Wednesday, 30 January 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
In the context of the general scheme of the miscellaneous provisions (withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 29 March 2019) Bill 2019, I understand that the Taoiseach had a telephone conversation with the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, yesterday in respect of the Brady amendment and the decision of the House of Commons to jettison the withdrawal agreement and to seek its amendment. Can the Taoiseach indicate if, during the course of that conversation, anything transpired which would impact on the passage of the miscellaneous provisions Bill through the Dáil? Is it still his intention that it will be published on 22 February? Is it clear - on the basis of his conversation with her - that the British Prime Minister is adamant that we are looking at a no-deal Brexit and hence the need for the legislation to be put through the House? It is only in the past two to three days that we have obtained more information about what a no-deal Brexit would involve. There was significant reticence in this regard in recent months but information is coming hot and heavy now from the Central Bank and the Department of Finance. We have also had the legislative proposal. The Taoiseach might indicate if there is a need to get this legislation through the Houses as quickly as possible in light of the current state of play.
The timeline we discussed last week when I convened a meeting of the party leaders stands. We expect to have that legislation ready for publication on 22 February, which will give us more than a month to bring it through these Houses.
The programme for Government states that the Taoiseach will end the need for rough sleeping by providing a high level of funding for the homeless services that support emergency beds and accommodation options. Yesterday, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government stated that in light of the cold snap we are experiencing, there will be places in emergency accommodation for all those who need them. I want to bring to the Taoiseach's attention, therefore, some information that came my way from Inner City Helping Homeless, which reports that outreach volunteers found that there were no beds available by 11.30 p.m. last night for people who wanted them and that 86 people slept rough in Dublin as a result. Not alone that, people have contacted my office this morning to state that those who were in hostels last night were turfed out into the cold first thing this morning and are now sitting around in tents near Heuston Station. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that this is unacceptable. Can he move immediately to ensure that there will be beds available for those who need them and that those who need that accommodation will not be turfed out at first light into freezing conditions?
I thank the Deputy for the question. We have to be careful in addressing this situation with the cold weather initiative that is in place and we must ensure that the information we are getting is accurate. We work with a number of NGO partner organisations to make sure that in these types of events when there is severe cold weather outreach teams from all the different organisations are out working with the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive to get people into safe, secure accommodation.
In the past number of months, we put an additional 200 permanent new beds into the system. We also put in place an additional 150 emergency beds.
The outreach teams are out to get people into accommodation. No one will be turned away. Also, when we have the cold weather initiative in place, people are not just being turfed out onto the street. We have to be mindful of the fact that it is very cold-----
We have moved from the speculation phase into the planning and preparation phase for a hard Brexit. The Taoiseach told the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, last night that the State had already informed the European Commission that an application for emergency European funding for aid will be made in the event of a no-deal hard Brexit. Back in 2016, one of the clear proposals made by both my party and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions was to seek changes in the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund to make sure that it was Brexit ready. Little has happened since then according to my information. At that time, we also proposed a two year suspension of state aid rules in the event of a hard Brexit. As the Taoiseach acknowledged yesterday, there are thousands of manufacturing jobs and other jobs at risk, particularly where there are integrated supply chains across these islands. What specific supports for small businesses and small and medium enterprises, SMEs, particularly in the Border area, has the Government put in place so that we can explain to them now what will happen because they are extraordinarily anxious about there being fewer than 60 days to 29 March?
There are a number of different instruments that we can use should we have to and should we end up in a no-deal hard Brexit scenario. For example, for farmers in the agrifood sector, the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, already provides the common organisation of the markets, CMO, regulation, which allows for emergency aid for farmers if their markets are cut off. For example, when the Baltic states were cut off from the Russian market, the CMO regulation was used to provide emergency aid so we do not need a change to the globalisation fund. For small businesses, we already have approval for the rescue and restructure intervention and that allows us to rescue a company and restructure it should it find its market lost as a consequence of Brexit. However, I do not want to create the impression in any way that because we have these instruments on standby that everything will be fine, it will not. There is no good Brexit. It will be harmful for our economy but we will be able to mitigate it by using some of the instruments that are available.
