Tuesday, 31 May 2016
Order of Business
It is proposed to take No. 5, motion re ministerial rota for parliamentary questions; No. 5a, motion re membership of Committee of Selection on the Supplementary Order Paper; and No. 7, statements on mental health services (resumed). It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that Nos. 5 and 5a shall be decided without debate; Private Members’ business shall be No. 18, motion re protection of workers’ rights; and the following time limits and sequence of speakers shall apply: the Labour Party, 40 minutes; the Government, 25 minutes; Fianna Fáil, 25 minutes; Sinn Féin, 15 minutes; Independents4Change, ten minutes; AAA-PBP, ten minutes; technical group 1, ten minutes; technical group 2, ten minutes; the Labour Party, ten minutes; Government, 15 minutes; proposer to reply, ten minutes.
There are two proposals to be put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 5 and No. 5a agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Private Members' business agreed to? Agreed. I call Deputy Martin on the Order of Business.
Will the Taoiseach indicate when we can expect publication of the Government's legislative programme outlining its legislative priorities? In that context, I note the programme for Government contains a commitment to introduce a health levy on sugar sweetened drinks. Will the Taoiseach indicate when that will be introduced? The Taoiseach said it would be good to have a ring-fenced fund but we can make that happen if we want. The Taoiseach can legislate to have a hypothecated fund or a ring-fenced fund where a certain proportion of expenditure is set aside every year. We did it before for technology and for hepatitis C, and the Taoiseach can do it for this area of new drug technologies, or he can use a sugar tax. While the methodology can be worked out, the idea of a ring-fenced fund should be put into practice. Will the Taoiseach indicate when a sugar tax will be introduced?
In the Thirty-first Dáil there was a Bill on the B list to introduce legislation for assisted human reproduction. The programme for Government for the Thirty-second Dáil contains a commitment to introduce legislation on the regulation of surrogacy and assisted human reproduction services. Will the Taoiseach indicate if this Bill will be on the A list when the Government produces its legislative programme? The Minister for Health is beside the Taoiseach and he might be in a position to indicate how high up the list that is.
Last week I asked the Taoiseach about the cap that seems to have been put on the supply of home care packages and home helps, even though there is a commitment in the programme for Government to increase funding for same. In addition to increased waiting times for home care packages, there is also an increase in the number of people waiting for clearance for the fair deal scheme. At the end of April 2016 there were 603 waiting four weeks, which compares to 197 at the end of September 2015, when the average waiting time was two weeks. Clearly, something has happened over the last two months, as most Deputies in the House can confirm, not least the Deputies beside me. Someone needs to review the waiting times and the cap that is being put on this area of home care packages needs to be lifted. Will the Taoiseach indicate when those items in the programme for Government will be implemented?
At Cabinet this morning we restored 13 Bills to the Dáil clár which had fallen when the Dáil was dissolved. These include the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016, the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, the National Shared Services Office Bill 2016, the Single Resolution Board (Loan Facility Agreement) Bill 2016, the Minerals Development Bill 2015, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015, the Criminal Justice (Offences Relating to Information Systems) Bill 2016, the Medical Practitioners (Amendment) Bill 2014, the Road Traffic Bill 2016, the National Tourism Development Authority (Amendment) Bill 2015, the Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 and the Technological Universities Bill 2015.
They are restored to the Order Paper. I expect the legislative programme will come before Cabinet next week, once Minister and Secretaries General have settled on what it is they want to be able to put through during the forthcoming period.
We have had this practice of A lists, B lists and C lists for as long as I can remember. On every occasion the Dáil has come back, Ministers were sent in to get their Bill on the A list and they found themselves with 25 or 30 Bills, none of which appeared until the second half of the Dáil programme, which resulted in all of the pressure for guillotines to be applied.
This is a different situation. To get any Bill through now, we need consensus, agreement, consultation and so on. That is what Members are going to have, and they will have plenty of it. There is no point looking for 25 Bills on the A list when a Minister is only going to get three or four through. The committees that will be set up by the Oireachtas will have a far greater responsibility than previously. Members should not be expecting A lists and B lists. We need to know what are the priority pieces of legislation from Ministers and their Departments that are important to put through in this session, which will last until the end of July or the middle of August - just to be on the right side of the argument - before the House rises for the summer, and again for the second period when we move into preparation for the budget for 2017.
Deputy Martin mentioned surrogacy-----
The Bills that will be brought before the House will be Bills that have a realistic chance of being discussed in the public interest. I expect that next week.
Issues like the sugar tax and such like are a matter for the budget. The Minister for Health will have as many or more home care packages for this year. He is looking at the question of the waiting lists for home care packages and the timescales involved, which Deputy Martin mentioned. He is trying to get a fix on a whole new strategy for attempting to deal with the many problems in the health care sector that can be dealt with effectively and with the cost-effective use of the taxpayers' money. We would expect the legislative programme before the Cabinet next Wednesday.
