Commencement Matters

Court Procedures

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I welcome the opportunity to address the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality on an issue that is very important to me and to many people, particularly those who have small businesses who have been hurt by it.

It might come as a shock to people who are unfamiliar with the court and legal system that every person who stands up and swears or affirms an oath before a judge does so with no real reality of facing criminal prosecution if they are later to be have been found deliberately telling lies. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of how the court system operates knows that every week there are many people swearing an oath and telling lies before the court.

Contrary to popular belief it is not just the person who is relaying the event or speaking about his or her injuries who is telling lies under oath. It is also well-heeled people, big corporations and sometimes people in banking and institutions who present affidavits to say that they are repossessing houses, quite frankly without those affidavits being properly checked to be foolproof and without any repercussions. It is a very significant issue.

In spite of this day-to-day practical reality of court life in both our criminal and civil court systems, including in some cases where judges have gone so far as identifying facts that could give rise to a perjury investigation, according to figures supplied to me by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, there are few or no recorded instances of perjury taking place. I have a figure supplied by the Garda Síochána to the CSO for the past ten years. There have been only 31 recorded instances of perjury, with not a single incident of perjury recorded in the past year, by way of example.

Does anybody seriously believe that in the past decade there were just 31 instances of perjury in Irish courts? Most decent people, if asked to swear an oath before a court, recognise the symbolic significance of what they are about to say in court before a judge, but with so many proceedings going on through our court system on affidavit with no oral evidence whatsoever, I question how seriously this oath is taken in the absence of a threat of legal prosecution.

I am sure the Minister of State will remind me that perjury is a common law criminal offence in Ireland, which is true, but the statistics speak for themselves. Not a single incidence of perjury was recorded last year. My view, and this view is shared by the Irish Small and Medium Enterprise Association, ISME, and also by many solicitors and barristers in the legal profession, is that the only way in which we can signal to the public and to the Garda Síochána that this is a real criminal offence in Ireland with real consequences is to make perjury a statutory criminal offence. I welcome the statement delivered by the Department of Justice and Equality at the beginning of August that the question of introducing perjury legislation is under review.

I look forward to hearing an update on the outcome of the review.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter in the House today on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, who, unfortunately, cannot be here today.

Perjury, as the Senator has pointed out, is already established as a common law offence in Ireland and there have been prosecutions of this offence. There are specific offences which have been created in circumstances which would amount to perjury, such as the specific offence in section 18 of the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 of giving false evidence to a commission, and section 3 of the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) (Amendment) Act 1979. Section 25 of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 makes it an offence to give false or misleading evidence in personal injury actions. If convicted of this offence on indictment, a person can be sentenced to imprisonment for up to ten years or a fine of up to €100,000 or both.

From representations received recently by the Minister for Justice and Equality, this would seem to be the type of circumstance which is of particular concern. In response to these representations, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has asked officials to examine the case for legislating for a statutory offence of perjury, in consultation with relevant authorities.

Separately, it is understood that the matter of perjury and whether the Government should consider legislating for a statutory offence is being examined by a working group chaired by the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Michael D’Arcy. This group is examining the cost of insurance and identifying what measures can be introduced to help reduce these costs for consumers and businesses.

It is understood that the group reported its first phase of work and is now considering legally related matters. These matters include the examination of, among other things, the personal injuries court process and, in particular, the effectiveness of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004. It is understood that the trigger for this has been the working group’s consultations with stakeholders where examples of fraudulent and exaggerated claims have been outlined, including how the impact of such behaviour has had a damaging effect on businesses.

As part of this review, it is understood that consideration is being given to finding ways of more effectively applying a number of provisions, including section 25 of the Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004 which, as stated, creates an offence for giving false or misleading evidence or giving false or misleading instructions to a solicitor or expert, and section 26 of the same Act which requires a court to dismiss any personal injuries action in which the plaintiff gives or causes to be given false or misleading evidence or swears a false or misleading affidavit. This working group was attended by relevant stakeholders. It is understood it is still deliberating these matters. At this stage, it would be premature to anticipate its findings, but I can assure the Senator, on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, that the analysis in the report, once published, will be considered in the Department’s examination of the need to legislate to make perjury a statutory criminal offence.

I appreciate the Minister of State's feedback and active engagement in the consideration of whether to put perjury on the Statute Book, similar to what was done in the UK in 1911. We are a little behind the curve on that.

