Leaders' Questions

Bienvenue to our visitors. I wish them a pleasant stay.

It is now ten weeks since the lid was lifted on the appalling collapse in standards at CervicalCheck and the failure to communicate that collapse. It is ten weeks since the courage of Vicky Phelan in fighting her case and resisting enormous legal pressure to sign a gagging order came into the public domain. Let us never forget that if Vicky Phelan had signed that gagging order, the public may never have heard of what is facing hundreds of women across the country. It is nine weeks since Emma Mhic Mhathúna stopped the country in its tracks when she spoke on "Morning Ireland". Her interview shook the country to its core. If the Tánaiste needs to hear of the impact that this failure of the State has had on people's lives, he should listen to Emma's interview with Miriam O'Callaghan a few minutes ago on "Today with Sean O'Rourke" wherein she described how her condition has deteriorated because of that failure. It is nine weeks since there was an emergency Cabinet meeting on the issue, the resignation of the director general of the HSE and promises from the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, that they were going to do everything to resolve this matter, use every possible resource to so do and that there would be no delays.

However, we now see the falsity of those promises. RTÉ News, an organisation which has a special place in the Taoiseach's heart, today reported that the independent review of 3,000 smear tests has yet to begin. That news is not new. Justine McCarthy, in an article in The Sunday Times on 17 June, reported that the delay was likely. When the review was announced by the Taoiseach in the House on 2 May, he committed to it being completed by the end of May. Today is 5 July but the review has yet to commence.

Why did the Taoiseach come to the House and make a promise he knew he could not keep to a group of women who had already been let down by the State? When he made that announcement on 2 May, he stated that he wished to restore confidence in our cancer screening programmes. All Members wish for him and the Government to so do. However, all we got on 2 May were words to get him through Leaders' Questions but on which there has been no follow through. The failure to follow through on those commitments has further undermined the confidence which all Members wish to be restored.

I do not ask the Tánaiste for answers or sympathy but, rather, a plan. Does he understand the distress, pain and worry through which those women and their families are going? The Tánaiste should not try to get out of the Chamber and hope we do not ask more questions on this issue because we will keep asking questions. I ask him for an exact timeline for the commencement and conclusion of the review. Will the scope of the Scally inquiry be adjusted as the review is important to its findings? I ask the Tánaiste to confirm the accuracy of the figures presented to the Committee of Public Accounts this morning which indicate that 221 women have been affected. Can he confirm that all of those women have received medical cards and financial support as promised by the Taoiseach on 2 May?

The Government encourages questions on this issue. That is why the discussion and questioning at the Committee of Public Accounts this morning are, and will continue to be, appropriate. The Government is an open book on the issue.

The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, the Taoiseach and many others have prioritised the support of the women and families involved in the scandal since it broke. Many Members of the House have worked with individuals linked to the scandal and will continue to so do. An hour ago, the Minister introduced the heads of new disclosure legislation, following through on the commitments he made in that regard. It is wrong to suggest that the Government has not been active on the issue, prioritised the support of women and families caught up in this tragedy or is not moving ahead with the commitments it made.

It is important to state that the Government has agreed to move ahead with the report of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which is an organisation of international standing independent of the Government and has its own procedures that it needs to put in place. We have asked it to undertake a complex review which involves much accurate assessment and that is about to take place but the Government cannot impose the timetable for it. We must ensure the review is fully accurate and has the confidence of everyone caught up in the CervicalCheck scandal and, more important, the women of Ireland, who need to know that we have learned lessons and fully understand why mistakes were made. Of course, we will encourage a speedy review to ensure the information gathered by that independent body is accurate and allows us to learn lessons. In the meantime, we will continue to work with individuals who have been hugely courageous in exposing this scandal and continue to put support packages in place for them and their families.

The Tánaiste stated that he encourages questions but he has just shown that he is not very good at giving answers. The Taoiseach, while in the seat in which the Tánaiste is now sitting, promised that the review would be completed by the end of May. Nobody else in the House made that commitment. The review is complex and there is science involved and we want it to be done properly but the Taoiseach set out the timetable for it and the Government has failed to deliver on that. The Government was alerted to a problem in that regard on 17 June but Fergal Bowers of RTÉ today revealed that the Government has done nothing to address it.

