Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Questions on Promised Legislation
In the programme for Government there is a commitment that all parties to this agreement will operate on a good faith and no surprise basis for the term of the Oireachtas. There have been numerous questions in the past two years about arrangements with Independent Deputies in return for their support. When I asked recently about any deals the Government may have with Independent Deputies, the Taoiseach replied:
While there is no agreement or special deal with Deputy Michael Lowry or Deputy Seán Canney, they do support the programme for Government which they believe benefits the country and their constituencies. They generally vote with the Government . . . in the same way all Independent Deputies who support it do. That means that they are able to raise queries and issues, often related to their constituencies, on which we try to assist.
Therein lies the nub of the repeated questions. The Taoiseach is always at pains to say there is no written agreement between Deputies Lowry and Canney and the Government but there is certainly constant contact and the assistance that is provided for their constituencies is never discussed publicly. There are no records that we are made aware of so why does the Taoiseach continue to hide information about the unwritten deals with Deputies Lowry and Canney? We know Deputy Lowry has never voted against this Government or the previous one. Can the Taoiseach now commit to publishing information on the assistance given to Deputies Lowry, Canney and others, so that the unnecessary speculation can be cleared up in the interests of the taxpayers?
There is nothing to publish and nothing to hide. As I have told the Deputy previously we have no formal agreement, written or verbal, with any Independent Deputy. There are, however, several Independent Deputies who generally support the Government and because they generally support the Government, we are happy for them to raise constituency or policy issues with Ministers. If we can work on them we do, and where we cannot, we do not.
It is also important to acknowledge that those Deputies who are not part of the Government, such as Deputies Lowry and Grealish and others, do not always vote with the Government. Deputy Martin mentioned Deputy Lowry, in particular. His voting record over the past two years has him voting against the Government on ten occasions, not voting at all on 71 and with the Government on 89.
Although we are in the middle of the summer, the perpetual trolley crisis continues. Dr. Emily O'Connor, the spokesperson for accident and emergency consultants, is quoted this morning as saying that extra beds were promised but that there is no sign of them. Since the Taoiseach took office, 106,694 people have spent one night or more on a hospital trolley. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that this is scandalous. A comparison of bed numbers from the health service capacity review, published only a few weeks ago, and the capacity review from 2008 shows that there are about 1,000 fewer beds in the health service now. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, is on record as stating that approximately 1,000 beds were closed due to cuts and the recruitment and retention crisis. When will we see real action to tackle the main issues of the trolley crisis? I refer to addressing capacity through reopening beds, addressing the recruitment and retention of staff, providing adequate step-down facilities, home-care packages and proper investment in primary and community care.
According to the HSE, the number of patients on trolleys in our accident and emergency departments, and adjoining our emergency departments, was 192 this morning. That is 32% fewer than this day last year and 32% fewer than the year before. The good weather may be a factor but it is significantly lower than the last two years. As always, there is enormous variation from hospital to hospital. There are no patients on trolleys at all in Beaumont Hospital or Portiuncula University Hospital in Mayo but there were 23 on trolleys in Tallaght hospital. This demonstrates that it is about more than simple bed capacity - it is also about how resources are used as well as having them.
To answer Deputy McDonald's question regarding when will we see action, 200 additional beds have already been opened this year. A couple of years ago, as Minister for Health, I reversed the Fianna Fáil policy, made during the boom, to reduce the number of hospital beds and we have been increasing the number of hospital beds ever since. These are as follows: there are 22 in St. Vincent's Hospital; 29 in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda; 17 in University Hospital Limerick; 28 in University Hospital Galway; 18 in University Hospital Waterford; 20 in Beaumont Hospital; 23 in St. James's Hospital; 24 in the Mater Hospital; 11 in Naas General Hospital; two in Cork University Hospital; and 14 in St. Luke's General Hospital in Kilkenny. Those are the ones already opened this year. Still to come are the beds in South Tipperary General Hospital, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital and Roscommon General Hospital medical assessment unit.
