1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Services last met. [44319/19]
Vol. 989 No. 1
1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Services last met. [44319/19]
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Services last met. [46344/19]
3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if immigration policy is discussed at the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Services. [46414/19]
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Services last met. [46448/19]
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Services will next meet. [46491/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Services last met on 21 October and is scheduled to meet again before the year end.
The committee covers issues relating to health and Sláintecare, education, children, equality, social inclusion; immigration; Irish language, arts and culture; and continued improvements and reform of public services. While the committee covers a broad range of areas and topics, its overarching aim is to introduce or reform public policies and services which help create an inclusive and fair society. The Cabinet committee considered a range of social policy issues over the recent period, including childcare; child protection and welfare issues; social enterprise; immigration and direct provision; gender equality issues; Sláintecare and health reforms. In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I often meet Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues, including issues relating to social policy and public services.
There are some 2,000 or 3,000 undocumented children in Ireland born to workers who came here probably at the height of the previous boom. Approximately two thirds of these children were born in Ireland and one third outside Ireland. Every year since taking office the Taoiseach has gone to the United States and argued in favour of a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented Irish in America. I would like to think that we could agree as a House that we would offer a pathway to citizenship to these children, who have been left in limbo. Some of these children are now adults, others are in school and their rights to almost any kind of services in Ireland depend on the goodwill of the State. They do not have passports or status. It is a significant restriction, as it is for the undocumented Irish in America, on their freedom to pursue their education, social and work opportunities as best they can. I would like the Taoiseach to consider giving these children legal rights to become Irish citizens, a pathway similar to our proposals to America, and to let them and their families get on with their lives.
This Cabinet committee is tasked with considering health policy, including the Sláintecare report. The joint committee that launched this report aims to reorientate the health service to a universal single tier system. However, the Government's implementation strategy, as we always feared, is not moving the health service to universality. The barriers to care remain sky high. Charges for urgent scheduled care are still in place and the primary and social care ambitions set out by Sláintecare are a pipe dream.
In the first six days of this month, 319 patients were left waiting for a bed at the Cork University Hospital, CUH, 103 at the Mercy Hospital and 29 at Bantry General Hospital. I was in the Mercy Hospital yesterday week with my son and, despite a high standard of care, we could see that the system was under savage pressure. There were many elderly and very ill people on trolleys. Unfortunately, there is a lack of dignity for them. It is a disgraceful situation. There are 36 people waiting on trolleys there today. That is the second highest number in the State. Conor Deasy, of the emergency department in CUH, said that his colleagues had been placed in an impossible situation and that they "abhor the inhumanity, indignity and patient safety risk associated with treating patients, who require an inpatient hospital bed, on the corridor of the emergency department."
The Government has committed to delivering a universal health service over ten years. What focus has the committee given to the roadmap for universal access in its work this year and to the outcomes of the under-resourcing of patient care in all care settings?
In spite of the quite aggressive attempt to revise homelessness statistics downwards, the most recent figures continue to show the highest ever levels of adult and child homelessness. From the many statistics available to the Taoiseach, can he tell us when exactly he predicts that these numbers will start to decline? There is conflicting evidence regarding housing construction figures. Planning permissions are no guide to the building of houses. We know that from the strategic development zone, SDZ, figures, that the majority have not commenced, one year after receiving planning permission. Given all the spin deployed on the housing issue, many people are genuinely confused, or have been deliberately confused, about the true picture. It is clear that the core targets of Rebuilding Ireland, the Government's policy, have been missed. In the best possible scenario, the plan's targets have been missed every single year. Can the Taoiseach explain why Rebuilding Ireland's targets for new homes continue to be missed?
Earlier in answering Leaders' questions, he exuded a certain degree of complacency - everything is all right and it is moving in the right direction. Homelessness is not moving in the right direction. The attitude in Fine Gael seems to be that it is all rental, rental, rental, co-living and build to rent. I saw Senator Noone's statement about 88 units in Coolock, which used the phrase "100% social housing", as if that was terrible and should not happen. We need more social housing. The councils need to build more houses and the scale of housebuilding by the State should be far more dramatic than it is. It should intervene in respect of affordable and social housing.
