The programme for Government and the confidence and supply arrangement include provision for the Government to take action on spiralling costs for families, including in respect of energy, child care, housing and insurance. The consumer price index suggests prices have not changed much. Indeed, if one did not dig deeper into the basic inflation rate figure, it would be very welcome. The reality, however, is that education and health care costs have risen and everybody knows there have been massive increases in fuel costs. This week in the Chamber we discussed the substantial rise in insurance costs. What action is the Government taking, not only to implement the requirements under the programme for Government and the confidence and supply agreement but also to make a real difference for families by ensuring they have a few more quid to spare for other essential items instead of all their money going simply to meet price increases?
Questions on Promised Legislation
The Government has introduced significant changes in this regard. Just this week, we implemented a reduction in prescription charges for persons aged over 70. Some months ago, we introduced rent caps to protect tenants living in areas with high rental costs. We have an action plan on insurance costs which the Minister of State, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is pursuing and which will help to bring down the cost of insurance and make it more affordable. A freeze has been imposed on waste charges in the Dublin city area to protect people from proposed changes that would have imposed substantial difficulties. I will not stray into the area of water other than to say we have suspended charges. The Government's approach in this area has been consistent. We want to ensure not only that we are competitive internationally but also that there is value for money for consumers. The evidence is there that we are succeeding in this regard. Prices are being kept quite tight in this country compared with what is happening elsewhere. We are improving our competitiveness and taking targeted action in areas where Government can make an impact.
The programme for Government includes ambitious plans for the recruitment of additional nurses and midwives. In fact, that undertaking is mentioned in no fewer than five sections of the document. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, is scheduled to take industrial action next Tuesday and while talks are taking place at the Workplace Relations Commission, the proposed action has not been cancelled. We all know this situation has come about as a result of chronic underfunding, dire working conditions and serious issues surrounding pay. Together with the failure to recruit, we now have a crisis of staff retention, with personnel leaving in their droves. Many of us have spoken to nurses who rediscovered their grá for their profession after going abroad for work, where they were treated fairly and enjoyed a proper working environment, compared with the stressful, dire conditions they endured here. What does the Government propose to do to meet the targets set out in the programme for Government? What is the plan to begin the work of addressing the chronic shortage of nurses and midwives in our creaking health service?
We have invested €1.5 billion in our health services, €900 million of that in the past 12 months. This has involved the recruitment of 9,000 extra people in the public service, most of them across medical, nursing and related areas. Notwithstanding that investment, there are continuing pressures on the recruitment of nurses, especially in particular skill areas.
The nurses are going to the WRC, which I welcome, but the Public Service Pay Commission will examine each sector and pressures within same so as to ensure that, as we negotiate a successor to the Lansdowne Road agreement, we address specific problems in public services. We are committed to a good environment for professional workers in our health service within available resources. The public pay commission, coupled with the reinvestment, is the approach that we are taking to deliver that.
The Mahon tribunal completed its work this month five years ago after being established in 1997. One of its key recommendations was to criminalise the making of payments knowingly or recklessly to a third party who intended to use them as bribes. The corruption Bill that was promised from that would enhance the ability of the DPP to bring about prosecutions in that regard. Pre-legislative scrutiny was completed on the criminal justice (corruption) Bill in 2013 and we understand that final drafting has been under way since. When will the Bill be before the House?
I understand that it is on the priority list, but I will have to get details for the Deputy of what work is necessary to complete it.
In 2012, to a barrage of heckling and laughter from the Government's side, I warned during Leaders' Questions that tenement conditions were on the way back to Dublin city. Those conditions have now manifested. Today, the Simon Communities-----
Is this on the programme for Government or legislation?
Programme for Government commitments and legislation on dealing with the housing issue. Today, the Simon Communities have confirmed that none of this situation is necessary because Ireland has the housing stock to deal with the tenement conditions and obscene homelessness. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, is looking into all of these matters, given his comments on compulsory purchases and using empty properties. On foot of the calls from Simon for emergency legislation, is the Government considering, or will it enact, emergency legislation to address this emergency? The Government stumbles on the words.
Time is up, Deputy.
Deputy Howlin raised this question, but perhaps that was before Deputy Boyd Barrett was present. I outlined some of the initiatives that the Government was taking to bring homes back into use, including supporting properties in being repaired for social housing use, the purchase of unoccupied homes by the Housing Agency and the restoration of voids. A detailed survey of vacant homes is to be available within weeks. It will shed light on the reasons for vacancy, where the vacant homes are and whether they can be targeted to be returned to use. The evidence suggests that the rate could be as much as 25% in some parts of the west, but those homes might not be available in the pressure points in the cities.
There are 55,000 in the cities.
We need to see the proper data, but the Minister has a series of initiatives to address the issue. If there is scope for new initiatives, we will assess the views of the Simon Communities.
Regarding the transfer of sentenced persons, the heads of the transfer of execution of sentences Bill were approved in 2013. We are four years on and a number of sentenced prisoners who wish to return to this jurisdiction to complete there sentences are unable to do so because of delays with the Bill. When is the Bill likely to be before the House?
