Questions on Promised Legislation

I put it to the Taoiseach that in the context of the programme for Government and media plurality, the really concerning aspect of his remarks in New York this week is that the Taoiseach is in sympathy with President Trump's view of the media. President Trump is probably one of the worst examples of a political leader who regularly demonises the media and media personalities. The Taoiseach should not have any sympathy with him or his plight with the media.

The Taoiseach condemned the print media and said the print media is jealous of social media because it takes the print media's business. That is not the case. Social media has been shown to distort news and to be used in situations such as Brexit and in Donald Trump's election in terms of voters, news stories and fake news.

Time please Deputy.

The Taoiseach complains about there being too many journalists in Leinster House, and that they are interested in gossip. The former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, would have been very interested to hear this because-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----he considered you quite notorious in feeding the rumour mill in Leinster House on an ongoing basis with journalists and the Taoiseach was not remiss in that regard.

This is not the first time the Taoiseach has criticised the media. At the time of the setting up of the strategic communication unit the Taoiseach said-----

The Deputy is way over time.

-----that more than 80% of the media's treatment of the Government was critical, that he had a problem about that and he wanted to rebalance it.

Will the Taoiseach and the Government pursue proposals for greater media plurality and around the question of media ownership? Does the Taoiseach accept the need for regulation of social media in political debate, elections and referendums?

Anybody can distort the news. It is not just social media that distorts news.

Social media is not serious discussion, it is opinion polls.

There are many people who are well capable of distorting the news. I do not consider anybody to be above criticism or beyond reproach. Nobody likes to be criticised. I do not like it. Deputy Martin is very sensitive about it in particular when it happens.

Not half as sensitive as the Taoiseach.

If one is willing to offer criticism it is just part of democracy in many ways.

Does the Taoiseach sympathise with President Trump?

With regard to the actions we have taken to support media, we estimate that the 9% VAT rate has been worth some €100 million to the print news industry since we reduced it. We are currently bringing in amendments to the Broadcasting Act, which will reduce the broadcasting levy on independent broadcasters by up to 50%. We have also announced a new funding scheme to provide bursaries to young journalists working in local or community radio stations who produce content with a real public service value. We will carry out a review of the Defamation Act. This is being done by the Department of Justice and Equality. These are all very obvious examples of where the Government supports media and a free press. I do not think these are the kinds of things one would see being done by a US Administration.

I do not know if the Taoiseach is deliberately missing the point that is being raised. It is not a case of the media being above criticism. Of course they are not, nor should they be. For the purposes of clarity, is the Taoiseach telling us that the commentary attributed to him was wrong? Is the Taoiseach suggesting that the people who reported his comments were being deliberately misleading? Is this the Taoiseach's position? This seems to be what the Taoiseach is suggesting. Why on earth would people do that? The Taoiseach has not denied the fact that he aligned his views with those of President Donald Trump but the Taoiseach is rather coy in putting some detail around it. Which part of President Trump's analysis does the Taoiseach share? The Taoiseach and his Government have not in any way answered the issue around concentration of media ownership. Anybody looking at the Irish media landscape would immediately say this is the glaring issue that needs to be addressed.

What part of this is promised legislation?

Deputy McDonald's time is up.

What part of the Trump analysis did the Taoiseach agree with in his commentary at the event in New York? The Taoiseach is hardly suggesting that people have made these things up, or is he?

I think I answered that question already. The event was a private lunch. It was an over and back conversation. As I have said, there is a particular context to this and I was not quoted in full. I have given an example of some of the other things I said about the media, which were positive. My only reference to RTÉ was about one particular programme which was an example of how investigative journalism is not always true. People should not be afraid to acknowledge that.

The issue of media ownership was not a topic of the discussion at any point. No-one raised it. I am, however, very aware that Reporters Without Borders has produced some interesting views on this. It has stated a concern that the Independent Group is too powerful in the print media and that RTÉ is too dominant in the broadcast base. I am open to suggestions as to how we can resolve that.

