Wednesday, 5 April 2017
Questions on Promised Legislation
Page 143 of the programme for Government sets out a commitment to "continue to play an active role at the European Union Foreign Affairs Council, the OSCE and through the UN, in seeking diplomatic resolutions to crises and conflict, with particular reference to Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Ukraine". Everybody will have been absolutely appalled and horrified by yesterday's barbaric attack on innocent civilians, including many children, in Syria. Up to 100 people were killed and over 250 people were injured. I ask the Taoiseach to outline what the Government intends to do to fulfil the programme for Government commitment with respect to the UN and the OSCE. Certain key countries that have been supportive of Syria must be held to account. There must be a degree of accountability regarding chemical attacks of this kind. As we all recall, the then US President said in 2012 that this was a red-line issue. Nothing happened as a result of that. People think they can act with impunity. It is important for the international community to stand firm on this issue. It needs to begin to engage in mechanisms to deal with it.
I can confirm that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, attended last Monday's meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels. He has attended all the Foreign Affairs Council meetings. Syria has always been on the agenda. From an Irish point of view, the Minister has been very forthright in his comments at these meetings. The entire UN, which was created for a world that no longer exists, needs to be able to reflect on what is happening. The situation in Syria is appalling. According to news reports, the war has gone on longer than the lives of many of the young children who are now the victims of chemical attacks. This is absolutely appalling. It has to be condemned unreservedly by right-thinking people. The Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union, on which we are represented by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is very forthright in its views. My view is that the UN needs reform to be far more effective in dealing with appalling actions like this.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about legislation on information retrieval agreed between the Irish and British Governments on 15 October 2015.
This was led jointly by the Houses of the Oireachtas and Westminster in January last year. As part of this process, the Government drafted and published an international agreement to establish the independent commission. The commission has not yet commenced because the British Government insists on imposing a so-called national security veto regarding the process. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, has raised this issue with the British Secretary of State, as have I. Has the Taoiseach raised this matter with the British Prime Minister?
I have made four formal requests, some in writing, for a meeting with the Taoiseach and the Sinn Féin leadership to discuss these issues. Given the tone in which the Taoiseach addresses me every so often about the North, it would be expedient if he would agree to such a meeting.
I do not have any difficulty about the meeting and I will come back to Deputy Adams as soon as I have an opportunity to do so. I would like to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to comment on the independent commission dealing with the legacy institutions-----
I think the Deputy will be aware, given his capacity as Uachtarán Sinn Fein, that matters are at a delicate and sensitive stage in Northern Ireland. On the matter of the talks, we are very much, in sporting parlance, in time added on for injuries.
An earlier question referred to Brexit. In that context and in the context of dealing for once and for all with the very delicate and sensitive issue of the horrific legacy in Northern Ireland, in what is not a post-conflict society, there is a need to ensure that the many thousands of victims and families, and survivors are dealt with in a way that real. The international treaty to which the Deputy referred is an important component of that, but other issues are the subject matter of discussions today in Belfast. I intend to be present at a meeting tomorrow. It is incumbent on everybody involved to ensure that the legacy institutions, as established under the Stormont House Agreement, are up and running and implemented at the earliest opportunity. I welcome the assistance and involvement of Uachtarán Sinn Féin and his colleagues in that regard.
If I may, I want to return to the very important issue raised by Deputy Healy, in line with promised legislation. It is shocking that at least 100 families may have lost their homes because they were wrongly moved from tracker mortgages. When this matter was raised with the Governor of the Central Bank yesterday in a question posed by Deputy Sean Sherlock, the Governor said he cannot name and shame the 15 lending institutions or the number of accounts involved, or the details of how much compensation was paid, because of a legislative barrier. In this regard I refer to the financial services and pensions ombudsman Bill, which is on the Government's priority list. Will this matter be addressed so that the important issues raised by Deputy Healy and me can be dealt with? People are scandalised that obvious wrongdoing will not only not be investigated but cannot even be reported.
