Thursday, 7 March 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
We are only weeks away from the European elections. These are the first elections since 2016, when there was strong evidence of online interference in the electoral process. Deputy James Lawless has published the Advertising and Social Media Transparency Bill and it has gone through pre-legislative scrutiny. Will the Tánaiste commit that the Government will see it through Committee Stage ahead of the elections?
Yesterday, a man was shot in broad daylight on Blakestown Road here in Dublin. Last week, we had another shooting in broad daylight at a retail park in Drogheda. These follow a spate of shootings and killings over the past number of weeks. Two men have died and others have been seriously injured as a result of criminal feuds. People in many communities are living in fear. They are great communities but they are being victimised by gangs. Those communities deserve a lot better. This is not just restricted to the urban areas. It also affects rural Ireland. The CSO statistics show that crime in nearly all categories has increased. Despite this, Garda youth diversion programmes are chronically under-funded as is the drugs task force. There are 1,000 fewer gardaí on the beat today than last year. What action is the Government taking to deal with this increased level of gangland crime? Is it not time for the Garda Commissioner's plan for redeploying gardaí to the front line to be fast tracked?
I am not going to comment on operational decisions that the Garda needs to make. Of course we are aware of the incident that took place in west Dublin yesterday and the need for an appropriate response to it from a policing perspective. There is ongoing contact between the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána to ensure a proactive response. We have seen significant successes in respect of organised crime, in particular in respect of a response to gangland crime in the north inner city. However, there is a need for constant dialogue between the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána to ensure it has the resources and policy platform it needs to be effective.
Reference has been made to supporting small employers across the country. I received a communication from a representative body for hairdressers stating that the Government is determined to increase dole queues, close down small to medium sized businesses and deny creative, artistic young people an opportunity to gain employment and learn skills for life. It is crushing small to medium sized businesses, which are the cornerstone of many communities, and the service industry, which generates over 200,000 jobs. That is from the hairdressing industry. It was hit with a 4.5% increase in rates. There was an increase in the national minimum wage, which I support. Now there has been an abolition of the training rates. This came in on 4 or 5 March and they were only notified on 1 March. There are two or three businesses in the constituency that are ready to go out of business already. They cannot sustain any more of this. The hairdressing industry took a fierce blow from the VAT increase. It might be all right in the big cities but in small towns and villages, this is the straw that breaks the camel's back. We are serving them well by wiping them out.
It was the Low Pay Commission that recommended to the Government last year that the training rates be abolished, on the basis that they were not being used. That report was published in the fourth quarter of last year and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas at that time. There was no delay whatsoever in telling anybody in the industry. We all received the letter from the hairdressing industry this week but it is certainly not news.
Under the programme for Government, on Northern Ireland, the Government commits to maintaining the needs of victims and survivors at the core of its approach. I heard the Tánaiste say today that he accepts that Karen Bradley made a mistake and he accepts her apology. I would like to point out that there has been a systemic campaign by the Tory Party to clear the way for these soldiers not being charged. Her statement that they are innocent and that they never committed a crime because they were following orders has to be utterly rejected, not as a mistake but as part of a campaign to whitewash the activities of the paratroopers in Derry and Ballymurphy. Both of those historic incidents are coming up for scrutiny in the near future. It is not good enough to have gone to dinner with Karen Bradley and to accept that what she said was a mistake. It cannot be a mistake. She put those words together very deliberately. I am asking the Tánaiste to do what he says he will do in the programme for Government and stick by the victims and survivors in Northern Ireland. I urge him to call in the British ambassador, as he did the Russian ambassador when there were suspicions over activities at that embassy, and insist that Karen Bradley resigns and that those remarks are not allowed to influence whether the soldiers who killed 13 people on Bloody Sunday and 11 people in Ballymurphy go to trial.
I dealt with this issue in some detail earlier. It is important to quote from the Secretary of State's statement today, in which she says that where there is any evidence of wrongdoing, this should be pursued without fear or favour, whoever the perpetrators may be. That principle underpins our approach to dealing with legacy issues and it is one from which we will not depart. I have made the Irish Government's position very clear.
In response to Deputy Calleary's earlier question on the online advertising Bill, pre-legislative scrutiny took place and we are awaiting a scrutiny report. Once that is received, the Government will make a decision.
The programme for Government is strong in its commitment on rural regeneration. Thurles is famed for the founding fathers of the GAA, the trip to Semple and the matches. Now An Post, which has become a quango, has unilaterally decided to move the post office from the square in Thurles, an iconic location near Hayes hotel, out to a shopping centre. That is killing the centre of the town, as has happened in many towns where shopping centres have been developed.
