Leaders' Questions

Teenagers face tremendous pressures as they grow up, in the form of the traditional pressures we all faced adapting to adulthood and exams and the modern day pressure of social media. One of the resources children traditionally had at school was guidance counselling. Mental health issues, self-harm and suicide attempts have all increased in recent years. Guidance counselling was introduced in schools around 1966, a signal time in second level education in this country, and it was made a legal requirement in the Education Act 1998. Guidance counsellors provided appropriate guidance and support to students at second level and since that time the relationship has been mutually beneficial, meaningful and, above all, confidential.

The previous Government made a decision to cut and cull guidance counselling in the infamous budget of 2012. This was a wrong and poorly thought-out decision which led in practice to a reduction of some 51% in the amount of guidance available. What is worse, it hit disadvantaged students and disadvantaged schools even more. In the confidence and supply agreement that Fianna Fáil entered into with Fine Gael we put this as a priority and we wanted the restoration of guidance counselling on an ex-quota basis. We saw the deficit and felt that it needed to be addressed. I had a meeting with the Minister about this and my colleague, Deputy Dara Calleary, had a meeting with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. My party leader also spoke to the Taoiseach about it because there has been a marked reluctance to deal with the issue, despite the fact that it was agreed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the confidence and supply agreement.

This week, the Department has issued a number of circulars relating to teaching posts, including provision relating to guidance counselling, but there is no provision for ex-quota guidance counselling. That has come as a shock to people in the profession but it has also come as a considerable shock to my party, in light of the high priority we have put on this and the number of communications we have had since we agreed this in the confidence and supply agreement. There is no attempt in the circulars to ring-fence guidance counselling and they simply reiterate the position of the 2012 circular that, "Schools should consider how best to align the resource allocation with the objectives of the guidance plan." There is no requirement for a guidance counsellor to be ex-quota. Can the Minister clarify these latest circulars? Will guidance counsellors be employed on an ex-quota basis or will schools be entitled to have an à la carte approach to guidance counselling, contrary to what was agreed in the confidence and supply agreement between these two parties?

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue, which goes to the very heart of making sure that resilience is built in the young people who come through our education system, in a world where there are increasing pressures on them. I assure the Deputy that I am absolutely committed to the agreement we have made to restore guidance counsellors. To date we have restored 400, with 300 this September and another 100 next September. The total restoration will amount to 600.

We are fully committed to that. Not only that, we are also rolling out a well-being programme at junior cycle and committing significant resources to make that a reality. We are increasing the service from the National Educational Psychological Service to support schools in the implementation of policies across the schools to ensure that they provide an environment where young people feel safe, respected, valued and their resilience is built. We have specifically required in our disadvantage plan that disadvantaged schools have proper guidance support provided. We are fully committed to that.

We are also committed to ensuring that the resource of guidance counselling will be ring-fenced within schools and that it will deliver to targets. We will be monitoring the performance of schools in ensuring that adequate support in guidance is provided in every school. I have had a number of meetings about well-being and can say that there is huge energy within the schools, not only to restore guidance, but to build much deeper relationships with groups in the wider community to ensure that the environment within schools is the best possible for supporting young people who are vulnerable to pressures that would not have been in place when I was at school. We are committed to this. In addition, this year, we are providing for open hours so that there would be access to guidance support at a given time every week in every school, so that people could bring issues to someone who is professionally in a position to assist them. This is an area in which I share the Deputy's commitment and we will roll out the service.

Unfortunately, as both the Minister and I know, the issue here is the provision of guidance counselling on an ex-quota basis. The Minister's circulars avoid that issue and say the contrary. We both know about the pressures from certain bodies within the educational sector which are opposed to the provision of guidance counselling on an ex-quota basis. They have got to the Department. There are some people who do not want guidance counselling to be provided on this basis in schools. They want to be able to use a resource for other subjects, which are important, but we have said that guidance counselling is a key issue and must be done ex-quota. The Minister's circulars allow schools to not ring-fence guidance and to provide the hours for other items if they do not value guidance in the same way that he purports to value it. They are required to provide guidance, but they are not required in those circulars to provide guidance counsellors on an ex-quota basis. They are free to use those hours to teach other subjects.

What the Minister has done is in breach of the letter and spirit in terms of what he has said in this House, what has been said in the budget and what is written down in the confidence and supply agreement. Can the Minister confirm that he will re-issue those circulars and include those two words "ex-quota"? They bring a different meaning to the issue of guidance counselling and will mean a much different service in practice for those children and students who need it.