It is over a year since the Supreme Court ruled that the ban on asylum seekers working was unconstitutional. We understand that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, will today announce new proposals to allow asylum seekers to work. This follows on from the highly restrictive and unworkable procedures introduced by the Government in February. They required a €1,000 fee for a permit and a starting salary of €30,000. I understand that one permit was issued since then. We do not know the full details yet because they have not been announced, but reports say that there will still be restrictions. This development has been a long time coming. Ireland is one of only two EU countries not allowing migrants to work. The report of the working group on the protection process and direct provision, the McMahon report, recommended that the right to work be given within nine months and that a decision be made on asylum applications within 12 months. Will this announcement today require new legislation or can it be done by Ministerial Order? Can the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, also confirm that the new rules will be applicable from today and, if not, what is the start date?
I hope the new rules that will be announced this afternoon, following the decision of the Government yesterday, will become operative at an early date. I acknowledge what Deputy Howlin has said about these proposals being far reaching, positive and reformist. I am happy to take a Topical Issue, or some such other mechanism, which would allow me give greater detail to the House. I hope that what will be a positive package of measures will be favourably received by all sides of the House.
During the national economic dialogue, the Taoiseach said that Ireland's economic fundamentals remain strong and for the first time in seven years we are on track when it comes to poverty, deprivation and inequality. He should have added - in brackets - except for teachers, nurses, doctors, soldiers and people who work in this House, those employed by the public sector who will not have pay equality restored until 2022 at the earliest. By 30 June, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, is obliged, under legislation, to bring a report before this House - that means he will have to have it to us by tomorrow - indicating and justifying how and why he continues to use financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation as a big sword over the public sector to justify pay inequality. Anyone who steps out of line under FEMPI will not receive any pay increases. Given the Taoiseach's at the national economic dialogue, it is a total farce that this legislation continues to be used to penalise the public sector, which gave the most to facilitate the recovery. Will the Taoiseach please justify that and indicate when the FEMPI legislation will be before the House?
Those figures come from the Central Statistics Office survey of income and living conditions. They show that poverty is falling, deprivation is falling and income inequality is narrowing. I am glad that is no longer disputed by people on the left.
-----and income inequality but we will come back to that. I do not know if that report is ready but I will check with the Minister and ask him to write to Deputy Bríd Smith.
I was not at the national economic dialogue but I am concerned about the economic situation of housing tenants in Tipperary. I raised this matter with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy - who is in the Chamber - on a number of occasions and I have written to him three times in respect of it. Tipperary County Council has unilaterally merged nine differential rent schemes. Only in the past two weeks have people received letters notifying them of huge increases of up to 50% that will take effect on 1 July. This is underhanded and it is disrespectful to the tenants and their tenancy rights and agreements. Will the Minister ask Tipperary County Council to have a moratorium on those increases until there is proper meaningful engagement with those tenants? They are good tenants, in the main, paying their way but those kinds of increases are savage. Surely, different standards of houses should have different rates of rent if they have a lower energy ratings, etc. Will the Minister ask Mr. Joe McGrath to postpone this until there is discussion and a lead-in time and people have time to adjust?
There is a national review of rents happening at the moment and it will conclude shortly. This issue that Deputy Mattie McGrath has raised is one for the local authority. It is an executive function and not a reserved function. The executive consulted the local authority members and it is a matter for them, not me. However, I have correspondence to send back to the Deputy today explaining that in more detail.
I too was glad to be at the national economic dialogue. I heard the Taoiseach's speech setting out the vision for the country. I thought it was disgraceful that the Taoiseach never once mentioned the need to protect our environment or change our reputation in that regard. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, who also spoke, tried to restore the Taoiseach's reputation when he stated that the Government is going to be great at the environment and that we are going to be particularly good at recycling. Does this mean that the Taoiseach will allow the Waste Reduction Bill, which was introduced a year ago, by the Labour Party and ourselves, to proceed to Committee Stage? The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, is throwing around all sorts of figures and arguments in respect of this matter but no one knows what he is saying. We need to debate the Bill to which I refer, which is a core measure in the context of tackling the recycling issue. That is one of the many environmental issues which we need to tackle and which the Taoiseach completely ignored this morning. Will the Taoiseach issue the money message and allow us to debate the Waste Reduction Bill and try to restore some kind of reputation for this country?
That is a standard criticism of any speech that anyone makes. I am not a person for long speeches. I did, of course, refer on several occasions to Project Ireland 2040 and Deputy Eamon Ryan will know that the biggest-----
In respect of making time available for a debate, the Deputy has been back in this House for over two years now and he must know at this stage it is the Business Committee that makes those decisions, not me.
