Tuesday, 21 March 2017
Order of Business
Today's business shall be No. 4, motion re Companies Act 2014, referral to committee; No. 12, post-European Council statements; and No. 13, Companies (Accounting) Bill 2016 - Order for Report, Report and Final Stages. Private Members' business shall be No. 96, motion re mother and baby homes.
Wednesday's business shall be No. 14, statements on the announcement by the commission of investigation confirming human remains on the site of the former Tuam mother and baby home (resumed); the Health (Amendment) Bill 2017 - Committee and Remaining Stages; No. 13, Companies (Accounting) Bill 2016 - Order for Report, Report and Final Stages; and No. 15, Mediation Bill 2017 - Second Stage (resumed). Private Members' business shall be No. 24, Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) Bill 2016 - Second Stage, selected by Independents 4 Change.
Thursday's business shall be the Health (Amendment) Bill 2017 - Committee and Remaining Stages, resumed if not previously concluded; No. 13, Companies (Accounting) Bill 2016 - Report and Final Stages (resumed if not previously concluded); and No. 15, Mediation Bill 2017 - Second Stage (resumed). Second Stage of No. 26, Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries and Distilleries) Bill 2016, will be debated in the evening slot.
I refer Members to the revised report of the Business Committee dated 16 March 2017 regarding today's business. It is proposed that:
(1) motion re Companies Act 2014 will be taken without debate;
(2) post-European Council statements shall commence immediately after Taoiseach's questions and be followed by questions to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The statements shall be brought to a conclusion after one hour and 45 minutes if not previously concluded and shall be confined to a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties or groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, who shall have ten minutes each. A Minister or Minister of State shall take questions for a period not exceeding 20 minutes, with a response from the Minister or Minister of State not exceeding five minutes and all Members may share time; and
(3) in the event that the Topical Issue Debate is not concluded before 8 p.m., Private Members' business shall be taken on its conclusion for two hours and the Dáil shall adjourn on the conclusion of Private Members' business.
Regarding Wednesday's business, it is proposed that:
(1) The Dáil shall sit at 10 a.m. to resume statements on the announcement by the commission of investigation confirming human remains on the site of the former Tuam mother and baby home. If the statements conclude before 12 noon, the House shall suspend until 12 noon and Leaders' Questions shall commence then. Statements of Members shall not be more than five minutes each and all Members may share time;
(2) the Order of the Dáil of 8 March 2017, referring the Health (Amendment) Bill 2017 to the Select Committee on Health, be discharged and that the Bill be considered in Committee of the whole Dáil on Wednesday; and
(3) proceedings on the Second Stage of the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) Bill 2016 shall be brought to a conclusion after two hours, if not previously concluded.
I thank the Deputy. There are two proposals to put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed.
The events of the past few days have brought home to us all the selfless work that those involved in the Coast Guard service do and the risks they take to protect everyone in the country. An issue that they, especially the Coast Guard's volunteer members, have been raising consistently is the need for statutory recognition of the service. As the Taoiseach knows, the other forms of emergency response - the Garda and the fire and ambulance services - have statutory recognition.
Many Deputies in this House have raised the issue with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross. As I understand it the legislation goes back to 1856. Deputy Troy raised the issue with the Minister recently. The Minister is of the view that legislation is not necessary but I urge the Taoiseach to personally examine the matter to establish whether there is a need for statutory recognition of the Irish Coast Guard service. Those involved in providing the very services on which we rely passionately believe there is such a need. I urge the Taoiseach to examine the issue, discuss it with the Minister and revert to the House.
I will examine the issue. Yesterday, I spoke to Michael O'Toole from Inishturk who is in charge of the Coast Guard for the west and north-west area. It is a very professional organisation and it is superbly equipped. All the organisations were there such as the Civil Defence, the lifeboat service, Mountain Rescue Ireland, many volunteers, together with the statutory agencies of the Naval Service, the Defence Forces, the Garda and the Commissioners of Irish Lights, among others. I am going to Waterville next week to officially open the Coast Guard station which is just outside the town.
