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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 Jun 2019

Vol. 984 No. 1

Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I return to the Tánaiste's conversation with Deputy Pearse Doherty about online safety. On 1 May 2017, Deputy Naughten, the then Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, was quoted as stating:

The legislation is complex and slow. It's not going to happen overnight but we have a number of options. We're in talks with the industry to see if we can fast-track elements of it.

We are now in June 2019 but we are no further. We want to work collectively with the Government on the issue and to get it right. I ask and challenge the Tánaiste to lay down a timeline for when it will be done. The House should not break for the recess without some sort of timeline laid down to show that the work that needs to be done will be done on this occasion, and that we will not just move on and forget it. That quotation from 2017 is very similar to what the Tánaiste delivered to Deputy Pearse Doherty in June 2019.

Deputy Naughten made a significant contribution in the area when he was in government. In 2017, he put in place an action plan for online safety which focused on education and enforcement, and 25 short-to-medium-term actions-----

Why did they not keep him?

-----which are all being put in place. The truth is we now know it is not enough. That is why the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, is very focused on this area and has already set up a consultation process to hear from NGOs and experts, and he wants to hear from other political parties.

Lay down a timeline.

We will progress this legislation as a priority as soon as we can but we need to get it right. I suggest the Minister, Deputy Bruton, is probably the appropriate Minister to give the Deputy the timeline in regard to how this is possible. I do not think it is possible to put comprehensive legislation on online safety in place before the summer recess. However, it is possible to do that later on in the year.

We will come back to the issue and the proposals, and write to party leaders. The Dáil needs to take control of this issue and inject urgency into it.

I want to raise the issue of the publication of the Mental Health Commission's annual report. Once again, it highlights deficiencies that are seriously affecting the issue of children being admitted to adult mental health units in the State. We see from the report that 84 children were admitted to adult mental health units last year. The head of the commission, Mr. John Farrelly, said the placement of any child in any adult unit indicates a service provision gap. He goes on to say that no child should access mental health services through a unit that was not equipped to deal with their needs. I am sure the Tánaiste will share the view that this is totally unacceptable. It has gone on for far too long and it is time to end this practice once and for all. It is time to deliver on A Vision for Change. How many years is it that we have this promise to deliver the number of beds that are required? It is time to make sure all beds are commissioned. Only 44 of the 74 beds were operational last year. Will the Tánaiste outline to those children and others what is the plan to make sure no child has to access mental health services through adult services?

I thank the Deputy. I have just come from the launch of the report. We are aware of the issue. To answer on the issue of young people being admitted to adult services, sometimes the issues can be multifactorial and the reason for it can be down to geography or the particular age of the person, for example, somebody could be 18 and a half. While I am not defending the practice, I am simply saying that, in some circumstances, it is beyond our control. In other circumstances, it is not acceptable and we do not want to see it happening.

There is a protocol in place when a young person is admitted to an adult unit. The head of the HSE mental health service has to be notified, as does the Mental Health Commission, and there are very strict guidelines and protocols to protect the young person. Ultimately, it is a capacity issue in some cases. We will take possession of the Central Mental Hospital in Portrane towards the end of this year, probably in November, and it will hopefully be commissioned early next year. That will obviously help with capacity across the country because it will take some of the more acute cases. Therefore, we have improvements in capacity coming down the stream. We obviously have staffing challenges, of which the Deputy is aware, in some of the places where we have capacity.

We are aware of the challenge. The Department and the HSE are continuing to work towards ensuring that practice is kept to an absolute minimum.

There is widespread concern about the low income thresholds now required to be accepted on council housing waiting lists. These thresholds, as the Tánaiste knows, have not moved in several years and are, therefore, lowering in real terms because they are not linked to inflation. The threshold for a single person can be as low as €25,000, rising to a maximum of €35,000. The Government has repeatedly announced a review of the income eligibility criteria. Does the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government accept there are many working people who cannot dream of getting a loan and buying a house but do not qualify under these thresholds? That is particularly true in the band 3 counties. When will we see the review coming to its conclusion and the revised income thresholds announced?

I thank the Deputy. It is fair to recognise that when Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, from Deputy Howlin's party, was in the role, she made sure that an additional allocation was made to the thresholds, recognising that, over time, there would be inflation. People would have been excluded from being able to apply for social housing much sooner had the then Minister of State not done that, so it was quite a prescient move to make.

A review is under way in regard to income thresholds but it is being conducted by the Housing Agency, so it is independent of the Department. When that work is presented to me, I will be able to bring it forward in regard to what is happening with the thresholds.

