Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

There are already 21 Deputies offering and we have just 15 minutes.

On page 98 of the programme for Government, in the section on building on successes of rural and community policing, there is reference to an effective urban and rural policing plan, with a particular focus on what the Government has highlighted, and with which I agree, in the context of the importance of community policing. Will the Tánaiste provide an update on the progress in recruiting community police throughout the country? There are large swathes of Ireland, both within and outside Dublin, that do not have any community gardaí. I commend the focus the Garda has had over the past week with the 80-strong team targeting rural crime gangs with some success in County Meath. It is something to be welcomed. If the Tánaiste speaks to people in rural Ireland they are still incredibly concerned about the lack of Garda presence in their area. What plans does the Government have in place right now to build on some of the successes in rural policing and, more importantly, to focus on community policing in areas where there are no community gardaí?

The Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, can build on my response if necessary but the straight answer is more gardaí in urban and rural areas, which is what is happening now and we have the budget to deliver it.

Yesterday, the Centre for Co-operative Studies at University College Cork published a report on behalf of Social Finance Foundation. It reminds us that moneylenders are licensed to charge interest rates of up to 187%. Those rates exclude collection charges. When the latter are added in, the figure rises to 287%. This is more commonly known as the average percentage rate, APR. A total of 21 of the 28 EU countries apply caps on high cost credit. This includes us but the only cap we apply is on credit unions. We do not apply any cap to moneylenders. This is why during this time of year, and it happened at my house last week, moneylenders go door to door delivering leaflets, playing on the vulnerabilities of people coming up to Christmas and charging these extortionate rates of 187% APR before collection charges are applied. Six years ago, I brought legislation to the House and the Tánaiste's party and the Labour Party voted it down. That legislation would have introduced caps on moneylenders. Given that nothing has changed in the interim, will the Government look at introducing caps on moneylenders so they do not get away with this extortion any longer?

I will ask the Minister for Finance to come back to the Deputy on that issue.

I welcomed the draft withdrawal agreement published last night and I commend all who were involved over such a protracted period in looking after Ireland's interest. As others have said, it is but a draft agreement. As we follow the situation that is unfolding in London, we should try to be optimistic. However, we need to prepare for what is looking increasingly likely to be the defeat of the agreement because a number of MPs from the British Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, and others have all declared that they will vote against it in the House of Commons. Some time ago, the Taoiseach promised that he would give us, on a confidential basis, a comprehensive briefing on the preparations being made in the event of there being no deal. Obviously, we must prepare for the worst as we hope for the best. Will the Tánaiste provide for this now in order that, hopefully, we will not just be able to hear about the preparations but have an input into them in the event that political events in Britain, over which we have no control, do not allow this very welcome agreement to be accepted?

I thank the Deputy. A lot of contingency planning is under way. Details have either been published or spoken about, but the contingency plan in the public domain is very much a central-case scenario whereby there would be a deal and a transition period-----

It is very general.

It is not that general. We have committed to taking on 1,077 extra inspectors at our ports and airports and 451 of them will be taken on next year. That is pretty specific. We are looking at up to €100 million of investment in our ports and airports for east-west trade

There is nothing in Rosslare.

It includes some for Rosslare. What we are doing is examining how Ireland would respond to this and plan for it in the context of a no-deal Brexit. We are talking to the EU about it and it is planning for-----

I have asked for a briefing for the Opposition.

We will look to brief the Opposition as appropriate, but I would certainly need to brief the Cabinet before briefing the Opposition.

I ask people to please have regard to the time allocated.

Earlier this week, I raised with the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, the problems that are pretty rampant with the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. I cited the example of a working couple with a clean credit rating who saved their deposit. One of them is working in telecoms and the other is a hairdresser. Their application under this scheme was refused. I had heard the figure of 67% of applicants being refused. The Minister of State indicated that it is not that bad but that the figure stands at 50%. He said it needs to be worked on. It certainly does if that is the level of refusal in a scheme that is supposed to provide working people with the opportunity to buy homes in a climate where prices are extortionate and where people are having difficulties getting mortgages. When will the work to which the Minister of State referred be done? When will we do something to re-engineer the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme?

I thank the Deputy for the question. More than 1,000 Rebuilding Ireland home loans have been approved since the scheme was introduced in February. It is a very popular product because it helps people with affordability. An affordable mortgage with a fixed-term interest rate over its lifetime is unique in the Irish market. It is very popular but local authorities must be prudent in making sure when they lend that they do so to people who can afford to make repayments. I am aware of a number of inconsistencies in how the Rebuilding Ireland home loan is being applied across local authorities. An assessment has been done and I am reviewing that assessment at present with regard to what further changes may be made in the very near future.

The people of Tipperary, including myself and my colleagues, are dismayed at the news we heard this week from the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, that not one additional mental health bed will become available in Tipperary for at least six or seven years. We are in an absolute crisis situation. We had A Vision for Change and all of its promises and platitudes. We have an epidemic throughout the country with mental health issues. To think there is not one single additional long-stay bed in our county. Kilkenny is overflowing and, no disrespect to Deputy Aylward, but they do not want us there because they cannot cope. This situation that we must wait six to seven years before we get an extra bed in Tipperary cannot be allowed to prevail. It is totally unacceptable. Where is the Government's moral compass? Is it in its feet? We cannot allow this situation to continue.

