Thursday, 21 February 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Flight operations at Dublin Airport were suspended this morning for a short period because of a drone sighting. Members were assured in the House by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, who probably does not know a lot about transport, that this would not happen. The Taoiseach also has assured us that this would not happen. This was in response to queries by my colleague, Deputy Troy, and to Deputy Lawless, who has tabled legislation on the matters but it did happen, albeit temporarily. What action has the Government taken to protect our transport services and our airport services from this new scourge of drone activity?
I confirm, as I am sure the Deputy has already had it confirmed to him, that flights have resumed at Dublin Airport. There was a temporary suspension of flights due to reports of the sighting of a drone. This is an issue which has been raised with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport who has given a commitment to look into the issue and ensure an appropriate response is put in place.
We saw that most recently in the USA and UK. We should not pretend that Ireland is immune to challenges which are difficult to deal with from a technical perspective. We will, of course, learn from the lessons of others, in particular from our closest neighbour, to ensure we put measures in place which are as effective as possible.
The British Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission met in Brussels last night. Today, British Ministers are in Brussels for talks with Michel Barnier. We are told that, thus far, the talks have centred on the interpretation of the backstop and what fudge can be sold to the House of Commons in that regard. We are all agreed in this House that the basic protections afforded to Ireland in the withdrawal agreement and in the backstop in particular are non-negotiable and cannot be unpicked or diluted in any way. As such, can the Tánaiste assure the House in the context of the ongoing talks that what has been agreed in respect of the backstop and its interpretation by this House thus far is what is on the table and will not be altered or watered down in any way?
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. It is a pretty serious question but I will try to answer it within one minute. I thank Opposition parties in particular in the House for their support on the broader efforts on Brexit. We will be asking them for more co-operation next week on the legislation being published tomorrow. I met Michel Barnier on Monday and received reports from the Juncker-May meeting yesterday. Our position has been consistent for many months and will not change. The backstop is a necessary guarantee to reassure people on this island that they will not face the re-emergence of border infrastructure between the two jurisdictions on this island as an unintended consequence of Brexit at any point in future. That is also the EU's position, which is why it has said that it is not willing to reopen or renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. The agreement is already a finely-balanced document involving compromises on both sides to achieve important outcomes, in particular from an Irish perspective. The focus now is on how to give the House of Commons the reassurance it needs around the temporary nature of the backstop which will hopefully never be used but which needs to be in place unless and until it can be replaced by something more permanent which must do the same job the backstop has been designed to do. That is where this issue of alternative arrangements comes in. Alternative arrangements are already catered for in the existing withdrawal agreement and in the future relationship declaration. If there are alternative arrangements that can replace the backstop, as long as they do the same job, they can, of course, be considered. However, we cannot have time limits or unilateral exit clauses on the backstop without knowing what will come after that. If we had, it would not be a backstop at all.
Last week, I raised with the Tánaiste the failure to extend the retirement age of community employment supervisors. On Monday, community employment supervisors were on strike due to the failure of the Government to engage in discussions on a pension scheme for those who supervise community employment schemes. This relates back to a Labour Court recommendation of 2008. The Tánaiste may be aware that a process was established in 2015, following discussions with SIPTU and Fórsa, to address this difficult issue. As Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform at the time, I put a subhead in the environment Vote to provide for ex gratiapayments through Pobal but this process stopped when the Labour Party left Government. Will the Government reopen and restart that process now to address a legitimate grievance? I see that the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection may well be about to answer the question. Will she commit to ensuring funding is not cut to supervisors who were on strike last week?
I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. I have to disagree with him slightly in that there has been no failure to engage. There have been numerous occasions in the last year when we have engaged through the Department of Finance with the two unions to which the Deputy referred to try to resolve this outstanding issue that goes back to 2008.
We have had a number of meetings and both unions have come forward with their own ideas in an attempt to resolve an issue everyone wants to resolve. There is no cessation of that and I hope to God that we continue to work together to find a resolution to the issue. I cannot comment on why the Deputy's subhead was altered in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform except to say that any suggested solution put on the table thus far has had the unintended consequence that it would impose a liability of €600 million on the State's purse.
I appreciate that the Deputy might disagree with that. I take the opportunity to record in the House our gratitude to the community employment host companies and all of our supervisors and assistant supervisors for their efforts to continue to express 19.5 hours per week for all participants on community employment schemes.
In a cynical and, frankly, despicable effort to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry and oil exploration companies, Fine Gael and its Independent Alliance colleagues are abandoning their promise in the programme for Government to take "radical and ambitious action to deal with climate change" in which regard they said they would be world leaders. Simultaneously, they are sabotaging the democratic process of the Dáil to prevent Deputy Bríd Smith's Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2018 to progress, notwithstanding the fact that it was passed overwhelmingly by the House. The Bill seeks to ban the issuing of further exploration licences for gas and oil exploration in Ireland. This is an abandonment of the Government's so-called commitment to deal with climate change as well as a very serious abuse of the democratic processes of the Dáil.