The Group of States against Corruption, GRECO, is the Council of Europe body focused on measures against corruption. GRECO has submitted a report to the Government on the proposed changes to the judicial appointments system. From the leaked excerpts of the report we are aware that it is highly critical of the changes, including the amendments made up to 21 May, and it has asked that the matter be reconsidered by the authorities in Ireland. In the Seanad last night the Minister for Justice and Equality said that he had not read the report. Maybe he has read it since. It is highly unacceptable that this House would be allowed to consider these matters, and the other House be allowed to proceed with these matters, in the absence of this report. I ask the Taoiseach to agree not to proceed with the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill until all Members have had an opportunity to read in detail the analysis by an important international body that is tasked with fighting corruption.

I am aware of the report by the influential Council of Europe body to which Deputy Howlin refers. The report will be submitted for assessment to the Government tomorrow, as is normal in these circumstances. I have read the report. Without pre-empting any decision of Government, it is my expectation that the report will be published in due course, perhaps as early as tomorrow afternoon. The Bill to which the Deputy refers is not currently before this House but I expect it to be before this House before the end of this term, and after the publication of the report.

I wish to raise the issue of hate crime. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties today published its report on hate crime in Ireland. The report found that a policy vacuum exists for those people subjected to hate crimes, especially people from African backgrounds and transgender people. I am aware that this issue will be raised on Saturday at the transgender healthcare protest, which will be held at 3 p.m. It is a very serious issue and has been on the legislative books for a long time. I believe the last piece of legislation to deal with hate crime was in 1989. Perhaps the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, will comment on this.

I thank Deputy Kenny for raising this important issue. I have not yet seen the report but I have requested an early copy. Having heard some reports of the report, I believe that some aspects are disturbing. I would be very keen to act on any recommendations in the report as soon as possible, and conduct a review of the Prohibition on Incitement to Racial Religious or National Hatred Act, in the context of this report. As the Minister for Justice and Equality I want to ensure that we show zero tolerance to any form of hate crime.

The good weather is causing lots of problems for farmers and for other sections of society. Apart from that, there are hardship cases made to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on a regular basis. One lady, Maria from Emly in County Tipperary, is sick with cancer. Her husband also has cancer. Maria applied for a basic payment scheme in 2015. They have a very small holding that supports one small business. Maria augments her income with a delicatessen which she takes to country markets and so on. These people are being ignored by the Department and I have been writing on their behalf. There is no empathy in the Department for situations like this. There are many cases such as this that have GLAS payments waiting. While we might have sympathy about different issues there are real hardship cases being made to the Department. Will the Taoiseach please ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, to deal with this particular case? The case has been under appeal since 2015 with absolutely no result and no engagement from the Department at senior level. This is totally unfair to a family that is struggling with ill health and a small holding.

I thank the Deputy for raising this. If he wants to pass on some more information about that, I will certainly raise it with the Minister, Deputy Creed, but without knowing the detail, I cannot be more helpful. If I can, I will be.

We have to consider the Taoiseach's deeds as well as his words when it comes to the future of media in Ireland. He stated that the dominance of Independent News and Media in print and RTÉ in broadcasting was a problem, but we in the Oireachtas committee conducted a major study that found something different. The real problem is that Sky, Netflix, Virgin Media, Google and Facebook are sucking every penny out of the market and there is no money left for Irish media. It is on its collective knees and needs both help and funding. If we are to have a fair and balanced media, we must pay for it. The Taoiseach has dismissed the recommendations of the joint committee, which set out ways in which to do that. I am sorry, but the bursary for trainees and the reduction in the levy are not the scale of response that is required. If the Taoiseach wants a fair and free print, broadcast and online media and his words are to mean anything, he must stand up for Irish media and fund it, but the Government is refusing to do that. It is a do nothing Government in terms of media support and funding.

First of all, I did not say it. Reporters Without Borders said it in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, in which it raised concerns about the high concentration of media ownership - the Independent group in print and RTÉ in broadcasting. It is not my opinion, but a report from Reporters Without Borders, an organisation with which the Deputy will be familiar.

The Oireachtas committee's opinion was-----

I have given examples already of how Government is funding media: a significant reduction in VAT, worth about €100 million to the print industry over the past couple of years; and the licence fee. Only last year, the Government increased its contribution to the licence fee in respect of older persons, who do not have to pay it. Those are two examples-----

It is not enough.

-----probably hitting about €200 million plus, which is a lot of money.

