Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

We are carrying forward the questions of 11 Deputies from yesterday and 16 further have indicated for today. There is one minute maximum for a question and one minute maximum for a reply. If people take more time than that, they are eroding the time available for other Members. I call Deputy Micheál Martin.

I echo what Deputy Howlin stated earlier. Today, reports online, on every radio station and in every newspaper are about how easy it is for children and teenagers to access pornography. Many parents are wondering how best to protect our children and while no one can protect them 100%, it is certainly time the legislators caught up and addressed this issue. The Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs and the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment have discussed this matter and made recommendations. The Law Reform Commission made a recommendation to the effect that an office of a digital safety commissioner, specifically to deal with many of these issues, should be established. The Government has dragged its feet and the Taoiseach was very reluctant initially about the proposal for a digital safety commissioner. In the context of what he said earlier and the commitments that have been made, has the Government given consideration to establishing an office of a digital safety commissioner in advance of the legislation in order to get going on this issue? That is critical. What is going on is appalling. No one ever envisaged this type of total access to content for children of such a young age.

I am not sure if it would work to establish an office with no statutory powers, but I will-----

We have done it plenty of times.

Yes, but I am not sure it works to establish an office with no statutory powers. It may work in other-----

There was the Land Development Agency.

That was established by means of a statutory instrument.

There was no legislation.

There was. The Deputy is wrong.

We have all known for some time that access to vile and violent material, including that of a pornographic nature , on the Internet and through social media is deeply troubling and has real life consequences. When there is a high-profile case such as that which we have seen, it crystallises everybody's attention on the issue. The Taoiseach has made a commitment to establish an office of a digital safety commissioner. That is to be welcomed and it is essential that it happen. I remind him that Sinn Féin moved a Bill on this matter which passed Second Stage and which went to committee in early 2018. Therefore, there is a legislative basis to move on. I do not think the Government or anybody else should be precious about who initiates legislation to make the changes that we know need to happen. I ask the Taoiseach to consider the Bill to which I refer as an avenue to move forward and get something on the Statute Book expeditiously.

I am informed that legislation is awaiting detailed scrutiny by the relevant committee. It is actually in the hands of the sponsor, rather than the Government, at this stage. I am sure there is some good work there and I imagine the Minister, Deputy Bruton, will want to draw on that in developing the Government's legislation, in respect of which, as stated earlier, there is now a timeline.

Yesterday, in response to questions put to him, the Minister for Finance warned of a significant risk of health spending overruns. There are claims and reports that spending in this regard has escalated out of control. It is the third week of June and there has been a recruitment embargo in place for several weeks. The Exchequer returns in May showed that current health spending was €45 million behind profile last month. Are we honestly to believe that, in the past two weeks, such spending has suddenly gone out of control? If that is the case, can the Minister confirm it? Is it the view of the Government, in particular the Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Taoiseach, that the €16 million, which the HSE and the Department of Health agree is due to be paid following the job evaluation of 10,000 healthcare workers, would somehow break the budget?

That was an answer I supplied to the Oireachtas yesterday. To put the matter in context, the point that was made in my reply to the relevant parliamentary question was that, up to the end of May, health expenditure was in the region of 6% higher than a year ago, which is approximately what is budgeted for in budget 2019. In the following month, that moved up to just under 9% above the figure that obtained a year ago. As the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and I have acknowledged, that is a significant change in a single month.

It is under profile, as I understand it.

Deputy Howlin will be aware, as much as I am, of the challenges of ensuring that health expenditure is on line for the entire year. While the performance in the early part of the year was very positive, we have to focus on what drove that change in a single month. That is what the Minister for Health and I are now doing.

In the context of the public pay issue to which the Deputy also referred, the Taoiseach has already outlined the work we are seeking to do in order to respond to this issue. However, I make the point that this is in the context of multiple claims the Government is facing from many different unions. This issue has to be considered in that context.

Christopher Columbus would never have set sail for America without having galley slaves aboard. No army ever won a war without the PBI - the poor bloody infantry. The infantry of our health service are our porters, our cleaners and our canteen staff. When the bankers and developers crashed the economy, they were the men and women who took on extra responsibilities to keep our health service together.

Having waited for years for the moneys they have earned to be paid, they are now 19 hours away from national strike action against the Government on this issue. Will the Minister stop trying to use the Labour Court as a delaying tactic and finally concede the payment these workers were promised, having earned them in the first instance?

