Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I remind Deputies that questions must relate to promised legislation or the programme for Government. I ask them to adhere to that requirement.

We have all read in the media today about the report of Sir John Gillen on how rape trials are conducted in Northern Ireland. It is an excellent report and the former judge articulated well on it on "Morning Ireland" this morning. He has recommended that publicly funded legal advice for victims in rape trials be considered. Approximately six months ago, Fianna Fáil, through our justice spokesman, Deputy O'Callaghan, introduced legislation in the Dáil which seeks to afford legal representation to victims of alleged sexual offences. Without question, we are agreed that there is a need for greater legal protections to be offered to complainants in cases of this nature. Every victim should feel encouraged and adequately supported by the State to pursue justice. It is disappointing that the Government has failed to get behind and rapidly progress this legislation. Last June, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, said there would be a review of how rape cases were conducted in Ireland. At that time, he made a firm commitment that he would bring forward a package of procedural and legislative changes by the end of summer. We are now in November and we are yet to receive an update on this review. Will the Taoiseach indicate where this review is? When can we expect legislation in the House to deal with this issue?

The review referred to by Deputy Martin is well under way. I expect that it will be completed in its entirety by early next year or perhaps even by the end of this year. A working group involving representatives of An Garda Síochána, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Courts Service and interested parties is being chaired by Mr. Tom O'Malley of the National University Ireland, Galway, who is a considered expert in this area. The review covers the precise point raised by Deputy Martin.

I call on Deputy McDonald. The same rule applies. The question must be on the programme for Government or promised legislation.

Last week or perhaps the week before, in response to questions on promised legislation and the programme for Government, the Taoiseach indicated that the Government would deal in a whole and compassionate way with survivors of the Magdalen laundries. Over the course of the weekend, I read that under the scheme women who worked in the laundries when they were girls under the age of 12 will be asked to provide evidence that they worked in these institutions. That goes against the grain of everything that has been said repeatedly on the floor of the Dáil. It certainly does not represent anything compassionate and is causing terrible strife and anxiety. I ask the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, if he will amend, change or revisit whatever part of the scheme or legislation that needs to be changed to ensure this impossible demand is not made of these women, who were only very young children at the time.

The object of this exercise is to ensure that these women can receive closure. That will involve the issue of providing them with appropriate compensation. I expect this process will commence in the coming weeks with a view to dealing with as many as possible of the outstanding claims before the end of this year.

The Minister did not answer the question.

I have no control over that.

It is a specific issue which concerns girls younger than 12 years.

I am not going to-----

They are asking for evidence which people cannot provide owing to the passage of time.

There is no precedent. Does the Minister have a quick answer?

My Department is liaising on an individual basis with either the women concerned or their representatives to ensure no undue hardship will be imposed.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the national broadband plan. We have all been concerned since the resignation of the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, about where we are going. We understood there was to be a three week process to be led by Mr. Peter Smyth to evaluate whether the existing tendering process was sufficiently robust or if we needed to go back to scratch. We understand Mr. Smyth's report has been received by the Attorney General and considered by the Government, but I understand a decision has yet to be made. When will we see the report and when will we have clear views from the Government on how we are to proceed to ensure this vital facility will be provided?

The Minister, Deputy Bruton, and I received the report yesterday. It has to go through due process, as I am sure the Deputy will appreciate. It is with the Attorney General. Parts of it may need to be redacted for commercial reasons and the people named in it have to be given an opportunity to comment or reply. We anticipate publishing it as soon as possible. I anticipate that happening in a matter of days, rather than weeks, but the report was not actually discussed by the Cabinet because we have to follow due process first.

The programme for Government promises a progressive law reform programme. I understand the Law Reform Commission is examining the questions of social media usage in court, contempt of court and so on. It seems publication of the report has been pre-empted by Chief Justice Clarke who has announced the banning of the sending of text messages from and social media usage in court by all, other than so-called bona fide journalists. It is extremely worrying and represents a restriction in the administration of justice in public and of the right to freedom of speech by giving a monopoly to report from court to bona fide journalists. It seems to indicate that more attention is being paid to preventing the public from seeing what is going on in court than to the actual problem displayed in, for example, the Jobstown trial, with co-ordinated perjury by numerous gardaí.

I understand the Chief Justice was acting fully within his powers and authority. I support him in his recent statement.