There is a promise on page 56 of A Programme for a Partnership Government to the effect that equal and fair treatment will be given to sick and vulnerable people and children. That is why Ms Noreen O'Neill from Kilgarvan and her friends are climbing Croagh Patrick next weekend. They are highlighting the need for tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, to be made available.
It is a component of cannabis oil that she needs for Michael, her 22 month old son, to prevent seizures and periods of chronic pain from which he suffers terribly. I am asking that this medicine be made available through our chemists and pharmacists, which would benefit people who need it, like little Michael O'Neill from Kilgarvan. I ask that this be done before the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Government go on their summer holidays because consultants and doctors are afraid to give prescriptions for this vital drug.
The Health Products Regulatory Authority made a recommendation that this Government set up a cannabis access programme 18 months ago. Nothing has happened since. The Dáil supported the Bill I put forward eight months ago providing for access to medicinal cannabis. As nothing has happened, we will continue to have cases such as that of Noreen O'Neill.
The licensing system for medical cannabis is failing, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is quite well aware of this. I have raised the matter with him, as have other Deputies. In the case of Noreen O'Neill and her child, it is extremely worrying and frightening to think of a child suffering from seizures despite knowing that this cannabis oil, if made available, would stop those seizures from happening. Over the weekend, people were trying to get help, advice and assistance from another campaigner, Ms Vera Twomey, because their children are suffering with seizures. This is a very common problem, and I believe the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health should tackle it on behalf of the O'Neill family, Vera Twomey and all of the other families who are not as prominent and outspoken about this matter.
Like Deputies Michael and Danny Healy-Rae I have spoken to Ms Noreen O'Neill. This lady is climbing Croagh Patrick, one of the highest mountains in the country, to highlight the efforts she is making to get medicinal cannabis for her child. Medicinal cannabis must be rescheduled in Ireland. As it stands, it is classified as a drug with no medicinal properties. Until this situation changes, consultants will have grave difficulties in prescribing the necessary treatment. The Government in the UK has seen the error of its ways. Vera Twomey was treated with the highest respect in the British Parliament last week. We fail in our duty to these people continuously. They are suffering and their children and loved ones are suffering. Why are we dragging our feet on this issue?
Noreen O'Neill and many of her supporters are climbing a mountain at the weekend to highlight this case but they have to climb a mountain every day to fight for the healthcare needs of their children. It is a disgrace that this State is forcing people to go abroad to access healthcare. I am not talking about Britain but to the Netherlands, the Spanish state and beyond. The events in the UK show that this issue is not going away. It will come back onto the agenda again, and the Government will have to deal with it. The people will make sure that it does.
I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. The best approach to be taken in this case is for the patient concerned to get a prescription from a specialist. A specialist doctor is required, and he or she must be willing to prescribe the drug and monitor it for side effects and efficacy. The Minister for Health has already issued seven or eight licences on that basis and has not refused any application for such a licence. The best thing to do would be to get a prescription from a qualified specialist, which is the normal way people acquire medicines. The Minister can issue a licence if a prescription is given. We acknowledge that the current process is cumbersome. The Minister is working on a cannabis access programme which will make it easier for people to access medicinal cannabis. There are grave difficulties with the proposal that the medicine be made available in pharmacies because it is not a licensed medicine. A licensed medicine must be produced to certain standards and sourcing this product in that way is already proving difficult.
Under the prioritising early years programme, the Government committed to the establishment of a new in-school speech and language service to support young children as part of a more integrated support system. Today, I received the summer waiting list report from Barnardos. It describes the waiting times for children seeking access to speech and language therapy as extreme, with 548 young people waiting more than a year and a further 351 young people waiting for more than two years for speech and language therapy in CHO 4, which is Kerry, north Cork, north Lee, south Lee and west Cork. This is the longest waiting list in the country. When will the Government actually role out this programme in schools?
I did not pick up all of what Deputy Buckley said, but I believe it was related to the pilot scheme in schools for speech and language therapy. I will have to ask the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, to write to the Deputy with a detailed response.
On page 5 of the programme for Government a commitment is given to equality of opportunity. It says that we will support those with disabilities and maintain their potential by removing barriers which impact access to services, education, work and healthcare. St. Cecilia's school in Sligo, situated at Cregg House, is a school for very special children with very special needs. It is a special school with very special staff. At the moment one speech and language therapist is dealing with 44 children, aged between five and 18, as well as 100 people living in residential care. A behavioural therapist who was situated in the school left earlier this year and has still not been replaced.
