An tOrd Gnó (Atógáil) - Order of Business (Resumed)

The programme for Government has a chapter of extensive commitments from the Government to people with disabilities, particularly to provide them with access to the maximum supports necessary for them to participate fully in society. Against that background, members of the visually impaired and blind community in the south-east Dublin region, basically from east Wicklow up through Dún Laoghaire to Ringsend, were shocked and distraught to discover that the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI, which is mainly funded by the HSE, intends to close down its office in Dún Laoghaire. I was protesting with them on Friday and some of them believe they will be lost, isolated and left with nothing in terms of the brilliant supports that are provided by the NCBI if this office closes. They have been told that the only option is to travel to Tallaght or Drumcondra, which will be impossible for many of these service users. Will the Taoiseach contact the HSE about this? If this NCBI office closes down this will be the only HSE community healthcare organisation, CHO, area in the country that will be without an NCBI office. It cannot be allowed to close down.

I do not know the details about it but I will check what is the position. The HSE's budget for next year will increase by over €1 billion so I would like to understand why such a service is being removed. I will check into it.

On page 113 of the programme for Government, in a section which which deals with agriculture and the marine, the Government states that it will encourage banks within and from outside the State, including the European Investment Bank, to make competitive rates available to farmers with repayment options tailored for farm incomes. The reality is that over 28,000 acres of Irish farmland, almost 1,000 of the acres being in County Cork, are under the control of vulture funds but the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has washed his hands of the issue.

What real steps is the Government taking to save borrowers from these vulture funds? Will the Taoiseach stand idly by while families are pulled out of their homes and farms?

Is the Taoiseach in a position to answer that? If not-----

I will try to come back to the Deputy with a more detailed answer but I would point out to Members that this House rather foolishly passed a resolution that the Department of Finance and the Minister for Finance could not engage with the so-called vulture funds.

The Taoiseach referred to the fact that he is taking legal advice from the Attorney General in respect of the two senior gardaí at the centre of the Charleton tribunal. In a general sense, would he accept there is an issue in the State where senior public servants whose performance has been less than satisfactory and, in some cases, grossly unsatisfactory, sail off into the sunset with large lump sums and generous public service pensions? Would the Taoiseach commit to exploring the possibility of ensuring that such pension benefits would be contingent on their satisfactory performance while they are in the job? This issue arises from time to time. It seems we are incapable of dealing with it and we need to introduce primary legislation to change the terms of employment for senior public servants.

This matter may come under the Order of Business or the programme for Government, if it is appropriate.

I do not believe it is in the programme for Government, but I understand where Deputy Shortall is coming from. Many members of the public, and I too, get extremely annoyed seeing people who have been involved in wrongdoing sailing off into the sunset with very generous pensions and very generous lump sums. The question is whether there is something we can do about it. We have to consider two things. Firstly, pensions in Ireland are property rights. If a person pays into it-----

Would the Taoiseach accept-----

For everybody who pays into their pension, it then becomes an entitlement. It is not a gift, it is something into which people have paid. We have to consider pension rights and property rights and whether or not the public would want to give us the power to take away somebody's pension rights.

The second issue that would need to be considered is due process. While there are people who have sailed off into the sunset with very generous pensions and lump sums, there are also those people who have been very unfairly hounded out. We would need to make sure there is due process in that regard, and consequences for those people who have hounded them out.

With a bit of co-operation from Members, we can continue. Deputy Eamon Ryan indicated but there is just one question from whoever is the leader for the day, so the Deputy will be down further. The Deputies are a group. We will move on to-----

I am sorry but the Deputies cannot have it both ways. Deputy Ryan is on the list. The allocation of time has to be decided by the Deputies.

I will talk to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle separately. I must leave to attend a committee now.

We will try to accommodate the Deputy later, or at another time. I call Deputy John Lahart. Does his question concern the Order of Business or the programme for Government?