On the broader issue of social policy, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, was interviewed yesterday about the fact that her press adviser is paid €20,000 more than the average paid to those working for other Ministers. She did in fairness say on LMFM that not only does she sometimes put her foot in her own mouth but two feet when she opens her mouth so she went looking for the best. Does the Taoiseach think that is an acceptable justification for that particular allocation?
I welcome the news that the Minister for Health is set to report to Cabinet this week that eliminating private medicine in public hospitals could free up 2,000 hospital beds around the country and reduce waiting lists by 25%. This follows the expert review carried out by Dr. Donal de Buitléir. Specifically, the group noted that removing private activity from public hospitals is technically feasible but dependent purely on political will. Ireland has the highest proportion of private health care insurance of any European country, representing 45% of the population, according to the Health Insurance Authority. In 2018, premium income from private health insurance rose to €2.85 billion. If plans to end private medicine in public hospitals were followed through, it is suggested that private facilities and, ultimately, the demand for private insurance would become redundant over approximately ten years. These sums would then be freed up to be invested in quality, single-tier public healthcare systems. Will the Taoiseach confirm if he intends to push through these reforms to eliminate private medicine in public hospitals?
Last Tuesday, I was asked to go to an emergency meeting of parents of children in a crèche, the Magic Roundabout. They were already paying €1,100 in monthly crèche fees, which I find staggering. Those fees will go up to €1,250 a month while 20 of the parents will lose their kids’ places in the crèche. This is because Tusla told the crèche it needed to make changes, which it did. Tusla then came back and stated that because of the changes made, the floor space was reduced and it would have to get rid of 20 of the kids. This is in the middle of the term. It is unbelievable.
This is against a background where 27 crèches are threatened with closure and parents are saying they have been left in the dark about these matters. Parents are flabbergasted, shocked and do not know what to do.
In the case in question, the parents have asked for a meeting with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, to discuss the matter. I must stress that if there were any health and safety or fire safety issues, these parents would be the first to say something must be done. What is not acceptable, however, is the sort of ham-fisted, box-ticking, blunt-instrument approach that appears to be taken by Tusla in terms of crèche facilities, compliance and so on. The big point the parents in this case made was how can one bring in a scheme for two years of free preschool care in the ECCE, early childhood care and education, scheme but not actually provide for the places, particularly considering the shockingly high levels of costs parents must endure.
Will the Taoiseach comment on that? Judging from the attitude at the meeting, there is an explosion on the way on the issue of childcare costs and the lack of childcare places.
I thank Deputies for their questions.
Deputy Burton raised the issue of undocumented minors living in Ireland. From time to time, we introduce schemes to regularise undocumented migrants in the country. This is not an amnesty. It has been agreed at EU level that there will not be amnesties. That is part of our commitment to our European partners. Any time we have a scheme to regularise undocumented migrants, we always need to consult with the United Kingdom because it has an impact on the common travel area.
Within the confines of the common travel area and the EU pact not to have any amnesties, we do from time to time have schemes to regularise migrants. The one we had recently was a scheme to regularise people from outside the European Economic Area, EEA, as well as their dependants, who came here on a student visa but became undocumented for one reason or another. That just finished up this year. We regularised 2,000 people under the scheme and it worked well.
It is a useful scheme for me when I go to the United States because I can then say in Congress and the White House that we are not asking the American authorities to do anything for our undocumented there that we have not done here in Ireland. If the US were to copy our scheme, essentially it would provide a pathway to regularisation to anybody who came to the US on a J-1 or a student visa and who became undocumented there.