The work is done. Has the Minister not asked about it?

A series of reforms are being progressed for social housing at the moment, and one of those reforms is around the threshold limits. I am still waiting for that particular piece of information to come from the Housing Agency. When I have it, I can bring that suite of reforms to Cabinet and then to the House. I am trying to do that as quickly as possible but I am depending on an agency that is separate from the Department.

The Minister should look on his desk.

It is not on my desk.

Why is the Government sabotaging and subverting the democratic and legislative process through the use of money messages on Bills that do not involve any levying of taxes, which we are not allowed to do, or spending of money? It is abusing the money message on a whole series of Bills - in fact, it is 55 Bills at the moment. In our case, a Bill passed twice through the Dáil to give access to medicinal cannabis but was blocked by a money message. A Bill to stop evictions was blocked by a money message. A Bill to give objective sex education in schools was blocked by a money message. Most recently, we had the climate emergency measures Bill, on which the Government has, in my opinion, misled the Ceann Comhairle, claiming there are possible legal actions and fees having to be returned, which do not actually exist, in order to block a legislative measure to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Is that not abuse and sabotage of the democratic and legislative process?

The Government does not determine whether a money message is required. That is a determination of the Ceann Comhairle and I am very confident he is well able to make his own decisions.

They lobbied for it.

What difference does that make? That is a ridiculous statement.

The programme for Government gives a commitment to strengthening Garda numbers to tackle crime. We have a huge issue at present in the Clonmel Garda district, which includes Carrick-on-Suir. The Tánaiste is probably aware there is a huge issue with mental health issues and associated drug crime. It is an epidemic and is leading to many suicides. The community there is calling for action. Sergeant Mick Hubbard, Garda Pat Kelly and others in Carrick-on-Suir are doing their utmost but they do not have the numbers, nor does Clonmel have the numbers to help them out. We need the drugs squad in Tipperary to be beefed up. In addition, up to 1,000 gardaí are doing civilian work in the Garda Síochána. The Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, has said the Garda will replace those with civilians and let trained gardaí out on the streets. We need the numbers. Deputy Calleary raised the issue of Drogheda and Longford and we will be as bad as that, if we are not as bad now. We need immediate action, not firefighting afterwards, and we need to support the gardaí who are there.

I answered quite a detailed question on Garda resources earlier, when Deputy Calleary raised the issues in Longford and Drogheda. The Government is providing funds to raise the number of gardaí to 15,000, which will give the Commissioner a lot more human resources to allocate to the kinds of challenges the Deputy raises. That, combined with the reforms that are under way in regard to policing, particularly community policing and civilianisation of many Garda stations, will ensure we can get trained gardaí out and into the community to increase the Garda presence. All of that is under way and I hope we will be able to make an impact in places like Carrick-on-Suir and elsewhere.

We move to the Deputies carried forward from yesterday. I call Deputy O'Loughlin.

I want to raise the issue of credit unions. As the Tánaiste knows, they are volunteer-led, community-based and not-for-profit. Indeed, they are part of the social fabric of our towns. I know this is the case in Newbridge in particular, where for few years we did not have a credit union and moneylenders were very active. Credit unions should not be equated with the banks. Last Friday, with a single stroke of his pen, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, did exactly that. The credit unions pay a number of levies but, as of last Friday, the industry-funded levy has doubled for this year and will quadruple for credit unions by 2022. This is completely wrong. It is punishing our credit unions and their members. I ask the Government to reverse this decision and keep the levy as it is at this time.

I call Deputy Eugene Murphy on the same matter.

I have had strong lobbying on this issue from people in the credit union business. This levy will go up to 50% for the credit unions and they tell me it is going to cost them millions. It will certainly affect credit going to people who need it.

Credit unions are community-based, helpful financial organisations. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin is right that, last week, with the stroke of a pen, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, changed that. The Government will argue that the banks are paying 100% but my argument is that credit unions are not the same as commercial banks. They play a very important role in our society. I am asking that the Minister for Finance reverse this change because there will be serious consequences down the line, particularly for poor people.

I appreciate the role of credit unions. They are not the same as banks. They have played a unique role for many families across the country in terms of affordable credit and they will continue to do so. Credit unions have a really important role to play now and in the future. In regard to the changes that have been made, my understanding is that they were made following much consultation with credit unions-----

I am afraid they were.

The credit unions were shocked by the decision.

