Tuesday, 9 May 2017
Order of Business
Tuesday's business shall be No. 4, motion re framework agreement between the EU and Mongolia, referral to committee without debate; No. 5, motion re PQ rota change, without debate; and No. 11, statements re Ireland and the negotiations on the UK's withdrawal from the European Union. Private Members' business shall be No. 101, motion re sale of AIB shares, selected by the Labour Party.
Wednesday's business shall be No. 5a, motion re exchange of views with Mr. Barnier in joint committee with Seanad Éireann, without debate; No. 11, statements re Ireland and the negotiations on the UK's withdrawal from the European Union, resumed if not previously concluded; No. 1, Civil Liability (Amendment) Bill 2017 [Seanad] - Second Stage; and No. 2, Companies (Amendment) Bill 2017 [Seanad] - Second Stage. Private Members' business shall be No. 102, motion re. Dublin transport, selected by Fianna Fáil.
Thursday's business shall be an exchange of views with Mr. Michel Barnier, chief negotiator of the task force for the preparation and conduct of negotiations with the United Kingdom (in Committee of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann) and No. 2, Companies (Amendment) Bill 2017 [Seanad] - Second Stage. Second Stage of No. 23, Sale of Tickets (Sporting and Cultural Events) Bill 2017 will be debated in the evening slot.
I refer Members to the report of the Business Committee dated 4 May 2017. In respect of today's business it is proposed that:
(1) the motion re referral of framework agreement and motion re PQ rota change will be taken without debate and that any division demanded thereon shall be taken immediately; and
(2) statements re Ireland and the negotiations on the UK's withdrawal from the European Union shall be brought to a conclusion after 10.15 p.m. on Wednesday, if not previously concluded.
The statements of party and group leaders, or a Member nominated in their stead, shall not exceed ten minutes each. A Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties or groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, shall not exceed ten minutes each and statements of all other Members shall not exceed ten minutes each. There shall be a five minute response from a Minister or Minister of State and all Members may share time.
In respect of Wednesday's business, it is proposed that the motion re exchange of views with Mr. Michel Barnier in joint committee with Seanad Éireann shall be taken without debate and that any division demanded thereon shall be taken immediately.
In respect of Thursday's business, it is proposed that Leaders' Questions shall be taken at 2 p.m. and that, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, any division that would normally be taken at the weekly division time on Thursday, 11 May 2017 shall be taken in the weekly division time on Thursday, 18 May 2017.
Thank you very much, Deputy Daly. There are three proposals to be put to the House today. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed. It is great to see consensus breaking out. On proposed legislation, I call Deputy Micheál Martin.
In the programme for Government, there is a good provision for the facility to evaluate progress in a transparent and accountable fashion – this relates to progress on the programme for Government.
This section of the day is about Deputies asking when specific legislation will be brought forward by the Government in respect of specific issues. However, the time is coming fast when it will become a fairly redundant exercise, given that 140 Bills are languishing on Committee Stage in this House. To be fair, I know the Ceann Comhairle has taken an initiative in this regard but there are responsibilities on Government as well. The Government has produced but 23 items of legislation. Some of those are not comprehensive or earth-shattering in the sense that they are rather technical Bills. Clearly, there is room for Government to improve. Some of these Bills have been simply left there by the Government. I do not know why the Government has not engaged in the education field and so on. We are reading reports that some public servants are of the view that they are not pushing forward Bills because the Dáil might get at them. This is a parliamentary democracy. I respectfully suggest that people in the public service or elsewhere have to accept the reality of the Dáil as it is.
I call on the Government to publish the legislation and engage with the Opposition on the issues to get the legislation it might want passed actually passed rather than have it waiting interminably.
As for some of the Bills on Committee Stage, there was an agreement that there would be a more practical approach to money Bills and money messages. The Government is holding back on that. The Government is not fulfilling its commitments in respect of money messages. The Coroners Bill is still with the Select Committee on Justice and Equality, for example, as well as other Bills. Deliberate acts by Government are preventing the advancement of some of the Bills currently languishing on Committee Stage. This requires action. The Government has to come to the table with some definitive action.
