Wednesday, 31 January 2018
Questions on Promised Legislation
There is a clear commitment in the programme for Government committing the Government to tackling criminal gangs. It is with great horror that people watch on a regular basis murder and mayhem on our streets, in particular in Dublin. In the past ten days alone there have been two more very callous murders - one last night - which we condemn unreservedly. It is an appalling loss of life that does not seem like ending anytime soon.
I was somewhat disturbed earlier this month when I read reports that funding and resources to the Garda had been reduced and cut, in particular to the armed support unit in terms of the frequency of operational shifts. Could the Taoiseach reaffirm that there have been no such cutbacks to resources to those units and to An Garda Síochána which are combatting the armed criminal gangs in the city?
I wish to condemn in the strongest possible terms the horrific and brutal murder of a citizen of the city on the streets last night. There is no place for such activity in a civilised country.
The Garda has faced down such criminal threats in the past and will do so now and well into the future. In that regard, our role as public representatives, and my role as Minister for Justice and Equality is to ensure in the first instance that the legislation and our legislative response is robust and, second, that there are appropriate levels of resources for the Garda Síochána.
In that regard I will respond directly to the point the Leader of the Opposition made. The armed support unit is very active. Since 16 December it is operating in this city around the clock, on a 24-7 basis.
Overtime for An Garda Síochána is in excess of €100 million for this year. I am in contact with the Garda Commissioner regularly and my understanding is that while the matter of resources is kept under review as far as gangland activity is concerned, especially in the inner city area of Dublin, it is not an issue. We will of course continue to keep the matter under review.
As regards last night's killing, I wish to assure the House that an active criminal investigation is under way and no stone will be left unturned by An Garda Síochána to bring those responsible to justice.
I join Deputy Martin and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, in condemning last night's appalling killing. My question relates to a digital safety commissioner. In recent weeks there has been much discussion following from some concerning reports of abuse, exploitation and inappropriate material on social networks. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, has cited a Law Reform Commission paper on a digital safety commission proposal. I understand the Taoiseach is more circumspect. He has said that he sees social media companies taking a role. I put it to the Taoiseach that the Law Reform Commission paper clearly anticipates involving them. The approach is supported by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC. Currently, a Bill in my name is on the Order Paper, the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill, based, to a large extent, on those proposals. Will the Taoiseach please state the Government position on the establishment of such an office and whether the Government would support a digital safety commissioner Bill if it were brought to the floor of the House?
I know this is an issue that parents in particular are worried about. As a society, we need to protect our children. It is disturbing how disgusting predators can use technology to get in touch with children and communicate with them in a nefarious way. I know that is something everyone in the House is concerned about.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, is organising a summit on 8 March that will be focused on digital safety. The event will bring everyone to the summit, including those from the education sector, the Garda, the technology sector, children's advocates and all those groups. It will be an opportunity to discuss what we should do and put together a package of measures that we can then implement.
No proposal for a digital safety commissioner has yet been brought to Government, but certainly I am open to the idea. I would need to understand how that office would work. Let us not forget that we are dealing with the Internet, the world wide web. We need to understand how that would work and make a difference because it is important that whatever we do is effective.
Later this afternoon I will be dealing with the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill to deal with these issues and I hope for Government support on that.
I want to raise a matter relating to different legislation. The Government intends to bring forward the industrial relations (amendment) Bill as a priority. The proposal would amend the Industrial Relations Act 1990 to give An Garda Síochána representative associations access to the State industrial relations organisations, such as the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court. I understand that the heads of the Bill were approved in September. We still await a date for pre-legislative scrutiny. I understand that some consideration was given to broadening the scope of the Bill to give coverage to the representative associations of the Defence Forces. I have two simple questions. When will the industrial relations (amendment) Bill come before the House? Will the Taoiseach extend right of access to the State's industrial relations institutions not only to the representative associations of An Garda Síochána but to those of our Defence Forces as well?
That legislation is on the priority list for publication in this session. The heads have already been provided. The question on the Defence Forces is under examination, but what we really want to achieve with the Defence Forces is to have a system of conciliation and arbitration that works for all sides.
