Wednesday, 21 June 2017
Questions on Promised Legislation
The Technological Universities Bill, which was before the last Dáil and which is a critical piece of legislation in regard to the future of the institutes of technology, has been languishing for over 12 months now, with absolutely no progress in terms of bringing it to this House and having it passed. I said to the Taoiseach when we met some weeks ago that this is legislation we are prepared to engage on and compromise on, with a view to getting it through before the summer recess. It is my view that if we do not move on this, then paralysis will set in with regard to the ongoing development of the technological universities sector, which is so critical to economic development in this country and to the future of the institutes concerned. Will the Taoiseach indicate to the House when we are likely to see that legislation brought forward and the prospects of having it delivered through the summer? Everybody has been criticising the absence of legislation. The Government has not been active enough in bringing forward legislation over the last 12 months.
I thank Deputy Martin for raising this issue. There has been substantial progress. As the Deputy knows, we negotiated with the TUI, which was the obstacle to this. That has now been approved by ballot by the TUI and, on foot of that, we will be bringing forward amendments and I will be going to Government for permission to draft those amendments within the next couple of weeks. Obviously, as to whether I can meet a deadline of bringing forward those drafted before the summer recess, that is something I would like to do but there are always uncertainties in a drafting process. I can assure the Deputy this is getting very urgent and immediate attention. I understand why the Deputy is raising it, given it is urgent. It is an issue we want to move on but-----
The trial of Ibrahim Halawa was delayed again last month for the 24th time and has now been rescheduled for 4 July. By that stage Ibrahim will have been almost four years in Egyptian prisons and the impact of this on his physical and mental health has been enormous. The Government's diplomatic efforts thus far have been deeply disappointing and totally inadequate. In a letter written to the Taoiseach this week, Ibrahim writes of entering a dark tunnel and of four years of torture, suffering and pain. Will the Taoiseach commit to increasing our diplomatic efforts? Will he speak directly to the Egyptian President? Will he seek support at this week's European Council meeting for increased pressure on the Egyptian Government to release this Irish and EU citizen? Ibrahim Halawa was only 17 when he sought shelter in the al-Fateh mosque in Cairo. No young person should have to live through his experience since then. Will the Taoiseach respond to his letter and will he substantially increase our diplomatic efforts for his release, as I have outlined?
I second that call. I want to add specifically that the Taoiseach should talk to the Greek Prime Minister at the European Council. Our understanding is that it is Greek opposition to having European monitoring of the case which is stopping it. We need the European monitor there on 4 July to put on the pressure to get him out. Will the Taoiseach specifically bring this up with the Greek Prime Minister and report back to the House, whatever answer he gives?
Ibrahim Halawa is an Irish citizen who has been detained without trial in Egypt for four years. That, to me, is something that is utterly unacceptable. He was detained when he was 17 years old and was a minor. I think a lot of work has been done by the authorities, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and others, to assist in his release. I know the Ceann Comhairle led a delegation with regard to that and carried out a very important role in the efforts to ensure he is released and given a pardon. The current state of play is that this cannot happen until the trial happens but the trial keeps on being delayed, which has us in a very difficult situation at the moment.
He wrote to me last week and I have read the letter. I welcome the fact that in the letter he said he has ended his hunger strike.
I will set aside some time next week to consider what additional options or measures could be taken by the Government to assist in his early release but, of course, I do not want to do anything that might turn out to be counterproductive so I need to study it a little more myself.
I will of course. In regard to meeting the Greek Prime Minister, it will be my first European Council meeting and I am not sure exactly how they work, but if there is an opportunity to have a discussion with him I will do so.
Another school year has passed. Schools throughout the country have filled their classes for next year without any reform to their admissions policy. The education committee will publish a report recommending the baptism barrier be ended. Just under a year ago the Dáil debated the Labour Party's Equal Status (Admission to Schools) Bill. The Taoiseach will remember the Government voted to delay the passage of the Bill for one year. We now have the report of the all-party committee, and the Labour Party's Bill will pass Second Stage next week when the year is up. Will the Taoiseach agreed to proceed the Labour Party's Bill to Committee Stage immediately so we can address this issue, on which I think there is consensus in the House, once and for all?
