Leaders' Questions

Before I begin, I want to mention the appalling atrocity in which 17 young people were shot dead and 50 more injured in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Maryland in Florida. It is critical the global community does not become complacent about such heedless, needless and gun-fuelled violence. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families. A very basic right is that one's children should go to school and come home safely. We send our solidarity to the people of the area and the people of the USA as they grapple with yet another major school tragedy.

This morning, thousands of homeowners across the country are reading in the Irish Independent that their home loans are being put up for sale without their agreement. Permanent TSB is beginning to market a portfolio of home loans worth nearly €3 billion to a range of international investors, including those we know as vulture funds. It is estimated this could represent up to 20,000 loans. That is 20,000 families who are facing a very uncertain future this morning. I want to put that 20,000 figure into context. In the third quarter of 2017, there were just over 11,000 family home loans held by unregulated vulture funds. This one sale could nearly triple that figure in one go. The loans will be sold at less than their actual value to these vultures but the borrowers, these families, will still have to pay every cent of the loan plus interest. Many of the potential bidders for this portfolio are already in business in Ireland and it has not been a good story. They are impossible to engage with. They do not have branches; they have call centres. They rely on anonymous call centres, which may not even be based in the State, to deal with customers. They are aggressive in dealing with borrowers and their families. They are aggressive to the point of causing considerable mental and physical stress to the people involved. They get away with it. They get away with that aggression because there is no regulation. They are accountable to nobody. The finance committee has sought in recent weeks to try to get these people to come into the committee to engage with it but virtually all of them have turned down the request of an Oireachtas committee to account for their actions. Yet, we propose to hand another 20,000 families into their clutches. Permanent TSB is only the first; other banks will follow suit. Loans involving more family homes, family farms and family businesses will be sold to the highest bidder with no regard for the families and borrowers involved.

The Government owns 75% of Permanent TSB. It is the main shareholder so it pays the piper. When was the Government made aware by Permanent TSB of its decision to put this loan portfolio up for sale in this specific manner? Did the Government at any time signal any concerns to Permanent TSB about family homes and the treatment of families in this process? What protections is the Government seeking for those families? The Minister, Deputy Donohoe's spokesperson said this morning that some banks, including Permanent TSB, were considering the sale of portfolios. What other banks, in addition to Permanent TSB, was she, and therefore the Minister, referring to?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is important to say to the House that we want to complete the repair of the banking system and ensure banks are there to support the wider public interest, which is the whole purpose of a functioning banking system within an economy, as set out in the programme for Government. Dealing with non-performing loans is one of the key priorities of the European regulator, the Single Supervisory Mechanism, SSM. While great progress has been made in the Irish banks, the SSM has made it clear that further reductions need to be made. At 28%, as of last June, Permanent TSB's non-performing loan ratio was one of the highest in the eurozone. Given the volume of borrowers who have not engaged with the bank in recent years and the number of cases where treatments were not possible or have failed, the bank has said that achieving an acceptable non-performing loan ratio will not be possible without some form of loan sales. Under the terms of the relationship framework with the bank, loan sales do not require the Minister for Finance's consent. However, the bank will be required to consult with the Minister and will do so in due course. In any loan sale, it is important to highlight that the contractual terms of borrowers, or indeed tenants, remain in place after the loan sale while the Central Bank code of conduct for mortgage arrears still applies. In other words, mortgage holders have the same rights regardless of who owns the loan book. While loan sales are regrettable, the Minister for Finance is conscious of the need for the bank to continue on a path of recovery.

The Government was briefed on this by the Minister for Finance on Tuesday at its last meeting. On the Deputy's question about other banks, Ulster Bank had a loan sale last year or 18 months ago. Of course people are concerned about who will be managing their loans and who they will be talking to or negotiating with in terms of debt. We are very conscious of that. We are also conscious of the rules that apply and there is a significant onus on the Central Bank to make sure that when loans are sold, the contractual rights of those who are linked to those loans continue to apply and we will do that.

