Thursday, 14 December 2017
Questions on Promised Legislation
I raise the matter of the insurance (amendment) Bill in the context of the ongoing fallout from the collapse of Setanta Insurance. Almost 1,600 claims remain outstanding and policyholders now face their fourth Christmas with this issue hanging over them. In certain cases, people are being informed that they will be held personally liable in respect of any shortfalls on outstanding claims. That is ridiculous and it must be addressed. The Bill, as drafted, will not resolve the issue. We will seek to table amendments that will resolve it when the Bill comes before the House. When is the insurance (amendment) Bill being brought forward?
Yesterday, we received the very good news that the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution had voted to recommend that the amendment be repealed. It was a very positive move for everybody. particularly the women of Ireland. This comes after decades of disaster and suffering to which the amendment, at a minimum, contributed. I hope the referendum vote will come quickly and that we can have a comprehensive, respectful and democratic debate, concluding with the removal of the eighth amendment from the Constitution. It is an opportunity for a new generation to have our say on a matter of fundamental social importance. Can the Tánaiste set out what happens next? What is the timetable envisaged for, on the one hand, the publication of legislation on the repeal referendum and, on the other, the timetable for any heads of legislation on the substantive issue of abortion or termination guidelines and law?
As Deputy McDonald knows, this is a three-stage process to which we, as a Government, committed quite some time ago. The Citizens' Assembly carried out comprehensive work and this led to the establishment of a committee which has been ably led and chaired by Senator Catherine Noone, who has done an extraordinary job on a very difficult issue. The committee voted yesterday on the key issues but it will not publish its report until next Wednesday. People should wait to read the report in full before making judgments. Certainly, I will wait until I have had an opportunity to read the report in full. The Taoiseach has given a commitment - as has the Government generally - to the effect that we want to hold a referendum on this issue as early as May 2018. However, there will first be a need for the report to be debated fully in the House. My understanding is that the debate will take place in January. The report will then need to go to the Government for consideration as to how we proceed on foot of that debate.
The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has made it very clear that he needs to work with the Attorney General to put together the heads of a Bill. That is detailed work which needs to be done to create a context and environment for a referendum. There will also, of course, be a need for legislation to facilitate the referendum itself. My understanding is that the Minister for Health would like to have a lot of that work done by the middle of March. There is a great deal of work to do next year. My appeal to Members is that it is up to the House to give a lead to the rest of the country as to how this issue should be debated and how we should respect different perspectives and opinions which are honestly held so that we create the right atmosphere in which the country can make a decision, as opposed to some of the experiences we have had in the past in the context of this issue.
I welcome the Tánaiste's clarity on that matter and I share his views on the work of the committee and its Chair. I wish to raise another matter. It is six months since the Minister for Education and Skills set out an approach to remove religion as a criterion in the school admissions process. This was after a public consultation process which ran from January until March. It is 18 months since the Dáil debated the Labour Party Bill on the issue which was produced by my colleague, Deputy Burton. Despite taking a year, the Bill passed to the committee last summer but we are halfway through another school year with no progress having been made on this agreed change. In January, schools across the country will finalise the intakes for next year. That means another year will have passed without action. Very simply, when will we see legislation on this matter? Will the Minister advance his own proposals or allow the Labour Party Bill to proceed to enactment?
As Deputy Howlin well knows, the admissions Bill developed originally by his party's Minister and then published by the Government did not contain any provision to change the rules on admission on grounds of religion. Indeed, the Bill also did not contain any provision to allow the Department to designate schools which should open special autistic spectrum disorder, ASD, units. The consensus in the committee which discussed the Bill was that we should bring forward amendments in those two areas. I have developed proposals to do so which are currently with the Attorney General. I will bring the proposals to the House at the very earliest opportunity. The Deputy will appreciate that there are complicated constitutional issues involved in the drafting of this legislation and we must be careful to get it right. I assure the Deputy that there is no unnecessary delay.
