Thursday, 24 October 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
In the absence of the Minister for Finance, I will take that question. The legislation will form part of the Finance Bill. There is an issue as to whether we should make a commitment in respect of the long-term trajectory, but it is one for the Minister for Finance and the Dáil to decide.
I raise the issue of justice, in particular the presence of gardaí on the streets. In Dublin the other day a young woman was robbed in Long's Place, just off Thomas Street, by an armed man who was casually smoking a cigarette. The reason it is happening is there is no Garda presence on the streets of the cities and towns. That is why criminals believe they can wander around and do stuff like this. In the budget and its commitment to provide additional resources the Government continually falls short. There is a need for an absolute commitment from what is supposed to be the Government of law and order to put in place the resources the Garda requires to be out in the community with community police officers.
All I can say is we have provided in the budget for next year for an extra 1,000 gardaí. That is a significant increase. We have seen repeatedly, year after year, significant increases in Garda numbers across the country.
All week the House has been convulsed by voting irregularities. There has also been plenty of speculation about the date of the general election. It is nearly a year since the regulatory impact assessment was made of the electoral commission Bill. For some time we have been promised an electoral commission which is to be established by the Government. It is the subject of a commitment in the programme for Government and has been repeatedly promised in schedules for the Dáil. This is a direct and simple question. When will the electoral commission be established? Will it be established in time for the next general election?
Approval to draft the heads of the Bill was given in by the Government in July and the drafting process is ongoing. We are anxious to introduce the Bill as quickly as we can, but we need to get it right.
I am wondering if the Government has changed its mind about passing Solidarity's Anti-Evictions Bill 2018 in the light of what we have seen in the past week when a homeless man was murdered in Cork and another person died in Dublin. We have had children eating their dinner on a piece of cardboard in front of the GPO. We have had RTÉ showing children in their school uniforms queuing for food with their parents, not only for that night but also for their lunches the next day because they are homeless. If the Tánaiste is not sickened and appalled by this, ordinary people certainly are. There is, for example, a Facebook page called, Protest against Homelessness in Ireland. It has 33,000 members and was set up less than a week ago. Some 1,500 are joining it every day. They have called a protest at noon on 5 December. They cannot understand the business-as-usual attitude here. In fact, they cannot understand why members of the two big parties cannot even be bothered to press a button to vote on important issues. They cannot understand why evictions are being allowed to continue. Only for the intervention of volunteers on the streets and ordinary people, there would be a lot of families starving. Is the Government ashamed? Is it disgusted? Is the Tánaiste ashamed by what he has seen shown on television and in photographs?
A couple of questions were asked. The legislation on renting was updated in July. There will be another Bill coming through the Houses in the months ahead. We will, therefore, discuss the issue again. There was clear advice that we could not deal with the amendment on landlords who wanted to secure evictions before they sold their houses.
Second, in respect of families with children living on the streets, we are very clear, as is the Deputy, that there is no reason any children should be living on the streets. The supports are there for families in temporary emergency accommodation, be it in family hubs or commercial hotels-----
The extra finance is available to focus on catering for families who do not have a house today. All the supports are in place for emergency accommodation, be it in a family hub or a commercial hotel. All the other supports through the various Departments, including the Departments of Employment Affairs and Social Protection; Health; Education and Skills; and so on, are available also to support families. We recognise and accept there is not a house for everyone straightaway. That is why we step in with all the emergency supports.
That is what we try to do. The majority of families that present as homeless every week are found a house quite quickly. In most cases, we were able to intervene and prevent them becoming homeless. That is very different from the position two or three years ago because this House takes the issue seriously and has allocated the money and the resources. A new outreach team now works on the streets of Dublin, through the Dublin Simon Community, with people who are homeless and rough sleepers to make sure they do not have to go out on the streets. That is what we are doing while at the same time trying to build and find more houses in which to house families. There are accommodation solutions for people who find themselves in an emergency situation.
You are making a farce of this session. We do not need comments from the Government side of the House and we need Deputy Coppinger to resume her seat and let business proceed.
To be clear, I said, and I am right to say this, that the largest housing budget ever was debated in the House and passed over two nights. That is what we are doing because we take this issue seriously. It is not right to say I am telling an untruth because I am not, and I would not.
