Wednesday, 7 February 2018
Questions on Promised Legislation
There are a number of commitments in the programme for Government on tackling the drug scourge in our society. One involves the introduction of injection centres in Dublin, and the other relates to the publication of a drugs strategy. Everyone in this House would unite around the common cause to tackle this issue because it has destroyed many families and communities, particularly those who have become addicted, and also led to a spiral in gangland crime.
The Government needs a cohesive, concerted plan on how to tackle the increased availability and use of heroin and other illicit drugs across cities and also in towns in rural Ireland. Anyone who read this morning's Irish Examinerwould be aware of the harrowing account of the Kidney family in Bandon, County Cork, in which Mrs. Kidney tells the story of losing her three sons through heroin addiction over the past three years. It was shocking and deeply sad for the family but also revealing in terms of the prevalence of the heroin scourge the length and breadth of the country.
There is a need to go back to the original initiatives taken in the late 1990s and early 2000s with local drugs task forces, which worked on a community integrated basis to deal with the issue in all its aspects and at all levels. I ask the Taoiseach to indicate to me the actions that have been taken following the publication of the national drugs strategy in that regard.
It is important to say first that the national drugs strategy has been produced. I launched it with the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, and the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, only a few months ago. The Minister reports on a quarterly basis as to the particular actions that have been completed, the ones that are in train and those yet to be commenced.
There is specific mention of injection centres. The legislation on that is done and there will need to be planning permission for a centre. I understand three centres have been proposed but I am not sure which one will be selected. The Minister will set up an independent group to choose one and it will need planning permission. I met the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to discuss drugs and drugs-related issues last week. In addition to that, she has appointed a working group to consider decriminalisation, which is one of the proposals in the drugs strategy.
It is reported today that a motion will come before the House regarding Ireland's participation in the German battle group. In November of last year, the Taoiseach was quoted as saying that Ireland will not join a European army, yet that is exactly what he is agreeing to in this instance. To quote someone else, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is obviously a duck. When will the Taoiseach extract Ireland from the anti-neutrality commitment to partake in EU battle groups? When will the debate on the motion happen or is it the case that he will wait for the Defence (Amendment) Bill?
I am not sure if that does require a motion of the House; I will have to check that out. The Cabinet has made a decision that we will participate in the German-led battle group. We have previously served in the German-led battle group, the UK-led battle group and the Nordic one so it is not the first time we have done it. The name is not a good name. This battle group will have ten people. It is definitely not a European army. A ten-person army would not have much of a-----
I think in French it is called force tactique or force tactical, and that might be a better term than battle group. Perhaps we will find an appropriate term as Gaeilge that better reflects what it is. It is intended to be a ten-person group, which could increase to 148 if needed, but before it could be deployed in any operation it falls under the triple lock mechanism, which would require a decision of Government, a mandate from the Dáil and also a mandate from the UN. However, as it is not proposed to take part in any operations as yet-----
I wish to raise a parallel issue to the one raised by Deputy Micheál Martin and reference the drugs strategy again. Part of the strategy that is published is to keep legislation up to date to deal with emerging trends. The Taoiseach will have seen the article in The Sunday Business Post by journalist Susan Mitchell over the weekend on the explosion in the amount of prescription drugs used in Ireland. There has been a phenomenal increase in some instances. Prescriptions for Valium alone increased from 54,000 over a decade. A number of particular drugs - opioids, "benzoids" and sleeping tablets - have caused huge problems in other jurisdictions, particularly in the United States, where it now regards prescription drugs as one of the over-arching most important health issues being faced by many communities there. In regard to tackling the issue of prescription drugs being abused, what particular measures does the Taoiseach propose? Does he have legislative or any other measures to tackle this situation before it gets out of hand here as it has done in other jurisdictions?
I am not aware of any specific legislative measures being proposed, but I know that the Health Service Executive's medicines management programme under Professor Barry has taken a real interest in this issue and in ensuring that these necessary medicines are prescribed appropriately and only used as necessary. I understand that the Chief Medical Officer has a role in it too.
Does the Taoiseach intend to bring in legislation this year on the so-called rainy day fund? There is nothing indicated on the clár and, as he is aware, the Department of Finance is talking about diverting €1.5 billion from the Strategic Investment Fund and €0.5 billion a year from people's taxation, to which the Taoiseach referred earlier, into such a fund from 2019. We heard earlier from the leader of Fianna Fáil about the huge gap that we know exists in the health budget for 2018. We have the ongoing disaster in housing and we have a very large national debt, one of the highest in the OECD. Already, €14 billion or €15 billion has been set aside by the NTMA for the genesis of a future wealth fund. Is that something we should be talking about at all? As I put to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, last week, using one of his own favourite words, is it not bonkers to be talking about a rainy day fund when it is raining already for many of our citizens?
