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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 2 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 3

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

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is the Green Party Minister responsible for transport. We have another Green Party Minister responsible for tourism. Bruce Springsteen is coming to town next year to play three nights at the RDS. So out of control have hotel prices become that a caller, Stephen, from the west called in to Ocean FM today to explain that the cost to see Bruce Springsteen and to stay in Dublin for a night was so high that he looked at alternatives. He found it is €200 cheaper for the concert ticket, the flight and a night in Rome than to travel up the road to Dublin and stay a night in a hotel here after the concert. Stephen and his friends are flying off to Rome to see Bruce Springsteen in the Circus Maximus instead of the RDS, replacing one circus with another. We have a Minister who wants people to travel less while the accommodation crisis in the city is making people travel more. We could not make this up. I am going to ask the Minister again as I have been doing for weeks now what the Government is going to do about the rip-off hotel prices that are being charged in this city.

Is the Minister going to reply in Italian?

No, I cannot reply in Italian.

It is a real issue. It is not good for Dublin or for anyone. What is happening has to stop. We have to find less expensive ways. It is not an easy challenge but the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, will work on it. The Tánaiste and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment also have a role. Tourism is one of the most important industries in the country. It brings some €6 billion into the country every year. It is not as much as we spend abroad, mind you, but it is still an important industry. I worked in tourism and noted that, as with many industries, it works well when there is collaboration. It works where industry groups come together to say we cannot have prices at that level, even if it means, obviously, the industry is hugely profitable and it is very tempting, because in the long run it will kill the industry. That has to stop.

On Tuesday, the Labour Party called for an urgent debate this week on special education, given the mounting issues in the area. We are very disappointed that the Government did not support the proposal put forward by my colleague Deputy Ó Ríordáin to amend the Order of Business to have the debate this week. We are glad it is being scheduled for two weeks' time but the reality is that every week counts for children with autism and their parents. We are very deeply concerned that the right to an education is not being vindicated for many children, including the almost 270 with autism who are without an appropriate school place for this coming September. We are concerned that the Government is simply not according this the urgent priority it requires. The Government is not a bystander in this, yet we heard a proposal to introduce so-called special educational needs centres, which apparently has now been jettisoned. We are hearing about delays in assessments for children and in allocation of special needs assistants, so we believe the Government priorities are not sufficiently urgently targeted. What emergency measures will be introduced to give relief to parents and, most important, children?

We are well over time.

Every Deputy in this House has an interest in this subject and every party has a commitment to do what it can for young people with autism or on the spectrum. As recently as Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Simon Harris, introduced significant new legislative measures regarding autistic people in universities. I have to be careful because I have a special interest. I had a son in a special educational needs centre school. It was brilliant. Some people probably need that sort of special education. We cannot mainstream everyone. There will be occasions when we will need special schools for those with autism. I know these schools. They are doing an incredible job; that is my personal experience. However, we also need mainstream schools. The Deputy and I know this from our constituency more than any others. The problem is worse in Dublin 2, 4 and 6, and perhaps Dublin 15, than elsewhere but it does not belong to any one party or group. There has been a massive increase in expenditure.

It is still not enough, particularly in education centres. From personal experience, I believe the connection between the health and education systems is poor in this area.

We are over time. If we do not co-operate, I will not be able to facilitate the other Members. We should try to remember that.

The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, concluded there is a massive gap between the target of cutting emissions by 51% by 2030 and the actions needed to deliver on it. Even in the unlikely event that every measure in the climate policy and climate action plan is acted upon, emissions will fall by only 28% by 2030, just over half of this supposedly legally binding target. Let us be clear: even if all the Minister's current plans are successful, they will still result in only half of what is required. The next eight years are the most significant if we are to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and give future generations some hope, but now we learn the Minister's plans are wholly inadequate. It is clear that the climate action plan and carbon budgets need to be changed radically. Is the Minister willing to do this? More important, are his partners in government willing to take the necessary action?

I believe they are. We do not have a choice. The EPA report referred to European measures. These differ slightly from those in our climate action plan, which is our national plan, but they are analogous. Particularly with the increased ambition in Europe, and because of REPowerEU and the Fit for 55 legislation, there is not much of a difference now. If we do not do this, we will face fines, miss out on the new economies that are developing and face reputational damage. Also, there will be a missed opportunity. The EPA said that we absolutely need to do more, but it also said there is an opportunity. It is important that we frame it in that way because if we always frame it as negative, a cost and burden, or if we focus on any one sector or blame certain people, we will miss the boat or what we need to do. There are additional things we could do. Earlier, during questions on the climate, district heating was raised. That is one of the areas where we could really-----

The Minister will have to avail of an opportunity later. We are way over time.

