Wednesday, 6 November 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
We are all very familiar with the tragic death of Shane O'Farrell and the extraordinary courage and perseverance of his mother to seek justice and to seek answers to questions the O'Farrell family has long been putting and has not really got answers to. This Dáil unanimously agreed that there would be a public inquiry and a scoping inquiry was announced by the Minister for Justice and Equality last February. He was very clear that Mr. Justice Haughton would be independent and would remain independent in the course of his inquiry, and that no restrictions would be placed on him or on his observations, deliberations and submissions. This was genuinely accepted and he produced a set of terms of reference for a commission of investigation. However, it seems that the Department of Justice and Equality subsequently changed the terms of reference and narrowed them, which has caused a lot of distress. I ask the Government and the Minister to respond to this and to end the torture the family is going through, by doing what people want to be done.
I again extend my condolences to the O'Farrell family on their loss. There has been a GSOC investigation into the case and the independent review mechanism, IRM, believed there should not be a further investigation. However, subsequent to that, the Dáil passed a motion which led to Mr. Justice Haughton's review. I am told that he met several times with the O'Farrell family to discuss the terms of reference and to seek their views. Following this engagement with the family, the Minister for Justice and Equality received a proposal for some changes in the terms of reference for the scoping exercise. This necessitated further consultation with the Attorney General. Subsequent legal advices have been provided, which, in particular, emphasised the requirement to abide by the jurisprudence set down in the Shatter v.Guerin judgment. I am sure Deputies will appreciate the importance of ensuring scoping exercises are framed and conducted in accordance with that judgment, which requires due process and fair hearing for all involved. The terms of reference are now being finalised and the Department wrote to the judge on 23 September to ask him to begin the scoping exercise and to make an initial report to the Minister by mid-November. We regret the time it has taken but Deputies will be aware of the new legal landscape within which all of us in this House must operate on foot of the Shatter v. Guerin judgment. Mr. Justice Haughton is free to make any recommendations he sees fit, including the establishment of any of the various forms of statutory or non-statutory inquiry, including a commission of investigation.
In recent weeks, the issue of the national children's hospital has been back in the news, with more rumours of an increased overspend. There were a number of Government proposals to address the issue of overspend in capital projects and a number of Private Members' Bills are on, or waiting to go to, Second Stage. I ask the Taoiseach to sit down with some Opposition Members who have such Bills. I have one myself, namely, the Regulation of Tenderers Bill 2019. Can we move the issue forward to ensure we are never again in a situation where we face massive overruns in capital projects?
I will have to have a look at the Bill as I am not familiar with it. I am not sure there is any legislation that will, in itself, prevent overruns on capital projects but I will take a look at it and get back to the Deputy.
After much delay, and at six times the original cost, it is reported that the Government is preparing to sign off on the national broadband plan, NBP, shortly. It is 20 years since a Fianna Fáil-led Government sold off the Telecom Éireann network, which we now all agree was a mistake. It still has consequences today because the State, through the NBP, will now have to pay to lease the existing infrastructure of ducts and poles which we once owned as a people. The Government, following in Fianna Fáil's footsteps, is going to pay €3 billion to a private investment fund, headed by Granahan McCourt, for a broadband network the taxpayer will never own, despite a formal resolution sponsored by my party and overwhelmingly carried in this House only a short couple of weeks ago.
We have also learned that the same preferred bidder, Granahan McCourt, is also bidding for Northern Ireland's Project Stratum at an expected cost of €1,900 per home. The Government is planning to sign off on a deal that will cost €5,000 per home in this jurisdiction while the same product, by the same bidder and on the same island, will cost €1,900 in Northern Ireland. How did the Government manage to preside over a contract negotiation that has allowed the same company to provide the same product at less than half the price in Derry than in Donegal?
That is not what I said. I will answer the Deputy if he stops interrupting and gives me a chance to do so. We have entered into a 25-year contract to design, build and operate this service, which will cost €2.1 billion, plus a contingency of €480 million and a VAT payment which will be recouped by the State. The Labour Party's Minister considered the options at the time and State ownership of this asset and running it as a State body, which the Deputy is now advocating, was ruled out at that time by that Minister.
