Commencement Matters (Resumed)

Tax Code

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English. This issue relates to the need for the Minister for Finance to ensure the introduction of first-time buyer's tax relief is extended to those who have had to surrender their homes on foot of a court order, for example, those who have been divorced or those whose house has been repossessed. Starting over again will be a lot harder as the period between now and the retirement age of 66 years is shorter and the repayments will be much higher. In many cases, people's circumstances have changed and they are now in a position to start over by buying a new home. However, those who have had to surrender a home on foot of a court order find they have to pay a deposit of 20% under the Central Bank rule. I ask the Minister for an extension of the tax relief scheme to include all those who have lost their homes on foot of a court order.

The Minister of State last week addressed the issue of local authority mortgages and I believe this issue needs to be addressed in the budget. The statistics for the number of mortgages issued through local authorities under the home choice loan scheme demonstrate that since 2009 only 21 loans have commenced, which is an average of just three a year in a period of seven years. This is a huge issue that needs to be addressed, given that in the same period some 1,100 standard local authority mortgages have commenced. I ask the Minister of State to examine the provision of mortgages through the local authorities and extend the scheme and increase the cap, as there is an issue in this regard. Overall, some people are not qualifying for mortgages and that issue needs to be addressed.

I am representing the Minister for Finance who sends his apologies as he cannot be present.

The second issue raised by the Senator is one that was raised in the House last week and is under constant review. I made it clear to the Senator's colleague that we would take on board suggestions. However, with regard to schemes that have a low drawdown figure, we cannot force people to take part in a particular scheme. They are choosing the other scheme as they judge it has better conditions, which has resulted in the respective figures being 1,200 and 21.

The reason is that product suits them better, but I made it clear that if the Senator had ways to make it better, we would take on board all suggestions. However, there was a lack of suggestions in last week's debate. We are open to suggestions and the Minister and I are keeping everything under review because we want to make mortgages available to people who want to buy homes, where appropriate. Local authority mortgages are only available if applicants have been refused credit by two lending institutions. We will take on board all suggestions.

With regard to the issue raised, the macroprudential rules are set by the Central Bank of Ireland which is independent of the Government. The Minister trusts that the Senator and her party have brought their concerns about the classification of the cohort of buyers she referenced to the attention of the Central Bank as part of its review of the macroprudential residential mortgage lending measures.

A key priority for the Government is the development of a fully functioning housing market that responds adequately to the needs of citizens. To this end, Rebuilding Ireland - An Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness was launched on 19 July by the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government who has primary responsibility for the delivery of the action plan with cross-departmental support, including from the Departments of Finance, Health and Social Protection. As a complement to the structural actions contained in the action plan, a commitment to introduce a new tax-based help-to-buy incentive was also announced, with the full details of the incentive to be provided on budget day.

The Government is conscious that there is a supply shortage of housing and of the challenges individuals face in meeting the macroprudential rules for residential mortgage lending. It is against this background that the Minister for Finance has asked his officials to design the new incentive. One important consideration that was taken into account was that the incentive could not be designed to circumvent the requirements of the macroprudential rules but to assist home buyers in meeting the deposit aspect of those rules. In that regard, the Senator will be cognisant of the supports that have been provided by successive Governments in recognition of the difficulties faced, in particular, by first-time buyers. These have taken the form of grants and additional mortgage interest relief for such purchasers.

Subject to the approval of the Oireachtas, eligibility for the new incentive will be backdated to take effect from 19 July 2016. That was the date of publication of the action plan and the Government did not wish to cause any interruption in the housing market as a result of potential purchasers deciding to defer purchases, pending the commencement of the incentive. The Minister for Finance will outline the full details of the incentive, including eligibility criteria and implementation method on budget day next week. He is sympathetic to the situation of those who have had to surrender their homes on foot of a court order. However, there are many potential scenarios in which such orders have been or will be made and it would be difficult to treat all of those scenarios in the same manner. Some individuals may have access to a residual equity amount following such orders. Furthermore, those who have divorced may have had access to grants or increased mortgage interest relief by virtue of previous classification as a first-time buyer. It would again be the case that such individuals may have sold a family home, with the proceeds being split between the parties.