I will ask the Minister to communicate with both Deputies on the rationale for the changes that have been outlined following a consultation with the credit union movement, which was more than aware of the proposed changes and was involved in seeking them in most cases.

That is not true.

The monuments and archaeological heritage Bill proposes to replace all such legislation from 1930 to 2014. I ask the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, to update the House on the progress of this Bill and to indicate when it is expected to come before the House and likely to be enacted.

I thank the Deputy for his question. The important legislation he mentioned will consolidate and modernise the protection of monuments in the State. We hope that the Bill will come forward in the autumn but I can update the Deputy later with some further information.

Under the programme for Government and climate action change, what steps is the Government taking to avoid the EU fine of €4 million and €10,000 daily levied on the ESB's Derrybrien wind farm in south Galway?

I will have to get the details from the Deputy and check out what the issue is around that particular site.

The programme for Government commits to improving health services in the primary and community setting, with the aim of averting unnecessary admissions to acute hospitals. In that context, I raise the issue of oral nutritional supplements. I understand that the medicines management programme has developed an online reimbursement application system for oral nutritional supplements for patients living in the community. This will result in patients finding it more difficult to access the right medical nutrition interventions for their conditions. I have heard concerning reports that the professional group representing dieticians has formally withdrawn its support for this scheme in the absence of sufficient consultation. I understand that the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute and an expert multidisciplinary group have written to the Department of Health and the HSE highlighting the increased clinical risk which the application system will have for patients.

Thank you, Deputy Brassil.

Concerns have been raised that the plan will cost the health service money in the long run and will result in additional admissions to acute settings.

Thank you. I call the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly.

I ask the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health to confirm if it is the Government's intention to continue with the roll-out of this plan on 1 July despite the grave concerns raised by experts working in the area?

I undertake to get an update for the Deputy before the day is out.

I wonder if the Tánaiste remembers when Deputy Enda Kenny was Taoiseach?

Deputy Adams was the leader of Sinn Féin.

Which Minister wants to answer that question?

Next question.

I am afraid you can only ask one question, Deputy Adams.

The Tánaiste's answer is the straightest I have got today. One could not deny the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny.

Back in the glory days.

I ask that question because it is related to the question I am going to put to the Tánaiste now, which is about the Government decision to abolish the motorised transport grant and the mobility allowance. Following a rí rá, provision was made for those citizens with disabilities to have a temporary arrangement but no other citizens have had access to any transport scheme since then, including many citizens with disabilities from my constituency of Louth. The health (transport support) Bill has been on the Government's legislative programme for years. A memorandum was brought to Government on proposals for a new transport payment scheme but it was withdrawn. How much longer do we have to wait for this scheme? Will I have to come into this House at some point in the future and ask if Members remember when Deputy Leo Varadkar was Taoiseach? How much longer will citizens have to wait for this scheme?

Will Deputy Adams be around that long?

Surely, Deputy Adams will not be around then.

He may not be a Member of this House but he will be around.

From memory, I recall a conversation at Cabinet on this issue.

It is disgraceful.

This is a serious issue. It is an issue that I know the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the Minister, Deputy Harris, are examining seriously. I will have to come back to the Deputy with a more accurate timeline. I do not want to give him a timeline off the cuff.

I raise the issue of respite care, in respect of which there is a commitment in the programme for Government. It was announced with huge fanfare that an additional €10 million was being provided for respite care. There is a chronic crisis in regard to access to respite, particularly for families of persons with intellectual disabilities. Service providers are telling families that there is no respite available for 2019, and have been doing so for the past couple of months, but they have been offered a shared care service. People at a high level in the services are saying that funding for respite care is not being made available by the HSE to the regions and that the Government is at sea in terms of the crisis in this area. Attempts to access home help hours for some families have been shut down. Is the Tánaiste aware of the massive crisis around respite care services for the remainder of 2019 and that there is an even greater crisis coming down the track in this regard?

I am responding on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. The Government is aware of the pressures on the disability sector in particular. A budget of €1.9 billion has been spent so far this year on the provision of services for people with disabilities. We all acknowledge that is not enough but there is not an endless pot of money available to us. As acknowledged by Deputy Michael Moynihan, there has been an additional €10 million investment this year in new respite facilities, not all of which have not come on stream. Most of them are at an advanced stage. This area continues to be a challenge and we will continue to try to meet that challenge as best we can. There is no silver bullet to the issue of demand.

