Questions on Promised Legislation

The programme for Government is clear that the Government will provide ongoing support for Tusla in delivering targeted intervention services and that it will also support the increased use of therapeutic intervention services for children. The report published yesterday by the Children's Rights Alliance makes for very stark reading in terms of children's lack of access to therapeutic services. In particular, according to the figures, up to 7,000 children under the age of 17 years are awaiting an appointment to see a HSE psychologist. What is more worrying is the failure of children in many parts of the country to access child and adolescent mental health services and multi-disciplinary services, particularly speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy. I put it to the Taoiseach that the waiting lists and the lack of accessibility are evidence of the lack of delivery of a key part of the programme for Government to meet the needs of children.

I note the publication yesterday of the Children's Rights Alliance score card, which shows an improved performance by the Government in its view, moving us from a D, a bare pass, to a C minus which I suppose is a bare honour and nothing to be celebrated. However, it is certainly encouraging that the Children's Rights Alliance believes the overall performance of the Government in the case of children is moving up rather than down the ranks.

In respect of child psychology services, the Government acknowledges that far too many children have to wait far too long to see a psychologist to get the help they need. For a parent, any wait, even a short one, causes great anxiety, while a long wait causes enormous anguish. It is for that reason that an extra €5 million has been invested in child psychology services and it is making a difference. If we look at the figures from July 2017, we will see that 6,850 children were waiting for psychology services. By the end of 2017, that number had fallen to 6,300. We are, therefore, seeing it move in the right direction. This has largely been done through the recruitment of 414 assistant psychologists because, as is often the case in health care services, the system was wrong. People were being referred straight to specialists-----

I am afraid that we do not have time to count all of them.

We are making a systemic change.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government that the Government wants to have thriving communities in urban and rural Ireland. For one rural community that had to make the long journey from the farthest offshore inhabited island in the State, Tory Island, to the gates of Leinster House, that commitment does not ring loudly because of a Government decision to provide a ferry service using a vessel that is 42 years old. That community is now under attack from a Government that is supposed to be caring for and nurturing it. What will the Taoiseach say to the six families who are saying they will leave the island if that is the ferry service that will be provided for them on 1 April? What will he say to the mothers and the fathers who say it will not be safe to take their children out to the island on this service? How will he ensure we will have a fit-for-purpose service serving that community? Will he meet the islanders who have made their way from Tory Island to Leinster House to speak to politicians? Will he make available five or ten minutes of his time today to meet them to listen to their genuine concerns?

Unfortunately, I will be unable to meet them today. As the Deputy is aware, I will be in the Chamber for the next number of hours, after which I have appointments that were made six and seven weeks ago which I cannot cancel. I am informed by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht that it ran an open tender competition for the service in accordance with public procurement rules. Two tenders were received and evaluated and the contract was awarded to Réalt na Maidne Teoranta using its vessel MV Queen of Aran. The new contract is to begin in April.

The Department has had extensive engagement with the island representatives and is happy to continue that engagement as part of its ongoing commitment to support island communities. The island community is not happy with the proposed vessel and has requested that it be a condition of the new contract that the duration of the journey should be no longer than 30 minutes. While this vessel is older than the one currently used, it is undergoing a full refit-----

-----in consultation with the Marine Survey Office which has statutory responsibility for the safety of passenger vessels in Ireland. The Department has no reason to believe that the vessel-----

-----will not be awarded a passenger certificate by the MSO when it has had its total refit.

Yesterday's report showed rents at an all-time high. Apparently, a Minister believes there are plenty of places to rent at a fraction of the cost. Apparently, the advice the Government is now offering to renters facing record increases is to hunt for bargains in other parts of the city. This is of little benefit to those in the rental market who are losing tenancies as landlords seek to renovate or sell, because they have to look for places to rent at full market prices. Even those in rent pressure zones are being put under huge pressure by landlords to accept increases above the 4% threshold.

The Government has repeatedly promised that the powers of the Residential Tenancies Board would be strengthened. This is an emergency, certainly for those desperately anxious to keep a roof over their heads. There is no sense of urgency from Government. When will the residential tenancies (amendment) Bill be published?

There are two pieces of legislation to strengthen the Residential Tenancies Board. Both are priority legislation and I hope to bring them to Cabinet in the coming weeks to publish as quickly as possible. The report tells us what we already know: that rents are rising. However, it is not as complete as the data we get from the Residential Tenancies Board, which is a much larger dataset. Also, the report gives the asking price and not the actual rents registered.

