Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Next Wednesday will see the sixth day of striking by paramedics and emergency medical technicians on the issue of union recognition. The Government's strategy seems to be to hope that they will go away. After six days on strike, they are proving they will not.

The Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, is an important part of our industrial relations machinery. The Government and the HSE as a Government agency cannot continue to ignore it. What kind of message does that send to other companies in respect of which the WRC is intervening? Will the Government take its head out of the sand and ask the HSE to engage with the WRC? These are exceptional professionals who give extraordinary service to the country. They are not doing this lightly. The Government cannot allow them to go on strike for a sixth day.

As the Deputy knows, we do not want to see the strike either and have no desire to see the dispute continue. The issue has been outlined in the House several times. Paramedics are represented by three different unions. If we included a fourth, there would be an issue of fragmentation in the representative role. We must try to work around that challenge. We take on board-----

What is the position on asking the WRC to engage?

There would still be an issue of fragmentation. How many unions would represent one group of people? Would it be five or six? At an operational level, it would be difficult for the HSE to deal with four, five or potentially even six different unions that were trying to negotiate for one group of people.

I have just come from the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, which has been hearing from small businesses about the serious impact on them of the cost of insurance increases. We heard from Ms Linda Murray from Navan, who operates a soft play centre. She was very brave as she recounted her personal story. She broke down before the committee as she begged us to save the livelihoods of her staff and to give children somewhere to play. She has 25 days before her centre closes because no one in Ireland will insure soft play areas and the only company in Britain that does so has refused. A different company in Navan closed down just six weeks ago and another in Cork will close by the end of the month. Every soft play area across the country will face a similar fate.

The Government has dithered and dallied on this issue. All the while, the clock is ticking for the future of these centres and their staff. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister for Finance to convene an emergency meeting with the insurance industry so as to ensure appropriate insurance cover is given to these vital services?

It is not true to say that we have been dilly-dallying on this issue. There are three Bills dealing with insurance and we have had some success in respect of motor insurance in particular on the back of recommendations from a report. We are also implementing recommendations on the cost of insurance for small business. The Deputy is right, though, in that there is a particular concern regarding children's play areas. I have attended a number in my town with my children and spoken to their owners. They are under enormous pressure and cannot stay in business if they must pay the increases. Some cannot even get insurance at any price. Besides passing the legislation, this is an issue that the Government needs to take action on in the short term. I will speak to the Minister directly about what the appropriate course of action is.

The Government has only had eight years.

For the second time in six months, Irish soldiers have been let down by the Government. After a six-month tour of duty on a UN mission to the Golan Heights, 130 soldiers were due home today, as the Tánaiste knows. Once again, however, the Government has failed to secure all the necessary clearances for them to travel home to their families. This happened in October, and that was a disgrace. For it to happen a second time is beyond excusable.

Families naturally want to be reunited after a six-month absence. Children have travelled to Dublin today to meet their parents again and some family members have booked holidays for tomorrow and the day after. For the second time, all of those plans have been put awry. What explanation can the Government give for a second monumental failure of this sort?

After what happened in October, surely it should have ensured that nothing like it could happen again. When will these soldiers be repatriated?

I can understand the frustration of very many families, but it is important that we deal with the facts. The circumstances are not the same as what happened in October. In this instance, the UN is responsible for organising the rotation flights to transfer the current United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, contingent back to Ireland. We have been advised by the UN that the Lebanese authorities have not granted landing clearance in Beirut for the aircraft scheduled to transport the 58th Infantry Group back home. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, has been in direct contact with our ambassador to the UN, who is continuing to engage with UN officials at a very senior level to try to get this issue resolved quickly. Every effort is being made by Department of Defence officials, the Defence Forces and our diplomatically accredited staff at the UN to work to get the next UN flight.

To be clear, there was a paperwork problem in October where there was fault on our side. That is my understanding. That is not the case this time, however.

Time is up, Tánaiste.

This was an issue between UN officials and their counterparts in Beirut.

We should take responsibility for our own troops.

The Deputy knows, or at least he should, that that is not how these UN rotations work.

