Tuesday, 6 November 2018
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
The programme for Government states: "We want Ireland's image as the green island to inform all areas of policy so that the global image of our country is transformed and we are recognised as one of the cleanest and safest environments in the world." That commitment is a far cry from reports we have all read about what has happened in the context of the reconstruction of Dún Laoghaire baths, where up to 70 kg of toothpick sized plastic fibres have been recovered from the sea. It is extraordinary that such a high volume of plastic would find its way into marine life in that area. I understand 70 individuals and a specialist environmental damage team have been appointed to clean up the plastic in the sea as a result of the release of these plastic fibres during the reconstruction of Dún Laoghaire baths. This is an extraordinary failing which will damage fish and other marine life. I ask that the Minister provide the House with the most up-to-date information on the impact of this volume of plastic finding its way into the sea, the efforts being made by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and the support the council is getting from the Department to remedy this issue in so far as it can.
I want to return to the issue raised by Deputy Coppinger in respect of the structural issues affecting schools throughout the State. I understand the Minister for Education and Skills briefed Cabinet on this matter this morning. I ask for a brief update as to where the remedial works are at and if the schools that are closed will be able to re-open this week. I also ask what plan is in place for the future to ensure structural issues that have been identified are properly and permanently addressed in all 23 of the schools where the problems have been found.
The Minister for Education and Skills is currently in the Seanad so, on his behalf, I will update the House on this important issue. Our first priority, as always, is the safety of school students and, of course, staff. I want to acknowledge the co-operation of parents, school principals, staff, patrons and boards of management through this very challenging period.
Structural assessments have now been completed in all 42 schools constructed by Western Building Systems. The summary outcome of the assessments is as follows. Nineteen have been cleared fully to open without the need for any precautionary works and 19 others have been enabled to open in full following external precautionary measures in the form of fencing around all or part of the building and protective decking. Three schools are able to open initially at ground floor level only following the implementation of both internal and external precautionary measures: this relates to two schools in Tyrellstown and one in Lucan, and all of these schools will be open before the end of the week. At Ardgillan, one building in phase one of the community college has been closed but it has been possible for all students to be accommodated elsewhere on the campus.
The implementation of all necessary precautionary measures was completed last Sunday night, 4 November, to enable schools to reopen this week. It was facilitated by an intensive effort involving more than 250 construction workers across all sites, many of whom worked through the bank holiday weekend. I particularly want to record my thanks to them for that.
The CEO of AIB, Bernard Byrne, will be leaving the bank to join the Davy Group. There is, as the Taoiseach knows, a cap on pay, bonuses, remuneration and benefits of €500,000 per annum for senior staff in State-owned banks. I understand external consultants from consultancy firm Korn Ferry are being paid over €140,000 to compile a report on whether the cap should be lifted. We can all guess what they will recommend but I think members of the public would be very shocked and surprised to hear that people from the bailed out banks should be paid more than €500,000 a year, given the initial bailout total was around the €65 billion mark.
I will finish on this. The Government is prepared to be tough on teachers' and nurses' salaries. Can the Taoiseach confirm that the Government agrees the bankers' pay cap should be lifted? Will he publish the Korn Ferry report?
I have not seen that report so I do not know what recommendations they have made. I can say there are no proposals being considered by Government at this time to raise the salary cap in regard to State-owned banks. I point out, though, that there were essentially two bank bailouts that occurred in this country about ten years ago. One was the bailout of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide, and we will never recover that money. The second was when the Deputy and I were in government together, when we took a decision to rescue AIB and Bank of Ireland. I am now absolutely confident we will recover all of the money from both of those banks.
In recent weeks workers at Glen Dimplex in Portadown have been on strike for a pay increase of 27p an hour. It is ironic in a bitter way when one considers the fact one of its bosses is Martin Naughton, a billionaire ranked only ten days ago by the Irish Independentas the 11th richest man in Ireland. The 27p increase would bring these workers up to stg£8.70 an hour, in other words, the official UK poverty line.
In this State, workers' wages are nothing to write home about. Hundreds of thousands of working people here are earning less than the €11.90 living wage rate. The programme for Government references reducing poverty levels by increasing the minimum wage to €10.50 per hour over a five year timeframe. Will the Taoiseach agree that this plan, already inadequate from the get-go, has been overtaken by the skyrocketing cost of accommodation and that next year, rather than keeping the minimum wage below the €10 per hour rate, it should be increased to the living wage rate at a minimum?
The programme for Government does not talk about reducing poverty: the Government is reducing poverty. One needs only look at the CSO survey on income and living conditions to see that is the case. The budget recently agreed in this House, which the Deputy will probably vote against, further reduces poverty, as confirmed by the ESRI SWITCH model. This Government led by Fine Gael and involving Independents is taking action across pay, tax and welfare to reduce poverty. The Deputy's party is voting against this. It is important everyone knows that basic fact.
