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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 25 Oct 2018

Vol. 974 No. 3

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

We now move to Questions on Promised Legislation. Some 15 Deputies have indicated and we have 15 minutes. I call Deputy Cowen.

The State's dependence on agency nursing staff cost €160 million up to May of this year. There are significant difficulties retaining full-time nursing staff. It now appears that agency costs will rise 20% in the coming year. How does the Government square that circle in the light of the issues that have arisen as a result of the inconclusive report of the Public Sector Pay Commission, the chair of which stated that the standard of available analytical evidence meant that its recommendations lack the credibility they deserve?

I am unsure of the Deputy's question.

The Government is paying up to €160 million for nursing agency staff. There are issues retaining full-time staff related to pay and conditions. In the light of a further 20% increase in the cost of agency staff, will the Government continue to rely on such workers?

That is why we asked the commission to consider the issue of nurses' pay. It made recommendations which the Government is willing to implement for some of the reasons outlined by the Deputy.

I welcome the regulations for the short-term letting sector published this morning by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. In particular, I am pleased that the Minister has taken on board detailed proposals made by Sinn Féin and in the report on the subject published by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government last October. Although we need more detail on the plan, its definition of "short-term letting" and the requirement for planning permission are eminently sensible. However, I am concerned by the proposed eight-month lead-in. The rental sector is in such crisis that we cannot wait eight months before the regulations are put on a statutory footing. I am also concerned that there is no mention of sanctions or fines for online platforms or letting agents which advertise properties that do not conform to the statutory regulations. Although we wish to work with the Government to expedite the legislation as quickly as possible, I seek assurance that the Government is willing to work with us on the lead-in time and sanctions, particularly for online platforms.

I discussed the matter with the Minister, Deputy Murphy, this morning. He plans to bring draft proposals to the committee and work with other parties to get this right. We are trying to get the balance right between ensuring we have a functioning short-term letting market, where appropriate, and preventing the short-term letting system from undermining the broader and more important rental market, which is needed to provide longer-term tenancies and security of tenure for tenants and so on. The outline of the Minister's approach in that regard is now being openly discussed. He will bring forward the proposals in draft form to the committee and work with others in this House to get it right. Some time will be needed to reflect the fact that there are pre-bookings and so on and that people will have to adapt to new realities.

Deputy Ó Broin showed an uncharacteristic lack of generosity by not acknowledging the work of Senator Humphreys on short-term lettings over many years.

We are now entering the winter period and the days are getting colder, as evidenced by the weather forecast for next weekend. As we speak, 391 people are lying on hospital trolleys throughout the country and if recent winters are anything to go by, we will again face serious pressures on our health service throughout the winter. We have now reached the end of October but have had no confirmation of the details of the winter initiative, which is normally published at this time of the year. I ask the Tánaiste to confirm what measures will be taken to reduce trolley numbers over the winter season. When will the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the HSE provide specific details of the measures and resources to be deployed to deal with the winter pressures?

Planning for winter 2018-19 has begun at hospital and local level. The Department of Health is working with the HSE to ensure these local and regional plans are consolidated and supported through policies and plans at national level to ensure the most effective response to the winter challenges to unscheduled care provision. The budget allocated an additional €10 million to prepare for and manage the expected peak in demand for health services over the coming winter. The funding will focus on initiatives to enable the hospital system to de-escalate before Christmas. Supporting patients in the over-75 age group will be a particular priority along with measures to respond to a surge in capacity and provide transitional beds and care as well as aids and appliances to support patients on their journey home following a hospital stay. We are trying as best we can to prepare hospitals for the increased pressure on service delivery and we have a significant budget to so do.

In 2011, several building workers took the trouble to join the Labour Party, specifically the branch of former Deputy Ruairí Quinn. For the next three or four years, they tried to impress on him the problems in the school buildings programme and, specifically, companies such as Western Building Systems. The workers described it as the "Wild West" and stated that some people on sites did not have a clue what they were doing, as well as highlighting that the required ties had not been installed. We are now discovering seven or eight years later that those ties are the most basic component in ensuring a wall stays together and does not fall down. Their claims were ignored by the former Deputy, Ruairí Quinn, and Deputy Alan Kelly. Prompted by the workers, I raised the matter in September of last year at which stage the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, who is sitting beside the Tánaiste, stated that he was confident that the problems identified in the schools were not widespread.

