating that more needing to be done, certainly in the context of sanctions. The big debate has been on oil, gas and coal. We in Ireland have been very strongly of the view that the sanctions should include oil and coal. We believe there is a need for engagement with those countries that are very dependent on the gas front. It is easier for us to call for that, to be fair, than perhaps some of the countries that would be extraordinarily impacted by a sudden ban on that. It does, however, create a moral dilemma to the effect that the revenues from those fuels are going into Putin's war machine.

We must also take into account the European Union membership application submitted by Ukraine. In the context of diplomatic sanctions, we have taken significant measures already. We hold no-----

I thank the Taoiseach; we are over time. I beg your pardon.

Can the Taoiseach please be allowed to respond?

No, we are moving on. I am sorry. We are over time. I call Deputy Cian O'Callaghan.

Last week, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of long queues in Dublin Airport leading to some passengers missing their flights. After that, I was contacted by staff at Dublin Airport who stated that despite several years' service on the security team, they are still waiting for full-time contracts and are currently on rosters that give them little more than 20 hours' work per week. They indicated that the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, has many fully trained and experienced security staff who would love to be working on full-time contracts and instead are on these rosters with reduced hours. This race to the bottom in working conditions is unfair on staff and passengers and is damaging to our international reputation. Did the Taoiseach contact the DAA as he committed to do last week? What did it say? Does the Taoiseach stand over this exploitative treatment of staff by a semi-State company? Will he ask the DAA to end the chaos at the airport and give these workers full-time contracts?

In the first instance, I will say that the most immediate focus with regard to this matter at the DAA has been on reducing the inconvenience caused by long queueing for the public at large. The DAA has recruited more than 100 staff and is actively recruiting more. It is responsible for staffing and recruitment and for the terms and conditions of employment of staff. The Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, has been holding daily briefings with the CEO, Mr. Dalton Philips, and other senior DAA staff. The immediate situation has improved and recruitment efforts are being redoubled. In terms of pay and conditions, again, the DAA is obviously responsible in that regard. It makes sense, however, to make sure that good-quality employment and conditions are provided in order to ensure continuity and the retention of a good number of staff. However, there may also be other issues there that have given rise to this situation.

I wish to raise a scandalous case of a mass eviction at Shannon Arms in Limerick. Up to 60 families are facing eviction by a consortium of landlords. Four of the landlords are evicting on the grounds of sale. Notices of eviction were signed at the same place and witnessed by the same solicitor on the same day.

Another landlord, the millionaire owner of Supermac's, Pat McDonagh, is evicting his tenants on the grounds of renovation, a claim backed up by a company run by his son-in-law. The suspicion is that the other landlords are selling their properties to Pat McDonagh and that all the rents will be hiked. Clearly, they are using this to evade the Tyrrelstown amendment in order to have a mass eviction of families in the interests of making a profit. What is the Government going to do about this?

There are various protections for tenants in the first instance. I am not involved in every case but I would appeal to the landlords in question to do everything they can to protect those tenants and not evict them in light of the circumstances we are in and the significant difficulties in securing alternative accommodation. I do not have the full details of the case or the circumstances involved. Again, in respect of tenants, a lot of protections and legislation have been implemented by this House to do everything we can to protect tenants in circumstances such as these.

I pay tribute to my Regional Group colleague, Deputy Berry, who was the first to propose that President Zelenskyy would address this Parliament and allow us to express our solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, report yet again shows the need for all of us to expedite climate action. As the Taoiseach will be aware, we will vote on a proposal relating to the carbon reduction Act tonight without any sight of the sectoral emissions reforms or targets the Government promised when the legislation was first tabled. What guarantees will the Taoiseach give to the private business sector and the indigenous agricultural sector in respect of future sectoral targets such that they will not be penalised for the failure of public bodies and the public sector to achieve their targets, or for our inability to honour our renewable energy commitments?

I also commend Deputy Berry on his initiative, which acted as a catalyst for the Ceann Comhairle's invitation to President Zelenskyy to address the Dáil and Seanad.

