Thursday, 28 November 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
As is customary, I will call on group leaders or their representatives. I ask everyone to try to ensure that all Members are accommodated. There should be brevity and questions should be on promised legislation or the programme for Government.
My question is for the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty. The House approved an all-party motion on community employment, CE, scheme supervisors, there has been a Labour Court recommendation and the Minister has been involved in a process within her Department to try to reach an agreement on providing a pension for people who are doing an incredibly important job. Will she update the House on where that process stands? Does she expect any progress before the end of the year?
I thank the Deputy. As he is aware, I met a number of union representatives and CE supervisors probably before, or maybe arising from, the all-party motion. We engaged in a process over the past couple of months to try to put some proposals to my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to resolve the issue, but not exclusively in respect of pensions. I was very clear to the union and representatives as to where the direction of our negotiations could go. Those proposals are on the table at the moment pending discussions. As I told the Deputy privately beforehand, I am in the supervisors' corner and will be rooting for them as hard as I can. We want to find a resolution for this issue collectively. We will keep working until we do.
We are not even into December yet and there are unbearable pressures on our hospitals. Like many, I read the account of the Tánaiste's parliamentary colleague who was embarrassed at the overcrowding in the emergency department in Crumlin. The question that many of us are asking is what planet has the Government been living on for the past number of years. This has been the lived experience of thousands of patients throughout our health system, not this week, last week or last month, but for many years under the Government. Monday saw the highest ever recorded number of patients without a bed in any Irish hospital, which stood at 85 in University Hospital Limerick. In my county of Donegal, Letterkenny University Hospital has seen 224 patients without a bed since Monday of this week. As of this morning, there were 31 patients awaiting beds.
There are many issues that the Government is not addressing, including capacity and closed beds, but I will focus on the recruitment freeze. The Tánaiste may dispute the fact that there is a freeze, but the HSE has acknowledged that "non-critical replacement posts will be paused". Whether one calls it a pause or a freeze, it is having a serious impact on staffing our hospitals and providing the necessary capacity to ensure that patients are admitted to hospitals. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment to the patients who are lying on trolleys or to the thousands of others who had to experience this indignity that the HSE recruitment freeze will be lifted right now?
There is no Department that allows the sectors that it is responsible for to recruit staff without a budget to do so. That is what the HSE did in the past, but not any more. This does not mean that the HSE is not recruiting. It is. We need to provide more money, and we are. That is why there are significantly more doctors and nurses in the system now than 12 months ago. We will continue to do that.
There are real pressures on accident and emergency departments. This is particularly so in Limerick, where there is a specific plan in place - working with a winter plan team - to try to deal with those pressures while we build new capacity in Limerick in terms of more beds, as planned by the Government.
On Wednesday, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris gave a stark warning about the rise of far-right extremism, which he categorised as a threat. He called it "a growing concern right across law enforcement and intelligence agencies across Europe" and stated that the Garda was concerned about right-wing social media activity, planned arson attacks targeting direct provision centres and the infiltration of community groups. The Garda Commissioner specifically mentioned the difficulty of far-right messages being shared on websites and social media. Yesterday, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission raised serious concerns about remarks made by election candidates and elected public representatives. The commission is calling for a code of conduct and sanctions to ensure that while political debate remains free and open, it also remains free of rancour, discrimination and talk that is demonstrably racist.
In the context of these two strong interventions by senior public officials, does the Government agree that we need to have legislation in advance of the next general election to ensure that hate speech by parties or candidates is outlawed and that the spread of far-right messaging on social media, often originating outside the State, is controlled and, indeed, eliminated?
My understanding is that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, is reviewing the legislation in this area to ensure that it is watertight and that incitement to hatred, hate speech and spreading falsehoods, inaccuracies and lies that promulgate fear for political reasons can be responded to appropriately. The challenge we face in terms of social media platforms providing a platform for blatant inaccuracies, often advocated for by anonymous namers and accounts, is a major one. Free speech is not the same as providing a free platform to spread whatever one thinks will gain one political advantage or to bully or target someone. It is a major challenge for the House to respond appropriately to this and ensure that the kind of standards that we expect of broadcast and print media or the-----
On Monday next, Dublin City Council will revisit the issue of O'Devaney Gardens, a development where the Government is backing plans to hand over the entire site of 14 acres to a private developer in return for 192 social housing units, with the rest of it given over to the private developer to profit from.