Quite frankly, I would have reservations about using more taxpayers' money to fund the media, particularly the private sector media. I think that could potentially damage their independence. One would have to think very carefully about how one would do that-----

The Taoiseach's actions do not match his words.

-----to make sure it was done properly.

I also wish to raise the issue of media plurality. The Taoiseach cited the concerns in that regard. They play out in many ways, including the effect on the terms and conditions of people who work in the concentrated media sector, for example, pensions. Ownership is a significant issue, given that it covers a number of platforms, including social media.

Like me, the NUJ has repeatedly called for a commission on the future of media. Would the Taoiseach agree to doing something practical like this? A Bill of mine was debated in the House last year but the Government did not agree to it because I was told its impact on property rights would have been unconstitutional. When it comes to the common good, the balance in Ireland seems to be wrong.

The Deputy is right to raise the issue of pensions in the media sector. She knows the position that I took on that particular issue and legislation that the Government is preparing on that more broadly.

We do have media ownership laws in Ireland. We have the Broadcast Authority of Ireland and the former Competition Authority, which is now called the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. They take a view - I cannot remember the exact detail - that ownership should not exceed something like 20% or 25%. We do have laws around plurality of ownership and competition. I think that those decisions should be best made by an independent body. I would have concerns about us as politicians, the Government or the Oireachtas making decisions as to who should or should not own the media. It is best vested in an independent body like the competition authority.

Twenty Deputies are remaining. I call Deputy Eugene Murphy.

Yesterday, I raised with the Tánaiste news that was delivered to Roscommon's Oireachtas Members privately last Friday concerning the Rosalie unit in Castlerea, which is supposed to accommodate 33 people, a number that is now 12, with mild mental health issues, and St. Joseph's day care centre in Ballaghaderreen. Last Friday, the HSE announced that both facilities would close. The intention is to move people out of the Rosalie centre, but the HSE does not seem to have a plan in respect of the day care centre in Ballaghaderreen. While the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly's door has been open to us on this matter for months and he has tried to listen to and deal with complaints, the most vulnerable people are being left out on a limb and their families in a desperate situation. It is not good enough. I will not lecture the Taoiseach. Rather, I will ask him one question, just as I asked the Tánaiste yesterday. Will the Taoiseach pick up the phone today and tell the HSE not to close these facilities?

I will ask the Minister of State to respond.

In all fairness, the Taoiseach-----

The Minister of State answered yesterday. This is ridiculous. I asked the Taoiseach.

It is the Taoiseach's prerogative to pass the question to the Minister of State.

I would ask the Taoiseach to reconsider his prerogative and answer the question, please.

May I correct the record? It is not the closing of the unit that is at issue, but the welfare of the remaining 12 residents. As the Deputy and his colleagues are aware, a clinical assessment of the best and most appropriate setting for the care of these 12 residents has been carried out.

That assessment was independent of the HSE and me and will be independently evaluated by the College of Psychiatry in Ireland. If the assessment finds that the best place for these residents is not in Rosalie but in another unit, no politician - not the Taoiseach nor I as Minister of State - can override the clinical direction set by clinicians. We must respect it. I cannot allow these 12 residents to be used as political pawns in any power play.

That is an unfair statement.

The very best and most appropriate care-----

The Minister of State visited the centre.

-----for these people is paramount, and that is what I will protect for as long as I am in this position.

It was an unfair statement, and the Minister of State knows it.

This is not a money-saving issue.

The Minister of State is not dealing honestly with the people in-----

Deputy, please.

May I conclude? Many people have to leave their homes to move to another setting where more appropriate care can be given to them as they get older. For my parents and many others' parents, that is a fact of life. It may also be a fact of life for these people, but it will only happen if their care needs will be improved.

It is an outstanding centre and should not be condemned.

On page 80, the programme for Government commits to expanding the projects supported by drug task forces. I have raised this issue previously. A year ago, the Government launched the national drug strategy, which the House debated last week. Time and again, the Taoiseach, the Minister or the Government announce additional funding, but the problem is it is all one-off funding, not annual funding. Funding to drug task forces was cut in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and remains at 2014 levels. To achieve the efficiencies and build the capacity needed to deliver these projects, they must have annual, recurring, core funding rather than one-off funding. The Government adds up the money and says people are looking for more and more, but I am looking for a change in how this is done. Task forces need to have certainty for future projects, not one-off funding.