We should get something very clear here, first of all. This is a very different working Dáil to previous Dáileanna because the Government does not control the full agenda here. One of the changes that we made was to give backbench Deputies the right to put forward opportunities for Private Members' Bills. That is an important facility in any democracy.
We did not have a backed-up list of 140. In my time in here, few Private Members' Bills have passed – I could count fewer than a dozen in any particular year, although maybe I am wrong.
We now have 140 of these Bills backed up. It is easy for a Deputy to say an issue should be addressed and that he or she should get a Bill drafted on it. What happens is that the Minister responsible, especially in the area of justice, then has to take that Bill and amend it properly to deal with all of the issues that arise from it and that might not have been considered by the Deputy with the best intentions in the world.
Some of the Bills that are being taken have to be amended extensively by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to the Government to make them into a Bill that is fit for purpose-----
Currently, there are perhaps 20 Bills before the Dáil. Some are on Report Stage while others are on Second Stage or Committee Stage. A similar situation arises in respect of the Seanad Order Paper. The Deputy is around a long time and knows that the Constitution is clear in respect of money messages. Article 17.2 states:
Dáil Éireann shall not pass any vote or resolution, and no law shall be enacted, for the appropriation of revenue or other public moneys unless the purpose of the appropriation shall have been recommended to Dáil Éireann by a message from the Government signed by the Taoiseach.
------which is currently being dealt with by Deputy Ó Caoláin.The charge involved is approximately €12 million. If that were to be allowed through, it is €12 million of the Vote for that particular Department. Taking ten Bills or whatever one wants out of the 140, the charge is then taken off the Vote that has already gone through from the relevant Minister. We all learn lessons, do we not? Perhaps we should, as the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, made the point to me, leave aside €100 million for Private Member's Bills which could compete on priority for money messages that might be necessary to put those Bills through.
It was a good thing that any Deputy would be able to put forward a Private Member's Bill, but perhaps we on all sides did not think it out clearly enough and ask what we meant by it. We cannot put through a Bill that is inadequate, inferior or will not work.
Therefore, while the thought or the intent might have been good, the Minister involved might have to amend the Bill extensively. If there is a money charge, it does not fall into line with the expenditure intentions and priorities of the Department.
Perhaps that is an issue that we should discuss. In respect of the 140 Bills, I know that there is a discussion to be had through the Ceann Comhairle's chairmanship as to what the parties want as their priorities out of that 140.
The programme for Government commits to holding a number of constitutional referendums, including one on Article 40.6.1 on the offence of blasphemy. This arises from the good work of the Constitutional Convention. The Taoiseach will recall that an English actor, Stephen Fry, gave an interview to Gay Byrne on the issue of faith and God and, as a result of a single complaint, we had the spectacle of Mr. Fry being investigated by the Garda Síochána on a criminal charge of blasphemy. That investigation is not now going ahead, which I welcome, but this story was widely reported in the international media with appropriate mocking commentary and some disbelief.
Blasphemy should have no place in the Constitution. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, indicated several days ago that the Government may hold a referendum day next year to deal with the repeal of the eighth amendment and the extension of the vote to citizens outside the State. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment that the removal of blasphemy from the Constitution will also be dealt with or that a separate referendum will be held as soon as possible? Will he give citizens the opportunity to say clearly, "Down with that sort of thing", and allow Stephen Fry and everyone else to express an opinion without the threat of criminal proceedings?
I note the comments in the current controversy about this matter. I understand that there have been no public prosecutions for blasphemy under the 2009 Act. I also understand the last prosecution for blasphemy by public authorities in Ireland is thought to have been in 1855, which is quite a distance back.
The current statutory provision for the offence of blasphemy is section 36 of the 2009 Act, which defines what constitutes blasphemy and what defences and penalties apply. My party opposed the inclusion of the offence of blasphemy in the Bill at the time, but the Act was introduced following the advice of successive Attorneys General that it was required following the Supreme Court's decision in what is known as the Corway case in order to give legislative effect to the offence of blasphemy contained in Article 46.1.1° of the Constitution. The Defamation Act abolished the possibility, formerly available under common law, of a private individual bringing a prosecution for blasphemy. The Corway case was a rare example of such a private prosecution but was unsuccessful.