It comes under the programme for Government. Although delaying a plebiscite for the people of Dublin on whether they should choose to directly elect a mayor, and in doing so reversing previous commitments given by the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach has agreed and committed to constituting a special citizens' assembly of Dubliners. We welcome this measure if only for the reason that such a citizens' assembly would probably end up being even more radical than those on this side of the House who are proponents of a directly elected mayor. Will the Taoiseach confirm - this is important - that the 100 members of the proposed citizens' assembly would be drawn exclusively from the electoral registers of the four Dublin local authorities?

Proposed legislation.

It is proposed to bring a memo to Cabinet to establish this citizens' assembly before the end of the year and to allow it to do its work in 2019. I can confirm that the citizens will all be from Dublin city and county and not from the surrounding counties. It is not intended that the directly elected Dublin mayor will have jurisdiction over parts of Meath, Kildare or Wicklow. I am happy to reassure people of that.

It may be the case, however, that all the 100 people may not be just citizens. There may be a case made for including on the assembly a certain number of councillors or Oireachtas Members from Dublin. This would follow the model of the constitutional convention rather than the Citizens' Assembly.

I call Deputy Michael Healy-Rae and I ask him to try to think of his colleagues with regard to time.

On the programme for Government, it has recently been announced that the VAT rate is being increased at the end of this month from zero to 23% on food supplements such as vitamins, minerals and health supplements in general.

This is totally outrageous. It is going to affect those businesses but it is also going to affect the health of people who rely on natural methods in order to stay healthy. We have many health food stores and to go from zero to 23% in one jump is outrageous. I ask the Government to reconsider this outrageous proposal.

Is the Taoiseach in a position to answer?

I am not. I will have to ask the Minister for Finance to provide a reply to the Deputy. It is probably an adjudication under the EU VAT directive rather than a decision of Government. When it comes to food supplements, my advice is caveat emptor. Food supplements very rarely do anything for our health. They are mostly snake oil and just cost people money.

The Taoiseach may tell that to the health food stores.

On page 103 of the programme for Government, long duration in direct provision is acknowledged to have a negative impact on family life. As a result, we are committed to reforming the direct provision system, with particular focus on families and children. Given the recent announcement by the Department of Justice and Equality that it has leased the only hotel in Wicklow town, namely, the Grand Hotel, as a direct provision centre for up to 100 people, including families, how does that action form part of reforming the system? Equally, in the context of town and village renewal - dealt with in the section on urban renewal and tourism - the Government made announcements regarding Wicklow town in the context of enhancing the visitor experience, giving additional funding to Tidy Towns to reach gold medal status and providing LocalLink services to Wicklow and Glendalough.

I thank the Deputy.

Only two weeks ago, the Minister launched the tourism strategy for Wicklow and assigned a task force for the east coast greenway for Wicklow town. How does leasing the only hotel in Wicklow town for direct provision contribute to these strategies? People in Wicklow town have not been consulted on this. Where is the joined-up thinking?

Deputies Eugene Murphy and Brady have similar questions. Deputies should think of their colleagues, not me.

This was the reason I had my name down to speak. I raised the issue with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, when he was standing in for the Taoiseach last week. We have a similar position in the village of Rooskey, County Leitrim, which is only eight miles from my home. I want to repeat what I said last week. We know we have responsibilities to those people and that is not what I am questioning today. There is a veil of secrecy around how this matter is being dealt with and it is not good enough. We must end direct provision. It is simply not the way to do this. To be honest, I refer to the herding of these people into hotels, as is happening in Wicklow and Rooskey, as legalised people trafficking. That is what it is.

That is outrageous.

We have to tackle this issue. The way it is being dealt with by the Government is not good enough. I want answers and so do Deputy Casey and others.

Deputies Brady and McConalogue have similar questions but they must keep them short.

