Commencement Matters

Legal Costs

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, for coming to the House to deal with this matter. The issue I am raising relates to the legislation passed by both Houses on the restructuring of the adjudication system for the taxation of costs where agreement cannot be reached between a party which has succeeded in a case and a party which has lost.

There were two Taxing Masters in the High Court. My understanding is that one of those Taxing Masters has not been reappointed as her contract was for a period of five years. There is now only one Taxing Master dealing with the adjudication of High Court and Supreme Court costs for the entire country. That is not adequate.

Will the appropriate commencement notice be put in place to ensure the structure for the adjudication of costs is established and they are dealt with in a speedy manner? Several legal colleagues dealing with Departments on the other side of cases have come to me because they are finding substantial delays in dealing with the issues of costs. I am disappointed by this when one considers we insist private sector bills are paid within a timeframe of not more than 60 days, yet these issues with Departments are dragging on for 12 months and 18 months. There is no procedure for dealing with it other than we now have only one Taxing Master.

That is the reason I have been asked by colleagues to raise this matter. It is an important matter that we should deal with at the earliest possible date.

The Legal Services Regulation Act 2015 provides for independent regulation of the legal profession to improve access and competition, make legal costs more transparent and ensure adequate procedures for addressing consumer complaints. The 2015 Act makes extensive provision in Part 10 for a new and enhanced legal costs regime which will bring greater transparency to how legal costs are charged, along with a better balance between the interests of legal practitioners and those of their clients. As part of this structural reform, under section 139(1) of the Act, the existing Office of the Taxing Master, which is an office of the High Court, is to become the Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicators.

The need to bring the Office of the Taxing Master to full working capacity is something of which the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, and the Department, are acutely aware. Officials are actively working with their colleagues in the Courts Service to deal with this in preparation for the changeover to the new office. The new office will come into effect with the commencement of the relevant provisions of Part 10 of the 2015 Act which they expect to happen later this year. The changeover to the new office, therefore, not only enables the introduction of key structural reforms for dealing with disputed legal costs but also enables them to reconfigure that function in a way which will better meet work demand. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality assures the Senator this detailed preparation is already being undertaken by a specifically tasked joint working group chaired at assistant secretary level by the Department of Justice and Equality which is working in close co-operation with its colleagues in the Courts Service. The working group, which has been meeting regularly, is mandated to map out and oversee the various practical steps to be taken to get the new Office of the Legal Costs Adjudicators up and running. This work is also intended to ensure the relevant new legal costs adjudication processes, documentation, rules of court and IT systems can be put in place in a legally robust manner. By the same token, it is intended that the resourcing of the new office will reflect its enhanced statutory mandate.

These preparations are being actively supported with the expertise and experienced inputs of the current Taxing Master whose term of office has recently been extended for transitional purposes under an enabling provision which the Minister introduced specifically for that purpose under the Courts Act 2016.

That Act also included a number of other measures to facilitate the timely winding down of the existing caseload of referrals before the Office of the Taxing Master.

Senators will appreciate that the transition to the new legal costs adjudicators regime is a very fundamental reform, one that requires planning and management, with careful management of potential risks, in particular. Under this working strategy, it is also anticipated that a second taxing master will be appointed shortly whose services, with those of the existing Taxing Master, will be available to transition to the new legal costs adjudicators regime and deal effectively with the existing and ongoing Taxing Master caseload.

I note that the Minister of State is saying a second taxing master is to be appointed shortly. Will this be in a very short timeframe such as within the next three to four weeks, or will it be within the next six months? There is a backlog and it is unfair. There was a period during which the current Taxing Master was out on sick leave, for very genuine reasons, and there was no one at all available to deal with adjudication. I ask that the second person be appointed and that the new structures be set up at the earliest possible date. We have debated this matter. The legislation dates from 2015. We really need to move on. Where people are entitled to recover costs for work that they have done, on being successful in their case, they should not have to wait for two to three years to do so.

I do not have the exact dates requested by the Senator. I will ask that they be communicated to him as soon as possible. I assure him again that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality and her Department are fully apprised of the current issues concerning the Office of the Taxing Master and working to achieve a very early solution in that regard.

