Tuesday, 26 February 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Today’s business shall be No. 7, Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage.
Wednesday’s business shall be No. 7, Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019 - Second Stage (resumed).
Thursday’s business shall be No. 210, motion re independent radio stations; No. a11, motion re Special Committee on Climate Action; No. 29, European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Bill 2019 - Committee and Remaining Stages; No. 30, Criminal Law (Extraterritorial Jurisdiction) Bill 2018 [Seanad] - Order for Report, Report and Final Stages; and No. 7, Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2019 - Second Stage (resumed).
Media reports of the District Court case last week regarding St. Luke's General Hospital in Kilkenny were extremely disturbing. The case represents a damning indictment of the Department of Health. The lack of even basic hygiene as described was appalling. There is no excuse for it. The Mental Health Commission took the HSE to court. Reference was made to the condition of rooms where electro-convulsive therapy took place. It is very difficult to comprehend what the judge in the case referred to as the "physical manifestation of the lack of care" afforded to mental health patients. Is a review of the legislation governing the Mental Health Commission in the offing in order to strengthen its powers to allow it challenge in a more robust way the continuing neglect of mental health facilities and services? Is the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, aware of these issues? When did he become aware of them? What has the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Jim Daly, done in response to this matter?
I assure the Deputy that the Minister is aware of the issues that arose in St. Luke's and the contents of the report. The Mental Health Commission is an independent body with a new chief executive, Mr. John Farrelly. It is very committed to dealing with these issues and very much up for the challenge. There is an ongoing healthy tension between the Department, the HSE, those delivering services and the Mental Health Commission as a regulator of the services provided. St. Luke's will be treated like any other hospital. The challenge is for us to up our game and we intend to do that as best we can. The Minister, the Department and I are aware of the issues that have arisen at the hospital.
Yesterday, the HSE was fined after pleading guilty in Kilkenny District Court to two charges relating to conditions at the psychiatric unit in St. Luke's General Hospital and two charges relating to the non-signing of seclusions orders by a consultant psychiatrist. The chair of the Mental Health Commission, Mr. John Saunders, stated, "As a regulatory body, it is entirely unacceptable to find conditions that you would have expected to find in a Victorian workhouse in a mental health service in Ireland in 2019." I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that this is a damning verdict on the shocking conditions in the hospital in Kilkenny and highlights the necessity to ensure capital programmes are delivered in respect of mental health. In light of the overspend on the national children's hospital, what HSE capital projects will be delayed?
Could the Taoiseach tell us if that includes proposed upgrades to mental health facilities? Could he also tell us when the HSE's revised capital plan will now be published?
I do not know how many times I have to answer the question on which projects have been deferred or re-profiled. I have answered it every Tuesday for the past two weeks, if not three. I do not know whether the Deputy cares what the answer is. I have no doubt that the Deputy and other Deputies will continue to allege that every project that is delayed, for any reason, is delayed because of the national children's hospital. That, of course, is not true. There has been no reduction in the mental health budget as a consequence.
Today, I received from members of the public 60,000 signatures on petitions that I will hand over to the Minister for Finance. People around the country are frustrated and worried because of the Government's refusal to alter the Revenue Commissioners' decision to change the VAT rate on food supplements from 0% to 23% next Friday. There are 3,600 jobs directly and indirectly affected by this decision. I am told absolutely clearly that some businesses will close. It is important that matters of tax policy be determined in this House. Even at this late stage, will the Taoiseach ask for a deferment of this decision from next Friday so the review the Minister for Finance has promised will be concluded before the draconian impact on businesses right across the country, particularly as we approach Brexit?
I spoke to the Minister for Finance about this last Thursday on foot of the Deputy raising it in the Chamber. The Minister has engaged with the Revenue Commissioners on this but they are very adamant that this is a determination for them to make. It is their decision.
Philomena Canning is an independent midwife. Unfortunately, she is dying. She has a terminal diagnosis. Will the Taoiseach intervene with the HSE and Minister for Health to ensure a settlement is quickly made with Philomena? She has been battling with the HSE ever since she was suspended from her position in 2014. That case has been drawn out. Now Philomena's life is nearing a close and she is asking that the HSE settle and that she be allowed access to Pembrolizumab and other life-enhancing drugs.
