Topical Issue Debate

Garda Strength

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for allowing us to raise this issue. It has been a concern of citizens in west Kildare, particularly in the Carbury area. This stems from the fact that Garda numbers in Kildare have not increased in line with population. In 2014, there were 305 full-time gardaí in Kildare, while there were 306 in 2008. There has been a 12% increase in population in the area but there has not been a corresponding increase in the number of gardaí. The lack of policing has had serious consequences for people in the area. People must travel as far as 40 km to Leixlip for day to day issues like getting a simple passport form and they believe that they are sitting ducks for burglaries. Community alert schemes have been told there is no point in contacting the Garda because of the length of time it will take gardaí to arrive at the location.

Apart from day to day policing issues, crime in the area has taken a nasty turn in recent times. This is normally a very quiet rural area, but the absence of a full-time Garda station and inadequate policing in recent years have not gone unnoticed by some of the country's most serious criminal gangs, who view the area as an ideal base for their activities. Ease of access to Dublin and lack of policing mean that this quiet area has become a magnet for a criminal drug gang, which is wreaking havoc. The people involved are ruthless, heavy-handed thugs with no regard for people, who operate on fear and intimidation. The escalation of violence was covered recently by the national media. Incidents include a Garda station being shot at in the middle of the night, an attempt to set the station on fire and several cars being burnt out. In addition, the GRA has recently confirmed that six gardaí who work at the station had death threats made against them. One was even followed home and their families were threatened. People in this area are living in fear. I recognise the fact that extra recruits have come out of Templemore in recent months and that several gardaí have been stationed in this area. The one thing we cannot have is people going about their ordinary lives in intimidation and fear.

I have raised on numerous occasions the activities of criminal gangs in this country and the extent to which they impact on the lives of law-abiding citizens. The situation in north-west Kildare in particular has taken a bad turn in recent times. Over the past ten years or so there has been a noticeable increase in criminal activity in that area. It has grown gradually but has now grown to the extent that there is absolute contempt for gardaí and their families. As has been explained by my colleague, it has now resulted in gardaí and private citizens being personally intimidated and family members of gardaí families being intimidated and threatened. That is totally unacceptable. A strong response to that challenge is required. That response will determine the extent to which this kind of subversiveness - that is what it is - will be stood down. If it is not, people will continue to live in fear and gardaí will continue to live in fear.

Who will prevail? Will it be the gardaí, the forces of law and order, who represent the people and are entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the citizens of the State or are they to be intimidated out of doing their work? What is most important at this stage is that there be an urgent appraisal of the requirements throughout north-west Kildare in particular and Kildare in general, with a view to ensuring that adequate resources are put in place to deter any further illegal activity of a criminal nature, such as that to which reference has been made.

To my mind, there is a requirement for a new, fully-fledged, 24-hour Garda station in that particular area to deal with the issues. The danger is that if we allow such issues to go unchallenged, they will prevail and if that happens, we, the citizens, the representatives of the citizens, and An Garda Síochána are under threat.

I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality who regrets she cannot be present due to other official commitments. She is grateful to the Deputies for raising this important matter in the House, one of importance not just for Kildare, but for the country and society as a whole.

The Minister has asked me to assure the Deputies that she is, of course, aware of the threats made against members of An Garda Síochána in County Kildare. I have no doubt that every Member of this House will share the Minister's view, and mine, that such actions are to be roundly condemned. I know that we also all appreciate how important it is that we discuss this issue in a manner which does not heighten the distress for those impacted and their families. It is, regrettably, also the case that the issue of intimidation of gardaí going about their duty is not confined to the instances referred to by the Deputies.

An Garda Síochána plays a key role in keeping citizens and communities safe and secure. On our behalf, day in, day out, individual gardaí carry out challenging, demanding and sometimes dangerous tasks in the course of their duty. In doing that, gardaí are deserving of the support they get from the communities they serve. The Minister knows that individual gardaí, in the best traditions of the force, will not be intimidated from carrying out their duties and will continue to do so without fear or favour.

