Tuesday, 12 November 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The business this week shall be as set out in the second revised report of the Business Committee, dated 11 November 2019.
Regarding today's business, it is proposed that No. 13, motion re the proposed recommendation by Dáil Éireann of the reappointment of An Coimisinéir Teanga, referral to committee; No. 14 motion re ministerial rota for parliamentary questions for the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs, Employment and Social Affairs, Transport, Tourism and Sport and Business, Enterprise and Innovation; and No. 14amotion re proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of the terms of the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement between the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and their member states, and the Republic of Armenia, referral to committee, shall be taken without debate and any divisions demanded thereon shall be taken immediately.
Regarding Wednesday’s business, it is proposed that No. 60, Consumer Insurance Contracts Bill 2017, Report and Final Stages, shall be taken in Private Members' time; and No. 33, statements on the provision of accommodation and ancillary services to applicants for international protection shall commence not later than 8.55 p.m. and the order shall not resume thereafter. Statements of a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons of parties and groups, or Members nominated in their stead, shall not exceed ten minutes each, with ten minutes for all other Members and a five-minute response from a Minister or Minister of State, and all Members may share time.
In relation to Thursday’s business, it is proposed that in the event that Second Stage of the Social Welfare (No. 2) Bill 2019 has not concluded, the Dáil shall sit at 9.30 a.m. to resume Second Stage of the Bill. If the proceedings on Second Stage conclude before 10.30 a.m., the Dáil shall suspend until 10.30 a.m. No. 34, statements on the financial challenges facing RTÉ and its revised strategy for the period 2020 to 2024, shall conclude within 85 minutes. Statements shall be confined to a single round for a Minister or a Minister of State and the main spokespersons of parties and groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, and shall not exceed ten minutes each, with a five-minute response from a Minister or a Minister of State, and all Members may share time. In relation to No. 35, statements on progressing children’s disability services, the statements of a Minister or a Minister of State and the main spokespersons of parties and groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, shall not exceed ten minutes each; there will be ten minutes for all other Members, with a five-minute response from a Minister or a Minister of State, and all Members may share time.
There are three proposals to be put to the House. First, are the proposals for dealing with today's business agreed to? Agreed. Are the proposals for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to?
I want to raise a matter that should be inserted for discussion tomorrow, that is, the ongoing boil water notice that is affecting 600,000 people. If it is decided by Irish Water and Fingal County Council not to lift the boil water notice today, it will merits a Dáil debate because, frankly, it is a major problem-----
It was not known last Thursday that the boil water notice would be extended to Tuesday. My point is that if it is extended further, the matter will be of national importance because we will have a water system that is not serving the needs of 600,000 people.
Representatives of Irish Water spent hours at the Oireachtas joint committee last week speaking about this issue. There will be a meeting at 3 p.m. today and the result of that meeting will mean that there will not be a need to have this item discussed tomorrow on the Order of Business. We should, if we want to make time available in the future, have a proper discussion about water services and water quality, particularly at the Leixlip plant, because there have been two recent boil water notices. I will have no problem in that regard, but I do not think it will be necessary to discuss this item tomorrow, following the meeting at 3 p.m. today, without getting ahead of the process.
Are the proposals for dealing with tomorrow's business agreed to? Agreed. Are the proposals for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed. Twenty-nine Deputies have indicated that they want to contribute on the Order of Business.
As we are down by over six minutes, we will have to look at that issue at the Business Committee. Our party, being the largest, believes it is continuously under-provided for in the Order of Business procedure.
Four months ago a decision was taken to approve the drug, Spinraza, for children suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, SMA. Deputy Ó Caoláin, in fairness to him, organised a cross-party presentation by families affected by this degenerative condition, which affects young children and other young people. Their hopes were lifted when that decision was taken in June, but that hope has evaporated for many families because four months on, only three of the 25 have been given the treatment. This is a rare condition, as the Taoiseach knows. It is very cruel to raise the hopes of people facing a significant chronic condition such as this that the drug will be approved and then do nothing to follow through on that decision. It is very hard and very cruel and it is causing real anguish to the families.
I ask the Taoiseach to talk to the Minister for Health. The parents are being told that the hospital concerned, Temple Street, will have to apply for 2020 funding to put in a new service-----
-----to administer the drug to some of the children involved. All this should have been done at the time of the decision, and there should be no excuses. For God's sake, will the Taoiseach do the human thing and just get the Government to sort this out with Temple Street and any other hospital that requires the wherewithal to follow through on the decision to treat these children who desperately need this drug? It is a degenerative condition, and the Taoiseach knows what that means if they do not get access to the new treatment.
As the Deputy knows, the drug has been approved for reimbursement. I am not sure what the cause of the delay has been in ensuring that these children get the medicine they need. I am told a meeting about the matter is to be held on 24 November. I will check into it with the Minister for Health and the Department of Health and get the Deputy a more detailed reply in the next couple of days.
