Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

We now move to Questions on Promised Legislation. Some 20 Members are offering. We will be able to get to them all if Members keep their contributions brief.

In the housing crisis vein, and accepting that it is a crisis, I put to the Taoiseach earlier the regulatory framework governing the submission by local authorities of housing schemes to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and the inexplicable delays in sanctioning such projects. If it is an emergency and a crisis, surely that framework should be changed. The idea that a council that wants to build ten houses at a cost of anything more than €2 million has to submit those plans to the Department, go through a four-stage process and a 59 week timetable is ridiculous, if we accept it is a crisis. Housing schemes submitted as far back as last February have not been sanctioned. That is why I ask the question: do people not get it? This is a real crisis.

Thank you, Deputy.

Schemes are ready to go.

Let us get the answer now.

What is going on is unacceptable, and I do not believe it can be defended.

I thank the Deputy for the question. The first thing to acknowledge is that when we are talking about building homes that will stand for 60 or 70 years to house many generations of families, we have to get it right. In the past, certain planning schemes did not get it right. What we did in the Department was work with the chief executives of the local authorities to streamline what was an eight or nine-stage process down to the current four-stage process, which is 59 weeks and is comparable to the private sector when we are talking about large-scale development of housing on large sites and the different work that needs to be done as part of that timeline.

One of the areas I looked to try to cut down the time on was procurement. We cannot step around European Union procurement law. There is a one-stage process local authorities can go through. It is a much quicker process. Approximately 100 projects that have come to the Department through the four-stage process could have gone through the one-stage process but the local authorities did not submit them under the one-stage process.

That is why-----

The Minister should ask himself the question why.

He knows the answer to that question.

Can we let the Minister answer?

-----I have been bringing the chief executives of local authorities-----

The Minister does not have to do that.

They would not have got the money to do it.

-----into housing summits to talk through the problems we have and to make sure they try to bring about housing provision in the fastest way possible. It is also the reason I am in discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to see what we can do about public spending controls to make the one-stage process work better for those local authorities that would use it.

Thank you, Minister.

Currently, there are more than 100 projects that should have gone through the one-stage process that did not, and the city managers did not put them through.

Who is in charge?

The local authorities provide local authority housing.

The Minister knows why they did not.

We provide the policy and the money.

We have raised this in the budget talks. This is a simple thing the Minister could do.

Deputy Martin, the time is up.

I told the Deputy we were addressing it.

He brings the chief executives up every couple of weeks.

I call Deputy McDonald.

What are the local authorities there for?

Some time ago-----

To second-guess the-----

Deputy, please.

Some time ago, the Constitutional Convention, the Citizens' Assembly and the representatives from the political parties alike agreed that a referendum ought to be held on extending the voting rights in presidential elections to citizens living outside of Ireland and those living in the North of Ireland. Is the Taoiseach still committed to holding such a referendum next May? There is an urgency about this issue. It has been decided that this referendum ought to take place. There is a presidential election under way as we speak but, more to the point, citizens, particularly those living in the North whom the Taoiseach correctly vowed would never be left behind again, are looking to this measure as a level of reassurance at a time of great political insecurity.

I suppose they would have to on the basis that they do not have an assembly.

The answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes". It is intended to hold that referendum in May, at the same time as the local and European elections, on the issue of extending voting rights in presidential elections to Irish citizens no matter where they live. It is quite complicated because issues like postal votes, polling stations and so on have to be worked out but, given that the Presidency is a seven-year term, we believe changing the Constitution next May gives us enough time to get those systems in place, and we intend to do it.

The Taoiseach is the Minister for Defence, and the programme for Government commits the Government to the improvement of the welfare of our military. Today, 119 members of the 57th Infantry Group who were due to arrive home in Dublin today are stuck in Syria. They have worked on the Golan Heights for the past six months and have their own tales to tell about their equipment and so on. These people were due home today to their families, many of whom have paid for holidays. They are now told that because of an administrative error in the paperwork, which did not allow them to transit Lebanon, they will be stuck in Syria for another two weeks. The Department of Defence is blaming the Army. The Army is blaming the Department of Defence. How could it be, when the beginning and end of this deployment was known, that the proper paperwork could not be done to ensure these people who have served the State so well could not be brought home to their families in time?

