Thursday, 14 February 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
On 20 September I raised the issue of the drug called Spinraza with the Tánaiste. It was subsequently raised by my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, and Deputies Lisa Chambers and Curran. Some five months have passed and the 25 children I referred to that day are still waiting. They do not have time to wait. It has been approved in 20 EU countries. The latest country to approve it is our neighbour, Scotland. When will we give information to the 25 families, who do not have time to wait?
As things stand, value added tax, VAT, on health supplements will be charged at the rate of 23% throughout the State starting in March. When Sinn Féin raised this issue during the debate on the Finance Act 2018, the Minister agreed to examine it in the context of the tax strategy papers later this year. We know that the Revenue Commissioners are sitting on an expert report on this issue yet the increase is going ahead in March. This is not really joined-up thinking. One part of the State is to look at the issue later in the year and another part refuses to say what its report says. In case the Government is not aware, though I imagine its members probably are, this major change will affect many thousands of users of supplements as well as workers in that industry. Will the Government provide some leadership on this issue? Will it suspend the planned increase, sit down with Revenue, bang heads together until there is clarity, if that is what is required, and engage in dialogue with those who are affected?
Ihope the Deputy is aware that the Revenue Commissioners are completely independent of the Government and the Department of Finance. We do not play a role in directing Revenue on how to interpret law.
I am working with my own Department on the matter because I am aware of the concern around this issue. I will not be blurring the space between this House, the Government and the Revenue Commissioners.
There are many in this House who should know the consequences if we go down that path.
The programme for Government states that it will support our veterans for the public service and outstanding contribution they have made to the State. A few weeks ago, we marked the centenary of the First Dáil and we go on to mark the anniversary of the War of Independence. In that context, it is a source of national shame that our veterans, who know more than most the power of our national flag, have resorted to sleeping on the streets of Dublin in green, white and orange sleeping bags. The Organisation of National Ex-Servicemen, ONE, is taking this step to raise awareness of the huge difficulties being faced by former servicemen and servicewomen. ONE is seeking funding to ensure it can operate and provide the supports they need. What is being done to secure the issues they have addressed, particularly a military psychiatrist? The Minister of State with responsibility for defence is in the Chamber. Will he undertake now to meet with ONE members to address their legitimate concerns that I believe would be supported by everybody in this House?
From approximately €40,000 up to €100,000. I have spoken to ONE on this specific issue. This is an awareness campaign. I am not aware of any veteran who is homeless on the street. I have asked if that is the case, they will get whatever assistance is required.
On the military psychiatrist issue, we have submitted a proposal to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and I hope to have that issue concluded shortly.
The programme for Government talks of working to make our older years better years. It is a noble sentiment but let us look at the reality on the ground. Would the Tánaiste care to comment about the fact that the largest drugs company in the entire world, which dodged $35 billion in US taxes when it relocated to Ireland in recent years, is trying to downgrade massively the pension entitlements of its Irish workforce, in other words, the very same workers who made many of the super profits for Pfizer in the first instance?
As the Tánaiste will be aware, strike action due to be carried out tomorrow at Pfizer, which employs approximately 600 people in our shared constituency, has been deferred and referred to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. The issue relates to changes in pension schemes and profitable companies - and this is not the only one - moving from defined benefit schemes to defined contribution schemes. Three Opposition Bills on this matter were brought forward but parked while Government brought forward the social welfare and pensions Bill 2017. Where is that Bill? There has not been any progress on it since then. Is it the case that the Government is giving big companies time to get their house in order before the law is changed?
Pfizer is just one example of a major problem we have with occupational pensions in this State which has been ignored by successive Governments over many years. We need protections for employees. These are basic protections. At the very least, employees should be able to depend on a pension pot when they reach pension age, something they have been paying into for their entire working lives. Protections are included in the general scheme of the social welfare and pensions Bill 2017 but we have not seen a final version of that legislation. Three Opposition Bills, one of which was brought forward by Sinn Féin, were parked while the Minister brought forward the general scheme of the social welfare and pensions Bill in 2017. Those Bills included protections for employees in respect of defined benefit schemes. Can we get clarity on where it is and when it will be brought forward to put these protections in place for these schemes?
On the industrial dispute between some SIPTU workers and Pfizer, I am glad to say the WRC has invited both parties back in for discussions. There is a Labour Court recommendation that was put together on this issue, which the company and management accepted and the workers decided not to accept, which is their right. I hope that talks can take place in the WRC and get a positive outcome. Pfizer has been an extraordinarily good and positive employer in Ireland and has invested hundreds of millions of euro in our economy. This is an issue that needs to be resolved but I am confident that the industrial relations machinery of the State can be effective in this case, and I am glad that both sides are engaging.