Some of our most vulnerable young people in child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, are being thrown off a cliff when they reach the age of 18. I have a letter in front of me from a mother who is terrified for her daughter, who was admitted in May to an adolescent mental health facility for six weeks of residential treatment but who is being thrown out before it is complete because her 18th birthday falls before the completion date. She is now absolutely terrified of going into an adult unit, where, as the Minister knows, there is no upper age limit. She is scared and has a history of self-harm. Her life is in danger. The mother says she is fighting for her child's life. She has been badly let down over the years by CAMHS and so on, so I am asking for urgent intervention in this case. I will not mention the name here. Something has to be done so that people, when they reach 18, will not be thrown over a cliff in child and mental health services.

I thank the Deputy very much for raising this important issue. As he knows, since I became the Minister of State responsible for mental health, we have had a new vision – Sharing the Vision – and a strategy. We have a national implementation monitoring committee to ensure the vision is realised. As part of this, I have tasked a subcommittee in CAMHS to investigate exactly what the Deputy is talking about, namely the ageing out of people at 18. In a case like the one mentioned or that of someone with an eating disorder in the care of CAMHS for three or four years, it is very problematic to be aged out at 18. Obviously, it is a really serious time in the individual's life. I think the case mentioned has been brought to my attention yesterday, but the Deputy might send me the details. I assume it is the same case because it sounds similar. I have already made a representation on it this morning, but I will be happy to discuss it with the Deputy.

I wish to raise with the Minister a number of issues concerning children with special needs. I have been contacted by very frustrated and upset parents of children with special needs in my constituency, Laois–Offaly. There is currently no dedicated special educational needs organiser. We always had a number of special educational needs organisers in Laois-Offaly. To the best of my knowledge, there were at least two, because I contacted them over the years. It is shameful that this Government talks about supporting children with special needs. It is able to talk the talk but unfortunately cannot walk the walk. I am asking the Government to take urgent action to ensure that Laois–Offaly has a dedicated special educational needs organiser in place to assist families and schools that are trying to make sure children with special educational needs are provided for. What is happening is shameful. Also, we need special needs assistants. There is a crisis associated with their provision. I ask for this to be looked at. Children with special educational needs are being failed in Laois–Offaly and it is now time for urgent action.

I absolutely agree. I lauded some aspects of the system earlier but there is an issue, as I had started to say, particularly regarding the connection between the health and education systems. The special educational needs organisers and National Council for Special Education have a particular role in this regard. The Deputy is right that the role of the special educational needs organiser is critical. I did not realise there is none in Offaly, as she stated.

Or Portlaoise. I will contact the relevant Minister to see if something can be done about that.

For people who lived in or near the towns on the old Limerick–Dublin road, including Nenagh, Roscrea, Cloughjordan, Birdhill, Castleconnell, O'Brien’s Bridge and Killaloe, the M7 was a godsend. They can now commute to Dublin in a reasonable period. However, we want to move people off the motorway and onto the trains. The direct line to Limerick, on which all trains going directly to Limerick went previously, is now barely served. There is a speed limit of 20 miles per hour on parts. In Ballybrophy station, which is great in the morning, there are only two trains in the afternoon.

As Minister for Transport, will the Minister tell me when we are going to upgrade that line? We see the difficulties with the “all planes go to Dublin Airport” approach. At the moment, all trains go to Limerick Junction and there are vast swathes of the country that are just not served by a train service. People want to get the train. As Minister for Transport, what is Deputy Eamon Ryan going to do about that and when?

As it happens, that is true. I took the train to Cloughjordan on Saturday and I wanted to come back on Sunday and-----

Yes. I had to get a bus to Roscrea and then switch to a minibus for the final leg. It was a lovely trip and great people but we had to take buses because the line was being upgraded. We have just spent €6 million on upgrading the track, which is the first thing we need to do to be able to get the speeds up. The reason the speeds were low was the track quality, so we put the money into the track.