Deputy Adams quite rightly raises the point that a referendum must be held to deal with this matter. The Constitution adopted in 1937 provides in Article 40.6.1° that blasphemy is a criminal offence. This article describes the constitutional right to freedom of expression and its limits and states: "The public utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law." The previous Government agreed a referendum should be held on blasphemy. It is a case of Government finding an opportunity to deal with this. A number of other matters arise from the Constitutional Convention that are well recommended and on which it is agreed referenda should be held. Clearly, in respect of the Citizens' Assembly, a referendum will be required in due course on Article 40.3.3°.
I had originally thought it might be possible to hold a number of referenda on the one day, but when one gets into these matters and people begin to understand the fors and the againsts, the yes and the no-----
------with referendum commissions to be independent in their analysis and give people full information so they can vote Yes or No to whatever question is asked, and the matter of blasphemy is one such question.
The journalist Gavan Reilly pointed out in an analysis piece published yesterday that although there are currently nine sitting justices of the Supreme Court, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy and the Chief Justice, Ms Susan Denham, are both due to retire this year. Meanwhile, Mr. Justice Peter Charleton will obviously be completely occupied by the disclosures tribunals for the foreseeable future. This will reduce, by August, the number of sitting Supreme Court judges available to six. Obviously, it would not be acceptable for the capacity of the Supreme Court to be cut by a third. I ask the Taoiseach when the appointments will be made, when the legislation, more importantly, will be agreed by these Houses and when the Government position will be clear on judicial appointments so that we can fill not only these vacancies that will arise in the coming months, but also the other vacancies that arise in other courts which now need to be filled as a matter of urgency.
Deputy Howlin raises a valid question. As he is aware, vacancies are recommended for filling by a process to the Minister for Justice and Equality. One vacancy arising from the death of an esteemed Supreme Court judge was not filled, and was not recommended to be filled, because the Court of Appeal was taking quite a number of cases that would normally go to the Supreme Court. That was the purpose of the setting up of the Court of Appeal. As per the normal course of events, a number of members of the Judiciary have been appointed recently on foot of the recommendations that have come in reduced numbers from the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. I expect that the legislation dealing with judicial appointments will come before Cabinet next Tuesday.
Today, 3,099 farmers are waiting to be paid their GLAS payments. This has gone on for far too long. Farmers are being punished for IT failures within the Department, which is simply not fair. I urge the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to put farmers out of their financial misery and finally pay them their hard-earned money. There are 187 farmers in Kerry struggling to pay their bills and awaiting this money, and I know every one of them. I would very much like the Taoiseach and the Minister to get them paid as a matter of urgency.
I raised with the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food this morning a number of cases from different counties that had been raised. I understand more than 90% of payments have been made. I do not know whether the difficulty lies with the Department or the application or whether, as the Deputy stated, it is related to information technology. However, the Deputy can take it that the Minister is working to get payments to the farmers who remain to be paid, including those whom he knows, and the problems associated with them sorted out in order that people can get the money that is available and ready to be sent to them. The Minister is working actively to ensure the issues, whatever they are, are sorted out and the farmers paid.
While I cannot cite the relevant page in the programme for Government, I understand it is proposed to centralise partially nursing home support scheme offices - the fair deal offices in short - which will be reduced in number from 17 to five and located in Naas, Ballymun, Cork, Limerick and Tullamore. Lo and behold, people in Donegal will have to travel to Tullamore to deal with a fair deal application, as they must travel to Dublin for a passport. Given the modern communications available and the implications of Brexit for County Donegal, what are we doing? Can people in Donegal not deal with people from other counties? Are we not competent enough to have a centre located in the county? While I do not expect the Taoiseach to be able to answer my questions, I ask him to address the issue and speak to the Minister for Health about having a sixth location for fair deal offices. We should not fix what is not broken but if a sixth office is to be provided, it should be located in Donegal where staff are well capable of dealing with other offices. This decision is inexcusable and unacceptable. I ask the Taoiseach, as a west of Ireland man, to put on his north-west hat.
