Wednesday, 6 December 2017
Questions on Promised Legislation
As the Taoiseach knows, for a number of months I have been raising the issue of the lack of funding for section 39 bodies to restore pay in line with HSE employees. Many such organisations are involved in disability service provision, hospices and so on. Yesterday the Taoiseach told me that the Ministers for Finance and Health were working out which organisations had cut pay in line with the FEMPI legislation and those which had not. I have been raising this issue for months and would have thought the Ministers for Finance and Health would have been able to resolve the issue. It is with great disappointment that I heard today that SIPTU had run out of patience and announced an intention to ballot on industrial action. It is to ballot workers in RehabCare, the Cheshire Foundation, Western Care Mayo, St. Joseph's Foundation in Cork, SOS Kilkenny, the Cork Association for Autism, Ability West and St. Aidan's Hospital in Wexford This is a national issue. Why the allocation could not have been made in the original Estimates when the public service pay agreement was realised baffles me. There has been too much cynicism and too many delays in doing what is right and just in this case.
My answer is much the same as it was yesterday. We will work through this issue. The Ministers, Deputies Paschal Donohoe and Simon Harris, are working through the process and we will come to a resolution which is fair and just. As the Deputy said, the issue involves other sectors besides hospitals and concerns section 39 bodies more generally, including in the disability sector and other areas. What makes section 39 bodies different from section 38 bodies is that those working for them are not public sector employees or public servants. We are carrying out an exercise to understand how pay levels went up and down across the sector. Some bodies are compliant-----
Some bodies had been compliant with public sector pay rules, while others were not. Regardless of whether they were instructed to do so, some did reduce pay in line with the FEMPI legislation, while others did not. We need to understand this and map things out properly.
The programme for Government states the Government will honour its commitment to recognise the state of Palestine. Today President Trump is expected to announce his intention to formally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy there. That is in flagrant breach of the international consensus on a two-state solution. Will the Taoiseach urge President Trump not to take this provocative decision? The French President did so in a telephone call and has insisted on the status of Jerusalem being part of the peace negotiations and a two-state solution. The situation of the Palestinian people gets worse every single day. Their lives are rooted in deepening fear and constantly changing at the whim of the Israeli authorities. In keeping with the decision of the Oireachtas three years ago, will the Government agree to formally recognise the state of Palestine? Will it also move to upgrade the Palestinian mission to that of a full embassy?
The House might be interested in noting that I made direct contact yesterday with the US embassy to express our real concern at the suggestion of the US President to formally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I made the point very clearly that, in our view, such a decision would be very unhelpful in trying to progress a stable peace process in the Middle East and also cause a lot of unnecessary tension. The messages which have come from much of the Arab world and a number of European countries reinforce that view. I reassure the Deputy that we have made the Irish view on this issue very clear. Ireland is very interested in being constructive and helpful in supporting a new initiative in the Middle East, should that happen. If the reports are true and confirmed today, it would be a step backwards. We have made the view of the Irish Government very clear.
It is over a year since the Government announced in budget 2017 its intention to pursue an affordable child care scheme. Many parents across Ireland have since seen their child care costs increase well above any subsidy provided by the State. As the Taoiseach knows, the universal subsidy is worth about €80 per month. I know of one example where parents faced an increase of €100 in their bill last August and were told that it would go up by a further €100 a month from January.
This is in response to the need for the retention of trained staff. There is no effort to cap costs for parents or subsidise the crèche costs of trained staff. The heads of the Bill and its general scheme were published in January 2017 and we have yet to see any substantial progress on the legislation. When will the legislation be advanced? Does the Taoiseach accept that child care costs have risen well above any subsidy now provided by the State?
The Minister, Deputy Zappone, received permission from the Cabinet yesterday to publish the Bill and she will do so at her discretion in the coming days. There has certainly been an increase in child care costs and I know the enormous cost of child care for many young couples, which can be as much as the rent or mortgage, if not more. I would have to check the statistics to verify if the increase has been greater than the subsidy provided.
We have seen the draft document for Culture 2025 and we are being told the document is being finalised. The draft document contains no mention whatever of Traveller culture. The new Minister with responsibility for this portfolio was sharply criticised last week, including from these benches, for previous comments and actions relating to Travellers and Traveller rights.
Yes. The Minister has spent much of the past week protesting that she is not anti-Traveller. Will the House be given an indication or guarantee that the finalised Culture 2025 document will be inclusive and deal with the question of Traveller culture?
