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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 12 Jul 2018

Vol. 971 No. 7

Questions on Promised Legislation

We have 22 people offering. If we have short questions and short answers we might try to get through everyone.

I want to raise the issue I have raised on a number of occasions on the floor of the Dáil, which is the programme for Government commitment to reduce overcrowding in the emergency departments. Clearly the Government has utterly failed on this. In my constituency, Letterkenny University Hospital has experienced some of the highest levels of hospital overcrowding anywhere in the State. Last year, 4,889 patients were lying on trolleys or chairs in the hospital's accident and emergency department. That is an average of 19 patients per day every day of 2017.

What is worse is that within metres of the trolleys on which people lie while many are in pain is a ward that is lying empty. It has 19 beds and could accommodate every person who was on a trolley last year in Letterkenny University Hospital. The management of that hospital requested the HSE to open the ward, along with €1.8 million to employ the staff. The hospital indicates it will not find it a challenge to recruit those staff.

Will the Tánaiste ensure the necessary resources are available to bring to an end the scandalous position where thousands of people are on hospital trolleys day in and day out and ensure the short-stay ward in Letterkenny can be opened?

I acknowledge there are far too many people on trolleys and chairs in hospitals who should be in beds in rooms. Some progress has been made in the area and there are now 13% fewer people on trolleys than was the case this time last year. Although there are still too many on trolleys, there are significantly fewer than in 2016. We are now spending more on healthcare in general than we have ever spent and we have a very significant capital investment programme that was outlined in our ten-year capital strategy for health provision, particularly with respect to hospital infrastructure. We will see improvements over time with more investment and better management.

The Tánaiste will have seen over last weekend the tremendous success of the hosting of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Ballyliffin Golf Club in Donegal. Its tremendous success was a great credit to the management, staff and members of Ballyliffin Golf Club, as well as Donegal County Council for its advance preparations. It was also a credit to the many members of the local community in towns and villages who put such an effort into preparing the Inishowen Peninsula for it. The Garda also ensured it went so smoothly. The event showcased Inishowen and Donegal to an audience of up to 500 million people internationally as a tourist product. Will the Government ensure, in working with Fáilte Ireland, the type of investment required to ensure that tourism in Donegal can be built on and that the success of the Irish Open can be used to create a legacy in terms of employment and additional economic investment for years to come?

I join the Deputy in congratulating Ballyliffin Golf Club and Donegal County Council on really delivering a spectacular success. The weather clearly helped but Donegal looked fantastic during that sporting showcase. This indicates that by moving big events like this around the country to locations that have much to deliver in tourism, we can use events like the Irish Open to really promote counties like Donegal very successfully. Next year the competition is moving to Lahinch and I am sure it will be a similar success in Clare. It was at Fota Island in Cork a number of years ago and it was also a success. I congratulate everybody involved and we will look to build on it next year.

There is some speculation as to whether the polling day for the upcoming referenda and presidential election will be either 25 October or 26 October this year. I also understand there are many potential candidates deeply exercised about the timeframe they have to be nominated. The Dáil is due to return on 18 September. Has the Government given any thought to making an order for polling day under the Presidential Elections Act 1993 and an order for the day of close of nominations? Under section 8 of the same Act, in the event of the Dáil being dissolved after the presidential election order is signed, it is possible to combine both dates.

I am not sure if everybody else followed that. I was trying to and I got approximately two thirds of the way through. I do not have a final date that has been signed off by the Government for the presidential election. It would be the same day we intend to hold two referendums. It will be towards the end of October, I suspect, but I do not yet have an exact date as it has not been finalised by the Government.

I wish to raise another serious issue concerning women's health. This week Britain's National Health Service, NHS, put a pause on the issuing of the vaginal mesh. This is a very personal subject for women suffering from urinary incontinence and pelvic organ collapse but it is causing major harm to hundreds of women in this country as it is used on a daily basis. I will quickly quote Professor Carl Heneghan, of Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, who states:

Many women have been subjected to great harm because regulatory loopholes allowed mesh devices to be made available in large numbers with no evidence in humans. ... We now know women who received mesh implants have been part of a global experiment that in many cases has gone badly wrong.

Other Deputies and I personally know of women who are bound to wheelchairs or are going around on crutches because of this practice. There is no scanning mechanism for these women in this country. They are paying huge money to get treatment in Britain, where it costs €1,500 for an operation to remove some of the mesh. This is a complete failure and the mesh has not been tested on humans. I call on the Government to do what the NHS has done and put a pause on the use of this mesh as soon as possible.

