Thursday, 10 October 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
This week's budget had a clear focus on Brexit. The cost of insurance is another threat to the viability of many small businesses, community festivals and - increasingly - charitable organisations. Earlier this week, I dealt with the case of a small business that employs approximately 20 people and has seen its insurance premium increase by 150% from €19,000 to €49,600. This money has had to be paid to ensure the business will not have to close. This increase will have ramifications and consequences for hours of employment. I have mentioned one of the many cases that are coming up all over the country. The President signed the Judicial Council Act 2019 on 23 July last. Will the Tánaiste give the House an absolute guarantee that the judicial council will be established and will be up and running by the end of this calendar year? This is necessary to enable it to do its work, which involves addressing awards in this jurisdiction.
We share the concerns outlined by the Deputy regarding the cost of insurance for many businesses, particularly in certain sectors where there are issues with personal injury claims. The Chief Justice outlined in a speech last week that he wishes to have the judicial council in place before the end of the year, subject to conditions, including the necessary resources, being right for its establishment. In this context, I am pleased to see that €1 million has been provided for the judicial council in the budget for next year. We hope it will be in place by the end of the year, with the necessary financial resources also being in place for it to function next year.
Yesterday, the Turkish military invaded northern Syria with the aim of occupying Kurdish areas and attacking the Kurdish-led SDF, which bravely fought and defeated ISIS in the region. The SDF liberated areas under ISIS control, rescued tens of thousands of captured Yazidis and established democratic political structures that respect the rights of minorities. It is now under attack by the second largest army in NATO. We have already seen the human rights violations that the Turkish army has committed against Kurds in south-east Turkey. It is clear that these brutal tactics will be replicated in northern Syria. Turkey's attacks will destabilise the region and hamper the fight against ISIS. This is not completely surprising, given that there are many questions surrounding Turkey's covert support for radical Jihadist groups in the region. Will the Tánaiste condemn the military operation and outline what Ireland's response to that will be?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As I said yesterday, I am deeply troubled by Turkey's announcement yesterday that it had launched a military operation in north-east Syria. I issued a statement yesterday noting that the fight against ISIS made decisive progress earlier this year. I said that any unilateral military action against groups that played a decisive front-line role in the fight against ISIS risked undermining that progress and could lead to further protracted instability and have serious humanitarian consequences. I urged Turkey, as I do again today, to refrain from this action. While we understand Turkey's security concerns regarding its own territory, unilateral military action cannot be condoned. The protection of civilians and respect for international humanitarian law must be paramount. The EU has issued a statement making similar points, which I fully support.
Among the budget documentation released by the Government this week was a report by the OECD on equality budgeting in Ireland. The three recommendations in the report were that we should develop a set of national equality goals and indicators as a performance budgeting framework; that we should expand equality budgeting beyond performance measurements to link to other policies, such as poverty-proofing; and that we should build our capacity to gather analytical data in support of equality budgeting.
In 2017 I brought forward the Genuine Progress Indicators and National Distributional Accounts Bill which passed on Second Stage in this House in March 2018. Some 18 months later, it is one of many Bills trapped in legislative limbo while waiting to progress to Committee Stage. Will the Tánaiste consider the Bill in the light of the OECD's report and the need for equality budgeting? Will he allow it to be passed and enacted?
Back in the day there was a vicious form of corporal punishment known as birching. We heard about a new form of it today. AIB has a project named Project Birch. It is a plan to sell in early 2020 thousands of distressed mortgages secured on family homes. This is a majority State-owned bank. Does the Government stand over this plan? It should stop the sale. Vulture funds should be kept far away from family homes. There are alternatives. Loans could be restructured for those who might be able to pay. For those who will never be able to pay, the properties can be taken into public ownership and given to local authorities, which would mean that people could be kept in their homes knowing that they would be secure as renters. Is the Government prepared to stop the sale and keep family homes out of the hands of vulture funds?
