Wednesday, 4 December 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Watching last night's "Prime Time" programme, the interview which Ms Lorraine Walsh gave was, as Deputy Kelly noted on Leaders' Questions, quite distressing. It was in the context of yesterday's briefing of the 221+ group on the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, RCOG, review. It was particularly distressing that Lorraine Walsh felt she needed to resign as a patient representative. The Taoiseach needs to do more than just thanking Lorraine Walsh for her work. She and Stephen Teap were exceptional patient advocates and representatives on that group, but their input was not always appreciated and they had a sense of that. From my discussions and understanding, it reveals the need, to which the Government is committed, to introduce legislation to create a proper framework and supports for patient advocacy and representation. Lorraine Walsh and Stephen Teap were often on their own, facing huge challenges. Those in authority, particularly the Department, seem to not always have appreciated that. It did not work as we would have thought it would in light of all that has been said in this House about the primacy of the patient and the patient representative. There is a huge legislative vacuum in respect of this matter.
As I mentioned earlier, Lorraine Walsh did phenomenal work on the CervicalCheck steering committee. I have met her many times, as has the Minister. I am sure he would be happy to meet her again and speak to her on any concerns she has. Ms Walsh resigned from the committee on 31 October. The RCOG report was published only yesterday.
-----and allow RCOG to come before the Joint Committee on Health, which it has offered to do. The best people to explain the report, which is essentially a clinical audit-----
-----are the individuals from the RCOG who compiled it. We established a patient advocacy service in the past couple of months. Such a service had not previously existed.
Earlier this year, the Judicial Council Bill was passed. It provides for sentencing guidelines in legislation for the first time, something that was long demanded by organisations representing the victims of crime and that was secured by Sinn Féin. Recently, there has been some discussion on preparation work for the personal injuries guidelines committee. This is welcome because the business community and voluntary groups are feeling massive pressure from runaway premiums, but surely the victims of crime also deserve some urgency to ensure that the question of inconsistent and inadequate sentencing is dealt with. What preparation is taking place to ensure that the relevant sections of the Judicial Council Bill are implemented and when will the sentencing guidelines committee be ready to meet and prepare guidelines?
The Deputy is correct that the Bill was passed in the early summer. Since then, there has been considerable activity ensuring that the sections were appropriately commenced. I expect the council will be established and in place by the end of the year, which is in a few weeks. On the committees, some work is taking place in parallel. I expect that all aspects of the council will be firmly in place by next year.
The Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill will be debated again before being signed into law. On further analysis, and looking at the proposed amendments that are coming forward, the Labour Party believes that the Bill is flawed. If involved in any future Government, we would not allow this legislation to go any further; we would reverse what is proposed because we think it is very dangerous. We know about concerns regarding the social consequences in the context of bingo, which were outlined in the past 24 hours. On a very serious note, we do not have a regulator, casinos that are totally illegal - in some cases they do not even have planning permission - are operating less than a mile from this House and we have done nothing in respect of online gambling. We need a regulator. We are all aware of the addiction problems. I have spoken about this matter from the point of view of deep knowledge because I know people who have suffered very badly as a result of the House's lack of movement in respect of it. The Bill will be debated later. In that context, I ask whether we really need to allow high-stakes fixed-odds gaming machines to be prevalent across the country. Do we need to allow the stakes to be increased, via the legislation, by up to €5 and allow payouts of €500? Fianna Fáil really needs to think about this in the next few hours. When will we have proper legislation to bring in a proper regulator to deal with the various issues to which I refer and which are a scourge on our society?
The Bill is before the House. There will be more than enough time both here and on Committee Stage for Deputies to debate it and to put forward any amendments they may wish to propose. It is interim legislation. A bigger item of legislation involving the establishment of a regulator is also being prepared. The Bill is an interim measure designed to make some improvements while the larger item of legislation is being finalised by the Department of Justice and Equality.
In the context of bingo-----
-----the Bill has caused some concern. I reassure people that there are no plans whatever in the legislation that would cause the closure of any bingo halls in Ireland. Rather, the legislation seeks to ensure that bingo halls, many of which are big commercial operators, actually provide money to charity as required. The legislation requires that 25% of the money goes to charity. We know of some instances where literally none or a minuscule percentage is going to charity which is wrong. Nothing in the legislation will close bingo halls but it will require the owners and operators of the halls, many of which are big enterprises, to make the contributions to charity that they should have been making up to now.