The programme for Government strongly supports our agricultural sector. We have had a bad summer and a difficult winter with the fodder crisis etc. Several schemes are available to support farmers, including environmental schemes. One relates to the purchase of slurry spreading equipment. There is a generous grant scheme of 60% but there is something wrong with the scheme in two respects. First, a farmer is not allowed to use leasing or hire purchase finance. He must get a personal loan. Many farmers cannot get a halfpenny because of their situations, with bad prices and bad crops combined. Moreover, the farm contractors of Ireland are not allowed to avail of this grant scheme. That is surely short-sighted because when the weather dries up, contractors are in a position to spread the slurry quickly and with expertise.
This is a major anomaly. I call on the Taoiseach to ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to deal with it. It is a ridiculous scheme. The people who draw up these schemes should be cognisant of the fact that most farm equipment is leased or secured on hire purchase and not on a personal loan basis.
At the Committee on Budgetary Oversight I identified significant gaps in budget 2018 in health spending. One of the most appalling relates to the numbers of children who are waiting for an intake assessment by early intervention teams in Dublin north city and county. Some of the Taoiseach's constituents are involved. Well in excess of 300 children are waiting at the moment. These children are believed to be on the autistic spectrum. In excess of 150 children have been waiting for more than a year. I know of people in families who have been waiting for 19 months or 22 months and so on.
Is it not cruel that the Government has not provided the resources to our staff in community care areas to enable them to provide the kind of services we need for these children? As the Taoiseach is aware, there is no use in a child getting early intervention when he or she is four and a half or five years old. Early intervention should mean early intervention. The Government and its Fianna Fáil partners have not provided us with a competent health budget for 2018.
No legislation is promised on that matter either but, as the Deputy will be aware, resources are being increased for the health service all the time. There has been a considerable increase in recent years, but the connection between resources and services is, at best, indirect.
My question relates to the protection of farmers' incomes. Will the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine grant a pilot scheme to the people of Iveragh in south Kerry to eliminate tuberculosis by way of vaccinating and removing badgers? A total of 40 herds have gone down but it affects only 7% of the herd. The remainder of the animals in south Kerry are fine. We do not want to create a situation whereby people would not buy the other animals. Only 7% of the herd is affected. The farmers are asking for a pilot scheme to remove badgers. They firmly believe the badgers are spreading TB. They need to be culled and got out of there.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, is in Turkey selling beef at the moment, but I will certainly pass on the suggestion to him on his return.
When does the Government intend to deal with the urgent need for State assistance for homeowners residing in defective buildings? Such assistance was recommended by the report of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government last week, entitled Safe as Houses? Moreover, as the Taoiseach is aware, similar assistance was recommended in a motion brought forward by the Green Party and passed by the House last June.
I am aware of at least three multi-unit developments in my constituency of Dublin Rathdown where residents, through absolutely no fault of their own, are facing repair and building works bills of between €7,000 and €30,000. Some are facing the threat of legal proceedings for the amounts, which it is claimed they owe. It is so unfair. These homeowners and families believe their nightmare and plight is being ignored and forgotten. They believe the Government does not care about their horrendous predicament and they are desperately looking to Government and seeking help, protection and assistance.
When does the Government intend to tackle this protracted problem effectively? Does the Government intend to implement practical measures such as tax relief for these homeowners? Does the Government intend to set up a redress scheme for such homeowners, as identified in the committee report last week?
The Department has indicated receipt of the report and will make presentations to it and so on. We got the final report from the committee last week and we are looking through it and engaging with it. We will report back at a later stage.
I wish to be very clear at the outset. These are generally private contracts between people that relate to the construction of homes. The State and the Department are not usually involved in that. However, we will go through the report, see if any action should be taken and report back to the House at a later stage.
Page 112 of the programme for Government addresses the agrifood sector. In the light of the recent revelations published by The Irish Fieldexposing the practice whereby the Irish Horse Board changed the status of equine passports to have equines excluded from the food chain declared fit for consumption simply by placing a label over the stamp "Not fit for human consumption", can the Taoiseach guarantee that the equines in question have not received prohibited substances since their registration in order that the food chain will be protected?