This issue has been raised in the House many times. Our job is to make sure extensive protections are in place to ensure customers' contractual rights are not altered when loans are transferred from one financial organisation to another. That is what we will continue to do. It would not be appropriate for me to speculate on something in the media today.
I refer to an issue I have raised on a number of occasions about the housing crisis and the commitment given in A Programme for a Partnership Government to address it, that is, a voluntary relocation scheme under which people on housing lists or in high pressure areas would be offered the opportunity to relocate to towns and villages in which there is a surplus of accommodation. There should be a scheme to encourage people who wish to move, on a voluntary basis, to towns and villages and allow them to integrate into those societies. The Peter McVerry Trust is very interested in supporting people who would make that move by putting in place supports to help them. Does the Government intend to actively pursue putting in place such a voluntary relocation scheme?
I have been involved with the Peter McVerry Trust on schemes such as this, under which premises have been built or purchased and people who were homeless moved from other counties or cities to new areas successfully. I am not aware that there is a formal scheme to which local authorities can apply, but it something at which we have looked. I will check with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and come back to the Deputy on the matter.
This is a question for the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. I refer to the promise to address homecare waiting lists. We know that 7,200 older people who have been approved for homecare packages are on waiting lists and being denied that right. We also know that many of those on waiting lists are in hospital and that the question of efficiency in hospitals is affected by this. The budget provided for the allocation of an additional 1 million hours, but that is less than one quarter of what is required to clear the waiting lists. How does the Government propose to address the remaining three quarters on waiting lists?
I thank the Deputy. The reality is that if we had four times the amount of money provided for in the budget, we would still not have the personnel required to deliver services. The figure for this year is €52 million. That is why I have committed to developing a statutory homecare scheme to be unveiled in January 2020. Next year the pilot statutory homecare scheme will begin. The only way we will address the waiting lists for home help is by having the scheme underpinned by statute, proper conditions for those who deliver the service, a centralised database to effectively manage the delivery of the service and a regulatory aspect. The statutory scheme is under Sláintecare and is committed to in 2021. In the meantime we have added 1 million home help hours in an attempt to alleviate the issues in hand.
I return to the issue of mental health services . The Inspector of Mental Health Services has made a damning comment on where we are with the services . There has been little or no improvement in the past ten years. The special inquiry in Roscommon made 27 recommendations. My information is that, to date, very few of the recommendations have been put in place. It is also the case that 10,000 people self-harmed last year. The figure includes only those who turned up at hospitals; others do not turn up. When will we take mental health services iseriously and deal with the crisis on our doorstep? The improvement is minimal. We need to take this matter very seriously.
I can assure the Deputy that we are taking it very seriously. This is World Mental Health Day and I am delighted to announce that the mental health telephone line about which I have talked since I became a Minister of State has gone live today. The number is 1800 742 444 which I hope people will promote and put on their phones. It is a service which will direct callers to the most appropriate service. There are 1,027 services the length and breadth of the country funded by the HSE. I am not sure whether people know where they should go in a time of need. The Deputy will be interested in knowing that I have pledged in the budget allocation for next year to make the Rosalie unit a hub in the development of telehealth. As the House knows, there are many other initiatives, to which the Tánaiste made reference, including the initiative aimed at decreasing waiting lists.
I am very disappointed that the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, made a decision yesterday to delay further the granting of the licence for coursing for the 2019-20 season, in spite of the fact that the Irish Coursing Club had prepared a very scientific report which clearly showed that there was no danger to the hare population in allowing coursing to commence this season.
The RHD2 virus has been present in Irish wildlife since 2016 and there is clear scientific evidence that the disease does not transfer from hare to hare. I, therefore, ask the Tánaiste to request the Minister to grant the licence as quickly as possible to allow coursing to commence this year.
