Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

There are 23 minutes remaining and 23 Deputies offering. I call Deputy Micheál Martin.

Last week, I offered to sit on Friday to have other debates and try to get things moving. I have always believed that the two and a half days the House sits cannot cover everything at particular points in time.

I have stated that repeatedly but it has fallen on deaf ears for a long time.

On questions on promised legislation, Fianna Fáil will support the establishment of a post office network removal process to build on An Post's existing five-year strategy for the network. That is addressed in the programme for Government in regard to post offices and community banking. The post office network has been debated in this House for many years. The Taoiseach may be aware that in the wake of the Labour Court hearings last year An Post confirmed it would be closing one of its mail centres. The staff in the existing centres in Dublin, Athlone, Portlaoise and Cork are very concerned. Up to 200 people could be laid off as a result of that decision. Has the Minster, Deputy Bruton, as a shareholder, engaged with An Post on this specific issue? Surely, the Government should be doing all it can to avoid the loss of 200 jobs in any particular centre. The staff in all four are very anxious-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----about their fate coming up to Christmas. It is time for clarity in that regard.

I understand the Deputy's concern at the rumours that have been circulating, particularly in Cork. This was the subject of a Topical Issue matter last week. As the Deputy is aware, An Post has gone through a very difficult period and had to restructure its business substantially and increase the price of stamps. As part of the restructuring, one of the mail centres will be closed. That was integral to the labour agreement negotiated in September 2017. Some of the savings from the closure were allocated to the payment of increased wages at that time. This decision has long been flagged by An Post, which is a commercial State body. It will be a matter for the board to make a decision on this and it has indicated that a decision will not be taken until 2019.

Yesterday was the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It is timely to remind ourselves that although 2018 has been an important year for citizens with a disability, much remains to be done. In March, the State finally ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was very welcome. However, that ratification was only a first step and the real measure of delivery will be the implementation of the rights contained in the convention. It is very disappointing that the Government did not ratify the optional protocol to the convention as promised. Several matters remain outstanding to comply fully with the convention. I understand that Committee Stage of the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016 is scheduled for late December and that is very welcome. However, the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 remains at a standstill with the essential establishment of a decision support service still needed. When will that important work be progressed and when will the State be in a position to ratify the optional protocol to the convention?

The Bill is due to move to Committee Stage in two weeks and the legislation on decision making will be addressed in the next session. As the Deputy will acknowledge, the Government controls neither this House nor the Upper House, so it is no longer possible for us to give assurances on how long it will take legislation to pass through the Houses. There is an effective filibuster in this House by Rural Independents on the abortion Bill and a filibuster in the Seanad by urbane Independents on the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill. Those filibusters are slowing the passage of all legislation and making it very difficult for us to do the job the people elected us to do.

That is a very unfair accusation for the Taoiseach to make.

There is one thing I would say------

Please, Deputy.

He should withdraw that accusation. All the amendments to the abortion Bill have been tabled by those in favour of the Bill, rather than by the Rural Independents.

The Taoiseach cast a similar slur before the abortion referendum.

It will not work.

Deputies, please.

He should not cast a slur on us by accusing us of holding things up.

Calm yourself, Deputy.

The Deputy will have plenty of time to do that outside the door.

The Taoiseach knows in his heart and soul that we are not delaying legislation. We often have seven minutes each to speak but only speak for one minute. The Taoiseach is never bloody here to hear what we are saying.

The Deputy should be ashamed of himself.

He is never in the Chamber for the debate of the Bill, so he should not-----

Deputy, please.

He has not been in the Chamber for the debate, so he should not wrong people by making such accusations.

He has been reading the newspaper.

The Taoiseach should not be unfair. I thought him better than that.

Deputies, please, do not force me to suspend the House.

The Taoiseach is mean and horrible to make those allegations.

(Interruptions).

The Deputy should think about the women who are waiting for abortion rights.

Deputies, please.

(Interruptions).

That is enough of that.

Yes, but it is wrong.

