Thursday, 17 October 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I want to raise the issue of a documentary which was aired on RTÉ 1 on 5 and 6 October.
I appreciate that the Tánaiste may not be aware of it as he has been extremely busy. It concerned the sad story of the late Eileen Kenny, who was first diagnosed with cancer in 2008. Following surgery and chemotherapy, she received the all-clear in 2009. A follow-up scan confirmed this in February 2010. Ms Kenny had a scan in 2012 but she was never told the result of that scan, which showed a clear recurrence of the disease. Ms Kenny had no scans between 2010 and 2012. She should have started treatment in February 2012 but it did not start for a further eight months. She settled a medical negligence claim and received an apology from the treating consultant oncologist but the family is bitterly disappointed with the response from the Irish Medical Council. Could the Tánaiste bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Health and ensure he will make contact with the family and review the decision of the Irish Medical Council?
I am always very cautious about replying on the details of an individual case, particularly one as serious as the one the Deputy has just raised. I did not see the programme and I am not familiar with the case but I will certainly commit to raising it with the Minister for Health. I will try to revert to the Deputy with a detailed answer.
This morning, we had the revised text of the Irish protocol for the withdrawal agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom. We welcome it. We will parse it and examine it in detail to make sure it protects the Good Friday Agreement, our peace process and the all-Ireland economy, including the North–South economy.
One concern articulated in recent times was that of a unionist veto. We see from the revised text that it will be up to the British Government to notify the EU institutions in regard to the process of consent, yet it will be for the Assembly to practise that consent. The text states the consent of the Assembly is required for the provisions to continue. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 states that if 30 Members petition the Assembly expressing their concern about a matter that is to be voted on by the Assembly, the vote on the matter shall require cross-community support. This translates to a unionist veto. Can the Tánaiste assure this House that this provision will not pertain in relation to the issue of Assembly consent?
The straight answer to that question is "Yes". The purpose of the consent mechanism, which Mr. Michel Barnier rightly described as a long-term democratic support mechanism - every four years, or potentially every eight years, depending on how people vote and the number who vote to extend arrangements, if they do that - is to ensure that Northern Ireland will not be kept in any arrangement against its will. The text is also framed in a way that ensures it will be a majority in the Assembly that will make the decision. The provisions are made very clearly in Article 19A of the agreement made today.
This morning, Professor John FitzGerald said Irish households will spend between €25 billion and €75 billion over the next 30 years to retrofit cold homes. The vast bulk of resources will come from householders' own pockets. At present, we do not have the skills to do what is required so households that want to be climate friendly and reduce their carbon footprint simply cannot do so. We have nobody to advise on how to go about it. We had a public meeting recently with Professor FitzGerald and he explained in detail how this is a massive problem. We do not have Dermot Bannons to advise people, unless, of course, they have €100,000 or more to invest in a whole-house refit. In the context of thousands of young people unemployed and sitting at home, when does the Government propose to take action to create apprenticeships, training opportunities and jobs in this most vital sector for those who want to respond and reduce their carbon footprint? The Government will not help them.
The Deputy will be aware that retrofitting will be a major part of the journey. We need to see a tenfold increase in the scale of retrofitting by 2030. Obviously, Professor FitzGerald is indicating we need to go beyond that. That will represent less than 1% of GDP, large and all as it is. Therefore, we will be able to accommodate what is proposed. The approach the Government is taking is to initiate in 2020 an aggregated model in the midlands, where I am confident, given other difficulties in the region, we will be able to attract the skills to deliver on scale. I have been working with the regional skills forum in the region to identify the training needs to support such an approach. Following the move in the midlands, we will extend the initiative nationwide. I agree with the Deputy on this. One of the key challenges for the Government has been the expansion of apprenticeships from the traditional 27 roles to 100. That is being rolled out. This is an area in which there will be scope for new traineeships and apprenticeships.
I wish to ask the Tánaiste about the proposed review of income thresholds to qualify for social housing. Thousands are being discriminated against because of their income. They are lucky enough to earn a certain amount but they are being discriminated against because of it as they are being told they cannot apply for social housing. Over the past five or six years, thousands have been knocked off the housing list because they earn an income above the threshold. The review has been going on for the past two years. When will it conclude?
