Wednesday, 20 November 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
He is meeting other leaders. What I am about to raise is important in terms of how the Government conducts itself and a strict adherence to the demarcation lines between officeholders and party political events. We raised this matter with the Government last April in respect of the utilisation of the national broadband plan for the local elections.
Yesterday, what should have been a formal, hands-off signing of a €3 billion contract between a private company and Government officeholders was turned into a nakedly political by-election event in County Wicklow, attended by Fine Gael non-officeholders, candidates and councillors.
The one Fianna Fáil Deputy who was there was not invited. The event took place at his former school and he found his way there. The Government organised a Fine Gael event. This is a serious occurrence which represents a blurring of office-holding and Government activity with party political campaigning.
That should not happen. Will the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment give an assurance that no public resources will be used to assist non-officeholders in the promotion of this initiative?
Will he confirm that no Fine Gael candidate will be provided with information in terms of campaigning? Will he take steps to suspend advertising and marketing in advance of the general election?
I assure the House that at every step in this process, we have been meticulous in ensuring that the public interest is protected. It was natural, at the signing of such an important contract, that we would have senior officials present who were involved in the development of the initiative.
We had children in the Chamber last week and their behaviour was better and certainly more orderly than that of Deputies today. The Minister has been asked a question and should be allowed to answer it.
A significant decision was made by the Government yesterday to sign a contract which will help to ensure that people in rural Ireland have access to high-speed broadband on the same basis as do people in urban communities. Signing the contract was an important event. In every interaction with those who are tendering for such a project, a Minister will, of course, be accompanied by officials. Indeed, the absence of officials at certain meetings in the past has been a matter of some controversy. This is a really important decision and it deserved the attention it got from Ministers across Government, who were glad to be part of an important announcement for the future of the country.
The programme for Government commits to prioritising the prevention and reduction of crime by providing investment in An Garda Síochána. Last week, my colleague, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, raised with the Taoiseach the crisis in Garda resources in Cork city and referred to reports showing that just two gardaí were available for patrol on one particular night. He asked the Taoiseach to meet the Garda Commissioner to raise these matters. The Taoiseach told Deputy O'Brien in response that he had not had time to speak to the Commissioner. I do not know whether he has made time to do so since then.
I was in Cork yesterday with Deputy O'Brien and our colleague, Councillor Thomas Gould, where I heard at first hand about the impact of this lack of Garda resources on communities in the city. Playgrounds have been destroyed, people are fearful to socialise in their own areas and there is desperate carry-on on the streets of the city, with intimidating and threatening behaviour from a small cohort of young people.
Today we learned that specially trained gardaí cannot take up their positions in a long-promised sexual offences investigation unit in west Cork because of a lack of personnel. Does the Government agree that the people of Cork have a right to feel safe on the streets of the city and in their homes? Does the Government appreciate that there is a real crisis in Garda resources and, if so, what does it propose to do about it?
The Minister for Justice and Equality was in the Chamber this morning for Question Time and is currently in committee answering more questions. I assure the Deputy that the Government has invested more than ever before in the Garda, with an unprecedented €1.882 billion allocated for 2020. There are more gardaí on the streets than at any time in the past.
There are more gardaí on the streets than ever before and more civilian staff than we have ever had. The Government is absolutely committed to providing the necessary resources to the Garda Síochána to enable it to carry out its job.
Even the best laid plans can go awry and yesterday's publicity stunt did not work as well as anticipated. However, I wish to raise a different issue. There is good news today in a report showing that the percentage of smokers in Ireland has fallen from 23% to 17%. However, obesity levels are among the highest in Europe, at 60% of the population. Smoking rates are highest among young people, the unemployed and those living in deprived areas. While education and information campaigns are vital, it is important, too, to look at best practice internationally. The Government's Healthy Ireland strategy involves all Departments and all agencies of State promoting healthy lifestyles, but that effort is not underpinned by law. In a world first, Wales has legislated for all public bodies to publish health impact assessments. Norway has legislated to recognise that economic inequality is a root cause of health inequalities. Does the Government have any plans for similar legislation? Health promotion is a critical part of our health strategy.