The programme for Government commits to the plans set out by Irish Water to continue to upgrade the dilapidated national water infrastructure. Currently 615,000 people in parts of Dublin, Kildare and Meath do not know whether their water is safe to drink. That is a huge proportion of the population. While the Minister has, it is fair to say, inferred the outcome of a meeting later this afternoon, it does not tell us much about the coming months and years, whatever about the coming days, and whether the water will be safe to drink in the future or whether the people in this area can expect boil water notices every time it rains heavily. During the last notice, my party leader raised with the Government an EPA report on the Leixlip plant, published in March of this year, which found serious operational failures that could have led to contamination. The report issued eight recommendations and stipulated that Irish Water should submit a report to the agency "within one month of the date of this audit report detailing how it has dealt with the issues of concern identified during this audit".
I will ask my questions now. Was that instrument related to, or a repetition of, what occurred in March? Can the Minister affirm that the plant in Leixlip is fit for purpose, reliable and has the ability to protect water in the long term?
There is a lot in the Deputy's question, and a number of hours were spent detailing these issues last week at the Oireachtas joint committee. What I can say is that the March event and the October event were two different types of event. One concerned chemical treatment, the other biological treatment. The root cause of why we had to issue a boil water notice in October was that in both instances, the emergency alarm that was activated did not lead to a stop in production. That has since been remedied. There is now an automatic kill switch where the alarm is raised. That was recommended to be put in in March and Irish Water wanted it to be put in in March. That was resisted by the plant operator but it is now in place. The latest boil water notice that is in place at the moment, which we hope will be lifted very soon, is for a separate reason related to filtration systems, which are getting investment at present under the funding we put in place. Those filters are being worked on, and the sooner they can be finished, the more the risk of further boil water notices recedes.
Investment is incredibly important. Just yesterday we turned the sod on €39 million going into new wastewater treatment services in Kildare. I was with the Deputy in Cork on Friday, when we were at the site of social houses being constructed at present. Before that I was at the new treatment plant on the River Lee, which has not been invested in in 50 years. These types of investment will protect people into the future. We have identified the Leixlip plant previously as being of particular concern. That is why those investments are under way.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, has been forced yet again to deny that there has been another delay to the national broadband plan. Last week, I reminded the House that a private operator, Imagine, had warned as early as February, before the Government signed off on the plan, that this could lead to difficulties with EU state aid approval. It has now emerged that the Regional Internet Service Providers Association, the industry body which represents smaller rural wireless operators, is also considering taking a legal challenge to the plan on state aid grounds. There is real uncertainty now at the 11th hour.
Can the Taoiseach clarify if the current delay is due to the objection to the Government's application of EU state aid rules and, if so, what is the potential cost to the taxpayer if this challenge is successful? Can the preferred bidder, Granahan McCourt, apply for additional compensation from Government for encroachment by other operators of high-speed broadband before deployment of the plan?
This matter is with the European Commission at the moment. The Commission is assessing our submission in favour of state aid being granted for this project and any other observations that are made by any third parties on whose behalf I cannot speak. That is being assessed by the European Commission as we speak and we will, hopefully, have a positive announcement with regard to state aid clearance in the next couple of weeks.
It is, of course, open to anyone to take a legal challenge and that is why I counsel people who think that an alternative to the national broadband plan could be done less expensively and more quickly. This process has taken a long time. It was a detailed procurement process that was open to challenge all the way. We should not be under any illusions that if we do not go ahead with the national broadband plan, it will mean going back to square one, which will delay this project by three to five years.
As a result of the refusal of Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to raise the income thresholds for social housing, hundreds of housing applicants who are hard-working people are being thrown off the list. It is happening every week. I have some examples. Sinéad, who had been on the list for eight years, was thrown off it because she did three months of temporary overtime for a sick colleague. Lorraine was thrown off the list after 15 years because her husband was doing some extra hours at work. The stress broke up their relationship. Vanessa had been on the list for 15 years. She was reassessed just before she got a house and was thrown off the list, after 15 years waiting, and is now facing eviction from private rented accommodation. Orla was reassessed to include the income of her husband who did not live with her anymore. She was thrown off the list and lost credit for the years she had spent on it.
This is going on every week. These are working people whose income is too low to pay excessive rents or buy on the open market and they are being culled from the list, week after week. The Minister has promised to do something about these income thresholds for two years and has done nothing.
The Housing Agency is looking at the income thresholds for social housing eligibility. There are a number of reforms that we need to make about how we manage social housing homes, including in the areas of rents, succession rights, tenant purchase and income eligibility thresholds. For those reforms to make sense, they must be connected to each other. That work is awaiting the outcome of a larger package of social housing reforms, which is almost at completion and almost ready to go to Cabinet.