I do not need to tell the Taoiseach that the name Brigid McCole has haunted Fine Gael for decades. Please do not let the case of Philomena Canning become another shameful episode, involving very ill women, in the history of this Government and the establishment. We saw in respect of cervical cancer screening how people had to go to court. The Taoiseach said this would not happen. Will he intervene to ensure a speedy settlement and to allow Philomena to live out her days with quality of life?
I wish to elaborate on the same subject. Philomena Canning was suspended by the HSE on grounds of malpractice. Several investigations proved this was wrong and she was vindicated. Now, facing death from cancer, she finds herself facing a vindictive HSE, which is refusing to settle with and deal with her. We are asking the Taoiseach to have compassion for a woman whose life was characterised by compassion. Being a midwife is about being compassionate to both the mother and expected baby. Philomena was a midwife all her life and she fought for women to have the right to control how their children's births are conducted. She is an extraordinary, compassionate woman facing and uncompassionate HSE. We ask the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, to show compassion for this most compassionate woman and force the HSE to settle with her so she can live what life she has left with dignity and free of pain.
The Taoiseach acknowledged previously how brutal it can be for a woman who has to deal with the HSE through the courts. We know, therefore, that point is not lost on him. Philomena Canning is dying. It is not unreasonable to ask the Taoiseach not to force or direct the HSE but to intervene personally on grounds of compassion and because this woman has delivered hundreds of babies in the State. She is now nearing the end of her days. She wants access to drugs that have the potential to lengthen her life. She is a medical professional and knows what her situation is but she does not want to spend the remainder of her life battling the HSE.
The Taoiseach has previously acknowledged that it can be brutal when women have to battle with the HSE. I ask him please to intervene.
First, I am very sorry to hear that Philomena Canning is so unwell. The information I have been given is that a settlement has been offered and the matter is between the solicitors for the HSE and Ms Canning's solicitor. It is not possible for me to intervene in a legal case of this nature but the information I have is that a settlement was offered.
I refer back to the decision to place a 23% VAT rate on food supplements from 1 March. Deputy Howlin raised the number of signatures that have been gathered. The Taoiseach pointed out that the Minister for Finance has been in touch with the Revenue but it is adamant it is its decision. The Government's area is policy and if it is the policy of the Government to look at this, and I understand a review is under way, it makes no sense for the Revenue to persist with the decision. It could be deferred pending the policy review.
We are going through an omnibus Bill for Brexit and putting in aids for various businesses and, at the same time, the other hand of the Government is ensuring that people's jobs will be in trouble because of this VAT decision.
Most important are those who use health supplements. We have all received a large number of representations from people with disabilities, who are struggling to live on the ground and are paying for supplements, the price of which will jump by 23%. For God's sake, I appeal to the Taoiseach to do the right thing and make a practical decision about this. Of course the Revenue is independent but the decision can be deferred.
This is causing significant concern and worry to the thousands of people around the country who take food supplements to relieve health conditions and maintain good health. A recent UN report entitled, Towards a Common Food Policy for the European Union, published earlier this month, stated that 80% of healthcare costs are caused by chronic diseases, many of which are the result of poor diets. The report suggested that EU reform of public procurement and VAT could shift incentives in favour of healthy and sustainable diets.
The Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and Ms Mairead McGuinness, MEP, recently opened a new facility for Revive Active in Mullingar at a cost of €500,000 and employing up to 35 people. I met representatives of that company who advised me that, if this VAT rate is introduced, they could end up laying people off.
Along with my colleagues, I ask that the decision on the VAT rate be deferred until proper engagement takes place with all the stakeholders.
I can only give the Deputies the reply I gave earlier. This is a matter for the Revenue to determine. The Revenue Commissioners are independent and any decision on a deferral is also be a decision for Revenue and not for Government. The VAT rate in Ireland for recognised oral medicines, such as folic acid, is 0% but, for processed foods, VAT applies.
