Thursday, 7 November 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I would like to begin by referring to something Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, and the sentiment of which is even more relevant today in the context of false media and false news: "Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect." I mention this in the context of the need for a vibrant and independent media. All of the elements of public service broadcasting, as an ethos, are important parts of this equation that are sometimes taken for granted, particularly by the Government. We read late last night that RTÉ plans to save €60 million over the next three years by imposing a range of cuts, including 200 staff redundancies. That is not good enough, and it would not be good enough for anybody in any organisation, that those redundancies were notified to staff through media leaks late last night. RTÉ is under substantial financial pressure as a result of reduced advertising income, changes in viewership patterns, online trends and global changes. There has been a substantial lack of engagement from the Government about RTÉ's funding model and about licence fee evasion. Rather than dealing with the challenges faced by RTÉ, the Government is constantly trying to kick the can down the road.
Ireland's licence fee evasion rate of 14% is the highest in Europe. It results in a loss of approximately €25 million a year. Another 11% of households do not pay the licence at all, which accounts for a further €20 million. The Tánaiste is familiar with this information. It is not new to the Government. The members of the Government and its predecessor have stuck their heads in the sand. They have discussed the proposed broadcasting charge lengthways and sideways without making a decision, in the full knowledge of the challenges being faced by our entire media industry. They have said they will make a decision in five years' time. The Government has been procrastinating on changing this country's defamation laws, which are regularly described by outside independent experts as having a chilling effect on the way Irish print and broadcasting media do their work. As a result of the Government's inertia, inaction and head-in-the-sand approach, RTÉ has announced that there will be 200 redundancies, its presence in Limerick will be downgraded, some of its assets will be sold, the pay of all staff will be frozen indefinitely and the pay of top earners will be reduced by 15%. I have read in the past few minutes that the Government is focusing on cutting the pay of top presenters while ignoring the 200 redundancies and the indefinite pay freezes that are to be imposed on those on the lowest incomes.
The cuts in RTÉ are in addition to those in other media organisations. Virgin Media announced 60 cuts last week. All of our newspaper groups are announcing regular job cuts. The independent broadcasting sector is operating on a shoestring because of the lack of a coherent and cohesive Government policy that would defend the media as it faces the challenges I have mentioned and would defend public service broadcasting in general. We must defend an independent media that asks hard questions and provides information. We want such a media, but we will not pay for it. When was the Government informed about RTÉ's plans? Has the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, met RTÉ management and board members? Is the Tánaiste interested in preserving and promoting an independent media, with public service broadcasting as a key part of it, or will he continue to keep his head in the sand while the media industry dies?
It is appropriate that I begin by mentioning that one of my brothers works in RTÉ and has been involved in the restructuring plans that have been publicised today. It is important for me to say that for the record.
In my view, public service broadcasting is more important than it has ever been. Independent objective reporting of domestic and international affairs is absolutely crucial for any functioning democracy. We must recognise that the landscape in which broadcasters operate is undergoing a transformation, which is giving rise to new challenges for the Government and for RTÉ in terms of the need for reform. Audiences are transitioning away from traditional platforms and are increasingly accessing content online through digital media. Additional funding has been provided to RTÉ. Additional funding of €10 million was allocated to the broadcaster between 2018 and 2019.
In August, the Government accepted the recommendations of the working group on the future funding of public service broadcasting regarding the reform of the TV licence fee collection system. As a result, TV licence fee collection will be put out to tender when the enabling legislation - the Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2019, which recently passed Second Stage - is enacted. This will allow a five-year contract for the service to be put in place, thereby giving the successful bidder an opportunity and an incentive to invest in a collection system that reduces evasion levels, which are far too high. According to the official figure I have seen, the current evasion rate is 12.83%. This does not compare well with other countries. The Government has agreed that at the end of the five-year contract period, the licence fee should be replaced by a device-independent broadcasting charge, which will take account of technological change and will enable the sustainable funding of public service content in the longer term. That is welcome. It is not appropriate to continue to pay for public service broadcasting into the medium term by imposing a charge or a licence fee in respect of television ownership. We know that at least 10% of homes do not have televisions. People in those homes watch content online on tablets, iPads and computer screens.