The public are growing weary of all the waste, the cost overruns and everything else. I call on the Tánaiste to put in place an immediate review of the expenses in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, especially relating to press secretaries and advisers. Information provided to me in responses to parliamentary questions has shown that €6.5 million has been spent in the past two years as a result of Ministers employing special advisers and media advisers - in other words, spin doctors - yet the Government is telling the nurses it cannot pay them. Some €6.5 million is being spent by the Tánaiste's ministerial colleagues sitting beside him on spin doctors, press secretaries and advisers. It is an outrageous sum of money. I want the Tánaiste to carry out a review and instruct the personnel officers in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to issue a policy to the effect that these cannot be appointed willy-nilly whenever they wish, bring in their friends in the press and cosy up to them.
I appreciate the Tánaiste cannot be across every issue but I raised important issues this morning and he did not provide answers. Will he undertake to get those answers from both the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe? Also, I raised the issue of the Taoiseach misleading the House. Will he convey my views here and the request that he correct the record?
I accept that the Deputy asked detailed questions earlier. I do not have a date today, which is what she asked for, in respect of a specific question but I will talk to the Minister about that. I will convey to the Taoiseach the contribution she made as well.
The Minister is sitting beside the Tánaiste. He could have indicated that date in an aside.
On an issue for which the Tánaiste does have responsibility, on Tuesday in the Dáil, the Taoiseach said he would be looking to try to reassure the UK Government that the backstop and the accompanying customs arrangement would not trap them into that customs arrangement forever and a day and said they would be looking for some mechanism to avoid that. Can the Tánaiste confirm whether he believes that would be through any change to the withdrawal agreement, a codicil to it or in the political declaration in which the Irish Government, through the European negotiators, is looking to try to give that reassurance? Can he assure this House regarding from where that reassurance for the British Government may come?
The Government has made it clear, as the EU has, that the withdrawal agreement that was agreed by the British Government, along with all other EU governments, will not be reopened but, of course, we want to try to be helpful in clarifying the issues around the potential use of a backstop, which, after all, is an insurance mechanism that none of us wants to use. If it is to be used, we all want it to be temporary so that it can be replaced by something that is more permanent, which people may be more comfortable with. There was an effort to provide reassurance to the British Parliament with two quite comprehensive letters from President Tusk and President Juncker to reinforce those points a number of months ago and it did not seem to have much effect. Ultimately, the problem is in London and we have yet to have any detailed proposal on how the concerns of the parliament in Westminster can be responded to. Those proposals have to come from London.
A Programme for a Partnership Government gave a commitment to establish a second air ambulance base in the southern part of the country to take pressure off the excellent service that is being provided at Custume Barracks, Athlone, and to allow that service to provide for more emergencies in the west and the midlands. A new service is about to commence at Cork Airport. Could the Tánaiste provide an update on when this emergency service will go live?
That was mentioned this morning at a meeting in the Department of Health. Negotiations are continuing with the HSE. Some details are still being ironed out, so we do not have a specific starting date yet.
Gabhaim buíochas as ucht an deis labhairt. I know the Tánaiste was involved with the draft guidelines on wind farms. When can we expect these new guidelines? I have been contacted by a number of concerned residents in communities in Laois and Offaly. There is great concern and the noise levels are of particular concern in connection with a wind farm at Garbally near Banagher. Could a moratorium be imposed until we get these guidelines? We need to be fair to communities and when tackling climate change, the Government cannot just impose something that does not respect the voices of communities and their concerns.
The noise issue that the Deputy raised is important and it led to the delay because there was a change internationally last year, which led to a change in the directive that came from Europe. We have incorporated that into the draft guidelines and, as I said last week in the Chamber, they will go out for public consultation next week or the week after for a short period. While they are out for public consultation, planning authorities will have to take cognisance of them. They should all be finalised, therefore, within about a two-month period.
A number of years ago the Government published a national sexual health strategy, which is a framework for the sexual health and well-being of the population. A key goal of this strategy was to have equitable, accessible and high quality sexual healthcare across the regions. In the midlands, more than 6,000 full-time students attend Athlone Institute of Technology, yet no sexual health clinic is located in Athlone. I have asked the Minister for Health by way of parliamentary question to address this and to honour the commitment in the Government's national framework. Funnily enough, the person who was asked to reply to this parliamentary question was a nurse based in Athlone, not the Minister. I understand the Tánaiste may not be able to answer this today but will he give a commitment to review the Government's national sexual health strategy with a view to ensuring that the midlands is not left without high quality and accessible sexual healthcare, particularly given the fact that 6,000 full-time students are attending Athlone Institute of Technology?