As the House will understand, it would neither be wise nor appropriate for the Minister to detail the operational measures the Garda authorities have taken or would take generally in these situations. I can say on her behalf, however, that she has asked to be kept briefed by the Garda Commissioner in relation to the specific circumstances at issue. She is aware that whatever protective and detection measures are deemed appropriate by the Garda authorities will certainly be taken. The individual safety of gardaí is a priority for the Garda authorities, as it is for all of us. While the criminal law in this area is being kept under ongoing review, I should also say that there is a range of robust legislative provisions available to the Garda authorities in circumstances where threats or assaults are made against gardaí.

In so far as the question of resources for policing generally in Kildare is concerned, the Deputies will appreciate that the deployment of personnel across the State is a matter for the Garda Commissioner. I can advise them that the number of gardaí assigned to the division as of 31 March was 299 gardaí, of which 73 were in the Leixlip district, which includes Carbury Garda station where five gardaí were assigned. Two additional Garda personnel have been allocated to Carbury in recent times. The allocation of overall Garda resources is kept under continuing review in the context of crime trends and policing priorities so as to ensure resources are put to the best possible use.

For the Minister and the Government's part, however, the key point is that thanks to the resumption of recruitment, the Garda Commissioner now has the capacity to deploy new gardaí for the first time since 2009. In fact, on 8 May, five new probationer gardaí are due to transfer to the Kildare Garda division. Similarly, investments are being made in vehicles and IT, and in the recruitment of specialist professional staff. Policing and community safety in Kildare will undoubtedly benefit from this injection of resources, as it will in all other Garda divisions.

This investment demonstrates the commitment of the Minister and the Government to supporting the Garda in carrying out its duties, including in the ongoing fight against organised and serious crime. We have not been under any illusion about the depths to which those involved in this type of criminality will sink. The latest incidents reinforces that and An Garda Síochána will continue to confront, disrupt and bring to justice those involved, on behalf of all law-abiding citizens.

I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate the Minister cannot be present today and understand where she is. I welcome the fact some additional resources and additional gardaí have been allocated to the area. People have said they noticed the additional presence on the ground. This cannot be just a short-term fix. A long-term solution must be found to problems in the district. Three Garda stations are located within 10 km of each other, one in Edenderry, one in Enfield and one in Derrinturn. They are probably in three different districts. Perhaps the Garda Commissioner might consider opening one of the three stations on a 24-hour basis to service the area. It is important for people to have confidence that they can go about their daily lives without living in fear of intimidation or criminal activity by the gang in this area. I welcome the opening of Templemore to recruits but it is vitally important that we have a long-term solution to the problem and that additional gardaí coming from Templemore are allocated to Kildare on a long-term basis.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I fully appreciate and understand that at any time competition for resources is a moot issue and will continue to be. However, I wish to point out that this particular situation is unique. There is a threat to the institutions of the State in a way that has not manifested itself previously in County Kildare. It requires a response of a very dramatic nature. If such a response is not forthcoming, it may be seen as a weakness on the part of the authorities. It is improper that members of An Garda Síochána should be afraid to go to and from work without taking special measures. It naturally follows that their families should not live in fear and that other families in the area should not live in fear. There is a need to respond in a way that is fairly dramatic, as has happened in other situations. I say that in particular because the area in question is in the greater Dublin area and provides easy access from the point of view of criminal activity on a 24-7 basis. I strongly urge that the only way to make a statement these people will listen to is to consider the possibility of a new station in the area.

On behalf of the Minister, I again thank the Deputies for raising this important issue. I will share the points that have been made with her. As I said, the Minister has been assured by the Garda Commissioner that the necessary and appropriate actions are being taken in response to the threats that have been made, as we would all expect. There is no question of resources constraining the operational response to the threats.

The management of policing in Kildare, as elsewhere, is of course a matter for the Garda authorities but the Government is doing all it can to ensure they have the resources to do so effectively. While the Minister is aware that the possibility of a new station at Carbury has been raised, she is advised by the Garda authorities that there are no plans at present to open an additional Garda station in the area. Ultimately, they are questions for Garda management to assess in terms of how policing can be most effectively managed and organised.

