Thursday, 3 October 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
We move to questions on promised legislation, including the questions carried forward from yesterday. We have 26 Members offering so our success in getting through this will depend on Deputies sticking to one minute and on having brief answers.
I and many other Deputies have raised with the Tánaiste the issue of home help hours. The Tánaiste and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, keep telling us there is extra money going into the service, yet the number of people on waiting lists are increasing. There are 7,300 people on national waiting lists for home help hours and it is causing massive delays in our health service. The Minister of State at the Department of Health with special responsibility for mental health and older people, Deputy Jim Daly, fessed up about this on Tuesday when he said he was ashamed and embarrassed any time he met somebody on the street. Does the Tánaiste share that sense of shame and embarrassment about those waiting lists? Will the Government get to the bottom of these delays and deal with them once and for all?
The waiting lists are too long. Many people who need, want and should get home help are not getting sufficient home help hours. That is something the Government wants to correct. We are putting significantly more money into home supports each year. I can reel off the figures for the period from 2015 until 2019 for the Deputy if he wants but close to €150 million of extra expenditure has been provided in that time. There has also been a significant increase in demand, however. We are seeing many more elderly people who want to live at home and need supports. They are getting family support and deserve and need the financial support of the State to do that. We will continue to put more money into this area to try to reduce the waiting lists.
Last night, RTÉ showed the documentary "No Stone Unturned", an excellent documentary that exposes the depth of collusion between the Ulster Volunteer Force, UVF, killers of six men in a bar in Loughinisland, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, RUC, and British intelligence agencies. The Loughinisland Justice Group has campaigned for many years for truth and justice for their loved ones and against state collusion. It won a recent case in the High Court of Justice in Belfast, where the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland had to apologise for failing to investigate these killings. Like all families who are bereaved in the conflict, they are entitled to access to truth about the deaths of their loved ones. There have been numerous agreements, from the Good Friday Agreement up to the more recent Stormont House Agreement, on having legacy mechanisms put in place, but the British Government continues to block these legacy mechanisms. While the Assembly is not working, and Deputies may throw that at Sinn Féin, those agreements and their legacy mechanisms can be implemented regardless of whether the Assembly is up and running. These families need to get access to truth and the British Government is standing in the way of that. Will the Tánaiste use his influence to ensure they get access to that truth?
These families deserve the truth. This was an appalling attack and I am sure many of the families still carry the scars of that. That is why we need to have legacy structures up and running, consistent with what was agreed in the Stormont House Agreement. I continue to prioritise this issue in my conversations with the British Government and I continue to raise it with the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. There are many families from different backgrounds who deserve truth and justice, if that is possible, through the legacy structures that have been agreed. We need to get on and do that but to do so legislation needs to be passed in Westminster. That is controversial because in many ways the British Parliament is finding it difficult to pass any legislation as the British Government does not have a majority. We will continue to strongly advocate for the progression of the legacy structures, consistent with what was agreed in the Stormont House Agreement.
We recently saw the collapse of the Thomas Cook Group, which placed 22,000 jobs at risk and resulted in the repatriation of more than 150,000 holidaymakers, the biggest ever peacetime repatriation. The cost of that operation is estimated to be greater than the sum Thomas Cook Group sought to maintain those jobs and keep the company afloat. We are likely to see many similar cases, maybe some of a similar scale, in just four weeks' time if a no-deal Brexit becomes a reality. Clearly, the British Government was not prepared for that eventuality but are we prepared? Do we have a decision-making mechanism to immediately support companies that are under that pressure in four weeks' time? Do we have access to liquid cash that would be able to support such companies? The Taoiseach told me last week he would much prefer early intervention to sustain jobs than to seek to support unemployed people or to find replacement jobs. We do not know what the mechanism is yet. When will the Government spell that out for us?
The Deputy will get a lot of clarity on that on Tuesday because it is budget day. I do not want to talk about the budget too openly today for obvious reasons but we are preparing a budget for a no-deal Brexit. That means preparing a budget for virtually no growth next year and it also means ensuring we set a significant amount of money aside to deal with the kinds of issues the Deputy has raised. The Taoiseach is right that we should spend money in those difficult circumstances to protect jobs, rather than to accept their loss and support people through social welfare. That is why we will look to support State agencies that can protect jobs and businesses through the disruption of a no-deal Brexit as best we can.