Over the past number of weeks, beef farmers have been holding public meetings in west Cork and Kerry, which have been attended by hundreds of people who are trying to see if they can save their livelihoods. Prices for cattle have collapsed and many are working at a loss that they cannot allow to continue.
Hundreds of these farmers are angered and frustrated. As they see it, at the very mention of Brexit two years ago, factories took full advantage, prices have been dropping since and no one has said, "Stop".
We have to urgently look at other markets. If we do not, the beef farmers will face the worst crisis they have ever seen. The Iranian market is a significant option, with encouraging signs that it wants Irish beef, lamb, chicken and turkey. We face one stumbling block to a strong export market to Iran. Other strong exporting European countries have embassies in Tehran; Ireland has not. The Iranian ambassador has said that is a major stumbling block for Iran. Will the Government open an embassy in Tehran even if it initially operates with a skeleton staff? It would open Irish beef and other agricultural foodstuffs to more than 400 million people.
As the Deputy knows, we have opened the markets to China and Japan. The European Union has just signed a trade deal with Japan so new opportunities and markets are being opened to Irish beef all the time.
At the moment, we do not have plans to reopen the embassy in Tehran. This year, we will open embassies and consulates in Mumbai, Los Angeles, Oman, Santiago, Bogotá, Vancouver and quite a few more.
Last week, the Minister for Justice and Equality stated that the Government does not intend to proceed with a referendum to amend the reference in the Constitution to women’s place in the home. Is it intended, following advice from the National Women's Council and the Stay-At-Home Parents Association, to proceed with a consultative forum whereby a wording which recognises the value of all the caring work done in the home and which could be included in the Constitution could be agreed? If the Government does not proposed to go ahead with a referendum, will it proceed with the other mechanisms the National Women's Council and the Stay-At-Home Parents Association have indicated they want to be put in place?
As stated last week, I am giving consideration to a report commissioned by the justice committee. I am keen to continue open consultations with all of the groups. I would welcome a submission from Deputy Eamon Ryan and his colleagues as well. It is important we do not lose the momentum on this issue and that we would proceed at the earliest opportunity, notwithstanding the complexities involved.
I want to raise the issue of working school principals whose administrative workloads are increasing. In County Tipperary, a number of principals have resigned because they cannot cope with their workloads. Has the Minister for Education and Skills advanced any plans to increase the number of administrative days for working school principals?
To the best of my recollection, there was an increase in the number of working hours allowed for school principals. However, I may be wrong. I will ask the Minister for Education and Skills to provide the Deputy with a written reply. There was some improvement and there may be a further one planned but I could be wrong.
Irish Coast Guard staff and volunteers are no longer allowed to use their blue lights and sirens because of a directive issued to them. This is despite the fact that they are part of the blue-light services which respond to emergencies and their vehicles are fitted with them. Last year, they conducted over 1,100 missions and saved over 400 lives. This directive could have a serious impact on Coast Guard staff. As they are not allowed go at high-speed, the only mechanism they have to alert other motorists of an emergency to clear the road is their blue light. There is no record of any Coast Guard emergency vehicle being involved in or causing a road traffic accident of any description.
To have this ludicrous decision reversed, will the Taoiseach agree to meet with the relevant parties to give them a forum to raise their concerns about this directive? I had hoped to raise it with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, but he is not here.
I support Deputy Munster on this matter. We have 950 volunteers and 43 units in the Irish Coast Guard. In County Louth, we have Coast Guard units in Greenore, Clogherhead and Drogheda. One volunteer told me in an email:
Using blue lights and sirens is for a good reason. Now, though, it appears that if we are making our way to a call, we will have just sit in traffic and pray we get there in time.
Blue lights can be used by the service’s counterpart in England. It baffles me as to why their use here has been withdrawn. The decision needs to be reviewed. These volunteers are responding to life-and-death calls. The importance of getting to a scene on time means the lights and sirens should be available to them to use.