I am deeply concerned that rather than trying to dismantle the shameful direct provision system, the Government is seeking to expand it and open a direct provision centre in Wicklow town. It must be remembered that Fianna Fáil created and established the direct provision system. It was meant to be on a temporary basis for up to six months for people seeking international protection and asylum. The Taoiseach will be aware that all the NGOs representing asylum seekers have voiced serious and deep concerns about direct provision.

Time is short and Deputies should think of their colleagues. We are going to move on. We are running out of time.

There are concerns about the use of the hotel in Wicklow town. I understand that there is an accommodation crisis for people seeking international protection but there are serious issues regarding direct provision. Does the Taoiseach share the concerns of those NGOs and are there going to be changes and a move away from the shameful use of what are described as the Magdalene laundries of our day?

I appeal to Deputies to think of their colleagues. Our time is limited. Deputy McConalogue has a similar question.

My question is for the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton. It is in respect of the decision the Government is making on opening a reception centre in Moville, County Donegal. Will the Ministers and the Taoiseach ensure that there is consultation with the local community in advance of any final decision to proceed? I do not think it is the right way to go about things where such an important decision is made without involving the community that is being asked to welcome people in and to ensure they are well catered for.

In the context of Moville, the proposal is to open a 100-person reception centre in a town that has a population of 1,500. There are two aspects to this, namely, the capacity of the town to cater for 100 additional people and the capacity of a 50-bed hotel to cater, in an appropriate manner, for up to 100 people.

I understand that colleagues here have concerns about these announcements. This year, we expect 3,500 applications for asylum. Last year, there were 3,000.

Asylum seekers are offered places and nobody is herded anywhere. Asylum seekers are free to take up places or not, as they wish. They are offered accommodation, food, warmth, a shower, etc.

We also had the Mr. Justice McMahon report on conditions, which included 173 recommendations to improve the accommodation systems, 98% of which have been fully or partially implemented. The Ombudsman for Children and the Ombudsman also visit the centres, listen to the people living there and take complaints.

If anybody has a better way of doing this, let him or her please tell me what it is because I have not heard it to date. Asylum seekers are guaranteed a bed, a shower and food, tonight or when they come to Ireland in these accommodation centres. We do not want people on the streets. That is the alternative, unless the Deputies can come up with something better.

Lucrative deals for a small group of people making millionaires out of them.

The Deputies must come up with something better.

The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, without interruption.

I ask Deputies to not use the word "herding". That is not the case.

On a point of order, the Order of Business is a most unsatisfactory way of dealing with an important issue. I ask that the Deputies who wish to raise this issue might do so by way of Topical Issue and substantive debate.

I object to that. That is outrageous.

Let the Minister or his representative-----

This is a lucrative deal.

Let the Minister's party and other parties find a better way. I am trying to implement the rules of the House and if there are Members here trying to circumvent them, I cannot think in advance for anybody. I am trying to advise Members to ask questions on the Order of Business or the programme for Government and I can do nothing more than that.

This is not appropriate to the Order of Business.

It certainly is appropriate. On a point of order, it is in the programme for Government.

I will allow questions relating to the programme for Government. That is the custom but if Members have difficulties, there is another forum where they can deal with this.

We have only one minute left. I will take a decision today I never took previously, that is, to cut it off. I call Deputy Cahill.

In the programme for Government, there are commitments as regards fighting crime. Last week, we raised a number of issues concerning my own county in the House. We were told today that the Garda station in Templemore will close at 7 p.m. because of the ban on overtime. I am also told that the same will happen in Cashel. There is a Garda division in my county to which 52 gardaí are assigned and I am told by senior Garda officials that more than one third of those are not available for work at present with no replacements being assigned. If we are serious about fighting crime in urban and rural areas, these decisions need to be reversed.

The Government is serious about dealing with crime, in particular, rural crime. The issues raised by the Deputy are operational and are primarily the responsibility of the Garda Commissioner. However, I am happy to pass on his concerns to Garda headquarters.