I agree that health promotion is critical. It was encouraging to hear this morning about the survey showing a reduction in the prevalence of smoking. Our aim is to have a tobacco-free Ireland and we will be unstinting in our efforts towards that end. I will bring to the Minister's attention the Welsh and Norwegian models to which the Deputy referred.
As I informed the Business Committee a few days ago, grassroots housing activists are planning a housing demonstration on 5 December and have requested that Deputies, rather than attending the demonstration, have a debate in the House on solutions to the housing crisis. I hope that debate will be arranged. There are many reasons that people wish to protest, including the welfare of children, economic evictions and the lack of public housing. In light of the O'Devaney Gardens controversy and the determination of the Government and some of the Opposition parties to dispose of public land to private developers for the purposes of providing social and affordable housing, will the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government tell us how much the social housing element of those developments will cost us when we buy them back from the private developers to whom the land was given?
I thank the Deputy for his question. The O'Devaney Gardens site is an incredibly important one for the people of Dublin. Two years ago, a Sinn Féin-led majority in the local authority agreed a proposal for the site, and that proposal has been out to tender since then. We finally have a contractor but, at the 11th hour, councillors changed their mind and put this huge project at risk. At the very final hour, the Dublin agreement group, led by Fianna Fáil, put out a statement about an agreement that did not exist in an effort to get the deal through.
It is the policy of this Government that it is a public good to use public land for all of the public. That means having mixed housing on public sites, comprising social, affordable and private units.
We have the agreed breakdown now and as much as €100 million will go into the site. There are no policies from Fianna Fáil in this area and that is why its leader is heckling me while I am trying to answer. His party has no solutions for housing. It has supported Rebuilding Ireland for the past three years, during which time it has not produced its own housing plan, as promised. The party has not proposed to change one element of Rebuilding Ireland.
On the same subject, developers often want fast-track processes but, once permissions are granted, they keep coming back seeking higher heights, densities and so on. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, held a consultation on strategic housing development, to which I made a submission proposing that he end that process and return to democratic planning.
The Minister has talked about use it or lose it measures and has mentioned all kinds of dramatic moves to increase housing output. Is he serious about any of this? Will he bring forward any legislation? Is it not time to get rid of the strategic housing development, SHD, system that has failed? It has failed because two thirds of the sites with permission still have not been built on. Developers are still hoarding land. That is the key point. Will the Minister try to stop land hoarding by bringing forward urgent legislation?
-----when I was appointed as Minister. When it comes to fast-track planning, it has been successful in the delivery of thousands of homes. A number of sites have not been developed yet and that is why we are bringing forward the proposals for use it or lose it planning permission. In tandem with that, we are extending out the SHD process until the end of 2021, and in tandem with that, we are allowing for a greater degree of public consultation, recognising the fact that some communities feel they are not having enough of a say and recognising the fact we cannot see unnecessary delays to the development of large-scale housing where it is desperately needed.
I want to raise an issue the Minister of State at the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy D'Arcy, will know all about in his portfolio, namely, the cost of and unavailability of insurance to businesses, farmers and community and voluntary organisations. It is having a massive impact on our society. There are social farms as Deputy Michael Healy-Rae spoke about, there are community activities and there are farm activities that people have gone into to augment their incomes, and these people have given vital information, entertainment and value to the public. A company in England was insuring all the bouncy castles and it has withdrawn from the market. Rip-off Ireland is alive and well here and the barristers and everyone else are creaming it off. Unfortunately, small employers, of which I am one, cannot afford the claims and costs of insurance. It is worse altogether being told one cannot even get a quote. People will not even be quoted in many areas across society. It permeates in every sector and it is crippling our economy, country and entrepreneurial people who want to provide jobs.
-----announced the seven judges-designate who will take forward the recalibration of the guidelines. The biggest issue we have in Ireland is people have small damages and they look for massive awards. That era has to end and it is ending now.
