Tuesday, 15 December 2015
I assume every Member will want to congratulate the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, on coming up with a resolution that has resulted in the deferral of threatened industrial action in our accident and emergency departments, but, unfortunately, a consequence of the late resolution of the problem was that hundreds of patients across the country had their elective procedures deferred and they will join the thousands on waiting lists. This is shoddy to say the least in so far as the union gave considerable notice that it intended taking this industrial action but, unfortunately, it was not until the last minute that compromise was arrived at. The Government parties have a habit of allowing situations to become totally chaotic before they take action.
To add insult to injury, we learned today from The Irish Timesthat a shortfall of €100 million is identifiable in the HSE's service plan for 2016, which will inevitably result in a failure to treat thousands of people in hospitals and a failure to meet the treatment targets set down by the Minister for Health of 15 months for adults and 20 weeks for children. It has to be accepted that the Government has not been honest in its health budgeting over the past five years. It set targets knowing they could not be met. Waiting lists and waiting times have lengthened and overcrowding in accident and emergency departments has gone from crisis to chaos.
The Minister for Health said that next year's budget will maintain existing levels of service but we all know what that means. Interestingly, last weekend, the chief executive officer of the HSE, Mr. Tony O'Brien, said, "The health service has been on death row since 2011" and there is no money, no plan and no vision. Does the Taoiseach agree with Mr. O'Brien that there is no money, no plan or no vision?
When the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, says he concurs with many of the valid points made by Mr. O'Brien, some of which the Minister has also made, is he referring to this key element of the lack of vision, money and a plan?
Gabh mo leithscéal, tá rud eicint mícheart le mo ghuth. I am glad the INMO has reached an agreement with HSE management to call off the strike. As was pointed out by the Minister for Health on a number of occasions, strike action would not deal with a single person on a trolley anywhere. It was not the Government that called the strike in the first place and I am glad the negotiations have resulted in the strike not taking place. I point out to Deputy Ó Fearghaíl that the number of people on trolleys this morning at 8 a.m. was 290, which is down 33% on this day in 2014. It is still too many but very much down. The Government recognises that working in emergency departments can be a very trying and difficult job. Recruiting and retaining staff is always a challenge. I hope the nurses and unions will vote in favour of the package agreed at the Workplace Relations Commission and that the planned action for Tuesday, 12 and Wednesday, 13 January will not arise. It is very unfortunate that this planned action resulted in the deferral of elective procedures in the hospitals concerned and that people waiting to undergo procedures today will have to go through the process again.
I do not accept that money is not being put into the health service plan. Over €13 billion has been put into it this year, which is an increase of over €800 million. I point out to Deputy Ó Fearghaíl that the service plan will be published tomorrow and the Minister has made it clear there is no diminution in any service and that there are targeted increases in services in a number of areas. That is for the good of the patient and for the benefit of the health service in general.
The question of work practices is always an issue in hospitals and the discussions surrounding that are of concern for nurses who work at the front line, doctors and management. The answer to the Deputy's question is that there is more money in there than before. There is no requirement for any diminution in service, instead services will be maintained and there will be targeted increases in a number of areas. The longer term vision is to end the two-tier system and introduce a single tier system, accessible to everybody and based on medical requirements rather than income.
The Taoiseach had a plan in 2007 to get rid of trolleys. He had a plan and made a promise to introduce universal health insurance which was abandoned last month by the Government. He got rid of the National Treatment Purchase Fund which was working effectively. The Taoiseach has agreed a plan to deal with the situation in emergency departments. It is clear that it will add to waiting times for those waiting for elective procedures. There are 16,000 people waiting for colonoscopies across the country, 3,700 of whom have been waiting more than six months. That is a totally unacceptable situation. At the weekend, the CEO of the health executive said there was no plan, vision or money in the context of the sort of multi-annual budgeting that the National Health Service in Britain has. It is an appalling indictment of the health service that the Taoiseach and his Government are operating. In 2013, we were briefed that the Taoiseach was going to personally take charge of the health service, he was going to grab it by the scruff of the neck. Does the Taoiseach accept that he, his two Ministers for Health and his Government have failed the Irish people and have been an abject failure when it comes to delivering to the Irish people the calibre of service they require?
The plan is to abolish an unfair two-tier system and provide a system of universal health care to be funded by a particular model of universal health insurance. We had a plan to establish hospital groups, which we have established. We had a plan to put primary care centres in situand there are now 46 more centres around the country than in 2011. We had a plan to provide those under the age of six with free GP cards, which has been implemented. We had a plan to provide over-70s with free GP cards and that is being implemented. The next step is to introduce cards for under-12s.
