Thursday, 12 December 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Anyone who listened to Tommy Meskill's interview with Johnny Downey on "Morning Ireland" this morning will have been very moved. Jack Downey, Johnny's son, was 19. He was an accounting student. His father said he loved GAA and he loved life. He was not a drug taker; indeed, his father said he would not even take an Anadin. One day last August he left home at 10.30 a.m. and at 9 p.m. Johnny and Elaine received a phone call that Jack had been admitted to Cork University Hospital.
When Jack was leaving that morning, his father told him to be careful and he responded, "Ah sure, I was there last year. I'll be fine." It was only his second concert. He made one mistake and the consequences were absolutely catastrophic. His death has had a profound effect on his family and his community. Johnny spoke this morning about something we need to ask people to do this Christmas: parents need have the conversation about drugs with their teenage children. I know it will be a very difficult conversation for some parents to have. It would be much more difficult to get the phone call that Johnny and Elaine got on that Friday evening about their beloved Jack.
Taking a chance cost Jack his life. What Johnny and Elaine want - what we all want - is that there be no more Jacks and that nobody else has to walk the walk that they are walking at the moment. It must have taken enormous courage for Johnny to do that interview with Tommy Meskill this morning. He is not looking for attention or glory; he just wants parents to have that conversation. It has never been as important to have that conversation.
Health Research Board, HRB, figures for drug-related deaths in Ireland in 2017 show that more than one person a day is dying related to drugs. Deputy Curran has highlighted this issue for many years and the position is getting worse. The availability and potency of drugs is getting worse. It is no longer just a city issue; it is in every community. The Government is not responding and there is legislative inaction.
Would the Tánaiste agree that we need to review the licensing of concerts to ensure that those who promote concerts are made to take responsibility for illegal drug availability at those concerts? Just as they must take responsibility for security and alcohol, is it not time to clamp down on drug availability at concerts?
Given those HRB figures, the increasing availability of drugs in our communities and the involvement of children as young as ten selling drugs, is the Government losing the fight against drugs?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I did not hear this morning's interview, but I am sure it was heartbreaking. Any parent's worst nightmare is for a child not to come home in those circumstances. The Government absolutely recognises that we have a major challenge, as so many other countries have, to respond in a substantive way to drug use. The number of deaths linked to cocaine use and poisoning has increased, as has the number linked to the use of heroin and other drugs, sometimes prescription drugs. Alcohol is also a significant killer.
We have a comprehensive national drugs strategy. It is broken into various elements, including promoting health and well-being. The Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the HSE are involved. From a policing perspective the issues the Deputy has raised are pertinent. The Garda Síochána is active in this area. We have increased its capacity in terms of drugs response and we have increased garda numbers.
Having said that, particularly those of us living outside Dublin will have seen an increase in the availability of illegal drugs on the streets of our cities and towns. The Government is constantly looking to improve the response on that.
I can speak to the Minister responsible and come back to the Deputy on concert licensing. That can be looked at if the Deputy believes it would be helpful. We need to give a very clear message to parents and families that the Government wants to support them. As the Taoiseach said yesterday, we need to be tough on crime and also tough on the causes of crime in terms of the illegal drugs trade. We also need to raise awareness more effectively than we have been able to do among young people of the dangers of illegal drug use, given the tragedy that so many families have faced not just in 2017, but also in 2018, for which we do not yet have figures.
I reiterate the HRB figures. A total of 786 people died from drug related deaths in 2017. Those are the ones that are registered and that we know about. It is essential for the Government to strengthen the legislation on the availability of drugs at concerts and large gatherings. Promoters are making considerable money on these concerts and it is time for them to know there are consequences and to accept responsibility for those consequences.
The Tánaiste mentioned those of us living outside Dublin. Senior gardaí are saying we risk losing an entire generation unless we get to grips with the drugs problem. The slogans are all very welcome, but we need action on the ground, including extra gardaí in the drugs units. Mayo, one of the biggest counties in the country, has only five gardaí in the drugs unit. More resources need to be put in there. The Government is diminishing the incredibly important work of our regional drugs and alcohol task forces. They have not been given sufficient budgets. The proposal on the table is that they be recentralised, meaning that their reach into communities will be weakened. We never needed them more in communities than we do now. They need to be properly resourced and given the powers to do what the Tánaiste mentioned: building awareness and giving warnings in communities.
It is time for the Government to get serious about drugs. It is time for the Government to take it on and give it the attention it needs, and not lose a generation.