We were talking about better balanced regional development and I made the point about Limerick needing to thrive. Limerick can thrive on the rail lines that lead into it. That Ballybrophy line can be a commuting line or shopping line into Limerick, as well as improving the service for people coming down from Dublin. Let us forget about Dublin and think about the south west and that region. If we have really good metropolitan commuting services from places like Cloughjordan, Nenagh or even Ballybrophy and Roscrea into Limerick-----

Adare, for sure.

The time is up. I call Deputy Higgins.

I am a member of the special committee that was established to make recommendations on legislating for international surrogacy. We are working hard to a really tight timeframe to make that happen. In our committee room, stories have been shared and tears have been shed. We have heard from legal experts, international experts, researchers, psychologists and medics, and we have heard the extremely personal stories of families who are family because of surrogacy, of children, now adults, who were born through surrogacy and of women who have given the gift of life to other families. Yesterday, however, those stories, those tears, that hard work and those expert witnesses were all undermined by a single Seanad contribution by the Minister for Health. Can the Minister, on the record of the Dáil, confirm the Government’s commitment to legislating for international surrogacy?

First, I recognise the really important work that has been done by the Deputy and her colleagues on that committee and the hugely significant testimony that has come in from so many experts, but particularly from families in terms of what surrogacy means to them. As the Deputy knows, the reason this committee was established was because the Government identified that this issue is critical, it is complicated and we want to get the legislation right. It is the understanding of the Government, and the reason the committee was established, that this committee would bring forward Committee Stage amendments that would be able to be added to the assisted human reproduction Bill that is moving forward and be able to resolve this issue. That is my understanding about how things are proceeding. It was on that understanding that the committee was formed.

I want to ask the Minister about the public electric vehicle, EV, charging network. I am aware there is funding for local authorities to install EV charging points and there is a public consultation going on at the moment. However, there seems to be some delay in the roll-out. I am not sure if the difficulty is at local authority level or in trying to get an ESB connection. Most of us would agree that the best place to charge an EV is at home or at the workplace, but we need a public network. Will the Minister outline when the public consultation process will be published?

I will have to come back to the Deputy directly as I do not have a date. I do not believe the ESB is short of ambition. Its recent new strategic plan includes real ambition in terms of the roll-out of charging points for electric vehicles and, actually, it was one of the first companies to have a national network, so we were ahead of the game on that. This is recognised, and it was commissioned by the London Transport Authority to roll out its network. I do not believe the ESB is lacking but it is important it gets funding and has the ability to invest in this. It is not just the ESB and there is a whole range of other providers across the country, as people with electrical vehicles will know. However, we need to scale it up. Obviously, the supply of electric vehicles at the moment is incredibly tight because of the shortage of chips and supply chain problems coming out of Covid, but that will be resolved some time in the near future. Once that happens, we will see a massive expansion in the roll-out of electric vehicles and our network has to be ready for that. The local authorities have to step up too.

At the committee on children it was revealed that 20 children under the care of Tusla accessed south Kerry's child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, during the period covered by the Maskey report. Of these, six children suffered harm or significant harm, that is, 30% of all children under the care of the State who accessed CAMHS in south Kerry were placed at some form of harm. The Department of Health has revealed to me that it had no engagement with Tusla on this until it received a parliamentary question from me. I was further advised that the statutory and operational responsibility for the delivery of children's welfare is a matter for Tusla, whereas CAMHS is managed by the HSE and is a separate entity. Nobody seems to be talking to each other. What plans has the Government in place to address the deficiencies between the two arms of the State that failed these vulnerable children in order to stop these vulnerable children falling through the cracks?

It is an important question. Deputy Ward and other Deputies have raised legitimate points about the interaction with vulnerable children and, in particular, children who are in State care. When we have different State agencies looking after them, silos can sometimes build up. I have dealt with that in respect of Tusla and the HSE in the context of children with significant needs who are in long-term care. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and I will engage on this issue and will get back to the committee on children. Maybe it is something we can take further within the confines of the committee on children.

I want to raise the issue of the extension of the youth travel card to commercial operators. Students and young adults who use private bus operators are at a severe disadvantage to those who are able to avail of the 20% discount on public transport and the 50% discount on the youth travel card. This is very significant for the thousands of young people who rely on private operators every day. Clarity will allow people to make decisions based on fair prices about future commuting plans in this cost of living crisis. Introducing one discount for public and not private operators is not open competition. I understand the National Transport Authority has established a joint working group with commercial bus operators and the Department of Transport to consider options and develop a plan to implement a youth adult card for commercial bus operators. It is vital that the Government provides clarity on this issue as soon as possible by confirming an introduction date for the discount on private transport.

