From the outset, I commend Senator McDowell for introducing the amendments to the children’s Act. I am also quite heartened by the fact these amendments enjoy cross-party support. That is a very good thing. As a member of the Regional Group, I am also very happy to lend my support to this initiative.
I am backing it for four reasons.
First, this is precisely how we should be doing business here in the Oireachtas with both Houses working collaboratively for the benefit of the people. Most importantly, it is about legislation from the formal Opposition being introduced, accepted and further strengthened by the Government, and then brought back before the House for further refinement and debate. That is an excellent model and I look forward to much more of this in the future. I am sure the Minister of State will agree that it would be great if every Bill was assessed on its merits alone rather than its source.
Second, every Member appreciates the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny to prevent any unintended consequences in legislation. The amendments before us emphasise the importance of post-legislative scrutiny. It is important, fitting and appropriate that Members track developments in the courts from a ruling point of view. Where there is need for tweaking and further refinement of legislation, we should not shy away from doing that. This Bill is a classic example of the importance of post-legislative scrutiny. It would be great if the Oireachtas could institutionalise a system whereby legislation would not only be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny but post-legislative scrutiny too.
Third, being in a democratic country, it is not only important that justice is done but that it also be seen to be done. The main thrust of this legislation is not really to identify the unfortunate and tragic minor but to allow for the identification of the perpetrator, whether they be charged or found guilty of a crime of such magnitude. The simple thrust of this legislation is not punishment but prevention. The emphasis is on deterrence not on retribution. Anything that this House can do to safeguard our children and those under 18 years of age, we should grab it with both hands. I believe this legislation will act as a deterrent while improving the safety and security of our children.
Fourth, and most importantly why I am supporting this legislation, it will allow the grieving parents to speak openly and publicly of their loss should they choose to do so. It gives them the right to speak, to elaborate on their victim impact statement and pay tribute to the life of their deceased child. It gives them the opportunity to say whatever it is they wish to say in public. To give them that opportunity is important. It is completely appropriate and reasonable that this prerogative rests with the grieving parents and that the opportunity is there should they choose to accept it.
I back fully these proposals. I very much look forward to these amendments being enacted as soon as is practically possible.
I wish the Minister and his team a good afternoon and I thank him for his opening statement. Getting it in advance yesterday was helpful.
The Naval Service is more important now than at any time in Ireland’s history since the Second World War. It is essential. Due to Brexit, we now have a third country with a large sea border on our doorstep. The land bridge to the Continent has effectively been compromised, leaving us much more reliant on our sea lanes of communication. All of the Deputies at this meeting are familiar with the drugs issue in every town and village throughout the country. Anything that enhances our anti-smuggling operation is something we should embrace.
If the Naval Service is so important, then MARSUR III is also important. It is essentially just a secure communications network, both device and data. This is the same principle as the Garda liaising with Europol or Interpol. The Garda’s sovereignty is not being compromised by interacting with either, and neither would the Naval Service’s by interacting with like-minded countries around Europe. My main concern in respect of MARSUR has to do with whether Ireland, from a manning experience, will be able to play a full role. Naval ships are MARSUR’s eyes and ears. Unfortunately, our eyes and ears are tied up in Haulbowline at the moment and unable to put to sea.
We always try to find solutions. While I accept the Minister has been working very hard on recruitment and retention, I have a couple of suggestions that might help. The Minister appreciates there are imperfections in the seagoing service commitment scheme. A person must have three years of service in the Naval Service before being eligible to apply for the scheme. I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts on extending the scheme to everyone. As with any job, we try to get people who join the Naval Service to commit to the organisation during their first three years. Denying them access to the scheme makes them question that commitment. Have they made the right decision? They are 20 or 21 years of age and have the world in front of them. If they are embraced as full members of the Naval Service from the get-go, I suspect it would help with retention.
I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on another suggestion. The tax credit that is provided to the Naval Service’s sailors is useful and has taken the sting out of the lack of pay. I appreciate it was increased in the previous budget by €230 to €1,500 per year. However, the seafarer’s tax credit for private sector sailors – those who are working with shipping companies or on trawlers – is €6,350. That is more than four times as much as the tax credit for Naval Service personnel. Could we devise a pathway to pegging the Naval Service tax credit to the seafarers’ allowance? It would have a significant and almost overnight effect in the navy and get people to stay longer.
My next point has to do with the independent pay review body that is scheduled to be stood up next year. We all appreciate that the Commission on the Defence Forces will make its interim report in December, but when will the independent pay review body be established? Will it be in January 2022 or later? If the Minister signalled it would be established as soon as possible, it would help retention by giving people hope.
To summarise, what are the Minister’s views on extending the seagoing service commitment scheme to people with less than three years’ service, will the Naval Service tax credit be pegged to the seafarers’ allowance, which is four times larger, and will he signal when he believes the independent pay review body will be established next year?
In light of our seat on the UN Security Council, is the Minister aware of any plans for new overseas missions for the Defence Forces in this calendar year?
In terms of amendments to the Defence (Amendment) Bill 2020 promised recently that would permit Reserve Defence Force specialists to serve overseas, can the Minister update us on the current status of the legislation? Report Stage is due to be taken in the Dáil and I would appreciate an indicative timeline.
Lastly, it is very good that the troops who will be deployed overseas in the next few months will be vaccinated prior to travel. Are there plans to vaccinate the troops who are currently deployed overseas, primarily in Syria and the Lebanon, prior to their return home?
At the outset, I also wish to acknowledge the work of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and former Deputy Billy Kelleher and thank them for their contributions in bringing forward legislation in this area in the past. It is good that the Regional Independent Group has picked up the baton, so to speak, and introduced the strengthened legislation that is before the House this evening.
I am heartened by the position the Government has adopted in that it will not oppose the Bill. I am also encouraged that others in opposition have expressed support for it. That is a very good thing. Why would there not be cross-party support for this important legislation? Everybody in the House appreciates and accepts that the insurance crisis in this country is a cross-cutting issue that affects every facet of society. It impacts on our schools, crèches, public amenities, small businesses and friends and families everywhere.
I also totally accept that a multitude of factors are at play and that one single measure will not address the entirety of the problem. There is an issue, however, where a small minority of claimants submit spurious, exaggerated and bogus claims. If that issue were tackled, it would have a disproportionately positive affect downstream. It is something we should certainly go after.
I am very much in favour of this Bill for four reasons. The first is that the emphasis here is on deterrent, not punishment or retribution. Everybody understands that insurance is there for a reason. It is there for genuine people who have been genuinely injured. They should not be out of pocket. They should have their medical bills paid for and receive adequate compensation for their injuries. I believe everybody accepts that. It is also important, however, that the threshold of penalties is raised slightly in order that we absolutely discourage and deter spurious and bogus claims.
What is suggested in the Bill makes much sense. If a claim is thrown out of court because it is deemed to be fraudulent, then it is reasonable to expect that the claimant pays the defendant’s legal fees. While the implementation is a little more complex, at least the principle is sound. The Bill proposes that a defined pathway will exist and that judges, should they choose to exercise this right, could refer fraudulent claims to the Director of Public Prosecutions for further consideration, if, again, it is deemed appropriate.
