Questions on Promised Legislation

Electric Ireland yesterday announced a 6.2% increase in electricity prices and an 8% increase in gas prices starting in August. This electricity price increase is on top of a 4% increase last February and is symptomatic of a range of utility price increases affecting families and homes across the country. This new increase will add approximately €50 per annum to electricity bills on top of the €30 added earlier this year. What proposal does the Government have to address the rising cost of utility bills, and indeed the rising cost of living in general, for families across the country?

The Government is acutely aware of the financial challenges faced by families and businesses from high electricity and gas prices. The Government's position is that a competitive electricity market, alongside energy efficiency, represents the most effective means of reducing household and business energy costs in Ireland. Domestic customers can avail of discounts either by contacting their supplier directly or by using accredited websites. We think the answer here is to ensure that we maintain a competitive market where customers and businesses are offered new products in that competitive market. We encourage them to look around at different suppliers rather than simply stick with their existing supplier without looking for better deals, because they are there.

I raise the issue of the huge burden of insurance costs and the crisis is not just in motor insurance but is also in business insurance, as we predicted. There are many causes of the high cost of insurance but one of them is the issue of claims harvesting. It has become dominant in the market recently. These are ordinary people, not solicitors, who set up websites giving the impression that they are solicitors and they tout for business in personal injury claims. They then sell on that information and data to lawyers who pick up the claims. It is unlawful and the Law Society has closed down 14 websites in the last three years and taken two major prosecutions to the High Court in respect of the leading websites. It is still not enough. We need robust regulation and reform in this sector. When I ask the Minister, he says it is a grey area but these grey areas are pushing up costs on businesses, motorists and on home insurance. What is the Government going to do to get to grips, finally, with this issue? The Government has been well aware of it for the last number of years.

We will get an answer for the Deputy. I call the Tánaiste.

I will give a direct answer to that question. There is a huge responsibility on the Law Society, and if it wants to prevent the Government changing its approach towards the work it does, and the balance between what the Law Society does and what the State does in terms of regulation, it needs to deal with this issue with a firm hand. The Deputy said that it has ensured that a number of websites have been closed down, but if there is a persistent problem which results in increases in insurance claims, the Law Society should reflect on that and respond accordingly.

The debate on the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017 continued last night until just after 10 p.m. Three other Bills at Final Stage were scheduled for debate which were not reached, one of which was the Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries and Distilleries) Bill 2016 from Deputy Alan Kelly, which would allow distilleries and microbreweries, in particular, to sell their wares. We are in the height of the summer season now and it is peak time for breweries and distilleries. Such enterprises are organising tours of these new facilities but they cannot give a sample or allow people to buy the product at the end of the tour.

People cannot drink on those tours. How would they get home?

Other Bills, such as the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017 which would regulate and reform banded hours contracts that are important for workers, were also due to be discussed. Some Members might have an interest in that legislation. These matters, along with the Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries and Distilleries) Bill 2016, were listed last week and again this week. While this is fundamentally a matter for the Business Committee, but I ask that these Bills, which will pass readily, be listed as a priority before other legislation next week.

They are scheduled to be dealt with next week.

The Tánaiste will have to ask for permission from Deputy Ross first.

I ask that those Bills be scheduled before Bills that might be likely to attract a lot of debate.

The Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries and Distilleries) Bill 2016 is scheduled for next week. Perhaps there is an irony in that.

There are ironies there.

Those who are involved in the Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries and Distilleries) Bill 2016 understand the differences between the two because they are genuinely different issues. On the ongoing saga of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017, the Members who are filibustering on it should reflect on the impact their tactics are having on other important legislation which is being delayed. I do not want to start pointing the finger at people, but if we continue to behave like this we will make a farce of this House.

Under the programme for Government, the Government has committed to continued support for victim groups representing victims of the violence in Northern Ireland and to promote reconciliation. Can the Tánaiste please comment on the appointment of Mr. Drew Harris as the Garda Commissioner given the Truth and Reconciliation Platform has described it as a massive step backwards and a hammer blow to victims and survivors of British security services in collusion with loyalist gangs? Mr. Drew Harris has been accused by a judge in Belfast of seriously compromising the historical inquiries team. This issue has to be brought into the open. Are we seriously saying, in the context of the onset of Brexit and all the problems that might bring, that we are going to compromise the historical inquiries team and the cases which relate to historical victims by appointing Mr. Harris to the role of Garda Commissioner without him answering the allegations that have been made against him? Will the Tánaiste consider setting up a special inquiry committee so that the leaders of parties in this House and the survivors of those tragedies can question the new Garda Commissioner about these extraordinarily serious allegations?

I have been involved in the discussions on how structures can be put in place to deal with legacy issues. I have met many families, both unionist and nationalist, since I started this job, which I am privileged to have. The stories are heartbreaking; families have been waiting for far too long for truth and justice in many cases. There is a big responsibility on everybody, whether in the context of police forces, governments, politicians or community leaders, to co-operate with those structures. A public consultation process is currently under way in Northern Ireland on dealing with legacy issues and legacy structures, and that will continue. To try to bring Mr. Drew Harris into this in a way that potentially undermines him before he even starts his new job as Garda Commissioner is wrong. He has been through a long and testing recruitment process and has come through it as the best candidate. It says a lot about Ireland that is positive - that we are accepting and largely welcoming of the second most senior officer in the Police Service of Northern Ireland to lead An Garda Síochána and manage the reform that is required going into the future.