We are adapting from a public policy perspective and from a funding approach perspective. It is important to say that even though RTÉ's commercial income decreased significantly during the recession - by €100 million, from €250 million to €150 million - it was in a position to break even in 2013 and 2014. Its commercial revenue has been largely stable since then. It remained at approximately €150 million between 2013 and 2018. Licence fee revenues increased from €179 million to €189 million over the same period. RTÉ's operating costs increased by approximately 11% during that period. We will play our part from a policy point of view. We expect RTÉ to evolve and to make the decisions that are necessary to respond to dramatic changes in consumer approaches to media.
Nothing the Tánaiste said is new. At a time when this country's entire media industry, including RTÉ, is on life support, his prescription is tea and sympathy. He needs to wake up. He has spoken about new challenges, but we have known about these challenges for five years. The Government intends to kick the can down the road for another five years. Will we have a media industry in five years' time?
I would like the Tánaiste to answer a few questions. When was the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment informed about RTÉ's plans? Has he meet representatives of RTÉ? No reference has been made to Raidió na Gaeltachta or TG4 in any of the plans. What is the future of Raidió na Gaeltachta and TG4 in the context of these plans? Tá sé an-tábhachtach go mbeidh seirbhísí raidió agus teilifíse againn trí mheán na Gaeilge. The Tánaiste has spoken about licence fee evasion rates, but changing tendering is not going to magically change evasion rates. What are the Government's specific proposals in this regard? The reform of the defamation laws is crucial for independent print journalism in particular.
The attitude is to again kick the can down the road and carry out a review. Meanwhile, newspapers are closing and journalists are losing their jobs. Good media outlets are dying on the vine while the Government whistles past the graveyard. Let this be a wake-up call. Redundancies have been made by Virgin Media and Times Ireland. Now RTÉ, for the third time in as many years, has announced redundancies. When will the Government wake up?
My understanding is that RTÉ was not expecting to have to deal with this issue today. Dee Forbes spoke on today's edition of "Morning Ireland" and explained the frustration within RTÉ at the news being leaked and the subject of a report on the front page of The Irish Times such that more than 1,800 RTÉ employees read in the newspaper of decisions about which they should have been first informed within RTÉ. There is significant frustration within RTÉ at the leak, but that is how modern media works - it is instantaneous. When information is leaked, it is made public very quickly. RTÉ and other media outlets have taken that approach, so we should not get into the blame game in that respect.
That said, the Government must now respond to a detailed plan from RTÉ. We will assess it and work with the organisation. The Minister recently met representatives of RTÉ and will do so again. We had an idea of the approach to be put forward in the plan. The answer to the Deputy's question is that the Minister only received a complete plan this morning from RTÉ and needs time to assess it fully.
Yesterday, I heard the Fianna Fáil leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, speak on RTÉ radio and tar entire communities on the Border as being lawless and out of control. He did likewise in the House on Tuesday. I raise this issue because that is not the case. As a representative of a Border county, I know that no one is more disgusted at the recent attacks on Kevin Lunney and the threats made to the directors of the Quinn group of companies than the people and communities in the area where Quinn group workers live and raise their families. It is not good enough to paint entire communities as complicit in these activities.
The actions of small groups of criminals cannot be used as an excuse to insult or demonise people who live and work in the Border region.
My colleagues, Deputies Ó Caoláin and Martin Kenny, Michelle Gildernew and other Sinn Féin representatives met representatives of the Quinn group last Friday and relayed the message to them that local people in those communities are appalled at and disgusted by the recent attacks on Kevin Lunney and the threats to the company's directors. I am sure Members will agree that anybody who watched the interview with Kevin Lunney on the BBC "Spotlight" programme earlier this week could not be unmoved by his testimony and bravery, and would have been appalled at and revulsed by the brutal attack he underwent. Everybody should be free to go about their business without threats or intimidation, no matter where or for whom they work. This matter must be tackled urgently. It is a serious criminal issue, as well as being of serious economic concern to communities in the Border region.
