Thursday, 11 July 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh (Atógáil) - Questions on Promised Legislation (Resumed)
I raise the issue of the job losses in Bord na Móna announced this morning. As my colleague, Deputy Naughten, will know, I live five minutes from the power station and three minutes away from the Bord na Móna works. Some 150 people are effected by this. I ask the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to arrange a meeting immediately with the ESB and the EPA and Bord na Móna to try and get the power station re-opened as quickly as possible.
Second, this is a huge blow for the seasonal workers who have been hit, many of whom are students and part-time farmers. Will the Ministers ask Bord na Móna and the ESB to replace some of those people with other works in the area? We know that things are changing and that it is a difficult situation but we really need immediate action on this.
On my behalf and on that of the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin "Boxer" Moran, we have been told that job losses are because of a 2013 alteration to the ESB licence for the Lanesboro power station. We did not see any solutions brought forward by the company for five full years until 2018. This now threatens over 300 jobs. I ask that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, haul the three organisation involved, the ESB, Bord na Móna and the EPA, into his office this afternoon and that he would come to the Dáil this evening and provide us with a proper plan for how we will protect these jobs in the midlands.
Climate change, air quality, environmental matters are at the top of the agenda for debate, particularly the proposal for a national smoky fuel ban, which is a live issue and rightly so. Approximately 28% of the population of the country experience fuel poverty and they need to be adequately protected. I suggest on this day of recess that the Minister consider substantially increasing the fuel allowance in the next budget. I also suggest that the VAT differential between the 8% on coal in the South versus the 5% in Northern Ireland would make substantial savings, particularly if the Government is contemplating introducing a carbon tax, which would cause further problems.
This is the fourth time I have asked this question since the start of the year. It relates to the wind farm guidelines that have been promised month in month out. On the previous three occasions I requested them, I was told it would be a matter of weeks. We are now approaching the summer recess. Is the Tánaiste able to give an update on when the guidelines are due to be published?
The Tánaiste will remember that a week before he moved from his previous role as Minister with responsibility for housing and planning he issued, to great fanfare, a press release stating the wind energy guidelines would be announced within weeks. That is more than two years ago. As my colleague has rightly identified, communities are still awaiting the new updated wind energy guidelines. At a time climate change is such an issue and we must embrace renewable energy, will the Tánaiste or the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government clearly outline when communities can expect the announcement of the new wind energy guidelines and when can communities affected by the erection of solar panel farms expect the announcement on the guidelines and regulations for those?
When I announced we were close to agreeing the guidelines, it was agreeing them for consultation and there has been a consultation process since then. My understanding is that the Minister, Deputy Murphy, is very close to announcing a finalisation of those guidelines.
The protection of farmers income is written into the programme for Government. The Tánaiste is the very man who back in 2013 advised dairy farmers to increase production. As he knows, at most 20% of calves are kept for replacement. The rest of the dairy bred calves go into beef production. At that time, the Tánaiste told people to increase production and now the Government is advising beef farmers to reduce production and plant forestry. At the same time, the Government will allow Brazilians to import beef into the European Union. How can the Government reconcile this? How can it explain to farmers that four or five years ago it told them to increase production and now it is telling them to decrease production? It is not as simple as turning on or off a tap.
It is as simple as this. Thousands of farmers came from throughout the country yesterday to ask the Government to stand with them and support them. I ask the Tánaiste whether he will leave our beef farmers fade away and be driven out of existence. We need the Government to unite and say "No" to this trade agreement. It is harmful to our beef industry and will finish it. We are looking to the Tánaiste and the Government to come out with a clear statement saying "No" to it on behalf of the beef farmers.
-----which would be absolute nonsense. The Government has been, and will continue to be, supportive of farmers and agriculture. There has been much opportunity for debate on the potential Mercosur deal in the past two days. We have a more immediate focus with regard to protecting the beef industry in particular through the Brexit process which, of course, is a big responsibility for me and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I can tell the Deputies that agriculture and farming are big priorities for the weeks and months ahead.
Diversification of Bord na Móna is mentioned on page 126 of the programme for Government. A total of 150 Bord na Móna workers face redundancy this year. Some of them have been made redundant. This morning, workers in Longford found out that 150 of them will be let go on a temporary basis over the next week. This is a serious situation. We are moving from brown to green and everybody accepts this must happen. The people in Laois, Offaly and Longford come from hard-working communities with a good work ethic. Many of them worked in Bord na Móna and I worked there myself. We now need to move to this transition. We are trying to play catch-up.