I believe that for the past six months, the Government, specifically the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, have been in breach of their legal obligation to produce audited accounts for the Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company and to lay those accounts before this House. The transfer of Dún Laoghaire harbour into the ownership of the county council under the Harbours Act 2015 happened exactly one year ago to the day. Six months after that transfer, there is a legal requirement for those accounts to be published, given to the Minister and laid before this House. Some six months to the day since that was required, it still has not happened. The Government and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council are in breach of a law the Government wrote. I want this urgently looked into because this carry-on has gone on for far too long in Dún Laoghaire Harbour.
I want to ask the Tánaiste and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, a question. As the Tánaiste knows, farmers and their families spent eight weeks outside the meat plants. An agreement was reached somewhere in Kildare whereby the Minister would set up a task force. What is the delay? That was a month ago and the task force has not been populated yet. Above all, we need an independent chairman there also to ensure that task force has teeth. We do not need all the usual suspects on it. I want to know when the task force will be populated. I also want to know about the injunctions that were promised to be lifted from all those affected when the last protesters left the plants. Why are there still injunctions in place against two men in a Longford plant, one of whom is a Fine Gael councillor? What is going on? The task force needs to be convened immediately and some bit of interest needs to be shown in the farmers of rural Ireland.
The Minister has written to the various organisations asking for their nominees. He will outline the details in respect of the independent chairman. I cannot answer the question on the two people against whom injunctions allegedly remain in place.
I appeal to the Tánaiste to intervene immediately to have additional special needs assistants posts approved for Scoil Aonghusa special national school in Cashel, County Tipperary. Six children with special needs are at home today, unable to avail of education, because there are not enough special needs assistants at the school. The school has places, teachers and transport available but there are not enough special needs assistants available. The school applied for additional posts as far back as last March and there is still no decision on those additional posts today.
These children are entitled to education. I appeal to the Tánaiste to contact the Department and to have these posts approved.
I welcome the fact that the UK Government is moving towards regulatory alignment for agricultural and manufactured products in a possible Brexit deal, but we need other regulatory alignments. I cite the example of regulations for the environment, which knows no borders. Do we know whether regulatory alignment will apply to the likes of the habitats directive, the water framework directive and the nitrates directive? Will those directives be justiciable on all of this island via the Court of Justice of the European Union? The waters of the Shannon rise in Fermanagh. The water that arrives in a house in Dundalk crosses the Border three or four times on its journey from its source. Slurry coming from certain Northern Ireland farms will be spread in the South. Are we certain that this regulatory alignment is also now agreed?
I am slow to get into too much of that detail, but I note that if we have full alignment then we have to have a level playing-field and agreement on the rules of the Single Market. We obviously cannot have farmers in Northern Ireland producing food according to a totally different set of rules and regulations to farmers south of the Border and expect there to be no requirement for Border checks. Regulatory alignment means that we operate by the same rulebook on both sides of the Border. That goes beyond rules of origin and labelling rules. It applies across the board. That is part of the UK's proposal, but nothing is agreed yet. We simply have a proposal that is the focus of discussion and hopefully will soon be under serious negotiation. As I said earlier, it is not the basis of what an agreement will be if it happens, but it certainly needs to be the basis of a discussion.
The Tories know very little about Ireland and they care much less. People across the country are starting to realise that. We have realised that because of the Border they have an influence on whether or not we can move people, products and services across Ireland, and that they can also determine whether we have a peaceful future in this country or not. Brexit has highlighted in flashing neon lights the influence the Tories have and how they determine our future here in Ireland. The opinion polls have shown that for the first time in history, the majority of people in the North of Ireland and in the South of Ireland believe that the best solution to this is an all-Ireland solution. However, there is no Government planning for this at all. A new Ireland forum would provide an opportunity for people across the 32 counties of various civil and political views to work in partnership and map out how Irish people can determine our future together, without negative influence from London. Will the Minister develop such a forum?
