Tuesday, 24 September 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The business this week shall be as set out in the report of the Business Committee, dated 19 September 2019.
On today's business, it is proposed that No. 17, motion re parliamentary questions rota swop - Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and Department of Education and Skills, No. 18, motion re proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of the Data Protection Act 2018 (section 60(6)) (Central Bank of Ireland) Regulations 2019, referral to committee, and No.19, motion re proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of the Official Languages Act 2003 (Public Bodies) Regulations 2019, referral to committee, all be taken without debate, with any division demanded on the motion re parliamentary questions rota swop to be taken immediately.
Regarding Wednesday's business, it is proposed that No. 19a, motion re statement of Estimates for the Houses of the Oireachtas shall be taken without debate, with any division demanded thereon to be taken immediately and No. 42, statements on public service cards, shall conclude within 80 minutes.
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, and shall not exceed five minutes each. Each party and group in opposition shall have five minutes each for questions and answers, with a five-minute response by the Minister or Minister of State. All Members may share time.
There are just two proposals to put to the House today. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed.
On the day when thousands of children were marching nationally on climate change and the need to address it, local ecologists in the Tallaght area discovered that South Dublin County Council had essentially landfilled acres of reserve and habitat in Sean Walsh Memorial Park in Tallaght, destroying literally thousands of microorganisms and habitats. Local ecologist Mr. Collie Ennis, a member of the Irish Herpetological Society and a scientist in Trinity College Dublin who had been instrumental in identifying the rewilding of this area and the degree to which it had become a little gem or miracle in this location, was simply appalled at what transpired. South Dublin County Council had that very week identified the area in its own documentation and had included the protection of these wetland habitats and reserves as an objective in its Tallaght local area action plan. Will the Government initiate an inquiry into how this happened? After a climate action plan has been announced, how can a local authority or a State agency engage in such environmental vandalism, attacking and destroying an area rich in biodiversity? It defies any logical explanation. It demands an inquiry because it suggests that all levels of Government are not on board in respect of the most pressing issue of our time.
I assure the Deputy that the investigations unit of my Department is looking into this. We have already contacted the heritage officer, notwithstanding what the county council has said about it. I can come back to the Deputy with a full report on that.
A pre-budget submission from Focus Ireland has highlighted some pretty damning figures for the Government on the issue of family homelessness. The number of families falling into homelessness has risen by more than tenfold since 2011. This means that when Fine Gael came to power, eight families were becoming homeless every month. Eight years later, that figure has risen to 90 families per month. It is not new to state the Government has failed to get to grips with the scale of the housing crisis. It has not delivered solutions for ordinary families who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. The first thing the Minister must do to solve this crisis is to have the political will to do so. Does the Minister agree that the rate of family homelessness in this State constitutes a national emergency, and can he outline precisely the measures that will be taken in budget 2020 to address this dire situation?
I thank the Deputy for the question. It is true to say that housing supply has not caught up with demand yet, but it is catching up. Every month construction is starting on more than 2,000 new homes on sites throughout the country. We continue to have families in emergency accommodation and that is unacceptable. We continue to have high levels of presentations of families in emergency accommodation but despite that, there are fewer families in emergency accommodation tonight than there were this time last year. We continue to make a huge response by providing both emergency accommodation and new homes for families. The 10,000 new homes added to the stock of social housing are not a small number. I began my budget engagement with the Minister for Finance some time ago. We are in the middle of that, and a priority for me in those budget negotiations is ensuring that we have all relevant supports in place. That includes emergency accommodation, as well as continuing to work through Rebuilding Ireland, which in just two more years will have seen the introduction of 50,000 new homes into the stock of social housing. We have not seen that in this country for quite some time.
We will be meeting the Minister later about the issues we raised last week, when we lifted the lid on the prevalence of sex for rent in the housing crisis. I wish to put on the Dáil record that we have had many more disclosures. In particular, three women in the housing assistance payment, HAP, sector have contacted me about their situations.
It is clear that when we have predominantly female, young and vulnerable people seeking scarce accommodation, such as in the HAP sector, the prevalence of exploitation of all kinds, including sexual, will increase. "Kirsty" spoke out in The Irish Timestoday. It is particularly sinister that an estate agent, with such power to evict people or give them accommodation, is engaging in sexual harassment. We have uncovered information from many women concerning their experiences, including receiving comments about their bodies, discouragement of boyfriends, offers of dinner, and getting drunken texts late at night. The housing crisis is creating a perfect storm for predatory landlords. That is particularly the case in the HAP sector. It is the basis for social housing and it is dangerous to give private landlords such control over vulnerable women and children.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue again. It is true that many people are vulnerable and in housing insecurity because not enough homes are yet being built to meet demand. This year, we introduced significant new protections for tenants. That is important, as is noting that the majority of people in the rental sector have safety and security in their homes. I agreed to our meeting later since we last spoke. I have also been in touch with my counterpart in the UK and I have been told that legislation in this area is dealt with there by the Home Office. I had discussions with the Minster for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, as well regarding what legislative vehicles exist to protect people.