On the legislation, the vehicle to set it up is the National Asset Management Agency (Amendment) Bill, which was in committee in January. I strongly agree with the establishment of a rainy day fund. What I never want to see happen again is for us to repeat the mistakes of the past. When an economy is growing and going relatively well, it makes sense to first balance the books, run a surplus and then put some of that surplus aside for a period so that when there is a downturn, and it is always the case that there will be a downturn at some point in the future, we will never again have to do what happened in this country five or six years ago. We never want to be in a situation ever again where we have to cut people's pay, pensions, welfare benefits and employment in the public sector. It terrifies me how often I come into this House and hear from all sides proposals to repeat the mistakes of the past-----
It is. I beg to differ having checked it before I came to the House. The important thing is investment in rail, which Deputy Collins raised a minute ago in reference to lines which were closed half a century or a century ago. We read now that our railways are under threat again in Limerick, Waterford and along the Nenagh-Ballybrophy line. There are eight stations involved there, which means eight derelict or semi-derelict buildings, many of which are listed. We cannot allow this haemorrhage to take place. The Taoiseach mentioned money and the HSE and it is not all about that. Iarnród Éireann should be compelled to carry out a feasibility study and change the timetables so that services run at times suited to the demands of passengers, including businesspeople. Instead, services are being run into the ground with buses being put on half the time. When that happens, there is no rail trip to record in the statistics. I ask the Taoiseach to ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to engage with transport stakeholders to rejuvenate these services rather than to scrap them.
As I said yesterday, there are no proposals to close any railway lines in the country. Given the fact that none was closed during a very dark period for our country economically, we do not propose to do so into the future. A lot of studies have been done already, in case the Deputy has not read them yet.
There is the rail review, the AECOM study and six or seven others, all of which set out how many passengers use each line and what level of increase in passenger numbers is needed for the lines to wash their faces. No one expects any line to cover its capital costs of constructing rails, stations and trains but we want to get to a point where the fares paid by passengers at least cover the running costs, which is not the case for the vast majority of railway lines.
On 18 January, Nicole Fox Fenton, affectionately known to her family as "Coco", died by suicide. Nicole was 21 and had her whole life in front of her. Nicole's mother, Jackie, has given me permission to speak today about her beautiful daughter. Nicole was bullied to death, not only online but in reality and in her daily life. Bullying is poisoning virtual reality and driving some young people to utter despair. Nicole's death is not the first and it probably will not be the last. What is the Government doing to address bullying, in particular of young people?
I am very sorry to hear about Nicole's death and my condolences go to her family. There is no specific legislation on bullying but there is legislation of relevance on other matters, including intimidation and online safety.
In the programme for Government, there is a promise to protect farmers' incomes and payments. Indeed, the promise covered cases in which payments were held up for one reason or another and a consensus was arrived at that two thirds of outstanding payments would be made until the problems were sorted out. However, where commonage was burned in Kerry, some farmers received no payments at all for Christmas. They have no other income. In the fullness of time, they will win their battle because their commonage was burned from outside. They had nothing to do with the burning of the commonage. I ask the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to intervene to ensure these farmers get fair play. It is wrong to take their whole payment from them. They were told they would get payments in 2018. That is totally wrong.
I want to refer to the reason for the suspension which I proposed. Let me tell the House, and Members who have been here for many years will realise, that what I was doing is established practice, irrespective of cards or no cards. In regard to the cards, it is a pilot scheme until Easter, when it will be reviewed. Today, the reason I had to suspend had nothing to do with cards - absolutely nothing. If there is a related question, then it is custom and practice that it is taken. It was not a question of me showing favouritism to anybody.
We will proceed. There was a question from Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. Whether it is a brother or another Member from the constituency does not matter; I will treat everyone the same. It is a related issue and we stop the clock. I call Deputy Michael Healy-Rae for a very short, related question.
On the same issue, I spoke to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about these eight farmers. It is absolutely outrageous. They fought a fire to keep it out of their land. The fire brigade was fighting with them. It was coming in to them. They failed to keep it out. It came into their land and burned their land, and now their payments are stopped. It is outrageous.
