Thursday, 12 December 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
This morning,journal.ie reports that Ireland's only paediatric pain consultant, Dr. Kevin McCarthy, has handed in his notice and said that the service is completely unsustainable. He has been highlighting a number of issues for some months now. This issue was highlighted to the Minister for Health in October. This is an incredibly important service. Every year more than 75 new children access the service to the manage the most unimaginable pain. How has the Government allowed this situation to get to the point where parents are being left in the dark about treatment plans for their children and where Children's Health Ireland is saying it will try to fill the position next year? What will be done for parents whose children are in chronic pain now and why was this situation allowed to develop?
I am slow to comment on the decision of any one individual to leave his or her job. I do not know the circumstances around that. If a vacancy is created, it will be advertised quickly so that we can get somebody else in that role, providing important services. I do not want to go into the details around why one person has decided to step down. My understanding is that he is a very good person but I do not think it is appropriate for me to go into details when I do not have facts.
Many thousands of families across the State are still experiencing mortgage distress. Many of us in this House know some of these families. The Tánaiste will be aware that vulture funds swooped into this country, the banks and the Government having rolled out the red carpet to them.
They have bought up tens of thousand of distressed loans from banks. My legislation, the No Consent, No Sale Bill, which was passed with the approval of the Dáil on Second Stage, is being blocked by the Government and indeed by Fianna Fáil on Committee Stage. This Bill would prevent the sale of mortgages to vulture funds without the consent of the homeowner.
We have been told that all of the protections go with the sale of the loan. That was never the issue. The issue is that these vulture funds only have a short-term interest. This morning we learned how one of the funds, Cerberus, has hiked up interest rates on these distressed borrowers. Their interest rates are now over 5%. The interest rate for new customers in this State is just over 3% while in Europe, the average is below 2%. It is absolutely scandalous that vulture funds can do this. The reality is that if these funds want to increase it by another 1% or 2%, there is nothing that this House can do. We need to prevent the sale of these loans to vulture funds in the first place.
What response does the Tánaiste have to the fact that the vulture funds that his Government welcomed so much into the country are now punishing the same families by hiking up their interest rates? Can he reconsider his Government's opposition to my legislation, which would prevent these sales in the first place?
I am not sure that the Deputy's legislation will actually do that. I refer the Deputy to the detailed parliamentary question that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe answered on this issue last week which is a useful piece of information. I repeat the point that whether one is a financing agency which has purchased a distressed loan book, or a bank in Ireland, one is subject to the same codes and rules, enforced by the Central Bank, that are there to protect consumers in both circumstances.
I understand the Tánaiste has just responded that he does not want to comment about an individual leaving his position. Chronic pain is a shocking thought for anybody but it is particularly acute for children. We had one paediatric pain consultant in the State who has now stepped down from his post. Quite frankly, it is not an acceptable comment to simply say that we will advertise the post.
There are 75 children a year using the service. One can imagine their attitude and concerns facing into Christmas. Can I ask him to reflect further on this, as we need to have a response for those families this side of Christmas? Will he speak with the Minister for Health to ensure that some provision, comfort and succour is given to those families, who are facing the prospect of an indeterminate future without a facility that has given relief to their children in recent times?
I will speak to the Minister. The reason I responded in that way to Deputy Calleary is because I only learned about this issue this morning on my way in. In the case of something like this, it is important that one gives an informed response. If one does not have the information, it is difficult to do that.
Clearly, where families have children under the care of an individual who is stepping down, there will be a need for a proper transition plan for them to ensure, in particular in the area of pain management, that they are getting appropriate and professional care. I will speak to the Minister for Health and ask him to come back to both Deputies who have raised this question.
The Tánaiste was pursuing some efforts to realise a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine. We had meetings here and I know he has been in the area. Are those efforts abandoned now, given that the Israelis are now heading into their third general election in a very short time or are they still ongoing? What is the possibility? The reality is that we need to have and should work resolutely for a two-state solution.
I thank the Deputy for this question. As people will know, I have a lot of interest in this issue. I was in Israel and Palestine last week and met all the of the key political players there, from the Israeli Prime Minister to the Palestinian President. I subsequently asked for and got a debate at the Foreign Affairs Council, FAC, this week on how the European Union can collectively protect our own stated position in the Middle East peace process, which is to promote and protect the capacity to negotiate and deliver the two-state solution that is fair to both Israelis and Palestinians. We have also agreed that there will be a more comprehensive debate at the January FAC meeting on 17 January, specifically on the Middle East peace process and the role of the European Union, in the context of trying to protect a two-state solution as a viable option. This is in the face of what many people would regard as the creeping annexation of the West Bank due to expanding settlements, as well as on the back of the risk of annexation directly of parts of the West Bank, in particular the Jordan Valley, which Prime Minister Netanyahu has spoken of on more than one occasion. That, for the European Union, and certainly for Ireland would be a totally unacceptable and illegal course of action. There needs to be a significant deterrent from the European Union to ensure that that does not happen because that would effectively end the capacity for a Middle East peace process to deliver an acceptable outcome to both sides.