Where a person is a tenant, protections exist in the context of the Residential Tenancy Board, RTB, and the new powers we have recently given that body. Where a person runs into difficulties with letting agents, as described in today's newspapers, he or she can take that issue to the Property Services Regulatory Authority, PSRA. The Minister for Justice and Equality and I continue to consider this issue to see what further protections might be put in place. I ask the Deputy to bring any specific information she may have gathered in the past week to our meeting later.
As I said to her colleague at the housing committee, however, it is wrong to link this issue to a housing support such as HAP. Doing so risks putting people in more vulnerable situations because they might refuse to use HAP. Landlords might also refuse to accept it. People would, therefore, be at greater risk of going into homelessness. We are taking this issue seriously and I look forward to our further engagement later.
Do the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues have any idea of the devastating impact of cuts? A woman whom I will call "Chrissie" is a full-time carer for her sister Mary, who has had Wilson's Disease since she was 14 years old. Mary is now 58. "Chrissie" is also a half-time carer for her mother who is 84 with deteriorating health. Mary was recently hospitalised unexpectedly for surgery for a burst appendix. She spent three weeks in hospital and then got one week of respite in the wonderful Cluain Arainn unit in Tipperary town.
When "Chrissie" requested home help prior to her sister's discharge, she was told that none might be available. Mary normally has home help each morning for an hour so that she can be showered, dressed, receive tablets and have a small breakfast. It was devastating for her to have her sister come home feeling weak, ill-nourished and in need of being built back up and then be told that there might not be any home help. I have the letter from the HSE. It states that no home help was available because of maternity leave and sick leave. This is happening up and down the country. It is appalling. It is causing bed blocking in hospitals and a major crisis in emergency departments. This is totally insensitive but can we expect much more from the Fine Gael party? It is shocking.
I am concerned that we are facing a winter of discontent for people waiting for homecare supports. New data revealed to me last weekend showed that the list of those waiting for supports has jumped from 6,238 in March to 7,346 in July. These figures are enormously disappointing as they show the extent of the unmet need nationwide. We all know the importance of homecare support. It is Government policy to support people at home with the correct wrap-around help. Unfortunately, that has become very difficult given these figures.
Government policy prior to the recess clearly stated there was no moratorium on new supports for people living at home. The figures now tell us something much different. Shockingly, Waterford showed the highest increase from 31 people waiting in March to 124 people waiting at the end of July. I know we were coming from a low base, but that is a 300% increase. When will this moratorium be lifted so that people who need homecare supports can avail of them?
The hours are being cut back in counties Kilkenny and Carlow. Elderly patients being cared for in hospitals are being sent home with no care whatsoever. There is deep concern among families about the privatisation of all of these hours and all of this care. It simply is not working out. More people are now involved in managing the system than in delivering it. I ask the Minister to seek a report immediately from the HSE and an outline as to how it will deal with this escalating problem.
The issue of home help in many regions has been raised. This targets the most vulnerable. I have been contacted by many concerned families in counties Laois and Offaly. These are people with disabilities and elderly couples trying to care for each other. What is happening is scandalous. We need it sorted out and it has to happen now.
I thank all the Deputies for raising this issue. I am well aware of the effect not being able to access this type of support quickly has on families, patients and those who are ill and vulnerable. I am well aware of the anxiety and difficulty it can cause. As the Deputies may be aware, we have €445 million worth of funding in the HSE service plan to ensure we have the right level of support in place for our citizens. At the end of June, more than 51,000 patients and families were in receipt of homecare packages. However, I am aware of the issues the Deputies have touched on and I am working with the Minister, Deputy Harris, on them. I take the point that, particularly in the run-up to the end of the year and the winter period, an issue such as this not only causes further difficulty for families and patients, it can also compound the challenges faced by our emergency departments and hospitals throughout the winter period. I thank all of the Deputies for raising the issue.
I refer to page 58 of the programme for Government on capacity in hospitals, particularly with regard to Naas General Hospital, where 15 patients were on trolleys this morning. In 2014, planning permission was granted and we all know it takes time to get planning permission. Not alone has no sod been lifted to prepare for the extension but the HSE had to go back for planning permission this year. Thankfully, it was granted but it is a disgrace five years later, when the hospital is incredibly busy dealing with a large population, that people are on trolleys, the assessment unit has been closed because of problems with capacity and there is no movement on the new mental health facility. This is completely wrong. The new mental health facility and the extension, which will contain an oncology department as well as acute services and an endoscopy department, are in the capital plan for 2019. When will we see progress on them?
