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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 12 Dec 2018

Vol. 976 No. 5

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

As the Taoiseach knows, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality concluded pre-legislative scrutiny on the reference to a woman's place in the home in Article 41.2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann. The committee's report was published last week and contains two options. The first option would replace Article 41.2 with the following wording:

The State recognises that home and family life gives to society a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall endeavour to support persons caring for others within the home as may be determined by law.

This wording is in line with the previous recommendation of the task force set up in the Taoiseach's Department in 2016. The second option recommended postponing any referendum on the matter until the Government formally consulted with the public perhaps through the Citizens' Assembly. Given the deliberations of the joint committee, will the Taoiseach confirm that the Government will bring forward legislation seeking to amend the Constitution in line with the recommendations contained within the first option of the committee’s report?

We have not had an opportunity to discuss this at Cabinet yet but the purpose of referring this to the joint committee was to see if there could be a political consensus on a new wording. If we can have that consensus, or if the consensus is secured, and provided the Attorney General's advice is favourable on the implications and interpretations of any new wording we put into our Constitution, that would enable us to legislate in the first quarter of next year before a referendum using the wording the Deputy quoted. It requires consideration by the Attorney General and by Cabinet first.

I was very struck earlier by the Taoiseach's response to the Anti-Evictions Bill 2018 and, frankly, by its coldness. I understand the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has sought Cabinet approval for measures to strengthen the powers of the Residential Tenancy Board. We welcome the proposed extension of notice to quit periods but the Taoiseach needs to understand that this measure will prove fruitless unless the legislation contains the Focus Ireland anti-homeless amendment to end evictions of tenants in buy-to-let properties being sold or repossessed. Time and again the Taoiseach has shied away from delivering the solutions needed to end the ever-increasing number of families experiencing homelessness. Despite the tea and sympathy approach the Taoiseach takes these are real people, including children who will carry the scar of homelessness for the rest of their lives. Today we learn that homeless families living in hotels are to be unceremoniously kicked out for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I have raised this issue before with the Taoiseach and he told me it would not happen, and not to panic. He cited, I think, the papal visit and other occasions. It is happening and today Elaine Wall bravely spoke up for her three children. I hope the Taoiseach heard her. How many families will be affected by the closure of hotels over Christmas and what measures have he and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government put in place to make sure these children have somewhere to sleep at Christmas time?

This is not a matter for promised legislation or the programme for Government but if the Deputy wants to put down a Topical Issue matter or a special notice question to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, I am sure he would be happy to come into the Chamber and answer her questions.

Writing in The Irish Times today, the Tánaiste said that Irish preparations for a no deal Brexit are accelerating. He stated:

All departments have already examined the legislation that will be required for no deal. Priority will be attached in the new year to giving this legislation Dáil and Seanad time. Political support across the Dáil will be necessary to do this. Some measures have to be kept confidential at this stage in the national interest.

It is apparent that the current withdrawal deal is facing real difficulties. Most commentators in Britain believe that it has no prospect of passing in the House of Commons. Will the Government publish the list of legislation that will be passed in the event of there being no deal and a disorderly exit at the end of March? We have a window over the Christmas recess for those of us in opposition to scrutinise and give detailed consideration to those sets of Bills if they are to come before us early in the new year, as the Tánaiste has indicated. Will the Taoiseach commit to giving party leaders a briefing on the secret Bills as the Tánaiste refers to them and the detail of the administrative preparations going on now to avoid a hard border and maintain the supply chains needed in this economy?

We will do that once it is finalised. We are happy to give the party leaders a briefing through the stakeholders group in the meantime. It cannot be finalised until mid-January because the legislation that would have to be enacted in the event of a no deal Brexit would be at European and domestic levels. We have to clarify what would be done at European level-----

For clarity, this is not a stakeholders' issue; we are not talking about the Industrial Development Authority, IDA, or anything else. This is a parliamentary briefing. If legislation is necessary urgently, we should be preparing for that in Parliament so that we can hit the deck running on whatever legislative preparations are needed, rather than have broad discussions with everybody. I put that to the Ceann Comhairle too.

That is a fair point. This is the Legislature that will have to enact that legislation and we will be happy to share it once it has been finalised. We can give party leaders a briefing informally before that but it cannot be finalised until we know what European legislation will be brought in because some of this will be done by EU directive and regulation and some will have to be done domestically.