To go back to the important issue raised, disability, I acknowledge the work of the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, in getting over the line some reforms regarding medical cards. Somebody in receipt of a disability allowance is now able to earn up to €427 per week without losing the medical card. That is an important reform we made in recognition of people with disabilities on International Day of People with Disabilities. One of the big fears people with a disability have in taking up employment is that they will lose their medical card. By changing the rules, we have taken that fear away.

Is the Taoiseach aware that there are children as young as six who are being excluded and, in a number of cases, expelled from primary school in the early years? A high proportion of the children so excluded or expelled are affected by autism and have behavioural issues in addition. In the Dublin region, there are seven special schools dealing with the children with a high level of need. Many of these children are non-verbal. They also have sensory issues, including in respect of noise, light and being involved with groups of people. In my constituency and that of the Taoiseach, which includes Dublin 15 and part of Dublin 7, which has a population of more than 120,000, there are no facilities for children on the autism spectrum with a high level of need. Parents are at their wits' end. Children, teachers and principals in schools who are trying to do their best cannot cope unless they are resourced with facilities such as a special school.

Deputies Burton, Coppinger and I met a group in this regard. I know the Taoiseach is aware of it because the group has been in correspondence with him. Many constituents are being excluded by the education system. They are on a home tuition grant and have been expelled by their schools. The ASD units, which were established for the right reasons, are excluding the children because they have very severe and profound autism difficulties. The group’s request to the Taoiseach is that he meet it in the first instance and liaise with the National Council for Special Education so that children’s needs can be met and so that the education system will be fit for purpose for them. I would like the Taoiseach to accept the invitation to meet the group so it can outline its difficulties.

I would like to back up what has been said. A very large public meeting took place in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Blanchardstown, on this issue. Parents have done lot of research to demonstrate the need for a special school. This does not go against the policy of integration, which may comprise the initial reaction. It is actually about children who cannot integrate into the ASD units or mainstream schools.

Dublin 15 is the fastest-growing area of western Europe. It is in the Taoiseach's constituency. It has the youngest population and it obviously has a need for what is proposed. Does the Taoiseach agree with what the three Deputies are asking, that he meet the group?

As the Deputies will know, it is not my practice to schedule meetings based on requests made across the floor of the House. Any Deputy who wants a meeting with me, in my capacity as Taoiseach or constituency Deputy, knows exactly how to seek a meeting. Deputies do so all the time.

In the past couple of years, as all Deputies in this House will acknowledge, there has been an enormous increase in the provision for children with special educational needs. We have more special needs assistants now than there are gardaí. There has been a considerable increase in the number in recent years. New ASD units have been established throughout the country. There are more special classes now than ever before. No other Government has ever done this. It is part of our commitment to making sure that children with special needs get the educational opportunities they deserve and which they were not given by others in the past.

The need for a special school in west Dublin is acknowledged. I am engaging with the National Council for Special Education and the special education needs officer on that issue.

The overnight closure of Grafton College English language school, just three weeks before Christmas, comes as a terrible shock to hundreds of students and 25 workers, several of whom have been affected by a closure of this type not for the first or second time but for the third. It brings into focus the question of precarious work in the sector, which is worth in excess of €1.5 billion to the economy.

I visited the lunchtime rally today organised by the teachers and their union, Unite. These teachers are determined that their sector will become organised and unionised in order that employers such as this one cannot walk all over their rights. However, they also want to see legislative change. The Qualifications and Quality assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018 before the Seanad provides for an international education mark. Will the Government support the amendment, which also calls for a fair employment mark to cut out unethical and even illegal activities on the part of employers in this sector, bogus self-employment, zero-hour contracts and so on? Will it also support the amendment not just for a learner protection fund but also for a teacher protection fund and ensure-----

The Deputy is over time now.

-----that, three weeks before Christmas, these workers get the money they need? They have not been paid for five weeks now.

The Deputy is over time.

