Questions on Promised Legislation

We now move to questions on promised legislation and I call Deputy Micheál Martin.

I refer to the commitment to child protection in the programme for Government. Anyone who watched "Prime Time" last night could only have been sickened and appalled by what was allowed to happen in that County Galway foster home. We have become almost numb to the repetition of such cases; the case of Grace last year was mentioned earlier.

The Galway case happened relatively recently. On the Taoiseach's reply to Deputy McDonald, I am not as convinced that it is something we can say happened before 2011 and is not going to happen now. There is something systemically wrong with how we deal with child protection. There have been too many cases and they have happened too recently. The Taoiseach referred to the industrial schools of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and said they were different cases. A review is being undertaken but there is a case for a special commission to establish if our methodologies and models of care correct. Without casting aspersions on individuals we should ask if our models of monitoring, both in foster care and other settings, are appropriate. The bottom line in this case is that there were really credible grounds for removing these children from this care setting but it did not happen. Just because it happened in 2006 does not mean it could not happen now, that is my concern. We are aware of other cases in the pipeline and have raised these in the House. We need to stand back and ask ourselves some hard questions without partisan comment as this has nothing to do with politics, namely, are our systems, methodologies and approach to acting adequate, when alarms are sounded and credible claims are made about children being at risk? Do our systems respond adequately to those alarm bells ringing? We facilitated the panel review but a commission of investigation on this may be necessary or some broader commission under the auspices of Tusla and others, in order to stand back and ask hard questions of whether we are protecting children adequately.

I did not say that I did not think it could happen now nor was that what I meant. I was merely pointing out the enormous changes and improvements that have happened in child protection in the last seven or eight years. That does not mean that there is not more to be done, that children are not at risk or that we do not have further obligations to protect those who are vulnerable or in foster care.

An independent investigation is being carried on this case out by the national review panel. We should allow it to proceed to see what lessons can be learned from it and see what changes should be made and measures put in place. It is significant that mandatory reporting, which was promised as long as 20 years ago, has been in place since December. In order to realise it, Tusla has been allocated an additional €40 million for this year to recruit 300 additional staff to deal with the expected increase in referrals, to manage unallocated cases, as we do have cases that have not been allocated to a social worker, and to develop aftercare services, which are particularly important, in order that an aftercare plan is put in place for young adults when they leave care at 18 or 19 years.

Increasingly, parents across the State, including the Taoiseach's constituency of Dublin West, contact me on the lack of places for children with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, in ASD units or mainstream classrooms. That experience is common among members of the Sinn Féin group. We have lost count of the number of parents who have contacted our representatives in desperation because they have nowhere to send their child. Waiting lists are long. In some cases, people must travel long distances to access units but in many cases there are no units to access. I am aware of schools that are hesitant about opening an ASD unit, sometimes due to questions of adequate funding. Parents are at their wits' end.

A review of the system with a joined-up approach by the Departments of Health and Education and Skills is required to ensure that services are in place to support children and their families. In the case of Dublin West, the Taoiseach's bailiwick, there is increasing demand and a campaign among this substantial cohort of parents for what they call a special school. They are under immense pressure and we need to give them an answer. I raise this issue in respect of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill 2016, the point being that these children will not have admission to any school or unit because the facilities are not there, the funding is not there or blocks are being put in their way. We need to sort this out.

I acknowledge that any parent who has a diagnosis of a child with special needs is faced with huge challenges. I understand that. We have appointed an independent adviser to Government, which makes decisions about suitable placements, the National Council for Special Education need, NCSE. On foot of its recommendations, we have more than doubled the number of ASD units from 550 in 2011 to over 1,300. Every year we add 150 to 180 special units. On teaching resources, we have put in 1,600 additional resource teachers in the past two years and 3,000 special needs assistants, SNAs. We are putting in huge investment to support children with special education needs. The decision as to what is the most appropriate placement is decided on the advice of the NCSE. About 60% are in mainstream classes, some 20% are in special units in mainstream schools and about 20% are in special schools. We are dramatically expanding provision in this area and continue to respond to need. We have completed a review and rolled out a new model of providing resource teachers to schools, which is working well. There is universal support for the new model. We have undertaken a review of SNAs, which will shortly come to Government to assess how be might improve it.

