Questions on Promised Legislation

Section 12 of the Garda Síochána (Policing Authority and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2015 provides for the transfer to the Policing Authority of the appointment of persons to the ranks of assistant Garda commissioner, chief superintendent and superintendent. The section has not commenced. When is that likely to happen? If it happens, will the members of the Garda Síochána who have been identified for promotion be obliged to reapply to the Policing Authority for promotion?

May I ask about the criminal justice (victims of crime) Bill?

No, the Deputy may only ask about one item of legislation.

Could I not just squeeze in a second one?

It is new politics. Take it up with the Business Committee.

On a related matter.

It is related. It is another crime Bill. The heads of the Bill were published in 2005. When will it be published?

Given that the Deputy managed to get two questions in, I will do my best to answer both.

I am giving the Minister a chance to audition for the leadership.

That makes two of you.

The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, is here to offer me moral support and guidance on how I do this morning.

He is coaching the Minister.

The drafting of the Bill is at an advanced stage and it is due to be published this session. Section 12 of the Garda Síochána (Policing Authority and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2015 will be enacted by the end of December and those members of the Garda Síochána who applied for the vacancies to which the Deputy referred were told when they applied that the Policing Authority would have responsibility for filling vacancies. The agenda has support from all sides the House.

I have raised the issue of speech therapists and occupational therapists previously and the programme for Government contains a very ambitious agenda in the context of increasing numbers in this regard. In my constituency and in many places throughout the country, there is a serious crisis. Families and children - particularly children on the autism spectrum - cannot access adequate speech or occupational therapy services. When will the Government seek to get to the place it intends to reach? The last time I raised the matter in the House with the Tánaiste, Deputy Fitzgerald, she said the problem was that there were not enough people to fill the posts. When I checked with the HSE, I discovered that there are hundreds of occupational therapists and speech therapists on panels. What is missing is approval from the Department to hire those people.

This is the reason we have put in place the higher levels of investment in the health service, the €14.6 billion to which I referred earlier in reply to a question from Deputy Kelleher. I agree with Deputy Martin Kenny regarding the hiring of front-line speech and language therapists and I want further progress to be made on the matter. The HSE is carrying out a review of how it hires people in the sector. In recent months, the number of people providing the service has increased.

There are 400 people on the panels.

I want the service to be expanded and improved across the country next year.

Today marks World Prematurity Day. Every year, more than 4,000 babies are born pre-term in Ireland. After much negotiation, the Government included a commitment in the programme for Government in respect of early intervention and prevention services for children. In the programme, the Government also promises to commence an in-depth review of the variation in waiting lists across the country. The programme for Government contains a further promise to introduce a new in-school speech and language service, creating stronger links between parents, teachers and speech and language therapists.

In Tipperary, many children have to wait up to 18 months for an assessment of needs before they get any treatment. This is not the fault of the wonderful early intervention teams but is down to the lack of resources. Where are we in terms of the fulfilment of this commitment in the programme for Government to ensure that all pre-term babies and children with special needs receive the support they require to meet their full potential?

Deputy Mattie McGrath and Deputy Martin Kenny made reference to therapists and the need for support. This year alone, an additional 83 posts for speech and language therapists have been sanctioned. That is a 10% increase on last year. On the broader matters raised by Deputy McGrath, they will be considered by the HSE in the context of its service plan for 2017. Deputy McGrath is right to say that this is dealt with in the programme for Government. We want to examine carefully the variations throughout the country to which he has referred. I will refer the matter onto the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, and ask that it be considered.

The crisis in defined benefit pension schemes has been highlighted in a number of media outlets this morning. The Minister will be aware that 600,000 people are affected by the situation. If nothing changes and things continue as they are, many of them will get nothing, despite having paid into pension schemes all their lives, and many will get much less than they had anticipated and had been led to expect. What are the Government's plans or proposals to deal with the issue? It used to be the looming pension crisis; it is now the present pension crisis.

I thank Deputy O'Dea for raising this matter. This is an exceptionally serious matter to which there is no one overall solution. It is driven by the fact that people are living longer as well as the change in the investment environment that we are seeing and which is affecting bond yields. The response will vary by pension fund. There is clearly a need for heightened engagement between employers, employees and those benefitting from pension funds in respect of the level of contribution they may receive in the future. This week, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, met the chairman of the Pensions Authority, Mr. David Begg, to get a broader view of all of the issues faced by pension funds at the moment. This will allow Government to better and further understand the issue and the options that may be available to those pension holders.

Page 54 of the programme for Government refers to a decisive shift in health services to primary care in the community. The issue was raised during Leaders' Questions this morning in terms of the need for more acute beds throughout the country. Some 1,600 in total are required, with 28 of those in Sligo University Hospital alone. The Social Welfare Bill provides an opportunity for Government to switch the responsibility for the carer's allowance to the Department of Health. Together with the relaxation of the means test, this may give more people the opportunity, with other supports such as medical cards, adaptation grants and so on, to have the dignity of being cared for in their own homes. It would also free up many of the acute beds throughout the country and would allow those with delayed discharges to move on. The answers during Leaders' Questions were high on rhetoric, as they always are, but light on tangibles. I would be grateful if the Government would consider my suggestion and relax the means test for the carer's allowance and transfer responsibility for it to the Department of Health. We could thereby afford people the opportunity and the dignity of being cared for in their own homes. It would also free up some of the pressures on the acute system.