On the Government's commitment to increase bed capacity, I again raise the issue of Letterkenny University Hospital. Last week my party leader and I raised with the Taoiseach a submission the hospital had made last summer to the Health Service Executive and, through it, the Government seeking €1.8 million to fund the staff required to open 20 beds. The hospital has still not received a response to its request. As a result, 20, 30 or 40 patients must wait daily on trolleys for admission to the hospital. The maximum capacity protocol at the hospital has been in place consistently since 27 December, meaning outpatient operations cannot proceed and those waiting for hip operations are having them cancelled. Waiting lists are increasing as a consequence, which is simply unacceptable. I hope the Taoiseach will answer my question, rather than fudging the issue by passing it back to the Minister for Health, with whom it has been raised a number of times. Will the money sought by the hospital be forthcoming and will an additional 20 beds be opened? Will the Government address the immense pressure on the hospital and its staff and the unacceptable position facing patients every day?
I do not have an answer in respect of Letterkenny University Hospital. However, I can say that the following hospitals are included in respect of the 170 additional beds that have been opened this winter. Twenty-two beds have been opened in St. Vincent's University Hospital; 25 have been opened in Drogheda; 17 have been opened in Limerick; 28 have been opened in Galway; 20 have been opened in Beaumont Hospital; 23 have been opened in St. James's Hospital; 24 have been opened in the Mater Hospital; and 11 have been opened in Naas General Hospital. Additional beds will be provided this year in St. Luke's Hospital, Kilkenny; University Hospital Waterford and Cork University Hospital. A new emergency department will also open in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, with a modular build to open in south Tipperary, as I indicated earlier. We must insist on these additional capacity developments being linked with changes to hospital work practices and systems. Despite promises that capacity makes a difference, it very often does not make a blind bit of difference, unless hospitals change the way they work.
The issue of funding for roads is addressed on page 44 of the programme for Government. It is not an exaggeration to state the condition of roads throughout the country is chronic. The Government has introduced two budgets, yet the condition of roads continues to worsen. The lack of a funding is causing chaos at local authority level. In addition to reductions in funding for many years and two bad winters, the position in County Tipperary is being made worse by a further factor. Given that the county had proportionately more urban and borough councils than other counties, the withdrawal of block grants for each of the councils when they were abolished has left my county worse off. The result has been a shortfall of €1.5 million, in addition to the other reductions to which I referred. I call on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to treat County Tipperary as a special case and ask him to meet the chief executive officer of Tipperary County Council to find a solution to this problem. What is the Government's plan to address the issue, given that standard budgets are not addressing it?
On promised legislation on health, in view of the recent submission by the Chiropractic Association of Ireland, will the Taoiseach or the Minister for Health consider amending the wording of new regulations in order that qualified chiropractors can be included in the regulatory framework? Otherwise many jobs will be placed in jeopardy and potentially lost. What are the views of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health on this matter?
On the same issue, I support the sentiments of my colleague, Deputy Frank O'Rourke. I ask the Minister for Health to defer the signing of the proposed document until such time as a full evaluation of the necessary work has been completed and the necessity for chiropractors to have unimpeded access to their own X-ray services is accepted, as has been the case.
I lend my support to the case made by the Chiropractic Association of Ireland. As Deputies will agree, chiropractors provide an invaluable service. Some compromise must be found which recognises the sector and what it delivers in towns and villages nationwide. I support the sentiments expressed by the two previous speakers.
I am advised by the Minister for Health that the basic safety standards directive is a European directive which must be transposed into Irish law by 6 February. Overall responsibility for the directive rests with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment as it speaks to radiological protection. However, the Department of Health is transposing the medical provisions included in the directive. While ionising radiation has many beneficial applications, its use increases potential health hazards if poorly used or contained. The directive protects members of the public, patients, workers and others from all forms of radiation, including in medical settings.