On page 58, the programme for Government states the Government will reduce emergency department overcrowding. That is an awful joke in my city. It is turning into an nightmare. Yesterday, 81 people were lying on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick. Today, 80 people are packed like sardines into the emergency department. The INMO has described it as a small hospital being piled into University Hospital Limerick. Last month, the Minister of Health made a secret dash in and out of the hospital. He avoided hard questions from public representatives and the media but nothing has happened since his visit. In fact, circumstances have worsened. The Government's action to date has been disgracefully inadequate. When will this overcrowding be properly addressed?
As I am sure the Taoiseach and Minister for Health have contended, since 2017 a further 267 beds have been opened in our hospitals to respond to the type of issues the patients, nurses and doctors are dealing with at present. The HSE capital plan, published a number of weeks ago by the Minister for Health, the Taoiseach and I, outlined the plans now funded to increase the number of beds in the health service to just above 11,000. It is good to hear that at least one of the projects to which Deputy O'Loughlin referred is included in the capital plan.
We have put funding in place to increase the number of hospital beds. We have recently made changes to how we pay nurses to ensure we will have staff in place and more beds to deliver better care for patients. I take on board the points the Deputies have made about the need for this work to be commenced and done quickly. I am sure the HSE and the Department of Health will ensure the additional funding I have made available to them is spent quickly.
What John McCartin said on "Claire Byrne Live" last night brings into sharp focus the litany of criminal acts perpetrated against Kevin Lunney and the directors and staff of Quinn Industrial Holdings over a long period. It is against a backdrop of diminished Garda resources, the closure of Garda stations such as the one in Blacklion, reduced Garda hours in Ballyconnell, from a 24-hour to a 12-hour Garda station, and, of course, empty promises of a new Garda station in Bailieborough. Will the Minister for Justice and Equality confirm that the Government will finally listen and act on the consistent calls for enhanced Garda resources, with specialist units in the Border area?
This matter is being given urgent priority not only by the Garda Commissioner and his team but also by the Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, and the PSNI. Last week we had the opportunity to consider in considerable detail the horrific events in Cavan. Garda resources, particularly in the Border area, are kept under constant review by the Garda Commissioner. The Garda Commissioner and his team are most active on the ground in Deputy Smyth's constituency. I assure her and the House that every effort is being made to bring those responsible for the heinous crime to justice at the earliest opportunity.
The programme for Government committed to having a new national planning framework. As the Minister knows, that framework recognises Waterford as a regional city. The local authority has asked the Government to properly support the North Quays development which is very important to the economic development of Waterford city and county and the entire south east. Three years ago the local authorities entered into discussions with a private investor who was willing to put €400 million on the table, contingent on the provision of State funding. To date, we have received no solid commitment on numbers from the Government to ensure the project will proceed. There is a concern that it could slip if the Government's commitment is not put on the table. When will the Government announce the next round of funding from the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund? I know that the Minister visited Waterford recently and saw the site. Will he commit that Government funding will be put on the table to allow the development to proceed in order that we can make Waterford the city it needs to be?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue again. It is an incredibly important project which is part of our vision for the national planning framework for Waterford in increasing the population, density and the role Waterford will continue to play in the region. We made that commitment of funding in the first round of funding from the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund, URDF.
We have made a commitment to provide further funding as we open new rounds. I hope to be able to open the second round of funding from the URDF next month. It will probably run for about three months to allow applications to come in from the local authorities now that they know how the fund works and how to make applications. We can then announce further funding at the beginning of next year. The commitments have been given directly to Waterford regarding the capital project in terms of the amount that has been requested for the overall project, but we need to ensure we will have oversight of how the money will be used in the different phases.
Page 83 of the programme for Government deals with delivering home care supports. I refer to the case of Hannah Donnelly from Drogheda who was admitted to Temple Street hospital in March 2017 for much needed surgery. She has Apert syndrome. Complications arose, as a result of which she has been in hospital for two and a half years. Medical advice given in March 2018 stated the best place for Hannah was at home. The family set about fundraising in the community. They remodelled their home and purchased a wheelchair accessible vehicle.
A business case for 24-7 home care supports was submitted for approval because Hannah's medical case is complex. Recently the family was offered four hours a week transitional care. That is an absolute insult.
Hannah is 18 years old. She is desperate to get home. She has a ten-year old sister at home. She deserves as near as possible quality of life at home. The only thing preventing Hannah going home is the HSE's refusal to fund her home care package. Will the Minister please step in and instruct the HSE to fund that package so that this 18-year old girl, whose picture I am holding up for the Minister to see, can go home to her family? There is a massive campaign locally to get Hannah home for Christmas. Will he please intervene? This is not right and it is not even humane at this stage. The Minister has the power to intervene. I beg him to do it. It costs more, as he knows, to keep Hannah in hospital than it ever would to fund her home care support package. I beg the Minister, please.
