Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

I must insist that we adhere to the one minute allowance for a question and answer.

The Taoiseach will have seen the trawlers across the water as he came to the convention centre today. There are fishermen and fishing families from all over Ireland here today. We have 12% of the waters of the European Union and we get 4% of the fish, one third of what we really should be getting. This costs us tens of thousands of jobs across coastal communities and hundreds of millions of euro. The injustice of the Common Fisheries Policy has been going on for years. The Taoiseach talks about resetting the relationship. Will he go to our European partners and demand the fair share of the fish in our waters for our fishing communities, particularly after the injustice of the Brexit deal when further cuts were made to the quota? Will he stand up for our fishermen and demand our fair share of the fish in our waters?

Ar dtús báire, caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuilimid ag tabhairt lántacaíocht d'iascairí na tíre. Tá an Rialtas taobh thiar dóibh. Beidh mise ag déanamh gach iarracht chun na deacrachtaí agus na fadhbanna atá acu a réiteach. Cuirfear níos mó infheistíochta isteach san earnáil agus tabharfar cabhair do na hiascairí de dheasca an Bhreatimeachta agus a thorthaí.

The Government stands in support of the fishers of this country. We understand the challenges of the Brexit deal given the fact that nearly one third of our catch up to that had been in British waters. In our view there has been a disproportionate burden sharing in respect of the Brexit deal and we will be pursuing the rectification of that in the context of the Common Fisheries Policy review of next year, but also through the Brexit adjustment fund to see how we can support fishers in the immediate future. We catch about 40% of the fish in our waters, which is about two thirds of what we catch overall.

The time is up.

A no-deal Brexit would have been very difficult and the Brexit deal we have creates a capacity for us to try to seek to retrieve some of what has been lost.

This morning, out of the blue, we learned that the Minister for Finance plans to flog off the remaining shares we own in Bank of Ireland. If we have learned anything from the crash it is that holding on to these shares puts a condition of good behaviour to some extent on the banks.

The Minister has not told us what he is going to do with the shares, so I will ask the Taoiseach directly, for the people of Ireland. It is estimated that €700 million will be raised from the sales. On behalf of the Irish people, what are the Government’s plans for this money if it goes ahead with the sale? Surely the Government is not going to pay down debt but rather use it to solve the housing crisis. Will the Taoiseach outline to us what the Government is going to use the money for? Is it for debt or housing?

Deputy Kelly is correct that the Minister for Finance announced this morning that the Government's intention is to sell part of the State's remaining 13.9% shareholding in Bank of Ireland over approximately the next six months through a trading plan. The State intervened more than a decade or so ago to rescue the Bank of Ireland. It protected the payments system, deposits, jobs and so on across the system. It has recorded a cash surplus to date on the investment. Approximately €5.9 billion has been generated, as against the €4.7 billion originally invested in the bank.

Deputy Kelly is also correct in saying that at the time of the commencement of the trading plan the State's remaining equity in the State bank is valued at around €700 million, but it can vary. Deputy Kelly is aware of the Government’s investment plans in terms of the recovery fund. The Government is in a proactive investment mode, in particular a public capital programme, both in housing, health and public transport. The national development plan will reflect that. We are in a deficit-----

The Taoiseach's time is up.

It is investment.

As the Taoiseach is aware, the number of people who contacted the domestic violence support service, Women’s Aid, increased by more than 40% last year. A similar concerning pattern is reflected in local services such as in west Cork where the West Cork Women Against Violence Project has seen an increase of more than 40% in calls and reports.

The Istanbul Convention specifies that there is one refuge space per 10,000 people. However, in Ireland we provide one refuge space per 10,000 women, leaving us with 50% less than the recommended number of refuge spaces. Given all of the very obvious reasons and the new worrying rise in reports of domestic violence, will the Taoiseach commit to fully complying with the Istanbul Convention?