I wish to raise the plight of a constituent of mine, whose family are constituents of the Taoiseach's. John White is prohibited from leaving Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, UAE. I have raised this matter on previous occasions with the Taoiseach and with Deputy Flanagan when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. John has been working in the Middle East for almost 30 years as a building contractor and because of debts owed to him, he was unable to meet financial commitments, was brought to court and sentenced to five years. On appeal that was reduced to 18 months. He served 18 months and was due to be released on 15 August 2014 but when he went to the courts to collect his passport he was informed that one of the companies had taken a civil case against him and he got another sentence of three years. He is now out of prison but has no passport and is unable to return to his young family. He is in poor physical health, although he has improved somewhat. Will the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade investigate the possibility of issuing a temporary passport to John so that he can return to his family for Christmas? Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister to provide an immediate update to John's deeply distressed and devastated family?

I am aware of the case and I have met with John's former partner. Unfortunately, issuing a temporary or full passport would not solve the problem. He would not be allowed to leave the UAE. It is not a question of having a passport or not, it is a question of whether the UAE authorities would allow him to leave and at present they will not. I have written to Sheikh Khalifa about it and may have the opportunity to raise it personally with him at the EU-Arab summit in February.

The Taoiseach once made the very unexpected admission that he would nearly become a socialist when he saw the way drug companies profiteer. That was in response to a question I put on cystic fibrosis. It applies now in respect of pembrolizumab. What progress has been made since Vicky Phelan came in here with Áine Morgan and Tracey Brennan who are in their 30s and 40s and told Deputies and Senators that they feel they are too young to die and they want equal access to pembrolizumab which has played a huge part in shrinking the tumours of other women?

Women whose tests were messed up by the State are getting access but unfortunately the women who did not have their tests messed up cannot get access.

We are talking about a small number. Could the Taoiseach now tell us that these women will be able to access the drug and that doctors should be allowed to prescribe whatever they feel is effective, and has proven to be effective, for other patients without waiting two years for a licence to be made available for its use for cervical cancer? Is it not time this country looked at bringing drug companies under public control so that they do not profiteer at people's expense?

It is not correct to say the tests were messed up either by the State or by the laboratories. That was true in some of the cases but we do not yet know how many. It was not true in all the cases.

I was speaking of the 221 cases.

We know that for a fact. To answer the Deputy's substantive question, discussions are under way on that. The HSE's medicines management programme has developed a proposal that would allow women who might benefit from the drug to have the drug prescribed and reimbursed, regardless of whether they were caught up in the CervicalCheck audit. Discussions are under way with the company and, ultimately, it will require the agreement of the company and the co-operation of the clinicians to do that.

Does the Taoiseach know how soon that will be?

Tá ceist dhíreach shimplí agam faoi Bhille na dteangacha oifigiúla. An mbeidh an Bille foilsithe roimh an Nollaig? My question relates to the Official Languages Act. The Taoiseach promised to bring in the Bill before Christmas. An uair dheireanach a d'ardaigh mé é ná ar 5 Samhain. Tháinig freagra ar ais ag rá go mbeidh sé foilsithe le linn na seisiún seo. On the previous occasion that I raised it, the Taoiseach said it would be published within this session. Ta sé thar a bheith tábhachtach. Bliain na Gaeilge atá ann agus táimid ag caint faoi chearta búnusacha.

Tá brón orm a rá nach bhfuil an Bille ullmhaithe nó réidh ach beidh sé réidh sa bhliain úr.

It is nearly a year since the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government published the Safe as Houses report, which recommended that the Government set up a scheme to remediate legacy defects in residential buildings. The Dáil called for same when it passed a Green Party motion in June 2017. Some affected homeowners from my constituency in Dublin Rathdown are currently outside Leinster House, marking another year with no movement from the Government on this issue.

When I raised the matter with the Taoiseach in October, he said that the Minister of State, Deputy English, was examining proposals and he admitted that there must be an understanding of the extent of the defects across the country so that such proposals could be drawn up. Has the Government made any moves towards investigating the extent of the latent defects in residential housing, with a view to drawing up a plan for practical State reliefs along the lines recommended in the Safe as Houses report and the Green Party motion on building standards or are the homeowners to remain abandoned by the Government?

