Tuesday, 13 February 2018
Order of Business
Today's business shall be No. 6, motion re Sixteenth Report of the Committee of Selection, to be taken without debate; No. 7, motion re amendment to Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, back from committee, to be taken without debate; No. 7a, motion re parliamentary questions rota change for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection; No. 27, statements on the third interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes; and No. 3, Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage. Private Members' business shall be No. 168, motion re local and regional roads funding, which has been selected by Fianna Fáil.
Wednesday's business shall be No. 3, Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage; No. 28, Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 [Seanad] - Second Stage (resumed); No. 4, Industrial Development (Amendment) Bill 2018 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage; and No. 27, statements on the third interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, resumed. Private Members' business shall be No. 45, Central Bank (Amendment) Bill 2018 - Second Stage, which has been selected by Sinn Féin.
Thursday's business shall be No. 3, Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017 - Second Stage, resumed, if not previously concluded; No. 28, Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 [Seanad] - Second Stage, resumed, if not previously concluded; No. 4, Industrial Development (Amendment) Bill 2018 - Second Stage, resumed, if not previously concluded; No. 27, statements on the third interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, resumed; and No. 29, statements on national broadband procurement process, resumed; and No. 8, report on the position of lone parents in Ireland by theJoint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, to be taken in the evening slot.
I refer to the first revised report of the Business Committee, dated 12 February, 2018. In relation to today's business, it is proposed that: (1) the motion re the Sixteenth Report of the Committee of Selection; the motion re amendment to Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, back from committee, and the motion re parliamentary questions rota change shall be taken without debate and that any division demanded on the motion re parliamentary questions rota change shall be taken immediately; (2) statements on the third interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes shall adjourn not later than 8 p.m.; that the statements of a Minister or a Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties or groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, shall not exceed ten minutes each and that the statements of all other Members shall not exceed five minutes each, with a five minute response from a Minister or a Minister of State. All Members may share time.
In relation to Wednesday's business, it is proposed that: (1) Second Stage of the Central Bank (Amendment) Bill 2018 shall be brought to a conclusion, if not previously concluded, after two hours and; (2) statements on the third interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes shall adjourn not later than 10.15 p.m.
In relation to Thursday's business, it is proposed that statements on the national broadband procurement process shall resume at 4 p.m. or at the conclusion of the statements on the third interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, whichever is the earlier, and conclude at 5 p.m., if not previously concluded, and that the order shall not resume thereafter.
There are three proposals to put to the House today arising from the report. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business, Tuesday's business, agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed.
In the programme for Government there is a clear commitment to introduce an independent patient advocacy service. It seems that the only patient advocacy service in the country is "Liveline", courtesy of broadcaster, Joe Duffy. There has been extraordinary contact in recent weeks from patients throughout the country over the removal of Versatis pain relief patches and medication from thousands of patients in a cost-cutting measure by the Government. A parliamentary reply estimates that there will be 90% savings in the execution of this measure. However, from a patient perspective, anyone listening to "Liveline" in recent weeks will have been struck by the agony and genuine distress caused to patients and families. These people of all ages got great pain relief from this particular medication. Where was the patient advocacy informing this decision?
As Deputy Martin knows, this was not a decision taken by the Government. It was a decision taken by the medicines management programme, which is made up of clinicians. It was a clinical decision made on the appropriate use of Versatis, a patch that had been used for conditions it was not previously meant to be used for. We were actually spending more and using more in this country than the entire United Kingdom.
The Deputy is making a point about compassion for people for whom this medication was providing clear pain relief. I wish to make the point that there is an appeals process. Already, general practitioners can apply using an online system to have the application assessed. That is turned around within two days. Hundreds of people have been put back on the patches as a result of it. It is important that we follow clinical advice and that we let our policy on medication be decided by doctors rather than radio shows.
We expect the national planning framework to be published this year. As the House knows, it is to be placed on a statutory footing. I am a little confused on the procedure so maybe the Taoiseach can enlighten us. The legislation to underpin the statutory nature of the national planning framework clearly states that it should be placed before the Houses, as it states in the legislation, for the approval of each House and the Oireachtas before it is published. Despite this, a parliamentary reply I got this morning from the Minister states that a formal vote on the final national planning framework was never envisaged under the legislation. Either there is approval, as the Bill states, or there is no approval, as the parliamentary question states. Given the importance of the document and the surrounding debate, it is vital to have a debate and vote on it whenever it comes before House.