Nobody is trying to bring Mr. Harris into this. He is already involved in it. I am just asking for an opportunity to question him.

Please, Deputy.

The Government will support Mr. Harris in that, as well as supporting a transparent and appropriate set of structures to ensure we can move forward-----

This is not an appropriate time to have a debate about this particular matter.

It is absolutely appropriate.

It is absolutely not the appropriate time.

When would it be appropriate?

This concerns the programme for Government.

If the Deputy wants to raise a Topical Issue matter, for example, she is welcome to do so.

I raised a Topical Issue matter on this but the Ceann Comhairle refused to take it today.

The Deputy can raise the matter again.

I beg the indulgence of the Ceann Comhairle for a brief moment to refute what the Tánaiste has said about Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017. We are entitled to represent our constituents, and when there is a bad legislation, it should be opposed. It is damaging to rural Ireland and has not been rural-proofed.

Almost 14,000 people have tried to enter this country illegally since 2014. There has been a huge increase year on year. In 2014, it was 2,000, then it increased to 4,000. These people are roaming around, and all they have to do while they await an assessment, is sign on at a local Garda station. The Garda stations are not there, and there are no gardaí in them. This is farcical. Some 14,000 people have attempted to come in illegally, and we are talking about what is happening in America and elsewhere. We should mind our own shores, protect our own people and families and have this dealt with immediately. What actions are being taking by the Tánaiste to deal with this?

There is a difference between filibustering and voting against legislation.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

If the Deputy does not agree with the legislation, he should vote against it, but he should not hold up the democratic will of this House-----

We will not be bullied or browbeaten.

-----which is aimed at saving lives.

It is bad legislation. The Government has abandoned rural Ireland.

The Tánaiste was not even here for the debate.

The Deputies should allow the Tánaiste to speak.

I listened to the Deputy.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is a lone ranger with dog's dinner legislation.

The Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill 2017 is being introduced to save lives in counties such as Tipperary.

The Tánaiste is playing that card again. It is bad legislation.

Deputy, please.

If the Deputy believes it is bad legislation, he should vote against it and let democracy take its course.

When I speak about Ireland abroad, I am proud of the fact that we have never, in my political lifetime, chosen to use migration or immigration as a source of political division or to create fear across society.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

I hope that will continue. We should not talk about how we manage people who come to Ireland illegally in the context of protecting our society. That is done by An Garda Síochána, which does a good job at protecting citizens.

People who come to Ireland illegally do so either to claim asylum or because they are economic migrants, and we have systems to ensure that we can test the difference between both. We should focus on those systems rather than creating ambiguity or grey areas that play on the fears of citizens.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

The Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2017 commenced Report Stage on Wednesday. I was advised by Deputy Pringle that the Business Committee has not scheduled that Bill for discussion over the next two weeks. We need an explanation for that, because thousands of workers, both rural and urban, are waiting for this Bill to go through. It is hugely anticipated and it should be progressed over the next two weeks. We cannot leave this legislation until after the summer recess.

We would have been able to discuss this legislation last night if not for the filibustering that occurred. The actions of those Deputies have genuine consequences. We can all agree on that. The legislation is on a list, and I genuinely hope that we get to it before the recess.

Can the legislation be prioritised? I was told it was.

It is a priority. We are doing nothing else except discussing this Bill. There is very little left to discuss at Report Stage. The ambition was to try to get the legislation in and out of the Seanad before the summer break, and that ambition has not changed.

Put it in early next week.

The ambition was to try to get the legislation in and out of the Seanad before the summer break, and that has not changed.

Let us try to do that.

It has to be prioritised.

Page 97 of the programme for Government promises: "We will double the number of apprenticeships to provide a total of 31,000 places by 2020". However, employers throughout west Cork are telling me that there is a scarcity of skilled tradespeople on the ground. Will the Government overturn the decision in the 2014 budget to impose the new pro rata student contribution, and reinstate the State contribution to remove apprenticeship fees?

The Minister for Education and Skills, in particular, has been active in dramatically increasing the number of apprenticeship programmes. Approximately, 80,000 more people have been employed on building sites throughout the country in the past year, which is a dramatic change. However, we need apprenticeships to an extent that we have not needed them for a decade in other sectors too. I can ask Deputy Bruton to come back to the Deputy with a detailed answer.

This is a question for the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, concerning the future of three community hospitals in Donegal; Ramelton Community Hospital, St. Joseph's Hospital in Ballybofey-Stranorlar and Lifford Community Hospital, where the Minister of State attended a public meeting last February. The key issue at stake is whether the investment to bring them up to Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, standards will be forthcoming, and whether there will be a political commitment from the Minister of State and the Government that the long-stay beds at those hospitals will be retained. That commitment has not been clearly given yet. A new community hospital in Letterkenny needs to be expedited to increase capacity in the county. That has to happen alongside the retention and development of long-stay beds at the three community hospitals. Can the Minister of State give that commitment on that, and an update on same?

I will have to get an update for the Deputy on the progression of the building project in Letterkenny and where the three existing hospitals are at. I will revert to him on that.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. Apologies to the six Members who were not reached.