Tuesday, 11 June 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The business this week shall be as set out in the first revised report of the Business Committee, dated 30 May 2019. In relation to today's business, it is proposed that No. 11, motion re proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of the terms of the enhanced partnership and co-operation agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Cuba, referral to committee, shall be taken without debate; and No. 34, statements on Northern Ireland shall conclude within 85 minutes if not previously concluded. Statements shall be confined to a single round for a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties and groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, of ten minutes each with a five-minute response by a Minister or Minister of State and all Members may share time.
In relation to Wednesday’s business, it is proposed that expressions of sympathy shall be taken after Leaders' Questions for a period not exceeding 15 minutes each, and shall be followed by Questions on Promised Legislation and contributions shall not exceed two minutes each. Nos. 12 and 13, motion re Offences against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 and motion re Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act 2009, continuance of certain provisions, shall be discussed together and shall be brought to a conclusion within 85 minutes if not previously concluded and any division demanded thereon shall be taken immediately. Speeches shall be confined to a single round for a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties and groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, and shall not exceed ten minutes each with a five-minute response from a Minister or Minister of State and all Members may share time.
In relation to Thursday's business, it is proposed for No. 37, statements on sustainable tourism, that statements of a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties and groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, shall not exceed ten minutes each with five minutes for all other Members and a five-minute response by a Minister or Minister of State and all Members may share time.
I object to the schedule for today's business if it does not include provision to discuss the HSE decision to suspend the allocation of new home help hours for the next five months. The action taken by the HSE is contrary to the programme for Government and the HSE's own service plan and needs to be reversed immediately. It will have a serious impact on the health service and a devastating impact on older people and carers.
I ask that consideration be given by the Business Committee within the week to a special debate on the home care issue. The Taoiseach's earlier replies seemed to indicate a lack of understanding as to what is going on when one drills into the figures. I instance the Tyco ruling of the European Court of Justice. According to the Taoiseach, the programme for Government allows a million extra hours. The Tyco ruling means that the time it takes for home help to get to a client's location is now factored in. The allocated funding has to take account of that. That was not provided for last year.
It is eating up much of the time. We need an honest and transparent debate to drill through the figures and issues relating to home help care to get a better understanding. A debate should be facilitated this week in the House for that purpose because Deputies are inundated with calls from all over the countryon the issue and the degree to which it is impacting on people. It takes a bit longer for that message to get through to the Government, but that is what is happening.
The Select Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment was due to deal with Committee Stage of the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2018 today. Instead, at 3 p.m. there will be a meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to consider the approach the Government has taken to block the Bill. This matter is related to the Order of Business. To help the committee in its work, I ask the Ceann Comhairle whether we can seek advice from the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA, regarding the constitutional position the Government has taken in this case, which I believe breaches the rights of Deputies and Senators to go about their work in the way set out in the Constitution. I am keen to know whether that legal advice is available before the committee meeting commences because I think what the Government has done is constitutionally flawed. It has treated the Oireachtas and the representatives of the people in a way that is the worst egregious example of blocking our ability to do our work.
Sinn Féin supports the call for a special debate on the allocation of home help hours because the response given by the Taoiseach to Deputy McDonald indicates that there is not a full understanding on the Government side of the implications or the difference between the money allocated and hours delivered. Many Deputies have discussed this issue with me and I presume they have also petitioned the Office of the Ceann Comhairle. It would be in order for the Business Committee to reconvene and schedule time for that debate.
The Labour Party strongly supports the holding of a debate on this matter. The responses given by the Taoiseach do not meet the concerns that all Members are hearing in their constituencies and from organisations lobbying for carers.
A large number of Deputies today submitted Topical Issue matters dealing with home care and, as such, it was not practical to consider it in that way. I wrote back to them that we would ask the Business Committee to consider scheduling time to look at this matter. If there is agreement on all sides, we will request that the committee contact the relevant representatives to see whether the debate can be facilitated. Is the Chief Whip happy with that?
We will work that out. As long as is necessary will be allocated, within reason.
On the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill, it is open to any committee to seek the advice of the OPLA. That is what it is there for. However, I do not think advice is needed from any quarter on the decision that a money message is required. The determination has been made that a money message is required and there is no way around that.
Is Tuesday's business agreed? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to?
The second Scally report has been published and should be debated in the House. I ask the Business Committee to consider, and the Government to commit to, a debate on the report and an assessment of the recommendations of the first report, particularly the legislative proposals arising from it. There is still an enormous backlog of women awaiting results. That unacceptable situation was caused by the decision of the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to award a free smear as a panic response when the crisis erupted. I ask the Taoiseach to indicate when the legislative provisions dealing with the issues of mandatory reporting and full disclosure will be enacted. When will the Bill in respect of the CervicalCheck tribunal be enacted?