Tánaiste, please. The time is up. Will the Tánaiste conclude, please?

We will get them home as quickly as we can.

I wish to raise the proposed cannabis access programme. I understand that an importation licence has been granted to a company for medicinal cannabis products. That is welcome news, as this situation has been dragged out. I have two questions. When will the programme be set up? The programme's current guidelines are extremely restrictive and many people will not be given access. In November in Britain, medicinal cannabis was rescheduled to schedule 2, yet few people can get it. We do not want the same to happen in Ireland.

We have received and circulated an update this week. I cannot give the Deputy an exact timeline for when the programme will be established, but I am happy to share the update from the HSE with him after Questions on Promised Legislation, if that is okay.

I am glad that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, is present, as I wish to raise the issue of the Thurles post office. Last Friday, 2,000 people marched in Liberty Square where the GAA was founded all those years ago and mandated Deputies to get a meeting with the Minister. Will he meet a deputation of Deputies, who were elected by the people and have been asked to meet him regarding the movement of the Thurles post office out of Liberty Square, which would be detrimental to business people and townspeople alike? I want him to take political accountability. He claims he has no responsibility, yet Fine Gael's election candidate said on radio this morning that he had phoned her to say she could attend the meeting as well. He does not have responsibility one day and, the next, he does. He should take responsibility, be accountable to the people from Tipperary who elected us, intervene in this issue, and give an immediate date for a meeting with elected Members and the post office action committee under the stewardship of Councillor Jim Ryan and others.

Deputy Cahill on the same matter.

I raised this issue last week. Given that the Project Ireland 2040 national planning framework is meant to rejuvenate town centres, it is extraordinary that a State agency is doing the exact opposite. Moving the post office will destroy retail business in the town centre, so the Minister standing idly by and letting this happen is not good enough. I support my colleague's call for an immediate meeting between the Minister, Oireachtas Members and members of the action committee.

There was a huge crowd in Thurles last Friday. The town is completely united against this move. I would be grateful if the Minister could refrain from telling us that this is not his business. It is. This move is contrary to the Government's policy, and we want it to be reversed.

I assure this House and the people of Thurles that An Post has very ambitious plans. It is not seeking to close its post office service-----

That is not what it says.

-----but to extend and improve its service. It has gone through a restructuring plan-----

This is more fake news.

-----and it now has very ambitious programmes in place to develop the scale of its business. It will take on new business, including in the areas of financial services, parcel services and other new services that have not been available. Thurles will be one of the flagship services. The existing premises does not allow it to deliver those services.

That is not true.

I am aware that Deputies and the community are concerned about this, but this is entirely an An Post decision.

The Minister is like Pontius Pilate.

It has responsibility, and it has its own board. In light of what was expressed last week, I asked An Post to meet with public representatives so that the fears expressed could be dealt with.

It will be a box-ticking exercise.

I hope that such a meeting will occur.

The Minister did not answer the question. Will the Minister meet the representatives of Tipperary? We are elected by the people of Tipperary; he should meet us.

I have been categorically clear throughout this that the responsibility for this decision will be taken by An Post and its board. I have no power, contrary to what the Deputy requests-----

Holy Thursday is almost upon us and the Minister is acting like Pontius Pilate.

-----to ask An Post to make those decisions-----

He is passing the buck.

-----under a law that the Deputy participated in passing in this House. I am observing the law as the Oireachtas has set down. The Deputy is entitled to call State agencies to appear before committees. In this case, the State agency has indicated that it is willing to meet with public representatives to go through their concerns. That is the way the Oireachtas says this should happen, and that is how it will happen.

The Minister is refusing to meet with us.

Throughout the winter, and in recent months, we have heard many distressing stories from older people and other vulnerable patients who have had to spend 12 or more hours on seats and trolleys in Beaumont Hospital. Before the last election, myself and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, campaigned for a new cystic fibrosis, CF, unit and a new accident and emergency department at Beaumont Hospital; the current department has always been massively oversubscribed. I understood that in the programme for Government commitment was given to both of these projects. The CF unit has finally received planning permission, and €100,000 has been spent on the accident and emergency department. However, we are perhaps coming towards the end of this Government and there is still no sign of a new accident and emergency department at Beaumont. I am sure the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, is very well aware of this. We really need a new university regional hospital in Fingal, never mind a new accident and emergency. What is happening? Why was the agreement that I assume the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, entered into about the accident and emergency not adhered to?