I am glad the Minister of State for housing is here because I am writing to him today on behalf of Nicole Cronin of 28 Railways Cottages, Kilsheelan, in Clonmel, who is living with her brother in a house since their dad passed away some months ago. I am very disappointed that Clúid, a national housing body - I am a member of one also - has given the family a notice of eviction for 12 o'clock tomorrow. There have been extenuating circumstances within this-----
When I get the Deputy's letter, I will certainly help and deal with the individual issue. In general, however, a housing body or a local authority does not evict tenants for no reason. If someone passes away and there are tenants in the house who were named on the tenancy, that is always dealt with in a fair and approachable way. I would be surprised if the story is as the Deputy describes. However, when I get his letter we will look at it and help where we can but, to be fair, it is not something we do in normal practice.
Under the programme for Government and environmental protection, I ask the Tánaiste or the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to confirm that the future funding will be in place for the Pure Project in Wicklow. The Minister will be aware of this ground-breaking anti-dumping and environmental awareness project, which has operated for 13 years, which has collected more than 3,500 tonnes of illegal dump material in one truck in the Wicklow and Dublin mountains. Local authorities, working together with State bodies, and the Department, has led this project to award-winning success and it is one that should be rolled out nationally. Funding for the project runs out in December.
I assure the Deputy that funding is being provided to support community-based initiatives like the one he has described. It is for local authorities to submit proposals to draw on that fund but given the description, I am sure it has a great chance of succeeding. I do not make individual decisions on the applications; they will be considered as normal.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to safeguarding our towns and villages from the sale and supply of illicit drugs on our streets that are destroying lives and communities and the quality of people's lives throughout the length and breadth of our land. Earlier this year, a report from the Blanchardstown Local Drugs and Alcohol Task Force highlighted that children were dealing drugs in the area. The report found that the average age of a drug runner was 13 years and the youngest reported was eight years. That is replicated across Dublin and, I am sure, in other towns and villages also. Are there any plans to amend legislation? One of the recommendations in this report was that there would be increased sentences for drug dealers who were using children in this way. There are also issues of drug dealing near schools. We need to have safe zones.
The national drugs strategy was launched in July 2017. I said at the time that without additional funding it would not work. I firmly believe that, unfortunately, it is panning out to be the case. Recently, at a joint policing committee meeting in Limerick, I raised the issue of cocaine use in the city, especially among younger people, and I used the words "an epidemic". Those words were echoed by the Limerick Garda Chief Superintendent at the meeting who stated that a cocaine epidemic is the biggest problem facing Limerick gardaí. I ask the Tánaiste, and the Minister for Finance, to ensure that the funding for regional drug and alcohol forums that was cut in 2008 be restored as soon as possible and that the issue of drug dealing be officially addressed.
On the individual locations that have been referred to, I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to revert to the Deputy. She has responsibility for the national drugs strategy but this is a combination of both the national drugs strategy and the response by An Garda Síochána. Both cocaine and heroin are significant problems. The numbers of users of both have increased, not only in the capital but outside it also. The new national drugs strategy is aimed at responding to that, as is the approach of An Garda Síochána. More gardaí and more investment in An Garda Síochána is a necessity and that is happening.
The Government must allow local authorities to build on their own landbanks. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has stated that the development of publicly owned residential land for social and affordable housing is a priority for the Government and he promised to make billions of euro available for this. Louth County Council has 52 acres of land which could be used for social and affordable houses, but it has no funds. There are over 5,000 people on the housing list and thousands more cannot afford to buy their own house. In addition, there are scores of unoccupied, council owned houses in County Louth. All they require is a small amount of funding. Will the Minister or the Minister of State, Deputy English, please come to County Louth, meet the CEO and planning officers and, once and for all, give the people of Louth an opportunity to own their own house?
For the third or fourth time in response to different colleagues from County Louth, I wish to be absolutely clear that the funds are available for Louth's local authority and other local authorities to bring forward projects for their lands. We have repeatedly asked every local authority to put projects in place for this year, next year and the following year, so there is a pipeline of projects. I have met Louth's local authority and I have discussed this with the Deputy. We would like that landbank to be developed for housing and we have suggested ways to do it. The funding is available but the local authority must bring forward the applications and solutions before we can release it.
On the last two Thursdays I raised two separate issues with the Tánaiste and he undertook to have the relevant Ministers refer back to me. That has not happened to date.
