Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Given all the Taoiseach said on Leaders' Questions, I am sure he must be aware of the case of Eoin Ward, who has been on a waiting list for four years for a scoliosis operation. His mother was on "Prime Time" last night. It was probably the last place she wanted to be because her son's operation was postponed again. It had to be deferred last week because of a shortage of intensive care nurses at the time. I hope the operation will take place soon. Eoin has 94% curvature and, at 16 years of age, is in great pain. This should give the Taoiseach cause for thought and reflection before he just reels off statistics and figures about the health service. The boy's mother, Catriona, said that the pressure on the nurses in Temple Street is ridiculous, as is the number of hours they are expected to work. I refer in particular to the pressures emanating from the emergency departments in the children's hospital.
Deputy Donnelly produced figures that were presented by the Department and the HSE in regard to children's waiting times across the board, including for therapies and a range of specialties. They are quite shocking and represent a damning indictment of Government policy. That is why the HSE service plan is very worrying in terms of additional capacity in 2020. It seems to me from the remarks of the CEO and the actual plan itself that, in terms of home help hours, children services and so on, 2020 is going to be an extremely difficult year for the health services. We need a debate in the House as soon as we come back after Christmas, on 15 January, if we come back. The service plan should be number one on the agenda, in addition to what it entails for the health service and for children like Eoin Ward in 2020.
I thank the Deputy. I became aware of that case this morning. For many good reasons, I am reluctant to discuss any individual case but I understand the operation has been rescheduled for later this week. I hope it will go ahead. I had the distinct displeasure as a junior doctor of having to ring people and tell them their appointments were cancelled. I remember it well. I am aware of the kind of stress and worry cancellations cause for people who have taken time off work and packed their bags and who have psychologically prepared themselves for an operation. Where operations are cancelled, however, they are rescheduled, very often for a few days later and sometimes for the following week. It is important to state that the total cancellation rate for operations is somewhere in the region of 2% or 3%. I accept that this does not matter to a patient who is among the 2% or 3% but it is the rate. Cancellations occur for many reasons. Sometimes a bed may not be available. Sometimes key staff are not available. Staff can get sick too. Sometimes a piece of equipment may not be working. Sometimes there are infection-control issues. Where an operation is cancelled, however, efforts are always made to reschedule within days, if not the following week. Increasing capacity, such as by building our children's hospital, opening the two hospitals next year and opening three major extensions next year, and taking on more staff will help to reduce the number of cancellations to a rate below 2% or 3%. We need to be honest with people that sometimes operations will be cancelled for various reasons, but every effort will be made to reschedule them within days.
Women's Aid reported last month that its helpline had received 898 disclosures of where a man had told a woman he would kill her, the children, a family member or himself. Since the Women's Aid report was published, a sixth woman has died violently in Ireland this year. Jasmine, Elzbieta, Cathy, Skaidrite, Valerie and now Nadine have been killed. They have left 14 children without mothers. Our hearts go out to Nadine's family, particularly her young daughter. A total of 231 women have died violently in Ireland over the past 23 years, yet the State's response has been glacial. While the study commissioned by the Minister for Justice and Equality on familicide and domestic homicide reviews is welcome, it is two decades late. Ireland urgently needs to establish an independent multi-agency system of domestic homicide reviews, underpinned by legislation, similar to the reviews in Britain since 2011. The study team headed by Ms Norah Gibbons is due to complete its work in the middle of next year. I believe there is broad support right across the Dáil, certainly on this side, for the introduction of domestic homicide reviews. Will the Taoiseach commit Fine Gael to the establishment of such reviews on the completion of Ms Gibbons's study?
I would be very open to the suggestion made by Deputy McDonald but I believe it would be very unfair to the process if we were to pre-empt what is a very important review and study undertaken by Ms Norah Gibbons, whom I met in recent weeks. Deputy McDonald or any other Deputy should feel free to make a submission. I expect to have a report in March of next year. I assure the House, including Deputy McDonald, that we will act in an active manner at the earliest opportunity on receipt of the report.
There has been much speculation in the media and elsewhere about the timing of the next general election. The Constitution is clear that Dáil Éireann shall be dissolved if the Taoiseach chooses to go to the President to seek a dissolution or if he or his Government loses the confidence of this House. There is speculation that the Taoiseach is to arrange a meeting with the leader of Fianna Fáil to fix such a date.
Is it the Taoiseach's intention to have such a discussion and will other party leaders be involved? Has the Taoiseach determined when this Dáil should come to its end?
