Thursday, 9 May 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
I ask Members to listen to me for a moment. This is about questions on promised legislation or the programme for Government. Please do not ask questions on other issues. I know very well how important constituency matters are and the importance of saying, "I raised it in the House." There are other ways and means, whether it is Topical Issue matters, Priority Questions or Other Questions. I ask Deputy Dooley to commence. I know he will lead by example.
In February, the Government produced a set of commitments to support the implementation of the National Biodiversity Action Plan 2017-21. A global assessment report was published this week showing that the health of the ecosystem, on which we and all other species depend, is deteriorating rapidly. Can the Minister provide an update on the necessary urgent implementation of the national biodiversity action plan? What additional resources are there and what investment is being made to stem this biodiversity emergency in Ireland?
We had the first inaugural national biodiversity conference this year. I also introduced a biodiversity duty this week in Cabinet, which was passed and which puts an onus on public bodies to ensure they take biodiversity into account in terms of the work and business they do.
There is an issue in regard to biodiversity globally and not just in Ireland. There is a severe problem and we are very conscious of that. We are putting a huge amount of money into this, a huge amount of investment and a huge amount of initiative. I will take on board the Deputy's comments.
I want to raise the commitment in the programme for Government in regard to keeping people in their homes. Just this morning, at the finance committee, Ulster Bank confirmed it is going to sell another portfolio of loans, this time loans on family homes, to a vulture fund, and it expects this to happen before the end of the year. This comes on top of last year's sale of almost 4,000 properties between family homes and buy-to-lets. I have raised this with the Tánaiste on a number of occasions. That sale last year has seen people being sent letters telling them, "Clear your arrears within 30 days or we will take your property". The tenants in those properties will be evicted.
It is very clear that the policy of this Government of rolling out the red carpet to the vulture funds, giving them sweetheart taxation deals, is completely failing the Irish people and throwing them to the mercy of these vultures. I ask the Government to do the right thing at this late stage, given the line-up of banks that are about to sell to vultures. Will the Government support the No Consent, No Sale Bill in committee, which will give statutory effect to the code of practice of the Central Bank so permission will have to be sought before a family home is sold to a vulture?
The Tánaiste will recall that it is many years since we had the first ban on smoky coal and a clean air strategy that affects many of our towns. We were promised a national clean air strategy to enforce a national ban on bituminous coal. For some reason that I cannot get my head around, the current Government has decided to delay that. My questions are very direct and simple. When will we have a national smoky coal ban and when will the national clean air strategy be published?
I am very disappointed, as I am sure the Deputy is, that despite two Ministers before me indicating there would be a smoky coal ban, there has been a legal challenge to that. I am seeking advice from the Attorney General as to how this can be done in a legally robust way. I have also asked the Environmental Protection Agency to assemble detailed data for us about the state of the air quality in various towns. I am very keen to proceed with this but I have to do so in a way that will be the legally robust.
This week, we had yet more terrifying evidence of how we in this country, in Europe and across the world are careering towards a climate, biodiversity and ecological disaster. It is a fact that 1 million of the world's 8 million species are now threatened with extinction. Here in Ireland, it is worse, and the Irish Wildlife Trust states that one third of species are facing extinction. A report today shows that Europe is more than two and a half times over-consuming the natural resources necessary to sustain existence on this planet. The school students who were on strike over the climate emergency are coming out on the day of the European and local elections calling for further protests. In Leinster House today we had Extinction Rebellion saying how the Government's policies around planning to ramp up the use of gas for energy is an environmental disaster.
My questions are very simple. Will the Government follow what has been done in Britain and declare a climate and biological emergency? Where is the promised all-of-Government plan to deal with climate change? When is it going to happen? Are we going to see the radical emergency action that is necessary to deal with an ecological and climate disaster coming at us?
The Deputy has raised a lot of genuine issues. I reassure the House that, from a biodiversity and species perspective and from a climate change perspective, Members will see a lot of action from this Government. Before the end of this month, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, will bring a national climate action plan to Government for approval, and I am sure it will have many hours of debate in this House once it is launched. The issues raised by the Deputy are real and genuine, and need the kind of response this country has not provided to date but needs to from now on.
