Questions on Promised Legislation

The Cabinet has an uncomfortable weekend ahead. There will be so much spinning tomorrow that everyone will be dizzy for the weekend when the national planning framework and the capital plan are addressed. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is in the Chamber. Will he confirm, since the Taoiseach was unable to do so yesterday, what the Government's plans are for legislative underpinning of the national planning framework? My question for the Tánaiste is whether it is appropriate that bodies such as the Irish Farmers Association, IBEC and the Construction Industry Federation are being briefed on the content of the two plans, while Members of this House have not yet received any information? We will depend on the outcome of the press conference tomorrow to obtain that information.

I will answer the second question. The consultation process has been ongoing on nearly three years.

There was a briefing this morning.

There have been 40 public meetings held throughout the country. The Oireachtas committee has considered the issue on numerous occasions. There was a debate in this House without the use of a guillotine on the national planning framework. The debate came to an end because we had run out of speakers. There were 42 speakers in all. There has been no shortage of consultation with other political parties and the House on getting the report right.

What about a briefing?

The House never voted on the issue.

It is perfectly understandable that other stakeholders in Irish society, both rural and urban, also want to be a part of a discussion before the final details are published tomorrow.

The Tánaiste told-----

I will let the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, deal with the legislative element.

There should be only one question per Member. We are breaking with precedent.

The Taoiseach yesterday made the process involved clear. The legislation which has not yet been enacted and the spirit of which we have followed provides for consultation with the Oireachtas on the draft of the document.

That happened in November last year. The legislation also allows for consideration by the Government of the outcome of the consultation process before presenting the final document. The legislation is not yet in place, but we have followed the spirit of it. The draft legislation does not envisage the Oireachtas having a final say on the document.

The Minister has misled the House. As he knows, the legislation does not talk about consultation but about approval by both Houses. It is disappointing that he has decided to do what the Taoiseach did in response to our questions.

It was a draft.

The Minister should acknowledge that he has misled the House.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Pearse Doherty to continue, without interruption.

My question relates to the commitment in the programme for Government to introduce a range of measures to keep people in the family home. Nothing concrete has been delivered from that commitment and we learned this week that Permanent TSB is to sell thousands of family homes to vulture funds. A State-owned bank is selling off the mortgages of working families to unregulated vulture funds. Nothing has changed under the Government. It is still in bed with the vulture funds and will not regulate or tax them. Now it is feeding them. It is throwing people at their feet and washing its hands of the issue. Where is the Independent Alliance? Its members were supposed to be the so-called saviours and champions of struggling homeowners.

(Interruptions).

Will the Minister who is the owner of Permanent TSB tell it to stop feeding the vulture funds? Will he pick up the telephone and tell Jeremy Masding that State banks are no longer allowed to sell to vulture funds? Will the Government support my legislation, the Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) (Amendment) Bill 2017, which will, for once and for all, regulate vulture funds to ensure people will be protected from them?

The Deputy said I had misled the House. That is not the case.

It is the case.

The Deputy knows as well as I do, as does Deputy Eoin Ó Broin, that a motion was passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas in November to refer this issue to an Oireachtas joint committee for approval.

(Interruptions).

That happened last year.

The Minister agreed-----

Consultation and approval are provided for in the legislation. Deputy Pearse Doherty is wrong on this issue. The legislation is not yet in place, but we have followed the spirit of it.

Surely the Minister agreed-----

That goes for all sides of the House.

The Minister is deliberately trying to mislead the House.

The Deputy has received details already and knows exactly what happened here. He is trying to mislead the House.

The Tánaiste was asked a question and delegated the Minister to answer it. I have given him that opportunity. I ask Members on all sides to listen to the Minister. I have no control over the content of his answer.

Somebody needs to have control.

More is the pity, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

On the question of what the Government is doing to protect people and keep them in their homes, it has introduced a series of initiatives, from the Abhaile scheme to ensuring there is free legal aid and looking at a new mortgage-to-rent scheme in order that we can provide options to keep people in their homes, even when they have difficult debt issues to deal with.

This morning in Dublin city it was Groundhog Day again in terms of traffic disruption due to the failure to accommodate a really important public investment in the new Luas line. I travelled on a bus to check the timings.

The Deputy is lucky to have a bus service. We do not.