We have heard a number of claims about the Labour Court in this session. I am happy to deal with this matter because the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and I are working closely on it. The concept that the Labour Court is in any way being used as a delaying tactic on this issue gives no recognition to how important that institution is and the important role it played, most notably and recently in dealing with the great difficulty we had in regard to nurses' pay. As has been said, it is precisely because the Government recognises the needs of low income workers that they are prioritised in the current agreement. This Government has increased the minimum wage on several occasions and has ensured, through our current wage agreement, that low income workers who do difficult and vital work, particularly in our hospitals, are at the forefront in terms of wage restoration. This is what we have done. The Minister and I will do what we can today to deal with this issue.

On the climate action strategy published with great fanfare this week, the Freight Transport Association of Ireland is calling for the Government to recognise the vital role the freight and logistics sector plays in achieving the targets set out in the climate action plan. Commercial trucks and vans accounted for 21% of all transport emissions and 9.2% of Ireland's total CO2 emissions in 2018. While the sector is committed to reducing its environmental impact, it needs the right supports to be put in place by the Government. There is no mention in the climate action plan of a carrot and stick type approach to help and encourage this sector. The Government needs to recognise how vital it is to the economy and the vital role it can play in reducing emissions.

The Government very much recognises the vital role that the haulage and freight transport sector plays in the economy. It is one of the reasons we brought in the fuel rebate a few years ago. We also recognise that the sector will have to make a contribution towards climate action as well because the emissions produced by large vehicles damage our environment. These vehicles also damage our roads due to their weight. Much of this work will have to be driven through technological change, moving to smaller vehicles, which can be electric, and to gas powered vehicles. These are the kind of solutions that we will need to work on.

We now move to the 11 Deputies carried forward from yesterday.

Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire Oideachais agus Scileanna, ach níl se i láthair. Mar sin, cuirfidh mé an cheist ar an Taoiseach. I am dealing with the case of a child with special needs who is expected to make a two-hour round trip to attend a special needs unit in a nearby town when there is a special needs unit in the town where she lives and where her friends go to school. Why can children not attend the special needs unit nearest to where they live rather than have to travel long distances to another unit? I have sent the details of this case to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, and I can send them on to the Taoiseach. I do not name people in the House. It does not make sense that this child has to travel to a special needs unit in a nearby town when there is a unit in the town where she lives. This child's special needs are such that her parents often have to attend the school, which impacts on their working lives.

Níl an tAire anseo, mar a dúirt an Teachta. The Deputy has raised an individual case and I cannot comment on it. I do not have the details but it would seem to be common sense that the child should be able to attend the special needs unit nearest to her but there may be particular reasons I am not aware of. If the Deputy passes on the details of the case, I will make sure it is followed up.

In an earlier reply to Deputy Harty, the Taoiseach said there are many vacant posts in the HSE that are not really vacant because there are people already working in them. I know of one post that is definitely vacant, namely, that of specialist diabetic nurse in the north west diabetes services. People who have type 1 diabetes and have been prescribed an insulin pump are unable to avail of diabetic services training because there is no specialist diabetic nurse to provide them with that training. I have raised this matter on numerous occasions, including with the CEO of the HSE north west, the manager of the hospital and by way of parliamentary question. I sent a copy of the reply to that parliamentary question to the Minister for Health a couple of months ago. It states that an application for funding for the specialist nurse had been made. There are dozens of people in the north west who have been prescribed diabetic services and insulin pumps but they are unable to avail of them because there is no training available to them. This is a scandalous situation and it needs to be resolved urgently. As I said, I have raised this issue before on numerous occasions, including by way of parliamentary question, but I have not received an adequate response. I ask the Minister for Health to ensure this situation is resolved.

I thought Deputy Martin Kenny was going to rise today to welcome the decision to grant planning permission for 50 new beds at Sligo hospital. On the important issue he has raised of a diabetic specialist nurse, I acknowledge that the Deputy has raised the matter with me previously. I have asked my officials to come back to me on it and I will revert to the Deputy by the end of the day on the matter.

First, I apologise to the Ceann Comhairle for comments I made yesterday in this Chamber. It is appropriate when somebody makes a mistake that he or she apologise directly to you in the Chamber and I do so.

