Tuesday, 18 December 2018
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
On the health aspect of the programme for Government, will the Taoiseach indicate when the health service plan will be published, if it has gone to Cabinet and if it has been approved by Cabinet? Will he indicate whether the Government or Minister is prepared to make a statement to the House and a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health, on home care packages, equipment needs of hospitals, mental health and the broader issue of retention and recruitment of healthcare staff, particularly consultants and nursing staff, which are in crisis in our health service?
I am afraid we did not get to the health service plan today because there were a lot of items on the Cabinet agenda but Cabinet will resume this afternoon. I anticipate that we will get to it then and publish it this week.
Yesterday, 95% of the members of the Psychiatric Nurses Association of Ireland, PNA, voted in favour of industrial action up to and including strike action in protest at the continuing recruitment and retention crisis in our health service. This morning, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, voted by a similar margin and its executive is to meet in early January to set in train a number of 24 hour stoppages. The threat of industrial action at any time is regrettable but there is no doubt that this is the outworking of the Taoiseach's policy and that of Minister for Health in tackling or not tackling the retention and recruitment crisis in our hospitals. This has happened despite nurses, midwives and their trade unions putting forward sensible proposals time and again and despite the House passing a Sinn Féin motion calling for a number of measures on recruitment and retention based on realistic pay proposals, which was about setting out a roadmap and working with unions to achieve full pay equality. Will the Taoiseach ensure the Government engages with the unions, nurses and midwives to ensure they get a fair deal and do not have to take strike action, for which they now given authority?
Earlier in the year, the Public Service Pay Commission published a set of proposals on this issue. The Government has already given a commitment that we will fund and implement these proposals for next year. A meeting of the oversight committee of the public service stability agreement is taking place tomorrow. As the Deputy will be aware, the way in which we engage with trade unions on issues such as this is through that body. We meet all unions together. It is not just a case of dealing with the issues in the health service raised by the Deputy because the knock-on consequences of that for all of our public services would cause huge challenges next year.
The Taoiseach said yesterday that there were plans to pass 45 emergency Bills next year in the event of a hard Brexit coming to pass. I have raised this matter with him a number of times and he indicated we would be briefed on it. In the new year, there will be 29 scheduled sitting days between the time the House comes back and 29 March. Is it envisaged that we would pass 45 Bills, sight unseen at this stage, in 29 sitting days? Will the Taoiseach provide comprehensive briefing for the parties in opposition and for his backbenchers in advance of the recess so that we can have the Christmas period to examine and scrutinise measures that might be necessary next year?
I heard the British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care say yesterday that he had become the biggest purchaser of fridges in the world as they stockpile medicines. That is how absurd things have become. We need to know specifically what we must do here to be ready for it and not be inundated by legislation we have not had time to reflect upon when we come back after the recess.
The first answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". The Tánaiste will be providing a briefing at the stakeholders' forum on Thursday. If he has not been invited to that, he certainly will be.
The answer to the Deputy's second question is that it is not 45 items of primary legislation. There are 45 items - some regulation, some statutory instrument and some primary legislation-----
On a point of order, this is not good enough. These are the same answers I got from the Taoiseach when he said he would give a briefing to the stakeholders' forum. The stakeholders' forum is not Parliament. These are parliamentary issues.
-----of it but also the non-legislative aspects of it. The European Commission is not producing its legislative proposals until tomorrow so ours could only follow on from then because anything we do in domestic law has to fall under and be consistent with European law. We cannot do it before then.
Did the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, get approval from Cabinet today for the first phase of construction of the National Maternity Hospital at St. Vincent's Hospital? The first phase is the car park and the pharmacy. Is the Taoiseach concerned that the National Maternity Hospital plans are in breach of the European Commission's energy performance of buildings directive updated in 2010? Under that directive, all new buildings owned and occupied by public authorities must be nearly zero energy buildings from 2019. Duncan Stewart was at the press conference this morning and he has warned that unless the design is revised before build, there would be serious consequences down the line with this EC directive and that it could cost the State millions of euro.
The answer to the Deputy's question is "No". However, I understand that the Minister, Deputy Harris, wants to give the Cabinet a verbal update on the progress of that project at the afternoon Cabinet meeting.
The Irish Examinerinforms us this morning that one third of Threshold's clientele in Munster are currently facing notices to quit, which points towards a wave of evictions of renters in the early new year, no doubt encouraged by the Government's decision to give 100% tax breaks to landlords who renovate and who will be carrying out "renovictions" in some cases. The Roscommon eviction is the talk of the country.
