Questions on Promised Legislation

We move on now to questions on promised legislation. I have taken a list of names so there is no ambiguity. I will call Deputies MacSharry, Cassells, Nolan, O'Loughlin, Brady, Michael Healy-Rae, Danny Healy-Rae, Martin Kenny, Munster, McLoughlin, Pearse Doherty, Durkan and Eugene Murphy.

When did you take the list, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle?

I took it according as Members indicated after I came into the Chamber. Is Deputy Smith indicating now?

I did not know I could indicate earlier. Is that a new practice?

No, it is a long-standing practice. When I was here many years ago it was the same.

I wish to make an observation. It is my understanding that since last July nobody has got any water bills. Is that correct? I do not think they will get any in the future either. That is just a little observation when all the outrage and rhetoric is made. There was a reason for that.

The programme for Government said funding would be increased for home care packages and home help every year. A research project was carried out, I think by the Health Research Board, HRB, on the overall situation pertaining to resources for home care packages, home help and nursing homes. There was some suggestion that a means test would be introduced for home care. Will the Government fulfil the commitment in the programme for Government to introduce a uniform home care service in order that all recipients can receive quality support seven days a week, where possible? That is in the programme for Government. Is that a real commitment? Could the Minister indicate the follow-up in terms of the HRB report? One of the biggest challenges facing us, thankfully, is that people are living longer in Ireland than did any previous generation but that will require far greater end-stage-of-life interventions, in particular in the form of home care packages, home help and nursing homes. The fiscal side of the House has never quite come to terms with that demographic reality and there is a need for some intervention in that regard to try to marry the two.

I will ask the Minister for Health to respond to Deputy Martin's question on home care packages.

He should confine his response to a minute.

Deputy Micheál Martin made a fair point. We have a commitment in the programme for Government to increase funding for home care packages and home help hours this year and it is our intention to continue that in future budgets. The Deputy is correct that there is a need for a statutory scheme for the delivery of home care. Deputy O'Dea tabled a Bill on the issue a number of months ago. We now have a process in place. The HRB report published yesterday is the first step in that process, whereby we look at what other countries are doing in terms of putting such a scheme on a statutory basis. That will be followed by a consultation scheme, which will be launched in May by my colleague the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. One would hope that the HRB report and the consultation scheme will pave the way for the introduction of such a scheme.

Will the Minister accept Deputy O'Dea's Bill?

We will work with Deputy O'Dea on it. Some issues genuinely arise. One cannot just lift the fair deal scheme for nursing homes and apply it to somebody's home but we are very willing to work to try and find common ground.

I congratulate everybody who campaigned for it and I commend the Minister on the decision to make Orkambi available to cystic fibrosis patients.

Deputy McDonald's microphone is not switched on.

She does not need one.

I do not need one. On 29 April, the Taoiseach will go to the European Council meeting and the guidelines for the negotiations with Britain on Brexit will be agreed. We have raised with the Taoiseach our deep concern about the guidelines, particularly Article 11 which is weak, vague and certainly insufficient. It does not provide the negotiating platform necessary to protect the interests of Ireland North and South.

I am disappointed that time has not been made available for a debate in advance of the Taoiseach's attendance at that meeting. I asked him before about his willingness to accept an amendment to Article 11 and to argue for that. That is what I believe he should be doing. Sinn Féin has formulated a motion in the wording that we believe is necessary to provide us with the kind of protection that the Government, or whoever is Taoiseach, will need to seek in respect of Ireland. Is the Taoiseach willing to accept a proposition for such an amendment to Article 11 to strengthen our position and his position as our negotiator?

I call the Taoiseach.

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, on the same issue and the same matter, the European Council meeting-----

I have to give you permission, Deputy Doherty. You cannot take the liberty because you are well down the list, but providing you make it a very short supplementary-----

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle can correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that it is accepted practice that if a question is on the same issue-----

I was not to know that.

I informed you that it is on the same issue.

