Wednesday, 13 June 2018
Questions on Promised Legislation
Regarding the issue of open disclosure, which was at the heart of the CervicalCheck scandal, the Civil Liability (Amendment) Act was passed in 2017. Part 4 of the Act concerned the facilitation of full open disclosure by medical personnel in our hospitals and in our health service generally. The Act has not yet been commenced. It is a very poor reflection on the Government that we pass legislation and the delay in then commencing the relevant legislation means very little happens. Will the Taoiseach indicate to me when he expects Part 4 of the Civil Liability (Amendment) Act to be commenced and also when the patient safety Bill will be brought before the House?
Section 4 of the Civil Liability (Amendment) Act, which was just passed last November, is due to be commenced this month, in June. I will have to check with the Minister for Justice and Equality if it is still on schedule but I have not heard otherwise. It is necessary to do more than pass laws. Open disclosure requires guidelines for staff and training. This is why a commencement order was put on it. One of the many things we have learned from the CervicalCheck controversy is that it is not as simple as policies and laws. A process of open disclosure was embarked on very slowly in respect of CervicalCheck but was mishandled. It was not clear who was to do the telling, for example. The information was passed on to clinicians. One quarter passed it on to the patients; three quarters did not. This one example shows why we need to do much more than just pass new laws; we actually need to train staff and have very clear guidelines as to who is supposed to do what and when.
The Taoiseach should show leadership and not shout across the Chamber. If he is ready, I wish to make my contribution.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to build further capacity in child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. Yesterday, the annual report of the Ombudsman for Children was published. It showed there was a shocking shortage of staffing, and the impact on children and young people in the service is highlighted. In my constituency of Waterford, I have met a number of families in recent times who have seen their young children placed in adult psychiatric wards because we do not have the facilities in the region. The report highlights in particular the lack of CAMHS consultants who provide out-of-hours cover in ten HSE community healthcare organisation, CHO, areas, the south east being one. This is absolutely shocking. The Taoiseach's Government, in its programme for Government, committed to increase capacity, yet we have a report from the Ombudsman that says the opposite is happening.
The programme for Government commits to improve our mental health services and increase capacity in this area. The mental health budget now stands at over €900 million, up €200 million since 2011. The current focus when it comes to child and adult mental health services is on two things. First is the recruitment of 114 assistant psychologists and 22 staff psychologists for primary care services. As it stands, 111 of the 114 have been recruited and are in place as well as 20 of the 22 staff places, so we are doing well on recruitment in that area. Second is the extension of seven-days-a-week services. They already exist in some parts of the country but it is intended to extend them to all parts of the country this year.
The programme for Government includes commitments on funding for the higher education sector, but we have not seen any comprehensive funding plan yet. The Coalition for Publicly Funded Higher Education has today published its own survey which shows that 90% of people want increased investment in higher education. Last week, we saw the continued fall in the international rankings of Irish universities. The Cassells report has been published but we have no funding plan for the sector yet outlined by Government. The Coalition for Publicly Funded Higher Education has today called for €199 million in next year's budget. The Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, told the student leader of DCU that student loans were off the table. Are student loans off the table? When will the Government outline a clear long-term plan for funding higher education in the State and commit the required funding over time?
As the Deputy knows, in the last budget we expanded the Exchequer provision by €50 million. We also provided an additional €50 million from the National Training Fund, and in future years we will increase the fund, trebling that amount over the next three years. In addition, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has provided a trebling of our capital budget for higher education over the next four years and, in the context of the longer ten-year period, has provided €2.2 billion, compared with a €100 million provision for a four-year period that was there before that. Therefore, very substantial increased investment is being provided in the higher and further education area.
Student loans were an issue that was part of the Cassells report. We have acted on the other two areas. It was referred to the Oireachtas committee. The Oireachtas committee earlier this year asked our Department to do further economic evaluation of this, and that is being done.