They have to buy presents for their kids and pay rent. The Social Insurance Fund should be activated immediately to assist them. Will the Government also support activation of the fund?

On the same matter, I was there last night when the teachers occupied the building for a brief period. They did so out of desperation because they do not know what to do. They have not been paid their wages, which is money owed to them, and the owner has disappeared into the night, leaving them completely high and dry. I was talking to one teacher, whom I know quite well, and this is the third time this has happened to him. Deputies will remember that a number of these schools collapsed not long ago. Protections were supposed to be put in place. While some protections were introduced for students, none was provided for teachers. This is not acceptable. This cannot keep happening-----

Please, Deputy. The point is made.

-----to these highly qualified people. Will the Government fast-track using the Social Insurance Fund, consider a teacher protection fund-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----and smooth the way to resolving any social welfare difficulties the teachers may have coming into Christmas?

As the Deputies will know, the legislation is a matter for my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, who I am sure will be available to answer questions by way of Topical Issue debate or otherwise. My concern is for the students involved and I acknowledge what Deputy Barry said about protections for students. I urge any students who may be affected by this possible closure to contact Marketing English in Ireland, MEI.

We need protections for workers too.

I assure the Deputies that officials from my Department and the Department of Education and Skills are available to see how best this issue can be managed with a view to reassigning students to other language schools or considering the matter of the learner protection insurance and a refund of fees already paid.

What about the workers on social welfare?

In the programme for Government a promise was made to look after people with disabilities. There are many elderly parents still caring for a son or a daughter who has either physical or mental disabilities. The one big worry the parents have is that when they die, there will be no permanent residential place for their son or daughter. In one instance, both parents have died and there is no place for their daughter. Another couple are worn and torn from trying to mind their big heavy boy. They are in their 70s and afraid. They are asking whether there is any permanent residential place to care for their son. There is not. I ask the Taoiseach and the HSE to ensure that provision is made-----

The Deputy has made his point. The time is up.

-----for these kinds of people with disabilities.

As the Ceann Comhairle will appreciate, I do not know anything about the individual case, unfortunately. However, I know of similar cases in my constituency of parents who are getting on in years, have a son or daughter who is in his or her 30s or 40s and are concerned about what will happen to their daughter or son when they pass on. They are increasingly concerned about their ability to look after him or her as they get older. I am told there are 130 new residential places for this year and there will be more next year, but how the figure is broken down across the country I cannot say.

The Irish Examiner yesterday reported a division within the Cabinet concerning plebiscites on directly elected mayors for Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, was reported as stating there was no proper costing of the proposal and the Attorney General as stating there were no details of what the powers of the mayors would be. It is due for debate later today. Will the Taoiseach indicate if the Government has decided whether there will be plebiscites for those cities in May? If so, when does the Taoiseach expect the mayors to be in place?

The Government has decided there will be plebiscites in May for Galway, Cork, Limerick and Waterford. We confirmed that decision at Cabinet today. As to when the mayors will be in place, that will depend on many factors. We have to get the legislation for the plebiscites through the Dáil and Seanad and that could be tight. With the co-operation of everyone in this House, however, we could have it through in time for the referendums in May. It depends then on whether the people in those cities decide to vote for the proposals.

Yesterday, 3 December, was International Disability Day. Under the proposed health (transport support) Bill there are plans to implement a scheme to make individual payments as a contribution towards transport costs for those with severe disabilities and on low income who cannot access public transport. I have a number of constituents whose lives have been made hell. They are unable to access vital public services or utilise public transport because of their disability. Will the Taoiseach advise us of the status of this Bill and when will it be implemented? People are in urgent need of the scheme provided for under this Bill.

I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, wants to consult the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health on those proposals. There are issues as to how widely people are made eligible for the scheme. The wider the eligibility, the less support we are able to give people.