As Deputies are aware, the Quinn group directly employs 850 workers and indirectly supports up to 2,500 employees on both sides of the Border. This morning, the Quinn group issued a statement that unless the threats are stopped, the owners will be forced to reassess their approach to their investment in the company. If they were to pull out, it would have a serious detrimental effect on those who work directly or indirectly for the group and be a blow to the entire region and its economic fortunes. Now is the time to act with the requisite urgency, put these criminals out of business and ensure the full rigours of the law come down upon them.
We are told that the Garda is making progress in its investigations but, thus far, there have been no arrests. The required mechanism for cross-Border policing co-operation to bring those responsible to justice is already in place. Is this an issue of resourcing that mechanism? Last Tuesday, the Taoiseach accepted there is a need for additional Garda resources in the region. That analysis is correct. That being the case, what will the Government do about this? What additional resources will it ensure are allocated to the investigation and the wider Border region to support communities which wish to ensure that activities such as the attack on Kevin Lunney and the threats to the directors, as well as many other criminal activities, are prevented and that crimes committed are detected and those responsible arrested and brought to face the full rigours of the law?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue which has understandably been a topic of debate this week and last, given the horrific intimidation and brutal kidnapping, assault and torture of Kevin Lunney. I reiterate the support of the Government and the House for Kevin and his family and, indeed, all who work in the broader Quinn group. I too was a little surprised that Deputy Micheál Martin referred to the Border area as "lawless", but this is not a time for party political point scoring. Members of the House need to work together to support the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and the Garda, working with the PSNI and communities to bring an end to intimidation and to secure arrests. We need to put resources in place to do that. The Minister and the Taoiseach met the Garda Commissioner and senior Quinn directors, and the Minister met Kevin Lunney.
Significant resources have been put in place in Border regions in recent times. Garda deployment in all areas of the country, and the northern region in particular, has benefited from increased Garda recruitment over the past three years. Due to Government funding, Garda strength in the northern region has increased to approximately 1,500, an increase of 150 since 2017. These gardaí are supported by approximately 160 civilians in the region, compared with 116 at the end of 2016. As of 30 September, 373 gardaí were assigned to the Cavan-Monaghan division, supported by 47 Garda staff and eight reserves.
We now have an armed support unit in Cavan.
On the calls of Fianna Fáil and others for a cross-Border task force, the joint agency task force was established by the Fresh Start agreement signed and negotiated by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, who was then Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is now being implemented and is led by senior officers of An Garda Síochána, the PSNI, the Revenue Commissioners and the UK Revenue and Customs. The Criminal Assets Bureau and the UK National Crime Agency are also involved.
We cannot go into the detail of operational policing matters, but it is important to state that the Garda Commissioner confirmed to the Minister that progress is being made in the police investigations around this case. It will remain a continuing priority until arrests are secured.
I acknowledge we are being told that progress is being made, but we must ensure that those involved in the commission and orchestration of this brutal attack are apprehended. This is a serious issue with implications for the entire region and its economic fortunes. The livelihoods of the 850 employees and 2,500 indirectly in employment as a result of the work of these directors and the success of the company could be placed in jeopardy. The threats against the company have been going on for years.
They have only been acted upon recently, and we have seen the physical manifestations of that. We need to ask whom these actions serve. They definitely do not serve the community or those people working directly or indirectly with Quinn Insurance. This only benefits those who stand to benefit personally from these actions. The criminals responsible need to be brought to justice - that is vital - but the individual or individuals behind the campaign need to be identified and the same force and rigours of the law need to be brought to bear on that person or persons.
The Taoiseach said there was a need for additional resources. Just yesterday, I got a letter from a person in a successful company on the Border. That person told me there has been numerous assaults and other problems but they no longer contact the Garda because it is a waste of time. This week, somebody who was seriously intoxicated was on the premises. The people in the company phoned the Garda and it took an hour for the Garda to respond. Within that hour the person left. They got into their car and drove on to a national road. The people in that company asked me, and I ask it of the House, what if somebody had been killed? What if somebody's mother lost their life as a result of that? We have a serious issue with lack of resources in Border communities and, unfortunately, the Government is not dealing with it. While we need additional resources for this investigation, we also need to ensure no other crimes are allowed to be committed as a result of a lack of resources.