There is promised legislation to rejuvenate towns. The Department of Deputy Michael Ring has given funding for Liberty Square of over €1.5 million. Last Monday evening I saw them painting a new sign on the post office. They are spending €6 million on new signage in post offices yet Angus Laverty said on radio last week that this one is being moved in six weeks' time. This is farcical. One hand does not know what the other is doing. I urge the Tánaiste to ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to instruct An Post to treat communities with respect. It has been supported for decades and should not be hunting the post offices out of the town and affecting other businesses. There is a huge knock-on effect as regards where people spend their money if they get it in shopping centres. I am not anti-shopping centres but I am for the support of Thurles town centre and small businesses.
Has the Tánaiste made any further inquiries about the young woman who is being held prisoner in the United Arab Emirates? Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum is the daughter of the King of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE. I have asked the Tánaiste about the matter previously.
Clearly, Sheikha Latifa is being held prisoner in that country. The EU-Arab League meeting occurred recently. Has there been any outcome from it in terms of civil and political rights in the medieval Arab states, particularly as regards the oppression of women, the Christian faith and civil society groups? Are we making inquiries?
I am not going to comment in detail on a specific case without having the full facts in front of me. I suggest that the Deputy submit a parliamentary question and I will try to give him as much detail as I can.
The Taoiseach stated that he would ask the management of An Post to meet a small delegation from that committee. I do not doubt that he has done so. To date, however, and despite many requests by letter and so on, no meeting has taken place. We all agree that post office closures have to happen. Some offices cannot be defended. However, we have seen six closures in a ten-mile radius of Gurteen village. Of the 950 post offices left in the country, the one in question is in the top 500 for business transactions. The Government has spoken about trying to stop rural decline. In 1963, Mr. John Healy from Charlestown wrote a book about rural decline, in which he pointed out that no one had shouted "Stop". I call on the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, to shout "Stop" in this case once and for all and prevent a village from being wiped out because nothing is done.
My issue is literally on promised legislation. Indeed, were the Ceann Comhairle to give an award for the most promised legislation, it would have to go to the parent and student charter Bill. It was announced in December 2016 and underwent committee scrutiny in 2017. The then Minister, Deputy Bruton, at the 2018 teacher conferences, promised online safety protections in the context of that Bill. As far as I know, though, the Bill still has not been written or presented to the Dáil. There has just been a draft. Last week, the same Minister made yet another promise regarding the online safety Bill. He said that he would write it, but it has not been written. When will we see these Bills and when will Fine Gael take the issue seriously?
Why was the announcement of the online safety Bill made this week? Was it connected to media queries from The Guardianand The Observernewspapers about Fine Gael lobbying on behalf of data and social media companies? Those queries would have been received last week. Is it the case that a decision was made to re-announce unwritten legislation relating to online safety in light of that publicity at the weekend?
My understanding is that a great deal of work has been done on the parent and student charter Bill and that it will be before the Cabinet in the next few weeks. It is no secret that the Government has had to prioritise in recent weeks the preparation and delivery of the omnibus Bill on Brexit. That has resulted in some delays in other areas, but I understand that the Bill the Deputy referred to is well advanced and will be before the Cabinet shortly.
A Programme for a Partnership Government reads: "For those vulnerable to suicidal behaviour, the HSE Mental Health Directorate should provide a co-ordinated, uniform, quality assured and safe 24/7 service and deliver pathways of care". It goes on, but the line I wish to discuss reads: "This will be monitored and recommendations will be made by the appropriate Oireachtas Committee." This is my fifth time raising in the Chamber the issue of the Joint Committee on Future of Mental Health Care. I learned from a Commencement matter last week in the Seanad in the name of Senator Devine that the Government had decided the committee would not sit any further. The first page of the committee's interim report reads: "Based on these initial briefing sessions, the Joint Committee has already formed the view that it is necessary that a permanent Mental Health Oireachtas Committee be established in order to have ongoing accountability". I am seeking clarity. We are in a crisis. Maybe Members of the Oireachtas are privileged in certain areas and can afford health insurance or private health care, but we are facing a major crisis in the mental health services. The joint committee was a very strong one that held people to account and got information. I call on the Government to re-establish it and ensure accountability in the mental health services.
The delivery of services is not dependent on an Oireachtas committee, but I have no objection to the establishment of one. As I understand it, though, the establishment of Oireachtas committees is a matter more appropriate to the Ceann Comhairle's good office and the Business Committee as opposed to the Government.
A Programme for a Partnership Government gives a firm commitment to reviewing the TEN-T in Ireland. TEN-T designation opens up wide funding streams from the EU, and it is especially important in light of Brexit that we be able to review our network designation. According to a parliamentary reply from the Minister from Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, as recently as two weeks ago, though, he is yet to make an application to the European Commission on reviewing TEN-T designation. Is this a priority for the Government? It was included in the programme for Government more than three years ago. If it is a priority, when can we expect an application to be made?