The answer is "Yes". The amalgamation of the Financial Services Ombudsman Bureau and the Office of the Pensions Ombudsman is a priority for the Government. I expect the relevant Bill to be published during this session. The matter to which the Deputy referred will have to be addressed in the Bill.
Last Friday, workers in Iarnród Éireann and Dublin Bus engaged in an act of solidarity with their colleagues in Bus Éireann. It was an act that I and my party, and more ordinary people than one might think, are prepared to defend because they are appalled by the role of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross. Under the terms of the Industrial Relations Act 1990, a piece of anti-union legislation inspired by the policies of Mrs. Thatcher's Government in the UK, the action was outside of the law. Many people said they supported the action but felt it would have been better if some notice had been given.
However, under the terms of the Industrial Relations Act it is impossible for workers to give advance notice of solidarity action because injunctions can, and will, be put in place. My question is as follows. Our party, in the tradition of James Larkin, is in favour of repealing anti-union legislation, including the Industrial Relations Act. Would the Taoiseach be prepared to comment on that proposal?
The wildcat action taken last weekend was disgraceful and discommoded hundreds of thousands of people. If Deputy Mick Barry is suggesting that we should legislate for that kind of activity I disagree with him fundamentally. People in this country are entitled to go about their daily work, attend their workplace and expect that transport services can be provided.
Strikes have been legitimate in Ireland and there are reasons for that. I am glad to see that both sides, unions and management, are back in at the Workplace Relations Commission. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, is at the Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport today.
I fundamentally disagree with Deputy Mick Barry's presentation of the kind of Ireland he wants to see.
Tá an t-ábhar seo ardaithe go mion minic agam maidir le cúrsaí sláinte. Is é an t-athbhreithniú atá geallta ar A Vision for Change. I have to say that I am really tired of the pretence concerning A Vision for Change. I am asking the Taoiseach, once again, when the promised review will be published. He told me it would be published at the end of February, which was 14 months after it ran out. We are now in April, however. Two weeks ago the Taoiseach said he would get back to me but nobody has confirmed dáta an athbhreithnithe.
The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, promised us that some emergency accommodation would be put in place in South Tipperary General Hospital regarding the accident and emergency crisis there. He told us there was a mini-tender and that the Health (Amendment) Act-----
I am the only Deputy who mentioned the relevant legislation and the Ceann Comhairle decided to stop me. The rest of them were not stopped. They talked about Syria, wildcat strikes and everything else. The programme for Government contains a commitment under the Health (Amendment) Act to provide safe places of access for people who are sick. The accident and emergency unit in Clonmel is not suitable. It is a crisis day in and day out. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has announced a mini-tender, aided and abetted by Deputy Lowry, so that they would have hotel accommodation there.
I now find in a reply from the Minister to a parliamentary question that the mini-tender process is not even complete. It will be a year after that before any effort will be made to have proper accommodation for patients in South Tipperary, West Waterford and beyond. It is a disgraceful situation and something needs to be done before lives are lost, although hospital staff are doing their best in appalling conditions.
With the greatest of respect to Deputy McGrath, that matter should be considered as a topical issue. It is not a legislative function. The Minister has already made his comments in respect of the process being followed here. With respect, however, the Deputy should raise that as a topical issue whereby he will get more detailed information directly from the Minister.
I wish to refer to the Greyhound Industry (Amendment) Bill. Last Sunday there was a massive show of unity in Horse and Jockey by those involved in the greyhound sector. One thousand people attended to discuss all issues within the industry, including mismanagement by the Irish Greyhound Board. Is it not now time for the Minister, Deputy Creed, and the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, to take action to resolve the impasse between the Dublin Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association and the Irish Greyhound Board, to get greyhound racing back in our capital city?