The Tánaiste stated that lessons have been learned. What lessons does he think are learned by further undermining confidence? I asked him to confirm the number of women affected which was presented to the Committee of Public Accounts today by the HSE. Have all of those women received medical cards and the financial supports guaranteed to them or will they be dragged through the courts as was Vicky Phelan?

I respectfully ask Deputy Calleary to be responsible in terms of how this issue is discussed and covered. The figure of 221 is correct but that is not new information. The Committee of Public Accounts was informed at its meeting on 14 June that the audits of a further 12 women were close to completion.

That is the additional 12. The Minister is also ensuring these women are receiving the supports available.

In terms of trying to ensure that court cases and an adversarial environment are not part of the legal actions women and families are choosing to take, the State has been active on that. I was very pleased to see that Emma Mhic Mhathúna's case was settled without any further court hearings or court action. We will endeavour to ensure that is the case for other women and families involved as well.

I raise with the Tánaiste the future care of 12 older people with dementia living in the Rosalie home in Castlerea, County Roscommon. The Rosalie home is a continuing care facility for the psychiatry of later life patients. While the Health Service Executive, HSE, was still in denial last Friday, the families involved had to hear about the definite decision to close the home on local radio on Monday morning of this week when the HSE's chief officer for the west, Tony Canavan, made clear in no uncertain terms that the home will be closed. That is despite commitments made by the HSE to be open and to communicate fully with families, something it has consistently failed to do.

This upheaval is not new for the residents of the Rosalie home and their loved ones. In 2015, the future of the home was also uncertain. That was until the Minister of State with responsibility at the time, the former Minister of State, Kathleen Lynch, made three commitments to the families, namely, that those in the home could see out the rest of their days in the home, that the home would form part of the HSE plans for dementia care in the region, and that the families would be kept informed at all times. It now appears those commitments either mean nothing or that the Minister of State and the HSE have shredded them. The HSE and the Tánaiste's Government have made the decision to close the home. That was announced without any consultation or clarity for families as to the future care needs of their loved ones.

We all know that this is their home. It is where they are happy and content. It is where they are cared for and looked after and it is where they are comfortable and familiar with their surroundings and with the staff who care for them, yet none of this appears to matter to the HSE and, with respect, to the Tánaiste's Government. The families, once again, are being left waiting.

Will the Tánaiste give clarity to the families as to what will happen to their loved ones? Will he explain the reason the Rosalie home is being closed and the reason this decision has been made before the external review of the clinical assessment is complete?

The Deputy might appreciate that I may not be able to give him full information on the particular case he raises. I recall, however, that on the Order of Business on Tuesday, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, responded to similar concerns expressed by some Fianna Fáil colleagues.

My understanding of this case is that it is a decision to be made by the HSE but that the audits that have taken place in advance of decisions being made had to focus on patient safety, patient care and ensuring the HSE can stand over that for the individuals and the families concerned. However, there should be consultation with families. If the conditions under which elderly people are being cared for is to change dramatically in terms of location, the consultation on a decision like that should require detailed consultation with families and reassurance for families that decisions are being made for their loved ones for the right reasons. I will speak to the Minister of State concerned and try to get him to come back to the Deputy with a more detailed assessment from the HSE in terms of what has happened to date.

Dementia supports across Ireland remain totally inadequate. The position in Roscommon is an example of that, but one that requires urgent address. We are looking at a difficulty that is acknowledged by the national dementia strategy's mid-term review, which states that additional funding is required. Currently, access to community dementia-specific services across Ireland is not equal. The level of service varies depending on where one lives but I stress that currently no county in Ireland has an acceptable level of dementia support.

Budget 2019 must deliver increased supports across Ireland for persons suffering with dementia. The Alzheimer Society of Ireland is calling for investment in budget 2019 to deliver increased numbers of dementia advisers, key workers and community co-ordinators. We in Sinn Féin support that call and ask the Government to step up to the mark and deliver for dementia sufferers and their families who have been waiting far too long. Crisis in elder care settings of the nature I have outlined to the Tánaiste will continue unless we invest in supportive services. In urging the Tánaiste to address these matters in budget 2019, I ask him to remake and stand over the Kathleen Lynch commitments of three years ago to the residents of Rosalie home.

My understanding is that the HSE did meet the families concerned but I will need to speak to the Minister of State about whether that consultation was extensive enough.

They met them last Friday but did not tell them it would be announced as a closure on Monday.

No. My understanding is that there was a meeting about it many months ago, but I will come back to the Deputy with the dates and the detail of those meetings.