Tá trí cheist agam faoi chlár an Rialtais ar an Seanad, ar an nGarda Síochána agus ar an drugs payment scheme. Having listened to the Taoiseach waxing lyrically, I note the programme for Government in a wonderful understatement acknowledges that significant reform of the Seanad is long overdue, and states, "We will pursue the implementation of the Manning Report, as a priority". In light of the secret deal done between the Taoiseach and Teachta Martin to give Teachta Martin the right to nominate three people to the Seanad, how seriously should we take that commitment to Seanad reform? What happened to the Government's commitment to openness and transparency or, for that matter, to Fianna Fáil's commitment to new politics?
Is this the extent of the reform of the Seanad? On 12 occasions reports have been proposed on Seanad reform and not one has been implemented. We are proposing the establishment of a committee on Seanad reform to report within weeks. Will the Government's new Seanadóirí support this proposal?
On the issue of An Garda Síochána, the programme for Government commits the Government to supporting the new independent Policing Authority. Sinn Féin is very critical of the decision by the Government to only provide the Policing Authority with responsibility for nominating persons for the posts of Garda Commissioner and deputy Garda commissioner. Despite our efforts to get it to do it the way Patten did it, the Government has retained the power to make these appointments, which is unacceptable. However, my concern today is that, last Tuesday, the Cabinet appointed four of the eight vacant assistant Garda commissioner posts. Under the legislation establishing the Policing Authority, this was to be its responsibility and I understand it was to take up this responsibility in July. At this time of controversy and difficulties, why did the Cabinet completely undermine the role of the new Policing Authority in appointing these assistant Garda commissioners one month before the legislation is due to come into effect? What of the other four unfilled positions and the up to 20 senior Garda promotions we understand are to be announced shortly? Is the Government going to make these appointments also? Does the Taoiseach not accept these Cabinet decisions undermine the role and function of the Policing Authority and the commitment to it that the programme for Government contains?
A constituent of mine contacted me last week to express her concern once again at the failure of the HSE to agree the availability of immunotherapy treatments for cancer patients, specifically Opdivo and Yervoy.
This woman has been involved in a clinical trial since 2013. She is now in remission and her story is a good one, but other cancer patients do not receive these drugs or the new drug, Pembrolizumab, which one oncologist described as game changing. It is being hailed, along with the other immunotherapy treatments, as a replacement for chemotherapy and with significantly better outcomes for patients. It is also said to be cost-effective for the State. Delaying this decision will cost lives. Will the Taoiseach instruct the Minister for Health to clear away whatever obstacles there may be to immunotherapy treatments and the use of these drugs?
The Minister has already done that. There is a very clear process for the determination of drugs of this nature. It is done through a clinical process. The meeting is tomorrow and the Minister will be informed and will report on it. Obviously he is anxious to have an effective process expedited in the patients' interests. Decisions are made clinically and not by politicians or the Government.
In respect of the second matter raised by the Deputy, last week the Government appointed four assistant commissioners. Let me be very clear about this. The Government did not change the recommendations or the order of recommendations made in respect of those nominees for positions which were vacant. The reason they were appointed was because significant areas of the country were not in the charge of any assistant commissioner and it was felt appropriate that those four appointments, which came through the process in the order in which they were nominated, be put in position to deal with the fact we had an escalating gangland situation with serious elements of crime to be dealt with and significant parts of the country were not under the direction or control of any assistant commissioner.
The other appointments to be made, and the 20 or more senior appointments that must be made, will be made by the independent Policing Authority. The Government will have no function in making those appointments. This will apply from now on for all those appointments. They will be made completely by the independent Policing Authority. It was just the urgency of this situation and the fact huge areas of the country were without direction from an assistant commissioner, putting pressure on the entire system, that they were put in place. I confirm to the Deputy again there was no change in the order or the recommendations made.
In respect of the Deputy's first question, I would like to see the Manning report implemented in terms of reform of the Seanad. We have had so many reports, commissions and work groups over the past 40 years looking at the Seanad. The people decided they wanted the Seanad to remain and remain it will. In my view, I would like to see the new Seanad deal with the implementation of the Manning report. Perhaps it might not be able to be implemented in all of its facets, but it is a report based on an objective, experienced analysis of people who have served in the Seanad and who have no further personal interest or stake in it other than to see how it might work effectively.
