Thursday, 21 November 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
This morning, Fran McNulty, consumer affairs correspondent for RTÉ, relayed a story to the effect that more than 10,000 motor insurance policies in this country have been taken out from what are called "ghost brokers". This has been discussed by the finance committee in the Oireachtas. Ghost brokers apparently falsify information, sometimes using stolen credit cards to pay for policies on the part of unsuspecting customers who believe they will be covered for motor insurance but who are actually not. They often only find out when they go to make a claim. What action is the Government taking on foot of this? Has he engaged with the insurance industry to ascertain the full extent of the problem and the controls being put in place by the industry to stop this from happening?
I heard about this issue only this morning, as I am sure the Deputy did. My understanding is that the matter is very much under investigation by an Garda Síochána. The Garda Síochána is liaising with the insurance industry as a whole to try to get a handle on the extent of the problem, which seems to involve significant numbers. It is consumers who are vulnerable. They believe they are insured but are not in some cases. This is a criminal investigation that the Garda is resourced to and will pursue. We will, of course, keep in close contact with the Garda to determine whether it is appropriate, through policy or legislation, to give it more help that it may need.
I wish to raise the issue of the swine flu vaccine and the case in the courts yesterday. I received an email from a young woman in my constituency yesterday in respect of this. She explained what is happening very well. She stated that the Minister for Health and the HSE settled a landmark case in which one lady, Aoife Bennett, sued both the State and the HSE, and both bodies have now accepted responsibility in respect of this. Ms Bennett has developed a lifelong condition. My constituent stated said that she has also been diagnosed with the same condition as a direct result of receiving the vaccine. She stated it is a lifelong condition and that it is debilitating. She claims that she, too, plans to sue the State as she was told by solicitors that each case must be taken individually. She believes this is a travesty. She stated this one case alone has cost the taxpayer millions of euro and that the authorities are now willing to go through with 100 more cases of the very same nature. Can the Tánaiste assure me, on behalf of the 100 people, that he will not let them through the court in respect of this, find a mechanism to deal with them efficiently and effectively and ensure they are adequately compensated? I understand this is a legal-----
This, of course, does involve quite a number of potential legal cases so I need to be careful about what I say. The State's approach to cases like this and others is to try to resolve them outside the court setting in a non-adversarial way, but there has to be acceptance of blame.
I expect that there will be an effort to try to resolve genuine cases outside of court. I will get the Minister for Health to come back to Deputy Kenny with a more detailed response as I do not know any more than the Deputy.
There was a Labour Court recommendation in 2008 on a pension scheme for community employment, CE, scheme supervisors. I think the Tánaiste is well aware of it. A process was established in 2015 following discussions with SIPTU and Fórsa to bring the issue to a satisfactory conclusion. As Minister, I was party to that, and with the assistance of Deputy Brendan Howlin, we allowed for an ex gratiapayment to be made through Pobal to deal with the issue in some way, but the process stopped when we left government. Will the Government now agree to kick-start a short time-limited process with the unions to address this recommendation which must be honoured? In fairness, we are talking about a small amount of money for people who do significant work that we all respect and admire.
The programme for Government talks about promoting fundamental rights and the rule of law. As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, is the Tánaiste aware of or concerned about the situation in Greece, an EU country where socialists in the Xekínimia organisation have told me about increased police repression and, in particular, attacks on young people? Riot police, for example, raided a university and trapped and tear-gassed students. There was a cinema invasion to stop 16 year olds watching the film "Joker", and night clubs have been stormed. On Sunday night a group of young people were arrested, two of whom I personally know because I met them when I attended an anti-racist summer event in Greece. Irini Eminidou and Zisis Sourlas are two of the young people who were punched, beaten and charged with really serious crimes. That was hours after any protest had taken place in Athens. As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, will the Tánaiste make representations about this to the Greek embassy? I ask other left Deputies to take up the issue. This is an EU country, not a so-called Third World country, where we are told police repression should not happen like this, but it is happening.
Like with a lot of other things, this is not a left versus right issue. it is a rule of law issue. Deputy Coppinger should send me the details if she has individual cases she would like me to follow up on and I will try to do that.
I welcome the announcement this week of a Jigsaw project for Tipperary based in Thurles. It has been long sought and we are pleased to hear of it. However, it will not be any use to towns such as Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel, Borrisokane and areas of north Tipperary unless outreach is provided in those towns and villages. The mental health situation in Tipperary is chronic, especially since the Government closed St. Michael's in 2012. We do not have a single long-stay bed in the county for people suffering from mental health. We have a huge crisis, a drugs epidemic and associated issues. People are dying every week, and more often in some cases, due to mental health issues. We need the services to be developed in tandem with the Jigsaw project in Thurles. We cannot wait in those towns and villages.