The vast majority of law-abiding people in County Kildare, and all over the country, support the work of An Garda Síochána, and all will no doubt be appalled at these recent incidents and will join us in supporting the steps being taken to tackle those responsible. I thank the Deputies for raising the matters which I will discuss with the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald.

Hospital Waiting Lists

I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter which is an important one for the country as a whole and, in particular, for the health service. Since the start of 2014 we have seen an almost continuous increase in waiting lists both for outpatient consultations and for scheduled day case and inpatient procedures. The latest figures for April are remarkable because they show that for outpatients, there are now 412,422 on the waiting list. Of those, 83,347 have been waiting more than a year while more than 11,000 have been waiting more than two years. A total of 2,166 have been waiting more than three years and a most unfortunate 778 people have been on the outpatient waiting list for more than four years.

A total of 3,879 children have been waiting more than a year in the children's hospital group alone, that is, Crumlin and Temple Street hospitals. That is a doubling of the number in the past year and obviously more children are waiting to be seen in other hospitals across the country. The number of outpatients waiting more than a year is up 16,725, or 25.1%, since the start of 2015 alone. The year-on-year figures show a jump of 60,601, or 266.4%, for the numbers waiting more than a year.

For inpatient and day case procedures, there are now 67,165 on the list, with 27,260 waiting longer than the internationally accepted benchmark of six months. A total of 9,433 have been waiting more than a year and 361 of these are in the children's hospital group.

The Government set a target for children of 20 weeks. Yesterday's HSE performance report for February showed that the target was being reached in a miserable 56.2% of cases, compared to 84% in February 2014. The following hospitals did not even get half way to the children's 20 week target in February - Beaumont Hospital at 48.1%, Cavan General Hospital at 34.1%, University Hospital Waterford at 48.9%, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, at 41.1%, the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital at 47.2%, Letterkenny General Hospital at 47.2% and Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin, at 47.8%. In fairness to the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, he said that things would get worse before they got better. Obviously, they have got much worse.

As a Kildare Deputy, I am relieved to see that Naas General Hospital's figures have not risen as much as many others, but many Kildare people go to Tallaght hospital and the figures for that hospital are truly appalling. There are 30,713 people waiting for an outpatient appointment in Tallaght hospital. It is not the worst in the country overall, but 9,825 of those people, almost one in three, are waiting more than a year. That is an increase of 1,303 since January and an increase of 5,235 in a year. It has more than doubled since April 2014.

When will things get better? All the Minister appears to have done is scrap his predecessor's target times. Obviously more resources are required. The Minister told us he had achieved a realistic budget last October but he has since required an additional €74 million in funding to confront the realities of overcrowding in emergency departments. Will the Minister be seeking a further Supplementary Estimate to his realistic budget, as he described it, to address these appalling waiting times and when can we expect it?

The difficulty is that real human beings are enduring real hardship and suffering as a result of the bogus budgets the Department of Health has brought before this House in each of the past two years.

I thank Deputy Ó Fearghaíl for raising this issue. I am replying on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Varadkar, who sends his apologies for being unable to be in the House this afternoon. He is otherwise engaged on Government business.

Under the Future Health plan, significant structural changes are envisaged for the acute hospital sector, with the formation of hospital groups and the reconfiguration of services to improve both quality and access. These major structural changes will take some time to implement and there remain significant operating pressures on acute hospitals, including waiting lists for inpatient and day case treatments and outpatient appointments. Reducing these waiting lists is a key priority for Government. Taking into account current pressures on acute hospital services, the Minister has put in place a target that by mid-year nobody will wait more than 18 months for treatment or an outpatient appointment; by year-end, that target will be revised to a wait time of no more than 15 months. When these targets were announced in February, there were 4,996 patients to be treated by the end of June 2015. As of 1 May, there are 3,508 patients requiring treatment by the end of June 2015 if the 18 month target is to be achieved, a reduction of almost 1,500.