To return to the issue of abortion, yesterday's committee votes were historic, particularly those relating to the repeal of the eighth amendment and access to abortion on request up to 12 weeks. What happened yesterday represents a victory for all of those who have fought for decades for the right of women to choose and it takes us to the next step. The Government says it is still committed to a referendum in May. Will it agree to expedite the relevant legislation as quickly as possible? The legislation for repeal is extremely simple. Last year, we published and brought to Second Stage - on which it was defeated - a one-page Bill to delete the relevant Article from the Constitution, which is a simple matter. As opposed to going through this long process, we could debate the relevant legislation in January.
I do not mean this as a slap-down but, frankly, it would be helpful if people were not declaring victories on anything. This issue is going to divide households across the country and people should talk in a respectful tone about both sides of the argument in an effort to advance a consensus across the country that can result in a successful referendum. Of course the Government will prioritise and try to expedite legislation to facilitate the timeline the Taoiseach wants the Government to follow, which is to hold a referendum in May. That will be very tight, however, given the demands to put legislation in place and to get the balance right in that legislation, as well as the need to bring forward legislation to facilitate the establishment of a referendum commission and all the other things that must happen before a referendum can take place. As the Taoiseach said this week, the Government wishes to hold a referendum in May and we will work to that timetable.
I wish you a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, every Member and all the staff a happy Christmas.
I compliment the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, on working with the Rural Independent Group when we brought forward a motion on the fair deal scheme. I welcome the changes announced last night and thank the Government for incorporating them. However, they have not gone far enough. For farm families and self-employed business people, 100% of their assets apart from the house, the land or the business, is taken into the reckoning for the evaluation. It should be 10% as it is with the private houses of everybody else. It is discrimination against farm families and business people. We are seeking a meeting with the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, to try to resolve this because it is the main issue. It will render farms and businesses unviable if the scheme continues assessing them at 90% for the three years. People will not be able to pay it. While I welcome the move, it will require further work. I thank Maura Canning of the IFA for all her input on this.
Primary legislation will be required in this area and the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, will have to bring it forward. There will be an opportunity for the Deputy to raise specific issues during the debate on that legislation next year, if and when it is brought forward.
The heads of the housing (regulation of approved housing bodies) Bill were approved in September 2015 and the pre-legislative scrutiny was completed in February 2016. There are over 6,500 people employed in housing bodies. Last year the housing bodies built 669 houses, while local authorities built 430 in the past 18 months. With the appointment of an independent regulator, does this legislation envisage proper synergies between the local authority housing departments and these bodies? There are 547 such bodies and, according to a reply I received to a parliamentary question, 13 of them are employing over 6,500 people. This has become an industry. I have thought long and hard about the problems with housing over my 25 years in local government. If we had 6,500 people working together with the diminished number of employees in the local authorities, many of the problems we have with housing would not exist.
Will the regulator provided for in the legislation be able to provide proper links between the local authorities and the housing organisations to ensure they are all working to deliver the houses that are required?
I cannot discuss the content of that legislation. However, there is a commitment to deliver new legislation, and much work has been done on it, to provide for standards and a proper register for approved housing bodies, AHBs. It is important to say-----
There is a role for local authorities and AHBs in delivering social housing. Many fantastic projects have been concluded in the last number of years through good AHBs. The legislation being brought forward is about standardisation and ensuring the AHB sector is properly regulated.
I wish to raise the lack of roll-out of broadband. This relates to the communications management agency Bill, which will provide for a single entity to manage the State's commercial communications contracts, including the national broadband plan contracts. This issue is an absolute mess, particularly in rural Ireland.
-----where the 043 and the 071 lines meet half way. The 071 line is within 200 m of the end of the 043 line, but the six houses between them cannot get broadband. The Minister should not laugh at this.
