Leaders' Questions

This morning on "Morning Ireland" emergency medicine consultant, Dr. Fergal Hickey, said, "people are going to die as a result". He went on to say, "that is not scaremongering, it is a prediction of what is going to happen". Only six weeks ago, a €40 million winter initiative was announced and it was targeted to ensure there would not be overcrowding in our emergency departments throughout the winter months. However, as we face into the winter, which is only starting, we find this initiative is already failing, given there were 528 people on trolleys in emergency departments across the country yesterday.

In the past number of years, there have been consistent winter initiatives and each and every one of them has failed to make a meaningful impact on the number of people who are lying on trolleys in emergency departments. The HSE is at present involved in a bed capacity review. I would like the Minister to consider the idea that this would be independently assessed due to the fact the HSE is carrying it out for its own purposes. Will the Minister consider the independence of that review being verified given there may be ulterior motives due to the HSE addressing it itself?

Does the Minister agree that, over the coming weeks, further initiatives have to be put forward to ensure bed capacity is enhanced and there is a reduction in overcrowding in our emergency departments? It is a fact there is very low morale across the whole of the health service, particularly in emergency departments. There were 45 people on trolleys yesterday in Letterkenny and 45 in Cork, and the emergency department in Galway is consistently overcrowded and chaotic. Overall, in the past number of years, there has been a consistent downgrading of the ability and capacity of our emergency departments to function. Dr. Fergal Hickey outlined this quite clearly when saying that people will die. This is nothing new. I urge that we do not have a third disappointing Minister for Health in a row and that something serious and tangible is brought forward on this issue.

To turn to the broader issue of the funding of the health service, while there has been a substantial increase, there are difficulties in the context of management bringing forward plans that can be implemented and have a meaningful impact. Will the Minister insist that the bed capacity review is independently verified and assessed? More importantly, in the short and medium term, I ask that there is a revisiting of the winter initiative, which has already failed, given it is November and the burden months will be January, February, March and April. If it does not work in November, it will certainly fail in those four months.

I thank the Deputy for raising an issue that I know is of great concern to all Members of the House. This is precisely the reason that, in budget 2017, as the Deputy acknowledged, the Government put in place a substantial increase in the amount of funding going into our health service. As he will be aware, it now stands at €14.6 billion. It is the highest level of funding that has been made available to the Department of Health and the HSE in our history.

It is a €900 million increase compared with where the Department and the HSE stood a year ago. All of that has been done precisely because this Government recognises the need for investment in our health service to ensure that a stable economy is capable of delivering benefits to those who need them the most, patients and those who need to avail of the emergency departments. It recognises too the huge work of the 100,000 front-line staff working for the HSE.

In respect of the particular issues the Deputy raises, we should consider what that investment is capable of delivering from a bed capacity point of view. The Deputy referred to the investment in University Hospital Galway. That is facilitating the building of a 75 bed ward. In Kilkenny and Limerick, the investment is facilitating the construction and opening of new emergency departments. In Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, the same level of investment is facilitating the opening of a new extension to deliver the kind of investment and support the Deputy refers to. This is on top of the investment in Wexford General Hospital and the opening of a new accident and emergency ward in the Mater hospital which has had to deal with so much difficulty in recent years regarding the numbers presenting at the hospital particularly at busy times. The level of investment by this and the previous Government facilitates the kind of improvements I have referred to.

The Deputy referred to a bed capacity review which is taking place in the context of that improvement. Whether it should be independent is a matter for the Minister for Health but I will relay this to him. He will be aware of the Deputy’s views. I have confidence in the ability of the HSE to do that work well. In addition, the Government has put in place a fund of €40 million to respond to the kind of pressure the Deputy refers to, which peaks in winter.

We can put this investment in, but in return what we need most is that all those working in the health service, from general practitioners to nurses and those involved in running hospitals, work in an integrated way that will ensure this investment delivers the benefits the Deputy is calling for.

There is a certain amount of live horse and eat grass in the Minister's response. This investment in the future is not addressing the immediate problems of patients waiting on trolleys in our emergency departments. The winter initiative was to address the problems of overcrowding in emergency departments through the winter months. In November, there are 528 people on trolleys. There will be huge difficulties in January, February and March of next year. The winter initiative has already failed to address those key difficulties in our emergency departments. I am not making this up. These are the figures and statistics, backed up by senior clinicians across the country who are saying people will die if there is consistent overcrowding in the emergency departments. Between now and January, will the Minister ask the Minister for Health to revisit the winter initiative and to address the delayed discharges in our hospitals? Over 600 people are still in delayed discharges from acute hospitals across the country. That may assist in addressing the problems in the emergency departments.