Perhaps people should be removed if necessary. It is about time. Current and previous Ministers have left this situation down. It is a disgrace. Genuine people who breed and race greyhounds are being highly blackguarded. The Taoiseach knows that as well as I do.
I can inform Deputy Healy-Rae that that particular Bill has got out of the coffin box, in which it was located for a very long time, and is up and running.
It was cleared early in March and was at pre-legislative scrutiny at committee yesterday. It is running and let us hope it gets around the track-----
The Government and the Minister for Education and Skills promised to recruit more than 2,000 young teachers this year. However, I have read in the newspapers that retired teachers are being hired. I ask that all the young qualified teachers be taken on first.
Another category of young teachers affected are those who must travel many miles from their homes to get employment in other areas. I want to make sure these young teachers get jobs nearer home rather than hiring retired teachers.
I am not sure of the details of what Deputy Healy-Rae is speaking about with regard to retired teachers being accommodated. The Minister has set out the programme and funding to recruit new teachers based on demographic increases, particularly increases in school-going populations, and this is being followed through. I will have the Minister send Deputy Healy-Rae a report on what has been stated in newspapers about retired teachers.
During statements on waiting lists a number of months ago, I urged the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to reinstate a very simple check for children in primary schools to identify scoliosis and intervene where it may be identified. This had been carried out by primary health nurses until 2008. It was withdrawn from schools due to austerity measures. When I put the question to the Minister he said it seemed logical to reintroduce that simple check carried out by primary health nurses. I asked this question of the Taoiseach a number of weeks ago, and he said he would have a look at it. The Minister stated he would undertake to have a look at it in the action plan he was drawing up, which was due to be published at the end of February but we have not seen it. We have not seen any commitment as to whether this simple check will be reinstated in primary schools so the early identification-----
It is. In A Programme for a Partnership Government there is a commitment to tackle serious issues in the health service, and certainly this is a very serious issue with regard to scoliosis, which has been widely debated in the Chamber.
Given that it is a serious matter, despite the fact it is not a legislative matter I will have the Minister respond to the Deputy. Quite a number of changes have been made in respect of scoliosis and the treatment of children with scoliosis in recent weeks and the Deputy is aware of this. This is an improvement for their particular challenge and difficulties. There are still others that need to be attended to. I will have the Minister respond to the Deputy in respect of the simple check.
Earlier the Taoiseach spoke about Bills stuck in coffin Stage. One such Bill is the Technological Universities Bill, which, as the Taoiseach knows, has been stuck on Committee Stage for some time. I have asked about this previously because it is very important for all those consortia and institutes of technology involved in the process. There is huge uncertainty regarding the funding model for these technological universities. Their governance model, ability to borrow, investment in research and development and capital funding will all be underpinned by the legislation. The institutes involved are asking us whether we can find out when the Bill will be progressed so they have the certainty they need. This is the third time I have asked the Taoiseach when the Bill be progressed.
I did not say the previous Bill was at coffin Stage, I said it had got out of the coffin box. People who follow greyhound racing will know the coffin box is trap 4, right in the middle of the track.
The greyhound Bill has got out of the box it has been in the past 20 years and is now under pre-legislative scrutiny.
The Technological Universities Bill is on Committee Stage in the Dáil. The Government supports this fully. It began very shortly after TalkTalk went from Waterford six years ago, and is still going on. I hope that all of the technological institute personnel can get together-----
-----in a way that will function for what we want it to be. The technological universities can have a very important part to play in the future economic development of the country. The Bill is on Committee Stage and I hope it can make progress through the House.
The second paragraph on page 97 of the programme for Government mentions further investment in "New and refurbished Garda Stations throughout the country, which will be critical to delivering effective policing". I wish to raise one of those Garda stations, Tubbercurry in County Sligo, on the N17. It was built in 1960 and there was one sergeant and three gardaí, all male. Today, we have two sergeants, nine gardaí and two bean gardaí. It is the third busiest station in the Sligo-Leitrim division, after Sligo and Carrick-on-Shannon - it is hard to believe. I understand that the numbers are to increase to two sergeants and 12 gardaí in 2018, but there are a number of serious health and safety issues with this Garda station. There is no interview room, office space, privacy or disabled access, and there are other issues also. The Garda building unit is aware of this situation and has visited the site. I ask the Taoiseach to use his good office to progress this application further.