I understand this is a very unfortunate situation and I extend my apologies to those members of the Defence Forces who have been affected. They will now rotate. It seems they will come home on 16 October, so it will be a two-week extension to the deployment. The Defence Forces are providing a €1,000 ex gratia gratuity to each member affected to defray any costs that may arise. Also, annual leave will be changed to allow people to take their leave at a different point.

Every effort is being made across the defence organisation, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and our embassy in Cairo to resolve this issue-----

How did it happen?

-----and the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, has been in direct contact with our honorary consul in Beirut, Georges Siam. It happened because military flights require specific diplomatic clearance from all countries through whose airspace they fly. These clearances require prior notification, are time limited and must all be aligned to allow the flight to proceed.

In the case of UNDOF, additional clearances for the transit of military forces through Lebanon and Syria and to cross the Syrian border are also required. This involves multiple countries, some with unstable administrations, with which both the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have successfully co-ordinated over many missions.

Following receipt of all the required diplomatic clearances for the flight to rotate the Defence Forces contingent in UNDOF on Tuesday, 2 October, an issue arose unexpectedly in regard to the clearances on Monday morning. As soon as it was known, the personnel and their families were contacted and advised of the issue and the extension of the rotation. I can provide the Deputy with a more detailed explanation in writing.

Today, hundreds of farmers travelled voluntarily from all across the country for a peaceful protest outside Agriculture House to send the simple message that suckler farmers are on their knees. Next Tuesday is D-Day for many suckler farmers.

The past 12 months have been horrendous in Irish agriculture, with hard-working farmers experiencing severe pressure. I advised the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine that animal deaths on farms will be at an all-time high, only to be met with shouts of "Nonsense". Figures from the Department records show a 21% increase in on-farm animal deaths in the past 12 months.

Those who came here to protest today want the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to stand up to the factories to ensure we get a fair price for farmers. Will the Taoiseach answer a straight question? These farmers need a fair suckler cow scheme after next Tuesday's budget. If that is not put in place, many of these farmers will be forced to go on welfare.

In response to the Deputy's point, the Minister, Deputy Creed, is attending a meeting of the beef forum today, which the farm organisations decided not to attend. I would have preferred if they had, and I believe the Minister would too. If they want to address the people the Deputy says need to be addressed, those people were present at the forum today. We see much media speculation about differences of opinions on the type of scheme that needs to be rolled out. Budgetary matters are ongoing between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. No more than anyone else, I cannot divulge the full extent of what will be available on budget day next week because I do not know.

In the programme for Government under the area of mental health, the Government commits to building further capacity in child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. In reality, since that document was produced, CAMHS have seriously deteriorated. I will outline some of the awful statistics on CAMHS. There are 40% fewer clinical psychologist posts, 50% fewer social workers and just under 60% fewer occupational therapists. At the same time, 50% of the country is still not covered by out-of-hours CAMHS. That is having a seriously detrimental effect on children and their parents.

At 2 p.m. on Saturday in the Garden of Remembrance, the Still Waiting campaign will highlight the awful situation of waiting times in our health service. Will the Taoiseach address the position on CAMHS in particular?

The programme for Government commits to increasing resources for mental health. That is being done. We had spending at approximately €700 million in 2011. It is well in excess of €900 million now, and will approach €1 billion next year. There has been a 67% increase in clinical CAMHS staff since 2008.

Twenty more teams have been put in place, an increase of 40%. Also, 3,000 more appointments are being offered this year, while 50% of new appointments are now seen within four weeks, an improvement on the previous figure of 46%. There has been an increase of 100% in the number of acute inpatient units and an increase of 375% in the number of acute inpatient beds, from 16 to 76. Rather than read all of this information, I can provide the Deputy with a more detailed note. There is a huge level of investment which has happened, is under way and planned. Of course, there is also a huge need to be met.