I believe that mass, peaceful, people-power protest can stop evictions in towns and cities, beginning with people taking a stand and refusing to quit.
On legislation, last Thursday, the Anti-Evictions Bill was passed by 45 votes to 39 on Second Stage in this House. Will the Taoiseach assure the House that Fine Gael will not attempt to put this Bill into cold storage on Committee Stage and will he join me in saying that Bill should be fast tracked so as to ban evictions into homelessness?
I had indicated to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle at an early stage that I wanted to raise this issue, and I knew he would call me. With all due respect to the Taoiseach and everybody else in the House, I live three miles from the family. I grew up virtually beside them. I went to school with them, so I know those people better than anybody. People are very upset, first, with the way the eviction was carried out and, second, with the violence that took place.
The reality is that, as legislators, we have to move on this issue. I do not believe there is one person in this House who does not want to see those people back in their home for Christmas, irrespective of our different views, but I have one question for the Taoiseach. Does he agree it is time we all worked together on legislation to stop, once and for all, heavy gangs evicting people? That will be a major step in the right direction. In 2018, we should be well able to do that and stop what is a horrible situation for many people.
I reinforce what Deputy Eugene Murphy said and ask the Taoiseach whether he will take the initiative and look at the various tranches of legislation at one Stage or another before the House to ensure evictions such as we witnessed in recent days will not happen again. Will he answer another question in the context of the programme for Government? It states the Government will introduce legislation to protect small and medium-sized businesses and those in difficulty with their mortgages against vulture funds, but nothing has happened in that regard.
I will respond to Deputy Barry's question about protection for renters. I thank those involved in Threshold for the excellent work they do, which is why the Government, through the taxpayer, funds the work it does. We have a rent Bill that will bring about far stronger protections for renters. It is the Government's priority legislation when it comes to renters. It is a matter for the Business Committee and the Oireachtas joint committee to decide what will happen to the Anti-Evictions Bill passed last week, but I am keen to emphasise that there is consensus in the House on the Government's Bill providing stronger protections for renters. Much work has been done on the Bill in consultation with the Residential Tenancies Board. It is the Government's priority to pursue the legislation as quickly as it can.
I will respond, first, to the questions from Deputies Eugene Murphy and McGuinness.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by Deputy Eugene Murphy. It is entirely appropriate that we now extend regulation to private security firms. We regulate doormen at night clubs and those who fit alarms in houses. It is entirely appropriate that we also regulate private security firms. The Minister for Justice and Equality is working on the issue and will come back with proposals in January. At the same time, we need to bear in mind that we have to stand over personal responsibility and people's responsibility to pay back the money they owe. There are people who need credit. There are many people who want to set up a business or buy a home for the first time. If others do not pay back their debts, there will be no credit for those who are trying to set up a business or buy a home for the first time.
If other people do not pay back their debts and there is no mechanism in place to enforce it, we all face higher interest rates, including everyone who has a business or mortgage. We need to be realistic and honest. If people borrow money, they have to pay it back. If they do not, they are denying others access to credit and driving up interest rates for everyone, which is socially wrong.
The Taoiseach was asked a different question which he should answer. Is he going to honour the commitment made in government that the Government will introduce legislation to protect those who are in difficulty with mortgages and the SME sector against vulture funds? What he has addressed is completely different. He wants to distract people from the real issue.
I will take that question. The Government has brought forward a range of measures to give as much protection as possible to citizens who are facing great difficulty, whether mortgage holders or those who run or own small businesses. As the Deputy will be aware, recently I initiated through the Central Bank a review of the code of conduct on mortgage arrears. It shows that the measures we have in place are adhered to by the vast majority of banks and non-banks within the country. The review also covers the personal insolvency arrangements we have in place. When citizens make use of them, the overwhelming majority stay in their homes.
The Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, was discussed during a heated debate in the summer. The Minister introduced a paltry sum of €360,000 odd for the rural link bus service which in some areas has worked, limited though the service may be. The rural link company in County Tipperary has been very successful. On its one route it runs three or four day services, with two evening services. However, the company will run out of money on 31 December. It has received no indication that there will be funding provided in 2019. This comes within the programme for Government. Will the Government support citizens living in rural areas and give them some modicum of support through rural transport services? No funding has been earmarked for next year. Companies and providers do not know where they stand.