I listened with interest to the Taoiseach's comments during his visit to the United States last week. I welcome his remarks in respect of the plight of the undocumented Irish citizens in the US. I also noted in Philadelphia the Taoiseach announced the Government would hold a long-overdue referendum in respect of voting rights in presidential elections. As the Taoiseach is aware, we have been pressing him and his colleagues for some time to allow citizens in the North and in the diaspora to have a vote in presidential elections. The Taoiseach is also aware the Constitutional Convention proposed in September 2013, quite some time ago, that such a referendum should be held. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs also made such a recommendation. Having made the announcement in Philadelphia that the referendum would be brought forward, could the Taoiseach tell us today when the legislation to allow for the referendum will come before the Dáil?
The first step is that the options paper to which I referred in Philadelphia will be published this week. That sets out the range and the categories of people, North and South and beyond, who will be considered eligible to vote in the presidential election in 2025. I am not in a position to give the Deputy a date for the production of the legislation but the options paper that will determine the eventual outcome of the legislation will be published this week. It will contain the range of issues on which we need to reflect in order to bring this measure to reality and finality. It is not for the next presidential election, it is for the one after that. The process will involve setting up a new electoral register and various categories of eligibility to vote.
The Technological Universities Bill was published by my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and reached Report Stage prior to the election last year. Last May I asked the Taoiseach about progress on the legislation and he gave me an assurance at that point that it would proceed, yet we have seen very little progress in the full year that has elapsed since the election.
The Taoiseach is very well aware of my own interest in the creation of a university in the south east, which was a commitment in the previous programme for Government. He is also aware there are other colleges urgently awaiting this legislation. Is the Taoiseach committed to enacting the Bill and when?
I thank Deputy Howlin for raising the issue. He is correct, this is very important legislation because it traces a future for the institutes of technology to form more effective technological universities that would drive regional performance. It is not that we have been idle. It is not just a matter of legislation and bringing in a set of amendments to the committee, it is a case of making sure that we have all of the institutions committed to the path and we are working on that. There have also been issues concerning industrial relations which we need to resolve. It is not simply a matter of coming into the Dáil with a set of amendments. We want to make sure that when we do so we have the required level of commitment and a clear signposted path ahead for the various institutions.
In terms of the timeline I look forward to advancing the Bill this year. I hope it will come to the House as soon as possible. I would love to bring the Bill to the House tomorrow but it is more important that we get it right than we get it fast.
First, we should acknowledge that today is the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We should acknowledge the Taoiseach's new global status as the champion of immigrants. He had 30 million plus hits for his speech in Washington. I invite the Taoiseach to co-sign a motion that has already been signed by 36 Deputies to end direct provision in this country. Deputy Boyd Barrett told me that he was a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions which recommended ending direct provision two years ago. Direct provision was described by the former judge, Bryan McMahon, as a deplorable system, one in which people are like ghosts and that they are dehumanised and depressed.
Two weeks ago during the debate on the Tuam babies issues, the Taoiseach said he hoped in 20 years' time that another Taoiseach would not have to stand in the Chamber and make an apology for the way people are treated in institutions in this country. I am concerned that if we do not set out to end the inhumane direct provision system we will be looking at a generation of children who were raised under those conditions who are dehumanised, depressed and ignored. Could we get cross-party agreement to dedicate some time to discussing this very fundamental and important issue and to seek to find a way to implement the decision of the committee to end direct provision?
The matter to which the Deputy referred might not have been reported at home. I understand the number of hits has gone beyond 50 million at this stage. That speaks for itself.
Deputy Bríd Smith raised an important point. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is doing great work in respect of the McMahon report and I think he would be happy to come to the House to discuss the work that has been completed and remains to be completed in respect of the McMahon report on immigrants and direct provision. I will ask the Minister of State to contact Deputy Bríd Smith.
My question refers to A Programme for a Partnership Government, in particular the section on post offices and community banking. The section was negotiated last May with many rural Deputies and there was a commitment to actively encourage the payment of social welfare payments through the post office and to allow other Government services to be supplied through post offices but none of that has happened.