First, I note that we are trying to find all-island solutions to the challenges posed by Brexit. That is exactly what we have been doing for almost three years now. That is why we are looking for alignment; to protect the functioning of an all-island economy. That is why we are trying to protect the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions, even though those institutions are not up and running right now. The all-island approach is central to finding solutions to the challenges Brexit throws up. However, we also have to recognise that there are different perspectives on this island, particularly in Northern Ireland, and we also have to listen to and understand the concerns and fears of unionism as well as nationalism. That is what we are trying to do. I do not believe that now is the time to set up a forum on Irish unity, which is how this would be seen. There is already enough tension and difficulty between communities. There is a lot of fear and we need to provide certainty and calm. That does not mean we will not think about these issues in the future.
I came to this House in 1981. Today I want to raise one of the most serious issues since that time, that of home help hours. I know the Deputy leaders raised it but I am focusing on my county. The number of people waiting has gone up from 161 in January to 226. When the director general of the HSE was appointed, he said he was going to wipe out the deficit. That meant he would wipe it out at the expense of the old, the weak and the vulnerable. I know the Tánaiste said earlier that more money is going into it. That is no good to the people I represent, such as the 94 year old and the 92 year old in Donegal who were approved 20 weeks ago but have still not had their care hours implemented. I ask the Tánaiste not to tell us that there will be money in the budget. Something has to be done quickly. I suggest that people now have to die before their neighbours are allocated home help hours. I hope I am wrong. I ask the Government not to let that happen during our watch, when there are billions of euro available in the country. Let us look after those who helped to build up our country over the years. I am extremely concerned about all of these cases. Could the Tánaiste at least suggest to the relevant Minister that he should meet with interested Deputies during the course of next week, budget or no budget?
The Minister concerned is more than aware of this issue and has already met Deputies to discuss it on various occasions, but I am sure he would be happy to meet them again. As I said when answering this question earlier, we are significantly increasing resources in this area, but demand is also significantly increasing. We will continue to try to improve the number of help hours.
I want to raise the housing crisis in my constituency with the Tánaiste again. There are 170 people in emergency accommodation in Louth and 111 in Meath. It is unprecedented. We also have a housing waiting list that is heading towards the 5,000 mark. It has never even approached that before. Nobody is coming off the housing waiting list. It just increases all the time. Meanwhile, as I have raised before, we have 50 acres of council-owned landbanks in County Louth that are lying fallow, unused in any social or affordable housing building programme. The Minister has the data on the council landbanks because he had it collated last year. Despite the number of times I have raised the issue, the Government has still not released funding. Doing so will only make a small dent in the numbers but it will make a dent and it will help those people through the misery of the housing crisis. When will the Government roll out funding for the building of social and affordable homes on council-owned landbanks?
The Government is rolling out billions of euro of expenditure to do that right now. That is why we are going to deliver an extra 10,000 social houses this year. I can ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy on the specific cases she raises. From my experience in that Department, the delivery of social housing is primarily a capacity issue rather than a funding issue. That is self-evident when one looks at the increased budgets for housing in the last two years. I will ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy on that directly.
I have a question to the Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works and flood relief, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran. I know he has committed to travelling to Donegal in the near future to meet with residents of Ellen Park in Buncrana with regard to funding for flood defences along the Crana river. As the Minister of State saw, very serious damage was done in August 2017 and Elm Park was very badly flooded as well as Cockhill Celtic Football Club and many businesses and homes in the area along the Crana river. The flood review has identified the need for a flood defence there but it needs to be funded. Can the Minister of State confirm today that he will be coming to Donegal in the near future? Can he also confirm that he will look at the need for funding for this project and several others in Donegal, which has experienced extensive flooding? I note this particularly in light of the storm coming this evening. As the Minister of State well knows, the residents will be exceptionally nervous at such a time and it is essential that funding is allocated to this.
My question is also addressed to the Minister, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, and concerns flooding. It is only 3 October. As the Minister of State knows from his own part of the country, there is widespread flooding. Several farmers are already in major difficulty. People are extremely nervous. I live in the real world and I know that the Minister of State cannot stop the rain from falling. However, I note that the rainfall has been incessant and its pattern has completely changed. The total rainfall of two or three weeks in years gone can now happen in half a day.