The Department of Health will finalise the medical provisions of the directive in the coming weeks and existing legislation in this area will be revoked and replaced with the new regulations. The regulations will designate those who may refer for radiological tests and those who may carry them out and other functions. The existing regulations from 2002 do not designate chiropractors as referrers or practitioners. Chiropractors who refer individuals for medical exposures, carry out medical exposures or other related functions are not in compliance with the existing regulations. There was an anomaly in the previous regulations whereby no inspection or enforcement provisions were included. In the new regulations the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, will have the inspection and enforcement powers to enforce compliance and contravention of the new regulations will be an offence. The new regulations will designate those who may refer for radiological tests, those who may carry them out and other functions. It is proposed to designate nurses, doctors, dentists and radiographers as appropriate persons. The proposed designation of the relevant professionals is based on patient safety and public health considerations and follows on from the advice of the chief medical officer.
The value of the online cryptocurrency Bitcoin fluctuated again on the markets overnight. This has all the hallmarks of a bubble, with dubious transactions taking place on certain exchanges and significant market volatility. Despite this, Ireland has still not introduced regulations on cryptocurrencies. While people are entitled to do as they wish with their money, there is a risk of contagion and market instability, not to mention the potential for criminality and money laundering. This has been recognised by the European Banking Authority since 2013, but its recognition has yet to make its way to this jurisdiction.
Not long ago, we considered credit default swaps and contracts for difference to be esoteric instruments unworthy of local scrutiny. We found out the hard way that this was untrue. I submitted a number of parliamentary questions to the Department of Finance seeking clarity on the risk mitigation, planning or governance measures in place for cryptocurrencies. It replied that it hoped to have something in place towards the end of 2018. I am not sure that an issue as volatile as this can wait for a year, given the risk we have seen in the past. Let us hope we have learned from previous crashes and will act to address the risk of market contagion by bringing forward regulations in this area.
While I do not have specific information on the issue raised by the Deputy, I expect it is a matter for the Central Bank of Ireland and one which is addressed through European regulations. I believe all Deputies would advise people of the risks they were taking if they were to trade in cryptocurrencies.
Page 53 of the programme for Government states efforts to increase access to safe, timely care as close as possible to patients' homes will be a priority. Unfortunately, this is not the reality for people waiting for cataract operations that greatly improve the quality of life for older people. I refer to the case of an 87 year old woman who has been classed as having an urgent need for a cataract operation. She was informed the waiting time for an urgent procedure was 11 months. The National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, is not an option because she has not been waiting for the prescribed time. The solution offered by the Health Service Executive is to avail of the option of treatment under the cross-border directive and it sent her the relevant contact details. Is this its solution to the problem of waiting lists? If so, it is cold comfort to an 87 year old woman who needs a simple operation and cannot leave her home because she cannot see.
The NTPF is an option. In recent months we have achieved some success in reducing waiting lists for procedures. I believe the numbers have fallen in four of the past five months.
The NTPF may well be a solution for the patient in question. The cross-Border directive is also an option and the Government will fund the full cost of the treatment if the person in question is willing and able to travel. While it is not ideal, it is an option.
My question is on the Programme for a Partnership Government and not on proposed legislation. In the programme for Government, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health referred to the health budget of €14.6 billion, stating that it demonstrated the Government's commitment to investing the gains of the recovery in better health services, including cutting waiting lists. I have a reply to a problem that arose last October with the orthopaedic theatres at Merlin Park Hospital. The Minister for Health was most helpful in bringing the Deputies from the region together. We were told that the theatres had to close because of roof difficulties. This letter states that the work has been completed on the theatres and a full technical report on the work undertaken is awaited. When the Minister met us he said that the hospital was looking at putting together special modular buildings to deal with this issue. In this same letter we were told that the hospital was still trying to get the modular buildings up and running.
This has hit waiting lists for orthopaedic operations. If the roof has been repaired and we are only waiting on a report, why are the modular units still being progressed? I do not expect an answer from the Taoiseach now as I am a reasonable person. However, would he talk to the Minister for Health to see if he can get a proper answer to this and get those units open as quickly as possible?
The programme for a Partnership Government commits to supporting people with mental health difficulties and their families. However, this is the second time in less than three years that the residents of Rosalie Home in Castlerea, County Roscommon, and their families are facing another threatened closure. There have been no new admissions since 27 September 2016, 20 beds are vacant and to date no rational reason has been given as to why the home has to close.