A single person on a trolley is one too many. I had to refer to the improvements and investment under way that aim to address these matters over the medium term and into the long run. The Minister for Health will continually review the winter initiative with the HSE. There is a Cabinet sub-committee on health that will review the status of that plan regularly. That is the plan that has delivered an additional 950 home care packages, an additional 58 transitional care beds and is expanding community intervention teams that are at the heart of making sure the pressure the Deputy refers to does not reach an even more acute level in the early part of next year.

I have acknowledged that the bed capacity the Deputy referred to needs to be improved and I have pointed to the improvements that we are making. That winter initiative is going to put in place an additional 55 acute beds and 18 step-down beds to deal with the matter the Deputy is referring to. Of course, this is something that will always be reviewed by Government because we want to ensure that the investment under our plans is in place and delivers the improvements that people need. Whatever progress is being made, and progress is being made, we want to get to a situation in which fewer and fewer people are experiencing the kind of pressure that we acknowledge they are experiencing.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, was signed by the EU and Canada on 30 October. CETA will be referred to national parliaments and the European Parliament for ratification. This week, the European Commission has published its report on the cumulative effects of trade agreements. The fact is that these agreements are not good for agriculture across Europe or for agriculture in Ireland. CETA is part of a new generation of free trade agreements, along with TTIP and others, which move far beyond the lowering of tariffs and the free movement of goods. In fact, they look to attack the sovereignty of national parliaments by interfering in national regulations of trade. CETA was negotiated entirely in secret. The proposed text was not made public until the draft had been finalised in September 2014.

Many non-governmental organisations, civil society and consumer groups have expressed grave concerns about the very weak protections in CETA for the environment, workers' rights, public health, food safety, public procurement and the impact of the investment court system litigation on these very standards and on the democratic process. The Irish beef farming sector is particularly vulnerable to the effects of CETA, which will include the influx of 50,000 tonnes of cheap Canadian beef and 75,000 tonnes of pork entering the EU market. The impact of this influx on Irish beef producers will be exacerbated as a result of the Brexit vote, due to the fact that Britain has been the largest importer of Canadian agri-produce into the EU. There has been no revision of the quotas in response to the Brexit vote.

The inclusion of the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism in these agreements, whereby foreign corporations will be able to sue national governments for compensation for loss of expected future profits in response to governments' actions for the common good, has provoked widespread public opposition to the ratification of these agreements on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Seanad recently, there was a motion on CETA and it was roundly rejected. Sinn Féin has a motion on CETA on today's Order Paper. In these circumstances, how can the Minister justify his Government's continued support for CETA and will he instruct his people in the European Parliament to reject this agreement? When this agreement comes before this Dáil, will the Government reject it?

The Deputy used the phrase that such agreements "look to attack the sovereignty of national parliaments", but of course it has to be voted on by this Parliament.

Are we going to get the opportunity to discuss it?

The procedure that is in place for the ratification of this agreement will be voted on in-----

When are we going to get the opportunity to discuss it?

-----this Dáil. Far from this being an attack on the role of sovereign parliaments, there is a process in place that recognises the ability of Dáil Éireann to cast a vote on that agreement. It is at that point that Deputy Martin Kenny and Sinn Féin will be able to articulate their views and concerns on CETA.

I take a very different view from that outlined by Deputy Martin Kenny. I believe that all parts of the Irish economy, whether it is the agricultural sector the Deputy referred to, financial services or aviation, have shown their ability to grow, create employment, be prosperous and deliver benefits for our country in a world of greater trade and in a world in which the Single Market has been a hugely important market into which Ireland has exported services and goods. I believe an environment in which the Single Market is maintained and arrangements and agreements such as CETA are put in place offers opportunities for Irish companies to create jobs. Companies that are located here will have the ability to sell more and thereby to create more jobs in Ireland.

The process for ratification in the European Parliament, and ratification in national parliaments all over the European Union, is precisely put in place to allow the kind of issues that Deputy Martin Kenny is entitled to raise on behalf of those he represents to be aired and to allow national parliaments to make their views known. However, I wish to conclude by arguing that over the recent arc of Irish economic history we have seen that Irish farmers and companies, big and small, have shown their ability to create more jobs and sell more goods in an environment in which trade has been liberalised. This agreement is also putting in place the right protections in respect of the environment, workers rights and issues that matter. That is also the case with the Single Market. How is it consistent for Deputy Martin Kenny to say that farmers and companies in the North should not have the ability to trade under a structured agreement such as CETA when his party is campaigning in respect of the need for those companies and farmers to retain access to the Single Market of the European Union?

