Wednesday, 5 December 2018
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Many years ago, a former Minister, Michael Woods, engaged with an iconic member of the credit union movement, Brendan Roche of the Lough Credit Union in Cork. Out of this evolved the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS. Essentially, that credit union, with the then Department of Social Welfare, put together a financial proposal and vehicle to allow people in difficult financial circumstances to emerge from those circumstances and not be dependent on moneylenders. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is this Christmas again commenting on the role and impact of moneylenders, whose charges are exorbitant. It seems that the Government is being lethargic in its broader initiatives on social protection and working with the credit union movement proactively to ensure credit unions have far greater coverage than they currently have and to allow people to circumvent moneylenders as a means of credit, particularly during the Christmas period. There are many areas across our cities where families will be under enormous pressure, will borrow a lot before Christmas and, come February, will face huge difficulties. I pick this up all over, and something needs to be done proactively with the credit union movement to replace these exorbitant rates charged by moneylenders.
This is a very important issue, and I share the Deputy's concern that people in some families turn to moneylenders at this time of year in order to pay for Christmas and then find themselves in the spring having to pay back massive loans, much greater sums than the money they borrowed because of the high interest rates charged. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has a programme with the credit unions. It is called the It Makes Sense loan programme.
I will certainly remind the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, of the matter and we will be proactive in encouraging credit unions to take part in the scheme. It is important to point out in addition that the Christmas bonus is being paid last week and this week.
For the first time in a very long time it is being paid at 100% of the weekly payment. I hope that will help hundreds of thousands of people to afford the Christmas bills. As the Deputies know, that was abolished by the Fianna Fáil Party and Deputy Micheál Martin when last in government.
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul stated yesterday that it expects that energy price increases in the coming weeks and months will force low-income households to go without heat and light. Ms Caroline Fahey, head of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul social justice team, said that price increases are really going to hit struggling households hard as so many are already finding it difficult to make ends meet. It also means that the increase in the fuel allowance in budget 2019 will be completely wiped out by the latest price hikes. This is not a minor issue. Fuel poverty affects tens of thousands of families across the State and is only going to get worse as these price increases take effect. What plan is in place to assist families that are going to struggle with these price increases? Will consideration be given to extending the fuel allowance to those in receipt of the working family payment?
As Deputy McDonald will acknowledge, the Government does not set the price of energy. It is regulated by an independent regulator and is largely related to the cost of oil and gas on international markets. That is not something anyone in this country can control. It is, however, important to help people who may be struggling with fuel bills. What supports are available? There is the fuel allowance, of which the Deputy will be aware. It is means tested and I believe that it is a fair means test. We are extending the fuel allowance next year, having extended it last year as well. That is the kind of assistance being offered to people on low incomes. For people who may not have access to the fuel allowance, they can apply for an emergency needs payment or an urgent needs payment from their community welfare officer.
In the last year, there have been calls from media organisations for a review of and changes to the defamation laws in Ireland. I understand that the Department of Justice and Equality opened a review of the Defamation Act 2009 in November 2016 with an invitation for submissions. More than two years later, can it be clarified if the report on that review has been completed? Has it been submitted to the Government? My understanding is that a number of suggestions have been made for reform of the Defamation Act 2009. Will the Taoiseach indicate where stands that review and will the Government legislate in this area?
It has not been submitted to the Government yet. I am not quite sure of the status of the report. I am advised that the draft report, with options, is due to be submitted to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, in January. I imagine that we will have the report in January 2019. After the Minister has had a chance to review it, it will come to Cabinet with a view to publication. As is always the case, and I know Deputy Howlin will agree with me on this, defamation is always a bad thing. We do not want to make it easier for people to be defamed, so we need to find the right balance between protecting the free press, and ensuring we have a free press in Ireland, and ensuring we do not make it easier to defame people and trash their reputations. I do not think that would be a good thing either. We need to make sure we get the balance right.
Of all of the promised legislation before this House, the abortion legislation has the most unequivocal democratic mandate from the people of this country. It is also has a very definite timeline to make abortion facilities available to women in this country. A minority of people, however, seem to wish to frustrate the democratic wishes of the people in this country, regardless of the consequences for Irish women, and there is now a real danger that legislation will not pass in time. I want to know a number of things. Amendments are normally given a very strict deadline but some have now been accepted from this minority for the Order Paper today. They were debated yesterday but are being brought in again today. I want to know if they are in order. We are never allowed to do that.