Where are the children supposed to go?

The special needs organiser, which is appointed by the NCSE, will work with parents to find a suitable placement.

They are being offered home tuition.

Each year we provide additional special units, where that is recommended, and we will do that again this year. We are bringing to the NCSE the power to compel a school to open an ASD unit should that be needed.

I now call Deputy Howlin. Deputies, and especially Deputy Mattie McGrath, should know that when I am in the Chair, I will give everybody their time. I do not need to be reminded how many minutes have been taken. These are serious issues.

There should be fair play for everyone.

The Deputy should listen. If you have a problem with that, you can raise it-----

There should be fair play for everyone.

Who are you to talk about fair play? You get every chance.

I wish to return to the schools building programme and particularly to the PPP school bundle 5, which I first raised in January. The difficulties caused by the liquidation of Carillion have been compounded somewhat with the de facto construction company, the Sammon Group, going into examinership more recently.

Six schools are at stake here. They are located in my own constituency of Wexford, in the towns of Bray and Kells, and two are located in Carlow. There are real difficulties now. When I first raised this issue in January, I was assured that it would be resolved in a matter of weeks. We are now heading towards May and we do not have a resolution. Needless to say, I am regularly in touch with the National Development Finance Agency is respect of these matters. I still do not have a clear horizon on when the completed Loreto secondary school in Wexford will be handed over. It is ready. It had actually gone through a deep clean before formal handover. It is now lying idle. More worryingly, an official in the Department of Education and Skills has indicated to the school that it should prepare contingency plans for the school not being available for the new term in September. In terms of subject choices, the school had intended to expand its range of teachers. That would be impossible. I do not expect the Taoiseach to have a detailed answer to this at his fingertips, but will he take a direct personal interest in ensuring that these completed schools are brought into public use as soon as possible?

Deputy Howlin will know the arrangements under public private partnerships, PPPs. The strength and, if one chooses to call it such, the weakness of these arrangements is that the responsibility lies with the contracting party to complete the schools and hand them over. In this case that party is now the Dutch Infrastructure Fund, DIF. The State will not be making payments until that handover has occurred. It is DIF that is undertaking the tender for the completion of those works, not the State. That is as it should be because the State cannot breach the rules of a PPP agreement and hope that the terms will be honoured.

The State cannot be impotent. Otherwise PPPs are pointless.

We are not impotent. If the Deputy has been talking to the National Development Finance Agency, as he has indicated, he will know that we are far from idle on this issue. This issue is receiving enormous attention-----

The Government is impotent, not idle.

-----from the State. On the Sammon situation, that company has gone into examinership and that has created additional complications. However, it is very important to say that under the PPP agreement, the responsibility for completing the works-----

Does the Minister have a timeline for these schools?

Responsibility lies with the contracting partners under the PPP and they will not be paid any money until they provide the schools. They have invested close to €100 million in these PPP bundles.

The Minister cannot be a bystander.

I am not a bystander. The Deputy was an advocate for PPPs while in government-----

No, I never was.

-----and he supported the rolling out of these programmes.

We had to do it.


He should not now, when the State is protected by the terms he agreed to, pretend that we should breach those terms.

We are moving on to the Rural Independent Group. Who is speaking for it?

Mé féin, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

The Deputy should practise what he preaches.

Of course I will. I always do, especially in this section. I want to ask a question in respect of the programme for Government and its commitment to health. There are definitely health issues in Tipperary. The Minister, Deputy Harris, who is actually present, visited Cashel some time ago and was aghast to see an empty hospital on which €25 million had been spent. Over the road, however, there is a sister hospital, St. Patrick's Hospital, which provides for old folks and geriatric care. Within that hospital, there is a wonderful assessment unit to which stroke victims, victims of accidents and so on can be brought for the exceptional care provided by the matron and the staff. On Sunday I visited a good friend of mine, a neighbour. He had been told he was going home, as were all the other patients. I did not think anything of it. I thought they were just fit to go home. They were told yesterday that, because a general practitioner, GP, cannot be acquired, no more patients are being taken into the unit and there are rumours today that it might be closed.