The third quarter report from the RTB indicates that the rents registered are lower. Between the second quarter and the third quarter the RTB residential rent index shows an increase in the number of tenancies registered. The point being made yesterday is that it is not clear from the data if the increase in the average rent prices being asked is as a result of new tenancies being created or if it is as a result of other factors in the market. We are working on that with the RTB. The priority legislation will give the board the tools to be able to drill down into the data more quickly.

Does the Minister have any idea when?

The Minister of State said yesterday that there are rental properties available in our cities at a fraction of the cost quoted in the headlines. I agree that there are, if people are prepared to share a converted hot press with four other people. The Minister has just told the House that the residential tenancies (amendment) Bill will be published this session. However, will the Bill recognise that the rent pressure zones are not working and propose real rent controls, or will the Government yet again be dancing a jig to the landlords' tune?

The RTB price index reports for the first three quarters of 2017 show a dampening effect on rent inflation when compared with rent inflation in Dublin in 2016. When considering rent inflation, it is important not to look at national inflation but at inflation in the RPZs. As was stated in the Dáil yesterday, we do not yet have 12 months' data from the RTB for Dublin, all of which is an RPZ. When we have that information, we will be better able to understand what is happening with RPZs and how effectively they are working. Of course, we have recognised some deficiencies, for example, substantial refurbishment being used as a loophole to get around the rent cap. I am addressing that in the priority legislation I mentioned to Deputy Howlin. There will be legal consequences for landlords who try to get around that law.

Despite what has gone on here today with the national planning framework and broadband last week, the programme for Government is specific in its support for rural Ireland. However, I do not know what is going on in the Cabinet room, especially when I read reports today about the latest proposals of the Minister, Deputy Ross. I see opposite me the Ministers, Deputies Naughten, Flanagan, Humphreys and Creed, all of whom represent rural constituencies. The latest bizarre proposal is to lock up the parents of any L plate driver, a son or daughter or anybody else, or if they are driving a tractor. This includes a buachailín trying to learn to feed the cows that the Government will not pay the farmers for. What is going on? What will be next? It is proposed to criminalise ordinary decent families and force them to get into their car every day to accompany their L-plate driver. I am all for restrictions to assist in road safety. I sympathise with the relatives of those who have lost lives as a result of L-plate drivers, but this is bizarre. Someone needs to rein in the Minister, Deputy Ross, lock him into the house in Wicklow where he lives and keep him away from the rural people. He has a vendetta against rural people. I am shocked at the other Ministers.

Does the Deputy have a question on promised legislation?

The question is as follows. Where is the rural proofing? What are we trying to do? Criminalise parents and criminalise all the people of rural Ireland? We do not have Luas, buses, DART or all the other things.

All right, Deputy.

The Government cannot even get the new Luas across O'Connell Bridge. It does not know what it is doing. Ministers are in a cocoon inside in the Cabinet room.

I thank the Deputy.

I do not know what kind of water they are drinking or what medicine they are on, but this is bizarre, daft and unworkable, and an attack on rural Ireland.

Taoiseach, Minister-----

I call the Minister for Justice and Equality on behalf of rural Ireland.

Please, come on.

I say to Deputy Mattie McGrath, all other rural Deputies and everybody that rural Ireland is being very well looked after by the current Government.

It has a funny way of doing it.

Only platitudes for rural Ireland.

It has been levelled at the Taoiseach that he is a Dublin Taoiseach-----

I am asking where the Minister, Deputy Flanagan and his colleagues are.

-----unlike some of his predecessors. His first act on appointment as Taoiseach was to appoint a dedicated Minister for Rural and Community Development, with a budget-----

What about the post offices?

-----and ambition and energy in the person of the Minister, Deputy Ring.

The Government could not wait to get rid of post offices.

The national development plan, which is being launched on Friday, will contain much for rural Ireland.

He looked after the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, too when he had the foreign affairs brief.

Please, Deputy Mattie McGrath.

The Taoiseach will recall from his time as Minister for Social Protection that there is a serious need for protection for people in defined benefit pension schemes to prevent their employers winding up the schemes and walking away. This kind of practice is not allowed elsewhere and should not be allowed here either. At the time, the Taoiseach did not avail of the opportunity to introduce that legislation, but he said that it would be coming. Last summer the current Minister promised legislation to close the loophole, but it has not materialised. Where is that proposal and when will we see the legislation?

