Wednesday, 16 May 2018
Questions on Promised Legislation
In the context of the recent CervicalCheck scandal and litigation, the Government has been at pains to point out that it does not wish to take an adversarial approach to victims of State institutions. However, I recently met the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, to discuss the cases of Mr. John Allen and a number of other men from Limerick who had been pursuing the Government for access to the redress scheme in the context of child abuse in primary schools.
These are individuals about whom there is no issue in terms of their having been abused in primary schools. The paedophiles concerned have been convicted by the criminal justice system and are in prison. Louise O'Keeffe had to go the whole way to the European Court of Human Rights to get justice in her case, and I hasten to add, previous Governments of which I was a member were wrong in that respect. We are now on the cusp of John Allen and others having to go back again to the European Court of Human Rights to get access to the redress scheme. They have been to the High Court and the Supreme Court and they have been harassed the whole way by the State and threatened with costs. In the midst of all the justifiable angst all week, meanwhile, parallel to all of that, the UCC legal department and others are assisting these victims of abuse because of a very limited interpretation-----
-----by the Government of the Louise O'Keeffe judgment in terms of prior complaint. Standing back from it the Minister must know this is morally wrong, that we are going to force these men to go all the way to Europe to get clarification on the Louise O'Keeffe decision because of the Government's adversarial approach.
The position is that as a result of the Louise O'Keeffe case and the subsequent ruling the Government set up an ex gratiapayment scheme to make payments to people who were in a similar category to her. People have applied to the scheme and some have been successful while others have been refused. I have appointed an independent assessor, Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill, who will independently assess applications that have been refused and where people appeal. I understand he is currently assessing both the case made to him and by the State as to whether those refusals were validly made. He is assessing that information and we are awaiting his decisions.
The data published this morning by daft.ieshows that more than half of all rental properties in Dublin are being listed as short-term lets. That is something we in Sinn Féin and Deputy Eoin Ó Broin have focused on in particular. We are concerned that professional landlords with multiple listings are misusing the system and using short-term platforms to boost their profits. We know the lack of affordability has been a key driver in pushing up rents in the private rental sector but also in terms of forcing people into homelessness. We also know that the Minister responsible has dragged his heels over introducing legislation on the issue because the working group that was set up by the Department in June 2017 has reported and the report is on the Minister's desk. Last year the Oireachtas committee on housing made a series of recommendations on how to deal with this issue and how to regulate short-term lettings. The Minister has failed to act although the report is sitting on his desk. In that sense he is fuelling the crisis in the rental sector. When will the Minister take action in this regard or will he just turn a blind eye to what is going on and what daft.ie has told us this morning?
Daft.ieis a great platform which I use myself but it has a direct interest in the property sector so we should not elevate its reporting to the same level of what a Government or State agency report might say. We look to the Residential Tenancies Board for reports on what is happening in the rental sector. Daft.ieis only one of many platforms with properties to rent so it does not show the totality of the market.
Airbnb is also a great platform but we do know that we have an issue with Airbnb lettings taking away rental properties in high demand areas from long-term renting and we know we have to manage those issues. We also know that more than 80% of the hosts on Airbnb in Ireland are home sharing. They go away for a week or two or a weekend and they let out their property. That helps them pay for the holiday, pay their bills and cover the mortgage. Airbnb is an important platform as well but it is true to say that we do have to make changes to protect the rental sector from too many properties being lost in high demand sectors to Airbnb. The lack of supply is what is pushing up rents. New protections that we are bringing in for renters is priority legislation for the Government.
The report on Airbnb is not sitting on my desk. It is being finalised at the moment in the Department and we will come forward with the report shortly and the changes we are going to make in relation to Airbnb and what is happening in the rental sector more generally.