On Monday the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland made a statement on its latest five-year review of RTÉ and TG4 which raised real alarm. It stated the organisations had made all of the cuts possible in the past five years and that there was strong justification for increased levels of funding. It called for immediate additional funding of €30 million for RTÉ and €6 million for TG4. It stated the funding available was not sufficient to ensure the broadcasters' sustainability. We need sustainable broadcasters and media to maintain our democracy and the welfare of the country in a range of ways. What legislative or other measures does the Government intend to take to provide such funding? Will the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland's report go unanswered?

The Government is examining the matter. I had the opportunity to meet the chairperson and director general of RTÉ only in the last couple of days. Ultimately, any money provided is public and taxpayers' money and we have to make sure it is used to best effect. There is a lot of public service broadcasting beyond RTÉ. There is also TG4 and many other news and media organisations that engage in public service broadcasting. The issue needs to be looked at in the round.

Page 70 of the programme for Government includes a commitment to improve the lives of people on welfare payments through providing better access and supports. I do not know if the Taoiseach is aware that in recent times the medical form that needs to be signed to receive illness benefit payments was changed without consultation with general practitioners. It is creating a severe backlog. Coupled with the centralisation of decision-making in such cases and the absolute inability of anybody to contact the helpline in the Department when applying for the payment, it is leading to unnecessary delays and hardship. What measures are being put in place to alleviate the unnecessary delays in receiving a payment that is paid for by those claiming it through their stamps? I am receiving numerous calls at my constituency clinics. The new form is creating hardship all over the country. The issue needs to be addressed immediately.

Anyone who is entitled to receive illness benefit and does not will have his or her payments backdated to the point at which they were entitled to receive it.

That will not help them to pay for groceries.

It is a simplification process. The process is being moved online. As happened with maternity and paternity benefit payments in the past, it does appear that there are some problems in making the transition. I stand to be corrected, but I understand there were consultations with doctors through the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, but not the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP. The Deputy will know that there is an issue between the two bodies. It is the IMO with which Departments consult on these issues. We are very keen to have the matter resolved as soon as possible. Anyone who does not receive his or her entitlements will have the payments backdated. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, to provide the Deputy with an update that is more up to date.

I know that, as night follows day, the Taoiseach will increase funding and the allocation for the HSE and the health service in the budget. I ask him to, please, not let it be consumed by HSE management. I also asked him to do this last year. He needs to be specific with the increased allocation. Nurses throughout the country are under severe pressure, both mentally and physically. In the first place I am asking the Taoiseach to take County Kerry as an example. An extra 43 beds are needed, but we need 60 nurses to man them. Six beds are closed in Dingle because we do not have enough nurses. They are looking to recruit six nurses there. Nurses are under so much pressure. I will highlight just one case. When a patient's wife was going home the other evening, the nurse asked her to stay for a few minutes longer to help her to put the man into bed. The nurse was actually crying when she asked her to do so.

The Deputy cannot go into individual cases. He will have to finish up.

Yes, but what I am asking is that the allocation be made specific for front-line staff because otherwise they will not continue. Nurses cannot be recruited or retained if they are not paid properly.

The Deputy is, of course, correct on one point - there will be a further substantial increase in funding for health service and the HSE in the forthcoming budget. We are already spending record amounts of money on health services and will break a new record in the provision of funding and resourcess again next year. The important point, the thing that can be very difficult to do, is ensuring the money gets to the patient. It is worth reading if the Deputy has not yet had the chance to do so, but the report of the Public Sector Pay Commission on nursing and nurse recruitment shows how some of the money has definitely got to the patient because the number of nurses working in the health service has increased every year for four years. We have 1,000 more nurses than we had last year. As is the case across the economy, as a result of full employment and because of the enormous demand for additional staff, there are vacancies too.

There are many fine words in the programme for Government about people with disabilities, as well as very noble aspirations. We have a situation where service providers for people with disabilities - this point has been raised by me, my party leader and many on this side of the House in the last while - have been left suffering as a result of the inadequacy of the block grant for section 39 organisations. It is now the case that organisations have to ask for a voluntary contribution of €30 per week per family. They have contacted each family in the past few days to look for such a voluntary contribution on behalf of the most vulnerable people in society. Whatever else the Taoiseach is going to do next week, people with disabilities and their service providers will have to receive adequate funding. There is a massive crisis within the service. It is the last straw if they are looking for a voluntary contribution of €30 per week per family.