The vulture funds are not regulated by the Central Bank. They are untouchable by the Central Bank. The Tánaiste knows it as does every Deputy here. We have been dealing with these and they have no regard for the Central Bank, the Oireachtas or the law. They are pursuing borrowers with no intent. We deal with them all here. On the notion that in due course the Government will engage with Permanent TSB, it said this morning that the loans of 20,000 families are up for grabs.

Now is the time to engage with it, not in due course, to say it has to protect these families. These are not non-entities, they are not systems. They are people living in family homes the length and breadth of this island. Some may have had difficulties with their loans but they have tried to engage and that engagement will count for nothing when it goes on to one of these funds. That has been our experience in dealing with these funds.

The Tánaiste should try to put the interests of families at the front of this. The Government is obsessed with fixing the system, but it should think about families who today face such an uncertain future and it should stand up for the rights of those whose family homes are under threat as we speak.

It is difficult to take this lecture on thinking about families and loan books from Fianna Fáil given what it-----

Fine Gael has been nine years in government. It should move on.

-----was responsible for in the banking sector.

The Tánaiste has some cheek.

The Government should deal with the banks.

What is the Government doing?

Our job as a Government is to try to fix what Fianna Fáil broke.

The Government should put its hands up.

The tens, if not hundreds of thousands of families that have suffered as a result of that banking collapse-----

What is the Government doing about it?

The Government is selling them down the Swanee.

-----which was directly linked to poor banking regulatory and Government policy.

By selling them to vulture funds.

That is what we have spent the past six and a half years-----

The Government lobbied for more all the time.

We will continue to try to fix that in a way that does prioritise families, tries to protect people in their homes and gives them State-funded supports in terms of the advice they need to get through a difficult debt and finance management journey, which many families are on.

The Government is in bed with the banks.

We also need to ensure that the Central Bank has the power to ensure that, regardless of who owns loan books, how they are managed in respect of keeping people in their homes and protecting the public interest is at the forefront of what we are doing.

Over the past year there has been a mammoth amount of work done to restore the political institutions in the North. Sinn Féin’s focus has been doing that on the basis of respect, integrity and equality for all sections of society. When the latest round of talks was announced in January, we said that a sharp focused negotiation was required to resolve the outstanding issues of rights and equality available to everyone on this part of the island and in Britain. Sinn Féin engaged. We worked in good faith. We stretched ourselves. This time yesterday afternoon there was an accommodation with the DUP. We had the basis of a deal. The Government, based on what the Tánaiste has said since, believed there was the basis for a deal. The British Government did likewise. The DUP failed to close that deal and collapsed this process yesterday afternoon.

Notwithstanding that, these issues will not go away. I know that, the Tánaiste knows it, and the British Government and the DUP know it. These issues do not threaten anybody. They are issues of fundamental rights and rights for all do not mean fewer rights for some. Tá Sinn Féin réidh dul i mbun oibre. Ba mhaith linn dul i ngleic leis an dúshlán seo. Tá bunús réitigh ar an tábla agus tá muidne breá sásta páirt a ghlacadh ann.

Deputy McDonald and Michelle O'Neill, MLA, are in Belfast today. I urge the DUP to reflect on its position. I also encourage Fianna Fáil to reflect on its position. The Fianna Fáil leader, Deputy Martin, has trotted out the same tired so-called "two problem parties” line while also blaming both Governments. This is from the same Fianna Fáil leader who a couple of years ago called for the institutions in the North to be suspended. Now he wants to point the finger of blame at everyone involved in efforts to get the institutions back up and running, despite not lifting a finger himself. This is a disgraceful attitude which is completely at odds with the facts.

I acknowledge the Tánaiste’s contribution to trying to make this work. He has been involved and engaged. It is important for us to say that. The officials have also been involved and we are very grateful for that. Sinn Féin wants the institutions back up and running and public services and rights being delivered for all. There has been much speculation this morning about what happens next. We are crystal clear on this. Direct rule is not an option. The Taoiseach said in December that the Irish Government "won’t be supporting direct rule". In September the Tánaiste said there "can be no British-only direct rule". Has the Tánaiste made that position clear to the British Government?