Just listen. The Deputy does not have to be so ignorant all of the time. The seven justices, two from the Circuit Court, two from the High Court, one from the Court of Appeal, one from the Supreme Court and one from the District Court, will recalibrate the guidelines for awards downwards in line with other jurisdictions and in line with Court of Appeal awards.
I want to raise the issue of forestry services and the inaction in that part of agriculture. Hardly any felling licences have been granted this year. The building of roads has been held up, where farmers have invested money in forestry and they are not being allowed to build roads because of serial objectors objecting to permission for building these roads. The Government has angered and frustrated many farmers in rural areas by telling them that 2020 forestry premium payments must be applied for online. We hear the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, announcing broadband and we have heard this so many times before but it is still the case today and it will be for many years that the only line many of these farmers have is the clothesline. It is unfair to ask these people to apply for their forestry premiums online. That was never written into their contracts when they went into forestry. The Government and Commissioner Phil Hogan have been advising more people to get into forestry.
There are many people from west Cork living and working in non-EU countries as teachers. Many of these people are anxious to come back home but they find themselves receiving no incremental credits when they come home. I was talking to a young lad the other day who has been teaching in Sydney for eight years, so he is an experienced young man, but when he comes home he will have to start again at the bottom of the ladder in his increments. Does the Government have any plans to help these people? On his last trip to the Middle East, the Minister for Education and Skills was encouraging young people to come back to work in Ireland. This would certainly be a help with that.
I thank the Deputy for raising that and she makes a good point about young people who we want to come back here. I will raise the matter with the Minister for Education and Skills and get him to contact the Deputy directly.
Page 41 of A Programme for a Partnership Government refers to a regional spread of growth of jobs. The south east consistently has the highest rate of unemployment, well above the national average and twice that of Dublin. Of the jobs there, a significant number are of low quality and low paid, which is reflected in the low income tax returns from the region. Wexford has few IDA Ireland jobs, almost no IDA Ireland land and a minuscule number of IDA Ireland visits. The south east is proving to be the forgotten region for jobs and Wexford is the forgotten county. When will the Minister address this?
Unemployment has fallen throughout the country, which is welcome. However, the south east remains stubbornly higher than the rest of the country at 7.3% unemployment, 2.1% above the national average of 5.2%. That is 14,900 people out of work in the region up to the quarter at the end of September. There is a lot more work to be done. Waterford and the south east can act as a release valve for the overcrowding in Dublin. We have fantastic connectivity with the M9 and the M11. There is no doubt that a special emphasis is needed once again to improve this situation. The final pieces of the jigsaw for the south east are equality of healthcare and the technological university for the south east. I know a lot of work has been done previously to get the rate of unemployment down, so as I said, a special emphasis is required again.
I thank both Deputies for raising this matter. A lot of work has been done in the south east through the regional enterprise plan. All of the agencies are working closely together to promote that area as a place in which to invest and to do business. The Deputies will be pleased that there were two IDA Ireland announcements recently. Only last week, I was on a trade mission to South Africa with Taoglas, which is a wonderful company originally based in Wexford. The type of product it is selling is being sold on a global basis. When athletes wear a particular piece of kit to monitor their performance, the antenna in that kit is made by Taoglas. It is a wonderful and innovative company based in the south east, and we want to see more of that in the region.
This is a matter for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and it is under A Programme for a Partnership Government in the section on maintaining sustainable rural communities. In Limerick City and County Council administrative area, since January of this year there have been five one-off rural houses granted planning permission that were subject to third-party appeals to An Bord Pleanála. All five of those have been overturned and refused by An Bord Pleanála, which cited the reason that a genuine and demonstrable economic and social need to live in the area had not been demonstrated or established. When I speak to the planners and professional planning consultants, they tell me it is not in the local planning policy documents, namely, the city and county development plan, and that reason cited for refusing the development by An Bord Pleanála also is not in the sustainable rural house guidelines. It appears An Bord Pleanála, which we all know is independent in its functions, is making decisions to deny people planning permission for one-off rural houses on the basis of a policy that is in gestation within the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government but that is not written into any of the formal policy guidelines. I wanted to bring that to the Minister's attention and ask him for a response.