It is acknowledged that the volume of the outpatient waiting list is far greater, principally due to consultant shortages in particular specialties and resource pressures on a small number of hospitals. The HSE has put in place specific measures to manage waiting lists more efficiently, including observation of the national waiting list protocol, adherence to relevant HSE national clinical programme guidelines, prioritising day-of-surgery admission where clinically appropriate and validation of inpatient waiting lists to establish and maintain a precise current position regarding the volume of people awaiting care. The monthly publication of hospital and speciality level waiting list information on the National Treatment Purchase Fund website is a welcome development, as is the HSE service plan commitment to the publication of waiting lists at consultant and speciality level.

I am advised that the acute hospitals division is meeting weekly with the hospital groups to review performance against agreed clearance plans for all treatment waiting lists. A similar process is in place for outpatient appointments, with the assistance in particular of the national clinical programmes for orthopaedics, rheumatology and surgery. New pathways of care to improve patient flow through hospitals, such as medical assessment units, local injury units and urgent care centres, as well as care provision in non-hospital settings, can and must be used to provide a spectrum of care which supports the efficient use of hospital resources.

Waiting list performance will be assessed within the revised accountability framework for the HSE, which requires formal performance management for hospitals to include access, quality, outcomes and financial performance. The work of the special delivery unit indicates that there is still significant potential to improve performance in hospitals. The hospital redesign programme is working with the national clinical programmes to support local change and innovation and raise national standards through the use of internationally recognised redesign and improvement methodologies.

Based on the emergency department task force's action plan and in view of experience to date, the Government is providing additional funds of €74 million, in addition to the €25 million provided in 2014, to address delayed discharges and support initiatives which improve timeliness for admissions from emergency departments and waiting lists. The Department of Health will continue to work with the HSE to ensure that all issues relating to hospital waiting lists are resolved.

The Minister has my sympathy. He is reading out a response from the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, that is effectively a non-response. He talks about programmes, protocols and delivery units, but the reality is that the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, was faced with a crisis in accident and emergency departments last winter. His response was to create a situation where it was addressed to some extent, although in Naas General Hospital, for example, over the past 12 months record numbers of people were treated on trolleys, which is absolutely unacceptable. However, as a result of the initiative taken by the Minister to address the crisis in emergency departments, there has been an exponential and phenomenal increase in the waiting lists for services throughout the health sector.

All of this comes back to one critical issue, the funding of the health services. Over the past two budgets this House was presented with figures for the health budget that were inaccurate, not based on fact, bogus and which have been described on a number of occasions by Members on this side of the House as fraudulent. The people who brought them before the House knew they were not figures that could sustain the health services for the period ahead. Now, we have a situation where incredible numbers of people continue to build up month after month on the various waiting lists of hospitals throughout the country. Furthermore, we do not know where we are going in terms of the funding of the health service or whether a Supplementary Estimate will be brought forward by the Department of Health.

Perhaps if the Minister could us an assurance today that there will be a Supplementary Estimate, we might have some expectation of seeing these incredible waiting lists addressed in the short term.

I will share the Deputy's concerns with the Minister, Deputy Varadkar. Anything regarding a Supplementary Estimate would be an operational matter for the Department of Health and the Minister, and I am not privy to any information that there will be a Supplementary Estimate.

The Minister and I accept that, as the Deputy said, this is a hardship for families and for the human being. However, this has been a major issue over many years for every Minister with responsibility for health. There is no quick fix to ensure every patient is seen, but the Minister has put in place a target-----

It is getting worse.

-----that by mid-year nobody will have to wait more than 18 months for treatment or an outpatient appointment.

By the end of the year the target will be that nobody will have to wait more than 15 months.