Regarding dementia care more generally, the national dementia strategy implementation programme agreed by the Department of Health, the HSE and Atlantic Philanthropies committed €27.5 million for a number of specific actions. The majority of that funding was for the roll-out of dementia-specific intensive home care packages. A total of 316 people have benefited from the dementia-specific intensive home care packages to allow them continue living in their homes.

On the Deputy's questions about the upcoming budget and the prioritisation of this sector, that is an issue he will have an opportunity to contribute to in the wider budget debate. I acknowledge there are gaps in dementia supports in different parts of the country, but when the HSE makes decisions on individual care homes, it is doing so in the interests of the patients and their care. That should be the only consideration when moving people from one facility to another.

As the Tánaiste is well aware, we are in the grip of the worst housing crisis in the history of the State. Despite report after report, promise after promise, and Minister after Minister with responsibility for housing, the emergency remains and families throughout the country continue to suffer in an awful way.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach referred to the problem of supply and the importance of addressing that element of the problem. The specific issue I want to raise with the Tánaiste is the apparent paralysis that exists when it comes to addressing an existing supply, namely, vacant dwellings, which all of us here know are located throughout the country.

In my county of Tipperary, the total number of vacant dwellings in 2011 was 4,817 out of a total housing stock of 38,390. That was 12.5% of the total stock, a figure which must be alarming. The latest indicators from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, reveal that out of a total housing stock of 38,937, the vacancy rate has only gone down to 11.9%, which is minuscule. It is less than a 1% drop in more than five years which, as the Tánaiste is aware, have seen the crisis reach epidemic proportions. If we continue at that rate it will be 2073 before the vacancy rate in Tipperary drops to less than 1%.

That demonstrates that no Government policy has worked to any effective degree in terms of putting vacant dwellings back into the housing market. The working group chaired by the Housing Agency has undertaken preparatory work on the vacant homes strategy. The output of the working group was presented to the Department in June 2017 and is being further developed with a view to publishing a report in the near future. Yet another report, yet another delay.

Two weeks ago, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, acknowledged that the repair and leasing scheme and the buy and renew scheme developed to assist local authorities or approved housing bodies to address the problem of vacant dwellings was an absolute failure.

He informed us that at the end of 2017, a total of 820 applications had been received under the scheme but only nine homes had been delivered and tenanted. The Tánaiste was also the Minister with responsibility for housing. If we cannot even manage to get vacant and habitable dwellings up to scratch and back into the market, what real hope do we have of addressing the massive supply deficit of new builds? In my own county of Tipperary only 11 houses were built between 2011 and 2016, despite the fact that we had over 3,000 approved applicants and 10,000 on waiting lists. Why on earth should anyone have any faith in the Government's pledges and promises to tackle the crisis? Is it not time to accept that on this issue the Government is ideologically blind and simply unwilling to take the kind of action required?

I am glad to update the House on the encouraging trends in the increased supply of houses. This is a market that has been under pressure for a number of years. It is one we are going to fix, but it will take some time. New CSO figures for new dwelling completions will clearly show the general upward trend across all housing construction activity. Essentially, more than 18,000 new homes were made available for use last year. Just over 2,500 were vacant homes brought back into use. Roughly 1,000 were unfinished homes from the era of Fianna Fáil housing policy.

Seven years in government.

There were very few homeless.

Some 14,500 were new build homes occupied for the first time. These figures do not include over 2,000 new student bed spaces also completed last year. Permission to build 24,531 new homes was granted in the 12 months up to March 2018, up almost 40% on the figure for the previous 12 months. In the first quarter of 2018 alone planning permission was granted for 8,500 new homes, an increase of more than 81% overall. There was an increase of 178% in the number of planning permissions for high density apartments, which is exactly what we need in cities to deal with housing demand and respond to the affordability challenge many first-time buyers, in particular, face. It is due substantially to the new fast-track planning process which the Government introduced to make sure we could make the right planning decisions in a shorter timeframe to get the market moving.