I support my colleague on the same issue. He referred to St. Joseph's Foundation in Charleville which provides an invaluable service throughout north Cork, including in my back yard of Mitchelstown and Fermoy. It has sent a message to all guardians of family members who avail of services to start collecting €30 a week. It is a downright disgrace that it has to do this. It is one of the foundations that was also affected by the section 39 employment regulations. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene and make more funding available.

As the Deputies will appreciate, section 39 organisations are all very different. They range from what are, effectively, very large corporate service providers to very small charitable organisations and their financial position differs from one another. There are discussions taking place at the Workplace Relations Commission about the provision of additional funding. The Deputies may be interested to know that in respect of the section 39 organisations that have responded to the request to submit their financial information and data, the average increase in funding from the Government in the past three years was 28%, more than enough to cover the cost of any pay restoration.

The Taoiseach will be aware that Permanent TSB is in the process of selling almost 7,500 loans linked with family homes to a vulture fund, Start Mortgages. There is a specific provision on page 29 of the programme for Government which states unequivocally that "we will provide greater protection for mortgage holders and tenants and SMEs whose loans have been transferred to non-regulated entities", in other words, vulture funds. What action has been taken on foot of that commitment?

A fellow Kildare man of the Ceann Comhairle, Christy Moore, sang, "I'm an ordinary man, nothing special, nothing grand." The lyrics of the song go on to mention the importance of house ownership.

In addition to the issue that Deputy O'Dea has raised, aside from those who are homeless in all our constituencies there are people in trepidation of their properties being repossessed. We can talk about introducing legislation to sort out a crisis. Would the Taoiseach support a motion in this House calling on the banks and the vulture funds to desist from what they are doing and to offer those properties with distressed mortgages which are suitable to local authorities to be purchased at the same knockdown prices for which they are being offered?

We are taking one step forward and two steps back. Louth County Council has been lauded for its compulsory purchase orders, bringing in excess of 100 housing units back into stock. The reality is that Louth County Council now has no money for repairs and is boarding up almost a similar number of houses. In order to put some pressure on the vulture funds and banks, without needing legislation, these properties should be offered to the local authorities at the same knockdown prices.

On the vulture funds, Deputy O'Dea will be aware that the Government is supporting the legislation introduced by Deputy Michael McGrath, the Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) (Amendment) Bill 2018 which is on Report Stage. We expect to have it concluded in the coming weeks.

The housing crisis also exists in rural counties, including in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. Hundreds of people have been on housing waiting lists for years. In the past two years Cavan County Council has delivered 120 social houses. Of that 120, only six are houses the local authority built itself. There is something fundamentally wrong when a local authority can deliver only six built houses over two years even though the council was capable of providing schemes of 70 or 80 houses a number of years ago. Will the Minister ensure that assistance is given to the local authorities? They have lost the capacity to do this and to deliver on it. The building of just six houses over two years is very disappointing.

I thank the Deputy for the question. In the past two years since Rebuilding Ireland began, the number of people on the housing list has fallen by about 20,000. That is because local authorities throughout the country are implementing solutions to get people into social homes. As the Taoiseach mentioned earlier, we do not have an ideological objection over how they do that; we want it to happen as quickly as possible. That involves building homes, acquiring homes and long-term leasing. A number of local authorities do not have the experience necessary at the moment to meet current housing demand because previous governments outsourced their responsibility almost exclusively to the private sector. This Government has taken that responsibility back into the State and into the local authorities.

It is not happening. There have only been six in two years.

That is why I have been working with the local authorities' chief executives to get them to build thousands of homes.

Page 105 of the programme for Government commits to ensuring that every young person is enabled to reach their full potential. I have been contacted by the principal of St. Patrick's school in Kells, County Kilkenny, which caters for pupils with moderate and severe learning disabilities. The principal is very concerned over the unacceptable delay in the payment of the bus escort grant. The board of management of St. Patrick's is responsible for paying the salaries of 21 bus escorts. These bus escorts have been working since the school reopened on 29 August and are being paid every fortnight. The cost is approximately €13,800 every fortnight. This week the school is facing into a third payment on 4 October which will bring the total to €41,400 and it has to find the funding to meet these payments as it awaits payment of the grant.