The European Council meeting on 29 April is one of the most important such meetings that any Taoiseach will have attended. The fact that Members of this House will not have pre-statements before the Council meeting, which has been standard practice, is an affront. The Taoiseach talks about democracy but this is an affront to democracy. Those statements need to take place on Thursday. Yesterday I presented the Taoiseach with a letter from Deputy Gerry Adams which included our motion.

We have now seen the European Council's draft guidelines, so it is clear to us that whatever initiatives were involved from the Irish Government they have failed. The Taoiseach has failed to secure a veto or the position of this Dáil which is to have a special, designated status within the EU for the North of Ireland. It is of the utmost importance that we should have that discussion so that the Taoiseach is better informed before he goes to that Council meeting about the views of this Parliament in terms of the negotiating stance he has to take.

Will the Taoiseach confirm that we will have pre-European Council statements, as we have had for every single European Council meeting heretofore? We all agree that this is the most important such meeting the Taoiseach will have attended during his time as Taoiseach.

Just in case anybody might think that it is constituency favouritism, I am drawing on convention.

I introduced the situation whereby we have always had statements both before European Council meetings and after them. The meeting on 29 April is not a meeting of the European Council. It is a meeting of 27 members of the European Council. One member is missing, that is, Britain.

That is technical.

Technical or not, it is not a European Council meeting. It is a meeting of 27 countries who happen to be members of the European Council. I am not going to be petty about this. If the House wants to have a discussion on the pre-April 29 situation I am quite happy to do that. I disagree fundamentally with Deputy Doherty, however, because the priorities we have set as a Government for Northern Ireland are all included in the letter from the British Prime Minister. They are specifically referred to in the paper from the European Parliament and are also referred to individually in the paper from the European Council's President, Mr. Tusk.

There are a number of meetings taking place over the next week to ten days. We have submitted some further wording in respect of the Good Friday Agreement, what it means and how important that is to the priorities we have already set out. It is a matter for the House or the Business Committee and I am sure the Chief Whip will oblige. If they want to have statements before the meeting of the 27 member states, I do not mind.

Deputies have been pretty well briefed on this matter and there is absolutely no shortage of material. We are very different from the Gibraltar case, when Deputy Doherty talks about vetoes.

They have one; we do not.

Any change in the status of Gibraltar is a matter between Spain and the United Kingdom. It is nothing to do with the European Union. We have an international and legally binding agreement in respect of Northern Ireland

It is also a bilateral agreement.

We want an opportunity to be able to implement that in full and to have it reflected in the negotiated outcome of the European Council.

The Taoiseach lectured us on democracy.

That is democracy.

In this democracy, the Dáil has spoken.

Deputy, please. I call An Teachta Brendan Howlin.

No, the Deputy cannot.

(Interruptions).

Can I ask if the Taoiseach's office has convened the group that allows for statements to take place tomorrow?

No. There are no supplementaries.

The idea that there would be no statements before this European Council meeting is ridiculous.

That is a matter for the Taoiseach to decide. The Taoiseach has responded.

I accept that the Taoiseach is open to that.

The Taoiseach has responded. Let the Whips discuss that.

I certainly have no difficulty with pre-European Council statements. I think they are the absolute norm and this is a particularly important meeting of the Council. We discuss this matter virtually every day during Leaders' Questions and we have had very good interactions in respect of preparing the ground for these matters. However, I have always been of the view that getting the right start for this country is critical and, as I indicated yesterday, I am concerned.

I want to ask about legislation. We have had much discussion in recent times about oversight and accountability in policing in Ireland, but the Taoiseach will recall that we have had an equally long set of discussions in respect of accountability in the context of the administration of justice in our courts. We have long been promised a judicial council Bill. In fact, if I recall, heads of the Bill were published as far back as 2009. We still have not got that legislation. I am aware that there is parallel legislation on the appointment of judges which is before the justice committee. We still have not seen the heads of that Bill. We have a scheme from Government and we have proposals from the Fianna Fáil party on that Bill that still have to emerge from that committee but, parallel to that, where does the judicial council Bill stand? I presume it is going to be separate legislation.