I am referring to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton. He lives in the city. I live in rural Ireland where people do not have the service. People are moving their businesses from rural Ireland to the towns. It is not a laughing matter. I am aware that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, was opposed to decentralisation and everything else, so he does not have much time for rural people. He can keep smiling.
There is a distance of 200 m within which six houses cannot get broadband. A young man who has a business there will have to move it or close it down. This is disgraceful. When will broadband be rolled out throughout the country?
I assure the Deputy that rural Ireland is a priority for the Government with regard to broadband and a range of other matters. I will ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, to contact the Deputy directly on the specific issue he raised.
The Government has given a commitment to provide for the ability of refugees to work here, as was recommended by the Supreme Court. Can the Minister outline how he envisages that being introduced? When does he expect provisions to be put in place to allow refugees to work and what broad conditions will regulate it?
The Government committed to taking in 4,500 refugees. We are told that 55 men are being moved into Linden House on New Road in Killarney. There has been no consultation with the local authority or the Garda, whose station is on the same road. There are community schools and national schools, including the Presentation convent school and St. Brendan's College, on the same road. Some 55 men are being put into one house. There was uproar in the House after a television programme which highlighted large numbers of people staying in a single house in Dublin.
The Minister of State with responsibility for this, Deputy Stanton, is present. Will he consult with the community, the Garda and the local authority or will he take this high-handed action without giving local people a say in what is happening?
I assure the Deputy that, in accordance with my practice, I will not give an answer that might be regarded as high-handed. The residence the Deputy refers to was closed in 2011. Consideration is now being given to re-opening it. I do not have details on the local issues involved but I will be happy to convey the Deputy's concerns that there should be an engagement with local public representatives.
On the broader issue raised by Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Government intends to have this matter resolved in accordance with the wishes of the Supreme Court by late spring next year. The Government has made a decision to facilitate the right to work of asylum seekers and applicants for refuge in the country.
I hope the business would facilitate an early debate in the new year on this issue. I acknowledge the interest of Deputy Ryan in particular as well as that of other Deputies but it is the firm intention and commitment of the Government to have this matter resolved in late spring. There are complexities involved but I would hope that the House would have an opportunity to debate the Government plan early in the new term.
The first line in section ten on page 86 of the programme for Government, which deals with education, states that education is the key to giving every child an equal opportunity in life and that no child should be left behind. I could not agree more. The key phrase there is "every child". I am standing here on behalf of seven children and their parents who do not have access to education. These children are students in Scoil Na Naomh Uilig in Newbridge who have moderate special needs. They will be leaving this school in June, and they have had an excellent opportunity and start in their educational life. This is not just starting now.
I do not want any insinuations from any Members of the House on either side that I am prioritising. The list is here. Members should not make any suggestions. If the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, decides it is a different issue, that is for me to decide. I call on the Minister for Education and Skills or the Tánaiste, whoever wants to respond.
In respect of the placement of any child, the special needs organiser will seek to assist a parent in finding access to a place. If the Deputy wants to provide me with the information, I will seek to have it followed up on her behalf.
I raised this issue previously in the context of the Central Bank (Consolidation) Bill regarding the possibility of including in the legislation provisions to deal with the increased vigour with which third party lenders are pursuing borrowers. This will result in the repossession of family homes, small businesses and small farms and will create a huge problem for the housing market in terms of homelessness. What is the possibility of doing this in the near future?
The legislation the Deputy may be referring to is the Central Bank (Consolidation) Bill where there will be an opportunity to raise some of these issues when it is being debated. That Bill is being worked on at the moment but we do not have a specific date for publication yet.
In the section relating to a focus on rights and improving the lives of people with disabilities in the programme for Government, the Government acknowledged that there are increased mobility costs for people with disabilities. It is bad enough that people with mobility problems who require assistance have to give anything from 24 to 48 hours notice of their intention to travel but, on top of that, Iarnród Éireann insists that those with travel passes who wish to reserve a seat must pay €5 per journey. That is €10 for a return journey despite an EU regulation that prohibits it. Will the Tánaiste look into this matter and seek to give a commitment to address this sort of inequality?
