I welcome the publication of the Finance Bill. I know it is not a perfect document but there is quite a lot of good stuff in it and, on that basis, I am going to support its passage through the Dáil. In the time I have available, I want to focus on one specific provision at the bottom of page 11, the Naval Service seagoing personal tax credit, which is very important. I very much welcome the fact this tax credit is going to be included in the 2021 fiscal year as well. This year, 2020, was the first year it came in, and I am very happy to see it is going to be rolled over. It would be very useful if we could get clarity in regard to this tax credit. Is it going to be continued to be rolled over into the future or is it just for a couple of years? Any kind of clarity or certainty the Minister can bring to the question would be much appreciated.

I welcome the very small increase in the tax credit for 2020, given it was €1,270 per annum and has been increased to €1,500 for 2021. That is a good thing, but again, the scale of the increase does not match the scale of the problem at all. Nonetheless, it is progress in the right direction. I acknowledge the contribution of the Ministers, Deputies Coveney and Michael McGrath, in organising these schemes. In isolation, they are not going to make a massive difference, but as part of a cumulative effort to improve things in the Naval Service and across the Defence Forces, it should have a sizeable impact over time.

From a Defence Forces perspective, we still have exactly the same problems. They are still the lowest paid public servants and there is only one reason for that, namely, they will not strike or cannot strike. As a result, they have almost no bargaining power and no leverage when it comes to pay negotiations and, in fact, they are practically laughed out of the room, if they even get into the room. That is an area we need to work on. In 2017, when the naval commanders put in a request to the then Minister to bring in a tax credit, they were not looking to peg the Naval Service tax credit with the fisher tax credit but to peg it with the seafarers tax credit, which is a far bigger credit, four times larger than the one that is on offer at the moment. The seafarers tax credit is €6,350 per annum and that is where we need to aim for in regard to the Naval Service. The seafarers credit is for people who work on ferries, merchant vessels, offshore oil and gas rigs or any kind of drilling platform. To me, the Naval Service is the nation’s primary seagoing service. I cannot think of any agency that would be more worthy of such a tax credit than the Naval Service and it is something we should certainly opt for.

An increase in the credit is very important and it would have five very positive effects. First, it would assist with the retention crisis in the Naval Service, which is very important, particularly on the eve of a hard Brexit, which is only weeks away. Currently, the situation is that we have very highly qualified, highly experienced people who wish to remain in the Naval Service but who just cannot afford to stay because the pay rates are so low. It would be similar to anybody in this Chamber buying a very expensive sports car and then just giving the car away for free three or four years down the line. It makes no commercial, practical or financial sense whatsoever.

The second advantage is that there is no risk of contagion if we increase the tax credit to the Naval Service. There are very few public servants who work offshore and, in fact, so few employees work offshore in this tax jurisdiction that any additional tax credits given to Naval Service personnel would have almost negligible or minimal second-order effects.

Third, generally speaking, it is the lower ranks who tend to travel on the high seas more than the higher ranks, so if a tax credit is given for sea travel, it will disproportionately and preferentially support lower paid personnel. That is precisely what this Chamber should be about, that is, identifying pressure points where the more needy people are and then supporting them.

Fourth, seagoing is quite difficult, particularly from a family-friendly perspective. It is important from a tax credit point of view that we focus on and support the people on whom the burden of work on the high seas falls. That is another advantage to giving a tax credit in that the people who actually travel at sea, and who are often away for three or four weeks at a time from their families, will get rewarded for this.

Fifth, this tax credit is available to all personnel. Unlike the service commitments scheme that was announced only a couple of weeks ago, if a tax credit is increased over the next few years, it is available to all personnel, and it would not have the same divisive effect that the service commitments scheme has started to have in the Naval Service.

I thank the relevant Ministers for bringing in these two measures. They will make a small bit of progress. It demonstrates that the trajectory we are on is progress but much more needs to be done. I would like to see this tax credit move from €1,500 per annum towards the €6,350 seafarers’ allowances. Our Naval Service protects us every hour of every day and the least they deserve is for us to reciprocate and protect them as well.

I thank both Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Michael McGrath, for their positive engagement in the run-up to the budget. I valued their input and appreciated it.

I am conscious of the limited time I have available. I will focus exclusively on the security and defence aspects of Budget 2021. I have only five points to make. Three are quite positive and only two points at the end are areas in need of significant improvement.

The first point relates to An Garda Síochána. I welcome the increase in Garda numbers which are planned for next year. An extra 620 trainee gardaí plus a big investment in the vehicle fleet for An Garda Síochána should make a big difference throughout the country.

Law and order is a massive issue in all parts of Ireland. We must invest so that people feel safe in their homes and communities. Garda infrastructure remains a big problem. Many of the barracks and Garda stations were built by the British more than 100 years ago. There must be investment for refurbishment and new builds throughout the country. Were I to identify one infrastructural project above all others, it is the need for a Garda Síochána museum. The centenary of the formation of An Garda Síochána is in 2022, in a little more than 18 months. It is incredible there is no national museum for An Garda Síochána, because its story is the story of Ireland itself. From the long list of recipients of the Scott Medal for bravery or the roll of honour for members who have been killed on active duty, we can appreciate and recognise that we need a permanent premises to honour their achievements and sacrifices. I look forward to progressing this project over the next 12 months.

Second, I am encouraged and reassured to see that the National Cyber Security Centre got a significant mention in the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications budget Estimates. It is a critical agency. I thank the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for his ongoing engagement on how we can bolster our defences in this area. It is an essential service and needs to be resourced in tools and talents. We cannot take any shortcuts. We have seen over the past six months what a biological virus can do to this country. Let us not wait and see what an electronic virus can do. This agency is essential. It is needed to protect and safeguard our critical national infrastructure such as our national grid, and our transport and health systems. I look forward to further budgetary progress in the next 12 months.

Third, I raise the issue of the defence budget. I welcome the improvement by €32 million in defence funding for 2021, which is about 3%. Will it solve all the problems in the Defence Forces? Of course not, but it continues a process of renewal that began over the summer. Nevertheless, the defence spend is still only 0.3% of GDP, which puts us at the very bottom of our EU partners. Incredibly, instead of investing in our own defence deterrent, we continue to freeload on the umbrella of security and defence provided by our EU partners. That will have to change. It is not all doom and gloom. The Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, has many projects in play. I look forward to him announcing the membership of the commission on the future of defence in the next two weeks, and I look forward to engaging with that body in the next 12 months to address the infrastructural and well-known problems in our armed forces.

We must be creative and imaginative in how we address defence spending. We should not look at it in a linear fashion exclusively. Why should all the funding come exclusively through the Department of Defence? We can be much more creative. For instance, why is it that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government cannot directly provide accommodation and housing services for our service families and personnel? Why can it not provide this facility in the Curragh Camp, for instance? There is no reason it cannot. The Office of Public Works builds infrastructure for An Garda Síochána. Why can it not use its budget to build defence infrastructure? The Defence Forces provide much physical support to the HSE, such as manning the Covid hub at Lansdowne Road. Why, therefore, can the health service not provide financial support to the Defence Forces? The village and town renewal scheme run by the Department for Rural and Community Development was a brilliant scheme to address dereliction. There is dereliction in military barracks throughout the country, and dereliction is dereliction whether inside or outside the barrack walls. That fund could by utilised and mobilised to address dereliction in Defence Force establishments. A new secondary school is needed in the Curragh Camp, which has two primary schools and a secondary school. Can the Department of Education and Skills use its allocation to provide the service? There is a new Department with responsibility for higher and further education, research, innovation and science. Why not funnel money from it either through Maynooth University or Carlow Institute of Technology into the military college at the Curragh camp? I cannot see why not. The military college is an institution in its own right with international students, and its affiliations with Maynooth University and Carlow Institute of Technology already make it a satellite campus in effect. We can we not be more creative about addressing the funding deficit in the Defence Forces?

Fourth, I raise the air-sea rescue contract. Some €60 million is allocated in next year’s transport Estimates to provide the excellent service provided by the Irish Coast Guard, which is €5 million a month, which is really expensive. I understand that in the coming months, the Department of Transport will launch a tender for another ten-year contract for a private company to come in and fly helicopters for the Coast Guard. It seems incredible that approximately €700 million will be spent over ten years, given to a private international contractor to provide this service. I believe our Coast Guard service should be a sovereign service. I see no reason there could not be investment in the Air Corps to provide this service. Imagine what spending €500 million or much less in the Air Corps would do to its capability and sense of purpose? We should definitely look at that.

I am very mindful of the backdrop to the budget. There are three major threats here or on the horizon: the pandemic, the associated synchronised global recession and then the spectre of a hard Brexit just around the corner. I agree with my colleague, Deputy Canney, that this is a wartime Government and, by extension, this is a wartime budget. Despite all its imperfections and shortcomings, I will support it on that basis.

 

I note that the HSE’s winter plan says that it intends to build capacity for contact tracing. I also understand that earlier this year more than 72,000 people volunteered for the HSE’s On Call For Ireland initiative. Has any thought been given to tapping into this great pool of talent, which has been completely underutilised, in order to fill contact tracing roles? If no thought has been given to it, will the Taoiseach and his Government consider it?

 

The Taoiseach: I appreciate the Deputy’s question. The HSE has already commenced a recruitment campaign for 700 swabbers and 500 contact tracers as part of its plans to expand and increase permanent capacity within the testing and tracing system. The call initiative which the Deputy referenced yielded some results but perhaps not what had originally been expected. Of those who came forward, not all were suitable for particular positions in clinical settings or in the wider health service. I have no doubt that the HSE will use every means at its disposal to get the requisite number of people into our testing and tracing system because the plan for living with Covid we have outlined will require more than 3,000 people working between all stages of our testing and tracing system.

To begin, I wish to extend my very best wishes to the Minister of State and his family on his recent appointment in the Department of Justice and Equality. Law and order are significant priorities for me and my constituents and I very much look forward to engaging with him over the coming years in that regard.

From the outset I am very happy with the legislation that is before us. It is long overdue and I will certainly support its passage through the Dáil. I have seven points to make which I will try to keep as brief as possible so that others can get to speak. My first point is the only negative one I have which is on the delay. I know that it has been mentioned before but it is a pity that it has taken so long to get this legislation to the floor of the Dáil. I totally accept that the Minister of State has just recently assumed his role, so this is not a slight against him in any shape or form, but it does reflect very poorly on the country and unnecessarily damages our international reputation. The European Union was quite decent with us and gave us plenty of time to enact this legislation, and it is a pity that we are now eight months behind its enactment timeline.

A central component of this legislation is the deterrent factor. We should ask ourselves how many crimes have been committed in the past eight months that were not deterred. How many of the crimes that were committed in the past eight months cannot now be penalised because we cannot apply the law retrospectively? I fully agree that there is collective Cabinet responsibility and it is up to the Government to drive the legislative programme, but I am also of the view that there is a collective responsibility on all Deputies in the Dáil, be they a member of a party or a member of an Independent grouping, to stick to the timelines and advance legislation, especially important legislation like this which has an international deadline. From a Regional Group perspective, we will certainly be supporting any such legislation and will play our part in that regard.