I am well aware of that review. The debate on the appropriate threshold for gaining access to social housing is ongoing. It is obviously linked to the questions of affordability and income. I do not have a date but I know the review is under way. I am pretty sure it is close to being concluded. I will ask the Minister to revert to the Deputy directly.
The recent daily reports by the Irish Prison Service on the prison population, who number approximately 4,000, indicate very serious overcrowding, particularly in the women's prisons, including Dóchas and the one in Limerick. They may be at a capacity of 125%. Similarly, the men's prisons, such as Mountjoy, are very close to capacity. Unfortunately, where individuals have to be imprisoned, perhaps they could be held in humane and decent conditions. I did not notice any significant increase in the prisons Vote in the overall justice Vote in the recent budget. Is this a matter the Government is prepared to take action on?
I have a detailed note on female prison overcrowding. Maybe I could send it across to the Deputy rather than read it out. The Government is aware of the issue. We are somewhat fortunate in this country in that our percentage of the population in prison compares very well with that in most other countries. That is the way we want it but there are some overcrowding issues. We are responding to those. I will send the Deputy a detailed note on it.
I want to raise an issue of unfairness and discrimination against men and women, but mainly men, over 70 who drive school buses and perhaps smaller minibuses transporting autistic children. The companies are contracted to the Department of Education and Skills. The drivers are barred from driving at 70 years of age. I agree there should be medical tests and eye tests twice per year but what is occurring is complete discrimination against people of 70. It is ageism at its worst. The drivers are well able to drive for private work. They can bring schoolchildren to matches or swimming classes but cannot bring them to and from school. The companies are finding it very difficult to get drivers. The drivers very often have considerable driving experience and are very careful and prudent. This matter should be examined by both the Department of Education and Skills in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport because what is occurring is discriminatory in the extreme.
The main objective of a carbon tax should be to get people to change their behaviour, particularly as regards home heating. Does the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment accept that a major problem for many people is that they cannot afford to avail of the grant schemes because of how they operate, with substantial amounts of money needed up front? The Minister has promised a pay-as-you-go-type scheme and to reform the warmer homes scheme, which is overly restrictive. Will he follow through on those promises and when can we expect developments in respect of both schemes?
I am glad to say that, in the 2020 budget, we doubled the provision for the warmer homes scheme compared with the 2019 provision. It is the scheme that provides 100% retrofitting free of charge-----
-----to people who are on the fuel scheme, including pensioners and those on social welfare payments long term who earn less than €100 per week in addition to their pensions and social welfare payments. We also assigned €20 million to the roll-out of a new aggregated model. This is the first test of a new approach. It will be piloted in the midlands and build on a core of social homes. It is intended to expand-----
They are grant schemes. They will be supported and will use a suite a measures. We are moving towards an aggregated model that will offer easier pay. The current grant scheme, approximately 30% of which applies to those who are not eligible for the warmer homes scheme, will continue.
Yesterday, Family Carers Ireland protested outside the gates of Leinster House. I went outside to meet its members. They are on their knees. The word they used was "caged". They feel caged in their own homes when it comes to home support hours and respite hours. They feel there is a postcode lottery for services. Rural isolation and desperation were also mentioned.
Home carers who apply for the carer's allowance are means tested, which results in just one in five carers receiving the allowance. The income disregard in the budget remains at €332.50 per week for a single person. This has left carers upset and angry. While they welcome the extra 3.5 hours that a carer can work, he or she may well be penalised, as the income disregard did not increase. Is this something that the Government can revisit? The opportunity to work an extra 3.5 hours is welcome, but not if it is a financial burden.
Yesterday, Deputy Micheál Martin raised the issue of cutbacks in disability payments. The Taoiseach denied it, but I do not know how he could do so when the rehabilitative training allowance of €31.80 for people with disabilities was wiped out. To add insult to injury, participants are now being asked to pay €20 per week. In my book, that is a €2,500 cut for the most vulnerable in society who have no voice whatsoever. It is wrong. Will the Tánaiste ask his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, to rescind these cuts, which he has implemented in recent weeks?