I have just received the final draft of the judicial council Bill from the Attorney General and I would expect to be finalising it in the next few weeks.

Will it go to Cabinet in the next couple of weeks?

Yes. It will go to Cabinet in the next couple of weeks and, obviously, it will be published after that.

I would like to ask the Taoiseach about the Health and Social Care Professionals (Amendment) Bill 2017 and where it stands. Is there any possibility that we can hurry it up through the various Stages? I know there is an amendment to that Bill that aims to stop bogus pregnancy advice clinics operating. I do not know if the Taoiseach is aware of it, but we have an extraordinary situation where these unregulated clinics remain unregulated as long as they give misinformation and tell lies. They are sometimes abusive towards very vulnerable women who are facing crisis pregnancies and often use the most objectionable methods to frighten women into not taking the option of having an abortion. Despite that, these clinics remain unregulated, whereas those clinics which give factual, proper health information are regulated under the 1995 Act. Some of these clinics were inadvertently funded by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency. We recently saw the exposure of yet another clinic giving bogus information to women in crisis and stressful situations.

We are on promised legislation.

That has to be dealt with urgently. I ask the Taoiseach how much urgency we can put into stopping this happening. It is bad enough that we have the eighth amendment, which forces women into positions like this because they are not able to obtain abortions in this country, but it is a double-whammy to have these clinics operating without regulation.

I will ask the Minister for Health to respond to Deputy Bríd Smith's query.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. We can all agree that this is absolutely disgusting and despicable. I would not even call it misinformation. Women are just being told, in some cases, absolute downright lies.

I call it abuse.

I think that word is also correct. The question that faces this Oireachtas is how to shut these facilities down. I know the Joint Committee on Health has considered Deputy Howlin's Bill. Deputy Howlin has done some very important work on this. I suggest that the most appropriate way is for us to regulate counsellors and psychotherapists and we to make it very clear that if women want to ensure they get accurate advice, they should go to counsellors and psychotherapists who are licensed and registered. That work is already under way. We have had public consultation. We received 84 submissions and I expect to be receiving the recommendations from my Department in the next couple of weeks in relation to that matter.

The Deputy asked what stage the Bill is at. It is a priority for drafting this session.

I remind the House that it is not customary to use the word "lies". I am sure we can find other words.

On page 53 of the programme for Government, it is stated that increases in health budgets were pledged and that this promise has been followed through. It is also stated that the biggest ever allocation for health was provided in budget 2017.

However, in the South/South West hospital group, funding is being sucked dry by County Cork. Kerry is being left subservient to Cork. If this is allowed to continue, University Hospital Kerry will be left as a glorified community hospital because all operations will be taking place in Cork.

A number of months ago, I presented the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, with a programme whereby cataract operations could be undertaken in County Kerry. This plan was agreed with the South/South West hospital group but there has been no movement on the plan to date. Last week, I again reported the case of a man who will go blind under the Minister's watch in County Kerry. That is not right. It should not be allowed to happen.

Does the Deputy have a question on promised legislation or the programme for Government?

We in Kerry are not going to play second fiddle to County Cork when it comes to health. The health of a citizen of Kerry is as important as the health of anyone else. I presented the Minister with a clear plan-----

Thank you Deputy, you have made your point.

-----and I ask him to please act upon it. He has money in the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF. Could he please use it?

I certainly do not want people in Kerry to have a lesser health service than those in Cork or any other part of the country. Very recently, Kerry hospital became only the second hospital in the country to have electronic health records for every baby born in that hospital, which was a significant investment in the hospital.

The issue of cataracts is very important. Deputy Healy-Rae met me about this issue.

The NTPF has received €5 million funding for 3,000 day-case procedures, many of which will be cataract procedures. I expect patients to start getting appointments in Easter week. Where they are carried out is a matter for the public tendering process which is carried out by the NTPF.

Some of the best Kerry footballers were born in Dublin hospitals.

