Thursday, 18 April 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
As we come towards the end of the session, on behalf of Fianna Fáil I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the staff of the House for their courtesy during the session. I particularly acknowledge the work done by Ceann Comhairle and the organisers of Dáil100 on the major events which bookended the session - the centenary of the First Meeting of Dáil Éireann in the Mansion House and the address by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ms Nancy Pelosi, yesterday.
A key part of the journey to Dáil100 was the Easter Rising, which will be commemorated across the country this weekend and next weekend. The learning of history from that period is essential and I ask the Tánaiste to reaffirm the Government's commitment and that of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to the reintroduction of the compulsory element of history as a topic in our secondary schools. There are reports this morning suggesting that commitment is not as strong as was stated.
I first wish everybody a happy Easter. This has been a busy Dáil session and people have earned a few days off. I am certainly looking forward to spending time with my family, as I am sure are many others. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the way in which he has managed some significant moments over the past number of months in this House and outside it.
The Minister for Education and Skills has given his view on the teaching of history on more than one occasion. He attaches much importance to history being part of education in Ireland. He has also asked for a detailed report to be done and considered. What was unfortunately leaked this morning was an incomplete, draft report that has not yet gone to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment for full consideration. It will be some time before the Minister of State has a final report and set of recommendations that he can bring to Cabinet and then ultimately it will be a choice for him to make a recommendation to Government.
Ar son Shinn Féin, guím beannachtaí na Cásca ar an Cheann Comhairle, ar Theachtaí agus ar Sheanadóirí, agus ar fhoireann an Tí go léir.
I ask the Tánaiste to let the following quotes sink in: "He is confined to one room, and he tries to run out as soon as the door is open"; "I put on music so that the children can't hear the shouting and screaming"; "She's like some child that has been locked up in a cage"; and, "Hannah (aged eight), cried and told us that the Hub was 'like a children's jail''."
Those are just some of the views of the children who are in the so-called family hubs contained in the Ombudsman for Children's report, which has just been published.
Will the Tánaiste agree that it makes for shocking reading? The children surveyed said they feel shame, guilt and anger but the only one that should be feeling shame and guilt is the Government and the anger should be directed at it for allowing this situation to evolve. Those emotions should never be held by children this young, especially at Easter as we commemorate the 1916 Rising and the words in the Proclamation of cherishing all the children of the national equally. Will the Tánaiste implement the recommendations of national standards, the inspection mechanisms and full-scale evaluation? Will he accept, given the words of these young children, that his Government's housing policy is in complete and utter tatters?
I thank the Deputy for the question. The report from the Ombudsman for Children that was published today is very valuable. A great part of its value comes from the fact that it gives a voice to very young children who do not have a voice and we get to hear their stories and the experiences of some who are in family hubs. I am in contact with the different NGOs that provide services into the family hubs to ask for their response to the findings in the report. I am also in contact with the inter-agency group on homelessness I set up last year to make sure that co-ordination happens in terms of the Government's response. There are a number of very useful recommendations and priorities for action coming from the Ombudsman for Children. In his initial response, the Tánaiste said that a number of those actions are already been progressed. We will continue to progress those. Most important of all is the quality inspections standards framework, which has been piloted in all of Dublin and is being rolled out nationally. We will implement other measures because we know we need to do it and the Ombudsman for Children's report is looking for them. I will be meeting with him shortly to discuss which actions are more of a priority than others. I will then talk to the NGOs about how we implement them.
As a result of Brexit, Ireland has been allocated two additional seats in the European Parliament. The Houses have passed the European Parliament Elections (Amendment) Act 2019, which sets out the criteria for these elections and how the seats will be filled. As the UK will not be leaving by the time of the European elections, Ireland South will immediately return four seats while Dublin will return three seats. The fifth candidate in Ireland South and the fourth in Dublin will, in effect, enter a limbo. The Taoiseach indicated last Friday in Midleton that due to the uncertainty around Brexit and the reality that the UK will contest the European elections, two separate counts may happen in each constituency. For example, in Dublin, there will be an initial count for three seats with a quota of 25% plus one while another count will be carried out with a quota of 20% plus one for a fourth seat with the final elected candidate in that eventuality sitting in a reserved seat. I want to be clear. Is this the case? Was the Taoiseach accurate when he said this in Midleton? If he was not, will such a double count, which could have a very bizarre conclusion, require further amending legislation?