The programme for Government is strong in its support for agri-industry. The Road Safety Authority, RSA needs be we reined in somewhat. I know of a contractor in west Tipperary who has been pulled in by the RSA and by An Garda Síochána twice and has been asked to have his trailer tested. He went to different test centres but the people there had never heard of such a test. He drove last week to Waterford city to a test centre, only to be told that it could not test his trailer because it was not covered under statute or any regulation. This is happening on a widespread basis. There was no equipment to test the trailer at the test centre in Waterford. This is unfair to a contractor trying to keep jobs and to carry on his business and not to be obliged to travel to the city of Waterford only to be told that no such test exists. It is unfair that people are being victimised and intimidated.
I wish to raise a very important issue with the Tánaiste on the minimum wage. As he is aware, his Government did not give an increase this year. There are many groups of workers who are facing into Christmas in dire stress while living on the minimum wage. There is one group that is working in community centres, and he may have seen their plight highlighted. They have a real difficulty as they have no pay scale, so their pay never goes up. If the Government does not give an increase, they are living at a deficit to the previous year because of the cost of living. They are told that their employer is the local community centre but Pobal and Fingal County Council actually pay the wages. Where do they go? Is the Tánaiste going to look into this situation whereby the whole community sector actually will get the increase that it needs to pay the full rate of the minimum wage? All workers should be paid the same but the community employment, CE, workers with whom these workers work are getting paid more. Can the Tánaiste sort out this inequality and low pay?
The Government wants to apply the recommended increase for the minimum wage and subject to getting clarity on Brexit, we will do that. We always said that we will follow the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission to introduce what I believe is the fifth increase in the minimum wage over the last eight to nine years.
In the interests of fairness, I have a note of those Deputies who raised questions on Tuesday and Wednesday. I will first call on those Deputies who did not speak on those days, the first of whom I now call to speak is Deputy Burton.
I raise the announcement yesterday by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, that she will shelve the section of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, which is currently before the Seanad, on the right of adopted people to access their files and information relating to the circumstances of their birth and adoption. The Minister is failing to provide a basic human right, namely, that to access one's personal information, which is set out in human rights declarations and has been available in most common law countries for more than 50 years.
Was this a general Government decision or a personal initiative of the Minister? A great deal of progressive legislation has been worked out among all the parties in the Chamber. We have agreed on divorce, marriage equality, abortion and transgender rights, but adopted people and their birth mothers will all be dead by the time the Government takes any action for them.
I will ask the Minister to revert directly to the Deputy, who I know takes an interest in the area. My understanding is that the Minister has legal advice that suggests some protection for birth parents and the constitutional right to privacy must be reflected in the legislation, which she is trying to balance with the rights of adopted people to accessing information-----
On page 109 of the programme for Government, there is a commitment to protecting farm payments. Many farmers have rung my office, and I am sure the offices of many other Deputies, in a distressed state, waiting on their payments that were due in September. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment that the moneys will be paid before Christmas? Farmers in County Louth were assured by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that under a new pilot satellite scheme launched this year, they would not be victimised as a result of their involvement in it, but that is what is happening. It is unacceptable. If a commitment is not made to the Animal Collectors Association on payments supposed to be made in September, the prices for the collection of fallen animals will double in the new year.
The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, answered a question on the matter yesterday. A total of 90% of the payments have been paid to date. Having been Minister at that Department, I know that if there is a delay in respect of a small percentage of payments, there is a normally good reason for that. The Minister of State has agreed to follow up on the matter to try to ensure that the remaining payments will be made as quickly as possible.
I join in the congratulations and welcome to the people who were conferred with Irish citizenship at the ceremony held in Killarney this week. I raise the issue of the cohort of undocumented people who live in Ireland. The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland has stated that up to 26,000 people have been living undocumented for many years in the country. They are rooted in their communities, they contribute to the economy and the vast majority work, yet they are undocumented. We make a big case every year for the undocumented Irish in the US and I have raised the issue with the Tánaiste on many occasions.
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, who I am glad to see is here and will be able to respond, launched a scheme but it was narrow and provided only for student visa overstayers from the years 2005 to 2010, inclusive. Only 2,153 people have achieved a pathway to regularisation through the scheme. Has the Minister any plans to introduce a scheme that will broadly address the large cohort of 26,000 people, including their family members, who are in the country, and give them a pathway to regularisation? There was recently a public meeting in Limerick on the issue and approximately 250 people turned up. They came from throughout the country to speak about it and we owe them an obligation to address it.