This is another example of legislation my leader has offered that Fianna Fáil will facilitate before the summer recess. Will the Taoiseach clarify what is the Government's position on the school admissions Bill? Has the Government taken a decision on it? Has the Minister, Deputy Bruton, made up his mind? There seems to be total indecision on education with the Technological Universities Bill and the school admissions Bill. People are wondering what is happening. Quite a large part of the education sector is in a state of stasis at present because people do not know what is happening and what way they will have to operate their affairs in future.
To reassure the Deputies, the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill was drafted and largely built on the Bill by my predecessor. That will be on Committee Stage next Wednesday. That Bill, which deals with-----
Let me answer. That is the Bill that was drafted to deal with admissions. There is much consensus on how we should deal with, for example, giving powers to the NCSE to designate a place for a pupil with special needs or making it illegal to discriminate on all sorts of grounds in admissions. It is an important Bill. The Dáil decided that the second issue, the issue of how we deal with religion as a criterion for entry to schools, should be dealt with on a different track. Since the Bill was published we have had a broad consultation on the issue. Four options were discussed and we had a forum very recently. What now needs to be done, and what I am doing, is bringing forward and developing amendments that can get the support of the Attorney General as the legal adviser to the Government, and get a broad consensus across the House and the broader education partnership.
The Government made a commitment on the high cost of medicines in the programme for Government to drive down the cost of drugs and medicines. The reason I raised this issue is because of a lady called Charlotte Connolly. I am not sure many people know her, but she is the only person in Ireland suffering from Degos disease. Her husband was here yesterday. He walked from Mullingar to Dáil Éireann to highlight Charlotte's situation. She wants access to a drug called Soliris on an experimental basis to treat her illness. At present the drug costs €400,000 per year per patient. It is made by a company in the Taoiseach's constituency, Alexion Pharmaceuticals. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to give Charlotte access to the drug? The Minister for Health should meet the family to clarify the issue.
My understanding is the drug is not licensed for that condition. Perhaps the Minister for Health might be able to answer the Deputy in a different form, through replying to either a parliamentary question or a Topical Issue matter.
A Vision for Change was a visionary document and I do not believe anyone had a problem with its content.
The problem was the failure to implement it and the disbandment of the implementation body. Its life span was completed in January 2016, a year and a half ago. There have been repeated promises and I am aware from informal chat with the previous Minister of State that there might be some progress, but where is the promised review and when will it be published? Most importantly, has the implementation body been reinstated?
I am advised that the academic review of the A Vision for Change strategy is now complete and will be ready quite soon. That will allow the implementation committee to be established. I do not have an exact timeframe but I will ask the new Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Jim Daly, to correspond directly with the Deputy on it. I am advised by the former Minister of State that it is now in train.
I am glad the Taoiseach retained the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, in his post. The mobility allowance issue has been dragging along for three or four years. We were promised a review and the Minister of State has met the members of the Rural Independent Group and others on this. Families are suffering hugely as a result of this lousy cut. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has its claws all over it, but I do not know why it is taking so long to reintroduce the scheme. I accept there will be new criteria and so forth but there must be some movement on it. It is simply unfair to families throughout the country who badly need the allowance. Many of them have old vehicles that are only fit for scrap so they must renew their vehicles. They need the mobility allowance immediately. They cannot wait for more promises as this has been ongoing for so long.
Putting a new scheme in place requires primary legislation. It is not anticipated that the legislation will be published in this session, but it is expected to be published in the next session.
The programme for Government contained firm commitments on the delivery of a Leader programme to rural communities. However, due to the rules and regulations imposed on the programme by the Government the Leader programme is simply not working. The rural development programme is turning into an over-bureaucratic rural administration programme. With regard to the expressions of interest in projects, there is a 60% fall-off before commitment to apply for a project. We are now ten months into the scheme and in County Tipperary not one contract has been signed and not one cent has been spent. Under the previous programme after nine months of the south Tipperary Leader programme 49 projects had commenced with a grant value of €720,000. This is happening across the country so it is clear that the rules and regulations under the current Leader programme are preventing rural communities from accessing this funding.
The Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, met the Leader groups approximately three weeks ago and she has simplified the programme. She has made 32 changes. I will be taking over the Leader programme and I hope this will simplify it. I hope there will be more applications and less bureaucracy.