I raise the issue of the national planning framework and Project Ireland 2040. The Government will be aware that there is massive interest in Waterford in regard to the planned north quays development. There have been calls from some quarters in this Chamber for Project 2040 to be scrapped. While it should always be reviewed and we have to prioritise what is important, this development is massively important for Waterford. A tranche of funding was made available late last year and a second tranche of funding due in February was postponed until May. We are now well into June. When will an announcement issue on the next tranche of funding and will Waterford receive significant investment for this much needed development?

I thank Sinn Féin for its support for Project Ireland 2040 and the national planning framework. It is very welcome because it is an ambitious and important plan for our country.

On the project mentioned, funding was granted as part of the first phrase of funding under the urban regeneration fund, which was announced last year. That funding was category A funding, which meant it would be on the first call list for the second tranche of funding. We were to have announced that by now but we are still processing applications under the initial round of funding from some of the local authorities. This work will complete shortly. Following its completion, we will open up a second round of funding and for a longer period this time to allow some of the category B projects to apply for category A funding. It will open soon and will run for approximately three months to allow local authorities time to submit their applications. Given the status of the project in Waterford, it is well ahead of the rest in terms of being able to secure additional funding.

My question is directed to the Minister for Health. I raise the health support workers strike planned for tomorrow from a different angle. What contingencies have been put in place in the event that the strike goes ahead? We hear about the fantastic work these health workers do on a daily basis. They are the cogs that turn the wheels in the HSE day in and day out. Understandably, elective surgeries will be cancelled tomorrow. In regard to inpatients, in particular older and vulnerable patients who depend on these services for basic tasks such as feeding themselves, will families be contacted and asked to step into the breach in the short term? I ask the Taoiseach to outline what contingencies have been put in place in the event that the strike goes ahead tomorrow.

On the same issue, it is important that the Government honours its commitment. Ten thousand health support workers are planning to strike tomorrow across 38 hospitals, including Louth County Hospital in Dundalk and Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. The Government has made a commitment. This matter comes under the framework of the public sector. These people do not want to go on strike but the promises made to them in 2016, 2017 and 2018 have been broken. All of the references on the airwaves in regard to this issue are that this is a matter for the Labour Court. There are sick people in our hospitals who have been on waiting lists for services for months or years. This matter can be resolved with the stroke of a pen. I call on the Taoiseach and the Minister of Health to work together to resolve it today because the last thing we need is strike action that will affect vulnerable people.

I thank Deputies Mary Butler and Peter Fitzpatrick for their questions on this matter. My colleague, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has already dealt with the issue from an industrial relations point of view. I hope progress can be made on that today. From a contingency planning point of view, which I think is at the core of the Deputies' questions, the HSE and SIPTU at a local level are putting contingency plans in place.

This varies from hospital to hospital and site to site, depending on the local arrangements and staffing arrangements of those hospitals. The HSE has indicated that if the industrial action goes ahead, which I hope it does not since I believe it can be averted, it will result in some elective procedures being cancelled, mainly in the area of scopes. The priority today while contingency planning is going on at a local level is that everybody is working very hard to see if these matters can be averted.

The Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme falls under the programme for Government. A response I received from Louth County Council about a loan states:

The loan has been approved at credit committee but Louth County Council are awaiting funding and [the applicant] will be contacted when funding is released by central government. We are not in a position to release funds at the moment as we have not received our allocation.

There are at least 17 other applicants left in that same limbo in County Louth alone. One of those applicants has been served with a notice to quit from their landlord and is facing into homelessness next month. If the Government continues to withhold the funding for these home loan schemes, it will force some people into homelessness. If the interest rate changes, those home loan contracts will have to be redrawn, causing further delay. The Taoiseach and Minister should forget the announcements, spin and PR stunts.

The Deputy's time is up.

When will the Government release the funding for these home loan schemes so that people who want to purchase their home and have been turned down by the banks have the opportunity to purchase their home under the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The local authorities are not waiting for an announcement because we told them to continue to honour every loan that they approved.

They are waiting for funding.

Only €140 million-----

It is there in black and white.

Please let the Minister answer.

Let him answer the question on when he will release the funding.

(Interruptions).