I assure the Deputy that I am at one with him on the need to provide a protected resource, but it has to be within a whole-school policy. The whole school has to be committed to supporting well-being. We have to have measures that show that the school has the proper culture, the proper policies, that it builds relationships with the pupils that are robust, and that the curricular content is adequately delivered across a range of subjects in the well-being area. All of those things have to work together. I am committed to having a protected resource of guidance against which we will be judging progress and I will ensure that all the guidance given to schools ensures that this resource is protected and that it delivers within a coherent programme. I am committed to honouring the commitment that we made between the two parties to restore this vital service and to use it effectively within schools.

On Monday, the workers at Bus Éireann will embark on an all-out strike in an attempt to protect their livelihoods and to protect our public transport network right across the State. They will do so in the face of the refusal by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, to do his job. They will do so in the face of the determination of management and Government to burden workers with the financial responsibility for this crisis, which was created by Government policy and mismanagement.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Minister's Government are putting his privatisation agenda ahead of the needs of the citizens of this State. The plan is the same here as it is with his approach to other vital services such as health, housing and education. The steps are the same in every case - starve the service of investment, implement draconian cuts, foster disputes and inconvenience the public to the point of anger. The model of public ownership is then blamed and the workers are penalised in order to create a false justification for privatisation. The destruction of our public services is an inside job.

The Minister's Government and the Minister, Deputy Ross, are responsible for the shambles that exists in Bus Éireann. The Minister, Deputy Ross, has shown a complete lack of leadership on this issue. The Government is happy to sit on the sidelines and let the chaos unfold. The Taoiseach said this week that both he and the Cabinet fully support the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, the same Minister who acts as if his job description had been written by H.G. Wells - the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, the invisible man of Irish politics.

The Government's privatisation agenda is very clear, but the ordinary workers of Bus Éireann see right through it, as do the people living in rural Ireland. Bus Éireann workers will not allow the Government, the Minister, Deputy Ross, or company management to destroy their livelihoods, dismantle the services they worked so hard to provide and then blame them for the mess that the Government created. It is not an easy thing to vote for strike. Sinn Féin commends those workers on their brave decision. We understand the reasons for that decision. We understand the inflammatory proposals that were put before the workers and we stand fully behind them as they prepare to stand on a picket line next Monday.

The communities of rural Ireland know well by now that the Government is no friend of theirs. The Minister's plan to destroy our public transport network further underlines the great isolation being imposed on people living in rural communities by the decisions taken by his party over the past six years. They will now wonder how they will get to work, to hospital appointments or to visit family. The message to rural Ireland is very clear. The Government has abandoned rural Ireland.

My question is very simple. Will the Minister demand, not ask, urge or suggest, but demand that the Minister, Deputy Ross, get involved in a practical way to see a resolution, or even that he allow his Department to get involved?

This Government is about rebuilding our public services. The reason we are able to do that is because, in the past 12 months alone, we have seen 65,000 extra people back at work. That has provided €1 billion in additional resources for this House to allocate to public services. We are doing that.

In less than two weeks, 800,000 people will get a social welfare increase for the first time in eight years. That includes carers, disabled people, unemployed people and sick people. That is rebuilding our public services. Some €1.5 billion has been reinvested into our health service. Some 250,000 more people are getting operations in our public hospitals now than there were four years ago because we are reinvesting. There are problems because we have had a lost decade in public services, but we are now rebuilding that service. In my area, 5,000 extra teachers and special needs assistants will, between this September and next, be going back into our schools to provide particularly for children with special needs or with disadvantage. We are rebuilding in areas where damage has been done.

When we come to the issue of the public transport service, last year we provided a 21% increase in the subvention to Bus Éireann and other public service obligation bodies. This year, there will be another 11%. That is a one third increase in the investment we are making in the delivery of public services. There is a problem with Expressway. This is an area where Dublin Bus has to go head to head with private competition. It is losing money heavily in that regard and this is an issue at the heart of this industrial dispute. The Deputy asked why the Minister does not intervene. There has been a very long history in Ireland of Ministers not politicising industrial disputes. We have very professional services in the Workplace Relations Commission that support the resolution of even the most intractable dispute.

Those are the professional services that should be used. It is not by accident that we protect those services from political interference, because their very effectiveness depends on them not being undermined by politicians.

This is a difficult area, but on every front we are doing what people are saying needs to be done. We are increasing the subvention for public services, reconsidering the contract for social welfare customers and we are ensuring that the National Transport Authority will be available if a rural service needs to be restored. It will stand available to provide that on a new basis as a public service contract.