I understand that the work is ongoing in the Department of Justice and Equality, but I do not have a specific date for its introduction.
Regarding the spring-summer 2017 legislative programme and the education (parent and student charter) Bill or any other relevant Bill, will the Minister correct the anomaly whereby a child in a family that qualifies for family income supplement, FIS, does not qualify for a third level grant? I was made aware of this situation by a couple that attended my clinic in Tralee on Monday.
The family currently gets €209 a week in family income supplement. The couple have seven children and the eldest is going to college next year. They contacted SUSI about a grant and were told they did not qualify. Surely, if one Department of the State deems it appropriate to give €209 to help a family to survive in current circumstances, another arm of the State, namely, the Department of Education and Skills should consider it appropriate to provide a grant to educate a child. I urge the Minister to correct that anomaly immediately.
It might be more appropriate to raise the matter by way of parliamentary question.
Deputy Brendan Ryan brought a similar case to my notice and I am arranging for it to be investigated. It may be due to a gap in the legislation, which would require reform. I am sympathetic to the point Deputy Brassil made and we will examine it to see whether we can find a resolution. Perhaps he will give me the details of the case.
I will give the Minister the details of the case.
Could I ask the Minister about the Companies (Accounting) Bill? The Bill will amend the Companies Act 2014 and transpose the EU directive, which will have the effect of making financial disclosure easier for small or medium companies. It will also have a very impactful change on micro companies, which have a turnover of less than €700,000, a balance sheet of less than €300,000 and approximately ten employees. Firms need to know what their accounting requirements are in a clear and meaningful way. I would like to ask when the measure will be expedited.
I understand the Bill is due on Report Stage in the week commencing 21 March. It is priority.
The Bill is on the way.
My question relates to the regulation of rickshaws. Before Christmas the Road Traffic Bill was progressed through the Dáil with a Sinn Féin amendment tabled by Deputy Imelda Munster. Unfortunately, Sinn Féin and the Government rejected the proposed Fianna Fáil amendments tabled by Deputy Troy, which provided a more wholesome regulation of rickshaws. The Minister, Deputy Ross, said he would commission a report from the National Transport Authority on the regulation of rickshaws. The CEO of Dublin City Council, Owen Keegan, said the Sinn Féin amendment will not provide the legislative certainty to regulate rickshaws. Is this a priority for the Government and could it progress legislation on the matter?
As the Deputy said, the Bill was passed by the House and the Minister will consider how the sector can be regulated. I do not have information on the progress that has been made but no doubt there are tricky issues to be addressed. I am sure the Minister will examine Fianna Fáil’s proposals, and Owen Keegan's proposals, to try to find some practical resolution.
The programme for Government commits the Government to develop a coherent policy framework and strategy for the community and voluntary sector. It also commits to increasing funding levels for the community and voluntary sector to move to multi-annual funding. The sector is funded by a range of Departments, including the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, the Department of Health, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Which Minister and Department will take the lead in developing the strategy and the move to multi-annual funding? Could the Minister also confirm when the work will start and what role the Oireachtas will have? Will he give a commitment that the community and voluntary sector will be involved in the development of the strategy?
I am sure the Government is committed to involving the community and voluntary sector in the evolution of policy in the area. As the Deputy is aware, we do have cross-cutting initiatives in rural and regional development under the remit of the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys. Undoubtedly, where they touch on those issues I am sure she will play a co-ordinating role.
I do not have an answer to the question of whether there is a lead responsibility in this area. As the Deputy correctly pointed out, it does span a range of Departments.
There is a clear commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government to equality of access to higher education in terms of supporting an increase in the number of flexible courses and opportunities available. Last week the Castlebar campus of GMIT announced the cutting of four courses at the campus, which clearly represents a loss of opportunity and access to those particular courses. The courses relate to IT, business and heritage. The announcement came at the end of many months of rumours of financial difficulty at GMIT across its four campuses. My question to the Minister is how he plans to address the funding crisis currently being experienced in third level, especially in institutes of technology. The people of Mayo are extremely concerned at the apparent downgrading of the Castlebar campus.
The Deputy raised a range of issues. There is very good progress on equality of access. More people with a disability and more people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are getting into our higher education system but we need to do more in that area. In terms of funding higher level, for the first time this year we committed to €36 million. A funding slope upwards is committed to by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We are also putting in place a working group between the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and me to bring forward proposals for an employer-Exchequer funding mechanism so there are a number of initiatives. In respect of the institutes of technology and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, I recognise that we need to ensure a strong future for the Castlebar campus and work is being done to devise a strong plan for that campus so that it can develop in the future.
Regarding the serious concerns within the Irish Greyhound Owners and Breeders Federation, when will adequate and independent testing for doping and adequate sanction for those found guilty of same be introduced? When will the implementation of the Indecon report take place? When can we expect the Greyhound Industry Bill to come before the House?
I understand that this Bill will go to parliamentary legislative scrutiny this month. I presume those issues will be addressed in the Bill.