The other group, referred to by Deputy Burton, we want to look at next is those who came to Ireland as children and know no other home than Ireland. They will not be deported. They never really lived in the country in which they were born or, in some cases, the country in which their parents were born, as some of them were born in Ireland. We need to get these arrangements right and ensure they are properly organised. We must ensure it cannot be abused or undermines our commitments to the European Union or to the common travel area. I have met some of those young people, as has Deputy Burton. They have grown up here and speak with Dublin, Cork or Donegal accents. They will not be deported. It will be correct to regularise them but we just need to get it right. We got it right for the students. We can get it right for those who Americans would call dreamers.
The policy of universal healthcare is to provide free or highly subsidised healthcare for all. There are many models across the European Union under which that can be done. There is often an assumption in Ireland that the NHS is the system they have across Europe. It is not. Every country has a different public health system. Sláintecare does not prescribe which model we should follow. It refers to co-payments, free services and many other matters. It must, however, be done step by step.
We have made much progress already on GP care. Nearly half the country has access to free GP care. That will be extended to children aged seven and eight years of age next year, having extended it to those on lower incomes by increasing the income limits this year and to carers the year before. We are also reducing prescription charges for those with medical cards and those who do not have one. By reducing the drugs payment scheme, DPS, threshold, that will continue. We are extending eligibility for medical cards. One of the first things the Fine Gael-Independent Alliance Government did was to give medical cards as a right to children with serious disabilities, regardless of their parents’ income. Under previous Governments, they were often subject to review. Children with serious disabilities could lose their medical cards because their parents’ incomes went up. That does not happen any more. Any child in receipt of domiciliary care allowance, DCA, is also entitled to a medical card, regardless of his or her parents’ income. The next change will be around improving the income limit for the over-70s to ensure more people over 70 can contribute.
There are fewer medical cards than there were two years ago, however.
The number of medical cards goes up and down. It generally goes down when there are more people in work. That is what one would expect.
The number of cards is down. The thresholds have stayed the same. The Government is playing a game with the GP card.
The thresholds have stayed the same. The reason why the numbers have gone down is because incomes have gone up. That is the reason why the numbers have gone down. I would have thought most people would believe that is a good development.
The fair deal is a form of universal healthcare with co-payment systems. We need to do something similar around home care. We are also examining hospital charges as a possible further step. It is not something one does in one go but over a series of budgets. We are making some progress.
Deputy Micheál Martin asked me a fair question on when the number of people living in emergency accommodation and the number of homeless people will go down. The truth is I cannot answer that question. I can tell him that we have taken more people out of homelessness in the past year than ever in the country’s history. The numbers becoming homeless is roughly the same, however. That is why the numbers have been roughly the same for the past year or so.
The drivers of homelessness are different ones. It is people losing their private rented accommodation but also people experiencing family breakdown. There is no reliable way to know how many people are going to become homeless. We can know how many people we are going to stop becoming homeless when they come to us or the numbers we can get out of emergency accommodation. We have never taken more people out of homelessness. At the same time, as many people become homeless, and there is no way of predicting that for sure.
It is worth putting on the record that in the year before Rebuilding Ireland was introduced as our policy, the numbers of families who were homeless increased by 60%. In the past year, the numbers of families who were homeless increased by 0.17%. That shows the difference Rebuilding Ireland has made. It has not got the numbers down yet but before Rebuilding Ireland, homelessness was rising by 60% a year. In the past year, it has only risen by just over 0.17%.
We are running out of time.
Who was in government the year before that?
Lies, damned lies and statistics.
We are meeting our targets in social housing.
The special adviser to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, is a secondee from another part of the public service. As is the norm when somebody is seconded from one part of the public service to another, they stay on the same salary.
I remind Members that if they consume time when asking questions, then it can leave no time for them to be answered.
In fairness, five questions were asked and one question takes up to three minutes to answer. There must be some discipline in answering too.
In fairness, there are never five questions. Usually between 15 and 20 are asked.
6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on security will next meet. [44407/19]
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet committee on security has met recently. [45242/19]
8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on security will next meet. [44455/19]
9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Security will next meet. [45466/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on security deals with issues relating to justice, defence, Garda reform and national security. It last met on Wednesday, 30 October 2019 and the next meeting of the committee will be scheduled in the next few weeks. It encompasses matters that were previously under the remit of Cabinet committees G, justice, and F, national security.