Yes. I am happy to say the document will be inclusive of all cultures. The decision of this Government to recognise the distinct ethnicity of the Irish Traveller culture must be realised in many ways, and one of these is to ensure we include the expression of Traveller culture in that document when it is published.
The programme for Government is strong in a commitment to the primary education sector but people from several schools in Tipperary - it is the same throughout the country - have contacted me about the minor works grant, which is long overdue. The grant is capped at €5,500 but is vital to small schools across the country, although I am speaking specifically about Tipperary. The capitation grant has been cut severely and the difficult economic conditions made it very hard to fund-raise. This funding is badly needed by some schools and it is the difference between keeping them running and having them closed. It is not fair to boards of management, principals, staff or pupils and their families. Will the Taoiseach please ask the Minister for Education and Skills when these will be paid?
This morning during Question Time the Minister made it clear that the minor works grant would be paid this year but it would not be paid in 2018. That is absolutely unacceptable as schools are reliant on it. It is no longer a grant and it never was such a grant; it should never have been called a grant. This concerns moneys vital to the running of schools. I ask the Taoiseach and his Government to make it clear that these moneys should be available on a statutory basis to all schools. In only one school year of 2012 to 2013 since the scheme's introduction in 1997 was no money made available to schools. Schools rely on this and they cannot exist without it.
The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, announced yesterday the payment of the minor works grant on a per capitabasis. I will check with him about 2018. The Deputy's information is not my information and I will check with him about it.
The Taoiseach has stated he does not see the urgency for a referendum on the public ownership and management of our water. There is a visiting delegation from Slovenia, which last year introduced a change to its constitution to ensure its water resources remain in public ownership. This is not because of a direct threat but rather so that in future big corporations would not have an interest in its citizens' water. I advise the Taoiseach to perhaps have a chat with the delegation about that while they are here. He could get some good advice from them.
The matter is working its way through the House, as the Deputy is aware. I do not see the urgency in it. I do not know how Slovenia changes its constitution but in Ireland, a referendum is required. Even if it is not a standalone question, the cost of carrying out the referendum would be between €10 million and €12 million. I know it is a core principle of socialism to waste as much taxpayers' money as possible but there are so many ways one could spend €12 million than on a wasteful and pointless referendum.
Yesterday the Climate Change Advisory Council came out with yet another damning report on the Government's action on climate change. It calls for a completely different approach in the power generation sector. The Government has argued we should have 40% renewables by 2030 but we think it could be 75%. The council argues the transport budget must be changed in favour of public transport but the Government's national planning framework is about inter-urban motorways. The council has indicated that we must change agriculture, echoing what Commissioner Phil Hogan, of all people, said on Monday. The argument is we have got it wrong and we must change and start greening Irish agriculture. Rather than proposing that we raise carbon tax to pay fines, which is all I have heard the Taoiseach say, will he admit that what the Government is doing is not working, it is not ambitious enough and it must change? What will the Government change and what will happen to take the Government off the path it is on? It should not respond by saying we have a national mitigation plan. The Climate Change Advisory Council has said it is not right and it will not work.
I was shocked to hear that Government environmental advisers are urging the banning of turf and all coal sales, including even smokeless coal. The only guarantee I can give the Taoiseach is that if he or any politicians or Ministers ever support the banning of the burning of the burning of coal in this country, they will be faced with every type of fire and brimstone and hell will be brought down upon them. Please allow me an indulgence.
This is not for anybody to snigger or sneer at. Neither my brother nor I would be here if it was not for turf, as our grandmother went to the bog barefoot when people had nothing and she cut turf. Our father sold turf in our village of Kilgarvan with a horse and rail to make a couple of pounds to keep the house going. That is where we came from. We came from nowhere else. Nobody should listen to advisers - I do not care who they are - who believe they can introduce a ban on the cutting of turf.
I reassure Deputy Healy-Rae that we have no plans for an outright ban on the burning of coal and turf but it certainly would be our objective, over time, to remove the burning of peat from power generation and perhaps the burning of coal as well in the medium to longer term. We debated climate change during questions to the Taoiseach last week and I laid out a number of actions being taken by the Government and referred to many things other than carbon tax. I refer Deputy Ryan to the answers I gave to his question yesterday, which was the same.
There is a programme for Government commitment to addressing overcrowding in accident and emergency departments, particularly with regard to spending under the critical unmet need and winter initiative by the Health Service Executive. I raised with the Taoiseach a month ago that Letterkenny University Hospital applied for funding in the summer for 20 additional beds and the staff required for them. I raised this with the Minister for Health and a junior Minister for Health. A month later, there have been 500 cases of people on trolleys since I first raised the matter.