Some 12 months ago we were assured that a consultant who was retiring in Bantry General Hospital would be replaced by a full-time consultant. We have now found out that no full-time replacement has been acquired and that the standing consultant is leaving Bantry General Hospital. This, coupled with the retirement of one of the two local injury doctors who has not been replaced either, raises serious questions about the Government's commitment to the hospital which is the most remote in Ireland and serves a vast area of west Cork and County Kerry. We cannot sit idly by and allow it to be downgraded. Will the Taoiseach give an honest assurance that both positions in Bantry General Hospital will be filled immediately by full-time replacements?

I am afraid I do not have any information on that matter, but I will ask the Department of Health to provide the Deputy with a reply.

To buy an average priced house in Dublin a household income of €112,000 is required, which is far beyond the reach of most people in any average job. Apart from supply, the lack of affordable housing has been a crucial factor. Despite years of promises by this and the last Government, we still do not have an affordable housing scheme, which is outrageous. We regularly see, in the Dublin local authorities in particular, situations where there are umpteen sites that could be developed to provide social housing, especially affordable housing. The sites are waiting to be developed and local authorities are ready to develop schemes. There is a huge demand for affordable housing, yet we do not have any direction from the Department on the long promised affordable housing scheme. What on earth is holding up the scheme?

We have the question. I ask the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to provide a short, snappy reply.

When will the Government provide clear direction to the local authorities?

We have an affordable housing scheme. We provided €300 million in the budget for the scheme this year. This week, I will write to the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government with details of the sites that have been successful in the first phase of the scheme.

Sorry, that is not-----

No, hold on. Deputy Sean Fleming is next. His question must be relevant to the programme for Government or promised legislation.

I raise with the Taoiseach the housing crisis, specifically promised legislation relating to approved housing bodies. Perhaps the Taoiseach will take a moment to check the record. He may have misled the Dáil a little while ago when answering a question from Deputy Micheál Martin on social housing. The Taoiseach said 8,000 social houses were to be delivered this year, half of which were to be built by local authorities. He may wish to check the record because if that is what he said, it is not the truth of the matter.

Deputy Fleming should ask his question.

As the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government knows, the target for all local authorities this year is to build 2,400 houses. That is what the Department has said.

There is promised legislation on statutory regulation of approved housing bodies. These are a key component to delivery on the housing crisis. Since there is no statutory regulation in this area, the Minister does not know how many houses are being built by these bodies. There is only a voluntary code of regulation in place. When will we see statutory regulation of approved housing bodies?

I will comment on the first point raised by Deputy Fleming on the Taoiseach's comments. The stock of social housing will increase by approximately 7,900 homes this year. A little over half of those homes will be social housing homes.

The Deputy asked about approved housing bodies. These bodies currently operate on a voluntary basis in terms of regulation with the Housing Agency. That does not mean we do not have sight of what they are building. They are part of our programme of delivery because we have gone not for one stream but for a number of different streams to deliver social housing. We are progressing legislation for the statutory regulation of approved housing bodies and it is a priority for the Department.

The criminal justice (international co-operation) Bill aims to address the legacy of the Troubles, as agreed in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, stated in the Dáil in July that the drafting of the Bill was at an advanced stage. He also stated that he expected to bring the Bill before the Oireachtas early in the new term. Can the Minister advise when this Bill will be before the House?

I still intend to have the matter before this House, business permitting, before the end of this year. It is important legislation and is receiving priority attention in my Department.

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae is next. I remind him that questions must relate to promised legislation or the programme for Government.

The Government and An Post are ploughing away with the closure of post offices. The post office in Knocknagoshel has got no reprieve and will not be re-tendered. The people of the village will have to travel to Abbeyfeale in County Limerick. That is what they have been told. Likewise, the post office in Gneeveguilla is being closed and the people of the village will have to travel to Rathmore.

What is the question?

Last night, a big meeting, attended by more than 300 people, was held in Dromod to keep the post office open. It is in the Gaeltactht area so I am asking the Minister responsible to put his shoulder to the wheel. I am also asking my fellow Deputy from Kerry, Deputy Brassil, to ensure that Dromod is included in the confidence and supply agreement.

Will Deputy Healy-Rae give the rest of us a chance?

Will the Taoiseach ensure that Dromod post office in the middle of the Kerry hills-----

The Deputy does not have a monopoly in this House. We have a similar question from Deputy Michael Healy-Rae.

The Taoiseach was present during the negotiations on the formation of the Government. As part of the programme for Government, there is a crystal clear commitment to maintaining our post office network. It is true that in Dromod and Mastergeehy last night the talk was of another post office facing closure. A total of 80 post offices face closure by the end of January and another 231 post offices are lined up for closure after that.

