Order of Business

It is proposed to take No. 3, Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2011 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to adjourn at 1.30 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 11, statements on suicide prevention. It is also proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that the following arrangements shall apply in relation to No. 11: the statement of a Minister or Minister of State and the main spokespersons for Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Technical Group who shall be called upon in that order shall not exceed 15 minutes in each case, the statement of each other Member called upon shall not exceed 15 minutes in each case, Members may share time, and a Minister or Minister of State shall be called upon to make a statement in reply which shall not exceed ten minutes.

There is one proposal to be put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with No. 11 agreed to? Agreed.

The decision by Portugal yesterday to seek help confirms yet again that Ireland is far from being alone in facing grave difficulties on the financial and economic front. I am sure the Tánaiste is aware that the terms of the deal to be secured by Portugal will be of great relevance to Ireland. The deal should confirm again that the interest rate to be charged will be reduced in order to reflect a more sustainable figure, as well as the major changes in the support programme since last year. This has been agreed by the Commission since February. Given this, will the Tánaiste agree to find time next week for a short debate to enable the Minister for Finance to update us on the outcome of the ECOFIN meeting taking place today and tomorrow?

The second issue I wish to raise on foot of this is that while it may not be legally required to have a vote of the House, it appears other member states, as the Tánaiste is aware from the discussions on the corporation tax issue, choose to have votes on such arrangements. It might be desirable to have a vote in the House on the Portuguese arrangement, if only to strengthen the Government's hand for the purposes of the negotiations.

I agree with the Deputy that the situation in Portugal and its application are of considerable relevance to our position. They underline again the extent to which the problem has a European dimension and the necessity for the approach being taken by the Government which is engaging in an ongoing process of discussion and negotiation with the European institutions, including the ECB, and other European Union member states. The Minister for Finance is attending the informal ECOFIN meeting in Budapest this week. Until he returns and we know the outcome, I do not want to commit him to the arrangements he will make. As the Deputy knows, he has been very forthcoming in coming to the House to make statements and respond, as he did yesterday. I will certainly discuss the matter with him. I remind the Deputy that the interest rate with which we are stuck is the one he negotiated and something the Government is seeking to reduce. He is asking for a vote on the Portuguese arrangement, although he was very reluctant at the time to have a vote on the Irish arrangement.

There was a vote.

We will get the response of the Minister for Finance when he returns from the ECOFIN meeting. I am sure the Deputy will join me in wishing the Minister well at that meeting.

I have been somewhat liberal in what I have allowed to be raised on the Order of Business.

I was invited to——

The Deputy is out of order. However, in view of the seriousness of the matter, I will be liberal.

Fair play to you, a Cheann Comhairle.

Please do not abuse my hospitality.

I will not abuse your liberality or hospitality. I was never in a hospitality tent.

Those were the days.

There were, of course, no negotiations last year on the interest rate because the different instruments had predetermined the interest rates to be charged. When the Government raised this issue in February, the Commission supported a change in the interest rate. We should take the opportunity to nail this down. I wish the Minister for Finance well in his endeavours.

This morning the almost 800,000 holders of private residential mortgage accounts have woken up to the news that at lunchtime today the ECB will announce an interest rate increase of 0.25%. As the Tánaiste knows, data from the end of last year reflect the fact that 10% of mortgage holders are in distress, a large proportion of whom are in substantial arrears, while others have restructured their loans. The proposed increase of 0.25% would mean, for a person with a mortgage of €300,000, a rise in repayments of some €40 per month.

Does the Deputy have a question?

I do. Given that people are already struggling——

Is the Deputy seeking time or is she asking about promised legislation?

I am coming to that now.

Perhaps the Deputy will let me know as soon as she can.

(Interruptions).

I notice the Ceann Comhairle does not afford me the same tolerance and hospitality as he affords my colleague.

I have done. Strictly speaking the Deputy should not be asking this question at all. However, she may continue.

