Thursday, 18 May 2017
Questions on Promised Legislation
First, I wish to acknowledge the departure of An Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, and should have done so earlier. I also wish to acknowledge his work over the years in very difficult times, and I wish him and his family the very best.
I wish to ask the Minister about the possibility of the introduction of a supplementary budget before budget 2018, specifically in the context of what we spoke about earlier, namely, funding for Brexit. In the last budget, the combined funding that went to the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, and Bord Bia was €4.6 million. The Minister and I may disagree on the level of activity but I would hope we would agree that with respect to the total budget for those excellent agencies of €4.6 million that they could do a great deal more good with a higher budget. To put that into context, the first supplementary budget for health last year came in at €500 million and the Dáil voted it through. There was a second supplementary budget for health which, I believe, was approximately €389 million. We can vote through amounts of money on the basis that Brexit is this enormous challenge. Can we expect to see a supplementary budget, specifically for the State agencies tasked with helping businesses and farmers in the country?
I thank the Deputy for his comments relating to the Taoiseach and his family. I am a bit confused by the attitude of Fianna Fáil towards budgetary policy because on the one hand Deputy Michael McGrath is continually asking me to make sure we have no plans to bring in a supplementary budget but the Deputy is now asking me if we have such plans. We have plans in place to deal with Brexit and they were dealt with the context of the 2017 budget. I acknowledge that we will look at and take further steps to deal with that challenge and do it in the context of the 2018 budget.
Last February, Mr. Kieran Mulvey reported to the Government on the north east inner city and bringing about what was termed in the report's title as "a brighter future". That was launched and agreed. Since that time, there has been a really disappointing level of inactivity in terms of implementing those recommendations and establishing viable and meaningful local structures to bring the change we all wish to see in that part of the city. The North Inner City Community Coalition has been in correspondence with An Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, on three occasions to request a meeting but that has not happened. Will the Minister tell me when we will get a report on substantive progress in the bringing of change and those local structures to the north-east inner city in Dublin? When will the outgoing or incoming Taoiseach meet representatives of the North Inner City Community Coalition?
I acknowledge the open mind that the Deputy has demonstrated with regard to this report and what we are looking to do, including the support she has offered to date, although I know that is qualified. The Deputy, her party and its councillors have looked to engage in this progress and project.
The Deputy asked whether the Taoiseach will seek to meet representatives of the community coalition and the answer is "Yes". He has just had much diary pressure to this point, in particular with European commitments, but as recently as yesterday he indicated to me he will meet the group. He is looking to meet them by the end of this month, if that is possible. He is further seeking to visit the north inner city again, and perhaps there might be the opportunity to do all of it as part of one arrangement, diary commitments permitting. I expect a report on what has been achieved to date will be done by the end of this month.
I also acknowledge the announcement made yesterday by the Taoiseach. I have made my own comments in public since the announcement was made, having worked with him for five years.
This morning we are hearing the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, is to close. Its effective work in lobbying for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual, LGBT, community led to equality legislation, as well as workplace and other protections for LGBT people. It also helped bring about the establishment of civil partnerships and, ultimately, marriage equality. For 29 years it has organised and lobbied on behalf of a community that was for too long in the shadows. Regardless of the events that led to its closure, its contribution to building a more equal society deserves acknowledgement and respect. The programme for Government contains a determination to foster greater social inclusion and empower the LGBT community. What action does the Government intend to take to deliver on this commitment in the programme for Government?
I thank Deputy Howlin for his comments about the Taoiseach and his words yesterday. I am aware of the report and announcement made by GLEN on its status, specifically the decision it has made to pursue an orderly winding up of its activities. I also acknowledge the contribution it has made to social progress in our country and the way in which it looked to progress an agenda that we all now accept needed to be done was exemplary. The former Senator, Ms Jillian van Turnhout, was involved with an independent review of the organisation and the charities regulator is independent of the Government; it will take whatever action it sees fit. The Deputy asked about services and my view is that our current objective should be to ensure the valuable services provided by GLEN continue to be provided, given that the organisation will not be around.