In respect of the Deputy's remark about Deputy Martin, the position under the Constitution is the nominees of the Taoiseach refer specifically to the Taoiseach of the day. I could have decided not to have had anything to do with Deputy Martin in this regard, but I think nobody could object-----
I will be straight with the Deputy. This is a partnership Government. It is very different to having a majority Government, because one is not in a position to do as one might like. I did say that if he gave me a couple of nominations from particular sectors I would consider them. Can anybody object to the founder of Pieta House being able to give of that experience? Can anybody object to the chief executive of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland or a business person adding to the range of what is in the Seanad? This is the reason. These are important facets of understanding that we are in a very different political position to where we were before, and attitudinal change is very important. I like to think the appointments made will work in the broader interests of many issues. We will debate mental health this evening, which is of such importance. So many people are behind closed doors where the public might never know about it with tragic consequences in some cases.
I am a little concerned the Order of Business is developing into an alternative form of Taoiseach's Questions, and we need to curtail the length of the questions and the answers.
The Ceann Comhairle might start the curtailment when I have finished since he was generous with others.
I bring the Taoiseach's attention to the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures) Act 2016. It was the last Act passed by the House on 11 February. It is now 110 days later. In three and a half months we have not passed a single Bill. I cannot recall in my time here a period of time elapsing like this. The Taoiseach has indicated a list of Bills, some of which I have in front of me, which are ready to roll. Some of them have passed Second Stage and others are in the middle of Second Stage. The Taoiseach mentioned the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill, and legislation dealing with paternity leave and with standards in public office, in which I was involved. All of these Bills are ready. Why are we not dealing with legislation this week? We need to have a real legislative programme to get our teeth into and I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that we have this. I am amazed we do not have it for this week, but certainly we should have a comprehensive legislative programme for next week.
On a similar issue, we are halfway through the year and we have not passed any departmental Estimate. It cannot be that more than half of the allocated resource to a Department is extended without the authorisation of the House. It is constitutionally fraught to allow this. When will the Revised Book of Estimates be published so we can refer the Revised Estimates to committees and give them legal authority?
The Taoiseach will share with me the following deep concern. This morning, I heard that the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is finding life at Cabinet very difficult. Is there anything we can do at this time of trauma for him to ease the burdens which are obviously placed upon him?
Love them all to bits. It is a new circumstance and it is never easy, as Deputy Howlin knows from experience, but believe me we will give every opportunity for those who serve in government to serve well and do their duty with responsibility.
Where difficulties arise we will try to have everybody understand there is collective responsibility on the House to move it forward. Deputy McGrath and anybody else can rest assured we will politically love them to bits, in the sense of-----
In respect of the Estimates, the only Estimate passed, as the Deputy knows, was for the Central Statistics Office because the census had to be taken on 24 April. The Minister expects to deal with all of the Estimates for 2016 in the next two weeks and will follow this with a timetable for setting out the summer statement and dealing with the preparations for the budget for 2017.
I will send the date to the Deputy, but it will be in the next two weeks. The Minister has already outlined it.
With regard to the long list of Bills, I do not want a long list of Bills which will never go through. I want a list of Bills-----
Next Tuesday, I will have a list of Bills which are really important which Ministers and Departments are really anxious to put through, for instance dealing with the question of prescription drugs before the summer recess. The Minister is working very hard on this, and instead of waiting for it to come through by the end of the year we hope that with a bit of agreement it might be possible to put it through before the House rises for the summer.
This morning, The Irish Timesreported a briefing note prepared for the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, suggests the qualifying age for disability allowance be raised from 16 years to 18 years. It states the reason for doing so is that young people with disabilities might be considered as a cohort in the broad definition of jobseekers. Last Saturday, the same newspaper reported on a briefing paper sent to the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, suggesting linking disability payments to an applicant's ability to work.
The Taoiseach is well aware that the Government has indicated a plan in the programme for Government to introduce a fit-for-work labour activation scheme aimed at people with disabilities and people who have suffered serious illnesses. Despite the denial of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, in the House last week that this is in any way similar to the British Tory Government's work capability assessment - a scheme which is now being investigated by the United Nations on human rights grounds after more than 2,000 people died within six weeks of being declared fit for work - it smells very much like it. It is clear that a package of measures concerning these issues is coming down the track. Can the Taoiseach give the House an indication as to when that might be? When will we see legislation on these issues?
One gets many briefing notes in Departments, as Deputy Barry is aware. No memo has come to Government from the Minister for Social Protection in that regard. We launched the comprehensive strategy for work for people with disabilities some time ago. People with disabilities are as entitled to jobs as anybody else. We would like to see them happy in their work and that the work in which they are engaged pays. This has nothing to do with the other scheme to which the Deputy refers. In that sense, briefing notes are one thing but decisions by Government are another. We want to incentivise and encourage as many people as possible to engage in work that pays and in which they are happy, irrespective of their category.