There is a very serious issue relating to 1,300 medical card patients in the Finglas medical centre in Finglas village who have been left high and dry because their GP has given up his GMS contract. They are now being forced to go long distances to a new GP who has taken up this contract. Many of these patients are elderly people or people with disabilities and there is not even a bus service to bring them there.
They have until the end of this month when the panel will be frozen until March 2018. As these contracts are included under legislation, are there any plans to review or even change this legislation and has this been brought to the Tánaiste's attention? Does he agree that, at this time of the year, this is an absolute blow to people in the Finglas area? It involves the GMS contract.
I know there are ongoing consultations with GPs, although not necessarily on this specific case but certainly on the broader issue. Again, if the Deputy wants to send me a note on the specific case, I will certainly pass it on to the Minister for Health.
Page 143 of the programme for Government states that the Government will use appropriate avenues to express its perspective on the UK's membership of the EU. Can the Tánaiste advise me as to what has happened with the British Government directly as of yet? Has this taken place? Could he also advise me how the Government has tried to persuade the British Government and the DUP that leaving the customs union and the Single Market should be reconsidered by the UK in its entirety?
I expect that the British Government will have a very active debate on this issue in the coming months because under the details that will be published tomorrow, there will be a clear understanding that, by March, there will be an update of those guidelines, the content of which will be determined by the British Government's approach to phase two negotiations, in other words, the kind of trade relationship it wants between the EU and the UK in the future. That debate will obviously bring into focus some of the issues the Deputy raised today. For months, the Irish Government's position has been that we would like to see the British Government take a position whereby it is part of an extended customs union and Single Market to allow for barrier-free trade between the UK and the EU. We believe that is in the best interests of Ireland and the UK.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for his fairness and wish him and everyone else a happy Christmas. Last week, the Government announced that it was bringing forward plans to increase the retirement age from 65 to 70 for public service workers. It is a small step in the right direction but it does not go far enough. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform brought forward interim arrangements to allow those public service workers to retire. Those interim arrangements include conditions that those employees have to retire first before being re-employed and can only be re-employed on a lower pay scale. There are serious concerns about this. It is giving the message to those who want to remain in the workforce that they are not wanted. Who was consulted in respect of bringing forward these interim arrangements? When will we see the legislation to govern the extension of retirement age?
The Deputy will have to ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform about that issue. He is the Minister who is dealing with the detail of it.
The Government decision to increase the mandatory retirement age across the public sector from 65 to 70 makes a lot of sense and has broad support in the House. It cannot happen instantly because there is a process to be followed to bring it about. In the meantime, the Minister wants to put interim arrangements in place. The Deputy will have to talk to the Minister directly about the detail of the consultation process. I can certainly ask the Minister on the Deputy's behalf.
For the 12th time since it was promised in October 2012, I will ask about legislation to transfer the digital hub from State control to the control of Dublin City Council. When will we see that legislation? Anytime I ask, I am told it is ongoing.
Fad is atá mé ar mo chosa, ba mhaith liom beannachtaí na féile a ghuí ar an Tánaiste agus ar gach duine eile, agus cur leis an spiorad atá sa Teach inniu agus séasúr na Nollag romhainn.
The Deputy should make sure there are no loose ends to the wiring. I congratulate the Deputy on his Christmas spirit. It got a few smiles in the House for a change, which is always good.
We do not have a date for the legislation on the digital hub but I will ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy on it. I am sure the Deputy will get a photograph in a newspaper tomorrow.
-----on questions on promised legislation. Perhaps we could extend the time. The Ceann Comhairle referred to it yesterday. Perhaps we should consider the number of people who contribute. We will do an exercise on it to show that those who are accusing me of not giving them time got their fair share over the past number of months.