I want to refer to the needs of small businesses under the programme for Government. Businesspeople all over Tipperary were delighted when the Valuation Office decided to examine the process for rates valuation in Tipperary. A problem has arisen where it has reclassified the forecourt areas of petrol stations, where the fuel sold is of high value but there is very little profit, and cigarettes. There have been savage increases, in some cases of 200% to 300%. An issue was previously raised in regard to products deemed to be health foods, and the Government rolled back on that. This will have to be examined because it would put many out of business and many others will stop selling fuel, when filling stations are scarce enough in rural Ireland. While some, such as those with smaller shops, have been pleased with the revaluation, will the Government do something to examine this situation, which has arisen because of the reclassification of petrol stations and forecourt areas? There have been punitive increases of 200% to 300%, which they cannot pay.
I refer to the Health and Social Care Professionals (Amendment) Bill 2018. The Rehab Group does excellent work by providing a much-needed service or people with disabilities. The group has announced that it needs another €2 million to continue to operate. It has also given a notice of 12 months for the termination of all care contracts. There are 3,000 people in care with 1,500 staff providing 140 services in 117 locations all around the country, including in my home town of Dundalk. This includes respite and residential services for 186 children, many with serious support needs. It is vital that the care service provided by the Rehab Group continues. This requires urgent intervention on the part of the Minister for Health. The Rehab Group is doing its best. It is selling off property, closing loss-making services and downsizing staff. I refer also to the closure of the defined benefit pension schemes. This is a fantastic service for respite and residential care. Can the Minister for Health intervene and ensure that these services continue and do not close in the next 12 months?
The Deputy is right. The Bill needs to proceed. It was actually listed for Report Stage last night but was not reached. It must now be relisted, hopefully for the next couple of weeks. No amendments have been put down on Report Stage, so there is no reason it cannot pass through the House very quickly, be finalised and become law.
Pages 86 to 95 of the programme for Government commit to providing adequate educational facilities, particularly in our primary schools. I want to bring the Tánaiste's attention to a situation in a primary school in Rathmore, County Kerry. The new school was built approximately ten years ago. There is now a significant problem with the roof, which is leaking into the school's electrical system. The management is very concerned about this from a safety point of view. Approximately €200,000 is needed to fix the problem. The school cannot seem to qualify for the summer works scheme or the emergency works scheme. The school's insurance will not cover it and the authorities are at a loss as to how they will solve the problem. I would greatly appreciate the Tánaiste's intervention in resolving this very critical issue.
In regard to health, the programme for Government made a clear commitment that as the finances of the country improved, we would ensure that the most vulnerable people who needed help within the health system would be prioritised. I refer to the announcement of worries that the Rehab Group will not be able to cater for the 3,000 people it is catering for at the moment. I offer the example of the Rosalie Unit in Castlerea, which I have brought up on numerous occasions. The Government is inclined to state that this is a matter for the HSE but it is the agent of the Government. Can we get a clear commitment from the Government that the Rehab Group centres and facilities like the Rosalie Unit will not be closed? A lot of people are worried. A lot of people are calling our constituency offices about these situations. It seems they are all being run down and closed. That is a serious worry for me and others.
This is a question for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Once again it unfortunately relates to the lack of progress and delivery on a redress scheme for the estimated 5,000 homeowners in Donegal and Mayo affected by mica. I raised this with the Minister of State, Deputy English, before the Easter recess. He indicated that he hoped the scheme would go before that week's Cabinet meeting or last week's Cabinet meeting. Not surprisingly, however, we are unfortunately still without a scheme.
The 2019 budget committed to such a scheme. The Minister said he hoped to have a scheme published before Christmas, with houses being fixed by the start of the year. That was 211 days ago and still no scheme has been published. Homeowners are fed up and they need an answer soon. Can the Minister outline the situation to us today? Moreover, I call on him to get on with the job and confirm today that he actually will publish the scheme, so that we can get on with building and fixing houses.