The gap-funded model was left on the table, as was a model which would grant a 25-year contract with reversion to the State. According to best financial and operating advice, a choice was made that the gap-funded model was the preferable option.
A problem constantly arises when houses and apartments are thrown up and people must chase after schools many years later. Is the Government considering any laws to prevent a recurrence of this problem? The Taoiseach is familiar with Pelletstown Educate Together national school in the Ashtown-Rathborne area, which is awaiting a new school but has now been told that it will be delayed. The temporary premises on which the school is currently located are owned by a developer, and the lease is up in June 2020. It has already been extended and the school has been told by the developer that there will be no further extensions to the lease. Will the school community be evicted from this location? What is the status of the permanent site and what is going on with the Department and the developer? A public meeting will be held next Wednesday, 13 November. I have been trying to get an answer from the Minister for Education and Skills about this for two weeks, but I have not heard back from him. It seems developers are again being prioritised over the needs of ordinary people.
I am working on this issue with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh. We are hopeful of coming to a resolution as soon as possible. The new school will be built but has been delayed by roughly a year for various reasons. We want to make sure the school can stay on its current site until the new school is ready. We do not want the children attending the school to be shipped or bused elsewhere for a year. We are seeking to avoid that scenario. The Minister and I are working on it, but we are limited in what we can say as third parties are involved. Once we have a solution, we will inform the parents, as well as Deputy Coppinger.
There are various reports that the local government fund had been cut by €30 million this year. In that context, I raise an issue close to my own area in Ardfinnan, where there are problems with a damaged bridge. The bridge has now been repaired, but an application for a footbridge has been made in the interest of health and safety. Many other projects have been proposed as well, but the national children's hospital is draining money from every other project. I ask the Minister to ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport whether funding can be provided for this project under some other programme, for health and safety reasons. This bridge is used by many people from Ardfinnan and its huge hinterland. Traffic lights and a one-way system have been in place there for the last three years, causing congestion for schools and businesses. Above all, it is more dangerous now than it ever was before.
I will communicate the Deputy's concerns to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross. The national children's hospital has had no impact on funding to local authorities. Indeed, the capital budget for the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has increased this year. If there is a particular concern around health and safety on this footbridge, I will speak to the Minister and see what can be done for the local authority.
A very serious drug turf war is going on between two criminal gangs based mainly in Drogheda, with members of both gangs living locally in Louth and Meath. This began in July 2018 when a drug dealer was shot and survived. A man was subsequently murdered in Clogherhead in August, and another man was recently shot dead in a lovely quiet cul-de-sac in Bettystown. The Garda and I suspect that these gangs are becoming more experienced and are not afraid of anyone in the area. I welcome the additional Garda resources given to Drogheda. The Garda knows what is going on, but it does not have the resources to deal with it. I beg the Taoiseach to address this before it gets out of hand. People around Drogheda, Bettystown and Clogherhead are very concerned about what is happening. The Taoiseach has it in his gift to nip this in the bud once and for all before it becomes more serious. I am asking him, on behalf of the people of Louth and east Meath, to give more resources to the Garda in the area.
Both the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and I have visited Drogheda in the last few months to hear about the situation first-hand from both the Garda and people living in the area. Additional resources have been provided by the Garda Commissioner, and it is up to him to decide whether additional resources can be provided in the next few weeks. However, next year's budget for the Garda is being increased substantially to €1.88 billion. It is right and appropriate that the Garda Commissioner, rather than politicians, should decide how best to deploy those resources.
There has been much talk about services for rural Ireland, but we are now being denied a service we once had, namely, a road between Kilgarvan and Ballingeary. The L3402 has been closed since October of last year. The funeral of a very prominent respected man was held in Ballingeary last Sunday evening and was attended by thousands of people. They practically had to go around the world to get from Kerry to Ballingeary. One very bad road is open, but people cannot pass on it. They then have to go into Ballyvourney. This has been going on for 12 months now. We have been told that the road might reopen some time next year. Pat Twomey was a highly respected man and many people wanted to go to his funeral, but they were delayed both coming and going because of the state of the road.