I thank the Deputy for his question. We had the opportunity to clarify this at the Oireachtas committee yesterday. Based on taking precautionary advice that the UK may not have left the EU by the time the European elections take place, we passed legislation that was taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, through the Houses to allow for such a contingency. There will be one count - one count in Dublin for the four seats and one count in Ireland South for the five seats. Deputy Howlin is correct to state that as the UK will be contesting those elections and potentially sending people to the European Parliament if it does that, the fourth person in Dublin and the fifth person in Ireland South will not take their seats until the UK and its MEPs have left. We continue to communicate with the Commission through the Tánaiste's office as to what arrangements it is putting in place for those people. We do not expect they will be getting a salary or any benefits but what might type of arrangements might they have with the European Parliament in terms of visiting and other forms of participation? That work is continuing.
I wish to raise the long-term illness scheme. To most people's amazement, the long-term illness scheme has not been reclassified since 1970. This was 49 years ago, which is a long time considering that many conditions have been diagnosed since then such as severe asthma, rheumatoid arthritis or conditions like fibromyalgia. A strange situation pertains to fibromyalgia, which is a chronic condition. Fibromyalgia is recognised as a long-term disability in the North but not here. Are there any plans for a review of the long-term illness scheme for other conditions, including chronic conditions?
On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I wish everybody a very happy, holy and peaceful Easter. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for all his events.
Before we leave, and in case we go into cuckoo land altogether, AIB has just sold off a huge proportion of performing loans alongside non-performing loans. A young man in my constituency is out of his mind with worry. He just got a letter in the post to say all his loans had been sold to a vulture fund. He never had an issue with the bank. He is in good stead with it. He is a wonderful builder and has always been a good employer but he is perplexed. He gave the bank a quick ring only to be told that his relationship manager had been changed. He finally got a phone call yesterday but he might as well have been whistling Dixie or whistling to the cuckoo because the man was not listening. He could not answer any questions. An answering machine would have been just as good.
Has the Government lost its moral compass completely that it would allow AIB to do that to genuine customers who are working hard and are, thankfully, in a good position financially? None of this can happen without the imprimatur of the Minister for Finance. This is outrageous. The former Minister, Deputy Noonan, welcomed vulture funds but the entire Government must be gone into cuckoo land or must think the electorate has gone into it. This is shocking. Will it be stopped?
To repeat what I said earlier, when loan books are transferred from one bank to another, the rules continue to apply in terms of consumer protections and so on. However, there is an obligation on banks like AIB and others if they are transferring loan books to do that in a way that respects their customers and clients. They should certainly reflect on that in terms of the way in which they manage these transfers.
Reporters Without Borders highlighted today that the high concentration of media ownership is the biggest threat to press freedom in Ireland. At the same time, we read of threats that Rupert Murdoch or the Barclay brothers could end up owning Independent News and Media, a development that would be greeted with dismay by anyone with an interest in Irish democracy or fair and balanced public debate. The only career move in Irish journalism seems to be to become a press secretary for a Minister. There is nobody in the Press Gallery today. They are all over in the ministerial corridor in Government Buildings. Does the Government intend doing anything to take the recommendations of the joint Oireachtas committee on the funding of Irish media or is it content to let Irish journalism wither on the vine and pay the huge price with regard to our very democratic system if this ongoing decline in Irish media is allowed to continue?