Regardless of that question, given the obvious attempts by some to frustrate the democratic wishes of the people of this country, at this stage we need to send a clear signal. I refer to sitting on Friday, if necessary, and sitting until this legislation finishes this week. This legislation could also be amended in the Seanad, so the Dáil, if necessary should sit on extra days before Christmas to deal with any amendments that might come from the Seanad. We need a clear signal that this attempt to frustrate the abortion legislation will not succeed and that the legislation will pass into law before Christmas.
I understand that seven and a half hours have been set aside for debate tonight. That is a large block of time and I hope that will be sufficient for us to pass the legislation through the Dáil today. I encourage any Deputies making contributions on this legislation to be pithy and to not repeat arguments they have already made. That is unnecessary and only causes us to take more time than needed. It is fair to say there was a time when things were different, when we had majority Governments and the Government controlled the House. When that was the case, perhaps we stifled debate too quickly and used the guillotine too frequently.
That led to bad legislation being enacted. Now we have the other extreme. Legislation is being held up in this House and in the other House. As a consequence, all sorts of other legislation is backing up behind it and that is very frustrating.
I was not going to raise this but I have to refute that allegation that we are delaying anything. We are doing our democratic job here. We had no pre-legislative scrutiny of this legislation. I appeal to the Taoiseach to withdraw his disgusting remarks from yesterday when he said that we were filibustering this Bill. We are not. Check the record. Some members of Deputy Boyd Barrett's own party are using their seven minutes and their two minutes. We are not and we are entitled to put down amendments.
Please withdraw those remarks from yesterday. I will now ask the Taoiseach what I wanted to ask him about road safety. A young man in Tipperary, an entrepreneur called Jason Maher, has developed a tyre app for road safety. He is up and down with the Road Safety Authority, RSA. The tyres are the most important part of the vehicle in regard to its connection with the road. Will the Taoiseach please ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to engage with him? We have advertisements every day of the week asking people to slow down and the Minister has a battle against rural drivers as well. We, however, are accused of being anti-democratic in that as well, even though we are representing our people. Ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and the Road Safety Authority to engage with a positive project that will save lives.
I was not quite sure what use a tie rack would be to the Road Safety Authority. If this person has an innovative piece of technology that can help us with tyres, and bald tyres can be a cause for collisions and for injuries-----
-----if there is something that can be done to help, I am sure we can arrange to put him in contact with the RSA. If Deputy Mattie McGrath passes on the details, I will make sure that happens.
A Programme for a Partnership Government stated in respect of housing and homelessness that the Government's approach to governing would be clearly seen in how those issues would be addressed. There was a count of people sleeping rough in this city last Saturday night. There were 108 men and 10 women sleeping on the streets. I was tagged in a tweet by an individual on Monday night, along with others. The tweet said that one more person could be added to that figure. The person tweeting stated it was not possible for him or her to get a bed or a mat for the night. The person went on to say that he or she was ashamed to be sleeping in doorways and his or her worst fear was now a reality. We have been told, constantly, that there is a bed for everyone that wants one. Clearly, there is not.
Can the Taoiseach stand over the statement that there is a bed for everyone who wants one? The figures and the experiences of people are not what we are being told.
I thank the Deputy for the question. We did have the latest rough sleeper count. It is down on last year but is up since the spring. As we have been planning ahead, we are putting in place emergency beds to ensure 200 new permanent beds come into the system which is more than what we need based on the count. In addition to that, there are also 130 emergency places should something happen.
Those beds are being put in place at the moment. That programme has already begun because we were planning ahead knowing that, what we knew anecdotally from our outreach teams, numbers have been creeping back up again. Beds are being put in place. There is always emergency availability of a cot or other temporary measure. We will have permanent beds in place for 200 people which is more than the number recorded on the night of the recent count.
Under the programme for Government and promised legislation, new guidelines were promised for the wind energy industry. Following repeated questions and lobbying, approximately 18 months ago, the then Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, announced the new guidelines had been developed, were going out to public consultation and would then be implemented.