In advance of that meeting, the Minister needs to tell us how much this is costing the public. He mentioned a figure of €100 million. If we divide 192 social housing units into €100 million it means that each of those social housing units will cost €520,000. If, as the architect Mel Reynolds suggested to me in a paper this week, that does not include the site value lost from handing over those sites to the private developer, Bartra Capital Property Group, the actual cost for what would be fewer social housing units than proposed in the original O'Devaney Gardens plans will be between €583,000 and €683,000 per unit. That is when the State could build on its own land for €220,000 per unit or refurbish the original units for approximately €100,000. If that is true, it is a shocking handover of money, land and assets to a private developer and we will pay extortionate prices for fewer social housing than were in the original O'Devaney Gardens plans. Can the Minister tell us if this is true?
To reiterate, what will be built is more than 800 homes. Fifty per cent of those homes will be for social and affordable housing but, crucially, we will have a mix of all types of housing across this site. The financial arrangements are a matter for Dublin City Council but we have put the resources in place to support the building of those homes. Yet again, the Deputy's ideology is standing in the way-----
I do not know whether the Minister got a chance to see the "RTÉ Investigates" programme about illegal quarrying in Ireland, which was broadcast last night. It gave a devastating account of a range of quarries where massive works were being carried out, which were damaging ecosystems and rivers. They were without any planning permission or were using the High Court system to prevent local authorities from doing their job. What we saw was a defiance of planning law and highlighted our feeble regulations. Some local authorities appeared to be buying materials from illegal operators. Everybody knows that quarrying is an essential part of the construction industry, which is an indigenous industry, but it has to be carried out legally. Last night's programme was an appalling indictment of what has been happening across the country. Will the Minister introduce, if necessary, new legislation and regulations? Will he ensure that local authorities do their job?
I thank the Deputy for the question. It is a very serious issue but Part VIII of the Planning and Development Act is very strong on this area. We had very lax regulation around quarrying development for a number of years. We moved to make changes some years ago. New ministerial guidance was issued. New planning guidance was issued also. An opportunity was given to the industry to regularise its affairs and go through a consent process. The planning powers, and the enforcement powers, are in place. The local authorities have to follow up on those enforcement powers. That is the important issue here. We need to make sure local authorities are doing that.
The entire country is delighted that 200 new Garda recruits will leave Templemore tomorrow but those of us in Tipperary are in shock. The Commissioner came to Tipperary recently to listen to the joint policing committee, JPC, and all the Oireachtas Members who represent the area. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is aware of that as is the Minister's party. We are in a perilous situation in Clonmel in respect of the number of Garda members. We expected that we would be assigned at least ten gardaí after all the pleas we made but we are not getting even one in that district. It is shocking that the people of Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel can be neglected in that way. The Garda superintendent, William Leahy, and his team of gardaí are in a dangerous situation because they do not have back-up. It is shocking in what is the biggest inland town in the country and district. It is shameful.
This morning, we learned that another development close to my constituency has been bought by a cuckoo fund. If this continues, as it has been continuing, it will mean that first-time buyers from my constituency and other areas will not be able to buy a home. Will the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government confirm to the Dáil his support for Deputy Darragh O'Brien's legislation in respect of cuckoo funds? When does the Government propose to provide time to allow that legislation be passed as urgently as possible to ensure that young first-time buyers have a chance in the housing market?
-----which is a disgrace, and in doing so it further incentivises build-to-rent housing, which is the opposite of what the Deputy intends the Bill to do. We cannot support that Bill. It will do nothing for affordability.
There is a major commitment in terms of climate action and climate change in the programme for Government. I am delighted the Minister is in the Chamber this morning. We have seen many policy launches and so on but the reality on the ground is very different. This morning, we had a briefing by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, on the warmer homes scheme. I am dealing with the case of an 89 year old woman who has made an application. She has been successful in the sense that she is priority 1 but she has been told that there is not the funding to do the work. She is facing a waiting time of 18 months, which means she has to go through another winter. I do not have to tell the Minister that an 89 year old woman living in a cold house may not have 18 months. I was told by officials at the briefing that the criteria were broadened so much last year that they have been inundated with applications and do not have the funding to match the number of applications being submitted. The net result is that people will not get the work done under the warmer homes scheme that they have been promised.