The Deputy raised an important issue. In the first instance, it is important that we gather appropriate data to allow us make informed decisions. I would be happy to engage further with the Deputy on the issue. Whatever avenues are looked at, we need to be conscious of our national legislation and our EU obligations in this regard.
The EU green deal cannot become the yellow deal for rural Ireland, with farms overgrown with ragwort, gorse or fir bushes. This is now a possibility because EU climate policy does not reflect scientific evidence. We must dramatically reduce CO2but we need a different approach from the CO2equivalent concept, particularly for methane from cattle. I ask that Ireland urgently take the lead at EU level to ensure there will be a robust, science-based green deal to replace the current, flawed policy, which is a political rather than scientific solution to climate change.
We have responded positively to the announcements of a new EU green deal. It will require a response from every EU member state that is more ambitious than anything we have planned for, but that is the way the world is going and we need to follow that. Having said that, rural Ireland and agriculture need to transition in the context of the climate challenge, but can do so and grow and expand at the same time. That is our current agricultural policy and it will continue to be. Ireland has an obligation to be a leader in this area in the EU, given the size of the agricultural sector versus other sectors from an emissions perspective in our economy, as the Deputy will know better than most, in light of the Ministry he previously held. We need to bring about change but we need to work with farmers to do so. That will be a big part of the next round of the CAP negotiation.
Gardaí in Tipperary are trying to cope with a significant increase in the level of rural crime. In Fethard, there have been five robberies and incidents in recent months. It is farcical that the CCTV in the town was promoted and funded by an agent of the State but an argument has gone on for months as to who should be in possession of the data. This means that raiders can come and go from Fethard but even though the cameras, technology and hardware are in place, there is nobody to read the monitors. When will this bureaucratic nonsense stop and this ridiculous situation be brought to a close?
CCTV is important for communities in the protection of people from harm. I am pleased to announce an extension of the current scheme to next year. Grant aid is available and moneys have been drawn down.
The Deputy mentioned a particular case in Tipperary. My understanding is there is a need for further engagement between Garda headquarters and local gardaí, given that it is a Garda operational issue. I hope that the matter can be resolved and I have every confidence it will be. I would be happy to communicate further with the Deputy early in the new year.
The Tánaiste will be aware of the campaign that extended for many years by victims of abuse in primary schools, and that the Government appointed an adjudicator, a retired High Court judge, Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill, who issued a recommendation many months ago. Is he aware that at the time Mr. Justice O'Neill made his statement, the Government committed to resolving the problem quickly? Several months have passed, the initial campaign lasted for several years and some of the victims have died, while many are in poor health. Since Mr. Justice O'Neill's report was published, there has been nothing but obfuscation, dither, delay, prevarication, excuses and constant references to the Attorney General.
For how much longer will the Government stand in the way of these people's quest for justice?
Could the Tánaiste tell me when the Minister for Education and Skills will honour his commitment to meet a representative group of ex-pupils from Creagh Lane school in Limerick?
My note says that the review is ongoing. The Department of Education and Skills is committed to reviewing the ex gratiascheme in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General. Given the complexity and sensitivity of the issues involved, careful deliberation is required before proposals can be finalised and brought to the Government. I will raise this matter with the Minister for Education and Skills and I will come back to the Deputy directly on it.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to bring about sustainability in the beef sector. According to leaked documents from the supermarket industry, which contain startling information, supermarket chains are taking up to half of the retail price in profit. They have average profit margins of between 20% and 45% on fresh meat and fresh beef, of between 30% and 33% on round roast beef and of 34% on a leg of lamb. Three supermarket chains are in a dominant position because they control 75% of the market. We have spoken previously about processors. The Tánaiste will know from his former role as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine that one big player, in particular, is dominating the processing end of things. The three leading supermarket chains that control 75% of the market are making profits. Meanwhile, the farmer who has the animal for two or three years makes a loss of up to 60 cent per kilogram. The supermarkets are making up to 50% profit. This is a ludicrous situation. I put it to the Tánaiste that we need legislation on price transparency. I would be happy if the Government and other Opposition parties would support the Bill I have tabled in this regard. It would bring the supermarkets into the price transparency loop. The retailers need to be brought into the beef task force immediately. There needs to be transparency about the prices and the margins they are getting for their produce.
We both know that the beef sector needs to change. That must be brought about through the beef forum or the beef task force. It would be very helpful if all players were involved in contributing to the beef task force as a way of ensuring this country's beef sector has a sustainable future. Dealing with retailers is not as straightforward as the Deputy might suggest. Retailers purchase for multiple markets and not just for the Irish market. Some 90% of Irish beef has to find a consumer and a buyer outside of Ireland. Many of these things need to be done at EU level, or else at a level that is agreed between retailers, producers and processors. It is a complex discussion. Given the scale of the beef sector in Ireland, we need all players to contribute constructively to a beef forum that is looking to restructure this industry in a way that will allow primary producers of beef to gain a fair margin for the work they do.