The Taoiseach also committed to support the introduction of an e-payment system in post offices to facilitate financial services in post offices. In particular, he gave a commitment to exploring community banking such as exists in Germany and New Zealand. The post office is a very important part of the fabric of rural communities. Is it the Taoiseach's intention to allow the post office network to be decimated through inaction and a failure to deliver on the commitments in the programme for Government?
This is a matter I have raised continuously in this House for the past six years. In the programme for Government a commitment was given to protect the viability of post offices. The Government is failing miserably to do that. We had a sham before St. Patrick's week when a Minister showed up for a Topical Issue debate only to tell Deputies that he had no responsibility. Who is directly responsible for the protection of the post office network? The Taoiseach should believe me when I say it will not be 80 or 200 post offices but that 700 post offices will close. I have been saying that for the past six years. Unfortunately, when one looks at today's newspaper it says that up to half-----
-----of 1,200 post offices will face closure in the new plan. It is in the programme for Government. The Taoiseach knows the problems we have. There are solutions. As postmasters, we are not looking for a handout from the Government. It is no such thing. We are not coming to ask the Government to bail us out and give us money. What we are saying is that community banking should be introduced into post offices. It worked in Japan, Germany and New Zealand.
This is a serious issue. The post office sector is undergoing very considerable change both at national and international level, with dramatic changes in electronic communications and online transactions having a heavy impact on the volumes of mail and other service offerings. An Post is a commercial State body and decisions relating to the size and distribution of the network are a matter for the board of management. The Government recently lifted the cap in respect of the price of stamps because of the urgency of this matter from a financial perspective. The Government is committed to supporting the sustainability of the post office network as set out in the programme for Government. As there was such a volume of material for the Cabinet this morning, the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, was not in a position to present his report; the Kerr report was commissioned by the Government in respect of the post office network.
The programme for Government sets out what is involved here, such as actively encouraging social welfare payments at post offices. The Minister of State is very happy about that and continuing the contract in respect of post offices. Many people who receive their social welfare payments through post offices want them paid into bank accounts. The question of community banking is being pursued by the Department in collaboration with the Department of Finance but no post office will stay open unless it is used. The Government has tried repeatedly to offer a new range of services but these change with the-----
-----electronic transfers and online services. As Deputy Healy-Rae knows himself, as a postmaster, there are always changes under way. The community banking facility is being pursued and we will be able to continue social welfare payments. The choice is for consumers as to where they want their money paid. Is it into the post office or a bank account? All these issues will come before the Government next week. Let us have a debate on it here afterwards.
A draft interim audit report on the financial controls around Templemore college was received by the Minister for Justice and Equality in September last year. The Minister put on the record of this House during Leaders' Questions on 9 February this year a reply when I asked her about it. She stated that the report referenced in The Sunday Timesarticle had questions related to it answered in the justice committee, with detailed information put on record about the audit and actions taken internally. I do not know about the internal actions but it has not gone through the justice committee. She also indicated it went to the Committee of Public Accounts but I raised the matter there after the date in question. The committee wrote to the Garda Commissioner and she has only sent an acknowledgement of it. That was January of this year. There has been no public scrutiny of this serious issue and there are real questions about funds in Templemore. There is also the issue of this House being told that something went through a process in and was considered by the justice committee when it did not and was not. The record of the House must be corrected. At this point, the final report should be published by the Minister so this can receive the scrutiny that it needs.
As far as I can figure out, this is not about legislation. In view of the fact that the Deputy has raised the matter, I will have the Minister for Justice and Equality contact the Deputy about the progress made since the matter was last raised here.
Last week the Taoiseach promised legislation to amend the Constitution to give Irish citizens living outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections. In the same week he lobbied the US Administration for immigration reform for the undocumented Irish. While he was in the United States, the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland held a rally in Dublin calling for the same treatment for the approximately 26,000 undocumented migrants living in this State. The Taoiseach's case to the US Administration would surely be stronger if he practised at home what he preached while abroad. Will he bring forward legislation that will provide undocumented migrants living in this State with an opportunity to regularise their status?