I thank the Deputy. I am sure I will have an opportunity to speak to all party leaders in the next couple of weeks, as I do regularly. I am conscious, however, that this is not necessarily a matter just for me and the Leader of the Opposition alone. The parties here make up an increasing number of people in the Dáil. If Deputy Howlin is indicating to us that he would be willing to consider abstaining on future confidence motions-----
In the new year, the first Irish patients will finally get access to medicinal cannabis products. This is to be welcomed. More than 40 people, however, still have to leave the country to collect their prescriptions. Reimbursement is not guaranteed and it would seem to be very arbitrary when it comes to the criteria. One such person, Ms Pamela Fowler, has given me permission to speak about her son today. Ryan Fowler has a condition called Gardner's syndrome, with desmoid fibrosis, and his family was granted a ministerial licence this summer. They were told some weeks ago, however, in a letter they received, that his prescription would not be reimbursed. Ryan's mother has said to me that his life has been transformed because of cannabis due to the chronic pain he goes through. He is now faced, however, with the prospect of not being able to afford the prescription. How is this fair?
I apologise to the Deputy, but I do not have any knowledge of that individual case, so it is impossible for me to comment on it. If he wants to raise it directly with the Minister for Health, I am sure that he will try to provide a reply.
There are commitments in the programme for Government to improve services for those with chronic long-term illnesses. Between 70 and 80 people suffer with Parkinson's disease in the Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel, Cashel and Clonmel areas. The support group in Clonmel is run by volunteers, namely, patients, sufferers and their families. Most of those have Parkinson's disease and to date five of those people have passed away. There has been a fight to get a nurse specialist. There are four in the country, but none in our region of the south east. I refer to funding to train nurse specialists and create a course for nurse specialists in Clonmel or in the south Tipperary area. Ideally, the group would like to have a neurologist and a clinic in the area. Will the Taoiseach implore and urge the HSE and the Minister for Health to provide nurse specialists and, it is hoped, neurologists to help these people who are doing so much to help themselves? They are vulnerable people and they are suffers, but they are supporting themselves. They need this one extra nurse specialist in the region to do that work and to support them in their role.
The HSE service plan provides for an extra 3,000 posts in the health service next year. I am not sure how many of those are going to be clinical nurse specialists, but I will advise the Minister for Health that Deputy Mattie McGrath raised this matter and ask him to reply directly to the Deputy.
Regarding the programme for Government commitment to alleviate pressures in respect of increased insurance costs, those costs have gone up to become a full-blown crisis in several sectors. I have been contacted by representatives of Naíonra Chaitlín Maude in my own constituency, which cannot secure insurance for January 2020. I have the quotes here which refer to double and treble the costs for next year. Killinarden Community Centre is facing closure because of the cost of insurance for the centre. It is used by after-school clubs, youth clubs and senior citizens' groups and others. The insurance cost has risen from €8,000 in 2011 to €34,500 this year. That is a rise of some 300%. The community centre is in a disadvantaged area and is being crowdfunded. The future of Fettercairn Youth Horse Project is under threat after its public insurance increased by almost 500% this year, from €8,520 to €42,000 in February 2020. That is not sustainable and those are only a couple of examples. I can give a list of more cases, if the Taoiseach wants them. This is clearly not working. We need to step in and do something about this issue.
We had a number of questions that I answered earlier regarding insurance. I do not wish to add to that, other than to say that everyone in the House will be aware that the Government does not set the price of insurance, because it is a private market, but we can improve the environment in which the insurance sector operates. One of the big reforms brought in only this week is the establishment of the Judicial Council. That will lead to a committee of judges that is going to review the level of awards paid to people when it comes to personal injuries and other issues. We are confident that will help to bring down premiums in the future.
In the programme for Government, under political and constitutional reform, it is stated that the new political landscape in Ireland presents a historic opportunity to reform Irish politics radically. As this Thirty-second Dáil appears to be coming to an end, the opportunity to reform Irish politics radically has been totally missed, as we can see over recent weeks. I feel that the image of the Dáil bar, where alcohol is available during working hours, sends out a very bad image. I know of no other workplace where alcohol is served during working hours. I have no issue with the Dáil bar serving non-alcoholic beverages or with a cafe. The availability of alcohol here in our workplace is wrong.