The Taoiseach, as a medical doctor himself, knows the benefit of early access for children and adults to speech and language therapy and the difference it can make to future opportunities in life. Parents are concerned. The service is not up to speed in terms of what these children need and I ask the Taoiseach to use his good office to ensure that a second speech therapist is put in place, along with a behavioural therapist.
This is a very urgent matter. I met the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, last year, to express my concern over the waiting lists in Laois and Offaly for speech therapy and occupational therapy. We now also have a long and unacceptable delay in the assessment of need for these children. Leaving these children on a waiting list for this amount of time is impacting greatly on their education and, more importantly, their well-being. It is a grave injustice. The Minister should get his act together and take action.
A comprehensive analysis is being carried out by both the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills. That analysis is ongoing at present, and we will revert back to the two Deputies on the specific issues they have raised in the coming weeks.
Several months have elapsed since the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, told me that he was upgrading or improving the tenant purchase scheme, which blatantly discriminates against people who have to rely on social welfare for their livelihood. I was told that change was imminent in that area. When can we expect that change to happen?
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter with me. We have been in consultation with Fianna Fáil as part of the confidence and supply agreement as there are some changes that might be put in place during the coming weeks. Once those conversations have concluded we will be able to make an announcement.
My question is relevant to pages 14 and 52 of the programme for Government, which refer to transparent oversight of performance and the potential appointment of an ombudsman for procurement. At my insistence, the Committee of Public Accounts, in its periodic report in January, included the call for the Government to establish a committee of inspection on the very costly liquidation of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC. As the normal level of oversight was specifically excluded from the legislation establishing the liquidation in 2013, is the Government now prepared to accept my recommendation, and that of the Committee of Public Accounts, to include a committee of inspection? Costs are heading towards €300 million.
The recent progress report was less than transparent or clear in the context of legal fees. One example given was that Arthur Cox had received €37,000. I saw documentation which showed that that particular firm incurred fees of more that €1 million in one particular case, and the media confirmed it last week. As there are more than 140 cases, this is a matter of huge concern to the taxpayer. I hope that the Government accedes to my recommendation, and that of the Committee of Public Accounts, for the establishment of a committee of inspection. I acknowledge the Taoiseach is not on the Business Committee but he is not entirely without influence. He might use that influence to secure time for a debate on these matters here in the House.
This is a question to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government on what may be as many as 5,000 homeowners in Donegal who were affected by defective Mica blocks. In December 2015, as I have outlined to the Minister in the Dáil on many occasions, a panel was formed by the Government to assess the situation and it reported more than a year ago. Recently, a National Standards Authority of Ireland report was published outlining a range of options to remediate the homes, including removing the outer leaf of the wall to complete demolition of the house, depending on how badly it is affected. The bottom line is that there needs to be a redress scheme to help those homeowners fix their homes. The Minister has continuously tried to avoid dealing with this issue. Will he ensure there is a line in the budget this year to help those homeowners, who want to get on with their lives and address this massive problem by which they have been unfortunate enough to be affected? Will he ensure that a scheme and funding are put in place this year to help them?
I thank the Deputy for the question, which is of serious concern to him and his constituents. The Minister of State with responsibility for Gaeilge, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy Joe McHugh, and the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Damien English, are in constant contact on this. We had an expert panel that made a number of recommendations. We are progressing the first two recommendations at the moment. We are also consulting on what we can do to implement the further recommendations. Those conversations will continue between now and the budget.
Regarding the programme for Government and its commitments to provide services for people with disabilities, does the Taoiseach understand the chronic shortage of funding, particularly for the section 39 organisations which are service providers for people with disabilities, and the enormous pressure they are being put under by the HSE and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform regarding funding? That leads to the management trying to manage budgets and a chronic shortage of therapies being available to young kids, including diagnosis in the first instance. Children are then being put on a waiting list for therapies which are crucially important to allow them to lead a proper life. There are also funding shortfalls which make no sense from the point of view of the State's approach. Facilities cannot be opened because the funding is not coming through. The block grant has been cut and, at this point in time, these organisations are in rag order where funding is concerned.
