Tuesday, 26 November 2019
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The business this week shall be as set out in the first revised report of the Business Committee, dated 22 November 2019.
As for today's business it is proposed that No. 15, motion 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, back from committee; No. 16, motion re reappointment of An Coimisinéir Teanga, back from committee; and No. 17, motion re proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of the Universities Act 1997 (section 54(3)) (University Authorisation) Order 2019, referral to committee, shall be taken without debate; and that No. 65, Thirty-Ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Health) Bill 2019, Second Stage, shall conclude within two hours.
As for Wednesday's business, it is proposed that No. 66, Planning and Development (Amendment) (First-Time Buyers) Bill 2019, Second Stage, shall conclude within two hours.
There are two proposals to be put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with Tuesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. I call Deputy Micheál Martin.
I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that the Road Safety Authority, RSA, has been an essential instrument in significantly saving lives on our roads and reducing the degree of injury on them. I am sure he will also be very concerned at reports of interference with the work of RSA safety officers. There was a concerning article in this week's edition of The Sunday Business Postby Michael Brennan detailing that correspondence had been sent to the president of the National Road Haulage Association, NRHA, in respect of continued interference with the work of safety officers and warning that this should cease and that there should be no interference and no 45-minute phone calls with safety inspectors. The Taoiseach will have to agree that this is something of which he would not approve and I would like to have confirmation and clarification that it is something he is concerned about. He might indicate and commit to the House that we could have a full presentation from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in respect of that kind of interference with the work of the RSA. The CEO wrote the letter to the person concerned. Irrespective of anything that is going on, that is something that needs to be stamped out. It is like people ringing a garda and saying he or she has no right to stop somebody or to give a penalty. It is of a similar nature. Given the role and work of the RSA, it has been a success story. It has saved lives and reduced injury. That type of interference should be stamped out and I would like clarity from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on a key part of Government priorities.
I strongly support the work of the RSA and I did for more than three years as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. The authority should enforce the law. In respect of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Deputy had best raise that with him as a Topical Issue matter or perhaps as a private notice question.
Yesterday marked the beginning of the annual 16 Days campaign opposing violence against women and girls. I want to raise with the Taoiseach a significant delay in the delivery of two important Garda reforms in the area of domestic and gender-based violence. In November last year, the Minister for Justice and Equality told the Dáil that the roll-out of specialised units working with vulnerable victims of sexual and violent crime would be completed by the end of this year. Last week, he revealed that protective services units have been established in just 13 Garda divisions and no update was provided for the remaining six. Garda management also committed to develop and implement a risk assessment tool for all victims of domestic violence and sexual crime by the end of 2019. Again, no revised date for completion of this project has been provided. Will the Taoiseach confirm when both Garda reforms will be delivered on?
These are major reforms, as outlined by the Deputy, involving considerable training and expertise. This is also in tandem with the new divisional model of An Garda Síochána. It is expected that the roll-out will have taken place across the country and the remaining six will be completed by the end of the first quarter of next year. That will include a level of training that is without precedent for An Garda Síochána.
On a number of occasions, I and my Labour Party colleagues have argued in favour of allowing Permanent Defence Forces Representative Association, PDFORRA and representatives of the Defence Forces to have rights similar to trade unions, including membership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which has agreed in principle to accept PDFORRA as a member. This would bring Ireland into line with many other north European countries and would give our Defence Forces personnel access to the industrial relations machinery of the State for issues relating to pay and conditions. When I asked about this in September, the Tánaiste told me that the issue was under consideration by the Minister for Defence. Two months later, we now need a definitive answer. Will the Taoiseach, as Minister for Defence, approve the affiliation of PDFORRA with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU?
That matter is still under consideration. As he will be aware, PDFORRA which represents the rank-and-file in the Defence Forces wants this while the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, which represents officers, is opposed to it. We have to listen to both sides of that debate from within the Defence Forces. There is also a European social committee ruling that we must be bear in mind as well. It is under consideration and we hope to come to a decision on it before Christmas.
As we speak, farmers are once again gathering outside the gates. The plight they face in terms of the levels of poverty and the demise of rural Ireland have not gone away. After eight weeks of blockading meat production plants, they are back again to ask us to urgently deal with the issues. Will the Minister in charge of this area be inclusive of all farmer representative groups? I refer in particular to the independent farmers of Ireland group, which has regrouped and is ready to become part of the beef task force. It is also demanding, although I know it is not the role of the Cabinet, the lifting of all injunctions so that meaningful talks can take place in the beef task force. Can the Taoiseach give an indication as to whether all farmer representative groups will be included in these talks?