I will address the resources issue first. The Border region has been prioritised by the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice and Equality. We have seen more Garda vehicles, more Garda personnel, more civilians working alongside gardaí in stations and in administration, more Garda reservists, and the setting up of an armed support unit for An Garda Síochána. We have had the personal engagement of the Minister and the Commissioner with people who have been subject to totally unacceptable intimidation. Resources are being focused on the Border counties and we have probably a closer level of co-operation with the PSNI than we have ever had in the past. We need to continue that priority focus until we deal with some of the issues that all parties in the House have been commenting on and angered by in recent weeks.
However, even in the context of the intimidation in recent years, the Garda has clarified that a number of arrests have been made in connection with the incidents relating to employees and property of QIH, and files have been forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. No charges have been directed at this time in respect of those investigations, but they are still ongoing.
I assure the Deputy that this is a high priority right at the top of Government. I am conscious of the concerns over jobs that are potentially at risk if we cannot deal with the policing challenges here. However, I assure the Deputy that the Government will continue to focus on successful prosecutions of people who belong in jail rather than intimidating their communities as they have been doing.
There are many promises made in the programme for Government in the area of health, but there has been a serious deterioration in the health service being delivered to people during the lifetime of the Government. Almost every area of the health service is in crisis. Today I will deal with the issue of home care hours. During the past year there has been an embargo on the provision of new home care hours. The home help service, vital in ensuring that elderly people can remain in their homes, remains largely closed to new applicants until January 2020 at a time when almost 7,500 people are on waiting lists. The only new home help hours being sanctioned are more or less recycled hours that become available when a person in receipt of home help dies and those hours are reallocated. No new hours have been allocated for a long time.
In my constituency of Cork South-West hundreds of people are waiting for home help. One of these people has been in Bantry General Hospital since June and has been ready to be discharged since September. However, this patient is wheelchair-bound and cannot return home without home help. My office has made representations on behalf of this man several times, but no home help hours have been made available. Therefore, he must remain in hospital, occupying an acute bed and at a high risk of picking up an infection. Lying in bed week after week is detrimental to his physical and mental well-being, while this man could be back in his own home with a minimum amount of home help. Another of my constituents is a woman with stage 4 cancer. Her family has been repeatedly told that no home help hours are available to her.
I know hundreds of others in a similar position to these patients. This is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to people looking for new home help hours. These people need help with everyday simple tasks such as getting out of bed, washing, dressing, attending to personal care, feeding and taking medication. The most basic things that we all take for granted are being denied to these vulnerable people.
I have heard from home helps throughout the country that the situation is at crisis level such that where an existing home help goes out sick, no replacement home help is available and many elderly and vulnerable are forced to stay in bed and wait until the home help returns while receiving a basic level of care from a kind-hearted neighbour who is untrained to look after a vulnerable person with special care requirements. This embargo completely contradicts everything the Government has said about supporting community-based care and helping people to remain in their homes for as long as possible. It also contradicts the principles of Sláintecare whose focus is on shifting care from the acute sector to the community.
In my constituency I know of several cases of elderly people who are being placed in residential care because their families cannot provide the care they need without home help support. These people could stay at home under a modest HSE home care package among their family and friends in their own community at little cost to the State. Instead, many have no choice but to go down the fair deal route, forcing people to end their days away from family and people they value most and at an enormous expense to the State.
It is widely accepted that due to medical advances in the previous century, people are living longer, and therefore forward planning is vital to ensure people have a good quality of life, even in old age. That includes enabling them to remain in their own homes for as long as possible with the provision of a home help as a basic support.