There is a considerable amount of legislation but it will not be finished until after Easter. We have had discussion in the House. We went through the committee with the report. We had a debate in this Chamber in October on the draft report and the committee report. It was agreed to honour the spirit of the legislation, which we are still teasing through the House. It will be finished after Easter. I hope the plan will be launched this week. We have tried to have consultation.
I have repeatedly asked during the past year about the Education (Admissions to School) Bill. The Bill consultation ended almost a year ago. We have been awaiting the legislative amendments. We are told continually that they are with the Attorney General.
While waiting for the Bill that would address the baptism barrier, we have divested several primary schools that are being run by Educate Together. In that context, it is bizarre that five of those schools, those in New Ross, Tramore, Trim, Tuam and Castlebar, are now being told that they can only take 13 pupils in each year. In Trim, there are five primary schools but only one multidenominational school. In New Ross, this new directive came as a shock to the school.
At the time of their establishment, the schools were not given any indication that such a restriction would be imposed on intake. When will the amendments to the Education (Admissions to School) Bill be published and when will the legislation be advanced? By what rationale are intake and parental choice being restricted in these schools?
As Deputy Howlin well knows, the original Bill on school admissions, which was introduced by the previous Government, did not deal with the baptism barrier or other concerns of Deputies, including the need to give the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, the power to designate a school that would have a special unit.
To accommodate these, we have been drafting new amendments and very good progress is being made with the Attorney General. The issues are delicate because they raise constitutional provisions and we must be insured to deal with them.
It has not been a year.We are dealing with these issues.
On the issue of when the Department decides to build additional accommodation and sanction new schools, this is applied on the same basis in every one of the 314 planning areas. The Department will only sanction additional new schools where there is a scarcity of places in the area. We are not in a financial position to build additional schools just because people do not want the schools that are already in place.
The programme for Government states the Government will listen to ideas from others about how to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis. When it introduced legislation on rent certainty we told the Government the measures would not control rents. We stated it would be necessary to set rents at affordable levels and introduced legislation to achieve this objective, which the Government voted down. Does the Taoiseach accept that, with a report from daft.ieshowing an 81% increase in rents since their low point and an increase of 10% in the past year, the Government's legislation has failed and we need legislation that will control and reduce rents to affordable levels? Incidentally, I disagree with my colleagues in Sinn Féin on controlling rents by linking rent increases to the consumer price index because that would not deal with the problem of new tenancies or rising rents. We need to set rents at affordable levels. Given what is happening, will the Government consider this as the only emergency response that would deal with rents, which are spiralling out of control?
I addressed this issue in my answers to previous questions. The daft.ie report published today does not cover the majority of people who are renting and who are protected by the rent pressure zones and face increases of 4% or less. While the Government has heard the suggestions put forward by Deputy Boyd Barrett and his colleagues, which would essentially involve the Government intervening in the market and setting rents at a certain level - presumably a much lower level than their current level - this would be counterproductive for the reasons I gave. It would result in a black market and people paying under-the-counter cash payments and key money to landlords to get around rent controls. It would also further dampen supply because fewer builders would build and fewer people would want to be landlords. For these reasons, the well-meaning proposals made by Deputy Boyd Barrett and his colleagues would make matters much worse for people who are renting.
To respond to the original question asked by the leader of the Opposition, I have confirmed that September was five months ago. The report was, therefore, published between four and a half and five months ago. There are only five short-term proposals, the first being the restoration of mortgage interest relief, which is being done on the basis of an annual increase of 5%.
The second proposal was to exclude landlords from the local property tax. The Government does not believe it would be fair to exempt landlords from the local property tax when everyone else has to pay it. Perhaps that is Fianna Fáil policy.
In the programme for Government, there was much aspirational talk of supporting our agriculture industry. Goodness knows, with the onset of Brexit and the hiccups we have seen, it is in a perilous state. There is a crisis with every dairy herd in the country having all hands on deck delivering calves, feeding them, looking after them and giving them an early start. There is no export vehicle. The Irish Farmers Association and all the other farming organisations are very concerned that there is no ship ready to transport these calves to markets abroad. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is as láthair but the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, knows a small bit about this and he might have been on a dairy farm once or twice. This is a serious issue and not a laughing matter. Will the Government ensure a facility is available to farmers and exporters so they can transport calves with full documentation safely to overseas markets? It is beyond urgent.
I will happily take up the invitation to speak a bit about farming. Live export markets are something that the Minister, Deputy Creed, has done much to facilitate. We are seeing a very active live export market now.