In anticipation of the Taoiseach once again delegating this answer to Deputy Harris, I suggest that Deputy Harris might yet throw his hat in the ring. He seems to be doing a large amount in terms of leadership.

Other Members have welcomed the long-awaited decision on Orkambi. Page 64 of the programme for Government deals with this matter and the Government's use of European initiatives for breakthrough drugs such as Orkambi and others. I will not get back into the quite intemperate contributions from all Members of the House in their frustration over the considerable period they were waiting for this decision to come. We welcome it now and we commend all involved in bringing it about, such as Jillian McNulty, Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, the company itself and others.

However, there is a major problem with the process here. We must look to the European example, such as the early access programme in Germany and France where these breakthrough drugs can be made available immediately while the health technology assessments, HTAs, are being carried out and while the matter is being considered. In comparison, our process is very obscure and lengthy. It goes to the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, NCPE, which seems to take about a year. It then goes to a drugs committee in the HSE which has a complete budgetary focus. Nobody knows who is on that committee. At present, there are 31 drugs lost between the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics and the drugs committee. People's only recourse is Joe Duffy's radio show-----

The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to reply. We have a number of Members waiting to ask questions, Deputy MacSharry.

-----and public protest. That is surely not the way forward.

Deputy MacSharry has raised this matter vociferously on a number of occasions. While I acknowledge the wait has been long for sufferers of cystic fibrosis, what the Minister for Health has done here is quite visionary, in that it is a first in Europe. I hope this process can be followed through with other drugs companies and that we will have portfolios of drugs giving certainty and stability to those who suffer from a range of challenges. That will provide them with the best emotional support in the challenge that they face.

I would like to thank young Aisling, who I met at the protest in Sligo. She presented me with a letter on behalf of all of those who attended who face the challenge of cystic fibrosis. For them and for users of Kalydeco, today is an important day. I hope that from 1 May it will bring an enhanced quality of life for all those people around the country.

I ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to comment on the process that Deputy MacSharry referred to.

No, I call Deputy Cassells. Does the Minister wish to make a comment? You cannot both answer; it should be one or the other.

I only wish to answer the Deputy's question but I do not wish to-----

Many irate Deputies are rightly waiting.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is correct.

It is a one-two.

Deputy MacSharry is correct in what he says about the importance of international collaboration.

In the aftermath of this it would be very useful if we could set aside time in the future to have a debate on how we can collaborate better at an international level.

I raised this matter previously. Section 16 of the programme for Government dealing with local government reform promised a Government report by mid-2017 on measures to boost local government, leadership and accountability. What is the position with the completion of that report and the status of town councils? Following on from a report in The Irish Times this morning quoting the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is the merger of Cork city and county councils and Galway city and county councils still being pursued by the Government, despite the protests of both, which goes against the grain in terms of local democracy?

I thank the Deputy for observing the time.

I will have the Minister, Deputy Coveney, respond directly to Deputy Cassells on the points he has made.

I would appreciate that as I have asked about this previously.

I will have him respond to the Deputy.

Page 48 of the programme for Government states that the Government will act swiftly on the recommendations of the Post Office Network Business Development Group by the development of an e-payment system. I am sure the Taoiseach is very aware of the seriousness of the potential closures of post offices. It is an issue of concern that has been brought to his attention by all citizens of this country. I am aware a protest took place outside his constituency office so I am sure he is acutely aware of it. He has made the point that he has an interest in rural Ireland. If he has an interest in rural Ireland I ask him to protect our post office network, which is vital. The postmasters' union has one simple question, namely, what this Government is doing to protect the future of post offices.

On the same matter, I support what Deputy Nolan has said because the Government put a lot of thought into pages 47 and 48 of the programme for Government on post offices and community banking. It outlines the feasibility of offering Government services in post offices, a renewal process in terms of the existing five-year strategy for the network and a major development of post office services. In terms of what is happening in reality, however, and I have been asking the Taoiseach this question for four months, he is allowing the collapse of the post office service, which might suit the Government.

A question on promised legislation.