First, I intended to say in response to Deputy Calleary that I, too, would like to extend the condolences of the Government to every US citizen in Ireland and of course to the families mourning this afternoon after the extraordinary tragedy of yesterday where 17, predominantly young, people and children lost their lives in yet another shooting. I hope and expect that the House will join me in that expression of sympathy.

Yesterday was a surprising and very disappointing development in Stormont. We and the British Government were not expecting the DUP to make the statement it did. I do not think Sinn Féin was expecting that either. That said, it is important to say that the past eight months, particularly the past four weeks, have been a period when the two largest parties in Northern Ireland have been making significant progress to try to find accommodation with each other. I believe that last Friday we were very close to a final deal that undoubtedly required further discussion on its presentation and description this week, but the basis of that deal was there. I recognise the willingness of parties to try to compromise and to accommodate each other for the sake of Northern Ireland and for the sake of getting a devolved institution back up and running, which is what everybody and all the parties in Northern Ireland, including the DUP, have said repeatedly they want as the best form of governance. We have spent a great deal of time together trying to bring this about.

Some of the commentary this morning has been unhelpful, in particular from the Fianna Fáil leader who does not seem to understand what has been going on in Northern Ireland.

Is this a new coalition?

We have a tradition in this House, particularly between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, of supporting and helping each other, regardless of who is in Government, in the context of protecting the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement and of looking after our responsibility towards people North of the Border. If Deputy Martin has an issue with how we are taking on and performing those responsibilities, he should talk to us about it as opposed to tweeting within the hour of hearing the DUP's statement yesterday, trying to criticise two Governments which are working in partnership to try to bring about devolved government again in Northern Ireland.

The Tánaiste should listen to him.

He is a tweeter too.

He is pretty good at tweeting himself.

He is pretty good at tweeting quickly too.

He likes tweeting.

The Tánaiste is pretty handy on the tweet button himself.

Not on this issue I am not. In response to Deputy Pearse Doherty’s questions, we have made it clear to the British Government, in the right and appropriate way, that a move to direct rule is not where we want to be and it is not where the British Government wants to be. It is also not where the DUP wants to be, in my view, even though that is what it effectively requested yesterday. Instead, Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State, and I will work together with the parties to try to bring us back to a point where we focus on finding accommodation with each other again with a view to trying to get an executive up and running. Any alternative to that is bad news for everybody - unionism, nationalism and both Governments. We will work hard to avoid that happening.

I acknowledge the Tánaiste's comments on the mass shooting. I believe it is the eighth instance of gun violence in schools and it is a tragic loss for all the families involved.

I also acknowledge the Tánaiste's comments here in the Dáil, in particular his statement that the Government is making its position clear to the British Government in the appropriate way. It is important for all of us to remember that the objective is to get the institutions up and running on a sustainable basis with integrity, respect and equality at its core. Whatever about political potshots, this issue is far bigger than political parties and cheap political points.

That is our aim. It is what we are committed to doing. In my view, the Government needs to stay focused, on track and steady with regard to this. We have stretched ourselves and worked hard to get the institutions back up and running. As the Tánaiste said, progress has been made. However, it is not just the case that progress had been made. An accommodation had been reached with the leadership of the DUP and a way forward on all the key issues. For our part, let me be very clear that we are open for business and want to address these issues. A basis for a deal was on the table and that is a deal we are up for. We look forward to working with the Tánaiste, the Government and other political parties in the time ahead to ensure that the institutions are back up and running on a credible and sustainable basis with equality, integrity and respect at their core.

We will try to help the Deputy do that with the other parties. If one looks at Arlene Foster's statement yesterday, one can see that there are positives in it. We need to focus on those and build on them in terms of her desire to see devolved government up and running again, but clearly there is an issue and there is a frustration within unionism and the DUP regarding Irish language issues in particular. My understanding of the accommodation that was reached is that it was one that ensures that the Irish language is not a threat to anybody but instead is part of the diversity of Northern Ireland and part of the identity of many who live there who see the Irish language as part of who they are and who do not want to force that part of who they are on anybody else. It is important that we all reach out to unionism in that regard and ensure both communities in Northern Ireland understand and respect the diversity, difference and perspective on history of the other community. That is what the past eight months has been about. We made huge progress in terms of trying to build relationships and trust between parties, particularly in the past three weeks, which is why yesterday was such a setback, but that does not mean that we should abandon those efforts now and I can promise the Deputy that we will not.

