Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Over the past year, I have raised with the Taoiseach the plight of section 39 organisations, particularly hospices, and the fact that they did not get a fair deal from the Government in the restoration of pay under the turnaround of the financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation. While the Government's position has shifted, overall it has been mean-spirited and lacked any moral compass.

In addition to hospices, the Taoiseach knows that many organisations are labelled "section 39" but, in essence, do the State's work in catering for people with disabilities and children with special needs. We know that thousands of people across the country depend on such organisations for residential services, respite services, day care and support services, personal assistance, home care assistance and access to therapies. For many of these people, even those services, for example, respite and access to therapies, are not fully adequate or sufficient.

I am referring to organisations like Enable Ireland, Rehab, Acquired Brain Injury Ireland and the Irish Wheelchair Association at national level and, regionally, Ability West, the Western Care Association, the Kerry Parents and Friends Association and the St. Joseph's Foundation in Charleville, which covers Limerick and Cork. There simply would be no services for people with disabilities without those organisations.

In research commissioned recently on behalf of these organisations under the title, Who Cares? Building a new relationship between the not-for-profit sector and the State 2018, the reality is brought home in terms of the financial crisis that such organisations are in - they are no longer sustainable financially - and the Government's lack of honesty in meeting the actual cost of services that are being delivered on the ground by the agencies. This is important research and, in essence, it captures the crisis and the lack of honesty in the relationship between the Government and these agencies.

The Government has compounded the crisis and made it far worse in respect of the restoration of pay for the workers in these organisations. They are not getting a full restoration of pay. There is a significant differential at the end of each month between such workers and workers in the general health service.

Why are those agencies and workers who look after people with disabilities and very sick people penalised so blatantly by Government through its pay policy? Why are they discriminated against so much? It suggests a morally bankrupt position for Government to adopt. It places these agencies in financial peril and will result in the cutting of services.

In Ireland, we provide our health and social care through a number of different mechanisms. Sometimes it is provided directly by the State through the HSE while at other times, it is provided through a section 38 body, which is a voluntary body. St. Vincent's University Hospital, which is not too far from here, would be an obvious example where the staff are considered to be public servants but the body itself is not part of the public service. Sometimes this care is provided through section 39 bodies, some of whom have been mentioned by the Deputy. In these cases, the body receives some of its funding from the State and often receives some of it from other sources. The people employed in these organisations are not public servants. Sometimes care is provided through private contracts. For example, most of our GP and dental services are provided by GPs and dentists who are self-employed and have staff who are not on public service contracts and are not part of the public service pay bill. That is how we structure our health and social care services in Ireland. We provide those services in lots of different ways - sometimes directly by the State through State employees, sometimes through private contractors like GPs and dentists who have their own employees, sometimes through section 38 bodies, and sometimes through section 39 bodies. For better or for worse, that is the way it has grown up since the foundation of the State.

There was a dispute about pay in section 39 bodies that went to the Workplace Relations Commission. We have an agreement and I would expect the employers and the unions to honour that agreement. I am sure they will. I do not have the exact figures relating to funding in front of me. I will dig them out. Funding for section 39 bodies has increased for each of the past three years. Funding for these bodies has increased at a higher rate than has funding for the HSE and its own services. While HSE services got a certain increase, the section 39 bodies got a larger increase than the HSE, so the assessment offered by the Deputy does not really add up. If the HSE bodies are getting less of an increase than the section 39 bodies, the section 39 bodies should be well able to afford any additional spending the HSE bodies are providing.

The Taoiseach is not living in the land of reality with regard to these agencies. He is in denial, as is Government. We have met the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Finance. The bottom line is that I am not offering up that analysis. It is commissioned research that the Taoiseach should read but it is also the reality on the ground. I have met representatives of St Joseph's Foundation in Charleville, which has done heroic work for years.

We all know about the history of the relationship between the State and these organisations. The more recent history is that Government instructed the agencies to cut pay in line with the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation but when it came to the restoration of pay, these agencies were left out. This was never an industrial relations issue. The unions will look after their members but what they have not done is look after the agencies and they will not do so because it is not their remit. Many posts will not benefit from pay restoration because workers who came in after the cuts do not get any restoration so the agencies get no funding for that. Neither is there retrospective funding in terms of those agencies that have engaged in pay restoration.

The situation is very grave for agencies like Kerry Parents and Friends Association, Ability West, St. Joseph's Foundation and the hospices which have told me they will cut services in January. That is the reality. They have been shortchanged. What has happened is fundamentally wrong. These agencies should have been kept in line with the HSE, which was always the case and which had been underpinned by Labour Court recommendations down through the years and indeed since 2010 onwards. It is not fair to say what the Taoiseach has said with regard to them.