People were outside his constituency office in Castlebar. We are told by An Post that 265 post offices are closing. Once and for all will the Taoiseach stand up and give a firm commitment in the House today that this Government is totally committed to the post office service? He must remember that it is not just a rural problem; it is an urban problem as well.

I call Deputy Mattie McGrath on the same issue.

The programme for Government is meant to support the post office network but nothing has happened. It is Spy Wednesday today and tomorrow is Holy Thursday but the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, did a Pontius Pilate on this two weeks ago. He washed his hands of it. Last July, legislation was passed in the House giving statutory instrument powers to the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, in this area but he has washed his hands of it and handed it back to the Minister, Deputy Naughten. I know he will do his best but unless he gets support from the Taoiseach and his Government, the post offices will go down the drain, so to speak.

A question, please, Deputy.

What does the Taoiseach intend to do to fulfil the commitment in the programme for Government? The Rural Independent Group tabled a motion on this issue which was agreed unanimously. The Government accepted the motion, so what is the Taoiseach going to do about it?

The question is who is going to be crucified.

Deputy McGrath has asked the question.

Yes, who is going to be crucified? Will it be the Minister, Deputy Naughten? The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, went off and now all of us will be crucified because we will have no post offices.

We are not sitting on Good Friday. I call Deputy John Brady on the same issue.

He was ahead of Good Friday. He did it two weeks ago. Pontius Pilate.

On the same issue, the Government has sat on the Kerr report for two years. Nine priority actions and 23 recommendations are identified in the Kerr report. It is a classic case of the Government fiddling while Rome burns. In my constituency of Wicklow, two post offices are now closed pending the outcome of this review. We know about the issue of the electronic fund transfer. That is a key issue and one of the main recommendations from the Kerr report and without it being fully implemented and put in place, there will still be an issue in terms of people opting to have their social welfare payment sent to a bank as opposed to a post office. If the Taoiseach is serious about this issue, and I have to take him and his Government at their word that they are serious about protecting our rural post offices and post offices across the State, he would first end the confusion between the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, and the Minister, Deputy Naughten, and act to implement all the recommendations and priority actions in the Kerr report. Will the Taoiseach commit to implementing the actions in the Kerr report and putting in place an electronic fund transfer system?

It is not actually a question on legislation.

I pointed out to Deputy Brady and others that between 2004 and 2010, 345 post offices closed and that there have been 37 closures in the past five years. Two post offices in my area closed quite recently. Both were advertised and consultations took place but nobody wanted to take on the job. It is hard to direct that people would do this. What are we doing about this? On television the other night, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment referred to the national roll out of broadband, which will allow post offices to have access to broadband. We are also actively encouraging people to have their social welfare payments paid at post offices, which is their choice. We support the introduction and roll-out by An Post of the e-payment account. An Post has announced its intention to launch a new payment account from its own resources. It is not seeking Government support for that. We support the model of community banking and this is being processed by the Department of Finance along with the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. We established the feasibility of offering a motor tax service and other social services in post offices. This is being finalised with the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government but will ultimately require An Post to engage in delivery.

I mentioned the report brought forward by the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, regarding hub post offices. Four of those will be rolled out as part of a pilot scheme. We will support the establishment of a post office network renewal process based on the An Post plan over five years. I assure Deputy Brady and others that the Government is fully committed to the post office network. This is not an easy situation to resolve. We want to try to give it as many services as we can.

As we reach the 19th day of the Bus Éireann strike and in light of its devastating effect on public transport, the families of the bus drivers and people at large, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has yet to climb out of his ivory tower to do something about it. My question about promised legislation concerns a group of people who cannot avail of public transport. I refer to those with severe disabilities who are on low incomes. A commitment was made by the Government to provide for a scheme to make individual payments as a contribution towards transport costs for these people. The Government has a role to play in helping these individuals, who are socially isolated and have difficulty accessing so many different types of services. What is the progress in respect of this matter?

I will have to update Deputy O'Loughlin on the progress made there.