On the issue of whether the Parliament has the final say, the reason it is an attack on democracy and the Parliament is because if the agreement goes through, it will mean that multinational corporations will be able to sue national governments that put in place something to protect their environmental or business interests. For example, a company called Vattenfall is currently suing the German Government because it decided to change its policy on nuclear power. If we take a similar position in this Parliament, we could be sued. These agreements are designed to allow big corporations to make massive profits and to squeeze out small producers and providers of services. They are not designed for economies such as Ireland's or for Irish farmers. The Minister referred to Irish farmers and farmers in the North. They will not gain from CETA, it is the big corporations that will gain. Agreements of this nature are in place as a result of huge corporations making massive profits. The onus is on the Irish representatives at EU level to heed the severe warnings relating to CETA and other deals and to ensure that such agreements are put to bed. Will common sense prevail and will the Government lobby for the rejection of CETA in the European Parliament and will it ensure that the deal is rejected in this Parliament? The Minister has a choice. Will he support Irish farmers and small industry or this type of agreement?

What the Deputy said reminds me of what Sinn Féin used to say about the European Union, namely, that it was designed only for big companies and corporations and was not for the benefit of countries such as ours. When they saw the risk posed by Brexit to Irish interests on all parts of the island, Sinn Féin members changed their minds and their tune completely.

That is a simplistic argument.

Deputy Martin Kenny asserted that this is an attack on democracy. How can he make that claim when this is the very Chamber that will be able to cast a vote on the issue?

Will the Minister answer the question?

Deputy Martin Kenny said this is an environment which is designed to allow only big corporations to prosper. Is that how little confidence he has in the ability of Irish companies, big and small, to be able to trade-----

Does the Minister support CETA or not?

The Minister should be allowed to speak without interruption.

-----and create employment in that environment just as they have been able to do in the Single Market and the European Union? As Deputy Martin Kenny is aware, because he is very knowledgeable on these matters, 90% of all the food, dairy and agricultural produce of this country is exported.

Will the Minister support Irish business and farmers?

The agreements offer the opportunity for more of that to be done and it is precisely because I support Irish farmers, workers and companies of all sizes-----

Up to 50,000 kg of Canadian beef will be imported into the EU.

-----that I am confident CETA will offer opportunities to them. Far from this being an attack on democracy, this Dáil will have a vote on the matter.

It has been eight weeks since the Taoiseach agreed with other party leaders to initiate a commission of investigation into the sale of the Northern Ireland loan portfolio, Project Eagle. At the time, the view was that the investigation would not have to wait for the PAC investigation to conclude. Last week I submitted a letter to NAMA's chairman, Frank Daly. I named 20 individuals who work for NAMA who may have engaged in serious malpractice and I asked how many have been reported to An Garda Síochána under section 19 of the Criminal Justice Act. I am still waiting for a reply.

The Committee of Public Accounts has been examining the Comptroller and Auditor General's report for the past two months. The way in which NAMA and the Department of Finance treated the Comptroller and Auditor General has been shocking. NAMA and the Department of Finance have contradicted each other. They have been twisting and turning, ducking and diving in their efforts to undermine the Comptroller and Auditor General and his excellent report.

Cerberus representatives will come before the Committee of Public Accounts this afternoon. I am sure they will do fine, but does the Minister not believe it would be more fitting if they were going to the Garda bureau of fraud investigation in Harcourt Street to be questioned?

PIMCO pulled out of Project Eagle on 13 March 2014. Cerberus, Brown Rudnick and Tughans, which had worked for PIMCO on 24 March, lodged their bid on 1 April, six working days later, and crossed the line two days later on 3 April. It was £15 million for Brown Rudnick, Tughans and God knows who else - nice money, thanks very much. What was it for? Inside information from the cabal of Cushnahan, Watters and Hanna? The only other bidder, Fortress, was not even allowed to hire local real estate valuers. It was not a competitive process; it was a scam.

NAMA has undersold a massive slice of this country to US vulture funds for a fraction of its value. It is contributing in a serious way to our housing crisis. It is not part of the solution to the housing crisis; it is part of the problem. Will this Government suspend the NAMA board and the executive pending a thorough commission of investigation into all of its workings? This issue will in time prove to be the biggest financial scandal in the history of the State.

Last weekend, I travelled to Asia to meet a businessman who contacted me through NAMA leaks. I went to collect documents and e-mails. Within a short time of Frank Cushnahan being appointed to NAMA, he was peddling assets belonging to NAMA to foreign parts. Tughans was involved. The Japanese bank, NOMURA, was involved, which was later the main financier for Cerberus's purchase of Project Eagle. NAMA, from start to finish, stinks to high heaven. Will the Minister indicate when we will have a commission of investigation, and will the Government suspend the NAMA board and executive until we get that investigation?