All of us are aware as family members and as public representatives of the great care and love that goes into supporting children such as Hannah at their points of great need but every Member will be aware of other families and children who have great health care needs. I know that the HSE, our doctors and nurses and all involved in giving care to those who need it most do their best to treat every case and every issue with great compassion and sensitivity.
It is not appropriate for me on the floor of the House to look to intervene in any particular case. I am sure the Deputy can understand why given the range of difficulties the health services have to deal with every day. I am sure, however, that because she has raised it in the way she has the HSE will be aware of it and will do all it can to make sure that Hannah’s needs and desire to be at home with her family can be met.
There is a commitment on page 127 of the programme for Government to fund additional capacity to meet commuter needs. Yesterday we saw the latest development in the crisis in rail capacity, with Irish Rail asking people to stagger their journeys, to talk to their employers and arrange different working hours. Is this the sum total of Government policy to tackle this crisis?
I wrote to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, at the end of August about this matter. One of his staff wrote back stating: "The operation and provision of services on the rail network are matters for Iarnród Éireann and the National Transport Authority." He is not here today. While I appreciate that it is a very busy and demanding schedule to try to compete with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Deputy Bruton, to launch car charging facilities that are not yet in operation in Marlay Park, will the Minister for Finance to clarify what does the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, see as his role if it is not to do with rail capacity and implementing the programme for Government? What is the Government going to do in the here and now to cater for the commuting misery being suffered by many all over this country not just in commuting to the major cities but also inter-city?
As a former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I can say that Deputy Ross's role is to make sure he can secure the kind of resources needed to ensure that our public transport system can grow and that the capacity of public transport can grow. I take the Deputy's point that there are few things more frustrating than standing at a bus stop and seeing a bus go by that is full or not being able to board a train that is full. I know, however, from my engagement with the Minister that the funding going into public transport is growing and that is due to the efforts of him and his Department. Projects such as the rail centre, the national signal centre that the Minister recently had approved by Cabinet, are needed to increase capacity on public transport and to deal with the needs of commuters that have been highlighted by the Deputy.
The budget is just around the corner and I want the Minister to know that the cost of fuel has gone up because of the trouble in Iran. Despite that, it is almost certain that he is going to increase the carbon tax.
Does the Minister have any comprehension of how it will affect people in rural Ireland? I refer to people living in remote areas who need their car. It will already cost them €4.50 extra to fill their car before the carbon tax is increased at all. Does the Minister have any idea that such people need their cars to go to work, to take their children to school, and to travel to doctor's appointments and hospitals? It will affect hauliers throughout the country and farmers who need their tractors. Does the Minister have any idea how the measure will hurt people and does he realise the price of home heating oil already has increased, before putting it up even further? It will affect the elderly, who we believe will receive no increase in their pension this year. How much more misery will the Government inflict on people in rural Ireland?
I am well aware of the concerns that commuters and, in particular, those who use their cars in rural Ireland have about changes in carbon pricing. I was involved in this debate this time last year and, as we approach budget day again, I am very much aware of the concerns commuters will have, as well as the concerns of people who do not have the kinds of public transport options that people in our larger cities have. Nevertheless, I am equally aware, as are many of the people the Deputy referred to, of the pressing need to change how our economy and country flow in order that we can play our part in responding to the change to the climate taking place in front of us. My commitment and what I am looking to do, subject to approval by the House, in respect of any changes we make to carbon taxation, is that those on the lowest incomes will be on the top of our agenda for how we will support them at a time of change. I understand the Deputy's concerns and why he raised them but we are examining the great challenge of how we can respond to what is now happening to our climate.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is currently issuing letters to more than 60,000 recipients of the contributory State pension, who will receive an increase for a qualified adult. The letter includes a declaration to be signed by the recipient and returned to the Department's control unit within 21 days. The declaration states the undersigned has disclosed truthful information to the Department and that if any information is untrue, he or she will be required to repay the Department or face prosecution. The letter has caused massive upset, panic and fear among some of the most vulnerable people within the State and does not reflect accurately its intended purpose. It does not state there is any flexibility in the timeframe and has caused massive fear. It highlights the poor communication from the Department to people in receipt of social welfare.
Will the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection communicate properly with the 60,000 vulnerable citizens in receipt of the payment, and ensure they are aware of the flexibility and of the true purpose of the letter?
The true purpose of the letter forms part of the control measures we carry out annually to ensure that the limited budget goes to the people who are entitled to receive it. If there is a difficulty with the wording of the letter I will certainly look at it but there is no flexibility. The 21 days allowed to respond to the letter is outlined in the letter-----
The Deputy is out of order.
Seven Deputies have not been reached today, largely because other Deputies took more time than they were supposed to. I apologise to the seven Deputies in question, who will be given priority tomorrow.