We had a plan to increase staff in our health service. Almost 300 additional consultants have been appointed since 2011 and since January 2015 more than 750 nurses and 250 non-consultant hospital doctors have been recruited, which is also part of the plan. We had a plan to put money into the mental health services, which the Deputy's party never bothered with, and we trebled mental health funding and provided a suicide prevention strategy which aims to reduce suicide by 10% by 2020. We stabilised private health insurance. Fianna Fáil put the HSE together on top of all the health boards. The result was described by the chief executive as an amorphous blob - the Deputy's party created an amorphous blob.
Deputy Ó Fearghaíl knows that we want to provide a single tier universal health care system. To do that, all these foundations have to be put in place which takes time in the health service, as the Deputy is well aware. I disagree entirely with Deputy Ó Fearghaíl. Over €13 billion will go into the health service in 2016, which is €880 million more than in 2014. Despite the Deputy's comments, it will maintain services and provide increased services in a targeted number of areas.
Feicim go bhfuil slaghdán air agus caithfidh sé an dochtúir a fheiceáil go gasta. On Friday, I visited Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim and Cortober in County Roscommon to witness the devastating effects of the Shannon floods on homes and businesses. I met with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, local hoteliers, shopkeepers, publicans, householders and visited a number of local businesses. I commend all of those people, including the local council, who made a huge effort to put up sand bag defences and other preventative measures. One man whose business, the cineplex, has been closed as a result of the floods pays €23,500 yearly in rates and provides much needed local jobs. He cannot obtain flood insurance, neither can other business, many of which are also closed. I met with residents from St. Patrick's Park who are penned in by flood water.
The people I met are deeply upset by the lack of strategic planning by the Government on a problem which they say is entirely predictable and preventable. Some of the issues raised with me include the urgent need to fast-track the catchment flood risk assessment and management programme. The need for consultation with local people who have knowledge and expertise of flood patterns is a critical and often neglected part of this. They raised the abolition of the regional drainage boards which means the responsibility for cleaning Shannon tributaries is now left to underfunded local councils, which has resulted in an absence of sustainable draining systems. Despite various appeals, the Government has refused to allocate funds for land drainage schemes in the Shannon regions which should include the utilisation of callow and natural floodplains. No single agency is responsible for the management of the River Shannon. Will the Taoiseach give full responsibility to the OPW for management of the Shannon? Will he establish a State-funded insurance scheme for households and businesses that are affected by flooding and cannot get flood insurance, which they have not been able to get for some time?
With all the people Deputy Adams met in Carrick-on-Shannon, it looked to me as though he was canvassing but I understand that is not the case. In any event, it does not take from the stress and pressure on people in private houses or businesses when floodwaters come.
Last week the Government reactivated the €10 million humanitarian fund for private house owners. It is now available through the community welfare office system. The Government has also put together a €5 million compensation fund for small businesses with fewer than 20 employees. The requirements in terms of access to this funding are that the dates during which the premises were flooded and the rateable valuation of the property must be authenticated by a local authority engineer. An initial sum of €5,000 can be sought and paid before Christmas, with the opportunity, if the flooding is really bad, to claim a further €15,000 in compensation duly authenticated and validated by way of invoices and so on. That is the immediate response. I agree with Deputy Gerry Adams's remarks on the services and volunteers who have slaved day and night. I saw first-hand during a visit last Sunday to Foxford, Ballina and Crossmolina the full impact of the flood waters.
The Deputy's proposal regarding a single authority for the River Shannon has been around for many years. It is not possible to do it, given that statutory authority for the River Shannon rests with a number of bodies, including the ESB, the OPW, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and many fisheries, tourism, commercial and local authority interests. While the proposal may sound wonderful, in public discussion the co-ordination required has thus far proved to be exceptionally difficult. I agree with the Deputy that the Shannon is a slow moving river and that it drains 40% of the country. The implications for people living below the Parteen weir in terms of the efforts being made to minimise flood damage speak for themselves. The Government has set out a ten year strategy. There are 300 locations included in the catchment flood risk assessment and management, CFRAM, programme, in respect of which flood defences need to be provided, 66 of which are located along the River Shannon. While there is no single authority with responsibility for it, it will be possible to identify under the CFRAM programme which authority bears responsibility and what should be done, bearing in mind that in some instances there will be an overlap of responsibility between authorities.