There are some difficulties with that legislation and I am sure the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection will be happy to explain them to the Deputy. As is so often the case with legislation in this House, they relate to potential unintended consequences that could seriously impact on people's pensions and their jobs. The Minister will be able to speak directly to the Deputy about that.

Given the emphasis, rightly, on avoiding any regulatory alignment changes between the North of Ireland and the South, is the Government aware that the Utility Regulator in Northern Ireland has just issued a consultation paper making a decision that Northern Ireland should cease to participate in the harmonised retail market systems arrangement? We had introduced a harmonised electricity retail market. That will now be broken with two different markets developed. I understand that is because ESB Networks is seeking a freeze on any innovation on use in the retail market while smart meters are introduced here. However, the unintended consequence is that we are moving to a two-market situation with a move to regulatory non-alignment. What does the Government intend to do? Is it aware of the issue? Is it considering taking any measures to try to protect regulatory alignment?

I am not aware of the publication of that report, but we will be taking note of it. As the Deputy knows, it is a policy objective of the Government to have a single electricity market on the island. That has been reiterated by both Governments after the result of 23 June 2016.

Page 54 of the programme for Government states "We will ... significantly reduce the cost of medicines". How does this marry up with the 25,000 people who have been affected by the removal of the Versatis patch from all drugs payment and medical card schemes? These people are suffering from chronic pain, chronic nerve pain, including people with fibromyalgia and other types of pain they will have to live with for the remainder of their lives. On 12 December the Taoiseach told me this was a decision made by the HSE.

In the programme for Government, the Government stated it would reduce the cost of medicines. There has been a campaign in recent weeks in which people have highlighted the pain and suffering they are going through. What will the Government do for these genuine individuals who are in serious pain?

The cost of medicines has been reduced. Prescription charges for medical card patients under the age of 70 years were reduced in January and those who do not have medical cards who obtain medicines under the drugs payment scheme had the cost reduced in January by €10 a month. We intend to continue to reduce the cost of medicines for persons with medical cards and those who do not have them as the years pass. On the specific medicine referred to, the medicines management programme, a HSE programme which ensures medicines are used for the correct indications, has a system which it is only supposed to be prescribed for the treatment of shingles, but if it is being prescribed to treat non-shingles cases, people can apply for approval.

Building extra capacity in emergency departments is addressed on page 58 of the programme for Government. At University Hospital Kerry the procedure is such that one has to go through the emergency department to have an X-ray, even if someone has a letter from his or her general practitioner, GP, to go directly to the X-ray unit. A 95 year old woman who presented there last week had to wait eight hours to go through a doctor in the emergency department. It is duplication, for which there is no need. To give another example, Bantry General Hospital has an X-ray unit. If someone has a letter from his or her GP, he or she can go straight in and have an X-ray taken. Will the Taoiseach ask the HSE to deal with this issue because it would practically halve the queue in the emergency department at University Hospital Kerry if it was to operate under guidelines where, if a person had a letter of referral from a GP to the X-ray unit, he or she would not have to go through the emergency department?

I am afraid that I do not know exactly what policies and procedures are operated at University Hospital Kerry in Tralee. There are plenty of hospitals in Ireland that accept direct referrals from GPs to the X-ray unit. I am not sure why it is not the case in Tralee.

Moore Street is the birthplace of the Republic. The buildings and surrounding streets offer a real, physical connection between our generation and the men and women of 1916. Located just off O'Connell Street, the area offers a real opportunity to build a vibrant, historic trading quarter. However, it is derelict owing to the Government's decisions and has been sterilised by years of court cases. The former Minister, by her appeal, stripped Moore Street of its national monument status, possibly opening it to massive commercial development by a British builder. A judgment today states that it is a matter of policy and that this Legislature could identify the full Moore Street battlefield site as a national monument. Will the Taoiseach get the Minister to do that? If not, we on this side of the House will do so.

I think that case is before the courts.

The judgment was issued today.

I have not seen or read it.

I have been given a copy of the judgment which states it is a matter of pure policy for the Legislature.

It will study the matter.

We would like to read the judgment for ourselves.