This is the reality. On this basis, is it time we changed the goalposts? We will have huge problems unless we tackle this matter head on. Many people will be left in distress. In County Roscommon, 35 or 40 farmers near Lough Funshinagh who had never been affected now cannot farm. They cannot do their daily business because roads are blocked. Houses and sheds will be in serious bother because they will be flooded. We need some type of action very quickly.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. With regard to the Donegal region, Deputy McConalogue knows I was up there when the flooding took place and he knows the level of funding we secured for the local authority. We announced a great number of schemes that are being led by local authorities. Since then, I have asked the local authorities engineers to speed up the process of delivering the schemes. Given the number of schemes already on their books, it would be impossible for local authorities to secure those people's homes merely by being given more funding. The funding is there but they do not have the resources to do the work. We have to be fair to the local authorities by letting them do the work they are doing under the scheme we have announced. They have appointed engineers and are getting on with the job. I will visit Deputy McConalogue's area very shortly and we are fixing a date. We have a date in mind and I will let the Deputy know in due course.
To respond to Deputy Eugene Murphy, what course can we change? In the past two months, 450 mm of rain fell in the Athenry area. Other parts of the country had 220 mm or 250 mm of rain. Since I came into Government we have announced €1 billion in funding. No Government in the history of the State has announced such money to protect people. We announced 95 schemes. We appointed engineers and consultants. We have gone through the planning process. In some cases, I will hand back money at the end of this year because of people objecting to the delivery of schemes. Take the Tánaiste's area of Cork. A total of €200 million that was to be invested in the area has faced objections.
On many occasions, I have called for improved public transport for the Border region and specifically Cavan, Monaghan and Meath. Numerous Deputies have called for a rail line to connect Dublin and Navan. I have often called for the reopening of the rail line from Navan to Kingscourt. The rail line exists so this is not about building new rail line. It is about improving timelines for commuters. The vast majority of people living in Cavan, Monaghan and the Border region need connectivity to the capital city because, unfortunately, they must commute every day. I opened the Meath Chronicleto see that a Fine Gael councillor is applauding the fact Irish Rail will begin lifting the tracks to replace them with a greenway. This is not very ambitious for commuters. It is not very ambitious for public transport. It is certainly not very ambitious for climate action. I have asked the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport for a feasibility study. Will the Tánaiste and the Government ensure no rail lines are lifted? It is terrible.
I wish to raise an issue with regard to the Disability Act, the disability appeals office and disability compliance officers. A very serious case has arisen and I do not want to mention names on the floor of the Dáil. A complaint was made in March and the disability compliance officer made a recommendation. A family was waiting for disability services and the compliance officer outlined a schedule of dates that was agreed with the HSE regarding commitments and therapies. The family did not take the case to the disability appeals office because they believed the dates would be met given that the compliance officer had agreed them the HSE. Of course, the dates were not met; as with everything in the disability sector there was total disarray. When the family went to the appeals officer under the Act they were told they were too late and that they would have to start the process again. Surely to God it is a disgrace that a compliance officer, as one arm of the State, states the dates have been agreed and then those dates are dismissed by another arm of the State.
It sounds like a case where mistakes were made and a family suffered as a result. I ask the Deputy to send me on the details and I will make sure the Minister of State with responsibility for disability gets a copy of it.
The land development agency Bill is promised legislation that will have a bearing on making available land for building houses. At what stage does it now stand? Have the heads been cleared and is it ready to come before the House?
Licensed hauliers feel they are very exposed to a no-deal Brexit. The budget for 2020 should not make the situation worse for the sector. It asks that we do not increase carbon tax or at least that we provide for its offset for licensed hauliers. The sector also asks for measures to be introduced to reduce fuel costs for licensed hauliers by doubling the rebate level allowed under the diesel rebate scheme from 7.5 cent to 15 cent, reducing the floor at which the rebate starts from €1 to 85 cent and not increasing motor tax, VRT or other taxes on the licensed haulage sector.
The first thing to say about hauliers is they are very well served by the representative body and its president, Verona Murphy. The Deputy is right to say that potentially Brexit will create significant disruption in a no-deal context. I encourage all businesses linked to the haulage sector to take the advice available to them to ensure their paperwork is in place for the consequences of a no-deal Brexit and the changes in trading conditions that would flow from it. We are working closely with the sector but with regard to decisions on the budget the Deputy will have to wait until next week to see.