Yesterday, I raised the question of the new national maternity hospital and the fact that the Government is now in the invidious situation where it is awaiting the approval of the Vatican to proceed with the building of the much-needed new national maternity hospital.
Today in The Irish Catholic, a Rome-based Irish moral theologian has urged the Vatican to veto this proposal. Fr. Vincent Twomey is also reported as having urged the Vatican to stand firm. That has serious implications for the future of maternity care in this country. As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I would like to ask the Tánaiste if he is aware of the situation, whether he has been in touch with his counterparts in the diplomatic service in the Vatican, and what his assessment is of the likelihood of the Vatican giving approval to the proposal to alienate the site at St. Vincent's, and what is the likelihood now of the national maternity hospital proceeding?
I simply have not been involved in this conversation as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I am aware Deputy Shortall raised the matter in the House yesterday. I will have to get the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to come back directly to the Deputy on it. If there is a foreign affairs element to it, I can be brought into the conversation but I am not aware there is at the moment.
In mid-October, a sinkhole occurred in Allihies in beautiful west Cork, and since then the road has been closed. While safety is paramount, it is having a detrimental effect on local people. We have six families whose refuse has not been collected since it happened and five families who, instead of being able to walk a quarter of a mile to school, now have to take a round trip of six miles in a car. When does the Tánaiste reckon the sinkhole will be filled in because it is going on for too long?
Engineering surveys are being carried out on it at the moment. It is a question of making sure that whatever engineering is done on it will mean it will not happen again. Cork County Council is also involved.
Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna. The spiralling cost of insurance has been well discussed in this House. Today, I wish to focus on insurance costs for special schools. St. Martin's special school in Waterford is a state-of-the-art school that was opened in June 2018. It has 78 pupils with mild, severe and complex intellectual needs. The school employs two nurses. However, since the new building opened, insurance costs have been rising with more pupils and more staff. Currently, the school receives a capitation grant of €56,000, and 38% of that is now being used for insurance. That is putting considerable strains on the principal and the board of management and it is not sustainable. Already, the quote for the premium for next year has increased from €21,500 to €24,000, and the principal of the school is extremely worried about how he will fund it.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important question. I think it was St. Teresa's in Roscommon that started this debate earlier in the year. What we have done in response to that issue is to work with the management bodies of the 125 special schools on a joint approach whereby a collective application would be made for insurance. Not all special schools have signed up to the plan but they are in the process. Intense communication and dialogue is ongoing between my officials and the management bodies to ensure that we are on top of this issue.
I might also direct my question, which is on education, to the Minister for Education and Skills if that is okay. Last Friday, my Oireachtas colleagues and I were at St. Aidan's comprehensive school in Cootehill. I hope it is a school with which the Minister is familiar. The school has a green flag and a Healthy Ireland flag. It is striking when one walks into the school that it is punching way above its weight in terms of the facilities it has. St. Aidan's has applied to the Department for more than 20 years for a very basic facility, namely, a gym. The school does not have a purpose-built gym or purpose-built canteen facilities. It is a fact that good physical health in schools leads to good mental health. The school has more than 500 students and more than 50 staff, but there is no gym. The school has made numerous applications to the Department's building unit for a gym. We met Mary Ann Smith, a very vocal, active and passionate principal on behalf of her students and staff, who made a very passionate plea to us as Oireachtas Members to ask the Minister and his Department to please acknowledge its call for a gym. I urge the Minister to engage with the principal, Mary Ann Smith, immediately on the school's application for the very basic facility of a gym.
We will spend €620 million on schools in 2020. As Deputy Smyth is aware, there are many school extensions on the capital programme and a lot of new schools as well to keep up with demographic demands. Schools are making applications for gyms but it will not be until the latter end of the capital plan before we reach some of them.
I raised an issue yesterday with the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, regarding the extension of the deadline for the registry of business owners. She was to come back to me yesterday evening but did not do so. The Tánaiste might raise that with her.
I want to raise another matter. The Tánaiste will be aware that 16 people were found in the back of a truck on a ferry destined for Rosslare Europort this morning. Earlier this year, the annual trafficking and persons report for the second year in a row downgraded Ireland to tier 2. The authorities here failed to initiate for human trafficking any prosecutions in 2018. The report has identified chronic deficiencies in victims' identification, referral and assistance. I think this matter falls under the remit of the Tánaiste, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. What is he doing to ensure that we meet our international obligations in respect of human trafficking and do not become a destination of choice for people engaged in the dreadful trafficking of human beings?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is a breaking story that 16 refugees have been found in the back of a truck on a ferry on the way to Rosslare from France. They are all alive and in reasonable health. That is my understanding from reading media commentary on it. I understand the Garda will be waiting for the ship when it arrives. The Government is fully committed to addressing human trafficking under Irish and EU legislation and the principal international conventions. The second national action plan to prevent and combat human trafficking in Ireland was launched in 2016. The action plan identifies six priorities, namely, prevention; training, awareness raising and evaluation; reduction of vulnerability; data collection; demand reduction; and enhanced co-ordination and co-operation. Action continues on a whole-of-Government basis in line with this plan. An Garda Síochána has committed significant resources to the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking. A specialist Garda unit, the human trafficking investigation and co-ordination unit, has been established to co-ordinate delivery of this national strategy. This is criminal activity that does not respect borders.