As I have said before, these bodies are all very different. Some section 39 bodies are very small, may only receive €10,000 or €20,000 from the HSE and may have only one employee or a part-time employee. Other section 39 bodies are very large, have a large number of staff and provide a large number of services.

Sometimes they have very little other income, other than what they get from the State. Sometimes they have very large income, which they either raise themselves, get from bequests or raise from their assets because some of them have substantial assets and surpluses.

The research states they are all in deficit.

Each of the bodies is very different and for each of thelm a service level agreement is put in place with the HSE. That body receives a particular amount of money in order to honour the service level set out in the service level agreement. That is the way it is done. It is similar to a contract, for example.

Traditionally, December is the time of year when we think, in particular, of those who are homeless and, more specifically, those citizens who are sleeping rough. We know from last week's homelessness figures that there are now more people homeless in the state than ever before. We also know that the official figures actually understate the reality of homelessness across society. The rough sleeper count, published yesterday, shows a 40% increase in the number sleeping rough since March, which is shocking. It is no exaggeration to say hundreds of thousands of people across society are affected by the housing crisis. Up and down the country, families are worried about whether they will have a roof over their heads come January. People in the private rental sector are being hit time and again with rent increases which are still exorbitantly high, while long promised social housing is being constructed at a snail's pace. House prices are out of control and, for young people, owning a home is a pipedream.

The Taoiseach's response is to stick with the plan. It may not have occurred to him, but his plan is not working. In fact, he is failing spectacularly. Last Saturday thousands of people took to the streets of this city to tell him that. I think it is time he listened to them. Last week the Central Bank stated to would-be homeowners who wish to get out of the high rental trap to wait and hang on for new homes to be built before trying to buy. That would be prudent and worthy advice if houses were coming on stream and people were in a position to actually save a few bob. Week in and week out, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and their colleagues state ad nauseam, both here and elsewhere, that people should simply wait, that the houses will arrive, yet we continue to witness homelessness and the housing crisis. We have highfalutin guarantees that new homes will sort everything out, but that they will only arrive at some undefined point in the future.

The crisis is real. It is in the here and now. Frankly, people are fed up waiting for the Taoiseach to get his act together. They are being screwed, day in, day out, with runaway rents and it seems the Government is incapable of taking meaningful action. The Taoiseach seems to specialise in empty promises. We need something tangible that will benefit the people who are struggling and need a break. I put it to the Taoiseach that he should do something decent and constructive to cut people a bit of slack. I suggest the introduce a three-year rent freeze and temporary tax relief for renters with immediate effect.

We are approaching Christmas time and the holiday season and people are looking forward to the Christmas holidays and spending time with their families, perhaps at home near the warmth of the fire. Of course, when one thinks about that, one's thoughts inevitably turn to those who are less fortunate, those who do not have a home to go to, those without shelter who are exposed to the cold. That is why the figures for rough sleepers produced yesterday were very disappointing. They show that 156 people were sleeping rough on the particular night.

It is not the highest ever, by any means. It was higher a year ago and, in fact, it was higher four years ago. It represents an increase on the previous count in September.

What do we want to do? We want to make sure people have access to emergency accommodation this Christmas. Now that beds are available for everyone who needs them, nobody has to sleep rough. That is why we have set aside €60 million in the budget for additional investment in emergency accommodation. The first step is to get people into emergency accommodation. After that, more permanent accommodation can be found for them. An extra 203 beds will be put in place between now and the end of the year. In fact, 51 of them are already in place. The provision of 203 additional permanent beds and 130 contingency beds will ensure there is emergency accommodation for everyone who needs it this winter.

We are continuing to work with the Peter McVerry Trust and other charities to advance the Housing First programme, which is all about getting secure tenancies for people who have been rough sleepers and are now in emergency accommodation. When they are in secure tenancies, they will be given all the additional supports they need to hang on to their homes. As the Deputy will be aware, rough sleeping is a complex social problem and is not just an issue of housing. As it often involves issues like addiction, mental health and physical health, it can sometimes be hard to get people to come in and therefore it can be hard to help them, even though we do our best to do so.

In terms of supply, I do not think it is a case of promises anymore. The figures on supply are very positive. According to the most recent set of numbers, 5,000 new houses and apartments were built in Ireland in the past three months. Between 18,000 and 20,000 new homes have been built in Ireland this year. Those are not just figures, as we can see by turning back to the theme of Christmas, which was raised by the Deputy. This Christmas, approximately 20,000 people and their families will sit around a Christmas tree in new homes that did not exist this time a year ago. It is possible that 60,000 or 70,000 people will spend this Christmas in a house or apartment that was not built this time last year. We are going to need to ramp that up more and more next year until we get to the kind of figure - 30,000 or 40,000 - that is indicative of the level of housing construction that will be needed every year if we are to get on top of this crisis.