That is a matter for a programme of refurbishment to be carried out under the Garda Vote by the Office of Public Works. In view of the fact that the Deputy has raised it here, the Minister will respond to him.
There is a young lady in the Gallery today, Ms Jillian McNulty, who suffers with cystic fibrosis and has been a long-time campaigner for Orkambi. However, her visit here today is on a slightly different and more positive outlook. Having been in hospital for many years and unable to work, she is now in a position, as a result of Orkambi, where her life is changed and she is trying to get back into the workforce. On behalf of her and others who are suffering from cystic fibrosis, is the Taoiseach in a position to update us on the progress being made to make Orkambi available to those who would benefit from it? I recognise it is probably not an appropriate question for the Order of Business.
I congratulate Jillian on the improvement in her quality of life and I wish her continued success in that regard, as I do for all others, including those who have cystic fibrosis. I do not know the exact details of progress being made today, but I will have the Minister for Health's office contact Deputy Curran directly.
The programme for Government gives commitments on the roll-out of the national broadband plan. I ask the Taoiseach to advise the House what developments have occurred with regard to yesterday's Eir announcement. What is planned for the hundreds of thousands of homes across the country that have been left outside the latest expanded area, including large portions of Sligo-Leitrim, south Donegal and west Cavan?
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment gave a full interview on this yesterday following the Government's meeting and decision. Eir said that it will do a further 300,000 houses in an area that it was not originally intended to include. The commercial body will do 300,000 more houses than it had originally intended. That means that the nature of the contract and tender for areas outside that, to which Deputy McLoughlin refers, is now the subject of an increased focus. The Minister has pointed out the timescale for the bringing of fibre to each home over the next years, which will ensure that every region of the country, however spread out, will have the opportunity to avail of what is the equivalent of electricity in this day and age.
Following the Brexit talks, the key issue for Ireland will be the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU and how that will impact on us. Nobody yet knows the outcome of these negotiations and whether it may involve an amendment to the European treaties. If that is the case, it will necessitate a referendum here in Ireland. Can the Taoiseach confirm that it is not possible at this stage to rule out a referendum on the future relationships between the UK and the EU, in view of the importance of it for Ireland?
Deputy Fleming is well aware that a referendum on the EU treaties is only necessary in this country when the Attorney General of the day advises the Cabinet of the day that there is a transfer of sovereignty under the treaties. That is not envisaged here. What is envisaged is that the outcome of the negotiations will be for the United Kingdom to have as close as possible a relationship with the European Union, of which we are a member. However, given our traditional connections both with Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom on a bilateral basis we want to hold on to those very close trading, social and political relationships. It is only in those circumstances that this would apply, and that is not envisaged.
In the programme for Government there is a commitment to have access to capital for small businesses and also to assist businesses through the debt crisis. We have had huge problems over a number of years in this country. Today, in Buswell's hotel across the road, the IFA are launching a framework for negotiations with vulture funds. We have a situation today where there are hundreds of farmers around the country whose loans have been sold to vulture funds and who cannot get a deal done, as they would have been able to do with the standard banks. We find that they are now outside the scrutiny of the Central Bank. It is a huge problem, and one of the things that the IFA has sought is that the Government would publically commit to a rebalancing of the power between the borrowers and these new owners of the loans. This is having a huge impact. The vulture funds want a quick turnaround and they are prepared to sell out the farm over the heads of the farmer. It is a big problem around the country.
It is more suitable for a Topical Issue matter but the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, has made it clear that where loans are acquired in this manner, the same code of conduct applies as applies from the normal lending institutions.