The Government is already very serious about drugs, which is why we are trying to break this enormous challenge into its component parts, including providing more services for homeless people who are affected by addiction, putting in place injection centres for people to inject safely rather than potentially poisoning themselves with overdoses or with dirty needles. These are difficult challenges the Government is determined to take on. We are also providing extra healthcare drug-treatment opportunities for people trying to wean themselves off addiction. That is what we are doing at that end of the spectrum.
On the recreational side, which in some ways is an inappropriate description of drug use in night clubs, parties, concerts and so on, we have put many extra resources into An Garda Síochána in this area. The Garda has implemented the national drugs strategy training programme for members of the force working in drug units within communities.
They have trained 60 extra Garda members since the programme commenced, which only commenced last year. From a policing perspective and from an awareness, health and addiction management perspective we are putting significant resources into the different elements of this problem, which are complex.
Yesterday, Premier Lotteries Ireland Limited, the private operator of the national lottery confirmed that €180,000 in prize money was left out of three scratch card games over the last number of years. Two of these scratch card games, each called "Congratulations" and sold at €5 per card, were missing three of the top prizes, each worth €50,000. The other game was missing a top prize worth €30,000. This is a total of four jackpot prizes missing in three games, games that have resulted in scratch card sales of more than €20 million for that company. It has also emerged that one of these games was left on sale for six weeks after the issue became known to the operator and the company.
I want to be clear that I have nothing against the lottery. I play the lottery in the knowledge that many of the proceeds go into charitable causes and community projects, which is very welcome. I also do it in the knowledge that the lottery is a form of gambling that requires proper regulation and robust legislation to underpin it. I put it to the Tánaiste that it is very hard to believe that three games operated by Premier Lotteries Ireland had four jackpot prizes missing and that this was due to human error or some improbable misfortune. In one of these games, the number of prizes was designed to be no less than 976,500. The probability that out of all those prizes it was the jackpot prize that would be missing is nearly one in one million. The probability that out of all the prizes four jackpot prizes across three games would be missing, involves a lot of zeros. The probability is one in 25 million billion. The numbers simply do not stack up and serious questions need to be answered by Premier Lotteries Ireland, by the Regulator of the National Lottery and by the Government.
The national lottery was privatised in 2014 by Fine Gael and the Labour Party at a price of €400 million. We were told that the licence was sold to pay for the national children's hospital among many other capital projects, some of which we still wait to see. We now know that this price will not even cover a fraction of the cost of the national children's hospital. Since the private operator was given the license, the number of retail outlets where games are sold has escalated beyond any expected proportions. There are now more than 2,000 further retail outlets, which is an increase of 56% since it was privatised. Unclaimed prizes are pumped into advertising and promotion instead of going to charitable causes where they should be going. We can see this in relation to the numbers of shops and games.
Those who buy a scratch card or lottery ticket do not do so in the hope of winning the €3 or €5 prizes. They do it to win the biggest prize. A private operator, however, that deals in odds every day, managed to leave out the four top prizes, against astronomical odds. The legislation around this is completely flawed. This private operator writes its own code of conduct and sends it to the regulator for approval.
I thank the Deputy for raising this serious issue. Deputy Doherty is not the only Member to raise it. Deputy Michael McGrath has also raised the matter.
For the record I will outline how this works. The operator of the national lottery, Premier Lotteries Ireland, PLI, has found that four top prizes were not included for players to win in three of the 178 scratch card games it has offered since taking over the licence in 2014. The four prizes together are worth €180,000 and represent some 1.36% of total prize funds of those three scratch card games. These omissions were discovered through an internal review of all national lottery products over the last six weeks, and we are told they were cause by human error. Lotto, Euro Millions, Daily Millions, digital games and all other national lottery products were unaffected by these errors. The Regulator of the National Lottery was promptly notified of the review and has been updated regularly since.
There are real questions to answer here and the Deputy has pointed to some of them. At a minimum, the regulator and the operator should come before an Oireachtas committee to explain what has happened. I am certainly not against the idea of an independent investigation with regard to how this could have happened. The integrity of the lottery system is hugely important given how valuable it is to the many good causes it funds.
The Government has an open mind around getting to the bottom of what actually happened in this case. I do not believe it is acceptable to simply dismiss this as human error at some point in the management chain. We are certainly open to what the Deputy has called for. The Government, however, needs to have a fuller understanding of the appropriate course of action to get to the detail of what went wrong to ensure the public can have full confidence in the lottery system that so many people play on a daily and weekly basis.