The implementation of A Policing Service for the Future, the Government's implementation plan for policing reform is progressing well. Updates on the progress made to date are available on the policing reform web page at gov.ie.
As part of the implementation of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, the national security analysis centre was established to co-ordinate across the relevant Departments and agencies in providing strategic analyses to the Government. The centre is establishing its business arrangements in close co-operation with partner Departments and agencies.
With regard to the transformation of the Department of Justice and Equality, significant progress has been made this year, including detailing the new functional design for the new Department and implementing it in August and September. The fifth report of the effectiveness and renewal group is published on the Department’s website at justice.ie.
Work is ongoing to implement the recommendations of the Public Service Pay Commission with regard to the Defence Forces. I welcome the decisions taken by both recognised associations, PDFORRA and RACO, to accept those recommendations. While this will be an important step in helping to get our Defence Forces to full strength, I accept that more needs to be done on both pay and non-pay issues for the Defence Forces.
I want to raise with the Taoiseach the rejection of Judge Haughton's terms of reference for the scoping exercise into the death of Shane O'Farrell, this being relevant to An Garda Síochána and Garda reform. This situation is extraordinary. Earlier this year, Deputy McGuinness asked the Taoiseach why there had not been an inquiry, for which the majority of the Dáil had voted. The Taoiseach rejected that and set out that the intent of the scoping exercise was to examine the different aspects and claims of the case and to attempt to scope out what an inquiry would look like. The Taoiseach also noted that the matters for investigation extend beyond the Garda. Bearing this in mind, is it not of serious consequence that not only has the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, rejected Judge Haughton's terms of reference, he has narrowed the terms of reference published by him in February? This is difficult to understand in light of the fact that one reason this issue came to the floor of the Dáil was because the family and many independent observers were not confident in the quality of the previous reviews. It appears that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is limiting the judge to take into account the outcome of the previous reports prepared and not a review of the investigations, which, in the view of many people, are significantly flawed.
Will the Taoiseach and the Government support the motion tonight tabled by Fianna Fáil to reinstate Judge Haughton's original terms of reference and, if not, will they proceed with an independent public inquiry as already demanded by a majority of Oireachtas Members?
I wish to raise a specific issue around the security brief, namely, the issue of hard drugs, which are at the core of most organised crime in our country, and the personal and community devastation which they cause. While the statistics provided for Ireland are behind those for many other countries, the overall picture relating to drug use is clear and disturbing. Following Brexit, Ireland will have the highest rate of high-risk opiate use in Europe. More people are dying from overdoses than road accidents. What we did in terms of road accidents many years ago points to the type of response required. The Taoiseach will be aware that this is not only an issue in the large urban areas in that it has, for the first time, spread to many provincial communities and there is a growing fear for what the consequences are and will be.
There are many dimensions to this problem. The only way of getting to grips with it is to take a whole-of-government approach involving security, education, community development and health actions. Nobody believes that the current level of attention or urgency being given to this issue at national level is anywhere near what is required. The damage caused by the downgrading of community development and drugs policy since 2011 has been significant. The policy of devolving many actions to local authorities has not worked, by any measure. The fact that so many Ministers of State came together last week to highlight this point, particularly around the community development dimension, is an indication of this. There is no obvious commitment to coming down hard and early when drugs first appear in the community. The failure to deliver treatment and intervention services at the required level is undeniable.
Does the Taoiseach believe that current policies are adequate and are delivering and that the current highly devolved and hands-off approach is working, particularly in comparison to the previous approach, which had succeeded in many communities?
I want to raise with the Taoiseach the issue of crime, particularly gangland crime in Dublin, as well as the gangs that operate along the Border, apparently with impunity, particularly given the terrible actions and torture inflicted on Kevin Lunney as he was carrying out his work in Quinn Industrial Holdings, QIH. In the constituency of Dublin West, which the Taoiseach and I represent, there are an incredible number of gangs who are operating in respect of the drugs trade. They are offering children as young as eight to 14 years bikes, trainers and other rewards if they will become runners for them, with horrific consequences for those children down the line.