The arterial drainage programme of the 1950s and late 1960s is finished. There is no longer a need for arterial drainage. The system was put in place for agri-purposes, based on three to five year projections. Flood defences are supposed to last 100 years. I refer the Deputy to what happened in Carlisle where almost €40 million was spent on flood defences that did not work. It is important, therefore, that we get it right. I commend the practicality of the OPW, for instance, in Clonmel where it raised the barriers under the flood relief scheme, which has proved very successful. I sympathise with people on the damage done to their houses and businesses. The Government has, at least, responded quickly by providing some immediate relief. The the longer term plan, under which almost €500 mill be spent in the next six years on the putting in place of, I hope, flood defences that will address any future issue, is being drawn up by the OPW.
The Taoiseach has said it is not possible to set up a single authority with responsibility for the management of the River Shannon. Surely, that is what we are here for. We are paid to enact legislation in that regard if it is the right way forward. It is possible if there is the political. The problem is that successive Governments, rather than being proactive or strategic, have been reactive.
The Taoiseach has mentioned that a €10 million humanitarian fund and another emergency fund of €5 million have been provided. However, as a result of cuts to the OPW's flood risk management programme, flood relief has been reduced by €15.6 million, which means what the Government is giving by way of the funds mentioned amounts to only €6,000. As a result of climate change, extreme weather events will get worse. Events which may have occurred only every 30 or 40 years will now happen every five years. The Government needs to face up to this and plan for it in a strategic way. Many of us have seen first-hand the serious problems with which people have to deal. God help those who year-in, year-out have had to bail out water from their homes, cannot get insurance and whose possessions have been destroyed as they face into Christmas.
In February 2014 I visited Limerick after a severe flooding event, following which I raised these same issues with the Taoiseach.
The Taoiseach failed to adhere to commitments he made at the time. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is happy to blame the insurance industry for its refusal to provide flood cover.
As the Taoiseach did not answer the following question, I will put it to him again. Will he, first, reverse the cut to the OPW's flood risk management programme and, second and most important, will he bring forward proposals for a State-funded flood insurance scheme? The second proposal is crucial for folks.
As I said to the Deputy, many of the authorities that have responsibility or overlapping responsibilities along the River Shannon are statutory authorities. On his point that if there was the will, we could have a single authority, the process of putting in place of such an authority would, in practice, be lengthy in terms of visits to the courts on the definition of responsibility and what statutory authority meant. Those whose homes and businesses are flooded cannot wait because the river continues to rise and the current defences are inadequate. The Deputy has seen the pictures of the thousands of acres of areas under water. While some flexibility is provided for in the farming sector in terms of the movement of animals, flooded slurry pits and so on, the main issue concerns how we are going to deal with the flooded areas in a pragmatic fashion. I noted when travelling home last weekend that many of the areas flooded were areas that had always been subject to flooding during the 40 years I had been travelling to and from Dublin. It happens in the winter time. The difference is that there are now buildings and houses in places where they should not be.
It is not that the OPW has not been carrying out work; it has completed flood defences in 34 areas, including Clonmel and Mallow, both of which towns escaped the recent flooding. The OPW is working on seven schemes in areas such as Ennis, Fermoy and Bray and on the River Dodder. In 2016 work on a further five schemes, two of which will be in Claregalway and Bandon, will commence. The OPW is at various stages of planning of a further 22 projects, including one in Crossmolina which was flooded last week. By mid-2016 the OPW hopes to have a feasible solution in place for the 300 areas at risk of flooding. As I said, in this regard the Government is providing €1 billion in the next ten years, €460 million of which will be provided in the next five or six years, which is more money than has been ever spent in the past.
If more is required in terms of business relief, the Government will consider the matter.
On insurance for houses, we will look at the issue. I want to make it clear that the Government has no intention of putting further levies on householders for insurance cover. The scheme in England excluded houses built after 2009 and small businesses. That is not a model that would work here. There is a memorandum of understanding between the insurance companies and the OPW. They share information of a commercial nature which is then factored into insurance assessments. A great deal of work is ongoing. I reiterate my thanks to all concerned for their support and hope the waters will not rise to a point where houses will be flooded further.
In the past few weeks we have witnessed the devastation caused by flooding in many areas throughout the country. In the past week I attended two meetings with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the drawing up of new maps, which process I have discovered to my horror is not being carried out in local offices, which is rather unusual.
I welcome the €5 million compensation fund for small businesses. The Taoiseach will probably have seen for himself the many family farms, slatted sheds and fodder damaged by flooding. Septic tanks, on which people had to pay a €5 levy following the introduction of legislation in January 2011, have also been damaged. I have learned in the past few days that the cost of repairs to damaged septic tanks which are registered but outside the 5% required to be inspected annually will not be met by the council or the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The people concerned who abided by the law introduced by the Government in 2011 will have to meet the cost of repairs to their septic tanks, only because they are not included in the 5% of septic tanks required to be inspected annually under EU law.