There is a particular problem relating to dairy herds. The Department has encouraged the live export of calves to appropriate markets, but ultimately this would be a commercial operation run by the private sector. A number of proposals have been put on the table that are more than viable propositions.
As part of the programme for Government there was the recent introduction of a local authority loan scheme for housing. One of the qualifying criteria for an applicant is that there must have been two refusals from banks. I come across people who have been verbally refused but the banks do not want to give a letter to that effect. That means these people cannot apply for the scheme. Were the banks asked to provide those types of letters in advance of introducing the scheme? If not, how will this be addressed?
I understand banks are giving those letters, which are very detailed, and they clarify how much money has been approved. This new loan will cater for people who do not get approval for the full amount. We will ensure that happens.
Schools admission was raised earlier. In Dublin 2, 4, 6 and 8, certain schools are cherry-picking academic-only students and everybody knows that if there is a special needs child who might be able to attend secondary school, he or she is clearly directed to other schools. These students do not necessarily need a special autism unit but could use individual supports. There is a two-tier system and, according to my colleague, the school inspection process might inquire as to why there are not more academic students but it does not ask why there is no special needs provision. All our students are missing out. The students at the schools that do not welcome special needs children grow up in a world thinking there is no such thing in real life. They do not get the wonderful lessons learned in life from living and growing up with somebody who has special needs. This applies to my area and, I am sure, in other parts of the country. Will the Minister introduce legislative measures that push every school to take their fair share of special needs students as part of their incoming stream every year?
In any case where a child is refused admission, an appeal can be made to the Department of Education and Skills and it will turn over instances where schools are discriminatory against children with special educational needs. The admissions Bill currently before the House contains explicit provision not only to outlaw discrimination of that nature but to give the National Council for Special Education powers to compel a school to take an individual child and open a special needs centre should that be required.
Page 134 of the programme for Government refers to the completion of the Luas cross-city line and states "[a] decent public transport system is essential to the everyday lives of so many citizens". That is undoubtedly true, but, with the opening of the new cross-city Luas line, the green line has gone overnight from being a very reliable to an unpredictable and unreliable commuter service for many of my constituents in Dublin-Rathdown. What short and long-term measures will the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport take to tackle capacity issues, erratic scheduling and the issue of delayed trams which are frustrating commuters daily. The Minister referenced these issues in the House last month as "teething problems," but the problems grow day by day. When will the Minister's infancy period end? The problems seem to be avoidable and signal, as usual, a lack of proper planning and joined-up thinking in the expansion of the green line, which is to be warmly welcomed. I realise the full roll-out of trams with greater capacity is to happen soon, but it will not fix all of the issues with the Luas.
The Luas cross-city project was completed on time and under budget. It is a programme for Government commitment that has been fully honoured. It connects the existing Luas lines, as well as the Luas lines to the Maynooth line at Broombridge, thereby providing lots of travelling options for lots of people. There are evident problems with new signalling equipment, the size of the trams and so on. In the short term there will be changes in signalling, as well as the rerouting of buses and taxis, to ensure Luas trams will pass through College Green more efficiently. Carriages are being lengthened and new ones are on the way and due to arrive in the next few weeks. Given the demand for the new line, it is evident that it will need to be upgraded to metro standard south of Stephen's Green in the medium to longer term.
The education part of the programme for Government has a section entitled, Diversity and Choice for Parents. It states "[w]e need a dynamic and innovative education system that reflects the diversity of Twenty First Century Ireland" which will "[reflect] the need in modern Ireland for new forms of multi-denominational and non-denominational [schools]". What is happening on the ground flies directly in the face of that stated objective. Five Educate Together schools throughout the country, including the Trim Educate Together school in my county of Meath, have been instructed by the Department of Education and Skills to adopt a half-stream only enrolment policy this year which will restrict them to enrolling only 13 students. The Department has tried to deflect by stating a study from five years ago claims there is no demand, but Emma O'Kelly of RTÉ, caught it out this morning on "Morning Ireland" on its misquote. On the impact on existing schools, they exist. The Minister knows that the school in Trim has been operating out of a golf club on Kildalkey Road for the past four years because I raised the issue with him last year. Will the Government back its pledge to have a dynamic and innovative education system and reverse this discriminatory half-stream policy for Educate Together schools?