I ask that we expedite a resolution of this matter. It is ironic that one of the first reported sightings of hares with RHD2 was in Wexford, given that an open day on North Slob is being advertised by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
I thank Deputies Cahill and O'Keeffe for raising this matter which is of significant interest to a number of Members of the House and many outside it. Deputy Cahill deliberately refuses to acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Madigan, issued the licence but was subsequently confronted by scientific evidence on the RHD2 virus. Her Department and mine, in terms of the expertise of the veterinary laboratory services in Backweston, have worked with the ICC to find a way to restore a licence at the earliest possible date. It way well be a restricted form of licence which will enable us to monitor the development and transmission of the virus between species.
I can assure the Deputy and, more particularly, the coursing fraternity outside the House that every effort is being made by the Minister, Deputy Madigan, and my Department to bring about a successful resolution of this issue.
There are commitments in the programme for Government relating to small family-run businesses, many of which are experiencing significant difficulties with local authorities and the Valuation Office regarding accruals of rates on properties that continue to be rated despite the fact that many of them are no longer in use or are not fit for purpose. The Valuation Office uses the phrase "fit for beneficial use" to describe these properties. I ask that some clear direction be given to local authorities about how these accruals of rates are being dealt with. While I acknowledge we passed a rates Bill in July, this situation is unfair to businesses with properties that they are not using that need to be de-rated. The Valuation Office is not doing this.
As the Deputy is aware, the new rates Bill was enacted in July. It gives local authorities more flexibility in terms of the application of rates. The point of that Bill, and I remember it because I was the Minister when we were designing it initially, was to permit more local input into how rates are designed within certain counties.
The situation pertaining to school transport in Cork South-West this year has been nothing short of a "Carry On" film. Unfortunately, for many people in Ballineen, this "Carry On"-like scenario continues. I welcome the introduction of a larger bus this week but at least ten families are still affected, although there may be more, as there may be families that have not approached my office. I know of at least ten children who are literally stranded with no school bus to get to school. Can the Government get a larger bus than the one introduced this week or else put on a second bus? It is not rocket science and is very easily sorted out.
I am quite familiar with this issue. The Minister of State, Deputy Daly, and Senator Lombard have both raised the issue, which is why there have been efforts to get a larger and more appropriate vehicle to deal with the numbers concerned. I can only assume that these efforts will continue.
My question concerns the national broadband plan. We learned this week that the process has again been stalled. The Taoiseach said that a challenge to the national broadband plan has been brought and has held it up. He said that Imagine provides a service in many parts of rural Ireland and has challenged the intervention area. Sean Bolger of Imagine has said that company is merely informing the Government of its existing and planned commercial investments. He goes on to say that Imagine is merely setting out the data regarding infrastructural development for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which it is required to do under law. This plan, which has been promised since 2012 by this Government and the previous one, is being held up. What is happening with the national broadband plan? Are the tendering process and the gap model completely banjaxed? Where is it at?
I know Deputy Stanley does not support this project but I can assure him that we are proceeding with it and are carrying out the necessary due diligence. As he rightly noted, one of the elements one must do is open the map to allow other applicants to make a submission, which was done. That was closed at the end of September. Any application lodged by a company will be assessed, as is required. We will then proceed to make decisions with regard to completing the due diligence and state aid elements and sign the contracts at that point. There is no undue delay. This is being proceeded with on target.
When the Government set up Irish Water, it did so with the rationale that it was needed so that it could borrow off balance sheet to make the necessary investment in its water infrastructure. That clearly has not happened. Irish Water is charging punitive connection charges and is not providing a service. What is the role of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government regarding the prioritisation of water schemes? Athlone in County Westmeath has been told it will be three years before a much-needed upgrade will happen despite the fact that water is being turned off two or three nights per week because the treatment plant simply does not have the capacity to deal with the demands placed on it. What role has the Department with regard to the prioritisation of schemes? Will the Tánaiste refer this to the relevant Minister, who can revert to me to see whether we can accelerate this scheme?