The search-and-rescue boat operations training contractor was engaged in 2014. Irish Coast Guard management, however, was repeatedly told the contractor did not meet the standard required to deliver search-and-rescue boat operations training and that the instructors employed by the contractor did not have the qualifications, experience or knowledge required to deliver search-and-rescue training. A survey was conducted of all Coast Guard boat units in 2015 and the exact same result came back. It was also totally ignored. The contractor is still in place delivering courses which do not exist or for which it does not have the required qualifications.
It seems to be a case of jobs for the boys again. Can the Minister of State examine look into this and see what is happening within the Coast Guard unit?
The blue flashing light is not there for cosmetic reasons. It is to ensure that those responding to an emergency service can do so in a timely and efficient manner. I hoped that the Minister, Deputy Ross, would be here to take the questions but he never seems to be here for Questions on Promised Legislation. The decision to restrict first line responders from using blue lights shows the Government's complete disrespect for the volunteers who provide an invaluable service.
Eighteen months ago, my party and I produced legislation that would put first line responders on a statutory basis. The Government failed to take that on board. Will the Taoiseach now consider putting first line responders on a statutory basis so that situations such as this cannot persist?
I thank the Deputies for their contributions and I acknowledge the important role that everyone in our Coast Guard plays in protecting our citizens and visitors to this country. I commit to raising this with the Minister, Deputy Ross, immediately after Questions on Promised Legislation and I will ask him to respond directly to the Deputies as soon as possible.
Will the Taoiseach or the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, confirm that the chief executive officer of An Post has written to the Government? His letter clearly states that without Government contracts and State payments going through An Post, the network will collapse in its entirety within the next three years, and every post office will be lost. Will the Taoiseach confirm that this letter has been received and explain the Government's response, remembering that there is a clear commitment in the programme for Government to try to protect the remaining post offices in the network? This is the first time that the CEO has written such a letter. I am delighted that he has done so and acknowledged the problem we are facing.
I assure the Deputy that I had a meeting recently with the CEO and chairman of An Post. They are implementing a very successful restructuring plan. They are looking for opportunities wherever they can be obtained to drive more business through all the various elements of their business. They are equally aware that they must win that business and are determined to do so wherever they find the opportunity.
I dtreo deireadh na bliana anuraidh, chuir mé ceist mar gheall ar Bhille na dteangacha oifigiúla. Bliain na Gaeilge a bhí ann an tráth sin. Níor deineadh dul chun cinn maidir leis an Acht sin anuraidh. Bhí an tArd-Aighne á scrúdú. Tuigim go bhfuil sé á scrúdú faoi láthair agus tuigimid go léir go mbeidh reachtaíocht maidir leis an mBreatimeacht á phlé ar feadh cúpla seachtain. An bhfuil aon ullmhúchán á dhéanamh faoi láthair chun Bille na dteangacha oifigiúla a thabhairt chun cinn? An mbeidh sé ullamh nuair a bheidh an reachtaíocht i gcomhair na Breatimeachta críochnaithe? An mbeimid ábalta brú ar aghaidh leis gan a thuilleadh moill ag deireadh na míosa?
Mar is eol don Teachta, níl mórán dul chun cinn déanta ar aon reachtaíocht seachas reachtaíocht maidir leis an mBreatimeacht i mbliana. Is féidir leis a bheith cinnte go mbeidh dul chun cinn i ndiaidh 29 Márta.
I suppose the Taoiseach is aware that a €5 million contract was lost recently. A Libyan cattle buyer who wanted to buy 400 bulls had applied for a visa in mid-November to come to this country to see what he was buying. To date, he has been given no account of the status of his visa. He has now gone to Spain to purchase these animals.
Previous taoisigh and Ministers for justice and agriculture would have gone to great lengths to get the likes of this man. They would have got the document that he was looking for from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, they would have flown to Libya for him and brought him here, and some Minister would have stayed with him for the three or four days that he was here. Are the Taoiseach and the Government in some way beholden to the factories?