My next point is that I certainly agree with the content of this legislation.

Any measures that are brought in to tighten up procedures in respect of cryptocurrency or money laundering through expensive works of art and any restrictions that can be placed on drug trafficking, human trafficking and the likes are to be welcomed. I believe, however, that we will be back here before the end of the Thirty-third Dáil because we will need to amend and update this legislation. As technology advances and there is greater sophistication from a terrorist and organised crime perspective, we need to ensure that our enforcement agencies have all the necessary powers to combat and deter this type of activity.

The third point I want to make is that it is not enough to have only legislative powers. We also need to resource our people, particularly the enforcement agencies. If we task, we must resource. I join the vast majority of Deputies in the Chamber in commending the actions of the Criminal Assets Bureau, in particular over the past ten years, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau, and a lesser-known entity, J2, the military intelligence service, which has been operating in this space also. The J2 in particular is finding it very difficult to retain its people and that level of expertise, so if there is anything the Minister can do at the Cabinet table to improve retention in the Defence Forces, it would be greatly appreciated.

The fourth point I want to make is that in this country we are especially susceptible to organised crime and the financing of terrorism for a number of reasons. First is our massive financial services industry, which employs up to 40,000 people, and at least €2 trillion is being managed through international funds through this country. That makes us very vulnerable but it also places a huge obligation on us to make sure that any money that is pushed through these pathways is done for legitimate purposes only.

The second reason we are vulnerable is because of domestic terrorism. We still have a number of armed elements on both sides of this island who are engaged in terrorism. They are not on ceasefire. We probably have the greatest terrorism issue in the European Union here on this island, and we should not forget about that. As recently as last Friday night a viable, live, improvised explosive device was found in Galway, so it has not gone away. Somebody paid for that detonator. Somebody paid for those explosives. Somebody paid for the bomb maker’s labour. As the former four-star general in the US and former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said, money to a terrorist is like oxygen. If the supply of money is cut off, it cuts off the supply of oxygen. I very much support this Bill from that perspective.

The third reason we are vulnerable is because of international terrorism. The perception, rightly or wrongly, is that Ireland is a soft spot for terrorism. One can come to Dublin, train, look after the logistics and financing, and then launch attacks on mainland UK and continental Europe. That is an area on which we have to focus also.

The fifth point I want to make is about improvement. We are unique in this Parliament in that we do not have a special committee. Most sovereign republics would have a defence, intelligence and security committee. Any country which takes its sovereignty and security seriously would have such a committee. We have a foreign affairs and defence committee but we do not have a committee that covers intelligence and security. Parliamentary oversight of these agencies is very important in western democracies to ensure that they are properly resourced. Many of these agencies are uniform services. They do not have the luxury of the same number of voices that civilian agencies have, so it is very important that they have an opportunity and a platform to voice their concerns in respect of resourcing, staffing and premises. If there was one constructive suggestion I would make it is that we should consider setting up a defence, intelligence and security committee. All of the testimony would not have to be in open forum. It could be in closed session, if required. I very much recommend that for either this Dáil or the next Dáil, we would look at setting up a defence, intelligence and security committee.

Sixth, the National Security Analysis Centre is an agency that was established last year under the Department of the Taoiseach. Dermot Woods is the civil servant in charge. We have not heard a whole lot about it. It was set up to integrate and co-ordinate all the information coming from the various intelligence agencies in the country, be it military, police, Revenue or customs and excise. The Minister might mention that when replying or, subsequently, by way of a written reply. Where are we with the National Security Analysis Centre? Does it have a premises? How many staff does it have? Is it effective? Has it been consulted on the drafting of this legislation?

My final point is on the national security strategy, which was to be devised by the National Security Analysis Centre. There was public consultation up to 31 December last year but since then nothing has happened. We have not heard anything. If the Minister would update the House when replying or by way of written reply subsequently, it would be very much appreciated.

We completely support the Minister in his role. Organised crime and law and order are massive issues across regional and rural Ireland and in coastal communities. The Minister can be assured of the full support of the Regional Group in respect of any measures he takes that will curtail these type of activities. Any expertise I have is at the Minister’s disposal should he choose to avail of it.

Most people in the Chamber are familiar with the range of financial supports available nationwide to mitigate against the effects of this terrible virus. I want to focus my questions today on the situation in the three counties of Laois, Offaly and Kildare, which had been disproportionately affected as a result of the virus. Most reasonable people would accept that the outbreaks in those three counties were caused by some failings by State agencies in the monitoring of meat plants and direct provision centres. Most reasonable people would also accept, however, that the suppression and containment strategy used to keep a lid on this virus in those three counties was also very successful, despite all its imperfections.

I accept that a bespoke financial package was provided to those three counties and it did assist for the duration of the lockdown. While the acute phase of the public health emergency has now passed in the three counties, unfortunately, however, the financial fallout remains. Does the Government have plans to provide additional financial supports to those three counties in light of what they have been through? If there are no plans, is that something that the Government might consider between now and the budget?

 

The Tánaiste:

As the House will know, the counties of Laois, Offaly and Kildare were the first in Ireland to experience local restrictions. We all realised and appreciated at the time that they would not be the last. We all expect that other counties will have local restrictions imposed on them in the coming months, for various reasons, and it is important that those counties receive the same additional supports as were provided to Laois, Offaly and Kildare. We also need to consider additional initiatives.

The Deputy will probably respond by stating that if in future other counties get things that Laois, Offaly and Kildare did not, then that should be applied retrospectively to those three counties as well. I believe that is a fair argument. As we all know, the situation with the virus is worrying in Ireland and particularly in Dublin, with the incidence rate increasing significantly in recent days. That is reflected in a relatively small but real increase in hospitalisations and ICU admissions. Regarding Dublin, however, it is important to compare it with other cities around Europe. Brussels has an incidence rate double that of Dublin, Amsterdam has a positivity rate much higher than Dublin’s, and it is also much higher in Madrid, Prague, Paris and many other places. If we choose to act regarding the situation in Dublin in the coming days, far from being slow to act, as some would argue, we will be one of the first movers in Europe in taking action early, ahead of cities and city regions in Europe that have not yet imposed the kind of restrictions that we may need to impose in Dublin. We will be first movers and quick actors, rather than what others would suggest.

As the Deputy is aware, I was in Kildare recently and took the opportunity to meet with the local enterprise office, LEO, and visit some of the businesses that were most affected. In terms of what has been provided in supports to Kildare, there is the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, which is linked to turnover in a firm. By definition, therefore, those counties with local restrictions will see more companies qualify because their turnover will be more affected. In addition, we increased the restart grant plus by 40% for Kildare. Some €10 million has been paid out to date for the original restart grant, and there are 1,566 applications for the restart grant plus, so that will be €11.4 million in all.

There have also been training and mentoring programmes for business, 724 applications for the business continuity voucher and 373 applications for the trading online voucher. The microfinance loan programme in Kildare has had an especially good take-up, with nearly €1 million drawn down from that fund already. As also I announced in Kildare the other day, we have set up a new scheme for those businesses that, for one reason or another, do not qualify for the restart grant or for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection’s enterprise support grant. That will be starting in Kildare in recognition of the additional burden on businesses in that county.

 

I thank the Tánaiste for that clarification. My final question has specifically to do with Kildare. It is unique among counties in that it is the only county to have experienced three lockdowns, two of them back-to-back. I accept that a financial package was provided and commend the Minister with responsibility for media, tourism, arts, culture, sport and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin, for providing an extra €500,000 for marketing the county as a staycation of choice.

That €500,000 is lodged in a Bord Fáilte bank account in Dublin. That is all well and good and Bord Fáilte does an excellent job at promoting Ireland nationally, but that money needs to go to the local tourism agency in Kildare. Those are the people who know the county and people best and can make the best efficient use of that money. Into Kildare is probably the best, most suitable front-line agency to which that money should be provided. I would be grateful to hear the Tánaiste’s views as to whether it is possible for that money to be put directly into Kildare so that local agencies can be put in the driving seat.

 

The Tánaiste:

I thank the Deputy. As he mentioned, the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, provided an extra €500,000 to promote Kildare and encourage people to take a break there and visit the county because, as we all know, it is very much open for business. The money is being routed through Fáilte Ireland because it is a State agency and, for obvious reasons of corporate governance and accounting practices, Government money tends to be routed through public bodies. I met some people in Kildare who felt that money was being spent on advertising and the real beneficiaries were perhaps the advertising companies and media organisations, rather than Kildare businesses. Those people told me that the money could have been better used on co-operative marketing with hotels and attractions in the county.

I know the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, met Into Kildare along with Kildare Oireachtas Members in late August. The plan is to ensure that Into Kildare is consulted on the design of the creative messages and how the money will be spent so that is guided by local knowledge.

Question:

109. Deputy Cathal Berry asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of the establishment of the proposed national food ombudsman; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24366/20]

I congratulate the Minister on his recent appointment. I thank him for coming to the House to answer questions. A national foods ombudsman is proposed in the programme for Government. Will the Minister update the House on the process? Will he give a timeline for establishing that office?

Minister Charlie McConalogue:

I thank Deputy Berry and congratulate him on his election. I have not had the opportunity to wish him well. I know he has a strong interest in agriculture.

 The programme for Government includes a commitment to:

Ensure fairness, equity, and transparency in the food chain by establishing a new authority called the National Food Ombudsman (NFO) to enforce the Unfair Trading Practices Directive. This new authority will enforce EU wide rules on prohibited unfair trading practices in the food supply chain and will have powers to enforce this Directive, penalising those who breach regulations. The NFO will have a specific role in analysing and reporting on price and market data in Ireland.

Directive (EU) No. 2019/633, the unfair trading practices directive, must be transposed into Irish law by 1 May 2021.  This can be done by way of a statutory instrument but any measures that extend beyond the minimum harmonisation requirements of the unfair trading practices directive will require primary legislation. For this reason, I propose to adopt a two-step approach to this commitment.  First, my officials are drafting a proposal for a statutory instrument to directly transpose the unfair trading practices directive as it stands. Second, the legal requirements for the establishment of a new office of a food ombudsman are also being considered, including the requirement for primary legislation to give that office additional powers going beyond those in the unfair trading practices directive.

 

It is reassuring to hear that an implementation plan is in place. From my perspective, I emphasise the need for the food ombudsman to be an independent office with the statutory powers to enforce the directive as outlined. We have seen in recent months that we have to protect primary producers and small suppliers so that large retailers and conglomerates do not abuse their dominant position in the market. From my perspective, the independence of that office is crucial. If there is anything I can do with the Minister’s office, I will engage constructively to expedite that process as well as I can.