We know that in comparison with other countries, Ireland has a relatively low ratio of gardaí and policing per head of population. Does the Taoiseach have any proposals to increase the number of gardaí and to introduce further measures against the gangs? In regard to the current epidemic of cocaine use, much of it is among well-off middle class people who think it is okay to take cocaine at the weekend with no subsequent consequences. Does the Taoiseach have plans to take action against the gangs and to put them behind bars, where they deserve to be?
It has emerged that key figures in the campaign of violence against executives in Quinn Industrial Holdings, which culminated in the horrific attack on Kevin Lunney, are heavily involved in criminality activity and smuggling and are connected to dissident paramilitaries. I welcome the Taoiseach's recent visit to the area to meet QIH directors. I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, that this situation "should have been dealt with sooner and better". I disagree, however, with his ill-informed comment that the people have been let down by local members of the Garda because I believe they have been let down by the State. Should local members of the Garda be left to deal with such serious cross-Border criminal activity, smuggling and the campaign of violence that has been set out to all people in the last couple of weeks? Does the Taoiseach stand over the comments of the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, and will he clarify precisely when these matters were first discussed at the Cabinet committee and when he became aware of the degree and nature of the intimidation against the directors of QIH?
I thank the Deputies for their questions. On the Shane O'Farrell case, which will be debated later in the House, we all accept that the process has taken much longer than any of us would have liked. However, Deputies will appreciate that the terms of the reference of the scoping exercise - it is normal to do a scoping exercise before a commission of inquiry - must be compliant and in line with jurisprudence established by the Supreme Court in the case of Shatter v. Guerin, which judgment was delivered by the Supreme Court after the original terms of reference had been finalised. This is what gave rise to this change.
The terms of reference for the scoping exercise are focused, as required by the law and as clearly set out in the Supreme Court in Shatter v. Guerin, to reduce the risk of legal challenge to the recommendations of the scoping exercise. The judgment requires that the terms of reference of the scoping exercise be as specific as possible to remove any potential ambiguity and also focused enough to provide a timely outcome to ensure fairness to all parties. However, they still allow for a review of the issues intended.
Judge Haughton is free to make any recommendations that he sees fit and the O'Farrell family are also free to make any representations to Judge Haughton in regard to any matter that they would wish to see inquired into in any future inquiry. The focused terms of reference of the scoping exercise also allow consideration of what broader public policy issues highlighted by the case, such as breaches of bail conditions and execution of warrants, merit further consideration. Throughout the process, the Department of Justice and Equality has consulted with the Office of the Attorney General and we are all anxious to see progress on this matter.
I ask Deputies to understand that the Minister for Justice and Equality cannot, and should not, prejudge Mr. Justice Haughton's report or change the terms of reference, just as he is about to issue his initial report, in a way that does not comply with the law. I understand that Mr. Justice Haughton may be able to produce his report in the next few days.
In response to some of the questions I was asked on drugs policy, we have a national cross-government drugs strategy monitored by the Cabinet sub-committee on social policy. The implementation of the national drugs strategy is driven by the national oversight committee, which has 35 members. We recently added a civil servant from my Department to that committee. Some 11 of the 35 members represent task forces in the community sector so they are very much involved in the oversight committee. I am of the view, as is the Government, that our approach to illegal drugs should be health-led rather than criminal justice-led. However, we need to acknowledge that it has a criminal justice aspect because so much of it is connected to crime and criminal activity. In terms of the kind of things we are doing, people will be aware of the efforts the Government is making to provide a new injecting centre in Merchant's Quay. We are working with Merchants Quay Ireland on that. Unfortunately, the city council refused planning permission but we are going to An Bord Pleanála because we want to do it. We have agreed with the Simon Community to build a 100-bed addiction services centre for people who are homeless and who are addicts to get them off the streets and into a centre where they can have their addiction treated. We are working with the Simon Community on that. We have also made Naloxone much more available. That drug can be used almost instantly to save somebody from an opioid overdose. It was not widely available five or six years ago but it is now. On foot of the expert group report, we are going to move away from a situation whereby if somebody is found in possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use, the default option is prosecution and towards a more health-led approach, giving somebody the option of attending a health-led rehabilitation programme. We do not want to end up in a situation whereby we criminalise large numbers of people for possession of a small amount of illegal drugs. That is not an approach that has worked but we are not going as far as full decriminalisation or legalisation. I know some people would call for that but we are not going to go that far.