The Civil Liability and Courts Act 2004, to which the Minister of State referred twice, does not tackle the issue from the perspective of an individual citizen or a business. It deals with personal injuries, which is a very narrow category. The Minister of State mentioned section 25, which applies only to false evidence adduced in court. It does not apply to false claims submitted to the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. It is far too narrow in scope and I urge the Minister of State to consider broadening it out to cover many more areas. We have done some research on the area. There has only been one prosecution under the Act since 2004. It does not appear to be very effective.

The criminal justice (corruption) Bill from 2012 is still undergoing legislative scrutiny and has not been enacted into law. We do not have a definition of what constitutes perjury in this country, which makes it difficult for courts and judges to assess whether perjury has taken place. I appreciate the Minister of State coming to the House and stating what he has, but I urge him to do a lot more work.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to show the attention it is already receiving. I listened carefully to what the Senator has said and will convey it to the Minister for Justice and Equality, asking him to take note of what the Senator has said. It is a very important issue.

As outlined, there is already a common law offence of perjury which can be availed of now. In addition, there are already specific provisions in relevant legislation where the matter of giving false information could impact significantly on the outcome of proceedings. An expert group is also considering how such instances can impact daily on the public and businesses and is specifically looking at the matter from a legal perspective. I will ensure it gets notification of the concerns raised by the Senator.

The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has also asked me to assure the Seanad that this matter is receiving attention. He is committed to keeping under review the matter of whether the Government should legislate to make perjury a statutory criminal offence. In this regard, it would be important that this group is offered the opportunity to complete its deliberations in order that an informed and considered decision is taken by Government on any measure, including any possible legislative measures to ensure that they are necessary, targeted appropriately and acted on.

I again thank the Senator most sincerely for raising this important matter and encourage him to keep it under review.

Planning Issues

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, to the House. I will be brief. I am raising this matter in the context of Rebuilding Ireland. In the preparations for it and the ongoing and concluding legislation to underpin it, officials in the Department made a very strong case for the fast-tracking of planning and a lot of concern was expressed by local councillors, in particular, as well as people throughout the country about the interface with the planning system. Plean-IT is an internal platform developed by An Bord Pleanála. I understand it is working very well but it is internal at this point.

We were given assurances by the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, that he would fast-track the process and that it was a critical part of the public engagement process and the right of the public to engage in planning consultation processes. I am not expecting to hear significant figures in respect of the fast-track system because I am conscious that it was only introduced in July, and that there is a nine-week pre-application process and a 16 week planning process after that. The entire process takes 25 weeks. If we roll on 25 weeks from July, I would anticipate that between four and eight applications have gone through the system.

My real concern is that we keep an eye on the fast-track element, in particular as it pertains to student accommodation and major business initiatives that want to get going. It is important that they are not stuck in an archaic planning process and are allowed to go through due process. My concern is that, as of today, people in Cork, Kilkenny, Wicklow and Donegal cannot engage online with An Bord Pleanála. They cannot make a submission, which was confirmed by An Bord Pleanála today. They cannot inspect the drawings, etchings, vision, concept or montage associated with a planning application. All of this is unsatisfactory at a time when we want to encourage development and stakeholders to make observations. They do not all have to be negative and involve objections. Many people in our community want to make positive contributions to planning applications.

I am keen to hear what the Minister of State has to say about how we can fast-track the roll-out of Plean-IT throughout the country and local authorities, and encourage citizens to engage in our planning process.

I thank Senator Boyhan for raising the issue. This is a timely issue to discuss in light of recent planning decisions in other parts of the country which were delayed and caused significant problems. The Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act 2006 was introduced to ensure that designated national strategic infrastructure would be subject to a faster planning process. The Senator's question revolves around the new arrangements for certain housing developments to be dealt with directly by An Bord Pleanála.

These fast-track arrangements cater for developments of 100 housing units or more or student accommodation developments of 200 bed spaces or more, and planning applications are to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála for determination, as introduced under the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016.

Following the preparation of the necessary supporting regulations that set out the procedural and administrative matters relating to these applications, the new arrangements were brought into operation on 3 July. In brief, they involve a two-stage process. First, prior to making a planning application, a prospective applicant must make a request to the board to enter into the mandatory pre-application consultation process for a proposed strategic housing development. This consultation process which also involves the relevant planning authority is required to be completed within a maximum timeframe of nine weeks following the receipt of the pre-application consultation request. At the end of the initial consultation process, the board will issue its opinion as to whether the documents submitted with the pre-application consultation request constitute a reasonable basis on which to submit a planning application or, alternatively, require further consideration and amendment in order to allow the documents to constitute a reasonable basis on which to submit an application. This step facilitates the board in providing advice on the proposal to ensure the highest quality application is submitted.