I thank the Deputy. We have discussed this a number of times. It was my intention to bring the scheme to a Cabinet meeting during the recess. That did not happen, but that does not mean that progress has not been made. During the last two weeks there have been several contacts between myself and the Minister for Finance on this issue. This morning I met officials and requested the latest version of the scheme that we have drawn up, which I hope to take to Cabinet next week. That is my hope, but I am working with forces outside my control to get this over the line. I appreciate Deputy McConalogue's patience on this issue.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to an enhanced health service. During the recess, the President of the High Court suspended a doctor from the medical register who had worked in South Tipperary General Hospital, Mayo University Hospital and in Navan, in my own area. I am very concerned with ensuring that entirely substandard practitioners are suspended. More importantly, the guidelines must provide for various sanctions when an inquiry takes place. That is not clear. I am particularly concerned as this is not the first occasion when such an issue has emerged. Doctors appear to be hiding behind suspension or being struck off in cases where criminality is suspected. I want to know what measures have been taken to ensure that the Medical Council informs the Garda Síochána about doctors who appear to carry out criminal activity and are merely struck off.
There is an obligation on the Medical Council to prioritise patient care. If it is aware of anything that may compromise that it has an obligation to act. I am not familiar with the court judgment the Deputy refers to so I must be careful in what I say. If the Deputy wishes to send me more details I can come back to him.
In view of the impending industrial action in this area, what is the Government's position on implementing a 2009 directive of the Labour Court concluding that community employment supervisors should be paid pensions? I remind the Tánaiste that when I raised this recently, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection attacked the Opposition. I remind the Tánaiste that his party has been in government for nine of the ten years since the Labour Court recommendation was issued. I also remind him that two thirds of this House voted in favour of that recommendation. Moreover, the last time I raised this matter, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection said the Government would sort it. Ten years later I must ask when the Government will sort it.
As the Deputy knows, the perspective of the Government and the Department of Finance is that community employment supervisors are not employees of the State, even though their salaries are funded by the State.
I seek an update on the length of time the results of regular smear tests are taking. I have been contacted by several women who took regular smear tests in October of last year. The results are taking up to 28 weeks, which is causing undue stress for those who are waiting. What plans are in place to reduce this lengthy wait?
This is a real priority for the Government and the Minister. In certain parts of the country, women have to wait far too long to get their results. The HSE has now secured additional laboratory facilities, which we are told can be used over the summer months to dramatically reduce those waiting times and return them to acceptable periods. The appropriate benchmark is a matter of weeks rather than months. I look forward to seeing progress on that. We have heard a lot of rhetoric on this issue and we must now secure the delivery of increased capacity at laboratory level to cut turnaround times dramatically over the summer months.
Yesterday, the Irish and UK Governments signed a memorandum of understanding, MOU, to cater for citizens' rights and reciprocal arrangements post Brexit. Could the Tánaiste outline to the House when the MOU will be published and when he will provide details to this House on what exactly is contained in the agreement?
It was published yesterday immediately after we signed it. The MOU has essentially been in gestation for a number of months and it is backed up by the legislation that this House facilitated in key areas from healthcare to social welfare and education, among other areas, to ensure that the rights and access to supports British people living in Ireland and Irish people living in the UK get today can be maintained regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. I will send the document to Deputy Lisa Chambers this afternoon.
I wish to raise the ongoing feud in Drogheda under the programme for Government and crime prevention regarding ensuring more responsive and visible policing in the community, and in particular the announcement of 25 additional gardaí for the town. That is to be welcomed, however belated it is. Serious concerns arise in Drogheda on whether the 25 additional gardaí will be all new recruits fresh out of Templemore who have had no first hand experience of dealing with a serious drugs feud of this nature or if they will be experienced gardaí. We seek clarification in that regard.
We also wish to learn how much longer we must wait until we see the additional gardaí on the streets and whether they will be deployed on a permanent basis. We never again want to see what happened in December, when we were given 12 additional gardaí but nine of them were taken away by mid-January. We saw what happened following on from that in terms of the intensification of the feud. I would welcome clarification from the Tánaiste.
I can give a brief response if I am allowed to do that. The assistant commissioner for the northern region is putting immediate arrangements in place for additional uniformed patrols to be conducted within the district, thereby providing reassurance to the community, which is needed. The patrols will be supplemented by the emergency response unit from Dublin and supported by the regional armed support unit within the northern region.
On Tuesday, 30 April Commissioner Harris announced that he would appoint an additional 25 Garda members to Drogheda next month. This influx of Garda members to the Drogheda area will, I hope, go some way to comfort and reassure the citizens of the area that their safety and the safety of their communities is a big priority for both An Garda Síochána and the Government. Deputy O'Dowd has been vocal on this issue as well as Deputy Munster.
