Wednesday, 23 May 2018
Questions on Promised Legislation
The programme for Government contains many commitments on public sector reform. Given today's reports about the retirement cliff in the Civil Service there are genuine concerns over the skill mix and the expertise that will be lost in coming years. The Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants has published some staggering statistics. Some 40% of those in management positions are aged 55 and over and therefore within ten years of retirement, 33% of assistant principal officers are in the same age bracket and a further 32% of the higher executive officers. That has the potential to cause very serious imbalance. Does the Government have any plan to deal with the issues of the impact the retirement cliff will have on the quality of public services? How does the Government intend to address this?
In the coming weeks the Government intends to introduce legislation to change the retirement age for people working in the public service. We have an interim arrangement in place in advance of that legislation coming in to give people, who choose to do so, the opportunity to work longer. I expect we will publish that legislation in the coming weeks. I hope we will be able to move that through the Oireachtas in the subsequent weeks.
Yesterday a Dublin mother, Jackie Fox, made a presentation to Oireachtas Members in the AV room. She told Members of the campaign of physical and online bullying that led her daughter, Nicole, to take her own life. I was not in attendance for the briefing because I was in the Chamber, but it was very well attended. Those in attendance heard Jackie make one request. She asked that the law be updated to ensure the Garda would be able to prosecute those who cause harm or self-harm through online bullying. Specifically she called on Oireachtas Members to amend section 5 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 to include the crime of digital harassment. This proposal was a key recommendation from an Oireachtas committee report on cybersafety for children and young adults published in March this year. Does the Government intend to introduce legislation to provide justice for those suffering from digital harassment and for parents like Jackie Fox?
Like the Deputy, I was not able to attend that presentation, but Deputy Neville attended and is preparing a report on it for me, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten. We had a conference on the issue a few weeks ago, led by the Minister, Deputy Naughten. I acknowledge that the issue of online bullying is very real and of enormous concern to parents across the country. The Government intends to produce a package of measures to deal with the issues and we will do so before the recess. I cannot outline the exact content of it because it is not agreed, but we will certainly take into account all the suggestions that are made.
The Minister for Justice and Equality has informed us that the Labour Party's Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 to deal with cyberbullying has been accepted by Government and is progressing. I hope it can be enacted this year.
When the UK exits the European Union, 73 European Parliament seats will become vacant. A total of 27 of those seats are to be redistributed among 14 member states and 46 are to be held in reserve. I understand that plans were agreed on 7 February that Ireland would be allocated two additional European Parliament seats at the elections next year and that this is to be confirmed at the June European Council. Obviously, as much preparation as possible needs to be put in place.
When will a new constituency commission be established so that we can have the shape of it? I ask that the commission be established in advance of the June Council so that it is in a position to receive submissions once we know the shape of the new boundaries, allowing for as much time in advance for people to prepare for what might be a redrawing of constituencies.
I have looked into this matter. As there are legal issues, the sequencing will be as follows. The European Council will take a decision at the end of June to assign an additional two seats to Ireland. Assuming that happens in June - I have no reason to believe it will not - we will then set up the constituency commission immediately afterwards with a view to reporting on the new constituency boundaries by September. We believe it can be done very quickly. It is not that complicated and, as the Deputy knows, there are only a few options. We will do that as quickly as possible, but for legal reasons we cannot set up the commission until the decision is actually made.
I wish to ask about the implementation of the Sláintecare report. In the Joint Committee on Health this morning and as reported on the front of The Times, Ireland edition the president of the Academy of Clinical Science and Laboratory Medicine has said that cost was the main reason the testing of cervical smears was outsourced to American labs. It gives an insight into how the Government was not only trying to provide services on the cheap, but also how the services here had been run down and nobbled in their attempt to tender for the contracts. She said the Irish labs as part of the cost of their tender had to include pension costs on top of service costs, for example. It was said at the committee that the American labs, being aware of discussions in 2008 to outsource, had offered prices as a loss leader, basically to win the contract and put themselves in the driving seat. Will the Government commit to providing funding for the development and growth of Irish labs to hire and train properly qualified staff so that these services can be brought inhouse and not outsourced to the lowest bidder?
That decision was made back in 2008. I think I had only been a Member of the Dáil for one year at that stage and was not in government. The Minister, Deputy Harris, was not even a Member of the Dáil. The people who were making decisions at the time have told me it was not down to cost; it was down to capacity and the fact that Irish labs were not accredited. Obviously that is something that the Scally inquiry will examine. It is important that the Scally inquiry examines all those issues because there is a genuine concern that overseas labs are used for these tests.