On Garda resources, the budget for the Garda next year is €1.88 billion, which is the biggest budget for the Garda ever.
To answer the question that was asked, the number of gardaí has increased every year for four or five years now. I think the strength is above 14,000. As part of the reform being led by the Garda Commissioner, more civilian staff are also being hired, which frees gardaí to be out on the front line doing policing, which is what people want them to do; they want to see them in cars, on bikes and out on the street. That is very much being driven by the Garda Commissioner and it is happening now in a way that it did not happen in the past. The Garda is getting additional equipment and new vehicles and there is an armed support unit now in every region. There is real investment in policing very much under way.
Local drugs task forces have a budget of €28 million, which has held steady or slightly increased since 2014. It had been cut back by the former Ministers of State, Deputies Curran and Shortall, in the years previous to that.
It is a fact, I am afraid, I know the Deputy is not into them but it is a fact.
The Taoiseach was a member of that Government, with Deputy Shortall.
I was, yes.
The Taoiseach should embrace collective responsibility before he starts handing it out.
What is good for the goose is good for the gander on that remark by Deputy Howlin. I absolutely accept the collective responsibility for that.
The Taoiseach changed the model; that is the point.
I very much support the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne's approach. While I appreciate that some community groups and local drugs task forces would like full autonomy on how they spend the money they are given, she is of a different view. She wants to make sure the money given to the task forces gets to the people for whom it is intended - those who are addicts and drug users - and to communities and that it does not get used in other ways. I very much support her view that we should monitor how money is spent and approve projects in advance. She is very strong on that and I support her on it. Of the nine former Ministers of State with responsibility for drugs who were mentioned, it is noteworthy that all of them are members of Opposition parties but none of them made contact with me directly to share with me their concerns about the drugs issue. They did so through the media.
Is it a sin that they went through the media?
When I do it, the Deputy gets upset about it.
Is it a sin? They drew public attention to it.
It is certainly not a sin but when the shoe is on the other foot, the Deputy has a bee in his bonnet about it too.
I do not. Former Ministers from Pat Rabbitte onwards are quite entitled. He was a Member.
Tell him first.
Let us not bicker. We will move to Question No. 10.
10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the next progress report in respect of the Programme for a Partnership Government will be published. [44408/19]
11. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the next progress report on the Programme for a Partnership Government will be published. [46449/19]
12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Programme for a Partnership Government. [46490/19]
13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Programme for a Partnership Government commitment on the timeline for the passage of Bills as outlined on page 148. [46658/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 13, inclusive, together.
A Programme for a Partnership Government was agreed in May 2016 during the formation of the Government. This is a five-year programme of work being undertaken for the duration of the present Dáil. The Government publishes an annual report each year on the implementation of the programme. The third such report was approved by Cabinet in May 2019 and is published on the Gov.ie website. The next annual report is scheduled to be published in May 2020.
The Thirty-second Dáil has seen significant reform in how the Oireachtas does its business. Some of the crucial reforms include the establishment of a new cross-party Business Committee to discuss and agree proposals for the Dáil schedule. A new budgetary oversight committee has been established to allow the Oireachtas play a greater role in the budget. Committee Chairs are appointed using the d'Hondt system and there is more time for Private Members' business in the Dáil. Indeed, 13 Private Members' Bills have been enacted by this Dáil, which is more than any since the foundation of the State. Votes are grouped to encourage a more family-friendly environment, particularly on Thursdays. The timelines for the passage of Bills through the Dáil are agreed by the Business Committee with a view to ensuring that the use of the guillotine is not required. Should the need arise for a Bill to be guillotined, it can only be done with the recommendation of the Business Committee and the approval of the Dáil. Dáil reform is a continual process and as part of the sub-committee on Dáil reform, Government will continue to play its part.
