Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

The former President of the High Court, Mr. Justice Nicholas Kearns, made some stinging remarks recently about insurance costs. He said that we have an immediate and urgent problem with a compensation culture, and he has called on politicians to step up and do something. Fianna Fáil, in particular through Deputy Michael McGrath, has for some time been offering many suggestions on what can be done, but the Government is not taking them on board.

On the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017, will Fine Gael finally stand up to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and allow that Bill to proceed? Why are we not proceeding with an insurance fraud unit that could start investigating false claims?

On the issue of insurance companies, three of them reported profits of €200 million in recent weeks while small businesses were closing. Is it not time, as Mr. Justice Kearns said, for the Government to step up?

The Government is stepping up in this area. The Bill the Deputy referred to is in the Seanad. A conversation is happening between the Department and the Commissioner on a specific Garda fraud unit to respond to the concerns the Deputy has raised. I know that Deputy Michael McGrath only yesterday introduced new legislation which will go to Second Stage soon. We will look at the merits of that Bill. There have been three pieces of legislation passed in the past 12 to 18 months concerning insurance and insurance costs. This is an issue and we are responding to it. I agree with the Deputy that, despite all of the things that have been done in recent years to respond to concerns and frustrations from the insurance industry, there always seems to be a new reason for insurance premiums to increase. Looking at asset values and profits in this sector, there is no large insurance company in Ireland making a loss at the moment, and many are making very significant profits. We will respond, but we also expect an appropriate response from the insurance industry.

Throughout this country, and indeed in the constituency I share with the Tánaiste, people are seriously struggling with rent. Rents are rising rapidly, sometimes swallowing up to a third or a half of people's income, making getting a mortgage impossible for many. Rent pressure zones cap the increase in rent at 4% per annum, and were applied to city council areas and some electoral areas and counties, including the Ballincollig-Carrigaline municipal district in our own county. Some of these electoral areas have since been revised. How will the rent pressure zones apply in new areas which are to be brought into districts that are already rent pressure zones? My colleague, Councillor Michael Frick Murphy, has asked me to raise the issue of whether the southern end of Carrigaline, including Fountainstown, Myrtleville and Crosshaven, will now fall under the new Carrigaline municipal district and a rent pressure zone, and whether they will benefit from capped rent. I am sure similar situations pertain in districts throughout the country as well. Will these new areas benefit from the rent pressure zone?

I understand that they will. The change to the boundary and the changed local electoral area boundaries that go with that will mean that the new city boundary will encompass a rent pressure zone for the whole city. I understand that what was the Ballingcollig electoral area, which is now becoming the Carrigaline harbour area, will also become a rent pressure zone in its entirety.

It is the RTB that will have to confirm the relevant metrics, but that is my understanding.

Since the publication of the Morris tribunal report a number of years ago, significant and far-reaching proposals for reform of An Garda Síochána have been made. Multiple reports and recommendations have been produced during the years. The Policing Authority report published yesterday assesses the progress of the modernisation programme which is now five years old. It is the seventh and final report produced by the Policing Authority and outlines the lack of connection of rank and file gardaí to the modernisation programme. It sets out the lack of impact on the front line where the necessity is most evident. The Minister for Justice and Equality said the report had been superseded by the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. While we have had many programmes for change, the proof of the pudding will surely be in implementation of radical reform. What specifically does the Government intend to do to respond to the view of the Policing Authority that transformational change is simply not happening?

I reinforce what the Deputy said about the report being outdated as it has been superseded in many ways by the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

It is replacing one plan with another, but nothing has been implemented.

When one looks at the detail of the report of the Commission of the Future of Policing and the new personnel in place to deliver on it, it is a very serious piece of work. Of course, we will be judged on it. With a new Commissioner in place and a very clear reform agenda as a result of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, the Deputy will see fundamental change and reform for the better across An Garda Síochána. We will be held to account by the Policing Authority in that regard.

Right now, activists from This is Me, a campaign to improve transgender healthcare in Ireland, are sitting in at the Department of Health. They have stated clearly that they will not move voluntarily until they have a time and date for a meeting with the Minister, Deputy Harris. It is a meeting which has been promised repeatedly over the course of the last 14 months. It was promised first in a reply to Deputy Coppinger, but there were many subsequent promises, including, for example, a promise by the Taoiseach of a meeting within six to eight weeks in July 2018. The nine months since have proved to be a very long six to eight weeks. The activists are not looking for a chat with the Minister for no reason. They are asking for a meeting because, notwithstanding the WHO declassification of transgender identities as a question of mental health disorder 12 months ago, Ireland continues to practise a strict psychiatric diagnostic model which means that transgender people are forced to obtain a psychiatric diagnosis before being recommended for HRT. This is a damaging state of affairs. The question is very simple. They must not wait any longer. Does the Government agree that a time and date for a meeting must be given now in order that they can stop waiting and the occupation can end?