I met these women with the Minister for Health and he is in no doubt about the pain they are in on a daily basis. What happened in England has moved things forward, as the NHS is suspending use of this device for urinary incontinence. It is extremely important we now do the same. The women have said, as recently as Wednesday this week when I spoke with them, that it is too late for many of them but we may be in a position to prevent further suffering.

With respect, I will have to get the Minister for Health to get back to both Deputies on that.

We are calling on the Government to pause the use of vaginal mesh.

In the middle of the worst housing crisis ever, a mother of two children who refuses to make herself homeless has been incarcerated at Mountjoy for 70 days at the request of a vulture fund. When will we do something for Ms Yvonne Walsh and the many hundreds of people facing similar treatment over the summer? The banks and vulture funds will be relentless. Ms Walsh has written to both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste on three occasions but received no answer. She is incarcerated but is trying to maintain a home over her head and that of her two young children, who have not seen her. She has been there for 70 days and she will have been there for another 50 days when we return from the recess.

I cannot make a comment on an individual case like that and it involves court proceedings as well.

Will the Tánaiste answer the correspondence from her?

On the proposed referendum on Article 41.2.1° of the Constitution, the Tánaiste is aware that many of us, including groups outside the House like the National Women's Council of Ireland, are very much of the view that rather than a simple repeal, it would be preferable to use this opportunity for public debate on the role of caring within families. It would be a better approach and it is the approach recommended by the Citizens' Assembly. The Tánaiste is also aware that a Government request to waive the pre-legislative scrutiny of this proposed legislation was refused by the Business Committee this morning. In light of that, will the Government rethink its approach to this referendum? Will it consider listening to what we have been saying for some time and allow this opportunity for that public debate, which we all think could be helpful?

The Government has been listening to that concern and we have had a number of debates in the Cabinet on it. The legal advice to the Government is very clear and the recommendation is to simply remove language from the Constitution. If we are going to go through a process of trying to put new language into the Constitution reflecting the importance of caring, the home and so on to replace that wording, it would certainly take some time. The Government is proposing to follow the legal advice we have while starting a conversation around the kinds of concerns outlined by the Deputy and others, including how we could deal with that in legislation. We would not be able to do what we would like to do in October if we must try to find a way to get right new language in the Constitution reflecting the really important role of caring in the home.

Instead, what we want to focus on is taking something that is inappropriate in terms of language out of the Constitution and keeping that clean and simple.

Last week, I raised with the Tánaiste the question of whether the Dáil would be able to call on Facebook and Google to provide volumetric data on how much online advertising took place during the recent referendum campaign. In the interim, this issue has remained on the front pages of newspapers and in headlines across the globe. There are examples in other countries where this is a real problem. We can take action in respect of this matter in a way that will create a good news story. It could show standards and precedent in terms of how transparency in online advertising can work well.

I am pleased that Fianna Fáil has indicated its willingness to support the motion I put forward last weekend. Similarly, I am pleased that Sinn Féin and the Labour Party have agreed to support the motion. I am sure it will attract widespread agreement from others in the House. Has the Government been able to consider that suggestion? Will the Government join the call from the rest the House for Facebook and Google to provide such analysis as best they can? By using UCD and the Transparent Referendum Initiative, they could provide it in a safe way that gives us the full story.

We are over time.

Could the Tánaiste support that call?

There is an interdepartmental group on the security of Ireland's electoral process and disinformation. It was established earlier in the year and is being led by the Department of the Taoiseach. The group includes representatives from the Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Justice and Equality, Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Education and Skills and Defence, An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. We have already an active conversation at quite a high level in government. The group is expected to report shortly. It would certainly be helpful if other activity were taking place. In the case mentioned by the Deputy, such activity is being led by UCD. It would be helpful if Facebook and Google were to co-operate with studies of this sort. They are really about informing policymakers in future in order that we might make appropriate decisions. I would certainly encourage large social media platform companies to supply as much information as they can in order that we might make informed decisions in future.

We will move into 30-second questions and answers. We will try and get through everyone.

Will the Tánaiste or the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine provide an update on the ongoing review of the regional veterinary laboratory located at Doonally, County Sligo? As a former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Tánaiste will be aware of how this vital State infrastructure plays a key role for the farming community in the north west.