Today, I wish to raise the Land Development Agency. It was announced in the budget of two years ago as part of the solution to the housing crisis. Despite pre-legislative scrutiny before the relevant Oireachtas committee no less than four times, we are still waiting for the legislation to be adopted. The appointment of highly paid officials is the only thing that appears to have happened in respect of the Land Development Agency tackling housing. No land has been transferred and no houses have been built. Some eight or ten sites have been identified but the future of those sites is unsure. I refer to Columb Barracks, Mullingar, where 21 community groups have been working from the site for a number of years. The barracks was closed by the Government some years ago. When will those community groups have certainty about the future of that site? When can we expect the legislation on the Land Development Agency debated in the House and when can we expect to see houses built as a result of establishing this agency? The Government has over-promised for the last two years in this regard.
On page 57 of the programme for Government there is a commitment to ensuring appropriate care pathways are in place to improve cancer services and invest in end-of-life care. In County Wexford, sick children cannot access specialist palliative childcare teams when needed. Approximately eight weeks ago, a 16 year old child in Enniscorthy died from cancer. He was in hospital and wanted to go home for his last few days, but there was a row between two different hospitals and two different clinical teams because there was no specialist team in place to take care of him. I am not blaming the clinicians: it is a lack of specialist childcare palliative teams in the south east. When can such a specialist team be put in place in this very large area with a population of 0.5 million people?
The programme for Government referred to rural small schools and stated that the closed school rule for school transport should be maintained. Many schools were closed in outlying areas in many parts of rural Ireland and the pupils from the catchment areas of the closed schools were given school transport to the central school in the parish. This was known as the closed school rule. Parents were happy to allow these small schools on the outskirts of a parish to be closed because they were guaranteed school transport in the future. However, the last Government scrapped the closed school rule and pupils in the catchment areas of many of the closed schools were denied school transport and were told they had to go to the nearest school, which was often in another parish and not the central school that replaced their own school. In many cases the school bus is passing the doors of pupils who have been denied school transport even though they are within the catchment area of the closed school. It is a living nightmare for many parents in west Cork, particularly for the parents of children going to school in Ballineen trying to get transport to the secondary school in Bandon. The public and parents were misled that the issue was resolved: there are still ten children on the roadside. It has not been resolved. When the Government restore the closed school rule as promised in the programme for Government?
I am aware of the problems in west Cork in terms of school transport this year. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, intervened to improve the situation but there are still outstanding issues. I will ask him to refer back to the Deputy directly on it.
The Irish nationality and citizenship (amendment) Bill is promised legislation that arises from a court judgment in respect of the 1957 legislation. To speed up to the process, when is the Bill likely to come before the House? Will it be in this session?
Molex Ireland intends to close its facility in Shannon while 300 people are set to lose their jobs in Novartis in Cork. Ireland is radically imbalanced geographically at present, with investment, jobs and infrastructure going to Dublin. It is becoming a city state and it has got worse under this Government. It is also radically exposed in respect of its economic model. Foreign direct investment is good and should be pursued, but Ireland is over-reliant on it. Our indigenous sector is the poor relation in Government policy. It has deeper roots, is more sticky and is less mobile and less exposed to corporation tax and tariff changes. These corporation tax and tariff changes are coming down the track. When will the Government start to prioritise regional Ireland and make sure that indigenous business is not the poor relation?
That is exactly what the new national planning framework and the 2040 plan are all about - ensuring that as population growth continues, it happens at twice the pace outside Dublin as in Dublin. The investment decisions and priorities we are making are consistent with that. I do not disagree with much of what the Deputy said, although I would not draw conclusions from the unfortunate announcements this week of job losses in Shannon and Cork. There are other reasons for those. In terms of the broader approach of ensuring economic development outside of Dublin and creating counterbalances of scale to Dublin as a driver for jobs growth and investment, that is exactly what the Government is trying to do.
Legislation has been enacted to support the Garda and to tackle crime. Operation Thor has been very successful and I congratulate the gardaí who were involved in an incident in Freemount last Saturday evening. They waited for a gang from Cork who had travelled there. In fact, they had identified the house so successfully that they waited inside it for the gang. I congratulate them on their work, but it has come to my notice that one of the people arrested had been handed a 14 year sentence and a ten year concurrent sentence for robbery. Just five years later, the individual was free to terrorise citizens again. If we are serious about supporting the Garda and communities, we must tackle that and ensure that the sentences imposed for burglary or other offences are served to the full extent.
We must be careful in how we respond to individual decisions by judges in courts. There is a separation of powers that we must respect. However, on the broader sentencing policy issue, the Deputy should table a parliamentary question for the Minister for Justice and Equality.
