Wednesday, 7 November 2018
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
The programme for Government refers to cross-party consensus on healthcare planning and a shared vision. Yesterday, the Taoiseach responded to my question – it is a pity he is not here today for my follow-up to it – about why the winter plan for hospitals had not yet been published. A report stated the plan should be published by July. The Taoiseach declared in a narky response that it was all the fault of nurses and consultants. The bottom line is that he insulted those at the front line. It was a classic case of blaming somebody else. When I asked him where the plan was, he said I should not mind the plan that is produced and talked about his own plan. He said the plans for the past six years were useless. That is more or less what he said. He attacked successive Fine Gael Ministers for producing winter plans that apparently had no impact. He told us at the time by the way that they would have a great impact. We were told every year they would have a great impact and now, hey presto, yesterday, when we asked where the latest winter plan is he said it was the fault of the nurses and doctors. Apparently, they do not turn up at Christmas time. That is what he said yesterday.
He said it was appropriate that there should be a critical mass of doctors and nurses on duty and support services, including laboratories, should be available at the most challenging time for the health service. That is not an unreasonable point to make.
Yesterday, the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment discussed the Digital Safety Commissioner Bill, which I proposed. The Bill is supported by the ISPCC, CyberSafeIreland and the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman. Industry bodies were also quite open to the concept yesterday. The Government’s action plan for online safety states that it will implement actions that address many of the same objectives of the Bill. The previous Minister broadly supported the Bill, as does the Fine Gael Chairman of the committee, Deputy Naughton. However, it is still not entirely clear whether the Taoiseach or the new Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, are in favour of such an office. Online safety is the key children’s safety issue of our time and we need to act. We need a regulator with real powers. Is the Government in favour of this kind of office? Will the Minister answer that question as directly as he can? Will the Government work with me and the committee to ensure that this office is established as soon as possible?
While I am not aware of promised legislation by the Government on this issue, I appreciate the Deputy’s interest and the committee’s interest in the matter. If we are to move from self-regulation to a statutory oversight in this area, we need to make sure that the law is sufficiently effective and robust to meet the challenges all of us want in terms of-----
I raise with the Minister the commitment in the programme for Government to reduce outpatient waiting lists and waiting times, in particular waiting times for ear, nose and throat, ENT, services in the south east based in Waterford University Hospital. We have been told repeatedly by the manager of the hospital that the waiting time to be seen in the outpatients’ department of Waterford University Hospital is now four years. One case relates to a child of 15 who is on antibiotics for acute tonsillitis. We have been told that the hospital cannot give a date for an appointment but that waiting times are currently in excess of 48 months. I have seen waiting times of 51 months in the same department. What is the Government going to do to address that or is the commitment to the programme for Government entirely fatuous?
As a former Minister in the Department of Health, the Deputy knows there is not a short answer to questions such as the one he raised. Everybody accepts that the waiting lists are far too long. They are unacceptable and not good enough. The issue is what we do and how we do it, which will take a fundamental shift. A one line answer from me today would not wipe 700,000 people from the outpatient waiting lists.
That is the cross-party approach to dealing with the challenges in the health service. It is a radical, drastic reorientation of how we deliver services because the system we have is not doing that, as we all accept.
I welcome to the Gallery five parents from various parts of Ireland and Britain. They are Vera Twomey, Callie Blackwell, Tannine Montgomery, Danielle Davis and Karen Grey.
Currently these parents are treating their children with medical cannabis.
I missed Deputy Micheál Martin's contribution.
The policy on medical cannabis from this Government is absolutely shambolic. One year ago to the day, a majority of the House voted to let the Bill for medical cannabis proceed to the next stage. The Government has basically put in place an embargo.
Time is of the essence. Currently people have to leave the country to get access to medicinal cannabis via licence. It gets worse. Parents of children have to access medical cannabis illegally to treat the conditions. As long as there is ambiguity and a lack of legislative change we will have this chaotic situation.
It has been two years since the Health Products Regulatory Authority report. It has been one year since our legislation. What is it going to be? Will it be our legislation or the HPRA report?
The House subsequently overturned that decision - I am aware of that - but the Bill has not progressed since.
The Government has taken a twin-track approach to this, as the Deputy will be aware. Products with tetrahydrocannabinol are subject to licence where the applicant has a medical consultant who is leading the request. To the best of my knowledge none of those applications has been refused. Then there is the case of non-THC medicinal products. The Department has engaged extensively and is looking at international best practice to see how we can progress that issue.