In respect of carbon budgets, the sectoral reform targets will come later. Extensive work is ongoing with all sectors in that regard. This all arises from the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021, which was enacted in July of last year. It created the legal framework and the timelines in respect of all the actions that have to follow. The Act provides that the first two carbon budgets proposed by the Climate Change Advisory Council should equate to a total reduction of 51% over the period to 2030, relative to a baseline of 2018. That will present significant challenges for all sectors.

I put it to the Taoiseach that his Government is a one-trick pony as regards carbon tax. I have been contacted by dozens of individual householders who have installed solar panels and entered into contracts to supply electricity back to the grid. I have also been contacted by dozens of farmers who have installed solar panels and, indeed, many who have installed miniature wind turbines, yet they cannot get ESB to let them onto the grid. The Government is treating carbon tax as the be-all and end-all, and these people are stacked up waiting with substantial investments and want to do something for the environment. They are not climate change deniers; they are good people. They cannot get onto the grid and the ESB is doing nothing to help them or allow them in. The Government is codding the people all the time.

The Taoiseach has mentioned intelligence three or four times in the House in recent days. He does not have a monopoly on intelligence around here. Will he wake up, take away the smokescreen from his eyes and see what is happening with the conglomerates? They are codding the people and will not allow those who want to do something to do it because they have a monopoly.

The issue of microgeneration was dealt with in the budget and the feed-in tariff is due to come into effect in July to help and to deal with that issue once and for all.

When are they getting onto the grid?

It is intended to support, in particular, farmers and a variety of initiatives relating to microgeneration.

It is not happening.

Many individuals and families are struggling to cope with the cost of living increases, but some are especially heavily burdened. Included in that group are families who support and care for persons with disabilities. Yesterday, Family Carers Ireland launched a report compiled by the Vincentian Partnership that detailed the additional costs to a family caring for an adolescent with a profound intellectual disability. That additional cost is already more than €160 per week and the rising cost of living adds to it.

Will the Government consider taking some short-term measures such as an extension of the fuel allowance for a number of weeks or, crucially, making the carer’s allowance a qualifying payment for the fuel allowance? In the next budget, will tax measures be put in place to support families who care and, in particular, will deaf people and their families be considered for new tax credits and measures?

I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very fair issue. As she will be aware, we have increased the fuel allowance over the past 18 months or more, from approximately €600 to more than €1,000, and we have added the €200 electricity bill cut, which will also apply. The cost of disability report has been referred to the national disability inclusion strategy steering group, which the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, is chairing. That process will relate the report to policy on people with disabilities in particular and any additional costs they face over and above normal costs. In this environment, those costs are severe. As I said earlier, we are looking for a broad-based response to all these issues in order to help people.

There are five secondary schools in Ennis, County Clare, and they are very pressurised. Over the years, many children applying to them were refused and had to try another school and then another. These days, a common application system is operational and works well. The problem is there are children in second, third and fourth year in other schools who could not get into a school in Ennis and it was not their first choice to go elsewhere. They tried to attend their local secondary school but the constraints of the system pushed them farther afield. Every day, in the small village of Doora, SUV after SUV and people carrier after people carrier, because they can take more people, head eastwards in our county to attend secondary school in Tulla. School transport policy, which has operated largely since the 1950s, needs an overhaul for children who have been unable to attend their local school not by choice but by design of the system over the years. Will the Taoiseach look at that and will the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, look at revising the school transport system?

The Deputy made a very fair point - and has made it consistently - in respect of the school transport scheme. As the Minister for Education has indicated, she is undertaking a review of school transport. In my view, going back to the issue of climate change, if we want to get people out of cars, it makes sense that we would broaden the remit of the school transport scheme to facilitate people in bringing children to school. When we brought in free second level education in the 1960s, school transport was the key enabler,. We can see the benefits that brought to the nation.

