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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 27 Mar 2019

Vol. 981 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Before I speak on the issue, I express my sympathies to the family of Laura Brennan, an exemplar in public health, to her parents Bernie and Larry, to her brothers Colin, Fergal and Kevin, and to her uncle Tommy who was an Independent member of Clare County Council. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis. I also mention the former Deputy John Browne, whom I knew well. He was a genial and friendly person and a gentleman to his bones. Again, I express sympathy to the Browne family on their loss and we will probably get an opportunity to make a proper expression of sympathy for the former Deputy Browne.

The context is similar in terms of Laura Brennan. I want to raise the commitments made in terms of the CervicalCheck scandal with the Taoiseach, particularly on behalf of those who are representing those who were affected by that scandal. First, would the Taoiseach commit to an ex gratia payment to cover the independent review of slide costs?

Many individuals are not in the greatest financial situation and have had to pay up to €2,000 because they are required to hire a solicitor and go through all of the procedure for the review. I ask that this be done expeditiously.

In terms of legislation and the Meenan report, it is extremely important that we get a timeline for the publication of the legislation establishing the tribunal. Crucially, there is a need to update the terms of reference for the CervicalCheck steering committee to ensure that the Department of Health and the committee stay on board until the Scally recommendations are fully implemented, the backlog in testing has been cleared, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists review is complete and the HPV screening programme has begun to be rolled out. I am saying this because there was an attempt by the Department of Health to close down the steering committee recently. I have the minutes here that confirm this. That cannot happen until those four areas are dealt with. I ask the Taoiseach to commit to updating the terms of reference to ensure that.

I am sorry, I may not have all the information to hand and will have to ask the Minister for Health to provide a more detailed answer. Only one of those matters relates to promised legislation, and that is the legislation to establish the tribunal recommended by Mr. Justice Meenan. Work on that is advanced. It is one of only six Bills that we have prioritised for this session and we intend to get it done before the summer recess if we can, ideally by June, and I think we can. There have been some concerns expressed by the Judiciary about it but we think they can be resolved and we are keen to have that legislation done to give women an alternative to court to have their cases heard.

On the ex gratia scheme, my recollection is that we have approved that at Cabinet already and obviously it is open to anyone who avails of that ex gratia scheme to spend the money they receive from it as they wish. That scheme relates specifically to the issue of non-disclosure, as opposed to the wider issues.

This is a separate one.

These are quite detailed questions. I have answered the one that relates to legislation. The others do not relate to the programme for Government but I will ask the Minister for Health to provide Deputy Micheál Martin with a more detailed reply.

The programme for Government commits to targeted improvements in public services with a particular focus on disability issues. It also commits to ensuring that transport service provision for people with disabilities is fit for purpose and consistent with their needs, yet Bus Éireann's brand new, state-of-the-art city buses are actually less accessible for wheelchair users than the older buses they have replaced. My colleague, Deputy Munster, raised serious accessibility concerns about the new single-decker buses last year but her warnings fell on deaf ears. There was no engagement with disability groups in advance of introducing the fleet and we have also learned that the buses have not been built to Irish standards. I commend the campaigning work of a young man called Karl Cretzan, whom I met earlier in the week in Waterford. Karl is a wheelchair user and has been to the fore in highlighting the shortfalls of this new fleet. On Karl's behalf and on behalf of all of our citizens with disabilities who rely on public transport, I ask the Taoiseach what he and his Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport are going to do to rectify the inaccessibility of this new fleet of buses.

I thank the Deputy. Obviously, it is our objective as the Government to make sure that as much of our public transport is accessible to people with disabilities as possible so that they can go about their lives, participate in the workforce and avail of the services they need. A question for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport would be best put to him rather than to me-----

Where is he? Where can we find him?

-----but I know that the Minister has appointed several people who have disabilities to the boards of the transport companies with that particularly in mind, as he wants to make sure that their voice is heard at the boards. In respect of which buses Bus Éireann orders, that really is a matter for the company rather than the Government.

That is a disgraceful answer.

On my own behalf and on behalf of the Labour Party I wish to join others in remembering the late and wonderful Laura Brennan, an inspiration to all of us. We send our condolences today to her family and friends. I also remember the late former Deputy John Browne, although we will have another opportunity to comment in more detail on his contributions to public life.