Delivery of transport infrastructure is a significant priority for the Government, particularly outside of Dublin in the context of regional development and rebalancing under the 2040 plan. Regarding an application for change in TEN-T designation, I will have to ask the Minister to revert to the Deputy directly with the timing.
We have been informed locally in recent days that Carndonagh's courthouse will close temporarily for repair works on its roof due to health and safety issues, with sittings to move to Buncrana until the work is completed. Like other Oireachtas Members, will the Tánaiste use his good offices to intervene and make representations to the Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, to ensure that the work is completed properly and a location is found in the community for court sittings in the interim, in which respect there are a number of options?
Pages 35 to 37 of A Programme for a Partnership Government deal with the issue of tax compliance. Tax compliance works both ways, in that Revenue has an obligation to allow citizens to reclaim tax in a timely manner. Prior to 1 January, someone would have used a Med 1 form to reclaim medical expenses. It was a two-page, simple and straightforward form that came with an explanatory page. It has since been replaced by a form 12S, which is 14 pages long and is only available to someone who has Internet and email access. As the Tánaiste knows, many elderly people do not have access to email accounts, broadband or even the Internet. Will he ask the Minister for Finance to intervene and ensure the return of the simple Med 1 form? I do not know whether other constituency offices are like mine, but numerous people have attended my office over being unable to manage this complex and difficult form and we have had to try to fill out the forms for them, open up emails for them, etc. Removing the Med 1 form has been unhelpful to citizens. Will the Government have it reinstated, please, to make the system easy for people to use?
Clearly, this is an issue for the Revenue Commissioners. I will certainly pass on the Deputy's message to the Minister for Finance. Generally, in my experience, Revenue's online service is really good, but if there is a problem, we will try to address it.
Every day in Ireland 11 people are diagnosed with dementia. There are 55,000 people living with the condition. There are nine dementia advisers covering 13 counties, but the minimum required is 32. Unfortunately, the HSE's service plan for 2019 does not provide for the appointment of new dementia advisers, even though the Minister for Health and the Minister for State, Deputy Jim Daly, were extremely supportive of this request. Is this an indication that there is a heavy-handed approach on the part of the Department of Health in making the decision and overruling both the Minister and the Minister of State?
I thank the Deputy for her question. As she is aware, we conducted a review of the role of dementia advisers in order to inform future policy decisions. The review was very positive and while we are very supportive of expanding the network of dementia advisers throughout the country, unfortunately, we are not in a position to do so this year. We are not able to expand the network this year owing to other commitments, but it is our objective to do so as soon as possible.
If it is all right with the Tánaiste, I will direct my question to the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, because he is familiar with the issue I wish to raise. I again refer to the Rosalie unit in Castlerea, County Roscommon. I acknowledge that the Minister of State has engaged on the issue over a long period of time. In recent days independent assessments of the remaining 11 patients in the unit were carried out. In some cases, patients' relatives received very short notice, about which they are not happy. In two or three cases advocates were called in when family members could not attend. Will the Minister of State ensure the patients in those two or three cases are reassessed in the presence of their relatives? In the context of the programme for Government, will the Minister of State ask the HSE to consider reopening the unit and operating it at its full capacity of 33 patients, bearing in mind that, per head of population, County Roscommon has the highest incidence of Alzheimer's disease in the country.
As the Deputy said, an independent review is being conducted. Only one resident has no family member and an advocate has been assigned to ensure this patient's voice will be heard as part of the process. I am aware of the concern the Deputy has raised about the giving of notice and have spoken to local HSE management about the matter. I am satisfied that every step is being taken to address it.
The Tánaiste may be aware that designated salmonid waters by-law No. 964 of 2018 was signed into law by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, on 25 October 2018. The by-law designates seven State-owned lakes as salmonid lakes, but it was challenged in the courts and the case was not defended by the Government. The by-law was signed into law in order to protect native species in seven salmonid lakes and control invasive species which had been illegally introduced. A further by-law must be implemented as a matter of urgency to protect the native species in the seven lakes. Why was the case not defended by the State before the courts? No representative of the State appeared in court to defend by-law No. 964 of 2018 when it was challenged by pike fishing lobby groups. Will the Tánaiste to give a commitment to the House that emergency legislation will be introduced as a matter of urgency to protect the seven salmonid lakes and the native fishing industry? I assure him that if the Government does so, it will receive my full support. I understand the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, is working hard on the matter.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue which has been examined by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and is not considered to be one that can be appropriately included in primary legislation. Primary legislation in the inland fisheries area generally sets out a framework for the vires of the relevant Minister to enact secondary legislation to encompass fisheries management matters. Primary legislation is generally not prescriptive in terms of detailed management interventions. The Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Canney, has asked it to reflect on the advice received and the outcome of recent court proceedings in the context of the intended by-laws. It must be emphasised that as a matter of policy the lakes in question have long been designated for management, primarily for the benefit of wild brown trout, and that policy designation remains. Inland Fisheries Ireland has advised that stock management plans for the lakes for 2019 have been approved by its board.