The CSO's report shows that in the first quarter of 2018 there were 3,562 new dwellings built, an increase of 27% compared to the same period last year. The number of commencement notices is up by 23%, with notices for 18,500 new homes nationwide in the 12 months to April 2018. As an indicator of multi-unit developments, there were 9,355 housing guarantee registrations recorded nationally in the 12 months to April 2018, up 35% on the figure for last year. On linked construction which is also an indicator, 83,000 people were employed in the construction industry in the first quarter of 2017, up 14% on the figure two years earlier. We are seeing more people becoming involved in building, the granting of planning permission for more homes and more high-density complexes and more social housing being delivered. Yes, it is not fast enough for many people who want to buy homes or are on housing lists, but it is accelerating all the time and the plan is working. It will take time to take full effect.

It is not working.

On what planet is the Tánaiste living? I know that he wears spectacles, as do I. His must be much better than mine because I cannot see the houses. Certainly, I can see the homeless.

The Deputy does not want to recognise the facts.

As usual, the Government is full of bluster on this issue, but the time for excuses is over. The blame lies squarely on the Government's shoulders, without going back to Fianna Fáil. We could go back to the last century if we wanted to do so. As Joyce Fegan and Elaine Loughlin have reported in the Irish Examiner, while the Government has promised to deliver 3,800 new social houses in 2018, local authorities are set to miss that target by almost 620. It is happening all the time. I attended a meeting of the housing committee yesterday and we had all of the CEOs in. We could talk forever. If talk could build houses, the Government would be great, but it is not building houses. Historically, Fine Gael never built them either. It is not interested in ordinary people. It is only interested in the people who have a line of daffodils up the lane, big houses and mansions, not ordinary people.

That is rubbish.

The Government's record is a disgrace. Perhaps that is why the Taoiseach gets a little irritated with the media when journalists like Elaine McLoughlin and others expose the Government. They should expose it more because we have had plans and figures to beat the band but no houses. The Government does not seem to care or empathise or else there is another greater reason it does not want to build houses. I do not know from where the Tánaiste is getting the figures he is quoting, but I have them from journalists and the CSO.

The Deputy can quote whatever figures he wants, but I am quoting the CSO's.

As am I. Obviously, the Tánaiste's glasses are better than mine.

There is only one person rambling on this issue. I am giving the facts.

I am not rambling at all; I am just telling the truth.

The Deputy might not like the facts. Looking at the social housing challenge, the truth is we need to look back to see where we were in 2011 when the previous Government had to fix multiple problems.

I am talking about what is happening now.

There were 3,000 ghost estates, as well as a decrease of 90% in the level of construction activity. Almost two thirds of jobs in the construction sector were lost. House prices had fallen by 50% in most of the country. That is the legacy of others in the House.

Blame someone else.

It is seven years later.

How many social houses did the Tánaiste's party build?

Fine Gael is now in government for seven years. If it is in office for seven more, it will still be at it.

There are 4,500 every year.

The record of my party in government, in working with the Labour Party, is very different. We have created a partnership Government which has a dedicated Minister with responsibility for housing.

Fine Gael missed its own targets by a mile. The Tánaiste should not blame anyone else.

The Tánaiste ran out of the then Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.

For the first time we have established a multi-annual budget - €6 billion - which will deliver an extra 50,000 social housing units by the end of 2021 and a lot more after that.

The Deputy should look at the facts rather than the political narrative he is trying to sell.

The Government should look at the facts.


There is unfinished business following the recent referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. Obviously, we have all of the legislation required, but there is one other aspect about which I want to ask. We are still in the middle of a real crisis in terms of the effect of online advertising in elections and referendum campaigns across the world. Only yesterday we saw controversy in the United Kingdom where the Leave campaign may have exceeded the spending limits, mainly for online advertising. In America the Cambridge Analytica findings are still washing out in terms of what happened during the presidential election. In our own country during the referendum campaign we were very lucky to have the Transparent Referendum Initiative which was able to show what adverts were being posted, but it was impossible to know what the actual volume was or the amount of money behind them. Facebook and then Google, with only a few weeks to go to polling day, stopped all advertising.

They were biased.

At a committee hearing last week Google seemed to intimate that it had been concerned about a wave of finance to affect the result of the referendum. That may be why it made its call. I do not think the referendum was decided by online advertising but mainly in houses, on the streets and at doors and through the mainstream media. However, there is a real issue with transparency in referendum and election advertising. We have an opportunity to set a precedent and set the record straight on what exactly happened in the referendum. When its representatives came to the Oireachtas committee, we asked Facebook to provide detailed data for the value of advertising and how much money had been spent. My colleagues in the European Parliament asked the same questions when Mark Zuckerberg went to Brussels to answer questions. Facebook replied that it could not do so, that technically it would be difficult, although it was working on its tools to provide for such transparency. However, I believe it is possible for it to do so. It should sit down with the Transparent Referendum Initiative and the UCD Dynamics lab to work on the issue of how to manage the data. With proper safeguards in GDPR rules, Facebook should provide information for the public on the volume of advertising during the recent referendum campaign. This would allow us to close the book on the referendum, but it would also set a precedent. Yesterday we placed a motion on the Order Paper setting out those circumstances and asking Facebook and Google to sit down with UCD and the Transparent Referendum Initiative and provide the data sought.