I am familiar with the facility. I will have to get the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to come back to the Deputy on the matter.

I wish to ask the Tánaiste about the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill. It is promised legislation. When is it likely to come before the House? What is its current status?

It is in the Seanad on Committee Stage.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to an increase in primary school capitation grants. I have been contacted by several teachers from small, rural-based schools near Carlow and Kilkenny. They strongly believe the current funding model is unfair with the amount of money paid based on student numbers. Rural schools are most disadvantaged under the current system. Will the Government and the Minister commit to an increase in capitation grants in this year's budget?

I cannot make a commitment in respect of the budget but the Taoiseach answered this question comprehensively in recent weeks. This is one of many areas where we are looking at improving funding supports for schools. The Deputy will have to wait for the budget to get the details.

The Government seeks to protect the environment throughout the country. Yet, there are three lovely villages in Kerry that do not have sewerage treatment plants, namely, Scartaglin, Currow and Beaufort. With Irish Water and the set-up in place, there is no way forward for these communities to access or get sewerage treatment plants. What are they going to do about it?

What is the promised legislation?

It is to protect our environment.

I can try to get an update for the Deputy. I presume it is part of the service plan for Irish Water.

The relevant Minister might make contact with the Deputy and respond.

Two recent reports, one by MEPs on the European Parliament Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development and the other by DG SANTE, found that Brazilian beef does not have the same traceability standards as EU produce. As a result of these reports, it is crystal clear that the Mercosur countries are failing to meet EU standards on fundamental issues of food safety and traceability. There is no real prospect of the EU being able to impose these standards in respect of South American beef. The Government needs to be strong on this to protect the consumer and the producer. In the interests of food safety, will Ireland take steps to ensure that South American beef is excluded from the Mercosur trade deal?

The Government has been clear on any future trade deal with Mercosur countries, as indeed has the EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. They have sought to ensure that if trade take place in future, it happens on the basis of a level playing field and such that the volumes are controlled to recognise the importance of the Irish beef industry throughout the European Union.

The HSE carried out a review of autism services in the recent past. I want to focus on one sector, namely, that relating to specialised training of dogs for children with severe autism. That sector is completely devoid of funding. There is not even a waiting list for families to get on at the moment to try to get a dog for a child who has severe autism. It is a sector for which funding should be provided. These dogs are a major help for those children who have severe autism. It represents a severe slight on us that we have not even got a waiting list for people to get on.

This is an area with which I am somewhat familiar. There are organisations that receive Government funding and that provide support dogs for children with autism. If Deputy Cahill could send me the detail of the organisations that raised the matter with him, then maybe we can get back to him on that.

Many fine words were spoken in the Chamber last night about carers and the legislation on general practitioner services. However, people are now being obliged to wait nearly 14 weeks to get the carer's allowance through the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. That is an absolute disgrace. Many people are making decisions on care for their loved ones and then they have to go through the process of getting the applications approved. Does the Tánaiste accept that it is not acceptable that the waiting period is heading for 14 or 15 weeks before a case is decided by the Department? What does the Government intend to do about this matter?

I will have to come back to the Deputy with details on timelines. He has outlined a certain timeline. I am unsure whether it is factually correct but I presume it is.

Every other Deputy around here knows that it is.

Let me get the Minister to come back directly to Deputy Moynihan on that.

In the past year, Louth County Council applied for first-stage funding for the port access northern cross route in Drogheda under the Government's much-publicised local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, programme, which the Tánaiste has specifically stated is for road infrastructure to open up lands for housing. Guess what? The Department rejected the council's application. Louth County Council has indicated that there is no funding opportunity for this priority project from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport or from any other Department. Is the council correct? When will the Department release the funding for this priority project?

All I can say is that the projects that won funding under the LIHAF scheme – certainly when I was involved – were the projects that could deliver the most houses quickly. Not every application was successful, but many were. We need to focus on delivery now.

There is a reference in the programme for Government to the establishment of a personal microcredit scheme. I speak from the experience of my town in Newbridge, which has not had a credit union for several years. Vulnerable people seeking small loans have had to turn to moneylenders, with disastrous financial consequences. My understanding is that a commitment was made to set up a task force. Several pilot schemes were carried out involving credit unions, including Portarlington Credit Union, with great success.

There is a thriving licensed moneylending scheme in this country. People are being charged up to 189%. This is completely wrong. As far as I understand, Ireland is the only country in Europe that allows this.