There absolutely must be serious questions asked and answers given. We have written to the Oireachtas committee. It is not a case of whether the representatives should appear. The operator and the regulator must attend before the committee. They have a legal responsibility and a legal obligation to appear when they are requested to do so.
This situation seriously dents confidence in the lottery. For every approval sought from the regulator for a scratch card game, the national lottery produces the odds at which a person can win a €3, €5, €20 or a top prize. This is what their game is; it is about the odds. We are asked to believe that human error resulted in something that has odds of happening of one in 25 million billion. It is unbelievable for us to be able to accept that. Moreover, when this was found out the operator continued to sell these tickets.
The private company that operates the national lottery has made enormous profits off the back of these three games, sales of which were in excess of €20 million. Yet, there is no talk from the operator of actually refunding any of those profits back to consumers or to good causes.
There is also a serious issue with regard to the regulator. The Regulator of the National Lottery has a team of ten people. Yes, the regulation is flawed and I ask the Tánaiste to look at that, but the regulator only has one responsibility-----
-----which is to regulate one company. When she appeared before an Oireachtas committee in 2018 the regulator told us that the Regulator of the National Lottery has access to all the systems and all of the real-time data. And still the regulator did not uncover this issue. There is a serious question around the role of the regulator when punters have been scammed to a level such as this.
This funding has provided critical investment in so many areas in communities such as sports, culture, health, youth services and community development. This is why the integrity of this system needs to be protected. The Government is looking at how best to do that. This is why we have an open mind to what the Deputy has suggested today.
We want to get the regulator and the operator before a committee to answer direct questions. If necessary, we will then ensure an independent investigation to get to the bottom of this in a credible and transparent way. That needs to be done and the Government will ensure it will be.
On Tuesday, in an exchange in the House, the Taoiseach referred to the UN human development index ranking, which had Ireland in third place for quality of life. It was calculated using the three categories of health, education and income. The statistics were life expectancy of 82 years, 18.79 expected years of schooling and gross national income of €55,659.68. There has been growth in the quality of life in Ireland since 2012. Then we come to the statistics we get in reply to questions. I will take housing as an example. We have statistics such as 64,000 new homes being delivered, 26,000 on site, a further 30,000 with planning permission and 75,000 families removed from consistent poverty. This brings to mind the clichéd phrase regarding statistics of lies, damned lies and statistics. I came across an interesting definition of statistics that is quite relevant to my question today. The definition is that statistics are like a bikini as what they reveal is interesting but what they hide is vital. Statistics reveal interesting information to answer questions but what they hide is the reality. Understanding this reality is vital to direct policies and strategies. What is hidden is the reality of life and the impact of not having a home, whether people are in emergency accommodation, sleeping rough, in overcrowded unsuitable accommodation or in direct provision. What is also hidden is the impact and reality of inequality.
I refer to two reports and I do not expect the Tánaiste to have heard of them. They were done by All Together in Dignity. These are The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty and a study on living in the shadows of socioeconomic deprivation. They came from conversations with people who are living with the reality of poverty. They speak about suffering mentally, emotionally and physically. They speak about institutional and social maltreatment, discrimination and disempowerment. This should not be happening in Ireland, a country that has wealth, a relatively small population, resources, investment and employment. It is great to celebrate coming third but it is nothing to celebrate for those whom I have mentioned. Coming third cannot allow us to be complacent and we have to be driven to ensure all can enjoy the quality of life that has Ireland in third place. It is vital that we consider a different ideology, different principles and a different philosophy and that we are driven by the values that direct our overseas development aid so that coming third applies to everybody. There is a need for a radical shift. Quality of life begins with a home.
Of course any broad assessment of statistics and drawing conclusions from it will hide tragic cases and inequality in certain sectors. It is also worth saying that statistics do not lie. We have made extraordinary progress in this country since 2012. It is important to recognise this. Of course we need to focus on things we have not done yet but if we look at the CSO figures in the survey on income and living conditions and the statistics from 2013 to 2018, inclusive, we see genuine progress in reducing poverty levels, reducing deprivation levels, increasing nominal income and a reduced number of people at risk of poverty. This is true. It is progress and it should be recognised.
We have seen huge numbers of people being taken out of the risks and pressures of being unemployed. The figure has fallen from 15% unemployment to below 5% unemployment. During that period, the Government continued to increase the rates of minimum wage to try to make sure that as the country can afford it everybody benefits from a rising tide. This is what we have been trying to do.