I respectfully ask the Taoiseach and the Minister of State at the Departments of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Justice and Equality and Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, to ensure that the people from Down Syndrome Ireland who have children with Down Syndrome, get what they are looking for, namely, the extension of the July provision and to deal with the concerns raised by people on behalf of those who are deaf. If Members have a duty to represent people, we have to represent people who cannot talk or who cannot hear and these deaf people are outraged at the indications that there will be cutbacks to their funding. I ask the Taoiseach to address that.
I know the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is working very hard on that particular matter with the intention of finding core funding for the Irish Deaf Society to make sure it can continue its work. He will meet with and regularly meets with Down Syndrome Ireland to discuss its concerns.
Today is a sad day for the health service with 35,000 nurses throughout Ireland on the picket lines. This is not a decision they took easily or lightly. To hear the individual stories of nurses and of the challenges they face every day in their working lives is heartbreaking. The Government has repeatedly ignored nurses as they warn of major problems in recruitment and retention. We are too late to stop the strike today but it is not too late to stop the other five days of threatened action, the further cancellation of appointments, the further upset for nurses and patients alike. I do not expect the Taoiseach to repeat all the answers he has given already because I listened carefully to them and they have not filled me with hope. Can the Taoiseach please give some hope to the nurses and the patients today however?
I want to speak on the same issue. We have heard many Members speak this morning about the nurses and midwives and I have listened to the Taoiseach speak about the fear of borrowing money or about it being affordable for the taxpayer. However, the Taoiseach can still propose - and we will be discussing it later - taking €500 million of taxpayers' money and putting it into a so-called rainy day fund. That will only bail out the banks and it will not assist the health system or the housing system.
I will ask the Taoiseach another question. Does the Government have a plan B because after the nurses and midwives, we will see the Psychiatric Nurses Association and the paramedics on. Then we have our GPs coming down the road and we have an ongoing issue with the Defence Forces. What will the Government do? If it is not going to engage with the nurses and midwives, it will be the same agenda. Will we be coming in here for the next couple of weeks and discussing all these other issues?
We spend €1.4 million per week on agency nurses. There is one nurse available for every four vacancies. There is a €7,000 gap in pay and negotiations are ongoing in the WRC. There is a trolley situation, there are waiting lists and there is the issue of the winter bug, and I could go on and on. We always say one's health is one's wealth in life and the Taoiseach said this morning, and he keeps repeating it, that this will be sorted out. If it can be sorted out, can we not sort it out now before it gets worse? I am pleading with the Taoiseach. I hear talk about it costing €200 million or €300 million. I said yesterday that we all agree we need a new children's hospital but the best thing for the people of Ireland is to get this sorted because they have gone through a tough time for the last number of years. I ask the Taoiseach to please meet the nurses and get this sorted out.
Deputy Buckley has actually summed up the difficulty the Government faces very well because he listed every other member of our public service that has a concern, a difficulty or even a grievance in respect of pay. What every one of those groups will ask the Government, if we move in the way that some Deputies want, is what will it do for them and what will it do to respond to their needs? That is the challenge the Government faces.
When the Taoiseach speaks about the need to be fair to all public servants, he is speaking about the teachers who have campaigned on pay equality and the progress we have made on that. He is speaking about the members of our Defence Forces who are currently involved in the Public Service Pay Commission. If we go the way that some Deputies are advocating-----
-----we face into the very risk that Deputy Buckley described. The Government has engaged on this issue through the Public Service Pay Commission. We have been in the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court and we have done that because of our respect for the professionalism and the ability of our nurses and the work they do every day and also because of the need that we alone face to be conscious of all the other demands that many public servants are raising.
I tried to raise this issue yesterday but I got no response. There is an ongoing review of people who have been claiming the contributory pension and people who were cut under the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012. Letters have been issued to people who are predominantly aged between 66 and 72 looking for further information in line with the ongoing review and asking this cohort of people to respond online to the queries. There is also a helpline which is grossly under-resourced. We have had a large number of telephone calls and people coming into our offices over the last number of days on this. I am asking the Taoiseach if the Department can reissue the letters with the application form attached, rather than asking people between 66 and 72 years of age to go online? Of course, there is also an issue with broadband in rural communities. Can the application form be attached to the letters that are being issued to pensioners to get their pension entitlements reviewed?
I will certainly ask the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, to examine whether a paper option can be provided. I am sure that can be done although I recall that when we brought in free GP care for over 70s that 97% of people over 70 were able to apply online. When people are getting a benefit or an increase in their pension they are generally able to apply online but perhaps a paper option should be there as well.
