Wednesday, 21 November 2018
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
There is a very good article in the Irish Mirrortoday which details the tremendous attraction that Government Ministers have for golf clubs and the extraordinary lengths to which they went to lobby for lottery grants for such clubs. There was a time when golf clubs were excluded from sports grants given that many thought that the clubs' own resources were enough to sustain them. What concerns me is that many clubs in disadvantaged areas did not get lottery grants and have not been treated with the proper priority. If one takes the sport of boxing, for example, boxing at club level has been very neglected in many localities. Boxing clubs could do with significant allocations in terms of facilities and so on. They have far fewer resources than many of the golf clubs that secured allocations as a result of ministerial interventions over the last while. The issue of disadvantage and partnership areas used to attract a very significant premium in terms of the allocation of lottery grants. That seems to have been eroded over time. I ask the Government to address that and to look after those who did not get grants on the last occasion.
Every single valid application made under the local element of the 2017 sports capital programme received funding in 2017 in direct proportion to the amount sought and the number of points scored by the particular application, based on the per capitaper county system which was in place.
All applications from Dublin that were deemed valid received the full amount sought. In 2018, we have a new programme worth more than €40 million, which has just closed for applications and they are being processed at the moment. Golf clubs were eligible for funding in 2017 and they are eligible again in 2018. There is a provision within the Department under which clubs that charge extortionate fees and in which access is not available are excluded from the programme.
The article referred to representations that were made in respect of golf clubs. Thousands of representations are made in respect of all types of sporting clubs and golf clubs are not the only ones on which representations are made. The article was seriously misleading and very damaging to the reputation of what is a very positive programme for sports participation.
I understand the Cabinet yesterday gave the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, the go-ahead to bring forward a Bill to provide for a referendum that, if passed, would ensure the continued public ownership of water services. The Taoiseach spoke earlier about cross-party consensus, which he seems to support at this juncture. I remind the Government that the protection of public ownership of water services was a key recommendation of both the expert commission on domestic water services and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. I believe it is a measure that is supported by a majority of Teachtaí in the Dáil and, more important, the vast majority of citizens. Could we have an indication of when we might see the Bill? Could we also have an indication of when the referendum might be brought to the people?
The timing of any constitutional referendum is a matter for the Oireachtas to decide. There is no threat to the public supply of water. As we all know, Deputy Niall Collins has been progressing a Bill on holding a referendum on a constitutional change and we have been working on that through the joint Oireachtas committee system. I secured approval from the Cabinet yesterday to put potential wording for an amendment to the Deputy's Bill to the Attorney General's office. The Attorney General will now consider that to make sure that when we come to table the amendment on Committee Stage the wording is robust and will not have unintended consequences or capture parts of the system that are currently managed by private group water schemes.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the national broadband procurement plan. This morning, it was announced on "Morning Ireland" that the Peter Smyth report had indicated that the process to procure the national broadband plan had not been undermined by contact between the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, and Mr. David McCourt. It quoted a number of Government sources and their interpretation of the report. Why are a number of Government sources interpreting a report that has not been published and when will people see the report?
I wish I knew because a number of Government sources have not seen the report. The only people in the Government who have it are the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, and I.
I have no idea how that kind of thing transpires, but the position is as it was yesterday. The report is with the Attorney General and he may need to redact parts of it for reasons of commercial sensitivity. It has been given to individuals who are not members of the Government and are named in it to allow for their opinion.
It is my intention to publish the report as soon as I can, preferably in the next couple of days.
I ask for the Ceann Comhairle's indulgence on one point. The leader of the Opposition repeated the idea again that somehow last October I committed to a carbon tax increase in the recent budget. I have heard a few people make that false claim. I will now read out what I said in August.
I said that we were very much of the view that if we were going to meet our climate change obligations, we would have to grasp the nettle in increasing the carbon tax over the next couple of years, but very much recognising that some people who are in poverty and those who are most vulnerable can be the worst affected by that, so there would have to be compensatory measures.
I said we would be working on proposals to set a price for carbon and then bring the tax up to that over a period of time. We would, I said, need to talk to the main Opposition party about that and agree at Government but I thought it a necessary part of our climate change obligations.
