Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

On Tuesday of this week, my colleague, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, raised the issue of Rebuilding Ireland home loans with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. Frankly, there are people on "Love Island" who know more about what is going on in the Irish housing market than the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, whose absolutely ridiculous responses on the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme misled the House. I ask the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to tell the House whether it is true that councils are no longer accepting applications for the home loan scheme. When will the Government be in a position to give clear and straight answers and tell the truth about this scheme? When will extra funding be made available to the thousands of people who are seeking mortgages to buy houses and get a start in life? The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, does not seem to give a damn about such people.

While I do not have access to the full information, I reject any suggestion that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is doing anything other than trying to be clear with the House. As I understand it, some of the money that has been assigned to this scheme has been drawn down, but there is money remaining to be drawn down. The councils have been notified that they can continue to accept and deal with home loans. The Minister will be coming forward to the House in due course. This is a successful scheme. I am sure he will be looking to extend it in due course. I will have to ask the Minister to respond to the Deputy on when that might occur.

Good luck with that.

According to the latest figures from Insurance Ireland, the insurance industry showed profits of €227 million, or close to a quarter of €1 billion, in 2017. This represented an increase of over 1,000% on the 2016 figure. At a time when customers are being fleeced and gouged by the insurance industry, today's news of huge profits for insurers must mark an end to the Government's kid-glove approach to the industry, which has spun and blustered its way through years of unjustifiable increases in motor and business insurance. It is obvious that there are issues with fraudulent claims and awards.

There is obviously an issue in terms of unjustifiable claims, of which the Minister will be well aware, given some of the antics of Members on the Government benches. These issues have not resulted in massive increases in premiums; they have always been there. The clear issue, as the most recent evidence proves, is that the insurance industry is fleecing its customers. What we need now is what happened in the past, namely a commitment from the insurance industry that any reforms will result in decreases in premiums. We need to stop the kid gloves approach. We need to take this industry on because motorists are being absolutely fleeced, businesses are being put to the pin of their collar and community groups are unable to continue with their activities. Alongside new legislation, including my Bill on the insurance industry - Government support for which I welcome - will the Government secure a commitment from the industry that any reforms that come down the line, whether related to fraud or awards, will automatically result in a decrease in premiums, as was done by the Irish Insurance Federation many years ago?

The House is very much united in desiring that the issue of excessive insurance premia be addressed. There has been a lot of collective effort in this House to tighten legislation through new data provision legislation in operation since the beginning of the year. An Garda Síochána has strengthened its approach to insurance fraud using its economic unit. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, is guiding legislation through the House, which will enable the Judiciary to have a more objective look at the types of awards that are being made. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is examining price signalling, a cause of concern that has been brought to its attention. There is no doubt that there is a desire in this House to see insurance premia come down to reflect the changes we are making. However, the legal position is that we cannot set premia. The Government cannot set premia; nor can the House. Insurance companies take the risks so while I fully sympathise with the suggestion that we need to see changes reflected in premia, the Government cannot take control over premium setting.

It could nationalise the industry.

That is a constraint but the approach of the Government has been to be as aggressive as possible in respect of the insurance industry.

Mr. Barry White of The Sunday Business Post reported that the head of IBEC has been lobbying the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, for more employer involvement in appointments to the Labour Court and the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. Apparently, the aim is to ensure that the changing nature of work is reflected in those bodies. Specifically, it would mean appointing advocates of the gig economy, banded hours contracts, atypical leave conditions and so on to those bodies. This is a significant concern for workers and trade unionists. Any attempt to change the composition of these important bodies is likely to worsen the conditions of workers. I am interested in the Government's view on this because the responsible Minister declined to provide any specific details on the lobbying. I ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to inform the House, in the context of legislation, what changes IBEC has been lobbying for to change the composition of these important workplace bodies.