Given the various high-profile issues we have seen with certain construction projects, from mica in Donegal to the dangerously constructed schools that the Department of Education is dealing with, it is clear we need better control over construction projects. The Regulation of Providers of Building Works and Building Control (Amendment) Bill 2022 and Deputy Duffy's Defective Dwellings Bill 2021 are a good start, but what steps have been taken to meet the programme for Government commitment on the creation of an independent building standards regulator to oversee building control nationwide, to act as the custodian of building control management systems and to provide for the re-establishment of the building regulatory advisory body? At its inception, our current legislation contained a provision for an oversight body comprising architects, planners and engineers that would look at whether the changes being made to building regulations were correct. I would like to see the re-establishment of that.

I will revert to the Deputy after talking to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about this. The progress of legislation is important and is a welcome first step, but we certainly need strong regulation to ensure the quality of building materials and of building are what they are meant to be, that people get value for money in respect of what has been constructed and that we do not experience a recurrence of what has happened in the context of mica, pyrite or other issues relating to substandard construction.

President Zelenskyy spoke about Russian war crimes and many other issues, including hunger being used as a weapon. We all accept we need to hurt the Russian war machine and its finances. There has been much conversation about the IFSC and section 110 companies. The Ukrainian ambassador, H.E. Ms Larysa Gerasko, spoke to the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs about a list of Irish companies that were still trading with Russia.

I get that some of that has changed but I do not think they have received an answer on that. She gave the information to the Department of Foreign Affairs so could we get an update on that? Sanctions will move-----

Information in relation to which?

It was a list of Irish companies that are still trading with Russia. It was given to the Department of Foreign Affairs and they have not been given an answer back.

Sanctions are moving to coal, oil and gas. Where is the EU on block-buys? We need the mitigations.

Block-buys?

Block-buys for fuel and energy. We need alternative sources but the EU is talking about block-buys. We need leverage as regards VAT. Then there are the humanitarian efforts we need to make. We have a housing crisis. Both the EU and ourselves need to be imaginative in relation to producing a result. That is about four questions.

The Deputy did well there. My view is that we consistently apply the sanctions. Trade has not been banned in its entirety by the sanctions. One has to acknowledge the rights of companies in that framework. That said, many Irish companies have pulled out of Russia, adding to the pressures the sanctions are creating.

The EU is seeking to reduce its dependency on Russian gas and oil. The common procurement idea was flagged at the most recent EU Council meeting and would be somewhat similar to the procurement of vaccines. It would be optional for member states to be involved. The idea is that the Union as one group would command better pricing and have greater leverage in the pricing of fuel into the future.

If we could just chase the answer on the list.

No Deputy, do not take up more time.

All right. That is fine.

Following on from this morning's debate, Ukrainian families have been housed in a number of hotels in the Limerick area and a number of schools have been in touch with me that are prepared to accommodate the children of those families as pupils. Some of the schools with vacancies are a long distance from the hotels. How will they access the schools? Will a separate system of transport be provided? As demonstrated by my colleague, Deputy Cathal Crowe, the present school transport system will not do the job.

Second, a number of the people who operate and manage the hotels have told me that when the Ukrainians arrive, there is nobody there on behalf of the State to advise them on accessing the social welfare system, the healthcare system, etc. Will that be rectified or will we depend on the people who own the hotels to advise them on accessing those rights?

No, there are a number of hubs, including one in Limerick-----

-----that represent the State and provide all that information, including on PPS numbers and so on to enable them to get social welfare income.

That is not my information.

They are there. I will follow up on what the Deputy said. Reception facilities are there as well. Thousands of PPS numbers have been issued. It has been rapid. A total of 19,200-odd - I think I gave the figure earlier - have arrived into the country. I accept many people are working quickly on the hoof in a fast-moving crisis. The public servants are working. I will take the Deputy's-----

School transportation.

We will have to work on transportation for schools. It cannot be the school transport system as normal but I take the Deputy's point on the need for transport, of course.

Almost one in five people in this country own cryptocurrency and interest in crypto assets, especially among young people, is on the rise but, unfortunately, so too is investment fraud. Almost €12.5 million was lost to investment fraud last year. Last month, the Central Bank issued a warning on the potential risks of investing in crypto assets because it is an unregulated industry. We urgently need to do more to bring awareness of the risks associated with investing in an unregulated industry such as this and to highlight the scams that are out there. Has the Government plans to regulate the cryptocurrency industry? Will the Taoiseach consider an awareness campaign around the risks associated with cryptocurrency?