There is a reference to the recruitment of front-line professionals on page 34 of the programme for Government. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to look into the situation whereby the Hope Montessori autism spectrum disorder, ASD, preschool in Mountview in Dublin 15 is in danger of class closures in January, leaving children with autism with nowhere to go because the Teaching Council will not issue new teachers their numbers in time? All the paperwork was submitted in good order but quite incredibly it can take a year to register a teacher. In preschool Montessori ASD settings, teachers must be qualified primary teachers. We know we cannot recruit such teachers in Ireland, schools must source them abroad, paying thousands of euro to an agency to bring them from Spain. The school has the teachers in place for January but the Teaching Council has not given them their numbers and the class may close. This is really serious. The children need the help. In September the ASD school paid over €5,000 to a site to recruit these teachers. I have been contacted by parents who say the staff are ready, and I am sure the Taoiseach has been too. Will he pull the finger out and get this done or will these children be left stranded in January?
The Teaching Council is the professional regulatory body for teachers. I am not aware of the issue but if the Deputy gives me the details I will ensure that it is looked into by my people.
There are major concerns in the pig industry here about imported pork and other products coming from areas close to where there is swine flu. Have we proper checks in our ports and airports by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in this regard? This is a deadly serious virus and it could be worse than foot and mouth disease for the pig industry. The pig industry is our third largest food producing sector and neither the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine nor many of the rest of us are aware of the seriousness of this matter as it applies to pork products imported from these regions adjacent to the current epidemic.
Tomorrow afternoon, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, INTO, and teachers from DEIS band 1 schools will gather at the Department of Education and Skills to hand in a letter to the Minister about their concerns regarding a lack of targeting of educational disadvantage in the budget. The pupil-teacher ratio was reduced for other schools but there was no corresponding reduction for DEIS band 1 schools, which are the most disadvantaged schools in the country. Does this signal a change in approach by the Government on the principle of targeting those children who are most severely affected by disadvantage, as their education would therefore be affected by that disadvantage? Traditionally we have ensured additional resources would go to that sector and we accept the principle that smaller class sizes will help to overcome that disadvantage. Is this a change in policy?
There is no change in policy. We now have the lowest pupil-teacher ratios in primary schools ever and that has been delivered by this Government with the biggest budget ever for education.
With the help of Deputies, I will try to accommodate as many contributors as possible today. They should agree with my wish to call first those Deputies who did not have the opportunity to contribute on the Order of Business yesterday.
As the Taoiseach knows well, the midlands has been hit by a tsunami with the proposed closure of Bord na Móna and ESB power stations, particularly those at Lough Ree and Shannonbridge. We have not had balanced regional development in north-east Roscommon despite the efforts of the Government. Our lifeline has been cut, and this has been a lifeline for the past 70 years. If I go around my area, every second or third house would have had a person employed by Bord na Móna or the ESB. Can the Taoiseach provide any hope in terms of what we can do for people in the region? I acknowledge that meetings are taking place and we met some people from Europe the other day. Nevertheless, this is a serious crisis and we need everybody on board to ensure our communities are not totally destroyed.
It is and I am happy to answer the Deputy, with the agreement of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The Deputy asked the very good question of whether I can give hope to the people in the regions who will be affected by the closure of the peat power stations. The answer is "Yes" and I can. This is the first big test of just transition for our country which, over the next couple of years, will get out of burning peat. It is the right action from an environmental perspective but we must ensure the workers are looked after, with alternative employment brought into those regions and communities to replace that which is being lost.
The Deputy is aware that we are using proceeds from the carbon tax to establish a just transition commission and fund. The members had their first meeting in Tullamore just the other day. We are also investing in the National Parks and Wildlife Service and bog restoration. Bord na Móna will do that on top of the Government investment. Many of the staff could be moved from cutting bogs to restoring bogs. Bord na Móna is also diversifying its work away from being brown to being green. It is getting involved with recycling waste and other work. We are also investing in tourism in the region, particularly in the Ireland's Hidden Heartlands initiative. I am determined, as Head of Government, to ensure that not only do the midlands not lose employment or economic activity because of this change but also that we will target investment in those areas so they can be better off. IDA Ireland has a role to play in this too.