I am not entirely sure what the question is, but funding for section 39 organisations has been increased every year for the past three years at least. However, I appreciate that they are a diverse group. Some may have had reductions; others have had increases. Overall, there has been an increase every year for the past three years. This would be best raised as a Topical Issue matter with the Minister for Health and the Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues.
My question relates to payments under the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS. In particular, I refer to the criterion that applicants cut hay from 1 July. Apparently the criterion states that if they cut hay prior to that, there will be penalties affecting their entitlement. I understand that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine said there was no regulation to that effect in the House yesterday. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether penalties will be imposed on applicants for GLAS payments who cut their hay today, tomorrow or Saturday? I ask particularly in light of the fact that the weather is so good. It is necessary to get an answer between now and Tuesday or Wednesday.
As I said to the House yesterday, there is no law or regulation prohibiting farmers from cutting hay before 1 July. The traditional hay meadow aspect of the GLAS scheme is voluntary and farmers opt into it. It is a voluntary action and it is part of the voluntary scheme. If farmers choose this action, they are compensated at a rate of €315 per ha, up to a maximum of 10 ha. The farmers can opt out of it if they so wish.
I wish to address the Taoiseach and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. A while ago, we heard about people have to climb mountains to survive. There is a crisis on the Lios Ard estate, Ballyhooly, Fermoy, Co. Cork, where having to use buckets to draw water to survive this warm weather. I raise it here because while it has been an issue for the last week, more important, it has been an issue for the past ten years. The residents on the estate cannot be guaranteed a proper supply of water in this day and age. I ask the Minister or the Taoiseach to please intercede in the matter and give them some comfort regarding a resolution to the problem.
I thank the Deputy for the question. There has been massive underinvestment in our water infrastructure for more than a decade. That is why we established Irish Water, and that is why we are now making a significant investment throughout the country. Between now and 2027, under the national development plan and Project Ireland 2040, more than €8 billion will be spent on investing in critical water infrastructure. At the moment, the weather is having a particular impact, especially on pressure in certain areas. There may not be a restriction but pressure is low because supplies are low. If the Deputy wants to give me details on a specific area where he feels there might be a need to increase supply because of the weather, we can see if that might be possible-----
Page 87 of the programme for Government refers to "Tackling Disadvantage". I have been told that the update of the identification model is currently under way, and this will take account of the updated schools data and current school year combined with the Pobal HP deprivation index, as derived from the 2016 census. My query concerns Abbeyfeale boys' national school in County Limerick. We have been in ongoing consultation with the Department of Education and Skills since earlier this year, and the Department has stated that the next steps will be taken once further detail is available in the quality assurance process.
The timelines have constantly been pushed out on this. I was given a date of the first quarter of this year at one stage. I have been given more timelines. Now I am being told about the next steps. I need a definitive timeline and a definitive action on this. I ask the Taoiseach to carry it out.
I am afraid I am not familiar with the specifics of the issue, but I know it is something that is of great concern and interest to Deputy Neville. I will meet the Minister for Education and Skills later today, and I will ask him to make direct contact with the Deputy to see what can be done.
In the programme for Government, under "Crime Prevention", there is a commitment to "Ensuring a Strong and Visible Police Force in every Community". This is not the case in parts of Louth. At a recent joint policing committee, JPC, meeting between Drogheda and Dundalk, serious concerns were raised that the county's Garda force was short several key personnel. For example, there is no superintendent in the entire mid-Louth area. There is also a shortage of sergeants and inspectors. Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann is coming to Drogheda in August and 400,000 visitors are expected. There are serious concerns that local gardaí do not have sufficient resources to deal with the Fleadh crowds if there was to be an incident. This is despite the fact that all Garda leave has been cancelled. There is a serious shortage of gardaí in Drogheda to deal with the huge numbers expected to attend the Fleadh.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I visited County Louth recently and had the opportunity of visiting a number of Garda stations to discuss issues with rank-and-file gardaí as well as senior officers. The allocation of resources is a matter for the Garda Commissioner. However, I would be happy to convey any specific concerns that the Deputy might have. I am keen to ensure that Drogheda, like all other towns in the country, is properly policed.