I am asking the Minister to act on the Private Member's motion that was passed in this House almost two years ago. Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Independents all came together to support the motion. I ask the Minister to ensure that the content of that motion is now adhered to in order to save many of those post offices.

The Labour Party supported that motion as well, for the record. The An Post mail centre in Cork, we are told, is now under threat of closure, with the potential loss of 200 jobs. I am asking the Minister if he can confirm that that is the case. It would have a devastating effect on postal services in the southern region.

I also want to raise the issue of the promise that was made in respect of a new post office that was supposed to be tendered for in Kilworth, County Cork, which has not come on stream yet. Does An Post intend to close the Cork mail centre, with the loss of 200 jobs? We need confirmation on that.

I rise to speak about the same issue. There is huge concern about the potential closure of the mail centre in Portlaoise. Some 250 people are employed there, and a further 40 or 50 seasonal jobs are available there during the Christmas period. There is huge uncertainty around its future. This issue has bounced around for two years. There have been rumours about Athlone, Portlaoise and Cork. We need clarity on this, and we need to know where the postal services are going in this country. The mail centres are a vital cog in the wheel of that service. If one is removed the mail services may be depleted. The workers need certainty.

I am speaking on the same issue. It is very worrying. We are coming up to Christmas.

Is the Deputy speaking on the same issue?

Yes, I am speaking about the mail centre in Cork. It is very worrying that there is a possibility that over 200 people will lose their jobs before Christmas. The issue of new equipment was raised, but that will probably never happen now. There will be no investment in Athlone and Portlaoise, never mind the Cork mail centres. I did not want to bring it up here today because I respect people's privacy, but when the news breaks one has to be fair. This is a very worrying thing, especially in the run up to Christmas. Cork is such a big rural area, and if it is let it down in this manner it will be absolutely devastating.

An Post is a commercial State body, and it has been under very severe financial pressure in recent years. It has had to take steps, including increasing the prices of stamps, among other things, to ensure that it can continue to deliver a service. It has negotiated a settlement with the postmasters whereby some post offices will voluntarily close. It has also developed a protocol under which it has given assurances that there will be a maximum distance that people will have to travel. It is ensuring that pledge is honoured in the context of any closures that occur. It also seeks to ensure that where other commercial outlets wish to continue to provide the service there will be an opportunity to do so.

An Post has set up an independent review process, and communities can submit to that independent review. There are two independent reviewers, and they will examine any submissions in that context. I assure the Deputies that An Post will seek to ensure the very best delivery of service to its customers in a way that is consistent with being commercially viable. It has a strong record of communication with its workforce, which it will continue to respect, but it has to develop plans that allow it to continue to be able to deliver on its mandate. That is what it does as an independent body.

I asked a question about the Cork mail centre-----

This is a matter for Topical Issues.

I know the Deputy asked the question, but I have no responsibility for the response of the Minister.

Perhaps the Minister could respond to me at some stage before-----

The Minister may communicate with the Deputy.

I have no problem communicating with the Deputy, but it must be borne in mind that this is a public company that has commercial responsibility. It has to develop its proposals in a way that is financially viable.

We have exhausted this issue.

I call Deputy Troy. There are other Members offering. Nobody has a monopoly in this House.

In 2014 the European Union issued a directive to ensure an independent competent noise authority would be established. My understanding is the legislation was finally brought to the Cabinet today. Having wasted two and a half years, I understand the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, wants the Bill to be enacted by the end of the year. If he is serious about having this important Bill enacted by the end of the year, when will it be published in order that all Members of the Dáil will have an opportunity to scrutinise it?

Does the Minister intend to visit on this occasion?

Deputy Troy is very well informed. The Bill was indeed brought to the Cabinet this morning. It was approved by it and will be published on Friday. With the co-operation of the House, we anticipate that it can be enacted by the end of this calendar year.

As the Taoiseach is aware, the programme for Government contains a commitment to blue light services and maintain an ambulance service in rural areas. In that context, a review was carried out a couple of years ago by the company Lightfoot Solutions which proposed an upgrade of several ambulance services throughout the country and the provision of new ambulances. I understand the 2019 service plan of the National Ambulance Service has been submitted to the Department of Health. It calls for a new ambulance to be allocated in south Leitrim and north Roscommon and one to be assigned to the Inishowen area of County Donegal. The plan aims to enhance services in these areas. With other Deputies from my area, I have been talking for years about the huge problems we have experienced with delayed services. This is very positive, but it needs to receive approval from the Department of Health. Will the Taoiseach commit to ensuring it is approved and that we will have new ambulance services?