That report is deeply concerning in terms of the broader issue of domestic violence. The Department of Justice leads national policy and co-ordination of actions. Additional resources have been provided. We are fully committed to implementing the Istanbul Convention but also to providing additional resources to support the agencies and non-governmental organisations involved, and the creation of more refuge facilities. The number of people who have contacted-----

What about compliance with the Istanbul Convention?

-----domestic violence support services increased by more than 40% last year compared to 2019. That is deeply worrying. We are very conscious of the impact of Covid on this issue, and in particular the restrictions. During that period Tusla prioritised the delivery of front-line domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, services. Funding has been increased-----

The question was about the number of refuge spaces we provide.

I know the question. I am sorry, the time is up.

I know. We need to do more. We have increased funding.

The time is up. The Deputies must excuse me.

I also want to deal with the question of Bank of Ireland. The Minister for Finance described it as a phased exit from the State’s stake in the bank. What that translates as is a process of full privatisation. After having bailed out the banks when they were in difficulty, fattened them up with public funds and returned them to profitability, we now propose to hand them back fully over to the private market which crashed them and caused the crisis in the first place. It is a disastrous decision from the point of view of the workers in the banks, the customers and society as a whole. We have seen time and again the problems of privatised banking. The 2008 crisis should be a lesson to us all that never again should such massive economic power be in the hands of a tiny number of banks. The lesson is that banking should be democratically controlled-----

I thank the Deputy. His time is up.

-----a public utility in the interests of society, used for example to provide credit for people in terms of the housing crisis.

I am not so sure international academic research backs that up. There is no compelling evidence that state-owned banks historically produced better outcomes or results for economies or societies. Invariably, state-owned banks in different locations around the world did not lend more or more cheaply than privately owned banks. No model is perfect, as we know from various crashes over the centuries. There is no compelling evidence base or research to back up what the Deputy said. We are not handing anything back. The shares are being sold. The State has divested itself of quite a lot of its investment in the Bank of Ireland and it has generated about €5.9 billion as opposed to the €4.7 billion that was originally invested.

I thank the Taoiseach. His time is up.

That is before disposing of these shares.

I have been contacted by numerous people from Tipperary who are among the 12,000 Irish people currently working in and residing in the United Arab Emirates, UAE. They cannot travel directly home this summer to visit family without undergoing mandatory hotel quarantine. They faced significant local pressure to take the Sinopharm vaccine in order to stay in employment. They have received both doses and they are fully vaccinated. Sinopharm is now recognised by the World Health Organization, WHO, but it is does not meet the regulations in Ireland that allow a person to quarantine in a person's own home. They cannot avail of the Pfizer vaccine as they have already been vaccinated. The Taoiseach might also be aware that the UAE has been very successful in combatting Covid. There are very tight restrictions in place and the Irish people in the UAE are tested every ten days. I ask that when these citizens return home, that they will be allowed on compassionate grounds to complete a home quarantine rather than the currently stipulated hotel quarantine.

I thank Deputy Lowry for raising this pertinent issue. He makes a very fair point, one I am conscious of myself having been approached by a number of citizens who are working abroad in the Gulf region, in particular in countries such as the UAE.

Of course, many of these people have been administered the Sinopharm vaccine and they are fully vaccinated. One of the challenges has been that only vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency, EMA, are currently regarded as complying fully with our requirements and removing the need for hotel quarantining for those who are fully vaccinated. I understand that Sinopharm is currently under a rolling review by the EMA. The Minister for Health has said in the House that this is certainly something we can take under consideration. We will keep it under review and will link in with the EMA and the WHO on this. As the Deputy knows, work is ongoing to develop the digital Covid certificate.

I have been asked to raise this issue by Mr. Stephen Fitzgerald of Aqua Splash. Aqua Splash is based in Dromineer, Nenagh, County Tipperary, and has just reopened after the lockdown. The insurance runs out next month. Not one insurer will renew its insurance; it has tried outside insurance companies that are regulated here in Ireland and they also refused. It has just got over the lockdown and now it is back in business. This is the fifth year running that it has had considerable difficulty with planning and insurance. It is an excellent facility, and my daughter, Mairéad, and my granddaughter, Cara Rose, used it last year.