I am not aware of any lobbying but I know that both employers and unions are intimately involved in the appointment of members to those bodies. That has always been the case and the fact that IBEC is interested in this area, no more than the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, is interested, is normal. I assure the Deputy, who has considerable experience in this area, that these bodies have a strong reputation for being fair and equitable to all who come before them. They would not have had the success that they have had over the years in dealing with difficult industrial relations issues if they had not approached their work in that way. I will relay the Deputy's concerns to the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation who is on a trade mission this week but IBEC's interest in the membership or operations of these bodies is not surprising.

In 2017, McKinsey consultants recommended to An Post the closure of one of its four mail centres, which are located in Dublin, Portlaoise, Athlone and Cork. An Post indicated that the mail centre to be closed would be named in 2019. In the past 24 hours, speculation has grown that An Post is targeting the Cork mail centre for closure. Deputy Bruton is the Minister in charge and presumably he knows what is going on. Can he either confirm or deny the substance of this speculation?

That is not a question on promised legislation.

If the Cork centre is facing closure, will he indicate whether the closure will include both the mail and parcel operations or the mail operation only? There are 200 full-time and 30 part-time workers in the Cork centre and they make a major contribution to the local economy. I ask the Minister to tell the House how many redundancies are being planned in the event of the centre being closed.

I do not know how that is linked to promised legislation or if the Minister is in a position to respond.

As the Deputy knows, An Post has faced a continuous decline in its mail business, which has put the company under significant pressure. As part of a negotiation of new industrial relations approaches, An Post agreed a pay increase with workers but one of the conditions attached was that one of the mail centres would be closed. It is for the board of An Post to decide which of the four centres will be closed and I do not know of any decision taken in that regard.

On a positive note, as a result of the agreement, An Post has been able to significantly expand its parcel business. It has put itself in a much stronger position and is growing rapidly in that new area. It is seeking to diversify away from what is, unfortunately, a business in structural decline. The volume of mail, because of the use of the electronic alternatives-----

The Minister is not going to tell us which centre is closing.

That is a matter for the board of An Post.

We are moving on. I call a representative of the Independents 4 Change.

During the recent elections, the Government did not give the Dubs a chance to vote on an elected mayor for the four Dublin local authorities. This is due to the opposition of a small group of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors in Fingal County Council to the election of a mayor for the 1.4 million people of Dublin, despite the clear demand. The Government is now talking about a citizen's assembly for Dublin but there will be an opportunity in the forthcoming by-elections or general election to finally give the population of Dublin a chance to elect a real mayor with executive powers along the lines of those in place in almost every other major European city, including the successful mayoralties in London and Manchester. Is it not time to move beyond the resistance in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to having a proper leader for the Dublin region? We badly need leadership in Dublin, as the Minister knows.

The Deputy will be aware that we recently held mayoralty referenda in respect of Waterford, Limerick and Cork, and Limerick voted in favour. However, that decision was taken after considerable work was done and proposals published in respect of how that would operate.

The Government did not include Dublin.

Allow the Minister to respond.

The Deputy, who has been in this House for a long time, knows that we have four separate local authorities in Dublin. The relationship between those four authorities would have to be carefully considered before suggesting that there be one overall mayor. The approach proposed by Government is that the citizens of this city would have a role in deciding how that should be shaped and that they would consider the evidence-----

After that evidence is assembled and provided to them, they can make a decision.

We are going to move on.

We have learned in this House the value of having a citizen's assembly to deal with issues that are complex and challenging for our citizens.

I simply do not accept the proposal being put forward by my constituency colleague.

I call a representative of the Rural Independent Group to ask an appropriate question.

My questions are always appropriate, I hope-----

I want to ask about mental health services in Tipperary, particularly in the south of the county. As a result of the closure of St. Michael's psychiatric unit a few years ago and the so-called A Vision for Change policy, we do not have even one long-stay bed in Tipperary for patients. There is no room in Kilkenny, Ennis or Limerick. There is an apartheid situation prevailing in terms of Tipperary patients having to go to Limerick if their addresses do not meet the criteria. This is totally unacceptable to the people of south Tipperary. We have significant issues, with many suicides and cases of self-harm.