No. When Deputy Michael Lowry, Senator Michael McDowell, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, Deputy Seán Canney and Senator Joe O'Reilly are used to block a Bill and hold it hostage - many are Senators - notwithstanding the fact that it was passed by this House, to prevent it from progressing further, it is an abuse of the democratic process.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, are you the custodian of Standing Orders or not? You and the Ceann Comhairle are the custodians of Standing Orders and if so, you should make sure they are applied. It is the two of you who are responsible for the abuse, not us.
To respond to the question raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett, I understand he attended the meeting of the Business Committee this morning and is possibly even more familiar with the matter than I am. Will he, please, resume his seat? We are going to make progress.
We will deal with Deputy Mattie McGrath next. Will the Tánaiste advise the House of the current position on the Bill. I know that it is with the joint committee where it is blocked, but Deputy Boyd Barrett will be aware, having attended the meeting of the Business Committee this morning, of how the matter can be dealt with.
My understanding is the Business Committee decided this morning that, because of the disagreement on the issue and the fact that the Bill had stalled on Committee Stage, the way to deal with the matter was for the sponsor of the Bill to introduce a motion in Private Members' time to agree on the way forward.
That is my understanding from my Whip of what was agreed to at the Business Committee this morning. If there is a different interpretation, I would like to hear it, but that is my understanding of what the Business Committee recommended and agreed to. It is not a matter for the Government but the Business Committee.
What was requested of the Government was that it allow a motion to be tabled in the Dáil to enable it, not a committee made up of Senators, to decide what should happen to the Bill.
Senators do not have the right to block a Bill passed by the Dáil. We are asking for Government time, even without debate, for a motion to allow for a debate on the Bill.
Yes, of course. I have a serious question. Will the Tánaiste outline today or early next week the financial cost of buying votes from Deputies Lowry, Grealish and Naughten to oppose the no-confidence motion yesterday? It was a grubby deal and I would like to know the cost. They are announcing on Facebook schools, hospitals, roads and other projects and the Government is down to the level of picking up the phone and begging people to come in for an open chequebook. It is outrageous to buy confidence in the Minister like that and to get votes. It is despicable.
Which schools were promised to Independent Deputies in exchange for their votes of confidence in the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, yesterday? There was much wheeling and dealing but many schools around the country require building work. I understand some Independent Deputies had their favourite schools placed higher on the list in exchange for their votes of confidence in the Minister.
I am seriously concerned by the Government's stance on climate change after what happened this morning. Yesterday, we all received an email addressed to the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, and the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, saying:
We the undersigned write as a matter of urgency in advance of the informal meeting of EU trade ministers of February 21st [that is today]. We understand that it is proposed to advance two negotiating mandates for trade talks with the United States of America at these meetings. This is despite the US President's position on withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement and the clear and unequivocal position set out by the EU Commission and EU leaders in 2018 that real commitment to climate action, the Paris Agreement, is a precondition to any trade deal providing access to the EU market, the second largest economy in the world.
Are we getting involved in those negotiations today or are we stepping out of them?
For many years, Ireland has been in favour of progressive trade talks between the EU and the US and we are still in favour of that. Of course, we want to advocate for an adherence to the Paris Agreement on climate change, which we will do, but the idea that Ireland would not be supportive of improved facilitation of trade between the EU and the US would be totally counter-productive.
There is real confusion about the future development of the MetroLink on the southside of Dublin. It seems that various Ministers are briefing the press on the Government's position, with measures apparently coming from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, with a four-year delay and, therefore, the project will not go ahead. Can the Tánaiste clarify the Government's timeline to consider the issue? Has it been discussed in Cabinet? Does the Government intend to present a proposal? Has there been any agreement? How can the Government solve the confusion that has arisen from Ministers briefing on the project without any of us having the engineering details to which the Ministers refer?
I am glad the Deputy has asked the question to allow me to give some clarity to the House. I am aware of today's media reports on the MetroLink project to which the Deputy refers. As he will know, the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, held a public consultation last year on what was called an emerging preferred route. That route generated much commentary and there were different views on the various impacts in particular areas, including the potential disruption to the Luas green line service. I understand that the NTA and TII will shortly publish a preferred route which will reflect the NTA's and TII's consideration of the issues raised and how best to address them, including how to minimise disruption. That is the position and we must wait for that formal recommendation to come from both of those parties.
Now that peace has broken out, with the agreement of the House we will add five minutes to the debate as a compromise, which means a total of eight minutes. I have a list of Deputies wishing to contribute but I will have to cut it off because the Aircraft Noise (Dublin Airport) Regulation Bill 2018 and postponed divisions are to follow.
We are approaching the third anniversary of the formation of the current Dáil. Under the programme for Government, with the aim of minimising the cost of insurance there have been insurance reports and the insurance working group. Is the Tánaiste aware of a cartel-style operation that is currently operating among insurance companies, whereby insurance companies and brokers refuse to give a direct quote to persons seeking to shop around for insurance once that quote has been given to one broker? Further, the treatment of notification of accidents, regardless of whether a claim is imminent, is experiencing a 50% premium addition for a two-year period regardless of whether the claim is made after an accident is reported.