The Central Bank is responsible for the regulation of banks. Many reviews are under way by the ECB and central banks generally on the phenomenon of cryptocurrencies. It is an unregulated area and people need to be cautious and careful in the utilisation of such channels.

Can we cut the questions to 30 seconds? There are many Deputies and we will not get through them all if we do not.

Will the Government commit to reintroducing the energy guarantee for older persons, which would provide a minimum quantity of energy for all older persons as part of a comprehensive new national energy poverty strategy? Will it further commit to indexing this to the changing cost of energy in order that older people will always be assured of a minimum quantity of energy to keep their homes warm? The Government's main policy is the fuel allowance payment but two thirds of older persons do not receive it, as the Taoiseach will be aware. From 1968 to 2012, people aged 70 or older were granted up to 2,400 units of electricity per year. Could that be reintroduced, please?

The Government has taken significant measures on energy security and costs, particularly for those on low incomes, pensioners and those on the fuel allowance. It will continue to do that. If the Deputy wants to send further proposals to us, we would be glad to receive them.

I am sorry the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has left, because this is really his business. Yesterday he repeated that the core funding model for early childcare and education would benefit 99% of childcare providers but I have met and talked to smaller providers who represent a cohort of 1,500 small childcare providers and they are not seeing any benefits from the new scheme. Many are deciding to leave the sector because they cannot survive. Overwhelmingly, the funding is going to the bigger providers and branches of corporates. Will the Minister meet this cohort? Why are providers being forced to complete mandatory service profiles to access the funds before 22 April when they do not have answers to their questions?

There has been a significant increase in investment in early learning and childcare and in core funding. I will talk to the Minister on the points the Deputy has raised, particularly in regard to the group of childcare providers she met. There has been significant ongoing investment, particularly in the most recent budget.

The income limits for social housing have not been reviewed since 2011, while property prices have doubled in the same period. The price of a three-bed, semi-detached house is increasing at €100 per day. This is forcing people to turn down work or face the prospect of homelessness. Last September, the Taoiseach told me in the House that the idea that people not being able to progress in work or get an increase in salary because they would be marginally over the social housing thresholds needed to be relaxed. My constituents who are in receipt of pandemic unemployment payment are being told they are ineligible for housing because of that payment.

That is a new definition of 30 seconds. I say that in jest.

If the answers and questions did not take so long, you would be surprised at how quickly we would get through them.

I endeavour to be comprehensive in my replies.

Some people do not get 40 opportunities.

In reply to Deputy Naughten, that issue is under review. There have been a minor increase in the threshold in some counties but the more general review is still under way.

Our postmasters urgently need clarity on the timing and intention of Government regarding the publication of a plan for additional services at post offices, including the greater use of post offices for offline Government services, which was worked on last year. However, the date remains unpublished. We need a date. When will the plan be published? Our postmasters also need clarity on Government plans to ensure support for them in light of the commercial challenges facing An Post and assurance that no costs will be unfairly passed on to them.

We want to continue our support for the post office network. We have provided supports. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, has provided those resources.

The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, is very aware of the pressing issues. I will engage with the Minister and we will revert when that is concluded.

The programme for Government rightly commits to the development of our rural towns and villages. The Office of the Planning Regulator is engaging with a number of local authorities as they prepare their county development plans for the future. There is an ongoing conflict, though, whereby those local authorities are being asked to encourage people to move into our towns and villages even though hundreds of those villages are without any kind of wastewater treatment system. The village of Craughwell i, County Galway has a population approaching 1,000, yet it has no municipal wastewater treatment system. When Irish Water is asked about its remit in this regard, it replies that there is no approved funding model for such situations and it has no remit to fund such schemes.

I obviously cannot deal with every single scheme but I appreciate the point that the Deputy has raised. I will speak to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage in relation to this and ask him to engage with Irish Water in terms of coming forward with some solution, perhaps in conjunction with the local authority.