I am sure the Taoiseach would join me in welcoming the first meeting of the Select Committee on Arrangements for Budgetary Scrutiny tomorrow. I understand that the budgetary process in June is a critical period where some of the initial Estimates from Departments are formulated and talks between the Department of Public Expenditure and other Departments take place. I also understand we should have a different budgetary process this year so that we do not wait until budget 2018 to implement any change. If the Taoiseach agrees with that, can he outline when the sectoral committees will be established and whether they will be able to take part in a revised budgetary process so that each Department and every Member of this House have the chance through their sectoral committees to engage in the process? I understand we need to do this to the required timeline, which is in the next two weeks. Will that be possible? Do we have the resources and the ability to set up the committees that quickly? Is it part of the Government's vision of how this budget scrutiny process should operate that it should start this year, rather than just being an academic exercise which waits for 2018 before we do our business differently?
Yes, it will start this year, and the summer statement, to be issued after the Estimates for 2016 have been concluded, is the start of that process. I understand that the sectoral committees should be in operation by the week after next. This, in the run-in to the summer period before the House rises and in preparation for budget, is the start of that process. There will be the plenary discussion, the national consultative engagement and the opportunity for the sectoral committees to engage. The plenary session in this House will give its views on the different Estimates. The process is therefore already underway.
There has been a public outcry over the past couple of years over children with life-limiting conditions being denied access to medical cards. The Taoiseach has now promised to introduce automatic entitlement to a medical card for all children who qualify for the domiciliary care allowance. When can we expect to see this legislation?
When will we know whether we will have a Minister for the environment? Does the Taoiseach agree that while a Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is certainly appropriate, having no Minister with the title "environment" in Government, given the age in which we live, is a mistake in the programme for Government? Equally, culture has disappeared, the arts are downgraded and science has vanished from the title of any office holder in Government. When are we likely to know what the working titles of the different Departments will be?
There are two Bills of which I did not hear mention in the list outlined by the Taoiseach but which are very important to people. Regarding the schools admissions Bill, many people, particularly in urban areas, do not want their children's access to school to be entirely determined by their religious profession. What does the Taoiseach propose to do? That Bill was left ready by the previous Minister for Education and Skills.
Maybe the Deputy did not hear me correctly. It is on the list, at No. 13 today, to be restored to the Order Paper. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is at a meeting of Ministers for culture in Brussels today. The arts have not been downgraded. The progress of the school admissions Bill will continue. I recently had a bilateral meeting with the Minister for Education and Skills. That will be part of a normal process.
The main issue during the run-in to the election was about housing, planning and local government. The priorities were housing and homelessness. It was therefore practical to transform the previous Department into the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Out of that former Department came the question of the environment, central to which is climate change, an area that has now been moved to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. If people want to add the word "environment" to the title, that is fine by me. Deputy Burton is well aware that action is much more important than names or words.
I have listened to this business of the arts being downgraded for the last three weeks now. The arts are not being downgraded. In fact, more money was put into that sector and that Department over the last 18 months than for very many years. We want to maintain the importance of the sector. Titles are one thing but action and effectiveness are something else. Regardless of whether we restore a name or continue with the word "Environment" in the name of a Department, the central feature is climate change, which is much more important in the context of what we are trying to do in Europe and at home, with all the consequences that follow.
I refer the Taoiseach to page 57 of the programme for partnership Government and I refer here to the published programme as we do not have all the details of the other programme concerning Fine Gael's partnership with Fianna Fáil. Page 57 of the programme refers to the extension of the entitlement to a medical card for all children in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance, which follows on from the question asked by Deputy Shortall. We have prepared a Bill but it has been ruled out of order because it contravenes Standing Order 179. We would be very happy, and the 10,000 children who are relying on the quick passage of this legislation would be only too delighted, if the Taoiseach would join us in supporting this Bill.
The Taoiseach is well aware that in the programme for Government there was a commitment to protect our post office network. I do not know whether he is aware that the Minister for Social Protection has continued sending out letters to new welfare claimants, directing them to go to banks, credit unions and everywhere except post offices. I have some of these letters with me. They were sent to all Deputies today. This is a disgrace. The Government has said it wishes to protect our post office network and we now have the opportunity to do so. Could the Taoiseach please speak to the Minister for Social Protection and alert him to this fact? This is a terrible model.
The last point-----
I would like to make the Minister for Health aware that there was also a commitment given with regard to seven-day home help being made available where it is necessary. I ask him to ensure that this happens, please.
The Minister is aware of the issue raised in Deputy Healy-Rae's last comment in respect of the seven-day provision.
Deputy Michael Healy-Rae is well aware that the Government has decided to introduce a basic bank account for post offices so that such business can be conducted in post offices as some extra assistance to them to continue to exist in the time ahead. I will bring Deputy Michael Healy-Rae's comment to the notice of the Minister.
That completes the Order of Business. My apologies to the nine other Members who had indicated that they wanted to speak but those Members who consume an enormous amount of time do not leave time for other Members to contribute.