Tuesday, 13 December 2016
Questions on Proposed Legislation
A Cheann Comhairle, it seems to be extraordinarily chilly in the Chamber. I hold the view maybe it was to prevent Members from coming in in their T-shirts or something like that. I can assure you it is having the desired impact. It is becoming a hardship post in the week leading into Christmas.
Maybe the Ceann Comhairle does not want the temperatures to rise too much either. I can appreciate that.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government about reform of the system of appointment to State boards and to place it on a statutory basis. Unfortunately, there are no commitments on how to deal with Ministers who refuse to make appointments to State boards, even when the potential appointees have gone through the new system of appointments that was introduced by the previous Government in 2014.
Indeed, in the past couple of weeks there have been advertisements on television urging people to make applications through the Commission for Public Service Appointments and stating that the commission wants people's talents and ability. I understand that approximately 4,200 applications have gone through the Public Appointments Service. It is a centralised applications system through which applicants are short-listed. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, apparently has great difficulty following through with this system. The programme for Government contains a commitment to strengthen the system by putting it on a statutory footing by the end of 2016. What progress has been made on that commitment, given this is the last week of the session? Will that legislation be published?
No, obviously it will not be enacted before the end of the year. However, all applicants for positions on State boards now apply to the Public Appointments Service, PAS. That service, independently of the Department or Minister, examines the applications or expressions of interest for any positions that are open. The PAS determines the criteria, eligibility and appropriateness of persons to be considered for appointment. The service then sends a list of eligible and competent individuals to the Minister involved and the Minister is entitled to nominate from that list of eligible persons. In any event, Ministers do not know who applies for any of these positions. In respect of more serious positions under NewERA, the criteria, conditions of employment and specific requirements are set out in terms of the particular speciality a person might have and would bring to a State board.
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is reviewing the issue Deputy Micheál Martin has raised. However, it is open to a Minister who has received a list of competent persons, for example, ten or 12 from whom three were to be appointed, to set up an internal interview board in the Department to decide who to nominate from that list of eligible people.
The Constitutional Convention recommended that the right to vote in presidential elections should be extended to citizens of the North and to members of the diaspora, the people who were forced out of this country by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael Governments.
This morning, councillors from four of the largest councils in the North, that is, councillors from Mid Ulster District Council, Derry City and Strabane District Council, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, all of which support this position, took part in a protest outside the Dáil at the Government's deliberate long-fingering of this issue. Last Thursday, An tUachtarán held a ceremony for the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad. I was delighted to attend, especially for Drogheda man Brendan Fay, who has worked tirelessly for equality, and for others who have done our nation proud through their service. Michael D. reminded us that the journeys of the Irish emigrants are testimony to the creativity and resilience of all who have left our shores over previous centuries. He told us that the emigrants live fulfilling lives in their respective countries, but remain true to, and proud of, their Irish heritage. However, they cannot vote in this country, unlike the case with citizens of other states. A few weeks ago Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voted against a Sinn Féin proposal in the Seanad to allow such voting. The Minister of State said that an options paper is being prepared. When will this options paper be published and will the Government allocate time for it to be debated in the Dáil? Why has the Taoiseach changed his position on this issue? He told me previously that citizens of the diaspora and the North would be given voting rights.
I saw Deputy Adams in Áras an Uachtaráin and he is quite familiar with Uachtarán na hÉireann. I am not sure that it is appropriate for the Deputy to refer to him just by his first name in the Dáil. I believe the Uachtarán would like to be referred to with his official title, which is Uachtarán na hÉireann, and not as the Deputy referred to him.
This matter was the subject of discussion at the Cabinet sub-committee a few days ago. We have a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, the second person to hold that position, and obviously we have a great deal of interest in this issue.
In reality, it boils down to the question of citizenship and how we deal with the definition of that in the context of the law that already exists and how that should be determined for those who would vote. Clearly, on that basis, the citizens of Northern Ireland would be eligible to vote in a presidential election. This matter is being worked on and I will return to it in mid-January for an update on a number of questions that I have raised about this.
