Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

KBC Bank Ireland has been fined €18.3 million for taking €154 million from 3,700 of its customers. The bank did not just wrongly take the money from those accounts but in 11 cases it took a family home. The bank wrongly took 66 properties in total from individuals, 39 of those during the investigation. Until October last year, KBC Bank Ireland was wrongly taking money from accounts and overcharging them.

What is going to happen? The problem is that the banks have collectively stolen €1 billion from customer accounts, affecting 40,000 people. They took family homes, causing worry and anxiety, and they took other properties. They will be slapped with a fine but nobody is going to be held individually accountable.

The time is up.

May I ask the Minister this?

No. The Minister must reply.

Will the Government bring forward the legislation that the Central Bank has called for in order to hold individual bankers to account in order that people could be jailed for the type of practices that have gone on over the past decade in this State?

First, I acknowledge that the Deputy's statement is absolutely right. What those companies did was totally inappropriate, wrong and unforgivable. The bank in question has been fined €18.3 million because of how it dealt with 3,741 customers, and it has had to repay, to date, €153.5 million. Permanent TSB was previously fined €21 million because of how it treated tracker customers.

As I have said, it is shocking that they wrongly took people off cheap loans and that this led to the loss of 11 family homes. Nobody would condone or accept that. The Government welcomes the actions of the Central Bank to hold KBC to account and compensate borrowers and it has committed to making mortgage lending in Ireland fair and transparent. The programme for Government commits to increasing the availability of long-term fixed rate mortgages, as well as examining the development of green mortgages and State-backed mortgages for first-time buyers. It also commits to examining the introduction of a code of conduct on mortgage switching.

I asked about individual accountability. It has been examined since 2017.

Please, Deputy, you have asked your question.

Students have been in touch with me, and, I would imagine, most Deputies in this House about accommodation. Planning for the year ahead, they face very difficult choices about whether they will need accommodation because lectures are moving online. In Dublin there are additional restrictions for universities and third level institutions.

NUI Galway has confirmed that any student registered to stay in university-owned accommodation will now be entitled to a full refund if he or she decides not to go ahead with the booking because there is a less of a need to spend time on campus. This needs to happen across the board and every third level institution must say the same to students who are potentially booking or have booked accommodation. Otherwise, there will be a rip-off.

Will the Government ensure the appropriate Minister will communicate to all third level institutions that they must do the same as NUI Galway and ensure third level students do not have to pay for accommodation that they will not use?

I have a related question.

It is not normal to intervene when a party leader is asking the question. I will come to the Deputy.

I agree with the Deputy and when colleges have accommodation, particularly when it is under their control, it should be an asset for the student body and not a revenue source. It must be part of the flexible solutions that must apply in how third level institutions are managed in this time. Where colleges have accommodation, they have been requested to try to show flexibility in its use; several of them are doing so and others are constrained by students having already booked accommodation. It would be desirable for private operators to show the same flexibility but it is not within the remit of the Department to issue an instruction for the market. I agree that where colleges can do so, we should be showing flexibility and that must be part of an overall solution.

When will the Government bring the legislative changes to the fair deal scheme that will cap contributions based on farm and business assets at three years in the same way as it is done for homes? This will reflect a family’s ability to pay rather than anything else. It is an item of considerable concern for farmers and small business owners. The general scheme of the Bill for these changes was approved by the Government in June 2019 and immediate progress would provide much-needed help for families caring for loved ones.

I am informed that will introduced at the end of this session, which is before Christmas. It may be introduced in either the Dáil or Seanad.

Next Thursday a very important debate will take place in this House when the Dying with Dignity Bill 2020 will be discussed. I understand there is a variety of views not only in political parties and this House but society as a whole on the subject. I call on the Minister to support a vote of conscience, not only in his party but across the Government parties. It is very important for society as a whole that there be a rational debate on the matter.

I am aware of the legislation and I spoke to the Deputy about it last week. It has not been discussed at Cabinet and I have not yet discussed it with my party. My understanding, and certainly with my party, is that such flexibility or such an approach is a real possibility. It is not the norm in this House but where there are matters of complex conscience and very different views, that tends to be a possibility. I certainly would not rule it out. Following discussion in my party we will revert on our approach. As I said, it has not yet been discussed by the Government and each party would really have to speak for itself in tune with the approach suggested by the Deputy, that this is not something on which we would divide on party political grounds.

Mary Bartley Meehan lost her son and husband to Covid-19 in Kilbrew nursing home within six weeks of each other. She was recently shown a video of her husband before he died. The side of Ultan's face was discoloured with black, congealed blood. His nails were long and black as he had, unknown to himself, been picking his facial tumours and as a result, his face had become infected. Shockingly, his face was infested with maggots.