Last week in response to an issue raised on Leaders' Questions about the HSE, the Taoiseach said that certainly there are no secrets in the Department of Health or the HSE and he agreed that we should have an honest debate about our health care and health funding. I disagreed with him on the first issue. There are many secrets in the health service and one of them is sitting in the Public Gallery just up there in front of the Tánaiste, so let us have an honest debate.

Aisling Corcoran is 31. She travelled here this morning with her mother Tricia from Mayo. Aisling had rods inserted when she was a young child because she had scoliosis. In 2014, the rods had to be removed as they were infected and she went on the waiting list for surgery to get rods reinserted. Aisling was under the care of a consultant orthopaedic surgeon in University Hospital Galway. I first had contact with Aisling in early 2015 as I had been raising many questions about the Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin. I will read out a few lines from a letter from the consultant in University Hospital Galway:

Aisling is one of approximately 40 people under my direct care that require major complex spinal surgery at Galway University Hospitals. She has been placed on a waiting list for some time for this to occur and in the current context of allocation of resource to me at my hospital I do not see it happening easily for the foreseeable future.

This is exactly what happened. She was transferred to a consultant in Tallaght Hospital. Her first consultation was in January 2016. Aisling was assessed and put on the surgery list as a priority. Eventually, she was given a date of 5 September 2017. She had to come up to Dublin for pre-operative assessment, scans and X-rays. It is complex surgery so Aisling and her family and friends were anxious and had to arrange travel and time off work. It was cancelled by the surgeon due to personal matters. That can happen. It was a huge letdown. The operation was rescheduled for 28 November 2017. Again, she underwent pre-operative assessment, X-rays and scans. It involved getting organised, getting her bags packed and anxiety. At the eleventh hour, the operation was again cancelled due to personal matters. This was a massive letdown mentally and physically for Aisling.

To add insult to injury, to date, the consultant has made no professional contact with or arrangement to meet Aisling despite her ringing him continuously. Every time she does so, the surgeon is out due to personal matters, his secretary has not spoken to him, he is busy between Tallaght Hospital and Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin or he is out sick. In the mean time, Aisling's curve is now 70%. There is a danger that her walk, structure and organs will be affected. Her life is on hold. She gets terrible spasms of pain and often ends up in accident and emergency departments or stays in bed for days. Aisling cannot plan her future.

Let us be honest. Is this acceptable? Does the Government stand over a health service that treats patients this way? The Minister for Health knows about this case. I brought it to his attention two weeks ago and rang his PA yesterday to say that I would be raising this issue today. I am surprised he is not here in the Chamber to meet Aisling. Aisling is seeking an honest answer and expects an honest reply.

I thank the Deputy for giving some notice of this question so that I could give her a proper answer. We have been in contact with the Minister's office and he has been in contact with the hospital involved regarding this case. I am happy to meet Aisling after Leaders' Questions if that would be helpful. We received a letter from the hospital this morning. The Deputy may not have seen it yet because it has only just been sent but it does confirm that Tallaght Hospital is committed to completing the procedure in three months' time. The Deputy asked whether we could outsource this operation or whether it could be done abroad. My understanding is that it is too complex an operation for that to be done. Undertaking the procedure involves two consultant doctors because of its complexity. One of those consultants is not available for personal reasons between now and when it can be done but we have a commitment in writing today that this procedure will take place in three months' time so I hope that will give Aisling and her family some certainty. I and, I am sure, many others in this House know what it is like to work with families whose members have scoliosis. As people grow and as their spine does not develop as it should, all sorts of other complexities emerge apart from it being extremely painful. I understand the time issues here and why they are important, which is why we are trying to provide clarity for the family and Aisling.