 

Minister Charlie McConalogue: I thank Deputy Berry. I look forward to working with him and with his ideas about how we can make sure that the new food ombudsman is as effective as possible in achieving its objective. I will engage comprehensively with farmer representative organisations too because I know they have been advocating for this new office for a significant period. We will look at how we can make sure the office is independent and has the remit to ensure it can carry out the role of bringing transparency and confidence to the system. We want to rebuild that relationship and, in particular, the primacy of the primary producers to make sure they get the best crack of the whip possible to deliver an income and return for them and their work, which should be properly reflected in the price they get in the international markets where 90% of our produce goes, as well as domestically.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for coming in here tonight. I understand that there are great demands on his time at the moment, particularly when we see the extraordinary events today across the Irish Sea. His presence this evening, therefore, is greatly appreciated. I am also very grateful for the very positive engagement we have had over the last couple of weeks and months. I am far more hopeful now than I was even three months ago that we can finally get to grips with the problems in the Defence Forces and move on from there.

The next point I will make is on the legislation itself. I have no difficulty with the legislation and am very happy to support it. As the Minister mentioned, it is just housekeeping. I can understand from a legality point of view why one might want to enshrine and codify it in primary legislation but the reality is that it is not going to change anything on the ground. We could have added a few more amendments and I will give the Minister a number of suggestions which he might wish to consider. In this Chamber we make minor adjustments at the top that can have significant and disproportionately positive effects downstream.

We should have approximately 4,000 people in the Reserve Defence Force, but we have approximately 1,000, in effect. If one tried to run a school with 25% of the required number of teachers or a hospital with 25% of the required number of nurses, it would be a mission impossible. We really need to focus on the Reserve Defence Force. Many people do not realise why we call them the Defence Forces, and it is plural for a reason because they consist of the Permanent Defence Force and the Reserve Defence Force. The next group of amendments that we make to the Defence Act 1954 should be focused primarily, but not exclusively, on the Reserve Defence Force.

First, we should legislate to allow our Reserve Defence Force to serve overseas in niche operational roles like medicine and communications, in particular. Second, in addition to being able to serve operationally, they should be able to go on training exercises and courses abroad. Third, they should be able to participate in ceremonial events abroad. The Reserve Defence Force should be allowed to travel overseas for those three reasons. It will certainly take itself far more seriously if we take it more seriously too. These three things would make a great difference overnight, unlike the legislation in front of us, which is all well and good but does not impact anything on the ground.

I would like to make a further point from the perspective of members of the Reserve Defence Force. We know how understrength they are. The Minister, or his predecessor, quite rightly introduced legislation to provide for the re-enlistment of personnel into the Permanent Defence Force. Why do we not allow for the re-enlistment of personnel into the Reserve Defence Force? There is no harm in bringing back Reserve Defence Force people who have left if they are a good fit for the organisation.

A further point I would make is that there should be a seamless transition for people like myself who have recently retired from the Permanent Defence Force if they are interested in serving in the Reserve Defence Force. It should really be a box-ticking exercise for such a person. The measures I have proposed would have a great impact on the Reserve Defence Force within 24 hours. The numbers would be populated very quickly up towards 4,000. Those are the amendments I would consider from the perspective of the Reserve Defence Force.

From a Permanent Defence Force perspective, I would like to mention an issue that can be solved very easily even though it is a real bone of contention. A provision in the Defence Act 1954 means that a soldier who does not serve the full five-year term must purchase his or her discharge. This is a 1954 Act for a good reason because a provision like that has no place whatsoever in modern employment legislation. Private soldiers and Teachtaí Dála have one real thing in common. They both sign up for a five-year term. If I resign my seat voluntarily now and walk out of here, I will receive a golden handshake. If private soldiers do not complete their full five-year term, they are handed a bill for €300, which is completely scandalous. This can be very easily changed and would have a huge impact on morale.

I would like to refer to a number of non-legislative amendments which would make a significant difference. The first involves additional pay for the navy. The Minister has done a great deal of work on this in recent months. We hope we are looking towards having a very positive announcement in the next couple of weeks. We know how bad things are in the navy. I have mentioned them before and I will not mention them again. An improvement in pay would be a small difference but it would bring hugely positive effects overnight.

My next point relates to quarantine money. For Covid-19 reasons, troops who are serving overseas are brought into barracks for an additional two weeks of work before they deploy overseas for six months. They do not get to see their families for six and a half months. They should be getting some additional pay for the two weeks of quarantine they are doing before they travel. This is a major bone of contention for the people in Syria and in Lebanon at the moment. In some cases, people’s spouses have to give up work for two weeks, which means a loss of salary for these families. Anything the Minister can do from this perspective, particularly if it can be done in the next couple weeks, would be greatly appreciated and would have a very positive effect on morale.

As the Social Democrats speaker mentioned, an announcement on the technical pay issue was made with great fanfare on 4 July last year from the plinth by the Minister for Finance and the then Minister of State with responsibility for defence. I presume these announcements were made in good faith. That was over 14 months ago. I know it is probably an unfair comparison to make, but it strikes me that we are currently taking issue with the British Government because it is claiming it does not want to honour an agreement it entered into. The Government entered into an agreement with the Defence Forces and its representative associations in good faith on 4 July last year and it is now up to our Government to honour that commitment. We are not talking about big money. A commitment was made and it should be followed through on. There is no risk of contagion to other parts of the public service. If there was a risk of contagion it would have happened on 4 July last year when it was announced. As a result of the failure to implement the technical pay announcement, we have had huge haemorrhaging of paramedics, mechanics and technically qualified people. Again, a small adjustment could make a significantly positive impact on the ground.

A very positive sentence in the programme for Government commits this Government to providing the same level of medical care to enlisted personnel as is provided to commissioned officers. If the Minister is looking for something that could be implemented very quickly, I put it to him that this could be done next week. This measure would have a significant impact on morale and would demonstrate something tangible for the troops. Providing private medical care to enlisted personnel who are injured, as is done with the commissioned officers, would make a great difference. It is very simply done. Instead of writing “Captain X” on the form, the medical officer just puts down “Corporal Y” and they should then have the exact same access to medical care. We have over 100 personnel who are on long-term sick leave because they are awaiting operations, having injured their backs or knees, or have torn ligaments and are languishing at home for months on the public waiting list. If we could expedite their return to the ranks it would make a great difference. The enlisted personnel also have to pay for their own treatment even though they are injured at work and this encourages them to litigate.

If the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence were paying for their medical treatment, there would be no requirement to litigate. That is another measure that would make a very big difference on the ground.

From a non-legislative perspective I want to mention the budget, which is coming up on 13 October. Traditionally, the Defence Forces always get the lowest level of increase. In addition, the majority of that increase, over the past five years in particular, has gone to paying Defence Forces pensions. The reason for that is the very poor policies that were pursued in recent years, which drove many people out of the Defence Forces against their will, and the pensions bill has risen. If there is anything the Minister could do from a budgeting perspective to ensure that the Defence Forces can get their fare share, it would be greatly appreciated.

The Minister was very good to visit the Curragh Camp recently, and the Ceann Comhairle will verify what I am about to say. Even though it is a wonderful place full of wonderful people, the Curragh Camp is the most derelict town in the entire country bar none. I challenge anybody to mention any other town in the country that has such poor infrastructure. It is not just an Army barracks but a functioning town with two primary schools and a secondary school. If there is anything that can be done from an infrastructural perspective there, it would make a major difference.

We can be creative in respect of our budgeting. First, I do not believe all the funds should come from the defence Votes. There is a lot of housing on the camp in the Curragh that could very easily be funded through the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. The Minister might liaise with his colleagues at the Cabinet table to see if there is any funding from the housing budget that could be routed towards the Curragh. Second, we must remember also that it is an international third level institution taking students from abroad. We have a brand new Department of further and higher education, research, innovation and science with a blank canvas, so if there is any funding in that Department that could be funnelled towards Defence Forces training institutions, that might be a possibility also.

The fourth point I want to make is about our new Secretary General, Ms Jacqui McCrum. The announcement that we have an external candidate as Secretary General was wonderful. I have heard nothing but positive comments as to her attitude and performance to date. It is a huge plus that her most recent job was working in the Department of Social Protection where she had to devise, advertise and implement social protections for people who are struggling. Her appointment is to be greatly welcomed. I would go so far as to say that her appointment has the potential to have the same effect as people of the likes of Matthew Elderfield during the financial crisis when he came in to work with the Financial Regulator or Professor Patrick Honohan when he came in to work with the Central Bank. There is great potential and hope in this regard and I very much look forward to working with the Secretary General, Ms McCrum, over the next number of years.

I used sit up in the Gallery when I was a soldier here guarding the Leinster House campus about 20 years ago in happier times. I remember being here one night and seeing the Minister’s father, who was Minister for Defence. I never thought for a moment that I would have to come into this Chamber and advocate for very basic living standards for service personnel and their families. It is wonderful to close the circle and be able to address another member of the Coveney clan from that perspective. I presume the Minister’s is the only family whose father and son have occupied the position of Minister for Defence.

I hope the Minister regards me as being on his side. We want him to be a very successful Minister for Defence because if he has a successful Ministry, the Defence Forces, and the country, will be very successful. I very much look forward to working with the Minister over the next number of years.

On behalf of the Regional Group, I am happy to strongly support the restoration of this Bill to Committee Stage. It is really important that this happens and I will explain why.

First, significant work has taken place. The former Senator, Mr. Pádraig Ó Céidigh deserves a huge credit for that. There has also been significant stakeholder engagement. He liaised with, for example, the Bar Council of Ireland, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, ICCL, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and a host of others including industry representatives such as Irish Small and Medium Employers, ISME. All of that engagement will come to nothing unless we capitalise on it. There has also been a huge amount of not only cross-party support but cross-party agreement to advance this Bill. The only reason this Bill is not on the Statue Book is the premature dissolution of the previous Dáil. We should seize this opportunity and capitalise on the work that has taken place to advance this Bill as soon as possible.

The second reason I am supporting this Bill is that perjury is not a victimless crime. There is a perception that it is somewhat harmless, and that it is just something we do and we turn a blind eye to it but we cannot afford to do that anymore. Deputy Naughten mentioned the insurance industry and I am sure he will also agree that the Bill is not pretending to be a panacea for the ills of that industry. It is going to focus on just one component, namely the perjury aspect. It is a major issue when people exaggerate their personal injury claims and, hopefully, the legislation will get them to think twice before they pursue that course of action. We must always remember that it is not just about insurance claims as there are more serious offences and injuries. For instance, people who have committed burglaries, assaults or sexual assaults are walking free at the moment because they were able to find someone who could create a spurious alibi for them. The Bill also focuses on white-collar crime, which is very important, family law cases and tribunals of inquiry. There have been a number of tribunals over the past few decades where senior businesspeople, and indeed politicians, have lied under oath and gotten away scot-free. That is why it is also important that this be advanced and expedited.

The third reason I like the Bill is that there is an emphasis on deterrence rather just than on punishment or penalties. There is a grey area at the moment to which Deputy Naughten alluded. The Bill will provide the necessary clarity so that when people take the stand or sign a sworn affidavit, they are aware that if they perjure themselves and deliberately try to mislead the courts process, there will be consequences.

