Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
As the Minister for Education and Skills will be aware, two staff members in the University of Limerick became whistleblowers. They are in dispute with the university. They raised issues relating to wrongful expenditure of public moneys. Their views were upheld by a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General and a report by Professor Richard Thorn who was appointed to report independently on the matter. These two women are suspended without pay, despite the university having undertaken to restore them to full employment and, to facilitate them in returning to work, giving them an assurance that they would not be returned to the university's finance department.
Mr. Kieran Mulvey was appointed to undertake mediation. Unfortunately, there has not been engagement. I understand that the university is attempting to put the two women back into the finance department having previously agreed not to do same. They should not be victimised because they became whistleblowers. I call on the Minister to become involved and seek to find a resolution to the matter as quickly as possible.
I am happy to do that. I have worked closely with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, who has responsibility for the higher education sector. I am happy to take the Deputy's constructive suggestion about getting involved.
The Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill 2017, which was approved unanimously by the Dáil in June 2018, is due to be debated in the Seanad today. We heard in recent days that the Government had taken a different position and flip-flopped on the issue and would block the Bill in the Seanad. We have since learned that that is not the approach, but that the Government has instead decided to water down the Bill by extending its implementation period and introducing amendments on Report Stage. For people relying on the Bill, that is not acceptable. It had unanimous support in this House and on Second Stage in the Seanad and it needs to be passed and implemented without delay to ensure there is an extension of unpaid parental leave of eight weeks to parents of children under eight years of age.
The Bill is essential, which is why everyone in this House approved it. Will the Minister outline the Government's position on trying to water down the Bill as it goes through the Seanad?
I thank the Deputy for the question. The Government is not trying to water down the Bill at all. Rather, we are trying to make progress, working with the Bill's sponsors, on getting it through. It underwent no pre-legislative scrutiny, which caused problems in terms of ensuring that all of the appropriate bodies were engaged with to understand all of its consequences, for example, cost implications and the resourcing of essential areas. We fully support the principles of the Bill. It is before the Seanad this afternoon and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is leading on behalf of the Government. We are trying to find amendments that will have the agreement of all sides of the Upper House.
The Government promised a Brexit omnibus Bill that would involve multiple pieces of legislation from various Departments. Therefore, it is possible for Departments to have more than one Bill before a House at the same time.
I have previously asked about the Judicial Council Bill 2017, which is long-promised and long-awaited legislation to ensure uniformity across the Judiciary, which is very important. I was told that, since the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill was before the Seanad, another Bill could not be progressed. When will the Judicial Council Bill be presented to this House and when will it be enacted?
I thank the Deputy for the question. That is a matter for the Seanad, where the Bill is due for Committee Stage. However, the Seanad is currently dealing with the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, which is taking some time to make its way through.
Last summer, an independent commission examined local electoral boundaries and the revision of some borough districts. We all thought that was the Gospel. Last Friday, however, Tipperary County Council received an email to say that a decision had subsequently been made by the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, or someone else in the Minister's Department to put the Cahir area into the Tipperary town and Cashel district. This is of major concern to all council management, staff, including outdoor workers, and members and to people in the area. What kind of gerrymandering is going on? We had enough of that back in the Tully Government. The commission deliberated and reported, and that was accepted by the county council, but now the Minister of State, who accused Senator Coffey of being Crotty the Robber, is interfering with Tipperary and its destiny. We will not put up with this. I do not know what the Government has against Tipperary and Tipperary town, but it is interfering with it a lot.
I thank the Deputy for the question. The local electoral boundaries were reviewed. A commission was put in place to do that. In a couple of areas, though, it went outside its mandate in respect of the designation of boroughs. That was addressed by the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, a number of weeks ago.
The Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Water in Public Ownership) (No. 2) Bill 2016 was put on hold on Committee Stage last March to provide the Minister with two months to engage with me on issues of wording and an amendment from his Department relating to his concern about the unintended consequences of keeping water in public ownership. Nearly a year on and we are still waiting. The Minister met me once with two of my colleagues and a second time to show me a piece of paper with a wording that he believed might work, but there has been no real engagement. I have offered for my legal team to meet his legal team or the Attorney General's legal team to try to tease this out, but that has not happened. This morning, the committee agreed to continue Committee Stage of my Bill in April, and I hope that the Minister will be able to say when he will engage with me as its sponsor in a meaningful way.
I thank the Deputy for the question. This is an important issue to me. That is why I brought it to the Cabinet before Christmas for a decision on sending what we believed could be a successful wording to the Attorney General's office. It is with the Attorney General at the moment. It is important that, when we hold a referendum on this issue, we have agreement on all sides of the House that the wording is robust enough not to have unintended consequences. The Attorney General is working on that at the moment.
In one of our previous engagements, I outlined for the Deputy the various barriers that had to be tested or jumped to get to a suitable wording. If the Deputy believes that she has a wording that crosses those thresholds sufficiently so as not to have unintended consequences, I would be interested in sitting down and talking with her about them.
As for meeting with the Attorney General, that would be a matter for him.
Mr. Brendan Kenny, the head of housing policy in Dublin City Council, has made it clear that the council sees no way of providing further social, affordable or public housing in the centre of Dublin. What plans has the Minister to access State lands, for example, Cathal Brugha Barracks and the Broadstone garage, to ensure that we do not create a Millionaire's Row ghetto in the centre of Dublin and, instead, we have a mix of people in our city centres? As the Minister knows, this is a major problem in our own part of Dublin city in particular. What plans has the Government to address the issues that Mr. Kenny outlined?
I thank the Deputy for the question. I do not believe that Mr. Kenny made that clear. What was intended for the site was to use prefabricated technology to deliver social housing. Given the complexity of the site itself for social housing, however, doing so did not represent value for money. It was the right decision not to progress with the site, but that does not mean that Dublin City Council is in any way taking its foot off the pedal in terms of delivering new social housing within its administrative area.
Regarding State sites that are not local authority owned, that is why I established the Land Development Agency, LDA, last September. It has identified eight initial sites, but it is in discussions with Departments and agencies regarding a further tranche of 15. Through those sites, we will be able to use public land to deliver housing for all of our people in areas of high demand like the city centre. That is progressing. We do that work with the Departments. The LDA had its first board meeting last week - an interim board is in place - and we will have legislation to place it on a statutory footing and capitalise it to the tune of €1.25 billion once we are through with the rent Bill, which is awaiting Committee Stage.
I have been speaking directly to staff outside Portiuncula and Roscommon hospitals, nursing staff who want to be caring for patients instead of picketing. I wish to ask about a commitment in the programme for Government that could provide a flexibility that is now needed to overcome the impasse in the dispute without undermining the national pay agreement. Page 61 of A Programme for a Partnership Government reads:
We will review the roles and responsibilities of various healthcare professionals working in our hospitals. This will include further transfer of tasks between doctors and nurses ...
Can this review be brought forward in order to avert the three-day strike that is planned for next week and will have a devastating impact on patients awaiting appointments?
On page 66 of A Programme for a Partnership Government, the Government promises to implement new procedures to ensure the more efficient and timely recruitment of nurses but we now have a major problem with their recruitment and retention. I am not surprised. First-time nurses must be paid the same as other university graduates. The conditions that our nurses work under are unacceptable, with overcrowding and poor support from management. Nurses are rightly angry. Tomorrow, nurses from the Schull, Castletownbere, Bandon, Clonakilty, Dunmanway, Kinsale and Skibbereen community hospitals will strike outside their hospitals with their fellow nurses in Bantry General Hospital, fighting for their rights and the rights of the patients for whom they care. There are five senior and junior health Ministers. Can the Government sit down and do what it has to do to find an immediate solution to nurses' pay and conditions before it forces these nurses out on strike again tomorrow?