It is important to say that the Minister introduced a paediatric scoliosis action plan last year which is delivering real results. As a result of that action plan, 321 surgeries took place in 2017 compared with 220 in 2016. This represents a 46% increase in activity. The HSE has confirmed that it will maintain a four-month target into 2018 and beyond, which is international best practice in terms of limiting waiting times for people who need clinical care and surgery. In respect of the particular case raised by the Deputy, I am glad to confirm that Tallaght Hospital is confirming and committing to undertaking the surgery in three months' time.

I also received that letter this morning at 10.38 a.m. Obviously, the hospital knew this case was going to be raised today. I do not think it is acceptable. This is an arse-covering exercise as far as I can see because the hospital had plenty of time from 29 January 2018, which was when I put in the question. The Minister for Health knew about this two weeks ago. Are we saying that patients have to wait for consultants at the consultants' call? Two operations have been cancelled while there has been no contact with the patient to date and we are talking about it taking place in three months' time. Are we saying that this consultant is the only consultant who can do this surgery? If that is the case, the HSE is in trouble. If the consultant died tomorrow, and I would not wish it on the man, what would happen then? Are we saying there is no other consultant there to do it? This is an emergency case. She is a priority. If it cannot be done here within a reasonable period of time, not three months because something else could happen in three months' time, we should bring some expert over from London or Europe to carry out this surgery. Would the Tánaiste accept waiting for four years? Would he accept his daughter walking around in severe pain for four years? It is not acceptable and the health service should be able to respond and service its patients.

The Deputy probably knows that it is not as straightforward as that, particularly with regard to very complex cases involving scoliosis. I accept that nobody should have to wait four years. I also think it is inappropriate for me to attempt to go into the medical detail of this case on the floor of the House. I am not a doctor but I am just going on the briefing I received this morning. This is a particularly complex case.

It should have been dealt with before now but it was not. We are trying to ensure that it is and that the procedure can take place as quickly as possible. Given the complexity of the case, this is not an operation that can take place using the National Treatment Purchase Fund. It needs to happen here because of its complexity. It takes two consultants, and one of them is not available. Not many consultants are capable of performing-----

Four years. That is just the process.

I have accepted that it should have happened before now.

The minute has expired.

This is a question to which I have been asked to respond today and it has been brought to the Minister's attention this week. We have acted on that. There is a commitment this morning to ensure this procedure takes place in three months' time. We are trying to provide some certainty to the family.

Can we not get somebody else to do it? The person concerned will be in the cafe at 1 p.m., if the Tánaiste wants to speak to her.

We will move on to the Rural Independent Group. I call Deputy Lowry who has three minutes.

I ask this question in the context of the national procurement framework. I refer to how this is impacting on small to medium sized enterprises, SMEs, by using the example of Templemore Garda College. There are 600 people on-site serving 2,000 meals a day. Up to now, purchases were made from local suppliers. There are 31 local suppliers from across Tipperary, in places such as Templemore, Thurles, Roscrea, Nenagh and Newport, that have traditionally supplied the needs of the college. They are mostly small family businesses. They are reputable and reliable and work long hours to give exceptional service with high standards and good quality food. It is quality food on the doorstep of the college. Until now the management of the college always dealt with these matters. It is capable, competent and efficient. For instance, it tendered locally for a butcher and got three suppliers. The management bargained, got the best price and reached agreements, and those agreements were honoured by both sides. Above all, they always came in within the budget available.

The Garda College has been put under the spotlight in a persistent prolonged period of allegations and questions concerning historical events. This has involved several appearances by Garda management before the Committee of Public Accounts, with a subsequent stream of negative publicity. There is no doubt that this exercise has been damaging to the reputation of the college. The current administration of the college has been left answering questions about practices that happened under senior personnel many years ago, most of whom have retired or moved on to different positions. The college has been unfairly undermined and the administration and its capacity to govern deliberately questioned.

By Deputy Kelly.