Fourth, the Bill is balanced to it and safeguards are included. For instance, it requires more than just one person’s word against another to be convicted of perjury. This Bill will not only cover the little person who is perjuring themselves in the dock. There will be also an opportunity to prosecute the person who incites the first person to commit perjury. As such, not only does one get the little person but one goes after the big fish as well, which is very important. Crucially, there is an obligation not only on the person taking a personal injury claim to be truthful, but also on the person defending that claim. There is, therefore, an obligation on both parties to be honest and truthful.

Finally, this is not just about insurance claims but about the core administration of justice in this country. We are a rule of law country. When someone signs a sworn affidavit or gives oral testimony in a court of law, we must be sure that the evidence is accurate and truthful and there are consequences for those who try to deliberately mislead the courts process. In summary, I am very much in favour of this Bill and I urge my fellow Members to support it.

 

I thank the Minister and his team for coming in to update the House on the Covid-19 emergency and the Government’s response. I thank him for his compliments to the Opposition this morning. I, for one, will continue to engage constructively with his office and the Government as part of the huge national effort to combat the virus.

I compliment the front-line workers and members of the public for getting what might have been a potential surge in the virus under control in the past fortnight. As the Minister outlined, the figures are moving in the right direction. The R number is coming down, as is the rate of community transmission, and the rate of community compliance is going up rapidly. I was in Dublin city centre last night, in several shops and fast food outlets, and there was not a single person who was not wearing a face covering. It shows that the public is completely on board with this and we should commend them on their compliance.

I agree with the Minister and Deputies on the importance of reopening the schools. Everything in society hinges on the schools reopening in a few weeks. I look forward to the Minister, Deputy Foley, publishing her plan on this next week. I hope it is early in the week so that we have the opportunity to scrutinise it fully before we break for recess.

I have four short questions for the Minister and which I will group so that the Minister can answer. First, how many community testing facilities are operating here and do we have the means to scale up this testing in the event of a significant surge in cases? Second, on laboratory analysis of samples, are we still using the international laboratory in Munich or is all the analysis taking place in Irish labs? If the Minister does not have the information to hand, a written reply would be sufficient.

 

Minister Donnelly:

I will get a detailed answer for the Deputy. I raised the issue of the German lab myself. I understand we are in contract with the lab, which was an important measure when we were trying rapidly to scale up capacity. I will ask the HSE for an update. I will give some of the latest figures on testing. We now have capacity for 100,000 tests a week. We are in a positive position of not needing the full capacity, but that is what NPHET recommends we should be able to scale up to. The testing and contact tracing operational resource model has been designed to go up and down. As of midnight on Monday, we have had 574,487 tests with a 5% positivity rate overall. In the past week, more than 51,000 tests were carried out, an average of 7,300 a day. Of the 51,000, 137 tests were positive, which is less than 0.3%, or 0.27%, which is very useful. In 90% of the cases the turnaround time from referral to contact tracing is three days or less. There is an important nuance here. It is not three days or less from when a person refers to when he or she gets the test result. That is down to one day. The three days, which is impressive, includes the person having the test, getting the test result, which is taking an average of 1.1 days, and all their close contacts being followed up as well. We should be very proud of the HSE for having done this.

The number of testing centres has gone up and down. Flexibility has been designed in the process. I will get a detailed update for the Deputy on the current status.

 

My third question relates to contact tracing. How does the Minister anticipate the contact tracing system working in the next few months? Does he anticipate that the contact tracing app will take over or that the manual contact tracing by telephone will continue?

The Government’s second priority after schools is to reopen the healthcare system to non-Covid illnesses and conditions. There is a massive backlog. Will the Minister outline in general terms how he sees that happening in the coming months?

 

Minister Donnelly:

On contact tracing, the view expressed by the WHO and international groups is that Ireland is doing very well. Our contact tracing app has been, and continues to be, a great success. The latest figure is that more than 1.4 million people have downloaded it, which is about one third of the target population. It is much higher than many other countries. The team that developed the app told me that because the infection numbers are thankfully very low in Ireland, they thought it would take several weeks for the app to be used to start notifying close contacts who otherwise would not have been told. In fact, the app started working within 24 hours because of the enormous buy-in of the people. I encourage everybody who can to download that app. Every single person who downloads that app becomes part of the front-line response to this. The 1.4 million downloads is fantastic but we need to push this to get it further. It will not replace contact tracing. It is only one part of the system. The team has been significantly bulked up to deal with people coming into the country, for example. Everyone coming into the country will be asked to download the app. They will be asked for a verifiable phone number so that we can contact them. It is mandated by law that they fill in the form about where they will be so that we know where they are and can contact them. The app protects them and everyone else. At the same time we will continue with the really successful work which has been done to date on contact tracing. The app works with the contact tracing team.

I will outline the process. When a person takes a test and it is positive, they will be telephoned with the result and asked to self-isolate, which is what they should do as soon as they are known to require a test. They will be asked if they have the app, as the State holds no record of who has the app or the phone numbers associated with it. If they have the app, they will be asked for permission for their phone to let the other phones know. If permission is given, they will be given a verified code that uploads the information. The number of contacts are examined in terms of the symptomatic time. Those phones are pinged and people are informed they have been identified as a close contact. If those people have provided their phone numbers, they will be called for a follow up conversation. If they have not provided their number, they will be given a phone number that they can call themselves. The app is critically important and very much part of the full contact tracing regime.

The reopening of health for non-Covid is our single greatest challenge. An enormous amount of work is ongoing to protect the country from Covid. The waiting lists prior to Covid were the highest in Europe. The additional list has gone up significantly because non-essential services were paused. On top of that, there is a large undiagnosed care need in the community because referral rates have gone down. The HSE capacity is also heavily reduced in terms of operating theatres, scopes, outpatients and there are much greater pressures on HSE staffing because some of its staff will also have to go off. Furthermore, winter is coming. Putting this very comprehensive plan together is one of the core parts of work to get the services back open and to do so in a way that addresses the deadly serious issue of winter and the need for the system to work.

 

I have a statement on behalf of the Regional Group. There are no specific questions but if the Minister wishes to respond at the end, that is entirely her prerogative. This is my first opportunity to address the Minister in this forum. I wish to extend every best wish to her and her family regarding her recent appointment. I look forward to working with her and the Government in the coming years. It is in the interests of everyone here that she has a successful tenure as Minister for Education and Skills because the stakes are so high in the country at this time.

I thank the Minister for bringing these Revised Estimates before the House. Despite their imperfections, which have been already outlined in the House today and by the parliamentary budgetary office, I remain happy to support their passage through the House in light of the extraordinary times in which we are living.

I have three quick observations to make. The first is that I welcome the formation of the new Department with responsibility for further and higher education, research, innovation and science. Its creation is a positive development and long overdue. As these Estimates show, we are spending a little shy of €3 billion every year in this area. It is only right and proper that these public funds are protected and managed appropriately. Significant funds are available at EU level for research, innovation and science. It is vital that we access these funding streams as effectively as possible in a more co-ordinated way. Our knowledge-based economy needs to be sustained with ongoing creativity and cutting-edge technology to compete internationally. I am pleased to see the Minister without portfolio, Deputy Harris, in the Chamber today. I wish him every success in establishing and leading this new Department.

I am somewhat concerned that there is as of yet no published plan for the reopening of schools in over five weeks’ time. I take the points made by the Minister, Deputy Foley. I accept and acknowledge them. However, the Estimates illustrate that we still have some distance to travel. The Department of Education and Skills is still engaged in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on what financial supports will be required. I would have thought that negotiations would have been well concluded at this stage as the extent of the additional funding required should surely be known at this time. We should know what we need to support and increase the number of substitute teachers and SNAs as well as the hand sanitiser, PPE and professional deep cleaning services that will be required. Clarity in this regard would be certainly helpful. I look forward to the full plan being published as soon as possible.

While I welcome the modest increases in current expenditure for 2020, nevertheless I am concerned at the reduction in capital expenditure for third level institutions in programme C and, most important, the reduction in capital spending for the primary and post-primary sectors in programme A. The schools building programme is particularly important at post-primary level. Many of our school buildings are unable to cope as it is even without the increasing demand projected for student admissions in the coming five years. In my constituency, Kildare South, Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington is creaking at the seams. St. Paul’s Secondary School in Monasterevin is in dire need of rebuilding and a new post-primary school is urgently required in the Curragh, Newbridge and Athgarvan areas to deal with chronic capacity issues. Aside from the self-evident educational benefits, labour-intensive employment opportunities like school construction are crucial to return the economy to growth. I look forward to the publication by the Government of the three-year capital plan in October which will, I hope, address this problem. Again, I thank the Ministers for coming to the Chamber today. I wish them both the best of luck in the challenging days ahead.

 

Minister Norma Foley:

I appreciate the comments and thank Deputy Berry for his good wishes. The Deputy asked about clarity around the reopening of the schools. I have no wish to repeat myself again. I want to make it clear that there is no ambiguity on this issue. Importantly, from my point of view, there should be full and frank engagement with all stakeholders. There are many constituents in education and they must be consulted and be part of the process. That is where we are at. There is a clear objective. The schools will reopen at the end of August or early September as per normal. The finer details and the challenges that may have to be ironed out are currently being ironed out. There is no ambiguity whatsoever in that regard.

The guidelines for the reopening of schools have been issued to primary schools already. They are in the public domain. The schools are working through them. The guidelines at second level are currently being prepared.

Reference was made to the budget and issues around the budget not being met. I wish to confirm unequivocally and make it 100% clear that any issues with regard to the reopening of schools in terms of costs are being covered and will be covered. The final figures will be brought before the House once again when they are available. There is no question in terms of the requirements, whether cleaning, provision of hand sanitiser or additional substitution or whatever. This will be fully resourced to allow the schools to fully reopen

As this is my first opportunity to address the Minister in this forum, I extend my very best wishes to him and his family on his recent appointment. Specifically in regard to his role as Minister with responsibility for communications, I would be grateful if he can update the House on his initial assessment in regard to the

ability of this country to prevent and protect itself against cyberattack.

 

Minister Eamon Ryan:

I thank the Deputy for his good wishes and look forward to working with him in this Thirty-third Dáil.

First and foremost, our preparation for cyberattacks has improved. I have returned to the same Ministry where I was ten years ago. At that time, a single individual was working on an informal basis, as much as anything else, to protect our systems. That has now been replaced with the new National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, which is located within my Department. It is the primary cybersecurity authority in the State and has a number of roles, including leading on cybersecurity incident response and on the resilience and security of critical infrastructure.

The NCSC contains the State’s computer security incident response team, CSIRT. This is the body that responds to the full range of cybersecurity incidents in the State. The CSIRT has international accreditations and operates its own, purpose-built, secure incident response software environment. Since its foundation in 2011, the CSIRT has developed significant expertise in managing cybersecurity incidents and now handles in excess of 2,000 incidents each year. The CSIRT has also developed and deployed the Sensor platform across Departments, and deployed malware information sharing platforms, MISPs, across a range of critical infrastructure operators.