The Minister of State, Deputy English, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, are still examining this matter, which affects some developments in my constituency as well. The primary difficulty in all of this is that if the State, in effect the taxpayer, were to take on the liability for repairing defects in private homes and buildings, the costs could run into many billions of euro, which would then have to be taken out of other budgets, whether for social housing, health or through massive tax increases or action on climate change. That is the reality of the situation.

There are other proposals.

The Taoiseach should be allowed to speak without interruption.

If the Deputy has an accurate cost that she can stand over, I would be happy to see it.

I refer to the programme for Government which has many references to a better health system for the aged, those in need of mental health services and those with disabilities. It is incredible that I have to again raise the Rosalie unit in Castlerea, County Roscommon. I want the Taoiseach to respond this time if he can because the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, cannot provide any more information. Elected members and the families of the patients were given assurances that there would be no interference or movement of patients from the unit. Incredibly, as we speak, every attempt is being made to move a lady from the unit. She has mild mental health issues and she was getting all the care she needed there but she is being moved to a private nursing home where she will not have the same level of care. I appeal to the Taoiseach to call off the proposed move. Could he stick to his promise that the review will go ahead in January and at least leave matters as they stand until that is done? It is not fair to those people or their families. I will not accept the same old answer again. I would like the Taoiseach to respond on the basis that when he was Minister for Health, a letter issued from his Department, as I pointed out previously, saying that the unit would not be closed.

It is the Taoiseach’s prerogative to delegate.

With respect, the Deputy is not a clinician and neither am I. I do not dictate the most appropriate care for the elderly and neither does he. That is a matter of fact. That is done by clinicians. I will not comment on the decision taken by a clinician on where somebody gets the better care.

That is an outrageous comment.

It is not within my gift. I did not go to medical school.

That is an outrageous comment.

The Deputy raised the issue previously and I inquired of the HSE as to whether there were any efforts to move anybody from the facility and I was assured there was no change in the circumstances since we last spoke.

It is going on as we speak.

The Deputy should allow the Minister of State to respond without interruption.

However, if an individual-----

It is going on as we speak.

The Minister of State should be allowed to respond.

He is not telling me the truth.

If the Deputy wants to call me a liar, that is a very different set of circumstances.

He should stop it now.

Deputy Murphy should please allow the Minister of State to respond.

I am not calling the Minister of State a liar.

I have been totally upfront.

I know what is happening on the ground.

Deputy Murphy is normally very orderly.

I am annoyed over this.

The Deputy's annoyance is understandable. I have no problem with that, but the facts still remain on the record of the House.

We have to move on. Other Members are waiting to speak.

Could I ask the Taoiseach what arrangements, if any, are in place to protect the reciprocal arrangements for the receipt of State benefits between Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland? For example, 135,000 people in Ireland are currently in receipt of British State pensions and approximately 70,000 are in receipt of private pensions from the UK. There are also reciprocal arrangements for State assistance such as child benefit. Many of those people are very concerned, and they need reassurance. Could the Taoiseach offer them that?

The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, has done a lot of work on this matter with her colleague in the United Kingdom. I can assure people who receive UK pensions in whole or in part, or part of a UK benefit, and vice versa, that it will continue.

Will it be seamless?

Last week, I raised the availability of Spinraza for children suffering with spinal muscular atrophy, SMA. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, replied, indicating that discussions were ongoing between the pharmaceutical company and the HSE. He also indicated that the talks were coming towards an end and that progress might be made. He did not indicate what the progress was. The reason I raise the question again is that parents are waiting. I am happy to have the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, reply and give an update on the progress and whether there is likely to be a decision this side of Christmas.

My understanding is that there will be a decision this side of Christmas but I cannot box in the HSE in the negotiations by putting a deadline on it, but I am hopeful that there will be.

Will the Minister of State keep me informed?

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, announced to the media yesterday his intention to increase penalty points and fines for speeding, which has been met with anger and frustration in the constituency of Cork South-West where there has been no proper investment in roads. I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the Minister's proposal to apply a fine and penalty points to motorists who do not have their licence on them. There has been an outcry among farmers, fishermen and people working in construction, who have tractors and jeeps fully insured, taxed and with an NCT but given the nature of their jobs, they must use different vehicles daily and would find it impossible to carry a licence.

Could the Deputy ask a question?