I will ask a question that comes under the remit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It relates to the over-population of deer. Farmers, householders, road-users and everyone else are threatened and intimidated by these animals. Certainly, they are nice animals but they are creatures of habit and they cross roads in west Waterford and south Tipperary to go for water. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae informs me that in Galway and Kerry they come in the door. It is a major problem and we need a cull by the Department because accidents are happening. Farmers cannot keep their fences up. They cannot keep their crops. Even when farmers put out food in the winter in the troughs the deer are so populous – there may be 12 or 20 deer in a field – that they eat it all. All the cash crops are being destroyed by them.
Will the Minister and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine instigate a major cull? Before the animal welfare people jump down my throat, it is a health and safety issue and a human safety issue. It is also the case that they are doing major damage to agriculture. People are being killed in cars where deer have jumped on top of them.
Obviously, a balance must be struck between looking after and protecting the deer and looking after safety and traffic measures. If Deputy McGrath wishes to make an application to the Department, we can look at it.
I wish to draw the attention of the members of the Government to page 102 of the programme for Government. It states:
We will pursue a balanced migration policy that supports our economy and meets our international and humanitarian obligations, whilst also taking a tough approach to tackling illegal migration. We are committed to supporting a humanitarian response to the current refugee crisis and providing a safe haven to those who come to Ireland under EU programmes.
I wish to put on record that I support that programme and our party supports that programme. However, I really must attack this Government for the way it has treated communities with regard to setting up possible centres.
Over the weekend in the village of Rooskey, which is eight miles from my place on the County Leitrim side, we were told that a refugee centre was moving to the old Shannon Key West Hotel. No one in the community has been informed. A meeting has been organised by some of the people involved with community groups only. They have picked special people to go into it. As a local Deputy, I was not even asked. I imagine Deputy Martin Kenny, as the Deputy on the Leitrim side, was not asked.
Why is the Government doing this under a secret type of cover? Why is the Government not coming to the communities? By the way, the communities will take on this challenge and support those people. The people who are bringing this in are saying we are going to have extra teachers in the school and extra support for the doctors, but these things are not happening. They did not happen in Ballaghaderreen either. Communities are prepared to support these people but I appeal to the Government to give back-up to communities to help and assist them.
I appreciate the Deputy's concerns in this area. I acknowledge that the community in Roscommon has previously extended a céad míle fáilte to people in direct provision centres. That has to be acknowledged.
I am not aware of the specific case raised by Deputy Murphy but I will arrange to bring it to the attention of the relevant Minister and ask him to communicate directly with the Deputy.
A total of 25 children in the country suffer with spinal muscular atrophy. Sam and Glen both live in my area. It is a degenerative condition. There is hope for them and there is treatment called Spinraza. I have raised the question in the House before and I have been told that following the evaluation process it has not been approved.
If it has not been approved but is available in other European countries, do we need to review the evaluation process? Page 64 of the programme for Government commits to engaging with European partners to make these types of drugs available. Our partners in Europe have made it available but we have not.
While all this goes on, can we look at having a compassionate programme made available for these children?
I wish to speak on the same issue that my colleague has raised. I have written to the Minister for Health previously regarding the provision of Spinraza for children suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, more commonly known as SMA. I raised the matter previously in the Dáil along with other party members. It has been acknowledged by the HSE that the drug works well and that it is now solely an issue of cost.
Several of the affected families attended a demonstration at the gates of Leinster House in September. One of the families was from my county of Kilkenny. They are waiting in desperation for an answer on this drug. It would make a major difference to the life of their young son. Can the Minister provide an update on the provision of funding for this drug? Has the HSE scheduled any further meetings to discuss this drug? I have raised this before. We have mentioned it several times. We are being told that it is being looked at. It is now time for action not talk.
I have addressed this previously and I know Deputy Curran and Deputy Aylward have raised it numerous times previously. A decision is imminent but it is not a political decision. The Deputies opposite are well aware of that. It is an independent process underpinned by the law passed in this House. The decisions are not taken by the Minister of the day. They are taken by the HSE on the basis of a process to be gone through with the companies, which are charging vast amounts of money.
The amount of money we are spending on drugs is a serious challenge for the overall health service. It is a difficult process to get the balance right. We keep in the centre of that process the children who are impacted by this and the urgency to get the drugs.
Deputy Curran asked about a compassionate programme. That is something I will have to raise with the senior Minister. I will come back to him on that point and on the possibility of progressing something like that.
I appreciate the urgency attaching to this, as does the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. We have to let the independent process come to what it a difficult decision to get the balance right between value for money, while ensuring the process is expedient and addresses the needs of these children.