I want to raise the programme for Government's commitments on education. The Government made big promises in the programme, which neither it nor its partners in Fianna Fáil have delivered on over the past four years. Diversity and choice for parents in the school system have not been delivered. Core funding and capitation grants for schools and funding in third level are simply not up to it and students, particularly those outside Dublin, are in effect being priced out of their entitlement to third level education.
I want specifically to raise the issue of special education and education for children with additional needs. I attended a meeting last night with a number of principals in my constituency. The community healthcare organisation area that we are in, CHO 4, has the longest waiting list in the country for assessment of needs. Beyond assessment of needs, which is the issue that generated the headlines, the system of therapies for children once they have had an assessment is entirely broken. The organisations that provide these therapies are doing their best. Some of these assessments are done privately but there is no continuity of care then. In Cork, a charity, Marian House, provides therapies but children are not getting the therapies that they need. This has a serious impact on the children and their families and I believe it has an impact on society as a whole. These children are failed when they only get speech and language therapy or occupational therapy every few years. School principals are not trained in that regard and they are forced to try to figure out this stuff as best they can. What is needed is an entire re-evaluation of the special education system in the State because the Department of Education and Skills is blaming the Department of Health, which says it is not its problem. The co-operation between the two is not good enough, particularly in respect of the Department of Health, but the Department of Education and Skills needs to do much more as well.
It is over three years since a Programme for a Partnership Government was agreed. It set out what most of us in this House believed would be a temporary arrangement, which has now survived three years. The document, as set out, was based on an ambition for a fairer Ireland. We will argue about that on the hustings in a few months. There is nothing fair about the record of the Government on so many levels. I want to ask the Taoiseach about the conclusion of this arrangement. I understand Deputy Micheál Martin is now suggesting an orderly wind-down of the arrangement, with these commitments raising the prospect of an agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael of a timetable and an election date. Will the Taoiseach confirm if he discussed or agreed an election date with Fianna Fáil, the party that supports him in government? Will he share his views on that matter?
Does the Taoiseach intend to have such discussions on an agreed date for the next general election that he might set out for the rest of us?
The programme for Government makes specific reference to implementing the national dementia strategy. As the Taoiseach is aware, there is major anxiety or fear about the fate of the St Joseph's dementia care facility in my constituency in Shankill. I brought up this issue last week when I sought a debate with the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, on its fate. It is threatened with closure. It is the biggest and best and a model dementia care facility in the country. There are, however, real fears about its fate. It would be a disaster for dementia sufferers and their families if it were to close. That simply cannot happen. There have been some reassuring comments made by the Minister for Health, but it needs to be definitive. Critically, the fate of the facility turns on recognition by the Government and the HSE that the care provided for high-dependency dementia sufferers will be funded against the minimal level of funding coming from the HSE through the fair deal scheme. Can the Taoiseach tell us, in line with commitments given in this area in the programme for Government, that the gold standard in dementia care facilities in the country will be protected, that funding will be provided and that the anxiety suffered by dementia sufferers and their families will be ended? The sooner he makes a statement on the matter the better.
I wish to make a general point, given previous comments that the programme for Government is not a document that emanates from the confidence and supply arrangement. There is a separate document on policy, to which the programme for Government commits the Fine Gael Party and the Independent Alliance. The confidence and supply arrangement document is much tighter.
I think the Deputy doth protest too much.
I also make the point that all Ministers belong to the Fine Gael Party and the Independent Alliance. There are no Fianna Fáil Ministers or Ministers of State. Such references are superficial or shallow and have no substance to them. Like every other party, we will hold the Government to account. The Taoiseach knows that secretly nobody wanted a general election while a no-deal Brexit was threatened.
Then discuss the date.