As the Deputy may know, the scheme announced during the summer was a pilot scheme. That scheme will come to an end on 31 December. The success or otherwise of such schemes will be assessed. In 2019 we will be reviewing the position, with a view to continuing the scheme in the future.
The pilot was to assess how the model might work in rural communities.
We have heard about the ballooning costs of the children's hospital due to the failure to nail down details in advance. It now seems that the Government is embarking on another major project, the National Maternity Hospital, in the absence of clarification on key issues such as ownership, governance, ethos and environmental standards. In advance of discussion of this matter at Cabinet this afternoon, will the Taoiseach give an undertaking that no contract will be signed and no work will start on this site until there is absolute clarity about each of those issues, and that the details on each issue will be published in advance?
As the Minister for Health will give Cabinet a verbal briefing on the matter this afternoon, I do not have the information to hand. I may be wrong but I understand that while this project has planning permission it has not yet gone to tender. It would have to go to tender before we could have an indication of its cost. We have to know that first.
Page 41 of the programme for Government refers to jobs and job targets. Yesterday, the workers of the Waterford-based company Allsop were informed that it would close at the end of January 2019 with a loss of 18 jobs. The company has been manufacturing for the last 40 years and makes monitor stands and phone and tablet accessories. The company decided to close due to the loss of its most significant contract. For the families in Waterford this Christmas who do not know whether they will have a job in the new year, will the Government and relevant Departments prioritise helping and supporting these workers, some of whom have over 30 years service, through State supports, upskilling and securing new jobs?
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. When any notification such as this is made to the Department, we immediately send somebody out to the organisation and hold information evenings for all those who are unfortunately losing their jobs to ensure that they know their exact entitlements and to get them on their social welfare payment immediately, but also to look at their skills, work with the Intreo offices and local jobs organisations and liaise with JobPath people to see what positions are available locally to try to get people back to work as quickly as possible. I will include the Deputy in correspondence on the matter this week.
The CSO survey on income and living conditions 2017 was published yesterday. It shows that 109,000 people with jobs, the very people who get up early in the morning and go to work, are living in poverty. They are the working poor and the numbers are alarmingly on the increase. There are over 4,000 more people in employment at risk of poverty than 12 months ago. The Taoiseach has often said that the best route out of poverty is to find a job but that is not true. Having a job does not guarantee a route out of poverty. We need the introduction of a living wage for working people to ensure that those in work are not living in poverty. When will the Taoiseach commit to introducing a living wage?
The CSO figures published yesterday are interesting reading for anyone interested in this area. It had two statistically significant findings, namely, that consistent poverty had fallen and that the deprivation rate had fallen. The deprivation rate has fallen from 30% five years ago to 18.8%, so the percentage almost halved in five years. Consistent poverty has fallen from 9% in 2013 to 6.7%, which is another very significant fall in poverty in the past four years. This is principally because more people are at work and unemployment has fallen by so much.
There are 2.3 million people at work and according to CSO figures, 1.4% are suffering from consistent poverty. Some 24,000 children were lifted out of poverty last year. While there are too many people in poverty in Ireland, there is no doubt that for four years it has been going in the right direction. There are more people at work, incomes are rising, fewer people, including children, are in poverty and in-work poverty has fallen to 1.4%. If one looks at this internationally-----
The programme for Government includes a commitment to make provision for carers. Less than a month ago, I raised in the House the crisis unfolding in Cavan-Monaghan where respite care services for parents are at breaking point. Respite care is an invaluable facility that should be available for parents of children who have an intellectual disability. Such is the frustration in Cavan-Monaghan that parents have started an action group and have called a public meeting in Cootehill tonight, near the Holy Family school attended by many of these children. Last week, when a question on this matter was put to the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, he told the Dáil the crisis had been fixed, there was nothing to see and we should move on. However, the truth is that 100 families in Cavan-Monaghan have no respite care for their children. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to have the causes of the crisis in Cavan-Monaghan investigated? Will he also ensure that carers and respite hours are provided for these exasperated parents?
I am afraid I am unable to give an answer specific to Cavan-Monaghan. The matter would be best raised either as a parliamentary question to the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Finian McGrath, or by means of a Topical Issue matter, rather than-----
-----during questions on promised legislation. However, I know how important respite care is to families throughout the country. We have allocated funding for an additional respite house in every community care region this year and there will be additional funding next year.