Will the Tánaiste support such a call? Does he think it presents an opportunity? This is not controversial. Our referendum result was not a close call. It was a clear win, so it is an opportunity for the company and for us as a country to start setting some precedents and some basic ground rules around transparency in election advertising. Will the Tánaiste support such a call to Facebook and Google and does he think it will be of benefit? He is a foreign Minister. He sees lots going on around the world. Does he think such transparency in the democratic process will be useful?

I agree with a lot of what the Deputy said. There has been quite a bit of discussion in government on this issue. How do we ensure future elections in Ireland are not being influenced inappropriately, as has clearly been the case in other countries? We certainly cannot rely on the voluntary decisions of large multimedia companies to protect the democracies we have an obligation to protect. The question is what actions Government can take supported by other parties in this House to ensure that elections, be they referenda or other forms of election such as presidential, local, European or general, are not influenced inappropriately by the use of social media with sponsors coming from outside the State. At the same time, how we do allow the use of modern media platforms to allow people to sell a message legitimately and undertake the usual political debate that happens at election time because so many people now get their information from those platforms. That is a difficult balancing act for this House to get right but we all have a vested interest in working on that.

I certainly hope and expect that companies like Facebook and Google will co-operate in the context of transparency, understanding the volumes of advertising funding coming from outside the State and the point of that. That would be helpful in terms of understanding the challenges we need to take on as a legislative body to look at whether we need to introduce new legislation or new policy in this regard. Having spoken to many other foreign Ministers about this issue, I can say that it is an issue that virtually every country in the western world is grappling with to try to protect its electoral system from a rapidly changing media platform that, if not managed, can skew results in a way that is very inappropriate.

I agree with the Tánaiste that much of the advertising could be beneficial. I would not look for a ban on political advertising. The work carried out by the Transparent Referendum Initiative showed that roughly half the adverts were about getting people involved, encouraging people to do fundraisers or come along canvassing. Whichever side one is on, that is a good thing. This is why I think this referendum campaign could set a standard or lessons can be learned that would be applicable not just here but across the world. As a country with a very large digital industry and a real interest in getting the standards and proper organisation right, we need to work as a common voice to say to the companies that they should use this an example of good practice and learn the lessons that could be applied elsewhere.

We have Deputy Lawless's legislation, which we must put through in the meantime. To be honest, the companies were in a difficult situation because they made calls in the absence of any real rules. We must put the rules in place fairly quickly. It is one of the jobs this House must do, but I take it from the Tánaiste's response that he is supportive of the broad call, that it is not a contentious or divisive issue and that it is not even a divisive issue between the political system and the companies because it is an opportunity to set standards and to show as a country how this might be done. This would be a useful signal for the rest of the world as well as to the rest of us at home. Can I get the Tánaiste's support for that motion on the Order Paper? He can read it if he wants to come back to me. Will he give such support to that call?

I would like to take a look at the detail of what the Deputy is asking for. This is primarily a matter for the companies involved. We cannot force them or we are certainly not proposing to do that in this call but I will take a look at it. The substantive point made by the Deputy is a very relevant one. As a Government, we have asked a number of people to look at this and come back with recommendations to Government in terms of how we can protect the electoral system in the future and not undermine the positive capacity that is there on social media platforms.

Anyone who has been involved in the past two referendum campaigns in Ireland will know that much of that conversation took place on new media and engaged a much younger population than is often engaged in referendum campaigns. That was a really positive and good thing. We need to make sure we try to protect media freedom and freedom of speech and ensure that all views have an opportunity to be put across on all media platforms, but at the same time we need to make sure the more sinister elements that have certainly been involved in trying to skew election results internationally do not impact on Ireland in a negative way. Trying to get that balance right is not easy. Virtually every country in the western world, many of them with far more resources than we have, is struggling to deal with this issue.