This legislation is appropriate and justified. More important, while it is a little bit delayed, it is proportionate and needed in this day and age. Another reason I support it is that it will free up a lot of court time. Much court time is wasted with unnecessary cases and claims. If we can preserve the time of the courts and the caseload for worthy and deserving cases, it would make a lot of sense, particularly with the Covid-19 crisis and the backlog of cases in our courts.
This legislation will reinforce the importance of the PIAB, an agency for which I have much time. The emphasis is on seeking a non-adversarial solution to many of these claims and to prevent litigation in the first place. It is swifter, as well as being much more efficient and effective at solving these problems. I am heartened that the Government is reviewing the PIAB process with a public consultation under way. I encourage anybody who has an interest in this area to make a submission to the relevant Department in that regard.
There is a compensation culture among a small minority. This legislation will challenge that. It will stimulate conversation and probably lead in time to the creation of a specialised Garda unit. I take the Minister’s point and that three new forensic accountants are shortly to be employed. We probably need a specialised insurance fraud Garda unit, however big or however small.
I support this legislation. I am grateful to those colleagues who are happy to allow it progress to Committee Stage. I look forward to further discussions on this and the legislation being enacted as soon as possible.
As the Taoiseach is aware, our peacekeeping troops are rotating overseas, to Syria, Mali and Lebanon in the next few weeks. A number of them have asked me to pass on their gratitude for the Taoiseach’s personal intervention last week, which ensures that they will be vaccinated prior to deploying on a six-month tour of duty. I have no problem with doing that and it is very much appreciated.
There is a long-running saga that I would like to get to the bottom of today if possible, regarding the defence budget. Our troops are fully engaged in the fight against Covid-19 as well as fully maintaining their ongoing normal operations by land, sea, air and cyberspace. The Taoiseach will also be aware that our troops are fighting their own internal crisis from an organisational perspective, as a result of poor pay, poorer conditions of service and poor infrastructure. There is very little control over the budget and visibility of how it is spent. A number of parliamentary questions have been tabled in the last couple of years, which all point to a consistent pattern whereby significant amounts of the defence budget are returned unspent, every year, to the Exchequer. The latest example is in a reply to Deputy Nash from two weeks ago. Deputy Nash quite rightly asked how much money has been returned from the defence budget to the Exchequer in the last seven years. He was told that €130 million has been returned in the last seven years.
I am sure the Taoiseach can understand how upsetting, infuriating and inflammatory that is to the defence community, who are screaming for resources and see money being handed back without being spent. Whenever I query this phenomenon on the floor of the Dáil, I am always given different figures from the Minister’s briefing notes. What is the true figure? Is it what is mentioned from briefing notes on the floor of the Dáil or is it the figure in formal responses to parliamentary questions, which are based on the fully audited appropriation accounts? I emphasise that I am approaching this question with an open mind. I have been consistently constructive since I first arrived here. I am not looking to blame anyone in any shape or form. I want to establish the truth of what the true figure is and, most importantly, the rationale behind the ambiguity. What is the reason for different figures in parliamentary questions, appropriation accounts and ministerial briefings?
I welcome the Minister. I am conscious of the clock so I will be as brief as possible to allow my colleagues to contribute before the close of business.
I wish to make five points. First, I welcome this legislation. Of course, it is belated. We would all prefer to have mandatory hotel quarantine up and running at present, but it is better late than never.
Second, I believe the legislation strikes the appropriate balance. For example, I welcome the safeguards for unaccompanied minors and the fact that there is a prompt appeals mechanism for humanitarian cases. Most importantly, it is very good that a sunset clause is included. If the legislation is enacted, it must be rolled over every three months by a motion of the Dáil. That is a good principle and practice for other legislation as well.
Third, I echo what some other Deputies have said in this debate. I do not believe the Department of Health should be in the lead on this matter. The Minister and the Department are already overloaded. The Department of Justice, the Department of Transport or even the Department of Defence, as is the case in New Zealand, should take the lead on this system. The HSE is already running three new streams that did not even exist 12 months ago. It is running testing, tracing and vaccination. Including quarantining as a fourth arm of the State is too much for the HSE. One of the other Departments should take the lead.
My fourth point relates to people coming from Northern Ireland, either transiting through it or residents of Northern Ireland. As I am not convinced that the mandatory hotel quarantining system will capture all those people, perhaps the Minister will elaborate in that regard in his closing remarks.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, the key point is that nothing but the highest professional standards must exist in these designated facilities. We see from the example of Australia that if there are lax standards, far from helping, it will hinder matters or cause a further issue. The last thing one wants is these designated facilities to become epicentres or clusters of the virus. Anything we can do from that perspective should be welcomed.
In conclusion, I thank the Minister for bringing this legislation forward. I look forward to his closing remarks in which, perhaps, he will expand a little on how the legislation will operate on the ground.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the Chamber to bring the Land Development Agency Bill before us. We can all argue on the finer points but in general terms the direction of travel with this Bill is reasonable because it will most likely involve an acceleration of the roll-out of housing across the country. Everybody in this Chamber agrees that we need houses for the next generation. There are massive housing pressures and this Bill is at least part of the solution.
In his column in The Irish Times at the weekend, David McWilliams put it best when he said that housing is such an important issue, it was the issue in the last five general elections and it is likely to be the issue – the dominant factor – in the next general election. There is a reason for that. For all the disruption they cause, pandemics come and go, but this housing crisis will persist unless we do something about it. The Bill before us today is an attempt and has a strong possibility of at least addressing some of the core issues, because if a person has no home, he or she has no hope. It is a precondition to progress, both professionally and personally.
I have points to make on the legislation. The first relates to putting the Land Development Agency on a statutory footing. Whatever people’s views are on the operations of the Land Development Agency most reasonable people would agree it is a good idea for the State to have a land development agency. It is a good idea to have a register that is established and maintained by an agency that has a strategic and long-term view of the way we use our public land because, let us face it, our people are our most important resource but our land comes second. It is very important that we maximise that utility and leverage that asset for what it is. I very much welcome that the Land Development Agency will be put on a statutory footing. I appreciate it already exists but this gives it a much stronger basis because it is included in primary legislation. To be honest, I am surprised it has not happened yet. Having land registry is very important because it provides proper information and visibility for decision-makers in respect of the existing land banks. If there is poor information, one will make poor decisions regardless of how good a decision-maker one is.
The second point relates to transparency and accountability. As this will be a powerful agency it is important that the appropriate safeguards, checks and balances are in place. As a general rule this legislation has got it right in that it achieves that balance. First, the agency is under media scrutiny. It is subject to FOI, which is welcome. It is subject to very intrusive audits by the Comptroller and Auditor General. From a parliamentary supervision point of view it is subject to reporting to the Committee of Public Accounts and any committee in the Oireachtas. Through Leaders’ Questions and other forums it is subject to scrutiny from the entire Dáil in plenary session, if necessary. From an accountability and transparency point of view, therefore, the structures in place are good safeguards.
This may be a minor point but I was on the website last night researching this contribution and the sites the Land Development Agency is currently working on are clearly laid out. There is nothing to hide in that regard. There is ample transparency. The checks, balances and safeguards in this legislation are a positive feature.
The third point relates to the funding stream. It is also welcome that €1.25 billion from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is being used to develop housing. We know that housing is holding back our economy, our society and our people. I cannot think of a better investment from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund than housing so I welcome the fact that €1.25 billion is being ring-fenced for that. It is also welcome that the Land Development Agency will have the option basically to erase debt, with the approval of the Minister.