The NCSC has a set of statutory powers to ensure critical infrastructure operators maintain and operate critical infrastructure in a secure manner. To date, 67 operators of essential services have been designated. The compliance team in the NCSC has been working with these entities to improve their security since 2018, and formal audits will start before the end of the current quarter.

The programme for Government commits to the implementation of the 2019 national cybersecurity strategy in full. This strategy includes a number of measures designed to ensure our level of preparedness remains appropriate to deal with likely future threats.

 

I thank the Minister for that informative response. I commend his Department on publishing the national cybersecurity strategy in December of last year. It is a very good document. I am heartened that there is a significant reference to cybersecurity in the programme for Government. It is important considering the number of international technology firms based in the country and the increase in the move towards digitalisation and remote working as a result of the crisis we are going through.

I am encouraged by the fact that a capacity review is taking place in the NCSC. This is vital, particularly considering how small the centre is. It has only 24 staff approximately, and it is operating on a shoestring budget of only €4 million per year, which is very small considering the major strategic risks the centre is attempting to protect this country against.

I have three questions. Is there any indication when the capacity review is likely to be completed? Will the Government commit to publishing it? Will it commit to implementing its recommendations?

 

Minister Eamon Ryan: It is true that the importance of this work cannot be understated but I am confident, from my initial briefings from departmental officials, that the scale and expertise are sufficient in the office. The Deputy will be aware that there are other areas of expertise in the State, including in the Garda and Defence Forces, where there are additional resources. Bringing those resources together is often what is needed.

I do not have a completion time for the review but I will ask the Department to revert directly to the Deputy on that.

My philosophy in general, even on cybersecurity, is that openness and transparency are often among the best protections in terms of security in that people can see what our structures are and, if there are weaknesses, help us to address them. I will certainly be compelled to follow the advice in the recommendations once received. I would like to implement them as soon as I can.

 

That is great. I thank the Minister for clarifying that the programme for Government commits to the full implementation of the national cybersecurity strategy, which is good.

The programme for Government has a specific reference to utilising the potential and important role of the Defence Forces in this regard. How does the Minister envisage the relationship between his Department and the Defence Forces evolving over the lifetime of the Government?

 

Minister Eamon Ryan: I see the relationship as one of co-operation. Primary responsibility will lie with the NCSC. That is proper and it mirrors best practice throughout the EU, where it is in the civil authorities that overall control and cybersecurity management rest. That will involve a lot of collaboration and personnel moving from the Defence Forces into this area. That provides for a healthy level of operational cohesion. The Defence Forces have specific responsibilities, including in managing their own security and systems. That expertise feeds into the NCSC but primary responsibility rightly lies within our Department. That, however, does not preclude the provision of further resources to the Defence Forces. In the programme for Government talks, we discussed the Defence Forces Reserve and the possibility of building up cybersecurity capabilities through it that might assist with the Defence Forces’ work and the wider work of the NCSC.

I thank the Minister of State for updating the House on the Brexit negotiations.

I agree with the sentiment in her opening statement that it is quite disappointing to see how things have played out. I thank her for her honesty and candour in keeping us updated with the truth, regardless of how unpalatable it may actually be.

On the UK land bridge, obviously every Member will be aware that the most efficient way to move goods from Ireland to continental Europe is via the UK land mass. It is encouraging and welcome that the UK looks like it will agree to a kind of a fast-track system where sealed Irish freight containers could move through the UK quickly with a minimum of fuss on to France and beyond. My big concern, one that many people share, is the bottleneck that will happen in Dover. On 1 or 2 January next year, there will be total gridlock there. It has the potential to undermine this trade route for Irish business.

Following on from Deputy Howlin’s comments, how much progress has been made in identifying shipping routes and shipping capacity from this island directly to the Continent? The Minister of State referred to the MV W.B. Yeats. How many routes will be available? How many ships will be involved? Does she have specific details? If she does, it would be great to get them.

 

Minister Helen McEntee:

Securing an effective UK land bridge is a priority for us and has been throughout these negotiations, given our current position and our geographical position. As the Deputy mentioned, the UK’s accession to the Convention on common transit is welcome. That will allow EU goods and Irish goods to transit through the UK without undergoing many of the customs import and export formalities on entry to and exit from the UK. This issue is discussed regularly. We have presented a paper to our colleagues in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark to try to ensure that we have a functioning mechanism in place when the goods land on mainland Europe, such that they can pass through as quickly as possible. We cannot predict what will happen between Dover and Calais or at the Eurotunnel, but we will engage with our UK colleagues to try to ensure that there is as effective a route as possible.

With regard to the overall progress and work being done to try to secure other access routes, I mentioned the MV W.B Yeats, but we also have two Brexit-buster ships, which were launched last year between Dublin and Rotterdam, and Dublin and Zeebrugge. These ships were added as well as the MV W.B. Yeats. We will continue to engage with the shipping companies, industry stakeholders and hauliers to make sure that there is additional capacity where they need it. One has to take into account that some of these ships operate for 20 hours, 40 hours or 60 hours, and if there are perishable goods, whether food, flowers and so on, the longer trip will not work, so that is where the land bridge is most important. We continuously engage with EU colleagues and we will work with the UK to try to ensure that we have as quick a route as possible and that the land bridge works as effectively as possible.

I thank the Minister of State for that useful information. My second question relates to Brexit infrastructure in Ireland. Most people will accept that the UK has a lot to improve on with regard to facilities from 1 January next year. That is beyond our control because it is the UK’s prerogative. What is within our control is the facilities, be it port or airport facilities, that we have in Ireland. Will the Minister of State outline how much investment and development has taken place over the past 12 months to get our ports and airports Brexit-ready? What are the plans for the next seven months to make sure that we are Brexit-ready on 1 January next year?

 

Minister Helen McEntee: I might read this document because substantial work has been done and it is important to put it on the record. It is probably one of the most visual elements of the preparations that we have done over the past while. Significant work has gone in to preparing us for a no-deal Brexit and for the fact that Brexit will mean change, even with a comprehensive future relationship. Work is complete on a number of facilities in Dublin Port, including 24 inspection bays, an additional Revenue turnaround shed, eight seal, check and transit booths, parking for 128 HGVs, and a live animal border control post. Work is ongoing on a number of additional projects, including alterations to existing facilities, and at some additional sites. There is a plan for a new site that covers an area of approximately 5.4 ha. It includes inspection facilities for customs, SPS, and health checks, import and export offices, and some 250 additional HGV parking bays. A step was taken today where the OPW published a notice that it is lodging an environmental impact assessment with An Bord Pleanála regarding these additional sites in Dublin Port.

Work on a border control post at Rosslare Europort is complete, with 38 HGV parking spaces, two seal, check and transit lanes for inspection bays, a Revenue turnaround shed, an export office and other offices. Much is done but work is continuing to try to enhance the live animal border control post inspection facilities that have been put in place.

 

I am pleased that work is complete at Dublin Airport, including the border control post facility with seven inspection rooms. We have ambient chilled and freezer storage areas and office accommodation for 20 staff. Substantial work has been done, with significant investment and building, and staff who will be needed to manage these being hired. Work is still ongoing and the objective is to try to get this work finished as quickly as possible. Covid-19 has created a challenge for us in this regard but anything that cannot be put in place permanently will of course be put in place temporarily by the end of this year as work continues.

My final question relates to the manpower crisis in the Naval Service.

This is becoming even more relevant now. We know that the issue of fisheries will be a major bone of contention between the EU and UK negotiating teams. If we can agree a fisheries protocol, it will probably be cobbled together at the last minute. The Irish Naval Service will be the people who monitor, enforce and police that agreement. I am concerned by this because last week the Minister of State with responsibility for defence agreed that two of our naval ships, approximately a quarter of our fleet, are in Cork Harbour unable to put to sea for want of sailors. Still more worrying was the confirmation by the Minister of State that 45 sailors, the equivalent of a ship’s company, had prematurely retired in the first five months of this year. This will place huge pressure on our ability to monitor and police this fisheries agreement. I totally appreciate that this is probably outside the Minister of State’s area of speciality, but if she or the Tánaiste could provide a written answer to my question, I would greatly appreciate it. Does the outgoing Government – and will the incoming Government – recognise, the urgency of the situation in the Naval Service, and can remedial action be taken as soon as possible?

 

Minister Helen McEntee: I may have to respond to the Deputy in the same way as I did to Deputy Kenny by saying this is an issue for the negotiation of the programme for Government. I will pass on the issues he has raised and try to get some form of response.

 

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to answer questions on defence matters. If it is okay, I might go straight to questions and answers. To provide some structure to the proceedings and for the convenience of the Minister of State, I might group my questions in regard to the four domains the Defence Forces operate under, namely, land, sea, air and cyber. I might take a break between each one to allow the Minister of State to respond.

From a land perspective, the Minister of State launched a re-enlistment scheme or pathway and it was voted through the House on 26 March. In the ten weeks since that date, the HSE has managed to recruit more than 1,200 personnel and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has been paying approximately 1 million people income protection. The Minister of State mentioned a lot of statistics in regard to 500 or 600 people who are interested in joining. The only metric that really matters is how many people have joined the Defence Forces through the scheme in the last ten weeks. That is the first question.

 

Minister Kehoe: On 1 April last, I launched a scheme for re-enlistment of former members of the Permanent Defence Force, in particular former enlisted personnel who have skills and expertise required to fill identified vacancies that currently exist and that were identified by military management. The scheme will allow for initial re-enlistment for a minimum of six months up to three years. The duration of the re-enlistment offered will be dependent on the vacancies.

 

Does the Minister of State know the number?

 

Minister Kehoe: Over 600 people applied and, although I cannot be exact, something like 514 or 520 are eligible to come back into the Defence Forces. A huge amount of work has been ongoing within the Defence Forces organisation.

 

Just the number, please.

 

Minister Kehoe: None as of yet, but I expect that the Chief of Staff—–

 

That is zero.

 

Minister Kehoe: I expect that the Chief of Staff will recommend to me next week a number of people to come in. Deputy Berry said at the start we would only get 12 to re-apply.

 

To confirm, the number is actually zero. To correct the Minister of State, I did not say 12 would apply; I said that approximately 12 would be inducted. I was being over-optimistic in thinking it would take place in the month of May and, obviously, that has not happened. Is there a target date or does the Minister of State have a preferred date for when the first inductions will take place?

 

Minister Kehoe: The Deputy said at the time that no more than 12 people would apply for re-enlistment but, instead, we have over 600 people. I should also say that more than 30 officers have an interest in coming back into the Defence Forces and I am awaiting a recommendation from the Chief of Staff on that. As I said, I expect I will have a list of recommended candidates for re-enlistment from the Chief of Staff next week, and there will be further people who will come back into the organisation over the next short while.

 

I thank the Minister of State for confirming that the number is zero and that not a single member of the Defence Forces has been re-enlisted through this scheme in the last ten weeks. I also point out there is no projected date for the first person to be enlisted. I want to confirm as well, and people will be very happy to check the record—–

 

Minister Kehoe:

As I said, next week I will have a full list of people who want to come back into the Defence Forces, as recommended by the Chief of Staff.