Page 48 of the programme for Government seems to be missing from the Government copy because it outlines all the Government will do for the post office network. As the Government is aware 159 branches are closing. A total of 50 are gone and a further 100 will be gone by the end of the year. There is a further crisis in that approximately 60 have advertised looking for postmasters but only five or six offers have been taken up, such it is an issue with the contract.
I have put on record the rigged process that has been put in place with regard to the independent review of these closures. I gave two examples, but I am sure they are replicated elsewhere. In Ballinphull, Sligo, the decision was taken before the closing date for the receipt of submissions. It was taken without all the information. Gurteen is another example from Sligo. In that case the independent reviewer's report is being withheld by An Post and the company is refusing the community the opportunity to let it be seen. That has given rise to suspicion locally that a positive report came back from the independent reviewer but because it does not suit An Post the company is not going to release it.
Does the new Minister intend to continue in the same vein as his predecessor, that is to say, on autopilot when it comes to this issue? Is the Government going to accept its responsibilities to rural communities and take some action on this matter?
What we have is a rigged process where the Government is allowing a third-party organisation, An Post and a trade union to wipe out rural communities nationwide. I have called out an independent review process that is totally rigged and flawed. I have put proof on the record of the House but I have had no answer from anyone across the floor on the matter.
The negotiated agreements are being honoured by An Post. The critical issue in securing the continued survival of post offices is their level of usage because that is what determines the remuneration available to postmasters.
On page 46 of the programme for Government Fine Gael outlines a guarantee to deliver high speed broadband to every home and business in the country by 2022. In the same document it indicated that a contract would be signed by a bidder in or about June 2017, but that did not happen. In the light of the delays, will the Minister outline the Government's commitment to roll out high speed broadband to 100% homes in rural Ireland by 2022? Will he tell us what the status is of the Peter Smith review of the tendering process which was necessitated by certain recent activities?
It remains the Government's commitment to roll out the national broadband plan at the earliest possible date. The terms of reference of the review to be carried out by Mr. Smith have been finalised. I am not sure if it is time bound by the Department, the Government or the Minister involved, but we will let Mr. Smith have access to whatever information he requires. The tender was submitted on 18 September and the evaluation process continues. It is highly complex. I believe the draft contract runs to approximately 1,600 pages; therefore, it is extraordinarily complicated, but it is the Government's stated intention to proceed with the roll-out of high speed broadband to the areas that currently do not have access to it-----
Tá Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla nó an tAcht leasaithe á phlé le fada. Tá sé geallta agus tá dianphlé déanta air le fada. Tá Coiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus na nOileán tar éis é seo a phlé leis na heagraíochtaí éagsúla arís. Cá théann an tAcht as seo anois? Cathain a bheidh an tAcht leasaithe seo ag teacht chun cinn? Cad é an chéad chéim eile agus cathain a bheidh an tAcht leasaithe foilsithe?
Bhí mé i láthair ag an gcomhchoiste inné, mar is eol don Teachta, agus d'fhreagair mé an cheist ag an am sin. Tá an Bille sin idir mo Roinn féin agus Oifig an Ard-Aighne agus tá me dóchasach go mbeidh an Bille foilsithe roimh dheireadh na bliana.
During the tenure of the Government rural Ireland has been hurt a great deal. I refer to the Bill brought forward by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, the closure of post offices, mentioned by Deputy MacSharry, and the closing down of Bord na Móna in the heart of the country. Counties such as Kildare, Offaly, Longford and Roscommon and villages such as Bracknagh and Daingean are being seriously hurt and affected. I refer to rural areas, even the town of Edenderry.
I am appealing to the Minister not to hurt people in rural areas anymore by stopping them from cutting their own turf because if he points an arrow in that direction, it will result in an almighty battle. Given the way the people in rural areas are hurting-----
-----but I do not accept his premise that rural Ireland is in some way deliberately being disadvantaged by the Department - far from it. As he is aware, the thrust of Government policy in Project Ireland 2040 and investment will be to skew investment in favour of the regions. It follows on the policy we pursued in the context of the Action Plan for Jobs which saw employment growing in all regions. The Deputy will be aware that as late as last Monday his constituency colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, opened a new €30 million water treatment plant in the constituency.
Last year, at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, when the cover-up of fire safety breaches was finally fully uncovered by the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, he stated he felt Western Building Systems, WBS, school buildings were being built to the highest possible standards. I would like to know why he was able to give that assurance. Was it because the Department was looking at the particular projects and examining them carefully or because the companies it employed, including Kerrigan Sheanon Newman, KSN, which it is still employing to run the crisis response, were advising it that the buildings were built built to the highest possible standards? We are now finding out that they were not. On what basis did the Minister give that information and why then did it change?
