Thursday, 9 March 2017
Questions on Promised Legislation
In section 5 on page 60 of A Programme for a Partnership Government dealing with health, there is a heading that reads "Improving Waiting Times for Hospital Procedures". There are all sorts of commitments given in that particular section.
Today, we learn that over 614,000 are on hospital waiting lists and the figure is up 11,460 since January. These patients are waiting for inpatient and day care procedures as well as outpatient appointments. We are informed that the HSE is preparing waiting list action plans for 2017 and that the Minister is currently reviewing the draft plans. The Minister should start reviewing them quickly because 2017 is well under way. Behind the statistics there is utter anxiety and pain for many ill people. The situation is obviously getting worse. The population is ageing and there is increasing demand for health services, but all of this could have been predicted. Does the Tánaiste agree that more action is now urgently required to deal with this escalating problem?
Every action is being taken by the Minister and the Department of Health to deal with the ever-increasing demand on our health services. I will offer one example. Previously, 25,000 referrals used to be made per month by general practitioners. The figure is now at 35,000 per month for specialist services. People have higher and higher expectations, but of course we are all concerned about the waiting lists. Every action is being taken by all the local health services and Ministers. Extra clinics are being put in place. Particular initiatives are being taken in respect of the waiting lists for children. By the end of this year, no child who needs a scoliosis operation will be waiting longer than four months. That is a major improvement and comes as a result of a series of actions.
Clearly, broader issues need to be addressed and are being addressed. Extra money, almost €1 billion, was put into the health service by the Government last year; there was an increase of €1 billion. The bed capacity review is under way. The GP contract needs to be renegotiated. All of these are being dealt with.
Let us remember that 1.7 million operations were carried out in the past year for patients throughout the country. Let us consider some of the successes of our health service as well. Day in and day out people are receiving excellent care.
The programme for Government promises a €42 billion capital investment programme. This includes investment in schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure. Obviously, all of this is good news for job creation. However, too many construction workers are being forced into bogus self-employment contracts. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has estimated that this has cost the State €80 million annually since 2007. It also clearly undermines workers' rights. Can the Tánaiste tell the House when the report of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, on bogus subcontracted employment will be completed? When will it be published? Most important, will the Government promise to introduce legislation to protect workers and the taxpayer from bogus subcontracting, especially on State funded construction projects?
That is a joint project involving the Department of Finance, Revenue Commissioners and my Department. My Department has a particular interest because where bogus self-employment exists, we lose out on PRSI. This is because we do not get employer's PRSI. More significantly, the people concerned do not get the same social benefits as they would were they employed. A joint working group is addressing this. I met my officials this morning to discuss it. We expect the report to be published in the next couple of weeks.
Having said that, it is important to point out something to the people who are expressing the view that there has been a significant rise in self-employment and that this corresponds to bogus self-employment: the statistics do not support that view. The proportion of people who are self-employed and those employed are approximately the same. The latest CSO quarterly household national survey figures show that the increase in employment was almost entirely in employment rather than self-employment. Therefore, the idea that there has been a vast increase in self-employment figures due to bogus self-employment is not supported by the facts.
The Government is committed to provide Garda representative bodies with access to the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court, as the Tánaiste will recall. Is it intended to provide similar access to PDFORRA and the representatives of the Defence Forces in the legislation?
Can the Tánaiste indicate when the adjudicator's payment of €15 per day, to be paid to the brave sailors on Operation Pontus and that was agreed last November, will actually be paid? The Government was happy to take credit for the great humanitarian work done by our Naval Service. However, it is important that they would be paid the allowance agreed for that work.
Deputy Howlin asked about access to the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court. The Garda associations will meet the working group in the next fortnight to discuss in detail the various issues and the approach. My understanding is that there is no similar legislation planned for PDFORRA or the Defence Forces.
Deputy Howlin asked about the particular issue of the payment of those who have been in the Naval Service. I will ask the Minister of State to contact the Deputy directly.
Next week, the Cheltenham festival will start and we will have wall-to-wall coverage. Advertising by gambling companies will seek to have people place bets with them. Approximately €5 billion is gambled every year in Ireland and there are approximately 40,000 problem gamblers.
The Rutland Centre has indicated that it has seen a large rise in the number of people seeking treatment for gambling addiction. There has been a major growth in gaming and gambling apps on the Internet. This area has expanded to young people and women, in other words, beyond the traditional demographic.
When will we see the gambling control Bill proceed? The heads were first published. The purpose is to regulate these companies and the advertising that preys on people.