I raised with the Taoiseach's predecessor the matter of the office administering the fair deal scheme in Stranorlar, County Donegal. At that time, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, was not in a position to respond and I do not expect the Taoiseach to be in a position to respond now. The former Taoiseach did tell me afterwards that the office was secure because of its location. Perhaps the Taoiseach had an input into that decision when he was the Minister for Health at the time. I hope that the Taoiseach, when he gets an opportunity, can confirm to me that the fair deal office in Stranorlar is secure and that it is not to be relocated to the midlands. I would appreciate if he might check that and come back to me, if he cannot respond now.

I am happy to check on Deputy Gallagher's query and I will respond to him when I have some information. I have no information at the moment as to whether there are any plans to close the Stranorlar office but I will check on that matter and send a reply in writing.

A lady came to me recently who went for a smear test in July. It took from then until November before she got a letter telling her that the test could not be read and would have to be done again. There are not enough staff looking at these tests when it takes from July to November before that lady could be told her test could not even be read. Surely this is another recipe for disaster and it should be looked at. If a test is not able to be read, the people should be notified immediately for the betterment of their health. It is an awful situation.

There have been delays, unfortunately, in assessing some smear tests. It will be recalled that back in May or June, the Government decided to allow any woman who was concerned about the accuracy of her smear test to have a repeat smear test free of charge. About 50,000 women took up that opportunity. That has, however, led to delays in examining those smears because of capacity constraints in the laboratories. It is not an issue of money because we have agreed to pay in all cases. It is due to a shortage of technicians and cytologists, but we think we can get through that backlog quite soon as the numbers coming in have started to fall off.

It is stated on page 96 of A Programme for a Partnership Government that the priority for the Government is the protection of all of our citizens by preventing and reducing crime. Will the Taoiseach outline what the Government intends to do to ensure this commitment is fulfilled?

As Deputy McLoughlin will know, there has been an increase in Garda numbers in recent years.

An additional 199 new members have joined An Garda Síochána in recent weeks, bringing the number in 2018 to 800. This means that the Garda force now stands at a figure above 14,000 for the first time since 2012.

The Garda Síochána (Compensation) Bill for malicious injuries has been listed for some considerable time. Given that it will affect 5,000 gardaí, when is it likely to be brought before the House?

The Bill will be before the House in the next session.

Will the Taoiseach outline the reason for the delay in the commencement of Parts 2 and 3 of the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015? When does he expect these Parts to be commenced?

I will have to double-check with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, but I think that before they can be commenced, the legislation on assisted human reproduction has to be passed, which could be some time away. However, I will double-check and ensure the Deputy receives a written reply.

Ba mhaith lion cheist a chur don tAire Oideachas agus Scileanna ach níl sé ann. Mar sin, cuireadh mé an cheist duit, a Thaoisigh. While I welcome the arrival of four prefabs at St. Brogan's College, Bandon, County Cork, will the Taoiseach provide me with a timeframe for the construction of the permanent building, a four-room extension, at the school?

Tá brón orm nach bhfuil an tAire Oideachais agus Scileanna ann ach tá sé imithe sa Seanad. I will, however, pass on the Deputy’s query and ask the Minister to provide the Deputy with a written reply.

What plans does the Government have to reverse the decision to withdraw Versatis pain relief patches for persons with medical cards and under the drugs payment scheme? The chairman of the National Association of General Practitioners said the system the Government had introduced had seen almost all GP applications on behalf of patients turned down. GPs have also said the Taoiseach’s claim that the withdrawal was based on patient safety is utter nonsense. I have a constituent who is almost 70 years of age, has a medical card and is doubled up suffering from chronic pain every day. He is now confined to his home because he cannot afford to buy the Versatis pain relief patches he needs. Will the Taoiseach listen to the medical professionals, as well as the patients affected, and reverse this cruel cost-cutting measure in order that people living with chronic pain can ensure they have some quality of life?

It was not a Government decision. The medicines management programme is run by a professor of medicine. Accordingly, there are medical professionals helping to make these decisions. It is important, if a medicine is prescribed by doctors off-licence, that there be some controls as to how it is done.

That concludes questions on promised legislation. Eight Deputies were not reached today.