There is legislation dealing with media mergers that would lead to excessive concentration. That involves an assessment of any proposed mergers or takeovers by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and my Department. In terms of the future of the media, as the Deputy is aware, we will introduce a broadcasting Bill very soon. It has been delayed somewhat because of the focus on other matters we all know of. It will afford the House an opportunity to debate the changes as well as provide some badly needed changes in respect of the broadcasting media.
In the programme for Government, the Government gave a commitment to increase funding for home care packages and home help year on year but the reality on the ground in Cavan-Monaghan is very different. I know of a terminally ill man who has had cancer for the past five years. During those five years, his home help was removed. Not only that, he now lies very ill in Lisdarn unit for the elderly in Cavan with no home help available to enable him to go home. I know of a 99 year old terminally ill woman in County Monaghan who is awaiting home help. I also know an 86 year old woman who had a very serious stroke last August who has been granted home help but has no home help available to her. I have information telling me that as of yesterday, the HSE has instructed that there be a complete lock down on home help across Cavan-Monaghan. I raise this issue as a matter of urgency. On behalf of people who are dying or sick in their homes, Lisdarn unit for the elderly and other respite units, I ask the Tánaiste to look at what is happening. How could the HSE dare to give an instruction that no home help be allocated to people?
I do not have information about that but as with other localised issues, I will revert to the Deputy as soon as I can.
The funding that was allocated and the service agreement in place has provided more funding for home care packages.
The adoption (tracing and information) (No. 2) Bill is long-promised legislation which could not be moved on until the No. 1 Bill on the same subject was processed. How stands the No. 2 Bill and when is it likely to come before the House given the interest of adoptive parents and their children?
The Deputy is right that the No. 1 and No. 2 Bills are linked. The No. 1 Bill needs to come through the Seanad first. My understanding is that it is on Committee Stage in the Seanad. As soon as that concludes, it will open up the opportunity to introduce the No. 2 Bill.
I ask the Tánaiste about the latest failure to complete the national broadband tender. When I asked the Minister, Deputy Bruton, about this during Question Time just over a week ago, we were told the tender should be announced before Easter. This is the latest in a long series of delays and it is becoming farcical. There are 540,000 households and businesses, 25,000 of them in Laois-Offaly, awaiting this. Since 2012 we have had two Governments, four Ministers and one false start after another. Like other Deputies, I am left in the dark as to what is going on, but what we do know is that the Taoiseach confirmed this week that the cost has now gone up to €3 billion. Previous Ministers have told me that some 80 civil servants and consultants are working on the tendering process on behalf of the Government. We know there is only one bidder or investor left in the tendering process. People have waited long enough for this. It is holding back job creation-----
I think the Taoiseach dealt with this during the week but, to give the Deputy an answer, since 2012, the date he references, when the national broadband plan was introduced we have seen broadband availability increase from 30% to 74% today.
It was always envisaged that part of the broadband plan would need to be delivered via state aid. We initiated at the end of 2015 a competitive tender to develop a proposal to deliver state aid to what was then 740,000 but subsequently became 540,000 homes and premises, comprising 1.1 million people. I think the Taoiseach indicated during the week that the work on evaluating this proposal is at a very advanced stage. He is anxious that it go to Government so an informed decision can be taken as to whether this represents an investment we should make. He has also signalled to the Houses of the Oireachtas that Members, including Deputy Stanley, will have the opportunity to scrutinise the materials when the decision is taken.
Page 89 of the programme for Government states: "Education is the key to giving every child an equal opportunity in life." Falling populations on islands are leading to the closure of schools. This happened on Sherkin Island in recent years. Following discussions with parents at the time, a chaperone service was offered, whereby someone would travel on the ferry with the children to the school on the mainland in the morning and back in the evening. Two years on, the problem we have now on the islands is that one parent is having to stay at home from work to take his or her child to the mainland and to bring the child back in the evening again, leaving many families considering leaving islands to live on the mainland. Will the Tánaiste work with the Minister to have a chaperone put in place on Sherkin Island?
As the Deputy knows, I know Sherkin Island very well. I have spoken to many people about the decision on the previous school there and have worked with ferry operators on getting efficient travel to and from the island. I will happily work on this issue and we will see if we can make some progress on it.