I cannot do that. The different elements of the HSE will always request additional funding and the total amount requested will always exceed the total amount available. The amount available for improvements in health services in 2019 is more than €1 billion. There is an extra €1 billion available for health services next year. I agree with the Deputy that we should make sure that money will go towards service improvements, that is, new and better services, not higher costs. It will be up to the HSE and the Department of Health to develop the service plan. I cannot make any commitment on any aspect of it today.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to improve the environment. I want to talk about a report in the Irish Independent on a whale that was washed up in Asian waters. I argue that the contents of its stomach could be found inside any large sea animal washed up in Irish waters. They included 115 plastic cups, two flip-flops, 13 lbs of trash, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags and more than 1,000 other items. What plans does the Government have to clean up the waters around the Irish coastline, the Atlantic ocean and the Irish Sea, which, as the Taoiseach knows, are very much polluted with plastics, causing detrimental effects for the health of the fish that swim in them?

I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important question. In total, the European Union releases about 200,000 tonnes of plastics into the oceans. There is a serious problem throughout the Union which has decided in principle that it will introduce a ban on the use of single use plastics which will I hope become enforceable early in the new year. Obviously, the directive has to be finalised, but it will give us the potential to introduce similar bans. On microbeads, as the Deputy knows, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has the approval of the Government to introduce a Bill which it is hoped which will be passed before the end of the year. On a wider front, we are seeking to dramatically increase our recovery and recycling of plastics and reduce the use of packaging. We will publish targets to deliver these outcomes.

Page 64 of the programme for Government outlines a guarantee to deliver high speed broadband to every home and business in the country by 2022. The document indicated that the Government would sign a contract by June 2017. We know that did not happen for various reasons. Does the Taoiseach still stand over the commitment given in the programme for Government to deliver high-speed broadband to every home and premises in the country by 2022?

On the same issue, I call Deputy Scanlon.

Broadband is being rolled out at present. There is a situation in my county where the broadband is 200 m away from a high-tech tool-making factory employing 18 and doing business in China and all over the world. There is also a riding school just up the road from it. Those businesses should be targeted and they should be given the broadband. They are in the amber area. The company applied to Eir for an order number so that it can provide its premises with broadband but Eir will not give it a number and the work cannot be done. There are many jobs at stake here.

First, it is important to distinguish between two elements. On the commercial broadband delivery front, we have dramatically expanded the availability. It has gone, even since this Government's creation, from 50% up to 75%. That is entirely commercial. Those commercial outreaches still leave amber areas quite close to what is being delivered commercially but they remain the subject of the question of Deputy Dooley, which is the national broadband plan which is to deliver in the amber regions to more than 500,000 premises, both business and residential.

A final tender after a lengthy process has been delivered to the Department in mid-September. The evaluation of that is ongoing. As the Taoiseach referred to earlier, there is also an audit by Mr. Peter Smyth on the process. Both of those processes are at an advanced stage. We are close to a point where it will be possible to bring to Government proposals for decision one way or the other.

The time is up but I will not deprive Deputies Crowe or Fitzpatrick. I know Deputy Crowe's question will be brief.

As the Taoiseach heard earlier on, a large crowd gathered outside the Attorney General's office where 48,000 postcards were handed in. They are looking for a new inquest into the Stardust fire. They believe the families have new evidence. If that evidence appears, will the Government move swiftly on that?

It was a night that changed those families forever but it was also a night that changed the lives of Dubliners of my generation. We were never the same. Innocents and innocence were lost that night. If new evidence emerges, will the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, move swiftly bearing in mind that it is a long time for these families to be waiting for justice?

The Taoiseach has outlined that the Attorney General is awaiting the formal notice under section 24 of the Coroners Act. On receipt of that notice, the Attorney General will give the matter due consideration and report to the Government on the outcome of that.

With regard to the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018, will the Taoiseach request the Minister for Health to set up an implementation group with drinks industry manufacturers and distributors to ensure the legislation is implemented properly and fully, as appropriate, to ensure clarification on the practicalities of the implementation where necessary and to ensure manufacturers and distributors get the same equal treatment to retailers, who have been given an opportunity to work with the Department on implementation?

I will certainly pass Deputy Fitzpatrick's request on to the Minister, Deputy Harris. I would think that any implementation group should not be merely about industry, retailers and manufacturers. This is, after all, public health legislation. We need to ensure that any such group would include public health advocates and those who want to see this implemented as soon as possible.