From an expertise and functions point of view, the Department of Social Protection is best placed to process a payment that is made weekly and on which a large number of people depend. On primary care, as we speak, 92 primary care centres are now in operation throughout the State. A further 15 locations are under construction and a further 30 primary care centres are at an advanced stage.

The Industrial Development (Amendment) Bill makes proposals in respect of the powers of IDA Ireland to acquire property in the public interest. When will it come before the House?

The heads of the Bill were approved by the Government in July. We expect it to come before the House in the next session.

Last Tuesday night's "Prime Time" programme clearly showed the amount of devastation and disruption caused to people along the Shannon-----

Is the Deputy's question on promised legislation?

Yes. The devastation and disruption to which I refer are at an unacceptable level. I acknowledge that, under the programme for Government, €430 million has been committed to a five-year programme to improve the situation that has arisen as a result of flooding. There is a massive problem with the agencies in the region. When will the Government acknowledge that the interference of agencies with local authorities and others by not allowing drainage works to be carried out is causing clear disruption to families, communities and businesses? Can we get commitment on that from the Minister?

This is an issue on which the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, is doing an enormous amount. I will ensure that he corresponds with the Deputy on the matter. My understanding is that a non-statutory Shannon co-ordination body, the job of which is to bring together all the agencies to deal with the issues of non-co-ordination to which Deputy Eugene Murphy referred, is now in place. We need a more integrated response to ensure that the more than €400 million allocated - which the Deputy has acknowledged - is spent in a way that benefits people and minimises the risk of flooding.

My question relates to page 70 of the programme for Government and impending legislation. It is on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Despite the then Government signing the convention in 2007, Ireland is the only EU country that has not ratified it. This is an incredibly important human rights treaty. It is an absolute affront to people with disabilities in this country that it has not been signed. I include in this regard those with physical, mental, intellectual or sensory disabilities. I appreciate that the legislation is at the pre-legislative stage. It behoves us, as an inclusive society, to ratify the convention as soon as possible. Any progress on this would be very welcome by people with disabilities, their families and those who support them.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. It is an issue that the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has outlined as a very important priority for him and the Government. It is listed for this session and there is an enormous amount of engagement now taking place between the Attorney General, the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Health on it. Alongside progressing the Bill and its signing - a matter to which I have referred - the Government is also looking to make progress in dealing with the practical and funding issues that people and families face when dealing with the issue of disability. That is why we have increased allowances that are important for that sector for the first time since 2009, recognising the challenges those with disabilities and their families face. That is why additional funding for that sector has been put in place for the first time in a number of years.

On page 55 of the programme for Government, the Government commits to improving GP access and supporting rural practices. We know of well-publicised situations where in rural areas, a GP drops out and it is very difficult to get anybody to replace them. It is also hitting larger practices serving the surrounding rural areas, as is the case in Macroom where I live. They are unable to attract new GPs and that creates an increase in their workload, which, in turn, makes it more difficult to recruit people. That means it is more difficult for the patients on the ground in areas such as Macroom to get access-----

To which legislation is the Deputy referring?

-----to GPs and they have to travel further and further. What is the situation? How soon will the Government implement those improvements and commitments? Will it include distance codes to create wider access to the rural practice allowance? When will it happen?

It is my understanding that in May 2016 there was an increase to the rural practice allowance to try to deal with the issues to which the Deputy refers. I also understand that there was a change in the eligibility criteria for the scheme to try to ensure that more GPs participate in it to ensure rural communities have access to the primary facilities and care they deserve.

There are six more Deputies offering. I will take them if they are very brief. If they are not, I will move on.

The programme for Government references labour activation schemes and back-to-work schemes, both of which are badly needed. I wish to raise an issue relating to community employment placements. Traditionally, employees would have gone onto a Tús scheme. From there they would have gone on to work with a local organisation, often a community or charitable organisation, and then they would have moved onto a community employment, CE, scheme at the same location. This worked well for the individual and the organisations. It appears that since the advent of JobPath, operated by Turas Nua and Seetec, this path is blocked and individuals coming off the Tús scheme are placed in limbo for 12 months and are unable to return to a CE scheme.

We cannot get into the detail of something of this nature, Deputy.

Will the Minister review the operation of this scheme? It is not working. This is the position throughout the country. Individuals and organisations are losing out. Will the Minister review the operation of the scheme? It is in the programme for Government. Will the Minister clarify the situation?

Will you review the operation of the scheme, Minister?

I call on the Minister for Social Protection to respond.