I welcome the support of an Teachta Smith, a Dublin representative, which I really appreciate. This is nothing to laugh about. Farmers are outside the gates today, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, from all over Ireland. They are non-political, have no leader, and have no farming organisation representing them. They are there themselves because they are so worried and frightened about the perilous situation of agriculture. I am asking the Minister, Deputy Creed, who is here, to meet a deputation and to receive a letter from them. The task force that was set up is meaningless. It is not business as usual. Their livelihoods, villages and communities are being destroyed. They need to be listened to.
This is a serious question. They need to be listened to and engaged with. The task force led by a former Secretary General of a Department is not doing its job, will not do the job, and it is not business as usual. Please listen to the farmers.
It is two months since the beef protesters came off the picket lines, which they did it because the Minister requested that they do so and because of his commitment to set up a beef task force, which he has not done. To date, the hundreds of farmers who are outside the gates of Leinster House have seen no task force, no improvement in price, and no delivery from the Minister. They want a commitment here today as to when the task force is actually going to meet.
I read the same thing and I emphasise that farmers are protesting today because they have being ignored since the strike ended. Can the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to set up this task force as soon as possible? I know he had a hiccup the first time it tried to get going. Now he needs to emphasise that this needs to set up as soon as possible. The price of beef is still on the ground, with €3.45 being quoted this week. Farmers will go to the wall unless something is done about it. All elements of farming need to be recognised because one will not get them all on board unless they are all recognised.
It is months since the farmers protested right around the country, and rightly so. They feel they have been let down by everybody, including by Government, by the Oireachtas and in particular by those setting beef prices. Interjections were made by everybody, and indeed my own party had two particular Bills on this. I honestly think that we helped to resolve the strike at that point in time. However, months have passed and nothing has happened or changed and no task force has been put in place. This is simply not good enough. The farmers are right to be here protesting and we need to support them fully.
I know but I am being interrupted. I support the beef farmers outside the gate. I have a question for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine who I am glad is here. It was clear under the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, that he introduced that if a farmer sold cattle in a mart and the cattle were killed within 30 days, he could claim €100. What is happening in Kerry is that cattle are being killed three days after going into the mart and the farmer is not getting the money; the buyer is getting the money. There is something wrong and the Minister needs to look at it. It is very serious.
I make no apologies about raising this issue. I asked last week for the beef task force to be set up immediately and for some concession to be made on the credit issues that farmers experience across the country. It has to be in the Minister's capacity to make an 80% payment on the scheme, subject to all the inspections and satellite searches that have been made. This is causing major issues for farmers' creditworthiness. He needs to take action immediately.
Today, the independent farmers of Ireland group has travelled from all over the country to peacefully protest outside Leinster House. This is only a short time after we had the peaceful protests outside factories in west Cork and throughout the country that went on for over a month. Does the Taoiseach fully realise the crisis we have in agriculture? Does he realise that the prices given to farmers for animals that they reared are at an all-time low? There are many questionable practices inside the gates of our factories. The farming public is on its knees and is pleading for transparency inside the factory gate. Will this Government clear up these questions one way or another by having a full independent investigation into practices inside the factories?
I stand in solidarity with the distressed farmers in my constituency, Laois-Offaly. I have met many farmers who are in serious financial distress. We need urgent action. The Government does not realise that agriculture is the backbone of our economy. The Government is slapping carbon taxes on it and is not giving the farmers fair play. It was an insult during the summer when many farmers could not access the BEAM because of the unfair conditions applying to that scheme. We need fair play for all and rural Ireland cannot be forgotten about. We will certainly make sure that it is not.
I thank my colleagues for raising this matter. I, along with the Government and the Deputies who have spoken on this, recognise the difficulties in the beef sector and agriculture generally. That is why the Government, in 2019 alone, put forward funding of an additional €120 million to support incomes in that challenged sector. The Teagasc 2020 results published earlier reflect that financial support has been available to that sector in the context of a difficult environment. It is not true to say, apart from those schemes, that the Government is not supporting farmers. I could list the exceptional aid measure, the environmental efficiency programme, the additional areas of natural constraint, ANC, payments, which have been increased to €250 million, the extension of disadvantaged areas and the beef data and genomics programme. A host of financial supports are available to that specific sector in the agricultural community.