Where will the jobs be in counties Laois, Offaly and Longford? Workers and the communities in which they live want to know this . Where are the plans for biomass supply chains? Where are the plans for major biogas and renewable energy industries? Where are the training programmes for the thousands of workers needed for the new low energy carbon build and for retrofitting?
The Deputy is moving from our brief to greener fields in agriculture but the climate action plan has set out many of the issues he has raised with regard to how we will develop renewables. Bord na Móna has been leading the field not only with regard to renewables but in recycling and new sectors. It is a very powerful agency and is using its resources to develop new opportunities in a decarbonised world. The Government will be behind those efforts.
The programme for Government includes a commitment to improve services and increase support for people with disabilities. Some time ago, I raised the concerns of people with visual impairments in Dún Laoghaire regarding the possible closure of the NCBI office. The commitment made by the Government at the time that the services would all be retained and in no way eroded has not been met. The drop in service is effectively gone since the central administrator was in there. Many of the other services on which the visually impaired community relied upon in the Dún Laoghaire office are gone. If we ring the Dún Laoghaire office now, we get an answer in Dundalk. I do not expect the Tánaiste to know about this but I expect him to look into it because a clear commitment was given to the visually impaired community that the staffing changes would not result in an erosion or deterioration of services for them by the Government.
As the Tánaiste may recall, legislation was introduced by the Government to transfer people from rent supplement to the housing assistance payment, HAP. People are finding it impossible to find a HAP property or even get their landlord to sign up for one. The Department has taken the decision to stop rent supplement payments until a HAP application has been signed up to and approved. I know of a good number of cases in which rent supplement has been withheld for months, which is putting families under threat as well as making them homeless. We need to stop this practice urgently. I am sure the Tánaiste will agree there have been unforeseen consequences as a result of the legislation because people in the welfare sector are interpreting it in this way.
I would like to hear a bit more about it and perhaps I can come back to the Deputy on it. The idea of shifting people from rent supplement to the HAP was to provide more security. I see Members shaking their heads. HAP is a much better system for tenants and landlords than rent supplement.
If there are problems for individual families regarding the transition from one to the other, then we need to understand that. I will get someone to respond to the Deputy on this issue.
I am raising another serious situation. This morning I spoke to a number of apartment owners in Kildare who are being bullied and intimidated by property management companies. Apart from other issues, those owners are now being told that the maintenance fees they have to pay are being doubled. The problem is that there is a complete lack of regulation in this area. My colleague, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, introduced a Bill in this House dealing with the issue of property management companies. That Bill has passed Second Stage and provides for an ombudsman to be put in place for the 500,000 people whose properties are governed by management companies. That would help to bring resolution to disputes in this area. I know that there have been some meetings in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on this issue. This is a vital issue because as time goes on, we will have many more management companies overseeing multi-apartment buildings. I would really appreciate support on this issue.
The Minister for Health recently signed legislation to allow the operation of the medicinal cannabis access programme on a pilot basis for five years. Unfortunately, some of those who have a licence for medicinal cannabis in Ireland still have to go through hoops to get reimbursed for the costs of the prescription. Parents are exhausted caring for children with special and exceptional needs. One family in Waterford, the Kehoes, are having to jump through hoops to try and get this payment made. We welcome the fact that this access programme is up and running but there are still some teething problems. I would appreciate the Tánaiste raising this matter with the Minister for Health.
I want to reinforce the comments Deputy Butler made. Deputy Gino Kenny will also be raising this issue. We have all been contacted by this family. Some weeks ago the Minister for Health was helpful regarding the case of a different family in Waterford who had a similar problem concerning their child and getting money back under the compassionate access programme. These are children with severe epilepsy. The consultants in the hospital in Waterford, as well as the general practitioners, GPs, are recommending cannabis-based oil treatment. It is necessary for them to go to Holland and elsewhere to get the money but they are not being reimbursed. The family last week was reimbursed but this family has not been. This is the Kehoe family as Deputy Butler mentioned. I ask that the HSE look at this matter in a compassionate way.