My question to the Tánaiste relates to the funding of the health service, in particular to the programme for Government and the funding of voluntary organisations. As the Tánaiste is aware, earlier this week Rehab issued a statement that it may have to terminate its contracts of care with the HSE because of inadequate Government funding, as its service level agreement requires it to give one year's notice. The issue arises because section 39 organisations such as Rehab must comply with increased regulation, standards and demand for their services, yet there is no adequate Government funding to respond to the increased demands. That is an issue that faces many section 39 organisations, not just Rehab.
An independent review group reported recently on the services supplied by section 39 organisations and it made two recommendations. The first is to move to multi-annual funding so that they can plan their services in a more meaningful manner. The second is that there needs to be a meaningful review of the funding of section 39 organisations. Could the Tánaiste tell me when the recommendations will be acted upon?
I acknowledge the important services and the commitment of staff to people with disabilities and their families provided by Rehab, one of the many disability service providers. The Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, held a joint meeting yesterday with Rehab and the HSE, both of which have committed to working together intensively over the next week with a view to making substantive progress in reaching a solution to the issues Deputy Harty outlined. It is welcome that Rehab will now not issue a notice of termination today, pending the intensive work. Our collective aim is to ensure service continuity for service users and their families.
I am familiar with section 39 organisations in my constituency that do fantastic work, for example, Marymount hospice, among others, and the consequent pressures. On the broader issue of the challenges facing section 39 organisations, following engagement through the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and subject to a verification process currently under way, Rehab is one of 50 section 39 organisations that is expected to receive some funding to commence pay restoration for its staff in the near future. I do not have an exact date.
Deputy Cullinane was not here at the outset when we got unanimous approval in the House for my suggestion that we would focus on a question about promised legislation or the programme for Government. I know Deputy Cullinane will comply as well.
I wish to raise the Government's commitment in the programme for Government to higher levels of transparency and accountability in An Garda Síochána. Two issues arose in recent days that are of concern in that regard. The first is the view of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, that full accountability and transparency and its ability to do its job and hold the Garda to account is "impossible" because of the actions of An Garda Síochána.
Yesterday, the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, announced an anti-corruption unit within An Garda Síochána that will essentially involve the Garda investigating the Garda. He acknowledged at the Committee of Public Accounts today that he did not even consult with GSOC on the establishment of the unit. That goes back to the bad days of gardaí investigating gardaí and not having the highest levels of transparency. Surely the Tánaiste is concerned that GSOC has put on the public record its concern about its ability to do its job independently to hold An Garda Síochána to account. In responding to those two questions could the Tánaiste say why it is the case that the Garda Commissioner would set up such an anti-criminal unit in An Garda Síochána and not consult with GSOC on it?
The Deputy asked a number of questions. I have long responses I could read to him but it is probably more appropriate to put those questions to the Minister for Justice and Equality so that he can answer them comprehensively. The chair of GSOC did raise issues in the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality in recent days that require a comprehensive response, and the responses are there.
I wish to ask a question that I have asked countless times in this Chamber. It relates to the cannabis access programme. I hope the Tánaiste can give a definitive date for the commencement of the programme because I am contacted on a weekly basis about it by parents and patients who need access to medicinal cannabis for their children or themselves. People have been waiting for the programme to commence for the past two and a half years. Could the Tánaiste give a definitive date for the commencement of the cannabis access programme?
I acknowledge that Deputy Gino Kenny has become a go-to person in the House on this issue for many individuals and families who are looking for answers. I spoke to the Minister about this many times. He wants to conclude this issue and provide clarity once and for all. A considerable amount of necessary work has been done to get us to this point. I do not have an exact date but I will try to get a more accurate timeline for the Deputy because this issue has been ongoing for some time and must be brought to a conclusion.
There has been a vast improvement. For the end of year report marks between six and nine will be allocated. Due to data protection issues I cannot give the marks. It is important to note that we dealt with the questions within time and everybody got an opportunity. In future, the Ceann Comhairle will want the same approach. We will focus on the purpose of the business at hand, namely, Questions on Promised Legislation.