Electronic Tagging

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, for coming to the House to outline his plans for the introduction and implementation of electronic monitoring. As he knows, section 102 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 provides for the electronic monitoring of the restrictions of an offender's movements imposed by a court under section 101 of the same Act. To date, the section has not been commenced, but I understand electronic monitoring has been used by the Irish Prison Service to monitor offenders who have been granted temporary release from prison - for example, those who need to attend hospital as inpatients. I understand that approximately 50 prisoners were electronically monitored, with good success, under the pilot scheme. I am also aware that the electronic monitoring of offenders out of bail or post-conviction is a controversial issue that requires the balancing of society's need to reduce reoffending with the serious implications of removing or restricting a citizen's liberty.

I agree with the view of the Irish Penal Reform Trust that any interference with the rights of someone facing trial must be proportionate and justified. While I can appreciate these concerns, my research indicates that Ireland is very far behind the rest of Europe when it comes to electronic monitoring. Our approach has been extremely conservative and, at worst, completely behind the curve. Electronic monitoring has been used successfully for over 20 years in the United Kingdom and for over 30 years in Australia.

Last year the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Act 2015 was introduced. It targets repeat offenders with consecutive sentences and the option for bail to be denied. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, said she wholeheartedly agreed with this and that the burglary of a person's home was a heinous crime and traumatic for every victim. Furthermore, the high rates of recidivism and limited resources are causing havoc in communities. We know from statistics raised from An Garda Síochána's analysis service that 75% of burglaries are committed by 25% of burglars or offenders. I am joined in the Visitors Gallery today by Councillor Lynsey McGovern from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown who is extremely concerned about the number of burglaries in Dublin's eastern Garda division which covers most of the southside. In 2016 the biggest increase was in the Dundrum area which saw a 25% rise. It is mirrored in other areas where highly organised gangs have replaced the casual opportunist burglar.

While the 2015 Act is bound to be effective and to be welcomed as a disincentive to committing multiple burglaries, it relies entirely on the punishment model.

While I agree with the importance of keeping burglars off the streets, the rehabilitative aspect of a custodial sentence must not be ignored. The Tánaiste, Deputy Fitzgerald, is on record as stating: "Monitoring of a convicted offender's movements, whether by electronic means or otherwise, does not provide a focus on rehabilitation in the same way that supervision does nor does it provide the security of a prison sentence in preventing further offences."

I believe it does not have to be an either-or scenario and that the combination of the electronic monitoring of burglars and habitual offenders while out on bail and post-conviction, with strong support services, offers a viable solution. Research shows that where electronic monitoring is developed with high levels of support from probation and other services, the rate of re-offending can be greatly reduced.

I acknowledge that electronic monitoring is an expensive process but technology is developing at speed. When I walked down Grafton Street at lunch time today, I received several notices on my mobile phone informing me of the various retail outlets and what they had on offer. We are all being monitored at some level and surveillance systems now can greatly strengthen the system of bail and streamline the monitoring of those awaiting trial.

Electronic monitoring has been described as a force multiplier. In times of greatly reduced Garda numbers and the closure of Garda stations, this is to be welcomed. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Department, the Tánaiste, Deputy Fitzgerald, and in terms of his own influence, to give serious consideration to widespread use of electronic monitoring as a disincentive and rehabilitative measure in the case of burglaries, sex offences and other serious crimes. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

I am here on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, who sends her apologies as she cannot be present. I thank the Senator for raising this issue and for his thoughtful and well-researched presentation.

As the Senator will be aware, the programme for Government gives a commitment to the preparation and fast-tracking of new bail legislation. The new Bail (Amendment) Bill, which recently completed Second Stage in the Dáil, will expand the factors a court may take into account in refusing bail, will increase the range of conditions that may be attached to bail, will enable victim evidence to be heard in certain circumstances and will require the court to give reasons for its decisions.