All of these water sports are going to be closed in the coming months because they cannot get insurance. When is the Government going to do something with the insurance cartels that are going on? They will not pay people for Covid claims and now they will not insure viable, valuable assets. This is a young entrepreneur with a brilliant asset for the community and for surrounding counties, and for young people who want sport and exercise and everything that we should be doing outside, yet it could be closed because of insurance. This is blackmail and blackguarding of the highest order. I want the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, to meet this man.

There have been challenges for specific amenities of this kind in terms of getting insurance, which is unacceptable. Insurance companies are pulling back from the market at an increasing rate. While I do not know the exact specifics, I take very seriously what the Deputy is saying. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, to engage with the company.

Tá seirbhísí faoisimh nó respite services á n-ardú agam inniu. Tá sé níos cirte easpa sheirbhísí faoisimh a rá, i nGaillimh ach go háirithe, ach de réir mar a thuigim, ar fud na tíre. I am referring to respite services. I am in receipt of a letter, dated 14 June, confirming there are no respite services in Galway and that, in the HSE West area, they will not be resumed because tá siad ag fanacht ar threoracha ón Rialtas - they are waiting for a national directive. A year and three months after the declaration of the pandemic, that we have no respite services restored is simply unforgivable in a country that is telling our young people they can travel and telling people they can drink ad nauseam on our streets, yet we cannot restore respite services.

Táim buíoch den Teachta as ucht na ceiste. Aontaím go bhfuil sé tábhachtach go mbeidh seirbhísí faoisimh ar ais agus ar fáil do dhaoine, sna cásanna ina bhfuil géarghá ann ó thaobh na seirbhísí sin. I am satisfied to engage with the Minister in respect not just of Galway but of the entire country in terms of the restoration of respite services, notwithstanding the current pandemic. It is a very fair point that is being made.

I want to address the issue of vacancy in our towns and villages. The previous encouragement over many decades of one-off housing has undermined retail in our towns and villages as once people are in their cars, many choose to visit out-of-town retailers near the large urban centres. The Government has taken a progressive approach to rural development. The promised legislation I wish to ask the Taoiseach about is the commitment in Our Rural Future to examine the feasibility of introducing what is called “meanwhile use” legislation, so that empty buildings and shopfronts on main streets can be brought back into compatible use on a short-term, temporary basis as pop-up shops, street markets and exhibition spaces, or for other purposes in accordance with the "Putting Town Centres First" policies. This could be a welcome measure to bring vitality back to our towns and villages.

I agree with the Deputy. We need to move in terms of our towns first policy and in terms of rural development, and also, in my view, where we can, to incentivise people to reinvest or invest in buildings that are dilapidated or vacant, both for residential and entrepreneurial activities. It is something the Government is committed to. The key issue is to co-ordinate departmental work on rural development with the grants that are available, with broadband issues and with the creation of hubs in terms of entrepreneurship. That is something the economic recovery plan focuses on. Last year's July stimulus provided a lot of money for that as well, so we want to see that following through.

I want to raise the issue of the penalty interest rate which is going to be imposed on solicitors’ practices in regard to client accounts. As the Taoiseach is aware, solicitors protect the moneys from house purchases and of people who are selling their houses. Now, however, under the new proposal from the banks, AIB's intends to charge 0.5% on client current accounts where they exceed a certain amount and, likewise, Bank of Ireland intends to impose a penalty charge of 0.65%. This relates to current accounts and it applies once there is over €1 million in an account. If one is dealing with three or four transactions at any one time, there will be well over €1 million in an account. They are now going to be penalised and this is going to be added to the cost of house purchases in the long term. I ask what action the Government is going to take on this matter.

I will engage with the Minister for Finance in this regard and perhaps the Deputy could bring some details to him. The rates seem punitive. I will certainly engage with the Minister for Finance on that point.