We finally had some good news last week concerning the medical cannabis access programme. This issue stems from a situation with the primary care reimbursement service. It is an arbitrary and, at worst, highly invidious system. Two weeks ago I raised with the Taoiseach issues being experienced by two families. I am referring to the Kelly and Stevens families. It is no coincidence that they were reimbursed the next day. It was because they had been forced to go public. The family whose situation we are concerned with today also has a heavy financial burden to bear. They can afford the costs of treatment for their child, Killian, in the short term but not in the long term. It is important that the Government intervenes.
This access programme is very new. It is only a couple of weeks old and the guidelines are only beginning to be understood by families and doctors. I am sure there will initially be issues that we need to address, perhaps politically. We want, however, to try to get to a point where families are getting the services, supports, and access to the treatments they need without having to publicly appeal for support. That is certainly what the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is working on. I will, however, relay this particular issue to him.
The programme for Government commits to improving the quality of life for our younger and older people in the most disadvantaged communities. We all know that these communities consist of wonderful people who are under great social and economic pressures. We also know that suicide is a major issue in our society. There is a particular cluster of suicides in Dundalk, in Cox's Demesne and Muirhevnamore. The Redeemer centre has asked Pobal to fund a community audit across north Louth to identify these issues. Will the Government support this approach for a community audit to identify the gaps in the current allocation of resources in Dundalk, as well as options for the future?
The Tánaiste was previously the Minister in the Department responsible for planning and housing. There is an issue with planning around the country. Everybody is talking about getting more houses into the system. Individuals are seeking planning permission and are coming up against all sorts of regulations and hoops that they have to go through. Has the Government really looked at the planning process in the context of getting more houses built? I also want to raise the issue of frivolous referrals of planning applications to An Bord Pleanála, causing delays of six to eight months for the smallest of developments. After six months, perhaps, a letter is then issued stating that the decision date is being again deferred for a further two or three months. Has the Government closely examined this issue? There are many issues in the area of housing but this is one issue where the Government could do something if it was decisive and really examined this issue in detail. This matter is holding up development and holding up young couples getting roofs over their heads.
We have introduced new legislation on planning. There have been significant changes that are having positive results. The main change is a new direct fast-track planning system that goes straight to An Bord Pleanála for large-scale housing developments
That has delivered in spades, if Deputies will excuse the pun, regarding planning applications being successfully granted in the right places. There are ongoing issues and considerations but there also has to be an entitlement to offer objections and observations. There have to be rules, regulations, guidelines, zoning and so on. That provides limits but also places statutory responsibility on the State to ensure that we are building houses in the right places. I suspect that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, certainly keeps the kinds of issues raised by the Deputy under review all of the time.
On page 86 of the programme for Government, the Government promised to support older people in their homes, as well as the home help service. The Health Service Executive, HSE, employee assistance programme provides short-term counselling and support for home help workers who have personal and work-related problems. This is a vital service for home helpers who work long hours, sometimes in difficult and demanding conditions. Those workers may also become emotionally attached to many of the clients they work for, sometimes for a long time. The loss of an elderly client after whom they have looked for a long time is an everyday part of the job but they may need bereavement counselling. There were two counsellors in west Cork but both have now retired. The nearest counselling service is now in Cork city. Will this Government restore the employee assistance program and provide appropriate support for home care staff in west Cork or is this just another cut, through the back door, in the services provided in rural Ireland?
Depopulation in rural regions is still a major issue. I and other rural Deputies have seen that there is no common sense when it comes to people, and particularly young couples, who want to live in rural communities. Those who want to build homes on their family's land are being denied that opportunity. What action is the Government going to take to alleviate the difficulties faced by young rural couples who want to stay in their communities and build houses on their family's land? Adopting a common-sense and fair approach would mean we could address the depopulation issue.
This is an area where we have to achieve a balance between trying to manage the extent of one-off housing and ribbon development and then trying to put in place more sustainable models for how we develop communities. I am referring to issues involved in communities living together, sharing resources and the provision of public transport networks etc. At the same time, we have to allow people to live in the parishes where they grew up and on their own land in some cases.
That is a constant balance that local authorities are trying to get right.