As the Deputy knows only too well, this House changed the model for Irish Water, so the plan to ensure that much of the borrowing could have been off-balance sheet no longer applies. He understands or should understand only too well why. It is a different model now. It is still a much better model than what obtained previously. I must ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to get back to the Deputy about the prioritisation of schemes. These are primarily decisions for Irish Water but, obviously, it must make decisions that, by and large, are consistent with the national planning framework.
The programme for Government commits to developing the blue economy as a priority. The fishing industry is of major importance to the economy of Wexford. It is one of the most dangerous occupations. There is a duty to protect our fishing industry, which has had a number of tough winters. Brexit poses an existential threat to parts of our fishing industry. People are very concerned about their livelihoods. I ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine or Tánaiste to tell me the specific measures that will be introduced to safeguard the livelihoods of fishermen in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the fisheries sector is high likely to be a very fractious manifestation of a hard Brexit. Our exposure to UK fishing waters is quite pronounced in terms of our most valuable stock, 60% of which is caught in UK waters along with 40% of our second most valuable stock. One third of our overall fishing effort takes place in UK territorial waters so a no-deal Brexit is a real challenge for the sector. As a consequence, under the budget, a provision in tranche one, and I emphasise that it is in tranche one, of the €650 million project involves an identification of the fishing industry as being in need of a significant financial assistance. I am also working at EU level with eight like-minded member states that share our analysis of the fishing industry and have been informing the Barnier task force in terms of ensuring we inextricably link the resolution of the broader trade environment with the fishing industry so it is part of the overall resolution, rather being dealt with on a silo basis.
Page 40 of the programme for Government talks about reducing poverty levels by supporting an increase in the minimum wage to €10.50 per hour over the next five years. It states that the Government will rely on the annual recommendation of the Low Pay Commission regarding the level of adjustment every year. There was no mention of the minimum wage in the contributions of either the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance to the budget. I understand that this is the first time that a recommendation by the Low Pay Commission has not been accepted by Government. This has come as a terrible blow and shock to the 137,000 people on the minimum wage and their families who are struggling. The Low Pay Commission does not allude or refer to the words "delay" or "defer". It recommends that the Government increase the minimum wage by €0.30.
It says quite clearly that the Government is hiding behind the issue of Brexit. The commission acknowledges that in the event of a hard Brexit, the Government may need to review the recommended rate, but that it should still implement the 30 cent increase. Will the Tánaiste agree to raise it as requested?
There is no difference in view between the commission's recommendation and the Government's decision. We accept that decision but the commission has made it clear that the recommended increase is subject to achieving a Brexit deal. The Government has supported that recommendation this week.
A single mother in my constituency has to bring her very ill child to a Dublin hospital once or sometimes twice a month and is struggling to get any assistance. Numerous people are in this position. They are ill and in receipt of illness benefit or some other allowance, but receive no assistance for the travel they have to undertake to attend hospital appointments. There used to be a mobility allowance and other schemes for this but they have all been taken away. There was nothing in the budget for these people. I want a commitment from the Government at this point. Can something be done to assist people in these circumstances who are struggling?
I raise the issue of the missing millions in the education capital budget. Last year, there was a projected education capital budget of €941 million. This year, following discussions with the Tánaiste's colleagues, we expected a small increase on that to €942 million. However, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, was not able to deliver on the budget, and in his discussions with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, it was reduced to €922 million. What happened between both Ministers? This is coming at a time the number of permanent school places provided by the Department are reducing, an overspend on sites has been highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the cost per sq. m of schools has increased dramatically. New projects in further education are being cancelled throughout the country, including Dunboyne college of further education in my constituency. Lismullen national school has also been waiting a long time. Given these circumstances, why was the education capital budget cut by the Government at the last minute?