This dispute centres on an area where, under law, subvention cannot be given to Expressway, which is competing head-to-head with private sector providers. That is the law of the land, which the Minister is correctly observing. We need to try to find a resolution and I urge the parties to return to the very experienced people in the WRC to seek a resolution to this dispute and protect people who depend on services.

Our public transport subvention is the lowest in Europe. I am blue in the face listening to the Minister, Deputy Ross, and Government representatives saying that this is an industrial dispute. For the past five months, the Government has been asked repeatedly to engage with all of the stakeholders, including the NTA, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Bus Éireann management and the unions, but has repeatedly refused to do so. This was long before strike action was called. We are now four days out from an all-out strike in our public transport network. The Government is still refusing to engage with stakeholders or demand that the Minister engage with the stakeholders involved to find a resolution to the crisis.

There are two clear Government policies that have become apparent over the past while. The first is the race to the bottom for workers' rights, pay and conditions. The second is the outsourcing and privatisation of our public transport network. How any Government in its right mind could stand over those two issues is beyond belief. Given that we are facing all-out strike action on Monday and disruption across the public transport network, will the Government demand that the Minister, Deputy Ross, appear from wherever he is hiding and become involved in the negotiations?

By no means are we involved in a race to the bottom. There has been an 11% increase in employment, which means that 200,000 people are back at work and 200,000 extra pay packages are going into family homes. Those pay packages are larger than they were in 2011. Not only have we more jobs, but also higher wages. That is because of the successful policy implemented by this and the previous Government. It was a policy which Sinn Féin opposed at every opportunity. The policy has been successful and is rebuilding wage levels, jobs and enterprises. We are ploughing that money back into public services.

As I said, we have increased the subvention for public transport by 33%. We are putting money back into delivering public services. In terms of this dispute, the WRC is the professional body that needs to bring the two parties together to try to find a resolution to the differences. That is the approach that will resolve this dispute.

Today the Simon Community said it is unacceptable that 198,358 homes lie empty in Ireland, a number that will shock most people. In stark terms, that means that 13% of the total housing stock is vacant. According to answers to parliamentary questions received by my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, the group established to compile a register of vacant units and set out actions to bring them into use is due to report at the end of the first quarter of this year. Work is progressing too slowly on this very important issue. There seems to be a lack of understanding of the urgency of these matters.

As the Minister knows, the previous Government put a record amount of money into housing, which the current Government has been able to increase, but it appears that there is a distinct lack of delivery.

Projects have been announced but little progress seems to be happening on the ground. In November, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, promised work would begin on 350 units of modular housing by the end of 2016, but so far only 22 have been completed and they were all started by the last Government. Instead of building homes, it appears that local authorities are buying properties, which does nothing to increase supply.

Last August, the Labour Party proposed an eight point plan to tackle this specific issue of vacant houses. This morning the Simon Community launched its own ten point plan. Like the Labour Party, it calls for a vacant housing register that would see a real-time database with formal communication and data-sharing structures between relevant bodies. Like the Labour Party, it believes that more needs to be done on the vacant site levy. Sadly, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined to vote down a Labour Party Bill that would have achieved that last year. Both my colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, have called for more money to be allocated to the Housing Agency's vacant housing purchasing initiative. Will this happen? Will the Government allocate more money now or do we have to wait for the capital review to be completed? Will the Government speed up the audit so that urgently needed accommodation can be provided from vacant units while so many people are in squalid conditions and looking for houses?

I assure the Deputy that the work on a register of vacant units is under way and at an advanced stage and the register will be available within weeks. This will mean that a much better database will be available. As Deputy Howlin noted, the Simon Community has found a very high vacancy rate. This was not unknown to those other than the Simon Community. The vacancy rate is 13% but it is only 6% in Dublin, so the area with the most acute pressure does not have the same high vacancy rate. The Government's programme is very clear and a series of initiatives have been taken, including the buying back of vacant properties by the Housing Agency. A target of 1,600 was set in that regard. Last year the city council brought back into use its 1,000 voids and there is a target of 3,500 for repair and hand over to local authority of HAP leases. Active work is ongoing in this area.