Will the Ceann Comhairle let me answer the question please? Only €140 million has been drawn down from the initial tranche of €200 million of funding that was provided under the Rebuilding Ireland home loan. We have contacted every local authority and said that every approval that has been given will be honoured. We have told them not to wait for an announcement from central Government because there is still funding in the initial tranche, but a second tranche is needed because this scheme has proven to be so successful. Every local authority is meant to be issuing and approving all loans until the point of draw-down. I cannot tell the Deputy why Louth County Council has decided to make this decision about these applications but it is not because it is waiting for any information from us. We have told it that we will honour every loan that is approved.

Sorry, a Cheann Comhairle, I have a question because that is utter rubbish.

No, we cannot-----

The loans have been approved-----

Deputy Munster is taking her colleagues' time.

-----by the credit committee and the council. They are waiting for the funding-----

It is quite clear how the system works. Will Deputy Munster resume her seat please?

-----but the funding is not there. Is the Minister saying that officials in local authorities are telling lies?

The Deputy is out of order. Will she resume her seat?

The only thing stopping him from giving these people home loans is the fact that the funding has not been released.

The Deputy is out of order.

As I said, forget the spin and stunts. Just release the funding.

Will the Deputy please respect the request? I call Deputy Darragh O'Brien.

In defence of Deputy Munster, we have been asking these questions about the Rebuilding Ireland home loan regularly in the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government and in here. The local authorities are not releasing the funding because they do not believe that they will get the funding. That is for Deputy Munster to table questions about.

I will turn specifically to an announcement that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, made in September 2018 about the establishment of the Land Development Agency, LDA, which was the big idea to deliver 150,000 homes over the next 20 years. Yesterday at the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, I asked the head of the Housing Agency if any land had been transferred to the LDA. None has because we are still waiting for legislation. No primary legislation has been published. When will the legislation to underpin the Land Development Agency be published? Why do I have to read an article by Michael Cogley in the Sunday Independent stating that the Land Development Agency itself, with John Moran as the interim chairperson, has stated that it will not be covered under the Regulation of Lobbying Act? We need more transparency, not less.

The Deputy's time is up.

An agency which was set up in a skeletal form should not be saying what it will or will not be covered by. When the legislation is published, I expect that the Land Development Agency will be covered under the Regulation of Lobbying Act. I ask for a timeframe for the publication of the legislation.

I thank the Deputy for his question and his support of the Land Development Agency, which is an important measure in Project Ireland 2040 and Rebuilding Ireland.

I have not actually seen the legislation.

The Land Development Agency has been established on an interim basis under the Local Government Services (Corporate Bodies) Act. It has an interim board and a CEO.

I know that. When will the legislation be published?

It is hiring people. It also has €20 million of funding. Nothing is preventing it from progressing the initial eight sites that it has, which it is working on.

The Minister is so wrong.

It has another seven sites in the pipeline. We will establish it on a statutory basis and capitalise it with €1.25 billion worth of funding.

When is the legislation coming?

I am in discussions with the Attorney General about finalising the heads of the Bill which we hope to publish in the coming weeks. Nothing is preventing the Land Development Agency from doing the work that it is doing.

The Minister is so out of touch about that.

The Deputy is shaking his head. I will give an example of one site that it will work on-----

-----which is the hospital in Dundrum. That is being decanted by the Department of Health. Before it is fully decanted, we are already looking at the site, plans, designs and drawings, so that once it is vacated, we do not have to do that work.

What about the Regulation of Lobbying Act?

We can do that immediately and commence construction because we have already done that work in advance and that is the work it is doing at present.

Will it be covered under the Regulation of Lobbying Act or will the Minister keep it secret?

It would be remiss if this Dáil did not mention events in Hong Kong. Is the Government monitoring the 2007 extradition agreement between Hong Kong and Ireland following the events of last week, where it is estimated that 2 million young people and workers protested on the streets of Hong Kong against extradition to China? They faced brutal repression as a result. I have been in touch with socialist action activists there and we should send our solidarity to those people. Hong Kong is not a democracy. The demands of the campaign are for the complete cancellation of the extradition law, the resignation of Carrie Lam and public investigation into the police violence of 12 June. This is the most serious crisis for the Chinese dictatorship in many years because it fears that this will spread over the border and inspire workers, farmers, young people and national minorities in their own country. Will the Irish Government object to the Hong Kong Embassy in Dublin about the brutal repression and the extradition law, and send solidarity to the young people?

To the best of my knowledge, there is not any legislation promised on this and there is no specific programme for Government commitment but it is an important issue. I will make the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade aware that the Deputy has raised it and ask him to send the Deputy a briefing on the position we are taking.