Resources follow the need. There has been a dramatic increase in the resources available for mental health services-----

In the wrong places.

-----for adolescents as well as adults. Resources are allocated on the basis of where they are needed most.

Disgraceful answer.

There was a welcome recent announcement by the Department of Justice and Equality on the extension of the scheme for women who worked in Magdalen laundries to those who were excluded from the first scheme. I was disappointed to discover that women are being asked to provide evidence of having worked. I am sure the Tánaiste knows that many of the laundries do not have records. The Government tends to take affidavit statements about records from the religious orders but not, it appears, in the case of these women. I am hoping to hear that this is just a mistake on the part of the Department of Justice and Equality because it is very important that people who worked in the laundries and who were excluded, and there is all-party agreement on this, should get their money as quickly as possible because they are getting older.

I ask the Tánaiste to use his good offices to try to rectify this wrong and have the women included in the scheme.

I will certainly raise the issue with the Minister for Justice and Equality and come back to the Deputy on it.

The programme for Government states:

One of the biggest challenges facing rural Ireland is to bridge the digital divide with urban areas ... we will guarantee the delivery of next-generation broadband to every household and business in the country. No town, village or parish will be left behind under the National Broadband Plan ... 85% of premises in Ireland will have access to high speed broadband within two years, with 100% access as soon as possible up to at most 5 years.

That is now ridiculous. None of that has been honoured nor can it be honoured. I have one simple question for the Tánaiste. I remind the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, that this is not a laughing matter; it is a very serious matter for those living in rural areas. Where stands our broadband plan? What answer will the Tánaiste give that I can take to the people, particularly those in rural areas who desperately need this?

We are taking the national broadband plan deadly seriously.

A Minister lost his job because of it. There is a new Minister, Deputy Bruton, who is determined to take this forward in a way that can allow the Government to deliver on the commitments in its programme. We will have a report from the auditor soon, giving advice to the Government on the integrity of the process. We will act on the back of that report. I assure the Deputy that, from the Taoiseach down, broadband for rural areas is a big priority that the Government wants to act on.

On page 67 of the programme for Government, there is a commitment to bring youth mental health to the fore through our education system. The foundation of mental health for our youth starts in our schools, but it starts with physical education. County Cavan has some thriving secondary schools but, unfortunately, some of them have dated gym facilities and others have none. Bailieborough community school and St. Aidan's comprehensive school in Cootehill have outdated facilities and have applied consistently for funding but without success. Worse again, two schools in the county, St. Bricin's in Belturbet and St. Mogue's in Bawnboy, have no gym facilities whatsoever. One of those schools has had two critical incidents in the past year. The issue can no longer be ignored and funding must be set aside for gym facilities, a basic requirement in any secondary school.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. It is an important matter because physical education, PE, is now being introduced as an examination subject in the leaving certificate curriculum. It has been trialled in a number of schools and it is a matter on which I am very focused. We also need to focus on PE very strategically in primary schools. The Deputy is correct in what she says about PE facilities in secondary schools. I am getting correspondence from various parts of the country about schools that need gymnasiums and PE halls to implement this part of the curriculum. As part of that we have €8.4 billion available over the ten-year period of the national development plan. A programme will be rolled out to include gymnasiums in that. Obviously that will not happen overnight.

Along with Deputies Lisa Chambers, Aylward and others, I have raised the issue of the plight of 25 children in this country who suffer from spinal muscular atrophy. We have met them and are aware of the challenging lives they lead. It does not have to be that way. A drug that could improve the lives of those people has been evaluated, but it has not been deemed appropriate to be made available for them in this country even though it is available in many European countries. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, is in the House. I specifically asked if the evaluation process could be reviewed or an access programme put in place. These children are still waiting and it is unfair that they have received no response on what is happening. In many other European countries we would not be having this debate because they would now be on that treatment.

This is the fifth or sixth occasion on which Deputy Curran and I have raised this issue. We were told that a decision was imminent and the families would be contacted. However, they are still waiting for an answer as to whether the drug will be approved. Other countries in the European Union already provide this drug. These children are waiting. The drug is effective and it works. The families even say that if in time it is shown not to work for their child, they are happy to give that up; they just want the chance. It is extremely reasonable. The very least the Government can do is to respond and give them a decision.

I acknowledge the persistence of both Deputies and others who have continually raised and focused on this issue. I repeat what I have said every other time about the independent process and the tension that exists. Behind this is a company looking for a significant amount of money from the State to pay for that drug. That is not to take from the plight of the children affected by this. I undertake to obtain an update for both Deputies before the day is out. I think a meeting is due to be held on Tuesday, but I am not certain.

Unfortunately, there are 11 remaining Deputies and time has run out. I point out to Members and Leaders in particular that it would be a good idea if everyone adhered to the time allocated for both Leaders' Questions and Questions on Promised Legislation. We would get through many more people if we adhered to those criteria.