We must strengthen the law in the area of criminal justice corruption. Under proposed legislation a holder of public office can face up to ten years in prison and be removed from office if convicted under the Bill. It provides for lengthy prison sentences and allows for unlimited fines. A judge can forfeit their office and be excluded from seeking public office for a number of years. In addition, under the new Bill a public official can be presumed corrupt if he or she fails to declare their interests. Under the current legislation a person convicted of being corrupt faces a fine of €250,000 or a jail term of up to three years or both. The Bill was initially proposed by the former Minister for Justice and Equality, former Deputy Alan Shatter, in 2012. When can we expect the Criminal Justice (Corruption) Bill to be brought to the House?
Progress on the anti-corruption Bill and on the review of white collar crime is well under way. I expect matters to be completed shortly and I expect the legislation to be published if not before the end of the current session certainly during the summer months. I will be happy to keep the Deputy informed on it.
The Taoiseach will be aware that the expert panel on mica reported in the last couple of weeks. Its report indicated that between 1,000 and 5,000 homes in Donegal are affected by defective blocks as a result of high mica content and that 700 homes in Mayo are affected by defective blocks as a result of pyrite content.
Unfortunately, at all stages over the past three or four years the Government dragged its feet in addressing this issue. It is welcome that the report has been published. What is the Taoiseach's view on the recommendations of the report? Could he outline the steps the Government plans to take next? Could the Taoiseach give a commitment that we will proceed immediately to putting in place a redress scheme for affected homeowners? Will the Government accept a proposal to have a debate in this House on the expert panel report?
I have not seen the report but I will ask the relevant Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to correspond with the Deputy or contact him directly about that matter. The scheduling of business is a matter for the Business Committee.
I wish to refer to the social housing strategy in the programme for Government. I want to raise the matter of the housing assistance payment and the fact that there is blatant discrimination by some letting agencies and landlords right across the State on a daily basis. This, in turn, is forcing more people into homelessness. A test was carried out recently in which five people contacted the same letting agency on the same day about the same property to rent. Two of those callers declared that they were in receipt of the housing assistance payment and they were told they would be put on a waiting list. The other three callers declared they were not in receipt of a housing assistance payment and would be paying privately. All three got a viewing appointment. The process that is currently in place is wholly inadequate, first, because it is under-resourced and, second, because it can take upwards of six months to investigate a complaint of discrimination. Given the level of discrimination right across the State in respect of the housing assistance payment, will the Taoiseach agree to extend the powers to investigate to Threshold and the Residential Tenancies Board? Will he also agree to a system, such as a telephone line, whereby people could report discrimination? The system should be resourced so action can be taken straight away against people who are found to be in breach and actively discriminating against those on the housing assistance payment.
The last time I checked, it was illegal to refuse rent supplement. It may well be illegal to refuse those on the housing assistance payment also. That sort of behaviour from landlords cannot be condoned and it is not acceptable. With regard to the actions that can be taken to prevent it and actions against landlords who engage in such discrimination, it is a matter for the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I will ask him to get in touch with the Deputy.
The criminal justice (legal aid) Bill is promised legislation. What is the degree to which consultations have already taken place in regard to it? When will the heads be cleared? When is the Bill likely to come before the House?
On promised legislation to deal with strengthening the building control (amendment) regulations 2014, and in light of the unfortunate tragedy in the Grenfell Tower in London last week, could the Taoiseach confirm whether the cladding material used in the tower refurbishment is available in Ireland? Can it be imported and used in Ireland? Can an audit be carried out to ascertain how many buildings, both public and private, if any, have this highly flammable material as part of their make-up? Are there any similar materials used that are a danger to our public?
I hope the Taoiseach, being new in office, will introduce a new way for the Government to do business. The programme for Government includes a commitment to improve the flow of information from Departments to Deputies. The portfolios announced yesterday included a range of digital responsibilities, including e-government, and various titles related to digital matters, yet every second time I ask a parliamentary question in this House or to a State agency, I receive a raft of paperwork in response. Very often a short memo states the relevant Department will be in touch and a letter is sent. Soon I will have enough of these missives to paper my entire office.