Yes. I am glad to be able to tell the Deputy that budget 2020 has doubled the financial allocation for the warmer homes scheme. It is one area where we recognise that we need to facilitate more homes. This is a scheme where the State provides a 100% grant for people who are qualified for the fuel scheme. That is approximately 22% of the population. The Deputy is right. The level of retrofitting is now substantially greater than it used to be; it used to simply involve attics and lagging jackets. It now involves substantial upgrading of the fabric of the house. That is more expensive but we have doubled the funding for it.
My question is for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. It relates to the national broadband plan. The history of the national broadband plan is littered with broken promises and a failure to live up to commitments. The initial plan was that by the end of 2020, broadband services would have been delivered to the entire country. At present, 30,000 business premises and private residential homes in County Donegal are still waiting on the national broadband plan to deliver. That is one third of premises. Given that the new plan announced and signed last week has a final delivery date of 2027 and given the high percentage of affected homes and business premises in Donegal, will the Minister commit to ensuring that Donegal is prioritised in order that this large number of premises can start to be addressed? Will he also tell the House when the first homes will be connected?
I am conscious that the Deputy and his party recently supported a motion that would have seen the deferral of the broadband plan for five years. His concern for a fast roll-out in Donegal is belied by his actions. The truth is that we will be starting in 15 counties in 2020 and all counties in 2021 will see the active roll-out of fibre broadband. National Broadband Ireland will be detailing its plans shortly.
On the programme for Government in respect of respite services, Deputies Eugene Murphy and Fitzmaurice, Senator Leyden and I met last night regarding the planned closure tomorrow of the Cuisle centre in County Roscommon. It is an issue of concern to the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, who is present, also. We are deeply disappointed that the Irish Wheelchair Association, an organisation that receives €110,000 a day in public funds, has not to date postponed the closure of Cuisle. We are also surprised by the contradictions given in evidence to the Joint Committee on Health by the Irish Wheelchair Association last week, given the comments made yesterday by the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. We are requesting that the Government calls on the Irish Wheelchair Association to pause this unnecessary closure until the community has had the opportunity to explore an alternative operational model for the facility.
I am glad we have co-operation. We are on the eve of the closure of the Irish Wheelchair Association Cuisle centre in Donamon.
It is a sad situation. It is a case of "I do not know, we do not know, they do not know and we do not care". According to the Irish Wheelchair Association, IWA, two Ministers were contacted. My colleague, Deputy Naughten, conceded that he was contacted and made representations. Was the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, contacted? The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, told the Seanad yesterday he was never lobbied by the IWA. It is amazing that the Government gave €39.4 million to the IWA and it is not able to stretch a point and give €1.1 million for this particular venture to continue. As Deputy Naughten said, all we are asking the Government to do is make the IWA pause this situation.
I have to make this point. There was a powerful demonstration, which was on a cross-party basis, at the Committee on Health last Thursday. One of the most powerful contributions was from a Government Deputy, Deputy O'Connell, who has been in the news this morning but it was done on a cross-party basis with 12 Members involved. The chief executive officer of the IWA has refused, as Deputy Naughten said, to give any reply. She said she would go back to the board and put it to the board and now she will not even respond to the Members. I ask the Tánaiste to get this paused now. It is causing untold hurt and damage to vulnerable people.
Cuisle has been providing a service to people from the length and breadth of this island. It is cherished and treasured by families I know and by individuals and their carers and loved ones over many years. These appeals are not only made on a constituency interest basis. The Tánaiste will know, perhaps even from his constituency, how important this is to every one of these families as the only dedicated holiday resort facility in this land for people with disabilities. I join in the appeal made by Deputies Naughten and Eugene Murphy today that in this final 24 hours on the eve of the proposed closure of Cuisle, the Tánaiste would take the initiative to ensure Government does not let this slip by. It would be devastating and it can be so easily resolved if the political will is there and if a willingness on the part of the IWA could be demonstrated.