President Michael D. Higgins recently addressed the International Labour Organization in Geneva and remarked that it was the first international organisation that the Free State joined post-Independence, the implication being a deep-seated commitment to workers' rights that, unfortunately, was not reflected in the actions of the Free State at home, which repressed workers engaged in struggles. Does the Government plan to transpose Article 2 of Convention 98 of the ILO into Irish law? Specifically, I refer to the following: "Acts which are designed to promote the establishment of workers' organisation under the domination of employers or employers' organisations...shall be deemed to constitute acts of interference."
I raise this in the context of the impending strike tomorrow, organised by members of Mandate at Lloyds Pharmacy, which I and my colleagues fully support. As well as the issues of pay, sick pay and zero-hour contracts, a worrying dimension of the dispute is the bogus company union, funded by the employer, in direct contravention of the aforementioned article.
I will have to come back to the Deputy on that matter. We already have an industrial relations Act which provides for the recognition of unions in various circumstances. As I am not sure about the particular aspect of the convention to which the Deputy referred, I will reply to the Deputy by correspondence.
We are all well aware about what has happened with the Sammon Group and Carillion Group in the UK, and the devastation this has caused to schools in places such as Kells, Bray and Wexford. Behind that story, there are families. One such family company is that of Bobby O'Farrell & Sons, established in Thurles in 1989, and dozens of other small companies, often family-owned, which worked as subcontractors and are not being paid. They are owed huge sums of money, which leaves them unable to pay their suppliers. These are excellent trading companies that employ people, in this case since 1989, and there are many such other companies in Tipperary.
We spent years here trying to have the Construction Contracts Act introduced but has it been enacted at all or does it offer any protection for subcontractors? They are the backbone of our economy. They pay the bills and employ people locally and they are the ones that deliver the projects. These big companies could never deliver the projects without the support of these small companies in Tipperary and all over the country.
It is very unfortunate that as a result of the collapse of the Sammon Group, 200 employees, and their families, have been impacted, as well as a number of subcontractors. It is a very serious fallout for those individuals. I have personally expressed my sympathy with them. We have 11 projects which we must now proceed to finish. Some are under the Dutch Infrastructure Fund, DIF, which has the responsibility for retendering. That is at a very advanced stage. In respect of our own school projects, we are drawing up the schedule of costs and will retender.
On the protections that have come into those school contracts, they are effective in that they have given subcontractors more rights but they are not 100% foolproof. They provide for more regular payments and they provide rights for the subcontractor to stop or block the contract. Those provisions are effective in giving more protections but as we have seen, they are not 100% effective where a company goes into liquidation.
On the Scally report, most parties agreed to the scoping inquiry model on the grounds that this was likely to be the fastest way of getting to the facts of the situation. People want the facts relating to the cytology labs, information related to matters such as the tendering process, the nature of the contracts, the accuracy rates and whether one laboratory might have a higher than average rate of false negatives. Those basic facts from which everything else flows need to be put into the public arena The Taoiseach himself drew a distinction between what he called negligent and innocent false negatives. That is a very important point in respect of how we proceed.
It is worrying that the report published yesterday talks about that area as being in the fourth module of the exercise which Dr. Scally is undertaking. Surely that information should be produced first because in its absence, the women affected are left in the dark. They do not know whether their case is as the result of negligence or not. Will the Taoiseach consider discussing that with Dr. Scally and seeking that factual information and the data to be made available as early as possible?
It is important that we have those data as soon as possible because they are at the crux of several issues. The two key issues are those of open disclosure and why that did not happen properly and whether the laboratories were up to standard. We need answers to both of those questions and I am keen that we have them as soon as possible. It is one of the modules under the Scally inquiry. Dr. Scally says he can complete that by the end of the summer and as soon as it is available it will be provided.