On Monday, the Dutch Infrastructure Fund made an announcement that a contractor, Woodvale Construction, was to be appointed to finish three schools that were caught up in the collapse of Carillion. Two of those schools are in my own constituency, namely, Ravenswell primary school and Coláiste Ráithín, while one, Loreto College, is in Wexford. That has to be welcomed. There is a new timeline for construction, with those schools to be completed in August. Facilities maintenance was not included but we were told at the outset that was a critical reason for the prolonged delay in appointing the contractor. Are there problems appointing a facilities management provider? Can the Taoiseach give categorical assurances that those schools that are due to be completed in August will open in September, irrespective of whether there is an agreement on facilities maintenance?
The Minister for Education and Skills is aware of the problems that the Deputy has spoken about, and I believe he is in contact with the officials. If the Deputy wishes to have a further meeting with the Minister, for a detailed analysis of where we stand on that particular problem, we can do that within a week or two.
There is a reference in the programme for Government to improving tax compliance. I wonder whether, rather than just referencing this, the Government will introduce legal reforms following yesterday's court judgment whereby a Member of the Dáil was sentenced for filing false tax returns, failing to keep proper company accounts and falsifying accounts and yet received a chicken feed fine in the context of his wealth and a pat on the back from the judge rather than a rap on the knuckles, saying he was a great Deputy. What we are seeing is one law for the rich and another for the poor. That is the conclusion of workers throughout the country following this case. What reforms will the Taoiseach make on tax compliance?
The Deputy cannot refer to court judgments or make statements such as that which she has just made. I am warning the Deputy. If the Taoiseach wants to respond, he may do so. If he does not wish to do so, however, I will have no difficulty.
Tax offences and tax crimes are serious crimes in my view and in that of the Government. When people commit tax offences, they are not just taking money from one person they are taking money from all society. In the case of Deputy Lowry, he got a fair trial-----
The gender pay gap (wage transparency) Bill is promised legislation. It is to establish a mandatory reporting obligation on companies to report on the gender pay difference in their respective companies. Where does it stand now in terms of preparation?
The gender pay gap (wage transparency) Bill will now go to the relevant committee for observations. I acknowledge Senator Ivana Bacik, in particular, and the Labour Party for their contributions towards this reforming legislation, which I expect will receive a general welcome.
Last week, I met representatives from the Union of Students in Ireland at an open day. I was surprised that most of the students were the first members of their families to attend college. Their main concern is accommodation. The shortage of accommodation is forcing students to compete with families and professionals for accommodation. The problem is that students have no choice but to go for the accommodation. Their first preference would be purpose-built accommodation. At present, only universities get grants; the institutes of technology do not. If we can release these students from looking for private accommodation it would help. What is the proposal going forward to help deal with student accommodation?
I thank the Deputy for the question. Obviously, it is a fantastic opportunity for those students. Education can only open more doors for them in terms of the opportunities they might have in future. We have an ambitious programme involving my Department and that of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and being led by the Ministers of State, Deputies English and Mitchell O'Connor, to dramatically increase the amount of student accommodation being built. We are aiming for somewhere between 10,000 to 12,000 new student spaces to be provided over the next three years. Already in the course of the past year and a half we have seen almost 2,000 new bed spaces created. Supply is the answer to student accommodation but it is important to note we also have rent a room relief for students whereby a family can let out a room in their home to a student for the year and they can charge up to €14,000 tax free.
It is stated on page 96 of the programme for Government that the Government is committed to building a visible and familiar policing force and policing presence in our communities. It is of great concern to constituents in Laois and Offaly that the rate of burglaries has increased by 6% according to a PhoneWatch survey. We also see violence associated with drink and drugs becoming all too prevalent on our streets. The Minister has made statements several times that the number of Garda recruits has increased but we are not seeing this on the ground. What action will the Minister take? Where are these gardaí? We need them out on the ground in our big towns, where many of the Garda stations are now part-time instead of full-time.
I am happy to confirm to the Deputy there are more gardaí actively engaged in Laois and Offaly than there were five years ago. This is in the context of an increased number of Garda recruits. We are on target to have a Garda service of 21,000 by the year 2021. I acknowledge the importance of yesterday's Government announcement of the appointment of the Garda Commissioner designate, Drew Harris, who will take up his position in early September. I want to say with specific reference to the Laois-Offaly division, which has been raised by Deputy Nolan, that I am very pleased to see an anti-crime task force was set up recently by Chief Superintendent John Scanlon, which is having a dividend on the ground. I acknowledge the support of the people of Laois and Offaly in their provision of assistance to the Garda Síochána in the crackdown on crime.