I also met a parent of somebody who accesses these services and has done so regularly in recent years. She made a similar plea to some Deputies this afternoon. The issue, as I understand it, is that the IWA has proposed to move from providing services in this facility to locating services in accessible hotels in both the Galway area and the midlands as an alternative to what Cuisle is providing. The Government is open to talking to the IWA. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has indicated he is available to meet at any point with the IWA or the HSE on this issue but we also have to be guided by the organisation that is providing the services to try to provide the best services it can for its clients. I also understand there is a significant capital investment requirement at the Cuisle facility of between €1 million and €2 million to make it compliant with standards and safety requirements and so on. I will speak to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, on the issue and I will try to reflect the concern that has been expressed.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, would know Bord na Móna made a decision to cease its peat processing operations in Littleton, with the consequent loss of 120 jobs, which has had a devastating impact on the local economy and community. Subsequent to that, Bord na Móna announced the closure of a number of facilities in the midlands. Arising from that, the Government made a just transition fund available to assist in providing alternative options and creating alternative jobs for people who have lost their jobs. Could the Minister confirm that Littleton in County Tipperary is not excluded from that programme? Could he confirm what the criteria are and if the criteria for access to the programme have been finalised? Are the Government and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in communication and in negotiation with the European Commission on the possible application of the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund for all the plants that have closed in the midlands and in Littleton?
The Tánaiste answered part of the question on Littleton. A waste facility has been developed there and it is hoped that waste facility can continue to expand. On the broader issue of the use of the just transition fund, as the Deputy knows, this was established for the first time as a result of the introduction of the carbon pricing and we recognise that a number of counties will be calling on the resources of this fund. We will seek to be broad in our approach but in the immediate term the concentration has been on the losses that have recently occurred as a result of the foreclosing of the expected electricity generation from peat in the midlands. We have not ruled out the provision of funding in the other regions and I know the Moneypoint issue was raised with me, for example. The terms and conditions have not yet been worked out and Kieran Mulvey, who has been appointed as the just transition commissioner, will be making recommendations on how we should do that. The likelihood is that support would come from the platform for coal regions in transition because the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund is specifically confined to situations where international trade has disrupted employment. In the carbon impact sector here, it is the platform for coal regions in transition that would come into play and that has been extended to include peat.
The high cost of insurance is crippling businesses and the speed at which the Government is dealing with this issue is pathetic. In October 2018, the Civil Liability and Courts (Amendment) Bill unanimously passed Second Stage in this Dáil. This Bill would tackle the scourge of insurance fraud, which is driving up premiums. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, indicated in March 2019 that he would return to the Dáil and decide whether a money message for this Bill would be signed or not. Six months later, we are still awaiting clarification on whether the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, will sign this money message. I wrote to him two weeks ago and he replied to say he is looking into it. I do not know if the Government realises how serious the cost of insurance is. The delay the Government is presiding over is having a detrimental effect on business and will result in large-scale business closures and job losses if members of the Government do not get the finger out and adopt the sensible proposals coming from this side of the House that have support on all sides of the House.
Tagrisso is a drug that has been put up for reimbursement and a lot of pressure has been put on in that regard. The recommendation was made through the various channels in July of this year that this be reimbursed. I know of a patient - a very ill person - waiting for this drug. Has anything happened since that recommendation was made in July by the body recommending that it be reimbursed? Where is it right now? Has it been left there for the last six months without the HSE looking at it or without the Government making any direction on it?
Yesterday, I raised the issue that the average beef farmer is earning €8,000 per year. Today I want to raise the fact that salaries in RTÉ are as high as €0.5 million per year.
One RTÉ presenter earns 61 times the average wage of a beef farmer, and €1,500 per broadcast hour. That presenter earns more weekly than the average beef farmer earns in a year. The fact that this is happening is an absolute scandal, but the fact that it is happening at a time RTÉ is in bits financially is complete madness. Any goodwill in the community regarding saving or even growing RTÉ in the future is being damaged by these types of salaries. Members of the National Union of Journalists stated the 15% cut is insufficient and they have called for a cap of €208,000 per year for top presenters. Will the Tánaiste support the cap and make it happen?
This is a matter for RTÉ in the first instance, given that it is an independent body with its own board, overseen by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland as its regulator. The House has previously expressed its belief that some of the pay is excessive. That was included in RTÉ's recent plan, which outlined a 15% cut. RTÉ is in discussions with its unions on the restructuring plan and continues to discuss how the plan will be implemented.
The role played by third level institutions in the regions is invaluable in respect not only of attracting employment but also of providing the skills necessary in the regions, as was instanced last week, when WuXi Biologics in Dundalk announced it would add 200 jobs to its workforce, bringing the total to 600. My question relates to the role of Dundalk Institute of Technology, DKIT, and Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT, in the context of North-South relationships. What efforts are being made to secure additional funding for the two institutions in respect of their cross-Border developments? What programmes are being explored for the post-Brexit environment, in addition to the current programmes available?