The Deputy raised the wider issue of whether there is enough activity on the ground. I think we are beginning to see it. This week the Minister published 90 schemes where 1,800 social units are under construction and 504 schemes that involve 8,500 social units are now in the pipeline. These will be advanced rapidly under the pressure the Minister is applying. The homeless HAP, which allows for an uplift in the rent supplement and has a target of accommodating an additional 1,200 homeless families, has been very successful. It exceeded its expectation last year and it is hoped it will do so again. The rapid building initiative is continuing. As noted by Deputy Howlin, 350 units are under construction and 650 will be added to the list this year. This is being pushed ahead.

The Minister is responding on every front and continues to be open to new initiatives. The initiatives that have been proposed by the Simon Community will be examined by the Minister to see if there are elements to them that could be implemented.

I am not accusing the Government of not having a strategy. The problem is that we do not see the progress and this is causing alarm. It is as if the Government is pulling rubber levers to no effect. Nothing is happening on the ground. The Minister is right that we did much work to bring back voids and that was a successful initiative, but now we need the same approach to vacant houses. We cannot in good conscience allow a situation to stand where there are 27 vacant homes for every person in emergency accommodation. We need to identify those homes and ask why they are vacant. Can we bring them back? Can we incentivise those who own them or are in possession of them to bring them back? That is the sort of concrete measure that we need. Is the Minister of the view that the strategy is working fine and that everything is on course or do we need to up our game significantly to ensure that the crushing social issue of our time is properly addressed?

The Government firmly believes this issue must be addressed. The housing strategy, which is barely six months old, is a major priority. The Government has provided €5.5 billion in investment for housing and given a commitment to 47,000 social homes in the next five years. A range of initiatives is under way across the housing sector, including those to which the Deputy specifically alluded. The database will ask why houses are vacant to try to identify policy initiatives that could be taken. The Minister has provided an incentive to bring such houses back into use and has set a target of bringing 3,500 of them back into use specifically for social purposes. These proposals are being implemented.

The homeless housing assistance payment has been identified to give a 50% uplift in rent supplement, specifically to bring homeless people into rental accommodation and give them an opportunity to access the payment. This measure is working.

It has nothing to do with supply.

While we would all like more houses to be built, it is encouraging to note that statistics on housing starts show they increased by 50% in 2015. There is clear evidence that the number of planning permissions has increased, as has the number of works commencing on site, both for social and private housing. However, we must accelerate progress in this area. No one in government denies that we have a very serious problem in housing and considerable effort has been focused on delivering action in this area against strict timelines. We are open to other proposals that could be implemented.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality was no doubt highly impressed by the speed and efficiency with which Mr. Justice Charleton commenced the proceedings of the disclosure tribunal earlier this week. She probably hoped this would allow her to put the Garda controversies behind her but sadly that is not the case because the disclosures by Garda whistleblowers are only one aspect of the serious questions regarding An Garda Síochána. The Minister is aware of five other pending statutory inquiries into Garda negligence and malpractice. In 2002, we had the tragic death of Shane Tuohey after a night out. The Garda investigation into Mr. Tuohey's death was flawed and his family was targeted. Patrick Nugent, a 23 year old banqueting manager in Bunratty Castle, died horrifically after a function at which off duty gardaí were in attendance. The inquest into Mr. Nugent's death and internal Garda inquiries have led to further questions. Another case involves 24 year old John Kelly from Tallaght who drowned in Dublin's docklands after screaming for 30 minutes while gardaí stood back. Another case is that of James Clancy, a man in his 80s, who was killed after being dragged along a road by a truck. Documents subsequently went missing and the driver of the truck was never found. In all of these cases, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality has refused to engage with Kevin Winters, the legal counsel for those who are seeking information on the terms of reference of the inquiries and wish to ensure they are compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the meantime, the Tánaiste has engaged with the Policing Authority, which is not an alternative to including victims in the process. More important, why has the Policing Authority, which has the power to demand the convening of such inquiries, not done so? The reason is that, despite all of the Tánaiste's bleatings about dealing with reform and Garda oversight, these issues have not been addressed. Unless she addresses the question as to who is guarding the gardaí, these problems will continue.

Members of the Policing Authority were hand-picked by the Government and the authority was structured in a manner that would ensure it was subservient to government. Its first test was the appointment of new assistant commissioners, for which there were 31 applicants. On the date the Oireachtas signed off on the terms of reference for the inquiry into allegations of misconduct by the Garda Commissioner, we found out that the very same Commissioner had nominated herself to be on the selection board for the assistant commissioner positions. Nobody on the Policing Authority or in government had any problem with this decision, about which we sought information and eventually received confirmation. We then learned that the position had suddenly changed between Monday and Tuesday of this week and the Garda Commissioner would no longer be on the selection board because she was a bit busy. She had, however, appointed her loyal sidekick, Dónall Ó Cualáin, an individual who is involved in a number of these cases, to the selection board. This is an absolute joke. How, in God's name, can the Commissioner continue to influence vital decisions regarding the future of An Garda Síochána when she is under serious investigation? What is the point of a Policing Authority that can and will do nothing to exercise its independence?