A Dundalk women, Sinéad Browne, whose only son took his own life last month, wants to know why her son was sent home from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital twice, despite his saying he intended to kill himself. Ian Browne, 25, from Dundalk had a letter from his general practitioner asking that he be admitted to the hospital as he was going to commit suicide and was self-harming very seriously. This young man was looking for help. He went to his doctor and told his doctor he was going to end his life, his doctor wrote a serious letter to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, and on two separate occasions the hospital sent him home. The doctor feels he may have had benzodiazepines in his system. Is the Tánaiste telling me that throwing a young person or any person out on the streets and telling him or her to come back in three weeks is not appalling? The amount of money being invested in the HSE is unreal. In 2017 almost 400 suicides were registered in Ireland, eight out of ten of which were men. In addition, the National Self-Harm Registry Ireland recorded-----
These are very delicate and difficult issues for families to deal with and we should think about how we speak about them and the language we use. Mental health among young people is a very serious issue and this Government has debated how we can improve services and increase funding, both of which are happening, but we should be very careful about talking about individual cases.
I have been very shocked to read the recent reports about concentrations of lead in water pipes, particularly on the north side of Dublin city, in Cabra, Drumcondra and Phibsborough. There are similar reports in five or six other locations right around the country. The information was published in response to a freedom of information request. Many very worried people have made contact with me asking what the Government is doing to reduce this danger to their health. High concentrations of lead in water have a particularly serious effect on the health of babies, whether young or in utero. This can also cause kidney and high blood pressure problems and exposure can also affect the general brain development of children. There has also been a suggestion of some kind of test to put plastic lining-----
I thank the Deputy for her question. It is a very serious issue. Part of the rationale behind the metering programme that Irish Water has developed, although people tended to focus on the water charges aspect of it, is that it gave us much better intelligence on our water system. We saw the benefit of this during the drought over the summer. The further roll-out of metering will allow us to identify the most seriously affected areas. This mainly affects pre-1980s houses. A huge amount has already been invested in the public water system since then to replace public lead pipes. About another 180,000 homes are on public supplies using a type of lead pipe which needs to be replaced at a cost of about €370 million. This money has been provided and is being invested. We also have a grant scheme for individual households where the lead pipes might be in private property. Such households can use this grant scheme to remediate their own homes. Recent reports, as well as commentary from the EPA, have suggested that this grant scheme was perhaps not being taken up as proactively as possible. We are therefore working to see how we can ensure that people replace pipes on their private property. They can test the water very easily. As for the public side, we have the investment committed.
I wish to raise the issue of 13,600 people being on boil-water notices because of cryptosporidium. This has gone on for the past 18 months. I know the matter is going through the various legislative processes. Sligo County Council has forwarded the matter to the two relevant Ministers, Deputies Eoghan Murphy and Josepha Madigan. I understand that Deputy Murphy has dealt with his part of it and that it is now with Deputy Madigan.
I would like some information today for the people who have been on a boil water notice for some time. Has a decision been made yet? If not, when will a decision be made? Sligo County Council can do no more until there is an answer.
I appreciate the frustration and I am sorry for the delay. This matter requires interaction and approval between my Department and the Department of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan. Our Departments have communicated and I have spoken with the Minister, Deputy Madigan, about this issue. Some further work needs to be done in her Department before we can proceed to engage with the local authority and relevant stakeholders. That is under way and there have been discussions a number of times this week already.
A Programme for a Partnership Government commits to implementing the national dementia strategy and advancing services in the community. At the same time, 12 dementia patients are being moved from the only place they know as home. I refer to the Rosalie unit in Castlerea in County Roscommon. This move is being done against the wishes of the residents and their families. The families are being told that the HSE believes the care needs of the patients can be better met elsewhere. It has not been specified, however, what care needs are not being met in the Rosalie centre. These 12 people call the Rosalie centre home. They are not just being moved out of their home but out of their county and the families are at a loss to understand why. A commitment was given to implement a national dementia strategy and to move services into the community but these people are simply being shunted from one area to another. Will the Tánaiste please commit to getting some answers for the families?