We have carried out a review of the community employment, Gateway and Tús programmes. I should be in a position to publish it in the coming weeks.

I wish to point out two things. People spend a year on Tús. It is important that they do not spend too long on Tús, because people on Tús are supposed to move on to employment. We do not want people to spend their lives on schemes. We want them in employment. That is why it is limited to one year.

Second, it is important not to confuse JobPath with an employment scheme like CE, Tús or Gateway. JobPath operates by finding people jobs. The programme operators spend a year working with people and finding them employment. If they cannot find employment by that point, they can go back to Tús or CE. No one operating a Tús or CE scheme should ever see themselves as being in competition with real gainful employment or with a proper employer.

I want ask the Minister about the health (amendment) (no. 2) Bill. The Minister for Health wrote to me and stated that he would be bringing forward that legislation. Is the intention to bring it directly to the floor of the House or will it undergo pre-legislative scrutiny? I wish to remind the House that this legislation will give effect to a commitment given by the Government and to a Sinn Féin motion to extend the medical card scheme to children in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance.

I understand the heads of the Bill will come to Cabinet soon. This will fulfil the budget announcement we made. The question of whether it needs preliminary legislative scrutiny, as adverted to by Deputy O'Reilly, is a matter for the Oireachtas and the Minister for Health to decide.

Will the Minister define "soon"?

I believe it will be arriving in the next few weeks or in the next few months.

They will be waiting another year. Is that it?

Of course, this is the type of service improvement that has been facilitated by the economic changes that Sinn Féin said would never happen.

They will be waiting another year.

The Minister for Justice and Equality has indicated that legislation is required to enhance the powers of seizure of the proceeds of crime and that it is necessary in the fight against crime, in particular, in the fight against the cartels that exist in this country. Earlier, the Minister indicated that the criminal justice Bill is at an advanced stage. Will the Minister indicate whether these measures will be part of that Bill? Has it been discussed in detail?

We will have to come back to Deputy Ellis on that, but we have already enacted the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill. That may have dealt with some of the matters to which Deputy Ellis is referring.

Since I was elected to the House, and long beforehand, we have been debating the issues of homelessness, lack of housing and fast-tracking housing. When will the housing (miscellaneous provisions) Bill be debated by the House?

It is completing Second Stage in the Seanad. I call on the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, to respond to Deputy Breathnach directly.

He is another leader-in-waiting.

Maybe Deputy Kelleher is auditioning himself. We introduced that Bill in the Seanad yesterday and we finished Second Stage yesterday. I hope Committee and Report Stages will be finished in the Seanad next week and that, therefore, we will be in a position to bring it into the Dáil in the first week in December.

Will the Minister provide the Dáil with an update on the progress of the eagerly awaited bail Bill, please? As the Minister is aware, this legislation is needed urgently.

That is a priority for this session and it is listed for this session.

There is a glaring anomaly in the legislation that covers the primary response agencies in Ireland. There are four primary response agencies: fire services, ambulance services, the Garda and the Irish Coast Guard.

The Irish Coast Guard is the only primary response agency that is not legislated for in this State. When does the Minister propose to correct this anomaly?

It is not proposed to provide further legislation for the Coast Guard. As the Deputy will know better than I will, given the enormously important role the Coast Guard fulfils in his county and constituency, the organisation has a very strong voluntary basis and ethos. We would have to take great care in legislating in the future for the organisation for fear of undermining that approach.

The programme for Government refers to a balanced migration policy and the possible introduction of a residency reform Bill. We are taking hardly any refugees as it stands. In the case of those we have taken, the Minister's Government maintains the scandal of 4,300 people, of whom 1,600 are children, in 34 centres, living in what can only be described as hell. The last Government promised reform in this regard. When will we end the horror of direct provision and realise that in future this State will have to answer to people in the same way it has to answer to those who were in mother and baby homes in the past? When will we end the scandal of people living on €19 per week, not being allowed to cook their own food and not being allowed to work or progress to third level education, which is a slap in the face for young people in particular?

This matter and policy area is being led by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I will ask him to refer back to the Deputy. However, I would have hoped that in her question to me she might have acknowledged the fact that this country has resettled 500 refugees under the Irish refugee programme. This is also the same country and Government that since 2012 has invested more than €60 million in trying to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Over the past 24 months, the people of Ireland have been absolutely fleeced with the cost of insurance: car insurance, house insurance and public liability insurance. Belatedly, in the past number of months, the Government seems to have been promising to take action on this. When can hard-pressed families who have witnessed increases in excess of 100% and even 200% in the cost of their insurance expect relief? When will the committee publish the report? More importantly, when will action be taken?

Why is Fianna Fáil voting to increase health insurance then?

That report will be published early in the new year. This is a project in a very important area that is being led by the Minister of State, Deputy Murphy. He will publish the report then. It will be available to the entire House, and any action Government can take arising from the report which we are confident will make a difference to the rise in premia, to which the Deputy has referred, I am sure will be taken.