On the crisis in the recruitment and retention of nurses, the Minister will be forced to admit at this stage that the Government's recruitment drive has been a dismal failure. Irish nurses working across the globe are sending messages of solidarity to their striking colleagues and encouraging them to stand up for themselves, remain strong and stay out. Irish nurses working abroad will never come home to work in the profession they love because of the poor pay and conditions on offer and gross under-staffing. Newly qualified teachers are getting on the first plane out of this place. The problem of staffing cannot be addressed until the issue of poor pay and conditions is addressed. That is why the Government's recruitment drive has fallen flat on its face and on deaf ears. Nurses are striking for that good reason and the public is behind them. When will the Government get its head out of the sand and deal with the reality that until it addresses the issue of poor pay and conditions, the recruitment and retention crisis is set to continue indefinitely?
We have recruited over 3,000 more nurses into the public health service in the past few years. We have a national wage agreement that prioritises those on low and middle incomes in wage restoration and wage growth. We have a national wage agreement which, on the new entrant issue alone, makes provision for a needed and recognised wage increase of €3,000 to deal with an issue that has been raised in this House. I hear Deputy after Deputy say that while we need to pay nurses more, we do not want to undermine what is a collective wage agreement. These are the same Deputies who, when we were dealing with the issue of An Garda Síochána in 2016, accused the Government of undermining the national wage agreement. Deputy Naughten made a constructive suggestion on how the issue could be moved forward. In terms of the engagement that has happened to date, an attempted was made to deal with this issue inside the current national wage agreement. We then had a period of engagement for over a year at the Public Service Pay Commission that produced a report that was welcomed by many Deputies who are now criticising it. The Government is open to and trying to use proposals such as those identified by Deputy Naughten to find a way through this most difficult issue. Of course, the Opposition Deputies who are raising the issue of the plight and work of nurses today, something that is recognised fully on this side of the House also, are the same Opposition Deputies who the next day will be raising the issue of why workers in every other part of the public service are not receiving the same wage increases.
The December homeless figures show that there were 9,753 people in homeless accommodation. In an accompanying statement issued at the time the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, stated there was sufficient bed capacity to provide a bed for anyone who wanted one. That is simply not the case. Two weeks' ago, I personally brought a case in Wicklow to the attention of the Minister. It involves a ludicrous policy in Wicklow County Council under which part-time emergency homeless accommodation is provided for individuals. I brought to attention the case of a young woman with three children who was pregnant and who had been in bed and breakfast accommodation provided by the local authority. The local authority had cut the number of nights a week it was provided from seven to four. That is the policy and it not an isolated case. It is the policy of Wicklow County Council under which we see families having to share accommodation. It has got to the stage where the woman in question has to make a choice to put herself and her children out on the street or stay in the accommodation. She did the right thing. She chose to stay in it.
The Minister did not even come back to me. When I spoke to him again last week in the Chamber, he stated he had not had a chance to speak to anyone about this ludicrous policy which is in operation in Wicklow County Council.
Does the Minister stand over the statement he made that there was a bed for anyone who wanted one in emergency accommodation because that is not the case? Does he stand over this appalling ludicrous policy which is in operation in Wicklow County Council?
The Government has repeatedly reaffirmed its belief Rebuilding Ireland is working. I entirely disagree. The example given by Deputy Brady outlines the position. To give the Minister an insight, the Cork Simon emergency shelter has been full every night for the past two months. Last week all 47 beds were full, with nine additional persons on the floor and in sofa spaces and 17 on mattresses on the floor of the day service next door. In a particular week in December there were 373 adults in emergency accommodation. Cork Simon states there has been no let up. The emergency accommodation crisis is getting worse and worse. I believe it is time the Minister reconsidered the Government's position on confining social housing provision to small-scale projects. That is part of the solution.
I thank both Deputies for their questions. In response to Deputy Brady, I am afraid that I cannot speak about or become involved in individual cases. That is a matter for the local authority in question. The Deputy raised with me the prospect that there might be a policy in Wicklow and I made a commitment to get back to him. I offer my apologies to him as I have not yet got back to him. My understanding is that my officials have not had an opportunity to speak to the local authority in Wicklow.