It may be deliberate but there is no mention of the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg. The Minister of State might comment on that in his closing remarks or subsequently in correspondence from his office. Is it envisaged that the Land Development Agency could tap into the extra funding resources from the European Investment Bank to expedite and accelerate the building of homes in this country?
I would also welcome that if it could be done.
As a general rule, I am against compulsory purchase orders but I recognise their utility in very limited circumstances, particularly in urban settings. Most people in the Chamber are aware there is land hoarding, with prime sites that could be used for housing in potentially lucrative or select sites across cities in the country being hoarded. Compulsory purchase orders are at least an option for the Land Development Agency to use if it is deemed necessary. I am reassured to see that at least this is not regarded as a first option, which will always be voluntary agreement. Compulsory purchase orders will be used only as a last resort. I am also reassured to see the Land Development Agency will require a court order before a compulsory purchase order can be enacted. The balance is right in that respect.
The next point I raise is very important and it concerns the collaborative structures. The Land Development Agency will set up collaborative structures with local authorities, Government agencies and Departments, which is really important. The local authorities have been very successful across the country, particularly in my constituency in Kildare, as well as in Laois and Offaly in rolling out social housing in the past couple of years. I would like to see local authorities remaining in the driving seat. Any support from the Land Development Agency should not amount to an executive function. The local authorities should be maintained in the driving seat if at all possible.
These are the five points I wanted to make about the legislation but I have some other points on the Land Development Agency itself. The first may be close to the heart of the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, as it relates to two sites currently being developed by the Land Development Agency. One is in Naas and one is in Mullingar, and both those sites are former military barracks. I have a bit of a history lesson. In 1998, the military was basically evicted from Devoy Barracks in Naas. It was thrown out with six weeks of notice. Hundreds of troops were accommodated at the barracks, as well as the Army apprentice school. The Army is still reeling from the loss of that school and all the accommodation lost in Naas. Similarly, in 2012, when Columb Barracks was closed, again with very short notice, all the troops moved to Athlone. Many military personnel and their families lost accommodation in the barracks.
My preference is that both of those sites be used for military purposes but I recognise the reality that they are currently slated for accommodation and social housing. In light of the specific history associated with the sites and with military housing and accommodation being such an emotive concern, what are the Minister’s thoughts about giving the housing units on the sites to military families on the social housing list on a preferential basis? It would go some way to assuaging the anger still being felt in the military community because of how they were treated over 20 years with regard to the Devoy Barracks and Columb Barracks.
My final concern relates to military accommodation and housing in general all across the country and particularly in the Curragh Camp in my constituency. The Curragh is a lovely place full of lovely people but it is the most derelict town in the country. It is a town and there are two primary schools and a secondary school there but the camp is falling down. It really needs proper investment. I would be grateful for the Minister of State’s thoughts on how he sees the Land Development Agency entering into a service level agreement or a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Defence so the agency could provide additional funding through the Department or on its own to provide military housing for military families within the military perimeter of installations. Baldonnel airbase and the Curragh Camp are cases in point.
It is really important to provide military housing and this practice is repeated across the European Union. If soldiers and their families are accommodated on base and an emergency kicks off, troops would be on location and would not have to get into their car to drive 100 km before they can get to their colleagues. These are all the points I wanted to raise and I thank the Minister of State for his time. If we get some clarification on how the military housing matter could play out, we can take it from there.
I thank our guests for their very informed commentary and testament. As a Member of Parliament hundreds of whose constituents are currently deployed overseas as UN peacekeepers in resource-poor countries and are themselves awaiting vaccination, I can completely identify with the issues the witnesses have highlighted and rightly raised this morning.
The case they put forward is compelling. They have our full attention in Dublin this morning.
I have three questions. First, while the case the witnesses made is compelling, is there any way we can strengthen it further. For the benefit of the committee, maybe one or two of the panel could outline diseases for which the patents on vaccines or medications have been waived in the past. If there was a list of diseases for which medicine patents had been waived in the past, it would certainly strengthen their case because precedents are important. Second, have the three pharmaceutical companies that make Covid vaccines formally declined to become involved or are we still awaiting a response?
My third question is perhaps a technical one to which the witnesses may not have an answer. When countries in the EU signed up to this new mechanism, the C-TAP, that has been described, did their minister for health sign off on it or was there a motion on the floor of parliament? What technical mechanism was used? Is there a document to sign or does one merely have a press conference and make a formal pledge across the airwaves?
I will summarise my questions. Have the pharmaceutical companies formally said “Yes” or “No” at this stage? What technical mechanism was used at parliamentary level to sign up to the pledge? Is there a list of diseases for which vaccine or medication patents have been waived before they had elapsed?
I thank the Minister of State for attending the Chamber to introduce the Air Navigation and Transport Bill. It is important legislation, in that it upgrades and modernises the regulatory framework for the aviation sector and brings us back in line with our European peers. It is long overdue and, therefore, very welcome. I look forward to supporting its passage through the Dáil.
The Bill is important because the aviation sector is important, particularly to this country. If one were to ask anyone in the country what the most important industry here was, he or she would probably point to the large technology firms around Dublin or the large pharmaceutical companies in Cork, but not many people recognise how important and large the aviation sector is on our island home. As the Minister of State pointed out, Ireland is a major hub for aircraft leasing across the world. Europe’s largest airline, for all its imperfections, is headquartered in Ireland. Not only that, but Irish citizens dominate the boardrooms of airlines across the world from Etihad Airways to Qantas in Australia. From an Irish perspective, we are punching above our weight.
Ireland is the global hub of the airline industry, but apart from the commercial aspects, we have a major historical and societal connection with it. A little more than 100 years ago, Alcock and Brown landed in a bog in Clifden. We have had an affection for and association with the airline industry as a result. We are fascinated by it, and that is a good thing. I mention this because it is the context in which our debate should be held. Aviation is important to this country.
I will raise three points with the Minister of State in the time available to me. The first will relate to Aer Lingus, the second to the security and safety aspects of the sector and the third to funding options for enhancing the public sector’s ability to provide the safety and security services listed in the Bill.
Regarding Aer Lingus, I was happy to hear the Minister of State’s comments about the potential for additional support if required. I am sure she is well aware that the company is under considerable and acute financial liquidity stress, and for good reason – it is complying with the laws issued by Dáil Éireann, in that it is reducing its level of passenger transport in and out of the country. I fully understand the commercial realities, in that the State is no longer a significant or formal shareholder in the company, but I believe that we still have a financial responsibility, and definitely a moral responsibility, to its staff. Whatever the corporate arrangements, Aer Lingus is for all intents and purposes still Ireland’s national carrier. Every time an aircraft with a shamrock on its tail fin lands at any airfield in the world, it is promoting and advertising Ireland. The company also flies hundreds of thousands of visitors into the country annually in a normal year, be they business leaders or just tourists coming to spend some time in Ireland. There is a symbiotic relationship between the airline and this country. Aer Lingus’s survival is important from Ireland’s perspective. The time for a financial intervention is here.