There are many individuals who face the difficult task of saving the increased deposit required by the Central Bank macroprudential rules for non-first-time buyers. However, this rule takes account of existing equity that can be available to such buyers. The Minister has concerns that providing additional access to relief for special cases would lead to additional lobbying across the board. Responding legislatively to difficult cases does not, in general, make good tax law or practice. Furthermore, he is of the view that it would be inequitable to treat one class of non-first-time buyers more beneficially than another class, particularly when such individuals may have already received additional supports from the State when they first bought homes. I hope this brings clarity to the issue for the Senator

I welcome the Minister of State's response. He referred to homelessness, but there is a housing crisis and a lack of supply. People who are unable to secure a mortgage will end up renting for the rest of their lives and something needs to be in place for them. To get a local authority mortgage, one has to have been refused by a bank and a building society. This applies to first-time buyers also. I want to make sure everybody can get a mortgage. I am delighted that first-time buyers will get tax relief, but it needs to be extended. If it is not, the housing crisis will worsen because the core issues leading to homelessness will not have been addressed.

There are many causes of homelessness, including financial problems, illness and family issues. The help-to-buy scheme we are proposing in the budget will not be the only solution. The action plan for housing sets out 84 actions.

The Minister and I are confident that with the implementation of the 84 actions and a spend of €5.5 billion which has been set aside to drive this agenda, we will tackle the crisis in the provision of housing accommodation and homelessness. We can fix this issue if we have the full support of all Departments, the Independents and €5.5 billion of taxpayers' money.

Please bear in mind that the incentives to be identified in the budget next week will target a particular sector. It is quite clear to us that first-time buyers are finding it difficult to purchase a house owing a low supply of houses. What will be implemented in the budget next week has to do with the supply of housing. There is not a supply of houses in that price range; therefore, we must stimulate the first-time buyers' market. One must analyse the solutions in terms of the overall action plan, not just what will be included in the budget next week to address the concerns raised.

Trade Union Agreements

The Minister of State, Deputy English, will respond to the next matter.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for coming to take this matter. I am somewhat disappointed that no Minister from the Department of Health is present. This issue was raised by my colleague, Senator Máire Devine, on an Order of Business. She raised the matter with the Taoiseach when he was in the House last week.

The Minister of State will be aware that in December 2015 the Psychiatric Nurses Association of Ireland, PNAI, and SIPTU's nursing unions reached an agreement with the Department of Health and the HSE to restore full recognition of the 36-week internship from 2011 onwards. It appears that the Department unilaterally changed the agreement and only sanctioned recognition for those who graduated from this year onwards. This has created the anomalous situation where nurses and midwives who graduated between 2011 and 2015 will earn less than those who graduated before 2011 and, in some cases, less than those who graduated this year.

Apart from being discriminatory, receiving different pay for the same work is profoundly demoralising and will affect already challenging retention rates. I do not need to remind the Minister of State of the outright failure of the bring our nurses home campaign, of the importance of retaining nurses to ensure the winter beds initiative can be delivered and that the annual overtime agency costs, currently in the region of €22 million, will be reduced. Denying this particular cohort an incremental credit is false economy. I am aware that following their demonstration on 27 September, the unions met the Minister for Health who agreed that there was a pay anomaly and that he would make representations to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

I have three questions for the Minister of State. Why and on whose authority was it decided to change the 2015 agreement in the first place? When and how soon will the anomaly be reversed? Will he guarantee that the anomaly will be reversed before budget 2016?