Will the Deputy ask a question?

What is the Minister, Deputy Harris, going to do about GPs in the country in general? We had an excellent GP in Cashel, Dr. Ryan. He is retiring. What will the Minister do to make sure that hospital can continue to operate and to give solace to the families and patients who are there for necessary care? What will he do to ensure there will be a GP to cover that assessment unit in St. Patrick's Hospital, Cashel?

I call on the Minister, Deputy Harris, to answer the general question.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for bringing the matter of St. Patrick's Hospital in Tipperary to my attention. If he wants to furnish me with some details I will certainly talk to the HSE and then revert to him directly on the issue. On the broader issue regarding general practice, the Government has increased the number of training places for GPs. In fact there will be a significant increase on last year beginning this year.

They are all emigrating.

We are also due to begin negotiations with GPs on a new contract in the coming days in order that we can make sure general practice is sustainable now and into the future.

Is the Taoiseach considering amending the Cabinet handbook in respect of the issue of judicial appointments? While legislation is going through the Dáil process at present, one reads in the newspapers today of a further row, in which the Minister for Justice and Equality is saying he has the authority to propose the appointment of judges and that there can be no veto on appointments. How does that marry with Article 28.2 of the Constitution, which states that the Government has to work with collective authority, as well as collective responsibility? As a former member of Cabinet, it is my understanding that there is an effective veto. If one is a member of Cabinet one has the power to say "No". Is there a change in the rules, the legislation or the interpretation of the Constitution in respect of the necessity for collective responsibility, authority or agreement on judicial appointments? The current system, in my understanding of the law, means that any Cabinet Minister has the ability to say "No" and to stop an appointment. Has that changed? Will the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice and Equality, or both outline the rules under this Government?

There has been a lot of fake news on the front pages this week. Decisions made on appointments such as this are made collectively by the Government. The decision on that particular appointment was made collectively and unanimously by the Government, so there is no need to correct the Cabinet handbook. This is the third time in the past three or four weeks that I have read a story in a newspaper about a Cabinet Minister threatening to resign, but I have yet to have one do so. They all seem to want to hold onto their positions. Perhaps they are afraid that I might say "Yes". This is more fake news I am afraid. This time it was in The Irish Times, it was the Irish Examiner earlier on in the week.

I call on Deputy Danny Healy-Rae. I know his question will be on promised legislation.

On the health of our elderly people, the lack of home help is still a serious problem in Kerry. I know it is an ambition of everyone in this Chamber to ensure that each old person is helped to stay in his or her own home as long as possible. However, we do not have enough home help hours for patients or the elderly in our county. At weekends and on Saturdays and Sundays, it is impossible to get cover. There is no cover for bank holidays. When designated home help people go on holidays, as they are entitled to, or get sick themselves, it is now happening that the old people they assist are left without any home help for two weeks at a time. We have a Minister and four Ministers of State in the Department of Health. I ask them to ensure that more home helps are hired in Kerry and that more hours are given to elderly people who wish to stay in their own homes for as long as possible. It will save the country and the State a lot of money if they do so.

I thank the Deputy. I agree with him, as do we all, that building a system which is fit for purpose and which supports people to live longer and better lives in their own homes will save a lot of money in comparison with a system in which they have to be cared for in residential settings. The difficulty at the moment, which I have mentioned on the floor here before, is twofold. It is not a matter of finance, to a point, because €420 million is being spent on home help and 17 million hours are being delivered this year. If one looks at the increase over recent years, the amount we are giving has increased exponentially but we cannot keep up with demand. We also cannot supply the number of home help staff that are required. That is another issue. As Minister of State, I have two choices. I can tinker around the edges and try to patch the system that is there, or I can bring in a complete new system that is fit for purpose and which addresses the issues which the Deputy is talking about, including weekend cover and ensuring sufficient staff for the demand. That is what I intend to do. That is pretty well in progress in my Department.