The European Parliament has voted to end daylight saving time. From April 2021, member states will have a choice regarding the time system they adopt. The Parliament voted by 410 to 192 to adopt this. The decision now has to be adopted by the European Council. What is Ireland's position on this matter? Under the current system, all 28 EU member states switch to summer time on the last Sunday of March, which is this coming weekend, and back to winter time on the last Sunday of October. Ireland will be in a difficult position as the UK will be leaving the EU. There is the possibility of having two different time zones on the island of Ireland, as the UK has already declared it does not intend to switch from its current system. What is the Taoiseach's intention in this regard and how will Ireland be voting on the matter at the European Council?

It is a good question. I was pondering this myself yesterday when I was reading the report from the European Parliament. The truth is that the Government has not taken a position on it yet, nor have we discussed it. I would very much like to know the views of the House on this matter so perhaps we should have a debate on it. Maybe a few indicative votes might be worth experimenting with.

Do not turn out the lights.

I will send out the pink sheets.

It would not kick in until April 2021 anyway, so we have plenty of time to make this decision, no pun intended. One thing about which the Deputy is absolutely right is that I could not and certainly would not wish to countenance a situation whereby Northern Ireland was in a different time zone from the rest of Ireland.

Newry and Dundalk having different time zones.

In the programme for Government, it is stated that the Government should be tested on its ability to deal with the housing crisis and provide social and affordable housing. On Friday, the Minister produced a regulation on affordable housing stating that somebody on €45,000 a year should be paying no more than 35% of their income, which would be €998 per month. On the front of today's edition of The Irish Times, we have an account of the Land Development Agency, LDA, which the Government set up, proposing affordable housing that would be €1,300 a month for a site in Shankill in respect of which we have been campaigning for five years to get council and affordable housing. That is not affordable, even by the Government's own definition of affordability. Furthermore, there will not be a single council house. The Taoiseach said earlier on that he is not ideological. That is ideological. Under the guise of promises about affordable housing, the Government is privatising public lands for unaffordable rents and preventing the construction of the council housing that we actually need.

The Deputy referring to a proposal put before the council in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown last night. They have three or four different options and a combination of social and affordable housing and private housing on the same site. It is early days yet. The councillors will decide what approach to take. The reference to the €1,300 is one example. While rent could cost €1,900 at the moment on a house out there, it could be provided for €1,300, which is a major improvement. It is a council decision to be taken in the weeks ahead.

Rent of €1,300 is not affordable. That is €15,000 a year.

Throughout the country, many communities, schools, boards of management, parents' councils and teaching principals are trying to set up autism spectrum disorder, ASD, units for national schools. I have a situation in Fethard, County Tipperary, in the Holy Trinity national school where two years ago, they got agreement to set up two units and got the go-ahead from the Department of Education and Skills. The school now finds in 2019 that it must go back and retender for the extensions. There is too much bureaucracy. When we get schools that are willing to take these very special classes for very special children, I commend them and support them. I commend the special educational needs organiser, SENO, Ms Belinda Fitzgerald. Working together is what we want but there is too much bureaucracy in the Department and too many delays. This retendering is not work the schools or teaching principals should be doing anyway; it should be done by the Department. Ní neart go cur le chéile. When we get the people who want to help these less well-off children, who are very excellent in many ways but need the special classrooms, when we get the buy-in from the school communities, we need to move ahead with them, not have it so bureaucratic that they are waiting on a string with prices going up and frustration all around.

I am afraid I do not have the details of the situation in Fethard, but I am sure the Minister for Education and Skills does and would be able to give the Deputy a more detailed reply. We have done a considerable amount of work in the past few years in accommodating and supporting children with special needs. We have more special needs assistants and more special classes than ever before. ASD units are being built throughout the country. I have had the privilege to visit many of them, including in my constituency. They are being built, but obviously they have to put out to tender. Rather than the Department of Education and Skills doing it all centrally, it makes sense to allow schools to do it. It is often done more quickly when it is devolved locally.

Project Ireland 2040 has ambitions targets for population growth in Cork. To achieve them, significant investment is needed in public transport. Unfortunately, Cork seems to be the land of the missed deadline, whether it is for events centres or the long-promised Cork metropolitan area transport strategy. In January 2018 the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, announced that it would be published in March last year. We have since been promised continually that it will be published in a few weeks. I hope the Taoiseach can give me a more specific answer than simply it will be published in a few weeks or a few months. When will the Cork metropolitan area transport strategy be published for public consultation?