We are all acutely aware of the precarious nature of industrial relations. We are sitting on a tinderbox. I have called for the reopening of the Lansdowne Road agreement, as I want everybody under the umbrella. I believe having everybody in would suit the Government and the overall recovery policy for the country. The current situation is totally unnecessary and something we must guard against. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State answered my three questions.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue and his three questions. I am speakomg on behalf of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, who was invited to attend but could not make it. I cannot answer for the Minister for Health, but I do not think he was invited. Perhaps there is an issue in that regard. I will set out the scene in respect of the issue raised and answer some of the questions posed.

In response to the last question on whether I can guarantee that this will be changed before budget 2016, I cannot guarantee it because it is budget 2017 that will be announced next week. I cannot guarantee that it will be changed, but I know about the issue and will set out the timeline.

It was asserted that there was no consultation, but that is not the case. There has been consultation between the Department of Health, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the unions and even the Workplace Relations Commission. Plenty of consultation has taken place. It is unfair to say there was no consultation, but I know the point the Senator was trying to make.

The main issue the Senator is raising is that the INMO and other nursing unions, the PNA and SIPTU, have initiated a campaign aimed at restoring incremental credit for the 36-week clinical placement undertaken in the fourth and final year of their degree programme in respect of former nursing trainees serving in the period 2011 to 2015. The background to this issue is that incremental credit for the 36-week clinical placement undertaken by fourth year student nurses was abolished by the then Government in December 2010 as part of a range of measures aimed at reducing the public service pay bill. Prior to this decision, nurses following graduation would go onto the second point of the salary scale after 16 weeks on taking up appointment with the HSE.

The issue of the incremental credit for the trainee nurses concerned was raised during the negotiations on the Lansdowne Road agreement and, arising from this, a chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement specifically provided for consideration of the matter. The details in this regard were to the effect that incremental credit for the trainees concerned would be examined in the context of nurse and midwifery recruitment and retention. This process of examination involving the relevant management and union interests concluded in January 2016 and subsequently the Department of Health forwarded a business case to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform proposing the restoration of incremental credit for the student placement - for those who did not qualify for it between 2011 and the end of 2015 and future graduates.

On consideration of the business case, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform agreed to sanction the restoration of incremental credit for the clinical placement in respect of trainees "currently on placement or who will in the future be assigned a placement". However, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform' sanction also stated the question of extending sanction to post-2011 nurses not in receipt of such credit may be reviewed on foot of consideration of whether the sanction granted would result in an increase in retention rates of trainee nurses in 2016 and 2017. This requirement to review the impact of the incremental credit in terms of its effect on recruitment and retention rates among the trainee nurses concerned was considered reasonable and prudent, having regard to the original terms of reference provided for in the chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement. In that context, in February 2016 the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform sanctioned recognition of the 36-week placement as qualifying for incremental credit for students on a placement in 2016 and into the future.

As mentioned, the sanction stated the question of awarding incremental credit for the placement to nurses who graduated between 2011 and 2015 might be reviewed on foot of consideration of whether the sanction granted in respect of 2016 graduates and future graduates resulted in an increase in retention rates for these graduate nurses. Those nurses who undertook the placement in 2016 recently completed their placements and are only now in the process of getting registered. It will, therefore, only become evident in the immediate term the extent to which the restoration of the credit will result in an increase in the retention rate of graduate nurses.

There are many initiatives under way to improve nursing staff levels throughout the country. The HSE is offering permanent posts to the 2016 degree programme graduates and offering full-time permanent contracts to those in temporary posts. The HSE launched an international staff nurse recruitment campaign which focused on attracting nurses back from the United Kingdom to jobs in Ireland last year. There was a particular emphasis on targeting Irish nurses who had left Ireland in the past few years and wanted to return home. They were offered a relocation package of €1,500, nursing registration costs with the NMBI and funded postgraduate education. There has been an increase of 1,163 nurses employed in public health services, bringing us to a total of 35,538 in August 2016, numbers having fallen by 4,000 between 2007 and 2014.