The Taoiseach mentioned that there would be €250,000 in additional funding this year for task forces dealing with alcohol-related issues. That will become €1 million next year. If they are to build capacity and effectively deliver their programmes, they need their core annual funding to be reinstated more than they need one-off funding.

I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to give Deputy Curran a more comprehensive reply on this, but in principle I accept his analysis. It is much better to offer organisations multi-annual funding, probably on a three-year rolling basis, so that they can plan their programmes and not be waiting until November or December to find out what their budgets will be for the next year. What we have done with a number of other organisations is to have an element of core funding, which is done on a multi-annual basis, and in addition to that have funding for one-off projects or funding on a competitive basis, where people bid for funding.

In light of the media controversy in the US, is any legislation being considered to increase the television licence fee? Do the Taoiseach's views about the station colour the Government's views about RTÉ?

I did not pick up the second part. There is not any legislation proposed to increase the licence fee. I am not sure if any party in this House is proposing there should be, but there is not any at the moment.

The programme for Government addresses access to public services and the need for Departments to be closer to citizens. I understand that in a number of cases in which the High Court ruled against various Departments of State, payment by the relevant Departments has not yet commenced. Will the Taoiseach ensure that when the High Court awards damages to individuals in cases taken against Departments, these are paid immediately?

I do not have any knowledge of the matter raised. I would be happy to hear from the Deputy if he has any specific issues. I remind him, however, that the courts are independent of these Houses.

The programme for Government includes a promise to do something about the cost of insurance. The Members opposite are the Government and Deputy Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Finance. The cost of all types of insurance has gone up and it is affecting young and old. Today we had a presentation from a group which stated that people are not even being quoted for cars that are more than ten years old. If they are quoted, the cost is probably double what it was the year before. All these ten year old cars are being dumped and have to be scrapped. Will the Taoiseach do anything about insurance? It was in the programme for Government that he would but nothing has been done. The cost of insurance goes up and up.

The Deputy's time is up.

Will we have to bring someone like Seán Quinn back into the insurance industry? People could pay for insurance when he was involved.

I call Deputies Brian Stanley and Eamon Scanlon on the same matter.

People with 11 year old cars are being loaded with 50% to 60% additional costs. This is affecting people in rural Ireland, young drivers and people who get up early in the morning to go to work. There is no reason for loading in the case of second-hand cars that are 11 or 12 years old if they have a national car test, NCT, and are in perfect mechanical condition. From an environmental point of view, a recent report shows that the cost of manufacturing a new car, in terms of CO2 emissions, is the equivalent of driving 150,000 km in an average Ford Focus car. Those are the facts. The insurance industry is screwing and penalising people in rural Ireland, young drivers and older drivers. Cars of that age have an NCT every year and there is no reason to treat them differently from any other car. It is simply a way of picking the pockets of-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----poor and low income workers and pensioners.

In 2015, there were 44,300 owners of cars more than ten years old. In 2018, the number had increased to 139,300. There are many reasons for the increase, one of which is affordability because people cannot afford to change their cars as often. Another is that with the quality of cars today, if they are serviced and looked after, means that ten, 12, 14 or 15 year old cars can work perfectly. The insurance companies have been mentioned. The Insurance (Amendment) Bill must come before the House in order that we can debate this issue. Insurance companies have been ripping people off for too long and it is costing jobs. If they get their way on this issue, it will close down small garages throughout the country and cause a loss of revenue for the Exchequer. It will also devalue other people's cars because if cars are scrapped at ten years, no one will buy an eight year old car. This policy is having a serious knock-on effect.

I raise the same issue. An insurance company refusing to insure a car that has passed an NCT, whether it is owned by an older or young driver, is nothing short of discrimination. This practice has been raised by Deputies of all parties, including me, a number of times and needs to stop. What actions will be taken against these insurance companies or will they be allowed to continue to do as they please by ripping people off and discriminating?