The beef market task force is one of the tangible outcomes of the negotiations that were held. Like all Members, I would like that task force to meet. In the interim, as we try to bridge difficulties, which I will deal with briefly, there has been bilateral engagement between the chairman and all the constituent members.
It is not true to say that no progress has been made. We have had publication of the beef market price index, we have had tenders issued by agreement with all the parties bilaterally to commission studies that were agreed at the talks, and we have had a whole host of other arrangements and public consultations on unfair trading practices, with the idea of a regulator for the sector.
There are specific issues regarding convening the task force, and Members are quite well aware of them. It has been alluded to that injunctions still remain, and they remain granted to a company that is not part of the talks in MII. What has compounded the difficulty in having those injunctions dealt with is that, and this is a matter which the Garda is aware of, senior management in that company have had death threats issued against them, and their partners and families have been intimidated in that local community. This is not simply an issue of the Government not wanting to resolve this issue. We are grappling with what are very difficult issues. We have seen in other cases what happens when senior executives in companies are threatened. You, Deputy Mattie McGrath, may dismiss the significance of death threats against people. The Government does not.
If the Deputy wishes to indicate that his shrug of the shoulders was indicating a negative in respect of death threats, I accept what he says. However, I, the Government, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda take them seriously.
Maidir le Bille na dteangacha oifigiúla, dúirt an Taoiseach go raibh náire air agus thug sé a bhriathar go raibh an Rialtas ar tí an Bille a fhoilsiú. Dúirt an tAire Stáit go raibh an Rialtas ar tí an Bille a fhoilsiú. Thug siad geallúintí sollúnta go mbeidh sé foilsithe roimh dheireadh na seachtaine seo. In ainneoin na ngeallúintí sin, níl tásc ná tuairisc ar an mBille. Níl a fhios agam cé mhéad uair gur féidir leis an Taoiseach agus an Aire Stáit a ngeallúintí a bhriseadh ach tá an bonn óir tuillte acu anois. Níl mé ag iarraidh freagra ón Aire sóisearach. Táim ag iarraidh freagra ó Thaoiseach na tíre. Cá bhfuil Bille na dteangacha oifigiúla? An mbeidh sé foilsithe, de réir a gheallúintí, roimh dheireadh na seachtaine seo?
It really is nearly ready this time. I can totally understand why the Deputy is not going to believe it until she sees it because the Bill has been promised on so many occasions. The Minister of State and I just spoke on it today. It is with the Attorney General and we still anticipate having it published in this session, before Christmas.
The criminal justice (money laundering and terrorist financing) (amendment) Bill is promised legislation. In view of the activities on the high seas and the value of drugs being seized internationally, when is this important Bill likely to come before the House?
I raise the issue of insurance. Many small and medium size business have been in contact with me in recent years and we have raised many issues here. However, in the last period, they are very concerned about this and have indicated they will cease to operate because they cannot get insurance or the premiums are astronomical and escalating out of their reach. I ask the Taoiseach what the Government is doing in a real, serious, tangible way to tackle the spiralling cost of insurance to homeowners and businesses in particular. Some small to medium size businesses have said that, come 1 January, they will not be able to operate with proper insurance cover because of the escalating cost.
The Deputy will be aware that a number of Departments are involved in action on this matter. I again confirm progress in my Department on the setting up of the judicial council, which I expect to be complete by the end of this year in a few weeks. Allied to that is the action on the part of the Garda, in conjunction with the insurance industry, to deal with the issue of fraudulent and exaggerated claims and fraud within the industry.
I wish to raise the issue of mental health services, particularly in the north west. I refer to the issue of NGOs that provide counselling services. In my area there is an organisation called North West STOP. There are many other such organisations around the country and they cannot get any funding from Government at all unless they are national organisations, yet many of the national organisations are referring clients to them. Something needs to be done, and Government needs to make a commitment to provide some way to fund them. North West STOP is one example. It has been in existence for more than ten years and has done tremendous work to assist families and people who have suffered the consequences of suicide. It has worked well to prevent suicide and has saved many lives. However, in the past 15 years, it has received a total of €800 to buy a laptop. That is a scandal, and I ask Government to come up with a solution to this. These organisations, although they may not be national organisations, do tremendous work, and some mechanism of support needs to be put in place for them.