What I said in August is what I said here. I never said or committed to a carbon tax increase in the recent budget.
I remind the Taoiseach and his Government about commitments they made to people with disabilities in the programme for Government because he seems to have forgotten about them. The Government said it would improve services, increase supports for people with disabilities, remove barriers to access and provide greater independence in accessing services they choose and place them in a stronger position to tailor supports to meet their needs and plan their lives. Last week, I asked about the utterly disgraceful decision of the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI, which is funded by the HSE, to close down the NCBI office that provides supports to the blind and visually impaired in the entire Dún Laoghaire area, as far down as east Wicklow and up to Ringsend. I got something that looked like assurances from the HSE, although they were slightly ambiguous, that there would be a review and nothing would happen until the review had taken place then, lo and behold, staff were let go this week. The staff, as the visually impaired and blind community will say, are the service. They are distraught that the local office is being closed. People who are elderly and find it difficult to travel are being told they have to go to Tallaght to access services. It is utterly disgraceful. I got a letter from the Minister with-----
My question relates to rural post offices. I am pleased the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is here this afternoon as he refused to come into the Chamber recently to discuss a Topical Issue matter. This is becoming a pattern among Ministers.
An action committee was set up in support of the post office in Newcastle, An Caisleán Nua, in Tipperary. It worked very hard and submitted what I deemed to be a first class professional appeal to the appeals committee that was set up in An Post by the Minister's predecessor. I and other public representatives got a letter on Monday saying the appeal was rejected and the post office would close on 1 February. The action committee that collaborated with the Minister and his staff has not even had the gratification of receiving a reply yet or a yea or nay. Is this the way the so-called independent review body is dealing with the action groups of decent people set up through public meetings who volunteered to work hard, who are being treated in this shambolic way by the Government and its agents in An Post?
It is as if they have been given a slap in the face without even the courtesy of a letter or a reply. I want the Minister to answer, please.
An Post negotiated an arrangement with the postmasters whereby certain people are withdrawing. An Post has entered into commitments that there will be maximum distances from post offices where that occurs.
There are other elements to the protocol. An Post has established an independent person to assess appeals under this process. The person is independent, as I have said. I am not answerable for the decisions of the independent person.
Ní dóigh liom go bhfuil aon rud san uisce ach is dóigh go bhfuil club na mbuachaillí beo bríomhar, faraor.
Is polasaí reatha an Stáit oideachas lán-Ghaeilge ar ardchaighdeán a chur ar fáil. Tá sé sin sa straitéis 20 bliain. Faraor, in 2017 fuair an Coimisinéir Teanga nach raibh an Roinn ag teacht leis an bpolasaí sin agus gur sháraigh sí forálacha an Acht Oideachais nuair a cheap sí patrún ar scoil nua i Marino i nDroim Conrach. Ag eascairt as na conclúidí damanta sin, sheol an Roinn Oideachais agus Scileanna litir chuig an gComisinéir Teanga i mí Aibreáin na bliana seo. Laistigh den litir gheall sí go raibh sí chun an córas a cheartú. In ainneoin an tréimhse ama atá imithe agus in ainneoin na ngeallúintí, níl an córas ceartaithe agus, níos measa fós, tá próiseas eile patrúnachta fógartha ag an Roinn do 12 scoil an bhliain seo chugainn gan an córas a bheith ceartaithe. Tá drogall orm é a rá, ach ba cheart an próiseas a chur ar athló anois go dtí go bhfuil an córas ceartaithe.
D'athraigh an t-iarAire, an Teachta Bruton, an polasaí ó thaobh an chóras patrúnachta do scoileanna. Tá deiseanna anois ag tuismitheoirí a rá cad go díreach atá siad ag iarraidh ó thaobh patrúnachta i gcomhair aon scoil nua. Beidh mé in ann teacht ar ais chuig an Teachta maidir leis an scéal is déanaí. Beidh mé ag labhairt leis an Aire, Deputy McHugh, faoi sin.
