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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Jun 2019

Vol. 984 No. 2

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The business this week shall be as set out in the first revised report of the Business Committee, dated 21 June 2019. In relation to today's business, it is proposed that Nos. 12 and 13, motion re proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income and on Capital) (Swiss Confederation) Order 2019, and Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income and Capital Gains) (Kingdom of the Netherlands) Order 2019, referral to committee, and motion re proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of the terms of the enhanced partnership and co-operation agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Cuba, back from committee, shall be taken without debate; and that No. 35, summer economic statements, shall conclude within two hours. Statements shall be confined to a single round for a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties and groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, and shall not exceed ten minutes each. Following the statements, each party or group in opposition will have five minutes in total for questions and answers, with a five-minute response from a Minister or Minister of State, and all Members may share time. No. 226, motion re home help, shall be taken on the conclusion of the summer economic statements or at 8 p.m., whichever is the later; and the Dáil shall sit later than 10 p.m. and shall adjourn on the conclusion of the motion re home help.

In relation to Wednesday's business, it is proposed that expressions of sympathy shall be taken immediately following Leaders’ Questions for a period not exceeding 15 minutes and shall be followed by Questions on Promised Legislation. Contributions shall not exceed two minutes each. No. 36, statements post European Council meeting of 20 and 21 June, pursuant to Standing Order 111, shall be taken on the conclusion of Taoiseach’s Questions and shall be followed by the suspension of sitting under Standing Order 25(1) for one hour. Statements shall conclude within 1 hour 45 minutes, if not previously concluded. The statements of a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties or groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, shall not exceed ten minutes each. A Minister or Minister of State shall take questions for a period not exceeding 20 minutes, with a five-minute response from a Minister or Minister of State, and all Members may share time. Any division demanded this week on any motion relating to No. 7, CervicalCheck Tribunal Bill 2019, shall be taken immediately; and the Dáil shall sit later than 10.15 p.m. and shall adjourn not later than 11 p.m. or on the conclusion of the Second Stage of the CervicalCheck Tribunal Bill 2019, whichever is the earlier.

In relation to Thursday’s business, it is proposed that Nos. 13a and 13b, motion re animal health levies (pigs), referral to committee, and motion re draft regulations under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, referral to committee, shall be taken without debate. No. 14, motion re proposed approval by Dáil Éireann of Ireland’s accession to the memorandum of understanding concerning the principles for the establishment and operation of a battle group to be made available to the European Union, shall be taken immediately following the draft regulations under the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, referral to committee, and shall conclude within 45 minutes, if not previously concluded. Speeches of a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for parties or groups, or a Member nominated in their stead, shall not exceed five minutes each, with a five-minute response from a Minister or Minister of State, and all Members may share time.

There are three proposals to put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with today's business agreed to?

It is not agreed. It is my honest belief that the Government is running the risk of destroying its own and the State's reputation as an honest broker regarding the public sector. In view of the potential strike tomorrow, would it be possible for us to have statements on this issue today at some time and will the Business Committee give some consideration to that?

Some 10,000 hospital support workers are due to strike tomorrow for justice, pay justice and for the State to keep its promises. It has been stated that this will be as big a strike, in respect of disruption, as the previous dispute involving nurses and midwives. There was some discussion of this issue during Leaders' Questions but that is not sufficient for such a major issue affecting society. I urge strongly that we agree that the Business Committee will meet this afternoon to schedule a debate on this issue.

As the Taoiseach has displayed a wojus inability to understand what the Labour Court is and what its function is, it would be timely for us to have statements in the House.

It would be in order for the Business Committee to convene to provide for them, given that people watching want to know if their appointments will go ahead. Some 10,000 workers will be on strike, although they do not want to be.

I concur. We have no difficulty at all with changing the order to facilitate such a debate.

I also want to add my voice on behalf of the Rural Independent Group. People throughout the country are waiting. Some have to travel long distances to attend appointments and they do not know if they will be cancelled. Some 10,000 staff will be out on strike. The HSE is already on its knees without it. We need to have a meaningful, true and understanding debate on the matter in this House.

I have no problem with convening a meeting of the Business Committee. However, Deputies should be advised that Government business will not start until 6.05 p.m. It normally runs a little late. We will have statements on the summer economic statement for two hours. That has to be done because the national dialogue starts tomorrow. Private Members' business - a Sinn Féin motion on home helps - will start at 8.05 p.m. and continue until 10.05 p.m. I am in the hands of the Business Committee.

Let us refer to the Business Committee.