I am sure she is. We understand that the commission of investigation into the Grace case was granted a 12 month extension yesterday. It has been under way for a year now under Marjorie Farrelly and was due to submit its phase 1 final report around this time. We understand issues have been identified about possible witnesses and examining all the necessary documents. We also understand concerns have been expressed by victims' families of the highly confrontational and indeed adversarial nature of the commission's work. This is an issue of grave concern that this House debated at some length a year ago. Could the Minister bring us up to speed on exactly where the investigation is at? I accept it is a matter entirely for the independent commission but this House set it up. When is it expected that its first phase of work will be completed?
The Minister will know that there is a group of very vulnerable people who were to be subject to further work once the first phase was completed. There are a lot of concerned individuals who are very anxious that there would be further delay in investigating their treatment. Could I ask the Minister please to update us on exactly the state of play in relation to the Grace commission?
I understand that the sole member, Marjorie Farrelly, SC, requested on 27 April an extension of 12 months to complete phase 1. The request for the extension was on the basis of the enormous volume of documentation disclosed to it from a wide range of public bodies, organisations and individuals and also the number of potential witnesses involved. The commission believes that a further 12 month period would be consistent with the objective of having the investigation for the first phase of its work conducted and the report submitted as expeditiously as possible. The Minister has granted that extension of time for 12 months.
Kenny Tynan is a father of four from Roscommon who has been diagnosed with brain cancer. He is treating his condition with medicinal cannabis. A number of weeks ago the Customs and Excise seized his medication which is prescribed by a doctor in Spain.
Noreen O'Neill is a mother of one from Kerry who has pleaded for the Government to provide access to medicinal cannabis for her son Michael who has been treated with ten anticonvulsant drugs without success. In January she began to administer CBD oil to her son and in the space of three days he became seizure-free. She said CBD oil has done what 13 months of treatment involving ten anticonvulsants has failed to do. Kenny and Noreen are not the only ones in this situation. People in this State have been forced to emigrate, go public, go to the black market and to break the law. Medicinal cannabis, which I have in my hand, is what it is all about. The Government has issued seven licences for the product. For some it is medicine while for others it is illegal.
The law is completely broken on this issue. It is up to the Government to legislate on the issue. If the Government does not legislate it will let down thousands of people that are using this medicine.
It is my understanding that the Minister has made arrangements whereby if a medical consultant indicates that such medication would be appropriate that it will be made available. He has simplified the regime in that regard. He has not made a commitment to introduce new legislation that I know of.
Under the eighth amendment, Article 40.3.3°, I wish to ask the Minister about the referendum. We heard confirmation by French students in Galway university that they had been added to the voting register for the referendum despite being ineligible and despite having made no request to be added to the register of electors.
The Taoiseach made reference to Google and its integrity in the context of the referendum campaign. Will the Government investigate this and find out who illegally and fraudulently registered French citizens who are here on an ERASMUS student programme at NUIG? The integrity of the student programme is being called into question too. Ms Caroline Sourisseau and her friends got polling cards this morning. The integrity of the electoral register and of the forthcoming referendum is being challenged here. Will the Government ask the Referendum Commission to investigate this? What is the Government going to do about it? These students never applied to be included on the register and they are not Irish citizens. At the same time, eligible people cannot get on the register of electors. This is widespread throughout the country and a cabal is organising it. It is just not acceptable.
A number of claims are circulating about people being put on or taken off the register and about polling cards being delivered with certain types of literature but not all of them are true. We have to be careful about fake news being spread around this on social media-----
Alcohol abuse has a hugely negative impact on many aspects of Irish society. It is a very significant factor in our very high rates of mental illness and it also places a huge burden on our health service. It is two and a half years since the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill was first published but the progress of that legislation has been painfully slow and very much dogged by the undue influence of various vested interests. Why is Fine Gael dragging its heels in respect of this much needed legislation? When will it be back before the House?