On page 28 of the programme for Government, the section on transport states, "We will promote higher urban densities in terms of housing design, particularly in public transport corridors, through a new National Planning Framework". Given that large areas of my constituency of Dublin South-West are increasingly high density, people living in them find themselves sandwiched between the red and green Luas lines without a public transport corridor. Does the Taoiseach agree that it is well past time, given that the green and red Luas lines are now connected in the city centre, that a feasibility study was carried out of connecting the two lines on the south side to serve areas such as Rathfarnham, Firhouse, Old Bawn, Templeogue, Scholarstown, Knocklyon and Ballycullen?

That is a matter for the National Transport Authority to consider. There is a National Transport Authority greater Dublin area plan for public transport which it is due to review again before the end of 2021. Proposals for new lines will be appraised in that context.

I refer to page 60 of the programme for Government which addresses waiting lists for hospital procedures. While I do not expect the Taoiseach to answer about a specific case, I have a constituent who has been given an MRI appointment for May 2019. Is that acceptable in the Government's opinion? Is there anything it can do for this constituent and many others who have received similar appointments? I have another constituent who has been waiting for over a year for an angiogram and suffered a serious heart attack while on the waiting list. It is surely unacceptable for this to be the case. Surely somebody in government needs to rattle a few cages in the HSE to make appointments happen? The constituent who is waiting for an MRI scan has Parkinson's disease and, as I understand it, the MRI scan is needed to further assess him. He is an elderly man who needs the appointment. It is unacceptable to leave people like him languishing on waiting lists.

I am sorry to hear that the Deputy's constituents have been waiting for so long for investigations. It is not possible for me to talk about individual cases, but I am sure that if the Deputy raises them with the Minister for Health and the HSE, they will give him a full answer.

Legislation passed in December to deal with the issue of equal pay for entrants to the teaching profession called for a report to be commissioned within three months. I understand the report is to bring forward details of the cost and a plan to work towards pay equalisation. It is unacceptable that post-2011 entrants to the teaching profession will experience a loss over their career of between €53,000 and €105,000. I ask that something be done about this. The teachers do their best in schools, but morale is low. It is having a detrimental effect on the teaching profession. It undervalues the profession and leads to a situation where we cannot retain or recruit teachers. I ask for an update on the report. Will there be an opportunity to debate it? I sincerely hope there will.

I do not have an update on the report, but I understand that, as part of the public service stability agreement, there is an agreement which is due to take place with the unions on the matter.

On page 96 of the programme for Government, in the section on justice, equality and law reform there is a commitment to increase Garda numbers. I acknowledge that it is happening and that the Garda College in Templemore is open, but I am concerned about the future of the traffic corps, in which in 2011 there were 940 members. In 2016 that number had declined to 669 and in 2017, to 643. In my constituency, Roscommon-Galway, the number was down by 23%. It was down by 32% in Longford-Roscommon and 32% in Sligo-Leitrim. Traffic corps numbers have reduced significantly everywhere. There are speed vans all over the place, but the Minister and the Taoiseach know that a speed van will not detect a suspicious vehicle. How many times in the past did the traffic corps intervene with such vehicles carrying people going to cause damage to homes or rob property? Will the Government increase the numbers in the traffic corps? Will it, please, take this issue on board as a matter of urgency?

The Deputy will be aware that the distribution of Garda numbers and allocations to specialties are matters for the Garda Commissioner. However, the Deputy will be pleased to hear of an increased number of gardaí in his constituency, Roscommon, in line with the national programme for Garda recruitment which will see a further 800 gardaí recruited this year, many of whom will be stationed in Roscommon, across rural Ireland and the Dublin metropolitan area. My ambition and the Government's target is to have a Garda service with 21,000 members by 2021, which will include 15,000 sworn members of An Garda Síochána, 4,000 civilian members and increased numbers in the Garda Reserve, up to a complement of 2,000. I assure the Deputy particular consideration will be given to the point he has raised. I am sure members of the Roscommon Joint Policing Committee are actively engaged in making strong representations on behalf of local communities to the local chief superintendent.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to building capacity in our hospital system. Yesterday, there were 37 patients on trolleys in Letterkenny University Hospital, 34 the day before and 5,000 throughout last year. I have raised this issue previously with the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and the Health Service Executive, HSE. The needs of Letterkenny University Hospital and the patients of Donegal have been continuously ignored and there have been no answers forthcoming. When I raised this issue last week with the Taoiseach he suggested I raise it as a Topical Issue matter or a parliamentary question. When I table parliamentary questions on whether, and when, funding will be provided to Letterkenny University Hospital they are referred by the Minister for Health to the HSE which, in turn, refers them to Letterkenny University Hospital for answer. Will the Taoiseach take control of this issue and ensure the needs of the patients of Donegal are no longer ignored. While beds have been opened in other parts of the country no beds have been opened in Donegal, which also needs them. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment today that he will address this issue and deliver beds for Letterkenny University Hospital?