Months after this happened, Mary has sought an investigation by asking the Minister for Health, the Department of Health, the HSE and HIQA; all have refused such an investigation. My colleague, Councillor Emer Tóibín in Meath, wrote to the Ombudsman and asked his office to investigate. He sent a letter in reply today, indicating that he has once again raised this issue of extending the remit of his office to include clinical judgment. He states the vast majority of cases relating to the healthcare sector involve some element of clinical judgment. He states it is a matter of frustration to him that complaints like these cannot be addressed by his office.

Will the Minister guarantee that somebody will take responsibility for this and carries out an investigation? Will the Government look to extend the remit of the Ombudsman?

Deputy Tóibín has told a harrowing story and one's heart goes out to the family involved. What a terrible experience. I ask the Deputy to revert to me, the Taoiseach or the appropriate Minister on the appropriate legislative change and I would be happy to respond on that basis.

The Minister has outlined his disgust as what KBC Bank Ireland has done in robbing and stealing from its customers. Tens of thousands of business owners, including musicians, contractors, taxi drivers, bus operators are waiting anxiously to see if the banks will extend the repayment moratorium, which will run out in a couple of days. The Minister told a Deputy earlier that the Minister for Finance will be meeting with representatives of the banks next Tuesday. Why put people through this misery during the Covid-19 pandemic? The banks must be dragged kicking and screaming all the time to act, instead of being upfront and half decent to their customers to give them peace of mind. These customers are hanging on by their fingernails, trying to provide for their families and their employees. It is shocking. The banks in this country act like it is the Wild West. They do not respect any business, or any customer's length of time doing business with them. Surely the Government can decide that the banks must offer a moratorium and deal with people sensitively during this time of need.

My understanding is that the Minister for Finance is meeting representatives of the banks on Monday. The timelines here are set by the European Banking Authority rather than by anything the Government has done. As I said earlier during Leaders' Questions, this was not a statement that there cannot be further payment breaks. I encourage the banks and the customers to come together to decide on the appropriate mechanisms to get customers who are in difficulty through this crisis, including the extension or continuation of payment breaks. Those who are in difficulty and feel they will need them should act now, before 30 September, to try to secure the best arrangements for them. This has to be done on a case-by-case basis. That advice and message should go out to any constituents who are in that position.

I welcome the Minister's announcement that he will intervene in respect of accommodation costs. I will change my question. Does he think it is fair that utility companies such as Electric Ireland are incentivising people to go online to pay their bills? People are being asked a deposit of €300 if they wish to continue paying at their post office. I am really concerned about the impact this will have on post offices. Has the Government examined the impact this will have on the operation of post offices?

As it happens, that question touches on two sections in my Department. I will be honest; I think the future of An Post is in the development of a range of new business applications. We are seeing it happening already. An Post is operating as a parcel delivery company and a financial support company for energy refits. The company is increasingly delivering Government services through its network. An Post has turned around in the past two or three years and is expanding into new areas. There will still be a mail system. We have a universal service obligation and it is a critical service. For many people a return to mail may be an appropriate and desirable way of communicating. It is appropriate for those energy companies to offer choice to customers or to favour moving services online in order to reduce their costs and thereby the costs to consumers. I do not see the two concerns as connected.

The Sláintecare implementation strategy emphasises the increased provision of care in the community. Through a parliamentary question I was recently informed by the assistant head of primary care for south east community healthcare that there are no dedicated neuropsychology posts for children or adults in south east community healthcare's area of responsibility. This area includes Carlow, Kilkenny, south Tipperary, Wexford and Waterford and has a population of more than 400,000 people. This is unacceptable. Will the Minister recommend that these posts are created as soon as possible and address the failure of services in the south-east in the upcoming budget?

If the Deputy could provide the details of this specific case, I will make sure the Minister for Health receives them and reverts to him on the plans to provide those posts as part of the health budget, which as we heard earlier is expanding but is still constrained.

As the Minister will be aware, the Supreme Court recently issued a ruling on the issue of leave to apply for substitute consent. This has to be addressed. According to the Government's legislative programme for the autumn session, the planning and development (amendment) Bill is among the 30 Bills, which equates to two a week, in the priority list for publication. That Bill is meant to deal with this issue, along with several others. Is this Bill likely to be published in this session? If so, will it be published early in the session or near the end? Furthermore, is it likely that the Bill will be sent to a committee for pre-legislative scrutiny when the heads of the Bill are published?