There is no proposal in the legislative programme to deal with this pressing matter. That is astonishing given the urgency of the situation in which so many families find themselves. The Government is asleep at the wheel, it has let this matter slip by——

(Interruptions).

A Deputy

Come back, Caoimhghín.

Caoimhghín had so much more gravitas.

The Government moved very quickly to bail out the bankers, to have episode five of the bailout. Where is the legislation to protect mortgage holders who are struggling and in stress?

Is there promised legislation in this area, a Thánaiste?

(Interruptions).

Order, please. Deputies should respect their own leader by allowing the Tánaiste to answer.

A Deputy

All we are seeking is consistency.

I am not asking for Deputies' comments.

The Government has been up much earlier than Deputy McDonald on this issue. If she turns her attention to the programme for Government she will find that we are committed to introducing of a range of measures to address the problems of people who are in mortgage distress. The Government is concerned about the imminent decision from the ECB to increase interest rates today. We will have to await that announcement. We are acutely aware of the difficulties for many families and households in meeting their mortgage repayments. We are very much mindful of the fact that something in the order of 44,000 households are in mortgage arrears and that an increase in interest rates will put an additional burden on families and households.

That is why we have committed to examining a number of proposals to deal with the difficulties facing mortgage holders and families. They include the possibility of increasing mortgage interest relief, introducing a moratorium for householders facing repossession, fast-tracking personal bankruptcy reform for people in such circumstances, and cutting costs in the institutions that provide mortgages to see to what extent that can absorb the impact of interest rate increases. I assure the Deputy that this is being actively addressed by the Government. This is a Government that is very much on the side of the mortgage holder and of families and households who find themselves under increased pressure as a result of increasing interest rates.

I am acutely aware of the promises the Tánaiste made in the election and of the contents of the programme for Government. I am also aware, as is the Tánaiste, that none of them has found its way into the legislative programme. This is not an issue that can wait. People are under pressure now; people are having their homes repossessed now; people cannot meet their mortgage repayments now. This is another case of the Government long fingering an issue of great importance to families and people in distress. Why is it not in the legislative programme or, if it is, can the Tánaiste point it out?

I remind Deputies that this is not Question Time.

It is not badger time either.

Deputies are to ask about promised legislation. I ask Members on both sides of the House to be brief and not to abuse what we are trying to achieve here. There must be fairness all around. There are other Members waiting to ask a question.

Not every measure taken by the Government to address the very real problems people are experiencing requires legislation. Where any decision does require legislation, that legislation will be brought forward. In regard to the legislative programme, it is open to Government to add legislative proposals to the document that was published this week. If legislation is required then it will be brought in.

If legislation is not required then the Government should act now on this issue.

I have studied the Government's new legislative programme and I find some 40-odd pieces of legislation none of which is new, all borrowed from Fianna Fáil. What we have up to the moment is a kind of Johnny Forty Coats Government which, without any coat——

We do not want speeches, only questions.

——borrowed from the crowd that preceded it. Does the Tánaiste think the people went out to vote to give the guys in front of me a bit of a break rather than voting for serious change?

The Deputy and his colleagues can have a chat over a coffee and the rest later. Will he ask a question now?

Admittedly they were in a rather bedraggled condition by the time the general election came.

People went out to vote and they believed what the Tánaiste said. One commitment he gave was that his party would not impose water charges on hard-pressed householders. Yesterday, however, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy O'Dowd, promised he would bring in legislation in the next two years to impose a new water tax on hard-pressed householders and taxpayers who are already carrying the burden of the massive bank bailouts. Is it Labour's way or is it Fine Gael's way as far as water charges are concerned?

A Deputy

It is not Joe Higgins's way.

There is no legislative proposal I can find in regard to that matter. Deputy Higgins says he has been studying the legislative programme. I recommend that he do a bit of revision; the Government can offer him a grind on it if he wants. There are in fact several proposals for new legislation in the programme for Government, including in section A which is the part of the programme indicating the legislation the Government intends to publish in the short term.

The Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, clearly indicated yesterday that he is to come forward with provisions to impose water charges in 2012 or 2013. Can we have a clear answer from the Tánaiste on whether this is Government policy?

Is there promised legislation on this issue, a Thánaiste?

To which item in the legislative programme is the Deputy referring?

I am referring to what was promised in the Dáil yesterday by a Minister of State in the Tánaiste's Government.

A Deputy

First 100 days.

The Deputy will have to put down a parliamentary question to get a proper answer on this issue.

(Interruptions).

With respect, it is not good enough that the person standing in for the Head of Government will not give a clear answer on a question that is clearly within the Standing Orders of the Dáil.

The Tánaiste has given a clear answer.

A Deputy

More fudge.

Is the Tánaiste saying that water charges legislation will not be introduced in this Dáil?

I am saying there is no legislation listed in the legislative programme in regard to water charges. The issue is addressed in the programme for Government. When the Government has considered it, if a legislative measure is required it will be advised to the House.

Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Tánaiste, cén uair a bheidh an díospóireacht ann a gealladh tráth Lá ‘le Pádraig sa Teach seo ar chúrsaí Gaeilge, go mór mór i bhfianaise an dearcaidh atá léirithe ag an Rialtas i leith na Gaeilge, an mhoilleadóireacht atá á dhéanamh leis an straitéis 20 bliain, an cúlú atá á dhéanamh maidir le cúrsaí Gaeilge sa chóras oideachais, agus an cinneadh a rinne an Rialtas agus an Taoiseach nach——

That is not in order on the Order of Business. We are dealing with promised legislation.

Is rud é a gealladh. Chomh maith leis sin——

It is not promised legislation. Is the Deputy listening to me?

Maidir leis an gclár reachtaíochta, cén uair go díreach a fhoilseofar an Bille Gaeltachta agus an bhfuil sé i gceist aisghairm a dhéanamh ar Acht 1956? An bfuil i gceist aige cinn an Bhille a fhoilsiú nuair a bheidh sin ceadaithe ag an Rialtas?

The Tánaiste, on promised legislation.

Beidh díospóireacht sa Dáil faoi Straitéis Fiche Bliain don Ghaeilge agus faoi chúrsaí Gaeilge agus polasaí ina leith. Beidh sé ar siúl amach anseo. Is féidir leis na haoiri é sin a eagrú chomh luath agus is féidir. Maidir leis an mBille, ní bheidh sé sin foilsithe go dtí an bhliain seo chugainn.

Next year. I call Deputy Ó Caoláin.

An bhfoilseofar cinn an Bhille nuair a bheidh sé ceadaithe ag an Rialtas?

Is féidir é sin a phlé leis an Aire. Tá an Rialtas oscailte don moladh sin.

On foot of the publication of the legislative programme, the signalled intent regarding the legislation that traditionally has come under the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children makes clear that it is continuing under the aegis of that Department. I for one, greatly welcome the new Government's decision to set up a new Department for children. How soon does the Tánaiste expect the new Minister with responsibility for children to have a full Department whereby questions, legislation and all other responsibilities will fall directly under the ambit and responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald? This is hugely important and in that context, I refer to the comparative status of the autumn legislative programme and the current commitment of the Government in its legislative programme. For example, in the case of the children first Bill, formerly the Ryan implementation Bill, the previous Government indicated in its last legislative programme that publication was expected in 2011. However, in the first legislative programme published by the new Government, the wording used is that "it is not possible to indicate". The same applies in respect of the national vetting bureau Bill. Although publication was expected in 2011 according to the former Government's last legislative programme, the new Government's first programme indicates "it is not possible to indicate". Many of the Tánaiste's colleagues on the Front Bench and certainly Deputy Howlin, were hard-working industrious members of the committee that produced the first report that led to this legislation. However, Members now have no certainty that it will be presented in the current year. This row-back is a cause of great concern. Consequently, the Tánaiste should indicate when the new Department of children will be in situ. Moreover, when will legislation in respect of children’s issues be addressed in a real and thorough way? What is the position regarding the aforementioned Bills that were promised in this year by the former Government but about which the present Administration is not in a position to indicate? This includes a third Bill on children, namely, the children (establishment of child welfare and protection agency) Bill, which again is listed as being not possible to indicate.