Absolutely. There is no intention of discriminating between commercial bus operators and public bus operators on either the 20% or the 50% discount that we have introduced. There were real technical difficulties on the 20% cut in particular, given we do not regulate fares and we do not monitor cash or other systems. On the youth travel card and the 50% reduction, because of that working group we are on the path to apply it across all bus operators, including commercial operators. While I do not have a specific timeline, we are looking to deliver it as soon as possible. It is absolutely right that it should go to all bus operators.

Chuir mise ceist Dála scríofa síos le haghaidh freagra ar 10 Bealtaine i nGaeilge agus ní bhfuair mé freagra i nGaeilge fós ar an gceist sin. B’fhéidir go dtógfaidh an tAire an cheist sin anois. Ceist Uimh. 875 a bhí ann agus bhí sí curtha ag an Roinn Talmhaíochta, Bia agus Mara.

The programme for Government commits to implementing the Galway transport strategy, which was published as recently as 2016. My understanding is that the Minister has organised a review of this strategy before it is even implemented. First, can the Minister outline why it was imperative that we would have a review of a strategy that was of recent gestation? Second, is the implementation of the existing strategy put on hold while we review this strategy and when will the review be completed?

Those reviews are an ordinary statutory process. For example, we have just come through a review in Dublin. Those strategies tend to be reviewed every four years. That is a normal occurrence and it does not put on hold any existing plans within existing strategy. It is a normal process of assessing the latest information, including the census and other data material. I was in Galway recently to meet the local county council and city council. There is a recognition that of all our five cities, Galway is the one with the greatest transport problems and the greatest urgency. One of the things I said to Galway City Council was that it needs to come back on this and that we need acceleration projects that we can deliver in the next three years.

Whatever about the big projects and long-term futures, the here and now is what is important to Galway. Advancing such things as BusConnects, active travel and other projects which we can deliver in a three-year time period is what I am keen to really push.

I wish to raise the pay and terms and conditions of school caretakers. While I welcome the deal that was done in March for school secretaries, which was overdue and well-deserved, caretakers are not included in this deal. I met a caretaker recently who has worked in his local national school for 30 years. I hope the Minister will agree and acknowledge that caretakers do invaluable work in our schools along with school secretaries. Schools would not function without either. It is important that we do not replace one two-tier system with another in regard to caretakers and have a difference between caretakers and school secretaries within our school communities. We need to see a similar deal for caretakers throughout the State.

I agree. I am not sure what legislative or other mechanism the Department of Education has to make sure that takes place. I will pass on Deputy Kerrane's comment to the Minister for Education to make sure it is heard.

There is a report in the Irish Examiner this morning that the Glashaboy flood relief scheme may not proceed, that the current contractor is running into difficulties due to increased costs and that there is no provision under the contracts offered about price variation. What action will be taken to resolve this issue in order that we do not have to go through the entire tender process again and delay it for another 12 months? Will the Minister clarify what the relevant Department is doing on this matter?

I will ask the relevant Department to contact the Deputy. If I understand correctly, this project was tendered and contracted, which raises the question as to whether it might qualify for the variation the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, brought in recently.

The contract is not signed.

If the contract is not signed, that is the reason. The Office of Public Works, which is the contracting authority, must manage its resource allocations within its budget timelines. However I will pass the issue on to the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan-----

The concern is about the 12-month delay. It needs to be prioritised.

I understand fully. I will discuss it with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan.

My questions in on the pandemic recognition payment. That payment, which everybody welcomed, was to recognise the sacrifice that healthcare workers made during the pandemic. Thus far only two hospitals have paid the bonus to healthcare workers. It is incredible that this situation is continuing. Who is getting the payment is quite arbitrary and there is much frustration in regard to front-line workers. Will the Minister address the issue as to when workers will get this payment, hopefully within the next couple of weeks?

I will have to come back to the Deputy on that. Everyone, including the Government, is frustrated because this is undermining its intention, which was to be a recognition. It was not meant to be stressful or disappointing. I will contact the Minister for Health directly and ask him to come back to the Deputy with the timelines. It has to be imminent because it has been far too long delayed.

