Questions on Promised Legislation

I remind the House that, as is customary, we only have 15 minutes on a Thursday for questions on promised legislation. I ask Members to take this into consideration.

I return to the issue of inquiries. Prior to the general election in 2016, a commission of inquiries Bill had reached Committee Stage and been awaiting Report Stage since September 2015. The Bill had been suggested by the Law Reform Commission in its 2005 report. It has not been restored to the Order Paper since the general election. Surely this is the time to give priority to establishing a new framework for inquiries, to involve, in particular, public observance of inquiries.

I am told that the Bill was brought forward during the term of the previous Government. It was not reinstated on the list of legislation to be brought forward by the Government, but I can get back to the Deputy with more details. My understanding is it is not on any list for consideration.

The Tánaiste will be aware that the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, is holding its annual conference in Cork. It has made it very clear that the issue of pay is central to addressing the crisis in the recruitment and retention of nursing professionals. The crisis is having a severe effect on the hospital network, including community hospitals. There is broad agreement that if we are to see the issue being addressed, the issue of pay has to be central. The Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance supported a Sinn Féin motion which was passed unanimously by the House last week that examined and proposed solutions to the crisis. When will the Government sit down with nurses to address the fundamental issue of pay?

I thank the Deputy for the question. I look forward to attending the INMO conference tomorrow and having an opportunity to engage with nurses and midwives on this issue. As the Deputy rightly said, the Public Service Pay Commission is considering issues to do with the recruitment and retention of staff in the healthcare sector. It is due to report shortly - I believe during the summer. I know that the INMO has had an opportunity to make its submission and also to engage with the commission. We will be guided in our next moves by its findings.

As he is taking questions on proposed legislation, I want to raise a matter with the Tánaiste. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement which was signed 20 years ago, there is a commitment to introduce a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. There is grave concern, with Brexit less than a year away, that such a Bill of Rights has not yet been progressed. Where does it stand? Will the Government seek agreement in the final withdrawal agreement with the United Kingdom on a commitment to passing of a Bill of Rights? It would provide a degree of comfort for many Irish citizens in Northern Ireland who are genuinely concerned. Yesterday many of us met a range of human rights organisations. The Tánaiste may have met them also.

A public commitment in that regard would be very welcome.

That is a very fair request. I met the organisations yesterday. It was not the first time I had met the rights commissioners on both sides of the Border. There is a great deal of concern in Northern Ireland in the context of a multitude of rights people enjoy today because of EU membership and the clarity provided, for example, by the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The uncertainty surrounding the status of many of these rights and expectations post-Brexit is causing a lot of concern. The commitment in the Good Friday Agreement to bringing forward a Bill of Rights has been part of the conversation in trying to put back in place a devolved government structure in Northern Ireland between the parties there and between the Irish and British Governments.

I will be meeting the Secretary of State, Ms Karen Bradley, later this afternoon and want to discuss with her, in the context of Northern Ireland and Brexit, the concerns raised with me yesterday and the need for the British Government to provide greater reassurance through the negotiations on rights and equality issues generally. As part of it, a Bill of Rights would be very helpful, but, of course, we cannot deliver it without the British Government wanting to do it, too.

I raise the very important issue of identity fraud. Does the Government have plans to introduce measures to deal with it in the Data Protection Bill? I am aware of the case of a constituent of mine, Mr. Adam Keane, who has been convicted of a driving offence, despite not being able to drive, in what appears to be a clear case of stolen identity. He faced a similar situation on two previous occasions and the gardaí involved agreed that he was not driving the car. He is sitting in Portlaoise Prison and appealing his conviction, but his case points to the broader need for legislative action to prevent and tackle identity theft.

That sounds like a very difficult case. The Data Protection Bill has reached Committee Stage. It was debated yesterday and will be debated again today. Therefore, there is an opportunity for parties or individuals to raise specific cases to ensure the new legislation will deal some of the issues that have been raised.