As a former Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government the Tánaiste will know very well that the Irish League of Credit Unions has wanted to invest in building houses for some time. In fact the Tánaiste incorporated this into his own Rebuilding Ireland programme. The league's members have €750 million ready to go straight away but they need a special purpose vehicle to be set up. They have been in negotiations with Government for a long time but nothing has happened. Credit unions would work with the approved housing bodies, AHBs, to keep borrowing off the balance sheet. We need those homes. Will the Tánaiste make a commitment that over the summer work will be done to set up this special purpose vehicle so the Irish League of Credit Unions can invest some of their considerable assets in building homes for our people?
There are 700 vacancies within the mental health services. We will probably agree to disagree. There is still an embargo on recruitment and the HSE is not offering permanent posts to this year's graduates. This has also been the practice in recent years. Will the Tánaiste or the Minister for Health instruct the HSE to stop this practice? It seems senseless that we are training recruits to work in the mental health service but we do not offer them a permanent contract.
As the Tánaiste is aware, pulmonary hypertension is a rare heart and lung disease. A drug, Selexipag, has recently been approved. When will the Government and the HSE approve funding for this drug so that beneficiaries can avail of it? The drug has been well documented and Professor Sean Gaine, a well-known leading medical adviser on this disease, has asked for it to be considered.
Once a drug goes through the assessment process for drugs for rare conditions and approval is granted, it automatically follows that the finance is available in terms of making the drug available. I am not sure at what stage in the approval process the drug is actually at, but I can get the Department of Health to check with the Deputy.
About two years ago I raised the issue of Solas, a purpose-built house for children with disabilities in Sligo. It was closed. About this time last year we were told that a new facility called Bayview Respite Service would be opened in Tullaghan in County Leitrim. I am not sure which agency was to run it but it was not the HSE. It may have been the Rehab Group. For the last six months Deputies from across Leitrim and Sligo have been asking when it would be opened. We were told it would be opened shortly. It opened three weeks ago and the first people went into it. Yesterday a fire officer came and closed it. For almost two years people in the north west have been waiting for respite and unable to get it. We now find that a house that has been opened by the private sector is not going to work. We really need to get answers in regard to this.
I am glad to see the Minister for Housing, Planing and Local Government is here. Between January and 20 June, 90 Wicklow families presented to the Wicklow local authority as homeless. One of those families has had to resort to one of the local papers, which I am holding in my hand, to try to highlight their case and how they are being treated. Lauren and her husband, Jensen, presented as homeless in June. After a considerable period of time they were offered what can only be described as substandard accommodation in a bed and breakfast-----
Deputy Brady should listen to me and resume his seat. He has been totally disorderly. I gave him an opportunity to raise this. He brought in a newspaper. He is well able to make his own case without bringing in advertisements. Deputy Brady must not interrupt. I am warning him.
Deputy Brady has no monopoly on time in this House. He has abused his position. I have been more than fair to the Members of this House. I will give the Minister 30 seconds to respond. If he does not wish to do so I cannot force him.
He is abusing all of the Members of this House. He is not trying to get to the core of the issues involved. Time and time again, as his party has done, he has tried to use individual families in very difficult circumstances-----
The question is coming. We have seen a disgraceful situation in which 290 people have been on trolleys in the last four days. Some 81 people are on trolleys as we speak. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, has asked for a major emergency plan for the hospital and for all activity in the hospital to be halted with the exception of emergency admissions.
I refer to the proposal to establish a cross-Government youth mental health pathfinder team with participation from the Department of Health, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It has Civil Service, management board and ministerial approval. This cross-Government collaboration utilises section 12 of the Public Service Management Act 1997.
This section of the Act has never been used before. The Department of Health has engaged with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and must work out the logistics of trying to implement this. I would be grateful if the Minister could give me a timeline and deadlines for the implementation of the proposal.
I will have the Minister revert to the Deputy with an exact answer on that. It represents positive progress. I take the opportunity to wish him well in the next few weeks. He is getting married, which is to enter a new institution that I can highly recommend. I wish good luck to him over the summer.
With that go the best wishes of all Members to Deputy Neville. Before we move to the next business, I express my gratitude and that of the Ceann Comhairle to the staff of the House at all levels for their support. Without that support, the House would not work as effectively as it does. I was going to say efficiently, but I will let that run. Is mian linn ár mbuíochas a ghabháil le foireann Theach Laighean go léir. Tá súil againn go mbainfidh siad sult as an mbriseadh.