We will have to wait until the confirmation of the capital plan, which will be completed in approximately one month, for an update on that matter.

There has been an unusual level of strandings of sperm whales recently on the west coast of Ireland, and indeed a very large number of strandings of dolphins along the French coast. We must remember that we have to protect our oceans and understand what is happening in them. A major report from the universities of York and Oxford, backed up by Greenpeace, provided some good news today. It calls for 30% of the high seas to be declared as marine protected areas by 2030. Will the Government support such an approach in Irish waters in order to help protect marine life? What is its timescale for the implementation of the legislation promised which will introduce much larger marine protection areas? Is it ambitious enough to recognise that our oceans are in dire state? They are vital, not just for nature but also for carbon storage. Where does the Government stand on this legislation?

I have read about and noticed both the issues the Deputy has raised. He might have noticed that this Government, especially under the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, has been proactive on the issue of marine plastics in particular, creating an initiative with fishermen to take plastics out of the sea. We will also bring forward legislation around microbeads, on which the Deputy's colleague, Senator Grace O'Sullivan, and Deputy Sherlock, brought forward Bills in the Houses. We are building on that legislation. I am a strong believer in marine protected areas. I am not going to give a commitment on a percentage of area on the floor of the House, but I believe there will be initiatives in this area from the Government.

In the programme for Government, a clear commitment was given to preventing and reducing crime. However, the very opposite is evident in Cavan-Monaghan and in the Border region, where there has been an increase in criminality over recent weeks. In the last four months, we have seen a serious increase in organised crime, particularly robberies of ATMs. There have been robberies of ATMs in Ballybay, Kingscourt and Castleblayney. Will the Tánaiste, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, and the Garda Commissioner direct extra resources, which are evidently badly needed in Cavan and Monaghan, to give the Garda the capacity to deal with these types of crime? These towns are besieged by these criminals, and the consequences for local businesses are dire.

The Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) Bill 2019 is before us. The scourge of crime and subversive activity, from drugs, ATM thefts, fuel laundering to tobacco and alcohol smuggling, has led to a loss of €25 million to my own community, as was announced last week. Illegal landfills are also a problem. When will the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, give a commitment that culpability and responsibility will rest with those who rent properties without inquiring as to what activities will take place in them? We have to deal with this issue in a forthright manner in this House, because the loss of revenue and income to businesses is frightening, not to mention the eventual recipients of this money.

A number of Bills have been enacted, and the fifth EU directive in respect of money laundering is currently advancing through the House. The Deputies will be aware from previous debates on this issue that operational matters are the preserve of An Garda Síochána. Having said that, there is some concern about the spate of ATM robberies around the Border area. Deputy Smyth will be aware of a recent announcement by the Garda Commissioner to provide additional support in the Cavan-Monaghan area, including the armed support response. I am happy to convey the concerns of the Deputy to senior Garda management. I am happy to say that An Garda Síochána is operating with unprecedented and record investment from the Government, amounting to €1.7 billion, much of which is being expended in the Border areas of Cavan, Monaghan and Louth.

Some 130 members of the Defence Forces are unable to return home today as scheduled after a tour of duty in the Golan Heights. They were scheduled to fly from Syria to Beruit and then on to Dublin. This is an absolute disgrace. I am a former member of the 27th Battalion, and it seems to me that Army personnel are being treated as second class citizens.

Morale is at an all-time low. Numbers are at an all-time low. The Tánaiste is a former Minister of Defence, and I expect a lot more from this Government. Last Tuesday I read an article in a newspaper by an ex-officer of the 27th Battalion. The officer said that nobody joins the Army to get rich, but neither do they join the Army to qualify for family income support. Please stop treating these people like second-class citizens. They can strike, but they do not want to strike. An Garda Síochána went on strike in the last number of years. Are we going to force the Irish Army to go out on strike? Members of the Army sacrifice their time, as do their families.