I refer to the Rebuilding Ireland programme. I am glad that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is in the House. The Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme is not working. My colleagues in the Rural Independents group and many other Deputies know of cases of people who had no problem in receiving refusals from the banks, either by telephone or email, but when they apply to the county councils, they find that there is no co-ordination between the Department and the local authorities. They are all over the place.

Does the Deputy have a question?

I am referring to people on modest incomes who have some savings and want to house themselves. They are not expecting the Government to provide them with housing. They are honest, hard working and on modest incomes, but there is utter confusion between the county councils and the Department. Someone needs to provide clarity and the county councils need to be on the same page as the Minister. It is a serious issue-----

It is not necessary to elaborate further on it.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for his question. The Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme which I announced earlier this year has proved to be very popular.

It is popular, but it is not working.

There has been great interest across the country in the loan scheme and there have been a number of successful applicants to date this year. However, we have to be very careful. We must make prudent decisions in the context of mortgage lending at local authority level. A meeting was held last week between officials from my Department, the Housing Agency and the Housing Finance Agency to discuss the implementation of the loan scheme in certain local authorities where there may be a misunderstanding. Communications will issue to these local authorities to help them to better deal with the public in accessing this very important mortgage option.

They are not getting access to it.

The loan is at a fixed rate over 30 years and a very important product for those who want to buy their own homes.

Pages 26 and 27 of the programme for Government contain a series of commitments to tackle the homelessness crisis. Obviously having accurate data for the numbers of people in emergency accommodation is vital to track the progress or otherwise of these commitments. On Monday the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government alleged that local authorities had wrongly included 600 people in their homeless person figures. However, it now appears that none of the people in question is in private rented accommodation or a council tenancy and they are all in emergency or temporary accommodation. Will the Minister explain why, on his instructions, councils were told to remove homeless families from the March report? Is this not a case of deliberately manipulating the figures? Will the Minister apologise to homeless families for treating them in this way and give a commitment to publish updated and accurate figures for March as a matter of urgency?

On the same subject, as Deputy Eoin Ó Broin said, the Minister for Planning, Community and Local Government instructed Louth County Council to remove 100 households, including 32 children, from its homeless person figures, despite the fact that they were living in temporary or emergency accommodation because they were homeless. The county council still considers these individuals and families to be homeless. How low will the Minister go to conceal the true extent of the homelessness and housing crisis? There are 4,500 people on the housing waiting list in County Louth, but there are land banks lying barren and bereft of any social or affordable housing. If the Minister put as much effort into funding the roll-out of a proper social and affordable housing building programme as he does into concealing, hiding and covering up the figures for homeless persons, he would not have to stoop so low in the future.

We must move on. A brief response from the Minister, please.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle-----

I have a direct question for the Tánaiste.

Does the Tánaiste stand over the Minister's tactics of concealment and cover-up of homeless persons figures?

I have been more than fair. The Tánaiste has delegated to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government.

Does he stand over the Minister's tactics?

The Deputy cannot continue talking. I will finish questions on promised legislation now, if she wishes. The Minister has been delegated to respond by the Tánaiste.

This is a bizarre intervention by Sinn Féin. The mask might be slipping in that it is now trying to politicise the homelessness crisis.

(Interruptions).

So desperate is it to see the numbers go up that it thinks we should be counting people who are not living in emergency accommodation as homeless.

(Interruptions).

We encountered an error-----

Where are they? They are living in emergency accommodation.

No, they are not living in hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation, hubs or hostels.

The love-in is over.

In some instances, they are living in private rented accommodation.

On a temporary basis.

(Interruptions).

They never went into homelessness.

They are living in emergency accommodation.

(Interruptions).

We cannot have a debate on the matter.

This is shameful.

We will move on. Deputy Michael Collins is next.

This is deliberation manipulation by Sinn Féin-----

(Interruptions).

Unless the Minister gets a hearing, we will movie on to Deputy Michael Collins.