Previously a garda would tell a person to drop in to the Garda station and produce his or her licence. Could we have a proper debate on the issue? Will the Taoiseach stand by those law-abiding people and not allow the changes to go ahead?

Unfortunately, we did not have an opportunity to discuss that memo at Cabinet yesterday because we had to set aside additional time to talk about Brexit, so the memo will go to Cabinet next week.

It is important that we have robust and effective road traffic laws-----

-----but it is also important that we are not too draconian either.

I have to admit to, on occasion, having left my wallet at home and, therefore, having driven without my driving licence. We need to tighten up the law but we need to tighten it up in such a way that we are not a police state.

The programme for Government, under the heading Ensuring Support in Crisis, states: "For those vulnerable to suicidal behaviour, the HSE Mental Health Directorate should provide a co-ordinated, uniform, quality assured and safe 24/7 service and deliver pathways of care from primary to secondary mental health services for all those in need of specialist mental health services." When will this be rolled out?

I presume the Deputy is referring to 7-7 care.

The 7-7 is the first step on the route to 24-7. There has been very significant progress in the past 12 months, as the Deputy is aware. Since the programme for Government commitment was made, the budget has literally ballooned and has gone from €700 million five years ago to well in excess of €1 billion. Part of that is the rolling out of 7-7 care and then 24-7 care, on which there has been significant progress.

Almost 12 months ago I hosted in the AV room of Leinster House a group of consultants and sufferers of pulmonary hypertension. As the Taoiseach will know, given his profession, it is an acute illness of the lungs which causes breathing problems and leads to other ailments. To get through daily life, sufferers incur enormous costs due to the need for oxygen machines and medical prescriptions which do not qualify under the medical card. Will the Government recognise this illness as a long-term illness and, in so doing, allow people to get medical cards? I believe it can be done without imposing extra costs on the Department of Health.

There is a difference between the medical card scheme and the long-term illness scheme. The difficulty with the long-term illness scheme is that it does not have a statutory basis and, for that reason, it is not possible to add new illnesses to it without primary legislation, which would reopen the whole question of whether any of the illnesses on it should stay on it.

The programme for Government commits to developing work activation, social protection and further education services to ensure a seamless service for jobseekers. I want to raise the issue of JobPath and its privatisation through the two companies, Turas Nua and Seetec. After years of requests, we have finally got damning statistics relating to the privatisation of that service. The figures were given to the Committee of Public Accounts in recent weeks and they show that 190,000 citizens have been referred to those two companies at a staggering cost of €149 million. The most damning statistic is that of the 190,000 people referred, only 17,100 have been in sustained employment for over 12 months. Does the Taoiseach view it as value for money that €149 million has been spent and 17,100 jobs sustained? Given those damning statistics, will he immediately stop the referral of people to Seetec and Turas Nua?

I refer the Deputy to the answer I gave earlier today on this very topic, except I will add one thing. If one examines the statistics, and I have not done so, although I will take a look at them, what one has to compare with is the counterfactual - that is, with those who were not referred to JobPath or Intreo - to see if there is a difference as to whether they were able to hold onto sustained employment or not.

This morning several cross-Border agencies appeared at the rural affairs committee and in the AV room, including the Irish Central Border Area Network, the Centre for Cross Border Studies and people from the east Border region. All of them were coming with a deep concern, particularly in the context of Brexit. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to continue to fund these agencies and to make sure the Border corridor is not adversely affected by Brexit. These groups are extremely concerned about how they are going to survive into the future. Basically, they ask that we put a plan in place. Both Governments need to come together and come up with a short-term plan, not a long-term plan, with funding and resources to ensure this area of the island, which will be most adversely affected by Brexit, and these agencies have an assurance they will get the kind of funding and resources they need so they can work into the future. I would like a commitment from the Taoiseach that he will work with counterparts in the British Government to come up with a solution so a project can be put forward and funding delivered for these communities.

It is our policy that PEACE and INTERREG funding should continue and the draft proposals from the European Commission provide for PEACE II to form part of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, for next year. Obviously, I cannot make commitments on behalf of the EU or the UK Government but I can say it is this Government's policy and our determination to work with our European and British colleagues to ensure funding for cross-Border co-operation continues. In fact, if anything, it will become more important than ever after Brexit. The Deputy has that commitment on my behalf.