Cork County Council tells us that the road will open some time next year. There are many reports and investigations going on. This road was built by people with shovels, crowbars and sledgehammers. We have all kinds of machinery now, but this local road is preventing people from Kerry from going to Cork or Ballingeary and vice versa. It is totally unfair. If this were happening here in Dublin, it would have been fixed long ago. If a road were closed here, it would be reopened in two weeks.
I also call on the Taoiseach, in the most reasoned possible way, to address this. This road is a vital connection. We often hear about the highest pub in Ireland, the Top of Coom, which is owned by the Creedon family. This issue is affecting businesses such as that one, as well as people on both sides of the county border. This is a cross-border problem. I call on my Cork colleagues to put their shoulders to the wheel in asking the Taoiseach and the Government to deal with this. I have been in contact with the Cork county manager and have pleaded with him to ensure the work will be carried out. It is a vital connection between Kerry and Cork.
I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I am familiar with the pub, although I am not familiar with the road. It sounds like a matter for the county councils rather than central government, but I will ask my people to look into it.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has selected 6,840 farmers for remote sensing inspections. The farming community has no issue with that, but it does have an issue with the fact that farmers have to submit their applications before 15 May. They have a few days to sort out their applications and if they go over that, they are penalised. The areas of national constraint, ANC, payments started on 17 September and the basic payment scheme, BPS, started on 16 October. It has now been six months since the applications were submitted and they have not been paid.
Some farmers have not yet received a shilling. This has been the worst year. Farming is in crisis. Farm incomes are on the floor. Why not pay the 85% of the ANC and 75% of BPS to farmers now? They need it and are desperate for it. That would leave 15% of ANC and 30% of BPS. There are very few issues, but if any remain after the checks are over the money can be deducted from the remaining 15% and 30%. Farmers need money to pay contractors and their families need money for Christmas.
There is a difference between what is selected as a problem and what is selected at random. The issue of 85% being paid has come up time and again. I understand the auditors do not accept that methodology, something with which I have sympathy. There are payment runs twice a week at the moment. It is expected that everybody will be paid as quickly as possible. I have been in that position down through the years and I appreciate it is a problem. We are trying to get through the list as quickly as possible. As far as I know, 92% of all ANC payments have been made and a similar percentage of BPS payments have been made.
The programme for Government commits the Government to fulfil its mandate as the co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. The Brexit chaos and the demographic and political changes of recent years in the North have accelerated the conversation on the merits of unity. Earlier this week, Ireland's Future wrote to the Taoiseach to ask him to plan for the future. That is the core message of the letter signed by more than 1,000 citizens from civic society, including relatives of the 1916 leaders. The signatories are proposing the establishment of a citizens' assembly, reflecting the view of citizens, North and South, or a forum to discuss the future and achieve maximum consensus on the way forward. Does the Taoiseach accept that it is the responsibility of the Government to plan for the future? Will he consult on this?
I thank the Deputy. I read the letter in a newspaper the other day. It arrived in newspapers before it arrived in my office and I did not get a phone call about it in advance. I imagine if I was the Leader of the Opposition, I would have a bee in my bonnet about that and would be feeling disrespected for two years, but I do not. I understand where the signatories are coming from in terms of their request.
A number of citizens' assemblies are in train. The one on gender equality is about to start and the next will be on local government in Dublin. At this stage, I have had at least ten or 15 requests for citizens' assemblies of some sort. We can only have one at a time, but, notwithstanding that, it is something to which I will give some consideration. I am conscious that a general election is under way in the UK and Northern Ireland. I have always been at pains not to make Brexit a constitutional question for very good reasons. I think the Deputy understands why that is the case.
In 2015, the Government announced, with much fanfare, a new state-of-the-art Garda station for Bailieborough, which was to cover a wide district in east Cavan. Building work was to commence in September and be completed by summer 2021. Today the site is surrounded by hoardings and there is no sign of any new work. It is an eyesore on the main street of Bailieborough. This is coupled with what happened in Emyvale in north Monaghan, where the Garda station was burned to the ground last month. In addition, the Cavan-Monaghan Garda division will lose ten patrol cars for policing in the Border area. The Taoiseach knows that public confidence in security in the Border region is fragile. Can he reassure me and my constituents today that the Garda station he promised will be delivered, that Emyvale will get a new station and that gardaí will not be left without ten patrol cars within weeks?