It is an issue. I have asked the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who has had a number of meetings with the people involved, to let me have a report on what recommendations he proposes to make. I am aware there are approximately 26,500 undocumented people and some of them have had a great number of challenges in their lives. The Minister of State will advise me in due course about how best to proceed.
Not for the first time I raise the issue of commercial rates in this country, which are sucking the lifeblood from many small businesses and threatening their viability. The current revaluation occurring in many counties also exacerbates the concerns of those businesses. As opposed to hearing it in this House, we read in yesterday's newspaper that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is in the process of introducing some changes. I refer specifically to the fact that heads of a Bill were promised for publication. Many Deputies and I have asked over the past number of months when we could expect timelines on the introduction of this legislation. Businesses and small businesses in particular are suffering and need change. I ask the Taoiseach to specifically indicate when it will come to the House and when we can expect a change in this archaic, 150-year-old system.
The Government expects to have the heads of this Bill presented to the Cabinet in mid-April. We hope we can approve them and send them for pre-legislative scrutiny at that stage.
Again, we understand through the media that a memo was to be brought to the Cabinet this morning relating to a scheme that would help landowners and people affected by flooding over the past number of years. When will we have an opportunity to debate such a scheme in this House? I am sure the Taoiseach will appreciate there are good suggestions on all sides of the House as to how an appropriate scheme could be introduced to help support families who have been devastated in the recent past by flooding on the banks of the River Shannon.
There was a discussion about that this morning but we did not conclude it because, as the Deputy says, there were a number of suggestions from people. It is important to bear in mind that this must be targeted and very focused. It must define accurately the categories that are required. The Minister of State would not be in the position to have a sort of free-for-all with some national scheme. That matter was brought to the Cabinet this morning by the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, and he will return with it again next week.
The programme for Government contains plans to address issues such as attracting new jobs to Ireland and specifically into rural areas while increasing overall development in towns and villages across the country. On that basis, will the Taoiseach advise the House on the progress in efforts made to promote the new advance IDA factory in Sligo to potential foreign clients, given that it is now only two weeks from completion?
With regard to the 2040 consultation, I have already made it publicly clear that this is an opportunity for the Sligo region to put forward its case for inclusion as a growth centre in the consultation currently under way. This is not a case of pitting town against town, as happened before. There are opportunities for every region and Sligo is one of those potentially very major centres, with access in terms of roads to be completed and so on. The fact that the advance factory is almost completed is an advantage for Sligo. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor to give Deputy McLoughlin an indication of the interest being expressed in filling that location with jobs.
I thank Deputy McLoughlin. The Deputy has brought it up for debate later today. I will be answering the same question.
Sligo is on the IDA Ireland list. We are promoting it. I myself promoted it on two occasions in the past week in the US. The Deputy has a wonderful facility there. He will be aware that I visited the facility and other facilities in Sligo. I also met the chamber of commerce and the local trading organisation there and I am confident that IDA Ireland will be able to get good clients.
As Minister, I remind the House it is not only IDA Ireland. Enterprise Ireland is a very good enterprise agency and is also bringing jobs to a community, as are the LEOs. We are there with IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the LEOs to try and make sure that we land jobs in regional areas.
The programme for Government set out a plan to deal with the issue of flooding in many parts of the country and we all were delighted to see a budget of €460 million for that. As the Taoiseach will be aware, one can see in many parts of the country floods are beginning to rise again and there is a lot of worry among the people. This is the question I have for the Taoiseach. Before Christmas there was an announcement that a dredging programme for the River Shannon would commence. Can the Taoiseach give me any indication - perhaps Deputy Moran, behind the Taoiseach, can tell him - as to when that programme will commence because that is a major issue?