The issue I wanted to raise with the Taoiseach yesterday was one raised already very adequately by Deputy Micheál Martin regarding the concerns in the childcare sector caused by the crippling and prohibitive premium charges being imposed on childcare facilities. I just spoke to a childcare operator in my own constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. She eventually got her policy renewed this morning at a cost increase of 166%. She is operating on a small and tight profit margin already. She cannot afford to pass on additional costs to the parents, who are under financial pressure, as we all know. I appeal to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to ensure that adequate supports are given to the childcare sector to make sure that we do not lose any existing places. As has been noted, there are great pressures on places in many counties in the eastern part of my own constituency, which is on the outer commuter belt of Dublin. The last thing we want to do is to lose childcare places. There cannot be additional costs for parents or for the private or community operators either.
The Taoiseach dealt with this earlier and I understand that the Minister, Deputy Zappone, is meeting the committee later today. The Taoiseach can reply if it wished to, but he has dealt with this topic already.
It is on promised legislation. Under the programme for Government, there is a commitment to enhancing the medical sector. I want to ask the Taoiseach about the turnaround timeframe for medical card applications. I have several constituents waiting for a reply and it seems the times are getting longer and longer. In essence, many of these people are very unwell. It is not the number of medical cards that are being granted, to be fair, it is just the turnaround time. Is there a reason for the delay, and if so, what is the Taoiseach going to do about it?
From my constituency office, we are not aware, or at least I have not been told by my constituency staff, that there has been any change in the turnaround times for medical cards. If the Deputy can pass on a few examples to me or to the Minister for Health, we will see if there is an issue. I had not heard that there is a problem, but if there is we will check it out.
Staying with the situation with childcare providers, I want to raise a slight variation on the issue of registration. Last week, we discussed with the Minister the fact that over 200 childcare providers have not engaged in any way with the system while several hundred others had not completed registration. At that point, the Minister confirmed that they would not be in a position to be funded in the new year. Parents and staff are concerned that these providers may not be able to open and services might not be available in the new year. We know the registration deadline has passed. Can we get clarity on providers which have not in any way engaged or have failed to provide the minimum amount and, as a result, are not registered any longer? Are they going to be in a position to reopen in the new year? Will parents have services available?
My understanding is that the registration is close to 100%. I am sure there are exceptions, however. The issue of insurance is a separate matter. That is the information I have. I am sorry I cannot give the Deputy any more information.
The issue of insurance for childcare providers has been adequately discussed and, in fairness, the Taoiseach gave answers to it earlier. I want to raise the issue of insurance for businesses in general. Every week, owners of filling stations, hotels, playgrounds, as well as community groups, GAA and soccer clubs, tell me how concerned they are about the cost of insurance. While I acknowledge there has been some movement and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, made a major statement last week on the Judicial Council, when can we expect movement from it? I have been told quite a number of businesses will announce closures in the new year. I am sure the Taoiseach and no other Member wants that to happen. This is a massive crisis facing us.
It will hit employment levels and communities. When can we expect movement? Deputy Micheál Martin referred earlier to a way out of this by using IPB Insurance to resolve some of the problem. We need serious Government intervention right now.
There has already been progress on this issue. I acknowledge the interest on the part of Deputy Eugene Murphy and others. Only yesterday evening in the presence of the Chief Justice, I formally launched and signed the order for the coming into effect of the Judicial Council. A part of the council’s component is the personal injuries guidelines committee which will assist Deputy Murphy. It has already met and is scheduled to meet again early in the new year. Its function will be to lead the recalibration of the book of quantum. I have no doubt we will see progress on this. I must advise the Deputy, however, as I have in the past, that this will be merely one part of the jigsaw.
In light of recent ongoing issues in the Garda and other public bodies, has the Government any intention of looking at an audit of fitness to practise tribunals, be they in any of the bodies or professions, in light of evidence which has come into the public domain in the recent past?
There is ongoing continuing professional development regarding that. I acknowledge the importance of the reforms - in excess of 150 - in the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland report which are proceeding apace. I would be happy to engage with the Deputy bilaterally on any specific point upon which he would require further clarification.
The HSE’s national service plan was published in the past two days. I acknowledge an increase of €1.4 billion in funding. However, I am astounded the plan is cutting the number of short-stay beds in public units from 1,929 to 1,720, a decrease of 209. There is no rationale behind this or explanation for it. It flies in the face of the HSE's capacity review which called for between 5,600 and 6,300 extra beds under the category by 2030. This cut means the Government is failing to meet a growing need and is ignoring the evidence of several reports which it commissioned. This will challenge services for older people in 2020.
I will ask the Minister for Health to give the Deputy a better explanation. My recollection is that when one takes the number of beds in the round, such as fair deal, transition care, acute and short-stay, there is an increase. I do not have the exact details of that. I will ask the Minister to provide the Deputy with a proper reply.