In regard to the minimum wage, it will rise to €9.80 per hour in January. This will be the fourth increase in the minimum wage in the past five or six years. This is being done on the recommendation of the Low Pay Commission, which takes everything into account. The calculations done in respect of the living wage, as the Deputy knows, do not take into account that people have different circumstances and do not listen to employers. When it comes to setting the rate for the minimum wage, we need to balance the need to pay people a decent wage with any impact this may have on unemployment. The Deputy mentioned Portadown in particular. It should be borne in mind that along the Border counties employers and people compete for jobs and work with people just over the Border in Northern Ireland where salaries are much lower. We always have to bear this in mind. We are increasing the minimum wage but in a way that increases people's pay but does not threaten their jobs.
Closed circuit television cameras, CCTV, installed in Littleton and many other towns and villages across the country are not operational following an intervention by the Data Protection Commissioner under the current legislation which permits only local authorities to monitor the cameras. The Garda Síochána is willing and able to monitor in real time but under the legislation it is not permitted to do so. This is farcical. Cameras read in real time are a preventative measure. When not read in real time, and if the Garda has to approach local authorities for permission to enter their premises to read the cameras, it is reactive policing. This is a big issue at the junction to our motorways and on the approach roads into our towns. I ask the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, to outline when the amending legislation to correct this anomaly, which has serious consequences, particularly for rural policing, will be brought forward.
I attended a meeting last night in Nenagh, held by north Tipperary IFA. I am glad the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, is in the House. The people of Tipperary are bewildered at the inaction of the Government. This is another obstacle in their way. We were promised reform of the bail laws. We enacted legislation allowing for electronic tagging of known criminals but not one criminal has been tagged. What is the blockage to protection of our people? The programme for Government is very strong on this issue. People are being neglected and are living in fear. Among those who attended the meeting last night were people from the constituency of the Minister for Agriculture, food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, who also feel abandoned. The Garda Síochána wants to do its work but it needs the tools of the trade to do so. The issue of free legal aid must be tackled and also the bail laws. Nothing is happening and the tagging of individuals is not being implemented. The people of Ireland and, in particular, Tipperary are rising up and are very angry about this situation. The Government should take note. The people from the constituency of the Minister, Deputy Creed, said that they had spoken to him about the issue for 20 minutes last week but that it was a waste of time.
The programme for Government includes a commitment to provide funding for the installation of CCTV in urban and rural areas. There are 78 communities in Tipperary eager to put in place CCTV systems but they are being hampered by the legislation. My understanding is that a statutory instrument was introduced which prevents the Garda from being the data protection and collection agency for the information gathered by the CCTV cameras.
We need all the weapons we can have at our disposal to fight crime in urban and rural areas. People just cannot comprehend how the Garda cannot have access to this information and use it to fight crime.
I thank the Deputies representing County Tipperary for raising this important issue. I am fully aware of the situation, representing as I do a neighbouring constituency. The CCTV scheme, to which the Deputies refer, however, is not a Garda scheme or a State scheme. It is a community-based scheme for which a sum of €3 million is available from the State over a period of three years. There are three basic conditions to be met, and which can be and are being met. First, there must be approval from the local joint policing committee, and there is an active joint policing committee in County Tipperary. Second, it needs the consent and approval of the Garda Commissioner. This can be done by way of a report from the local crime prevention officer. Third, the local authority must, under law, act as data controller. This cannot be done by An Garda Síochána because this is in essence a community scheme.
Having regard to the fact that the problem appears to be of sufficient proportions to warrant the raising of the matter in the Dáil, I would be happy to have officials from my Department assist with many of the local community groups. These funds are available and are being drawn down, and I urge community groups in Tipperary to continue to make their application and to comply with what is an acceptable framework.
I wish to raise an issue relating to the cervical screening scandal. I was contacted by the husband of one of the 221 women who have been caught up in the scandal. He told me that the majority of women who requested their slides have not got them six months after they requested them. Some time ago I looked at the MedLab Pathology and Quest Diagnostics contracts and raised the matter at the Committee of Public Accounts. The contracts provide that the HSE can retrieve these slides within three days, so there is no question as to ownership of the slides. There must be a commitment today that there will not be further delay in delivering this basic information to these women. I am shocked we are still talking about this and that the goalposts have changed on the issue to the point that it is causing unnecessary trouble to people who are under terrific stress. Will the Taoiseach give me this commitment today?
I will certainly commit to checking up on the matter. If someone requests his or her slides, I can understand why it might take a couple of weeks. I do not see why it should take a couple of months. I will ask my people to follow up on the matter to see the reason for the delay. I totally agree. It should not take that long.
I regret to hear breaking news from Europe that the digital tax proposal seems to have fallen through at the Council meeting today, which the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is attending. I regret it because I think the revenue we could raise from the proposal could be used to fund Irish media. Google and Facebook are taking all the advertising revenue. The Irish media are in crisis. I also regret the risk to our reputation in being seen as a country that harbours such low-tax companies.
