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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Minister Donnelly:

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

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

 

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

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

 

Minister Donnelly:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Minister Norma Foley:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Minister Eamon Ryan:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Minister Helen McEntee:

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Does the Minister of State know the number?

 

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

 

Just the number, please.

 

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

 

That is zero.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Minister Kehoe:

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

An Ceann Comhairle: Thank you.

 

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

 

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Berry has further questions.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Minister Kehoe:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

I move amendment No. 51:

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

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

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

leaders of Dáil Éireann, or their nominees.”.

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

 

I move amendment No. 56:

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

Interpretation

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

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

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

 

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

 

I move amendment No. 58:

“Provisions governing return of reservists to employment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(b) the terms or conditions of the contract —

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

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

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

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

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

Amendment put and declared lost.

 

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