There are substantial complex issues developing because we do not have any treatment centres. I see the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, is here. I know he is doing his best but it has gone beyond the time for talking. we need the crisis house built and developed and we need St. Michael's in Clonmel reopened.

There is no promised legislation on this matter but, as the Deputy knows, I have been engaging with him and his colleagues on this matter for some time. I gave a commitment to meet him and his colleagues again by the middle of July. That meeting was agreed at this morning's diary meeting and the Deputy will get an invitation to meet me, Ms Liz Kinsella and the other people involved in the coming weeks-----

-----to give him an update on developments in respect of the crisis house, the planning permission, and the design.

A commitment to the delivery of safe pre-hospital care was given in the programme for Government but this morning we see ambulance service data which clearly demonstrate that the Government is failing abysmally on this issue. On at least two occasions this year it took an ambulance more than 60 minutes to arrive at a life-threatening emergency. New figures also show that response target times are not being met in up to 50% of cases throughout the country. The Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, has said that ambulance services should arrive at a life-threatening emergency in less than 19 minutes, but this target is clearly not being met. I have raised this issue on numerous occasions over the past 18 months. I know of one specific case in County Monaghan where this happened. The ambulance took well over 60 minutes to arrive, with fatal consequences. We see clearly this morning that nothing has changed since I began raising this issue 18 months ago and that response times have not improved.

It is not correct to say that nothing has changed. To be fair to the National Ambulance Service, it has made very significant improvements to its response times. Unfortunately, there will always be errors and there will always be situations beyond the control of people on the ground and people at management level which cause those response times not to be met. I commend the National Ambulance Service, however, because it has brought about very significant developments, and the people on the front line in the National Ambulance Service who are working to ensure these response times are met. The people on the front line of the service throughout the country have supported reorganisation, which has been difficult and challenging because it is such an emotive issue, to ensure those response times are met. Unfortunately, there will always be exceptions to the norm.

There are commitments in the programme for Government with regard to improving services provided to citizens by State Departments. I am again raising the issue of carer's allowance. We carried out an audit of the applications we have processed in our office and not only is it taking 18 or 19 weeks for the first application to be processed but, because families are making applications in a hurry as they need to make decisions on care for their loved ones, these applications may have to be reviewed, which then takes 17 weeks. Applications are now taking a total of 35 weeks to be processed in some cases. This is totally and absolutely unacceptable. In light of this being carers' week and everything that has been said this week regarding home helps and so on, the Government has to take seriously the crisis in respect of processing carer's allowance applications for genuine people who seek to care for their loved ones in their homes. It behoves the Government to do something about it.

The Minister has been making efforts to simplify the forms and to improve the response times. She has reported some progress on both, although she has acknowledged that the waiting time continues to be very long. The Department will continue to bring that time down. Extra resources have been put in to manage that. From dealing with this issue I am conscious, as are most Deputies, that the application is complex. Not only is there a means test but there are also a health test and an assessment of the applicants, their working patterns, and the distance they live from the person for whom they care. We have created a very complex provision and it does create difficulties for both applicants and those processing applications. I hope the efforts to simplify the process are successful. I recognise the difficulty the Deputy raises.

I ask all Members on whom I will be calling to remember that others are coming behind them.

On page 59 of the programme for Government, the Government promised to update the national eye care plan. The HSE has confirmed, however, that at the end of 2018 in the south west approximately 5,000 people were waiting for ophthalmology treatment, some 3,126 of whom had been waiting more than 12 months. In a report on ophthalmology released today it is stated that it is taking up to 60 months for people to receive surgery after referral in Cork South-West. The waiting lists would be much longer were it not for Deputy Danny Healy-Rae and me arranging for a 35th bus full of patients to travel to Belfast for cataract operations this weekend. The HSE's own figures predict that there could still be at least 3,500 people waiting for eye treatment in the south-west area. This is totally unacceptable. Will the Government provide an extra theatre for cataract surgery to reduce waiting times?

We have the question.

Many clinics in the UK are simply a clean room which is fully equipped and staffed. That is how simply this crisis can be resolved.