Page 58 of the programme for Government indicates the Government's support of timely patient discharge from hospitals. Unfortunately, in many cases, the step-down facilities or home help hours are not available for doctors to discharge patients into the most appropriate care setting, with doctors always discharging patients who are medically fit for discharge where a proper care setting is available. Anybody who says otherwise is lying. This is why it is totally outrageous that St. James's Hospital is offering cash prizes for discharge of patients, which is sick behaviour. I have a flyer indicating that there is a €250 prize for the most improved use of the discharge lounge and the medical team sending most patients to a discharge lounge will receive another prize of €250. Surely this behaviour should be investigated as it is totally inappropriate and dangerous.
I thank the Deputy for the question. I understand St. James's Hospital has withdrawn the poster and it was certainly not a national policy. I understand that this was specific to the hospital and it accepts that, at best, it was a clumsy idea. People who listened to Ms Phil Ní Sheaghda and Professor Patrick Plunkett on the radio this morning explaining how discharge lounges work and why they are a good idea would have a better understanding as to what was attempted with this. However, offering cash prizes was not appropriate. They were not even cash prizes as the money was meant for teams rather than any individual staff member.
Page 133 of the programme for Government commits to improving school completion rates, particularly in disadvantaged areas. The Get Ahead club in north Clondalkin meets the needs of many young people, some from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in my area, in helping them to complete school. Due to an increase in costs relating to how this much-needed and vital service is delivered, it is currently not being delivered. Will the Taoiseach confirm that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will meet a cross-party delegation of Deputies from Dublin Mid-West tomorrow to try to resolve this matter?
I thank the Deputy but I am afraid I cannot give that confirmation. I will inform the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, that the matter was raised in the Chamber and I will ask her to contact the Deputy directly.
The Taoiseach has stated he will defend the interests of Irish citizens in the North of Ireland. Thousands of people from across the country have asked him to put those words into actions. Some 100 years ago, Members of Parliament, north and south, refused to attend Westminster and they came here to create our Dáil as a 32-county Parliament at the time. Yesterday, I submitted a Bill that would give speaking rights to MPs elected in the North of Ireland. It is in our gift at this critical juncture of Brexit to allow elected representatives of the North of Ireland to have speaking rights here and facilitate representatives of citizens from Derry, west Belfast and west Tyrone in here. Will the Taoiseach facilitate this Bill in going through this Dáil before it ends?
I have raised before with the Taoiseach the case of Ger, who is an acute care bed at St. Luke's Hospital at Kilkenny, which is an inappropriate setting, as he has been medically discharged. He has been there since last November. The Taoiseach stated he would examine this but nothing has been done. It is now over 12 months since the case began. This relates to funding for the special occupation service, SOS, Kingsriver and L'Arche, and the position remains the same despite the Minister visiting a parents' forum and giving commitments. If funding was available for SOS, Ger's case would be solved. It is an awful reflection on the Government that a young man who needs support outside hospital remains in an inappropriate setting. The managers of the HSE are standing idly by watching that happen while Ger's health deteriorates.
I raise the issue of the appointment of a consultant psychiatrist for the deaf community in the southern region. The position has been vacant for some time. Social workers who are dealing with the deaf community have implored me to use whatever offices I can to get a consultant psychiatrist appointed for the deaf community in the south. Does the Taoiseach or Government have any plans to make that appointment?
I recently raised the issue of the decision of RTÉ to move Lyric FM from Dublin to Limerick. I was informed by the Tánaiste, who was answering on the Taoiseach’s behalf on the day in question, that it was a decision exclusively for RTÉ. It has since been brought to my attention that the decision to move Lyric FM to Limerick in the first place was a Cabinet decision, done at the instigation of the then Minister, President Michael D. Higgins. Is it the Government’s intention to allow RTÉ to go ahead and unilaterally reverse a Cabinet decision?