-----and there is nothing in either of those about those particular Garda stations. It might be more appropriate to raise this matter with the Minister for Justice and Equality during Question Time or to table a Topical Issue matter.
I want to highlight the ongoing crisis in the health service in my county, Tipperary. Yesterday, 41 people were on trolleys in South Tipperary General Hospital. Given the size of the hospital and the population it serves, that has to be a record. The long-promised modular unit in Clonmel is still lying idle because of a failure to recruit staff. Our Lady's Hospital in Cashel is lying idle just 12 or 13 miles away. Nenagh General Hospital is being underutilised and emergency department in University Hospital Limerick is in crisis. The people of Tipperary are fed up with the lack of service and people are dying because of that in the county. We want improvements.
Page 6 of the programme for Government promises that efforts to increase access to safe, timely care close to patients' homes will be a priority for the Government. Almost four years on, the health service has deteriorated at an alarming rate under the Government's watch. The numbers of people waiting on trolleys on a daily basis is a national scandal. A total of 649 people are on trolleys today, with Cork being the worst where 93 people have been waiting on trolleys. There were 65 patients are on trolleys in Cork University Hospital, CUH; 23 in the Mercy University Hospital; and five waiting for beds in Bantry General Hospital. Two weeks ago I spent a week fighting for a prominent man in Limerick to get a bad. He was left on a trolley for a week in University Hospital Limerick. What steps is the Government going to take? We are not yet in the thick of the winter. What is the Government going to do to address this appalling situation?
I outlined the Government's response to this earlier. Perhaps that was before the Deputy came to the Chamber. We are doing a number of things. First, we are increasing the number of beds across the country, including in Clonmel and Limerick. Since 2014, we have been adding more beds to the hospital system. Deputies will recall that when Fianna Fáil and the Green Party were in power during the boom, they took a policy decision to take thousands of beds out of our hospitals. As soon as we had the money to start reversing that, we did so and have been doing so from 2014 onwards.
We are also providing more funding for the fair deal scheme and home help because hundreds of people could be in nursing homes or at home with adequate supports rather than in hospital. We increased funding for those schemes significantly in budget 2020. We also secured an agreement with GPs to increase the scope of the services they provide in the community so that people with chronic diseases such as COPD and diabetes can be better looked after in the community and not need to go into hospital in the first place. Obviously that contract was signed a few months ago and it will be a while before the new services are up and running.
The Garda Síochána (malicious injuries) (compensation) Bill is promised legislation. Given that approximately 5,000 gardaí have been injured in the course of their duty, when is it likely to come before the House? Some degree of urgency might be accorded to it.
The Taoiseach has heard me raise St. Paul's school in Monasterevin on many occasions in the Chamber. When he was Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton heard me speak about the school, which has been waiting longer for a new building than any other school in the country; it has waited for 20 years. There have been many blips along the way. The current Minister for Education and Skills visited the school on 2 October to see the situation for himself. The school population has doubled in the past ten years. There are two toilets for 207 boys. It is a very good mixed school and the staff and principal are excellent, but the facilities are shocking. On 2 October, the Minister gave a commitment that the lease for the new school building would be signed within the next two or, at the most, three weeks. More than a month later, we have heard nothing. I do not expect the Taoiseach to have an answer in front of him, but I would appreciate it if he would ask the Minister's office to contact me today to let me know whether there is an update.
I am afraid that, given that this session is about questions on promised legislation, I do not have an answer to her question because it relates to a school project, which I am sure is a major issue in Monasterevin. I will ask the Minister for Education and Skills to reply to her query.
I wish to raise the issue of the ongoing drugs feud in Drogheda and the latest horrific murder in Bettystown on Monday.