I ask Deputy Michael Collins to have consideration.

There is no promised legislation on this issue but the Deputy will be aware that a new surgery was opened in Tipperary this year which has had a significant impact on improving waiting times. There are still, however, too many people waiting for cataract surgeries. A number of initiatives are being developed in the Cork-Kerry area, community healthcare organisation, CHO, area 4, in particular. I am engaging with the ophthalmology team, the clinicians, the practitioners, and the hospital group to see if capacity can be further improved in this area. It is an issue of which we are well aware and we intend to take further action to address these waiting lists.

I again raise the issue of the high cost of motor and public liability insurance premiums in this country. This has been the subject of numerous debates in this House. There have been committee reports and action plans. I acknowledge the work done by Government to date, which has had some effect in reducing costs with regard to payouts and so forth. There is a lot more to be done, particularly the establishment of the council to deal with the whole area of fraudulent claims. The Irish Hotels Federation has indicated that the annual cost to the sector is €70 million. That works out at €1,150 per bedroom. It is an enormous sum of money. The Minister answered questions on this issue earlier today and he specifically said the Government cannot set the premiums. I do not want the Minister to do so, but I want him to listen to this very carefully. As we take action, there is no indication that the benefit of that action is being passed on to those paying the premiums. I want the Government to carry out a thorough review of the insurance industry to ensure that competitive practice exists, that there is no collusion, and that no cartel-type practices are occurring. If the Government does not do so, and if the steps we are taking do not result in a reduction of premiums, then we are wasting our time. We are working diligently, as are the Minister and the Minister of State with responsibility for this sector, yet the premiums are not coming down-----

Okay, we have got the gist of the question.

-----although the insurance companies are profiting.

I will allow Deputy Brady a short question related to Deputy Curran's. I remind him that he has colleagues waiting.

It is clear the Government has failed in respect of the insurance sector. I was dealing with an individual who runs an outdoor activities business in Bray, County Wicklow. His premium was up for renewal. Last year it was €1,200 but the insurers have hiked that up to more than €10,000 for this year. That is a massive tenfold increase.

The Deputy should ask his question.

He only operates four months of the year. That insurance increase will put him out of business unless something is done. His is not an isolated case. Five businesses providing nearly identical services to his have already closed their doors.

I ask the Deputy to think of others.

Why is the Government sitting on its hands? Businesses are being forced to close down.

I let the Deputy in on the back of another question.

Our outdoor activities sector is on its knees. We need action. The Government needs to address this issue immediately.

I ask Deputies to please think of their colleagues. They are critical of me, but they should be critical of their colleagues who do not allow them their opportunity.

The Deputy's colleague raised the very same issue earlier on and I responded. There is no doubt that this House is very determined in seeking to respond to this problem. In response to the Deputy's question, as I said, the Consumer Protection and Competition Commission is examining price signalling. The Central Bank now has access to a range of new data coming forward from the insurance companies which will put us in a position to evaluate the policy issues more forensically. I assure the Deputy that the Minister responsible continues to be determined to push on with the reforms and to get the outcome all Members of the House want to see.

The patient safety Bill, which relates to open disclosure in our health institutions, is promised legislation. At what stage does it now stand? When is it expected to be brought before the House?

I thank Deputy Durkan. He is an example to others.

I am told the Bill is on the priority list but that it will be early in the next term before it is presented.

I call on Deputy Darragh O'Brien who I know will abide by the time.

As I always do. The Minister may remember that last Tuesday I questioned the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, on the Rebuilding Ireland affordable loan. Work that Fianna Fáil has done since March of this year has highlighted the fact that this scheme is underfunded and requires additional funding.

In response to me on Tuesday, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, basically said local authorities are still issuing loans and allowing loans to be drawn down, but they are not. My colleague, Deputy O'Rourke, has received written confirmation from Kildare County Council that it is not issuing loans. I know that is true for others and that application forms are being returned. It is a really serious situation for thousands of mainly young people and potential first-time buyers who are trying to access this product. Either the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is knowingly misleading the House or he just does not know.