On the same issue, a number of farmers in Donegal were affected in the same way. I ask the Taoiseach to use his offices and work with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We had this matter before the agriculture committee last week. It is essential that these farmers get a prompt answer and that fairness is brought to the system. I note the Taoiseach looked over his shoulder when the question was first raised and I presume that was to see if the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine was around. I know he is in Strasbourg today so he cannot be here but I would point out he is never here for this particular section.
With new politics, it is important that Ministers are here to account for promised legislation. I could count on one hand the number of times the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been here. The Taoiseach might raise that with him to try to ensure there is better attendance.
No. I made it very clear. If the cards were not in operation, you would have no problem, but cards are in operation. I call the Taoiseach to respond to the questions on agriculture. Will he meet the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine?
The programme for Government states the Government is committed to delivering a schools capital programme for extensions and refurbishments. Parents of children seeking to go to the hugely popular school, St. Brogan's of Bandon, have been on tenterhooks for the last number of months as it looks like it will not be able to take over 50 students seeking admission. Some living just across the road from the school may have to travel 25 km to another school.
Temporary portakabins were promised from another school but, due to collapse of Carillion, this will not happen. Will the Taoiseach personally intervene in this crisis and ask the Department of Education and Skills to source temporary portakabins elsewhere to resolve this nightmare for parents and children in Bandon and the surrounding areas?
The programme for Government at pages 65 to 69 deals with greater access to mental health care and outlines proposals on services that are missing or thin on the ground in my constituency. There were four suicide deaths in my constituency over a 12-day period. Behind all these deaths, there is a grieving family, friends, neighbours and loved ones. Sadly, I do not know the number of deaths that have happened in my constituency-----
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The National Office for Suicide Prevention is rolling out the Connecting for Life strategy in every county. It is an association between the local authorities, the Garda Síochána and the HSE. Thankfully, the register of suicides in this country is going the right way and, while it is not where we want it to be, the numbers are dropping. There were 399 deaths by suicide last year. Funding has increased to €13 million this year for that office and we will continue to invest heavily in this area as we see results.
Naas town is facing a schools accommodation crisis. Five years ago the Department of Education and Skills instructed that a new secondary school would commence enrolment. Naas Community College duly started and has now enrolled first, second and third year.
I refer to chapter 10 on education and there is a reference on page 98. As I said, the school has duly opened, the patron has purchased a site and planning permission has been granted by Kildare County Council but we are facing a situation in which 231 students applied for places in September 2017 and 111 were turned away.
There is a primary school, Naas community national school, co-located on the same temporary accommodation. If this continues, by 2020 we will have 800 students in temporary accommodation that was created for 500. We urgently need the tender to be issued.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Last Wednesday, I asked the Taoiseach about the programme for Government in relation to health, specifically about the orthopaedic units in Merlin Park. I acknowledged that the Taoiseach was a busy man and I gave him the opportunity to return to me with an answer or get the Minister, Deputy Harris, to do so. The leaks in the roof have been repaired and the hospital is currently waiting for a risk assessment to be conducted. Hundreds of orthopaedic operations have been cancelled and we are still unable to find out what is going on. Will the Taoiseach please sort this matter out and have the two units open as soon as possible?
On foot of the Deputy's query, I sought information from the Minister for Health. He assures me that the HSE is committed to ensuring that a full elective orthopaedic service is restored in Merlin Park. In September 2017, the leaks in the roof of the building which houses the orthopaedic theatres occurred, necessitating the closure of both. There has been a full repair to the membrane of the roof which is required to secure the integrity of the building and these works are now complete. The theatres, notwithstanding the roof repair, date from the 1950s and do not meet current clinical standards. An independent clinical assessment has been undertaken to assess the feasibility of returning these theatres to use. The Saolta University Health Care Group management team has advised that the best way to restore effective capacity at Merlin Park is through the provision of two modular theatres on the Merlin Park site. The tender process for these modular units is at its final stages and it is expected that a contract will be awarded in coming weeks.
Page 96 of the programme for Government refers to ensuring a strong and visible police force in every community. We know how important are community gardaí in tackling rural crime. In Cavan-Monaghan, the number of community gardaí has fallen by almost 80% in the last seven years. The area now has only two officially appointed community gardaí, which is one of the lowest levels in the country. Will the Government comment on how it intends to establish community gardaí in the region once again?
I am anxious to speak to the Deputy on the matter but I respect the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's position. Deputy Smyth put questions to me on this matter only yesterday. I thought I gave her the good news about Cavan-Monaghan, in so far as an increase in garda numbers is concerned.