I wish to raise the issue of means-testing carer's allowance for the parents of incapacitated children. A case has been brought to my attention where the mother of a nine-year-old girl who cannot walk, talk or eat gave up her job to look after her child full-time. This woman left a very well-paying job to care for her daughter. The means test for carer's allowance is now affording her €46 per week for what is a 24-7 caring role. The family's mortgage repayments, health insurance, increasing expenses and the cost of heating the home for a child with this level of needs were not considered. This woman works 24-7 to take care of her child. This is without mentioning the additional costs on the family of caring for a child with complex needs. On top of this, the State is being saved thousands of euro per week by the mother staying at home to care for her daughter rather than leaving it to the State to pay for her care full-time. I believe this injustice needs to be tackled immediately and means-testing should not apply for the care of incapacitated children.

I thank the Deputy for the question. There has been some relevant change in this area very recently. Just this week, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, announced a change in the capital disregards in the means-testing for carer's allowance. It has been increased from €20,000 to €50,000. That may or may not impact this case but if Deputy Cahill contacts me I will be glad to pass on the details of that particular case to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

Ireland seems to have emerged as a country noted for its waiting lists, including for hospital services, health services, mental health services, transport and tourism services and airports. At every juncture, there seems to be an emergence of waiting lists to a greater extent. In that context, will the Minister encourage the Government in general to identify the most acute waiting lists in order to address them as a matter of urgency?

It is hard to pick but some of the cases we have heard here today, in particular parents or families with someone who needs healthcare immediately must be at the top of any waiting list, particularly if it is a disability. Some of the examples we heard earlier about children with disabilities and so on, would come to mind first. What might help us in that regard is if some of the risk assessment processes within the State could be adapted to performance measurement assessment within the State to ascertain where are the worst delays. An independent regular statutory review of the performance of the State in delivery of services might be good place to start.

I wish to ask about the situation on valproate. I understand it is intended to bring a memorandum to Government within the next few weeks to seek an approval into the non-statutory inquiry that is required there. It is important that the terms of reference are agreed by the families who have fought for decades to get the truth of who knew what, when they knew it and why nobody did anything about it. Without that line being in the terms of reference that enables the chair to recommend remedial action be taken, the inquiry will be of no use to anybody. This is critically important. Will the Minister meet representatives of Organisation Anticonvulsant Syndromes Ireland, OACS Ireland, and the families to agree the terms of reference before this goes to Government?

I certainly will ask the Minister whether he would be willing to do that and meet the families in the way the Deputy suggests.

I want to make a point about Dealgan House, where 23 people died during Covid-19. In January, the Taoiseach promised me in the Dáil that the Government or the Department of Health was examining options to respect and meet the needs of the families and their concerns about these deaths. Since then we have heard absolutely nothing. It is a disgrace that the Department of Health is refusing to act in this matter. I challenge the Minister, if these were children we would have our inquiry. Is it because they are older citizens that we hear nothing from the Department?

I will pass those comments along when I am passing on Deputy Conway-Walsh's request. The Deputy's comments and request are absolutely heartfelt, sincere and true and I am sure they reflect the views of the families of those who died.

On Tuesday many of us stood outside Leinster House to witness demonstrations on the mental health crisis in the Traveller community. I wish to raise the issue of unemployment. I was shocked to hear that 86% of people within the Traveller community are unemployed. For example, 17 people took a Safe Pass course of whom 16 got jobs. The one person who did not was a member of the Traveller community. Until he changed his address, he was unemployed. That needs to be addressed in terms of a mental health crisis.

I thank Deputy Donnelly for raising this issue. He is quite right. There was a protest outside Leinster House on Tuesday. There is an action plan, which will be published very shortly. The action plan will not relate only to mental health. It has to relate to educational prospects, to prospects for apprenticeships and to education and social protection. All of those key factors exacerbate the challenges Travellers have in regard to their mental health. I hope this will be published before the summer recess. That is what I am trying to do, for my part.

It is a cross-departmental report but it is important that it is published soon.

In December, when I had the allocation of €10 million in relation to mental health, €365,000 was allocated to Travellers' mental health. Last year, through the National Office for Suicide Prevention, NOSP, €270,000 was also allocated to support Travellers' mental health.

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