Deputy Gallagher is in a commanding position when he moves down to the floor. I will bring his comments to the attention of the Minister for Health and find out the position. The good people in the Donegal office are well capable of dealing with applications from their county and many other counties. Many State services are vested in the county and they do a very good job.
Court proceedings commenced in the High Court this morning in a case taken by Element Power against An Bord Pleanála in respect of a wind farm application in County Kildare. This issue is of grave concern to the people I represent and many others in other counties. The previous Government committed to reviewing and updating the wind energy guidelines for planning five years ago. The current guidelines, which date from 2006, are obsolete as they do not take into account the serious concerns of communities, particularly in respect of noise, shadow flicker and distance from homes. People in my county are especially concerned because we have a strong equine industry. When will the new guidelines be published? The Government should impose a moratorium on all such applications while we await the updated guidelines.
It is true that this has gone on for a very long time. Agreement could not be reached between two Ministers in a previous Government. I am very confident that agreement will be reached between the two Ministers involved in this case.
The programme for Government features a section entitled "Giving Vulnerable Young People the Best Chance in Life" which states, "The new Partnership Government has an opportunity to change our approach from expensive reactive interventions to proactive supports". It notes that prevention "will also help to alleviate pressure on our vital public services". Underpinning this, the document states the Government supports the expansion of local drugs task force projects. Those involved in these projects have informed me they are struggling to maintain existing services. I reviewed the expenditure on local drugs task force projects and found that it stood at €29.5 million in 2012 and €28.2 million in 2013. In each of the past four years, however, expenditure has stood at €27.648 million.
I accept that there have been economic challenges, but at a time when the economy is beginning to recover, there is no sign of recovery in the funding for task force projects. They have the potential to be proactive in terms of prevention while offering value for money, but there is no indication that these vulnerable people are seeing an increase in expenditure or activity in this regard. Does the Taoiseach still stand over that commitment?
Deputy Curran raised the additional expenditure issue. He knows about this. Clearly, the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, is dealing with this area. She obviously has a very genuine interest in and has made quite a substantial amount of progress on it. Some of the drug task forces throughout the country have been outstanding; others not so. It is not always about the level of money that is allocated - it is about the work and the progress made within each of the task force areas.
I can have the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, respond to Deputy Curran or perhaps he might like to raise this as a Topical Issue, with the consent of the Ceann Comhairle.
As the Taoiseach is aware, the programme for Government, on page 70, contains a clear commitment to improve services and increase supports for people with disabilities, particularly in terms of early assessment and intervention for children with special needs. The families of three young children have launched High Court proceedings over the delay in attaining assessments of need. One of the children has been waiting for an assessment since January 2016. That is unacceptable.
I received figures from the HSE last month showing that more than 1,000 complaints had been filed under the Disability Act for failure to carry out an assessment within the stipulated timeframe. Of the processed claims, 88% were upheld. What action is the Government going to take to ensure that the basic rights of children with special needs are upheld and that the provisions of the Act are implemented in full?
The first thing I would say is that the Government appointed a Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities, Deputy Finian McGrath, and provided a substantial budget. Early intervention services and services for school-aged children with disabilities need to be improved and organised more effectively. This is a process that is well under way under the direction of the Minister of State. The HSE is currently engaged in a reconfiguration of existing therapy resources to geographic-based teams for children from nought to 18 years, and the objective of this new model of assessment, which I support, and intervention is to provide a single, clear referral pathway for all children nought to 18 years irrespective of their disability, where they live or the school that they attend. Evidence from areas shows that the implementation of this programme will have a positive impact on waiting lists for both assessments and therapies, and full implementation of the progressing disability services for children and young people programme is expected before the end of 2017.