On page 59 of the programme for Government is a commitment to update the national eye care plan. A report released today by the Association of Optometrists Ireland confirms that the average waiting time for cataract surgery is 28 months and up to five years in areas like west Cork. It is more than two years since the Government promised to tackle the issue. Were it not for the cross-Border directive, the numbers waiting would be much higher. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and myself have sent bus loads of people, most of whom were in their 80s and 90s, to Belfast for cataract surgery. Children are also waiting up to 15 months for an appointment. It is nothing short of scandalous the way patients, many of whom are elderly, are being treated. I have raised this time and again in the Chamber but to no avail. It is Belfast or blind. Will the Government treat this issue with the urgency it requires and arrange for cataract surgery to be carried out in Bantry or Mallow general hospitals to reduce the waiting lists in the Munster area?
I am glad the Labour Party is now waking up to this problem but it was in power with Fine Gael for five years. People are going blind and have gone blind on this and the previous Government's watch because of delays in being treated for cataracts. The aforementioned survey refers to waiting times of between 28 months and five years but there are people in Kerry and west Cork who have been waiting even longer. I know of one man who was waiting for seven years for surgery. His grandfather had a cataract removed in 1968 in Tralee Hospital. This country is going backwards. The Government is failing these people who are going blind. Myself and Deputy Michael Collins have arranged for several buses to travel to Belfast and we have more buses ready to go. They will be going for all of this year. Whatever the Government is claiming it is doing is failing because people are not getting called to have their cataracts removed.
The National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, will be providing 20,000 procedures this year, 5,000 of which will be cataract operations. One quarter of all of the work funded by the NTPF will be devoted to cataract surgery. The number of patients waiting more than nine months is 2,800 so the NTPF will be providing procedures for more than double the number of those waiting beyond the target period.
This morning a damning report was published by the British Houses of Parliament on the collapse of the Carillion company, leaving debts of over £9 billion. Carillion has significant contracts in the schools system in Ireland, including school buildings in Wexford, Wicklow, Meath and Carlow which are actually finished. Is the Minister going to make arrangements so that the school community in Loreto in Wexford, for example, can enter the finished property? Teachers had already put their equipment in but it has now been taken out again. It now appears that the school community may have to wait another year while the Department of Education and Skills remains lost in a fog and is unable to act. At the height of the Celtic tiger-----
Even when the Celtic tiger was beginning to collapse, the then Taoiseach Brian Cowen could make arrangements to allow school communities to occupy properties but that seems to be impossible on this Government's watch.
I am aware of the report by the British Parliament relating to the audit companies involved with Carrillion in the UK and obviously we will study that with interest. In terms of the individual schools, it remains the case that the Dutch Infrastructure Fund, DIF, which is the remaining partner in the consortium that is delivering these PPP projects has an obligation to hand over the schools in completed form before it will receive any payment. Under the PPP contract, DIF is obliged to do that. It does not fall to the State to complete projects for which the liability under the PPP contract falls to DIF. We must respect that contract because to do otherwise would be to undermine the position of the State. DIF has a responsibility to deliver these schools. It has spent a lot of money getting to this point but it needs to complete the projects before receiving payment from the State. We are very actively working, through the National Development Finance Agency, NDFA, with the schools and with DIF to try and secure that outcome.
A report was published in 2000 into the presence and influence of lead in the Silvermines area in County Tipperary. In January 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, had concluded that the Gortmore tailings pond site represented a perpetual risk to human health and the environment. The then Department of Environment and Local Government spent a considerable amount of money remediating the tailings pond without acquiring ownership of the site. Unfortunately, activity now taking place on the site is undoing all of the work that was done in the past by the Department. Locals are extremely concerned. They have suffered for many years because of the presence of lead in the area. What plans does the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment have to bring this situation to a satisfactory conclusion by taking ownership of the tailings pond and making it safe and healthy?
A spotlight has been shone on the HSE in recent weeks, and rightly so, in the context of the appalling CervicalCheck scandal. There are many other problematic areas within the HSE and it is vitally important that public representatives and ordinary citizens have the opportunity to scrutinise the work of the executive as outlined in its quarterly reports. Why is it that the most up to date quarterly report for the HSE was published last September? We should have had two further reports since then. I also want to know why the long awaited operational plans for mental health, disability and older people have not yet been published.