I refer to the section in the programme for Government on education and to the issue of teachers' pay. As teachers play a vital role in the education of children, recruiting and retaining new teachers is vitally important. I have met and communicated with many people starting out as teachers in west Cork over recent months. They are under huge pressure due to the very unfair pay system which is in place which, as they know and we all know, discriminates against teachers starting off. These teachers do not want any more promises. In many cases they are moving abroad to teach in countries that respect them. When does this Government intend to bring in teachers' pay equalisation?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. One of the first things I did when I entered Government was to sit down with the teachers' unions and negotiate improvements for young teachers. This represented a closing of 75% of the pay gap for young teachers. At present, a young teacher coming straight out of college is recruited at €36,000. I also made it easier for that young teacher to get a permanent position. I recognise there is still an issue that is being raised by the teachers' unions. It also affects many other new entrants into the public service. As the Deputy knows, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has assessed the cost of this and is undertaking to initiate discussions with the trade unions on this issue of new entrants' pay. I understand that those discussions will start later this week. However, it is important to say that no budgetary provision has been made in this area over and above what was provided for in the recent pay agreement made only a number of months ago. This puts constraints on Government. We are hearing many demands from across the House for more money to be spent, but there is only a limited pool available.

Perhaps this is a question for the Minister for Health. I refer to the lengthy departmental review as to where cardiac cath labs are to be located throughout Ireland. What is the update and progress on this review? Furthermore, the Minister, Deputy Harris, knows that we in the north west are being denied a vital public service and that the Saolta University Health Care Group has submitted a service plan to the HSE for approval. We need the service delivered to Sligo University Hospital as a matter of urgency. I refer also to a mental health unit that is to be provided at Sligo University Hospital. The Minister might comment on that also.

I thank Deputy McLoughlin for raising these important issues for the people of Sligo and the north west. I am delighted we have been able to deliver on a commitment to extend Sligo University Hospital under the Government's capital plan and Project Ireland 2040 and I look forward to visiting the hospital with the Deputy shortly in this regard.

The national cardiac review has commenced. I have asked Professor Philip Nolan, president of NUI Maynooth, to chair it. The review also includes a number of patient representatives picked by the Irish Heart Foundation to ensure the patient's voice is at the very heart of it. They will open a public consultation process in June, which will allow the Deputy's constituents, the people of the north west, and indeed people throughout the country, to have their say in order that we can, just as we have done in respect of cancer services and other services, build world-class cardiac services, which I have no doubt-----

Go raibh maith agat. Glaoim ar an Teachta John Brassil.

The programme for Government committed to ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and I greatly welcome that this has happened. However, a commitment was also given to improve the lives of people with disabilities and to develop a new scheme for mobility allowance and a motorised transport grant. Eight months ago, the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath, said the policy proposals were at an advanced stage. My question for the Taoiseach is when we will actually see a new grant scheme in operation.

There is a draft memo on this matter, which I saw myself only a week or two ago. It is intended that the memo to allow the legislation to be prepared will be brought to Cabinet next week or the following week jointly by the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy McGrath. Obviously, we then need to pass the legislation through these Houses. However, the intention is to do so in order that provision can be made in the Estimates for next year to bring it into effect.

In the programme for Government, under "Jobs and Rural Development", the Government has given a commitment to deliver sustainable full employment and put in place measures to revitalise Ireland in order that it benefits all and is felt inside every doorstep and every community. The opposite is the reality for staff at present in CG Power Systems in Cavan town because last Friday one of Cavan town's biggest employers announced the loss of at least 50 jobs, which has left those affected, their families and their communities reeling. If this trend were to continue, it would have a catastrophic impact on Cavan town and our county as a whole. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment today that he, his Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and, obviously, his Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, will intervene to protect the remaining 384 jobs and that the Government will put in place the measures that are needed for the staff who will find themselves out on the job market again?

If the Deputy looks at the unemployment statistics for Cavan, she will see that unemployment has decreased considerably and employment has increased considerably in the county. The Government will provide, through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the necessary social supports and, through other bodies, retraining for the staff affected to ensure they can be assisted to find alternative employment.