An opportunity arises, as we introduce the new primary HPV test, to bring these screening tests back to Ireland. Some 50% have already been brought back to Ireland and in principle the Government would like to bring them all back to Ireland. However, that cannot be done overnight. It would have to be done over a phased period. The opportunity arises to do that now.
We need to allow Dr. Scally to do his work in this regard. Patients who seek the best cancer care in the world go to places like Sloan Kettering, the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins in America. Doctors seeking the best training in the world go to American hospitals. They use American labs. We should not just assume somehow that American labs are inferior to Irish ones unless we have data to show that.
While I do not know about any contracts back in 2008, when it comes to the current contract, the American lab that is being used currently is not cheaper than the Irish labs.
I wish to ask about the Bill being debated last night that fell in disarray. With the new coalition we appear to have this morning and also the question of the broadcasting Act, the Government is using the airtime unfairly. All the party leaders are begging, literally grovelling, to make people vote "Yes".
This is despicable. It is a new coalition. Why could we let Bills fall, as happened last night-----
It is promised legislation. I have asked the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, on three occasions about interference. The Taoiseach actually welcomed the fact that 150,000 have been registered. I implore everyone to vote but I have emails from people all over the country who have been registered in Dublin when they have registered in Mayo, Cork and different places and they did not ask to be registered here. There were French students, as I said yesterday, and I had Majella on to me this morning from Mayo. She was registered in Mayo, and I have confirmation of that, and she is now registered in Dublin, without asking or inquiring. There are irregularities. It is illegal, putting people on, but the Minister just smiles. I have written twice to him and he has not responded. The integrity of the whole system will be called into question.
I thank the Deputy for the question. We have responsibilities, as Deputies in this House, not to try to undermine the integrity of our electoral process, which is very robust. Getting onto the register of electors is not a simple process and requires a number of steps, including verification from the Garda Síochána. I received the Deputy's letter. I am aware of one incident in regard to one student who was registered to vote when that person should not have been. That does not mean that person is entitled to vote; they are two different things. If the Deputy has evidence of other such cases, he should please bring them to my attention directly-----
Is it possible to schedule the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill on its own next week in order that the legislation, which has been debated for eight or nine hours, is dealt with expeditiously? I know of the Taoiseach's record of interest in road safety matters during his time as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.
That is a matter for the Business Committee but I do think one reaches a certain point at which the value of additional debate starts to run out. I hope the Business Committee will give consideration to invoking the necessary measures to allow that Bill to be brought to conclusion.
In the programme for Government, when dealing with education, at page 87 a commitment is given to tackle disadvantage and make third level education available to those on lower incomes. I am currently dealing with a constituent who receives monthly family income supplement, which means, in other words, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection recognises the family needs a supplementary payment in order to meet a minimum standard of living. The same family applied for a SUSI grant for their eldest child, who is hopefully going to third level in September, and they were refused on income grounds. It is appropriate that the Ministers, Deputies Regina Doherty and Bruton, are both in the Chamber. If an anomaly exists where one Department of the State sees the situation merits giving a payment to reach a minimum standard of living, and another Department of the State does not see it as appropriate that this family should receive a grant to educate their child, there must be something radically wrong. I ask that this be addressed.
The position is that the means tests that are applied in the case of the different rates of grants under SUSI are separate from social welfare means tests, so different means tests are being applied. I am aware of some difficulties that have arisen with the highest rate of grant where there is an income threshold and also a social welfare eligibility requirement. The SUSI grants are being reviewed at present and I am aware of the problem to which the Deputy refers. As things stand, there is no solution but we are reviewing the grants scheme.
The programme for Government, when dealing with tourism, on page 47 states: "We will work towards achieving the ambitious tourism policy goals set for 2025." In a beautiful area of west Cork, Castlefreke, near Rosscarbery, there is a vibrant community that has promoted tourism for many years. As the Taoiseach is probably aware, the community has been a top award winner in the national Tidy Towns competition and it promotes the area in many ways, including by providing stunning walkways through local Coillte lands. Now, however, the community has become aware that these lands may be offered for sale to a private individual, which would put public access to these walks at risk. I might add that the area has attracted walkers from all over the globe. It may also affect access to a local graveyard where locals have been buried for hundreds of years. Fáilte Ireland, Cork County Council, Leader and the EPA have funded grants for these walks down through the years. Tomorrow night the public of Castlefreke, Clonakilty, Rosscarbery and surrounding areas will hold a public meeting to save these walks. I call on the Taoiseach to request that Coillte keeps Castlefreke woods in public ownership.