Nearly 18 months later, however, they still have not gone to public consultation. In areas such as Gneevgullia, Ballydesmond and Ballyhorgan in Lixnaw, developments are being granted by An Bord Pleanála although they have been refused by Kerry County Council. If these guidelines were in place and implemented as promised, An Bord Pleanála would not be in a position to grant these wholly inappropriate developments right down on top of people’s houses. With advances in technology, one can put in turbines 150 m high, suitable to be located in low-lying flatland areas on top of people’s houses. There is a place for wind farms on high land but not down on top of people’s houses. The people in the areas in question are up in arms. Those guidelines were promised but are not in place when they should be.
I updated the Seanad on this yesterday afternoon. We are about to go to public consultation on the new draft wind guidelines. I have also spoken to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, about the possibility of solar energy guidelines.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to develop a new help-to-buy scheme to assist first-time house purchasers. Does the Taoiseach agree with me that this scheme is not working particularly well? In my experience, it takes up to six months to get a decision on whether one can get a loan to purchase a house. There are more refusals than acceptances. Does the Government recognise the problems in the scheme? Does it intend to refine it to ensure it will achieve the purpose for which it was designed, namely to enable first-time house purchasers to get on the housing ladder?
When is the Government going to meet its commitment to overhaul the tenant purchase scheme for local authority tenants?
I thank the Deputy for both those questions.
The Deputy is referring to the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. More applications to the Housing Agency for this scheme have been successful than unsuccessful. More than 1,000 loans have gone through the Housing Agency. The delay is happening at the credit committees at local government level.
During the budget process, I reviewed the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. There are proposed reforms and I am in conversation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform as to how we progress those reforms to ensure the loan can work for more people and more quickly.
The review of the tenant purchase scheme is ongoing and will be completed shortly. I should be in a position to make an announcement on it in January.
In June 2017, the then Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, announced changes to the waste charges regime in place. He said he would also introduce an annual support of €75 for persons with lifelong and long-term medical incontinence to be rolled out by the end of 2017. Some 19 months later, there is nothing in place for people in these horrendous circumstances. I spoke recently to one individual affected whose waste collection company has introduced pay-for weight charges. Her charges jumped from €7 a lift up to €15. The proposed €75 support is minuscule and needs to be larger. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment as to when this support will be introduced?
The implementation of this measure has run into significant administrative difficulties, including data protection issues. Discussions are going on between my Department and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection with a view to finding a way of paying it. We hope to be in a position to make an announcement on it shortly.
On Monday in Bantry I met with the chief executive of Irish Community Rapid Response, John Kearney. I was given a tour of its helicopter and Mr. Kearney went through the services the organisation will be offering people in Munster. It is ready to go but is waiting for the go-ahead from the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. What is the hold-up and when will Irish Community Rapid Response get the go-ahead?
I will have to come back to the Deputy on that as it is a bit more complicated than how she has just presented it. It has the go-ahead, funds and the equipment. There is a difference of view between the organisation and the HSE on the medical cover necessary to be provided.
I too wish to raise the issue concerning the planning guidelines for wind turbines. Will the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, explain why the issuing of these guidelines has taken so long? They were promised for last year, as well as the end of this year. Now it seems it is going into next year. As Deputy Brassil said, there are concerns that wind turbines are being allowed near homes in Gneevgullia at a massive height. There needs to be some regulation to address this matter. Last year, I asked here that before the decision was made that the new planning guidelines would be adhered to. Neither are there directions to local authorities concerning solar panels.
It is important that when we go out to public consultation on this sensitive but important issue that we get it right to ensure that we do not have to go back to the drawing board later. It took a little more time to finalise these guidelines. They are now finalised and will be going out to public consultation shortly.
We are all upset and distressed by the horrific images from Yemen and the fact so many children are starving. There are reports that up to 85,000 children may have already died from starvation. Under the budget for overseas aid, is there any capacity to offer humanitarian assistance? Has the Government any response to this crisis?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I share her concerns, horror and disgust at what is happening in Yemen and the impact on civilians there in particular. The Government has made a decision to provide funding through the UN and other agencies for humanitarian assistance in Yemen. We will increase that next year. We have joined with our EU and UN colleagues in calling for a ceasefire in Yemen to allow peace talks to begin.