I thank the Deputy for his question about North West STOP. Regarding his question about funding, I cannot give him the individual detail on the case to which he referred, as he will appreciate. The HSE funds nationally 1,027 different organisations each year to support mental health the length and breadth of the country. I do not know the details of North West STOP. On Thursday we will launch a phone line with a single number to access each one of those organisations and to direct people to them. Again, I am not speaking about North West STOP, but I suggest that any organisation that does not receive funding is not either clinically or corporately governed. They are the two main criteria organisations must meet. If both are met, there is no reason the HSE would fail to support an organisation, but I am quite happy to look into the matter a little further. If the Deputy wishes to send me some details of the specific case, I will do that.
Yesterday we had the results of the latest national survey of patients, the national inpatient experience survey, which was carried out in many hospitals. The majority of patients did report positive experiences in hospital; however, several areas needed improvement. Some 450 patients took part in the survey in University Hospital Waterford. Unfortunately, that hospital scored below the national average for care on the ward, discharge or transfer of care, and overall experience. This means that confidence in the health service is once again eroded-----
-----while fantastic staff work under extreme conditions and constant pressure. Will additional measures be put in place to focus on patient dignity, comfort and respect, and transfer of care? According to the figures released, the number of patients waiting for timely discharge of care correlates with the number of people normally waiting in emergency departments.
What was produced yesterday was the third national inpatient experience survey. I was involved in setting up the survey when I was Minister for Health. I am glad it is being done now because the best way to find out what people think of the health service is to ask patients. Tens of thousands of patients are surveyed every year. Yesterday's results showed that 84% of people say their experience of our public health service is either good or very good, so notwithstanding the real problems we have in our health service, well over 80% of people who use it said that their experience was good or very good. That does not always come across in public discourse. I encourage each hospital, based on its own set of results, to compare itself against others. If a particular hospital is doing poorly in one area relative to another hospital, the best thing the former can do is to approach the hospital that is scoring well, find out what best practice is and try to implement it. We see enormous variation from hospital to hospital. Even on the issue of overcrowding, for example, hospitals that used to be top of the league table in overcrowding, such as Beaumont and Drogheda, are now the least overcrowded. That shows how best practice can make a huge difference for patients.
As the Taoiseach is aware, an ongoing drugs feud in the Coolock area has cost five lives. Last June, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, all visited Coolock and announced that 30 new gardaí would be deployed in the area. There was also talk of a new Garda station. In response to a parliamentary question I submitted recently, however, I was told that the number of new gardaí allocated to Coolock was five. In the midst of a drug feud, we have been given an additional five gardaí. The people of Coolock have a right to feel safe when going about their daily business. When will they see the additional resources necessary to tackle this feud? I ask the Taoiseach to commit to setting up a task force similar to the one set up by his predecessor in Dublin's north inner city. Will he join with me in calling on elements within the media to stop giving these criminals nicknames such as the "Gucci gang" and to stop glamorising their lifestyles? We must do everything we can to stop vulnerable young people in the area getting involved in this criminal activity.
On the same subject, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and Equality will be aware of the appalling murder that happened in Dublin Bay North at the weekend, which was the fifth such dastardly event this year. It is totally intolerable that the people of our parishes in Dublin Bay North are being subjected to this kind of lunacy and madness. The Minister promised that the Dublin metropolitan region, DMR, north division of An Garda Síochána would get the necessary resources. We were also promised that civic society bodies would get the support they need, as Deputy Mitchell has noted, in terms of a special task force and special supports for organisations like Northside Partnership, Coolock Development Council and others but this has not happened. We have a Fine Gael Minister and an Independent Minister of State from the constituency sitting at Cabinet but we are not getting the kind of response we need. We had a response to the mayhem on the Border area, which I support 100%, but we need to see the same kind of vigorous response in the north of Dublin Bay North. This cannot go on.
I readily accept that communities have an entitlement to feel safe and secure. I visited the area during the summer and have been in contact with people in the area since then. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, this morning. Currently there are 116 gardaí assigned to the Coolock area, together with 17 Garda staff. The Garda is enjoying record levels of resources under this Government, in terms of numbers.