Over the past ten days we have all been shocked by the actions of a substantially profitable company proposing to eviscerate the pension rights of those working for that company. I understand the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, has indicated he is considering an intervention in this matter. The Labour Party has drafted a Bill that would amend the Pensions Act 1990 and is consulting the trade union movement on that legislation. That Bill would impose a liability on any solvent employer that winds up a defined pension scheme to carry a liability for those pensions. There has been much comment about this and Fianna Fáil is also in the process of drafting legislation on this matter. Will the Taoiseach indicate if legislation will be prepared as a matter of urgency to deal with this basically sharp practice?
This is obviously of great concern to those who are involved. The position, however, is that if we were to attempt to introduce legislation, it would not be retrospective. A number of matters are being discussed by the Minister for Social Protection with the Pensions Authority. The position is that he has consulted his officials, the Pensions Authority and the Attorney General on the matter but legislation is not contemplated as of now.
I note the comment from the chairman of the company involved yesterday to the effect that it was not contemplated that any dividend would be paid out. Obviously, this was a matter of some speculation.
As the Taoiseach is well aware, there is an understaffing of front-line nurses across all our hospitals and the current staff are under severe pressure. University Hospital Kerry in Tralee, Cork University Hospital and Killarney district hospital are all understaffed and that position is replicated throughout the country. The HSE has spent €250,000 advertising to attract nurses back home from abroad. A total of 88 returned home but more than half of those have emigrated again. What will the Taoiseach and the Government do to attract nurses to return home to provide a full complement of staff in all our hospitals? Does the Taoiseach know how much of a problem this is, the difficulties it is causing and the pressure the current staff are under? I ask him to act to attract nurses back into the workforce as they are urgently needed.
This is a matter the Minister keeps under review. It is a obviously a personal choice at the end of the day as to whether nurses wish to work in the Irish system, to work abroad or to return home from abroad. All those who have graduated are now being offered permanent contracts. A number of nurses have returned home. This is a very competitive area, particularly in countries where no tax is payable by those who work there, and many choose to go abroad for a number of years to gain experience and so on. I would make the point that the Public Service Pay Commission makes reference to sectoral pay in its remit and that is a matter that will be considered by it when it reflects on this particular area.
Page 79 of the programme for Government reads, "we must ensure that every young person leaving school can move seamlessly to a job, training or education, no-one [should have to] graduate onto welfare". Yesterday, I received a letter from a concerned parent in south Leitrim whose child attends school there and whose educational psychologist has recommended that the child should do a leaving certificate applied course. The parent on going to the school the child attends and has attended for the past number of years was told that the school does not provide this course. The parent contacted another post-primary school, a big school I might add, 14 miles away only to be told the same thing.
I have checked the records from last year, when there were 48 courses in Sligo, 79 in Galway, 73 in Mayo and 136 in Donegal but none in Leitrim. As a former educationalist, the Taoiseach should appreciate that this is wrong and needs to be addressed immediately.
It is certainly an issue of considerable personal concern. I do not understand why there is not a post-leaving certificate course in operation in Leitrim. The education and training board, ETB, would have reflected on the provision of courses. I will have the Minister for Education and Skills-----
It is a matter for the ETB. We need to find out the reason for this. The student should be as entitled as anybody else to have access to a course one can qualify through, particularly when it is recommended by his psychologist.
The mortgage special courts Bill was supposed to go to pre-legislative scrutiny last month. Will the Taoiseach inform the House when the Minister for Finance will publish a 59-page detailed report he received from the Central Bank six weeks ago into the options that vulture funds and banks have for restructuring mortgages before they move to repossess? He has had that report for six weeks and it is important, given that the Bill is supposed to be going to pre-legislative scrutiny. It is also important in light of yesterday's announcement from the Central Bank that 1,210 letters were issued by banks seeking repossessions of family homes in the three months up to October. Will the Taoiseach inform the House that the Minister will no longer sit on that document and will publish it without delay?