This does not suggest we do not still have significant challenges and housing is at the heart of this, in terms of ensuring we facilitate enough homes being built at affordable prices for people to be able to access them, and for those who cannot afford to buy their own homes or rent their own properties that the State can intervene to support them in having a home of their own. We are doing this. We are not where we need to be yet. We need to complete approximately 35,000 housing units a year in Ireland. This year, the figure will be approximately 22,000. We are still increasing our output by more than 25% a year, which is significant. This year, as we have said over again, we will add an extra 10,000 social housing units to the social housing stock.
If we take my city as an example, in Cork in 2014 there was one social house under construction for Cork City Council. There are currently 1,000 on site under construction. This is the change we are making and this is the pace that needs to continue for the next few years to make sure we get up to providing at least 12,000 extra social housing units a year and we provide thousands of affordable houses and cost rental and increase the housing output so the people to whom the Deputy referred who are, at the moment, in very pressurised and difficult conditions, with some of them in emergency accommodation, can get into homes of their own.
I will always acknowledge progress but that progress is not being applied very widely. I will give a particular example. We all know Brother Kevin Crowley of the Capuchin day centre. Last Saturday night, he was out on O'Connell Street at the GPO with a group singing carols from 8 p.m. until 10 p.m. At 10 p.m. on Saturday he made his way to a fundraising event for the Capuchin day centre organised by the Oireachtas ushers. A man in his 80s should not be in a position of having to do this. We know the number of people he feeds every day, with approximately 600 or 700 people coming in and approximately 1,500 food parcels going out. This should not be happening in a country that is wealthy. This is my point. Yes, progress is being made but it comes from a philosophy and ideology that does not take everybody into account. Yes, we have quality of life. All of us here have quality of life and we are looking forward to a good Christmas but we must be directed, and our policies and strategies have to be directed, towards those who are most in need and this is not happening.
I absolutely accept that a core responsibility of Government is to ensure there is a safety net for people who, for whatever reason, find themselves without a home, without income and often with many other challenges, from addiction to family break-up to all sorts of individual personal challenges. This is why we work with people such as Brother Kevin, who is a great person and there are many others like him, who are working for people who are very vulnerable. We spend more than €160 million a year working with organisations to provide homeless services in better emergency accommodation while we help people transition back into a home of their own. There are far too many people homeless in Ireland. We know this. The way to solve it is to continue to improve the quality of the supports available in emergency accommodation. The core way in which this will be solved is to increase significantly the supply of social housing, affordable housing and affordable rental. All of these are happening. They cannot happen quickly enough but they are happening at a pace that the Government will continue to prioritise.
In the programme for Government of 2016 many promises were made in the area of education. The Government said it was committed to delivering a school capital investment programme for extensions and refurbishment to cater for additional school places. It also stated significant funding has been secured as part of the capital plan. To the people of Bandon and its surrounds these promises were false and misleading.
On 22 February 2018, in answer to my question, the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, who was standing in for the Taoiseach, stated he was pleased to be able to respond positively to my request and that the Department of Education and Skills approved permanent accommodation for St. Brogan's college in Bandon comprising four mainstream classrooms and two resource teaching rooms. He stated it had been given the green light with funding from the Department of Education and Skills and the Government. He said he was very pleased this was the case. It is now two years on and not a shovel has been turned on this project. The parents of secondary school going children in Bandon and its surrounds are furious as 220 pupils applied for entry in 2020 to the excellent St. Brogan's college, which will be pushed to the extreme to take 118 children. This will leave more than 100 children without a place.
The only co-educational secondary school in Bandon is Hamilton high school which is full to capacity and has refused dozens of children entry in September 2020. Parents who live next to the schools and parents who are within walking distance of either school have had their children refused entry as the schools are already operating at over-capacity. These parents are not taking this sitting down. At a meeting on Monday night last they told me they are being advised to educate their children at home or to take them to a secondary school in Cork. These parents will not accept this. They have had their children in schools in Bandon from preschool through to national school and for dozens to be told there is no second level school place for their child is unacceptable. They are angry, and rightly so.
