Wednesday, 27 November 2013
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. 22, Forestry Bill 2013 - Second Stage (resumed). It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that the following business shall be taken tomorrow after Oral Questions: Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013 Seanad - Second Stage. Private Members’ business shall be No. 128, motion re Bond Repayments (resumed - to conclude at 9 p.m. tonight, if not previously concluded).
There is one proposal to be put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with the Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2013 agreed to? Agreed.
I call Deputy Martin on the Order of Business.
I met with a range of small businesses recently which are very concerned about the lack of access to credit, including overdrafts they had previously enjoyed to facilitate cash flow. There are continuing negative reports about such facilities being arbitrarily cut off. Access to credit is still an issue for many SMEs. When can we expect the credit guarantee Bill to be published?
The Deputy has raised a genuine issue. I do not have a date for the publication of this Bill, but the budget contained a further series of measures for small and medium enterprises to access credit. The Government is focusing on this matter. In addition, as regards the expected end of the bailout on 15 December, Department of Finance officials are working with their German counterparts in respect of having access to credit through the KfW Bank which is a triple AAA-rated German institution. That will present an opportunity.
The Government is concerned about this issue. I am glad that yesterday's employment figures show an improvement but access to credit and proving that it can be drawn down are issues on which we are working diligently.
Last week, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of legislation to allow for medical services and medical cards for the Magdalen laundries survivors. He referred me to the Minister for Justice and Equality who has written to me today. He has confirmed that the legislation will be in place by early 2014. However, I am concerned that the medical cover will only apply to women who are resident in the State. There is an issue concerning services for women who endured the Magdalen laundries in other jurisdictions, including Britain and the United States. Can the Taoiseach confirm that we will see this legislation early in 2014 to facilitate medical services for those women? Can he also reassure us that all the survivors - that is, everyone who has applied to the redress scheme and who is entitled to medical services - will have access to them, even if they are resident outside the State?
Last week, the Government approved the first tranche of €250,000 to be paid to a trust in England. Yesterday, I was speaking to Ms Sally Mulready, a member of the Council of State, who has done great work on this. She has confirmed that the first two women, whom I met in the Irish Embassy in London, are in receipt of their payments. Matters have moved quickly since Mr. Justice Quirke made his decision. The Government wants to be very generous to all these women. I do not have all the details before me.
My understanding is that this will apply in respect of all women who were in the Magdalen laundries and now live abroad, some of whom are already in receipt of full medical services and medical cards. The Government wants to be generous in these cases.
In light of the announcement this morning that bids in respect of the sale of Bord Gáis Energy have been rejected is the Government still committed to the sale of Bord Gáis Energy in the right environment and at the right price and when will the Common Arrangements for Gas Bill be introduced? I am mindful of the need for a proper stimulus package countrywide, including in my constituency of Kildare South in the context of the southern distributor route which is dependent on such funding.
The Bill is listed for publication next year. Earlier this morning, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources reported the Seanad amendments to the Gas Regulation Bill 2013 to the Dáil, which legislation separates the gas networks and gas generation entities. As already stated publicly by the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, Bord Gáis Energy was and is still for sale. While bids in respect of the sale of Bord Gáis Energy have been received they were not acceptable to Government. In the case of the sale of Irish Life, the first offers received were not acceptable but the second offers were accepted. It is hoped the same will apply in respect of the sale of Bord Gáis Energy.
As stated, the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, earlier put through the House the Gas Regulation Bill 2013 which deals with the separation of the two entities. This forms part of the Government's commitment in this area. In answer to the Deputy's question, the Government remains committed to the sale of Bord Gáis Energy but it will be sold not in a fire sale but only following receipt of a proper offer, taking into account the intrinsic value of the entity. This has always been the case.
When I last asked about the status of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, the Taoiseach told me it would be taken next year. In view of the current statistics on homelessness, when will that Bill or any other Bill that might help to address the 18% increase in homelessness during the past ten months referred to this morning by Focus Ireland, be introduced?
The Taoiseach also mentioned previously that he might take an initiative in this regard by way of a meeting with stakeholders chaired, perhaps, by him to address the situation countryside and Dublin in particular.
The Heads of that Bill will be ready by the end of this year. Publication will, therefore, probably be in the spring of next year. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, is working diligently on this matter with the voluntary agencies in this area which are funded in part by the State and with the statutory authorities. It is an issue that needs to be addressed.
The Cabinet committee considered this issue the other day in terms of the principles and objectives for 2030 and 2050. It is difficult to assess what will happen during that period. The Bill will be published next year. As the Deputy is aware, there are implications for Ireland in terms of what other countries do in a global sense.
When will Committee Stage of the Legal Services Regulation Bill, Second Stage of which was completed almost two years ago and which provides for a reduction in costs for people engaged with the legal services, be taken? Also, when will the mediation Bill, which is equally important, come before the House?
On ministerial powers and the Government's amendment to the Private Members' motion currently before the House in relation to bond repayments, which deals with the proposed replacement of the promissory notes with long-dated bonds and yesterday's High Court decision by Justices Finlay Geoghegan, Hogan and Kelly, in respect of an appeal taken by Deputy Joan Collins, part of this determination is that the Minister for Finance has the power, without reference to the Dáil or Oireachtas, to enter massive, unlimited financial obligations on behalf of the State. This matter demands debate by this House at an early date. This decision by the High Court has huge implications for the people of Ireland.
On 23 October 2013, the Taoiseach when appearing before the Seanad told Senators, "I come in peace, not war". In regard to his promises to reform the Seanad and then to not reform it, where stands the promised legislation in regard to reform of the Seanad?