However, it is important to bear in mind that there is a separate piece of work being done by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the British Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology. They are looking at every individual smear test, each slide of the women affected, to try to determine where abnormalities were missed and whether they were abnormalities that should not have been missed and whether they were negligent or innocent errors. They are saying that this is a big job. We had hoped it could be done within a few weeks but they are telling us it will take a few months. They are the experts, the cytologists and pathologists who know how to do this, and they are saying that it will be a bigger job than anticipated.
Is it not a characteristic of the Taoiseach's first year in office that there is a growing breakdown of law and order? Earlier, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae referred to a particular serious homicide in Kerry but it seems as though almost every day of the week sees an appalling murder or homicide. As Deputy Bruton, who is sitting beside the Taoiseach will know, there are areas in constituencies where there is a growing breakdown of law and order. Is it not a culmination of seven and a half years of constant cutbacks in the security services and An Garda Síochána that we now have growing lawlessness? It is astonishing that Fine Gael is presiding over this growing lawlessness and appalling homicides and criminal behaviour. What is the Taoiseach going to do about it?
The answer to the Deputy's question is "No". As is often the case, the Deputy is out of date and misinformed. The number of gardaí has increased by 600. There are 600 more gardaí in the force since the start of 2017, since this Government came to office. We are on target to meet our objective of increasing the size of the Garda force to its highest ever, 21,000, including members of An Garda Síochána, the Garda Reserve and civilians. When it comes to resources, whether in justice, health or education, they are at all-time high levels.
I refer to the section of the programme for Government relating to housing supply. For a person seeking a house, it is infinitely preferable to get a local authority house rather than to rent a house under a scheme such as housing assistance payment, HAP. First, it provides secure tenancy for life and second, one can aspire to purchase the house from the local authority if a proper tenant purchase scheme is in place.
How many local authority houses have been built in the past three years?
From a policy perspective, we would prefer not to rely so much on housing assistance payment. However, previous Governments outsourced responsibility for social housing building to the private sector almost exclusively, when that sector collapsed with the financial crisis there was no one there to build houses so we had to get back into the business of building social housing.
Under Rebuilding Ireland, 50,000 new homes will be added to the social housing stock. However, until 2020 and 2021, there will be more people housed through HAP than in social housing. In those last two years of Rebuilding Ireland, we will place more people from the social housing list into new homes in the social housing stock.
The number of units by direct build by local authorities and approved housing bodies was about 2,400 and will be about double that number this year, including some of the units built under Part V provisions. This is not like 20 or 30 years ago. There are several different delivery streams of social housing, including the approved housing body sector, local authorities, long-term leasing and acquisition. All those measures together, as well as the opening of voids this year, will bring almost 8,000 new homes into the social housing stock. The rest of the people on the list who we need to help will have to rely on the housing assistance payment. Last year we helped around 26,000 new tenancies, both families and individuals, through taxpayer-supported social housing supports. That was 23% more than we had intended. Rebuilding Ireland is working. We are ahead of our targets. However, as the Taoiseach pointed out earlier, there is a lot more work to do.
On a related issue, yesterday the Residential Tenancies Board outlined the average rents payable for the first and second quarter of this year. The average rent in Dublin is €1,527, in Meath, Kildare and Wicklow it is €1,104, in Cork and Galway it is €1,000 and for the rest of the country, it is €791. If one compares the maximum rent that is allowed to people who qualify under HAP and the rent allowance scheme, the rent is greater than the allowance in every single county.
In other words, in Dublin the maximum rent allowable under the scheme is €1,200. In counties such as my own county of Kerry it is €575. People who qualify for the housing assistance payment, HAP, and the rent allowance scheme simply cannot get properties they can afford. We are in a dilemma. Unless the Minister increases the allowances under HAP and the rent allowance scheme, none of these qualified applicants will be able to get a property. I ask the Minister to review it in light of the figures published yesterday in order to give people an opportunity.