I am advised that the Minister, Deputy Harris, will be away on Thursday, but is happy to come to the House next week to discuss the Scally report directly and other matters related to health. We are making progress on the smear test backlog. A contract has been signed with Quest Diagnostics, which is one of the laboratories, to do the work. In the meantime, MedLab, which no longer does smear tests for Ireland, is catching up on its backlog.
In one part of the country, women are now getting results in six or seven weeks, which is a significant improvement; in the other part of the country there is still a significant backlog but it has gone from 80,000-odd down to 60,000-odd and is now finally going in the right direction. I have asked the Attorney General and the Minister for Health to prioritise the tribunal legislation above all other health legislation. We anticipate having the tribunal legislation in the House this session, with the patient safety Bill in the next session, after the recess.
Report and Final Stages of the National Minimum Wage (Protection of employee Tips) Bill 2017, introduced by Sinn Féin, are due to be held in the Seanad tomorrow afternoon. This is important legislation which would make it illegal for an employer to withhold or deduct employees' tips and would require businesses to display their tipping policy so customers know how tips are distributed. The Bill has received cross-party support to date on Second Stage and Committee Stage and has received tremendous support from the trade union movement, particularly the ICTU, and from the ONE Galway and ONE Cork organisations. This is broadly supported and important legislation which would ensure that workers' tips are given the legal protection they deserve, and I believe it should be enacted as soon as possible. Will the Taoiseach indicate to us whether Fine Gael will support the legislation tomorrow?
While I totally agree with the premise of what the Bill tries to do, I cannot in good conscience agree with the unintended outcomes the Bill will produce if we pass the legislation, so no, I will not support it tomorrow. We want to ensure that tips are given to the people who receive them.
A tip is a gratuity from the patron of an organisation to reward good service. We propose to pass legislation to amend the Payment of Wages Act to ensure that tips cannot form part of anyone's wages and that tips are just that: a gift or gratuity between a patron body and a service. In addition, we have agreed with the industry a code of practice on transparency of the tips policy of each individual organisation. The outcome of Sinn Féin's Bill would be employers managing tips on behalf of employees. It would therefore result in all tips being taxed, which would have a negative outcome for the income earnings of the people who work in that relatively low-paid industry in the first instance. It would also have serious financial implications for people's working family payments and medical card applications. There are a lot of unintended consequences of the Bill that I do not think Sinn Féin meant.
I join others in congratulating Deputies Clare Daly, Fitzgerald, Kelleher and Wallace on their election to the European Parliament.
I return to the matter raised earlier of the ban on smoky coal because I am really concerned about the answer the Taoiseach gave to the House. I will not rehearse again the impact on my constituency of Wexford, particularly the town of Enniscorthy, of particulate matter, which is extraordinarily damaging to people's health. Also, those industries that invested in good faith to produce smokeless fuel are now at an enormous disadvantage. If there is any suing to be done, it is probably those industries that would feel aggrieved by a stated State policy to ban smoky coal that is now not being acted on. I see the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment is preparing to answer this. When Wexford County Council asked that the ban be extended to Enniscorthy, the Taoiseach said the council should do it itself, so the State is not willing to take on this industry and is asking a local authority to do so. Is that the Government's answer to this matter? Surely not.
The position is, as the Taoiseach outlined, that there has been a legal challenge to the proposal to extend the smoky coal ban, which was introduced in good faith by my predecessor Ministers, as Deputy Micheál Martin said.
A threat to challenge. I apologise. The position is that the nub of this issue is whether the existing smoky coal ban, which is confined to coal, can distinguish coal from peat. Currently peat is not included in the smoky coal ban but, based on particulate matter emissions, a distinction cannot be drawn between peat and coal, so the implication of this would be that peat would be banned as well as smoky coal.
That is a matter to which we must give due consideration. The question immediately following the contribution of the Leader of the Opposition was from Deputy Bríd Smith, who expressed concern about the impact on Bord na Móna of changes that are occurring on a phased basis. It is appropriate to consider the matter.
Is the Taoiseach and his Government willing to consider amending the sexual offences legislation, given the prosecution last week of two women in Kildare? Those two sex workers were jailed for nine months for running or keeping a brothel. Solidarity submitted an amendment to that Bill to change the definition of brothel-keeping in order to decriminalise sex workers who were simply working together, in pairs and indoors, for their own protection. This was instead of living off the earnings of anyone else but themselves. The Government refused that amendment and we have now seen the jailing of women, including one who is pregnant. It was for these reasons that Solidarity did not vote for the Bill, as it continued the criminalisation of sex workers. It is wrong to victimise people who are working in the sex industry and I ask the Minister to seriously consider adopting our amendment or a variant of it now.
I will not comment on an individual case. I can confirm for the Deputy, however, that as this is relatively new legislation, I would be happy to see its outworkings and, in the event of there being a requirement or demand for a review, I would be happy to have it done.