As Deputy O'Reilly is aware, an expert has examined this issue. Dr. Anderson has finished the assessment process and his report on the Rosalie unit concluded that two of the patients require inpatient psychiatric care in a different setting and the remaining ten patients require general nursing as opposed to psychiatric nursing. That was at the time of the inspection. I accept the point being made by the Deputy, in that there needs to be clear communications with the families.
I know that the families are stressed and this has become a big political issue locally as well. Communication regarding the facilities and supports available to the residents, and indeed their families, needs to be carefully managed. I assume that will happen.
I raise an issue regarding property tax. The Government in the last couple of weeks stated there would not be any changes to the property tax system for the next 12 months. A couple with a State pension contributory entitlement will now have an annual income of €25,800 and that will now push them above the threshold to qualify for a deferral of property tax, which is now set at €25,000 for a couple and €15,000 for an individual. This deferral is very important for some couples because they find the cost of living very high. Some couples with a State pension contributory entitlement may now find they have to pay property tax for the first time. Is this an anomaly and will the Minister deal with it? Will the threshold be increased from €25,000 to cover those now in receipt of €25,800 per year?
That is quite a technical question. I will try to get an answer for the Deputy from the Department of Finance. My understanding is that the Minister for Finance has recommended to the Government, and we have accepted it, that we effectively freeze the current arrangements. The review of the property tax that is needed will be pushed back by 12 months. I will respond to the Deputy with a more detailed answer regarding the issue of thresholds for those with pension income.
The Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill 2019 has been promised and I would like some information on the timeframe for the legislation. I ask this question because new methods of gambling are now in place in betting agencies across the country. That has increased levels of gambling and it is important that this Bill is implemented.
The Government approved the publication of the Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill 2019 on 20 March 2019. The Bill passed Second Stage in the Seanad last Tuesday and we are awaiting Committee Stage. The Government also approved the publication of the interdepartmental working group on the future licensing and regulation of gambling. A major public seminar on gambling reform will also happen shortly. In addition, we are also working on the heads of a Bill to put in place a gambling regulator and we will have that as soon as it is ready. I was before the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality in regard to this issue yesterday as well.
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle did not have to put that on the record but I thank him for that. I raise this issue in the context of the EU Habitats Directive and ensuring the safe migration of our fish species. I have dealt with various Ministers in the last three years regarding the weir on the River Blackwater in Fermoy. The Government must beware of the issue at this stage because so many Ministers have visited the town in the last couple of months to promote election candidates. They have all looked at the weir in Fermoy and promised money. I have also raised this issue with various Departments.
The millrace on the weir has completely collapsed and there is no water flowing down the fish pass. We must, therefore, be in breach of EU Habitats Directive. I received an email this morning from the Department of the Minister of State, Deputy Canney. He referred me back to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and said that Minister will take on board the responsibility of reinstating the weir in Fermoy. We are coming into the tourism season and the River Blackwater is a major sporting location. To give an example, Fermoy Rowing Club is seriously hampered at the moment because the water level is so low that it is not possible to get boats into the river. That is due to the breach in the millrace. I ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to address this issue urgently. I know he has major issues to deal with regarding housing but for the sake of the people of Fermoy I ask him to address this issue as well.
I have never passed the buck since I left school and that is a good few years ago. I told councillors in that area that we all need to sit down together, including the local authority, and find a proper solution to this issue. The Deputy is correct that everybody is passing the buck. That will remain the case until we all sit down together and are led by the local authority, however. I will facilitate that happening, as will my colleagues, and will try to arrive at a successful conclusion. Talking in the House achieves little. Deputy O'Keeffe has been talking about this for a long time and I gave him the information that would allow him to get the local authorities to sit around the table. I will facilitate that.