Two final points, a Cheann Comhairle. Some €8 million in additional money was invested in 2014 and 2015 in order to fund 200 additional posts to support the implementation of the new model. A further €4 million in additional funding was provided for 75 therapy posts in 2016. It is expected that this reconfiguration will have a very significant impact on the HSE's ability to meet the needs of children and young people in a more efficient, effective and timely manner.
Somewhere in the bundle of Bills down in the basement or wherever they are that are to be gone through is legislation to allow elderly people who wish to stay in their homes rather than go into nursing homes to get money from the fair deal scheme. Time is not on their side. I ask that the Taoiseach root out the Bill and bring it before the Dáil. People who wish to stay in their homes cannot do so because they are unable to get enough home-help hours. We were promised that something could be done so that these people could access money through the fair deal scheme and use it to find more home-help hours and stay in their homes. I know one such person who is very well but, because he needed a bit more home help but could not get it, has had to go into a nursing home. He is practically crying and asking every day about returning home.
It is actually out of the bundle because the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy McEntee, is carrying out a public consultation on this very issue of how best to provide services in their own homes for people who want to stay there. The Deputy will know that the last person often asked where they want to be is the person who wants to stay in his or her own home. Why would he or she not want to stay in his or her own home? For years, we have had the disabled persons grant and we have had assistance through the local authorities to convert houses to make them suitable for people who might have particular challenges, for example, by doing work upstairs or in back rooms, or by providing more suitable and appropriate sanitary facilities in bathrooms and so on. I would make the point that the home care package numbers have increased and that where they work, they work exceptionally well. The Minister of State is carrying out this public consultation to see what people want and how best that might be facilitated. The Deputy's point is opportune but the Bill is out on the table and is actively being pursued by way of public consultation by the Minister of State.
Earlier, in reply to my party leader, the Taoiseach said the reason much of the legislation has been stalled is because of the potential cost to the Exchequer. We know that some of the Government's own legislation and, indeed, legislation that was published during the lifetime of the previous Government, has been stalled. I am talking, in particular, about the Technological Universities Bill. When we ask a question in respect of this Bill, the Taoiseach portrays it as being the committee's fault that it is not progressing. However, the fault is with the Minister because consensus cannot be found in the context of how this legislation will progress. The continuous delay of over 18 months is preventing the many institutes of technology which meet the criteria that have been set down being upgraded to technical university status. When will we finally see movement from the Department to the committee so this critical legislation can be debated and enacted, and the institute of technology sector is rewarded for the good work it is doing by being promoted to university status?
I thank Deputy Troy. The Deputy has gone beyond my words. What I said was that there are 140 Private Members' Bills on the list at the moment which were brought forward by Deputies from all parties. Many of those Bills have to be amended very extensively by the relevant Minister or Department involved.
It is not the actual cost that is stalling these Bills, it is the requirement to introduce amendments in order to make them compatible with what is legislatively acceptable. If they were to go through, a cost would accrue and would be taken from the Vote of each individual Department. I have read out the constitutional piece for Deputy Micheál Martin in that regard.
In respect of the Technological Universities Bill, I will ask the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, to deal with this as it is not he who is holding it up. He will explain why to the Deputy.
I thank Deputy Troy for raising this issue. This is very important legislation because, as he knows, we want to underpin regional development by creating consolidated technological universities which have the breadth and strength to build and drive regional development. There have been problems but I am glad to report that we have entered into discussions with the TUI and that discussions are taking place in order to create a framework for working out some of the details that have caused a particular problem for that union. Clearly, we need to progress that. As the Deputy knows, on the previous occasion it was around such issues that it failed.
We also want to ensure that, as we develop the proposals, each of the regions have concepts that can be driven forward. There is no unnecessary delay but it has been difficult and there is no point in proceeding with it until-----
On a point of order, I had signalled well in advance of many of the Members who came in but I will take my opportunity now and will raise that matter directly with the Ceann Comhairle later.