Small farmers and businesses, especially shop owners, have been waiting for a revised fair deal scheme for many years. The Minister of State at the Department of Health has announced that he will shortly bring forward this Bill, which was promised several times before. I will highlight what is wrong with the proposals the Minister of State will bring forward. The Department is still insisting that 100% of the value of the farm must be assessed for the fair deal scheme, as well as the family home, which is wrong. If a farmer gets sick or hurt, which is a possibility because of the type of physical work involved, the young person taking over must have been farming for three years and must continue to farm for six years. What is going to happen when young children cannot take over the farm and a wife would have no other income if she did not rent the farm, for example? That is very wrong. Has the Minister of State any regard for small farmers and rural Ireland, where people are barely surviving? It is very wrong and after all the time we have waited, is this the best the Minister of State can do?
There was approval by the Government this morning at its Cabinet meeting to proceed with this as planned. I have an answer for some of the matters raised by the Deputy but they are somewhat extensive for this forum. The Bill will move to pre-legislative scrutiny in the health committee, where the Deputy would be welcome to tease out the matters he has raised. The Deputy should be under no illusion but that this is a very good news story for rural Ireland, including small businesses and farmers. This has a price tag of in excess of €10 million per annum and it is, above all, an equality matter. These people should be treated in the same way as every other citizen of the State.
That is to be welcomed. Whatever we do the Deputy will say there is more to be done but what we are doing is a significant step and one to be welcomed by all. I can address the issues the Deputy raised in more detail at pre-legislative scrutiny stage.
I return to the issue of CervicalCheck and the ex gratiapayment scheme announced earlier this year, applications for which opened in May. I am hearing from some members of the 221+ group that they are being met with a wall of silence in terms of how this will play out. They have been told that it could be the end of the year before they find out the amount of the payment but also that there could be a further delay before that payment is made. What is needed is information to be given to the 221+ group. Some of its members are sick people. Some of the women have died and it relates to their families. There will be a tribunal and we await the legislation for that but can the Taoiseach clear the air in terms of how exactly the ex gratiascheme will work because I am being told there is a wall of silence around it?
I cannot but I will undertake to come back to the Deputy with some more information. On the proposal for the ex gratiascheme, which is a payment given with respect to the non-disclosure approved by Cabinet some time ago, a judge - I think it is Judge Ó Caoimh - has been appointed and has a team supporting him. I will make inquiries but from the Government side all the work is done and the resources are in place. If there is a delay in making awards I will have it examined to see why that is the case. It has not come back to us in terms of anything we can do to speed that up but I will check it out.
This morning, we had another homicide on O'Connell Street. That follows a string of terrible murders in my constituency, the Taoiseach's constituency and across the northside generally. Nearly two weeks ago I wrote to the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister with responsibility for communities asking if they were prepared to set up some kind of interdepartmental task force to examine the resources that hard-pressed, disadvantaged communities need, especially those that are deeply affected by serious anti-social and criminal behaviour, including these recent murders. Is that something the Taoiseach would embark on given that it was his party's Governments that slashed spending and resources to the many community bodies in my constituency over the past eight years since 2011? As he knows, I am a director of a number of those bodies.
It was also very disappointing that when the Minister for Justice and Equality finally came to Coolock it seemed to turn into a Fine Gael type occasion in that no non-Fine Gael representatives were invited to the meeting even though many of us are members of the local joint policing committee. The reality is that Fine Gael is soft on serious crime.
I am very happy to engage with the Deputy at any level here in the House, outside the House or at meetings. I have no difficulty with Deputy Broughan. Many of the suggestions put forward by Deputy Broughan have been helpful to me in dealing with this issue. I was very pleased to act promptly and visit Deputy Broughan's constituency last week. I am not sure where he was on the occasion-----
I was very pleased to meet local stakeholders in the areas of education, welfare and community development. A number of important suggestions were put forward. I would be very happy to engage with my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, to ensure what whole-of-Government approach might be taken to what is a very serious issue in that area. I was also pleased to be in the presence of the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, in Templemore on Friday last when a number of new gardaí were assigned to Garda stations in Deputy Broughan's constituency and who have already taken up duty to ensure we can maximise efforts against crime and anti-social behaviour in the Deputy's constituency.
I raise the issue of Rockall in view of the unilateral illegal decision by the Scottish Government last Friday. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether the issue of fishing rights around Rockall was raised when he met the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, some weeks ago, particularly given that discussions have been taking place over the past two years between Ministers and officials? Would the Taoiseach accept that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of December 2012 decided that no rock without economic activity would confer rights on any country to declare an economic zone or continental shelf? What steps does the Taoiseach propose to take to defend the rights of Irish fishing vessels that have fished unhindered in these waters for decades? Has the Taoiseach or his Minister communicated with the European Commission as this is also a Common Fisheries Policy issue?