In going to work all over the city every morning people lose 20 to 30 minutes which has enormous consequences for them and business in the city. The Taoiseach is a former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, was also Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. Deputy Shane Ross is the current Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

They have not addressed in any way the chaos enveloping Dublin city.

Please ask the Tánaiste or the Minister a question.

The Government is simply not addressing this issue.

We only have 15 minutes in which to deal with it.

We will have a big bells and whistles event tomorrow.

Will the Deputy, please, ask a question? This is not a Second Stage debate.

There will be inadequate funding of public transport. What is wrong with the Government that it cannot address the chaos in Dublin city?

Please, Deputy. Many Deputies have questions to ask.

The Minister was here this morning to answer questions. I do not think there was a single one on Dublin-----

I assure the Tánaiste that he did not give any answer.

The Deputy was on the bus.

The Government seems to be incapable of resolving the issue.

The Deputy was on the bus.

I do not think the Minister was asked one question about Dublin traffic; therefore, I do not see how he would have given an answer.

Deputy Robert Troy's first question was about that issue

Others asked questions that the Deputy did not.

Parts of the ten-year capital plan and the national planning framework-----

Ten years, is it?

-----are about Dublin, just like parts of that are about other parts of the country. There will be a big focus on public transport in Dublin, as the Deputy will see tomorrow.

That is not an adequate answer. The Government is refusing to address the traffic chaos in Dublin.

There are to be no supplementary questions. I have no control over the Tánaiste's answers.

I want to ask about the National Famine Commemoration Day Bill which was passed on Second Stage over a year ago. What is the plan to progress it to Committee Stage or if there is no such plan, what is the Government's plan to implement the decision to name a day as National Famine Commemoration Day?

It is confirmed that the Bill is awaiting Committee Stage, but we do not have a set date for it. I will ask the relevant Minister to come back to the Deputy on it.

The Government recently committed to keeping the age of digital consent at 13 years. I attended a briefing this morning by Senator Michael McDowell and Dr. Mary Aiken at which huge concerns were raised about this issue. Best international practice is to have the age set at 16 years. Dr. Aiken says that, in her 20 years of experience, she has never been as anxious or concerned about the safety of children in Ireland.

The Deputy should address legislation which has been promised.

It has been promised. Looking after children is a very basic duty. Some want to introduce abortion as quickly as they can. We should look after the children we have and maintain their safety in their homes and schools. It is very important to increase the age of digital consent to 16 years in line with best international practice. Why do we allow interference in their lives?

This is a complex issue which is related to child safety. In the consultation process the Government has undertaken on the issue the majority of respondents, including the Ombudsman for Children, the Internet Safety Advisory Committee and the Children's Rights Alliance, recommended that the digital age of consent be set at 13 years rather than 16. It is important to say the special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, also recommended setting the age at 13 years.

The rest of us must be wrong and they are right.

There are two separate issues. There is the protection of children online from abuse and the digital age of consent, on which we need to listen to the experts in the area.

The 2010 national pension framework stated people should be confident and secure about their expectations on retirement. The Government has committed to reforming the State pension system from 2020 onwards.

Yesterday, I received an answer to a parliamentary question on this issue which states that the proposal will not be finalised until after a public consultation later this year. While I welcome the public consultation on this matter, there is much uncertainty around exactly what these changes will entail. If these changes are only finalised at the end of the 2018 or in 2019 and they are due to take effect in 2020, this leaves very little time for anybody to prepare for retirement, especially given that mandatory retirement age is still legal in Irish employment contracts. What does the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection intend to do for the first generation of pensioners from 2020 onwards so that they can plan ahead for these changes and will not be faced with significant shortfalls in their pension expectations with little or no time to adjust?

As set out in the response to the Deputy's parliamentary question, there will be a lengthy public consultation on this matter during which we will conduct meetings and negotiations with all of the public stakeholders and all of the people who have not yet retired. The purpose and the premise of the contributory State pension is to provide for people in their retirement. We have no intention of stripping people of what they are entitled to, but we do intend to devise a mechanism over the coming months that will be announced at the end of this, which it is hoped will be ratified by this House, and that will prepare people for what will be a fair and sustainable pension system based on the social insurance fund. Nobody should be in fear of something that has not yet been designed. We will always have a non-contributory State pension in this country to ensure that we have a minimum standard of living for people in the older years.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to the Government facilitating the return to this country of 70,000 emigrants. Irish citizens are returning from America in particular but, unfortunately, on their return their US driver's licence is valid here for only one year, following which they must apply for a learner permit, undergo 12 lessons, and then only drive when accompanied by a driver with a full licence, all of which, in addition to insurance cover, is costly. This is stopping people returning to rural Ireland to create employment. It is possible for a person here who holds a Taiwanese or South Korean licence to exchange that licence for an Irish licence, yet Irish citizens returning from America with US driver licences cannot exchange them for an Irish licence.