I was happy to hear the Minister of State’s suggestion and that she has an open mind towards additional financial support. May I be so bold as to offer three suggestions that she might wish to consider? Other European countries have bailed out their national flag carriers. If it is good enough for Germany, it is certainly good enough for Ireland. Perhaps taking an equity stake in the airline is a possibility to get it through the acute financial situation it will be in over the next few months, but I appreciate the state aid constraints that might apply to a financial bailout from a loan or equity perspective. As such, I will offer two further options. It is acknowledged that the State needs a strategic aircraft to move its people around.
It could very easily be flown by the Air Corps and it could be used on a cross-governmental basis. For instance, the Department of Foreign Affairs could use an aircraft to evacuate Irish citizens from abroad, which it has done a number of times over the past 12 months, Irish Aid could very easily use an aircraft to transport aid overseas, and the HSE could use an aircraft to pick up personal protective equipment or to move casualties from one hospital to another internationally. The State recognises, and the former Taoiseach and current Tánaiste also recognised approximately 12 months ago in the Dáil, that we need a national strategic aircraft for this purpose. If Aer Lingus has so many surplus aircraft on the ground unused at present, would it not make sense for the State to purchase one of these aircraft from it for this purpose? The stars are aligning from this point of view. We should seize the day. It is in the interests of Aer Lingus and Ireland. My question to the Minister of State is: what are we waiting for?
We could use Aer Lingus more effectively to rotate Irish peacekeeping troops abroad. There are three return rotation flights due between Dublin and Beirut international airport in the next three months. I cannot remember the last time Aer Lingus was used to rotate Irish troops. This would be a wonderful opportunity to provide some liquidity support to Aer Lingus via commercial means. Instead of Irish troops being flown home by unreliable airlines that do not have the same reliability or punctuality requirements, Aer Lingus should certainly be used if at all possible. Even in the short term, if it cannot be used to rotate Irish troops from Beirut in the next three months perhaps we could look at entering a longer-term service level agreement over a five to ten year time horizon, whereby Aer Lingus could be used preferentially to rotate our peacekeeping troops. It could be paid upfront to provide this service. These are three suggestions with regard to Aer Lingus that the Minister of State might wish to consider. Obviously she will have to discuss the matter with her Defence Cabinet colleagues, namely, the Minister of State, Deputy Jack Chambers, and the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney. I would be grateful for the Minister of State’s thoughts on these suggestions, perhaps when she wraps up next week.
The next broad theme I would like to discuss is with regard to the comments in the Bill on safety and security. It is a major issue for the country because there is an obligation on every nation state to be able to police its land, territorial waters and airspace. With regard to policing our airspace we are hugely negligent. There is a major gap in our security from this perspective. It is probably something we should look at filling, particularly when we are discussing it with regard to the Bill. We have no primary military grade radar. We are unique in Europe as of the EU 27 we are the only country that does not have this capability and it needs to be addressed. We do have secondary civilian radar but once the transponder of an aircraft is turned off we have no sight and no visibility with regard to where it is. Not only is it a flight security issue, it is certainly also a flight safety issue that needs to be addressed. There is a commitment in the 2015 White Paper on defence to purchase a primary radar system for the country but we have yet to see one materialise. Perhaps it is something the Minister of State might wish to discuss with her Cabinet colleagues.
We have no intercept and escort capability whatsoever. It is just ourselves and Malta in Europe that do not have this capability. If an unidentified aircraft, a hijacked aircraft, a rogue aircraft or a smuggling type aircraft enters Irish airspace we have no means whatsoever to intercept it and escort it through our service. This is a major deficiency. Quite frankly, it is fairly humiliating that we have to use the Royal Air Force in a secret agreement to provide that service. It is a secret agreement for a reason because it is probably unconstitutional and if it were tested in the courts it would probably be found to be so. This is an area on which we have to work.
With regard to personnel in the public service who are involved in safety and security from an airspace perspective, we have no Air Corps reserve. We have an Army Reserve and a Naval Service Reserve but we have no Air Corps reserve due to an historic anomaly. I hope this is something the commission on defence could look at when it makes its report later this year. However, of the 15 people on the commission on defence not one has a background in aviation. This is a blind spot from the commission’s perspective that I hope will be addressed by putting on an additional member in the coming weeks.
The next major theme I want to discuss is the funding model we could use to enhance the safety and security of our airspace. The first option is very simple and straightforward, which is to increase the defence Vote. I am very happy to see the defence budget was increased by €32 million this year for 2021. I still have no sight or visibility on where that money will be spent but certainly an investment in the safety and security of our airspace would be a good starting point. Where the Department of Transport comes in is that the Irish Aviation Authority charges navigational fees for every aircraft that travels through Irish airspace and makes a profit of approximately €20 million to €30 million in a normal year without a pandemic. I would be grateful for the Minister of State’s thoughts on whether this money could be ring-fenced to support our airspace services. It is the same principle as a toll bridge. People who drive on an Irish motorway pay a toll charge and this money is used to offset the initial investment cost and it is also used for maintenance. It makes sense if we are taxing aircraft that travel through our airspace that the tax is used to protect the aircraft, from a service and security point of view.
Is there any way the Department of Transport could eliminate or reduce excess costs? This is where the search and rescue contract comes in. The company that provides helicopter services to the Coast Guard at present is providing an excellent service and there are wonderful people on board. The problem with the contract is that it is really expensive. For the past ten years it has cost approximately €600 million and negotiations are ongoing for another ten year period from 2023, which could cost up to €1 billion because it will most likely include fixed wing and rotary wing assets. It does not make any sense to invest in a private international firm to provide helicopters for a fixed period of time. It would make much more sense to internalise this capability into a sovereign service provided either by the Coast Guard or the Air Corps. The Air Corps should be tasked with providing this service from 2023 onwards and any gaps the Air Corps cannot meet could very easily be outsourced. A bill of €1 billion is massive. It is equivalent of half the cost of a children’s hospital and at the end of the ten years we will have absolutely nothing to show for it. My suggestion, and I give it freely, is to invest in our public services to provide this service rather than to outsource it to an international firm that does not need the additional revenue.
I thank the Minister of State for hearing me out. I will definitely support the Bill as it goes through the Oireachtas. It is something of which I am very much in favour. The issues I covered included financial support for Aer Lingus, if at all possible. The commercial case alone is compelling, let alone the economic case for Ireland. I also mentioned the fact we need to upgrade our airspace safety and security capacity. This needs to be done as soon as possible. I also explored some funding models to take the edge off this cost and make sure it is affordable from Ireland’s point of view.
I thank the Minister for bringing this motion before the House today. I will support it reluctantly and with a heavy heart because I recognise that this is part of the formal ratification process by this Parliament of the new EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement. It is difficult in such a short time to convey adequately my feelings on an event that is so solemn and serious for this country. The UK and Ireland have been companions on the same European journey for many years, and it is very sad to see that we are parting company now, especially under these circumstances. Perhaps it is fitting that we are having this debate in this very large and empty chamber because the vacant seats emphasise the fact that we have lost our nearest neighbour and closest friend at EU level. If we are all honest, the European Union is much worse off because the UK is no longer involved. It is like Hamlet without the prince. All that the deal before us today does is ensure that there is parity of pain across all of the parties and that all sides to this agreement will be diminished to the same extent. That is all it achieves and the Minister is aware of that fact.