On page 46 of A Programme for a Partnership Government, under road investment, the Government promised to increase the budget for local and regional roads by 50% in the years ahead. Almost three years after A Programme for a Partnership Government was commenced, the conditions of many of our local and regional roads are appalling. In west Cork, we are continuously fire-fighting with our roads by spending some funds on roads damaged after bad weather. In 2017, an announcement was made which stated that funding was in place for the extension of the Bandon bypass. Government politicians were patting themselves on the back with this announcement but we are now two years on and not a sod has been turned.
What has happened since then? The answer is nothing. West Cork is tired of false announcements without any follow-up. What are the commencement and completion dates for the Bandon bypass?
The budget for roads is increasing considerably this year. However, it is also open to local authorities to use their income from rates, property tax and other sources to fund projects. I do not have any information to hand regarding the Bandon bypass. If the Deputy wants to raise it either when questions are being taken by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport or as a Topical Issue matter, I am sure he will receive a detailed reply.
On the day when nurses in Kerry are striking in the cold for improved terms and conditions, it is interesting that my colleague would choose this unique opportunity to raise his support for drink-driving when their case is-----
The question I wish to raise in the context of the programme for Government relates to the delivery of the national children’s hospital. On 18 August last, the Government was informed that there would be substantial overruns in the budget. In November, the Government was made aware of the board’s recommendation to accept the €450 million overrun and it signed off on that in December. This month, following a public outcry, it was announced that PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC was to carry out a review at a coast of €500,000 approximately. Why was the review by PwC not ordered in August when the Minister for Health was first made aware of the overruns and when something could possibly have been done about it? Now that we have signed off on the €450 million, we are at the point of no return.
There is a €1 billion overrun in respect of the national children's hospital, a tax cut of €3 billion promised by the Taoiseach and a report published by the Department of Finance yesterday indicating that 55,000 thousands jobs could be lost in the context of a no-deal or very damaging Brexit. Will the Taoiseach accept that it is time to be honest about which capital projects will run into difficulties because of his promise to cut tax and the overspend in respect of the national children's hospital? The metro project has been mentioned. What other potential capital projects will or could be shelved? Has the Government begun to identify those which may be shelved? Bearing in mind that we are entering into an electoral cycle - I am sure the Members opposite would not want to be the bearers of bad news - honesty on the issue would be very much appreciated.
The Rural Independents tabled a motion on 29 March 2017. We pointed out all the failures. We were in profit as it turned out, but we never claimed to be. The Fianna Fáil members sat on their hands and abstained during the vote on it, while Sinn Féin and the Labour Party backed the Government, therefore, the overrun, the scandal and they way it will affect every hospital is on all their heads.
As for Deputy Brassil attacking Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, we are entitled during Leaders' Question to ask about whatever issue we want. We do not accuse Fianna Fáil in that regard. Whatever issue Fianna Fáil wishes to ask about during Leaders' Questions, that is its business. We are entitled to pose our questions during Leaders' Questions. It is tough luck but the Deputy is not a leader.
In the interests of clarity, the report I published yesterday indicates that more jobs will be created in our economy in the future. However, it also acknowledges that significantly fewer jobs will be created. In fact, it states that 55,000 fewer jobs will be created if we end up with a no-deal scenario. Given that some people called on the Government to be clear in the context of what it believes might happen in a no-deal scenario, that is exactly what we have done.
On the point relating to the national children's hospital, I am currently working with all my Government colleagues on how the cost will be managed. It is worth making the point that the total amount of money we are dealing with across all of Government for this year is €50 million. That is outside of the Department of Health and in the context of capital spending for this year increasing by €1.4 billion. This issue will be dealt with.
Deputy Kelleher referred to accountability. The Government is considering how we can best bring the matter to a conclusion. We have to be fair to everybody. On the sequencing to which the Deputy referred, it is important to emphasise that the first priority we had was to make a decision regarding the national children's hospital-----
-----which we have done. Like the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, I strongly believe that if we had not made the decision, we would not have a national children's hospital available for a number of years to come. Those who would suffer on foot of that would be children.