In July 2018 it was announced that the Cabinet had approved a proposal to change the treatment of farms and businesses under the fair deal scheme. The proposal was to extend the three-year cap for farms and businesses where a family successor continued to operate the farm or business for six years. Will the Tánaiste provide an update on this proposal and indicate when it will be implemented?
I thank the Deputy for the question. We are awaiting final legal advice on the matter. There has been a delay in receiving it, as experienced in most Departments, because Brexit has been given priority, but I hope the delays will ease soon. Some minor technicalities must be teased out, but I am hopeful that, once we receive a response on them, we can have the heads of the Bill published quickly and presented to the Government. I met representatives of the IFA yesterday to discuss the matter and thanked the association for its continued support in this endeavour.
My question relates to the commitments given in the programme for Government in respect of new recruits in An Garda Síochána. In response to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Michael McGrath on 5 March the Minister for Justice and Equality said there had been 2,400 new recruits since 2015. Of that number, Galway only received 36, while Sligo-Leitrim received 24, Westmeath, 36; Longford-Roscommon and Mayo, 18 each; and Donegal, 54. Therefore, only 8.5% of new recruits have been deployed along the western seaboard. How does the Government's intend to redress the regional imbalance in the deployment of new recruits in An Garda Síochána?
While I take it that the Deputy's figures are accurate, I point out that where new recruits are sent is determined by demand in policing in different areas, as decided by An Garda Síochána. Deployment is an operational matter for the Garda Commissioner, but I will certainly pass on the Deputy's question to the Minister for Justice and Equality.
Louth County Council has confirmed that it received instructions to stop issuing home loan approvals under the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. These are the very loans the Government stated would assist families on low to middle incomes and first-time buyers who had been turned down by the banks. Over half of the €200 million in the fund has been drawn down in what is the first year of a three-year scheme. The take-up is a clear indication of the need for this funding and, more importantly, additional funding. Why did the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government issue an instruction to Louth County Council to cease issuing Rebuilding Ireland home loans? Officials in Louth County Council are hardly making it up. Are they making it up, or did the Department instruct them to stop issuing loans?
The Housing Agency has recommended 1,772 applications for approval to the end of February this year. At the end of February the agency had assessed 4,153 applications since the scheme had opened. Clearly, there is a lot of demand for the scheme which is proving to be very successful, despite some initial criticism of it. There has been a big uptake of it and we need to make sure it is adequately funded. We cannot approve the allocation of money that is not available. Therefore, the Ministers for Housing, Planning and Local Government and Finance are looking at ways by which we can continue the scheme and make sure it is properly funded in order that the demand can be met.
We are coming up to the fifth anniversary of the announcement by the former Minister Pat Rabbitte on broadband. There have been many commitments made in that regard. There are several commitments given in the programme for Government. People who are not able to access high speed broadband, or broadband in any form, believe the Government has abandoned any realistic attempt to roll out broadband to communities that are demanding it. There have been several debates on the issue recently. Is there any serious commitment by the Government to actually put in place a plan to deliver broadband to the communities that do not currently have it and that are not covered by the commercial or Eir programmes?
I also have a question about the national broadband plan, against which it is fair to say there is a huge question mark which has been put against it by the Taoiseach and the Minister in recent weeks in responses to questions about the cost which is running to multiples of the original estimated figure. Senior Ministers and the Taoiseach made the point that there was a question mark against the whole project, never mind the questions raised by Members in the House. It is clear that the plan is in trouble. It is also clear that there is concern on the Government benches about the issue. We are very concerned about it. I have been in and out of the Chamber in the past two and half years to raise it, as have other Deputies. Fianna Fáil has recently taken the same position as Sinn Féin on using the ESB to roll out broadband. We are aware that the ESB pulled out once 300,000 homes and businesses were taken by Eir. Is it not time to look at a plan B? There are questions about the cost and the viability of the plan, as well as about the logistics-----
I totally accept that this is a genuine question which arises from a genuine concern on the part of both Deputies. There is an absolute commitment on the part of the Government to deliver broadband to the households and businesses that do not have it. Some 74% of premises in the State now have access to high speed broadband, which represents a dramatic improvement in terms of where we were in recent years, but it is not enough. We cannot have a rural divide in broadband provision, which means investing public money to fix the problem. We are committed to doing so and have been through a long process. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, needs to bring recommendations to the Government on how we can move forward, having fully assessed the issue of value for money and all of the other matters raised by Deputies. I understand he will do so shortly.