In addition, the Bill will make provision for electronic monitoring of persons on bail based on existing but uncommenced provisions in the Bail Act 1997. Unlike the existing provisions, the new Bill provides that electronic monitoring may be imposed as a bail condition only if the prosecution applies to the court for such a condition. This will ensure that the use of electronic monitoring can be targeted at those cases where it is most likely to be effective.

In parallel with the progress of the Bill, the Department of Justice and Equality has established a working group to examine issues surrounding electronic monitoring. The group is comprised of officials from the Department of Justice and Equality, the Irish Prison Service, the Probation Service, the Courts Service, An Garda Síochána and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The working group has been tasked with examining the suitability of the category of offences that should be focused on, examining the suitability of the category of alleged offenders that should be focused on, examining similar best practice examples from neighbouring jurisdictions, examining how any new electronic monitoring system will interact with other existing supervisory schemes, examining the arrangements to be put in place for contracting out this type of monitoring service and examining the resource implications for the implementation of any new system.

I can inform the Senator that the working group has already met three times since its inception in December 2016 and will continue to work in a focused way on this issue. The working group intends to make its recommendations for consideration as soon as possible in line with the progress of the legislation through the Oireachtas.

I thank the Minister of State. Like Councillor McGovern, I live in the area we are talking about. The week before last, while a man suffering from motor neurone disease was being helped into his family car to go for medical treatment, burglars literally walked through the front door, took anything that was of value, went out the back door, climbed over my garden wall and got away. My garden wall is the best part of 10 ft. high on that person's side.

We were promised that Stepaside Garda station would reopen. At a recent public meeting, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport stated it was not a question of "if" but of "when". That would help to some degree in our area but I agree with Councillor McGovern, who has put a huge amount of work into the electronic tagging issue, that it is probably the best solution overall. At least we will know where these people are and we can identify them post crime. They can do an entire estate now in one evening. The issue is becoming very serious.

I again thank the Senator for his input. The working group intends to make its recommendation as soon as possible in line with the progress of the legislation going through the Oireachtas.

It has been established, it will continue its important work in this area and it will report its findings very soon. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality will then be in a position to consider the proposals in full and will report to the House at that stage.

General Practitioner Services

General practitioner services have been declining in recent years and, as a result, there is a chronic shortage of GPs throughout the country. It is impossible to get GPs to locate in rural Ireland and the people in towns and villages throughout the country are left with very few services or none at all. A recent report, commissioned by the HSE, highlighted the fact that the GP shortage would probably get worse before it got better.

A combination of factors are involved. First, a large number of GPs are due to retire in the next ten years and their posts may not be filled, with many young doctors planning to emigrate rather than stay in this country. Last week, I took two calls from families in County Monaghan, one in Carrickmacross and one in Monaghan town. Both had moved to the area recently and they went to every GP in both towns but no one would take them on. Where are such people meant to go in such a situation? The local GP is, for many people, the first port of call when they are sick and in need of medical care. If there are not enough GPs, where are these families supposed to go? They have no choice but to go to an overcrowded emergency department in Cavan or Drogheda, making the problems in these departments worse. It is a vicious circle and patients are going to suffer. Doctors are not to blame. They are under increasing pressure with more patients and longer hours. Some work on call at weekends and they cannot do any more. They are not getting a fair deal from the HSE and I want to see a GP service with primary care centres that are properly resourced. GP numbers must be increased and doctors incentivised to come to rural towns and villages. Until that happens our health services will deteriorate further.

Ireland is facing an estimated shortage of 1,380 GPs by 2025 unless urgent steps are taken to address this issue. A recent HSE report recommends 138 training places per year just to keep up with current demand. The report also recommends the introduction of a number of recruitment and retention strategies, including incentives to GPs to work up to the age of 70 if they wish, measures aimed at rural Ireland to encourage GPs to locate there and more trainees and graduates. Further research into areas such as the expansion of nurse-led care should also be carried out and there needs to be a proper ring-fencing of primary care, especially in respect of GP practices. A properly functioning GP practice leads to the best health outcomes and the best value for money.

Urgent action is required on this issue before the crisis gets worse and I look forward to hearing what plans the Minister brings to this House today to address it.