We must adopt a policy that prohibits very high interest rates by implementing a restriction on the overall cost of credit. Will the Government introduce such a policy and, if so, when will this happen? When will the promised task force be in place?

I agree that the State needs to protect vulnerable people from being exploited by moneylenders due to their inability to deal with the conventional banking system or with credit unions. I will have to look into the particular task force to which the Deputy referred and get back to her.

It is now two years and five months since the sod turning on the Cork Events Centre. When the Dáil returns after the recess it will be not far off the first anniversary of the application for additional funding by Cork City Council of €10 million. Can the Tánaiste say when the Department will decide on that additional funding between now and the Dáil's return in September?

This is a project that has been ongoing for a long time. I can understand the frustrations in Cork among business people and politicians. I thank people for their patience. I have been personally involved on repeated occasions in trying to move the process forward. We are making progress. We hope to receive legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General this week which will confirm legal advice received by Cork City Council which would allow the State's contribution to be increased to make the project commercially viable. As soon as we get that confirmation and political decisions are made on the back of that advice we will let people know immediately.

The programme for Government states that we will encourage and support older people to live at home as long as possible with the correct wraparound supports. Every day in Ireland, 11 people are diagnosed with dementia. We currently have eight dementia advisors in the country who cover 13 counties. The optimum number for full coverage is 33. Are there any plans to increase this number? Will the Government give this due consideration in the budget?

I cannot comment on decisions that will be made in the budget but it will be factored into the debate.

Page 129 of the programme for Government refers to flood response. It says:

Following the unprecedented flooding in December 2015 we will review the response protocols of the State to examine if a more rapid and co-ordinated response to local incidents can be achieved.

In Midleton in 2015 several county council houses flooded. The only response that we have seen is that Cork County Council is now selling those properties and have not even advertised them on Are other county councils engaged in similar actions or what is the response protocol for flooding?

The Government's financial response to flooding has been quite dramatic. The Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, and his predecessor Deputy Canney before him, have been to the fore of this. I am not familiar with the individual houses in east Cork but I assure the Deputy that we are spending more on flood protection now than we have at any point in recent history.

I refer to the commercial rates Bill. Today, 12 July, is a significant day as it marks the Battle of the Boyne in my constituency. Next month, 12 to 19 August should also be remembered as we will celebrate the Fleadh Cheoil. The Ceann Comhairle might wonder why I raise this under the commercial rates Bill. However, retailers, whether in Drogheda, where the Fleadh Cheoil will be held, or Dundalk or anywhere across this country are baying for this Bill, as I told the Tánaiste when I raised this with him last in December. We have been continually promised a commercial rates Bill. My colleague, Deputy Barry Cowen, introduced the Valuation Amendment Bill 2017 but nothing is happening on that.

Once again I ask, when will the ratepayers, including the retailers of Drogheda who hope to get a bonanza from the Fleadh Cheoil, get clear indication of when this will happen?

Deputy Troy has a question on the same matter.

I wish to add my voice to the request. This is an issue I have raised repeatedly. We have received repeated assurances from the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and many Government Ministers that the rate revaluation Bill would be brought before the House in the term that is ending today. It has not happened. The Government is failing small retailers in particular for whom commercial rates is one of their largest overheads. When can we expect the commercial rates valuation Bill to come before the House?

It is hoped that the Government will approve the heads of that Bill in the next three weeks.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for accommodating all speakers today. It can sometimes be difficult to look after everyone.

On 1 April 2018, the HSE introduced new regulations bypassing Portiuncula Hospital, Ballinasloe, for all trauma patients. While I understand that there is a new national trauma plan, which is the work of the HSE and the Department of Health, to get the best support for patients, it is creating huge difficulties. It was brought in very quietly and unknown to many people.

It is not possible for people from Roscommon and parts of east Galway to get to UCHG or now to Tullamore within the golden hour which is so important for patients. It takes more than an hour to get to UCHG from most parts of County Roscommon.

We lost a good emergency department in Roscommon when it was closed down by the last Government. We were told at the time that Portiuncula would be our top hospital for all these services but now it is gone. Will the Tánaiste go to the Minister for Health and ask him to examine this in view of the difficulty it will cause, particularly for ambulance times?

I will ask the Minister to Health to come back directly to the Deputy. It is a obviously a serious question.

That concludes some questions on promised legislation and questions on loads of other things as well.