I wanted to raise the same issue. We had a budget debate in this House, and it then emerged the following day that there was a gaping hole in the capital budget. How did this happen? Young, growing constituencies such as mine will be severely hit by this. We heard the argument that it is about the front line versus capital. The front line is the building in which one goes to school. Four school buildings in Dublin West need to be repaired because of the Western Buildings Systems fiasco, namely Luttrellstown community college, St. Patrick's national school, Gaelscoil Thulach na nÓg and Broombridge Educate Together national school, ETNS. Will they be repaired? Will Pelletstown ETNS, Edmund Rice college, Cabra community college, and Danu community special school, which were all promised by the Taoiseach, go ahead or will they be cut? This is a country that is refusing to collect taxes from Apple.
My question relates to the urgently needed gambling regulations. I am raising this on the back of the programme that aired on TG4 last night about Tony O'Reilly. I am particularly interested in online regulations and those relating to youths and vulnerable adults. What is the status of the gambling regulation Bill and when will it come before the House?
The Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill 2019 is currently going through the House and is on Report Stage at the moment. However, I think the Deputy is referring to separate legislation, which is not due this session.
A total of 6,480 children are waiting for various treatments or assessments in the CHO 7 area, of which my constituency of Dublin South-West has the highest proportion. It would be appropriate to send a message to the families waiting for those assessments on World Mental Health day, particularly to the many parents who are going through the courts to try to get an assessment. They believe they will then get the supports they need. Unfortunately, children are not getting these supports because of key shortages and staffing cuts in the area. The waiting list is getting longer and, unfortunately, many people do not want to work in that area because of the problems in it. Can the Minister of State give a commitment that he will look at this area? I have raised this matter frequently over the past 12 months.
-----the key staff that are missing. He should try to do something about it rather than giving us the same bland answer, that the Government is looking into it, all the time. We need early intervention which is not happening here.
We are much more than lucky. Last year's budget committed to 100 additional therapists to deal with this specific issue. That recruitment is finalised and those 100 therapists are in place, so we expect that to have an impact. Furthermore, as the Tánaiste mentioned earlier, 1,000 additional community posts, which will include many therapists, will also be provided next year as a result of the Sláintecare budget.
Today is World Mental Health Day, and the Minister of State earlier referenced the HSE's mental health helpline. That phone number is not a replacement for the face-to-face care people need, and should never be advertised as such by anyone, though I am not suggesting that is what the Minister of State was doing. My fear is that that helpline will refer people to waiting lists. It is supposed to tell people about the supports and services available but we have been hearing in this Chamber and all through the budget debate that the services are not available. What are the people answering the phone going to tell people with mental ill-health who are distressed and have nowhere else to go? My colleague, Deputy Buckley, spoke about this subject with passion earlier because he knows about it first-hand. Where are these people when they ring the helpline? Where are they going to be directed? Are they going to be directed to a waiting list? They are already desperate and they do not need to be directed to a waiting list.
I have stated repeatedly that I do not know how anyone in a mentally distressed state can know what organisation to turn to, and whether they should go to Alone, Aware, Jigsaw, Pieta House, or CAMHS. How are they to know who does what or where to go? Some 1,027 different services are funded by the HSE, and they are trying to promote themselves individually with flyers and brochures about their services. That phone number, 1800 742 444, has been established through the National Ambulance Service and went live today. I would appreciate it if Deputies would promote that number, as it will give people in need a direction and an opportunity to be advised on where to go when they need that help. It is important that that infrastructure is there to give people guidance on where to reach out when they are reaching out. It is not a panacea but it is an essential tool.
Can the Minister of State give any indication as to when the vacant posts of occupational therapist and home-care personnel will be filled in counties Carlow and Kilkenny? There is a significant backlog and apparently there are difficulties in getting people to fill the positions. Will the Minister of State allocate the services of other counties to ensure the people of counties Carlow and Kilkenny can receive the services they require immediately? It is a big issue.
I do not have the local information sought. On homecare services, I referred to the statutory scheme and what we were planning to do to address the lack of personnel. The recruitment of 100 additional therapists has just been completed and will have an impact. I do not know offhand how many are in the Deputy’s area, but if he wants me to find out, I will follow up on the matter for him.