With respect, I cannot commit the Minister for Health to arranging a meeting. Certainly, I will pass on the request, of which I am sure he is aware already.

I have just come from a meeting of all Tipperary Deputies with Mr. David McRedmond, Mr. Gary Doyle and Mr. Angus Laverty of An Post and the committee to save the post office in the Square in Thurles. The Government is trying to claim it has no responsibility for it, but we were just told that An Post was finding it very hard to get Government business. The An Post representatives noted that driving licence transactions were given to a private company recently, as were many other things. They also said the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was actively encouraging recipients to accept payments through banks or online and not through the post office network. The Government is destroying post offices single-handed, but it states here every day that it will not meet people. I ask the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach to instruct the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, to meet this group and cut out the codology, playing games and passing the buck. It is the Government that is in power and it is destabilising An Post. Some time ago it asked us to allow An Post to raise stamp prices. I voted against it, but it happened. It is reckless. An Post is trading recklessly, while the Government is tying its hands behind its back. It is time the Government took action and that the Minister was instructed to meet the people mentioned and the public representatives of County Tipperary.

The Deputy should be careful with what he says in this House. An Post is not trading recklessly.

It is trading recklessly.

An Post has managed to agree a reform programme with postmasters in order to ensure An Post does not have to trade recklessly.

A dirty shady deal.

The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has answered the question the Deputy asked him last week. He made it very clear that he has to operate within the law. There are decisions that management in An Post need to take and there are decisions that Ministers need to take; there should not be crossover.

None of them are taking them. It is a cop-out.

This week in my constituency of Dublin Rathdown, the local community learned important information about the arrangements for a new school via social media through a tweet with a picture of a letter giving vague information about the securing of a site for a new school due to open in September with no indication of who had written or signed the letter. This was the first that many concerned residents learned about the plans for the school site. Was the Minister for Education and Skills aware that this information was being given out in this manner? If he was, did he send this letter on to certain elected representatives? How did he determine who should be updated on this?

It is not the first time this has happened in our constituency. In the past schooling arrangement announcements have been distributed first on social media before even the schools have been told, before parents and children have been told and before the local community has been properly informed. There is an urgent need to overhaul how new schools are announced. Currently they are announced with great fanfare without even the sites secured, which causes serious confusion for the local community. I have raised this with the Minister, Deputy McHugh, and previously with the then Minister, Deputy Bruton.

The time is up now, Deputy.

This drip-feeding of unofficial information on social media is not fair on school communities and is disrespectful to the local community.

Please, Deputy, the time is up.

Surely there is a better way of engaging.

I call the Tánaiste.

What is the Government's plan to improve its engagement with the local communities on announcements of schools?

I am glad the Deputy has raised the issue with the Minister, Deputy McHugh, because this is obviously his responsibility. I hope he gave her a detailed response to her question. I am not familiar with the individual project concerned.

It is a general issue.

I understand. That is the responsibility of the Minister for Education and Skills. I will make sure he is aware of it.

It would not be the first time that an announcement was made on social media that was not subsequently followed through. We have certainly heard that before.

The Minister for Education and Skills announced that the review of history and the junior certificate would be complete by the end of March. I know a new board was appointed to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. Can the Tánaiste confirm that history will be restored as a compulsory subject in the junior certificate as the Minister has indicated?

That report has not come to Cabinet, but we are expecting it shortly.

It has been brought to my attention that certain protected disclosures within the health services have not been acted upon properly. I have also been informed that a number of these cases have not been investigated. One of my sources has told me that they no longer feel safe in the workforce after making a protected disclosure. While nothing was done, no one was reprimanded regarding a very serious incident. I am very concerned about our mental health services and in particular that many protected disclosures have taken place without anything being addressed properly. One of my sources said, "I pray for my patients every night." Why are these protected disclosures not being dealt with stringently? Why are some perpetrators still allowed to work within the health service after the protected disclosures have been made against them? I am aware that some Ministers present are in receipt of this information.

The matter might be the subject of a parliamentary question.

There is very clear legislation in this area outlining the responsibility of the State and Departments in providing a response to protected disclosures. To make an accusation that may or may not be true - I do not know - without any evidence to back it up-----

It is not an accusation.