I am informed that the legislation is due before the end of the session. As per the norm, it is expected to go through the process of pre-legislative scrutiny.

Some 12,000 people in Ireland suffer from Parkinson's disease. Each and every one of them lives with the disease without much State assistance. Local county-level Parkinson's groups have operated in Ireland for many years. In Cork, one of these has been making the lives of Parkinson's sufferers somewhat easier. It raises funds locally for research and equipment for patients and last year purchased a minibus to take Parkinson's sufferers to events. This group keeps people with Parkinson's together so they can share information to help each other through a very difficult time in their lives.

The umbrella group, Parkinson's Association of Ireland, has experienced numerous changes in the past 12 months, many of which are affecting its branches on the ground. The association has sent strongly worded emails to the heads of local branches at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. I ask the Minister to bear in mind that these branch heads suffer with Parkinson's disease themselves. This is worrying and upsetting members.

I ask the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, to step in with the association to end any concerns on the part of the local branches before its AGM on 10 October. I ask the Government to try to get the local branches back to work on the ground, which will benefit Parkinson's sufferers in every town, village and country area throughout this country.

I absolutely support this cause. The benefits of those services to Parkinson's sufferers are real. I will pass the Deputy's comments and suggestions on to the Minister for Health and support the provision of those services in any way I can.

As the Minister will be aware, in County Cavan we do not have any rail line and do not have any east-west link as yet, though I am still hopeful. We are totally dependent on our road network. Some 70% of our population lives in rural areas. Our county sees very intensive rural commercial activity, leading to very high volumes of heavy goods vehicles on the local road network. There are very poor drainage conditions and, therefore, our roads are structurally weak. Page 9 of the programme for Government features a commitment to essential road maintenance and upkeep. Will the Minister commit to increasing the depleted allocation from his Department, which currently stands at €15 million? That must be restored to the €20 million allocation of ten years ago. At most, that will only allow us to protect County Cavan's regional and local roads. We need more funding to be allocated to Cavan County Council to protect what we have.

On the same issue, I note that our train services in Tipperary run at ridiculous times, which are unsuitable for anybody going to college or work. Can the Minister work with Iarnród Éireann to change the timetables? We are all about reducing carbon footprints by getting people out of their cars and onto public transport. There is no point in having public transport if we do not have timetables that suit people.

The challenge we have is we need to fund investment in both public transport and the road network. Areas where there is no public transport alternative, as Deputy Smyth pointed out, must take precedence within the roads maintenance budget, which is not extensive. Road maintenance will also help bus services, which can be part of the public transport solution.

I am very aware of the lack of co-ordination in the provision of services to allow for the most beneficial use of the Tipperary rail lines. I do not know if Deputy Browne is aware, but earlier during oral questions, we had a debate on the potential for development of rail freight services, which are completely contracted. If that happens, and it is a real strategic possibility, it might help us to make some of the necessary investments, particularly in those lines without significant passenger numbers. In that way, we could improve passenger services at the same time on lines in County Tipperary, for example.

It seems to me that that is one way of getting economic life back in the towns and counties along those lines.

Bus Éireann has agreed to carry out a review of the school bus service in order to comply with the 50% capacity ruling. It was expected that it would take five or six weeks and that additional buses would be provided to resolve the dreadful situation in which many families who do not have access to buses find themselves, as well as assisting beleaguered private bus operators. We now hear from Bus Éireann that the review may take up to 12 weeks, which would bring us up to Christmas. Many balls have been dropped by Bus Éireann throughout this process. I am aware of numerous children with special needs who, four weeks into the school term, still have not been able to attend school because Bus Éireann has not finalised the provision of transport for them. I acknowledge it will take money to sort out this crisis but the reality is that money invested will trickle down to private operators if Bus Éireann can get its act together. It is a semi-State company and it is important that, as such, it steps up to the plate at a time of national crisis. It receives more than €40 million in State subvention each year. Its handling of this crisis thus far has been disgraceful.

I call Deputy Martin Kenny on the same matter.

The school bus transport problems in rural Ireland are diabolical. Constituents based in various parts of the country have contacted me because they cannot go to work as they must bring their children to school. Many other people have been keeping their children home from school because there is no school bus available. There was a lack of organisation to deal with the problems caused by Covid. Initially, people could not get tickets. When they did get tickets, there was no space for them on the bus. They were then told the rules had changed. This is a crisis affecting ordinary families who are doing their best. There were problems before Covid and those problems have multiplied. An effort needs to be made to step up to the mark and recognise that families with school-going children in all parts of the country, not just in urban areas, have a right to a school transport system.