This is disgraceful. The Minister is deliberately misleading the House.

Is he saying to the families in question and their children that they are not homeless?

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle-----

The Deputies must give the Minister a hearing.

The Minister is doing a disservice-----

No, it is Sinn Féin that is doing a disservice to homeless persons-----

If Deputies do not give the Minister a hearing, it is not possible-----

It is Sinn Féin that is doing a disservice. We have to focus on the people living in emergency accommodation who need our help, people who are sleeping rough on the streets-----

They are living in emergency accommodation.

They are and the Government-----

No, they are not. In some instances, they are living in private rented accommodation. They never went into homelessness.

It is shocking.

We should not count them as being homeless because it does a disservice to those who actually are homeless. That is where our focus should be, not on Sinn Féin's political antics.

Shame on the Minister.

Page 118 of the programme for Government contains a commitment to invest €15 million in island communities. Bere Island off Castletownbere has over 200 permanent residents and is visited by many more holidaymakers. A permanent, registered HSE general nurse has been working on the island, but in recent times this nurse has been taken from the island to the mainland on various days to cover planned and unplanned leave by colleagues.

The Deputy should not get into the micro details now but deal with the macro issue.

This leaves many on the island without a service. This is a very worrying time for the residents who fear that this is the beginning of a withdrawal of the service. Will the Tánaiste assure the people of Bere Island that this will not happen?

I know Bere Island very well as I travel there every summer. The Government has invested heavily on the island, including in water and electricity infrastructure and a new pier. Millions of euro have been spent because we appreciate and recognise the role of island communities off west Cork, as well as other island communities off the west and north-west coasts. If there are issues with health care service provision on the island, I would like to hear more about them and can assure the Deputy that the Government will deal with them.

I hear on the grapevine that the numbering system will not continue next week. That is welcome. Allied to and part of the disgraceful health scandal that is the smear test debacle is the failure to supply information on current health status. The Taoiseach said an immediate priority was the fast-tracking of the health information and patient safety Bill to address this issue. While those who are impacted on by the smear test scandal must be our immediate focus, it is equally important to ensure anyone with a health diagnosis will be provided with full information in an open and honest manner. Members of this House, as well as the general public, want to know the timeframe involved in addressing this anomaly in order that people will be provided with the facts. Any open disclosure system should be mandatory. We also need a patients' charter which will include a requirement that information be provided for patients.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He is correct that one of the most tangible things this Oireachtas could do is pass legislation to provide for mandatory open disclosure in the health service of serious, reportable incidents. I will go to the Cabinet on Tuesday for permission to draft such legislation.

I have separated it from the broader Bill to which the Deputy referred in order that we can prioritise it and get it through quickly. I will be happy to work with him in that regard.

This issue comes under the remit of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I have been approached by a number of farmers and the IFA regarding the urgent need to release the 50% of GLAS payments due to farmers. Sheep welfare payments also need to be issued urgently. Separately, there is concern regarding the extension of electronic identification to all sheep. These issues have been highlighted in every constituency and, particularly in my own area, because of the lack of funding. It is vitally important that the payments be made immediately.

I would like to make a suggestion on the sheep tagging issue. In fairness to the Minister, he met Opposition spokespersons about electronic tagging last year and he suggested that something might be coming in. Most people agreed it would be good for the sheep industry. However, we expected that it would be introduced under the sheep welfare scheme and that it would be announced in the budget last October with an increased payment under the scheme. Farmers would have welcomed that but having to do without any payment is a little too much.

The Minister has been speaking to Opposition to spokespersons and to our own Deputies in respect of the tagging and, therefore, I will leave that to him. However, I recognise the difficulties the farming community has had. This has been one of the worst winters and springs that I can remember and the Minister is working hard to ensure that all payments due are released without delay. A significant effort is being made in his Department to make sure that that will be the case.