I ask the Minister, Deputy Bruton, as a senior member of Cabinet, when the additional allocation will be given to the local authorities and how much that will be. I know some of the Minister's colleagues have proven not to be great at maths in recent months.

The Deputy is not great, himself.

There are €373 million in approved loans and only €200 million in the fund itself, meaning it is oversubscribed - in case the Government needs assistance with this - by €173 million. That is the bare minimum needed to get this scheme back up and running.

My understanding - I presume it was following Deputy O'Brien's questioning - is that the Minister is making contact with local authorities where loans are not being issued. I think the intention is to ensure that all local authorities are issuing loans in accordance with the provision.

As a former Minister for Education and Skills, the Minister will be aware of the importance of continuing education, particularly for people with disabilities. Ireland was the last of the EU countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Is the Minister aware of the absolute disconnect with the HSE having no facilities suitable to provide training and ongoing education for people over 18 years of age who have a severe disability? When will we see a proper planning process? There has been 18 years to plan for the future of these people and yet their families are told there is nowhere for them to go to continue their education. We are simply paying lip service to the convention.

As the Deputy acknowledges in his question, the issue of education beyond the age of 18 does not fall within the remit of the Department of Education and Skills. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has made significant efforts to extend the provision for adults with a disability, with new day places and new services. The Deputy is right that this is continuing pressure and he is chasing an area of rising demand. It has proved especially challenging. I know that each year extra provision is being made. It is to be hoped we will be able to continue to do that in forthcoming budgets.

I call Deputy Munster with an appropriate question on Questions on Promised Legislation.

My question is on Government plans to rescind the flat-rate expenses allowance for workers. Workers in Tara Mines in Meath and trade union officials have raised serious concerns about the Revenue Commissioners' intention to rescind their flat-rate expenses allowance. These workers have had this allowance since 1986. This decision will have a serious impact on the income of all workers in receipt of this allowance. Will the Government give a commitment to abandon the decision to rescind this allowance? The high cost of living is having a serious impact on and is weighing down heavily on workers and their families. Will the Government give a commitment-----

The Minister to respond. He has the question.

-----to abandon that decision? I am not talking about deferring it or kicking the can down the road-----

The Deputy has put her question.

-----but abandoning it, given the effect it will have on working families.

I understand these are issues decided by the Revenue Commissioners from time to time in accordance with the legislative provisions as to whether particular expenses incurred would justify one individual type of worker getting an allowance that others are not getting. I am not aware that this is an issue that comes before us in the Finance Act or any of the Bills that we or the Minister for Finance deals with. I will alert the Minister for Finance to the Deputy's concern on the issue.

Will the Minister confirm that we will see legislation for safe zones or buffer zones for women who are using medical facilities? Following the repeal of the eighth amendment and the enactment of legislation, we were given categorical assurance that there would be no delay in enacting legislation to allow for the safe zones, but we still do not have them. We really need them as a matter of urgency. Women need to know the Government will be on their side in facilitating them accessing what is their lawful entitlement.

I understand that legislation is due towards the end of the year, but I do not have a specific briefing.

During the week we heard the welcome news that the Government had approved €5 million in capital funding to extend and widen the runway at Waterford Airport. The total cost is €12 million, with the balance being met by three local authorities and private investment. However, support from the Government is subject to a number of conditions, including a demonstration that the project can be delivered for €12 million and will not go over budget. Yesterday, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health heard that the cost overrun at the national children's hospital was due to inflation cost. Why is cost inflation acceptable for the children's hospital, but for Waterford Airport, which applied for the funding 12 months ago, the terms and conditions are different? Every project has the possibility of a cost overrun. This seems to be a very strange situation.

This is a very sensible approach. The local authorities along with private investors wish to develop the runway in Waterford Airport to allow the return of flights that will bring business and tourism opportunities. The Government has indicated we will provide a subvention towards it. However, of course those investors need to ensure the project is delivered according to the outline they have given. In seeking a subvention of this nature, the Government must take that care to protect the taxpayers' resource, albeit recognising that this is a very exciting prospect.