As I do not have the full facts of the matter to hand, I cannot speak about it. Of course, we all know that there is a crisis of homelessness in the country. That is why this year we will spend more money on housing than any Government ever has in one year. That is why we are continuing to build thousands and thousands of social housing homes. The Deputy's colleague stated Rebuilding Ireland was failing. Since the year before it, we have increased the number of social housing homes by eight times.
In the programme for Government there is quite a significant section on balanced regional development, an issue I have raised on many occasions. Balanced regional development, while it may be occurring in some areas, is certainly not happening in my constituency of Roscommon-Galway. In terms of job creation, it is the area is most neglected.
Recently my colleague, Deputy Kelleher, tabled a question about vacant IDA Ireland sites. The reply showed that, nationally, 64% of IDA Ireland properties were vacant. Let me outline to the House the list in Roscommon-Galway. In Roscommon town there was 4.8 ha of land vacant; in Castlerea, 1.2 ha; in Ballinasloe, 8.8 ha; and in Ballygar, 3.4 ha. In small areas in Mountbellew and Glenamaddy and the Tuam business park which straddles the constituency there are 2.17 ha vacant. There is no attempt by the Government, no matter what notes come from the Chief Whip to the Minister, to create jobs in my constituency of Roscommon-Galway. I ask the Minister to seize the opportunity when thousands of jobs are being created in Galway. The fact of the matter, as I pointed out previously, is that 900 people leave my constituency daily to travel to work in Dublin. What will the Government do about it?
I thank the Deputy for the question. We are seeing jobs growth in every region of the country because of the measures the Government has implemented under the Action Plan for Jobs. Today the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, is launching one of the first of her regional action plans for jobs with a more detailed focus on regions of the country that are not doing as well as others to help increase job creation. It is important to note that, with the urban and rural regeneration funds, hundreds of millions of euro will be spent and investment has been granted in the Deputy's own area to regenerate towns and areas in order that more people will come to live and work in them. Over the course of the next 20 years, of the additional 1 million people who will be living in the country, 75% will be living outside Dublin. That is why we have the regional spatial economic strategies being finalised to plan and manage that growth-----
-----and the investment in job creation that is also happening, as the statistics show. It is not happening evenly everywhere, which is why we now have the detailed regional action plans from the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.
I want to raise an issue with the Minister that I have often raised in this House and which has also been raised by colleagues such as Deputies Aylward and Calleary. It is the plight of 25 children who are suffering from SMA. Their condition deteriorates but there is hope in a drug called Spinraza. We have raised the issue time and again and the Minister has rightly stated that there is an assessment process. However, the families involved feel helpless and believe they are voiceless and have been left behind while the process is ongoing.
They had hoped there would be a resolution to this before Christmas and there has not been. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, who replied to me previously indicating that a proposal would be brought to the HSE leadership team in February. I need the Minister of State to assure us that this will happen and that a conclusion will be brought to this. Every day one of the few parents contacts me, desperate for a solution to this. It is a small group of people and they genuinely feel voiceless and helpless. I appeal to the Minister of State to ensure the recommendation is brought forward, and perhaps he could indicate when that team is due to meet.
I wish to add my voice to this matter, which has been ongoing. There are parents in my constituency in Kilkenny who consistently make representations to me on this issue. It is time for the Government to give us an answer on when this drug will be available. It has been pushed down the road and these parents have children who are suffering. They need this drug sooner rather than later. Will the Minister of State please move this forward and give us a definite reply?
I thank the Deputies for their interest in this issue and their persistence in raising it. I can confirm that the HSE leadership management team will meet on 14 February at which it is hoped it will to come to a final decision on this. That is not to say the drug will be made available after that date. It is not within my gift to make it available, but it is hoped a decision will emerge from that meeting on 14 February.