I call Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and ask him to be brief.

I believe the Bill progressing through the Dáil to cap contributions that farmers and small businesses must make to the fair deal scheme is being delayed because of legal issues. Many farmers have concerns that this Bill will not help them much because 100% of the value of their farms will still be assessed, which means 22.5% of the value of the family home can be used to pay for the person's care.

It is a detailed question. The Deputy has exceeded the time.

This will impose a severe difficulty for the young farmer who is trying to take over the farm.

I ask the Deputy for co-operation. Is any Minister in a position to answer?

On the same issue, I raised prior to the budget the fact that 14,000 homes are currently vacant because their owners are in nursing homes availing of the fair deal scheme. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Daly, gave an undertaking that he would review this with a view to trying to get some percentage of those properties into circulation to help deal with the housing and homeless crisis. Has he made any progress in that regard?

We hope to publish the heads of the Bill before year end. On the Deputy's point that it will not help farmers, I argue it will if it is capped at 22.5%. The present situation is up to 100% of the farm can be taken under the fair deal scheme. This would apply a cap at 22.5% so it would be far superior to the current arrangement. The review is still continuing. I hope by year end to have some progress on it. I note the Deputy's interest and I will keep him updated.

I thank the Minister of State for his brevity.

How is the swimming going?

I will try to accommodate Deputies providing I get co-operation.

The Taoiseach will be aware it is Science Week. I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, put on a cross-party event this morning and has more planned for during the week. I will return to a question I asked about funding this time last year at the start of Science Week. The Taoiseach will be aware that Horizon 2020 and the programme for Government committed to spending 2.5% of GDP on research and development funding. We are at about 1.6% or 1.7%, which is just over halfway there. When I asked the Taoiseach last year he answered me by saying there are many competing challenges such as housing, healthcare, transport and education, which I entirely acknowledge and agree with but which I do not see as being mutually exclusive. I will make that point. Spending on research and development can assist with our societal challenges if directed in the right way. We are not anywhere near 2.5%. That is our agreed target from Government. When will we hit that target? Where are we at in terms of meeting those commitments?

I appreciate what the Deputy said. I understand that target is not just for the Government. It is 2.5% of GDP from the entire economy. It is not solely down to Government to provide all the funding for science and research. Industry has to play its part as well. I do not know what the figures are for 2019 but I am confident there has been an increase in Government spending in that area. The Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, is doing a very good job in that regard and he really has taken to the whole issue.

I beg the indulgence of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I fear I may have done a disservice to the food supplement industry. I should rephrase. Instead of saying very rarely, I should say many food supplements have no proven health benefits but some, of course, do.

In Science Week it is okay to say these kinds of things.

On that one, trust the science not the stuff on the label.

The Taoiseach's clarity has been recorded.

Does that mean apple cider vinegar does not work?

If I get co-operation, I will accommodate Deputies.

I refer to page 96 of the programme for Government. We desperately need more gardaí in Drogheda. I raised this on two occasions recently prior to the escalation of the ongoing feud. The situation in Drogheda now is frightening, dangerous and dire. I am personally aware of at least three mothers who have put their sons on planes out of the country in the past month alone for their own safety. Mothers have been pleading for help as homes are attacked and large sums of money are demanded of parents.

What is the question?

I am coming to it. In one case, a family was informed its home was going to be attacked on a particular night. The gardaí were made aware of the threat. The home was attacked and there was not a garda to be seen. I welcome the five arrests made at the weekend but the main instigators and organisers have still not been apprehended and the dogs in the street know who they are.

We desperately need extra resources.

We need the same resources as Dublin and Limerick. Drogheda has never witnessed a state of lawlessness-----

Deputy Munster is normally very orderly.

-----like this before. We really need the resources. Will the Government provide those extra resources in a time of need-----

I will not give the Minister an opportunity to respond if the Deputy continues.

-----before somebody is killed?

I try to accommodate and I think that is my problem.