I wish to raise the issue of the spiralling cost of building materials. In the last six to eight months, the price of timber has gone up by 50% and this is to increase to 60% by 1 July. Insulation has increased by 20%, steel has increased by 20% and concrete has increased by 10% to 20%. Why are we not issuing tree felling licences in this country, which is one thing that could help? I spoke to a person yesterday who imports furniture. Twelve months ago, he could bring in a 40 ft. container and, for transport alone, the container cost €2,800. Yesterday, that container cost €11,000, meaning an extra €400 is added to every suite of furniture in the container, and that is just for transport alone. What are we doing about the spiralling cost of building materials and what more can we do to deal with this problem?

There has been an issue around commodities globally and there has been an increase in costs in respect of building materials and fuel costs. Some of this is the recovering of declines, particularly in energy and fuel costs, where there would have been declines throughout 2020 on the 2019 prices, and some of that recovery is feeding into significant increases in prices now. However, there is an issue for the building industry; of that there is no doubt. Huge work has been done by the Minister in regard to the forestry issue. Twenty-one full-time ecologists have been recruited in regard to forestry licensing. Ten permanent forestry inspectors and additional administrative staff have been assigned to licensing and recruitment is to continue. We are very focused on this. There was a situation over a number of years with objections and so on, and the Oireachtas changed the legislation, as the Deputy knows. We are still conscious that we have an awful lot more to do.

I have been contacted by a number of young people, in particular in Roscommon and Galway, who had applied for their driver theory tests and been given their dates, but have since got letters cancelling them and rescheduling them. In one case, this has happened seven times. A young person who was due to do the theory test tomorrow has got a letter to say it is cancelled and rescheduled for 4 August, in six weeks' time. This is particularly a problem for young people in rural areas who want to take up summer work in the midst of silage season and, hopefully, hay in the next few weeks. It is obviously a problem for those in rural areas, where we do not have public transport as an alternative.

I understand additional resources have been put in place, which I welcome, but I ask the Minister for Transport to look at the issue of cancellations and at whether this issue is widespread. He should also examine if additional resources are needed for the National Driver Licence Service, which is providing the licences. There is now a four-week wait for provisional licences after people pass the theory test. I ask that this is looked at to ensure we get tests for people as quickly as possible.

As the Deputy knows, we pursued this as part of the reopening of society. The gradual reopening of in-person driver theory test centres commenced from 8 June. The Road Safety Authority reopened test centres and introduced capacity to increase the number of tests from an average of 15,000 tests to 25,000 tests monthly to tackle the backlog and shorten waiting times. Capacity will gradually increase to 50,000 tests monthly, when public health guidance permits.

The pilot online driver theory test has been running for truck and bus categories and is now being extended to include a limited number of car and motorbike tests. The new offering would see 4,000 online theory tests available for all categories of vehicles in June and that will be increased again in July. I will speak to the Minister for Transport but he is not operationally involved with specific appointments and cancellations, which I think is understood.

Page 76 of the programme for Government recognises a range of needs of the new Irish, yet at the same time there are ongoing difficulties and delays in processing naturalisation applications. Some of the applications that we have been dealing with are extending into their third year at this stage. Through that time, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, is holding original documentation. It becomes very difficult for applicants to do ordinary things when they need that documentation, such as opening a bank account, applying for loans, getting a Covid vaccination or a driver's licence. It is possible to get the originals back but it was more restrictive with the Covid restrictions. People do not want to do anything that could impede their application. Students who are in secondary school want to have their applications processed before they start-----

I thank the Deputy. His time is up.

People want to be able to finalise their applications and have their documentation to move on with their lives. What target or plan is there to have more timely processing of naturalisation applications?