The school is operating an overdraft for this vital facility at its own cost. Why has the payment not been made? I ask the Minister for Education and Skills to use his good offices to ensure this is rectified immediately.

I am not aware of this particular problem. I will talk to the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, and departmental officials to see what is causing the delay in issuing the grant. I will get back to the Deputy.

On a point of order, on the housing issue, I asked that the vulture funds be instructed to offer properties to the local authorities. I have not received an answer from either the Taoiseach or the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government.

I ask the Minister to correspond with the Deputy on the matter.

I could answer it now.

I did not respond to the Deputy because his question was linked with another Deputy's question.

The Housing Agency has a role and a fund to engage with institutional lenders and those who have homes on their books to acquire them for social housing. That is happening currently. There are almost 1,000 homes currently as part of the mandate to get 1,600 homes into the stock of social housing through the acquisition fund the Housing Agency has. It then works with the local authority to get that house for that local authority which can then be tenanted either through the local authority or through a housing body.

As the Taoiseach is well aware, farming at any time is a precarious way to make a living. Unfortunately this year a number of unforeseen circumstances have resulted in farmers suffering extreme difficulties. The price of cattle is on the floor and they are having a really tough time. Although I am only one Deputy in Kerry, yesterday I came across five farmers whose areas of natural constraint, ANC, payments were held up. These are people who diligently do their paperwork and do everything right. I am not criticising the excellent people working in the Department who are doing their best. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure they have the additional resources required to ensure that farmers awaiting payments will get them without undue delay.

The Minister has secured agreement to advance 85% of the payments for the basic payment scheme, BPS, which is due to commence on 16 October. I believe more than 90% of the ANC payments have been made; there may be some technical delays. The green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, is the next one due for payment with which there have been problems. In the past two years considerable work has been done to deal with some of the technical issues more efficiently. The feedback at the National Ploughing Championships was that farmers were fairly satisfied that if they had a concern, it was being answered as quickly as possible.

I have a question for the Minister for Education and Skills. It relates to the development of a three-school campus in Buncrana, County Donegal. As he will know, the Department of Education and Skills has been involved in purchasing a site to allow the development to proceed. On a number of occasions in recent years in an effort to get it progressed I have highlighted how the Government has failed to prioritise the issue. Unfortunately reports in recent days indicate that the preferred site, the old Fruit of the Loom factory, has been sold to a third party. I ask the Minister to advise the House if that is the case. I ask him to take every step possible to get the project back on track and ensure the prompt delivery of the three schools on one campus for Buncrana. We need to see an end of the lack of prioritisation of the project over recent years by the Government.

The Deputy will know I met him and others about this when I visited Donegal in the recent past. We are working very closely with Donegal County Council to seek to secure a solution. I am aware of the newspaper reports the Deputy mentioned. At this point I am not in a position to clarify the way forward. I will communicate with the Deputy and other Deputies as soon as any clarification is available.

A few months ago I raised the issue of the complete lack of funding for the specialised training of dogs for children with severe autism. Has there been any progress on an allocation for this very important initiative?

I apologise to Deputy Cahill; I do not have up-to-date note on that particular matter. I will ask the Minister to provide him with a detailed reply.

The issue of the illegal and problematic use of quad bikes and scramblers in housing estates and parks continues. Other colleagues and I have raised the matter on a number of occasions in the past two years. I acknowledge the recent welcome intervention by the Minister for Justice and Equality with an interdepartmental and interagency approach. Does the Government anticipate introducing primary legislation to enhance registration of these vehicles and increase powers for the Garda to seize these vehicles?

A number of issues are involved here. I along with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and other stakeholders are actively involved in finding solutions. On the specific issue the Deputy raised, I am speaking with the Attorney General to ascertain whether primary legislation is warranted. I would be happy to continue my communication with the Deputy on the issue.