Last week, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of his failure to deal with the issue of equal pay for equal work in the public sector and the impact that is having on services in hospitals and other public services across this State. I gave him the example of a ward that was closed in a hospital in Dungarvan, County Waterford. The director of community services in the HSE has said that the only reason those beds are closed, including rehab beds for stroke victims, is because the hospital cannot recruit nurses. We cannot recruit nurses because of the failure of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to accept even the principle of equal pay for equal work.
The report of the Public Service Pay Commission has now come before Cabinet. Can the Taoiseach clarify for public sector workers that in the context of any new pay talks, he will deal once and for all with the issue of equal pay for equal work, restore the public service to a single-tier structure and enable the recruitment of the staff needed to open beds that have been closed right across the State?
Dungarvan, of course, has been mentioned by Deputy Cullinane. In Cashel, last week, we all got the same news that wards were closing down - valuable respite beds and recuperation beds. It is putting huge pressure on Waterford, as was mentioned earlier today, and South Tipperary General Hospital.
It is not a new development that we cannot recruit nurses. I am a businessman and if I said to my customers that I cannot recruit staff, it would not stand up. It is merely incompetence in the extreme by the HSE. There are too many managers. Will the Taoiseach relieve some managers of their jobs and hire the nurses? There is a difficulty in hiring them because there is bedlam in the hospitals because of bad management.
I have already referred to the situation in so far as the Department of Health is concerned. The Minister for Health is now in a position with the HSE to offer permanent contracts to every new nurse coming out. The Minister is offering incentives for nurses to come back home. The Minister is offering enhanced educational opportunities for nurses who are currently working. There is a range of incentives to give young trained nurses the opportunity to work at home here.
In respect of Deputy Cullinane's question, the report of the Public Service Pay Commission was approved by Government today for publication. It contains a detailed range of issues that have to be addressed. These will be addressed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of dealing with an extension of the existing Lansdowne Road agreement that would be fair, fiscally sustainable and capable of being met by the economy. Subject to the approval of the Government, which was given today, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will initiate discussions with the public service staff representatives to negotiate that extension to Lansdowne Road in the coming weeks.
All these issues are set out in the Public Service Pay Commission report. It is not a recommending body for pay increases but it does set out some really relevant truths about the situation that has to be faced into by Government here. Deputy Cullinane will appreciate that.
The programme for Government refers, I believe, on 15 occasions, to commitments to women that claim to empower them and to tackle the inequalities experienced by them in our society and internationally. Last week, the Government refused to reveal how it voted in the election of Saudi Arabia to the UN Commission on the Status of Women-----
This committee at the United Nations will be chaired by the incoming ambassador, Ms Geraldine Byrne Nason, on behalf of Ireland next year and the Deputy can rest assured that the question of women's rights will be one that will be foremost in her mind at that committee.
It has already been made clear by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade that not since 1947 have any of the secret ballots been divulged. There are very good reasons for that. Clearly, the issue that arose here was that a panel of five countries-----
-----were put forward: Turkmenistan, Korea, Japan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. There were five nominations for five places. Obviously, there was a place for every country involved.
The important issue here is the functioning of the United Nations, the mechanics of how it actually works. In my view, it needs fairly serious reform. Be that as it may, these votes occur on a regular basis-----
This is the first time that Saudi Arabia has been on this committee. This will be a committee focused on women's rights. Obviously, Saudi Arabia will have to hear some home truths and will have to play its part.
I support the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, here in this matter. For those who wish that there would be a big row about this inside Cabinet, let me say that the members of the Independent Alliance were quite happy to say we need to have the opportunity to ask relevant questions and be better informed-----
It is the same point of order as I raised last week. Before the Minister for Education and Skills leaves, we constructed the Order of Business to allow all Cabinet members respond to questions. Many of the questions the Taoiseach responded to would be much better responded to Members if all members of Cabinet were here.
Last week, when I raised it, there was one additional member of Cabinet to the Taoiseach. There is still one additional Cabinet member. I will keep raising this until at least as many attend as are available.
Deputy Howlin's point is well made. I would appeal that it would be helpful if we could have more Ministers but it would also be helpful if Members could stick to the one minute that is provided because there are seven Members today who should have been able to get in and who did not.