While I accept the collective and sovereign decision of the entire population of the UK, I am also mindful of the fact that 48% voted to remain. Remain voters were predominantly those in the younger generations. Furthermore, Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain but they are being wrenched out of the European Union against their explicit and democratic wishes. That is an issue that must be resolved. On top of that, many of those who voted for Brexit did so under false pretences. They were sold the allure of a Brexit dream which is rapidly becoming a Brexit nightmare. The truth is starting to emerge now that free trade does not mean frictionless trade and that free travel does not mean frictionless travel. All of the certainties of the past that we took for granted are no longer in place. This is another issue that needs to be resolved. I look forward to Scotland and Northern Ireland returning to their rightful place in the European Union as soon as possible. I very much look forward to that day.
I compliment and commend all of those on team Ireland who engaged in the Brexit project over the past four years. Our diplomats and officials and even our politicians tried to strike a deal with a country that seemed hell-bent on an extraordinary act of self harm, which was a very difficult endeavour. The deal that we have in front of us is not perfect, of course. It causes huge difficulties for our hauliers, exporters and our fishing and coastal communities, but on balance it is probably the best deal that could have been struck in that it prevents a hard border on this island and ensures that we have direct access to the Single Market. It also prevents the catastrophic economic consequences that would have resulted from a no-deal, hard Brexit. On that basis, I will support this deal.
In 1921 a deal was struck that allowed Ireland to withdraw from the United Kingdom. It is quite ironic that almost exactly 100 years to the day, a new deal is struck that allows the United Kingdom to withdraw from Ireland and the wider European Union project. It is a very, very sad day. It is sad day for me personally. I have a lot of contacts all across these islands, and in my previous profession I learned as much on Salisbury Plain as I did on the Curragh Plain. I wish my British friends the very best for the future but I hope that, in whole or in part, they will return to the European family. I wish them “so long” rather than “goodbye”.
I wish to focus my questions on the vaccine roll-out. From the get-go I am one of the first to admit that there has been at least some progress from a vaccine point of view over the past three or four weeks. For example, we now have two fully approved vaccines in the country. I hope that from tomorrow fortnight there will be approval of a third vaccine candidate, and that is a good thing. For all its imperfections, at least the vaccine roll-out is under way now. Approximately 50,000 people have been vaccinated every week. That is also to be welcomed.
Vaccine hesitancy was a big issue prior to Christmas but it seems to have completely disappeared now. It has probably been replaced with something like vaccine mania – people are so keen to get the vaccine as soon as possible. From a vaccine perspective it can only be a good thing that there is rising confidence in the side effect profile and the efficacy of these vaccines.
Having said that, the roll-out is regarded as being quite sluggish. I have some practical knowledge of what is happening and I have three questions, suggestions or observations that might nudge things along somewhat. The first thing I wish to comment on is the information technology system. Many people present may not be aware but the IT system does not work at all. If a person goes to a nursing home and opens his or her laptop, he or she cannot input any data from a vaccine perspective at all, which is a major problem. In effect, we are combining 21st century cutting-edge vaccine medicine with a 13th century means of recording it, which is simply a pencil and paper. That has significant downstream effects for data presentation and situation awareness for both decision makers and members of the public.
The second suggestion I wish to make relates to healthcare workers. It is a good thing that front-line healthcare workers in acute hospitals in big cities are being vaccinated. That is actually happening. However, as a member of the Regional Group, I wish to highlight that there are front-line healthcare workers in the community throughout regional and rural Ireland who need to be remembered as well. They work in dental surgeries and GP clinics. They work as physiotherapists and in home care and have a full plethora of skills. Can the Tánaiste offer reassurance that these people will not be forgotten about?
The most important point is on the AstraZeneca vaccine. I hope we will get approval from the European Medicines Agency tomorrow fortnight that this third vaccine candidate can be used. Has the Tánaiste given any thought to pre-positioning? By this I mean acquiring these vaccines in advance of the announcement if and when it comes. It could mean that if and when the announcement is made later this month, we actually will have the vaccines in the GP clinics ready to go. Then, within hours, we can start vaccinating. It is important that we move these vaccines from the shelf into people’s shoulders, where they belong. I would be grateful for the thoughts of the Tánaiste.
Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar:
I thank Deputy Berry – Dr. Berry – for his contribution and for the work I know he has been doing on the front line in respect of the vaccination programme.
The programme is well under way. We are doing better than people think. There are approximately 200 countries in the world but only 40 have started a vaccination programme and we are among those. We are now in the top ten or 12 in terms of vaccines given per day and we are above the EU average. Of course, we aspire to climb in the rankings and to be in the top tier of EU countries. It will be offered to everyone. It is free. It is not compulsory. It is safe and effective. People will need two doses, approximately three to six weeks apart. People have been prioritised, as Members are away, into 15 groups. We are focusing now on groups 1 and 2, which include nursing home residents and staff, those over 65 years in residential care and front-line healthcare workers. I think people understand the reasons why. An information technology system has been developed that was delivered to the HSE at the end of December. Additional functionality is being added but it is not needed yet. As the Deputy pointed out, we are vaccinating in nursing homes and in healthcare settings and it is a pen and paper exercise at the moment. We will, however, very much need the IT system when we go out to the GPs and pharmacies. I am told that we will be ready for when it is required, which most likely will be some time next month.
The Deputy also raised the issue of healthcare workers in the community not being vaccinated yet. I appreciate this issue needs to be resolved. I know many GPs have been on to me – dentists as well – and it is essential that they should be included within that group – group 2 – of healthcare workers. I mean not only the GPs but also the other staff in practices who deal with the public because they are at risk too. The same applies in dentists’ surgeries given the close-contact nature of the service they provide. That is something I will be taking up with the vaccine task force. I will be seeking the assurance that GPs and practice staff, as well as dentists and their staff will be vaccinated as part of group 2, as we have committed to.
Finally, we are advised that the European Medicines Agency will meet on 29 January in respect of AstraZeneca. All things going to plan, the agency will approve the vaccine and the Commission will meet that evening and approve the vaccine. That is significant because that will allow us to ramp up the number of vaccines that we are doing every week from approximately 50,000 this week to well over 100,000 in February once that vaccine becomes available. We are part of an EU system of procurement, as the Deputy will know, so I am unsure whether it is possible to get the vaccines delivered before they are approved. Anyway, I see the point the Deputy is making. If that is possible, we could gain a few days if we could get the vaccines into fridges in GP surgeries by 29 January, but not use them until approved. I do not know if that can be done, but it is a good idea and I will check it out.
Deputy Cathal Berry:
I thank the Tánaiste for those clarifications.
My final question concerns the army of volunteers who have been working flat out in Covid testing hubs all over the country. Some of these people are members of the GAA or retired members of the Defence Forces. I even met Aer Lingus workers who are currently on leaves of absence. They are working unpaid and they epitomise the volunteer spirit in Ireland at the moment. I know that the Tánaiste and every other Member of the House fully appreciates and recognises the wonderful work they do. My question is this: is there anything more tangible we could do for these people to demonstrate the value of the work they are doing and our appreciation for it? For instance, it was mentioned to me when I visited some of them that they could be provided with perhaps One4all vouchers, fuel cards, social welfare stamps or something else more tangible. These people signed up for a couple of weeks’ work last March, but a couple of weeks has turned into almost a year, with another few months to run. I would be grateful for the Tánaiste’s thoughts. Has any consideration been given to providing something more meaningful, more tangible, to demonstrate our appreciation for the work these people do?