The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, referred to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. It is not three weddings and a funeral. It is three Ministers and a planner in my constituency today launching the enterprise plan for the midlands region across Portlaoise, Mountmellick and Birr. A commitment was given during the Topical Issue debate on 25 October 2018 by the Minister, Deputy Bruton, when he confirmed the Government would make an application to the EU globalisation fund on foot of Bord na Móna's decision to accelerate decarbonisation, which will result in up to 430 job losses. That plan would be great if it had adequate funding to deliver upon what is contained within it. Our region and our county deserve funding over and above existing programmes to deal with the issue of decarbonisation and to deal with the region maintaining its place as an initiator and instigator of the provision of energy in the midlands and in the State. It is rich for the Ministers to be there launching that plan when they could not honour the commitment they gave me in good faith. It will take more than a visit from the "Six One" news to Tullamore on one night of the year to make progress on this matter.
The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has been detailed today to answer on behalf of the Taoiseach. People throughout the country are outraged at the escalation in the cost of the children's hospital. People in Kerry are concerned about our new community hospital in Killarney and how far that will be pushed back. When the Minister is finished talking to his colleagues, I will ask him a question. People want to know about the contracts. Someone signed a contract on behalf of the client, the client being the people of Ireland, to build the children's hospital. Who signed the contract with the contractors? Was it the Minister for Finance? Was it the Taoiseach? Was it the Minister for Health? Which of them signed the contract? The Government is now commissioning a report that will cost €500,000. I put it to the Minister that whoever signed that contract knows who is responsible for the escalation in the price.
The costs overrun on the national children's hospital will have a knock-on effect for many capital projects. Clarity is needed as a matter of priority as to which projects will be delayed or deferred. I refer to the second permanent cath lab at University Hospital Waterford that was signed off on by the Minister for Health at a meeting with all south east Oireachtas Members last October. The Minister has reiterated that this project will not be delayed, but clarity is needed on the 2019 health service plan. Unfortunately, at a committee meeting last Thursday, the Department said differently. When will we have this clarity once and for all?
In case the Minister thinks this matter is going to go away, I remind him that only for Brexit it would bring the Government down. That is a fact. Each and every member of the Government knows this. This is serious. It is true that every Deputy in this House is now wondering what knock-on effects this will have to HSE budgets in their constituencies. The way the Government has handled it has been catastrophic. I will repeat, and it is my fourth time to say this in the House today, that the best that the Minister for Health could come up with to describe the situation is "the least worst option". Those words will come back to haunt each and every member of the Government when they come to face the electorate again. This is a disgrace and they are not taking it seriously enough. They had better wake up to this. The Minister for Finance must definitely wake up to this.
On the same issue, this situation has exposed the politics by press release and announcements rather than the politics of governing. Deputy Cowen's intervention also summed up this type of politics with regard to the other Departments. The effects of the massive cost overruns may not be felt immediately this year but will be felt next year and the year after. I want to know which school projects and third level projects are planned to be affected by this cost overrun? This will have a massive impact. Schools throughout the State are badly in need of works. There was a big announcement made last year by the Minister for Education and Skills with regard to demographic pressures. We need new schools. Will the Minister indicate what the effect will be?
On the same matter of the children's hospital costs, we have been promised an independent review, to be carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers, into the overall spend of the children's' hospital. A cursory look in the Companies Registration Office shows that PricewaterhouseCoopers has been the auditor of the Royal BAM Group, and not just its subsidiary in Ireland. This is a billion euro plus company. PricewaterhouseCoopers is the auditor and accountant for this company. Is the Minister satisfied that the House can accept this as an independent assessment by a company that has consistently been the auditor of the Royal BAM Group's accounts for the past number of years? Does he honestly believe that we can accept this as an independent review, bearing in mind that the contract we are referring to with BAM is a €1.7 billion potential contract? Is the Minister satisfied that the review will be fully independent? Is he satisfied that every Member in the House can accept the review as independent? The Minister has grave questions to answer around the independence of such a review. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has to be satisfied that it is fully independent. I certainly am not.