The Taoiseach's party has been in government for more than seven years. For the purposes of clarity, the theme I raised was not Christmas so much as the theme of a housing crisis and a homelessness crisis over which the Taoiseach and his colleagues have presided. People took to the streets in vast numbers on Saturday. I am sure all of us are aware that it is not easy to mobilise people. The very clear message being sent by the thousands of people who took to the streets on the brow of Christmas is that the Government is failing and that they want it to change tack and to be imaginative, decisive and brave. I think it would be wise to listen to that message. I am very familiar with the Housing First approach, which was mentioned by the Taoiseach. I have been informed by Deputy Ó Broin that the Government is planning to cater for 200 people, when in fact the need is somewhere closer to 3,000. That is a metaphor for how short the Government has fallen in terms of need and public expectation.

Thank you, Deputy. Time is up.

I would like the Taoiseach to address the question I asked about the possibility of a rent freeze. I put it to him again that there is a need to adopt the proposal known as the Focus amendment to deal with the issue of landlords seeking vacant possession to sell houses and homes over the heads of tenants.

Please, Deputy. Time is up.

This is one of the main contributing factors, if not the main one, to homelessness and family homelessness in particular. I have mentioned two concrete, innovative, brave and decisive things that the Taoiseach could do if he were minded to get a grip on this situation.

Time is up, Deputy.

Can we have a straight answer on the rent freeze as well as on the amendment to the law that has been proposed and with which the Taoiseach is familiar?

It has been known as the Focus amendment since it was advanced by Focus Ireland in the first instance.

The Deputy is correct when she says that we have been in office for more than seven years. However, she did not mention that we spent the first five of those years putting this country back on track. Perhaps she would like people to forget, or not to know, that we spent five years getting the public finances back in order, reversing some of the awful cuts that were made in previous years to welfare and to people's pay and salaries and dealing with enormous levels of unemployment.

A set of figures came out today which shows that the rate of unemployment in Ireland is now at 5.3%, the lowest in ten years. It is an achievement and those of us on this side of the House are very proud that we have got to the point where the rate of unemployment is at a ten-year low. We spent the first five years really putting the country back together, getting the economy working again, getting people back to work, restoring their incomes and giving them hope again. We have spent the past two years or perhaps a little more dealing with many of the legacy issues caused by the crisis. It was a seven-year period during which the construction sector was dysfunctional and did not build any home and the banks were unable to lend either to builders or people who were seeking mortgages.

On the question of rent tax relief, it is not a proposal we are supporting. We have an alternative proposal in the Finance Bill. Rather than just having income tax cuts for people who are renting, we are making them for all workers because others struggle with other bills, not only those who are renting. There are also people who are struggling to pay their mortgage, save for a deposit or with childcare costs, for example. Rather than giving tax relief to one group which is the Sinn Féin proposal, we will give it to over 1 million people, which is nearly everyone who is working. I am disappointed that Sinn Féin is going to vote against it.

My question is about the national review panel and its abject failure to complete and publish a report in a timely and efficient manner on the systematic rape of three young children. When the court case to try these crimes was concluded, Keith Burke was convicted of 23 of 39 sample charges of rape and buggery of the three children over a prolonged period between 2003 and 2007. Significantly, we know all of this not from any internal examination by Tusla or the HSE but from "RTÉ Investigates" and because the children, now young adults, were forced to give evidence when Mr. Burke pleaded not guilty. Consequent on the RTÉ programme which has become a familiar theme in the Dáil - a significant phenomenon in itself - questions were raised by other Deputies and me. Many fine words were used, including "courageous" and "brave" when referring to the children who are now young women, as well as "appalling" and "shocking" when referring to the crimes perpetrated.

The Taoiseach commended the bravery of Rachel, Sarah and Amy in telling their stories and said it would help others to come forward. They were fine words, but the reality has been confusion, obfuscation and delay. The Taoiseach's approach to date has not only added to the confusion, but he is also actively standing over a system that is failing the young women and utterly unaccountable. In one of his replies the Taoiseach stated an independent investigation would commence. He then told us that it had commenced and that it was nearing completion. He then told us that the fact there was a criminal trial in train impeded the investigation. The latter point is completely unacceptable and was pointed to by HIQA in a report commissioned by the Minister, Deputy Zappone, which clearly stated it was imperative that Tusla did not allow a criminal investigation to impede its statutory duty to protect and safeguard children. Two and half years later, we have no report, despite assurances that it would be published in October and November. The Government is standing over a review mechanism which, using the most benign interpretation, is tardy and inefficient. A more realistic and honest view is that the situation is perpetuating the abuse suffered by the children. When will the report be published? What is the reason for the delay?