A joint policing committee meeting was held in Drogheda on Monday afternoon. Serious concerns were raised and shock was expressed about the fact that Garda funding for ongoing operations to tackle this feud ran out last Monday. The Garda budget for Drogheda is gone at the height of a feud. An Garda Síochána has made inroads but without the continuation of this funding and the specialised units, not only is this feud set to escalate - there has only been a lull because of the presence of the specialised units and the extra resources there at the moment - all of the work that has been done will have been for nothing. The Taoiseach does not need me to outline for him the ramifications of that if we do not secure further funding. An Garda Síochána is lodging an application for the continuation of funding this week as a matter of urgency. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to meet with the Garda Commissioner to ensure that the continuation of this funding is secured as a matter of urgency? In a previous response, the Taoiseach said that it is a matter for the Garda Commissioner but we are at the height of a feud and An Garda Síochána should not even have to go looking for it again. It should be there. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister to do that before more people are killed?
I join the Deputy in acknowledging the progress that has been made in the greater Drogheda area and the success An Garda Síochána has had in quelling violence and tension in Drogheda in the past couple of months. That is, of course, in part connected to the additional resources provided for the area. The budget allocated to An Garda Síochána for next year is €1.88 billion, which is the highest ever budget, so An Garda Síochána has never been as well resourced as it is now. It is a decision for the Garda Commissioner as to how best to allocate resources and I trust him to do that.
In chapter 7 of the programme for Government, there is a commitment to improve the lives of people with disabilities while chapter 9 refers to making people's older years better. Obviously, chapters 5 and 6, which relate to health and mental health, respectively, are also relevant. Is the Taoiseach aware that, under his Government, the HSE is applying charges to free travel pass holders with disabilities and elderly and ill people with free travel passes in respect of accessing important day services that are vital for them and their treatment and care? This charge has been applied despite the fact that these people depend on very modest social supports and incomes. This charge is being applied throughout the country. Will the Taoiseach commit to reversing this discriminatory and unfair charge? When will he do so and will the Government reimburse the disabled, elderly and ill people who are entitled to and hold free travel passes who are being charged this unfair amount?
I am not aware of that but I will have it checked out. My understanding is that the free travel pass applies to public transport, not transport provided by the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills and others.
I have raised the matter of community employment scheme supervisors on several occasions. To date, nothing has happened even though there was a recommendation by the Labour Court in 2008 to the effect that community employment scheme supervisors should have an occupational pension scheme. This Government has completely ignored their request and the recommendation by the Labour Court. I am asking that either the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection or the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform meet with the supervisors to try to thrash this out once and for all. I am constantly being contacted by community employment scheme supervisors in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny. These people play a very important role in getting young people in particular back into the labour force. Will the Government recognise their request, sit down and talk to them and try to give them a pension scheme?
I acknowledge and value the work done by community employment schemes and those who supervise them. I had some very good engagement with them when I was Minister for Social Protection but as the Deputy knows, community employment scheme supervisors are not public servants. They are not our employees and any Labour Court recommendation that is made applies to the employer, which is not the Government in this case.
Since this Government was formed, I do not think the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has come in for one session of Questions on Promised Legislation. One can only suspect that he is reluctant to answer questions without a prepared script. Since the decision by the Supreme Court over 18 months whereby asylum seekers are allowed to work, I have continuously raised with the Minister the need to extend eligibility to apply to a driving licence to asylum seekers. He has promised that the matter is under consideration and that his Department is working with the Minister for Justice and Equality to deliver it. In the 18 months since the Supreme Court decision, no progress has been made. This is at a time when we should be welcoming these people into our country and ensuring that they are facilitated by every means to integrate with society. What better way to do this than by affording people the right to drive and go to work? Will the Taoiseach take a personal interest in this and talk to the Ministers for Transport, Tourism and Sport and Justice and Equality in order to ensure that this legislation receives priority so that people who want to make a contribution to make to society and who are being prevented from doing so on foot of where they live will be able to apply for driving licences?
It is now the law that an asylum seeker who has been in the country for more than nine months can work, which is positive. I am pleased that we were able to make that change. My recollection is that much of the law relating to driving licences is linked to EU directives.
There may be an issue around residency but in principle, if we are allowing somebody to work, we should allow him or her to drive to work or drive as part of his or her job so I will look into the matter and obtain a note on it.