The programme for Government deals with responsibility and accountability in the HSE. This is the third time I have raised an issue concerning protected disclosures. When a protected disclosure is made in the HSE, why is it that the HSE actually investigates its own? The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, have a copy of the protected disclosure in question. Everything is being done to discourage the individuals from disclosing what is happening in the system. They are being punished, their pension has been lost and they are not being paid. Why is it that there is no clarity, accountability or responsibility when somebody tries to tell the truth, goes through the right protocol but is punished? This protected disclosure is now being buried. I need to get answers because this individual is being punished for telling the truth.
I am not entirely sure as to what the Deputy is referring, making it difficult to respond. There are procedures within the Protected Disclosures Act which outline how they are managed. First, they are protected which means that the person making any allegation or disclosure cannot be identified, deliberately or inadvertently. Second, we are not allowed to be told about them because they are protected. It is a difficult one to answer. I am sorry.
Tá mé ag ardú an cheist seo le seacht mbliana anuas agus tá sé ardaithe agam breis agus dosaen uair. Cén uair atá an Bille digital hub (Comhairle Cathrach Bhaile Átha Cliath) a chun teacht os comhair na Dála?
Fad agus atá an Taoiseach ag iarraidh an fhreagra a fháil, cloífidh mé le seantradisiún de mo chuid agus roinnfidh mé roinnt cheoil leis chun ardú meanman agus ardú giúmar a roinnt. Seo roinnt den cheoil. Nollaig Shona do na Baill ar fad.
We all know the situation regarding the deferrals of chemotherapy sessions at Crumlin hospital for children last week, which was met with shock and frustration and caused distress for many families. Was there any engagement with the hospital concerned? Did the Minister for Health engage on this? We were told that bed capacity was the reason for the deferrals. Has action been taken?
I cannot speak for the Minister for Health but I am sure there was engagement. There was certainly engagement from my office with Children’s Health Ireland which manages the children's hospitals. The children's hospitals are particularly busy at the moment because of the respiratory syncytial virus, RSV. As we do not have single rooms in our very old children's hospitals, when a virus is rampant in one, there is significant demand and pressure on beds. In turn, beds have to be closed because of infection control. That will be very different with the new children's hospital. Every room in that hospital will be a single room. We will be able to deal with so many different infection control issues. There will even be rooms for parents to stay over.
As an interim measure, some additional beds are being opened over the winter period. It is only an interim solution, however. What we need is the new children's hospital. We needed it yesterday. It is a pity it was not built during the boom.
We are all acutely aware of the substantial cost overrun associated with the national children's hospital. Unfortunately, it is not the only State contract awarded which has seen significant delays and cost overruns. Curraghmore national school in Mullingar is one such contract. The Minister visited the school in advance of the local elections.
It was promised to be opened in September of this year; it was not opened. It was promised to be opened in October; it was not opened. It was promised to be opened by Christmas and again it is failing to meet that deadline. I do not expect the Government to micromanage every State contract, but I expect that contractors who continually fail to meet their contractual obligations should not be permitted to get further State contracts. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Education and Skills to revert to me with an exact timeframe for when the pupils and staff can expect to be in their new school in Curraghmore in Mullingar? Will the Government consider introducing legislation to ensure that contractors who continually fail to meet their targeted timeline and come in over budget will not be looked upon favourably for further State contracts?
I will ask the Minister, Deputy McHugh, to respond directly to the Deputy on the school in Mullingar. Hopefully we can get that school open as soon as possible.
I point out that overall the schools building programme, the roads programme and the Irish Water programme are running on schedule and on budget. Of course, some projects are ahead of schedule and some are behind schedule. Within the confines of European law, we are examining how we might improve public procurement to allow us either to blacklist certain contractors, which is very hard to do unless there is a court conviction against them in which case it is possible, or to have our scoring system take better account of past performance or past underperformance. The Deputy should bear in mind that as a significant number of tenders end up in litigation, we need to get it right. The last thing we want is not to award a contract to particular contractors, have them sue us, delay the whole thing and then find they win.
Two weeks ago, I raised the issue of a proposed housing development in Sienna Valley in Drogheda with full planning permission for 4,000 homes, zoning for several thousand more and the DART link scheduled for 2022. Not a single house has been built because the Department is refusing to jointly fund the northern cross route road which runs through the housing development. For the past two weeks, on the advice of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I have been trying to raise the matter as a Topical Issue. There is a housing crisis and we have a solution here. This is a no-brainer. Thousands of families will get an opportunity to own their own homes, not only in Louth but also in the Taoiseach's constituency in Dublin. Hundreds of thousands of euro can be gained through levies. It is a no-brainer. I invite the Taoiseach along with the Fine Gael Deputies and councillors to come to Drogheda to visit this site and see it at first hand. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that the Department provides its half of the funding for the development.