I refer to page 21 of the programme for Government and the commitment to improving housing supply. The Tánaiste, when Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, made a promise that there would be nobody in emergency accommodation by July 2017. Two years on, the numbers have increased at a demoralising rate. One of the causes is the Government's obsession with bureaucracy. Housing estates that are planning approved, shovel ready and agreed with housing bodies to be supplied for social housing are at a standstill because Irish Water is holding up the issuance of a letter of offer by five, six and seven months, even in cases where there is agreement in place with Irish Water. This is the case in Wexford, and no doubt elsewhere. When will the Government address this issue of delays?

I thank the Deputy for his question. It is important to note that last year was a record year in terms of the delivery of social housing homes. We will increase the social housing stock by 10,000 units this year, which is important. We want to make sure there are no unnecessary delays in delivering those homes. There is a dedicated unit working with utilities and my Department to ensure that any snags that might arise in regard to connections of water, electricity or in regard to roads will not delay a site. If there is a particular site about which the Deputy has concerns, he might provide me with the details outside the Chamber and I will progress the matter.

Maintaining a strong and viable suckler beef herd is a commitment in the programme for Government. The climate action plan, as we know, was published this week. It sets a target for reducing agricultural emissions by 10% between 2017 and 2030. Based on calf registrations, we had suckler cow emission reductions of 5% in 2018 alone and if the 2019 trend continues, we will have achieved the 13 year target for the suckler sector in 24 months.

In that context, I seek assurances that the Government will not accept a European Commission proposal for even greater cuts to the suckler herd. Such cuts would cause significant job losses across the midlands and west, forcing up to 20,000 people in the region to commute long distances in order to access employment, a development that would add significantly to our overall level of transport emissions.

A vibrant suckler herd is an important part of Irish agriculture. That does not mean that we do not need to constantly strive for more efficiency and to ensure that the emissions footprint of our herd continues to decrease. That goes for the dairy herd too. There is substantial efficiency built into the latter and, from the perspective of emissions, we produce milk in a more efficient way than any other country on the planet. We rate reasonably well in the context of beef but we can do more, while at the same time keeping farmers in business. In the context of the support fund Commissioner Hogan proposes to bring forward and the funding that the Government will bring forward with that, there is a reference in the regulation to a voluntary temporary adjustment to production. The Deputy will be aware that in 2016, when the dairy sector experienced extreme volatility, Ireland received exceptional aid which also involved a voluntary supply reduction sector.

I thank the Tánaiste.

Just to make the point-----

I am sorry, but the Tánaiste is exceeding his time.

This is a temporary and voluntary measure. It will be a matter for farmers to judge for themselves when they see the full package relating to that regulation, which is still being finalised.

My question is for the Tánaiste and the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring. A number of years ago, the Government launched the repair and lease scheme to allow properties on high streets to be leased out to social housing tenants. There does not seem to be a proper level of take-up in respect of the scheme. I see it when driving through villages at home in east Cork. There are still many properties in respect of which I thought landlords and owners would have applied to the scheme. Will the Minister comment on this? Could we relax the rules of scheme a bit or introduce an alternative scheme? The village and town renewal scheme was in place approximately 15 years ago. We need to do something in order to have these properties developed. We have ended up with villages and towns affected by the doughnut effect whereby main streets and side streets are empty and there is ribbon development along the sides roads. How can we increase uptake in respect of the scheme?

The repair and lease scheme comes under the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. It was introduced as a way to get private housing stock back into use by making it available for social housing. The initial take-up was not very successful so we reviewed and reformed the scheme to make it easier for landlords to access it. There has been an improvement in the level of take-up since then but many people who approached local authorities about the repair and lease scheme have gone into the buy and renew scheme instead. The local authorities have taken the houses from them, renewed the houses themselves and brought them back in as part of the social housing stock. We have also worked on above-the-shop living. People no longer require planning permission if they want to convert areas above shops into homes. That is specifically targeted at getting life and vibrancy back into towns and villages because that is a very important part of what we are trying to do. Between the urban fund and the rural regeneration fund, there is €3 billion for towns and villages to do precisely the kind of thing the Deputy wants to do, namely, ensure that we do not have a doughnut effect in some of our towns and villages.

There is a reference on page 38 of the programme for Government to investment in social, regional and economic structure. This relates to something that has arisen with regard to expansion in a number of towns and villages in County Limerick. Many sewerage and wastewater treatment schemes are at capacity. If we are to foster development within the communities in question, we should consider expanding some of these wastewater treatment facilities. Any programme in that regard should be State-led. This would facilitate housing developments of ten, 12, 15 or even 20 houses that will produce a new population for these communities. I refer specifically to Oola in County Limerick. It is perhaps six miles from Tipperary town, on the fringes of the county. The people there have produced a programme of work and shown a timeline for the next years of how population growth can happen. The lack of wastewater treatment capacity will affect this and I ask the Minister to consider this.