The benefits of electronic communication need hardly be restated. They include efficiency, savings on costs such as print and postage and the cost to the Exchequer, not to mention the obvious environmental benefits of soft copy communication. If one was to be cynical, one might even think that it was designed to obfuscate the communication in this manner. Can the State lead by example? Can Government communications improve and move to the digital age? Will the Taoiseach issue a memo to Government to that effect?
I could not agree more with the Deputy. I believe he is absolutely right. As many communications that can be done electronically by Government should be done so. It is certainly something I will discuss with other Ministers.
The national climate change mitigation plan was supposed to be published 18 months from the passing of the legislation to implement it. That date has now passed. Has the national mitigation plan come to the Cabinet? Will the Taoiseach bring it to the Dáil to allow it to be debated? Will he allow for amendments to be put forward, because all indications are that the plan will have serious failings?
The previous Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government promised that all families in emergency hotel and bed and breakfast accommodation would not be in that accommodation by 1 July. He promised it last year and to the Home Sweet Home delegation which met him. It is only nine days to 1 July. I want to know what is happening there. I put in two Topical Issues yesterday and today but they were not taken. What is this Government doing about those families? There were 592 families in hotels and bed and breakfasts at the end of April. What is happening there? Is the Government going to fail these families on this?
The draft planning guidelines for wind turbines have been made available. Will these new guidelines apply to applications that have already been made? People in the Gneevgullia area, where there is a wind turbine application already in place, are saying that four times the height of a turbine is not enough distance to have between a dwelling and the turbine. In others words, the turbines are still too close. Four times 150 m is only 600 m and that is too near to a dwelling. What are we going to do about that to take it on board? It is very unfair.
To the best of my knowledge, the guidelines cannot be applied retrospectively. They only apply to new applications. Applications made prior to the new guidelines being approved fall under the old guidelines. Obviously, as is the case with any planning issue, there are differences of opinion as to what the guidelines should be, but the new guidelines are as they stand.
According to a recent reply from management at University Hospital Kerry, the current waiting time to see the rheumatologist is three years. This is crazy. Our health system was never as bad. To have old people who are crippled with arthritis waiting this long to see a rheumatologist is an outrage. I ask the Taoiseach to think about an elderly person crippled and in pain being told that he or she will have to wait for three years. It is an outrage.
I absolutely agree with the Deputy. The waiting times people endure for outpatient appointments and for operations in Ireland make us an outlier in the western world and an outlier in a very bad way. For a country that spends so much on health care, it is almost incomprehensible that we are not able to provide a much better service. I know that the HSE has published its waiting list action plan and I hope that we will see some results come from that. In addition to that, €15 million has been provided to the National Treatment Purchase Fund for operations.
In February I brought forward very important legislation to abolish the mandatory retirement age. It was debated in this Chamber in which it received cross-party support. In May it was subject to scrutiny at the relevant committee where it again received broad support. The report on the committee hearings has been published and sent to the Minister. However, the need for a money message is delaying the legislation. When will it be issued to advance this important legislation for which many people are looking and waiting in order that they will not be forced into retirement against their will?
Tá dhá rud sciobtha agam. Inné, bhí Aire Stáit an Rialtais in easnamh sa Teach i rith cheisteanna ar ealaíona, oidhreacht agus an Ghaeltacht. An fáth go raibh sé ar iarraidh ná go raibh sé ag freastal ar an gcoiste gnó. Bhí sé ag freastal ar an gcoiste gnó mar gur thug an Taoiseach dhá phost dó. Ní bhíonn deis againne ach cúpla ceist a chur ar an Aire Stáit gach sé seachtaine. Is rud uafásach é nach raibh sé anseo. Bhí ar an Aire, Teachta Michael Ring, ceisteanna a fhreagairt, ceisteanna nach raibh feicthe aige go dtí go raibh sé á léamh. Cad atá an Taoiseach chun déanamh le bheith cinnte go mbeidh an tAire Stáit anseo as seo amach?