The Garda is working closely with the PSNI in respect of very tragic cases that have been reported from the UK and is also working with other police services in different parts of the EU. We will continue to do that in this case also.
The budget made provision for ring-fencing the increased carbon tax revenue and gearing it towards regions that have been unfairly affected, especially following the decision by the ESB not to proceed with the Government policy of co-fuelling two of its plants with peat and biomass. Notwithstanding the difficulties arising from that decision for the Government and its repercussions in terms of its responsibility to respond to it, when can we expect legislation to give effect to those measures before the House?
Certainly if there is further legislation required beyond the Finance Bill, we will provide it. That is an absolute commitment from the Government and there will be no issue with that. If there is separate and specific legislation required to bed that down, I assume the Government will proceed with that. I will get the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to confirm that to the Deputy.
Page 44 of the programme for Government contains a commitment to increase the budget for local and regional roads by 50%. This morning, I will focus on class 3 local roads, often referred to as culs-de-sac, which are listed as council roads in each local authority's road schedule. That schedule legally obligates the local authority to maintain these roads, yet they have been ignored for years as regards repairs and road surfacing. My blood boils when I hear that residents living on these roads, many of whom have no resources, are being advised to apply for funding under the community involvement schemes. As I have said before, these people living on third class roads are being treated as third class citizens with no equity. Will the Government and the Minister responsible encourage or advise each local authority that fairness and equity prevail in respect of road allocation on local roads? These people must be treated in a fair and equitable way. They are entitled to be able to go about their business but they are not able to do so in many of these culs-de-sac which are council roads.
I am speaking on behalf of my colleagues in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and of the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring. There are two schemes, the local improvement scheme and the community involvement scheme, which are funded, one from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and one from the Department of Rural and Community Development. Both have seen significant increases in funding in the last few years. I know the point the Deputy is making in respect of homeowners or landowners having to contribute. The reality is that until those schemes were introduced by the rainbow Government in 1995 or 1996, cul-de-sac roads had no money spent on them-----
My colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, has raised the issue of the flat rate expenses with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, as has Deputy Cassells in respect of the Tara Mines workers in particular. Can the Tánaiste give us an update? There is considerable fear among the teaching profession and, I am sure, many other professions about what the impact of this particular review of flat rate expenses by the Revenue Commissioners will be. Has the Government made a decision on the matter? Has the Minister for Finance made representations on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of taxpayers who will be affected? Has the Minister for Education and Skills got involved on behalf of teachers?
This is a question for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. As he well knows, it is two months now since the beef protests stopped across the country. Despite the commitment to get a beef task force up and running, which led to the protests being stepped down, some two months later there has been a total failure to do so. The Minister and Government have failed to ensure that happened. There is an onus on the Minister to deliver that commitment. What is the status of the beef task force? Unless we want to see these protests commence again, the task force needs to get up and running. Given that we have seen little change in prices or behaviour by the factories since then, it is essential that the task force gets up and running and that many of the issues it is supposed to address are dealt with comprehensively.
As he is aware, we convened a meeting of the task force but unfortunately due to events that are well known and have been previously aired in this House, that meeting did not get under way. Every effort is being made to ensure that every party to the task force is in a position to attend a meeting at the earliest possible date.
I raised a question with the Tánaiste last week in respect of playschools facing closure in west Cork and throughout the country due to regulation enforcement. The Tánaiste promised to look into the issue if I furnished him with the details, which I did. Yesterday, Tusla informed me at a meeting that it was going to give an extension to these playschools until July 2020 to meet the regulations. I thank the Tánaiste and Tusla for any help they gave in this matter. I asked for two things last week if we are to save these preschools going forward. They are non-profit playschools run solely for the benefit of children. One request was for an extension of time, which has been given, and the other was grant aid. Would the Tánaiste help in getting the message across to the Minister that grant aid is urgently needed for these preschools?