As I understand it, the National Transport Authority is publishing the document, not the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport or the Government. I cannot give the Deputy a commitment on the authority's behalf, but I am sure it will publish it as soon as it possibly can.

Our ambition in Project Ireland 2040 is to see the population of Cork grow by 50% by 2040, twice the rate at which the population of Dublin will grow, allowing it to become a city of international scale that can attract jobs and investment in business. It will be a good place in which to live, work and study. A big part of it will be BusConnects, which will be the major public transport investment for the city and dramatically improve bus times. Obviously, the M20 project will be very important in connecting Cork to Limerick. In addition, road projects will start quite soon, including the Dunkettle interchange project, which will greatly help to reduce congestion in the city. It is important that the light rail reservation be retained. While the project may not be viable at the moment, if the population of the city grows as fast as we think it will, a light rail system will be a real option in the future.

The programme for Government makes a commitment to look after and defend the rights of retired citizens. ESB employees are protesting outside the gates of Leinster House. They are representing 9,000 retired ESB workers who have not had a pension increase since 2010. There is no cost of living increase and no linking with current employees' salaries. As the ESB is a semi-State company, will the Taoiseach or the Minister ensure its pension fund is being managed correctly and fairly and that former employees will be treated with some degree of dignity and respect?

I am not an expert on the particular pension fund. However, I met ESB pensioners some years ago when I was Minister for Social Protection. As the Deputy knows, the State pension is increased every year; in fact, it will increase this week by €5 a week. It has increased by about €1,000 a year in the past year. Pension funds such as the ESB's essentially are company funds and the amount that can be paid is linked with the amount pensioners paid in, the amount the company paid in and the quality of investments made by the scheme trustees in the interim. The Government cannot change this. It is about how much was paid in by the staff and the company and how well the investments have performed.

The programme for Government makes various commitments to ensure the welfare and well-being of older people. Adequate State support for nursing homes is crucial in ensuring the security of the ageing population. Two weeks ago I met the CEO of Nursing Homes Ireland and a number of representatives of nursing homes in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, including Mooncoin nursing home, Brookhaven nursing home in Ballyragget and Drakelands nursing home in Kilkenny. They seek the immediate publication of the review of the system for setting nursing home prices under the nursing home support scheme. In response to a parliamentary question in December I was informed that the National Treatment Purchase Fund was close to completing the report and aimed to have a draft for the steering group before year end. Two weeks ago I was disappointed to receive an identical response to a further parliamentary question. It appears no progress has been made. Will the Minister of State explain the reason publication of this crucial report is being handled at a snail's pace? Nursing Homes Ireland has been seeking it for some time. It wants equality in the system between public and private nursing homes.

I am aware of the concerns raised by Nursing Homes Ireland following its engagement with all of us in recent weeks on the issue. It will require more time before the report is published. A number of outstanding issues need to be tidied up. I anticipate that it will be published in the coming months, but I cannot give the Deputy a definitive date for its publication.

We are being told that every two months.

We are 58 days away from the local elections. One of the key votes on the day will be in the plebiscite on directly elected mayors. This week we have had reporting of Cabinet Ministers saying the proposal could lead to an over-concentration of control. There is an over-concentration of control; it has continued for 121 years in the Custom House. Even more concerning are the observations of the Attorney General, Mr. Seamus Woulfe, on the transfer of powers from the executive to the elected members and in raising a flag about the loss of expertise, which, if reported correctly, are extremely worrying from the point of view of the suppression of the advancement of local democracy. We all know that there is no loss of expertise or jobs; it is all about who is accountable to the public for policy.

The Attorney General also observed that the proposals for the plebiscite should be sent for further legal advice and further policy consideration. Does the Taoiseach share the Attorney General's views on directly elected mayors? What is the timeframe - if the proposals are to be sent for further consideration - for the start of the information campaign mentioned by the Taoiseach yesterday? We are eight weeks away from polling day. If there is not at the very least a very basic understanding of the proposals, they are destined to fail, which would be disastrous for local democracy. Let us not give the people a Mayor Quimby solution but the first step to real reform.