I will have to check this out as well. The legal position may or may not have changed since then. While I have been around the table, we have never been involved in operational matters involving RTÉ, about where it locates its staff or anything like that. I am not sure we would like to get into that space either. Perhaps the legislation has changed since then but I am interested to hear that it was a Government decision to locate Lyric FM in Limerick. I have never been part of a Government that directed RTÉ to do anything-----
During the period of austerity, financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation was introduced which resulted in cuts of up to 33% in the income of the Irish pharmacies. Since the FEMPI cuts of 2009, pharmacy is the only sector which has not had those cuts reversed. Pharmacists were buoyed up by a commitment the Minister gave at the annual conference of the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, that would see the FEMPI cuts abolished and talks commenced on a new pharmacy contract. Unfortunately, the Minister and Department are now proposing further cuts for the pharmacy sector which would result in an average reduction in income of more than €12,000. This completely contradicts the Sláintecare strategy which aims to keep key health services in the community with the focus on primary care. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to leave the current contractual arrangements in place and immediately start the promised negotiations on a new pharmacy contact and investment in improved pharmacy services for the benefit of the public?
I am advised that this matter is currently under negotiation between the IPU, which represents pharmacists, the Department of Health and the HSE. Hopefully, we will be able to make an announcement on that in the next few weeks.
I have ensured that Deputies who were unable to contribute yesterday got an opportunity to do so today. We have eight minutes remaining and I will take speakers as they appear on the list. Deputy Murphy O'Mahony will be followed by Deputy Danny Healy-Rae.
Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire Talmhaíochta, Bia agus Mara ach níl sé anseo. Mar sin, cuirfidh mé an cheist ar an Taoiseach. There is much talk about farm incomes. The programme for Government included a commitment to protect farm incomes. Farmers across west Cork are on their knees. Beef prices are a major factor in that regard. Why is the Government standing over the importation of beef from other countries when we have enough beef here? This is obviously greatly affecting prices. Why is the Government standing over the importation of beef when there is no need for it?
I acknowledge the terrible impact low beef prices are having on the incomes of our beef farmers. I really hope we will see prices rise in the next few weeks, at least to the European average which they had been at previously. The Deputy will know the Teagasc farm report shows that farmers’ incomes fell precipitously in 2018 and while they recovered a bit in 2019, they have not recovered fully by any means. To answer the Deputy’s question, the reason we allow the import of food from other countries is that we are part of the European Union. We have a Single Market with the rest of the European Union. The Union has trade deals with other parts of the world which allow goods to be imported and exported. By and large, as a country, we gain overwhelmingly from that.
People throughout the country, especially those who attend bingo nights, are worried and concerned about the Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill 2019 that will come before the Dáil tonight. These are ordinary, good living people, mostly elderly people and housewives. I am thinking of the 700 or 800 people who go to bingo in Killarney on a Sunday night. They used to go to Conroy Hall but another hall, St. Mary’s Hall in Killarney, has been sourced. People travel from Kilgarvan, Dooagh, Tarbert and all over the county.
The Taoiseach addressed this issue earlier but it is quite a serious one. Many of these bingo nights are run to fund local festivals and keep local community halls open. Bingo is a source of vital funds for rural Ireland. Applying the new lottery rules to community run bingo nights will have a serious negative effect on our communities where many people give of their time for the good of others. There is considerable confusion about this. Will the Taoiseach ensure events such as community bingo nights in west Cork-----
-----that are run for charities will be exempt from the new lottery rules? Will he sideline the Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill due to be debated tonight until this confusion has been cleared up?
I know that from the number of queries I have received about this issue in recent days. I spoke to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, about this yesterday. He is from rural Cork, as the Deputies will know, and he assured me that this new law will not have any adverse impact on bingo halls or bingo nights and will not cause any bingo nights to be cancelled or any bingo halls to be closed.
However, it will require bingo operators, many of which are big commercial operations, to provide at least 25% of the money they raise for the charities. Some of them have not been doing that and that is wrong.
I raise a matter related to a commitment to the education sector in the programme for Government. In recent days, Mr. Patrick Crean, the principal of Castlegregory national school, convened an important meeting regarding the provision of what is called a general purpose or physical education hall for the school. Some 138 children attend that school. A general purpose hall is urgently required and it would be approximately 350 sq m in size. An application was made for the provision of a hall, which was turned down. I ask the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education and Skills to look favourably on providing this most necessary infrastructure for Castlegregory national school and its environs.