Yesterday, it was confirmed by the Chief of Staff that I would have it next week.

 

Understood. To clarify, my question is when we will have the first person in uniform and working. That is what induction means.

I see my role here as to facilitate and advise and maybe gently nudge things along rather than being adversarial. I have no intention of being adversarial. There is a group of people, the Army nursing service, that I suspect people in the Chamber may not be aware exists. A report on reinvigorating the Army nursing service, which would have been very useful over the past couple of months, has been in the Department of Defence headquarters since 2012. It has not been acted upon over the past eight years. A number of agency nurses are working in the Defence Forces. They would love to join the Army nursing service but cannot. They are not allowed because the report still has not been implemented. This is a gentle request in the nicest possible way. Perhaps the Minister of State has only a few weeks left in the role. Would it be possible for him to look at the report and try to regularise their situation? It would save the taxpayer a fortune. Instead of paying agency rates for agency nurses we could bring this couple of nurses into the fold and pay them a normal decent wage with a permanent salary.

 

Minister Kehoe: I will come back to the deputy on this issue. 

 

I thank the Minister of State. To move on to the Naval Service, we know that two Naval Service ships have been in Cork Harbour for approximately 12 months. We recognise there was some miscommunication approximately 12 months ago as to whether they were in for maintenance or because of a lack of personnel and sailors. As of this date, 3 June 2020, why are the two ships still in Cork Harbour? My understanding is that it is exclusively for lack of sailors. Will the Minister of State please confirm whether this is the case?

 

There are particular challenges in the Naval Service. Given the highly specialised nature of personnel, staffing shortages have had a significant impact. At present, the Naval Service has 898 personnel and its establishment strength is 1,094. This means there is a shortage of 200 personnel. As personnel return to career courses, it is likely we will have ongoing challenges in the Naval Service. The next Government will have to take a serious look at this. If we are to recompense members of the Defence Forces, the Naval Service has to get special attention. I say this because we have to make the Naval Service an attractive organisation to join. It is not seen as an attractive organisation at present for various reasons.

 

An Ceann Comhairle: Thank you.

 

Minister Kehoe: People have to spend long periods at sea. We have to make sure they are financially rewarded for this.

 

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Berry has further questions.

 

Minister Kehoe: I ask that it is specifically looked at by the next Government.

 

An Ceann Comhairle: Perhaps Deputy Berry will pose all of his questions now, given the limited time.

 

I thank the Minister of State for clarifying this. The reason the two Naval Service ships are tied up in Cork Harbour at present is because of a lack of personnel. We understand this now.

I am glad the Minister of State mentioned that pay is an issue. A high-level implementation plan was launched on the plinth on 4 July last year. One of the main focuses and reasons for it was to sort out the retention issue in the Defence Forces. Does the Minister of State have the statistics on the net loss of Naval Service personnel who have left since the launch of the programme? How many people have left the Naval Service?

With regard to our UNIFIL troops, has a flight been booked to move them from Lebanon to Dublin? My understanding is that people are not home until the troops have landed safely in Dublin Airport or Baldonnel. If a flight has been booked, which airline is involved? Is the Minister of State satisfied the airline will be punctual, reliable and safe for our troops to fly back on?

 

Minister Kehoe:

There has been only one occasion that an airline has let us down on a rotation. That was when a mobile phone fell down between the electrical works and the aircraft was unable to take off. The aircraft was not the reason for a delay on any other occasion.

I understand that it is the United Nations rotation on this occasion. I have not got the specific details as to whether the flight has been booked. I presume work is ongoing on this issue. I have never stated that personnel are home from any mission until they safely land on Irish soil. I only have the figures in front of me regarding the personnel from the Naval Service who were discharged. From 1 January to 21 May 2020, we have 45 who have been discharged and in 2019, I think from the same dates, there were 62 people discharged. The three-year average for the period is 49, with the 2020 figure slightly better than the three-year average. However, the current trend is concerning. I have stated on numerous occasions that we have some real challenges within the Naval Service. There is a working group between military management and my own Department working with the line flag officers. Some recommendations have come back. They are being looked upon. I will have a look at those recommendations as well. If it is at all possible to do anything for the Naval Service through these recommendations, I will put them in train.

 

I thank the Minister for his encouraging and informative statement. This is the first time I have engaged with him in this forum or spoken on this important topic. I wish to put on the record the respect and high regard I have for education. Were it not for the education that Deputies have all been so fortunate and privileged to receive, none of us would have a seat in this Chamber. If any teachers are watching these proceedings from afar, I hope they feel justifiable pride in the professional and personal development they have provided through the years.

I had ten questions lined up to fire at the Minister.

Thankfully, approximately eight of them have already been answered. There are only two remaining but they are of such importance that it would be best to deal with them individually. The first question relates to the post-primary schools building programme. Most of the Deputies in the Chamber will appreciate and recognise that the recession that is currently under way is unlike any of its predecessors. It is neither financial nor economic in origin; rather it is biological. Second, the escape valve that we have used in the past, that of emigration, is no longer available because international travel restrictions are still in play and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, almost every country is experiencing this simultaneous and synchronised recession. The schools building programme is almost as important from an employment perspective as it is from and education perspective.

I very rarely discuss constituency issues in this forum but it is useful to do so now because they illustrate a wider national issue. There are three schools of particular importance in my constituency, the first of which is Coláiste Íosagáin in Portarlington. It is an excellent school which is literally creaking at the seams, with twice as many students enrolled as there should be. The situation is exactly the same in St. Paul’s in Monasterevin and there is a requirement for a third school, a brand new build in the Newbridge, Curragh, Athgarvan areas. Can the Minister provide reassurance that the schools building projects that have already been approved are likely to continue over the coming years? Will the commitments that have been given in this regard be honoured in full?

My second question is probably more important than the first, and I am very happy that the Minister referenced the area of special education in his initial comments. This is a hugely important issue. Most of the Deputies in the Chamber would have been battled hardened by their experiences in January and February on the canvas trail. We heard tales of woe and suffering from the full spectrum of society. It is very difficult for us to determine the most deserving sectors for our finite resources, perhaps with the notable exception of special education.

I had the great pleasure of visiting St. Anne’s special school on the Curragh plains during the general election campaign. While it is a wonderful school, it has significant issues. Many of those issues are repeated in schools nationwide. There are five big issues about which I am constantly told. The first relates to injuries sustained by staff at the hands of students while the second relates to the lack of clinical support for the school. The third issue is the fact that the school has to fund-raise for basic costs like utilities and insurance. The fourth major issue is the pressure the school is under to accept significantly more students than it is capable of accommodating. This arises from the section 29 appeals system. Many extra students are being forced into the school and it must accept them. The fifth issue is the most important and relates to the student-staff ratio. It is constantly being raised with me.

In 1993, some 27 years ago, the special education review committee, SERC, was established and it set the staff-student ratio for special education. There have been big improvements in the past 27 years in mainstream education, including improvements in the student-staff ratio but it has stayed pretty much static in special education and has not improved. In light of the Covid-19 crisis, does the Minister think it is now timely and appropriate that we should reconvene or re-establish SERC with a view to re-examining what is the appropriate student-staff ratio for special education in line with international best practice? I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s thoughts.

It is quite rare that two medical doctors get to converse in such a magnificent debating chamber as this. It is also quite rare for a recently retired member of the Defence Forces to get to address the Taoiseach, who is also the current Minister for Defence. I would like to focus my comments this afternoon on Defence Forces issues and how they impact on the Covid-19 emergency. As always, my comments will be constructive. I come here to solve problems rather than to cause them.

I have three points to make. First, I thank the Taoiseach and Deputy Martin for their worthwhile response to the Labour Party’s submission in the past few days, in which they promised to establish an independent statutory and standing pay review body for Defence Forces personnel. This is a hugely significant development and has the potential to transform completely the defence experience in this country between now and Christmas if it is established and structured properly.

I take this opportunity to thank every party and person in the Chamber, and indeed members of the media in the Gallery who have advocated so powerfully and effectively for the Defence Forces over recent years. It is rare that there is any consensus on any issue in this Chamber, but there is virtual unanimity on the issue of Defence Forces pay and everyone deserves thanks in that regard. I point out to the Labour Party that its stance on this issue has not gone unnoticed by the defence community all over the country, in every constituency.

I see my role here as being informative with regard to Defence Forces issues. I have read many press releases and statements in the last couple of months which are more like fairytales. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to the reality of what is happening on the ground. For example, we all voted for emergency legislation on 26 March. A sizeable chunk of that legislation related to the Defence Forces and re-enlisting and rehiring former members of the Defence Forces. Seven weeks later, it would be reasonable to assume that 40, 50 or 60 soldiers have been rehired, but the reality is that not a single one has been rehired to date. We are not even close. No interviews, medicals or Garda vetting have taken place. It is an issue we need to focus on.

There are a number of reasons that no one has been rehired, but the main reason is that the terms and conditions are pretty appalling. If a fully trained former soldier wishes to return to the Defence Forces to fight Covid, he or she will be offered a three-year contract. Incredibly, if he or she does not stay for the three years, he or she will be fined €300 by the Department of Defence. As incredible as that sounds, I guarantee everyone in this Chamber that it is absolutely true. I have signed off on thousands of these forms over the last 23 years. It harks back to Van Diemen’s Land 200 years ago, where one had to purchase one’s freedom from one’s employer or master. It needs to be changed. I am sorry to have to bring such mundane and routine housekeeping issues to the Taoiseach’s attention because this is definitely below his pay grade, but this is the only option. There is no internal mechanism to resolve these issues within the Department of Defence itself. If the Taoiseach could look into the matter, it would be very much appreciated.

Some 300 of our troops are currently stranded in Lebanon as a result of the Covid crisis. I fully understand the UN Secretary General’s letter. The letter states that we should, as a general rule, keep all our peacekeeping troops in location until at least 30 June. That is all well and good. Exemptions are allowed and Ireland has submitted an application for an exemption. I totally accept and understand that. There are six issues that the Taoiseach and people in the House are most likely not aware of. There was advance warning that this letter would be issued. There was a window of opportunity to rotate our troops and that opportunity was not seized. It took Ireland 17 days to apply for an exemption, which is 17 days wasted, and we are further down on the list. Our troops, who should have been home on Tuesday, might now have to wait for another six or eight weeks in-theatre in Lebanon.

The real issue while our troops are still in Lebanon is that we have no military air transport. This is not normal. Every one of the EU 27 states, even tiny Malta and tiny Luxembourg, has military air transport to move its people around. That is how we got people out of Mali. We could hitch a lift on a Spanish aircraft and on a German military aircraft. The UN is paying for these rotation flights. It will cost approximately €250,000 for two return flights to Lebanon. That gives the UN a significant say over where and when the rotations take place.