I thank Deputy Scanlon for raising this issue, which some of his colleagues have also raised with me. We recently commissioned Indecon to compile a report on all of the potential barriers for people returning home in terms of driver licences, insurance costs, life insurance, health insurance and a range of other issues. Yesterday, I had sight of that draft report. I will bring it to Cabinet, following which it is hoped we will have an opportunity to debate it in this House. It is a really good report and it deals with the issue raised by Deputy Scanlon and with a range of other issues for people who want to come home in terms of settling in, finding employment and setting up business here. We want to encourage as many people home as we can. Ireland has the fastest growing population in the European Union, with at least an additional 50,000 people each year. It is for this reason we need a planning framework but we also need to ensure that they can come home and settle in without any disadvantages.

On the home building finance Ireland Bill and Deputy Pearse Doherty's reference to the consumer protection Bill, I want to revert to a point raised earlier by Deputy Calleary in regard to vulture funds. As has been stated, given the State's 75% shareholding in the banks, they must listen to the Government. I am solution driven. I do not like to get involved in the blame game in terms of what happened in the past. We need to find solutions.

Deputy Breathnach does not want to get involved in it because Fianna Fáil is responsible for what happened.

I believe there is a simple solution to the problem. We need to introduce emergency legislation immediately which places an amnesty on the sale of distressed mortgages for six months and instructs all the lending agencies to afford the local authorities the first opportunity to purchase the distressed loans to increase our housing stock. It is a no-brainer. Members on the opposite side need to start listening.

On the same subject-----

A number of Deputies wish to raise the same issue so their questions will be taken together and replied to with one answer.

On the programme for Government commitment to protect homeowners, it is fair to say that the Government stood back from NAMA when it sold distressed loans to vulture funds and it also stood back from the non-Irish banks when they sold their distressed loan portfolios. We have seen the fallout and carnage of that in terms of how people were dealt with by the vulture funds, which are unregulated, and how they were dealt with by the credit servicing agencies. This is no longer acceptable. We need to consider the introduction of legislation to deal with the banks that are owned by the Irish people. It was the Irish people who bailed out these banks.

I could cut off the questions.

I have been contacted by people from my constituency who are engaged in farming and business and who are homeowners. It was stated earlier that we just have to step back and allow the banks to repair themselves.

I may have to apply the 15 minute rule. The Deputy is depriving other Members.

That is not acceptable anymore. We need Government legislation to block the sales of these loans.

On that subject, the substance of which I have raised on numerous occasions in the past six months, this is a new issue presenting.

It is an issue that I believe can be resolved. I refer particularly and specifically to those who have tried to meet their mortgage repayments and have consistently kept in touch with the lending agencies. These people have broken no rules. They have ended up in this situation owing to issues arising which were outside of their control. I have been in touch with the Minister for Finance on this issue and I have drafted the skeleton of a Bill which might deal with it. The Bill seeks to amend the code of conduct, which is in the hands of the lending institutions only-----

A question, please.

-----and as a result they are rejecting all of the options being put forward. I ask the Tánaiste to take into account the hardship likely to be caused to homeowners, small business owners and small farmers the length and breadth of this country.

The confidence and supply agreement and the programme for Government contain a clear commitment to provide greater protection for mortgage holders and SMEs whose loans have been transferred to non-regulated entities - vulture funds - but this has not happened. The reality is that the banks are looking to outsource their dirty work. They do not want to go through their loan books, engage, restructure and take whatever steps they need to take. They will not do that. There is no compelling reason for them to sell large loan portfolios in this way. They are under pressure from the European Central Bank to reduce their non-performing loans but they can do so by working through their loan books. The reality is the vulture funds are not regulated and they are not accountable. The Government needs to step in and prevent these loan sales.