We will convene a meeting of the Business Committee against the background that we have already adopted a protocol for dealing with industrial disputes which we will apply. Are the proposals for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to? Agreed. Are the proposals for dealing with Thursday's business agreed to? Agreed. Some 21 Deputies have indicated.

I will speak to two developments in the context of the release of documentation under the Freedom of Information Act pertaining to the national broadband plan. It has emerged that at a meeting last September that was attended by the then Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, very serious reservations were articulated by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and his Secretary General about the national broadband plan and the need for it to pause. At the meeting which was held the day before the Granahan McCourt consortium submitted the final tender Deputy Naughten indicated that the bill had risen by more than €300 million in one month. The Secretary General wanted it to pause and said he had very serious reservations. We have learned today that Eir is stating to the Oireachtas committee responsible for this issue that it could do it for €1 billion. For several weeks the Taoiseach has been tackling various people in the Opposition, saying they want to spend here, there and everywhere, but an increase of €300 million in one month suggests not too many on the Government side are overly exercised about runaway expenditure on major projects. Does the Taoiseach agree with the Secretary General at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that the project needs to be paused? Is the Government going ahead with the commitment it gave to the Dáil last month, or is it open to pausing the plan, reflecting on it and talking to the people charged with managing public expenditure for the Government?

I thank the Deputy. As I have not seen the documents, it is difficult for me to comment on them, but-----

They were published on last week.

That may well be the case, but I still have not seen them, which is why I cannot comment on them.

Fair enough. I am only being helpful.

I thank the Deputy. I argue that there was a considerable pause. We spent many months deliberating on the issue and exploring alternatives before coming to a Government decision to award preferred bidder status to National Broadband Ireland, NBI. Many months were spent in looking at all of the alternatives. I am curious that Eir is suggesting the project can be delivered for €1 billion. I will be interested to hear what the firm's representatives have to say at the committee today as Eir pulled out of the process. Before pulling out, it made an indicative bid which was slightly higher than that of Granahan McCourt at around €2.7 billion. It seems that the €1 billion bid about which Eir is talking would involve passing homes but not connecting any of them and does not cover maintenance costs for 25 years. Therefore, it would be pretty useless to anyone.

For several weeks we have had two stinging assessments of the Government's management of the public finances by the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. The Minister for Finance is publishing the summer economic statement. The line being bandied about in the media this morning is one of prudence and caution in the face of significant economic challenges and risk. However, that does not tally with what the Taoiseach has been preaching. Six months ago at his party's Ard-Fheis he committed to tax cuts of nearly €3 billion, tax cuts that would not affect 80% of taxpayers in any way. There is no doubt that families are facing a crisis, with living costs increasing all the time, and that the economy is facing significant risk. It is clear that investment is needed, particularly in areas such as housing, healthcare, education and several others.

It is very difficult to do that in light of the election promises the Government is making. IFAC states that the Government's published expenditure estimates are not credible. Does he believe the Government's commitment to cut €3 billion of taxes over the next five years is equally not credible in light of the significant challenges we see and the need to be cautious and prudent? Increasing the tax band by €6,000 every year for the next five years is simply not credible.

That is a tax policy of my party and one we stand over. Anyone earning over €37,000 a year would benefit from it. The average person working full-time in Ireland now earns €47,000 a year. As such, it is not only middle-income people who will benefit; it will be people who earn less than the average income. Certainly, higher income earners will benefit too but the vast majority will be middle-income earners on €35,000 to €50,000. Those who gain the most in percentage terms will be in that category.

The Deputy asked how that can be achieved. I appreciate that he may not have had a chance to read the summer economic statement yet, but on page 38 he will find Annex 1, which indicates how tax relief of approximately €600 million a year could be achieved while allowing much more money to be made available for investment in public infrastructure and services. The ratio is probably one of 3:1 or 4:1 and it can be accommodated within the fiscal space. That is not necessarily to say it can be started in the forthcoming budget, which will depend on other factors. I am curious to hear the Deputy use IFAC's criticism of the Government I lead. Let us not forget his party's policy at the time of the 2019 budget was to spend more and finance it through additional borrowing.

No. It was by broadening the tax base.

That was Sinn Féin's policy. Its policy was to increase spending by even more than we increased it and to finance that through additional borrowing. It was to apply the maximum flexibility within the fiscal rules, which would have meant more borrowing and a rising deficit every year. There is a table on that in the document for the Deputy as well.

So much for prudence. That is ridiculous. Fine Gael should get its "Abolish the USC" posters out again. Does the Taoiseach remember those?

Please allow Deputy Howlin to speak.

Fine Gael did not do it either.