My question relates to promised legislation under the remit of the Minister for Health. At the time of the introduction of the Health Information and Patient Safety Bill 2015, the HSE had responsibility for governance of, and provision for, children in care. Earlier, on "Today with Sean O'Rourke", the reporter, Mr. Brian O'Connell, comprehensively covered an issue relating to data collection for siblings in care. No data are being gathered in respect of them. Will the Government introduce a children's information Bill? If siblings are taken into foster care and then separated, no data are being gathered.

This is a relevant issue but it probably comes under the remit of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs rather than the Minister for Health. I am informed by the Minister for Health that he will liaise with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and revert to the Deputy on this.

No. 7 was taken by Deputy Munster. I call Deputy Stanley on No. 8.

I raised this issue of wind farm guidelines with the Taoiseach on Tuesday afternoon. He replied that he would ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to respond to me. I received a letter from the Minister earlier in which he states public consultation on the draft guidelines will not start until later this year and he hopes to have them finalised and in place by late 2018. Who is holding this process back? He also said that in the meantime, the 2006 wind energy guidelines would remain in force. I support wind energy generation as part of the renewable energy mix but the problem is giant turbines are springing up. The latest 12 for which planning permission has been granted will be erected in Moanvane, Walsh Island, County Offaly, just outside Portarlington. Can the Tánaiste find out who is holding the guidelines back? Five years ago, the former Ministers, Phil Hogan and Pat Rabbitte, repeatedly told me and others in the House that they would be in place "shortly". Six years later, they have still not been implemented.

The Government is anxious to move on with the public consultation process regarding new guidelines. The public will have a say and we will move as quickly as we can to make sure new comprehensive guidelines are put in place before the end of the year.

I refer to page 41 of the programme for Government, which refers to leadership on jobs targets and rural development, and the regional spread of economic growth and jobs. Yesterday, the community of Athy was devastated by the news that Coca-Cola, which has been a strong employer in the town for 45 years, will close its factory with the immediate loss of 82 jobs and a consequential impact on 70 other jobs. I cannot overstate what this will do to the town with the loss of millions of euro to the local economy. It is a massive blow to a community that is battling unemployment issues. What will the Government do to ensure every support is made available to the former workers and to redouble efforts to ensure IDA Ireland investment in Athy? I have spoken to other local employers such as Pfizer which are prepared to help and review CVs. We need Government action immediately.

As I outlined to my party colleague, Deputy Martin Heydon, when this was brought to his attention yesterday, the full support of my Department will be given to the 82 workers affected. We will host an event in Athy where departmental officials will meet the workers to inform them about their social protection entitlements and, more important, to examine their skill sets and get them back to work in a different environment. I will inform the Deputy when the event has been organised and I would be grateful if she would attend as well as a local representative.

Does the Tánaiste consider it to be ethical, practical or good management to allow the chief executive officer of the HSE to take a lucrative second appointment to a health company board in California? Do any of the provisions of the Standards in Public Office Act 2001 or other ethics legislation or public service codes of conduct apply to the CEO or is he exempt from such requirements? At a time women are hurting-----

We have had this debate. There is a question to the Minister for Health on ethics.

We hear about the gig economy but it is extraordinary to most women that the CEO would have been allowed by the Minister for Health or his predecessor to take a second lucrative appointment-----

I have been more than generous with time.

-----when it is a big enough job to run the HSE.

The contract of the director general who was appointed during the previous Fine Gael-Labour Party Government allows him to take up employment where the Minister sanctions it. This was employment of less than five hours a month but, rightly, considering the important issues the Deputy highlighted for women's health and the need for him to focus on that exclusively for the remaining few weeks of his term, he has appropriately taken a leave of absence from it.

With regard to the question regarding SIPO, I will revert to the Deputy directly.

The employment was sanctioned within days of the Minister taking up office. It is very strange.

It was not within days.

Sitting suspended at 1.08 p.m. and resumed at 1.48 p.m.