I welcome the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. I am happy to be here on this very auspicious occasion. It is an historic event for the country. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Covid-19 task force and the national Covid-19 vaccination programme.
I would like to make six points. First, I welcome the publication of the high level strategy document and the more operationally focused implementation plan. In the short timeframe of four weeks, Professor Brian MacCraith and his team have come up with two comprehensive pathways that are hugely important. They deserve a lot of credit.
I welcome that the European Medicines Agency, EMA, is on the cusp of approving, provisionally, the use of one of the candidate vaccines, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. As we have heard, this may happen on Monday. This is a positive step. More important, it is likely that before year end people in Ireland will be vaccinated. Even three months ago, that was unthinkable in this jurisdiction. It is full marks so far in terms of my first point.
Second, it is important that vaccination is completely voluntary. There will be no mandatory vaccination, which is positive. That is important. Coupled with that, the vaccine will be free for recipients at the point of administration. This is essential. A person’s financial means should never be a factor in determining whether he or she should or should not get a vaccine. Again, this is a very positive development.
Third, I want to focus on the vaccine allocation strategy. It is correct and appropriate that those who are most likely to contract the illness or those who are most vulnerable if they contract it, should be at the front of the queue. It is correct that those who are 65 and over in residential care settings are the first priority. I have no issue with that. I agree that the second priority should be our front-line healthcare workers and that the third priority should be those over 70 in the general public. There is one group of workers I would like to highlight. I know there are many sectoral interests competing in regard to the identify of key workers but the group of people I am speaking about are regularly forgotten about. They are loyal, they rarely grumble and they just soldier on. This group is peacekeeping troops overseas, of whom there are approximately 600.
The numbers fluctuate over the year. The next large contingent to deploy will go to Syria at the end of March next year. The reason these personnel are so important from a vaccination perspective is that, first, they are deployed to very remote and very hostile countries, including countries which have a much higher prevalence of Covid-19 than we do in Ireland. Second, they are deployed to resource-poor countries that have a much-reduced medical capacity compared with what we have in this country. If our troops get ill overseas, they are at much higher risk. Third, and most important, they are the only group of workers in the State who, before they deploy on a six-month tour of duty overseas, must spend two weeks in strict, mandatory, supervised quarantine in a military installation in Ireland. This means they are away from their families for six and a half months in total. If we could shave those initial two weeks off by giving them a vaccination, it would be hugely appreciated by the military community. Anything the Minister can do from that perspective would be greatly appreciated.
The fourth point I wish to raise relates to workforce planning. I am aware that Professor MacCraith has done a lot of work in this regard already. If there was one bit of advice I could give the Minister, it would be to try, if he can at all, not to redeploy front-line staff from the health services to the vaccination programme. There is no point in robbing Peter to pay Paul. We are only going to store up further problems downstream if we do so. Our waiting lists are long enough as it is without adding to the problem. I respectfully suggest that retired healthcare professionals should be used as well as locum agencies. There are many doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who are not working full-time in the sector and would appreciate being part of the national effort to get the vaccination programme over the line. I welcome that the deployment of pharmacists is being seriously considered. It is a very progressive and modernising thing to do.
My fifth point is in regard to the ICT system, which has been mentioned by other speakers. We are looking at an off-the-shelf purchase and that makes a lot of sense. One point I would raise is that we have an unfortunate tradition in this country of patients being lost to follow-up as they move through a very complicated pathway system. We need a sophisticated ICT system to track, monitor and evaluate how things are proceeding, particularly in light of the fact that we are going to have at least five different types of vaccines and perhaps even a sixth one. We need an ICT system that is fit for purpose and in respect of which proper training is provided for the people using it.
My final point concerns the public engagement and communication plan, which is absolutely critical. It is essential that people be made aware that a rigorous and robust testing system has been put in place, that the vaccines are safe and that the chances of an adverse reaction are minuscule. If a person gets an adverse reaction, it can be managed satisfactorily. I am very happy to get the vaccine when my turn comes. I am in the unusual position that I am also happy to add my name to the list to administer the vaccine, should that become necessary.
This is a wonderful day for the country. Throughout the crisis, we have embraced science and enlightenment and now we can reap our just rewards. There should be a collective sense of achievement in this. It was the ultimate team performance. As this is my last contribution in the House in 2020, I wish the Minister and Minister of State and their families the very best over Christmas, and the same to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and all Deputies and staff present. We have been through a very rough year and I wish everybody a very peaceful and happy Christmas, particularly the front-line healthcare workers who have protected and supported the population over the past nine months. It has been a fantastic achievement. Here is to a much better 2021.
I am very happy to be part of a discussion marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. I thank Deputies Eoghan Murphy and Duncan Smith for their initiative in seeking this debate.
The treaty was a watershed moment in human history. It limited the spread of nuclear weapons to nine nation states, which is an achievement in itself. There were five erstwhile nuclear states that relinquished their nuclear weapons as a result of this treaty and, most important, a large number of states could have surpassed the technological threshold in order to acquire nuclear weapons but they were discouraged from doing so as a result of this treaty. Instead, they indicated they would express national prestige in far more productive ways.
The treaty has worked excellently, although it has not been perfect because only 190 countries have signed up to it. There are four outliers, which are Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan. Three of those four countries acquired nuclear weapons since the signing of this treaty in 1970. The key message is there is still some work to do. It is an opportune time for that work as there will soon be a new US President and Ireland has one of the non-permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. We can use this as a platform to advocate very strongly Ireland’s position on nuclear weapons.
There are three elements on which we should focus. We must prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons. The Islamic Republic of Iran is in the cross hairs in this regard and there is an expectation in that country to at least acquire nuclear technology. We also know the Iranian framework agreement must be revitalised. A new president in the White House will make a big difference there. We can use a carrot and stick but if we reassure the Iranian authorities that their security is assured with or without the use of nuclear weapons, it will make a big difference. We must re-engage from this perspective.
We must prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction to non-state actors such as terrorist organisations and organised crime. It is a big issue if we consider what a dirty bomb could do if it went off in the city. It does not bear thinking about. From a city, country and regional perspective, we must prevent weapons of mass destruction getting into the wrong hands as that would have catastrophic results.
Ireland must play a part by investing in intelligence services, which are really important. We must intervene “left of boom” or before an event happens. We need to disrupt logistics, training and finances to ensure an event related to nuclear weapons can never occur.
I am happy to hear the Minister mention disarmament. There are two countries, namely the Russian Federation and the United States, to focus on in this area as they would lead by example. Despite the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START, reductions, there are still over 13,000 nuclear warheads on the planet, or enough firepower to destroy the planet 100 times over.
If there was ever an example of the futile use of military spending, it is on nuclear weapons and even the vast majority of military professionals are completely against it. It is a complete waste of time. It is said they are a deterrent to war but they did not stop either of the Gulf wars, the Falklands or Afghanistan conflicts or the terrorist events of 11 September 2001. Nuclear weapons only deter a proper investment in appropriate sectors of society, such as education, health, alleviation of poverty and conventional military spending for ships to keep out drugs, helicopters that might pluck people from the sea in search and rescue operations and conventional troops that could be deployed overseas for peacekeeping, humanitarian or stability purposes.