Clearly, we need to keep community-based playschools open. Whether they are not-for-profit or privately-operated for a modest profit, the standards have to be consistent with those set out by Tusla. That is what this is ultimately about. We will, of course, assist if we can with the organisations that are trying to be compliant with the standards set out for them. I do not want to give any commitments on grant aid. That is ultimately a matter for a different Minister.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. Ta píosa páipéir i mo lámha anseo. It is a letter from the HSE in reply to a question I put down to the Minister for Health about a seven year old boy whose parents are seeking an appointment with the autistic spectrum disorder, ASD, service in Athenry. I will refer briefly to a couple of lines from it. The letter stated that it wished to advise that the boy was referred to the Galway-Roscommon ASD service in Athenry by Roscommon early intervention services on 13 August 2019 and placed on the intervention waiting list. He is currently 193rd on that waiting list. It stated also that the Galway-Roscommon ASD service does not provide a prioritisation system other than the date referred to the service and that at this time the Galway-Roscommon ASD service cannot provide a date for the commencement of intervention support for him.
Both the parents and I made more inquiries. The family of this seven year old boy has been be told it will possibly be four years before he can get any treatment. If the Minister for Health is watching this on his monitor, would he please deal with this case? This is utterly shameful. Can the Tánaiste intervene?
The patient safety Bill is promised legislation and given the importance of this issue and in view of recent public commentary, can the Tánaiste state when it is likely to come before the House and become law?
Last week I raised the issue of a psychiatrist for the deaf community in the southern region. The Minister for Health was in the Chamber and confirmed that he would come back to me within a day or so, but we have heard nothing since. This is outstanding for a long time. Many people within the deaf community and their families have been in contact with me. We have been trying to resolve this. No consultant psychiatrist has been appointed for some time. Can the Tánaiste use his offices to get an answer for me? What is the likely date or is there any intention to appoint a consultant psychiatrist for the deaf community in the southern region?
I believe I was here when the Deputy raised that issue and when the Minister for Health responded and said he would come back to him. I will certainly remind him of that and we will see if we can get him an answer.
I will direct my question to the Minister for Education and Skills. As we know, 4,000 children are currently trapped in emergency accommodation. This is having a direct impact on education as teachers feel unsupported. They have raised this issue, as has Focus Ireland. It is crucial to provide these children with support because we have to ensure they are able to reach their potential, as stated in the Education Act 1998. In addition, we have to ensure we help them so that they do not become trapped in a cycle of disadvantage. Will the Minister consider setting up a dedicated post for home school liaison officers, specifically for children in at national school and post primary levels who are living in emergency accommodation? We have to act urgently or this situation will become worse.
This is a very important issue. Officials in the Department of Education and Skills sit on a cross-departmental group and we take this issue very seriously. We have targeted support for DEIS schools. Initially when the DEIS school support system was set up it, it was not primarily on a geographical basis, but invariably it is on a geographical base. We are reviewing that and are looking at how we can have a more graduated and targeted intervention. Children who do not have homes will form part of that. We are in the middle of the review and we are already on record saying that we need to further enhance the €120 million funding we have for DEIS support and see how we can build on that in the future.
I refer to the Sláintecare report and the issue raised by my colleague, Deputy Calleary, about potential cuts to community pharmacies. Can the Tánaiste explain why vulnerable medical card holders will now have to pay €10 per month to have their medicines separated into the daily dosage? This service was provided free of charge heretofore. The family of a vulnerable individual living on disability allowance with an intellectual disability received a letter from its pharmacy effectively saying that either it takes the medicines in bulk, where it will beup to the family to allocate those medicines on a daily basis. These are people who would be taking a multiplicity of medications, and clearly would not have the capacity to separate the medicines into the daily dosage. If they are not able to do that and they want to pharmacy to do it, the suggestion is it will cost the family €10. That is a bit callous and maybe it is something that the Tánaiste might reflect on with the Minister for Health.
This is the first time I have heard of this but I certainly will get the Minister for Health to come back to the Deputy on this. I suspect that this is a decision that has been made by the individual pharmacy, so I am not sure if we can control that.
The 2019 Environmental Protection Agency report reveals that raw sewage is being released into the environment every day, with coastal areas being the worst affected. In County Louth six areas have been identified and need investment badly. These are Blackrock, Castlebellingham, Dunleer, Omeath, Tallanstown and Dundalk. Omeath is still without a wastewater treatment plant. Blackrock and Dundalk are not meeting their legal requirement. Rivers and waterways are also under pressure. What plans does the Government have to combat this? This is not acceptable in these times. Can the Tánaiste please let us have an update on the situation in County Louth.
On this issue generally, our plan is to invest billions of euro in wastewater treatment facilities through Irish Water, and to do that efficiently. As we speak, that is transforming Cork Harbour, for example, which was one of the most negatively-impacted marine environments in the country regarding raw sewage. Irish Water is spending more than €90 million in putting in place a very comprehensive wastewater facility for the harbour. I presume it will also get to other parts of the country. It is not acceptable to be pumping raw sewage into marine environments. Wastewater treatment facilities are expensive and take time. Irish Water has a very significant capital expenditure programme over the next five to six years to address many of the issues the Deputy outlined.