I am not sure if it was reported correctly. Generally, when the Attorney General gives advice, his advice is on legal matters, not the expertise levels of staff in local authorities, as being a barrister the Attorney General would have no knowledge of such things. However, he has said that even though it is not a referendum in a constitutional sense, we need to treat it as though it was. Therefore a de facto referendum commission will be established. We will not use any public money in advocating a "Yes" vote, but there will be an information campaign funded publicly and run from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

I will explain the proposal in the simplest way possible. It is a real job. There will be a lord mayor for Cork and mayors for Waterford city and county and Limerick city and county, if the people want it. We will see a transfer of power from the chief executive, formerly known as the county or city manager, to a directly elected mayor. It will be similar to the relationship in Departments between Ministers and their Secretaries General. The mayor will propose the budget and development plan. It is a real job with real clout for somebody who can lead his or her city regions forward. The powers to stay with the CEO are those that are most appropriately not dealt with by a politician: individual planning decisions, individual housing applications and human resources matters.

What is the timeframe for the information campaign?

I think it is next week or the following week. The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, is conducting it.

On 21 June 2016 I posed the following question to which I received a written reply. I acknowledge that the Tánaiste has been trying to help me with it. My question was:

To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport if there is a protocol in place for British driving licences to be recognised in the State or if they will have to be replaced with European Union driving licences for the purpose of British citizens living and working here who still drive on their British driving licence and in the event of Britain leaving the EU; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I will not go into the detailed reply I received. However, there is an issue which I raised with the Tánaiste last week. I have met constituents who have been informed that when they go to change their licence under which they have cover for a commercial vehicle, they will not be covered for it; they will only have cover for a car. As I cannot receive clarification, I would like somebody to clarify the matter for me because it is causing difficulty. I was told the same would apply to a minibus driver. The last part of the written reply stated: "The Deputy may wish to know, however, that under international road traffic conventions, holders of foreign licences may drive in Ireland for up to a year on a visitor basis". I ask for clarification as to what that means.

If the Deputy wants, I can try to come back to him later with a detailed answer.

My understanding, in simple terms, is that a person can continue to drive in Ireland on a British licence if he or she is visiting Ireland, but if that person is permanently resident in Ireland and driving on a British licence, he or she needs to swap that licence for an Irish licence before Britain leaves the European Union in the context of no deal. If there are more complex cases of commercial licences that may involve multiple vehicles and so on and if the Deputy wants to come back to me, I can get him detailed answers on those cases.

Page 70 of the programme for Government states that this Government is committed to improving services and increasing supports for people with disabilities, particularly early intervention and early assessment for children with special needs. I submitted a parliamentary question a while ago to which I got a response from the HSE indicating that 559 children in Laois-Offaly are waiting on an assessment of need. This is appalling in light of the fact that the legal timeframe outlined in the Disability Act 2005 is that an assessment of need should be carried out within three months. The long waiting time is having a major and negative impact on children with special needs. What actions will the Government take to reduce the waiting time for children to have an assessment of need in Laois-Offaly?

I thank the Deputy for her question. We are aware of the difficulties not only in Laois-Offaly but in other areas. The establishment of disability network managers is taking place, as the Deputy is probably aware. I can find out if such a manager is in place in Laois-Offaly. We have made significant progress in recent months on establishing disability network managers in each of the areas who are tasked with managing access in this respect, and they are having quite a positive impact where they are in place. I will have to advise the Deputy if there is a disability network manager in place in Laois-Offaly.

Primary access to outpatient care is a key component of the programme for Government. Recently released figures from the National Treatment Purchase Fund are worrying and disappointing, especially for outpatient waiting lists in excess of 18 months. I will cite two examples. The ear, nose and throat, ENT, waiting list at University Hospital Waterford, UHW, in excess of 18 months stands at 3,437 and for orthopaedics it stands at 1,655. I accept that currently there are 479 vacant consultant posts in Ireland across all sectors in health, a situation which is compounding the issue. What are the specific plans within the Department of Health to tackle long waiters, especially in excess of 18 months?

I am not sure there are 479 vacant posts. The Deputy will be aware the when the Public Service Pay Commission examined these issues, it was not able to authenticate claims made either by the unions or the HSE as to how many consultant posts there are, but that is a problem in itself when we do not how many vacancies there are really.

The HSE does not know.

That is shocking.