We have a golden opportunity now as there will soon be a new US President and we will have a seat on the UN Security Council. We should be able to leverage those two advances to the best of our ability. We must not focus just on nuclear weapons but on all weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons and dirty bombs containing fissile material. None of these weapons has a place in a modern and civilised society.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Mary Butler.
I am very happy to move this motion, which is my first Dáil motion. I am doing so on my own behalf and on behalf of my very good colleagues in the Regional Independent Group.
As we have all lived through 2020, we can probably all appreciate that there is no more deserving, no more fitting and no more worthy topic of discussion than that of mental health resourcing in the State. Mental health is a vast area that requires absolute focus and absolute commitment to solve the issues we have.
From the get-go, I thank Deputy Denis Naughten and our group parliamentary assistant, Cáit Nic Amhlaoibh, who did a huge amount of research into this topic, and who also drafted the wording of the motion. I also commend the Opposition and the Government who have provided a lot of support for the motion over the past week. It is very heartening and encouraging to see that this is the case, and why would it not be the case, because mental health issues affect every party in the House, and indeed every house in the State?
I will raise three points with the Minister of State. I will first focus on the situation in hospital emergency departments from a mental health perspective. There is huge under-resourcing of infrastructure in emergency departments. We need a dedicated pathway or channel, similar to the paediatric channel. When a paediatric patient shows up at an emergency department, he or she is routed through a particular pathway. We need the same model for patients who present in psychiatric distress or with a psychiatric illness, with a separate waiting room. The current practice whereby acute psychotic patients are interacting with general medical patients is completely unacceptable and we really need to improve that set-up.
From a crisis team perspective it is not good enough to just have one clinical nurse specialist on a crisis team. We need to resource this properly so the teams can deal with multiple presentations simultaneously, and so they are not completely stressed out themselves.
I am very happy with the commitment in the programme for Government to appoint a national director for mental health, with a direct line to the director general of the HSE, currently Mr. Paul Reid. This is very important. Perhaps in her reply, the Minister of State could clarify where we are with that process and indicate if there is a likely date for the appointment of a national director.
My second focus is on mental health resourcing in the community, and especially from the point of view of the NGO sector. It is an issue nationwide. I will use as an example an excellent NGO agency in my constituency in Newbridge called HOPE(D), which has approximately 1,000 service users on its books. HOPE(D) gets no funding whatsoever from central government or through the HSE. The service relies on the charity of Kildare County Council to provide 20% of its funding and the other 80% is made up through fundraising or donations. I am sure we can all appreciate that relying on a GoFundMe page is not a sound basis on which to provide a very important service to the community. In such a case the agency is always distracted from providing that service because staff are focused on trying to keep the lights on and the doors open.
The third issue I wish to focus on is an area in which the Minister of State has a particular interest. It is assistance and the mental health of the elderly population. From my own medical practice, I am aware there has been a shift over the past 12 months in the demographics of people who present with mental illness. The shift is towards the elderly population and people who have had no history of mental illness in the past but who are now presenting. This is as a result of cocooning, isolation, bereavement and just loneliness. Again, I am very happy to see a commitment in the programme for Government that there will be a commission for care of the older person. Will the Minister of State, in her response, indicate the status of that process? When are we likely to see that commission in place? This would be hugely appreciated.
In summary, I believe that everyone in the Chamber can appreciate how precious and fragile our mental health is. It is incumbent on us all to ensure there is adequate resourcing nationwide, from a HSE perspective and from an NGO perspective, for the betterment of the public.
I welcome the opportunity to make a statement this afternoon prior to the very important meetings that will take place in Brussels on Thursday and Friday of next week. The Taoiseach outlined the very broad agenda that is on the table. I will focus my contribution exclusively on Brexit because it is the most urgent and most important issue from Ireland’s point of view. I suggest that next week’s summit is the most important EU summit of 2020 from an Irish perspective because it will either be the summit at which any tentative EU-UK trade deal will be signed off on, or the summit at which contingency plans for a crash-out Brexit on 1 January will be prepared. It is really important from our perspective.
I have two quick observations to make at the start. Like other Deputies, I welcome the increased capacity for shipping from the island of Ireland to continental Europe which was announced a few days ago. The two additional routes, which will run from Rosslare to Dunkirk and from Cork to Zeebrugge, will make a big difference. Using these routes will increase the transit time for Irish hauliers travelling from Ireland to continental Europe but will allow the UK land bridge to be circumvented. It is better than spending hours, or even days, sitting in a car park in Kent waiting for a ferry to Dover. It is a positive development. Our truckers will arrive on the Continent relatively well rested from a tachograph point of view. They will then be able to proceed with their onward journeys once they make landfall.
The second observation I would like to make relates to the common travel area. This is again a significant diplomatic success from Ireland’s point of view. I commend both the Irish and UK diplomatic teams for almost striking a deal on the common travel area. I understand that there is a draft deal on the table which is ready to be inked. This deal will stand regardless of whether the EU-UK trade deal is agreed or not. That is a very positive development because the common travel area is of great importance to our students, our workers and any families that are split between the UK and Ireland. Those two developments are very positive.
Notwithstanding these positive developments, I have five concerns which I would like to articulate. The first relates to the utterances from London today in respect of whether the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is to be resurrected and returned to the House of Commons next week. I urge the UK Government not to go down that road. I hope this is only a juvenile and clumsy negotiating tactic. Legislation that specifically sets out to breach international law has no place in a democratic society. That draft legislation should be withdrawn.
I have raised my second concern with the Minister of State before. It relates to the ratification process. We are only 29 days out from a potential hard exit and we still do not have a lot of clarity on the ratification process. My concern is that there is not enough time left to ratify this deal from the perspective of the EU, of the UK or even of Ireland. Are we in Dublin going to debate a motion on any potential trade deal? Does it require further legislation? In any event, we are very tight for time. It may already be too late.
My third concern is quite similar to my second. I still believe we should be looking for an extension to the transition period, a grace period or a technical extension. Regardless of the formula of words used, this is something we should be looking for. I fully understand that the UK’s stated position is that it does not want an extension in any shape or form, but we should bear in mind that 12 months ago it was the UK’s stated position that it did not want any extension and that it was going to leave the EU on 31 December come hell or high water. I believe there is an opportunity to agree a grace period of a few weeks, perhaps to the end of January, to allow us to test our systems, to rehearse procedures at ports and airports and to make some final tweaks to our infrastructure and customs documentation. If that opportunity presents itself, we should seize it with both hands.
My fourth concern relates to the EU Brexit reserve fund – the €5 billion fund. In recent days we have heard that France seems to be keen to get its hand on as much as possible of the €5 billion fund. Ireland needs to be strong next week when we go to Brussels. No country in the European Union is more severely affected by Brexit than Ireland. The €5 billion fund is set aside to assist countries and sectors that are disproportionately affected. Ireland has a strong case and we should certainly be looking for the lion’s share of the €5 billion to be assigned to the country and the sectors most impacted here.
We should always be mindful that there will be a future relationship beyond 1 January in whatever form it takes. Ireland should be open, diplomatically and from a trade perspective, to any developments in a year or two down the track. If we get a bare bones agreement in the coming days or weeks, we should still be prepared to revisit this and look at a more comprehensive agreement in a year or two from January 2021.