A bit of respect for colleagues, please.

I join other Members in expressing the Labour Party's condolences to the family, friends and party of the late Councillor Manus Kelly on his tragic passing.

The people voted overwhelmingly in support of the thirty-eighth amendment to the Constitution on 24 May last and the President endorsed it on 11 June. We have now amended the Constitution to provide the Oireachtas with the power to change the period for which a person applying for a divorce must have lived apart from his or her spouse. I have had a number of contacts from people as to when this change will happen given that it requires only a minor adjustment to the Family Law (Divorce) Act 1996. The special rapporteur on child protection, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, has also called for priority for this amendment. The people have determined the matter, there will be no opposition in the House and it is a simple legislative change. When can we see it?

The Deputy is right. I anticipate the change will receive widespread support in the House. All parties are on record as having indicated that, which I very much welcome. My understanding is, however, that there are only three weeks left in the current session. It is, therefore, unlikely that the legislation will be published, debated and enacted by the recess. That said, it is a priority matter in the Department and I expect the legislation will be published during the summer months for debate through the autumn.

What is the Government doing about the bloodbath taking place in Sudan? The programme for Government refers to Ireland playing its part in the EU on conflict resolution. I have been visited by Sudanese people living in my constituency of Dublin West, which is also that of the Taoiseach, and they are extremely concerned about the rapes, torching of tents, floggings and dumping of bodies in the Nile. The brutal repression of the revolution and uprising taking place against the dictator, al-Bashir, could not take place without funding from Saudi Arabia and arms from the UK and other EU member states.

Prior to the crackdown, the military leaders visited all of the reactionary regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc. to get advice on how to drown this revolution in blood. It is a huge issue. The young people who organised a protest at the Spire at 3 p.m. on Saturday are asking what the Government is doing about this murderous regime.

The Government is very concerned about the absence of democracy in Sudan and the gross violations of human rights that have been happening in that country for a long time. It is very active on the issue, for example, through the Tánaiste's attendance at the EU Foreign Affairs Council. I would be happy to provide the Deputy with a written briefing that would set out the actions that have taken place.

I am glad that the Minister for Justice and Equality is here to speak about the acute and severe shortage of Garda members in the Clonmel district. I have spoken to Chief Superintendent Dominic Hayes and Superintendent Willie Leahy. At least 25 gardaí are needed to bring the Clonmel district which covers Carrick-on-Suir up to normal numbers. We have an acute problem with drugs and drug gangs. We are looking perilously at Drogheda, Longford and other areas and going to be there if action is not taken. I support what gardaí on the ground are doing, but they just do not have the manpower, womanpower or drugs squad members to deal with the problem. The wonderful communities in Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir are being ravaged by drugs, drug gangs, cartels and vagabonds of all kinds. All measures of the law are needed to take these people off the streets and deal with them. There is no point in talking about the resources being given to the Garda nationally. We need more members of the force in the Clonmel district.

I am not aware of the report about which the Deputy speaks, but I am happy to pass on his concerns to the Garda Commissioner who has unprecedented and record funding of €1.7 billion. I am not familiar with the situation regarding Garda numbers in Clonmel. I would be happy to take a parliamentary question from the Deputy. I am due to take oral questions in this Chamber tomorrow. In the meantime, I will be happy to discuss the detail of the issue with the Deputy later today.

On behalf of the Green Party, I extend our deepest sympathy to the family, friends and party colleagues of the late Manus Kelly.

I noted with interest last week that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was quoted as saying the Government needed to do more consumer protection work to protect people who were living in apartments with building defects and that much more work needed to be done to deal with such defects. I know that the Taoiseach is familiar with this issue. When I raised it previously, he said many homeowners in his constituency, like my constituency of Dublin Rathdown, were facing substantial bills due to defects. Will the comments of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, on the defects signal a move by the Government to examine possible supports for the homeowners affected? Two years ago this month, a Green Party motion calling for assistance to be given to homeowners was passed unanimously by the Dáil. A year and a half has passed since the publication of the Safe as Houses report which made a similar call for relief to be provided. Will the Taoiseach tell me whether the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has discussed the issue with him since he made his comments last week?