I am being serious there. Some attend better than others, but I have kept a record.
I will check up on the matter Deputy Fitzpatrick raised with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Funding is available through the local infrastructure housing activation fund and I do not know why it has not been granted in that case.
I also want to extend my congratulations to the Deputy, who was elected as chairman of the Louth GAA county board yesterday.
I will. Last night, Nadine Lott became the sixth woman to be murdered in this country this year. She was murdered in front of her six year old child. I left the discussions of the FAI at the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport to raise this issue here. Women are sickened, appalled and angry at the ongoing failure to deal with femicide and violence against women. A number of laws could be looked at to address the matter, including Clare's law which is under consideration in Britain, the no-contact order Bill I introduced and many others. The Government could start by funding services and begin an education campaign in society about the nature of toxic relationships and how women and girls are groomed into accepting manipulative behaviour. I am not asking the Taoiseach to do all that. I am just asking him to agree something today. This is a really serious issue and it is not being dealt with. Can we have a special meeting of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, party leaders and special interest groups in the new year?
This is a really serious issue and one in which I have a personal interest. In recent weeks, I read that more women were killed violently by men they knew - there have been more cases of femicide - than there are people killed as a result of drug-related murders, which is extraordinary and indicates how common murders of women by men who know them are in this country.
I reject the Deputy's suggestion that the Government does not care. The Government has ratified the Istanbul convention on domestic violence. We have provided an extra €5 million a year in funding for domestic violence services since the Minister, Deputy Zappone, took charge of her Department. The Government will preside over the opening of new women's refuges in Rathcoole and, I think, in Carlow and Galway in the coming months. Action is being taken. I absolutely agree that we need to have an educational campaign on the issue. That has been discussed at a Cabinet sub-committee. We have also introduced changes in the law, assisted by Deputy Coppinger and others, to define consent better, for example, and to introduce a prohibition of coercive control. This is very much on the Government's agenda and will be a specific topic for the Citizens' Assembly when it starts its hearings on gender in the coming weeks. A special meeting would be a very good idea, but it is, as the Deputy knows, a matter for the Business Committee, of which I think Deputy Coppinger is a member and I am not.
I ask about the Garda restructuring plan. My understanding was that the proposed incentivised early retirement scheme would be a targeted scheme, but in recent days it has been suggested that it would be a voluntary scheme. Given the experience with restructuring elsewhere, for example, in the HSE, where sometimes the best people leave under those schemes and those people who ideally would leave stay on, can we ensure it will be a targeted scheme?
The Government approved the plan earlier in the week. I am satisfied that the Garda Commissioner will now commence implementing the scheme. A sum of €6.5 million has been made available. It was always going to be a targeted scheme designed to proceed along the lines as envisaged in the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. It is expected that real progress on the severance scheme will be made, commencing early next year.
The programme for Government contains a commitment to tackle inequality. Obviously, one could be forgiven for thinking it should refer to creating, deepening and worsening inequality. I am not sure if the Taoiseach has been watching the programme "Ireland's Rich List" on RTE 2. At the moment according to The Sunday Times rich list, there are 17 billionaires in Ireland - not multimillionaires, but billionaires. They include people like Denis O'Brien, Larry Goodman and the Dunne and Heffernan families.
Does the Taoiseach believe that we should have billionaires in our society in this day and age? Given the levels of deprivation, the housing crisis and the climate crisis that needs investment, should we as a society have billionaires? If the Government is serious about tackling inequality, should the Government move to ban billionaires by having a 100% wealth tax on all wealth in excess of €1 billion? With that, it would be possible to build 150,000 carbon-neutral homes, transition to 100% renewable energy creating 36,000 jobs and have a complete transition to free, green and frequent public transport for the next 20 years.
The Deputy will find that many of those billionaires are not resident in the State. If one was to bring in a 100% tax for them, they definitely would not be resident in the State. The yield from any tax that is 100% is zero. Rather than bringing in revenue, we would probably end up with less. Anybody will understand that if something is taxed at 100%, one will not get any revenue out of it.
There are many forms of equality. There is equality before the law and I am proud to be part of a Government that helped to repeal the eighth amendment and helped to bring about marriage equality in the State. I am proud to be part of a Government that for five years has seen poverty and deprivation rates reduce in Ireland. According to the Central Statistics Office, income inequality in Ireland is now at its second lowest since records began. That is something that very few socialist governments have ever achieved.