I thank Deputy Moynihan. It is a very fair point. The Department of Justice has continued to accept and process applications throughout the pandemic at all levels of public health restrictions. Unfortunately, processing rates have been impacted by the health and safety restrictions imposed and it has not been possible to hold in-person citizenship ceremonies. Following a High Court case in 2019, there was a successful appeal to the Court of Appeal, which resulted in significant delays. There are approximately 24,500 applications which are at various stages in the system, ranging from those just received to those where a decision has been made. Between 12,000 and 13,000 applications are received each year. On 18 January, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, opened a temporary system that enables applicants to complete the naturalisation process by signing a statutory declaration of loyalty. Approximately 2,900 people have received their Irish citizenship since then.

I thank the Taoiseach. His time is up.

A further 3,000 applications have been fully processed by the Department but the applicants need to return their signed statutory declarations. Approximately 6,500 will have been offered and we take the Deputy's point.

Given the ongoing impact of Brexit on the food-producing sector on the island of Ireland, what efforts continue to be made to minimise the impact and address the issues arising?

Work is ongoing to minimise the impact of Brexit. It is close to six months since the formal exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. It is clear that it is already having an impact on trade and patterns of trade. It is certainly causing a reconfiguration and recalibration for both importers and exporters, as well as the impact that Brexit is having on the operations of companies in Britain, especially their trade with Europe and Ireland.

In places in rural Ireland such as Kilgarvan, Gortderrig, and Headfort, when a bridge on a local road goes down, why does it take 12 months or more to reopen these roads? It is a massive inconvenience to go on a five or seven mile detour for farmers, contractors and school buses. Even the ambulance came up on the wrong side for one very sick man and was delayed by over an hour finding the way back to where it should have been. It is all because of statutory processes that the Department is requesting, including environmental and planning assessments for structures that have been in place for more than 140 years. If this was in Dublin or Cork city, people would not be inconvenienced to this extent. Why are we allowing this to happen?

I thank the Deputy. His time is up.

Deputy Aindrias Moynihan was speaking earlier. The road from Top of Coom to Ballingarry was closed for two years because of these silly requests.

Please, Deputy.

People's lives are being utterly changed because of this delay.

I thank the Deputy for raising the point. I do not know whether he has been in touch with his county council.

Of course I have. Johnny Healy-Rae and Maura Healy-Rae have the phone broken trying to get these bridges open.

The Deputy has a fair bit of representation on Kerry County Council. He might more readily know why there has been a failure to get these bridges rebuilt more quickly. When a bridge falls down or collapses, I presume there are significant safety issues that have to be investigated. I agree that the sooner road structures can be restored to facilitate travel and so on, the better.

It is up to two years.

I raise the vital services provided by various schemes across the country, saving the State millions and providing vital social contact for participants and beneficiaries alike. The Tús scheme in south Kerry is running at about 55% capacity. The Department of Social Protection is not activating it and it needs to. The rural social scheme will be in sharp decline due to the six year rule, which needs to be abolished because the scheme is vital for rural farmers and communities. More than 10% of participants in it need to be over 62. That rule needs to be changed because sending people back on a jobseeker's payment from 62 to 68 is not acceptable. The rates of pay need to be increased to reflect the cost of living and increased transport costs. The 2008 Labour Court ruling on pension and gratuity schemes needs to be changed. It is not too late to do something for those people who gave so many years to the community. The benefit to the community needs to be reviewed, recognised and appreciated, rather than underfunded.

The Government is committed to supporting community employment, including Tús and other employment support programmes. When in government in the past, my party was instrumental in introducing all those schemes. Last year, we spent €341 million on community employment. Some €84 million was spent on Tús schemes. There are approximately 200 Tús schemes nationwide and 871 community employment schemes with 23,000 participants across both schemes, so they are significant. As part of the July stimulus, we provided funding for an additional 3,000 employment support scheme placements. I will raise the issues that the Deputy has raised with the Minister. I assure the Deputy that we remain committed to these schemes. We believe they have a significant role to play in community development.