Will the Taoiseach outline the Government's position from here, given that the proposal seems to have fallen foul of the Council? Are we opposed in principle to the idea of a digital tax? The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, says this should be done through the OECD. How does the Government intend doing so now? How do we restore our reputation and introduce such a tax, if that is ultimately the Government's position?
My view is that large, wealthy tech companies should pay their fair share of tax and pay that tax where it is owed. We have a profound difficulty with the EU's current proposal for a digital tax because, rather than taxing profits, it taxes turnover or revenue. At present, companies, many of them big tech companies, record profits in Ireland and we gain from this in the form of a 12.5% corporation profit tax, which is now bringing in billions of euro in revenue to allow us to fund our public services, improve our public infrastructure and tackle issues such as climate change.
If we move to the model the European Commission is proposing, the levy would be on the turnover. The money would then go to the big countries, such as France and Germany, where many people are using those services. Less profit will be recorded in Ireland and we will get less revenue. Rather than funding the media, as the Deputy suggested, there will be less revenue for Ireland and that would mean having to cut back public spending.
There have been ongoing issues in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection with the payment of illness benefit in recent months. Many people dependent on these payments have seen them disrupted, reduced or, in some cases, not paid at all. This has caused unnecessary upset and stress to many people who depend on these weekly payments. I would like clarification of the reason for these delays, when the issue will be resolved, and if the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, has confidence that these issues will not happen again.
This shambolic situation has been going on since August. Thousands of our citizens, some of whom are the sickest in the State, have received reduced payments or no payments whatsoever. It has not only had an impact on people financially, it has put them in precarious situations. They have been forced into debt and have had to face serious issues with tenancies because of being unable to pay rent. I welcome that the Minister has broken her silence on this matter and has issued some statements recently. In one on Friday, she said that over the weekend, if not on Friday, everyone entitled to the illness benefit would receive it. She was proved incorrect yesterday. Many people are still contacting me to say that they have not received a penny. We need an update on how many people have not received payments. More importantly, when will those people receive payment? Many people who have received reduced payments since August are also owed substantial sums of money. When will those people receive the money to which they are entitled?
The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, gave a commitment last week that the 20,000 people still owed some of their illness benefit payment, if not all of it, would be paid by Monday. Monday has come and gone and there are still thousands of people without payment. The knock-on effects include people having to borrow money and having to go to the community welfare officer to try to get an emergency payment. It is, as the Minister knows, also causing undue and unfair hardship. People have made their contribution towards this payment. This goes back to an information technology issue and at this stage that is not acceptable anymore. An information technology issue can surely be resolved in nine months. Will the Minister confirm to the House that the issue is finally resolved and that there will be no further hardship caused to the people on illness benefit, which is in itself a hardship payment?
A transition to a new information technology system in August led to a number of people on illness benefit receiving partial or no payments during recent months. Following remedial action taken by the Department in recent days, however, payment levels have now returned to normal. Action taken on two occasions last week led to 54,000 payments being issued. The normal activity is 50,000 payments. Unless Deputy Brassil has information to the contrary, every single person due an outstanding payment this week received his or her payment this week. Some people are still awaiting arrears from previous weeks, but every single person entitled to illness benefit in the last week has received a payment in the last week.
I am not happy with our communications over the couple of weeks. Most people in our Department and in this House will accept that our Department is especially customer-focused and is particularly engaged in communications. More than 6,000 people work, week in and week out-----
-----to ensure they provide this service to the people entirely dependent upon it. We have said that on a number of occasions. I am not, however, entirely satisfied with the way things have been communicated in the last couple of weeks and, in particular, how we have resolved it. It took longer than we expected to resolve it. I have commissioned an independent review of how the changes in the illness benefit scheme were deployed, how they were implemented and how they were communicated both to stakeholders and to citizens and participants in that scheme. I will come back to the Deputies when I have that.
Last week the Health Service Executive, HSE, made a decision to remove the X-ray room from the planned extension to the accident and emergency department at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda. Those plans have been in place for ten years and the X-ray room was costed and included in the tender. Medical professionals have for years been crying out because of the need for a second X-ray room. The only X-ray room at the hospital is beyond full capacity and the equipment in it is ten years old and obsolete. X-ray is a major diagnostic tool for 80% of patients who go through accident and emergency departments. For the HSE to indicate it will go ahead with an extension to the accident and emergency department without an X-ray room is pure madness. It is like building a house without a roof.
Did the Minister for Health or his Department instruct the HSE to remove the X-ray room from the plans that were in situfor ten years? Will the Minister stand over the madness of a myopic mindset evident in senior HSE management that ignores front-line staff who, for years, have cried out for a second X-ray room? Will he instead do his job and instruct the HSE to revert to the original plans, with the inclusion of an X-ray room in the extension to the accident and emergency department? The current position is pure and utter madness.
I am quite sure the Minister for Health made no such direction and it would not be normal practice for a health Minister to get involved with the detailed design of a hospital, any more than an education Minister would be involved with the detailed design of a university or school. I will inform the Minister, who cannot be here because he is attending a committee meeting, that the matter has been raised and ask him to provide the Deputy with a written answer.