There is a myth that if we rotate our troops out of Lebanon early, it will somehow adversely affect our case for a seat on the UN Security Council. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our two competitors on that panel are Norway and Canada, which are moving their peacekeeping personnel all around the world even as we speak. There should be no reason we should think that moving our troops out of Lebanon on time is going to affect any chance of us getting a seat on the Security Council.

Moving our personnel around the world is an issue of national competence. It is like taxation or public health. If Brussels decided to tell us what our tax rates should be, we would rightly tell it that it is a sovereign issue for our nation state. Similarly, having our troops in Lebanon, deploying them, redeploying them or rotating them is an issue for this House and this Oireachtas, not an issue for UN headquarters in Manhattan.

They are the six points I would like to raise. I would be grateful for the Taoiseach’s view in this regard but this is my personal view with which perhaps he might disagree. We have sent approximately 50 Aer Lingus flights to China to pick up cargo and PPE, and rather than have our troops waiting for another six to eight weeks, could we not send two Aer Lingus flights to Beirut international airport to pick up our people and bring them home? Six months is long enough. Some of these people have not seen their families since November and we should bring them home.

 

We are on the Taoiseach’s side and we are at his service. We are at the service of any Deputy in this Chamber who assumes the role of Taoiseach. Are there problems in the Defence Forces? Yes. Have they adversely affected the performance of the Defence Forces’ response to Covid-19? Yes. Can they be fixed? Yes. These are man-made problems and it is within our gift to solve them. I very much look forward to working with this Government and the next one in that regard as well.

I am very glad to be in the Chamber to discuss this very important issue of housing. I thank the Minister for his update and strong hints that the rent freeze may be extended next month. If that were to be the case, be it by ministerial order or Cabinet decision, I assure the Minister of my full support in that regard.

I have three questions to ask on behalf of myself and my good colleagues in the Regional Group. I will ask two of them first, give the Minister an opportunity to respond, and then follow up with my third question. The focus of the questions is to find solutions rather than merely identify problems. The first relates to empty housing, and it is a particular genre of empty houses. The retail banks in this country have declared to the Central Bank of Ireland that they have more than 1,000 houses on their balance sheets. Has consideration been given to the State purchasing these houses directly from the banks, transferring their ownership to the local authorities or the approved housing bodies, and taking a vast number of people off the homelessness and housing lists? There would be considerable advantages. We would increase the number of public houses owned by the State and, most importantly, save a fortune on the emergency accommodation bill.

I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s views on that. He quite rightly pointed out that this is a wonderful opportunity to do such a thing. House prices are probably at their peak and will probably come down, and I believe that the banks are keen to offload the properties. The time is right. We should go in, negotiate hard and fast, and lock in and secure discounts on the properties. It would be a good, quick fix that would have a very positive effect on the housing situation in this country.

My second question doubles up on what Deputies Darragh O’Brien and Ó Ríordáin said in respect of the mortgage deferrals, holidays or breaks, or whatever one wants to call them. Some 70,000 people have applied for them, and it is incredible that the banks will profit or even profiteer on people’s hardships. To be charging interest on top of interest is completely unacceptable. I wonder where the Central Bank is in all this. It has a statutory function, a consumer protection function, and a leadership role in this regard. I am sure the Minister is familiar with the Irish Banking Culture Board from his time on the banking inquiry. I was on the board’s website before I came to the Chamber and noticed that its home page states that the board’s “overriding mission [is] to make banking in Ireland trustworthy again”.

It goes on to say that it plans to “promote ethical behaviour and advocate for humanity, decency and respect in the banking sector.” That statement is on the IBCB home page. Members should feel free to check it on their way home.

I fully understand that the finance portfolio is not the Minister’s brief but failures in the finance portfolio have a habit of ending up on the desk of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on whether we can refer this interest and mortgage deferment issue to the Irish Banking Culture Board for its considered opinion in this regard. I will allow the Minister time to respond and I will return with my third question.

 

My last question is on an issue that is close to my heart and the Ceann Comhairle’s heart from his work in the Kildare South constituency. It is the matter of military housing and military accommodation. Many of the Deputies in the Chamber may not be aware that over half of the military installations in this country have been shut down and closed by the Department of Defence in the past 20 years. Unsurprisingly, this has left us with a serious lack of military accommodation and housing for troops and their families. The international norm is that military personnel stay on base. There is an operational reason for that, namely, that if an emergency breaks out, troops can go straight to the army and draw weapons, sailors can jump on a naval ship and put to sea for a search and rescue operation or an air crew can scramble an aircraft and fly a five-year old child to London for an organ transplant at short notice. There is an operational imperative for military housing on base. There is also a humanitarian need for it because we know that the Defence Forces pay is so appallingly bad that it is difficult to compete in the private rental sector in garrison towns all over the country. It is likely the next Government will allocate more funding to the housing portfolio. What are the Minister’s thoughts on having a portion of that funding allocated to the Defence Forces budget and ring-fenced exclusively for military accommodation and housing?

There is very little accommodation and housing on base even though there are vast tracts of land in the Curragh Camp and in Baldonnel air base, for example, which could be used exclusively for military accommodation. Any accommodation we have is completely inadequate in quality and quantity and much of it is in appalling condition. I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s thoughts. I realise it is a hypothetical situation but I am nonetheless interested in his view.

I thank the Taoiseach for his very informative back brief on the most recent European Council video conference on 23 April. I have four brief observations to make, both from my own perspective and also on behalf of my good colleagues in the Regional Group. First, I very much welcome the endorsement by the European Council of the Eurogroup’s recommendation to provide an emergency financial package to assist the European states and peoples most affected by this crisis. The fact that this fund is in excess of €0.5 trillion is very reassuring and is also a very positive development that it will be used to finance the three so-called safety nets – for workers, businesses and member states. Consequently, I believe this funding will have a significant impact, at least in the short term, once it is finally up and running.

I am also happy to note that this emergency funding is meant to be available from 1 June. That is very important as it is urgently needed to offset and mitigate the catastrophic socioeconomic consequences of the crisis and, therefore, it cannot come too soon. Mindful that the first week in June is less than four weeks away, I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate when wrapping up the debate whether we are likely to meet this ambitious target of 1 June as planned and if she could outline the mechanisms that are in place to draw down this funding. I would also like her to indicate if Ireland will avail of this funding and if there is any conditionality associated with it.

Second, while it is good to see that this emergency funding will shortly be in place to help us get over the acute phase of the crisis, I note with concern that there has yet to be an agreement on the larger and more longer-term recovery fund, which most likely will be linked to the EU budget, the so-called seven year multi-annual financial framework. It is vital that this recovery fund be proportionate in size to the scale of the challenge we face. I therefore welcome it being compared to the second Marshall Plan for Europe, designed to ward off potentially the worst recession in a century. I only hope that the reality matches the ambition of this proposal.

While its scale is important, so is its urgency. I share the Government’s frustration that a deal has not yet been agreed or struck. I note that the four most recent European Council meetings have been held by video conference and have not been as successful as expected, with Ministers citing the format being as big a barrier to an agreement as the extent of the policy differences between the various Governments. Consequently, I respectfully suggest that Ireland should push for the next European Council meeting scheduled for 18 and 19 June to be held physically, in person, in Brussels, which could easily be done within social distancing guidelines, as we are doing here today. For all the advantages of video conferencing, no amount of it can substitute for or compete with an actual physical conference in person, particularly when the stakes are so high and the need for an agreement so pressing.

Third, I welcome the recent announcement of an additional €200 billion in funding available through the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg.

I welcome that the focus of this funding is on small and medium-sized businesses. I very much encourage any Irish companies to consider accessing such funding if required and would appreciate greater clarity on how to draw down this finance over the short to medium term.

Finally, I note with concern yesterday’s landmark and explosive ruling by the German constitutional court that the European Central Bank may have strayed beyond its mandate in the past few years with its bond-buying quantitative easing, QE, programme. Perhaps even more important to this country than the fiscal supports being provided by the EU is the very accommodative monetary assistance provided by the ECB. It is what keeps our bond yields at historically low levels, thus saving us billions of euro annually in servicing our national debt. As the ECB has only three months to justify the proportionality of its bond-buying programme to the German court, I would be grateful if the Government would share its view on how it sees the matter progressing at a European level and what impact it will have on Ireland.

I acknowledge, welcome and recognise the suite of measures the Minister and her staff have brought in to support and protect the childcare sector during these extraordinary times. I highlight four of the measures in particular. The first is the fact that parents or guardians will not have to pay for childcare while the crèches and preschools are closed, which is an important step; second, that the children’s places will be protected and assured for the duration of the crisis; third, that the salaries of the staff will be paid in full, which is a fantastic measure; and fourth, that there is a contribution from State funds to the overheads of the crèches and preschools, which works out as 15% of the staff costs, a significant contribution. By any measure, this is the most substantial support being provided to any sector of Irish society during the Covid-19 emergency, and the Minister and her staff should be commended on securing such a deal.

I had a list of approximately ten questions but I am happy to report that eight of them have been answered so I will not ask them again. I nonetheless have two specific, technical questions that the Minister might assist me with. The first relates to insurance, and while the issue has been mentioned, my question is in a slightly different capacity. Our crèches and preschools will be closed for at least four months, which works out as approximately one third of the year, and only one insurance company provides insurance for the vast majority of centres in the sector. Would it be unreasonable to look for a pro rata rebate for one third of the year in the policies? It would be worth negotiating. If it is not possible, or if the insurance company says “No”, another approach might solve the issue raised by Deputy Sherlock. If we are looking for insurance for childcare professionals to go into healthcare workers’ houses, could that risk cover be transferred onto the childcare professionals going into those houses? It is only an opinion of mine that I give freely and the Minister may do with it what she wishes, but it would be nice to know whether any negotiations have taken place between her officials and the insurance company mentioned. If not, is it something that might be considered in the future?

My second question relates to term-time contracts. Many Deputies may not be aware than many childcare professionals are not on full-time contracts but instead are employed for only nine months of the year, specifically for the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme. Traditionally, these precariously employed workers are laid off at the end of June every year and re-employed in September. They are out of pocket, therefore, for three months. Can we get the Minister’s assurance that they will not be laid off from the Covid-19 payment, at least? Will any measures given to their peers who normally have a 12-month contract be extended to ECCE workers, who are on a term-time contract?

I wish the Minister the best of luck in whatever endeavours she takes from here on and thank her very much for her contribution to Irish society in recent years.

As one of only two medical doctors elected to the Thirty-third Dáil, it is appropriate and fitting that I am here today to ask questions on this very important topic. I do not say this to establish my credentials in any shape or form but to explain the burden of responsibility I feel to contribute to this debate in a very meaningful and constructive way. As always, my questions will be designed to help rather than hinder the national response.

I have only four questions, three of which relate to nursing homes and residential care settings, which I may group together if that is okay. The fourth question relates to the air bridge to China, which I will deal with separately.