There was a long debate on disability yesterday between the two leaders. The Taoiseach made it clear that we had seen dramatic increases in funding for the disability sector in recent years and into next year. However, there is an increasing demand, too. We will continue to prioritise this sector in terms of increased funding.
In Dunmanway in west Cork, a little girl with severe learning difficulties was accepted to her local national school. That was great. Unfortunately, though, her backup services are not great. Before she started in the school, it had four special needs assistants, SNAs. There are still four even though she needs her own SNA. She must share them with the children who were already in the school. What is happening is difficult to see in this day and age. She has little support. This situation is also impinging on the other students in the school who need SNAs. I can send the Minister the details.
I would be anxious to get them. There has been a transformative change in the way we allocate SNA resources. We are trying to get away from individual assessments and placing pressure on parents to get individual reports completed. I will follow up this case directly with the Deputy.
I have asked numerous times about the 50-bed unit at Sacred Heart Hospital, Roscommon, which was promised by the Tánaiste's party before the last election and was to be in place by 2020. I now understand that it is listed in the capital programme with a date of 2022. I do not expect the Tánaiste to have answers for me today. He has been a very busy man doing a lot of good work on behalf of the country. Will he revert to the Minister for Health? If the Taoiseach is thinking of calling a snap general election, might the Minister have good news about bringing this project forward as quickly as possible?
I support the €90 million that has been made available for a transformative fund for institutes of technology. It is necessary if they are to be allowed to transform into technological universities. As the Minister for Education and Skills will know, there is an application from IT Carlow and WIT to become a technological university. It seems to be still bogged down in process and is far behind some of the other applications. We need to get a push on if we are to get it over the line. To reinforce the point for the Tánaiste and the Minister, the south east does not have a university. This would be the region's first university in the history of the State. According to the national planning framework, Waterford city's population will grow by 50% and the region's population will grow, yet many students are leaving the region to get third level qualifications. When will we see progress on this issue for people living in the south east?
The Deputy used the word "process". The process is important in this context, with a number of institutes of technology engaged in it. We are committed to this process in the south east. The Minister of State in the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Halligan, is constantly highlighting it. Those engaged in the process are CIT and IT Tralee, GMIT, IT Sligo and Letterkenny IT, and more recently Limerick IT and Athlone IT. There is momentum at a general level, but the momentum in the south east needs to be maintained. That is why we made a €90 million provision. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, is anxious to see many of the institutes of technology in question obtaining university status. That journey will continue for the south east.
My question is for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and relates to the knowledge transfer scheme, the three initial years of which ran out during the past month or so.
In particular, will the Minister agree to extend the scheme for a further year? As he is aware, at the outset it was budgeted for up to 28,000 farmers to participate but only approximately 19,000 farmers have taken part in it. Given the initial envelope, there is enough funding to extend it. The scheme is of great benefit in terms of knowledge transfer but it also assists with the incomes of farmers who participate. Will the Minister give a commitment to examine the matter and to extend the scheme for a further year?
I think I answered a parliamentary question to the Deputy yesterday on this matter. I am a big admirer of the knowledge transfer programme. As Deputy McConalogue rightly acknowledges, budget 2020 provides for the existing liabilities to be met in 2020. The question is whether we will have a knowledge transfer scheme subsequent to that. That is a matter that will be considered in the context of the budgetary parameters within which the next scheme will be set. It is my ambition that we should have a successor programme. It is important for the knowledge that is transferred but also for the social engagement between farmers in the various disciplines that participate in the knowledge transfer scheme. In a profession that is practised mostly in isolation, that is as important as the knowledge that is transferred. It is my ambition, subject to budgetary constraints, to have a scheme to succeed the current one.