While I acknowledge that 1 million extra hours were announced in the budget, that is a quarter of what is needed to clear the backlog that has built up, and they will only become available in 2020. I ask the Government to lift the embargo on new home help hours. Will the Tánaiste instruct the Minister, Deputy Harris, to lift this embargo and give these vulnerable people the home help they need immediately as a matter of extreme urgency?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I know it is a very important issue for many households in different parts of the country. The challenge with home help hours and home supports is a very personal one for many households. The Government is committing significant increases in resources to provide more home care hours all the time. A €26 million fund has been made available for winter funding for the HSE. This is to provide new hours and to support hospital discharges where possible. The Government has invested an additional €52 million to bring the total funding for home supports to €487 million for next year. In 2020, the HSE will deliver in excess of 19.2 million hours of home supports, which I suspect is significantly higher than we have ever done before.
This represents a substantial increase of 1 million extra hours more than this year's target. This investment is focused on enabling older people to remain at home when they want to and reducing the current waiting list for a service being experienced in almost all areas. As appropriate, provision of hours will also be targeted at times of peak demand in winter 2020, at the beginning and the end of the year, to ensure more timely support is given in order that people can stay out of hospital and live with dignity in their own homes.
I accept that there is more demand than available resource, but we have to operate within the funding available to us. We are making an extra €52 million available next year and an extra 1 million hours throughout the country. That will have a significant and positive impact.
I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. At the outset I said there had been a serious deterioration in the health service being delivered to the people during the lifetime of the Government. Waiting lists are growing longer. Every day I am fighting to get people off trolleys and given a bed in Cork hospitals. SouthDoc services in parts of west Cork, particularly Castletownbere, have collapsed and SouthDoc in the rest of west Cork is on the verge of collapse. People in pain waiting for hip and knee surgery are being left in pain. People urgently waiting for cataract operations are left to go blind and this has all happened on the Government's watch. The list of failures is endless and the people of west Cork and elsewhere feel the pain. I have raised the issue of the lack of home help hours many times in the Dáil.
On 30 May last, I raised the issue of the embargo on new home help hours with the Minister of State with responsibility for older people but like the Tánaiste he defended the Government line. We read in the press in the past week that, while addressing a Home and Community Care Ireland conference recently, the Minister of State said he felt ashamed at the waiting list for home help hours. By July of this year, the number waiting for home help hours had reached more than 7,300. The home help service is in crisis. Constituents of mine now tell me that people will not get home help if they are actively dying. They have to be on a morphine pump to qualify for home help. This is an outrage. If we lived in a State where accountability was the norm, heads at the top would roll. The 1 million hours in the budget is far too little far too late. Will the Tánaiste instruct the Minister for Health to lift the home help embargo immediately?
There is no home help embargo. We all need to be accurate in what we say in this House, particularly when we are talking about people's health and elder care in the home. The Deputy should reflect on some of his commentary on that. I am not saying that many people are not frustrated, under pressure and on waiting lists, they are. I am also saying, however, that we will have over 19 million hours of home supports funded next year. That is a significant increase on what we have seen.
In respect of investment in healthcare infrastructure in the Deputy's area, there has been significant investment in Bantry hospital, which the Deputy has advocated for at different times. There are sectors and elements within the health service that are under pressure and have had recruitment difficulties but there are also success stories in the health service. We need to continue to focus our investment and prioritise where it is needed most to make sure we have recruitment campaigns where there is pressure. However, we also need to operate within budgets, otherwise parties in this House will rightly criticise the Government for dramatically increased Estimates at the end of the year for money that has not been accounted for. We have to try to balance all of those pressures and provide the best possible health service we can, while spending more money than this country has ever spent on healthcare annually.
As a former Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, I do not suppose the Tánaiste will be surprised that I and others are very critical of the long-term use of the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. It is a system that artificially inflates the market and is the single biggest transfer of public funds to private landlords in the history of the State.