Understandably, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit in March is concentrating all our minds. However, another potential event in March is also a matter of concern. I refer to the possibility of increasing VAT from 0% to 23% on health vitamins, supplements and fish oils. Such a development would lead to people who make good and positive choices in looking after their own health being penalised. The Taoiseach advocates a healthy lifestyle and certainly it is incumbent on all of us to look after our health. There are many people who make that positive choice and also vulnerable people who need those supplements who would be penalised by this change. In addition, some independent health stores and pharmacies could possibly close with the imposition of 23% VAT on the products in question. Does the Taoiseach agree such a change would be wrong and will he make any efforts to ensure that it is repealed?
I acknowledged last week that I understand this issue is a cause of concern for people in the sector. The decision in this regard was made the Revenue Commissioners, who are responsible for deciding how VAT law is implemented. The Revenue Commissioners were concerned that a growing number of decisions that were not credible were being made in respect of how VAT was being applied. They made their decision as a result of the latter. As the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, acknowledged yesterday in reply to a Topical Issue matter, we will work with stakeholders to see if there is a way in which this matter can be dealt with. It is worthwhile acknowledging that these changes are not due to be implemented until March.
I have a question for the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, regarding school transport. I ask if he could help address a crisis that has developed in Limerick and most likely in other parts of the country. I met a group of the school transport service providers recently. They are facing a crisis in the context of two issues. One relates to the recruitment and, in particular, the retention of drivers. The second issue is the upper age limit of 70 applies. I have been informed that this is enforced by Bus Éireann. We need to move into the modern era and review that age limit. If a person is able-bodied, willing and qualified to drive at 69 years of age, he or she should also be able to drive at the age of 70, 71 or 72 as long as he or she is physically capable and qualified. The bus transport company operators informed me that retaining drivers is a major issue. Another issue is that the vetting approval cannot be transferred in circumstances where a driver moves from one bus company to another. Will the Minister of State address these issues?
The school transport scheme is complicated and complex in the sense that thousands of vehicles are used to transport 117,000 children - 12,000 of whom have special needs - twice a day throughout the country and that 100 million km are covered in doing so. The transport of that number of children, some in buses and some in taxis, can be difficult.
We are consistently having difficulty in securing appropriate and sufficient vehicles. We have been quite successful up to now. The 70 year matter is not an issue that the Government can interfere with. It has been brought to my attention and I have been speaking to the Department about expanding that. I am not sure if it is in my remit to decide how old the driver of a vehicle can be. It is in my remit to make sure that the transport scheme operates efficiently and that every eligible child and child with special needs is carried on that scheme. I will come back to the Deputy regarding the matter.
I will quote a press release that the Taoiseach's Cabinet colleague, Deputy Coveney, issued on 13 June 2017 relating to wind energy guidelines:
I envisage following the completion of the SEA process, the new statutory Guidelines will be finalized and issue to planning authorities in Q1 2018
In the first quarter of 2018, every planning authority in the country was to have the new revised wind energy guidelines. Some 12 months on, there has been no further word to local authorities. Renewable energy is essential if we are going to address our climate change obligations. I realise that it is not the Government's top priority but it is an important issue. We must embrace it and address it but it must be done in a sustainable manner which does not impinge on our communities. Our communities want new, updated guidelines, which have been long overdue and promised. When can we see those guidelines implemented? In advance of the guidelines being implemented, is it possible that a moratorium will be put in place on any new applications until such a time as we have new, robust guidelines in place?
I thank the Deputy for the question. This is a priority for the Government. As I informed the House two weeks ago, over the course of 2018 the World Health Organization changed its guidelines relating to noise from wind turbines. As a result, the EU changed its directives in October last year.
We decided it was prudent to take cognisance of the change in the directive from the EU before we went to public consultation. We will go out to public consultation within the next two weeks. It will be a short public consultation but as we go out to public consultation for the draft guidelines, we will expect planning authorities to take cognisance of them in the decisions that they make.
I want to express my support, as I always have, for the nurses who find themselves in the situation they are in.