I have some other brief questions for the Tánaiste.

Will the Minister, Deputy Bruton, ensure that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality will engage immediately with the legal counsel of the people in the statutory inquiries? Will he accept that the position of the Garda Commissioner is untenable and that she should be asked to step down and will he move immediately to bring in the legislative reform necessary for proper democratic oversight and accountability of An Garda Síochána?

I thank Deputy Daly for her questions. We have an inquiry in place that is looking at the most serious issues involving Garda management. I do not propose to comment on the validity or otherwise of the allegations being made. Mr. Justice Charleton has been very clear that this inquiry is not about taking sides, rather it is about getting to the truth. On completion of his work, Mr. Justice Charleton will make recommendations based on what is drawn from these specific disclosures. That is as it should be. Let the cards fall where they may when that work is done.

It is important that in the last number of years we have been moving in this House, across all parties, to turn over stones that were left unturned in this country for many years. In the Garda area, we now have a much stronger Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, whistleblowers' legislation and a Policing Authority that is independent, all of which is turning over stones. Deputy Daly is correct in that there are allegations emerging that nobody could be happy with but they are being investigated by, in one case, a tribunal and, in other cases, by a much strengthened Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. There is now whistleblowers' protection legislation to give people the protection to come forward with their concerns.

I cannot stand here as judge and jury in the case of these allegations. These are issues to be addressed, either by Mr. Justice Charleton in the tribunal or by GSOC. It is not for politicians to make those decisions. The Policing Authority has said that it will monitor the conduct of the tribunal in terms of the capacity of the Garda Commissioner to continue to do her job. It has also been very clear that the Garda Commissioner has not been found guilty of anything. She strenuously denies the allegations that are before the tribunal and she will have an opportunity in the tribunal to deal with those issues.

In regard to specific legislative changes in the future, we have to wait to see what emerges from the various investigations but the Government will act, as it has in the past, to introduce changes should they be found to be necessary. I cannot answer the Deputy's question on legal counsel because I am not briefed on the specific issues in regard to the request made to the Minister for Justice and Equality or on whether the Minister for Justice and Equality is the appropriate person from whom information would come in those cases. I will communicate with the Deputy on that question.

I will await a response from the Minister to that question.

The Minister's utterances on reform and accountability are belied by the experience on the ground. We do not have proper oversight, and that is not only my view. Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring, the chairperson of GSOC, has demanded increased legislative powers supported by the justice committee precisely because we do not have proper oversight. We do not have an independent Policing Authority. A policing authority that sits still in the midst of the biggest crisis surrounding policing in our State and has no problem with the Garda Commissioner sitting on a selection board that will dictate the culture of the Force and senior appointments into the future is a big problem. The fact that we do not have these bodies is precisely why we have six inquiries going on. We will have six more, and six more again, unless the Government addresses the fundamental issue here. That could have been addressed four years ago when Deputy Wallace brought forward legislation for a proper oversight independent policing authority. What we recommended then was an independent board, greater scope around appointment of the Garda Commissioner, deputy Garda commissioner and assistant Garda commissioners, powers to remove same and a real role that would deliver proper and genuine accountability. The Government cannot keep running away. This legislation is long overdue. When are we going to see it?

To be fair, there has been a huge amount of legislation in this area, no doubt partly in response to issues that have been raised by Deputies Daly and Wallace and by others. There is change occurring. We did not have an independent Policing Authority before. The effectiveness of the authority can be seen already in terms of gardaí being publicly held to account for their work.

We have much stronger GSOC legislation in place, but if there is a need to reinforce it, that will be done. We have protections in place for whistleblowers to encourage people to come forward with their issues, and the legislation is strongly designed to ensure those cases are taken seriously, handled independently and the person's privacy is protected.

We are on a journey of reform and I do not pretend the journey is finished. The work continues to evolve and I am sure the tribunal will have recommendations for the future. This House will have to listen to those recommendations and make a collective decision as to what changes should occur. That is the role of this House. However, we must allow the tribunal to do its work of identifying the sources of problems, if they exist, before coming back to the House within nine months, as we have asked it to do, so we can see what action needs to be taken on foot of these very serious allegations.