I thank the Senator and apologise on behalf of the Minister, who cannot be here. I assure the Senator that the Government is committed to enhancing primary health care services, including GP services. The development of primary care is central to the Government's objective to deliver a high-quality, integrated and cost-effective health service.

The Government is committed to ensuring that patients throughout the country continue to have access to GP services, especially in remote rural areas and in disadvantaged urban areas, and that general practice is sustainable in all areas into the future. It is imperative that existing GP services in these areas are retained and that general practice remains an attractive career option for newly-qualified GPs.

A Programme for a Partnership Government contains a commitment in respect of increasing the number of GP training places to 259 places annually. In July 2016, the GP training intake increased from 157 to 172 places and the HSE's 2017 national service plan envisages a further increase to 187 places this year. Of course, the Minister is anxious to achieve further increases in future years in order to ensure that the future manpower needs of general practice can be met. The Senator rightly outlined the figures that we need to reach for that to happen. There are currently 34 GMS GPs in Cavan covering 37 panels and 25 GMS GPs in Monaghan covering 28 panels. Obviously, there are three vacancies in each county. It should be noted, however, that all these panels with vacancies are covered by locum arrangements and that no panel is without a GP. The HSE is working to fill these locum panels on a permanent basis as quickly as possible.

It is acknowledged that there have been some difficulties in finding GP cover, both locum and permanent, for some rural areas. This includes Cavan-Monaghan. The HSE is working on a continuous basis with GPs to find solutions to this problem. In this regard, the Dublin north east training area increased the number of GP trainees by four last year, bringing the total number of trainees to 18. The number will increase to 19 this year, making the area one of the largest training centres in the country. This increase in trainee numbers should hopefully benefit the north east in the coming years.

Further efforts undertaken in recent years to increase the number of practising GPs include changes to the entry provisions to the GMS scheme to accommodate more flexible and shared GMS GP contracts and changes to the retirement provisions for GPs under the GMS scheme. This allows GPs to hold GMS contracts until their 72nd birthday, if that is what they want to do. An enhanced supports package for rural GP practices has also been introduced. Some 252 practice units are in receipt of supports under the rural practice support framework, which equates to 313 individual GPs currently benefiting under the new scheme. This is a significant increase in the number of GPs benefiting from rural supports, which stood at 167 before the introduction of this scheme.

These steps should help to address the future demand by enticing GPs who may have ceased practising for family or other reasons back into the workforce, facilitating GPs to work past the standard retirement age and encouraging more GPs to work in more rural areas. In addition, the Minister and I are cognisant of the need for a new GP services contract which will help modernise our health service and develop a strengthened primary care sector. Health service management have already progressed a number of significant measures through engagement with GP representatives.

Discussions on a new GP contract are under way. The aim is to develop a new modern GP services contract, which we have not had in a number of years, that will incorporate a range of standard and enhanced services to be delivered. The GP contract review process will also seek to introduce further measures aimed at making general practice a fulfilling and rewarding career option into the future. I obviously hope that our young doctors will not leave the country to pursue careers elsewhere.

I thank the Minister of State for her extensive response to my question. To get back to the two people who contacted me last week about the lack of GPs, I wonder if there is anything in the Minister of State's response that will give them comfort. I sincerely hope there is. I welcome the fact that more places are going to be made available for training. The problem is, like in many other sectors such as nursing, teaching or whatever, we seem to be training our nurses and doctors to emigrate and find better packages and deals elsewhere. That is a big factor. It is something we are going to have to challenge. We need some creative thinking in order to do that. I thank the Minister of State for her response.

I do acknowledge the difficulties that we are facing. There are currently 23 overall vacancies, six of which are in Cavan-Monaghan alone. Obviously, the HSE must put a lot of its effort into ensuring that those places are filled. I also recognise - and I believe the Department recognises - that the ratio of GPs to the population in the Senator's own area may be slightly lower. That is because of the difficulty in attracting GPs to rural areas. GPs are private practices. It is up to the individual to come to an area. Where it has not been successful, the HSE is obviously looking to bring people into those areas, but it is difficult. The changes to the retirement age, the opening up of access to the GMS panel, the changing of work hours for young mothers who may also want to raise families and the new rural contract linked in with the GP contract itself will hopefully start to see changes and encourage GPs to work in these areas in which they are not currently working.