I am sure the Taoiseach is appreciative, as I am, of the way in which the gardaí have effectively conducted policing throughout Covid. However, the Central Statistics Office figures issued recently show that while generally, crime rates are down by a third, crime with weapons has increased by 25%, particularly knife crime. Assault rates are almost as high as they were before the pandemic and sexual assault remains as high as it was before the pandemic. There are worrying signs of increased aggression and sometimes it is racially motivated. Would the Taoiseach consider new initiatives, such as that suggested by my colleague, Deputy Neale Richmond? The knife amnesty was successful in Scotland. The new Garda Commissioner's approach to community policing is welcome but we need to look at international innovations to see if we can maximise the effectiveness of our deployment to ensure that people feel safe on the street.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. It is of concern that the rate of violent crime and crime with weapons has increased, especially knife crime. The Minister for Justice is conscious of this. The Garda Commissioner is developing a strong community garda initiative. There are strong penalties upon conviction for possessing a knife in a public place without good reason or lawful authority, having been increased from one to five years. The powers of search without warrant have been extended for knives and offensive weapons. I take the point that has been made about an amnesty. Such amnesties happened in the past. I will certainly discuss that with the Minister for Justice to see if issues around that can be pursued.

In 2018, Irish people voted overwhelmingly to repeal the eighth amendment. They voted to give women autonomy and choice over their decisions and their bodies. Deputies and Senators in democratically-elected Chambers legislated for that accordingly. Those laws made by our legislators, not Canon Law, should determine women's reproductive health services.

Religious involvement in the offering of services accessible in the national maternity hospital would be as inappropriate and as out of place as medical involvement over what is said at mass. How do we ensure that women can access the full complement of maternity and reproductive healthcare and have full autonomy over their bodies and their choices in our new national maternity hospital?

I agree 100% with what the Deputy has said. The governance arrangements for the new national maternity hospital will be absolutely clear. There will be absolutely no religious involvement in the management, ownership or operation of that hospital. All legally available services in the State will be available to the women who access services in the hospital.

Three Deputies remain on the list. If they put their questions in 30 seconds, one after another, we will get a brief response from the Taoiseach. If that is not good enough, we will move on to the next business.

As I speak, thousands of families from fishing communities throughout the country have gathered outside. I welcome what the Taoiseach said earlier about the review of the Common Fisheries Policy next year and that the Brexit deal creates the capacity to address the situation as it is. I want him particularly to look at the unfairness in the quota allocated for line mackerel.

Today is World Whistleblowers' Day. In light of the European directive and the review of the protected disclosures legislation, the Taoiseach should ask his Ministers to deal with all the protected disclosures in a constructive way within their Departments. In particular, I ask him to look at the ones that have been dealt with on the floor of this House, including those from the Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, and those made by John Barrett. Lucia O'Farrell exposed many questions relating to structures of the State. I ask the Taoiseach to take an initiative that will bring all of these to a conclusion rapidly and in fairness to those who are making the disclosures.

The Taoiseach said there would be no cliff edge for people on the pandemic unemployment payment. Taxi drivers informed me yesterday of something I did not know and I ask the Taoiseach to confirm it. It now turns out that there is a cliff edge in September and then again in November. If someone's payment reduces from €250 to €203, he or she will immediately be pushed to go on jobseeker's payment. The whole point about people on the PUP is that they are not jobseekers. Taxi drivers, musicians and others will be forced to be categorised as jobseekers and have their PUP withdrawn. That is a cliff edge and it is completely unacceptable.

In response to Deputy Conway-Walsh, Brexit itself does not give the capacity, but a review of the Common Fisheries Policy will take place next year. The Government will engage in all aspects of that with the European Commission and other member states.

Deputy McGuinness pointed out that today is World Whistleblowers' Day. He has been very involved in a number of issues in that regard. I will certainly engage with Ministers to ensure that all protected disclosures are dealt with properly, effectively and constructively.

I say to Deputy Boyd Barrett that there has been no cliff edge. We have extended the schemes and the supports. We have also added new supports. Last week's package provided additional supports for taxi drivers.

There is a cliff edge, but the Government did not announce it as a cliff edge.