Will the Taoiseach agree to take control of the situation and ensure the 20 beds are opened immediately? Yesterday 30 patients were waiting on trolleys at Letterkenny University Hospital. The Government must get a grip on the situation without delay.
The funding of individual wards in specific hospitals is a matter, in the first instance, for the Health Service Executive and, politically, for the Minister for Health. I will make him aware that the matter was raised again by the Deputy.
Will the Taoiseach confirm that it is the Government's intention to extend the compulsory retirement age for public servants to 70 years? If legislation is required to effect this change, when is it proposed to publish it? Will the Taoiseach further indicate when it is intended to do something for people working in the private sector, many of whom are locked into contracts that force them to retire at 65 years of age?
Last December I introduced a Bill in the House to abolish the mandatory retirement age. That Bill received cross-party support on Second Stage in February this year. We have been waiting since for a money message, although it is questionable as to whether such is needed. I have written numerous times to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, requesting an update on the progression of that process, but I have received no response. The announcement of the raising of the compulsory retirement age in the public sector is a welcome step in the right direction, but it falls short of the total abolition of mandatory retirement which we are seeking. Without that abolition, we will see a continuation of the current discriminatory practice whereby private sector workers are still being forced out of employment at the age of 65 years. When will the money message that is delaying the total prohibition on mandatory retirement be produced to allow us to proceed with ensuring workers across the board will be treated equally?
Yesterday, on the proposal of the Minister for Finance, the Cabinet approved the preparation of legislation necessary to raise the compulsory retirement age from 65 years of age to 70 for public servants who were recruited before 1 April 2004. Public servants recruited after that date are not required to retire at 65 years of age, but many of those recruited before then are subject to that obligation. The legislation will be introduced as soon as possible. It will not, of course, be a requirement for employees to remain in work until they are 70 years of age, but they will now have a choice to stay on, by mutual agreement with the employer. I do not have plans to move the money message in respect of Deputy John Brady's Bill. His proposals are problematic, not least because there is no money allocated for them in the budget and, second, because there is no mandatory retirement age in the private sector. There is significant case law on how employees may challenge their contract. A compulsory retirement age may be included in a contract, but it is not a statutory provision.
A programme on RTÉ last night referred to the Solas respite care centre in Sligo, which was built seven years ago at a cost of €1.5 million. I have raised this issue on several occasions in the House. At the start of the year we were told that the facility would be shut down and the service provided by an outside agency from the end of September or early October. Unfortunately, that service is not yet in place. In fact, I understand the provider has not yet identified a building from which it can be delivered. The area encompassing Sligo, Leitrim, south Donegal and west Cavan is massive, with a broad spread of patients who require respite care. Everybody was very happy with the service provided at the Solas centre before it was shut down under the decongregation model. That policy amounts to a false economy. Those who require emergency respite care, including people in wheelchairs, must now make a round trip of 240 km from Sligo to Monaghan. That is neither fair nor humane.
I do not have any information to hand on the particular local service to which the Deputy referred. He might submit a parliamentary question or a Topical Issue to the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, or the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath.
The programme for Government includes several commitments to protect home owners from repossessions by banks. I am working through a very serious case on behalf of a constituent where problems have emerged as consequence of the backlog in the Property Registration Authority. We have fought might and main to get the case through but to no avail. Is the Taoiseach aware of the shortage of staff in the Property Registration Authority and that the delays in processing documents are causing untold hardship? In the case to which I am referring it looks like the family home will be lost because of the delay in getting documentation through the registration process.
Committee Stage of the Bill was completed on 22 November and I will introduce Report Stage later today in the House. The provisional date for the commencement of the Second Stage debate in the Seanad is 13 December.
The programme for Government promised a fair and equitable health service for all. On 30 November, however, people suffering pain were dealt an awful blow when lidocaine patches, also known as Versatis patches, were withdrawn from coverage under the medical card scheme. The patches cost up to €150 per month to purchase privately. Was this change ordered by the HSE or the Government? Will the Taoiseach agree to reverse this dreadful act that was imposed on people who are vulnerable and in pain?
It is a decision for the HSE, not the Government, as to which medicines and devices are reimbursed under the medical card scheme. Where the HSE removes a particular item, it is generally done for a good reason, often because of issues related to the availability of alternatives. I do not know the reason for withdrawal in this case.