I am aware of it. The Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, has been working on this with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, for some time and they hope to be able to confirm progress in a few months.
I raise an issue of concern under promised legislation. I visited a number of parks last weekend and saw clear evidence of turf having been gouged out by the tyres of scrambler and quad bikes. Will the Taoiseach discourage parents who might be thinking of buying these bikes for their loved ones at Christmas from doing so? These vehicles bring mayhem into communities and are destroying our parks. They are also making parks exclusive places. While parks, by their nature, should be inclusive, people are terrified to go into many parks because of young people using scrambler bikes, mopeds and quad bikes They are destroying football pitches and amenities. People are waking up early in the morning and going to bed at night listening to this noise. What legislation is coming down the track to address this issue?
I strongly discourage parents, young people or anybody else from purchasing scramblers or quad bikes for use in public places and parks in particular.
There have been ongoing discussions with a number of stakeholders through a committee which I convened earlier this year. We are currently looking at a proposed legislative change which would refine the definition of public place. Discussions are ongoing between the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, my Department, and local authorities in this regard. I cannot say the matter will be resolved before the end of this year but this is an issue of importance and we are looking at how to address it.
I raise the issue of childcare and childcare workers. In this country, most of our families entrust their children to childcare workers to allow them to go to work, to care for other family members and so on. The childcare system is not without its challenges but we absolutely rely on it. While we agree with the closure of some childcare facilities and crèches, such as those we saw highlighted on "Prime Time", because they are not fit for purpose, the vast majority do a really good job in caring for and supporting our children. They support the very fabric of our communities. The newly introduced childcare regulations which require childcare facilities to register before 12 December are very onerous. I know that the deadline for meeting some of the conditions has been extended until June but, at the moment, only 50% of childcare operators have registered. On 2 January, 50% of our childcare operators may close down. What will we do when our teachers, nurses, doctors and public servants cannot go to work? This needs to be looked at.
With regard to the programme for Government, I raise the issue of the obligations and roles of the British and Irish Governments as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish Government made major constitutional amendments to enable the implementation of that agreement yet the British Government is failing to amend simple domestic law in order to protect the rights of Irish citizens, due to its interpretation of the agreement. What progress, if any, is being made by the Government in addressing these gaps in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement? Can the Taoiseach guarantee that, as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, these issues in the Good Friday Agreement will be respected and honoured?
There is nothing about that in the withdrawal agreement but it is something we are taking up with the British Government. The British courts have made a distinction between being able to identify as British, Irish or both and being a citizen of Britain, Ireland or both. We do not agree with that interpretation. I have taken this matter up with the Prime Minister and the Tánaiste has taken it up with the Secretary of State. We will take it up again after the UK elections.
I have a question for the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Griffin. Quite a sizeable amount of money has been allocated through the sports capital programme over recent weeks. I welcome that but I have been made aware of a number of appeals in my constituency. I am sure there are also appeals in other constituencies. Some applicants were not successful for one reason or another. Will the Minister of State outline the appeals process?
The Deputy is correct. We recently allocated €37 million to more than 1,000 sports clubs around the country. This means that €57 million has been allocated under the current round of the sports capital programme when one includes the previous tranche, which was for equipment only, and the second-chance applicants from the previous round. The deadline for any club whose application was invalid or unsuccessful to appeal is 20 December. Some 9% of all applications in this round were invalid. That is a decrease from 48% in 2012, so we have made great progress on that front. Those clubs whose applications scored in the bottom 25% were unsuccessful on this occasion. Clubs may appeal that decision. The deadline is 20 December and I encourage any club whose application was invalid or unsuccessful as a result of being in that bottom 25% to appeal if it feels there is a case for doing so.
The Minister of State has told us that this information is on the website. I have read it there. I was going to give a mark of six out of ten because there was some improvement on yesterday but I am afraid we have fallen back to five out of ten. We will strive to improve tomorrow in order to reach that mark. I hope it will not take too long to do so.