Ba mhaith liom an cheist sin a fhreagairt don Teachta fosta. It is very important to point out that while the fire assessments were being carried out from quarter 4 in 2017 through to the end of August this year, concerns and potential concerns were being highlighted about fire safety issues, including fire walls, fire stops, door jams, etc. However, it was not until the physical invasive works were carried out - they were carried out at Ardgillan over two weeks ago - that structural issues were found. When the former Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, commented that he was satisfied, he was doing so on the understanding the certificates of compliance had been adhered to by the contractor and the designers. He had no way of finding out what was going on inside the cavity walls. We have a very clear example at Ardgillan of an unacceptable level of workmanship. I intend to get to the bottom of that matter and also in the other 42 schools to ensure whatever remedial action is needed will be taken. In terms of taxpayers' money, accountability and culpability, we will pursue every channel to ensure there is accountability in respect of the people who were in the wrong and that they will pay for it.
I refer to the commitment on page 109 of the programme for Government to protect farm incomes. My question concerns hardship payments to farmers whose stock could be locked up owing to the presence of TB and who are waiting for various veterinary inspections to be carried out. The 60-day rule applies in the summer, as well as in the winter. We have had 18 months of bad weather. In response to queries to my office I ask the Minister to consider pulling back the waiting time from 60 days to 30 or even less.
I appreciate the difficulties a TB outbreak can bring in terms of farm income. The current scheme has been designed to recognise such challenges and reflects how the Department might respond in the most appropriate way. I do not have any plan on my desk to immediately review the structure of the scheme, but I will take on board the Deputy's observations. I engage regularly with the farm organisations on these matters and will keep the matter under review.
On a number of occasions, including in the programme for Government, the Government has committed to reduce the cost of insurance. The Minister will be aware of a recent report which indicates that in this country the average payout for whiplash is €20,000, as opposed to under £4,000 in the United Kingdom, which is an absolute disgrace. Does it not guarantee that insurance premiums will remain high and continue to rise?
What precisely has the Government done in fulfilment of that commitment since the programme for Government was published two and a half years ago and what does it intend to do in the future?
I do not have the detail on all of that. I know that my colleague the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy D'Arcy, has been chairing a working group looking at all of those issues. I am aware that the Personal Injuries Assessment Board recently published that figure, which shows that the level of compensation is significantly out of line with international comparators. In the UK it is in the region of £4,500, if my recollection of headlines in recent newspapers is correct. That feeds into the premiums that make it a challenge for businesses to remain open. I will ask my colleague to communicate with the Deputy directly on the detail of this.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to reform the appeals structure for farmers who have suffered penalties under various schemes. Unfortunately, penalties are on the increase at the moment. Particularly in my county, farmers' confidence in the appeals structure is at an all-time low. When will legislation to reform the appeals structure come before the House?
The first thing I would say is that the appeals process, which is independent of the Department, is an invaluable service to farmers. I am aware of instances where farmers have felt aggrieved by a decision of the Department interpreting the rules and regulations surrounding schemes and have appealed successfully. I encourage farmers to avail of the process. Yes, in the programme for Government we did undertake a review, and we have accepted all of its contents, as the Deputy is aware. To the best of my knowledge, the review was considered before the Oireachtas committee, and we are taking all the necessary steps to implement its findings.
It is stated on page 74 of the programme for Government that "Carers are the backbone of care provision in this country". For the carers and their families, the reality is quite different. For example, a person who is caring for someone who is admitted temporarily to hospital will have his or her carer's allowance stopped if the patient is in hospital for 13 weeks or longer, even though in many cases that carer is at the patient's bedside. Many of these cases involve children. Will the Government look at this and make the system more carer-friendly and family-friendly in these cases?
As the Deputy may be aware, we have reviewed the overall scheme for carers. That review is complete. We are intent on providing care for people in the home and making care available to them in the home on a more fair and equitable basis. As part of that commitment, we intend to improve the conditions for carers as well as the provision of care.
A five-year strategy document has been completed by the Irish Harness Racing Association, IHRA. It was signed off by the IHRA's board. The Department is in the process of signing off on it also. A two-year application has been submitted for 2019 funding, that is, seed funding and recurring funding. Will the Minister acknowledge that seed funding on its own is not enough to be sustainable for the board, and will he do his best to assist this very worthwhile organisation in the great work it is doing?