Unfortunately and sadly, many people suffer from the condition, Lupus. There is a life-changing drug available to them but, unfortunately, it is not available through current schemes. What progress has been made by the Department of Health in making this great drug available which would make the lives of the people affected more tolerable and bearable?
Already this year, 23 new drugs have been approved. It is an independent process and is not done by ministerial order. Negotiations have taken place with the companies involved. It is not as straightforward as looking at the clinical side of it and if it is effective. There is also a cost issue. We want to be fair to the entire population to ensure as many people as possible can avail of these drugs. The process takes a little bit longer than any of us would like but that is necessary to ensure we get value for money, which I am sure the Deputy would like to see, to allow us to purchase as many different types of these drugs as possible. However, we cannot give a blank cheque to the drug companies. The process is continuing under the remit of the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA.
There are commitments in the programme for Government on improving farm incomes and rewarding farmers who produce quality food. Beef factories are contravening regulations when trimming carcasses, resulting in a direct loss of income to farmers because the beef is being cut away. Margins in beef farming are already tight, yet the factories in question are only receiving minimal fines of a couple of hundred euro. Contrast that with beef farmers whom the Department comes down on heavily if they fill out a form wrongly. Farmers are furious about how factories can get such a soft penalty. How is the Government going to address this matter? Is it going to identify the factories that are contravening the regulations? Will farmers know? How will the Government ensure that farmers are not being robbed and such a situation does not happen again?
The Deputy outlined many issues in the beef sector. On the specific issue of trimming, I understand from my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, that the Department is providing additional resources for on-the-floor monitoring of the current situation. He has asked to be kept appraised. It is unacceptable if excess trimmings are being taken from animals, particularly at this time when prices are under pressure. I will get an update for the Deputy from the Minister and the Department.
I previously raised with the Taoiseach the situation of two boys in my constituency, Sam and Glen, who suffer from spinal muscular atrophy. With their parents and 20 other children around the country, they are looking for access to a drug called Spinraza. The Taoiseach indicated that it had not been approved by the HSE. In subsequent replies, he indicated that the matter was under review and negotiation between the HSE and the drugs company, which has given these children some hope that they will get access to the drug in a short time. Were they in many other European countries, they would have access to it today. Will the Taoiseach update the House on where the negotiations stand and whether there is any prospect of the drug being made available before the end of the year?
At the outset, I acknowledge the Deputy's consistency on this issue. I have often said in this forum that consistency is my favourite attribute in a politician. I asked a question before I came to the Chamber today, as I expected the Deputy to raise the issue again, given that he has constituents about whom he is very concerned. I acknowledge the frustration he feels as a public representative who raises this matter continually only to get the same answer each time. As I outlined previously, though, there are two sides at the negotiating table - the HSE and the drugs companies, which are charging incredibly high prices. We must ensure value for money. The negotiations are continuing. I wish they were concluded, but we cannot do so at the cost of giving the company an open cheque book. The negotiations are at a relatively final stage, but I cannot predetermine their outcome or when they will close. As soon as there is a breakthrough, I will let the Deputy know.
The health section of the programme for Government used caring language about looking after the less privileged in our society, particularly people with disabilities and older people. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, probably knows what matter I am going to raise again, namely, the Rosalie unit in Castlerea, County Roscommon. When the Taoiseach was the Minister for Health, his Department issued a letter stating that the unit would not be closed. I am seeking an update. According to an article in today's Roscommon Herald, a local newspaper, the HSE is ploughing ahead with closing the unit. As the Minister of State and the Taoiseach know, this is a concern for the people of Castlerea. The battle of Castlerea will continue. This is no way to treat people who have been in those surroundings for many years, are quite content and are well looked after. The Minister of State visited the unit. It is a fantastic unit and is well catered for and staffed. Will the Taoiseach provide me an update on the unit? Will he also guarantee that its patients and their families will not be further upset by such newspaper articles?