Second, after the pre-application stage, there is the formal planning application stage. It includes the opportunity for the public to make submissions and observations in the normal way on the proposals. The details of a proposed development are made available for inspection at the offices of the board and the relevant planning authority in functional area of which the proposed development is located. The planning application is also made available online on a dedicated website set up by the developer for this purpose.

Following receipt of a planning application for a proposed strategic housing development, the board is required to make a determination on the application within a period of 16 weeks. This results in a potential overall timeframe of 25 weeks, as outlined by the Senator, from beginning to end for the final determination of a planning proposal.

In the period since the new arrangements came into operation on 3 July this year, the board has received 25 valid pre-application consultation requests. It has issued an opinion on 19 of the requests. In the same period and further to the satisfactory completion of the pre-application consultation process, four formal planning applications have been lodged with the board. There have been two for student accommodation developments comprising 3,006 and 388 bed spaces, respectively. There are two other developments comprising in total 478 houses and 562 apartments. These applications are under consideration, with the decisions due in early 2018. It is expected that further requests for pre-application consultations and strategic housing development applications will continue to be received by the board in the near future.

We are extremely pleased with progress to date on the new arrangements and the very positive impact they will have in accelerating the delivery of much needed large-scale housing developments at the earliest possible date. Owing to the level of interest in the new process, the board has published on its website a general overview and update, including information on the number of pre-application requests and applications received. It will provide further updates on a regular basis.

With regard to staffing resources to support the new arrangements, a new strategic housing division has been established in the board. It involves the recruitment of an additional ten staff members to work solely on strategic housing developments. In addition, two board members are expected to be assigned to the division shortly when strategic hosing development applications are due to be referred to board level for final determination.

In the broader context of the national roll-out of electronic or e-planning, the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 which is progressing through the Oireachtas will provide the legislative underpinning for e-planning. The legislation will facilitate the introduction of online planning applications, appeals and associated payments both at planning authority and board level.

The board is also implementing a major ICT strategy that will see the introduction of online planning services as part of an upgrade and replacement of core systems. The first phase of the project has commenced with the implementation of a new case management system to support internal business processes, a matter referred to by the Senator. It is expected that the full range of services, including the online submission of appeals, applications, observations and other transactions, will be available to the public in 2018. All of this will help to further streamline and modernise the planning system. The board expects to provide the full range of services for the public in 2018, but I will try to ascertain a tighter timeframe for the Senator.

The Department liaises closely with the board to ensure it has appropriate resources to perform its functions, including staffing and the development of its new ICT systems. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is satisfied that the board has sufficient and necessary resources assigned to it in that regard.

I again thank the Senator for raising the matter and giving me an opportunity to update the House on the issues involved.

I thank the Minister of State.

I, too, thank the Minister of State. I note that there have been no approvals under the fast-tracking system, despite the provision being put through in legislation last December. It is a slow process. One of the big difficulties with the policy document Rebuilding Ireland and planning is keeping track of statistics. Every time one asks a question one is given different figures. Interestingly, on this very day I received a letter, dated 15 November, from An Bord Pleanála about six kerbside car parking spaces. The board wrote: "It will not be possible to determine the case within the statutory objective period due to capacity constraints at Board level". The six car parking spaces in south County Dublin are not critical infrastructure and clearly not a priority, but the board is under enormous pressure because of the lack of resources. We need to keep key indicators and regular statistics online for its performance.

The Minister of State represents a rural constituency. Rural communities must have as quickly as possible the right to access planning systems and lodge objections. A professional system must be put in place. It is not appropriate that somebody from Kilkenny, Carlow, Cork or County Donegal must travel by bus to Marlborough Street in Dublin to look at a drawing or a visual of a planning proposal planned for next door to his or her home. As soon as we have this facility online and it is available in public libraries, public spaces and county halls the better because people need to access this information quickly.

I agree with the Senator that a person should not have to travel to Dublin to view a planning application. Under the terms of the legislation, such applications will be displayed in his or her local authority area, as well as in the board's headquarters. The usual facilities are available in county council and city council offices to facilitate members of the public who wish to make observations or study planning applications. The Senator is right. The ability of the general public to make observations on planning applications in their immediate area and community, potentially next door to where they live, is central to the planning process. Equally, the legislation aims to ensure the planning process, as we witnessed in the west recently, will not drag on interminably. I will try to ascertain for the Senator when the full range of services will be rolled out in 2018. It is not unreasonable to ask when they will be rolled out. We should be able to provide a more exact date as to when the system will be available online.