This question relates to the programme for Government. The Retention of Records Bill 2019 is due to come before the Dáil. I am trying to track down a definitive date for the Bill to come to the floor of the House.
I have called all of the Deputies who had not been not in. A number of Deputies have been in once, if not twice. I will start the list. I may have to cut it off. I ask each Deputy to take into consideration that there are other Deputies behind him or her. I remind Deputies of the need for brevity.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to keep people in their homes for as long as possible. It is obvious that the provision of home help services is of assistance in this regard. The ongoing problems with such services have been raised with me all the time since I was elected. This is becoming a significant problem as we approach Christmas. People have come into my office in tears because they have been told they will not get any home help from Christmas Eve until 3 January. People who work as home helps have told me that they are willing to work over the period in question. What is the real story here? How can people be left without home help for so long over Christmas?
On the same issue, the community healthcare organisation, CHO, in the north west, namely, CHO 1, has received a small increase in funding under the winter scheme that is being rolled out to try to relieve the bed blockers in many of our hospitals. They cannot get out because no home help services are available to them in their homes. People are coming into my office - I am sure they are coming into every office around the country - to say that they are on waiting lists to get home help. The small increase in funding that was provided for in the budget is not nearly adequate to deal with this problem. As we enter into the Christmas period, the Government needs to allocate more money for the home help service across the entire country.
That is exactly what we are doing. An additional investment of €52 million is being made to bring the total funding for home supports next year to €487 million. That will deliver 19.2 million hours of home support in 2020. This represents an increase of 1 million hours on this year's target. Any regional management issues that are encountered as these funds are allocated can be raised with the Minister. The Government has made a significant financial commitment to increase the number of home support hours that are available across the country.
I would like to ask the Tánaiste about safety on the N5 national primary route. I acknowledge that work has commenced on the new section of the route between Ballaghaderreen and Scramogue. That is welcome because it will improve safety. We still have a significant issue with safety along the N5. Recently, an articulated lorry ended up in the back windscreen of the car of a lady who had just picked up her four children from school in the village of Tulsk. That is how close it was. Luckily, nobody was hurt. I can show the Tánaiste photographs of this incident if he wishes. I appreciate that this is not his area of responsibility. He and his staff have been helpful with these issues in the past. As this road will be so busy over the next week, I would like the Tánaiste to ask the TII to consider the installation of temporary lights over the next couple of days to avoid injury or death. The safety issue along there is absolutely outrageous.
I have to refer to the problems in Naas hospital yet again. There were 21 people on trolleys at the hospital last night. This is one of the highest figures in the region. There were 24 people on trolleys the night before. One gentleman of my acquaintance presented himself at the hospital at 3 p.m. yesterday with signs of a stroke, but he was not seen until 9.30 a.m. today, or more than 18 hours later. This is an absolute disgrace. In May, I highlighted the fact that the admissions unit at the hospital is closed, which is adding to these problems. How many of the 190 beds that were announced yesterday will be in Naas? What will happen the elderly people who are having to stay on trolleys for over 18 hours? We all know that someone who presents with the signs of a stroke needs treatment straight away.
I would like to ask the Tánaiste about the Government's position on the national effort to make progress on the undocumented in the United States. This effort is being made against a difficult political backdrop at present. Many people in County Donegal and every other part of the country have loved ones who have been abroad for many years and are unable to come home. This problem becomes particularly acute when Irish people who are living overseas lose close family relatives in Ireland. I know it is a difficult situation at the moment. The Government needs to ensure every effort continues to be made to try to make progress in this regard. I ask the Tánaiste to give the House an update on the state of play with regard to the efforts he is making as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
We are trying to make progress on the E3 visa process. I am sure the Deputy is familiar with this facility, which is available to Australian nationals. It enables them to get visas to work and live in the United States.
There is an allocation each year. We are working with friends in Congress and the Senate to try to allow Irish people to use unused visas, of which there are between 3,000 and 4,000 and sometimes more each year. We are trying to progress legislation that would give Irish people who want to travel to the United States the opportunity to be able to do so with the new visa entitlement, with reciprocal arrangements for US citizens who want to come to Ireland. That is the area where we can make progress in the short term but there is a broader challenge of the thousands of undocumented across the US who are concerned about their future. We continue to raise the issue but immigration is a hugely divisive issue on Capitol Hill. It is, therefore, difficult to get the legislative change that we would like to see in the short term.
Before we move on, I will give priority to Deputies Crowe, Brady, McLoughlin and Fitzpatrick, who I did not reach today, on Tuesday. I do not like carrying over speakers but we have a lot of business to do today. I am not setting a precedent.