Thursday, 6 April 2017
Questions on Promised Legislation
I ask the Minister for an update on the commercial rates Bill. I understand the heads are still being prepared. Rates are putting businesses under pressure and local authorities are finding themselves at a loss because they do not have the authority to do a great deal about the issue. In rural counties such as my home county of Mayo the commercial rates being charged have resulted in the closure of many businesses which have been unable to keep up with their bills. While I appreciate there are many demands on the Government, it must show a sense of urgency in bringing the Bill through the House in order that local authorities can do the job they need to do to alleviate pressure on local businesses.
Before I ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, to respond to Deputy Lisa Chambers, I express, on behalf of the Government, our total condemnation of the poison gas attacks in Idlib province in Syria yesterday. Such weapons have no place in the 21st century. They are indiscriminate, as is evident from the hundreds of people who have been killed or injured. We extend our condolences to the people affected. Those responsible for these war crimes should be held to account in the International Criminal Court. I ask the Minister to respond to Deputy Chambers.
In recent days, we had statements on Brexit. The rather limp reference in the draft guidelines published by the European Council were described as a triumph by the Government. They are anything but. Today is 6 April and the clock is ticking, with the guidelines to be decided on 29 April. When will the Government publish the promised White Paper or negotiating strategy paper? When will the House have an opportunity to discuss and, I hope, agree a proposed amendment to Article 11, which refers to Ireland and our special interests?
Later today, the Dáil will debate a Fine Gael Party Private Members' Bill, the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Divorce) Bill 2016, which proposes to reduce the waiting time for divorce from four to two years. Unusually, this welcome Bill, which my party will support, will be taken in Government time. In the event that it is passed, is a referendum on the matter envisaged and, if so, when will it be held?
If the Bill is passed in the Dáil and subsequently in the Seanad, there would have to be a referendum on it. However, I am not in a position to set a date for a referendum today. As the Deputy will be aware, there are a number of issues on which referendums will be required in the period ahead. Dates for these referendums have not yet been scheduled. The Bill is progressive and welcome and if passed by the Houses, it will be necessary to have a referendum on it.
The programme for Government states the Government plans to alleviate the burden of insurance costs. TheIrish Independent reported today on a leaked draft plan from the Committee on the Future of Healthcare regarding tax credits for health insurance. The Minister spoke of the principle of protecting middle Ireland and those who pay for everything. Will he confirm that the Government will not remove the tax credits available to people with private health insurance who already play a large amount of tax?
In January of this year, a woman by the name of Trish Flavin died suddenly leaving five children - twins aged five, a boy aged six and two girls aged 11 and 16. Her husband and I would argue strongly that this was a consequence of them being the victim of the tracker mortgage scandal. In 2016, they received an eviction notice and repossession order from the Bank of Ireland. On 14 February, they received an apology from the bank, yet the bank continued to proceed with the repossession. Will the Government ensure the mortgage special court Bill and courts (mortgage arrears) Bill will be fast-tracked? Will the Minister also ensure the family of Trish Flavin will not be evicted?
The legislation is being worked on. A great deal of work is under way between the Department of Justice and Equality and the Attorney General on that. We will progress it as soon as we can. The Government has put in place many supports and a great deal of advice for people facing mortgage arrears or facing repossession jointly funded by my Department and the Department of Justice and Equality. The Abhaile scheme provides people with money, legal and financial advice that they may need and this is available.
An expert panel on concrete blocks was established by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government in April 2016 to investigate the problems that have emerged in the concrete block work of certain dwellings in counties Donegal and Mayo. The terms of references of the panel included the submission of a report within six months. I understand the panel has finalised its report and it is with the Minister for review. When will the report be published? What further actions will the Minister undertake to assist the parties directly involved in reaching a satisfactory resolution to these problems? Will the actions include the extension of the pyrite remediation scheme to deal with cases of muscovite mica?
I do not have an exact date for that but the report is being handled by the Minister of State, Deputy English, and I understand it will be published shortly. I do not have an exact date but I can come back to the Deputy on that.
The health (transport support) Bill is on the spring-summer legislative programme. The mobility scheme has been abandoned for eight or nine years and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, promised us last November that a new scheme was imminent. That was five months ago. When will the Bill be introduced, given a great deal of enabling work is needed? Many families are suffering enormously. They need specially adapted cars for their loved ones. The scheme has been gone for so long that their cars are clapped out. They are seven or eight years old and cannot be changed. When will this important scheme be reintroduced? Could the Minister give us a date because people are suffering?
The legislation is being handled by the Minister of State and it is on the priority list. The intention in the Bill is to introduce a new form of mobility allowance precisely for the people to whom the Deputy referred. We absolutely accept that this has gone on for too long and we will conclude this as soon as we can but it involves ongoing discussions between the Departments of Health and Public Expenditure and Reform because there will be budgetary implications and those can only kick in from next October's budget.
The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government promised a number of months ago that he would bring forward a new scheme to support people who wish to purchase local authority housing. The scheme initiated by the previous Government is extremely restrictive. It prohibits many people who wish to buy their house from doing so. These sales also provide much needed revenue for local authorities, which can then reinvest the money refurbishing houses and so on. When will the scheme be published?
As I have said many times in the House, the scheme introduced last year was a pilot with a new approach. We said we would review it at the end of a year and that review is being finalised. As soon as the review is complete, we will implement the recommendations in the context of any scheme.
Section 6 of the programme for Government relates to mental health and states that further investment must go into primary and secondary schools and additional counsellors must be provided.
How many additional counsellors have been provided to date? What is the further commitment that was promised in August?
My question is supplementary to Deputy Chambers' question. We all know that valuation currently dictates the commercial rates. Can the Minister confirm the heads of the commercial rates Bill will include proposals to reform the archaic nature of the valuation?