We have all heard the horror stories of the predatory practices of the car-clamping companies on unsuspecting motorists and commuters who return to their cars to find clamps attached. Four years ago, the Automobile Association made a presentation to the Oireachtas transport committee on a litany of abuses occurring in this regard. Two years ago, the Vehicle Clamping Act 2015 was enacted by this House. A week ago, however, when I asked why the practices prohibited under the clamping Act were still continuing, with charges far in excess of those allowed, I was informed that the legislation had not been commenced because the National Transport Authority, NTA, does not have the resources required to do so. If we are going to pass legislation in this House, we need to commence, implement and enforce it. The law of the land, as set out in the Vehicle Clamping Act, is not being followed or in operation. Will the Taoiseach take this matter on board and address it immediately?
The programme for Government contains a firm commitment to make significant funding to equip our Army and, specifically, to provide it with new armoured personnel carriers. In this respect, will the Taoiseach ensure there is an active engagement by the Department of Defence with Irish industry and, at the very least, it sees its capabilities in fulfilling this role at the commencement of the new year? One of the world's leading companies in designing and developing armoured vehicles, Timoney Technology, is based at the IDA Ireland Technology & Business Park in Navan. Two Ministers, Deputies Coveney and Bruton, have visited the company's plant in the past. This company has supplied the Australian, Singaporean, Polish and Turkish armies, as well as the US Marine Corps. Despite the efforts of Enterprise Ireland, at the behest of the Ministers, there has been no active engagement whatsoever with the industry in Ireland, however. When it commences in the new year, there should be a fair and open process and everyone should get a fair crack of the whip, given the world-class leading company we have.
I assure the Deputy that, in so far as the Department of Defence is concerned, this is an issue that is monitored constantly in the context of having proper equipment for our Defence Forces, which carry out such important work on behalf of the State at home and abroad. We discussed the question of resources for the Department of Defence and it was agreed with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. As these issues arise, they will be examined carefully. Hopefully, our Defence Forces personnel will never be sent out with inadequate or inferior equipment.
In response to questions from my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, as well as from Deputy Howlin today, about the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, seeking advice from the Attorney General as to the protection of the benefits of members of pension schemes and, specifically, defined benefit pension schemes, last week the Taoiseach responded in a rather sheepish way and said the Minister was simply seeking advice.
I remind the Taoiseach that the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, the Minister sitting beside him, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and the former Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, actually brought about this very issue. They brought it about through the destruction of the IAS pension scheme in which 15,000 members were removed from the pension scheme unilaterally. It was aided and abetted by the previous Government's-----
-----Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2014 and section 33 of the State Airports (Shannon Group) Act 2014. We warned at the time that this would set a roadmap for other employers of profitable firms to wind down their pension schemes and reduce pension scheme benefits. What is the Attorney General's advice? Does the Taoiseach intend to bring forward specific pension legislation to provide the protection that he and his Ministers removed from pension scheme members during the lifetime of the last Dáil and Seanad? The last Government has done more to undermine pension provision in this country by that and by the private pension levy that took €2.6 billion out of people's savings and provisions for their retirement.
The Minister for Social Protection met with the chairperson of the Pensions Authority. He has asked the authority to report back to him with an assessment of the current overall position on defined benefits schemes.
He sought advice from the Attorney General on the way he might be able to look at the question of the public element of this issue. Legislation in this area cannot be made retrospective. The Minister has asked the chairperson of the Pensions Authority to report back to him. I mentioned before that there have been some calls for the funding standard that applies here to be suspended. That defines the basis upon which liabilities of defined benefits schemes have to be calculated. It provides a benchmark against which the strength of a scheme can be tested and when a scheme fails-----
-----the funding standard, it means that unless some action is taken, the scheme will not be able to pay all the benefits that are promised to the shareholders in the first place.
Any reduction in the funding standard would not improve the scheme's ability to pay the benefits as they fall due. The Minister will get the report from the chairman of the Pensions Authority in due course.