I call on the Tánaiste and the Minister with responsibility to insist that, particularly in the latter case, that any premium top-up is refunded once no claim is been made on an accident.
The cost of insurance, in particular that of public liability, is crippling business the length and breadth of the country. One of the key recommendations of Mr. Justice Kearns' report requires the passage of the Judicial Council Bill 2017 but it has yet to be brought into the Seanad. The reason it has not been brought to the Seanad is due to the time that has been spent on the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017. Will the Government prioritise the former Bill to help long-suffering businesses, as opposed to helping the long-suffering Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, who has a personal crusade in respect of the latter Bill?
The Government is committed to the Judicial Council Bill 2017. We have made a number of changes to the law, most notably last year through the passage of the national claims database. To respond to Deputy Breathnach, there should be no co-ordination in how insurance companies deal with claims. As the Deputy will be aware, last year there was a raid to gather evidence of any collusion or anti-competitive behaviour.
The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 is important legislation that is consistent with the programme for Government. It is effectively being filibustered in the Seanad which, unfortunately, is delaying other legislation. There are consequences to filibustering and people should know what they are.
There is ongoing concern about the privacy of women availing of abortion facilities, as well as the potential for intimidation of those who have made hard and difficult decisions to have an abortion. The Minister for Health has indicated that he will introduce a Bill to create safe zones around the facilities to provide an area where women will not be subjected to possible abuse, intimidation or demonstrations. Will the Tánaiste outline when the Government intends to bring the legislation forward?
The Deputy is referring to the safe access Bill that the Minister has promised, on which he will have the full support of the Government. I do not have an exact date for it but I suspect it will be towards the end of the year.
My question relates to page 63 of the programme for Government, which pledges to "Implement the new procedures to ensure more efficient and timely recruitment of" staff in health services. I raise the matter in the light of the ongoing uncertainty about the future of emergency services at Portlaoise hospital. When the Minister for Health met me, Deputy Fleming and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, in December 2017, he committed to begin a public consultation on the future of those services.
That was 15 months ago. The facilitator has not been appointed yet according to the most recent replies to the Minister. When will we see the facilitator recruited? The uncertainty about the future of the hospital is also causing difficulty with the recruitment of staff. When will the facilitator be appointed and when will the consultation process in Portlaoise begin?
The programme for Government contains a commitment to the Heritage Ireland 2030 plan. There is a historic markethouse building in the middle of Castleblayney in County Monaghan which has had to be sealed off by Monaghan County Council because it has got into such disrepair that it is about to collapse. President Higgins recently unveiled a beautiful statue of Big Tom, which has attracted thousands of visitors and has been a significant boost to the economy in Castleblayney. Monaghan County Council does not have the funds to restore this building and make it safe. Will the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht please engage with Monaghan County Council to provide the proper support and funding to restore this important building?
Some 80,000 people are on our waiting list for surgery, which is a terrible indictment of the HSE. Many are choosing to leave Ireland and go to Northern Ireland and the UK because of the cross-border directive, especially for smaller surgeries, including joint replacements and for cataracts. In 2017, more than 2,000 people went and in 2018, more than 3,000 people went. There is significant concern that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, people who are scheduling appointments for after 29 March may not get them. I know a lady who has to have two eyes operated on for cataracts. One will be operated on before 29 March and the other after 29 March. What advice would the Tánaiste give to people in that situation?
With Brexit looming in 36 days, it may have many difficult consequences for all of us in this country. It has recently been brought to my attention that the supply of pendants for the senior alert scheme, worn by elderly people living alone or in rural areas, may be impacted because they are sourced in the UK. If a person applies for one of these pendants, he or she will currently get it within two weeks. It is very reliable. I am very worried that if we have a hard Brexit, this may be impacted.
I am glad that Deputy O'Loughlin asked her question because it gives me an opportunity to hopefully give some reassurance to people. We will publish legislation tomorrow morning. That is the omnibus Bill that will come into this House for Second Stage next week. One section of that legislation deals with cross-border healthcare. Even in a no-deal, worst case Brexit scenario, the Bill will facilitate the UK and Ireland working together in certain areas, including cross-border health, to ensure that people who are availing of health services in Northern Ireland and vice versacan continue to do so, since it goes both ways to access expertise and so on. That will maintain the services that are available today after 29 March, should there be a no-deal Brexit. We will deal with it in the emergency legislation that will be introduced to the House next week.
I do not have the exact information for Deputy Butler on the product concerned. There are some products that require EU approval by an EU approving or certifying body. If it is in one of those categories, there may be an issue. If the Deputy sends me the detail of it, I may be able to get her a more exact answer.
A number of Deputies are on the list and I will request whoever is in the Chair next week to take them in this order after Leaders' Questions: Deputies Jackie Cahill, Aindrias Moynihan, Michael Fitzmaurice, Eamon Scanlon, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Imelda Munster, Michael Collins, Gerry Adams, Bernard Durkan, Peter Fitzpatrick and Martin Kenny.