That will continue under this Government. There will shortly be 800 more gardaí, some of whom will be assigned to areas in Cavan-Monaghan. The Deputy will be aware that Cavan-Monaghan features strongly in the Garda building programme.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to give increased "earned autonomy" to our universities. I am concerned about the autonomy the universities already have and how some of them are exercising it. Is the Minister aware of an independent audit report into the University of Limerick that was published at the weekend? It accused representatives of the university of misleading the Committee of Public Accounts, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Department of Education and Skills and the Higher Education Authority. What action does the Government propose to take regarding the conclusions reached in that report?
As the Deputy probably is aware, there has been an investigation into issues in the University of Limerick following a number of protected disclosures. The investigator has done the work and the university is in the process of acting on the recommendations. I gather some issues continue be examined by the investigators and we are yet to hear from them but the university is in the process of responding to the investigation report.
The greenways, rural walking and cycleways provide a great opportunity for rural communities in bringing tourism and income into areas. The programme for Government gives a commitment to double funding and advance the rural walks scheme. The Ó Suilleabháin Beara walk from west Cork to Leitrim was already developed and landowners are maintaining it. It is working. However, there is a group in the middle, in the Muskerry area, which is locked out. The scheme was closed while it was developing its walkway. Landowners to their north and west are able to access the scheme but these people are locked out. Other communities also wish to bring tourism into their areas by reusing abandoned railways and so on. What will happen in respect of re-opening these schemes for rural walks and when will it happen?
I walked a section of that great greenway near Millstreet. I find the Ó Suilleabháin Beara story very compelling. I walked it with one of our former colleagues, former Deputy Áine Collins, and I provided funding for a bridge along the walkway. The issue of greenways is an infrastructure funding matter. I am confident that money would be provided for additional greenways and rural walkways in the ten year investment plan once it is published.
There are people in the Gallery today from the Irish MPS Society who suffer from the condition Morquio. They were here some months ago when we raised the issue of a drug called Vimizim with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, who unfortunately is in a committee today. Only three children in the country use this drug. The matter was before a special health committee about three weeks ago, where it was discussed, but we do not know its decision. This weekend is the last weekend that the company is prepared to continue to give the drug to the children. When one is dealing with orphan drugs, and they are being put through trials, one is dealing with a very small number of people who need it. It is not as though there are hundreds of others to whom it can be sold. A better type of approval process for orphan drugs is needed. I appeal to the Taoiseach to see if something can be done to try to get answers from this group so that people know what is happening, and I ask for more transparency in the process generally, but particularly in the case of Vimizim.
I know that Deputy Bobby Aylward would like to raise this but he does not have a numbered card to ask a question and I must be consistent. I am also aware, as is the Deputy, I am sure, that he has tabled it as a Topical Issue matter.
I trust that the Taoiseach is a man of honour. The Taoiseach was in Limerick on 27 January when he announced and, I hope, confirmed, the construction of a motorway known as the M20 between Cork and Limerick. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport on Wednesday, 31 January, I asked a straight question of officials from Transport Infrastructure Ireland relating to the route of the M20. I hope that what the Taoiseach promised in Limerick will get through to the officials, who would not give me a guarantee that the route would be confined to running adjacent to Mallow, Buttevant, Charleville and on to Croom or that this was going to be the confined study route. Will the Taoiseach make a statement on this issue in this Chamber?
I fully expect that the route will be the original one proposed because it is not only about linking Cork city and Limerick city but it is an important part of the Atlantic economic corridor, linking Cork to Limerick and Galway. It is vital that towns such as Charleville and Buttevant should be bypassed. A different route would still have to bypass those towns and would not make sense.
Section 4 in the programme for Government, on pages 41 to 52, refers to the ambition for new partnership Government. It speaks of measures to revitalise all Ireland in order that benefits are felt in all communities. Villages are a top priority for the new dedicated Minister. It goes on to refer to supporting a post office network renewal process.
When will the McKinsey report, being undertaken by An Post in term of rural post offices, be finished? As of yesterday, An Post was not in a position to put a timeframe on it? What will the Government do, given it seems the Minister has no statutory function in deciding what post office closes or opens? It would be different for Garda stations, as we know from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross.
I want to know what is going to happen. In my constituency, we have Ballygawley and, most recently, Easkey, but there are ones in every constituency and county that effectively are on death row with people wondering whether their local service will close.
As I understand it, that report was commissioned by An Post. It is not a Government report. There has been a Government report, which was commissioned by the Minister, Deputy Ring, which outlined a number of proposals that could be implemented to make the post office network more sustainable in the longer term.