I hope the plans the Minister has put in place will be implemented. There is a shortage of consultants in some hospitals across the country, but I am not saying that is the main problem. The Deputy recognised that we had a crisis in accident and emergency departments in January, which caused its own problems and had repercussions for outpatient appointments. I will bring to the attention of the Minister the concerns raised by the Deputy, and he will keep the Deputy and the House updated on how his targets are progressing. The Deputy is correct in saying it is up to Members to ensure they get a briefing and are kept up to date on the targets. I repeat that weekly meetings take place on the targets the Minister has put in place to ensure they can be achieved.

Before I call Deputy Eamonn Maloney, I believe Deputy Shane Ross wishes to defer his Topical Issue.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. With the permission of the House, in the absence of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris, I wish to defer my Topical Issue.

I thank the Deputy. That Topical Issue will be taken on another date.

National Minimum Wage

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and staff for selecting this item for discussion, and the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Gerald Nash, for coming in to respond.

The Minister of State will be familiar with the recently published OECD report on the minimum wage. We can extract from the contents of the report that there are many employers in Ireland who consider that this is no country for those on the minimum wage. We are pretty far down the league of countries cited in the report and it most certainly is not good news for those in the retail sector, the hospitality sector, hairdressing, and the security industry, where traditionally wages have been low. We now have a situation in which many of the workforce are working for less than the minimum wage.

Having said that, we can all appreciate that what is happening in those sectors is a replica of what happened during the 1980s, when the country had its most recent recession. Many people were out of work and chasing limited job opportunities, which made them very vulnerable to unscrupulous employers. On top of that, as at present, there was the difficulty of falling trade union membership which, unfortunately, meant that people who should have trade union representation in the retail or hospitality sector were without it. For many people in low-paid employment, as someone said to me during the Dunnes Stores day of action on 2 April, if faced with the prospect of working below the minimum wage, or just on the minimum wage, or going on the dole, most people will opt to work for the minimum wage. That is the reality and it is what happened in the 1980s. It has adverse consequences, with many people struggling in the sector. It is not that these industries are not making money; they most certainly are, and Dunnes Stores is a good example. Rather, it is about the treatment of people, and the report highlights this. It is important that, as a Government and as a Parliament, we make a stand on this. I welcome the Irish Congress of Trade Unions charter for fair conditions at work, which rightly indicates that the living wage should be €11.45, which I would support. I hope that all parliamentarians in the House would support the work of Congress in achieving the living wage of €11.45 into the future.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I note that he referred to the recent OECD paper entitled "Minimum wages after the crisis: Making them pay". This is a very interesting cross-OECD report which clearly illustrates that adjustments to the national minimum wage take place within the context of tax and social transfer policies as well as the broader earnings, employment and economic impacts of such adjustments.

It should be borne in mind that the national minimum wage in Ireland is relatively high by international standards, and the House will recall that this Government restored the national minimum wage to €8.65 per hour with effect from 1 July 2011. The most recent figures published by EUROSTAT show that Ireland's rate is the fifth highest among the 22 member states that have a national minimum wage. When the cost of living is taken into account, Ireland's rate is the sixth highest.

Approximately 70,000 employees are on the national minimum wage. I assure Deputy Maloney that if an employer is found to be in breach of the National Minimum Wage Act and is not paying at least €8.65 per hour, that is an offence and will be investigated by the National Employment Rights Agency.

In reviewing the paper, it is important to bear in mind that the conclusions are based on data from 2013. As the House is aware, there have been significant positive developments in the performance of the economy overall and in tax and social policy protections for the most vulnerable in our society since then. In this context, 410,000 low-paid workers have been removed from the USC charge over successive budgets, and the Government will continue this policy of tax reductions for such workers in the next budget and subsequent budgets if we are given a mandate to do so. At the same time, the Government has introduced targeted welfare supports for people returning to work, and particularly for the low paid. I know those are measures that the Deputy supports. The Government will pay €30 a week to mothers or fathers returning to work from long-term unemployment in respect of each child for the first year, and €15 per week per child for the second year. This is a very important back-to-work dividend for families to ensure that work always pays.