We will talk about that another time. To answer the Deputy Butler's question, from the patient point of view, which is what really matters, we have made considerable progress in reducing waiting times for operations and procedures. We lost some ground as a consequence of the nurses' strike, but the number of people waiting more than 12 weeks for an operation or procedure has been falling for well over a year. At the end of last year, it was at a four or five-year low. We lost a little time because of the nurses' strike, but we will catch up on that. We are not making progress on outpatients. We need to see if the approach we used to reduce waiting times for operations and procedures might be applied to some outpatient specialties such as ENT, dermatology and ophthalmology where we could buy in expertise from the private sector if we need to do so.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to provide support to people with disabilities to maximise their potential by removing barriers to access services, education, work and healthcare. However, service users attending Drumlin House, a centre for people with disabilities in Cootehill, County Cavan, were stunned to receive a letter from the HSE last Thursday informing them that as of 1 April their transport service, which is provided by the LocalLink service, will now cost €4 for a daily return, which is €20 a week, and based on the education year in Drumlin House that is a total charge of €960 per annum for a person with a disability. Fortunately, people with a disability are supplied with a medical card and therefore a travel pass, but the travel pass is not accepted on the LocalLink service. When this charge comes into place, if these people cannot afford it, which will most likely be the case, they will be left at home. Will the Taoiseach investigate this letter has come from the HSE and ensure this new charge is abolished? It is a ludicrous charge that will result in people with a disability having to stay at home.

I do not have any knowledge of this but I will certainly inform the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the Minister, Deputy Ross, that the Deputy raised it. I am sure it would be possible to have the travel pass recognised on the LocalLink but it would want a fee for that which would be entirely reasonable. I will certainly inform both the Minister for Transport and the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities that this issue was raised.

Under the programme for Government regarding effective policing, while recognising the emergency response unit has been deployed both to Dundalk and to Cavan and the ongoing issues in terms of An Garda Síochána responding to policing of the Border counties, be it due to the threat of dissidents, smuggling, organised crime or road policing, the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, this week said that zero work has been done around the implementation of a hard border. While I respect that is the Government's agenda and that it is in line with Government policy, Commissioner Harris went on to say he envisages increased demand to counter the impact of economic crime leading to further leakage of duties to the Exchequer. What are the Taoiseach's plans to ensure the issue of loss of revenue, regardless of a deal, no deal or no hard border, is dealt with?

That is a roundabout way of asking a question that I get asked almost every day at the moment. That is really going to depend on what happens in the next few weeks, whether we have a deal, and if we do not have a deal, what shape that takes. We are increasing the size of the Garda force, which is now more than 14,000. Civilians are being brought in to free up gardaí, and we are taking and have taken on more Revenue staff and more customs inspectors. We have the additional staff we may need in certain circumstances.

I notice it has become part of the part of the commentary in London at the moment that I, as Taoiseach, have somehow said that special arrangements would solve all our problems and that all of these concerns about a hard border and the need for a backstop do not matter because the Taoiseach has talked about there being special arrangements. Let there be no doubt in this House or in Westminster that when I talk about special arrangements, I mean treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, and it is the UK Government's proposal to do exactly that, not in four of five years if the backstop ever has to be implemented but in a few weeks in the event of no deal.

Since the introduction of the Wild Atlantic Way, any area along its route in west Cork has greatly benefited in tourism figures in recent years. Two years ago the people of Courtmacsherry and Barryroe were promised, following a ministerial visit, that their areas would be included in the Wild Atlantic Way. We are heading into the summer season of 2019 and promises made to the people of Courtmacsherry, Barryroe and the Seven Heads Peninsula have not been delivered on, leaving businesses in that area struggling to keep up and communities who are not benefiting from the Wild Atlantic Way. Can I have an exact date as to when Courtmacsherry, Barryroe and the Seven Heads Peninsula will be added to the Wild Atlantic Way?

I thank the Deputy for acknowledging that the Wild Atlantic Way has been a massive success. It was an initiative of the former Fine Gael-Labour Party Government and Fáilte Ireland. It has been very beneficial to communities throughout the 2,500 km along the western seaboard, and those rural communities have massive potential and opportunity as a result of that.

Regarding the specific case the Deputy has raised, within a week of being in office I met local communities, people involved in the tourism industry there and Fáilte Ireland representatives. At the time, Fáilte Ireland undertook to review the route, specifically with respect to Courtmacsherry, and it will be in a position very shortly to bring its proposals to the communities. I am engaging with Fáilte Ireland on the matter. We want to optimise the benefits for the local communities through the Wild Atlantic Way experience and I am quite confident we will achieve that.

The time has concluded. Unfortunately, six Deputies were not reached. We will try to prioritise those Deputies tomorrow.