Arising from this episode, changes have been introduced, in particular to the procurement policy of purchasing goods and services. All decisions regarding the purchasing of supply items to the college have been removed from local management. They will now be under the control of the Office of Government Procurement. This is a significant and alarming development for the small businesses in the Templemore area supplying the needs of the college and they have now lost out. Those people were informed last week and of 31 local suppliers, 26 have lost out. They are disillusioned, disheartened and angry. They have lost out and, effectively, have been locked out. Their services have been dismissed in an impersonal and hurtful manner. This business was the core of their businesses and jobs are threatened as a result of this decision, which does not make economic sense. Faceless people in a Dublin office are now going to be making decisions about purchasing for the kitchen in Templemore and controlling the management of the kitchen. It does not make sense and it is very damaging and unfair to the local suppliers.

I am sure the Deputies are aware that the financial practices and procedures at the Garda College in Templemore were the subject of public controversy last year and were examined in great detail by the Committee of Public Accounts. The Government has no direct role in the management of the finances of the Garda College. The Garda Commissioner is the Accounting Officer for the organisation. The Garda Vote is subject to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts. They have taken a particularly active approach in examining matters concerning the Garda College.

I am advised the Garda College in Templemore previously had an historic practice, as the Deputy outlined, of purchasing food from local businesses. Following the public controversy last year, I understand the Committee of Public Accounts was particularly concerned the college had directly engaged local suppliers in the community rather than following correct procurement procedures. I am informed that a tendering process in accordance with the public procurement rules is now almost complete. Successful tenderers have been notified and the outcome of the tendering process is subject to a two-week cooling-off period.

I can understand the frustrations of the local businesses concerned. The communications between the Garda College and those suppliers, who may not have been successful through this tendering process, sounds like it could have been much better. However, it is important to note the controversy we have been through in respect of procurement procedures in Templemore and how money was allocated and spent. The Garda needs to lead by example in these things. That is why there is now strict adherence to the procurement rules in respect of how contracts are assigned. I regret that has had a negative consequence for many local businesses. However, given the history of this over the last six to eight months, it is understandable how it has developed the way it has.

This does not just affect Templemore. The tender documents from the Office of Government Procurement are complex, complicated and impossible for the normal business manager to comprehend or understand. The process is absolutely loaded in favour of the big players in the market.

The small to medium sized enterprise has no chance under this new system.

Contracts from the Government and State agencies are gobbled up by the multinational groups. This is not just happening with food and essential items. It is happening across every sector of demand and supply in the public sector. It includes printing, stationery, mechanical, electrical, engineering, medical, marketing and legal services. The powerful are getting all the business. They are getting bigger and bigger and the SMEs are weaker and weaker.

Government policy is supposed to encourage and increase activity outside the cities and promote regional development and jobs. This procurement framework, which was used for Templemore, does the opposite. It centralises purchases. It makes the rich companies richer and stronger. It is gradually creating an elite number of companies that have dominance and control of the supply chain. The system is anti-small business. So much for the slogan of keeping rural Ireland alive. Across Ireland, we have Leader groups and enterprise boards giving encouragement, support and financial grants to support start-up business.

I thank the Deputy.

However, when it comes to accessing the lucrative public sector supply chain, they are snuffed out and excluded. Tender qualification criteria need to be reviewed.

The Tánaiste has one minute to respond.

The rules, criteria, regulations and thresholds governing the competitions make it impossible for a small organisation to be successful in trying to get into the supply chain.

On the general point of supporting SMEs and creating jobs outside of Dublin-----

The Government is not.

-----it is worth noting that the vast majority of jobs created last year were actually created outside Dublin. Every county in the country without exception-----

The Government is destroying jobs.

-----has seen job numbers grow. In the last budget, and subsequently, we have seen numerous initiatives to help and support SMEs. I accept that in the procurement process, depending on how the contracting and procurement process is structured, it can be difficult in a competitive environment for SMEs. There are, however, examples of many State agencies and organisations looking to break up tenders to allow SMEs and smaller operators to compete and not exclude them in respect of the qualification criteria. I do not have the details on the qualification criteria for this tendering process but perhaps I can get the Minister to follow up with Deputy Lowry.

Where is Deputy Kelly today? It was Deputy Kelly who caused all the trouble. He is missing as usual. I apologise.

I thought Deputy Lowry was more than capable of asking his own questions. I did not think he needed any assistance.