The programme for Government refers to the Department of Education and Skills providing "world-class education", something with which I could not agree more. I draw the Taoiseach's attention to the situation in Newbridge where young boys and girls in sixth class will have no secondary school place next September. There is a waiting list in every one of our three secondary schools. In 2015, the Newbridge area was put on a Department list of areas in need of a new school. Last May, the then Minister for Education and Skills said that a decision and an announcement were imminent. This was then postponed until October and again until November. On 29 November, when I raised this issue as a Topical Issue matter, I was basically told to check the Department's website. I have also raised it in parliamentary questions. The parents, children and community of Newbridge are suffering. When will an announcement be made and when will work start on a new secondary school for the area?
I am afraid the Minister for Education and Skills is not here, but I will certainly advise him that the issue was raised and ask him to provide a written response to the Deputy.
It is my understanding that the Tánaiste will publish a framework document on contingency planning on Thursday, the day after the Dáil rises. We will have a stakeholder meeting on Thursday at 12 noon, but not in the Dáil. I agree with Deputy Howlin that we should be briefed in the House. This morning, Deputy Billy Kelleher and I wrote to the Business Committee to request that the Tánaiste come to the House at the earliest opportunity, either on 15 January or soon thereafter, to outline the Government's contingency planning for all Brexit scenarios, including a no-deal Brexit. Will the Taoiseach confirm that he will ensure a briefing is given and there will be time for questions and answers in the Dáil Chamber on 15 January or very soon thereafter?
I am afraid we are a bit stretched at the moment. The Tánaiste is representing me in Vienna so I have not had the chance to speak to him today. However, he intends to give the briefing on Thursday. We cannot do it any sooner because we need the European Commission briefings, which will be available to us tomorrow. The request Deputy Chambers makes is entirely reasonable and I am sure the Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, or I will be available during the first week after the Dáil returns to give a further briefing to Oireachtas Members. It should be borne in mind that the last meeting of the European Commission's seminars on this matter will take place on 19 January and anything we do must be consistent with what is done at European level.
In the programme for Government, under the heading, Road Investment, the Government promised to increase the budget for local and regional roads "by approximately 50% in the years ahead as the national finances are repaired". Almost three years after the programme for Government was commenced, the condition of many of our local and regional roads is appalling. I witnessed 11 vehicles with punctures or damage to rims caused by potholes yesterday morning in or close to Cahalane's filling station in Bandon. This was prior to a meeting with the local area engineer in Bandon, at which I raised this shocking situation and he acknowledged the complete lack of funds for local roads. People who get up early in the morning cannot get to work due to the scandalous condition of the roads in Bandon and its surrounds. In wet weather I am reminded of a war zone. Will the Taoiseach step in and provide proper emergency funding for roads in west Cork?
Does the Taoiseach ever take a walk around this city and see people living in tents outside the Garden of Remembrance or sleeping in tents outside shopping centres or just around the corner from the House, on Nassau Street, where one practically has to step over human beings huddled in sleeping bags? How does he think their Christmas will be? Does he think they will have a happy Christmas? They will have a miserable, cold and lonely Christmas and they will be filled with nothing but utter despair. Fr. Peter McVerry has said again that the Government's Rebuilding Ireland policy is an utter failure, with child homelessness at its highest rate ever. Everybody knows this and we also know that local authorities need to be funded to build council houses. We have told the Taoiseach that over and over again. I ask him not to give his usual spiel or have his Minister regurgitate inaccurate figures again. We are talking about human beings, families and children. Will the Taoiseach and the Government accept that their Rebuilding Ireland policy has been an utter and absolutely dismal failure?
I thank the Deputy for her questions. I have been out with outreach teams and I have been to family hubs. I know that Christmas can be a very special time for many people but for others it can obviously be incredibly difficult. Those most vulnerable this Christmas will be families who are homeless and in hotels or family hubs and the people who are sleeping rough on our streets. That is why we have made our commitments under Rebuilding Ireland. This year, an additional 200 permanent beds will become available to help people to move from rough sleeping into our emergency accommodation services and then into sustainable accommodation. In addition, 130 temporary beds will be put in place should there be more demand than expected due to a severe weather event or some other development. Next year, we will spend more money on housing in a single year than any previous Government has ever spent. This will deliver 10,000 new homes into the stock of social housing to help the people who are most vulnerable. That is what Rebuilding Ireland is about - real homes for real families who need our help.