Reading the tracker mortgage examination update report this morning, one can only be convinced that, despite all the apologies from the CEOs for what they have done to their own customers in wrongfully taking their money from them, overcharging them and denying tracker rates to them, behind the scenes they have continued to fight the Central Bank tooth and nail. In the past 12 weeks, despite the fact that all the final figures were supposed to be in last year, we now find that the Central Bank has identified 3,400 more tracker mortgage victims. It is very clear that the culture within the banks is not changing and will not change, and we need to recognise that. It is therefore time to introduce serious legislation that will hold individual bankers to account. We have produced some of that legislation. There are two pieces before the committee, that is, class action legislation and another piece which would allow for the jailing of bankers who lie to the Central Bank. My questions to the Taoiseach are if he will allow the money messages to these pieces of legislation so they can proceed, and if he will bring in his own legislation that will see real white-collar crime dealt with in our financial institutions and hold individual bankers to account in respect of their actions.

I have not had a chance to see the report yet. It was published at 12 noon and I have been in the Chamber since then. However, I did answer a question earlier on the legislation the Government is bringing through in respect of white-collar crime.

Page 45 of the programme for Government refers to commercial rates revaluations. I have had calls and correspondence from numerous small businesses around Carlow-Kilkenny that are being crippled by 300% and 400% increases in rates. Some of the business owners to whom I have spoken will have to close. Fianna Fáil introduced a Bill in the Dáil previously proposing that the level of increases levelled on an individual business must be capped. Any increase should be allowed to be staggered at the discretion of the local authority over a five-year period. This would mean the increase would be limited and spread over time, as opposed to the current process of a single large increase. There is a clear need for a formal appeal mechanism for businesses to the local authority to restructure debt payments on the basis of ability to pay. A revaluation was carried out in Kilkenny recently. There were increases to small businesses' rates of 300% and 400%. This is impacting businesses. I am told that if there is no staggering, or if local government does not look at it, they will be closed down because they are SMEs-----

Go raibh maith agat. I call the Minister, Deputy Murphy.

I thank the Deputy for his question. The commercial rates Bill is currently being drafted. My understanding is that it does not require pre-legislative scrutiny, so once it is drafted and published, we will be able to move with it quite quickly. It will give new powers to local authorities of greater flexibility in how they treat businesses in their local authority areas.

How long will it take?

I call Deputy Kenny.

This morning, in Buswells Hotel, the Irish Farmers' Association held a briefing on vulture funds which are selling many farms around the country. It is a terrible situation. The Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, says it has become increasingly frustrated by the tactics of the vulture funds, which are forcing quick farm sales without the agreement of the farmer. The IFA is really saying it no longer has faith that the Government will do anything about this. The IFA has proposed a solution, which is to campaign for people, including auctioneers and advertisers, to boycott these sales and for people to take charge of this situation and to prevent the vulture funds from selling the many farmlands around the country. It is a terrible indictment of the Government that nothing has been done to prevent these vulture funds from carrying on in this manner.

Is there promised legislation on the matter raised?

There is no legislation promised on the matter.

I call Deputy O'Keeffe, and I think that will conclude the questions.

My question is for the Taoiseach or perhaps the Minister, Deputy Murphy. One of the pillars of the Rebuilding Ireland programme is to get new houses built. However, in Mitchelstown we have various planning permissions being approved and granted for new house builds and new estates to be built, but nothing has been able to move in recent years because the Irish Water facilities are not up to standard. In the past week we have had the even more shocking news of Irish Water's announcement that it has rebundled the upgrade to Mitchelstown's wastewater facilities with other new build facilities in east Cork. This is shocking news for people in Mitchelstown to hear.

Mitchelstown has the potential to grow. At present-----

That is fine, but what is the question?

The question is can we get Irish Water to fast-track the upgrade of the wastewater facilities in Mitchelstown.

Last week, I announced a €1.7 billion investment in Irish Water for the next three or four years, primarily in respect of wastewater services. What we have in the new housing delivery unit in the Department is a way to co-ordinate to ensure key sites ready to be built upon have the necessary services going into them. It is also an ambition we have under Project Ireland 2040 and one of the new pieces of administration we are putting in will ensure things can be aligned. If the Deputy wants to pass me a detailed note on this I will see where it sits in the actual scheme of Irish Water's priorities over the next three years.