It is impossible for me to respond to something like that.

It is not an accusation and the Minister is also in receipt of it.

It is almost two years since the publication of the Sláintecare report regarding reforming the health service into an effective and efficient service, and the Government continues to fail to deliver on commitments. My constituency has major issues with the need for physiotherapy. This week I received a letter from someone whose child cannot leave a hospital in Dublin because sufficient paediatric physiotherapy services are not available in Sligo.

A letter from the child's consultant orthopaedic surgeon states:

This is a note regarding Callum. He has had extensor mechanism reconstruction and is doing well and walking on a frame now. Hopefully he will be progressing onto crutches. We are keeping him as an inpatient in Cappagh despite the inconvenience and cost of same for all concerned because there is only a limited amount of physiotherapy resources available in Sligo. Obviously it is very disappointing that children from the West are required to stay as inpatients in Cappagh for lack of such resources and I might ask you to perhaps increase paediatric physio availability in that region to facilitate this kind of physio which is badly needed, as you know, by many children along the Western Seaboard. It is unfair on their families that they have to travel and stay in Dublin ... [when it is not necessary].

As the Deputy will appreciate, it is difficult to comment on an individual case on which I do not have the background information. I could talk about the services in general. I am happy to get an update for him on services in general in his area after this business but I will not be able to comment on a specific case.

The programme for Government contains various commitments to reduce the employment rate while prioritising balanced regional development. Community employment, CE, schemes are a very important aspect in achieving this and provide a path to employment for many long-term unemployed people particularly in rural areas. This week I have been contacted by several of the 1,250 CE supervisors who have no access to any occupational pension scheme despite a 2008 Labour Court recommendation in their favour. The campaign for action on this recommendation will continue into May 2019 with an escalation in industrial action as the Government continues to ignore its responsibility to facilitate them regarding that Labour Court ruling. I am also informed that groups of CE scheme supervisors have been seeking a meeting with the Minister for some time but their requests have fallen on deaf ears.

Fianna Fáil passed a motion in the Dáil in April last year calling for action on this issue which also has been ignored by the Government. Can either the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, or the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, indicate whether they intend to engage with this group in an effort to resolve the matter?

The Government's position on this has been outlined by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, on numerous occasions. While the Government is and continues to be very supportive of CE schemes, those employed on the CE schemes are not employed by the State even though State funds many of them and consequently there is a contractual difference between somebody working on a CE scheme and somebody employed across the public sector.

What about the Labour Court recommendation?

Page 43 of the programme for Government indicates that the Government promises to put in place measures to revitalise all of Ireland. In January 2017 the Government launched the Action Plan for Rural Development and Pat Spillane was appointed an ambassador to engage with local communities. Rural Ireland is getting a hammering in every way possible. I have been canvassing in west Cork and have found at every second house I have called to that people are angry at the way the Government has walked away from rural Ireland. My sources tell me that Pat Spillane, who the Government appointed and who has been a clear voice for the people of rural Ireland, has been removed from this position. Is this another nail in the coffin for rural Ireland? Has the Government removed the ambassador for rural development?

The Deputy knows west Cork well, as do I, but anybody who would suggest that places like west Cork in rural Ireland - or that rural Ireland - are being abandoned by the Government simply is not looking at the facts. We are investing in rural communities right across the country and we will continue to do that. We have for the first time a medium-term plan for this country to move away from the dominance of the east coast and Dublin and urban centres generally to invest in rural Ireland in terms of the increasing population and that plan is starting to work. People should not continue to reinforce the view that somehow rural Ireland is being abandoned. There are pressures in rural Ireland but the Government continues to prioritise both social infrastructure across rural Ireland and many of the other businesses and enterprises that are part of rural life.

My question was about the ambassador for rural Ireland to which I did not get an answer.

On pages 93 and 94 of the programme for Government a commitment is given to increase accessibility to third level education. In September of this year the rent for University College Cork accommodation will increase by 10%, bringing the average annual contribution towards accommodation in the 1,200 spaces available to €6,000, which works out at roughly €200 per week per college year. The issue of rent pressure zones was raised earlier. Does the Government intend to include university accommodation in the rent pressure zones, minimising the increases to a minimum of 4%? The obvious knock-on effect for students is that if they cannot afford university accommodation, they will move out into the private market and the spiral will continue. Can the Minister ensure that university accommodation is included in the rent pressure zones to prevent such exorbitant rent increases?

The Government made a commitment that we would include student accommodation within the remit of rent pressure zones, which I believe will impact positively in this area.