The programme for Government includes commitments with regard to job creation. The Minister and his Government colleagues are aware of what has happened with the proposed €850 million Apple project in Athenry because of the planning process. That project could have had positive knock-on effects for our country, but instead it has been pulled out of Ireland. Surely the Government will have to look at the question of objections to planning permissions. We appreciate that people have the right to object, but in this case a couple of people have been able to stop a project that was going to involve an investment of €850 million. This will have knock-on effects on contractors and everybody who would have worked on the project. It would have brought money into the local area, but now it is gone. Another project that was started in another country at the same time is now up and running. That is symbolic of what is happening with the planning process here. I ask the Government to ensure shambolic episodes of this nature are never again allowed to happen in this country. We have to do something about this.
The failure here was not a failure of the planning process. I recognise that improvements have to be made. That is why the planning Bill that is currently going through the Houses categorises things like data centres as part of our strategic infrastructure and allows them to go directly to An Bord Pleanála. We have seen from Mr. Justice Peter Kelly, who is the president of the High Court, that strategic infrastructure projects are under the new accelerated judicial review process. The judicial review process for planning applications will be improved in a second planning Bill that is to be introduced later this year. The Bill in question will streamline the timing around such applications and make sure someone who is making an objection has a significant interest in that infrastructure. It will ensure all the things that are a part of this process, including preliminary hearings, can be shortened and can happen more quickly. This is necessary to avoid unnecessary delays or interference in good plans that will deliver jobs and employment to all parts of our country.
I wish to ask the Minister about capitation rates in the context of page 90 of the programme for Government, which contains a commitment to "set out capitation rates to schools on a rolling 3-year basis". I recently visited two DEIS schools in my local area, both of which have just over 200 pupils and therefore receive annual capitation fees of approximately €35,000. This is the only funding that is available for each school's operational budget, from which the cost of lighting, heating, insurance and cleaning, etc., has to be deducted. As both of these DEIS schools are located in areas of significant economic disadvantage, they do not have the capacity to raise funds to meet the significant deficits at which they are running. Will the Government, in the context of the three-year rolling capitation fee it intends to set out, review the adequacy of the capitation fee, particularly in DEIS schools? Will it consider an enhanced fee for such schools?
The programme for Government and the confidence and supply agreement both contain a commitment to provide additional capitation funding. When this Government was examining its priorities during the preparation of its first two budgets, it prioritised reducing the pupil-teacher ratio, enhancing the DEIS scheme, expanding the number of schools involved in the scheme and providing support to children with special educational needs. We have put almost 6,000 additional teachers into the system. We have been seeking to meet the most urgent needs. I fully recognise the pressure that schools are experiencing for reasons of capitation. We will assess this matter as we approach the 2019 budget.
Page 53 of the programme for Government deals with health, for which a significant budget of €15 billion is provided. As we all know, waiting lists are a huge challenge. The Minister for Health recently provided me with figures relating to the orthopaedic waiting list at University Hospital Galway. Over 6,000 people are now on the inpatient and outpatient waiting lists, which are spiralling totally out of control. Some people have been waiting four years for an outpatient appointment. Many of these people are suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, which is an extremely painful experience, as the Minister and many other Members of this House will be aware. I do not expect the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to be able to give me a full answer. I would like him to ask the Minister for Health or the Taoiseach, with whom I have raised this issue previously, to intervene to do something for the many people who are suffering horrific pain. This problem is spiralling out of control. We need to tackle it.
I know the Minister is very conscious of the need to tackle waiting lists. It is worth mentioning that 7,000 people, including 5,000 elective patients, are treated in our hospitals every working day and are therefore having their pain and concern relieved. Of course there is always increasing pressure to provide more services. Technology is delivering new procedures. The Minister has increased the number of procedures by more than 20% in recent years. Additional procedures are being delivered through a health service that is smaller than it once was. This is a priority. As a result of the initiative I have mentioned, the National Treatment Purchase Fund will this year provide specific care to 20,000 people who have been waiting for a long time.