I thank the Deputy for the question. The Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, released its report for the first quarter of 2018 on rent measures and the rent index and it included some very interesting results. There was a national increase in rents of 0.4%. That is the smallest increase we have seen in 12 months. In Dublin rents increased by only 1% and it was 1.1% in the previous quarter, the last quarter of last year. We are seeing a slowdown in rent inflation. Interestingly in Kildare, Meath and Wicklow we actually saw rents falling. What that means in practical terms is that if one is renting a house one's rent will have increased by approximately €1 over the last three months and if one is renting an apartment it will have increased by approximately €18. We accept that rents are still too high. I accept that. However, there is an uplift of 20% for people who are accessing the housing assistance payment and one can get an additional uplift if one has more family members. If one is at risk of homelessness the uplift is as much as 50%. As a result of bringing in those additional uplifts we are seeing that the HAP is working. We are securing tens of thousands of people into HAP tenancies and every week many more begin receiving HAP.
Page 70 of the programme for Government says the Government will improve services and increase supports for people with disabilities, particularly in respect of early assessments and interventions for children. In the case of Laois-Offaly, I got figures just over two weeks ago which tell us that there are 1,850 children in the area awaiting occupational therapy. Some 1,022 of those have been waiting more than 12 months and some of them have been waiting for more than two years. There are 291 children in the constituency waiting for physiotherapy. The figures are outrageous. I understand that the Taoiseach has completed his first year in office this year. The Government is just over two years in office. The figures are at an alarming high. People and families who need access to these services are beating our doors down. As a doctor the Taoiseach knows that early intervention is the key to helping these people to go on to live independent lives and to be able to contribute to society and have a fruitful life. I appeal to the Taoiseach to ask the Minister for Health what he, the Department and the HSE are doing to address this, particularly in respect of occupational therapy in Laois-Offaly. I know the Taoiseach will not have that exact figure now, but I would appreciate if he could come back to me on it.
-----and many others who are waiting far too long to access therapies. We have a recruitment programme under way for additional occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists but we know from the bitter experience of recent years that more staff and more resources often does not make much of a difference. We need systems change as well. Part of the systems change is a new pilot programme around speech and language therapy in particular. We are now providing that in schools so that people do not need to join the HSE waiting list at all.
On the same issue, speech and language therapy, we are talking about the importance of early intervention. I am dealing with a number of cases in my constituency of Dublin South-West. There are 95 others ahead of a child in one such case. The child has been waiting two years and has now been told it will be another year. The HSE in Dublin South-West asked for extra resources in the budget but the budget did not cover that request. We are talking about three years for a basic thing like speech and language therapy. The Taoiseach spoke earlier about the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That is fantastic but here we have the most vulnerable and they are not getting access to services. They are having to wait three years. The Minister for Education and Skills is here. Is there any possibility of extra budget resources for this? Clearly the system is broken in this area and we need to do more in this regard.
Very briefly, we have included 150 facilities - 75 preschools and 75 schools - in a pilot project for which he have allocated additional resources. We will be recruiting 19 speech and language therapists and 12 occupational therapists to service this pilot group. We believe that by integrating the delivery of intervention by specialist therapists with the work of the school teachers and the special needs assistants we will get better continuity of service and better outcomes for children. We are piloting it. It has to be tested. If it is successful we will obviously seek to expand it.
It is Government policy that historical housing estates be taken into the charge of local authorities. It has now come to light that Irish Water has to agree to each application for taking an estate in charge. However, where there are communal septic tanks, neither Irish Water nor the local authority will take the estate into its charge.
It is Government policy that historical housing estates are taken into charge. I want the Minister to address the issue and to intervene in what is happening here because neither Irish Water nor the local authorities will commit to taking these estates into charge.
I thank the Deputy for the question. This issue was recently brought to my attention by the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran. We are looking at it currently. Obviously where an estate is being taken in charge it is very important that all the different service providers are linked up to make sure the resources and the facilities can be put in place, provided or continue to be provided into the future in the area where people will be living. We are looking at that currently.