The programme for Government included a clear commitment on balanced regional development, with an undertaking to create 175,000 jobs in the regions. The Taoiseach knows as well as I do that there is a serious issue with the availability of jobs in rural areas of the midlands and the west. It is almost easier to find a needle in a haystack than to secure a Government-backed job in counties such as Roscommon and Leitrim. Last year IDA Ireland paid out €93 million in grants, not one cent of which went to counties Roscommon, Longford and Meath. How often does the economic unit in the Department of the Taoiseach meet and does its agenda include discussion of the commitment to balanced regional development on which so much emphasis was placed in the programme for Government? Government supported jobs are badly needed in the region.
The economic unit meets every day. In addition, there is a Cabinet sub-committee which meets once every six weeks or so. While acknowledging the significant variation between counties, it is important to emphasise that unemployment has fallen in every county. Between 60% and 80% of all jobs created in the past year were based outside Dublin. There is a lot more to job creation than the activities of IDA Ireland. That body tends to bring in large foreign direct investors, most of whom are only interested in locating in places where they will have access to 1 million people within a short distance and where there are universities and other facilities in close proximity. However, Enterprise Ireland and the local employment offices provide a large number of State-backed jobs in all counties.
The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Catherine Byrne, indicated she was setting up a working group to look at alternative approaches to the possession of drugs for personal use. The Oireachtas justice committee also recommended decriminalisation of small amounts of drugs for personal use. A review is badly needed and long overdue. Can the Taoiseach outline when this working group will meet? What are the criteria for selecting the group and does he envisage that legislation will be required? Currently, possession is an offence.
There is a commitment in the national drugs strategy to set up an extra working group to consider and report on the decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs. Its establishment is imminent but I am not sure if it will be this week or next week. It is the Minister's intention to establish it before the end of the year and it will have about a year to do its work, after which it will make a recommendation. Legislation may be required but only if the group recommends it.
Yesterday, the Minister Health gave an indication that the Government is finally going to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Are there any plans to review primary medical certificate applications under regulation SI 353/1994? In the past week alone two people presented to me in my constituency office. One has lost full power on the right side of his body while the other is a young man with very aggressive MS and but for his determination he would be in a wheelchair. Both have been refused primary medical certificates. I contacted the office and was told the existing statutory instrument is not fit for purpose. It is too restrictive and prevents the office from helping people who need help. Will the Taoiseach give an undertaking to raise this matter with the Minister for Health with a view to reviewing the statutory instrument?
I believe the primary medical certificate is done by the Revenue Commissioners but I will mention it to both the Minister for Finance and the Ministers with responsibility for health and disability. The Deputy is right about the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, received approval yesterday from Cabinet to proceed to ratification, with reservations. It will require a memo to Cabinet in January and a debate and vote in both the Dáil and Seanad in January or February to allow us to do it.
Since September there has been a near collapse of bus services into County Meath, involving dozens and dozens of buses meaning services have been dropping every month, leaving passengers out in all types of weather. Absenteeism levels among drivers in Bus Éireann have reached 14%, which shows a significant level of dysfunction. As a former Minister for Transport, the Taoiseach will know that funding has collapsed in the past ten years. People are emerging from long-term unemployment and have difficulties with mortgages and rents. They have finally got jobs and want to use buses to get to their jobs but those buses are letting them down. These jobs are under threat and other people are looking to get to hospitals for procedures, operations and appointments but are late for them. There is a commitment in the programme for Government regarding public services. Is it not true that this commitment lives in rhetoric alone rather than in the practical experience of commuters?
I understand there have been issues in Bus Éireann in recent times regarding rosters, absenteeism and industrial relations but they are not a matter for me or for this House. I do not have the figures in front of me but there has been a very significant increase in the public service obligation, PSO, levy paid to CIÉ companies in the past three years and there will be a further increase next year.
There is a reference on page 60 of the programme for Government to improving waiting lists for hospital procedures. Is there any update relating to the €4 million investment needed in Tallaght hospital to provide the much needed operating theatres there? It takes referrals from Dublin hospitals, from the midlands and from Naas hospital in my constituency. The waiting list for adult spinal surgery has been going up for three years and is growing all the time. I raised this issue with the Minister for Health in a meeting back in July. This has been requested by management and the senior spinal surgeon in Tallaght hospital so I appreciate if the Taoiseach could give me an update.
I do not have any information to hand on Tallaght hospital and a parliamentary question to the Minister for Health or a Topical Issue matter would give a more detailed answer to the Deputy than I can offer. In regard to overall waiting lists for surgery, the number of people waiting for inpatient or day case procedures and operations has been falling for three months. I do not have the figures for November but I hope they will continue to go down. If they do go down, we will see four months in a row where there have been shorter waiting lists for people waiting for operations and procedures.