We need a short-term solution and a long-term solution. The population in Bandon is expected to grow out to 2025. The Department of Education and Skills has been caught napping as there is no long-term plan for Bandon and, shockingly, no short-term plan either, with promise after promise having been broken, leaving people in an unprecedented crisis. The Department of Education and Skills needs to carry out an immediate assessment of educational needs for a fast-growing Bandon. It needs to consult urgently with second level schools in Bandon and to consult with the community and parents, and to do so urgently. The long-term plan must be a new, standalone community-type college for Bandon, similar to that which exists in Kinsale and Skibbereen. Bandon needs this school and it needs it urgently. This is the long-term plan. The short-term plan to cater for the children excluded to date in Bandon is temporary classrooms at St. Brogan's college and Hamilton high school. This is by no means a perfect solution as St Brogan's college, which was built to cater for 400 children, is now catering for over 600 students and it may have to cater for more than 700 in light of the crisis unfolding for so many families.
Hamilton high school is at over-capacity and there has been no future vision for educational need for Bandon school-going children for decades. I have been raising this issue in the Dáil since I was elected in 2016. I have raised every year at every opportunity, including twice in the past three weeks. I know of the pain parents are suffering. Can the Tánaiste tell me today that every child who has been refused entry to St. Brogan's college or Hamilton high school, Bandon will be educated, as they have been all their lives, in Bandon from September 2020?
I thank the Deputy. This is an issue that has been raised this week by Deputy Murphy O'Mahony and Senator Tim Lombard as well. The vast majority of post-primary school capacity is not an issue and schools can enrol all pupils that are seeking a school place. Where issues exist, Department of Education and Skills officials actively engage with all the relevant parties to resolve them and will do so in regard to Bandon. The Department is aware that enrolment issues have arisen in a number of areas in regard to post-primary school places for September 2020, including in west and east Cork. To plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas and uses the geographical information system, using data from a range of sources, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country is likely to arise. With this information, the Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed. Major new residential developments in a school planning area have the potential to alter demand in that area. As part of its demographic exercises, the Department engages with local authorities to obtain the up-to-date information on significant new residential developments. This is necessary to ensure that school infrastructure planning is keeping pace with demographic changes as there is a constantly evolving picture with planning for new residential accommodation.
On Bandon, as the Deputy will be aware, there are three post-primary schools servicing the Bandon school planning area, Bandon grammar school, which is fee-paying, an all-girls secondary school and, as mentioned by the Deputy, St. Brogan's college, which is coeducational. The Department has approved capital funding for St. Brogan's college, Bandon to expand school capacity significantly. This permanent extension of four classrooms and other support rooms, has been delayed as planning permission has been appealed. It is now envisaged that construction will commence on site in quarter 2 of 2020, with the school accommodation becoming available in 2021. In the interim, the Department has provided grant aid for the rental of four prefabricated units and these are currently in use. Officials from the Department are continuing to actively liaise with the school principals in Bandon to ensure that every child will have access to a physical school place in 2020.
Anyone who is giving the advice that parents should be home schooling or sending their children to Cork city for a school place is not giving good advice. This is a problem that should be, and will be, sorted between the Department of Education and Skills and the school principals involved to ensure that every child in Bandon has a school place to go to.
I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. As I said earlier, the people of Bandon are rightly angry. Year after year there has been under-investment in their town. The flood relief scheme is now under way, long after the destruction of business properties and many hard working people having been put out of business. The southern by-pass remains unfinished despite Government promises that it will be finished. If the plan for the proposed northern relief road goes ahead it will bring chaos to Bandon businesses and motorists.
The Tánaiste mentioned in his reply that the lack of school places may be resolved in 2021. School enrolment for September 2020 is the focus of parents in Bandon. The parents have been told to educate their children at home or to take them to Cork to be educated. I have met the parents, who have told me that is what they are being told. This is not acceptable. The anger among parents is palpable, as they know promises made are not being delivered at huge cost to their children's education. The four prefabs already provided are not sufficient to cater for the children that need places in September 2020. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister for Education and Skills to visit Bandon and meet the parents, allay their fears and assure them that the problem will be sorted by September. On behalf of the worried parents in Bandon, will they be able to have their children educated in a Bandon secondary school in September 2020?
I have already answered "Yes" to the Deputy's question. I know Bandon well. It is a great town and we should not be talking it down. The Government is investing in Bandon and will continue to do so. There is a particular problem in regard to post-primary school places. The Government has committed to investing in a permanent solution but it will not provide significant accommodation until 2021. I reiterate that officials from the Department continue to actively liaise with school principals in Bandon to ensure that every child will have access to a physical school place in 2020, which is the issue raised by the Deputy. As stated earlier, we will resolve the issue through the use of temporary accommodation while the permanent building project proceed and is, hopefully, completed in 2021. In the meantime, we need to ensure that parents can get the answers that they need for September 2020. The Department is committed to doing that.