The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, has taken responsibility for the gambling legislation. He is hoping to prioritise it over the next couple of months. He has been meeting the various stakeholders. He is considering certain elements of the legislation that might be brought forward separately because the planned gambling control Bill is rather large. However, I will ask the Minister of State to contact Deputy Murphy directly to give him an outline of the work being undertaken by the Minister of State. It is a priority for him and he has been focusing on it.
The Tánaiste is aware that on page 48 of the programme for Government a clear commitment is given to support our post offices. I have a document before me. It is an application by a person of full age for naturalisation as an Irish citizen. The document clearly states that the application fee is €175. It states that the fee should be paid using a banker's draft and that no postal orders will be accepted. What sort of message does this give out to the people when we are trying to attract them to use our post offices? Could this document be changed? The Government has the power to change it. It is a Government-issued document for people who are applying for naturalisation. Can we please take out that reference? What genius decided that no postal orders should be allowed? A postal order is every bit as good as a banker's draft. It is the same as cash. I want to ask for the genius in question to go back, throw these forms away, light a fire and burn them and then issue new forms indicating that a postal order will be allowed. Let our postmasters and postmistresses get a little business.
I wish to comment on this issue and what is going on in post offices currently. We have a situation whereby hundreds of post offices are going to close in the coming months. Matters like those raised by Deputy Healy-Rae are coming up time and again. It is going against the post office service.
Yesterday evening the House, several Deputies, including Deputy Ó Cuív, Deputy McGrath, Deputy Ferris and Deputy Smith, raised the issue of post office closures. The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, was in the House and a farcical situation developed. The Minister of State clearly said he did not have responsibility for the post office service or whether post offices stay open or closed. He said it was the responsibility of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten. Back three weeks ago, I put this question to the Taoiseach across the floor. There is absolute and utter confusion over which Minister is responsible for the post office crisis currently.
I will certainly examine the issue in respect of the postal orders. I am unsure why that has happened, but I will check it for the Deputy.
The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, was in the House yesterday robustly answering the various queries raised.
The post office working group, chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has looked at models that potentially could expand the role of post offices to act as economic and social hubs in the community. That is what we want to see. The report of the group will be going to Government in several weeks. The Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is willing to continue to work with An Post and the Irish Postmasters Union to establish common ground to progress all the actions that can support our network of post offices.
The programme for Government stated the Government would look into a review of the number of Garda stations to be reopened throughout the country.
The Government will soon be one year in power. Many of these reviews seem to be kicked down the road. On what date will information be available on the Garda stations that will be reopened in rural areas?
House building and the provision of housing for the homeless are some of the main aims of the Government. Why is the Government, including the Minister, not dealing with the fact that the tenant purchase scheme is not working? Some 80% of applicants do not qualify. Clearly, the scheme is not working. The money that used to be derived from purchases used to go towards repairing the voids and making vacant houses available again, such that they could be turned around for new tenants. The whole scheme is blocked and not working.
As the Deputy knows, a new scheme was announced a number of months ago. I will ask the relevant Minister to communicate with the Deputy on the progress on the scheme at this point. There is a lot of incorrect information going around.
On promised legislation, the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, some Members of this House may not be receiving accurate information when it comes to requesting information through parliamentary questions. This gives rise to extremely important concerns. I draw the Tánaiste's attention to a parliamentary question I submitted in early February regarding the number of ambulance call-outs in east Cork, particularly Midleton and Youghal. I received an answer on 7 March. I requested in tabular form the number of calls for 2015 and 2016 in these towns. To my amazement, the figure I got back indicated 2,647 calls were responded to in Midleton in 2015, yet we did not have an ambulance in Midleton in 2015. How could this be?
Guidelines on wind farms are long promised. They were first promised four years ago and four Ministers ago. Wind farm proposals are continuing to receive planning permission and are proceeding to construction. The reason for the latest delay is the European Court of Justice's ruling on the Belgian case. It sets a requirement for a strategic environmental assessment. That will take time. The Government is aware of this since October, which is when the European Court of Justice ruled in the case. The Government promised to have guidelines in place within three to six months of coming into office. It is heading towards 12 months in office and the matter is in its programme for Government. We have not seen any effort to move this forward. When will the Government begin the strategic environmental assessment to get this process under way? It will take six to 12 months to carry out the consultation on the strategic environmental assessment and to have the work done. When will it be started? When will we see guidelines in place for wind farms? For our part, we want to see regulations, but we do not even have guidelines. We are operating under guidelines from 2006.