I am afraid I do not have information to hand on that matter but I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, to provide an update to the Deputy by correspondence.
I wish to again raise the lack of funding and staff to provide an adequate home help service in Kerry, which has been promised. I have raised this issue since I came into this House over two years ago. All that people are getting when they reach 80 or 85 years of age is five hours a week. Is this fair? There are 168 hours in the week and to be given just five hours a week is miserly. They get no home help on Saturdays, Sundays or bank holidays. I do not think the Taoiseach is listening to us at all when we raise this issue. It is not fair. People can get into nursing homes but that is not where elderly people want to finish up. They would like to stay as long as possible in their homes. I ask the Government to make more funding available to the home help service and to provide more staff.
It is part of what we see here today. The Taoiseach and the Government have little regard for small babies and I suppose they have less for elderly people. That is what is wrong and it is why people are not getting the satisfaction or getting the due regard they are entitled to.
The Taoiseach is aware the programme for Government states that not only is there to be adequate home help for people, but there is also to be home help at weekends. Because of lack of investment by the Government, not only is there not an adequate service on the five days during the week, but it is non-existent on Saturdays and Sundays. Many families are completely unable to provide that level of help at weekends and they need assistance. It is not the fault of the people giving the home help that the resources are not being given to them. I call on the Taoiseach to honour the promise and commitment in the programme for Government, which clearly states that adequate home help, where it is needed, will be provided. That is not happening at present. It is disgraceful to deal with our elderly people in this way. The cheapest place to keep an older person is in his or her own home. It is where older people want to be, if they are able to be there, and they should be assisted in every way.
We have raised this matter before. At the end of February there were 52,000 people in receipt of home support services but there were 6,000 people waiting for those services. These are people who are in hospital or who might have come home and who have been approved and it is causing considerable difficulties. I acknowledge the 52,000 figure is up on last year but my point is that the resources available are inadequate to meet the need. It is not just a problem in Kerry. All of us around the country are experiencing the same difficulty, in that the HSE is approving home support services but is not in a position to facilitate them. When this has been raised before, the Taoiseach comes back and says the allocation has been increased from last year. However, the allocation increase on last year is grossly insufficient to meet the current need.
There is a specific commitment in the programme for Government to "introduce a uniform homecare service so all recipients can receive a quality support, 7 days per week". As Deputy Curran said, it is meaningless to say, as the programme for Government does, that the Government is going to increase the funding every year because the numbers are running ahead of the funding and the situation is getting progressively worse. When are we going to reach this nirvana where we will have a uniform home care service and where people will receive quality support, seven days a week?
As Deputies have acknowledged, funding for home help has increased and is increasing, year on year. However, I also acknowledge that the demand is increasing and that demand currently exceeds supply, both financially and, sometimes, when it comes to finding staff to provide the service, even when the finance is available.
Our plan of action is to develop a fair deal-type scheme for home help. As one of the Deputies acknowledged, it is sometimes easier for people to get a nursing home place now than to get home help. That is an enormous anomaly and an inefficiency. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, is now advancing work on developing a fair deal-type scheme for home help. It will not be the fair deal scheme but it will give people a guarantee of home help within four or five weeks, as is the case with fair deal.
In connection with page 41 of the programme for Government, on rural development, and page 121 relating to climate change, will the Minister consider a campaign of awareness in respect of civic amenities and recycling centres, such as those in Kilmallock, Castlewest, Mungret and Rhebogue in County Limerick? The ongoing problem of littering in rural Ireland continues and we need to tackle it as best we can. Team Limerick Clean-up, TLC, operates every Good Friday in Limerick in conjunction with the J.P. McManus foundation and Limerick City & County Council and I would like to see it rolled out across the country and become a Government initiative. We are trying to protect rural Ireland and we do not want litter to be the ongoing blight which it currently is.
Deputy Neville offers a very good argument and makes a compelling case. I will make sure the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, is aware of it and replies to the Deputy.
Yesterday in the House, the Taoiseach said, "I heard yesterday, on, I think, the "Six One News", Deputy Ó Cuív ... say we could somehow decriminalise the abortion pill or decriminalise women who seek abortions". I said neither of those things and I hope the Taoiseach will withdraw the allegation. He went on to say that I suggested we could reduce the penalty for women who have abortions from 14 years in prison. I did say that. In the Dáil yesterday, the Taoiseach stated that it is not possible. It is, of course, possible to change, by means of ordinary legislation, the criminal penalty relating to an offence under the Constitution. I will give two examples of this. Article 40.6.1 of the Constitution requires a criminal penalty in accordance with the law of blasphemy but the Defamation Act 2009 requires only a fine, not a prison term, for that offence. The Minister for Justice and Equality at the time that legislation was introduced, Dermot Ahern, said prosecutions were unlikely to result.