However, I can give the Deputy an assurance. As he is aware, there are 23,600 fair deal patients under my brief, of whom the 12 patients in the Rosalie unit have probably occupied approximately 20% of my time in this role. I have engaged with representatives and visited the unit numerous times. Indeed, I have often engaged with the Deputy. Regarding the up-to-date position, local representatives insisted on an independent review of the clinical assessment of patients' needs. We undertook that review process, but it was halted half-way through because the person undertaking it did not feel like the most appropriate person to do it. The process was reinitiated, but it has not concluded yet. As soon as the independent review of the clinical advice given to us and the HSE is completed, it will be given to me. Then and only then will the next steps of this process take place.
I wish to raise the grave issue of suicide, in particular suicide by young people, and the growing menace of cyberbullying. Ireland has the fourth highest rate of teen suicide in Europe. No corner of Ireland is unaffected by these tragedies. Cyberbullying is increasingly cited in the deaths. Bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation and the drastic decision by a young person to take his or her own life. Desperate children and distraught parents need help and the bullies need to be addressed. Young people need to be given hope, access to services and coping skills. What steps is the Government taking to address the menace of cyberbullying and the issue of young people taking their own lives?
As the Deputy probably knows, there is a whole-of-Government initiative on Internet safety. It was being led by the Department of the Taoiseach. It involves strengthening criminal law, actions to improve the education supports for young people through schools and Webwise, and making online supports available for people with mental health difficulties, an area that the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, has been pioneering. Under the initiative, 25 actions will be implemented over the next 18 months. It is now being led by the Department of Education and Skills.
Longford-Westmeath was one of the first constituencies to have its commercial rates revalued, and many small independent retailers saw a significant increase in their rates. I attended a public meeting more than two years ago where a Government representative reassured retailers not to worry because new valuation legislation would go through the Oireachtas and they would not have to pay any of the new charges. That has not happened, though. Two years on and no legislation has been published, never mind enacted. Will the Taoiseach advise commercial ratepayers, who are facing many challenges, not least in the form of out-of-town shopping centres and online shopping, of when a fairer and more equitable valuation rate system will be in place?
As expected, the legal advice of the UK's attorney general was issued in the past hour, but an equally important document prepared by the EU and UK concerns the more than 150 issues identified by the mapping exercise on cross-Border co-operation and the implications for the Good Friday Agreement. Like many others, the Taoiseach is on record as saying he would like to see that document published. In the interests of transparency and clarity, does he not believe it to be important that the document on the 150 issues, which are particularly pertinent to people in the Border communities, including the area that I represent, be published?
I wish to raise an issue in the context of the Finance Bill, namely, the double Irish tax loophole. It was announced in 2015 that this loophole was to be closed to new companies. According to a publication last week, Google Ireland, which has until 2020 to continue using the same format because it was an existing company in 2015, paid €164 million in tax in 2016. But for the double Irish, it would have had to pay €1.1 billion, meaning that 85% of was forgone.
In 2017, it paid €171 million. Were it not for the double Irish, it would have had to pay €1.6 billion. This means we are seeing a significant amount of tax forgone by these major multinational companies. Google is one example. There are numerous other companies in the same position. Hard-pressed workers feel they are overtaxed for the services they receive yet these corporations are getting away with significant tax breaks in the Finance Bill. Will the Government close the double Irish now for existing companies?
I will reply to Deputy Troy's question. I cannot speak to commitments that were given previously or locally but I can say that the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, met officials this morning and raised the commercial rates Bill because it is priority legislation. I will ask him to correspond directly with Deputy Troy on the timelines for its publication and enactment.
With regard to the matter raised by Deputy Breathnach, I would also be happy to see that document published. I thought it had been published as an annexe to the withdrawal agreement but perhaps it has not been so I will double-check. As a UK-EU paper, it is not in our gift to publish it but I see no reason it should not be published. That information should also be available to people in this House and the House of Commons as well, demonstrating the extent to which North-South co-operation and daily life between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are underpinned by European law.
The double Irish has been closed but there is a phase-out period, as Deputy Martin Kenny pointed out. That is in place for a good reason.
The tax affairs of any individual company are kept confidential by the company and the Revenue Commissioners so I would not assume that the figures the Deputy put on the record are correct.