The first one is to do with the €72 million that the Minister quite rightly allocated 12 days ago in a financial support package. I very much welcome that announcement. The Minister may or may not be aware that not a single red cent of that funding has been paid out yet. The nursing homes are screaming for supports, the funding has been allocated, but it is not available. Not only has it not been drawn down but I understand that a mechanism does not even exist for it to be allocated and distributed. I also understand the National Treatment Purchase Fund has been tasked with setting up this mechanism. If this is the case, I would appreciate it if the Minister could indicate the likely date for a mechanism to allow this funding to flow to where it is needed most.

Second, I have just come from St. Fintan’s Hospital, Portlaoise, where there were unspeakable tragedies over the weekend. I understand that in this care setting and in nursing homes all across the country, one of the main reasons they cannot source PPE is that suppliers are openly telling them that they are prioritising the HSE facilities. It would be useful if the Minister takes this opportunity to clarify that the nursing home and residential care settings in the community are now ground zero, that they are the main effort of the national health response and that they are the epicentre of the problem. That would solve many issues of access to priority testing, priority staffing and priority equipment.

My third question on the nursing homes is more of a general point. I totally understand the Minister is currently fighting the acute phase of an emergency, and rightly so, but the seeds of the problems in the nursing homes sector were sown long before Covid-19 arrived on these shores. It has to do with the fair deal scheme. It is early days, but will the Minister at least give consideration to a review of the fair deal scheme as soon as the acute phase of this crisis has passed? My information is that the funding provided to private nursing homes through the fair deal scheme is nowhere near the cost of care for an individual patient.

Those are my first three questions all together. I would like to hear the Minister’s response if possible and I will follow up with a fourth question about the air bridge thereafter.

 

As for the excellent service provided by Aer Lingus that has provided an air bridge between Ireland and China, I believe there have been in excess of 30 flights already with plenty more in the pipeline. Is there an indication of how much that service will cost the State, has any money been handed over to date and what will be the total cost of that air bridge? That is the first part of the question.

Second, and slightly connected, there has been an issue in the past regarding the quality of PPE provided on the international market. Does the HSE have a small qualified team on the ground in China working with the Irish Embassy to assess the quality of the PPE before it is put on a flight and flown halfway across the world to Ireland?

If that is not the case, would the Minister consider putting such a small team of qualified people in place on the ground?

I welcome the timely and significant measures that have been introduced by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to soften the financial blow of this crisis across the country. However, my role here this afternoon is to highlight a particular anomaly that has been mentioned previously. There is a cohort of people who appear to have been forgotten, namely, people over the age of 66 who had been working part-time or full-time and are now unemployed as a result of this crisis but are not entitled to the pandemic unemployment payment. For me, this is unacceptable for three reasons. First, we have been told that the pandemic unemployment payment is payable to all workers regardless of whether they are part-time or full-time, employed or self-employed but it appears that this particular cohort has been completely forgotten. Second, this group of workers is doing precisely as they have been told to do in that they have been advised and encouraged by the State to work into their late 60s to flatten the pension curve. However, at the first opportunity the State has turned its back on these people, leaving them at a disadvantage when they are most in need. Third, there are many reasons people would work into their late 60s but by far and away the dominant factor is that people need extra income. The denial of the pandemic unemployment payment to this cohort of workers is causing significant and unnecessary hardship across the country. I could speak about this issue for longer than the three minutes I have remaining but I do not need to do so because the case is so compelling it speaks for itself.

I would like the Minister to indicate that she will review and hopefully overturn this anomaly at her earliest convenience. The virus does not discriminate on grounds of age, nor should we.

 

 

Most of the Deputies in the Chamber are aware of who the vast majority of my supporters are and who I represent in this Chamber so it is very fitting that my maiden speech in the Dáil is about the defence provisions relating to this emergency legislation. The first point to make is that we should be very realistic in our expectations regarding this legislation. A very small number of Defence Forces personnel will choose to rejoin – probably about a dozen – and they will probably join in the next few months. I do not see anybody joining this month or next month. I think it will be May and the peak of the crisis will probably have passed before we would see the first person in uniform doing his or her job in the Defence Forces.

I echo the sentiments expressed and commend all members of the Defence Forces, be they members of the navy, Army or Air Corps, who are deployed on the front line basically fighting this virus. I am also very conscious of the clock so to facilitate the Ceann Comhairle, I have five very brief questions for the Minister and it would be very much appreciated if he would be kind enough to clarify them in his wrap up.

Regarding the terms and conditions of people who choose to go down this re-enlistment route, is there any indication of how long it will take for the terms and conditions to be decided and when they will be published on the website?

We know the health service, quite rightly, has waived the requirement for abatement of pensions for health service staff who are currently in receipt of pensions who choose to return to the health service. Presumably, the exact same provisions will apply to veterans who have already served their country in the past and to members of the Defence Forces. I am thankful for the clarification that the minimum requirement to sign back up will be for six months. I presume there will be no requirement to purchase one’s discharge should one choose to leave and depart again prior to taking up or finishing off the six-month commitment.

My fourth question relates to the military service allowance. All career training in the Defence Forces has ceased as a result of the outbreak of coronavirus. Currently, many trainees such as cadets, apprentices or recruits, who are the most precariously employed, are being deployed on the front line to deal with the Covid-19 emergency. As a result, their training will be elongated which means they will be on a trainee wage for longer. Presumably, the military service allowance will be extended to those people. It would be excellent if I could get some clarification on that.

My final question relates to the Reserve Defence Force. Once again, its members are stepping into the breach, as expected. My question relates to employment protection legislation, on which we will move an amendment this evening. I would be very grateful if the Minister could support the amendment. That is all I have to say. I thank the Minister for his time and I look forward to his response.

 

 

I move amendment No. 51:

In page 20, between lines 35 and 36, to insert the following:

“16. (1) The Government shall not commence this Part without a request from the Minister for Health, following a resolution of Dáil Éireann or where that is not feasible, following consultation with and the approval of, all party and group leaders of Dáil Éireann, or their nominees.

(2) This Part shall continue in operation for no more than 30 days without, a request from the Minister for Health, following a further resolution of Dáil Éireann or where that is not feasible, following consultation with and the approval of, all party and group

leaders of Dáil Éireann, or their nominees.”.

This amendment concerns the mental health tribunals and the fact that a consultant psychiatrist is no longer required to be on site for the case to proceed. We have no problem with the primary provision going ahead and being enacted. However, we would suggest that before this law is commenced or before a case is commenced, it comes back to the floor of the Dáil for resolution or if this is not possible logistically, it goes to party leaders for a decision.

 

I move amendment No. 56:

In page 25, between lines 19 and 20, to insert the following:

Interpretation

25. In this Part, “Act of 1954” means the Defence Act 1954, as amended, extended and continued by subsequent enactments.”.

This is a very straightforward amendment. It provides for job security for members of the Reserve Defence Force who may be called up on active service to deal with this emergency or any subsequent emergency. It is absolutely the norm internationally, all across the European Union. It is completely cost-neutral and does not jeopardise, or interfere with, any other provision in this Bill.

We have heard very fine words about the Defence Forces in this Chamber today and on previous days, about the great job they do and how brave they are on the front line dealing with this crisis. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to provide tangible and practical help to those people on the front line and members of the Defence Forces would be extremely appreciative. Accordingly, I urge all Members present to support these amendments.

 

I do not have much more to add. If somebody told us two months ago that an international pandemic would be taking place, we would not have believed them. We have no idea what will happen in two months’ time. There is a possibility that members of the Reserve Defence Force will be called up on active service and I think that, at the very least, they deserve to have their civilian jobs available to them when they finish their term of service. It is a very reasonable amendment and it is the very least that our brave Defence Forces personnel deserve. I will press the amendment.

 

I move amendment No. 58:

“Provisions governing return of reservists to employment

26. (1) Where a member of the Reserve Defence Force as defined in the Act of 1954, (in this section referred to as the “reservist”) is called out on permanent service or in aid to the civil power, under the provisions of the Act of 1954, and such reservist was, at the time he or she was so called out, employed by another person (in this section referred to as the “former employer”) the following provisions shall apply:

(a) on the expiry of the period during which the reservist was absent from work while called out on such permanent service or in aid to the civil power, the reservist shall be entitled to return to work as soon as reasonably practicable —

(i) with the employer with whom he or she was working immediately before the start of that period or, where during the reservist’s absence from work there was a change of ownership of the undertaking in which he or she was employed immediately before her or his absence, with the owner (in this section referred to as the “successor”) of the undertaking at the expiry of the period of the absence,

(ii) in the job which the reservist held immediately before the start of that period, and

(iii) under the contract of employment under which the reservist was employed immediately before the start of that period, or, where a change of ownership such as is referred to in subparagraph (i) has occurred, under a contract of employment with the successor which is identical to the contract under which the reservist was employed immediately before the start of that period and (in either case) under terms and conditions —

(I) not less favourable than those that would have been applicable to the reservist, and

(II) that incorporate any improvement to the terms or conditions of employment to which the reservist would have been entitled,

if he or she had not been so absent from work.

(2) Where a reservist is entitled to return to work in accordance with subsection (1) but it is not reasonably practicable for the employer or the successor to permit the reservist to return to work in accordance with that subsection, the reservist shall, subject to provisions of this section, be entitled to be offered by the employer, the successor or an associated employer suitable alternative work under a new contract of employment.

(3) Work under a new contract of employment constitutes suitable alternative work for the purposes of this section if —

(a) the work required to be done under the contract is of a kind which is suitable in relation to the reservist concerned and appropriate for the reservist to do in the circumstances, and

(b) the terms or conditions of the contract —

(i) relating to the place where the work under it is required to be done, the capacity in which the reservist concerned is to be employed and any other terms or conditions of employment are not less favourable to the reservist than those of his or her contract of employment immediately before the start of the period of absence from work while on protective leave, and

(ii) incorporate any improvement to the terms or conditions of employment to which the reservist would have been entitled if he or she had not been so absent from work during that period.

(4) During a period of absence from work by a reservist who is called up on such permanent service or in aid to the civil power, the reservist shall be deemed to have been in employment of the employer or successor and, accordingly, while so absent, the reservist shall be treated as if he or she had not been so absent and such absence shall not affect any right, whether conferred by statute, contract or otherwise, and related to the reservist’s employment.

(5) Entitlement to return to work in accordance with subsection (1) or to be offered suitable alternative work under subsection (2) shall be subject to a reservist who has been absent from work as a result of being called out on permanent service or in aid to the civil power having, as soon as reasonably practicable, notified in writing (or caused to be so notified) the employer or, where the reservist is aware of a change of ownership of the undertaking concerned, the successor or his or her intention to return to work and the date on which he or she expects to return to work.

(6) Where, because of an interruption or cessation of work at a reservist’s place of employment, existing on the date specified in a notification under subsection (4) given by the reservist, it is unreasonable to expect the reservist to return to work on the date specified in the notification, the reservist may return to work instead when work resumes at the place of employment after the interruption or cessation, or as soon as reasonably practicable after such resumption.”.

Amendment put and declared lost.

 

A Cheann Comhairle, amendments Nos. 56 and 58 were grouped. I wished to call a division on amendment No. 58.