Last night there was yet another harrowing programme about the mother and baby homes. This programme covered the situation in Bessborough. I want to ask the Taoiseach about the publication of the second interim report from the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, had indicated that the report would be published at the end of March. She has now resiled from that commitment and is stalling the publication of the report. She says that both herself and the Government need more time to consider the recommendations. That is an entirely unacceptable position to adopt. The Taoiseach is aware of the trauma that was caused by the discoveries at Tuam. Naturally, it has triggered deep, personal concerns for the survivors of these awful regimes across the State, and the least the Government owe to society at large is the prompt publication of this interim report so that we can collectively take stock and move forward in the most constructive way possible.
I do not agree that it is an unacceptable position to adopt. It is right and proper for Government to assess carefully every interim report that comes before it, this one included. The question arising from the mother and baby homes, as one of a whole series in this general area, is one that needs to be considered very carefully. I expect that the Minister, Deputy Zappone, will bring a memo on this matter before the Government next week, and the report, once Government adopts it, will be published then.
On page 65 of the programme for Government, under further access to mental health services, it is stated that GPs are the first and in many cases the only health professionals to be involved in the management of a wide range of mental health problems. It also states that common supports sought from GPs in this regard includes access to counsellors and psychologists. The strategy recommends that appropriately trained staff should be available at primary care level to provide programmes to prevent mental health problems and to promote well being. Has there been sign-off regarding these counselling or psychological services at primary care level for 2017, and if so how many have been signed off? Has there been sign-off by all the relevant Departments, including the Department of Public Expenditure, and if so, given the recruitment challenges there have been, how many have been recruited?
The cystic fibrosis association has been campaigning for some time for legislation to regulate organ donation and it is now quite urgent. There is a commitment on page 57 of the programme for Government to introduce such legislation. Can the Taoiseach tell us when we might expect to see it?
In the section of the programme for Government on updating the planning guidelines on renewable energy, it refers to the awareness of Government of the distress and the divisions in communities where wind farms are imposed against the will of the people. It pledged to update the guidelines within three to six months but we are ten months on from its publication and wind farms are being foisted on communities, with plans for more. There is more stress and division than ever in those communities and they are asking when the Government will get off its hands and publish the guidelines as promised ten months ago. In my own community in the Finn valley in Donegal, those concerned have already mobilised against and defeated a wind farm application which would have imposed a major wind farm very close to residential premises. Now, a second wave of applications is coming in for the same type of proposal and residents are looking to Government to protect individuals. Nobody is against renewable energy, development or infrastructure but we are against these farms being imposed on a community against its will in very close proximity to individuals where there are ample other opportunities to site them. Can the Taoiseach give clarity on this to the communities in the Finn valley and across the State, who are looking for the Government to fulfil the commitment it gave to them in the programme for Government ten months ago?
It is not just a case of protection but of striking a balance between acceptance of wind energy as a component of dealing with our energy needs and avoiding undue intrusion on communities. Discussions about striking that balance are ongoing between the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and I am not sure about the current state of those discussions. I hope they can conclude quickly and I will advise the Deputy when I am apprised of the position. It is an important matter for many communities.
The programme for Government contains a clear commitment that no small school will close without the consent of parents, in order to protect the sustainability and viability of our rural communities. However, I was contacted earlier this week about Coláiste an Chreagáin in Mountbellew. Parents of students at the school received text messages stating that the school would not be taking enrolments in September. Are plans in place to ensure there will be full consultation with parents of this school prior to any decision on its future?
I am not sure who sent out text messages to that effect. Teachers are employed by the boards of management and paid by the Department of Education and Skills. The Government has no intention of closing down any small schools without the consent of the parents. In some cases, parents decide that a school is so small they need their children to go to a larger school with better facilities but the Government has a long-standing position of not closing small schools. Whoever sent the text message needs to be clear about that. It was not a Government direction.