I understand there are issues of a very serious nature in Drogheda within the criminal justice system. I acknowledge a statement on the part of Garda headquarters to the effect that all leave in the Louth area has been cancelled with a view towards ensuring the issues raised by Deputy Munster will be satisfactorily dealt with.

Leas-Cheann Comhairle-----

I call Deputy Butler.

This is too serious.

I call Deputy Butler.

All leave is cancelled but there is nothing being done to deal with what is going on.

I am not responsible for the Minister's answers.

The Minister gave a flippant answer the last time. Lives are at risk here.

The Deputy is well over her time.

Lives are at risk.

The Deputy will have to find another way-----

Leave being cancelled is in no way sufficient. We need extra resources like Dublin and Limerick got before somebody is killed. He does not give a damn.

He does not give a damn.

Page 19 of the programme for Government speaks about ending the housing shortages and mentions the difficulties facing people renting accommodation. The latest report was extremely bad news for Waterford city which saw one of the biggest increases in the cost of rent by a massive 19.7% year-on-year with an average rent of €955. There is absolutely no end in sight for hard-pressed people trying to pay rent every month. Waterford was not included in the initial rent pressure zones for the 4% cap on rent increases. When will we see a review of the rent pressure zones to incorporate this new up-to-date data?

I thank the Deputy for the question. We had the report very recently. We have the report coming from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, in December for the third quarter. It works to a much more comprehensive data set. It will tell us that rents are increasing and that in many parts of the country rents are too high and unsustainably high for people who are trying to pay them and trying to get by and meet all those other bills.

The controls are not working.

The rent pressure zones have been reviewed. Legislation will come to the House very shortly that will strengthen the rent pressure zones and also allow new enforcement powers for the RTB as well as the money that was provided to it in the budget for 2019. I am in discussions with the RTB on the qualifying criteria for the rent pressure zones because it is something we need to keep under review constantly as we continue to deal with the shortage we have in housing. The CSO has released recent data for increases in construction of housing completions which are continuing to trend upwards by the thousands each quarter.

I will accommodate Deputies Durkan and Murphy O'Mahony.

The Garda Síochána (compensation for malicious injuries) Bill has been mooted for some considerable time. In view of the importance of that legislation, when is it likely to come before the House?

In the next session.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for accommodating me. Under the programme for Government, the Government committed to enhancing mental health services. In west Cork there is a facility called Lisheens House which helps people with mental health difficulties and also tackles the huge problem in west Cork of rural isolation. It means that people no longer have to make the long journey to travel to the city for help. The facility has been refused section 39 funding. To add to the pain of the refusal, it had to wait for the decision. The decision about funding was due in March and it only heard in October it had been refused. Not only was it refused but it had to wait to hear of the refusal. Will the Taoiseach please guarantee funding for this fantastic facility and also explain why it had to wait so long for a decision?

The Minister of State, Deputy Daly, who was present in the Chamber, has departed. The mental health budget next year will exceed €1 billion for the first time, including €55 million for development, so there is a big increase in funding in the area. It has been much acknowledged by people across the House. If it has been refused, I imagine it has been refused for a good reason but I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, to correspond with the Deputy.

On page 57 of the programme for Government there is a commitment to ensure appropriate care is in place to improve cancer services for patients and families. I will raise an issue in Sligo University Hospital. There was a day room for patients and families. The room has been closed for the past 20 weeks. The room was fitted out by public donations and was a great facility. The Taoiseach knows, as a medical person, the distress to patients and families. The room was there for families and in some cases for people to stay overnight when people were very sick. The room has been closed. I cannot understand why and I cannot get an answer. I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could talk to the Minister for Health and try to get some answers.

I do not know why that family room in Sligo University Hospital has been closed. I am sure the Deputy has asked the hospital manager why that is. I imagine that would be the right person to ask first rather than the Minister for Health.

I did that. I received no response.