Greyhound Industry

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Andrew Doyle, and also acknowledge the presence of Deputy Michael D'Arcy in the Visitors Gallery with his students who I assume are from County Wexford, not County Wicklow. I thank him for coming into the Chamber as it is good to see former Members coming back to show respect for it.

I, too, welcome the children from County Wexford to the Visitors Gallery.

The Minister of State is well aware of the shock and upset caused by the sudden closure of Harold's Cross greyhound stadium and the lack of consultation with dog owners on the issue. That issue must be dealt with over a period of time. A number of part-time workers have been in contact with me to say they are losing significant earnings because of the reduced crowds as a result of the protests at Shelbourne Park. We must resolve the issue of Harold's Cross greyhound stadium because if the protests continue, the jobs of permanent, part-time and temporary staff will be at risk because of the loss of income at Shelbourne Park. I ask the Minister of State to exert some pressure to ensure the issue is resolved. It can only be resolved through discussion and negotiations and anything that could be done in that regard would be much appreciated. This is particularly relevant for part-time staff who are greatly out of pocket. The permanent staff are still in employment and not seeing a loss of income.

The other element of this issue is that the site in Harold's Cross, close to the centre of the city, is six and a half acres in size. If the stadium is not to be reopened, it is very important that the local community be consulted. This area of the city will see its population grow by approximately one third in the next decade. I ask the Minister of State to consider this. The area will experience huge population growth, yet it does not currently contain a field in which a child could kick a football or a second level college could be built for students. There is a shortage of secondary schools in the area. A proportion of the site, if the greyhound stadium is not to be reopened, could be used to serve that need. It is currently designated as a Z9 zone, which means that the development of only 5% of the site is permissible, which means that it is not in the interests of the taxpayer or the Irish Greyhound Board to put it on the market at this stage. What is required is a local area plan. I ask the Minister of State to get involved in that process. When the population of an area grows by one third and a six and a half acre site becomes available, we have to make sure there is sustainable planning. I ask the Minister of State to look at entering into consultation with the local community before any long-term decision is made about the track.

I highlight again the possible loss of the stadium. The Irish Greyhound Board has sought consultation on the sale of the site. It could represent a significant loss to the taxpayer if the site is sold at below market value, as currently configured. We need to take a step back and ask what is in the best interests of the city and the taxpayer. My fear is that a developer will purchase the site and sit on it for five to ten years. We would then have an unoccupied six and a half acre site in the city, not being used for the purposes of recreation, education or housing.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue which has occupied a lot of my time. I have an official line but may be able to expand on that in the supplementary contribution.

Bord na gCon is responsible for the control, promotion and operation of greyhound racing, including the operation of totalisator betting, the making of grants for prize money, the allocation of grants to improve amenities at tracks and the licensing of tracks. In that context, it runs commercial operations in a number or greyhound stadia, including Harold's Cross. There are 17 greyhound tracks licensed by Bord na gCon which owns Shelbourne Park, Harold's Cross, Cork, Tralee, Waterford, Youghal, Limerick and Galway, and also has a 51% share in the Mullingar track.

In an economic report by Jim Power in 2010 it was estimated that the greyhound racing industry is responsible for sustaining in excess of 10,000 full and part-time jobs directly and indirectly, many in rural communities, and injects an estimated €500 million into local economies. While this work may be somewhat outdated at this point, the fact remains that the greyhound sector makes a significant contribution to the rural economy. The greyhound breeding industry is also very export oriented with over 75% of greyhounds now running in the UK being Irish bred.