Page 54 of the programme for Government refers to the expansion of the role of pharmacists. The Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, PSI, recently approved rules significantly restricting the roles of pharmacists' assistants.

This puts their livelihoods at very real risk and jeopardises the provision of pharmacy services, especially in rural areas and for sole traders. The vast majority affected are women and most are retiring in the next five to ten years. They have made a valuable contribution to their community and have done so in a safe manner. It is baffling that these proposals are being made now, and many are very upset at seeing their professionalism and integrity effectively being brought into question. Will the Taoiseach allay the fears that their professionalism will be undermined by these rules?

As the Deputy knows, this is an ongoing issue that has been running for a few years now. It relates to the professional qualifications of pharmacy assistants who are not pharmacists but who have played a very valuable role down the years in filling in for pharmacists during their absence. Ultimately, however, it is a matter for the professional regulatory body rather than the Government. The professional regulatory body needs to make sure it puts patient safety first in coming to any decision on this.

One of the education measures in the programme for Government and the Action Plan for Education was the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill. I ask the Minister for Education and Skills when the measures in the Bill will be commenced.

I am glad to say I have been in a position to commence a number of the measures to date, specifically, the restriction on the use of religion in admission to primary schools and the provision in regard to giving the Minister the power to designate a school to open an ASD unit, which was something Deputy Thomas Byrne was very keen to see included in the Bill. There is also commencement of the banning of any fees, including booking fees, and a provision for schools to co-operate in regard to admissions so they can share waiting lists to identify the problems. There is big progress on that Bill.

The programme for Government committed to the enhancement of the health service. A constituent contacted me this morning who had a cervical smear test 17 weeks ago. The results came back as unclear and it was recommended that the test be redone but she was told she will wait another 17 weeks. For a woman who is very worried at this stage because the results were unclear, surely something can be done. I presume this lady is not alone in this.

There have been some delays in processing smear tests, given the very large number of women who went for a repeat test after the CervicalCheck controversy back in May and June. I understand those delays are now largely resolved. I do not see why the patient mentioned cannot have that retest done soon, unless there is perhaps some medical reason.

She can get the test but she will be waiting 17 weeks for the result.

I do not know the details of any individual case, but if the Deputy gives the details to me or the Minister for Health, we can check up on it.

I thank the Taoiseach.

The programme for Government set out a timetable for the signing of a contract to roll out the national broadband plan in June of last year, but it has not happened. The Government has undertaken a procurement process described by the Minister as unusual in character and which has taken four years to come to a conclusion. During the course of that, all the major infrastructural development companies that had shown an interest and had begun the process have fallen by the wayside. One of the original bidders that remained in the race is no longer in it. In fact, one of the participants in the consortium has changed to the extent that we have a venture capital company left as the bidder.

We cannot get into that now.

All of the major infrastructural companies - ESB, Eir, SSE and John Laing - have pulled out. The only remaining individual is a venture capital company.

There are two questions that arise. Does this raise concerns for the Taoiseach about the long-term possibility of the rolling out of broadband? Does it raise concerns about the kind of procurement process that has been undertaken, when all we have left at the end of a four-year process is a venture capital company offering to roll out the most critical piece of infrastructure this State has ever undertaken?

It is fair to say this whole process is novel and has not been done before. We will become one of the first countries in the world to provide high-speed broadband to every premises - every house, every business and every farm - in the entire country. This is a big undertaking, potentially the biggest investment in rural Ireland in the history of the State and perhaps the most important one since rural electrification many decades ago. I am confident the process is robust, and that is what the Minister and the Department say to me. As the Deputy can understand, however, for very good reasons, as a member of Government I am not personally involved in that process.

Is the Taoiseach aware the Minister met the company involved?

I read that, yes.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that Questions on Promised Legislation has morphed into a form of Topical Issue debate and questions could be about whatever you are having yourself. It appears we need to discuss these matters, maybe at the reform committee, to see how we could do things a little bit more efficiently.

The Parliament is an inflexible sort of forum now and again or, at least, when I came in here first, that is the way it used to be.

I want to be clear we are very flexible. However, maybe we should not be calling it something it is not.