An dara rud ná go bhfuil géarchéim uafásach sa Ghaeltacht ag an bomaite mar gheall ar titim sa mhéad Gaeilge atá á labhairt ann. Tuigim anois go bhfuil an Rialtas idir dhá chomhairle maidir leis an bhfocal "Gaeltacht" a chur i dteideal na Roinne. An dtabharfaidh an Taoiseach-----
Bhí an tAire, Teachta Heather Humphreys, tinn inné. She was absent for that reason. Thóg an tAire, Teachta Ó Rinn, na ceisteanna. Níl an teideal nua socraithe ach táim muiníneach go mbeidh "Gaeltacht" i dteideal na Roinne nua.
An cheist a bhí ann ná cén fáth nach raibh an tAire Stáit le cúramaí Gaeltachta anseo nuair a bhí deis ag Teachtaí Dála na ceisteanna a chur. Níor tugadh freagra ar sin.
An cheist atá agamsa, the question I have is fá dtaobh de árachas Setanta. Setanta Insurance has collapsed, as a result of which over 1,000 claimants have suffered. The court case has been settled and the Insurance Compensation Fund must pay out. The liquidator of Setanta Insurance has informed us that 320 claims are to be processed by the State Claims Agency. For the first time, it has given me a breakdown of the size of the claims. The Insurance (Amendment) Bill which is on the schedule will mean that from now on, if there is another case like that of Setanta Insurance, claims will be paid in full. In respect of the 320 claims being processed, some individuals will lose out to the tune of €140,000 or more. They have been severely injured in accidents and were covered by Setanta Insurance. Will the Minister for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform adopt the principles contained in my Bill which was ruled out of order by the Ceann Comhairle, a decision I do not challenge? The principles would allow for 100% payment to claimants of Setanta Insurance. This is something the Government is promising to do in the future but not for Setanta Insurance claimants.
Work on the Bill is under way. Obviously, it is not expected that we will have the heads until after quarter two. As is the case with any legislation, it will not be applied retrospectively. Perhaps this is a matter the Deputy might take up with the Minister.
I welcome the decision of the previous Cabinet under Deputy Enda Kenny to award medals of bravery to members of A Company, 35th Battalion of the Army, in regard to the events of September 1961 in the Congo. I understand legislation is required to award those medals to the survivors of that particular incident and the families of those who have sadly passed. I understand legislation is to be brought forward on this matter and I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach could inform the House as to when that might happen.
I was delighted to recognise, along with the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, the bravery of the men at the siege of Jadotville in 1961 on a UN-mandated mission. I am not sure if we require legislation or if a Cabinet decision might suffice to award medals. If legislation is required, it will be a very short Bill and, hopefully, I will have it in before the summer recess.
We are in injury time. I wish the Taoiseach the very best of luck in his new role as this is the first opportunity I have had to do so.
The programme for Government mentions the issue of catheterisation facilities in Waterford, which came up yesterday. What plans does the Taoiseach have for percutaneous coronary intervention, PCI, for the north west? There is a population of approximately 250,000 people in the catchment of Sligo University Hospital, as it is now known. The people there cannot time their cardiac arrests or heart attacks in line with good weather for air transportation to a centre nor can we wait for roads to be done up so that we can avail of that 90-minute turnaround time. Mortality from cardiac instances in the north west is a serious issue. I understand there are currently no plans for PCI in that part of the country. Given that the Taoiseach is a physician, and given his in his new role, what does the Taoiseach propose to do for that region?
I understand a large part of the north west is now covered by agreement from Altnagelvin and Letterkenny hospitals. I appreciate that Sligo is a long way from Derry-----
I appreciate that Sligo is quite a distance from both Derry and Galway. As is always the case with specialist services, one has to balance the ideal of having it near everyone with the reality that, in order to maintain a service to a standard of safety and to staff it, there needs to be a critical mass of population. Such a service would tend to have approximately four centres in a country the size of ours.
We were promised in this House - indeed, rate payers are waiting with bated breath for it - that the commercial rates Bill would be introduced before the end of May but that has not happened. We were also promised that some reform would take place in regard to the Valuation Office and how valuations are arrived at. I know that briefings are being given by the Department to local authorities, yet this House has not been given any sight of the legislation. When can we expect it? We were promised it for the end of May and it is now the end of June.
The heads of Bill were agreed by Cabinet in April, but there is still further analysis going on in the Attorney General's office with regard to drafting. A decision has to be made as to whether it might now be more appropriate to transfer valuations from the Department of Justice and Equality to the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.