In the context of the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006, the then Minister, Senator Michael McDowell, reduced the offence for infanticide to manslaughter, which can carry a very short prison sentence, much lower than the sentence for the previous charge of murder. Using the logic of Senator McDowell's amendment in 2006, when he said reducing the penalty was about modernising the law-----
-----we could look at doing the same thing for abortion. Can the Taoiseach confirm that a person going to a doctor and suffering from the after effects of taking the abortion pill would be protected by the doctor-patient relationship in terms of confidentiality? This has been confirmed by the chair of the Referendum Commission so I ask the Taoiseach to stop frightening women off seeking medical aid if they need it, under threat of prosecution which he, as a doctor, knows will not and cannot happen.
I thought I heard the Deputy say yesterday that he would be in favour of decriminalising abortion pills. If that is not what he said, I am happy to acknowledge that it is not his view and to stand corrected.
I just did so. I accept that the Deputy did not say he would be in favour of decriminalising abortion pills. If there is a "No" vote on Friday, it will still be a criminal offence. I find it bizarre, however, that the Deputy believes this should be a criminal offence that is not enforced. Why would one keep something as a crime if one does not think it should be enforced? I find that unusual. While it may be the case that the doctor-patient relationship covers confidentiality, it would not prevent somebody else making a complaint to the police, which is exactly what happened in Northern Ireland. In that case, a housemate made a complaint against another housemate but that is not covered.
The penalty of 14 years was examined by both the current and previous Attorneys General. I will explain why it is 14 years. The eighth amendment states that the right to life of the unborn, even at one week's gestation, is equal to the right to life of a pregnant woman. Therefore, the penalty has to be the same. The penalty for having an abortion has to be equal to the penalty for killing a pregnant woman, which is not infanticide because, of course, infants do not get pregnant. The penalty has to be at the level of homicide or manslaughter. The penalty in that regard is, by the way, up to 14 years.
It is stated on page 48 of the programme for Government that social welfare payments at post offices will continue to be encouraged. Just last week, the Irish Postmasters Union called for a long-term commitment that these payments will continue to be transacted through our post offices. It also called for a timeline for new services under the investment plan for post offices to be made available as soon as possible. Will the Taoiseach give a long-term commitment that social welfare payments will continue to be transacted through our post offices? Will he intervene with An Post to ensure a detailed plan and a timeline for the new services to be made available in our post offices are put into the public domain as soon as possible? We must do all we can to protect all our post offices. They play a vital role in our communities and feed into the economic activity in our towns and villages. It is vital that every step is taken to protect them and I call on the Taoiseach and the Government to do just that.
I totally agree. We absolutely are making sure that we invest in our post office network. There has been a major transformation in the company's public finances in the past year since the new management has come in and started to manage change within the network. The commitment of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection involves a very substantial annual contract, which was awarded and signed only recently, on the basis of continuing payments for people who want to receive their weekly social welfare payment through the post office. My colleague has a plan to ensure we look at other options available across Government so that we can use the post office network to its fullest extent.
I know I am divine. The compliments are flying today.
There is a recognition in the programme for Government of the great work carers do in our society. As part of this, one of the things proposed is that carers, as a matter of entitlement and without means testing, would get the doctor only visit card. It has been reiterated a number of times in this House but it has not yet come forward. What is the timeframe for this to happen?
The commitment does not quite extend to all carers but to anyone in receipt of carers allowance, carers benefit or half-carers allowance. It was announced in the budget and requires primary legislation, which we expect to have before the recess so that we can implement it in the autumn.
The programme for Government contains many fine things about insurance and insurance costs. A report on the progress being made by the Government to reduce insurance was sneaked out two or three weeks ago, at the height of a political storm, and the Minister is travelling to different parts of the country telling people what steps have been taken to reduce costs. To my mind, nothing at all is happening in relation to the costs of insurance. Businesses are being crucified by the cost of insurance and there have been many debates in the House on the matter. Does the Taoiseach accept that no progress is being made on the costs of insurance for businesses, homeowners or motorists?
What steps is the Government going to take to try to bring meaningful progress on reducing the cost of insurance?
The Minister of State, Deputy Michael D'Arcy, is meeting various stakeholders across the country. He updating them on progress being made to reform insurance and deal with the cost of insurance. It is not true to say that no progress has been made. It is fair to say that some of the more complex matters that require progress are being dealt with by the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy. He is planning to provide an update in the near future on further actions he intends to take.