I made some inquiries about this issue. As the Deputy has acknowledged 170 additional beds have been opened across our hospitals so far this with, with plans for more to be opened during the course of this year. The HSE, in appraising where new beds will be opened or not be opened, examines need, cost and the ability to staff them. I will not be taking it into my hands to determine exactly where beds should be located across our health service. That would not be practical.

Last week was responsible gambling week. The gambling control Bill is important legislation dealing with a comprehensive licensing and regulatory framework for gambling. In an industry that is developing very quickly, with many new technologies ahead of pace, it is important that we have in place a regulatory system that will aid and assist those who suffer from problem gambling and address issues relating to advertising and so on. I would welcome an update on the status of this legislation?

I am sure that the Taoiseach is aware that we have the highest gambling losses in the world per head of population and the third highest for online gambling. I believe there is a hidden problem that we need to shine a light on. We have learned from our discussions on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill that when we shine a light on an issue people feel able to come forward. The gambling control Bill was first mooted in 2013. Five years on, can the Taoiseach indicate when we will have an opportunity to debate it and to highlight many of the issues that we would be aware of from our constituency clinics?

A lot of work has been done on the Bill in the past 12 months. The legislation is with the Attorney General to provide for a number of specific changes to the current antiquated Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956 and I expect it will be published soon.

On the broader issue of gambling, this is a complex and evolving area of policy. We have carried out a lot of research in this area. On 10 January, I briefed Cabinet on the legislation and the Government approved proposals to make changes to the 2013 scheme of the gambling control Bill. The main changes are to establish an independent regulatory authority for the gambling industry. Under the 2013 approach the Minister was the regulator. This change in line with international best practice. A change is also being made to rationalise the licensing approach to gambling activities and to clarify the provisions concerning the licensing machines. We also recently established a working group, which I chair, comprising all stakeholder Departments and the Office of the Attorney General to develop a modern regulatory framework. The first meeting of this group took place on 1 February and a final report is to be submitted mid-2018.

On page 134 of the programme for Government it is stated that the Government will instigate a full review of public transport policy to ensure services are sustainable into the future. It also references a decent public transport system being essential to the everyday lives of so many citizens. The Taoiseach will be aware of the increased traffic on public transport over the last number of years. The number of passengers being delivered by Dublin Bus has increased significantly year-on-year yet we are experiencing increased congestion and increased journey times. Many people are unable to get onto buses because they are full when they reach their bus stops. I recently received an email from a person who had to take the 7.50 a.m. bus on Ballyowen Road, going in the opposite direction, and get off at Penny Hill in order to get on the bus. This is the difficulty people are facing.

On a number of occasions, I have asked the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport - I am glad he is not here because the answers he has given me thus far are poor - what interim steps can be taken in 2018 and 2019 to improve this situation. The Minister's response references the budget, the mid-term capital review and so on. There has not been one specific proposal from the Minister to address the specific problem of increased journey times and increased difficulties getting on buses. All the Minister does is reference things that will happen in five or ten years, including metro north. I do not expect the Taoiseach to have an answer for me but will he liaise with the Minister to at least afford us some sort of a decent answer to allay the concerns of constituents?

There is definitely increased traffic on our roads. This is related to more people now working, which is a positive but it has negative consequences, including significant increases in traffic and journey times. I cannot tell the Deputy what the interim steps are that are particularly relevant to his constituency. The Deputy will be aware that Luas services have been increased and we now have longer trams. There will be more frequent off-peak services on heavy rail in Dublin once the industrial relations issues in Irish Rail have been resolved. In addition, the DART is moving to a ten-minute service. These are steps that could be taken within months subject to agreement with the unions. We need a ten-year term plan to improve public transport not only in Dublin city but all cities across Ireland. We also need to improve motorway access to parts of the country that do not currently have it. We will be publishing details in this regard on Friday. We wish we could have done all this years ago but the Deputy will understand the reasons that was not possible.