For the 2017 to 2018 fuel season 31,565 people living in Ireland received the winter fuel payment from England. For some who do not qualify for the fuel allowance in this State it is the only financial support they receive towards their fuel costs. I have been raising concerns with regard to this payment with the Minister for a number of months. Twice in the past week I submitted questions to the Minister on this issue but twice I received a reply that did not answer the question. It is a massive concern for the more than 30,000 people living in this State who receive the payment. Will the winter fuel payment continue to be paid to people in this State if a deal is reached between Britain and the EU 27 and if there is a no-deal Brexit? A simple "Yes" or "No" answer will suffice.
I would like to allow the line Minister to give the Deputy a full answer. Certainly my understanding is that under the memorandum of understanding for the common travel area and the omnibus legislation we passed social welfare payments and supports will continue as they have been. I do not want to say this definitively. If the Deputy has asked questions of the Minister I would like her to give him the answer.
Page 67 of the programme for Government refers to ensuring support for those in crisis with regard to mental health services. Last weekend, a 16 year old was admitted to the emergency department of University Hospital Waterford. He suffers from autism and was admitted after a very serious incident arose. He spent 40 hours in the emergency department, 26 of which were spent on a chair with a blanket over his head to block out noise and sound. Another 11 hours were spent on a trolley. No CAMHS inpatient bed or adult bed was available for him. He was finally seen by a child psychiatrist who had to write six different referrals with regard to various child inpatient beds throughout the country. There are only 72 inpatient beds in the country and an average of 43 of them are active at any one time.
Does the Tánaiste believe that this is ensuring support in crisis? Is it not possible to put a bed manager in place rather than wasting a child psychiatrist's time writing so many referrals?
In this area there has been enormous pressure from the perspective of recruitment and funding. The HSE has successfully recruited 114 assistant psychologists and 20 psychologists in primary care. Ten new posts for advanced nurse practitioners have been specifically directed to child and adolescent mental health services. We are recruiting in this area and investing much more in it because of the kinds of cases the Deputy has just outlined.
Phil Ní Sheaghdha, the general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, has described the trolley situation as escalating beyond crisis. September was the worst month this year. Last year, the winter initiative was not published until winter was well under way. We know winter is coming. I ask the Tánaiste to confirm it will be published before winter.
I wish to raise the issue of transport in my constituency of Kildare North. Since schools returned Maynooth has been at a virtual standstill, with traffic worse this year than any previous year. It has been mooted that the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Transport Infrastructure Ireland will examine the feasibility of a second motorway interchange at Maynooth. I ask the Tánaiste to ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to prioritise that project and revert to me with an update.
The spectre of unmet housing needs faces us both here in the Chamber and in our constituencies. Until meaningful intervention is taken on affordable and social housing, 40% of people have to rent and that is if they can actually get a house or an apartment to rent. Rents are increasing all the time, particularly in Kildare which is a commuter county. Rent pressure zones, RPZs, were introduced to try to control rents. They were welcome as an effort to contain the problem. They were spread throughout electoral districts. However, in Kildare, Monasterevin has been moved from one area to another. I submitted several parliamentary questions about this, but the Department refuses to allow Monasterevin to be included in an RPZ. Rents are increasing in the town all the time. Athy is in a separate electoral area. There has been a refusal to add Athy to the RPZs. I appeal to the Tánaiste to include Monasterevin and Athy in the RPZs.
A consultation on the winter initiative is under way. It will be published when it is ready and the sooner the better for obvious reasons. I do not have an exact date.
I will ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come back to Deputy Lawless on his issue.
I was the person who introduced RPZs. It is really important to apply rent pressure zones on the basis of data and not on the basis of political pressure. I do not mean that in any kind of negative way in terms of the Deputy's question. The Residential Tenancies Board provides the recommendations which are purely driven by the data on rent inflation and how rents compare with the national average. That is what determines whether an area falls within a rent pressure zone. Approximately two thirds of rental properties are now in rent pressure zones. In a town like Monasterevin, if the numbers determine it, rent pressure zone status will be triggered.