In July 2015, all the residents were given a commitment that they would see out they rest of their lives there. The only other commitment was made by the HSE which said that the ban on admissions would not be lifted. Why is this ban still in place? Is the Government going to close Rosalie Home in County Roscommon?
There is no legislation promised on this matter. It would be best raised with the relevant Minister. However, I am told that Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, has committed to visiting the unit in the coming weeks and meeting with residents and family members.
Is the Taoiseach aware that the European Union is completing the Mercosur trade deal at the moment? In the Programme for a Partnership Government there is a commitment to the farming sector and to the beef sector, in particular. Many beef farmers in Ireland are extremely concerned that this deal will open up the export of 100,000 tonnes of beef from Latin America to Europe. That will be a huge threat to our beef sector.
The Programme for a Partnership Government also has a commitment to the sustainable development goals the United Nations has put forward. Producing this beef from Latin America means cutting away the rain forests. There is also an environmental impact resulting from this. It is absolutely vital that the Government rejects this deal and does everything it can to ensure that the European Union does so. I know the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has made some moves in that direction and is trying to build relations with other European countries to ensure that we get a better deal which does not threaten our beef industry. However, we need a commitment from the Government that we will stand up for our beef farmers and, indeed, for the global environmental consequences of this deal.
I am very aware of the issue and the Deputy has that commitment. I gave that commitment to the Irish Farmers' Association at its annual meeting not so long ago. I have met Commissioner Hogan, Commissioner Katainen, Commissioner Vestager, President Macron, who has a similar view on this matter, and the President of Argentina to discuss this and to relay our specific concerns around the sensitive sector that is our beef industry.
Over 12 months ago a number of constituencies had their commercial rates revaluation process completed. A number of small retailers and people in the hospitality sector have seen a significant increase. In some cases their commercial rates have doubled and trebled. In Westmeath, 56% of our retailers have seen an increase and 41% of our hospitality sector has seen an increase.
However, members of the Government parties assured those businesses not to worry because new legislation was coming before the Oireachtas which would ensure they would not face these new charges. Lo and behold, 1 January has come and they are now liable for these new charges. Businesses are on their knees on the high streets of Longford and Westmeath. When can we expect the long promised revaluation Bill that will ensure that businesses see a fair and equitable charging system, a system that will be proportionate to their turnover and a system that will ensure that they are in a position not to be put out of business?
I have serious concerns on the same issue. I have been approached by a number of people in my own constituency as well. I support Deputy Troy in regard to this Bill. Perhaps the Minister might outline a timeframe and a schedule please.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. In the last quarter of last year, the Oireachtas joint committee decided that it did not need to undergo legislative scrutiny. The Bill is currently being drafted. It is priority legislation for this term. We will proceed with it as quickly as possible.
The Programme for a Partnership Government committed the Government not to sell any more than a 25% stake in any bank before the end of 2018. Unfortunately, the Government broke its own promise and proceeded with the sale of 28.75% of AIB. The investors who bought that stake are clinking glasses and popping champagne corks and toasting the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. They have made a nice handsome profit of €1 billion in the last six months. This is despite the fact that I told the Government at the time that the value of AIB was likely to increase. We had the Government and Fianna Fáil nationalise the debt and then Fine Gael privatising the profits.
Does the Taoiseach regret the fact he has sold the asset for €1 billion less than its value today? Will he commit to not selling any further shares in AIB? Instead, will he direct AIB to do what it should be doing which is to lend into the productive economy? It is very clear that it has not done that because we have had to set up other agencies like the Home Building Finance Ireland, HBFI, and other funds to lend to banks.
The Deputy is well aware that equity prices and asset prices go up and down. Something is sold for its value on the day that it sold. Our objective in regard to AIB and Bank of Ireland is to recover for the taxpayer all the money that was used to bail out those banks. We have recovered all the money from Bank of Ireland. We intend, in time, to recover all the money from AIB as well. There are essentially two phases to the bank bailout: the bailout of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society, from which the taxpayer will recover almost nothing, and a second bailout that occurred under a different Government, a Government of which I was a member, of AIB and Bank of Ireland. We will recover every cent and more.