The last initial public offering for the sale of a quarter of Allied Irish Banks was at a price of €4.50 per share. This morning AIB shares were selling at €3.79. That must make it difficult for the State to consider selling on any further stake, given that the revenue would be far lower than previously and the Government would be undermining the shareholders who have already bought in.
The bank has lost its chief executive, unfortunately, or the chief operating officer and is in a difficult environment, as the head of the European Central Bank, Mr. Draghi, said when he came to the House. He said the banking model is changing.
I am keen to find out the Government's latest plans with regard to AIB. Will the Government consider converting the bank into a public bank along the Sparkassen model? It could be involved in revitalising small business lending throughout the island. That would be in the good proud tradition of that bank and its constituent banks, going back to the days of Munster and Leinster Bank and beyond. What are the Government plans with AIB given that the share price is so low and the bank does not have a chief executive?
The Deputy will know as well as I do that share prices go up and down. It was over €5 earlier this year and has fallen considerably since then. There are many reasons for that.
We have no plans to sell any more shares in AIB currently, but over time or at the right time when the share price is good we intend to divest the Government stake in AIB further and use that money to pay down the debt. One reason we are able to borrow so cheaply on the markets at the moment is the fact that our budget is balanced and because the markets understand our commitment to use any sales of shares or any windfall from NAMA to reduce debt. If we were to depart from that policy we would find it could cost us a lot very quickly. The markets have already priced that into their calculations.
Page 74 of the programme for Government states that carers are the backbone of care provision in this country. Currently, it is taking 18 to 20 weeks for carers to get approved. These delays are unacceptable in the round but they become especially contemptible in circumstances where the person to be cared for is dying of cancer. My office has now witnessed several incidents where a person to be cared for is dead before the carer's grant is decided. Often these are people who cannot afford care in their dying days by their own means. Surely when there is medical evidence of terminal cancer an exceptional case can be made and a rapid decision on a carer's grant can be made.
I acknowledge that there are some very long delays for people applying for carer's allowance and carer's benefit. A process has to be followed. Obviously, someone has to apply. There is a means test element to the process as well. An applicant needs a medical report establishing that the person requires full-time care. It is always going to take a few weeks to process applications but it should not take as long as it is taking now in some circumstances.
I know the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Doherty, is working on that to see if we can speed it up. She has made some changes to the application for domiciliary care allowance and the change has reduced the time to four or five weeks. Perhaps we can follow the same model for carer's allowance and carer's benefit. The Department can pay back-pay once the entitlement is established.
In recent budgets the Government increased the minimum wage and social welfare payments by €5 per week. The budgets also saw the USC ceiling and PRSI thresholds increased to ensure that the increases the Government was paying to people were received. That was good insofar as it went. The increases were modest and welcome but they did not make people wealthy. Largely, they meant that the people who received those increases were keeping pace with the increased costs they were meeting in their daily lives. However, other income thresholds across other grants and schemes have not kept pace with changes. In particular, the student grant scheme has not gone up. The same applies to thresholds for medical cards, the GP card and the over 70s card.
Will the Taoiseach review income thresholds across all Departments for grants and schemes to ensure they increase in line with budget day announcements and increases? If a person gets an increase in social welfare payments that is modest but loses a medical card or fails to get a third-level grant, he or she is at a big loss. That is the problem we must address.
Deputy Curran makes a valid point. We can have perverse situations whereby someone gets an increase in pay or in a welfare payment and as a result loses entitlement to a medical card or a grant and then, in net terms, ends up worse off. Overall, of course, people are better off but we can have individual cases where people end up worse off.
The income limits are under review. They do not have to be done on budget day; they can be done during the year. For example, in March the income limit for the general practitioner visit card will increase by €25 per week per adult. That is a far greater increase than people would have got from the minimum wage increases or welfare changes. A similar commitment is made for the medical card for pensioners. The idea is that pensioners would not lose the medical card because of a €5 per week increase in the pension. The short answer is "Yes", but it is not necessarily all done on budget day.
The numbers of people on trolleys throughout the country is vast. In University Hospital Kerry the situation is no different. Often, when elderly people are well enough to leave hospital they are told that they should access the fair deal scheme and go into a nursing home. Many elderly people are reluctant to do this because they believe the next step is the graveyard. They see it as the departure lounge.