For those trapped on rent supplement who cannot go back to work because they will lose their housing support, a new housing assistance payment is being rolled out. The assistance from the State will be based on how much one earns and not on one's employment status. The Department of Social Protection also supports low-income families in work through the family income supplement. These initiatives address issues identified in the paper, such as the fact that even at the bottom of the income ladder, taxes and social levies can strongly reduce take-home pay, and the size of the overall tax burden has implications for how well the national minimum wage supports low-wage workers and low-income families. In this regard, it is worth noting that Ireland ranks very favourably against other OECD countries in terms of the level of employee taxes and social contributions for those on the minimum wage. It also finds that when social benefits are included, the minimum wage in Ireland is particularly effective at moving minimum wage workers above the poverty line.

In many ways, the report confirms the utility of the Government's twin-track approach in assisting those on low pay through reviews of the national minimum wage and pay restoration while also tackling the increased burden of taxation that resulted from managing ourselves out of the economic crisis. It identifies a potential issue for Ireland with regard to the net benefit to Irish workers on the minimum wage of any increase in the minimum wage. As I stated earlier, the data utilised are out of date, given the recent budgetary and social policy initiatives introduced by the Government. None the less, I have no doubt that this issue will be considered and fully explored by the Low Pay Commission in the coming months.

As Deputy Maloney will be aware, the commission has been operating on an interim administrative basis since last February, and the Government yesterday approved the Bill to give it statutory effect. This will be published in the coming days. I look forward to the debate in the coming weeks in the House on the Low Pay Commission Bill, which will give statutory effect to that body.

I thank the Minister of State very much for such a comprehensive answer. I think he would share my view that the message from this House is one of solidarity with those on the minimum wage and who have difficulties in their day to day lives. I listened closely to what the Minister of State said and commend the speed with which he took action on the Low Pay Commission shortly after his appointment. That is very important. I think every Member of this House would oppose zero-hour contracts.

I look forward to the legislation the Minister of State has had drafted on collective bargaining. In solidarity with those on the minimum wage and those whose pay is below that, it is important to recognise that, as law-makers, Members of this House have a special responsibility to support the sort of initiatives the Minister of State has taken and the new legislation that will come before the House because it will protect the most vulnerable in the workplace.

The Cabinet approved the draft Bill to place the Low Pay Commission on a statutory footing. When I publish the Bill in the coming days, Deputy Maloney will be interested to see one of its key provisions is a legal requirement that the Low Pay Commission produce a report on, or before, 15 July each year. There is a compelling reason for providing in primary legislation that the report be returned to the Minister of the day by a particular date. That is designed to ensure it is provided well in advance of any budgetary, tax and social welfare changes the Departments of Finance and Social Protection might consider. We want to ensure that any changes recommended by the Low Pay Commission and, subsequently, adopted by Government would be positive and that they would not be nullified by any tax or social welfare changes in budgets.

The national minimum wage rate has not been fundamentally reviewed since 2007. The rate was adjusted downwards by €1 - shamefully so - by the previous Government. We adjusted that and brought it up to €8.65 on election in 2011. It is better for society and the economy and makes good economic and business planning sense to ensure there are more frequent reviews of the national minimum wage. That is what the Low Pay Commission will do. It will also examine other issues related to low pay but its primary legislative function and exclusive focus over the past few months after it was set up on an interim basis was to examine the rate of the national minimum wage and whether that should be adjusted. I look forward to receiving the report of the Low Pay Commission very shortly. I have always supported frequent reviews of the minimum wage to try to take into account the changing economic circumstances annually to ensure that those whom we need to protect in this society, people on low pay and those in vulnerable situations, get the protection to which Deputy Maloney and I think they are entitled.

In the next couple of days, I will publish legislation, which was approved by Cabinet last night, on collective bargaining and the reintroduction of a registered employment agreement system. I look forward to the debate on those Bills in the next few weeks. I intend that legislation will be enacted by the end of this Dáil session, by the middle or end of July. If we have any role, it should be to ensure an economic recovery that ensures the jobs we create are decent and sustainable. We want decent work and high standards in our society and economy.