Will the Taoiseach clarify if a family farm which is affected, whether it is its slatted shed or fodder, is considered a business? I class family farms across the country as businesses run by farmers.
Will the Taoiseach put one person or body in charge? There are currently 17 bodies looking after the Shannon. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is sitting next to the Taoiseach. We have the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Inland Fisheries Ireland. Each organisation is blocking the other and the OPW, with the best will in the world, is going around in circles. It is trying to play happy families with everyone but it is being blocked. For once and for all, can we take the bull by the horns? Will one body with the authority to carry out relief works for flooding, dredging or whatever, without every obstacle possible being put in its way, be made responsible for the rivers? Will family farms receive payment under the SME scheme? Given the septic tank legislation, will a payment be made to those who are not in the 5% category? Currently they are being refused even though they complied with the law.
Under the Arterial Drainage Acts, 1945 and 1995, streams are maintained to a standard by the Office of Public Works. This includes all 11,500 km of channel, 700 km of various embankments and associated scheme bridges, sluices, weirs, pumping stations and so on. Deputy Fitzmaurice is well aware that the suitably equipped hydraulic equipment does not gouge out new channels but removes, where maintenance is carried out, silted-up areas and sediment that becomes lodged due to currents in rivers.
It is obvious that farming is a business. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his Department recognise that fact, which is why particular flexibility has been shown in respect of the agrisector in this regard. Deputy Fitzmaurice knows that farmers are the first to come to each other's rescue. All over the country, where farmers get into trouble, their neighbours and community come to assist in terms of fodder, moving of animals and other issues such as flooded houses.
The Deputy knows from his previous existence the difficulties that can arise when one gets tangled with a Department or State authority. I am not saying that to the Deputy's detriment as he is entitled to his opinion. However, when one multiplies it by a plethora of statutory authorities, the important point is that the Office of Public Works, instead of glad-handling everyone, as described by Deputy Fitzmaurice, has identified 300 areas, 66 of which are on the Shannon. It will identify who is responsible and who should carry out the works required. This might be more effective than hoping to find a single entity, which would take years in court hearings and legal challenges from one statutory authority to another, some of which have been around since before the State was founded. The situation is not as simple as is suggested. The problem is that rivers rise when rainfall increases and the Shannon is a slow river-riser in that sense. People are now in dread of bad weather over the next week or so and I hope it does not happen, but there is a serious ongoing programme in place.
Deputy Fitzmaurice will also appreciate that when flood defences have to go into Athlone, Galway, Ennis, Fermoy or elsewhere, they have to be done right. There is no point in putting up something that is haphazard or ill-thought out. The hydrological surveys will also have to have been carried out.
I accept that many older people have great experience of drainage patterns and that experience should be called into account when the Office of Public Works or anyone else looks at land or tributaries that should be drained. Older people and farmers will say that for 50 years an area did or did not flood. In so many cases, commercial developers said they knew how to drain an area but that is not how it turned out. All that experience should, in our common interest, be used and applied.
We are coming to the season of goodwill so I ask the Taoiseach to clarify two simple issues for me. Will the Red Cross scheme cover farmers that have lost fodder or whose slatted sheds have been damaged given they are classed, in the Taoiseach's own words, as a business?
Are the people with septic tanks, affected by regulations introduced in 2011, covered? We are well aware of the protests at the time about registering septic tanks. The people who registered are now being refused payment by councils because the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is saying they are not entitled to the money as they are not in the 5% category. Will the Taoiseach ensure those people are looked after? It is a straightforward question. Will farmers be brought in under the Red Cross scheme? Those are the two simple questions I would like answered.
The criteria for compensation for businesses under the Red Cross scheme are that the business in question would be located within the defined flood-risk area as set out by the Office of Public Works, that it would be flooded between the 4 December and 17 December, as authenticated by a local authority engineer, and that no insurance was available to the business. It is clear that many agricultural farms are located outside the areas defined by the Office of Public Works as being flood plains.
The requirement in respect of septic tanks was to register the tanks for €5. Registration under the scheme was costed by some on the opposite side of the House at €20,000, which was not the case. The intention was that, in respect of sediment and effluent coming from septic tanks that were not working properly, the tanks would be assessed on an interim basis-----
The vast majority were in country areas outside areas designated flood-relief areas by the OPW and with exceptional rainfall they flood. It is not the first time this has happened. I cannot see that as being eligible under the Red Cross scheme but perhaps the local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government might be able to consider some element of it. On the criteria set out for the Red Cross scheme for businesses, many of them will not apply because they do not meet the conditions.