No, the Government will not be suspending the board of NAMA or any of its officers with regard to this issue. It is, as is the case with any other body, entitled to see a process in which it is participating completed. The Deputy has on a number of occasions called for investigation and interrogation to be carried out regarding the circumstances of Project Eagle. That is what is happening at the moment. That is the work the Committee of Public Accounts is doing. It makes a pleasant change to hear the Deputy vouch confidence in an institution of State such as the Comptroller and Auditor General and his report on that matter. That report is providing the bedrock in terms of the inquiry taking place with regard to Project Eagle. I understand a hearing on that took place this week under the chairmanship of Deputy Fleming at which we have seen the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, appear. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, in recognition of the allegations that have been made about this issue, appeared before the Committee of Public Accounts to respond to potential issues of public concern. Clearly, Deputy Wallace feels strongly about this matter. If he has evidence he wants to raise on it, as he has done this morning, I ask him to go before the Committee of Public Accounts and provide it in a fuller way with the claims and evidence he is raising in the House today.

I often go the Committee of Public Accounts. I have been to the gardaí several times and the National Crime Agency. Unlike the NAMA officials, the Comptroller and Auditor General is excellent.

I want to give the Minister a taste of some of the e-mails. The first is dated December 2010 and is from Frank Cushnahan to the businessman. He starts by apologising for the delay in completing the document and explains that he has been heavily engaged by NAMA. He states that there are very substantial opportunities for major returns to be made for anyone who can access international and institutional funds to acquire blocks of development assets from either development or the agency itself. He states that he will initiate any necessary documentation to secure the best interest of all.

The reply starts with the businessman thanking Mr. Cushnahan. He states that he completely understands the demands made on Mr. Cushnahan by NAMA and the work that it entails, and states that he explained this to both individuals. He states that both now also understand the situation, especially as the plight of Ireland has been internationally reported. He states that if anything, it has reinforced their opinions of Mr. Cushnahan's abilities. He thanks him also for giving them the information on acquisition success fees.

The Deputy is out of time.

I will just finish with this one. Beginning, "Hi", it states that the businessman had a very good meeting with Frank yesterday, and on the NAMA bank debt issue, he has a draft of the agreement they all should sign, along with Frank, to ensure that they not only get a percentage of the money being invested but also a percentage of the special purpose vehicle and the profits to be made when the asset is sold, and that Frank will ensure that only people with the highest integrity at Government level would be involved and the returns look very, very good.

I thank Deputy Wallace.

For the information of the Minister, I have a lot of them.

Can I just confirm my understanding? Has Deputy Wallace agreed to appear in front of the Committee of Public Accounts about this issue?

Will the Deputy?

The Minister's party objected to me.

And when will the Deputy do it?

The Minister's party objected to it.

We must have process in relation to all of this. Deputy Wallace has called for, and the Government responded-----

When are we getting the investigation?

-----through seeing the Comptroller and Auditor General do its work. The report was made public, as of course it should be. On the back of that then, the Committee of Public Accounts is doing the work. Government has already made clear that in the aftermath of that happening, because we have confidence in the ability of Members of the Oireachtas, both Government or non-Government-----

They are not investigators.

-----to provide a valuable service in understanding and interrogating an issue that we understand to be of public concern-----

They do not have the power to investigate anybody.

I ask that Deputy Wallace do the same, and with the alleged evidence that he has-----

It is unbelievable what is going on.

------and with the claims that he has-----

Why does the Government not care about the fact that NAMA is rotten?

-----that the Deputy makes that available to the Committee of Public Accounts, Deputy Wallace himself go in and give testimony on the points that he has raised.

The Government does not want to know the truth.

Of course, all of the claims that Deputy Wallace has concluded with there are precisely because we recognise here that there are issues that merited further understanding on behalf of the Government, the Oireachtas and the public and the Committee of Public Accounts went ahead and did its work as a body of the Oireachtas which it should. The Government has already made clear that if further steps are needed beyond that, of course, it will make sure they happen.

I call Deputy Michael Harty, on behalf of the Rural Independent Group.

I will address the issue of balanced regional developed as it was outlined in the programme for Government. Balanced regional development requires an active development of regions outside the greater Dublin area, and I stress "active development". It needs to provide opportunities to live and work and sustain a family in towns and villages which are outside the major urban areas. It needs to maintain a viable and progressive agricultural sector and it needs to retain the fabric and unique culture of our rural towns and villages, which really are our inheritance.