There are ten additional staff. Also, two additional board members must be appointed, which will bring the total to 11. Recent vacancies on the board were filled, returning it to its usual level of nine members.

I do not want to discuss the specifics. However, in the context of strategic infrastructure and the development of much needed housing, I do not know whether the provision of six car parking spaces is an item that should ever go before the board.

I know and the Minister of State is right.

I take the points made by the Senator about the other issues involved.

I thank the Senator and the Minister of State.

Rail Network Expansion

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport back to the House. He is always welcome back.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House after the amazing result yesterday when the decision was made to award the Rugby World Cup to France. We were looking forward to welcoming the Irish team and others to Thomond Park. I hope it will happen at some stage in the future. The decision was amazing as Ireland's application was the best, bar none. The proposal made by the Minister; his Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Griffin, and the Taoiseach was by far the best.

The issue I raise this morning is one that has been there for many years in the Limerick, Shannon and mid-west region. There is both a logistical and financial logic to providing a spur from Shannon Airport onto the existing Limerick to Galway rail line. I will put the issue in context. In 2004 when I was first elected as a member of Limerick County Council I was a member of the Mid-West Regional Authority and the issue was very much to the fore. The feasibility of the project was examined. Since that time there has been a significant investment in the Limerick to Galway rail line. Prior to 2010 the Limerick to Galway rail line was not in use. The Limerick to Ennis line was in use and there was a major upgrade from Ennis to Athenry costing in the order of €160 million. The line was reopened in 2010 so there is a functioning line in place and if a spur is added it will not only link Shannon Airport to Limerick but to Galway as well. Certain railway stations were upgraded, including Limerick, Cratloe, Sixmilebridge and Ennis. Sixmilebridge would appear to be the logical location for a spur to Shannon Airport which would involve a distance of approximately six miles. However, Cratloe, which is prior to Sixmilebridge is another option. A spur could be run along the existing road, the N18, into Shannon Airport. That would be a shorter distance.

I am looking ahead in terms of forward planning. I do not expect the project to happen overnight but it must be considered in terms of the overall public transport network, regional development and the serious issues that arise in the capacity of Dublin Airport. Shannon Airport has excess capacity available. We can deal with 4 million passengers and the current level is approximately 1.6 million. In the future we could have a super train commuting from Limerick to Dublin in an hour. Anyone flying into Ireland is willing to accept commuter time of one and half to two hours from their landing airport to their final destination. I want the Minister to build in the option into the transport plan. It should be examined as part of the overall review of Irish Rail, public transport and other related issues. We must have a counter-pull to Dublin along the western seaboard involving Limerick, Galway, Cork and Sligo.

I commend the Minister on the bravery of his initiative in allowing the M20 to go ahead in terms of pre-planning last November and his announcement that he is considering it as a priority project in terms of the capital plan. This initiative is feeding into that. In five to ten years' time we should have a spur on the existing Limerick to Galway rail line into Shannon Airport and passengers could then travel to both Limerick and Galway. That would be predicated on having a high-speed rail link from Limerick to Dublin. The plan is in the context of taking the burden off Dublin Airport and putting it on Shannon Airport in order to promote balanced regional development.

I will respond to Senator O'Donnell's remarks. I had hoped we would have this exchange in the context of Ireland having won the bid to host the Rugby World Cup. Unfortunately, we will not see any of those games in Thomond Park in 2023. I congratulate the French but the result was disappointing. This is the first opportunity I have had to speak on the issue since coming back from yesterday's meeting. I pay tribute to wonderful effort that was made. The fantastic bid we made was pretty well faultless and this country was recognised by world rugby as being a suitable and very good host for a world cup. All three candidates were considered to be in that category. We came out with our heads held high even if we were not the winners on the day.

Deputy O'Donnell has raised a very ambitious project. He is used to coming up with ambitious projects. He was the first person under my Ministry to raise the M20. He brought it onto our radar and to my notice in this House. His contribution to the project was influential in the Government's decision to bring it to the planning stage, which culminated in the announcement by the Taoiseach that the M20 will go ahead in the foreseeable future. It is indicative of the usefulness of debates of this nature, which on the surface relate to very ambitious projects due to the cost. However, raising the previous matter was influential in getting it going. If what I say to the Senator is depressing because of the figures involved he should not give up on it. Things change.

This is an ambitious Government which is not frightened of spending on infrastructure and is absolutely determined to do so. That said, we will not do anything irresponsible. Projects of this nature which have an intrinsic merit should be raised and taken seriously. Nothing is impossible.