Many west Cork fishermen fish the waters off Rockall. In the Taoiseach's discussions with Nicola Sturgeon, did fishing in any aspect arise? What is the current position with the negotiations that are ongoing? This is more important than squid and haddock. What is at stake is how fishermen will be treated during the Brexit process.
On 3 April I raised serious concerns on the Sea Fisheries (Amendment) Bill with the Taoiseach. I felt it was being rushed through the Dáil without any pre-legislative scrutiny. I pleaded that we would have more time to weigh up all concerns but Fine Gael, joined by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, voted to hand over our fishermen's rights in the zone up to six nautical miles off our coastline. Only weeks later, we have found out that the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, Deputy Creed, have both received a formal letter from the Scottish Government stating that it will ban any Irish vessels fishing within 12 miles of Rockall. Irish fishing vessels have operated unhindered in the Rockall zone for many decades, fishing haddock, squid, and other species. The actions of the Scottish Government to protect what it regards as its own waters will have a detrimental effect on the livelihoods of many Irish fishermen. Will the Taoiseach intervene and achieve an urgent solution to this worrying crisis?
The matter was not raised at my recent meeting with the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, but it has been discussed by the Tánaiste and his counterpart, and by the Minister, Deputy Creed. The European Commission has been informed of the matter.
Rockall is a rock, essentially a sea stack in the middle of the ocean. It is uninhabitable and uninhabited, and it is not something that Ireland and Scotland should fight over. We do not have a claim to it and we do not accept any other sovereign claim to it. We believe the fishing a territory around it should be shared. The Irish vessels which are fishing in those waters have EU quota and these waters are part of EU waters. Under the Common Fisheries Policy, we believe they are within their rights to continue to fish in the area around Rockall.
The views of Scotland and Ireland have differed on this issue for some time, but we have built a strong and positive relationship to our mutual benefit over many years. In light of the most recent developments, dialogue continues between the Irish and Scottish Governments and there have been close contacts at official level in recent days to de-escalate tensions. The matter was discussed at Cabinet this morning and also at a meeting of the Scottish Government. We have agreed that dialogue should continue between the Irish and Scottish Governments. There have been close contacts at official level and these will continue. It has been agreed that a process of intensified engagement will take place, led by senior officials from both administrations. Both Governments would like to see this matter de-escalated.
With more than 2 million houses and apartments in the State, and almost 200,000 lying empty, according to the Simon Communities in Ireland, it is about time that the Government took the housing crisis seriously. I live in County Louth, the smallest county in Ireland. Our local authority has more than 60 unoccupied houses. These include voids, where the people who once lived there have passed away, others which have been subject to compulsory purchase order, or houses which are vacant for other reasons. The local authority is crying out for help. There are thousands on the waiting list. There is also a great deal of land in Louth. For some unknown reason, however, the Government has stopped our local authority from building houses. We have the land. All we need is a bit of funding.
Is there any chance that the Government could use Louth, the smallest county in Ireland, in a pilot scheme to get 60 families off the waiting list and build these houses directly? The Government keeps talking about billions of euro, but it would not cost big money to get this sorted out. I saw three houses yesterday in Dundalk. It would only take a little paint work and other works to get this done. If the council boards up these houses, it will cost tens of thousands of euro. Let us sort out the problem.
In the case of County Louth there is no block on allowing the local authority to develop houses. In fact, we have engaged with the council on several projects. We have more than 60 projects going through the pipeline at the moment to develop houses. The council has a large landbank that carries a great deal of debt. We are happy to work with the council on that to bring forward housing solutions, including a combination of private, public and affordable housing, if needs be.
It is up to Louth County Council to bring forward a plan, and we are happy to engage on that.
I wish to be clear on vacancies. We have used Louth as the best example of a local authority that has tackled vacancies. The council has gone out on many occasions in recent years under various schemes through which we have allocated money. The council has been successful in bringing forward vacant houses that belonged to the private sector. The council took them over through schemes and brought them back into use. We are encouraging the council to do more of that. We certainly reward counties where that is done and Louth is one that has successfully achieved this.
The home help crisis is hitting the most vulnerable hardest. Currently, there are 6,310 people waiting for home care supports and 53,000 in receipt of supports. One in ten people who need these supports to ensure they can stay at home safely and securely for as long as possible is not receiving these vital hours. We heard recently that no further packages will be provided to deal with costs incurred from travel expenses until November. I need the Minister for Health to clarify exactly how many people will be affected by the proposed cuts. There is no doubt that any reduction in hours will push an already-stretched service to the brink.
We have agreed to talk about this on Thursday. I am happy to take questions from individual Members to address direct questions. That might be the most productive way of dealing with this issue. I trust that is okay with the Deputy.