It is a period of détente at the moment. The Government has authorised the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to publish the heads of a Bill dealing with elements of the Seanad following the referendum decision by the people in 1979. During my visit to the Seanad, which was in peace and not war, I heard many proposals from Senators, some of which were valid but would require the holding of other referenda and others that require changes to the current structure. These proposals are currently being analysed. Following completion of this analysis I will engage with the Leader of the House on the most effective ways of bringing about change.
My first question relates to the Gas Regulation Bill, in respect of which the Taoiseach's earlier response was not adequate. If a reasonable offer is received for Bord Gáis Energy will the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, as he is obliged to, inform the House of it?
When will the Courts (Consolidation and Reform) Bill be published? There are dozens of people outside the gates of Leinster House today who have huge issues with the courts. We all know that they are in bad need of reform. The new court to be established following the result of the recent referendum will not address this problem. Does the so-called reforming Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, who we are told commences work at 5 a.m. every day, propose to reform the courts?
The answer to the Deputy's final question is, "Yes". On the sale of Bord Gáis Energy, the Government has made very clear that there will be no fire sale of State assets. These will be only sold at the appropriate time and in the best interests of the Irish people. When a decision in respect of the sale of Bord Gáis Energy has been made the Government will bring the matter before the House for discussion.
The Government has promised important legislation to merge the Human Rights Commission and Equality Authority. When will that legislation be brought before the House?
The survivors of thalidomide are specifically referred to in the programme for Government. Will the Taoiseach indicate whether or not the Minister for Health has met with the two organisations representing the survivors of thalidomide and when we can expect to see progress in terms of a proper compensation arrangement for these people? Notwithstanding the fact that compensation is being made available by Germany, when will the Irish Government fulfil its responsibilities in relation to the 32 individuals concerned?
The Bill regarding the merger of the Human Rights Commission and Equality Authority is expected to be published before the House rises for Christmas. On the issue of thalidomide survivors, the number of whom is finite, the Minister has engaged with them. The Government is currently dealing with survivors of the Magdalen laundries, symphysiotomy and a number of other problematic areas. I will forward a note to the Deputy on the up-to-date position in regard to the thalidomide survivors.
The Taoiseach will be aware of the concern for many years among farming families in relation to food labelling which was articulated again last week by one of the main farming organisations.
Will the Taoiseach indicate when the consumer and competition Bill is expected to come before the House? It is of great importance that people are aware of what they are consuming, particularly in the food sector.
Food labelling that serves to inform consumers of the properties of prepackaged food is governed by harmonised EU rules. While the Minister for Health has overall responsibility for general food labelling legislation, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland have an important role in the labelling of food. The FSAI has published guidelines which provide an overview of the legislative requirements for the documentation and labelling of all meats, including beef, and I understand that material is currently under review. I will send the up-to-date information to the Deputy.
When can we expect the National Treasury Management Agency (amendment) Bill to be published? How much funding does the Taoiseach expect to have on hand, after 15 December, to finance the running of the State next year? Different figures were given at budget time in terms of the NTMA kitty.
I support the points made by the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and Deputy Mary Lou McDonald in regard to homelessness. While I commend the Taoiseach on his engagement with one of our homeless citizens, it is time for him, as Head of Government, to address this desperate crisis. In my own constituency, for example, 5,000 families are on the housing list or in homeless accommodation, which usually consists of one room in a hotel or bed and breakfast. Will the Taoiseach invite the new city manager, Mr. Owen Keegan, and other relevant parties to initiate an emergency programme to begin dealing with the problem of homelessness and the housing crisis in advance of Christmas?
The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has taken this issue in hand and is actively pursuing it. She will report to Government on what is required in due course. There is a national challenge to be faced in his regard. We have had a complete stagnation in the construction sector for some time because of the general collapse in the housing market. Everybody has a responsibility in this matter, from local authorities, through the Department, Government and the various agencies. The Minister of State is overseeing all of that and when she reports to Cabinet, we will decide how we can act most effectively to address the challenges. Had we unlimited resources and a thriving construction sector, the problem might not be as great as it is. Nobody wants to see families living in one-bedroom apartments or in bed and breakfast or hotel accommodation, as happened in the Deputy's constituency when residents of Priory Hall had to be evacuated as a matter of urgency. We are taking steps to deal with the issues.
In the context of the forthcoming national paediatric hospital development board (amendment) Bill and in light of recent highlighted concerns, will the Taoiseach give a commitment that there will be no further delays in the construction of the national children's hospital? It is a critical piece of infrastructure for sick children throughout the country.
According to the legislative programme, the geothermal energy development Bill is due to be published next year. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether the Government has any intention of bringing forward a legislative framework to deal with wind energy, which is an issue of serious concern to many people, particularly in the midlands? Will that framework be brought forward before any large-scale planning applications for industrial wind farms are submitted?
The minerals development Bill has to be brought forward before the geothermal energy development Bill. The former is listed for this session but will not be published until the next session, after which we will bring forward the geothermal energy development Bill.
I hope there is no further delay in the construction of the national paediatric hospital. Who am I to say, however, that we will not have the usual types of objections or claims going before courts? I look forward to advancing this project, which is of national importance. The boards are now in place and very good people have been appointed. The segments and timelines are laid out and I hope the project can be moved on. As the Deputy knows, the money is in place.
In the interest of the security of everybody on this island and the neighbouring island, will the explosives Bill be prioritised? This legislation is of particular urgency given the recent security concerns in Northern Ireland, where a potentially huge loss of life was averted by the work of the security forces. These explosive devices were placed without any regard for the health and safety of civilians.