My offices in west Cork are being inundated lately with queries about broadband and people are being directed to a plan with a high speed broadband map. Much of west Cork is dotted in either light blue or amber, which indicates on the plan what will happen but there is no timeframe given. Could a realistic timeframe be put on this plan rather than just indicating what will happen? We need to know when it will happen. Broadband is no longer a luxury and large parts of west Cork have no coverage.
On the same issue, I refer the Tánaiste to page 46 of A Programme for a Partnership Government. It is worth reading out the paragraph because it shows the abject failure we have had in this area. It reads as follows:
One of the biggest challenges facing rural Ireland is to bridge the digital divide with urban areas. To remedy this situation for at least the next 25 years, we will guarantee the delivery of next - generation broadband to every household and business in the country. No town, village or parish will be left behind under the National Broadband Plan. Once the contract is awarded the rollout phase will begin immediately and, in conjunction with commercial investment, 85% of premises in Ireland will have access to high speed broadband.
It goes on to state that the targeted date for awarding the contract is June 2017. This is February 2019. When will this broadband contract be signed and rolled out, given it is almost two years later the Government's proposed schedule in A Programme for a Partnership Government?
It has been outlined that a commitment was given that the tender process and the contract were targeted for June 2017. Page 46 of A Programme for a Partnership Government states: "...the new Government will work with the winners to accelerate the roll out of the infrastructure next year". That was 2018. This was first announced in 2012 and it is having a great effect on farmers, students and the self-employed. In my constituency alone, 12,721 households in Laois are waiting for this while in County Offaly, 12,420 households are waiting. There are 11,600 people commuting out of Laois every day to work outside of the county. Many of them would not have to do so if they had a broadband service and many self-employed people also tell me that. What in the name of God has happened to the national broadband plan? Where is it? When the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, resigned-----
The Deputy did not hear a year ago that there is a new Minister in the Department. This will be a significant spend by the State when it happens and we need to make sure that we are getting value for money and that the controls are in place to ensure that we protect the interests of the State in terms of expenditure. We need to make sure it works. The former Minister, Deputy Naughten, did an extraordinary volume of good work preparing the way for getting this done and I want to recognise that. My understanding is that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is now close to being in a position to bring a recommendation to Government, which will involve a significant decision by the Government if we choose to proceed.
I would like to raise the issue of out-of-hours GP services. Tipperary is a very big county and, between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., only two GPs are available for this service, one in Clonmel and one in Nenagh. Unfortunately, we are hearing of a greater number of examples where the service is not up to the level that would be reasonably expected by sick people throughout the county. Can I have a commitment from Government that additional resources would be put into this service in Tipperary?
Intensive negotiations are, hopefully, coming to a conclusion on the overall issues with the GP contract. Some of these issues will be addressed in that but I will certainly take note and pass back the Deputy's concerns regarding the Tipperary out-of-hours service as well.
Two years ago I, along with my colleagues, Deputies Troy and Rabbitte, on behalf of our party introduced a Bill to amend the Electricity (Supply) (Amendment) Act 1934. It basically related to control of the water levels of the River Shannon. There has been no movement on the Bill in the two years since it was introduced. On the basis that we all accept that climate change is happening and that enormous difficulties and challenges will arise in the coming years - they have already arisen - can the Tánaiste give a guarantee that the Bill will be brought before the House in the coming weeks?
Some of us have raised the issue of community employment, CE, supervisors and particularly the Labour Court decision in 2008. Deputy Calleary has been leading on the issue for some time. Industrial action is due to be taken by some supervisors from next Monday but a letter has been issued by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection which states that the Department will "review the funding allocated to your organisation having regard to the industrial action taken". That language is completely off the rails in 2019. What is the Government's intention regarding CE supervisors' pensions? Do not repeat the line that was given yesterday that they are not State employees. There was a Labour Court decision on the matter and full funding for their payments comes through the Department. What decision has been taken on it? Does the Minister stand over the language in the letter from the Department to the chairpersons of community employment groups, who are volunteers?