We could do far better for these elderly people if more public health nurses were provided and if more home help was provided to look after these people in their own homes. Many of them would prefer that. However, they are only able to get home help for five days.
That is not good enough because they are sick and need attention seven days a week, including on bank holidays and other holidays. I appeal to the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Ministers of State at his Department to do something about this issue. It is creating a logjam in hospitals.
We are facing into a winter of discontent for health services. High numbers on trolleys, late discharges which have led to the loss of 135,000 bed days already this year, and 6,200 people awaiting home care supports compound the issue. Will the Minister for Health advise when the HSE's national service plan will be published and in place in order that the correct preparations can be made by service providers?
I am pleased that the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, and I were today able to announce funding for 550 extra home care packages in the period between now and the end of the winter. This will help significantly to address the issue about which Deputy Butler rightly talks of trying to reduce the number of delayed discharges in order that people can actually-----
I believe over 300 will be in place by the end of the year, but I will revert to the Deputy in that regard. I believe there will be 300 this year and 200 next year. We will see a reduction in the number of delayed discharges. I have specifically asked the Minister of State to lead a task force in the Department which will work with the HSE to drive down the numbers. At the request of the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Griffin, I asked the special delivery unit in the HSE to visit Kerry University Hospital to look at how we can continue to improve and support it. It will also benefit from the extra home care packages.
Project Ireland 2040 foresees the population of Cork city expanding by 115,000 to 350,000 and the population of the metropolitan area to around 400,000. Increasingly there is consensus that such growth is not sustainable if based on a heavy reliance on cars. Cork needs more buses, bus rapid transit and probably light rail services. In January I raised the issue of the Cork metropolitan transport strategy with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport who said it would be published in February and subject to public consultation, but there is still no sign of it. Like so many issues affecting Cork, it appears that the Government is dragging its feet. When will the strategy be published and when will it be subject to public consultation?
I do not have the timelines, but I will ask the office of the Minister, Deputy Ross, to correspond with the Deputy on the matter. The fundamental point made by him is correct. The population of Cork is going to grow by 50% between now and 2040. That cannot happen in conjunction with a reliance on cars, which is why Project Ireland 2040 contains hundreds of millions of euros for BusConnects in Cork and protects the alignment of a potential light railway also. We also have to invest in roads, which is why projects such as the Dunkettle interchange project, for example, will start next year, tender documents have been issued for the M20 motorway project and we are very keen to progress the road project to Ringaskiddy.
In the programme for Government there is a commitment to provide for special needs education. I want to ask the Taoiseach about his commitment to deliver the eagerly awaited autism spectrum disorder, ASD, behavioural unit at St. Claire's national school in Ballyjamesduff. There are many concerned and worried parents who have to take their children with special needs to other units much greater distances from their homes, including, for example, the early intervention centre in Mullagh. Ballyjamesduff covers a huge area and the unit is badly needed. We expect the unit to be in place and fully operational in September 2019. Can the Taoiseach give a commitment that that will be the case?
I am afraid that I do not have any information to hand on that project, but I can certainly ask the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to correspond with the Deputy on it. Perhaps the Deputy might raise it as the subject of a parliamentary question or a Topical Issues matter.
In reading the health section in the programme for Government one might think the Government intends to provide a better health service for all. In its approach to many health issues it has, in fact, been very blasé. On the issue of the cervical screening programme, one of my constituents had her test in mid-July, but she has not yet received the results. It usually takes four weeks for the results to be sent, but four and a half months have gone by without a response, which is totally unacceptable. She used the words "fear", "stress" and "worry" in speaking to me about the matter during a long telephone conversation. Does the Taoiseach or the Minister for Health have words of comfort for this and many other ladies who are in the same position? It really is intolerable and unacceptable.
I take the initial point made by the Deputy as partisan and look forward to debating health policy with him on another occasion. On CervicalCheck, he is correct that there have been capacity issues owing to the fact that many women sought reassurance during what was a very fraught and difficult period in the public health service and sought and obtained an additional smear test. Women who have never used the programme before have also begun to use it, which is one good thing to have emerged from a difficult situation. The HSE is actively engaged with the laboratories to see if additional capacity can be found to ensure the turnaround times will be much more satisfactory.