I ask the Taoiseach to reply in the context of what a former chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Committee stated - that it was time the State stopped its automatic response to every scandal, being first to deny, then delay, lie and cover up and eventually, if forced, throw some money at it in the hope it will go away. Will the Taoiseach, please, answer my direct question directly?

I thank the Deputy. It is a very important issue, one in which the Deputy has taken a deep and genuine interest.

It was not a question that I anticipated would come up today so unfortunately I do not have an up-to-date note on this particular matter and I have not had a chance to speak to the Minister for Children and Family Affairs, Deputy Zappone, about it. I know there is absolutely no requirement for Deputies to give us any advance notice of the questions that are raised, but we do get it on occasion and it does at least allow me to get an up-to-date note.

I will certainly check with the Minister, Deputy Zappone, as to the reasons why the report cannot be published. I understand that sometimes reports cannot be published for good reasons. This may be because there is a criminal investigation or trial under way, and no one wants to do anything that might cause a criminal trial to collapse or a prosecution to fail as a result of information being put in the public domain that a defendant could use to get acquitted or bring a trial down. Also, sometimes people can take a case against a report being published and seek injunctive relief. Often there are reasons why reports cannot be published and they can be good ones. It is not necessarily because someone does not want them to be published.

I am told that on Monday last Tusla published its 2017 annual report of the national review panel. It also published five individual case reviews relating to children and young people who, sadly, died in care or in aftercare or who were known to the child protection services. Each of those represents a tragedy for the children and young people involved as well as for their families and those who cared for them. The annual report from 2017 does not cover the cases Deputy Connolly is raising today.

Perhaps a dignified silence for the three minutes might have been a better response. An independent review panel was set up to report on the systematic rape of three young children. Those adults came forward and said on a television programme and subsequently that they wanted an independent commission of inquiry. They said they wondered why they had come forward.

It is entirely unacceptable for the Taoiseach to stand up in the manner that he has and give inane quotes from reports. As Taoiseach he has a duty to ensure that the system is accountable. The Taoiseach cannot do a Pontius Pilate and wash his hands of it. It has been raised many times and the Taoiseach is fully familiar with the case and the independent review mechanism.

At this point, I have to ask serious questions as to the independence of the review panel. Why has the panel not communicated with the Taoiseach to tell him why there is a delay? Is there an absence of resources or staff? What is the problem? There is an absolute duty on the Taoiseach towards these three children to tell them that their suffering was not in vain.

Perhaps the appropriate course of action for me would be to communicate with the Minister, Deputy Zappone, and ask her to provide Deputy Connolly with an updated position. I have no wish to insult Deputy Connolly or anger her any further by giving a different response to that. What I will do – I am committing to doing this – is ask the Minister, Deputy Zappone, to provide an update to the Deputy on where we stand with this particular, tragic case.

Following the passage of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, which was signed into law some weeks ago, I am asking where are the extra LocalLink bus services that were promised during the passage of the Bill. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, succeeded in getting Fine Gael to support the Bill in return for his support for the Fine Gael-led Government. Sinn Féin was readily on hand to give its support. The Fianna Fáil leadership thought it was best to do the same as Sinn Féin. Finally, what happened was that 75 Deputies voted for the Bill, 75 abstained and eight of us voted against. Only myself and Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, of the five Deputies in Kerry, voted against the Minister's Bill.

Last summer, the Minister, Deputy Ross, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Griffin, and Deputy Heydon announced some small amount of LocalLink services aid for Kerry. That is not enough for all of Kerry. The people of the Black Valley and such places need more, as do the people from around Cahersiveen, Waterville, Glencar and Beaufort. These places are remote and far away from anywhere. We need more transport services there and likewise in east Kerry, including in Gneeveguilla, Scartaglin and Currow.

Will he provide more bus transport services in these areas? It is a different story in Dublin where many forms of transport are available. This is true of other greater urban areas throughout the country, but it is a different story in places such as County Kerry. The social fabric of rural Ireland has been blown to smithereens. People who need a car to get from A to B cannot even have one pint. Who is ordering all of the checkpoints? Is it the Taoiseach; the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan; or the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross? People are being checked in going to and coming from mass. I am not blaming An Garda Síochána or individual superintendents because it is occurring across divisions and county boundaries. Does the Minister, Deputy Ross, now also want to close churches, as well as post offices?