It is about time the Government sorted out the Army once and for all.

The Deputy has raised two issues. With regard to bringing home the contingent from the Golan Heights there was an issue between the UN and the Lebanese authorities that resulted in their plane having to be rescheduled because permission to land was not given because of a miscommunication somewhere. That is as much as I can say about it. We are looking to get that fixed quickly so people can come home to their families.

On the second issue, we are considering how we can improve the remuneration of Defence Forces personnel. We have asked the Public Sector Pay Commission to look specifically at the Defence Forces so that we can do so without undermining the broader pay agreements we have. We hope to be able to get those recommendations shortly.

Yesterday, Action Health Enterprises, which is engaged by the HSE to build primary care centres in Arklow and Greystones in County Wicklow, made the announcement it is not going ahead with those projects. In January, it had been granted full planning permission after a number of delays to go ahead with the Arklow primary health care centre. If anything, it gives us another reason that public private partnerships are not the best route to develop schemes such as this. It has caused massive concern in Arklow and Greystones about the future of the primary health care centre in the towns. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment that the schemes will proceed as planned, that there will be no further delays and that in no way is this linked to cuts or scalebacks in terms of capital spend linked to the overrun on the national children's hospital?

One confirmation I can give the Deputy is there is no correlation whatsoever with anything happening with the children's hospital. This is not an issue with capital. As the Deputy will appreciate, I do not have with me today the details on something that happened yesterday but I will get an update on it. There are 22 primary care centres being delivered nationwide this year and they are a very positive development. We are delighted to see these investments in Wicklow as well as throughout the rest of the country. I will get the details for the Deputy and I will check out and come back to the Deputy on whether a company is supposed to have withdrawn.

Bunaíodh Oifig an Choimisinéara Teanga faoi Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla, 2003. Ina thuarascáil bhliantúil inné, dúirt an Coimisinéir go bhfuil an dlí a shárú ag RTÉ maidir le craoladh trí Ghaeilge. Dúirt sé go bhfuil séanraí áirithe nach bhfuil craoladh ar bith á dhéanamh iontu i nGaeilge. An féidir leis an Aire Stáit a rá liom céard atá i gceist ag an Rialtas a dhéanamh le cinntiú go gcloíonn RTÉ leis an Acht Craolacháin, 2009 i leith na Gaeilge?

Mar is eol don Teachta, ghlac an Rialtas Dé Máirt le tuarascáil bhliantúil Oifig an Choimisinéara Teanga. B'fhéidir go mbeidh an tAire Cumarsáide, Gníomhaithe ar son na hAeráide agus Comhshaoil, an Teachta Bruton, in ann an cheist maidir le RTÉ a fhreagairt. Tá an tAire sin freagrach as an gcraoltóir náisiúnta.

I thank the Deputy for the question. Níl an Ghaeilge go líofa agam, so I will not attempt to answer in Irish. I am very much aware the Irish Language Commissioner has reported that RTÉ is failing to meet its obligations as set out in the Act. Clearly the board of RTÉ and RTÉ need to consider this finding and respond adequately in respect of Act. The Irish Language Commissioner has indicated RTÉ is to report back to him and that he will take the steps available to him under the law. These include reporting back to the Oireachtas. I will be tracking this closely, I assure the Deputy.

On page 47 of the programme for Government ambitious tourism policy goals by 2025 are set. We have a major tourism threat in west Cork and it is an issue I raised with the Taoiseach two weeks ago. There are major concerns in Kinsale about a proposed mussel farm off Kinsale harbour, which will cover a vast area of sea and will lead to huge consequences for the Kinsale community. I know the Tánaiste cannot comment on live planning issues while they are ongoing. Last Sunday, I attended a public meeting in Union Hall with local inshore fisherman, local tourism operators and local people in opposition to another oyster farm proposed by a French company that would cover an area from Union Hall to Castlehaven, which would have huge consequences locally. It is widely known that planning regulations in other European countries are now very strict, thus in the past month companies have made three applications in west Cork as Ireland's planning guidelines on oyster and mussel farms are far too lax. To save the livelihoods of inshore fisherman, tourism operators and local people in Union Hall, Castlehaven and Kinsale, will the Government work with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to put in place stricter planning guidelines for these oyster and mussel farms?