Significant funding has been made available to Irish Water for investment in wastewater treatment plants because it is crucially important, as we deliver more housing, that the connected infrastructure is also in place. Separate work is happening in respect of smaller wastewater schemes. Work has been done on rural water groups by the Water Forum and a couple of other groups in order to see if we can have additional capital funding for smaller schemes such as those to which the Deputy refers.

My question is for the Minister for Rural and Community Development. I have been approached about funding for shows. In recent years, some money has been available for them and for Tidy Towns. Will the Minister provide an update about funding for shows and Tidy Towns in future? It is important that these people get funding.

I thank the Deputy for asking the question. This matter was raised by Deputy Eugene Murphy a number of weeks ago. He indicated that we had cut the allocation for shows. I want to put on the record of the House that there is no budget for shows. I used discretionary money for two years to give the shows some funding. The Irish Shows Association thanked me for that funding. Deputy Eugene Murphy, the Irish Farmers' Journal and the Roscommon Herald got it wrong. I hope they will correct the record.

They are all wrong except for the Minister.

I gave the shows €812,000 one year and €600,000 the next. I gave Tidy Towns-----

Sligo and Westport.

-----€1.4 million over the past last two years. Deputy Ó Cuív referred to the rural regeneration scheme last week and he got it wrong because he said that no funding had been drawn down. Last year, I stated that I would not spend the budget but we spent 99.9% of it. They got it wrong again. Will Deputies Ó Cuív and Eugene Murphy listen to Deputy Calleary because they do not seem to know what is going on? If they want to ask me directly, I will give them any of the answers they want. I am delighted to give the shows and Tidy Towns funding.


With regard to the rural regeneration scheme, if the Deputy checked with Údarás na Gaeltachta-----

-----he would have discovered that it has drawn down funding for Gteic in Connemara and will draw down further funding in the coming weeks. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to correct the record.


It seems that we regularly have shows here that cost nothing.

We should apply for a grant.


I have repeatedly raised the issue of the misuse of quad bikes and motorbikes on our streets and in parks. A committee was set up by the Minister to look at the issue. It seems that this committee is of the opinion that the Garda has enough powers to deal with this matter. That flies in the face of what I have heard at every joint policing committee and safety forum meeting I have attended. At such meetings, gardaí have clearly identified problems with the road traffic legislation, including in the context of powers of seizure. Communities are still being terrorised, with fatalities and injuries continuing to occur. The Government has repeatedly kicked this can down the road in the hope that it will go away. When will the Government bring forward real proposals to deal with this scourge before more people are injured or fatalities continue?

The supply of mechanically-propelled vehicles to persons under 16 and 17, depending on the vehicle, constitutes an offence under section 30 of the Road Traffic Act 2004 and a cross-agency group was established in April 2018 to consider the law governing these issues. The gardaí have been extensively consulted as has the Office of the Attorney General. Their advice is that current legislative provisions are sufficient. The Government is open to creating further legislation at any time, should the Garda Síochána recommend that this is necessary. The cross-agency group has recommended that the most effective response to scrambler misuse involves a combination of targeted enforcement measures, awareness-raising and youth engagement programmes. These measures will be progressed in conjunction with the relevant Department and agencies.

This flies in the face of everything that I am seeking.

Deputy Ellis has asked his question.

Gardaí are stating that this is not the case. I do not understand where we are getting this information. This is raised at every committee meeting.

Maybe the Deputy could have a private conversation with the Minister of State.

It needs to be dealt with and we need to go back and ask them from where they are getting this information.

Please, Deputy.

It is not accurate. There is something wrong.

I call Deputy Fitzpatrick.

Only last week, a woman in Dundalk was sexually assaulted. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, has given €1 million in grant aid for CCTV in all villages and towns. The Government needs to look at local authorities' views.

Most local authorities agree with the use of CCTV. Were it not for CCTV, there would not have been any convictions for the murder of Ana Kriégel. Will the Tánaiste outline what we can do to get more CCTV in villages and towns in order to stop predators and allow people going for walks, etc., to feel safe?

The Department is funding CCTV in many areas and is open to applications in this regard.

That concludes questions on promised legislation. All Members were reached today.