Notwithstanding the terms issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the review process on the impact of the sanction for currently serving trainee nurses, officials from the Department of Health and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform met recently to discuss whether there was scope to accelerate the review process for the restoration of incremental credit to 2011-15 graduates. Furthermore, the Minister for Health has written to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform on the matter. The issue is, accordinglym being reviewed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in consultation with the Department of Health, with a view to bringing the matter to a conclusion at the earliest time. However, the Senator will understand why I cannot give him a commitment on the timeframe in that regard. I know that he wanted it before the budget is annouinced next week. I cannot give him that commitment, but he will probably be happy enough to see that there is ongoing consultation on efforts to accelerate the review process, although it was in the context of retention rates. That gives space and flexibility for the issue to be resolved, but it will probably take a little time.

I thank the Minister of State for his forthright answer. It is at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that this query was aimed. I am rather shocked by the response that has been drafted for the Minister of State by the Department.

One must ask whether officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform understand anything about industrial relations. An agreement was reached between the HSE, the Department of Health and the nursing unions and somebody in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform decided to see whether it would work for the current graduates and if it did, to apply it retrospectively to the nurses who had stayed in the country. I met a number of nurses in Buswell's Hotel, some of whom had returned as mature students to take their nursing qualifications. By virtue of the fact they had children and were married, they could not emigrate like the remainder of their colleagues, but they will go at the first opportunity. They will do so because somebody in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform decided to see how the incentive would work with the graduates of 2016 and that if it worked, to perhaps apply it to the poor unfortunates who had stayed in the country. It really is not good enough. A deal is a deal and the incremental credit should immediately be restored to the graduates of 2011 to 2015. If there are only 1,500 of them, it would not cost a fortune. When the Minister of State goes back to the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, will he ask him to have a look at this issue in the interests of fairness, if nothing else? We must be fair in how we deal with employees.

I remind Senators that supplementary questions are a new invention to allow them back in, but some make statements again. Once the four minutes are up and the Minister responds, that should be the end of it. Does the Minister of State wish to add anything? That is why we cannot have five Commencement matters. The number used to be three and then went to four. That is why others cannot get in. I am not making comments personal to Senator Gerard P. Craughwell.

We all know that Senator Gerard P. Craughwell will push the boundaries in all cases which is welcome in most cases, but I am happy enough to respond.

He will push against them.

It might make our job harder.

It is quite clear that both Departments involved desire an outcome to resolves this issue. The Senator raised the issue of fairness. We must be fair to everybody involved in the Lansdowne Road agreement in terms of public sector pay. There is flexibility, but it is within the agreement that solutions must be found. A process was identified by which we could track this issue and if it helped to increase the retention rates of nurses, there might be scope. That is the process that was set out and which I understand was agreed through consultation. Progress has been made, with some good changes made in the past year or two. A little more time and more data measuring and reviewing the figures might give us the solution the Senator desires. The Ministers, Deputies Simon Harris and Paschal Donohoe, desire to see more nurses working here on the front line because we need them, but there must be fairness for all involved in the Lansdowne Road agreement. The Senator understands there must be a process to see how this issue can be addressed.

Psychological Services

I welcome the Minister of State and ask Senator Tim Lombard to make his case.

I welcome the Minister of State. She has been a frequent visitor since her appointment.

I raise the issue of psychological services in west Cork, in particular child and family psychology services. Recently, I was told by the HSE that there was a 22-month delay for a child to receive these services. I was very shocked to learn there was a wait of 22 months in cases where early intervention was required. The case I dealt with involved a very young child and 22 months is almost one third of that child's life. Issues such as dyspraxia need to be dealt with at a very early stage. Issues arise if there is not early intervention.