The Deputy is right that I cannot comment on current planning applications but I am aware of the issues to which he has referred.

I did not ask the Minister to comment on that. I asked him whether he will work to put in place stricter guidelines as other European countries are doing.

I have no plans to change the guidelines. I will consider all issues relating to any individual planning application in due course.

We all know Irish Water was established by a previous Government, and we were told the primary reason for its establishment was so it could borrow off-balance-sheet to invest in critical infrastructure. Unfortunately, this is not happening. A number of weeks ago, I raised the high number of water outages in the past 12 months, particularly with regard to Athlone. This morning, there were water outages throughout the town of Athlone. It is a huge inconvenience for businesses and residents. When will critical investment be made by Irish Water in water infrastructure in Athlone? What contingency measures does Irish Water have in place to ensure businesses are not severely discommoded as a result of this?

I thank the Deputy for the question. It is somewhat hypocritical questioning how we fund Irish Water and have security of funding for Irish Water, given that certain Members of the House and certain parties in the House canvassed to remove a very important domestic funding stream for Irish Water. That question has been settled and in settling the question the Government made a serious commitment to funding from the central Exchequer of more than €8 billion over the next ten years for strategic water infrastructure for Irish Water. This investment is being made every year. Yesterday, Irish Water gave a presentation to me on its plans to make sure we have sufficient capacity in the system for the next ten years given the challenges we face. As a result of this, we see water outages, unfortunately, in some parts of the country. We also have to increase capacity for the treatment of water. We know coming off the back of last summer the serious drought we had and the impact it had on water courses and water reserves. A huge amount of investment is happening and I can get details on the specific problems the Deputy has raised to him later today.

The Traveller accommodation expert group was set up on foot of the programme for Government commitment. The European Committee of Social Rights has found this State is in violation of the European Social Charter on five grounds by failing to provide adequate Traveller accommodation. When will the expert group publish its report? The Tánaiste may also recall that immediately after the dreadful fire at Carrickmines in which ten people, including children, were killed, he took a meeting with me and promised the Government would give the family the support it required. Since then, I have been fighting an unsuccessful battle with a series of Ministers over the lack of support for the two surviving sons of Thomas and Sylvia Connors, who need help to get back and forth to school. Will the Tánaiste agree to get this sorted out?

We hope to have the report towards the end of this month or certainly early May. This is the scheduled time to receive the report. We will then discuss it at committee.

On the other question, will the Tánaiste give a commitment?

I will come back to the Deputy on that.

On page 46 of the programme for Government there is a commitment to prepare properly regional airports for a future in which they can operate on a stand-alone commercial basis. As the Tánaiste is aware, there has not been a commercial flight from Waterford Airport since 2016. The search and rescue service covering the south-east area still operates from the airport. There is a submission before the Government to extend and upgrade the runway to allow the airport to compete competitively. The submission requests €5 million from the Government, to be matched by €5 million funding from business investors and €2 million from local authorities in the south east.

Is there any update on the approval of this request? The airport has the potential to bring a much-needed economic boost to the region through tourism, business and cargo flights.

This issue is currently with the Department. I will ask the office of the Minister, Deputy Ross, to respond immediately to the Deputy with an update on the matter.

The Central Bank has indicated that it does not have any difficulty with the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. Will the Government now allocate funding to allow local authorities to reactivate and process applications under the scheme? Will the same interest rate as applied previously continue to apply?

My understanding is that three Departments are to meet the Central Bank tomorrow on this issue such that we have a basis for making a decision. People can still apply for the home loan scheme.

The applications are not being processed.

The Government is anxious to quickly provide clarity on the funding of the scheme. As stated, an important meeting on this issue will take place tomorrow between three Departments, including the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, obviously, and the Central Bank.

That concludes questions on promised legislation. The four Deputies who have not been reached will be given priority on Tuesday.