There are four and a half pages in clár oibre don Rialtas in respect of mental health and a full commitment to the operation and implementation of A Vision for Change. We have now been informed of an underspend of at least €12 million, which is to go back into the general coffers. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that this will not happen. The commitment in A Vision for Change is full operation and recognises geographic accessibility. There are at least four delayed discharges from the department of psychiatry of a Galway hospital because of a lack of funding. There are a number of vacancies and a door in a brand new unit cannot be repaired. I ask the Taoiseach to tell the Dáil that he does not intend to allow €12 million to be returned to the general coffers of the HSE and that it will be kept for mental health spending in the areas that need it.
There should not be any issue. I would be concerned if there were an issue. If the Deputy is telling me that a minor issue is being held up because of funding in the Department in Galway, I would like to hear the details of that. If the Deputy sends me the details after this debate, I will have the matter checked out for her. As she knows, there has been a significant increase in mental health funding since 2012. It has improved drastically. There is an issue with whether all of the €12 million under a particular subhead will be spent by the end of the year. We have a budget of €1 billion. In other words, we will spend €1,000 million on mental health this year. If the Deputy sends me the details of the issue, I will be quite happy to check it out for her.
According to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, the number of people without hospital beds - on trolleys, chairs, window ledges or whatever else they can sit on - so far this year has reached 100,457. I am sure the Taoiseach does not dispute these figures. Some 6,040 of these unfortunate people have been waiting for days at South Tipperary General Hospital, which covers south Tipperary, west Waterford and much of north Tipperary. It is shocking that a 102 year old recently had to wait on a trolley for two and a half days. South Tipperary General Hospital has been particularly badly hit because it is an old building and these trolleys have to be placed along narrow corridors. It is totally unsuitable. It is a fire hazard. It is totally unfair to the front-line staff - the nurses and doctors - who are trying to triage and do everything else. As the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, will be aware, they are also dealing with mental health - people with psychotic attacks and everything else - because we do not have any acute area where people with those kinds of issues can be attended to. The figures for the year to date are shocking because the winter has not yet arrived. The situation in our country today is truly shocking. It is just not right.
In December 2018, the Minister for Health announced that agreement had been reached with St. Vincent's Healthcare Group for the Sisters of Charity to withdraw completely from that operation. He said it was guaranteed that the new National Maternity Hospital would be retained in public ownership and with public ethos. Eleven months later, that agreement has yet to be finalised. We were promised the legal documents early in 2019, but no legal documents are available. In recent days, we have learned that this agreement will require the approval of the Vatican if it is to proceed. Does the Taoiseach accept that it was reckless of the Government to commit €43 million to the first phase of this hospital while it is still essentially in the private ownership of the Sisters of Charity? Can he give the House a guarantee that no further public money will be spent on the new National Maternity Hospital until that agreement has been absolutely signed and sealed?
I think we made the right decision when we decided to replace our very old and out of date maternity hospitals with new buildings and to co-locate them on the sites of adult hospitals. Holles Street hospital will be co-located with St. Vincent's hospital, the Rotunda Hospital will be co-located with Blanchardstown hospital and the Coombe will be co-located at the new healthcare campus beside the children's hospital and St. James's Hospital. All three of those hospitals, including Holles Street, are privately owned. The difference is that when the new ones are built, they will be publicly owned. They will be State-owned buildings on State land. We need to sort out the details of the legal transfer over the next couple of weeks.
A successful meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and 'Fake News' was held in the Oireachtas last week. It was attended by representatives of parliaments from several other countries and by global experts on the serious issue of the effects of social media on political debate. There was a great deal of debate on the merits or otherwise of political advertising, particularly micro-targeted advertising, on social networks.
It is not in the public sphere; it is open to outside influence and gives undue power to money over argument. People may have differing views on whether we should allow such advertising but there was clear agreement on the recommendations of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and 'Fake News' that there should be transparency on what is happening in that regard. Does the Taoiseach agree that we need to change the rules of this House such that before the end of the year, each Member gives a full account of how much he or she has spent on social media advertising and what micro-targeting has taken place, and that the same be done in advance of the election next year? As the location for many social media companies' European headquarters, it is critical that we set the highest standards. Such standards require transparency. Can we commit to such transparency on Members' social media advertising?
It is important to note that online and offline political advertising includes advertising by people who wish to change politics, referendums or the Constitution. It is not just political party advertising. All such advertising needs to be regulated online, as is the case offline. The Government has agreed to bring forward legislation in the first half of next year to provide for such regulation. It will go further than the regulations governing print media in terms of the amount of money being spent, whether it is targeted and so on. The proposals are contained in the latest report published by the Government's interdepartmental group, which is examining this issue. We have committed to legislate for political advertising online in the first half of next year.