I am not sure from where the 12-week figure referenced by Deputy Flaherty in the context of a delay in Bus Éireann completing the review comes. My understanding is that the Department of Education and Skills will be coming to the Government within a much shorter timeframe with a review of the further changes we need to make to the public school transport system in response to the health advice. The system Bus Éireann and the Department set up in very difficult circumstances responded effectively and in a timely manner, with procedures and mechanisms to ensure children would be safe on buses as well as in their schools. Due to the unfortunate spike in numbers in the second half of August and early September which no one could control or manage, further health advice provided a short time before schools were due to return stated that further spacing should be catered for in order to follow public health advice to the letter. The Government made a decision to proceed with the plans that had been put in place because it was critical to get children back to school. I think that was the right decision. It was critical that children returned to school. There are and have been real difficulties, as all Members acknowledge. There are always difficulties with regard to the school transport system, such as schoolchildren not having the relevant concession. The Government agreed to see whether it could contract several hundred additional buses in order to meet the further health advice. That is what the Department of Education and Skills is now doing. I expect it to revert to the Government on the matter in the not too distant future and the House will be updated on that basis.

I am seated behind the Minister. I have his back. There are many vulnerable groups in society, but I wish to raise the plight of a particularly vulnerable small group, namely, expectant mothers. This issue has been raised previously in the House. Like many other Deputies, I have begun to receive an increased volume of correspondence from expectant mothers. As the Minister is aware, they are not allowed to be accompanied by their partner or spouse during labour, which is particularly isolating, lonely and distressing. In addition, they are not allowed to be accompanied by their spouse or partner when attending any pregnancy-related appointment. I recently received correspondence from a young woman who was one of just two expectant mothers in a waiting room capable of holding up to 100 people. Her husband had to wait for her in their car for up to five hours. I ask the Minister to explain the rationale behind these rules and to outline whether there is any hope of them being relaxed somewhat in the context of public health.

The Deputy's time is up. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to explain the rationale in a minute.

As I have stated several times during Leaders' Questions and questions on promised legislation, the Government tends to follow public health advice because it is a good north star to follow in these times. However, one sometimes wonders what is the rationale for particular decisions. In the instance cited by the Deputy, I tend to agree with him. The restrictions to which he referred are a remarkable imposition on and difficulty for expectant parents. Anyone who has been in that position knows that being present when one's child is born or when a scan comes through for the first time is one of the most important moments in one's life. I believe the restrictions are applied on a case-by-case basis. Different hospitals are applying different rules. My personal view is that it would be far better and more appropriate to allow partners to be present for those particular moments, as much for the resultant health benefits as for anything else.

I was contacted yesterday by a parent whose daughter is about to start college at UCD. Her timetable indicates that she will attend on campus for three days between now and January, yet the university is seeking full payment for her on-campus accommodation. The student and her parent have been told that they must pay up by this evening or her place will be cancelled. I acknowledge that the Minister stated there will be intervention on this matter, but I ask that the intervention by the Minister with responsibility for this area, Deputy Harris, whom I have contacted on this matter, be made today. Parents and students are under significant pressure after what has already been a very difficult year. We cannot have a situation where universities and colleges are charging full accommodation costs when students simply will not be on campus between now and January. Indeed, they may not be on campus for the rest of the academic year.

As I stated, the Government is asking colleges and universities to show flexibility, particularly where they have control of the accommodation. The impact of the pandemic on college life must be a great disappointment, particularly for those who are starting college this autumn. For those who are lucky enough to attend third level, it is an incredible time when one meets new friends who often turn out to be friends for life and when one begins learning in a new way. I hope that we can bring our numbers back to stability in a very quick timeframe. It is not about getting the numbers right down to the point of suppression. Rather, the public health ambition and goal is about stabilising the numbers such that we are not facing a doubling of cases every ten days. If that is done and the incidence of Covid in Dublin and other counties drops to a lower level, it may be possible for colleges and universities to introduce elements of face-to-face learning, as well as the other important part of college life, namely, interaction with one's peers and lecturers in a way that is not all online.

The section of the programme for Government which deals with education states that teachers and pupils are at the heart of the education system. Earlier this week, I visited Edmund Rice College in Blanchardstown. It has been waiting for a new school building for five years. It has now been told that the earliest it will be delivered will be February 2022. The reality is that construction takes far longer than that and the school believes the building will be delivered later that year, possibly in September 2022. If the Government can fast-track co-living developments, strategic housing developments, strategic infrastructure and prisons, why can it not fast-track schools? Why does it take so long for schools to be built? I appeal for the Government to look at the legislation and figure out whether we can get schools delivered quickly because there is serious pressure in Dublin 15 in the context of school places.