It would be both unwise and inappropriate of me to enter into a dialogue on the floor of the House on the subject matter of a visa application. Everybody would accept that. I am happy to talk to the Deputy about the facts if he drops me a note on the issue at hand.
I have a question to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government on the progress, or indeed the lack of progress, on the publication of a mica redress scheme for 5,000 homeowners in County Donegal, and some in County Mayo, whose houses in many cases are crumbling around them. This is something the Government promised as far back as the budget last year. The delays we have seen over recent months are unacceptable. The Government needs to get its act together on this and publish this scheme immediately so that we can see houses being remedied and families taken out of the distress and misery they have been experiencing as a result of this unfortunate situation.
I thank Deputy McConalogue for the question. I appreciate the Deputy's patience in this matter. He has raised it on a number of occasions, as have colleagues of mine from Donegal and Mayo. I thank all those who are affected by this for their patience as well. I met campaigners when I visited Donegal in January.
We have agreement in principle. We made that agreement at Cabinet level at the budget. My Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have been in intense discussions since then and in recent weeks over what that scheme would look like, something that is almost complete, and the amount of funding that could be put to it in the initial years. That work is almost there. When it is there, it will be brought to Cabinet as a priority.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the plan to reform the trauma care services in this country. I understand we will have two major trauma hospitals - one in Dublin and one in Cork. I accept we cannot have 26 hospitals giving the service throughout the country as we have now, but it is a major mistake - I do not know what the Taoiseach thinks - that we will not have a major trauma hospital in the west and north west of the country, which has a population of 750,000. We should have a major trauma centre in Galway at least. What is the Taoiseach's opinion of that? Does he agree that we should have three major trauma hospitals and just not the two?
The truth is we do not have a single major trauma hospital in Ireland at present. We have our resources spread across 26 different hospitals and the victims of major trauma do not get the service that they should. For example, cardiothoracic surgery is done in the Mater and head surgery - neurosurgery - is done in Beaumont. If a person has both injuries, clearly he or she cannot separate his body into two parts and be in the two hospitals at the same time. Cork University Hospital is the only one that can cover most of these specialties. In a country with a population of less than 5 million, we can probably only sustain two. What is in the major trauma strategy is to have one in Dublin, one in Cork and a satellite one in Galway as well, which is what the experts in this field believe is the best outcome and the best option for Ireland.
A number of times in this Dáil I have raised the issue of the need for a second catheterisation laboratory, cath lab, at University Hospital Waterford. The Taoiseach will be aware that in October of last year the Minister for Health signed off on that proposal. It was also in the health Estimates, so that the funding, we understand, is there. It is caught up with all the other capital projects that need to be announced. The Minister for Health has not told us yet when the announcement will be made on the capital projects.
Yesterday we had a meeting of Oireachtas Members in Waterford and representatives of the South/South West hospital group, including consultants in the hospital and hospital management. They have told us they cannot plan for the development of a second cath lab until that capital plan is announced. However, a design team can be appointed. Will the Taoiseach put pressure on the Minister for Health to ensure the design team is appointed as quickly as possible? We have been waiting and waiting, with announcement after announcement on the matter but there is still no delivery. Appoint the design team and let those charged with rolling it out start the work as soon as possible.
The feasibility study and the site selection have been completed for the second permanent cath lab at University Hospital Waterford, with agreement from the South/South West hospital group, the general manager, senior clinicians, consultant cardiologists and politicians at a meeting yesterday. A senior member of the HSE's estates project management team also attended the meeting and informed us that a design team cannot be put in place until the budget has been signed off in the capital plan. The project is ready to progress. Will the Taoiseach ensure the budget can be signed off this week to put in place the design team, which is the smallest part of the budget? Progress has finally been made and we are at the final push. If the Taoiseach could intervene to make this a priority, this vital second cath lab could commence operations as a matter of urgency.
The Government is absolutely committed to providing a second cath lab at University Hospital Waterford. As Deputy Cullinane rightly points out, the decision was made some time ago and the money is in the Estimates. The design team should be appointed and I am exasperated to hear one excuse after another as to why it cannot be done. It should go ahead and do it.