I will do my very best by talking quickly. The ink was not even dry on the Health Regulation (Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018 when we saw a letter from the chief medical officer, CMO, making clear that the three-day period the Government included in the legislation was not recommended by the committee and will, in fact, be four days. This is in direct contradiction to what the Minister for Health told me on the record when he said three days would mean three days. We now find out that women will have to wait until the third day has elapsed, which makes the waiting period four days, as Ms Ellen Coyne reported today in The Irish Times. I have been contacted by members of campaign groups who feel extremely let down. We did not want the three-day waiting period to be included in the Bill but agreed that it was necessary. It was a political construct, not a medical necessity. Now it emerges that the period will be four days, which will represent a significant barrier to access. Who is right on this, the Minister or the chief medical officer?
I am afraid I am at a loss. I have not seen the letter from the CMO, but my understanding was that the period was three days, which could be less than 72 hours. It is not necessarily three full days.
There are reports in the media today about a draft report on sex education issued by the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. The news reports sound positive as it seems the report will recommend dragging sex education in this country out of the dark ages, making it fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ relationships and experiences, and covering issues of sexual health, etc. They also indicate that the report recommends making a change in the legislation to stop religious ethos acting as a barrier to prevent even a very progressive, factual, objective curriculum from being delivered. The House has already passed Second Stage of similar legislation. I refer to the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018, which the Taoiseach bizarrely described as sinister the last time I asked him about it.
The question is, now that the committee will recommend such legislation, will the Government give a money message to allow that legislation to progress to Committee Stage and enable us to have progressive sex education?
When the report is received, the Minister for Education and Skills will give it full consideration. I am very much in favour of ensuring that we have a modern, appropriate and secular sex education curriculum in schools. I am not convinced that the right approach is to legislate for a particular curriculum. There are many aspects of the curriculum that we do not legislate for. The national curriculum advisory council sets the curriculum and is able to update it dynamically.
On speech and language supports, the current waiting time for the Dublin South-West school age team is 42 months. There are 80 waiting to go on the list and there are 297 on the list itself. I raised this six months ago and was told then the waiting time was 36 months. It is now 42 months. I am at a loss as to how to move this forward. I have contacted the Minister. I have talked to the Minister of State with responsibility for disability. There is something wrong. There is something broken in the area in this regard if the waiting time for speech and language therapy is 42 months. I am at a loss. Is there any way the Taoiseach can intervene?
There are a number of actions under way to respond to this. First, there is the provision of speech and language therapy through the school system for the first time which we hope will make a big difference. We believe it may turn out to be a better system and a better way to provide speech and language therapy doing it through the education system as well as through the health service.
There is increased funding in the HSE service plan of €2.5 million, which will provide for 100 new therapy posts. It is hoped that will make a difference for Deputy Crowe's constituents and for mine. We are aware from bitter experience that adding additional staff does not necessarily mean any improvement in waiting times and we will need to make sure that the referral systems are appropriate as well.
It is another shameful day for Fine Gael when it comes to the environment. The Taoiseach's party has blocked with procedural glue the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2018 in the same way that it blocked the Waste Reduction Bill 2017, which my party presented. With regard to that latter Bill, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, promised that the Government would present alternative proposals to ban the single use of plastic, to get away from single-use plastic coffee cups and possibly to introduce a deposit refund scheme. It was promised within weeks. Have we seen any advancement of that or is Fine Gael continuing to do absolutely nothing when it comes to protecting the planet and the environment?
There will be legislation to introduce the ban on single-use plastics. It will come in under an EU directive which is being finalised. There is strong support for that. That same legislation will increase the targets that we must meet in respect of recycling. The Government is determined to respond to those new commitments which we are signing up to.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Can it be true that the Government is proposing to publish a report, either before or after the Dáil closes, that the €500,000 cap on bankers' pay is about to be amended and lifted by the Government? We know from the crash that lavish pay is no guarantee of success in running banks. We saw last week the Permanent TSB sell off 6,000 performing mortgages that have been restructured. Could it be true that we will offer these top bankers more than €500,000 in pay and bonuses? What has the Taoiseach to say to people in the country terrified of their mortgages being sold off to vulture funds?
All that is true about what the Deputy said about banking pay and remuneration is that I have requested that an independent review of this issue be carried out. The main reason I have done that is I want the Irish taxpayers' money back. We invested billions upon billions of euro in the Irish banking system. Deputy Burton was a great critic of it at the time and she was correct to be a critic. I want to see the money returned to the Irish taxpayer over time. I am aware that we now have a vast array of companies located here in Ireland that pay significantly more than Irish banks pay to their staff. All that is true is that a review is under way. I have not yet received that report and do not anticipate doing so until early in the new year.