CE supervisors play an important role in the administration and supervision of the schemes. Strike notice has been issued for next Monday by the Fórsa and SIPTU trade unions. The schemes are vital for both urban and rural communities throughout the country. There was a Labour Court recommendation and the former Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, had prepared a way to deal with this, as Deputy Calleary and others are aware. We know it will not be pensions for everybody, but there was a way. A head was put in place with the then Minister with responsibility for the environment but it fell down somewhere between the tracks. The Minister should revive that and speak to the unions involved. She will find them willing partners. This can be resolved, but the Minister cannot sit on her hands and send out bureaucratic replies. They will not work.
There are two separate matters here. First, in response to Deputy Michael Moynihan, nobody would stand over the letter that was issued - I will not say it was in error but it was without consideration or thought - last week-----
-----from my Department. The day the letter was brought to my attention, which unfortunately was not before it was issued, I refuted the allegation in it. I made a statement that there will be no review on foot of any pending actions next Monday-----
I did that yesterday. To ensure that I would give due credit and regard to the people who carry out our CE work, which is a very valuable service throughout every county, I wrote to them yesterday giving them assurances that there will be absolutely no review of their funding, capitation, training or otherwise on foot of any action their employees take.
The difficulty, however, is that the supervisors are the host companies' employees, not State employees. We recognise the Labour Court ruling that was issued a number of years ago between the employees and the employers, to which the State was not a party, and we are endeavouring with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to work with the unions. Many meetings have taken place over the last six months to try to find a solution, but none has yet been found. However, we will not give up until we find one.
Recently, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection contacted approximately 70,000 pensioners who are affected by the pensions anomalies brought about by the then Minister for Social Protection in 2012. Many pensioners have lost out to the tune of €30 per week. Is there a timeline for when these people will have a decision? I accept it is on a case-by-case basis but when can they expect to receive their back money if they are owed it?
I thank the Deputy for raising this as I am pleased to be able to outline a timeline. The first tranche of people who will receive an increase and a pension payment backdated to last March will start receiving them next week. Of the 79,000 people involved there was a cohort where we knew why they had gaps in their service or career contribution history and we were able to fill those gaps with other information from the children's records we had. Those people will get their payments from next week. The regulations were signed this week. There is a cohort of people who have gaps on which we do not have information and we have invited them by letter to apply either online or through the paper application to fill in those gaps. That will enable us to increase their pension payments where possible. That exercise is ongoing and I hope to be able to finalise it by the end of the first quarter, which was the scheduled timeline.
On Valentine's Day in 1981 many young people went out to enjoy a good night, but 48 did not come home. Their families are protesting outside the House at present. For 38 years they have been seeking answers despite various inquests and so forth. They believe they have new information and they are seeking justice after this long time. Are there plans for a new inquiry? Would the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach meet with the families? They are getting older but the pain continues. I appeal to the Tánaiste to consider meeting with them given what day it is and also to seriously consider holding an inquest.
The families and loved ones of the 48 people who died in the Stardust fire believe they have vital new evidence. Last November, hundreds marched to the Office of the Attorney General where they handed in 48,000 signatures demanding a reopening of the inquest. The families and survivors believe they have not had truth or justice. Will the Government commit to supporting the Stardust Relatives and Victims Committee in its call for reopening the inquest?
The Stardust Relatives and Victims Committee is once again protesting outside the gates of Leinster House. Today is the 38th anniversary of a most horrific tragedy which resulted in the deaths of 48 citizens. Families of the victims have been badly let down by this and previous Governments. There will never be closure until questions on what happened on that night are addressed properly. Will the Tánaiste meet with the families? Will he consider and support their demand for a new inquest? These families and their supporters will not go away until they get answers.
A previous Taoiseach, former Deputy Bertie Ahern, did a great deal of work on this, as did Deputies Haughey and Darragh O'Brien, over a number of years. Last year a commission was established under a former judge but, as has been said, this has not satisfied the families of some of the victims. I echo the requests that the Tánaiste or the Taoiseach consider taking this a step further to ameliorate the families' concerns and try to close this circle once and for all to their satisfaction. We remember the victims in a special way on this St. Valentine's Day.
I acknowledge this important occasion, which is the anniversary of what was perhaps one of the greatest tragedies to occur in this city. I am happy and satisfied at all times to receive any new information that the committee or any individual wishes to share with me. I had the opportunity to meet with the representative groups of victims and survivors on a number of occasions. I understand an application has been made to the Office of the Attorney General on the possibility of reopening the inquest. I am not privy to the detail of that, nor should I be. However, I am happy to convey the Deputies' concerns directly to my colleague, the Attorney General, immediately following this intervention.