Will the Taoiseach make himself available to answer questions in the House for a lengthy period rather than 30 seconds on the obscurity around public appointments? There is a crisis in confidence about public accountability in the senior echelons of our Civil Service. Following today's interview by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, accounting for the secondment to Trinity College Dublin, TCD, at €187,000 per year, which is a multimillion euro cost to the taxpayer, there is a crisis and people like me who have been around the Houses for 20 years can be forgiven-----

Thank you, Deputy. Time is up.

-----for thinking that the Cabinet has become little more than rubber stamps for the will of senior civil servants-----

Please, Deputy.

-----who are feathering their own nests and, while Cabinet members run around the world doing other business, are totally unaccountable to the Houses.

Please, Deputy. The time is up.

Can I ask the Taoiseach about when he will make himself available-----

No, you cannot.

-----to answer questions on this matter?

Deputy, will you please resume your seat?

It needs to be done. Today, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was evasive-----

-----patronising and, frankly, embarrassing. He treated the Members of this House like we were idiots. The Taoiseach needs to do something about it.

The Taoiseach is not answering in "30 seconds". I have asked him to facilitate the House. You-----

The Taoiseach has 40 opportunities.

-----did not facilitate the House-----

I get one of 30 seconds per week while-----

-----when you were asked.

-----all these other de facto parties-----

Resume your seat.

-----are up and down like jack-in-the-boxes.

Resume your seat.

That was the most pertinent question in terms of taxpayers' money and public accountability put today.

It is not your job to evaluate other people's questions.

We will see if the Taoiseach wants to answer it or not.

Resume your seat, please.

Well, you might wait for the answer now.

I know what it will be.

Then why bother asking it?

(Interruptions).

Okay. I call Deputy Stanton.

The Taoiseach will be familiar with my part of the country in east Cork and he knows that there is a concern about the N25 development not proceeding, which poses a threat to housing and new schools. The road is dangerous and the old Amgen site is still sitting there because the road network is not up to standard. The Government might move on this matter. On top of that, at least 60 primary school kids cannot get into secondary school in my area. The Taoiseach might relay this to the Minister. I am getting calls every day from parents who are worried, and their children are worried as well.

I am very conscious of the schooling issue in east Cork and the huge pressures because it is a demographically expanding region. Historic funding is going into the Carrigtwohill campus but Midleton has challenges as well. I will certainly engage again with the Minister in that regard.

It is not unusual for senior policymakers to move into academia and research, but it is for a civil servant to maintain his salary and pension entitlements from the Department of Health when he leaves the Civil Service and becomes an academic. While Trinity is a public institution, it has the highest level of private revenue of any college. It is not true to say that his €187,000 salary would be the same cost on the public purse whether he was at Trinity or in the Department of Health. During the week, I spoke to a lecturer who has been in her institution for 18 years teaching and researching. There are thousands more like her. The only thing that she has done wrong is not to have friends in powerful positions. Does the Taoiseach stand over the stark inequality and lack of transparency around Dr. Holohan's secondment?

Which person are we talking about?

No. The Deputy mentioned some other person.

No, I did not mention any other person. I am sorry; I spoke to a lecturer, but I did not mention her name. There are thousands of people on precarious working conditions in our third level institutions. The inequality is stark indeed.

As I said yesterday, I was not familiar with the arrangements that were arrived at between the Department of Health, the CMO and TCD. I believe the position was created by Trinity College Dublin in terms of pandemic preparedness and public health and, arising from that, there was a secondment arrangement. Again, though, I was not aware of the details of that. I think the Chief Medical Officer has, without question, enormous experience, which would be of benefit to the public health arena, research and so on in terms of the pandemic and preparedness for future pandemics. Of that, there is no doubt. There are joint arrangements between universities and research bodies. My understanding is that the Health Research Board is involved here. I am not fully au fait with all of the details on it, but many of those are jointly funded.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. My thanks to those Members who co-operated in trying to get through the business.

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