The Insurance (Amendment) Bill will be before the House next week. That will be an opportunity to debate this issue and propose solutions. I do not know why the insurance industry adds premiums to older cars. I am sure it has a reason but it is important that it explains-----

-----why that is done and if it is based on a genuine risk assessment or not. While there has been a significant increase in motor insurance premiums in recent years, some of the actions taken on foot of the report to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, which are being followed through by the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, have seen motor insurance policies and premiums stabilise in the last couple of months. Indeed, they have fallen by about 20%.

Page 118 of the programme for Government, under the heading of agriculture and the marine, states: "Our existing systems to ensure producers and consumers can be assured of quality from farm to fork will be strengthened and maintained to the highest of standards." A recent report from DG SANTE, the health and safety arm of the European Commission, found that many of the post mortem inspections of beef exported to the EU from Brazil are performed by factory staff. Only a small number of post mortem inspections are done by official veterinary staff. This practice, which would be illegal in Europe, is a food safety issue. How can the consumer be assured that all food sold in Ireland but produced outside the EU is of the same standard as food produced within the EU?

I am afraid I will have to ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to provide the Deputy with a more detailed reply. I am sure there are procedures in place to make sure that products are approved before they enter the EU market. In our discussions on Mercosur at a European level, the Government is strongly making the case that we should not allow significant increases in beef coming into the country from South America unless our own industry, which is very sensitive to this, is protected, and we are sure that anything coming into the European food chain is of the highest standard.

The Taoiseach mentioned investment in rural Ireland earlier. Page 50 of the programme for Government deals with the issue of rural transport. This week, I met providers in County Meath to hear about discussions held between LocalLink, a national not-for-profit organisation for local bus providers, and the National Transport Authority, NTA, about renewal of contracts for the LocalLink service. The fear among local providers in Meath and elsewhere arises because the NTA will not confirm whether commercial bus providers will be able to tender for these routes alongside not-for-profit operators. In County Meath, the local Flexibus service carried more than 178,000 passengers last year across Meath, Louth and Fingal. It provides a life link for elderly and disabled people and has more than 20 years of experience. If the NTA allows commercial operators to enter this sector, the ethos of the service in Meath, Louth and Fingal will change. When will confirmation be provided in respect of the public procurement process? Crucially, will the Government defend the not-for-profit local operators who provide local rural links and ensure the service provider puts people rather than profit first?

I am not familiar with that tender. I will have to ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to give a more detailed reply.

The Taoiseach spoke to the CEO about it two weeks ago.

We put people before profit when it comes to a tender such as this or any tender. We need to make sure the contract goes to the companies or organisations that will give the public the best service possible for the lowest cost to the taxpayer. That is how any tender should be approached. It should be the best service for the public at the lowest cost for the taxpayer.

There is a human element too.

Following on from the CervicalCheck scandal, many people in the thalidomide community had hoped their litigation would be completed in a sensitive and timely fashion, rather than through an adversarial court system. It is clear the Minister for Health has instructed his legal team to endeavour to achieve a technical knock-out of the thalidomide litigants' entitlement by bringing a spurious legal point. The chairperson of the Irish Thalidomide Association condemns in the strongest possible manner the actions of the Minister with regard to his unwarranted, inappropriate and insensitive approach. The Taoiseach said recently that we need to create a culture of truth in the health service. Where is the culture of truth for these people, many of whom are still waiting to have their cases settled? Why would the Government not take the same sensible and more humane approach that it took in respect of the CervicalCheck scandal and take care of these litigants who deserve justice now?

I call Deputy Jack Chambers on the same issue.

The Government and the State Claims Agency have said they will have a changed approach with regard to victims, particularly when addressing sensitive cases. However, on the thalidomide issue, the State Claims Agency has been extremely adversarial in the High Court. This issue warrants the attention of the Taoiseach and the relevant Minister. The 2013 offer from the Government did not provide any individual assessment of the damage or disability caused by thalidomide use.

The Government needs to review how the State Claims Agency is dealing with a particular and finite number of people who have a legacy dating back over 40 years. I know that the Taoiseach is aware of the issue and he must be compassionate.

I am not aware of the detail of any individual case before the courts and it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it. What I do know is that people who were victims of thalidomide received compensation from the German manufacturing company that produced it. One of the difficulties that arises is that any compensation that would come from Irish authorities would be placed against the payments given by the German company. That is one of the problems in going to arbitration.

That concludes questions on promised legislation. Nine Deputies were not reached today.