When the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was launching a report last week, he said it was worthwhile to read through it and examine its recommendations. He gave a commitment to do so. He has said here on many occasions in the past year, including in debates with Deputy Catherine Martin, that the Government is happy to try to work with management companies to find solutions, certainly in apartment blocks. The number one priority is to make them safe. The fire authority in the area is also involved. We are continuing to work on the matter. The Minister has said on many occasions that if someone can produce solutions that will not expose the taxpayer, the Government will be happy to look at them. We are engaging with the management companies to try to bring forward solutions. That is what the Minister was referring to last week. This work will continue in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

My question is related to the Brexit omnibus Bill. In the context of the ongoing Brexit negotiations, will the Taoiseach update us on the current state of the negotiations with the European Commission to ensure drivers who travel to the North, or from the North into this state, will not require an international motor insurance card, known as a green card? The Vice President of the Commission confirmed recently confirmed that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, motorists would need to hold a green card to travel across the Border. Tens of thousands of journeys are made across the Border each day, for example, by farmers in travelling to their own lands. It seems that citizens travelling between Ravensdale or Sheelagh in County Louth and Jonesborough or Crossmaglen in County Armagh will need an international motor insurance card to travel each way.

Can the Taoiseach set out the current situation?

I am afraid that I do not have an update on that but I will make sure one is provided to the Deputy. The Government will publish an update of our no-deal contingency plans in early July but I will try to get the Deputy something before that.

In light of the commitments in the programme for Government regarding better public services, there is a major issue with cancer patients getting medical cards. We have been fighting for a number of cancer patients who are three or four months into their treatment in terms of getting in financial statements and documentation. Are there enough medical assessors within the medical card section to make decisions about people who have had a very serious medical diagnosis and who have provided that documentation to the medical card section to get emergency medical cards? Somebody who has received a cancer diagnosis should have an automatic entitlement to one. Moreover, such people should be allowed to provide the documentation over the next while to support it but they should be given a medical card in the short term because they are experiencing desperately serious financial difficulties.

This is a matter that affects every Member of this House when representing their constituents. At a critical time in a person's life following a diagnosis of cancer, the least that we and the Government can do is ensure that he or she gets a medical card. At one time, once a diagnosis of cancer had been made, the person automatically got the card. That has not been the case over the past five or six years. The Taoiseach is frowning as if he does not know that. If he does not know that, as a Deputy, he should know it. A county councillor would know it - never mind the Taoiseach. It was a fact that when a person received a diagnosis of cancer, he or she got a medical card but it has not been the case over the past five or six years. It is a terribly important issue that should be looked at.

Eligibility for medical cards is means-tested in Ireland and always has been. However, more than 100,000 discretionary medical cards are provided to people who do not qualify based on means and who often have a particular illness. There was considerable variation from region to region in the past regarding how discretion was applied but that was standardised in more recent years. We did a lot of work about five or six years ago under the chairmanship of Professor Frank Keane to see if we could designate particular illnesses that would automatically entitle someone to a medical card and designate other illnesses that would not. Professor Keane's expert group found that there was no fair way to provide a list of illnesses that would entitle a person to a medical card and a list of illness that would not. The report is a difficult read but one I would recommend.

Page 38 of the programme for Government commits the Government to implement the plans set out by Irish Water to upgrade our dilapidated water infrastructure, including wastewater treatment plants. As the Taoiseach is aware, another temporary bathing ban was introduced at several of Dublin's beaches due to the overflow of wastewater from the Ringsend water treatment plant. In February, the Environmental Protection Agency told the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government that raw sewage from the equivalent of 86,000 people was flowing into our waterways every day. The State is facing infringement proceedings from the European Commission due to its failure to invest adequately in our wastewater treatment facilities. Can the Taoiseach outline where these proceedings are, what the Government is doing to avoid significant EU fines and when our rivers and beaches will be safe, clean and fully compliant with EU law?

I will get the Deputy a full update on the ongoing discussions with European counterparts on this. Again, they have set out a proposal over the next couple of years where we will spend the guts of €2 billion on upgrading the infrastructure in affected areas with detailed capital projects on the way in 36 or 38 problem areas. What is happening in Dublin is a precautionary measure. We are all conscious of what happened here with that extreme weather event on Sunday evening and into Monday night that caused the problem because storm water feeds into our sewerage system as well, which is an historical issue we are trying to address. Again, capital works are under way that will help solve that but, naturally, the two local authorities involved are working together with the EPA to see whether any interim measures can be taken to prevent and deal with this. I will get the Deputy a detailed explanation of where we are with the European Commission.

The Defence Forces are in crisis. The recruitment and retention process is in crisis.

Morale is extremely low. A well-resourced and well-supported Defence Forces should be non-negotiable and is necessary. After two and a half years of investigating pay and retention in the Defence Forces, the Cabinet was to consider the Public Service Pay Commission’s report this morning. It is highly regrettable that, yet again, it was demoted in priority by the Government and the Taoiseach as Minister for Defence. Will he give us an assurance that it will be dealt with urgently? Will he also give us a timeline when we will hear, despite the many leaks which have occurred, what the commission has recommended for Defence Forces personnel?