Page 86 of the programme for Government states "[e]ducation is the key to giving every child an equal opportunity in life". Unfortunately, that is not the case for five Educate Together schools which were recently informed that for the coming enrolment year they must adhere strictly to a half-stream intake of 13 junior infants. I refer especially to Tramore Eduate Together school which has gone from the strength to strength since it opened in 2014 and has applications in respect of 29 infants in 2018 and 28 in 2019. I appeal to the Taoiseach to remove the restriction that there only be a half-stream intake as it does not make sense. The parents who have enrolled their children, many of whom already have siblings in the school, are extremely disappointed and cannot understand why the decision was taken.
In the programme for Government the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, announced a plan to deliver 400 new multidenominational schools. On 30 January 2017 the Minister announced an accelerated plan to deliver these schools. Last week the same story was given by him to the Irish Independentas a new news story. He is bringing back the half-stream school into urban areas. Will it be hedge schools next? For announcements and press releases, he would receive a H1 grade in the leaving certificate examinations. However, for actual delivery on the ground, he would receive a H8 or a no grade as we called it in the past.
Where a school is approved, it is always approved for a certain capacity in terms of its intake. That is to ensure we provide schools in line with the demographic needs of each area and that is always clear when the school is approved.
On the wider issue raised by Deputy Cassells, we have a new patronage model. We are commencing surveys across the country to encourage the live transfer of schools from one patronage to another. These surveys will establish the desire of parents to see such a transfer and it will be operated by the locally supported education training boards, ETBs. This is a new approach to seek to accelerate what has been a very difficult and slow process of transferring from an existing patronage to another one.
The Programme for a Partnership Government states that the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, will fund new investment in infrastructure. In Tyrrelstown in the constituency of Dublin West, which the Taoiseach and I share, there has been a significant deficit and lack of investment over many years. How does the statement in A Programme for a Partnership Government tally with NAMA's approach to Tyrrelstown GAA club where it is trying to formalise a receivership process that will ensure the club will be expelled and removed from its only pitch. How does that tally with a NAMA investment programme and with the Taoiseach's stated ambition for sports clubs? What is he going to do about it?
It does not. That reference in A Programme for a Partnership Government in terms of infrastructure is NAMA funding infrastructure to access sites so that they can be developed. For example, the link road between the N2 and the N3 in the Tyrrelstown and Hollystown areas, with which the Deputy will be familiar, was part funded by NAMA thus allowing that land to be opened up for development. That reference was not planned to be a reference to sports clubs but rather to infrastructure that would allow the land to be developed for much-needed housing and other developments. However, I am aware of the local issue and we are working on it.
It is an ambition of this partnership Government to empower people with disabilities to live independent lives, in other words to taking them out of congregated settings and placing them in decongregated settings. However, no assessment is being done of how this is working. In one instance, a person was given 28 anti-psychotic doses in the month of May when that person should only have gotten four. This person is blind as a result. I want this case investigated. I want the rest of the decongregated settings investigated and assessed to see how they are operating but in this particular case, this man is blind-----
Four severely disabled adults attend Ashfield Lodge in Listowel daily. An application has gone in to provide funding to house these four individuals on a permanent basis. I understand the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is to visit this particular house in Listowel shortly with a view to progressing this. When will the Minister of State be able to visit with a view to progressing this part particular issue?
It is on the same issue. The decongregation of settings and taking apart of centres of excellence since 2011 has resulted in cases like the one that my brother highlighted. It has had a detrimental effect on those who benefitted from being in congregated settings. We have constantly highlighted this matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. While I welcome the fact that he will visit Kerry, these are serious issues and they are having a detrimental effect on the most important person of all, that is, the person who needs care.
I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. The Minister of State will visit Kerry shortly and will have an opportunity to visit those facilities and engage on the issues. I take seriously the point that Deputy Danny Healy-Rae raised about the well-being of an individual in a facility. If he wishes to pass on the details to me, I will look into them.
This is a question to the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, regarding the expert panel report on defective concrete blocks, an issue that affects up to 5,000 homes in Donegal. Will the Minister of State update the House on the progress in implementing the report's recommendations? Given that it has been more than a year since the report was presented to the Government, has there been a Government decision in principle that a remediation scheme will be put in place to help the many families whose homes have continued to deteriorate in the meantime?
As the Deputy knows from the meeting he attended before Christmas, the plan is to have recommendations Nos. 1 and 2 in place by March. We will bring something to the Cabinet in March. We are still on track for that, which the Deputy will be aware of, given that he has been involved in the meetings. At that stage, all the legal and funding questions can be answered and we will be in a position to progress this situation in the months ahead.