My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and the Department of Justice and Equality are involved in drafting an LGBTI strategy which will be published. We hope it will provide a forum for ensuring that the services, advocacy and support which GLEN provided will be continued, albeit not through it.
My question concerns the Department of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, as he promotes himself through this campaign against alleged fraud. The language he uses in answering parliamentary questions is interesting. He wants to promote discussion, challenge perceptions, encourage reporting, increase awareness, demonstrate the seriousness of the Government and the very deep consciousness of the Department in fulfilling its obligations. The Minister's replies use very good language but another very serious fraud is being carried out on more than 30,000 women pensioners who are being denied a proper full contributory pension because of a flaw in the pensions legislation, to which we proposed an amendment last year. The Minister refused to accept this amendment but said he would carry out a review. When are we going to have this review of gross pension inequality, mainly among women pensioners in receipt of the old age pension. Can we please see it soon?
The programme for Government contains much talk about rural development and, indeed, a rural development Minister. The Leader programme was one of the most important and successful pillars we had in rural development for decades. The Irish programme was held up as a model in Europe. The Minister's predecessor, the former Minister, big Phil, the enforcer, devastated it. Now we have a new situation where there are low engagement levels, the length of the application process is desperate, there is complex and costly administration, and nothing is happening. Not a euro is being spent and communities are frustrated, different projects are being pitted against each other, and the whole thing is a farce. When will the Government dismantle this model and go back to a bottom-up approach? The programme is closed down by administration. It suits the Government. Under the County and City Managers Association, the Government has destroyed community initiative. Could the Government please seriously examine this and allow the volunteers to do the work they have always done and better their own communities, which the Government will not do it?
We have not destroyed community initiative. We are not looking in any way to frustrate the work of communities in responding to their challenges, in particular in the rural context to which the Deputy refers. That is the reason the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has an action plan on the development of rural Ireland to which every Department is committed, and in which we are making progress. The review to which the Deputy referred is simply one that is designed to ensure that the funding the taxpayer makes available to support these services is used in the best way possible.
Under the legislative programme for spring and summer 2017, the gambling control Bill is proposed to provide a comprehensive new licensing and regulatory framework for gambling. The Minister, along with everyone in this House and the public, will be aware that gambling is becoming a scourge in this country, in particular among young people and especially online gambling. We need to get this legislation in place and get control over this issue before it gets out of hand.
I thank the Deputy for the question. It is an issue about which we are all very concerned. I hope in the next week or two to publish the heads of a Bill which will contain some measures to deal with the issues about which the Deputy is concerned. I hope the main gambling Bill will be produced by the end of the year; that is the intention. Earlier this year, we carried out a review of developments in the interim since the heads were produced in 2014. They are substantial. The Deputy is correct on online activity. We are determined to establish a regulator and I have recently explored ways of setting one up on an interim basis in order to get the work started.
The Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services published its report in April.
Central to the report are proposed amendments to the 2007 Water Services Act. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, previously indicated that the Bill would be presented to the House in June. Given that he and the Fine Gael Party will be rather distracted in the next couple of months, will the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, give us a guarantee that the legislation will not be a delayed as a result of the Fine Gael leadership contest? Can he give us an indication of when it will be published?
I believe it will be published before the summer, as indicated by the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney. Given the importance of the issue, like any piece of Government business, the legislation will not be affected by any debate that may take place within my party.
I refer to respite care for children with mental and physical disabilities. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, travelled to County Kerry and announced that he had secured several million euro to address the issue. I can tell the House that a respite care service is only being provided for four families at a time in Kilmona in north Kerry. Why is St. Mary of the Angels in Beaufort not being allowed to continue to provide a respite care service for parents who are worn out? It would give them a chance to recharge their batteries. They are so low-----
The Minister of State announced that he was allocating money to deal with the issue but it has not reached County Kerry. We have to wait until the very last. Where is the money from the HSE? Why are people not receiving help? They are in a desperate state.