Greyhound racing attracts thousands of tourists to Ireland from many countries, particularly France, Germany and the UK, and Bord na gCon works closely with Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and the various tour operators. Ireland is regarded as a world-class player in greyhound breeding and there is considerable potential for further development in this area. The Irish Greyhound Derby, run in Shelbourne Park, is one of the richest greyhound races in the world. However, Bord na gCon has been operating in a very difficult financial environment for several years and in particular since 2011 when it took on considerable debt as a result of the development of Limerick stadium. In 2014, against the background of reducing income for the organisation through the recession, and the significant debt burden, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine commissioned an independent report into certain matters relating to Bord na gCon, including its financial performance and prospects. That report, known as the Indecon report, provided a roadmap for the sustainable development of the greyhound sector, and recommended several asset disposals, including Harold's Cross, in order to reduce the debt burden.

I understand that Bord na gCon, having considered the matter and having regard to the recommendations in the Indecon report, has decided to put Harold's Cross stadium on the market in order to reduce its debt levels and increase its capacity to provide support and assistance to the industry. The directors of the Dublin Greyhound and Sports Association Limited approved the sale of the Harold's Cross property at a meeting held on 16 March 2017.

While the sale of Harold's Cross is very regrettable, Bord na gCon's view is that there is no other option if the burden of debt on the organisation is to be reduced in any meaningful way. I understand that its intention is to transfer the Harold's Cross racing schedule to Shelbourne Park and Bord na gCon continues to accommodate racing at Shelbourne Park on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, albeit that is suspended at the moment because of ongoing pickets. Bord na gCon has informed me that all permanent and temporary staff who had been employed at Harold's Cross have now been transferred to Shelbourne Park with no breaks in their employment records. I understand that the closure of Harold's Cross has led to concern among supporters of the stadium and an effort at mediation between Dublin Greyhound Breeders and Owners Association, GOBA, and Bord na gCon is under way. Bord na gCon has informed me that Kieran Mulvey has agreed to chair this mediation process. There has been significant Government commitment to this sector in recent years, with the contribution of the taxpayer, through the horse and greyhound fund, having increased from €10.8 million in 2014 to €16 million in 2017.

I remain committed to continuing to support this vitally important sector. However, it is clear that if it is to have a sustainable future, the burden of debt on Bord na gCon must be reduced. In this regard the board has its own responsibilities to discharge, and this may involve very difficult decisions.

I can appreciate that the local community will have a view on the further uses to which the site may be put, if sold. Any proposal for its development will be subject to the full rigours of the planning process. Any sale of the Harold's Cross stadium - and I refer to the Senator's point - will require my consent and that of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I will consider any specific proposal for its sale having regard to the Indecon report's recommendations around the need to avoid further debt burden on the taxpayer and the need to reduce the significant burden of debt of Bord na gCon.

We are over time, so I ask the Senator to be brief.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I ask that he looks at the plight of the part-time workers in Shelbourne Park to see if something can be done to alleviate the pressures and the concerns of the staff for the viability of the sector. The longer the protest goes on the more chance that everybody will lose out. I welcome the mediation efforts. I know the Minister of State has concerns but would he meet with the Harold's Cross community council in order that the latter could have an opportunity to look at a vision for the area if the stadium is to be sold? The Minister of State mentioned the full rigours of the planning process. In respect of the planning process, there was an unsuccessful attempt by Bord na gCon to have the zoning changed in the last development plan. The feeling from the local community is that there should be a statutory local area plan before any such proposal should ever be considered.

We are way over time.

I should say that earlier today I met representatives of the Dublin Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association. The mediation process is starting tomorrow. I met them on foot of a commitment I gave that I would so do after publication of the draft legislation for a greyhound breeders racing (amendment) Bill. It will be referred to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine for pre-legislative scrutiny. I welcome that engagement but I cannot get involved.

With regard to meeting with the community I do not want to pre-empt a decision. If I agree to that request here then I will be accused of having circumvented the process that is taking place around the sale. I do not want to be seen as interfering with that process in any hand or part, except to encourage everybody to engage. I suggested to the Dublin Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association this morning that they should engage in the pre-legislative scrutiny process, where their opinions and their points of view will be a matter of public record and will get a fair hearing at that committee.

I thank the Minister of State and the Senator.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.