I attended a meeting with Deputy Breathnach at DKIT this morning. It is a fantastic college. There is currently a problem relating to its status as a technical university. Some 5,300 students attend DKIT, while there are more than 500 members of staff. If DKIT does not get its act together by April 2020, it will risk losing out on its part of the €90 million in funding set aside for technical universities. What is the Government doing to help to sort out the position of DKIT? It is the first time 80% of the students at DKIT have attended third level education, and the last thing we want to see the college losing out. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, get involved and ensure that DKIT gets a fair crack of the whip?
Yes, I will. Of course, DKIT will get a fair crack of the whip. I have visited the college and it does a super job. Like all other third level institutions, it makes the case for increased funding. We have an ambition to create technological universities. There is already one and we would like to create many more. Advantages will flow from creating technological universities, but the benchmarks that have to be met to qualify technically for the status are clear. It is not a question of political decision-making, but of independent scrutiny and meeting the criteria.
In the programme for Government, there is a clear commitment to ensuring health services are delivered adequately to everyone in the country. In the past 24 hours, I have been informed that the gynaecological service at Our Lady's Hospital in Manorhamilton, for which there is a clinic once or twice per week, has been cut. I was told earlier that the final clinic will be held next Wednesday. That will mean that that women using the service will have to go to Sligo University Hospital, which is also under great stress and will be unable to cope in the way it currently does.
This is the third time this week I have raised issues regarding the contraction of health services in the north west. They may be small matters to people when we consider big Government, but to people in the north west, they are important issues. They affect people throughout the country. This is an example of small cuts having a severe impact. Our Lady's Hospital, Manorhamilton, has provided a magnificent service to people in that region but now the service I mentioned will be taken away. I insist on the Government reversing the cut.
There is a question. As we all know, CE schemes do wonderful work in all our communities and constituencies. They are the mainstay of many organisations such as sporting clubs, Tidy Towns committees, daycare centres and community centres. Deputy Calleary mentioned the issue of the supervisors' pensions and the fact that one of the supervisors appealed to the Labour Court approximately one month ago. The court agreed she was entitled to a pension scheme. There was another court case in 2010. When will CE supervisors have access to pensions?
I am not sure whether the Deputy was in the Chamber earlier but, as I stated, we started negotiations with the labour unions and representatives of CE supervisors at the beginning of the summer with a view to finding a resolution to the Labour Court recommendations made in 2008. A number of suggestions are on the table for consideration by both my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
I raise the issue of flat rate expenses, which are part of current taxation policy. The expenses cover the cost of equipment, tools, uniforms and stationery for some workers. Revenue recently referred to a review, which normally means cuts, and this is causing confusion and outrage among the many who claim the expenses. The cuts will have a severe impact, especially on low-paid workers. Has the Tánaiste an update on the proposed cuts or their nature?
Page 86 of the programme for Government makes reference to the introduction of measures that will modernise the education system and address the demands and pressures that face school leaders. My question relates to Gaelscoil na Laochra, Birr, County Offaly. The school has been in temporary accommodation for years, which has impacted on its growth and development, but the temporary accommodation is no longer suitable. Parents and teachers at the school are concerned and they have been asking for urgent action to be taken for a long time. After I was contacted by the school principal, I submitted a parliamentary question, the reply to which stated the Department of Education and Skills had been liaising with a State body in respect of the possible provision of the school's permanent accommodation on part of its property. I would like an urgent update on the progress made because time and patience are running out. The school cannot be left in limbo any longer.
I raise the issue of the beef task force. In the past few minutes, there has been welcome news that the injunctions against Pauric Brady and Colm Leonard have been lifted. I sought that action yesterday and asked the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about it on Question Time. It is good news.
Many issues must be addressed and it is important that the task force meets in plenary session. There was to be a meeting on 14 October but, unfortunately, that did not happen. I wish to impress on the Tánaiste the importance of getting people around the table as quickly as possible to deal with the outstanding issues in the beef sector and to make progress. I also urge him to impress on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the importance of ensuring that representatives of the retailers will attend.
I assure the Deputy that nobody would like the beef task force to get up and running more than the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. He is committed to it and to reform in the sector in a way that can protect farmers and their families.
The last time there was an attempt to get this process started, the Deputy knows what happened. We have to make sure there is no repeat of that.
We have no carry-over to next Tuesday. On Tuesday, I will again plead with Members to focus on promised legislation and the programme for Government. The Tánaiste and Taoiseach cannot answer questions to specific Ministers. There is another means.