I wish Mr. Michel Barnier and the EU task force the best in the last days of the negotiations. To be clear, I very much look forward to engaging with my UK counterparts in whatever capacity that new relationship will become manifest post 1 January.
I would like to focus my questions on Ireland’s air-sea rescue capability. It was a service that was provided exclusively by the Irish Air Corps for decades up to the year 2002, when it was handed over and outsourced to a private company. Most members of the public will be familiar with the large red and white helicopters that sometimes fly overhead. What they may not be aware of is that these helicopters are not owned by the Irish Coast Guard, nor are they even owned by the State. They are owned and operated by a foreign private helicopter company which is on a very lucrative contract from the Irish taxpayer. When I say “lucrative”, I am talking about €600 million over a ten-year period, or €5 million a month, if one wants to look at it from that perspective. Not only is the contract very expensive, it is also finite in time. At the end of the ten-year period, Ireland is left with absolutely nothing. The helicopters will be taken away and we will have to go back to scratch to retender the contract again for another ten years.
The reason I am bringing this up today and the reason it is so pertinent is that the process to renegotiate a new ten-year contract from 2023 onwards is shortly to get under way. It is estimated that approximately €1 billion will be used to provide this contract over the next ten years, which is the financial equivalent of half of a national children’s hospital, so that is the scale of the project currently taking place.
I raised this matter on budget day in October. I have been very heartened and encouraged by all of the Deputies who have supported what I have said. These are Deputies from all across the political divide, on both sides of the Chamber. It is clear there is now an appetite to re-examine a better, optimum model of delivery which would provide better value for money for the Irish taxpayer but also, crucially, provide a more sustainable and more sovereign service for the country. That is something the country deserves. For example, we do not outsource policing in Dublin city to a private security firm; we resource An Garda Síochána to provide that policing capability on our behalf. Rather than funding a foreign private helicopter company to run a service for a fixed and finite period of time, would it not make more sense to invest that money in the Irish Air Corps to provide a more sustained and sovereign service into the future? At the end of the ten years, Ireland would still own the helicopters and we would not have to retender the contract after ten years.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber to introduce this Bill. I welcome its publication. It is very important that it gets out there. In 49 days, whether we like it or not and whether there is a deal, our trade relations with our nearest neighbour will face a severe shock. It is very sensible and prudent to get our house in order as soon as possible, at least from a legislative point of view. I have gone through the Bill in detail and I agree with the vast majority of what is in it. I am in general agreement and I will be very happy to support its passage through the Chamber in the weeks ahead.
I would like to comment on the opening remarks of the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the convention centre yesterday. I found them quite reassuring. He mentioned that the common travel area, a bilateral arrangement between this country and the UK, will be maintained and protected from 1 January. That is important for our students, our workers and our families that are divided between both of these islands. I am very encouraged by that fact. I am also encouraged by his mention of a memorandum of understanding between Irish officials and UK authorities on the continuing healthcare cooperation, which is so important for these islands. This memorandum is very close to being finalised. Both of these measures are very important and officials on both sides should be commended on producing these draft agreements.
I have been in this Chamber several times in the past few months to speak about Brexit and the wider EU project. My views on EU affairs are well-established. I would like to focus on four key developments in the past week that will influence how the negotiations play out. First I would like to mention the comments of Sir John Major only three or four days ago, which were significant. A former leader of the Conservative Party and British Prime Minister said he is completely against Brexit and that it will significantly diminish the UK’s international standing. While he agrees with the sovereign decision of the British public, he believes they were sold a pup. They were sold an idea on false pretences. That is a significant statement and it has been his consistent view throughout. It will ratchet up the pressure on the UK negotiating team.
I would also like to mention the House of Lords, which emphatically voted down illegal provisions in the draft United Kingdom Internal Market Bill 2019-21. That is also a significant development. The ratio of the vote was three to one, which is huge. If there are people in this House who think that moderate Britain has disappeared and there are no sensible or prudent people in the British establishment, the evidence suggests otherwise. I am happy that those provisions have been at least temporarily taken out and perhaps even permanently torpedoed, which would be a positive development.
I would also like to mention the resignation of a senior British official at 10 Downing Street. That shows the level of discord, disharmony and dysfunction in that office. In a positive light it shows by contrast that there is significant unity of purpose in this Parliament, which has not gone unnoticed throughout the world. All sides of the House should be commended on that. Long may it continue. Finally, the election of an Irish-American, President-elect Joe Biden, is a significant development. It has the potential to completely change the calculus of how the negotiations play out in the next few days and weeks.
I have a few questions for the Minister of State. Perhaps he could touch on them in his closing remarks. I am conscious that he must be circumspect in his use of language given the delicate situation during the next few days, but perhaps he could outline the timeline of events between now and 31 December. For instance, a videoconference meeting of the European Council is scheduled for this day week, 19 November. Is that likely to go ahead? If there is a trade deal between the EU and the UK, will a remote conference be sufficient to sign off on it or will a physical EU summit be needed?
I refer also to the ratification process. The European Parliament will have to approve any potential deal. What is this parliament’s ratification process? Does the Minister of State anticipate that further legislation will be required to codify any deal or is he happy with the omnibus Bill that we have in front of us? Perhaps he could outline the timeline and how he sees this playing out.
I refer also to the EU’s €5 billion Brexit adjustment reserve. It has been talked about a lot in the past few months. I was reassured by the comments of the Minister for Foreign Affairs yesterday that this fund will be targeted at sectors and countries that are disproportionately affected by Brexit. Does the Minister of State know what will Ireland’s percentage of that €5 billion be? If not, when will we get more clarity?
The 11-month EU transition period has served all parties very well. It has been in effect since 1 February and the clock is running out on it at this point. My view is that we need an extension of three or six months. The end of June is probably a good date to aim for. The reason there is so much uncertainty about Brexit is that we do not know what the shape of the agreement will be, if there is one. If we get one in December, it will be too late to upgrade our port infrastructure and get our small and medium-sized enterprises ready. It would make a lot of sense to extend the transition period and we should aim to do so. Regarding the post-Brexit relationship, if we get a bare-bones trade agreement in the coming days or weeks, what is the likelihood of a more comprehensive trade agreement between the EU and the UK at a later date, perhaps 12 or 24 months from now? Is this possible or is it pie in the sky?
Finally, I would like to ask about an information campaign. Other Deputies mentioned this yesterday. Once a trade deal is agreed, or even if it is not, I would like to think that an information campaign is ready to go so that the trigger can be pulled as soon as the outcome is known. Time is very short. On behalf of my constituents, I emphasise the need for information from the Government.
All the indications show that we are inching towards a very basic bare-bones free trade agreement between the UK and the EU. The three outstanding issues are fisheries, that is, the EU fishing fleet’s access to territorial waters, governance issues relating to the level playing-field and the full implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The UK desperately needs a deal. It needs a deal because the EU is its biggest and closest trading partner, but a deal is also in our interests. Our business community and agri-food industry have suffered disproportionately as a result of the pandemic and the ensuing global recession. We do not need a third hit. A double whammy is more than enough.
I wish Michel Barnier and the EU task force negotiating team the very best and I wish the Government the best also in the final days of negotiating. I very much look forward to interacting with the UK authorities as constructively as possible from 1 January in whatever shape that relationship plays out.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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—–
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?
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:
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.