I have had some engagement with the Irish Harness Racing Association, as I know Members of the House have. As I understand it, the IHRA is a constituent member of Horse Sport Ireland, HSI, to which we increased funding in the budget. We have engaged with the IHRA and sought a strategy document from it. I have engaged directly in the past two weeks. At that stage I understood that the document was about to be submitted, but I have not personally seen a final draft.
We recognise that this is an activity that needs to be supported and regulated. We look forward to working with the IHRA. Additional direct funding for IHRA in 2019 is now especially challenging because the budget arrangements for 2019 have been concluded. I will look at the document and engage further with the IHRA.
In the programme for Government a commitment is given to support third level students, particularly through the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant. I remind the Minister of an anomaly in the assessment of distances for the adjacent and non-adjacent grant. SUSI uses Google Maps in this assessment, which in many cases will direct students to roads that are secondary or tertiary and in many cases barely passable. I ask that we change the assessment tool to the AA route planner, as is used for assessing distances for our own travel arrangements as Deputies? If it is good enough for us, it should be good enough for SUSI to use in assessing the adjacent and non-adjacent rates. This is very significant, because trying to bring somebody by the shortest route from their home will often bring them on roads that are impassable and unsafe.
Statistics have shown us that Irish women are among the least likely in Europe to report crimes of domestic violence and abuse. We have to do more to support and enable these victims. Seven months have passed since the Domestic Violence Act 2018, introduced on 1 February 2017, passed all Stages of the Oireachtas. This is groundbreaking legislation. It moves to a more victim-centred approach and is very important legislation. Not a single piece of this Act has been commenced. Will the Minister please tell us when we can expect this legislation to be commenced?
The programme for Government makes a clear commitment to reduce the waiting times for surgery in hospitals. A lady from my constituency contacted me yesterday. She has a blocked artery in her leg which was diagnosed over a year ago, and she is scheduled for surgery in University Hospital Galway. Her appointment was cancelled and has been cancelled five times since. The next time it was due was next Tuesday. In the beginning, when she was diagnosed with the problem, the consultant prescribed the use of what is called an artery assist machine. She was told this would be short-term, but now her appointment has been cancelled so often that it has cost her €3,000 over the year. She is a medical card holder, but the HSE refuses to fund it. It is a continuing situation in our health service that people feel they are pushed to the back all the time and the cost is always put on the individual. It has to stop. The resources must be put in place to ensure that surgeries happen in the required timeframe.
More than 12 months ago, in the Minister's backyard of Charleville, the Taoiseach committed to the development of the M20 motorway from Cork to Limerick. Since then, major Government announcements have committed to it. However, we cannot seem to get a timeframe from the Government. What concerns me is that only a few months ago, metro north plans to build a subway from north Dublin to south Dublin were released. Within a few months, the Government was able to amend the design with the stroke of a pen, at an extra cost to the taxpayer of €100 million. Why is it that we cannot get a material commitment on when the motorway from Cork to Limerick is going to be started and its date of completion? We should be able to get some idea, because plans are already in the Department.
I will take the first question from Deputy Brassil. Deputies will find that when people come to me with suggestions and common-sense and practical solutions to issues, I am all ears. I thank the Deputy for raising that issue. It is one that came up in my own county when we were looking at closest distances and the nearest school rule. Roads that were virtually impassable for buses were earmarked as routes. If there are practical solutions concerning distances and the adjacent and non-adjacent rule, I am certainly interested in bringing them into the debate with my officials. I will raise it with them very shortly.
To answer Deputy O'Loughlin's question on domestic violence legislation, I am not aware of the detail around the commencement. I agree with the Deputy that this is a heinous crime, and we need the full legislative arsenal to deal with those who are guilty of it. I will ask my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, to communicate with the Deputy directly.
On Deputy Kenny's point, as he is aware, there is significant increased funding for the National Treatment Purchase Fund in the budget for 2019. I hope that will deliver a solution. I accept that many thousands of people await surgery. There are initiatives pertaining to that fund to help reduce those waiting lists.
The M20 is critical infrastructure that traverses Deputy O'Keeffe's constituency and my own and is critical to regional development.
The Taoiseach gave a commitment that this would be prioritised in the context of Project Ireland 2040. As the Deputy will no doubt be aware, moving from approval in principle through all of the necessary hoops is not easy. I acknowledge, however, that much of the preparatory work will have been done previously but I am not sure whether it is all transferable at this stage. I will ask the line Minister to communicate directly with the Deputy on the matter.