Promised legislation is due before the House on in vitro fertilisation and assisted human reproduction availability. We all know that at present, private patients who can afford it can avail of services. One in four couples in this country struggle to have children and the cost of treatment is excessive and prohibitive for many. I am well aware that income tax relief can be claimed for this treatment. However, in the interim a commitment was given by both the Minister and the Taoiseach that money would be set aside to help childless couples in particular to avail of the services. This was promised in the first quarter of 2019. When will that service be available to those anxious couples?

The assisted human reproductive Bill I understand is still undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny, so we are anxious to move that forward as soon as we can.

Money was promised in this respect.

I will have to come back to the Deputy on that.

Yesterday I attended the launch of the Women's Aid impact report of 2018, which focused on children let down by the system and we learned there were more than 20,000 referrals last year. I could raise many issues but I will focus on one, that of the family law courts. We have a state-of-the-art court building for criminals but what families who are going through the most difficult of circumstances must endure in Dolphin House is appalling. I attended the launch three years ago and at the invitation of the chair, I spent a morning there to see how bad the situation was. At that time we were told there was a place for a new law court on Hatch Street that was shovel ready but three years later nothing has happened and the situation has worsened. I want to ask the Tánaiste about the provision of a family law court to deal with people who find themselves in very difficult situations in Dublin.

This is a very real issue and I know the Minister for Justice and Equality is aware of it. My understanding is that he has plans to introduce a dedicated family court. I can get a more detailed response for the Deputy on that but that is certainly my understanding of his intention.

That has been the intention for ten years.

I have a question for the Minister of the State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English. As he well knows, at this stage the patience of homeowners in Donegal who are affected by mica defective concrete blocks is well run out. They have been waiting for a long time for the Government to come forward with a scheme. Will the Minister of State confirm it is the intention that a scheme will be brought before the Cabinet next Tuesday, bearing in mind that for two weeks after that the Dáil will be in recess? Will he also confirm that the scheme will ensure the full cost of the repair work will be carried out and that it will be broad enough to ensure those homeowners who want to start work can get on with it and be taken out of the misery and stress involved with having a house which continues to deteriorate, while waiting for a scheme to published and brought forward by the Government?

As the Deputy will be aware, it was confirmed in October that we would introduce a scheme. Our Department, in conjunction with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, has been working on it for the past few months. It was ready to bring to Cabinet a few times but different issues arose with Brexit and so on. We hope to bring it either to the next Cabinet meeting or the one after that to have it dealt with. We have discussed the proposed scheme with the residents affected, both in Donegal and in Mayo, on numerous occasions and all the issues about which they have concerns were brought to the table. The scheme should satisfy most people’s needs.

I wish to raise an issue I have raised previously concerning the Central Bank (Amendment) Bill, which might be used to introduce a code of conduct that might in some way assist homeowners who are in arrears with their mortgage and who are making regular and reasonable payments, and it might in some way enhance their protection.

Is the Deputy referring to the code of conduct on mortgages?

It is an issue that is constantly under review by the Central Bank but I am not aware of any plans for the Central Bank to change its approach any time soon.

There is an unacceptable delay for people applying for carer's allowance and many families are making decisions in regard to care of a loved one who is elderly or who needs care within the family. They are applying for carer's allowance and they may be reducing their work or perhaps taking leave from work. They are now waiting 12, 14 and even 16 weeks for a decision on carer's allowance, which is unacceptable. In a short period, I have seen many families affected by this issue. We have to keep hounding the Government until we get a commitment from the Minister to ensure there is a reduction in the waiting time and that adequate resources are given to carer's allowance to make sure these applications are processed in a orderly and fast way. It is a very serious issue and I am going to continue to raise it until I get some traction from Government.

I am happy to try to get the Deputy a detailed answer. Carers do extraordinarily good work and, without them, the State would be under pressure that we would not be able to bear, frankly. I will talk to the Minister and I will try to come back with a more accurate answer than I can give today.

I want to raise again the issue of insurance. This week, I have had contact from businesses in my constituency, as I am sure every Deputy has had, about the escalating cost of insurance. Last week, Deputy Pearse Doherty raised this issue with the Tánaiste, who promised he would speak to the Minister for Finance to convene an emergency meeting. It is an emergency situation. What we have here is, in effect, a market failure where the cost of insurance is putting people out of business. It needs to be dealt with as an emergency. I want to find out if the Tánaiste has spoken to the Minister for Finance. Is that meeting happening and is it happening as an emergency?