Will the national capital plans be affected due to this cost overrun? There have been promises on two major projects in my area with more than €13 million to be invested between Midleton and Youghal community hospitals, which are due to be completed by 2021. We have not seen this yet and I fear these projects may be affected by the massive overrun of costs at the national children's hospital. I would like some update on this investment.
There was a commitment by the Government, and a top priority of the HSE, to build a primary care centre in Finglas. Dublin City Council entered into an agreement with the HSE to provide the land. The council recently purchased a local site - the Church of the Annunciation site - from the diocese. Money and a commitment to building the new centre is urgently needed. Will the Minister allay the concerns of the community that the overspend on the new children's hospital will not impact on this vital project? The people of Finglas are angry. We have waited for this primary care centre as a top priority. Will the Minister allay the people's fears and let us know if the project can and will go ahead?
The Government and I are well aware of the anger and concern people have with regard to the national children's hospital. We are well aware of the grave concerns people have on the cost escalation. We made the decision, and I take responsibility for the decision, to move ahead with the hospital and ensure that it is built.
The reason for that is my commitment to the site and seeing the project delivered to provide transformative care to young children throughout our country. Equally, I am aware of the anger in the House and concern nationally on the cost escalation. I answered questions about it for the afternoon yesterday, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is doing so today. To deal with Deputy Kelleher's question, the Deputy knows well that I cannot speak on behalf of other Members. I know the variety and strength of feeling in the House on the matter. I am confident that whatever work PwC does will be independent.
PwC will give its professional view as to how the matter developed and how we can ensure the remainder of the project is done well. The appointment of Mr. Fred Barry as the new chairman of the board will be instrumental in that regard. I note to Deputy Ellis that I hope to be in a position next week to clarify the effect on any other spend across 2019.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for exercising his discretion. My question is to the Minister for Education and Skills on the programme for Government commitment to develop our schools, in particular the three-school campus in Buncrana. Will the Minister confirm that progress is being made and whether the Department is still seeking to purchase the priority site?
The programme for Government contains a commitment to ensure Ireland's green isle image informs Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine policy. It also includes commitments on afforestation and recognising its carbon sink value. However, people in the Toon Valley near Macroom are struggling to come to terms with how those commitments fit with the issuing by the Department of a licence for the removal of parts of Silvergrove Wood. While it is not part of the Gearagh special area of conservation, it is just upstream from it and is subject to an application for SAC status. One would have expected the application to raise a red flag in the Department in relation to the issuing of a licence. How does the licensing fit with the commitments in the programme for Government referred to? Should a red flag not have been raised?
Over the past two years, the local improvement scheme has been introduced. I acknowledge the work of local authorities and the many families who have benefited from the scheme over the past two years. It is important going forward to have such schemes in place. I ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development what his plans are for my area under the local improvement scheme.
I raise the issue of Clogheen post office. I was given a commitment by An Post that it would be kept open for a reasonable period while alternative premises were being located. An Post is now reneging on its obligation, notwithstanding the fact that the town meets all of the qualifying criteria for the provision of a post office service. Will the Minister ensure the post office is kept open until alternative premises can be found?
The local improvement scheme has been reintroduced and we have put a substantial fund in place. Deputy Eugene Murphy is leaving, but as with the jobs and towns and villages schemes, a substantial amount of money has been provided in Roscommon and a substantial number of jobs have gone to Roscommon too.
Donegal is now on the agenda. I confirm to Deputy McConalogue that my officials and representatives from Donegal County Council are very engaged on acquiring a site. I was in Crana College last Monday week and had the opportunity to meet the principal and other staff. Their sense of urgency is a focus, and I will have an opportunity on Friday, when the Deputy will no doubt also be in attendance, to meet the education and training board in Letterkenny to ensure this stays live on the agenda. There is a local solution, but it will require intense focus at local level, county council level and on the part of the Department. It is a focus in my contact and communication with the schools and the education and training board. We have to find a solution. People are getting frustrated. The Deputy and I want to see this progress, as do the politicians on the ground. It is to be hoped the engagement on Friday will help us to keep this firmly on the agenda.