Like the Deputy, I acknowledge the needs of those who need a respite care service and the pressure they are under, but I am not in a position to update the Deputy on the supply of funding for a particular centre. If he raises the matter directly with the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, in a Topical Issue debate and so on, I know that he will respond. I will let the Minister of State know that the Deputy has raised the issue.
Considering the performance of the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, today, he might consider becoming the third man, if the Ceann Comhairle knows what I mean.
The programme for Government devotes a lot of time to farming matters, which is important because they affect the lives of every one of us. One concerns inspections, appeals and TAMS. Reference was made to fairness, transparency and the farmers' charter. In respect of TAMS, 11,800 farmers applied to participate in the scheme, of whom 8,440 have been approved. A considerable number of payments have been delayed. I am raising the issue because the delays are causing a lot of stress for farm families. Deputy Charlie McConalogue has dealt with the issue on our side of the House. We have been told there is an IT issue and if that is the case, it is not good enough. Will the Government consider a plan B? If there is an IT issue, it should have a fund from which to make payments and remove the stress and recoup the money when the IT system has been repaired.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, is very much aware of the importance of this issue because the payments are needed. Farmers and their families are entitled to them. There is, however, a difficulty in making them within the correct timeline. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine wants to resolve the matter. Now that the Deputy has raised the issue, I will make sure the Minister is aware of his concern. Using the systems in place which have worked in the past is the best way to deal with the issue.
On page 40 of the programme for Government the Government committed to raising the national minimum wage to €10.50 an hour. The last increase was 10 cent, from €9.15 to €9.25, a paltry increase. At this rate, it will take the Government 11 years to reach its target.
It has nothing to do with the Low Pay Commission, rather it is a commitment in the programme for Government. As the Minister knows, the cost of living is now huge. People cannot make ends meet on €9.25 per hour. Rent, travel, insurance and other costs are massively affecting people at a time when wages are not increasing. Will the Minister commit to raising the national minimum wage to €10.50 immediately and start to progress towards a living wage of €11.50?
The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, has informed me in a written reply to a parliamentary question that he intends to introduce legislation to ensure payments made in respect of the Stardust fire of 1981 will not be counted as means in calculations for social welfare purposes. I do not expect the Minister opposite to know the detail of that commitment, but he might remind the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, of his commitment. I hope the legislation can be taken in the House sooner rather than later.
I must be the third man on this side of the House. The programme for Government contains a commitment to keep people in their own homes for as long as possible. In that regard, I note that the disabled person's grants scheme, while very welcome in all counties, is completely oversubscribed. In my county alone in the priority 1 category, many people have been refused the grant owing to oversubscription. As I have done before, I ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, to consider the reintroduction of the housing aid for the elderly scheme, whereby a small grant of approximately €5,000 could be matched by families, either through work or materials, to extend the capacity of people to live in their homes for longer.
I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen, to deal with the issue raised by Deputy Maurice Quinlivan.
I will pass on to the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, the concerns of Deputy Seán Haughey. As the Deputy acknowledges, the Minister has indicated that he wants to see if the payment can be released in such a way as to avoid disqualifying recipients from receiving other payments they may already be receiving.
The matter raised by Deputy Declan Breathnach is one which the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, who I will have to mention every time I also mention the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, is raising in the context of budget 2018.
I remind Deputy Maurice Quinlivan that the minimum wage in Ireland is the second highest in Europe after Luxembourg. The idea behind establishing the Low Pay Commission last year was to take responsibility for the matter away from the Government. The commission consists of academics, business people and trade union representatives whose task is to make a balanced decision on the level of the minimum wage each year. It is working on the issue and, I understand, will make a decision in July. The idea was to take it away from the Government and place it before a small group which was balanced and independent in its composition.