It is with regret, disappointment and sadness that I must again raise the issue of Spinraza. Twenty-five children have been identified as suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, SMA. We fought a hard fight here and four months ago the HSE approved the provision of Spinraza for those children. When I went back to Kilkenny, I informed a family there that the drug was approved by the HSE following lobbying by this House and I saw the delight on the faces of the parents and grandparents. Four months on, not one thing has been done for the children. Twenty-five children are waiting for Spinraza to improve their quality of life, yet nothing has been done. What is wrong with the system? What is wrong with the HSE? The drug has been approved and was due to be handed out. That was the expectation of 25 families in this country but they have been left high and dry. They are waiting for an improvement in the quality of life of their children. Something must be done about this immediately.
Twenty-five families are waiting. One family in particular came from Youghal to the gates of Leinster House and they were in contact with me recently. The HSE approved Spinraza in June, the Minister welcomed that in July, but the families still have not got it. Some of the families have contacted me and asked me if I could get a final date for when this vital medicine will be provided. All people want is clarity on what date they will have some relief and solace for their families.
Isaac Brennan was here with the Minister in the course of lobbying for the drug in question. A commitment was given that treatment would be started once the drug was approved. The drug has been approved but the treatment is being delayed. I understand there is a need for investment in personnel and infrastructure at Temple Street Hospital. Will the Tánaiste investigate the matter and ensure that young people like Isaac Brennan are given priority and that the commitment given by this House on Spinraza is honoured?
This is a matter we raised in the House on Tuesday of this week. It was taken at the time by the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly. To be honest, the response is not what we expected. It was quite poor. The HSE stated:
Application for approval is based on clearly defined criteria and follow these guidelines: the number of individuals treated and their commencement on treatment is as per the clinical guideline. All patients that have been recommended clinically for treatment have been approved to date.
That does not answer the question. The parents are telling us that not one of the 25 children that we have identified and with whom we spoke in June of this year when the drug was approved has received the treatment to date. The answer is appalling. It is a disgrace. We have simply asked if the Minister could indicate when the children are likely to be treated. There is a suspicion that the budget for the drug does not exist this year and the Department is trying to delay it until next year's allocation. Is that the case?
It is shameful that we find ourselves having to rise on this issue once again here in this Chamber. After a concerted effort by a collective of different voices across this House, we reached a point where approval was announced, yet here today, several months later, we are asking once again in the context of nothing having been done in terms of these families and those children's access to this very important drug. I urge the Tánaiste to raise this matter with the Minister and to come back to each of the Deputies to advise us exactly when this programme will commence.
As Deputy Curran outlined, the issue was raised on Tuesday on Leaders' Questions. I did seek a response from the HSE on Tuesday to provide an update to the Deputies. On Tuesday the response I gave was to Deputy Gino Kenny and Deputy Curran. I accept the response is not satisfactory and I have asked for further clarity from the HSE, for it to give an exact date for when the drug will be available, and to be more specific for the parents of the patients involved. That was yesterday. As soon as I have a response I will circulate it to the Deputies.
I seek an update from the Minister for Education and Skills on the progression of the Holy Family primary school in Mullingar on behalf of the principal, staff, parents and children. I urge the Minister to continue working with the Department and all contracted parties to ensure that the school is delivered by the end of the year.
I thank Deputy Burke for the continued pressure he is putting on in raising this question again. I know it reflects the desire of the community to see a conclusion. There have been so many false expectations on the date and I do not wish to add to the frustration and anxiety. I have received feedback from my officials. We are very lucky to have a great clerk of works and a good team involved who are very vigilant. I will say that we need to have the project completed by the end of the year. It has gone on for too long and we must finish it by the end of the year.
I welcome the increase in funding for the arts, with particular reference to funding for the first time for amateur dramatic groups, which have taken a particular foothold in rural Ireland. They involve the amalgamation of people in the community involved in amateur dramatic groups. Will the Minister outline when the funding will come on stream and what the application process will be?
The overall budget increase for the culture side of my Department was 2% this year, which is €4 million, bringing the total funding for the area to €193 million. Out of that, for the first time in more than a decade, €250,000 will be allocated to amateur dramatic and musical societies throughout the country. That is very much to be welcomed. We hope to have a mechanism set up, probably in conjunction with the Drama League of Ireland in the coming weeks. I am sure there will be many groups of players in Limerick that will be very interested in this initiative.