Promises were made in the programme for Government that in light of the fact that many rural Garda stations were closed, policing in rural areas would not be compromised. However, we find the Killarney division of An Garda Síochána is very short on numbers. Indeed Ballyduff Garda station, which is located in a town that has experienced of robberies, which was never signalled to be closed and which has had a lot of work done to it, does not have a garda.

Promised legislation.

It was promised that rural policing would not be compromised by the closure of Garda stations. Why is the Government not giving the numbers required to the Killarney division?

I can confirm that there is ongoing recruitment to An Garda Síochána. A total of 800 recruits will enter Templemore this year. The Deputy will have seen the advertisements for 300 Garda reservists and 300 civilians, so there has been ongoing investment by this Government and that which preceded it to ensure we have adequate numbers of gardaí throughout the country. Their deployment is a matter for the Garda Commissioner.

County Louth has seen the highest increase in rents at over 17%. I raised this issue with the Taoiseach several months ago when I asked him to include Louth in the rent pressure zones. It appears that the Taoiseach has not acted on that. I also made him aware that there were over 4,000 people on the housing list in County Louth, that there is a chronic shortage of private rental accommodation and that the little accommodation that is there is either unaffordable to most or landlords will not accept the housing assistance payment. Perhaps the Taoiseach does not give a damn about it. If this is not the case, will he give a commitment here today to include County Louth in the rent pressure zones given that it has the highest increase in rents and will he give a date as to when he will do that?

The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government monitors these things on a regular basis. The special housing unit in the Department has full access to all rent increases, which is why the Minister has already expanded the rent pressure zones. I will bring Deputy Munster's comment to the Minister's attention today.

Could the Taoiseach give me an indication as to the progress in providing full medical cards to all children in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance? This is a major issue in my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim and in south Donegal and west Cavan. When will these children receive these cards?

A total of 10,000 children are involved. That Bill has gone through the Houses so these cards should be on the way. I think a date was fixed for it but it was decided by Government and the Bill has been put through so that should happen very quickly.

I know that the redress scheme for people who were born in mother and baby homes came before the Cabinet yesterday. We had a lot of fine words of compassion here a couple of weeks ago but for many people, what happened yesterday seems to be the opposite. Is the Taoiseach prepared to commit today regarding what he will do to look after these people who were the victims of an abusive situation that was Government policy in the past? What can be done to provide redress to these people, many of whom are getting old and need to see that it is not just a matter of fine words in this Chamber but that the Government will act on their behalf?

This is an interim report. Obviously, it has major implications. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs set out the views of the Cabinet and Government on the report yesterday. The Government is conscious that the commission has made no findings to date regarding abuse or neglect and believes it would not be appropriate to deal with the questions of redress in advance of any conclusions that will be reached by the commission. In addition, the redress scheme that was there was complex to administer and often difficult for applicants. The Comptroller and Auditor reported recently on the 2002 residential institutions redress scheme and highlighted the cost to the State, the diminution in the value of the offers made by the congregations, the need for evaluations and lessons learned. The focus will now be on assisting those who were unaccompanied as children in the mother and baby homes with a view to offering very meaningful supports that will be of genuine and practical value to them. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will consult representatives further about this. We want to do this in a way whereby the State will help and support these people - through the provision of appropriate services - in respect of this aspect of their lives. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs is working with Tusla to support the provision of information to assist former residents who may wish to establish when they resided in a mother and baby home. This might involve very painstaking work on a matter that is obviously very personal for some people who want to find out where their mother was or who she was. Dr. James Gallen from Dublin City University has been asked to assist in the design of a model of transitional justice as a means of giving voice to former residents of mother and baby homes and county homes. The Minister will carry out a scoping review of the commission's existing terms of reference to see if amending them would enhance the existing work and help to resolve related questions.

The Personal Injuries Assessment Board (amendment) Bill is promised legislation that is eagerly awaited by the private and public sectors. What is the anticipated progress of the Bill through the House?

It will not be taken this session. The heads of that Bill are in preparation but I doubt if it will appear before the end of the session.