Research has shown that for a child's quality of life, physical and social well-being and economic potential into the future, early intervention is important. There has been a major cut in this service in the past few years, the restoration of which is vital. A scheme has been put in place under which nurses are offered €1,500 to return home. What initiatives are being put in place to improve psychological services in Cork? This is an emotive issue in that we are speaking about children, in particular. Mothers and fathers are concerned about their children not having an appropriate start in life and every delay of one week is a major worry for them. That parents have to wait 22 months for a first response from the HSE is shocking. I hope provision will be made in the budget to ensure parents will not have to wait almost two years to have a child assessed. Even at that point they are only getting a foot on the ladder in that the child will be the subject of an assessment but there will be no delivery of a service. This is a major concern.

I hope the Minister of State will use her powers to ensure this issue is addressed. If it not addressed, it will impact on society. While the development of mental health services is important, this, too, is an important issue. With proper funding, we can address this and other mental health issues and, I hope, provide the service the people of Cork, west Cork in particular, deserve.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue which I am taking on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, who is directly responsible for this area but unavoidably engaged elsewhere.

The primary care psychology service in the Cork and Kerry Community Health Care Organisation, CHO, area is a community-based service for children aged 18 years or under with social, emotional or behavioural problems. In addition to delivering interventions to service users with a wide range of clinical presentations and across different organisational environments, the service provides advice for other primary care service providers, including GPs. The majority of referrals to the child adolescent and family psychology service are from GPs and primary care and community-based referring agents. An increase in the number of priority referrals in primary care services represents the complexity and severity of concerns being referred for psychological input. Some are re-referrals to the service, in respect of which assessment and intervention have been offered but difficulties have returned or are of significant complexity and impact as to require repeated blocks of intervention. Other priority referrals relate to severity of impact on the day-to-day functioning of the child or young person and may indicate that difficulties pose a risk to his or her development, social, emotional and behavioural functioning.

The total number of patients on the primary care psychology service treatment waiting list in August was 1,124, of whom 523 had been waiting for longer than 52 weeks. The CHO has an approved complement of 12 whole-time equivalent staff. There are eight whole-time equivalents in place and recruitment of the remaining four whole-time equivalents by the HSE's national recruitment service is awaited. A number of actions are being undertaken within the psychology service to try to reduce the waiting list, including providing drop-in clinics which result in people not joining the waiting list; maximisation of the input of training psychologists and facilitating group work and staff training in so far as possible. Notwithstanding such actions, the increased complexity of cases has resulted in the rate of referrals significantly exceeding the rate of discharge, leading to increased waiting lists.

The HSE considers that the current referral rate may not truly reflect psychological need in the community. This raises a concern that the absence of intervention at the earliest possible opportunity is likely to result in children and adolescents requiring long-term more complex intervention. Local management is liaising with the national primary care office on further initiatives to reduce waiting times and numbers, including examining the potential recruitment of additional psychology staff for a period of 12 months to address the waiting list for those waiting longer than 26 weeks. Separately, clinical psychologists in child and adolescent mental health services within the CHO work across eight multidisciplinary teams.

Recruitment to CAMHS in the past 12 months with a specific remit for reducing the teams' waiting lists has successfully reduced waiting lists to fewer than 12 months in many sectors.

I can also advise the Senator that the HSE's national service plan 2016 provides dedicated funding of €5 million to address psychology services in primary care through the development of early intervention and counselling for young people. A revised model of care, focusing on facilitating better access, has been developed collaboratively by the primary care and mental health services in the HSE and is being considered by the Department of Health.

I thank the Minister of State for her very in-depth response. It all comes down to staffing which is probably the key issue in this debate. I welcome the Minister of State's statement on the 12 whole-time equivalents. However, four are still to be appointed. The actual issue is similar to the nursing issue, namely, whether we have the correct quality of workmanship and staff available. When we are trying to recruit staff to the sector, do we have to go abroad? What incentives are in place to bring those living abroad back to work here?

The Minister of State previously stated during another debate that the State was trying to entice nurses home by paying them an extra €1,500. Are we going down that road to try to entice people to fill these roles? It is to be hoped that if staff are recruited, services can be delivered. I again thank the Minister of State for her kind response.

Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.