I call Deputy Buckley to ask a very brief question as we have run out of time.

My question is about the freezing of referrals for home help hours. I appeal to the Government to think about this. In a constituency such as Cork East there was no backlog or waiting list. However, if it is shut down for five months, in five months we will be back here, with the help of God, and we will be arguing about a major crisis and backlog because the Government will not keep the revolving door open. The elderly and the disabled, who are the most vulnerable, will be hit and we will have another crisis. I appeal to the Minister of State to tell the HSE not to freeze any new referrals because we risk the prospect of facing a major crisis.

I appreciate the opportunity to confirm to the House, as I did last night, that there is no freeze in the allocation of home help hours. There is no cut to the allocation of home help hours. As a matter of absolute fact, fewer people are waiting for home help today than there were this day last year. Every week the Government provides €8 million to the HSE to provide home help.

I thank the Minister of State.

There is no change to that. There will be €8 million available next week and a further €8 million in the following and subsequent weeks. There is €400 million plus in the year.

I call Deputy Troy.

There is no freeze to home help. There are no cuts to home help.

We have run out of time so Deputy Troy should ask a brief question.

I will be very brief. A Programme for a Partnership Government has a section entitled Improving Waiting Times for Hospital Procedures. Today I received a letter from the hospital in Tullamore indicating that a person would be waiting 48 months for an outpatient appointment. Along with other Members of the House, I have been working to reduce the waiting lists by facilitating people to travel across the Border to have procedures carried out on cataracts, hips and knees. People who had a procedure done in January are still waiting to be reimbursed. A senior citizen in her 88th year, who had to borrow from the local credit union to have a cataract removed from her eye so that she could see, has been waiting six months to be reimbursed. What will the Government do to support people who are out there supporting themselves where it has failed?

I am not aware of a six-month waiting period for reimbursement. It is important to note that there are capacity issues on this side of the Border.

That is genuine.

There is a cross-border directive that allows people to travel. There are those from the North coming down to the South for procedures, as are people from England, Spain and other places. That is EU law. I have never come across the issue of the compensation representing a delay. I would be interested to hear what the Deputy-----

I will give the Minister of State the reply to the parliamentary question.

The Members may correspond with each other.

If there is somebody who has had to wait for six months to be reimbursed, I would be interested to get the detail from the Deputy.

Mine is also a cross-Border issue, as it happens. In the early days of this Dáil, we banned fracking, fortunately. Deputy Tony McLoughlin, who is behind the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, is one of those who were instrumental in that, as was former Deputy Michael Colreavy. Unfortunately, the jurisdiction extends only to 26 counties. A company that got a licence here previously for hydraulic fracking, Tamboran, has recently applied for an exploration licence in County Fermanagh, for a region extending from Beleek right down to Derrylin. Until 5 July, there will be an opportunity for a consultation process. It will be appropriate, in the context of our banning fracking in this State because of the associated environmental concerns, for the Minister's Department to make an application to the North stating we are opposed to the licensing because it will have detrimental environmental consequences for people living in the region.

I will have to check whether my Department has standing in respect of such an application. I will let the Deputy know.

The programme for Government commits the Government to reforming the direct provision system. Last week's report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance is a scathing indictment of the Government’s failure on this and other matters. It identifies major legislative and policy failings in regard to hate speech, hate crime, the response of An Garda Síochána, the use of ethnic profiling and the direct provision system. Last week, we heard of the disturbing case of Sylva Tucula, who lived at the Great Western House Direct Provision Centre in Galway. She died there last August and was buried in early May without any of her friends being informed. Up until two years ago, the Department of Justice and Equality provided information about deaths in direct provision. It no longer does. Between 2007 and 2017, 44 people died in direct provision. Fifteen of these deaths had no known cause. Will the Minister undertake to publish the Government response to the commission's report, setting out what actions it will take to address the many failings in legislation and policy?

Is the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in a position to answer?

The Deputy has raised a number of issues. I do not have time to go through all of them. I will correspond with the Deputy directly.