Ash dieback is a disease that, unfortunately, has come to our shores. Huge losses are being suffered by the landowners and plantation owners affected. The disease got into this country due to a bio-security lapse by the Department. What plans does the Government have to put in place proper compensation for the plantation owners affected?
I am not sure that the cause of ash dieback is due to a bio-security lapse by the Department. This condition has affected ash plantations not just here but throughout countries in western Europe. I will ask my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, to communicate directly with the Deputy on the support that is available.
Four years ago there was an announcement in the budget that people who had to use incontinence wear would be given €75 to help them each year with the new pay-by-weight system. There have been four budgets since then and it has not come into effect. Why is that?
The difficulty has been in devising a scheme that could be administered effectively and which would not breach data protection law. It has proved very difficult. We continue to work to find solutions. We have met various bodies but it has proved very difficult to come up with a scheme that could be administered.
There was a lot of disappointment that there was no reference to the fair deal scheme in the recent budget. In promised legislation and in previous budgets, promises were made that the issue of uncapped liability on farm assets for small farmers and small businesses under the fair deal scheme would be dealt with. When will the Government honour its commitment to remove the discrimination against farming and other small business assets, as promised in last year's budget?
I would like to speak on this issue of the fair deal scheme. This has gone on and on. This has been approved in Cabinet, so the delays are totally unacceptable. I know of many farming families who are continuously struggling with the heavy costs of nursing home care. The Minister met a delegation from the IFA, along with a farmer who is very badly affected by this issue, Mr. Joe Carroll from Kilcormac, County Offaly. Will the Government provide a timeframe as to when we can debate the legislation and finalise this matter?
This is something to which the Government is committed. The Minister of State, Deputy Daly, has led on the issue and has done a really good job. Pre-legislative scrutiny of the relevant Bill begins in committee on 13 November. Further legislation is needed.
Deputy Naughten and myself have been made aware of an issue that has arisen in respect of some essential repair works that must be carried out on the courthouse in Roscommon town. We do not know how long that work will take. When dealing with such an old building, things can naturally take a long time but there are strong suggestions that the Courts Service will be moved to Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim. This is acceptable to neither Deputy Naughten nor me. There are a number of suitable buildings in Roscommon town that could be adapted quite easily and economically. I ask whichever Minister has responsibility to ensure that the Courts Service stays in Roscommon town.
This is the first I have heard about this issue. I presume the Courts Service will respond pragmatically. I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality or his office to come back to the Deputy on this matter.
The programme for Government includes a clear commitment to improve ambulance response times across the country. A report in respect of ambulance response times this week showed that on at least 103 occasions, it has taken an hour or more for ambulances to respond to life-threatening emergencies. In fact, in Galway, Roscommon and Mayo, on at least 12 occasions an ambulance has taken more than 80 minutes to respond to a life-threatening emergency. The difficulty for those who represent rural communities is that it is not just about the ambulance arriving, but about the ambulance getting to an accident and emergency department afterwards. In the decision the Government made in respect of the trauma report, it committed to prioritising investment in the ambulance services in communities that are more than an hour's travel time from an accident and emergency department. Will the Government provide an update in that regard?
I thank Deputy Naughten. I hope he will excuse me for missing the start of his contribution but I certainly got its full meaning. Budget 2020 provides additional resources for the National Ambulance Service. The Deputy is correct. When engaging with me on the trauma strategy, he highlighted the need for more ambulances in rural areas. I will make sure that is reflected in the national service plan. I will also reply to the Deputy directly.
I refer to a commitment made by Government at this time last year. It said that it would provide local authorities with the discretion to develop housing projects to the value of €6 million in their own jurisdictions without Government pre-approval, an increase from €2 million. This would speed matters up and allay the current four-stage approval process, which hamstrings local authorities and, indeed, the Government in their efforts to meet the demands of the housing crisis. It is a breach of faith that this measure has not been taken to date. What measures will be taken in the near future to ensure it happens forthwith?
Such a measure would not speed up delivery. This year, local authorities will achieve and exceed their targets to deliver more than 10,000 new social houses into the system. This is way beyond the targets set with them over recent years. With regard to the specific requirement discussed during budget negotiations last year, we are still in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and other Departments. To be very clear, in all our meetings with local authorities - which I meet every week - and at all our housing summits, we do not see any demand among local authorities to change the system.
The previous scheme was not overly used and was not needed. This will not necessarily speed up delivery. In fact, we have changed the rules in respect of delivery and most local authorities are now achieving the target of 59 weeks.