Privately, no one in the Deputy's party wanted to push the issue too far either, but it is happy enough to criticise Fianna Fáil for facilitating the continuation of the Government in the context of a no-deal Brexit.
In a follow-up to the previous question and the first group of questions the Taoiseach will be aware that the programme for Government talks directly about "ending the housing shortage and homelessness". Does the Taoiseach believe this commitment will be delivered on?
On mental health services, it is widely acknowledged that the consistent failure of the Minister for Health to implement agreed plans and the use of mental health services funding to balance overspending elsewhere have led directly to a failure to deliver the level and quality of services that are so badly needed. The Government had the tools and the funding, but the Minister did not deliver services on the ground. In County Wexford, in particular, there is huge anger surrounding the issue of mental heath services. As part of the confidence and supply arrangement we secured extra funding every year for mental health services. Each year much of it has not been spent and the teams in place throughout the country have been understaffed. That is particularly true in the case of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Will the Taoiseach tell us the specific actions he has taken to ensure the allocated budget will be used for mental health services and that the posts unfilled will be filled as soon as possible?
The first question was about education. There are also challenges within that sector, but it is one in which the country is doing well. We know, for example, how well children are performing relative to their counterparts in maths and reading. The education budget this year is €11 billion and will go up again next year. It is the biggest ever education budget in the history of the State. No Government has invested more in education than this one which is made up of Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance. In practical terms, it means more teachers. We now have the lowest ever pupil-teacher ratio in primary schools. We have been able to increase capitation grants but not fully restore them. This has enabled pay restoration to take place for hard-working teachers and other staff in the education sector, while a huge school building programme is evident all over the country, as well as in universities and institutes of technology. There are now approximately 15,000 special needs assistants and more special classes than ever before, as well as a very substantial special educational needs budget of €1.7 billion. There are record numbers making it to third level, which is very encouraging and really important for our future. There are more people than ever before from non-traditional backgrounds attending higher education. We have reformed the curriculum, of which people will be aware. We have, for example, reformed the junior cycle programme with the introduction of new subjects like physical education and computer science, which are examination subjects for the first time.
On the general election date, no date has been discussed or agreed. My view is well known and was set out in writing in August 2018.
On the St. Joseph's dementia care facility, I am aware that discussions are ongoing. The objective absolutely is to ensure the centre will be sustainable into the future. The briefing material I have available tells me that rather than the funding being at a minimal level, the centre is receiving among the highest levels of funding for patients of any provider contracted by the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF. There may well be very good reasons for this, namely, the very high quality of care provided, or perhaps the acuity and needs of the patients. Rather than the funding being at the minimal level, as the Deputy suggested, it is in the top five or six organisations funded by the NTPF. There is active engagement by the HSE and the NTPF with the provider to secure the future of the service.
On mental health services, the budget will be over €1 billion in 2020 for the very first time, up from approximately €750 million a couple of years ago. We all acknowledge that there is more to providing health services than providing funding. Health services here are well funded by international standards. We have a relatively young population, but perhaps do not achieve the outcomes people are entitled to expect. However, we are seeing some positive changes when it comes to mental health services. The new forensic mental health hospital in Portrane is almost finished and will open next year. It will come in on time and on budget and enable us to close the Victorian facilities in Dundrum. The waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, CAMHS, are falling and have fallen by about 25% in the past couple of months, which is positive. The funding provided for the National Office of Suicide Prevention and implementation of the suicide strategy is showing some results, with a 30% fall in the number of suicides. It is not all down to the funding provided by any means, but it is at least moving in the right direction. We will launch very soon the first 24/7 helpline for people suffering mental health difficulties. There are a lot of mental health services in Ireland, but sometimes they are not joined up very well.
What about the situation in County Wexford?
This will create a pathway by which people will be able to contact a 24/7 helpline in two weeks' time to access the services they need.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach. B'shin deireadh le ceisteanna chun an Taoisigh.
That is a record. None of my three questions was answered during Taoiseach's questions today.
I regret that that was the case.