Once again rents have increased in Louth, by more than 9% on what they were this time last year. It has to be said that the Government's indifference and lack of action is causing untold financial misery and uncertainty for many people. The figures show yet again that the Government response is simply not working. The lack of a proper social and affordable housing building programme is compounding the problem further. As long as this remains the case-----
I will admit I am not great swimmer. When it comes to things like triathlons it is not my strongest suit. I am better at running and at cycling. Let us stick to the facts. The Deputy says that there is no social house building programme. Some 50,000 new homes will come into the stock of social housing under Rebuilding Ireland. We will build double what was built last year this year, which itself was a tripling of what was built the year before. If we are going to have a debate about housing let us stick to the facts.
The electoral commissions Bill is due in the near future. We are told that legislation is required for online registrations in order to bring us in line with other European countries. For many years we have had controversy over registrations for elections, which made it difficult for ordinary people. Will online registrations be included in this Bill? Will the use of PPS numbers be considered? When is it intended to introduce this Bill?
I thank the Deputy for his question. Work is being done in respect of the reform of the electoral register currently.
There will be public consultation in the autumn to hear the views of the public regarding how we can improve the service and perhaps move it away from being administered by each local authority to being administered at national level. The Deputy can input his views during the consultation.
Every week in my office, new people present who are seeking home support services, either for themselves or family members. In the month since I raised this in the House, the problem has worsened. It is not just a matter of statistics. In one month, the number of people in my area, CHO 7, has increased from 650 to 724. These people have been assessed by the HSE as needing home support services but none is available.
People are being informed that they will get home support services only as they become available. This effectively means when somebody moves into long-term residential care or dies. I raised this a month ago but the figures have worsened. I do not expect the Taoiseach to have a specific answer but I appeal to him to address this. This is happening on his watch. It has not happened like this for quite a while but it is getting out of control.
I am having that matter examined at the moment. I appreciate that the Deputy raised it with me a few weeks ago and I share his concerns about it. There has been an increase in resources for home care this year. I am not clear yet whether additional demand has exceeded the additional supply or whether it is a problem of recruitment. I understand that, in some areas, it has been difficult to recruit home care staff, which causes a problem even when resources are in place. It is a matter of determining whether it is a case of resources not being deployed properly and efficiently. In the medium term, will have to move to a statutory scheme similar to the fair deal scheme. That will take too long for people who are currently on the list so I am having this examined the moment.
It is holiday season and the Passport Office is extremely busy with renewals and new applications with Brexit pending. The was a 10% increase in first four months of this year compared to last year. I compliment the staff in the Passport Office, who are under immense pressure. Are there plans to increase capacity during the summer months because the offices of every Member are inundated with people who are under pressure to renew their passports?
An obvious answer to this is a second set of machinery to print passports, based in Cork, to take the pressure off Dublin. I compliment the staff working in the Passport Office and the Minister's Department on the work they are doing.
It is always the case that additional staff are taken on over the summer period so I imagine that this is happening or has happened. Some 770,000 passport applications have been processed to date. This gives an indication of the increase in demand because of people availing themselves of their right to Irish citizenship and because of more people being able to afford to travel abroad.
Eir is currently rolling out broadband. The best of the contracts have been cherry-picked. Broadband is being rolled out to some communities but the company is stopping at a specific point. A small investment would include hundreds more houses, small businesses and communities. The rolling out of broadband is provided for in the programme for Government. Nothing has been done in two and a half years by the Government or was done in the previous five years to enable us in this regard.
Communities in Banteer, Knocknagree and Bweeng are waiting for broadband. We have been lobbying Eir to provide it. Will the Taoiseach at least give the impression that he has some understanding of the crisis?
-----the party opposite sold off. Perhaps the Deputy may wish to contact the company directly. Certainly, as far as the national broadband plan and the associated contract are concerned, the contract will be signed this year.