I am sure the Tánaiste has a strong sense of the urgency around this issue in terms of it having been raised this morning by Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and by members of Fine Gael. There is an urgent need to introduce legislation to protect mortgage holders, particularly families, from the vulture funds. Permanent TSB has announced that it proposes to sell off thousands of loans. AIB will follow suit. We have to do something immediately. As the people elected to protect Irish citizens if we do not do something now, by which I mean this week, to protect these people, they will be at the mercy of vulture funds who have been ringing them daily causing huge distress.

The first obligation of Government is to keep its people safe. This Government is not keeping the people safe.

It is throwing them to the vulture funds.

There is only one action that will stop this.

It is a matter for the Government to tell the banks we own that they are not allowed to sell the mortgages in distress until a one-to-one resolution has been worked out with each and every individual affected.

Those who own the mortgages should be given an opportunity to buy at the same price that will be offered to foreign vulture funds, which were invited into this country by the Government.

Deputy Michael Noonan.

It is a disgrace that they do not appear before the finance committee to be accountable and transparent to this House. They have caused loss of life in this country and their activity has resulted in the loss of SMEs. We are now going to cause people further difficulties by giving the loans to the vulture funds. Will the Government take the action that is necessary now-----

We will support it.

-----to ensure the loans are not sold on to vulture funds? His reply earlier to Deputy Calleary was nothing short of a disgrace.

The Tánaiste has got an idea.

I answered this question earlier. I take the genuine concerns-----

We cannot mix Deputies' questions with Leaders' Questions. Deputies are entitled to ask and to have answers again.

The question asked was whether the Government would be legislating to change the regulations. The home building finance Ireland Bill, which was referred to earlier, is a priority for this session. It will present an opportunity for all parties to raise concerns and make amendments and suggestions in this context. It will present an opportunity to the Minister for Finance, who has direct responsibility, to deal with this.

Too little too late.

The programme for Government commits to ensuring robust oversight of Ireland's overseas development aid budget. While I acknowledge the great work being carried out in so many countries by so many of our NGOs, what action has the Tánaiste taken, since the recent appalling revelations about Oxfam aid workers' activities in countries they are meant to be helping and about the real exploitation of the vulnerable have become public knowledge, to ensure no Irish NGO is facilitating or participating in exploitation of the vulnerable in the Third World? This is relevant to his Department.

First, on the revelations linked to Oxfam in a certain country, the first step I took was to check whether there was any Irish money supporting that particular element of Oxfam's work. There is not.

On the broader question of ensuring the significant sum of money allocated for overseas development aid - I hope we will be spending a lot more in the future - is spent in a way that is transparent, appropriate and safe, we have pretty rigorous systems to assess constantly how the money is spent, be it through NGOs, UN organisations or directly through governments. There have been examples of where money was not used appropriately. We shut off funding sources as a result. There is ongoing vigilance regarding overseas aid. We will continue to ensure the money is spent appropriately.

Question No. 5 is the last. It is not that I have accommodated others but that I have called them because they were dealing with the same issue.

On page 50 of the programme for Government, concerning rural development and the saving of post offices, only a few weeks ago the postmaster in Ballineen post office passed away, sadly. Within a couple of weeks-----

Is this on promised legislation?

Yes. It is in the programme for Government, on page 50. Within a couple of weeks, An Post publicised the closure of this post office, which would affect the people of Ballineen and the surrounding area. If it is shut, it will be a disaster for the town. Can the Government intervene to save this post office?

That is a specific question. We are now going to deal with every post office in the country.

No. This is the one that is closing.

It is in the programme for Government.

The programme for Government does not mention that post office.

There is a specific reference to the post office network in the programme for Government.

In the Tánaiste's home county, County Cork, there is fear that Ballineen post office will be closed. I attended a public meeting in the town last Monday night. The passion of the community in trying to keep the post office open is unreal. I ask the Tánaiste to do his best to ensure it will remain open.

The Cabinet has had detailed discussions on the issues related to the financial pressures on An Post and the need for the Government to provide support, where appropriate. We recognise the importance of the post office network across rural areas.

It is unreasonable to expect me to deal with a specific case and a specific request-----

There is one every day.

The Tánaiste, without interruption.

-----but I will ask the relevant Minister to revert to the Deputies directly.