I thank the Deputy for raising the question. We know we have to review our sustainable housing guidelines. Each local authority is working to the 2005 guidelines. The issue is between ourselves and the Commission in making sure the revised guidelines meet the needs of people and communities throughout the country and meet the objectives of the national planning framework and the regional spatial economic strategies that flow from that. As soon as we have clarity and agreement from the Commission, we can publish the new guidelines.
Local authorities have to work to the 2005 guidelines. I cannot speak to the decisions of An Bord Pleanála.
I raise the issue of the N2 and A5 roads. It is a major project that has been talked about for a considerable period. I refer not only to the section in the North of Ireland but also to the Slane bypass and further improvements nearer Dublin at Primatestown. Although the bypass in the national development plan is at route selection stage, it will not go in for planning permission until 2021, which will be nine years from when it was previously refused planning permission. It is one of the signature projects in the national development plan. As for the issue at Primatestown, we have no idea when that will be done, despite it too being in the national development plan.
The Minister will know the road because much of it passes through her county. When will the N2 be upgraded at the various points the Government has promised it will be upgraded and when will we have the required road?
Public consultation on the N2 is ongoing in Monaghan. I cannot give the Deputy the information he seeks but I will ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to revert to him on the issue of the Slane bypass. The Government is committed to upgrading the road. It is a critical piece of infrastructure, not just for me-----
I draw the Government's attention to the inability of people with intellectual disabilities to get respite care throughout the country, not least in County Cork. They seek respite care throughout the year, whereas some people have been given only two or three weekends in the course of 2019. There was a commitment for more money to be invested in respite care in 2019 but it has not been shown to families who urgently need respite care. Is there a commitment from the Government to ensuring that more respite care will be made available in 2020? There is a chronic need for it among all the service providers in County Cork and throughout the country.
The Deputy is correct. Respite care is essential for those who provide care to loved ones and they need a well-earned break. On the issue in Cork, I will have to ask the Minister for Health to revert to the Deputy with specific details.
I assume that the Minister will be familiar with the register of beneficial ownership, RBO, and the deadline for registering details on 22 November. The RBO website keeps collapsing. It was badly built in the first instance, with insufficient server capacity, and now it simply cannot cope with the number of people trying to log on and complete their registration. An extension to the filing deadline is needed. Can the Minister do anything to have the deadline extended in the interests of fairness, or at least make an allowance for people who have tried consistently to register but have failed to do so?
The deadline for registration of beneficial ownership is Friday, 22 November. A deadline was introduced following SI 110/2019, and I agree with its aims, namely, to prevent money laundering. Last week, Revenue's website crashed, and all the accountants and agents who were dealing with their clients' end-of-year registration are the same people dealing with the current issue. Their week last week was extended because of the crashing of the website. The deadline needs to be extended.
I draw the Minister's attention to the fines at play. Should a community centre that formed a company, a social economy company or a group water scheme - there are many small companies, which may be unaware of the necessity - fail to register, the penalty can be a fine of up to €500,000 or a term in jail. We would hate people to be unaware of the issue. We need to take the opportunity to make them aware and extend the deadline by at least one week. I ask the Minister to contact the Minister for Finance and do something.
It is a pity that the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, has left because it appears he blames the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and claims that it is her responsibility. Nobody seems to be taking responsibility for the power to extend the deadline beyond Friday. A statutory instrument was signed by the Minister for Finance on 22 March 2019, and the responsibility was then transferred to the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, under the auspices of the Companies Registration Office. To facilitate companies registering, the system did not go live when it was due to do so and was delayed by approximately one month, not going live until 29 June. As my colleague, Deputy Brassil, noted, in recent weeks the agents responsible for registering companies online have been preoccupied with the return of tax.
I ask that common sense prevail and that the Minister talk to the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, or the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and extend the deadline beyond Friday because only 30% of businesses due to register have done so to date, which means that 70% have not and will be liable for fines of anything between €5,000 and €500,000.