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding of public transport. The operation of the rail network is a matter for Iarnród Éireann. As the Senator indicated, in 2007 a feasibility study was carried out on behalf of Iarnród Éireann with input from a steering group representative of local interests on a rail link to Shannon Airport and it concluded that the economic case for the rail link was poor. The feasibility study indicated the cost of a Shannon rail link would range from €246 million to €440 million at 2006 prices, excluding enhanced onward links to Galway which were also assessed.

A Shannon rail link is not identified as a priority in the Government's capital investment plan, Building on Recovery 2016-2021. As Senator O'Donnell is aware, to say the least, Iarnród Éireann remains in a challenging position financially and has limited resources of its own available to fund new projects. That said, the role of heavy rail in Ireland's transport sector is currently under review. The National Transport Authority, NTA, held a public consultation process to start a national debate on the current and future role of rail transport in Ireland. The public consultation process was launched with the publication of a rail review report in 2016. That report is a comprehensive analysis of issues facing the rail network, including the level of funding required to support its maintenance and development. It highlights the considerable amount of taxpayer support currently provided to support the rail network and provides an overview of the estimated required amount of additional funding needed to support the network going forward. The report did not make any recommendations as regards the size of the rail network but does outline issues for consideration.

A consultation document, The Role of Rail in Ireland and Funding its Delivery, was also published. The consultation process elicited more than 300 submissions which have now been examined and the NTA submitted a report on those submissions recently. I will be considering the report and bringing it to Government. No decisions have been taken regarding matters such as the future of individual rail lines or investment in the company and relevant infrastructure.

As noted within the rail review report, its analysis predates the finalisation of the national planning framework, NPF, being developed at present under the leadership of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Clearly, the role and potential of rail is intrinsically linked to where people live, work and wish to travel and those issues form the core of the framework. Once agreed by Government, the approach which that framework adopts toward land-use planning and settlement patterns for the country will have significant impacts on the potential of rail and other transport infrastructure and services into the future and will form an important context for consideration of issues raised by the rail review report and for any recommendations brought to Government. As the House will be aware, any future investment in the rail network is also dependent on availability of funding. The Government's recently announced budget 2018 provides for an increase in the multi-annual capital investment for public transport with a four-year capital envelope of €2.7 billion over the period 2018 to 2021, including investment of more than €400 million next year.

This represents a 30% increase over the original capital plan allocations for 2018 to 2021 and includes increased funding for the heavy rail network. As I have outlined, my Department’s first priority under the capital plan is to ensure the maintenance of our existing transport infrastructure at steady state levels in order that it remains safe and fit for purpose.

Total funding of €860 million from 2018 to 2021 is being provided for the heavy rail maintenance programme. This programme protects investment already made in our national railway system by funding projects needed to maintain safety and service levels in railway operations. Work has begun on a ten-year capital envelope, and this will provide further clarity on the investment available for heavy rail projects in the future.

I thank the Minister. Today I want to plant a seed. I fully appreciate that there are issues in Irish Rail concerning existing infrastructure. I very much hope the Labour Court recommendation will bring about a resolution in Irish Rail. I am a great believer in public transport, especially rail transport, which I use. It has enormous potential. Broadband and mobile telephone coverage on trains need to be improved. What I have done today in proposing a spur from Shannon Airport to the existing Limerick-Galway rail link is plant a seed.

It is a project for the future. It is a question of looking outside the box, perhaps running a line alongside the existing motorway, the M18, or using land that may already be in public ownership along the route. Such land might have been acquired by the NRA many years ago. The proposal is very much to the fore.

With the M20, the Minister was willing to think outside the box and allow TII to get pre-planning under way. I have not before seen a Minister doing that. The proposal I am putting forward is in the same vein. I commend the Minister on the M20. I hope my proposal finds its way to becoming a project in the future based on proper, balanced regional development. Would it not be fantastic if people wishing to fly to Dublin, whom I hope would stay in Limerick because it is my home city, but who did not want to face the chaos of Dublin Airport flew into Shannon and got a train there with a view to being in Dublin in an hour and a half? That is what I am thinking outside the box. I am planting a seed.

The seed the Senator has sown is welcome. All seeds are welcome. Other seeds the Senator has sown and nurtured here will come to development. When the Senator put the ideas to me initially, I was not sceptical but felt it was difficult to realise them. The proposed project should be considered in that light. It will be for the future. I am not coming in here just to eliminate imaginative and ambitious projects of this sort and say they are out of the question; not at all. I referred to the financial difficulties associated with carrying out the project, which the Senator will understand, particularly considering the state of Iarnród Éireann. He should not rule out the possibility for the future and should keep pushing it.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.