I wish to ask about the cost of insurance working group in light of the possibility that climbing centres throughout the country will be forced to close because of the exit of insurance providers. I refer to places such as the Dublin climbing centre in Tallaght, which provides facilities for large numbers of young people and older people. It is very important in terms of physical and mental health. Does the Tánaiste agree that there is another failure here of a for-profit insurance market, which incidentally was very profitable for the insurance companies, but where they want they can simply walk away? It points to the need for a State insurance company to provide insurance on a not-for-profit basis.
Page 33 of the programme for Government refers to tackling insurance costs. The reason I raise this issue is because there is probably not a Deputy in the Chamber who has not been lobbied by business groups, community groups and individuals whose premiums have skyrocketed. We do not believe the Government has made any particular intervention to address the situation. I urge the Government to make an urgent intervention.
The Suas climbing centre in Gillogue on the outskirts of Limerick is at risk of closure, resulting in job losses for its workers and the loss of an excellent facility that is used by many people in Limerick, Clare and Tipperary. What specific measures will be introduced to address the insurance problems? The Government has done nothing so far.
The leisure industry not being able to get insurance is a significant one that must be urgently addressed. I have been contacted by a number of businesses.
I ask for an update on the actions taken to date. I urge the Minister to hurry up with this matter because jobs across the State are at risk unless the matter is resolved.
Jobs are at risk due to the inaction by the Government in tackling the hikes in insurance costs right across the State. Jobs have been lost across the State. Businesses close down weekly. I am working with a number of businesses which provide for outdoor pursuits and activities. They are at risk. One business recently told me that its insurance has gone from €9,000 to more than €60,000 in a couple of years. We cannot afford to wait and to hope that something takes place in the future. I refer to the Judicial Council Bill. That seems to be the only hope that the Government is giving to these people but it is built on many ifs and buts. We need action otherwise thousands of jobs will be lost across the State.
I know the Tánaiste has other matters on his mind today but this needs to be reinforced. Deputies have mentioned motor, business and commercial residential insurance. This is beginning to bite in community facilities. The Minister, my constituency colleague, Deputy Zappone, will also know that Fettercairn Youth Horse Project has seen its public liability insurance rise to €46,000. This valuable community project has almost exhausted its cash reserves to deal with the matter. Killinarden Community Centre has seen its insurance cost rise from €6,000 to €26,000 in the space of six or seven years. The Tánaiste may nod at this but they are threatened with closure. These are the beating heart of local communities. It was the first item that my colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, raised in this Dáil during Private Members' business, three years ago. Nothing has happened to effect any real change.
The single biggest issue with insurance is the level of awards. We have all seen people with low damages with a low impact on them receive substantial awards. Insurance companies in a number of sectors have left those areas because of the levels of awards. We have passed the Judicial Council Bill. The Judiciary and Chief Justice have been very helpful. The establishment of the personal injury committee within the judicial council will happen in parallel with the establishment of the judicial council. We expect the announcement within days of the seven judges who will participate in the review of the guidelines. The Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach has publicly asked insurance companies if premiums will come down if awards come down and they have all said that they will. The companies have said the same thing to me in private. I have been to London to meet the London-based underwriters about insurance here in Ireland. They also say that if awards come down, so will premiums, and the risk appetite will be improved. The work is being done. Those who say nothing is being done are wrong. The objective is to get the five primary areas of personal injury reduced by the end of the year.
On 19 January, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, spoke here. I congratulate her on being a member of the Tánaiste's Brexit team. On that day, she spoke on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, about wastewater treatment plants in north Cork. Irish Water gave her a commitment that Glanworth wastewater treatment plant would be incorporated into a building tender process but in the last week or two, it seems to have fallen out of this bundle. The local authority, Cork County Council, is interested in this village. It has committed to build 14 local authority houses and a local builder has agreed to do that. He cannot get the go-ahead until the treatment plant is upgraded. I ask the Tánaiste to intercede.