There is a crisis impacting on small businesses across the State. It is the escalating and spiralling insurance premiums that we see increase annually. The adventure tourism sector is worth more than €1.2 billion to this State and has seen the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East be successful initiatives. Businesses are being forced to close down in that sector. Five businesses that I am aware of have closed down recently because of spiralling insurance premiums. Another business that I am working with, Bray Adventures, had a premium of €600 last year. The quote that it got this year was for €10,000, a massive increase. It eventually secured insurance for €900, which is still a significant increase, but it has had to scale back the types of activities that it can offer to individuals.

The Deputy's time is up.

It has never had any claims. Its staff are trained and have the highest qualifications. There are no issues there. When will the Taoiseach and Minister personally intervene to ensure that insurance premiums are forced down-----

Will the Deputy please conclude?

-----and that insurers are told that these hikes need to stop? This is what reform is. Reform means that these premiums need to be forced to come down.

I would like to reform the time system and ask Deputies to comply with the orders of the House.

The Government is well aware of the pressure that is being placed on small companies in particular due to the increase in insurance premiums. I hope the Deputy is well aware that no Government can force a company which is providing a financial service to change its premiums. We had a debate about this issue earlier today during questions to me and a number of Deputies called for more insurance companies to come into Ireland to provide more competition. The Government can look at changes that we can make. We do our part and we have to ensure that the insurance companies do their part too. That is what we are doing. The key issue about which there have been calls to address for so long is the level of awards being issued in our courts. The Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, has made great progress with the co-operation of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, on the Judicial Council Bill to create an environment in which guidelines can be issued about awards.

With the co-operation of the Oireachtas, we hope that legislation can be passed before the summer recess.

Cardiology services in Sligo University Hospital are being provided by two consulting cardiologists, one occupying a permanent position and the other in a part-time role. I thank the full-time cardiologist, who wishes to retire, for his services and the many hundreds of lives he has saved in his time at the hospital. Sligo University Hospital has made an application to the Department for permission to advertise the position. Could the Minister for Health expedite the process in that regard? We know the importance of the work and I am sure the Taoiseach, as a medical doctor, is aware of the benefit of cardiology services. It is important that this matter be dealt with as quickly as possible.

I thank Deputy Scanlon for raising the issue. He and Deputy McLoughlin have been raising it with me for some time. I am eager that the vacancy be advertised as quickly as possible in order that we can ensure the post is filled. I will speak to the HSE director general about it when I meet him later this week. I am sure the people of the north west will be interested to hear that a national review of cardiology services, which is ongoing and which is due to conclude this year, will guide us in terms of future investment in such services.

There is a commitment on page 19 of the programme for Government in respect of ending the homeless crisis. On page 87 of Rebuilding Ireland, there is a promise to ensure access to free public transport for homeless families. Unfortunately, as the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, knows, families are not just homeless during the school term. It is difficult to understand the reason the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, are only willing to fund Leap cards for homeless families during the school term. Recent reports have confirmed the negative impact on children's mental and physical development of extended stays in emergency accommodation. Denying those families free travel for almost a quarter of the year is not only financially punitive, it also has a direct impact on the development of the children involved. I seek a commitment from the Minister to meet his counterpart and resolve this issue as a matter of urgency.

I wish to speak on the same subject. The Ombudsman for Children's report on homeless hubs illustrates how children and teenagers living in them feel isolated. They can be far away from their friends, they are not allowed to have friends come over and they need to be supervised at all times. Some of them stated that they felt like they were living in a prison. All we ask is that Leap cards would be made available outside the school term so that young people can meet their friends and participate in activities and clubs. That would make a big difference to the teenagers and young people.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. It is very important that we give every support possible to families that are experiencing the trauma of being in emergency accommodation. The Leap card is one way of ensuring that children get to school every day and it is an important part of the wraparound services we have for families in hotels and in family hubs. I am informed by the Minister for Finance that the National Treasury Management Agency made an announcement yesterday that children would be able to travel for free on their Leap cards during the summer months. The inter-agency group on homelessness, which includes representatives from the various Departments responsible – including my Department and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs – discussed what other supports need to be put in place. We now have some breathing space to take a proper look at the issue and to see if we can expand the use of Leap cards outside of the school term.

That concludes questions on promised legislation. Eight Deputies were not reached and will be given priority tomorrow.