I will happily answer that. The Valuation Office is actually in the Department of Justice and Equality and not in the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. What we are planning to do with this legislation is give local authorities more autonomy and flexibility in terms of how they charge for and collect rates locally depending on business type, geographical conditions, disadvantage in certain areas and so on, so that they will be able to strategically use the rates base in a more effective and appropriate way than is currently the case. The Deputy will see that legislation in the next two to three weeks.
Under the Programme for Government additional places were put in place for the rural social scheme. There were a whole lot of them, which was very welcome for many people in rural Ireland. However, there seems to be something hidden within that because many people in the area are now being told the rural social scheme is no longer an income support scheme, which it had always been, but a job activation scheme. This change was relayed to representatives of the supervisors of the rural social scheme in a meeting on 27 March. They said the information had come from the Minister. Will the Minister clarify whether it is now a job activation scheme rather than an income support scheme for farmers and fishers in rural areas?
An additional 500 places were allocated to the rural social scheme for this year. Dozens of new participants are already taking part in the schemes which is very encouraging. It is both. It is an income support scheme for farmers on marginal land whose incomes are not adequate to pay the bills. It, essentially, gives them some off-farm income. It is not designed to take them off the farm. It is acknowledged there are people who take part in rural social schemes who pick up skills which then allow them to get off-farm income that they have not had before. I hope that answers the Deputy's question.
Page 84 of the programme for Government states that changes to the nursing home scheme will be introduced in order to remove the discrimination that exists against small businesses and small family farms. I have been contacted by a number of small farmers who are at the end of their tether about this issue, which has been ongoing for a considerable time. These farmers are struggling to pay the payments due to nursing homes where they have their loved ones. The IFA has raised this and I have met with the national chairperson, Maura Canning, to discuss the issue. When will these changes, which are long overdue, come into effect to stop the unacceptable situation?
Any such changes would require changes to primary legislation in the nursing home support scheme. I do not have a date for that legislation but I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, to contact the Deputy directly.
When does the Minister believe the Government will be in a position to publish the eagerly awaited action plan for jobless householders? What level of funding is it envisaged will be needed for the plan?
It is not legislation but it is a programme for Government commitment. I hope to bring the draft to the Cabinet sub-committee next week and subject to it being happy with it, I will bring it to Cabinet next month and publish it before the summer recess.
It is appropriate the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is in the House because I am asking this question on promised legislation on wind energy guidelines for the third time. The first time I was told it would be before the summer recess. The second time I was told it would be early in the new year. I am asking the Minister for a third time to give me a definite date when these guidelines will be published.
The Minister, Deputy Naughten, and I have had a number of meetings on this. We are close to agreement at this stage.
We will hopefully be in a position within the next few weeks to publish draft guidelines. Those guidelines will then undergo a consultation process, which we are required to facilitate under EU law. At the end of that process, we will be able to finalise a new set of wind energy guidelines. The process is under way.
I wish to ask about the assisted human reproduction Bill, which I have raised a few times. I was advised via a parliamentary question that officials were working on the heads of the Bill last year, but many families are desperate to know when we will see it. A report was undertaken by the Health Research Board, HRB, but my understanding is that this has been concluded. If nothing is standing in the way, when will we see the legislation?
The Government's Irish language policy is in disarray. According to the latest census, there has been a fall in the number of Irish speakers inside and outside the Gaeltacht, one in three school leavers do not have Irish and although 25% of parents seek Gaelscoileanna places for their children, only 5% get them. This policy has been gutted of money. English is compulsory in the State. For example, no State agency will deal with someone in Irish as a result of Government policy. When will the Straitéis 20 Bliain - we are in the latter half of its timeframe - and the Bille na dteangacha oifigiúla be in place?
Beidh ceannteidil an Achta Teanga os comhair an Rialtais i mí Bealtaine. Ó thaobh na straitéise, táimid ag leanúint ar aghaidh léi mar atá fhios ag an Teachta. Tá dul chun cinn ann agus beimid ag iarraidh go mbeidh níos mó.
-----tá fhios ag an Teachta go raibh ardú mar go raibh imirce an-ard sna ceantair i nDún na nGall agus Maigh Eo agus áiteanna eile insan Ghaeltacht. Is é sin an príomhfháth go bhfuil laghdú ar an méid cainteoirí Gaeilge sna ceantair sin.
Mental health issues are covered on page 65 of the programme for Government. Yesterday, a clinical psychologist in Galway had to hold meetings with first-time referrals in a tea room. When will the new building at University College Hospital Galway, UCHG, and the community programme building development in Daingean be completed?
A form circulating in some counties, including Roscommon, is requiring people who have been on the rural social scheme, RSS, for ten or 12 years to reapply. This was never the case previously. Why would someone who has been on the RSS for that long need to reapply? As long as they met the criteria, they used to just sign their names every year. That is understandable.
I will have to check up on that. Existing RSS participants can stay on it for life. I have made no policy decision to change that. There is a difference for the 500 new entrants, in that they can be on the scheme for up to six years in two three-year blocks. I am unsure as to what this is about, but I am happy to discuss it with the Deputy and find out what is the story. People who have been on the scheme up until this year are entitled to remain on it until they reach retirement age.
The Garda Síochána (compensation for malicious injuries) Bill is promised legislation.
I know there were some legal difficulties with the Bill initially, but have the heads of it been cleared and will it come before the House soon?
On the Government's commitment to provide proper paediatric diabetes services, particularly in the north west, as a result of a vacancy arising in Sligo children availing of diabetic services, especially in relation to pump therapy, are without a service. Will the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, engage with the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, with a view to having that position filled and to ensure proper diabetic services provision for children in Letterkenny General Hospital?