When people are asked to review their medical cards, they are sent a letter telling them to do it online or to telephone a number. When they ring that number, the telephone is never answered. I inquired on people's behalf to discover there is no such thing as being sent out a form that one can fill out to renew one's medical card. There is no such form. There is total confusion. I spoke to excellent people who work in the medical card processing unit and they are embarrassed about the letter that has gone out. The Taoiseach kindly intervened when he was Minister for Social Protection. He saw an anomaly on a form that I put in front of him and changed it right afterwards. I ask him to do that and-----
-----also to address people being told to do pension reviews online and that they cannot do it manually. We have to accept that there are older people who cannot do a thing online so forms have to be made available, whether for pensions or medical cards.
I understood that there were still paper forms available for people applying for a medical card or its renewal. I will double-check that and correspond with the Deputy on it, by paper.
My question is for the Minister, Deputy Creed. Like me, he has been contacted by a number of fishermen in the south and south west over the last ten days regarding the opening of the spurdog fishery. We discussed this almost two years ago and the Minister indicated then that he would look at pilot areas where we could do trials in various bays and so on. Nothing has happened yet, to my knowledge. Will the Minister give immediate consideration to opening the spurdog fishery because of the abundance of spurdogs there? I have been told that by people who are fishing, gilnetting and so on. It is an opportunity and a lucrative industry for depressed fishermen if the Minister is prepared to open it.
The Department takes advice on non-quota species from the Marine Institute. I am not aware of any advice on opening a fishery opportunity for spurdog but I will check on the matter and revert to the Deputy.
I want to follow up on the road traffic legislation. There is great anxiety among many younger drivers and their parents who are waiting for the driver test. They have completed the lessons and are well-practised, but are stuck in the queue waiting for the driver test. It is four or five months in many centres in Cork, Mallow, Skibbereen and Killarney. That contrasts with five and six weeks in Waterford and Carrick-on-Shannon. It is clearly possible to address this in some places but not in others. I am aware that the Minister has been talking about taking on additional testers. That is being proposed over the next 12 to 18 months. The problem is there now and waiting for a long time for testers is not realistic. Will the Taoiseach raise it with the Minister and ask him to prioritise having additional testers so that people who are stuck waiting for the driver test can have a realistic test time?
The recruitment of additional testers will happen and that will reduce the waiting times for a driver test. However, there are many cancellations around the country every day and if somebody has a pressing need, especially if he or she needs a full licence for work, he or she can contact the Road Safety Authority and those cancellations can be made available.
There is a crisis across the country relating to home care packages. In many cases, families are allocated hours but there is no funding to follow up on those hours. I am told, although I may be misinformed, that a money package will be agreed with regard to the extension of this. Will the Minister or Taoiseach reply? There is a crisis. I am dealing with a family of a woman in her mid-90s. Her family have taken her home. She is entitled to 23 hours of home care. She needs 24-hour home care but the woman wanted to go home and die in her own home. No funding is available even though she has been allocated the hours. It is sad and it can probably be seen across the State.
I hope the Taoiseach enjoyed his steak last night and that it fortifies him for his role as an ambassador for the Irish meat sector and increasing exports abroad. My question relates to his comments last night, asking for support for the beef sector and agricultural sector in the event of a hard crash-out Brexit. I put it to the Taoiseach that it is too late to ask. We need to prepared in advance for the hard crash-out. It unfortunately seems that we do not have those contingencies ready to go. Will the Taoiseach elaborate on what he has asked for, if Europe agrees on it and whether we are in a position to provide the support that will be required in the event of the worst coming to pass, which we of course hope to avoid?
I will take Deputy McConalogue's question. As he is aware, under the Common Agricultural Policy common organisation of the markets, CMO, regulations, there is provision for exceptional aid. We have engaged with the Commission about exceptional aid that would be necessary in the event of a disorderly Brexit threatening our market access. From our engagement with the Commission, we are satisfied that that exceptional aid provision, under the CMO regulations, would be available to us. We are not clear yet as to what shape or form the UK's departure may take.
Until that and any subsequent actions on the part of the UK are clarified, that provision cannot be invoked.
Regarding the matter of the Garda compensation scheme and a revised scheme thereto, I advise Deputy Durkan that matters are proceeding; however, it is unlikely we will be in a position to proceed by way of legislative change this term. I am happy, however, to speak directly to the Deputy, and I acknowledge his interest in this matter.
There has been a substantial increase in funding for home care packages for 2019. Unfortunately, I am unable to answer Deputy Crowe's question in any other way. If, however, he would like to provide me or perhaps the Minister for Health with more details, I am sure we could give him a better answer.