Once again, I feel compelled to raise the matter of the CervicalCheck helpline. Last week, I asked the Taoiseach whether the Government was satisfied with the response rates and staffing levels and whether calls were being answered as a matter of priority. Like Deputies on the Government side, Members on this side of the House are being contacted in all our constituency offices by people who are still waiting to be called back. I understand that it takes a while to get people's medical history and have the right information for them when they are called back. Some people are distressed and upset because they have waited eight or nine days to be called back. We are three weeks in and people are still very distressed. Does the Government intend to provide more staff to cope with the number of calls being made to the call centre?
I am aware of the considerable level of demand for the helpline. I understand that it has received 18,000 calls and that 10,500 women have asked to be called back. As the Deputy has recognised, a process has to be followed when checking records and data quality and assigning calls to the appropriate health professionals. To date, 7,103 women have been called back. Considerable progress is being made every day in responding to those who have called the helpline. This process is being managed closely with the hospital groups to ensure people are called back as quickly as possible. A big effort is being made to ensure not only that people are called back promptly, but also that the appropriate person calls back with the right information. I will draw the Deputy's concern to the attention of the Minister. Those involved with the helpline seem to be dealing with a significant level of demand. They are getting through all cases systematically.
My question relates to promised legislation. The Dáil ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on 7 March last. It is an important element of any international agreement that those who do not receive proper treatment by the State under the agreement have a system of recourse at international level. The Government has failed to ratify the optional protocol to the UN convention, which provides a means of ensuring the rights set out in the convention are affirmed and provided for. It is important for this to be done in tandem with the promised confirmation that the convention itself has been ratified. There has been a failure to ratify the protocol. There are 11,393 people with disabilities in County Laois and 11,154 people with disabilities in County Offaly, to mention just two of the 26 counties in this State. We need legislation to ensure the optional protocol provides redress and recourse to those people who feel failed under the current system. When will such legislation be introduced and enacted? When will the Government ensure people with disabilities enjoy full rights?
I understand that a monitoring framework for the convention is being put in place. It will include the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the National Disability Authority. The Act was designed to ensure they will meet the standard of independence. That is being guaranteed. I understand the optional protocol referred to by the Deputy is not being ratified at this time, but will be ratified as soon as possible following the completion of Ireland's first reporting cycle.
For the past four years the special needs assistant allocations were published in July, which meant that hundreds of special needs assistants finished the school year without knowing whether they would have a job or an income the following September. Last year special needs assistants called off industrial action purely on the basis that the Minister and his Department had given a firm commitment that the allocation figures would be published much earlier this year. We are now halfway through the month of May. Will the Minister confirm when he or his Department will publish the special needs assistant allocation figures for this year?
I made an undertaking. We changed the way the budgetary arrangements were made. Previously, Ministers had to go back to the Cabinet to seek an additional budgetary allocation. That was recognised by us and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform as a very unsatisfactory way in which to plan. We made budgetary provision for this year and I expect to announce the allocations within days.
My question is for the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. Two weeks ago the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, through the OPW, launched a major multi-million euro flood relief programme, which is to be welcomed. However, I want to take the Minister back a step. In Fermoy we have the weir and the fish pass. Somehow or other the town council in Fermoy got possession of them from the OPW a number of years ago. We have had the dissolution of the town council, as a result of which Cork County Council inherited a red herring and a multi-million euro debt.
We cannot get the fish pass and the weir fixed because of a money issue. I, therefore, ask the Minister to give the project some priority. We acknowledge the great flood relief works that have been done, but they are jeopardising the amenities and sports and recreational facilities in Fermoy and on the River Blackwater. If we lose the weir and the fish pass, it will cause untold damage.