As he has closed almost everything else, I will not be surprised to hear he also wants to close the churches of rural Ireland. Many people are very angry and upset about what has happened. They feel they have been let down and that they cannot move. They are isolated. Bars are empty and closing on a regular basis. Shops and restaurants located beside them are also closing. Having two pints was the only social outlet for many. They met in pubs to talk about farming, work or football, inquire about the health of neighbours or relatives who perhaps lived far away, or have an ordinary or usual conversation. The culture of rural people is being blown to smithereens at the behest of the Government in its quest to satisfy the Minister, Deputy Ross.

We should not forget that the purpose of the Road Traffic (Amendment) Act 2018 is to save lives. It used to be the case that 600 or 700 people died on the roads every year. The figure is now between 100 and 200, which is still 100 or 200 too many. We have both met the families of people who were killed on the road. The Deputy knows how the loss of a loved one on the road hurts a whole family and how families grieve. It is particularly the case at this time of year when people are thinking about the empty space around the dinner table. That is the purpose of road traffic legislation. We do not seek to discommode people or make their lives difficult. We want to make the roads safer. Roads in rural Ireland are still less safe, for many reasons. Most deaths on the roads occur in rural areas. The roads in urban areas are now much safer.

The extra bus services were pressed for by Deputy Hayden and other Deputies, in co-operation with the Minister, Deputy Ross. A call for funding was made. Counties made bids for funding, with some bidding for more and some for less. The new services are now in place throughout the country. It will never be possible to provide a service from house to door, village or pub or to replace all of the journeys people could take if they could use their car. However, it is possible to provide better bus services. There was a competitive call and different amounts went to different counties. I have no doubt that there will be further calls for funding in the future.

I am glad to hear that there has been an increase in the number of Garda checkpoints and that the Deputy has noticed them throughout the country. We should not forget why they are needed. It is to check for people who might have consumed alcohol or drugs who might injure or kill another citizen. It is to check to see whether vehicles are taxed and insured. They help to intercept and disrupt networks of burglars in travelling around the country to break into people's homes, take their possessions and sometimes occasion real harm. They help to disrupt anyone involved in a criminal enterprise. It is good that there are more Garda checkpoints. It is a reflection of the fact that just last week the strength of An Garda Síochána exceeded 14,000 for the first time since 2012 when the Garda College in Templemore was reopened and we started to recruit gardaí again. The force now has more 14,000 members which people will notice while on the roads and in the streets. The Garda presence will be much more visible and people will feel safer.

Thankfully, the number of road deaths has gone down owning to myriad factors, including speed cameras and better roads.

We will, however, continue to have deaths because of the state of roads, with trees hanging out over them and falling on people. People are being killed while cycling and walking because roads are not adequate for use by pedestrians late at night. People are also being killed while riding motorcycles. I am still asking the Taoiseach to provide the services he promised. It was supposed to be no trouble at all to provide LocalLink services, but they have not been added to. Even the ones that were promised are not being delivered. That is the truth. The purpose of this question is to see what we are going to do to help people in rural Ireland to get around. They do not have the train, taxi or DART services that are available here. There can be no checkpoints on roads around here. If a garda was to stand there for five minutes, there would be a five-mile tailback. It is very easy to have a checkpoint at a crossroads when people are going to mass on a Sunday morning, but I do not know what the purpose is, or on whose orders it is done. Is it being directed by the Taoiseach, the Minister of Justice and Equality or the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross? I appeal to the Taoiseach to answer this question. It is happening across the boundaries of three counties and in the divisions of different superintendents; therefore, a direction is coming from the top.

I can assure the Deputy that there are Garda checkpoints all over the country. I passed through one on the south quays just outside the Guinness brewery the other day. If there is anywhere where a checkpoint could cause a tailback, it is on such a busy road, yet there are checkpoints in those areas too for very good reasons. Neither I nor the Ministers, Deputies Flanagan and Ross, order the setting up of checkpoints. They are decisions for the Garda Commissioner, superintendents and inspectors in their particular areas, but I am not going to apologise for the fact that there are Garda checkpoints throughout the country. The vast majority of law-abiding citizens want to see a more visible Garda presence. They want to see gardaí on the streets in their communities on bicycles and on foot. They want to see Garda checkpoints because that is how crime is disrupted. Particularly when we are trying to crack down on the scourge of burglaries in rural Ireland, we need a more active Garda presence on the roads to disrupt those who go into rural Ireland and people's homes to take their possessions and do them harm.