On the same issue, the Tánaiste was asked last week if he would convene a meeting with the Minister for Finance. He will be aware of this issue, as we are all aware, given we are lobbied by business groups all of the time, in particular by small SMEs that cannot get insurance in various sectors of the economy. Businesses are closing and we need urgent action. We want to know whether the Tánaiste spoke to the Minister for Finance last week, as he said he would.

I did speak briefly to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, in regard to this issue after Question Time last week. A lot is happening in this area and there is legislation before the Seanad as we speak. We know there is a significant disparity between the award levels, in particular for soft tissue injuries, in Ireland versus the UK. That is something that has been the focus of media this morning, understandably so. As a Government, we want to try to correct this but we have to do it within the confines of the Constitution.

Page 108 of the programme for Government states that the development of the agriculture and food sector is a fundamental priority and that the priority for agriculture is rewarding farmers for high quality produce. The beef sector is currently in deep crisis and, of course, the factors that have added to this are factory prices, the current Brexit scenario and currency fluctuations, in addition to the proposed reduction in the CAP budget. Beef farmers the length and breadth of this State are experiencing serious financial losses and the 5 cent per kilo drop for beef last week has impacted further on an already bad situation. In my constituency, there are farmers in Laois and Offaly struggling to pay household bills and in great hardship. What actions and interventions, apart from the newly announced loan scheme for businesses and farmers, will be put in place to assist our farming families, particularly in the beef sector, who are experiencing great financial hardship at this time?

I thank the Deputy for her question and particularly for her focus on the beef sector. As she is aware, we place significant emphasis, in the context of a functioning market, on having adequate competition, particularly in the area of live exports. The Deputy may have seen in one of the agri-publications today news of significant interest in cattle for live export to Libya, which is an ongoing issue in terms of competition. With regard to the resources the State can put into the industry, the Deputy will be aware that in the most recent budget we introduced a new initiative in the beef environmental efficiency programme and we increased payments in the areas of natural constraint scheme.

We cannot, nor should we, interfere in the market relationship in terms of being able to influence prices at factory level. However, what we are doing is trying to facilitate the organisation of farmers as a collective so that, instead of negotiating on a basis of one farmer-supplier dealing with the factory, it would be done through producer organisations so they can have greater clout. We have seen a manifestation of that in the most recent development between Kepak and Glanbia in terms of producing to the market and being able to get a premium price for that. A variation of that theme is the producer organisations, which is another area where we are directing support to the beef sector.

The programme for Government refers to roads. With regard to rural Ireland, I welcome the blitz in regard to the local improvement scheme and improving access to that type of private road. I would like to raise an issue in regard to tertiary roads and third class-type roads. I believe we should consider some sort of scheme and have a blitz in this area as well, which would not only aid the road network but would also aid rural Ireland. Councils are often pushing those roads into what was called the community involvement scheme, where members come up with a percentage of the cost. While that was required during recessionary times, now that we have the economic fruits coming back, we might look at a plan that would put funding into tertiary roads. Once they are done, many of these roads can last ten or 15 years.

I acknowledge Deputy Neville's strong advocacy for investment in roads at local, regional and national level in recent years. Thankfully, in recent years we have been in a position to increase the level of funding for local and regional roads, as well as for our national network. I accept it is not enough and that there is a lot of catching up to do. We know there have been years of under-investment and we are trying to catch up on that. I will discuss the matter with the Deputy in detail. If there are any specific cases, I will bring them to the attention of the roads section of the Department.

With regard to the community involvement scheme, in certain cases where there are a small number of houses on, for example, a major road, the amount required from residents can be prohibitive, which is something we need to look at, as I appreciate. I will be happy to engage further with the Deputy.

The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has committed to a review of taxi licences. We know that a number of weeks ago there was an exposé where the Garda, working with the NTA, exposed scores of illegal drivers operating on our island under fraudulent names and fraudulent documentation. As referred to earlier, we also know there has been a situation in the last 24 hours, which we will not go into today. There is a commitment by the Department to review how taxi licences are issued in order to give certainty that everybody who is operating is of good character and has met their obligations in regard to Garda clearance. Will the Tánaiste confirm to the House when the review of taxi licence operation will be commenced and completed?

I thank the Deputy. It is an important matter, not only in terms of transporting people but, from the tourism side, this is a front-line industry that is critical in regard to the impression of Ireland. We want to ensure people are reputable and that customers are getting a quality service. I understand the process is under way. I will try to get an update for the Deputy today from the Department with regard to dates and times and I will then come back directly to the Deputy.