The Deputy's minute is up. He has made his point.

What is the Government going to do to bring forward a Bill on building controls and addressing the issue of bogus self-employment on building sites, which is directly connected------

The Deputy may ask a question on one matter only.

-----to the catastrophe we are now facing in schools, as well as hospitals such as Beaumont and Temple Street hospitals?

That Bill will not be brought forward in this session. Fire safety inspections have uncovered issues and problems, which led to safety concerns. We have learned lessons from the past. The way in which schools are built now is quite different from former practices and does not rely solely on contractors and their design teams. We will uncover the mistakes of the past and fix them. That is what this about.

The programme for Government strongly supports children in national schools. More than 5,000 people took to the streets of Tipperary town last Saturday. Five national schools there came together last year to apply to the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, who is seated beside the Tánaiste and might be able to whisper an answer to him, for DEIS status but their applications were denied. The shutting out of those schools is of huge concern. The Pobal index of deprivation indicates that they should be granted that status. They met all of the requirements and should have been given this status but it was refused. What does the Tánaiste and the Government have against Tipperary town and its people in terms of jobs, infrastructure and, more importantly, its young people? We have excellent principals, boards of management and parents councils and good people eager to learn but they want a fair crack of the whip. All they want is fairness and to be granted DEIS status like many other schools throughout the country.

I call Deputy Cahill on the same matter.

The five primary schools in Tipperary town were not given a satisfactory answer regarding why they did not attain DEIS status. In light of the problems and social issues in the town, the schools should have no difficulty whatsoever acquiring that status. I ask the new Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to re-examine the applications by the schools in Tipperary town to see if they can acquire DEIS status.

The criteria for DEIS status are applied equally across the country.

The schools met the criteria.

It is decided on the basis of CSO statistics on issues such as deprivation, single parents and so on.

All of the criteria were met.

This is not a political decision. It involves criteria that are implemented evenly across the country and schools either qualify or they do not.

Have the Tánaiste and his EU Foreign Minister colleagues given consideration to referring Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud of Saudi Arabia to the International Criminal Court in The Hague given the appalling murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and repeated serious crimes committed by the Saudi rulers in Yemen? I remember years ago, when both the Tánaiste and I were in opposition, how we supported the establishment of the International Criminal Court. Is there not a significant case, as the President of Turkey has clearly shown, that the key perpetrators of this premeditated and vicious murder must be brought to justice? Will the Tánaiste take an initiative in that regard?

This was undoubtedly a brutal murder that shocked a lot of people and rightly so. It has also shocked an awful lot of journalists who have a job to do in holding governments to account and speaking truth to power. Like many other countries, we want to understand what happened, who was responsible and who sanctioned it. This is why we have asked for a credible and independent report on what did happen. As we do not yet have that, it is very hard to draw conclusions on that basis but we will work with other EU partners to ensure the truth is uncovered and understood. At that point, we will be able to take appropriate action.

Ten Deputies wish to speak with just three minutes remaining.

With considerable confusion over Brexit and the ever-growing possibility of a hard Brexit looming over us, where does the cross-border directive stand? Up to 3,000 people from the Republic of Ireland will go to Northern Ireland for urgent operations such as cataract, knee and hip surgery this year. Can the Tánaiste assure us that the cross-border directive will work after next March?

There are many areas of cross-border co-operation linked with cross-border bodies under the Good Friday Agreement and co-operation on an all-island basis. We expect that co-operation to continue through Brexit.

I spent much of yesterday in Tyrrelstown, where 1,200 children have had their schools arbitrarily closed, along with the community centre. Will the Government set up an emergency task force with the participation of the Office of Public Works to find out when the buildings can be re-opened? Will the Government set up a helpline for parents? It is impossible for parents to get answers from the Department of Education and Skills. Will the Government set up a helpline for crèches that operate childcare facilities out of these schools and the community centre for afterschool and preschool care because workers were told yesterday that there was no work for them? Could the Government set up a helpline for the community organisations that now have no community centre to which they go for their activities?