I return to the issue of tax reliefs and allowances and what the Taoiseach has stated is a deferral of the withdrawal of a tax allowance and how the policy will be implemented after 21 January 2020. While it represents a kicking of the can down the road, it still does not address the key issue for thousands of workers. One major sector of the 130 being reviewed is Tara Mines in my home town of Navan, where 700 miners are set to lose the allowance. The allowance was designed to cover specialised creams and treatments. It is a genuine allowance for workers working in very difficult and stifling underground conditions. It is hardly archaic, as I have heard some suggest in the last 24 hours. It has been in place for 40 years and helps to mitigate the harsh impact on the workers. The Taoiseach has suggested they can become vouched expenses, but it is frustrating that it will mean another layer of bureaucracy to receive a small amount of money. I spoke directly to Revenue about the matter and the review of the allowances claimed by those working in the mine has been completed. Notwithstanding the deferral of implementation, is the communication detailing the breakdown of qualifying expenses still going be issued to workers this year, or will it too be deferred as it seems to fall into the bad news category?
The review is being carried out by the Revenue Commissioners. It has not yet gone to the Government and no Government decision has been made on it. I am not happy about how it transpired in the last couple of days because it has caused enormous, unnecessary concern for people who fear they may be losing their flat rate allowance for expenses. It appears as if it is something for which the Government has looked, which is not the case. As I said, the review is being carried out by the Revenue Commissioners. No changes will be implemented before 1 January 2020, if at all. I will make sure changes are politically proofed before they happen.
When one looks through the list of flat rate allowances for expenses, it is clear that a review is necessary. There are all sorts of anomaly within it. A male cardiac technician receives a different flat rate allowance for expenses than a female cardiac technician, for example. Someone who works for CIÉ on a bus or a train receives a flat rate allowance, while someone who works on a bus for a different operator does not. It is full of anomalies and a review is necessary, but it should be carried out properly and politically proofed.
My question is for the Minister for Health and concerns the allocation of funding for the reopening of the short-stay ward at Letterkenny University Hospital. As the Minister knows, the total number of patients on trollies increased from 2,000 in 2016 to 5,000 last year and that figure will be breached again this year. The hospital and the need for additional beds have been entirely neglected by the Government. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, announced on local radio a month ago that, after discussing the matter with the Taoiseach, funding would be forthcoming for the reopening of the beds, but until now that announcement has amounted to nothing more than wind. The hospital has not been given sanction to recruit the additional staff necessary to reopen the beds. What is the status of the commitment given? Will the Minister immediately give the go-ahead for the recruitment of staff to enable the beds to be reopened as soon as possible?
I raise an issue which I have raised on many occasions in the past 18 months. Eighteen months ago Letterkenny University Hospital asked for the pressure on it to be relieved when there was an average of 19 patients on trollies every day. Within yards of where patients are lying on trollies there is a ward with 20 beds. In this instance, there is no need for capital investment but rather for sanction to employ the front-line nurses and support staff needed to run that ward, which would cost in the region of €1.8 million. It would relieve pressure on a hospital that is seriously suffering as a result of overcrowding and from a lack of capacity.
The HSE has put it forward as one of its proposals. As my colleague said, the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, went on our local radio and did not just say the ward would be open. He went as far as telling the public of Donegal that he had told the manager to start recruiting the staff. I hope that is the case. This ward needs to be opened to relieve the winter pressure. Will the Minister give us any commitment? Any information I have got from him indicates that it will not be open this winter, and indeed there are questions marks over whether it will be open at the start of next year.
The Minister of State is right in that the funding will be provided for those beds. In answer to Deputy McConalogue, I note that we have increased bed capacity, with 240 more beds in the system this year and 79 more due to come on stream between now and the early part of next year. We have asked the HSE to determine how to deliver the 2,600 beds. The Letterkenny short stay unit is in that next tranche. I hope and expect it to be part of the winter plan we are finalising, but I will be happy to correspond with all Donegal Deputies on it.