One aspect of this system that has worsened considerably in recent months is the processing times. The delay in processing applications now averages nine weeks. I will use Kildare County Council as an example. It is now processing applications made in August. This means that anyone who had found accommodation has to come up with the deposit, the one month's rent in advance, the October rent and now the November rent is due. If that was totalled up for most parts of the country, it would amount to between €6,000 and €8,000. HAP is paid to people who cannot pay the rents so it does not take a genius to figure out that this is a real problem and people are borrowing money, if they can do that. The tenant and landlord are effectively in limbo. If someone fails to pay the rent after securing a tenancy, the landlord has the right to issue a 14 day notice to pay the rent or consider the tenancy terminated. I have spoken to genuine landlords and letting agents who do not want to be issuing notices to quit but cannot forgo two or three months of rent with little chance of its being backdated. This is a very serious issue. Fair is fair. One letting agent told me that if he advertised a property in Kildare or west Dublin, he would expect to receive between 150 and 160 emails within 24 hours. Of those, 70% would potentially be HAP tenants. The people who are not HAP tenants have a better chance of getting the accommodation.
There is a very real legal implication where there is a clear failure of Government policy. Once people are deemed eligible for HAP, they are deemed to have had their housing need met and are removed from the social housing waiting list. In the meantime, if their application is not processed in a timely fashion and their tenancy is legally terminated as a result, they are effectively homeless and have lost their place on the housing waiting list. Is the Tánaiste aware that this significant issue will add to the number of people becoming homeless? This is the origin of some of that homelessness and it has to be addressed urgently. What is the Government doing or going to do about this?
I would like to talk to the Deputy in a bit more detail about some of the problems she has just outlined. I am very familiar with HAP tenancies. I was a Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government when we saw a shift away from rent allowance towards HAP because it provided more security of tenure for tenants and also more security and consistency for landlords as they were dealing with local authorities for payments rather than directly with tenants. It also had more flexibility for tenants in terms of the support that local authorities could give. Last year, 17,926 people moved into HAP. It is a big part of social housing supports right now. We will see an extra 10,000 social housing units coming into the stock of social housing this year and over time we will see less reliance on the private rental market to accommodate people who cannot afford to find accommodation themselves and more reliance on providing them directly with social housing. As we build up our social housing stock, we will continue to rely on the private rental market. We have to try to implement a model that gives as much certainty to tenants as possible and as much consistency as possible to landlords too. That is what HAP attempts to do and does it reasonably well.
If there are delays taking place or there are problems in HAP that create vulnerabilities, in particular for tenants, I would be interested in hearing about them. The Government is not stuck to one approach. We are constantly adapting and amending and trying to improve social housing provision through all the different ways we do that. If there are details of problems in County Kildare, the Deputy can feed them through to me if she wants and I will certainly talk to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and we will try to address it, if there is a genuine concern that needs a policy response.
I used Kildare as an example. The issue is not unique to Kildare and the Tánaiste should please pay attention to that point. I appreciate that things will be done and I hope they are done to a greater extent. Maybe the election will intervene to accelerate that because it is a huge issue. When HAP was introduced the resources were allocated to an agency in Limerick that would pay the amount to the person approved. Approval happens at local authority level and that is where the delay is. Either there are not enough resources or they are not being allocated to this. I am seeing people evicted and taken off the housing list who become homeless. I am not the only one. I do not expect that I am some sort of a magnet for these cases. I expect that other Deputies are seeing them too, including Deputies in the Tánaiste's party.
I do not mind saying that I have been somewhat of a magnet for people to come and talk about social housing concerns and housing concerns generally because I was a Minister in that Department. I do not mind that because we are trying to help families, not expose them to the dangers and vulnerabilities of homelessness. We have an overreliance at the moment on the private rental sector for social housing solutions but that reliance is shrinking each year as we build up our social housing stock, which will increase by more than 10,000 this year and probably closer to 12,000 next year. We are seeing dramatic investment. Our housing budget for next year is, I believe, €2.63 billion. It has increased dramatically over the past four or five years because housing is needed and is a priority for Government. If we are starting with a stock that is too small, we have to increase that stock and provide viable, safe solutions for people in the meantime.
That is where HAP has been a good improvement on rent allowance. However, this does not mean that it is perfect. If there are problems with individual local authorities in terms of processing times, as well as the time it takes to make decisions and approvals, I would like to hear about them and we will try and respond as best we can.