That matter was not on this week’s agenda as there are some ongoing discussions with the Defence Forces. I anticipate it will be at Cabinet next week.

The programme for Government promised: "We will work with the pig industry stakeholder group to enhance areas such as food safety, quality, animal welfare and environmental sustainability."

The pigmeat industry has gone through numerous bad years. It accepts it has turned a corner and many pig producers are looking at brighter futures. Their one major concern, however, is African swine fever, which is sweeping through the pig industry in China. If it were to hit Ireland, it would have devastating consequences for the industry.

What precautions is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine taking to prevent African swine fever from entering the country?

The Department has been in active engagement with stakeholders. If one has passed through airports or ports recently, one will have seen a greater awareness campaign at points of entry and exit reminding travellers not to bring back food items and, if they do, to dispose of them properly. We are fortunate that we are free of African swine fever, which is opening up market opportunities for us in the context of the circumstances to which the Deputy alluded. We have also engaged with the pig industry in creating that awareness among its workforce. There is a role for each and every one of us in that regard. The Department is working closely with both farm organisations and individual farmers on this matter.

The programme for Government committed to providing an accessible and user-friendly welfare system. In that context, I want the raise the issue of social welfare appeals over the past several years. I recently tabled a parliamentary question requesting the number of such appeals made in 2017 and 2018 and how many were successful. Approximately 20,000 appeals are made every year, of which 67% are successful and 33% rejected.

Why is there such a high number of successful appeals in the system? One would think that, when dealing with the most vulnerable in our society, we could treat them equitably and deal with their original applications in a timely manner.

Approximately 20,000 appeals come into the Department every year. This amounts to less than 2% of the entire annual claims load. The number of appeals is tiny compared to the overall number of applications the Department receives. The reason a high number are successful is further information not given in the first instance, which could have meant an appeal would have been unnecessary, is provided during the appeals process. Some 6,500 people work in my Department on behalf of the State. Every day they treat all recipients and applicants for schemes with dignity and respect and do so in a timely manner, as long as the necessary information is provided.

Every family dreams of owning their own house – the family home. First, they must see what they can afford, then get a solicitor, find the property, get it surveyed and seek mortgage approval. In Dundalk, as I am sure is the case in every other town, a large number of families are stuck in the middle. These families comprising a husband, wife and two children, can earn €50,000 a year - which is nothing to be sneezed at – and can pay rent up to €1,300. By the time they have paid for food, transport, schooling costs and childcare, they do not have much left. The Rebuilding Ireland loan is a fantastic scheme and is helping many. However, there are many who cannot afford to save for a home loan deposit for the simple reason their €50,000 income quickly runs out due to other costs.

These people cannot get on local authority waiting lists and they cannot get loans. Is there any rule the Government can introduce to help the people who are caught in the middle, the people who are trying their best to work? They do not want to take social welfare payments; they want to work and earn. Can we start looking after the people who are stuck in the middle?

Supply is part of the issue in this regard. As the third year of Rebuilding Ireland draws to a close, supply is certainly on the up. We should see more than 22,000 houses come into the system this year. Many of these will be in County Louth because many houses are being delivered in the greater Dublin region. That will help.

We are also intervening to make houses more affordable through a number of schemes. One such scheme is the help-to-buy scheme, which helps people to get their deposits together. This was not mentioned in the recent report which we have been discussing for the last couple of days. We have also provided the home loan, which the Deputy mentioned. Many people qualify, including many of those in the most difficulty. We are supporting infrastructure on a number of sites in order to open up lands and make houses more affordable. State-owned lands are being managed by the Land Development Agency in conjunction with local authorities. There are some large sites in Louth on which it would be very useful to develop projects that would deliver private, affordable and social housing. There is a lot of opportunity in Louth in that regard.

We are also addressing affordability in other ways because we recognise that it is an issue. The number one item on the agenda in creating Rebuilding Ireland was to increase housing supply through a sustainable construction sector. That is now happening. As we work through the third year of the plan there is time to intervene with affordability measures. That is what we are trying to do and that will have an impact. Analysis of first-time buyers last year will show that 70% of housing units were sold for less than €270,000. Nearly 50% were sold for less than €250,000. For most people who are working that is just about affordable. It is always difficult. We recognise that. We will continue to intervene to make houses even more affordable.

That concludes questions for today. Seven Deputies were not reached and will be given priority tomorrow.