Under the heading "Regional Spread of Growth and Jobs" on page 41, the programme for Government reads: "We will implement regional jobs plans, with local input, to help spread growth to all areas. The aim of these strategies will be to encourage agencies and companies to work together and build on the competitive strengths of each region." This week in my constituency of Tipperary, 11 local companies have lost their contracts with the Garda College in Templemore due to the Government's change of policy on tendering. This is just another example of the Government's disregard for rural Ireland and job creation in rural areas. The contracts were vital for the viability of the 11 local companies. The Government's decision is putting all of them in jeopardy.
I am not familiar with those particular contracts, but the way contracts work is they go out to public tender and people can tender for them. Whether the businesses are located in a rural or an urban area, one in the Deputy's home county or one in the next county, they are all free to tender. This is a democracy and this is a free market. That is all I can say about that.
Regarding the wider issue in terms of job creation, I am very pleased that we are now in a situation whereby between 70% and 80% of new jobs being created in Ireland are now being created outside of Dublin, that we are seeing unemployment fall in every county and that employment is increasing in every county. I particularly welcome the announcement today of 350 new well-paid good jobs in County Carlow with MSD.
On page 41 of the programme for Government, there is a commitment "to deliver sustainable full employment." Mention is also made of jobs outside Dublin. In 2015, the Bose factory in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, closed with the loss of 140 jobs. This morning, Carrickmacross has suffered another devastating blow with 31 forced redundancies at Kerry Foods. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, to engage with this situation immediately? The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection could also ensure that everything is done for those workers who are about to lose their jobs in the coming weeks.
My apologies. Regarding the last question, the MSD jobs will be in Swords, but the MSD investment in Carlow is a separate announcement that was just approved by the Government this morning. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will confirm that at a later stage.
Regarding the job losses that Deputy Smyth mentioned, obviously the Government has enormous concern for anyone who is facing redundancy. I certainly will take it up with both Ministers. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, to ensure that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection goes there and advises people as to what their rights are in terms of redundancy, replacement payments and retraining options, and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to work with the local authorities and national agencies to ensure that alternative jobs can be found for those areas.
On page 43 of the programme for Government in the section on rural development the Government promised to implement a regional jobs plan to help to spread growth to all areas, including the islands. The Sherkin Island Development Association has worked with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Dublin Institute of Technology and Cork County Council to co-fund the running of a BA course in the visual arts on Sherkin Island since 2012. It has been hugely successful for the island and created jobs and an economic boom in the off-season. The local authority promised to provide €20,000 each year in partnership with the DIT and the Department, but it is reneging on its promise and will now only give €10,000 which will lead to the collapse of the course. I ask the Taoiseach to personally intervene to save the course for the people of Sherkin Island and surrounding islands as it provides a unique opportunity for them.
The Department is engaging with the group on Sherkin Island, with which I am familiar. When I was on the island, I met the group and it is a great project. As the Deputy pointed out, there was a history and precedent of Cork County Council funding part of the programme. We will continue to consult the island community and need some pathway to a solution. We do not have it, but perhaps the Deputy might influence Cork County Council which could be a way forward.
In Rebuilding Ireland the housing assistance payment, HAP, was lauded as the be-all and end-all that would help to resolve the housing crisis by pushing people into private rented accommodation. Clearly the scheme is not working and one of the reasons it is not working is it is weighted in favour of landlords. Consider a situation where a sitting tenant of five years on a moderate fixed income qualifies for the payment. As a result of the spiralling cost of rent, he or she needs financial support but the landlord refuses to accept the housing assistance payment which he or she also puts in writing. In that case, the landlord has clearly broken the law, but in order for the tenant to get a hearing at the WRC, he or she has to wait at least eight months. Availing of the Residential Tenancies Board offers two options to the tenant. One is telephone mediation which can take about four weeks and with which the landlord is under no obligation to comply. The other option is availling of an adjudication process which can take up to eight weeks and is clearly weighted in favour of the landlord. What immediate protections does the Government intend to introduce in favour of the tenant?
If there is an issue with the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, we will look at it, but there are over 32,000 HAP tenancies that are going quite well. I hear reports week-in, week-out that the scheme does not work. From what we can see, it works very well and most people are happy with it because it gives them a chance to be able to obtain rent assistance while in work. Under previous schemes, people were not able to go back to work to improve their situation. If there are individual cases which are causing difficulty, we are happy to look at them to see what we can do. In general, the HAP scheme works quite well and thousands of people are very happy with it.