It is my understanding that the Department of Education and Skills was standardising the process and has a staged process which aims to smooth out the difficulties in order that schools are built quickly. If the Deputy provides me with details of the case in question, I will forward them to the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, and ask her to identify the best possible timeline for the delivery of the school.

The programme for Government outlines that the Government wishes to establish a national medicines agency to set a fair price for drug reimbursement. I can tell the Minister that that process is not working. I am aware of applications for drug reimbursement which would save the State millions but which are not being approved because headline discounts of up to 50% are required. No cost-benefit analysis is being conducted with regard to the possible future impact on patients. I ask the Government to give consideration to that issue.

The programme for Government commits to the provision of a catheterisation laboratory in Waterford. Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach why there is a four-month procurement process to approve an approval.

The funding has been ring-fenced for almost 18 months and yet we are talking about entering a four-month procurement process on a project that should have started.

Can I also confirm that yesterday, in the House, the Taoiseach advised that there was diagnostic angiogram activity going on through a service-level agreement, SLA, in Waterford with the Whitfield Hospital? That is not the case. We have been delaying 30 diagnostic angiograms a week at University Hospital Waterford since February. I ask that the Government review this.

On the Waterford cath lab, which is critically important for the region, it was unfortunate that there were delays due to Covid-19 but it is intended that the project will now go to tender. The HSE advises that funding was allocated in the 2019 capital plan, as the Deputy said. The fire certificate was granted in June of this year. The disability access certificate was granted in April of this year. Preparation of contract documentation has commenced and the contract selection is complete subject to a cooling off period. As to why there is that four-month period, it is deeply frustrating in our State and, unfortunately, I have seen it in so many different areas. I suppose the only, best and honest answer is we conduct procurement to the dotting of "i"s and crossing of "t"s properly so that there is never any question and that it is safe from any legal challenge.

Can we expedite it?

I am sure the Deputy would not be alone among the Deputies from Waterford in asking that it would be expedited. I will certainly pass that on and try and make sure that the timeframe shortened as best we can.

There are three Deputies remaining - Deputies Ó Murchú, Tully and Nash. If I give them 30 seconds each, they can raise their three matters.

My question relates to testing centres. We also have a difficulty in relation to the numbers in County Louth at present, specifically, at the north end of the country. We are talking about the test centre being moved from Dundalk to Ardee. Deputy Munster has already mentioned on many occasions that there is no test centre in Drogheda. We are talking about two large urban setting and chasing down this virus. We need to look at rapid testing and other matters but we need to ensure there are test centres in the right places. There is a difficulty for people in relation to cars. We have a difficulty with ambulance services anyway and we do not want to put them under any more strain.

I want to raise the issue of children waiting for psychological assessments. The waiting list is quite long as it is but it has been exacerbated by Covid. Many psychologists have been drafted in to conduct testing and tracing. As a result, many children are waiting on the list and they cannot get the supports they need without the assessments. Can the Minister give me an update on that?

The KBC tracker mortgage scandal illustrates something problematic in this country. It is that we do not do accountability. The culture of banking needs to change in this country. While my party welcomes the €18.3 million fine issued by the Central Bank today, it does not change anything in terms of holding individual bankers to account for their actions. Corporations do not make decisions; individuals do. Two years ago, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, promised to introduce a new senior executive accountability regime. The Minister has failed to do that. Can the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, inform the House as to when that new regime will be in place?

Starting with Deputy Ó Murchú, we were here on the Topical Issue Debate the other night on this issue of the testing centres. If my memory serves me correctly, the issue about the need for one in Drogheda, Louth and Dundalk was raised. I am trying to recall what the Minister of State said at the time. I understand he did not rule out the delivery of that testing centre.

The HSE is operating one per county.

We cannot get into it, sorry.

I will come back to the Deputy if I have any news on that.

I would have to say the same to Deputy Tully. I will have to provide a written reply. I will ask the relevant Minister to provide an assessment. I do not have the figures here in front of me. I will forward the question to the Minister and ask that he replies.

Lastly, I absolutely agree with Deputy Nash. I refer to the problem in the Irish banking sector in the past 40 or 50 years. It is not a recent phenomenon. There has been a range of instances dating right back where lax standards in character, culture and tolerance of failings have bedevilled Irish banking and that needs to change. I am not aware of what the Minister, Deputy Donohoe's proposals were with regard to monitoring and policing standards in that area but white-collar crime cannot pay. We must make sure that such crime is seen to be treated in the same way as if someone was robbing in a different way. I do not have the particular legislative measure but I will try to find out and respond.