The dramatic escalation of the timetable for closure of the two ESB power plants in the midlands stands in stark contrast to the European experience. For example, when the German federal ministry for economic affairs and energy outlined its plan to completely phase out coal no later than 2038 in line with recommendations of the German coal commission, it was able to do so without the closure of any major power stations. We know that unions insisted that workers would not allow themselves to be the victims of those who make big promises in climate policy but let others pay the bill. Will the Minister insist that Bord na Móna and ESB workers receive parity with their European counterparts in terms of employment transition and redundancy measures? Bord na Móna workers are aggrieved regarding redundancy packages, which fall far short of those offered to their Spanish and German counterparts.
The House will be aware that it was the intention of the Government to have a phased withdrawal from peat. This involved a proposal to co-fire peat with biomass. Unfortunately, An Bord Pleanála rejected that planning application. The ESB carefully evaluated whether it would be possible to secure a successful counter-application to overcome the refusal but, as the Deputy is aware, it indicated last Friday that that would not be possible. Since this possibility first surfaced in the summer, we have been preparing an alternative approach to develop job opportunities for people in the midlands and employees of Bord na Móna. That was reflected in the budget, as well as the work we have done with Europe to get public service obligation moneys to support rehabilitation in the bogs to a very high standard.
Is the Taoiseach aware of the possible closure of Cuisle, an Irish Wheelchair Association holiday centre in County Roscommon? It has been described as devastating news for anyone who has an impairment. The centre does not just cater for people in wheelchairs. The Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues, Deputy Finian McGrath, stated in reply to a parliamentary question that there will be a move away from large holiday-type centres and towards hotel accommodation. The problem with that is that many hotels do not have the required facilities or supports. Does the Taoiseach agree that we should be moving towards having more of these centres rather than fewer? People are again being excluded. The centre provided a respite service for many families throughout the State who are being left in a situation whereby they have nowhere to go for a holiday or a break.
This holiday centre has been used by many people from across the country even from my constituency. The Irish Wheelchair Association has run it very well. It needs some refurbishment work. It is preposterous to suggest closing it down. We know that in future generations people with disabilities will need such services. It is atrocious that this is being taken away from people now.
I thank the Deputies for raising the question. I think the decision being made is regrettable. I know people have used that facility many times. I have met one or two of them and they had a very good experience there. They want to have the option of being able to go to the Cuisle centre or perhaps to go to hotels with access for people with disabilities. It will also have a negative impact on the economy in the region because a number of people work there.
Ultimately as I understand it, this is a decision for the Irish Wheelchair Association and not one for Government. Perhaps it is one the association might reconsider.
Today is the final day for filing with the Revenue Online Service, ROS. I have had a number of calls from agents in Kerry and I believe throughout the country the service has crashed and has been out of commission for a number of hours. It was supposed to be back up at 2.45 p.m. and it is still not back up. I ask the Taoiseach to contact the Minister for Finance to give a short extension to this deadline to facilitate those trying to make today's deadline.
As the Taoiseach will know, there are proposed structural changes to pharmacy fees. Unfortunately, this will hit rural pharmacies which dispense on average 2,000 to 3,000 items per month. This will very likely put them out of business. Only last week these same small businesses received a revision on their rates. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure the Minister, when making the new pharmacy contract, keeps in line with Government policy which the Taoiseach continually states is for it to rural-proof all its policies. When the new contract is being made up I want it to take into account that we want to keep our small pharmacies, an integral part of life in rural areas. We do not want them to close down like other businesses and we want them to survive.
-----with a good spread around the country. I can certainly make a commitment that the Minister before making any changes to fees or regulations will consult the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, and take on board its views.
Marine Notice 42/2019 relating to the Work in Fishing Convention 2007, International Labour Organization, is due to be implemented on Friday, 15 November. Fishermen were asked for submissions on this and the four producer organisations got together and sent in joint submissions. They heard nothing and there has been no discussion since sending in those submissions in the middle of December 2018. However, this is to be implemented on Friday. I am today asking the Taoiseach for an extension of this. The fishermen agree that safety is paramount. One of the requirements is that all fishermen be certified fit to fish by Friday, which seems impossible. This would be very difficult to do with rural GPs being stretched as it is, without every fisherman in the country seeking this certification. I am asking the Taoiseach for an extension beyond Friday.
I am afraid I am not across the detail of this. The Minister, Deputy Creed, is out of the country at the moment, but I will inform him the Deputy raised the matter in the Chamber and we will make sure she gets a reply to her query.
That concludes questions on promised legislation. Thirteen Deputies were not reached today. I point out to Members that many of the group leaders and party leaders take considerably more time than is allowed and therefore do not allow the time for their other Members to ask questions.