A communications unit has been set up in the Department of Education and Skills specifically yesterday to deal with all of the issues.

There are no answers from it.

I will pass on the Deputy's comments with regard to that. The Deputy is asking me to set up a communications unit when one has already been set up.

No, an emergency task force.

Allow the Tánaiste to respond.

With respect, the Deputy's initial focus was on communications, which is the most important focus in order that people know what is happening and can understand timelines around inspections and so on. As a specific unit on communications was set up only yesterday to do that, I expect the Deputy will see a dramatic improvement in communications as a result of that.

Over a year ago, the Government gave a commitment in the budget that it would make changes to the fair deal scheme, particularly with regard to small farm families and small businesses. As we know, there is a 7.5% charge on the family home for three years. A commitment was given that the same would apply to land and small businesses. It is creating severe hardship for many small business owners and small farm families. When will the changes to the scheme be made?

The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, has done a lot of good work in this area but I will have to come back to the Deputy on the timelines. The political decisions have already been made in respect of this. It is now a matter of implementation.

Page 41 of the programme for Government, which deals with jobs and rural development, states that the Government is committing to revitalising every community across this State. The Tánaiste is aware of the situation at Bord na Móna where up to 430 job losses are in the pipeline. I support the call made by Deputy Cowen for a forum to be set up but the Government has responsibilities in this area as well. The midlands has been neglected in terms of job creation. We have the second lowest income rate in this State. These workers and their families are very upset and annoyed, as am I. I am also very concerned about the small businesses that will be affected. There will be a knock-on effect. What actions does the Government propose to take in terms of job creation in the midlands and supporting small businesses in communities in counties like Offaly that will be directly hit as a result of any job losses?

Could special emphasis be placed on the need to replace the jobs in the areas in which they are about to be lost? Could we use the decarbonisation of the energy sector as a means of doing so?

I wish to reassure Deputies that Bord na Móna is taking its responsibilities very seriously and has put forward a series of enterprise initiatives that will develop alternative employment. This takes into account the fact that there is a decline, as Deputy Cowen said, as a result of decarbonisation, which has been widely recognised. As Deputy Cowen also indicated, there will be an application for globalisation funds through the EU. We have the regional enterprise forum, the regional skills forum and the rural development fund. Bord na Móna is committed to working with local authorities using those funds to develop new opportunities, including looking at enterprise centres and other possibilities for the development of the midlands. As the Tánaiste has said, employment creation in the midlands has been significant -15,000 jobs during the course of the regional plan. That regional plan has been very successful. It has brought an enhanced focus on regional development both by Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland. In the context of this decision, there will be renewed effort in this area. It is possible to apply for regional enterprise funds and the rural regeneration fund. We will be utilising all of those vehicles to respond.

There are three Deputies remaining. If they put each of their questions in 20 seconds, I will take the questions and we will then go back for a response.

The Tánaiste is aware of the significant delay in respect of applications for carer's allowance. Applications are taking between 14 and 16 weeks to be processed - in excess of three months. Does the Government intend to put extra resources into the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to expedite these applications?

I have been engaging with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government for the past few weeks in the Chamber. I laid out the position in County Louth. There are vacant houses in the county and there is no money to re-let them. We have a landbank with fully serviced sites but nothing is happening. A total of 110 people received emergency accommodation in September. Can the Tánaiste persuade the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to engage with Louth County Council? It is paying €1 million per year in interest only on the landbank.

Deputy Eugene Murphy and I have a similar question regarding the capital health programme for 2019. It is under page 58 of the programme for Government. Can the Tánaiste confirm whether the 50-bed ward block at Portiuncula Hospital, which is shovel ready and has planning permission, will be included in the next capital health programme?

I cannot confirm individual projects with regard to capital expenditure for next year but I can certainly pass on that request to the Minister for Health. In respect of Deputy Fitzpatrick's question, he will know there is ongoing discussion and consultation between Louth County Council and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. I was involved in that when I was the Minister responsible. I know the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy English, are continuing that engagement. When landbanks are available, the Department is very anxious to work with local authorities to move on those landbanks as quickly as possible to deliver housing, both social and private.

On the final issue regarding carer's allowance, I will ask the Minister to reply directly to the Deputy.