If Members of the House listen to the news on a daily basis, they will hear the results of what is a relentless pursuit on the part of An Garda Síochána of those involved in organised crime and criminal activity. That will continue in the Coolock area, in the north inner city and in Darndale.
I wish to raise an issue that I have highlighted previously, namely, the need for a catheterisation laboratory or cath lab at Sligo University Hospital to serve both Sligo and the north west. This has been a major concern for many years. It is vitally important that a decision is taken. I acknowledge that a review is currently taking place but this review has been ongoing for a considerable amount of time. It is important that the review is completed and that a decision is made on the provision of a cath lab for Sligo and the north west.
I thank Deputy McLoughlin for raising an issue which I know is of enormous interest to him. It is my understanding that a temporary cath lab is located at Sligo University Hospital for a few days every month but not a full-time, permanent one. This falls under the national review. I am not sure when the report of that review is due but I will find out from the Minister for Health and revert to the Deputy.
We have run out of time. I will not deprive Deputies Brassil, Quinlivan and Neville of the opportunity to speak but ask them to be as brief as possible. Deputy Brassil is first, followed by Deputies Neville and Quinlivan.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for his flexibility. Under the programme for Government, a commitment was given to improve primary school facilities. Yesterday, announcements were made on the 2020 summer works programme and it was disappointing to see that the overall figure for the programme is lower than it was last year.
I refer specifically to the Holy Family national school in Rathmore, the leaking roof of which I have previously raised as a Topical Issue and in parliamentary questions. It was announced yesterday that the school is to receive a €5,000 grant to replace its fire alarm, which was damaged by leaks from the roof, but will receive no money to replace the roof itself. It was granted €50,000 to carry out some temporary works under last year's emergency works programme, but that funding was subsequently withdrawn because the works proposed were not deemed suitable. I ask the Taoiseach to liaise with the Minister for Education and Skills and look at this specific issue, about which I am not exaggerating. Children are literally moving their desks around when it rains-----
Approximately 405 schools receive funding under the summer works scheme. I cannot provide the Deputy with details about each individual school, but I will let the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, know that this issue has been raised.
The Taoiseach answered questions earlier about the overcrowding in University Hospital Limerick, UHL, which hit record highs this week. I previously tabled a parliamentary question about an independent review being carried out on work and management processes in UHL. Given what is happening in the hospital, I ask the Government to expedite this report and implement its recommendations as soon as possible. It has been suggested that the tender process for a second MRI machine is about to be completed, for which I ask the Taoiseach to provide a date. The Government should also impress upon UHL the need for the resources and recruitment to follow the same timeline as the tendering process, in order that when that process finishes, the staff will be ready to manage it. These are some practical solutions which might be put in place to alleviate the overcrowding. I welcome the ongoing construction of the 96-bed block and the 60-bed modular unit, which I hope to see completed as soon as possible.
As the Taoiseach is aware, overcrowding, especially in UHL, is beyond a joke at this stage. It is an absolute nightmare for people. Over 13,000 people have been on trolleys this year. We met recently with officials from the HSE, who told us that the MRI scanner will be in operation in UHL in mid-December. However, it is concerning that we were also told the scanner would only operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene personally in this matter to ensure that the MRI scanner will run for longer hours when it begins operating in mid-December, as is expected. That is one of the keys things we need to do to solve the crisis in our hospitals. People deserve better.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. A capital budget of €19.5 million, €10 million of which was allocated this year, has been approved for a new 60-bed inpatient ward block at University Hospital Limerick. The HSE advises me that the enabling works are complete, the main contractor has commenced work and it is anticipated that construction will be completed in mid-2020. This project will go some way towards dealing with the acknowledged lack of bed capacity in the region. The deficit in diagnostic capacity at University Hospital Limerick is also recognised. A capital development proposal for an extension of the radiology department at UHL to include a second MRI scanner has been prioritised by the HSE to progress to design stage in 2020. In the interim, the UL hospitals groups has tendered for a modular MRI managed service. The National Treatment Purchase Fund will work with the HSE to fund the activity associated with the additional MRI scanner upon completion of the appropriate tender procedure.
I wish to address a matter which may have been my fault. When Deputy Bríd Smith raised an issue as a party leader, her question should have been answered by the Taoiseach. I thought I was getting value for money and shortening the debate by taking the Deputies' questions together.