As the Deputy will be aware, we put together a high-level board at chief executive officer level two years ago in respect of the Shannon Basin and for the first time in 50 years progress was made with what might and could be done. The Minister of State, Deputy Canney, is working hard on this and I will get him to give Deputy Murphy an update on the locations, pinch point or otherwise, where action can be taken here. As the Deputy will also be aware, it is not a case of cleaning out the entire Shannon Basin. It is a slow-moving river and there are consequences. I will have the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, give Deputy Murphy an update.
I ask the Taoiseach about the assisted human reproduction Bill. As the House will be aware, the World Health Organization has stated that one-in-six couples suffer with fertility problems. This assisted human reproduction Bill will be of vital assistance to those couples. It covers the areas of surrogacy, embryo donation, gamete donation, stem cell research and also the screening of embryos for genetic serious diseases. I wrote an article about this recently and received a deluge of queries in regard to it. There is a severe absence of legislation with regard to this. It is not even just legislation that is not sufficient.
Recently, in accordance with the confidence and supply agreement, there was a circular issued to schools in regard to guidance counselling. There has been a lot of worry in schools that this circular did not ring-fence guidance counselling. The Taoiseach provided a note to my leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, which made clear that the guidance provision was ex quota but that has not been made clear to schools, and schools are now going ahead on the basis that it is not ex quota. I suggest that the note the Taoiseach gave to Deputy Micheál Martin be issued immediately to all the schools in the country to which it is relevant.
The position is that we have made provision in a circular that the provision for guidance counselling would be ring-fenced. It is in accordance with the approach to guidance counselling, which is a whole-school guidance counselling approach, that was adopted by Deputy Thomas Byrne's leader in the 2000s. At this stage, we have restored 50% of the provision. It will rise to 66% this coming September.
Deputy Thomas Byrne raised with me concerns that the management bodies had issued some directive. We have confirmed with them that there has not been any such directive. We are issuing the provision. We are ensuring that this is a ring-fenced provision for guidance counselling. We will, if necessary, inspect to ensure that. We will be conducting a survey to establish fully the practise that is going on.
As the Taoiseach will be aware, in the programme for Government there is a commitment to ensure that the Irish agrifood sector finds new markets and develops everywhere around the world. In recent days, we have an issue in regard to Brazilian beef and poultry. There is a scandal in that country where they find that there are many people being bribed and so on to allow substandard product be exported. I understand the European Commission today has banned the importation into Europe from four companies involved in this. In the context of the commitment from the Government to ensure that the finest quality Irish product is exported and competes fairly around the world, will the Taoiseach ensure that the European Commission bans all meat product from Brazil and undertakes a review of the standards of food coming from non-European countries?
I am not clear what Deputy Kenny is trying to ban here. I am aware of the decision by the European Commission today. In so far as Ireland is concerned, our Origin Green of Bord Bia and exports in the food sector are of the highest integrity. They have to be because this is an island nation and we have to export. I am not sure whether the Deputy's question is to ban everything from Brazil.
These standards are monitored on a very regular basis. We do not have a Mercosur deal. That is an issue that Europe will consider in due course. These standards are monitored.
The Companies (Statutory Audits) Bill is promised legislation which proposes to transpose into Irish law various EU directives and regulations. What is the current status of the Bill and when it is likely to come before the House and become law?
The programme for Government promises to set up a national climate change dialogue. I note the Minister has said he is starting one but no one has announced who the steering group or the chairperson of that group would be. If the Taoiseach cannot do so here today, could he indicate whether he has discussed it in Cabinet, has he set up that steering group, has he set a chair and if not, could he inform me of that whenever possible?
As the school transport year is fast approaching, there are many concerned parents. Deputies of all sides of the House raised the issue and a commission was set up to look at the overall picture. I am very worried because I understand the commission, while it is looking at this, is proposing no change. I have a three-classroom school in a village that the Taoiseach passes through regularly and, because of the regulation that was introduced in 1967 in regard to the distance of two miles that a pupil must live from a national school, unfortunately, this school will lose a teacher this year. An overall look at what is happening in school transport needs to be taken immediately.