During the programme for Government negotiations, a lot of time was spent in discussing balanced regional development. It was one of the core issues identified by the rural TDs who engaged in the negotiations. We were promised a new Ministry for regional development and rural affairs. Unfortunately, we did not get a new Ministry. Rural affairs and regional development was added to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and we did not get a stand-alone Ministry. We do not know how the amalgamated Ministry is functioning. We do not know what its staffing levels are. We do not know what its goals or responsibilities are or what it has achieved to date. Also in the programme for Government, we were promised that there would be rural-proofing of all Government policy decisions, and we see very little evidence of that.

What is happening in Ireland today is we are developing a group of city states. We are developing urban areas - the greater Dublin area, Cork, Galway, Limerick - but there are considerable areas of the country which are not benefitting from the economic upturn and economic development. We are developing into a nation of city states.

In the programme for Government, it was identified that there would be county-specific targets for jobs which would come in at 1% of the national average for unemployment, and we do not see evidence of those figures coming out. There was a commitment to develop the report of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA. We do not see any active evidence of that being done. There was a commitment to develop our national assets, to develop an Atlantic economic corridor and to a balanced regional development. For instance, our airports are not balanced in relation to development. Dublin Airport is getting a second runway.

That will bring a disproportionate level of economic development to the greater Dublin area, to the detriment of other areas. We also have an infrastructure deficit in broadband, mobile telephone coverage and the road network. The fabric of rural society is disintegrating with the loss of post offices and medical and pharmacy services. The economic viability of small towns and villages is being undermined, as is our agriculture. Will the Minister identify the functions of this new Department? What are its staffing levels and its responsibilities, goals, targets and achievements?

I am not in a position to provide the staffing levels relating to the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs this morning, but I will obtain that information and forward it to the Deputy. On his broader point regarding the need for balanced regional economic development, this was acknowledged very strongly by myself and the Government on budget day. For example, we have always made it clear that the response to Brexit cannot be a Dublin response. It must be a national response in order to allow all parts of the country to avail of the opportunities that exist and to deal with risks such as those posed by Brexit.

Regarding how we are seeking to make progress on this agenda, I point to the rural development plan. Much of it was overseen and will be implemented by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, and his Department. The rural development plan has received an increase in funding from €494 million to €601 million. The reason that this fund has been increased is to respond to the agenda to which the Deputy refers. In budget 2017, funding was also put in place for the sheep welfare scheme. This issue was raised by Deputies in the Rural Independent Alliance during negotiations on the formation of the Government.

Deputy Harty referred to regional and State airports. He is correct that plans are in place for Dublin Airport to get a new runway. That will be subject to a new oversight process. Along with that, however, consider the recent performance of Knock airport, where passenger numbers increased by 10%. Shannon Airport has become an independent State airport and this gives it the autonomy to respond to the needs the Deputy outlined. In addition, Cork Airport is doing tremendous work in adding new routes and new capacity.

The Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has received additional funding to implement the action plan on rural development and for the Leader programme and Údarás na Gaeltachta, an issue the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, has been pursuing and which he raised with me on a number of occasions during the Estimates process in the run up to the budget. We are also at an advanced stage with the new national broadband plan to respond to the digital and connectivity issues the Deputy raised. Deputy Harty also raised the jobs plan. The jobs plan now has a regional dimension, which it had been lacking up to this point, with clear targets set by region. The objective is to deliver jobs growth throughout the country.

I thank the Minister. People in rural Ireland and in the regions feel disenfranchised. There were lessons from the general election which the Government should have learned. People felt they had been cut off from the economic development of the country and that they were not benefitting from the economic recovery. We have many national organisations such as the Gaelic Athletic Association, GAA, Irish Farmers Association, IFA, Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann. How did the National Ploughing Championships develop? They originated in rural Ireland and they are a showcase for what is happening there. There must be sustainability in rural Ireland. I accept the matters that the Minister outlined but there must be clear implementation and a clear pathway whereby people can see the economic development and can see that the regions and urban areas are catered for equally.

I agree with much of what the Deputy said. Of course, there were clear lessons in the message people sent to the previous Government in the recent general election. The reason an action plan will be published later this year by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Humphreys, and the Ministers of State, Deputy Ring and Deputy Kyne, is to respond to the agenda to which Deputy Harty refers.

Such an approach has worked well with the Action Plan for Jobs in delivering national economic growth. The Deputy is correct that this must be felt across all parts of the country and we need to ensure such jobs growth does not benefit only Dublin or our larger cities. If we want to have sustainable economic development and growth, it must take place outside our large cities. This is why an action plan will be published later this year to put in place the milestones and deliver and make further progress against the agenda which the Deputy articulated.