As for the first question on when the new Department of children and youth affairs will be established, I draw Deputy Ó Caoláin's attention to the ministers and secretaries (amendment) Bill on the A list of promised legislation. This Bill will provide for the establishment of the Department of children and youth affairs and the new Department of public expenditure and reform. Obviously this Bill is being given priority because the Government is anxious to establish the aforementioned two Departments as quickly as possible and I expect the Bill will be before the House within a matter of weeks.

As for target dates for the publication of legislation, I am sure Deputy Ó Caoláin will recall that in the past, a practice existed whereby indicative dates were given for the publication of legislation but that those dates were then not met. Consequently, there often is considerable doubt as to whether those indicative dates will be met. In drawing up this legislative programme, the Government decided that the indicative dates that would be published therein would be dates the Government intends to meet. In cases in which it has not been possible to fix a date, that has been indicated in the legislative programme.

In respect of the Bills to which the Deputy refers, they are being furthered by the Minister for children. It is not intended that there will be a delay in their publication and when it is possible to provide a definitive date for publication, it will be given.

No sorry, I call Deputy Cowen.

With the Ceann Comhairle's indulgence——

No, I am sorry but I gave the Deputy a fair run. I call Deputy Cowen.

When will the animal health and welfare Bill be published? Will it include a section pertaining to farmer welfare, considering the announcement made yesterday in which the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, was——

Deputy, that is an entirely separate matter.

—— cut by 20%? Consequently, I expect the aforementioned Bill now will include a farmer welfare section as farmers' welfare was hit so severely yesterday.

Members opposite did a good job on the farmers.

I understand from the Minister that he hopes to publish that Bill before the summer. Obviously, the content of the Bill is a matter for the Minister, which the Deputy can pursue directly with him.

Are there plans to build on the freedom of information legislation introduced by the Labour Party when it was last in government?

Yes, there is a Bill on the C list of promised legislation, namely, the freedom of information (amendment) Bill to amend the freedom of information legislation in line with the programme for Government commitments and the publication of that Bill is expected this year.

I will not stray into an area mentioned earlier by Deputy Higgins, namely, water charges. However, in the Chamber yesterday, in the context of the issue of water, the expenditure of €1 billion and the installation of water meters, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, mentioned that a new quango, Irish Water or presumably Uisce Éireann, will be established to take over supply and maintenance from 34 local authorities. Obviously, this will reduce the powers and functions of local authorities. I do not see this in the legislative programme although the Minister of State expressed his hope that legislation would be ready to set up that quango before the end of the year. Obviously, it also would deal with the installation of——

Sorry, if the Deputy has the answer, what more does he want?

I do not have the answer if one examines the legislative programme that was produced on Tuesday. Yesterday, which happened to be Wednesday, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, came up with a new legislative item. I refer to No. 64 on the legislative programme, namely, the water services (amendment) Bill, which states it will establish a system for inspecting and monitoring the performance of septic tanks and other on-site waste water treatment systems. Is this the legislation under which this agency is to be established?

I do not know but if the Deputy gives me a chance, I will ask.

I know. I am asking this through the Ceann Comhairle because I respect his authority. My point is that the Minister of State promised this by the end of the year but the C list does not indicate anything to that effect.

Is this the same legislation?

No, the water services (amendment) bill is to establish a system for inspecting and monitoring the performance of septic tanks and other on-site waste water treatment systems.

I call Deputy McConalogue.

What about the other promised legislation?

What about the quango?

Deputy, another Deputy sitting behind you wishes to contribute.

When will the social welfare and pensions Bill be published? Will it include amendments in respect of the mortgage interest scheme as proposed by the previous Government, which would be of great assistance to those people who are facing interest rate hikes from the ECB?

It is intended that this Bill will be published this session.