Leaders' Questions

Leaders' Questions is normally the scene of contentious interchanges. Today I wish to raise an issue not in any contentious or combative way but rather in a spirit of solidarity with the people of Athlone and, in particular, the two young girls from that town who suffered a horrific indecent assault some days ago. This incident has caused deep anger, shock and disbelief, not just across the immediate community but across the country. Many of the parents who gathered in unison in the aftermath of this shocking and horrific event felt the need to highlight their anger and concern and send a clear message to those who would do this sort of thing that there is no sanctuary to be had and such actions will be condemned by all right-thinking people.

The thoughts of all of us are with the two children, their families and the wider community. It is very important in situations such as this that a comprehensive package of support be applied to the situation. The manner in which it happened, in broad daylight when children were at play, strikes at the very heart of what is a core principle of our society, that our children are allowed to play in safety and security. That has been violated in a horrific way. Gardaí have acted swiftly and we must have faith in them and the providers of all the other services to come through on this. Can the Taoiseach assure us and the wider community that this comprehensive package of support will be made available on a sustained long-term basis to the members of the emergency services who have had to intervene, to the wider community in the shape of teachers and other school staff who will have to deal with the aftermath of this issue, to the HSE and to the social workers who are involved, as well as for the development of a broad, community-wide education programme to deal with the aftermath of this horrific event?

I thank Deputy Martin for raising this most appalling and sensitive issue. There are few people in the House who have not had experience in one way or another of a family member, particularly a child, going missing for a short period. To have this horror inflicted upon the dignity, integrity and sacred space of two young girls is simply appalling. I assure Deputy Martin and his party that in so far as it is humanly possible, special facilities, resources and anything else necessary for the comfort of the community, including from people with specialist training in this area, will, of course, continue to be made available where these unfortunate cases arise.

I compliment the people of Athlone on the manner in which they have restrained themselves in dealing with this situation where, I understand, an individual has been charged with the rape of the two young girls.

It is the most appalling nightmare for any parent to hear or receive news of this. That it happened in broad daylight, when two little girls - innocent in their childhood - were playing and lured away, speaks for itself. Our sympathy and understanding go to the parents, the children and the wider family. Irrespective of the difference of opinion in the House on matters of politics, we are absolutely united in our condemnation, attempts and efforts to see that those who are trained and have specialist facilities to deal with these unfortunate and appalling situations continue to be made available to the wider public. The individual involved has been charged and clearly the courts will follow through in bringing the person concerned before the law.

The Ombudsman raised a complex case in which the outcome necessitates the setting up of the child and family agency to start its work immediately. The report relates to the years 2006 and 2007 when the young girl involved was 11 years of age. The recommendations made by the Ombudsman have been carried out in full following the findings of the report on what was a complex and sensitive case. I assure the House and the people that there is no division in the House, irrespective of our political positions. That will continue to be the case on what is a sad day for Athlone and its community and a devastating day for the parents and the two little girls who must live with this for the rest of their lives. What can I say except that our sympathy goes to the parents and the children? Whatever is necessary in terms of support and facilities will continue to be made available.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply and agree with what he has said. This horrific violation of the innocence of children has spread understandable shock, genuine concern and fear across every community. That is why a comprehensive programme involving different agencies is required in this incident. In addition, we accept that child protection is a core principle that goes to the heart of the community. Does the Taoiseach agree that, arising from the incident, we need to reflect on this issue and redouble our efforts to take additional steps required to ensure that in every community across the country there will be a robust child protection framework in place that will embrace education, the media, health and security? In that context, we should look at the idea of sustained campaigns on protecting children in situations such as this. In other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom there are such recurrent and sustained education campaigns. This is a point on which we might reflect as we do everything possible to give every support required to the communities involved.

Yes, I do. Everyone who has a family and young children will have gone through the phase of birthday parties and having visitors. The shattering of that summer afternoon at the birthday party for two innocent little girls is simply appalling. It is a case of understanding the sensitivity surrounding programmes and educational matters about these things. Every child should be entitled to a childhood. The innocence of playing is so important as part of their personality formation. The initiation of the child and family agency, with 388 social workers in position following the recommendations of the Ryan report, cannot happen quickly enough and, clearly, not in time for these two young girls. For any community, that the afternoon can be shattered by such news is utterly devastating. All I want to commit to is that we must see the facilities, training and State support the Deputy mentioned being made available where, unfortunately, this might arise.

I share the sentiments expressed by the Taoiseach and the concerns expressed by him and An Teachta Micheál Martin. There is a particular need to provide prompt and effective multi-agency aftercare, particularly counselling for the victims of abuse. This applies also to their families and peer groups.

My question is about folks in mortgage distress. There are now almost 200,000 families in mortgage distress, double the amount when the Taoiseach entered government. Sin méadú scannrúil ar líon na ndaoine a bhfuil ag streachailt lena gcuid morgáistí. Tá eagla ar thuismitheoirí agus tá eagla ar theaghlaigh as they try to figure out whether to pay the mortgage or put food on the table. People are unable to sleep at night. The Taoiseach promised these families that there would be light at the end of the tunnel and that the personal insolvency service would be there to help them. Gheall sé é sin, ach cad a tharla? Grant Thornton analysed 1,057 real life cases of mortgage distress and found that 86% of the families in question were earning less than the reasonable living expenses set out by the Insolvency Service of Ireland. That means that these families have nothing left to pay down their mortgage debt. They have no excess income to pay upfront fees of more than €5,000. They are effectively excluded from the personal insolvency service. Does the Taoiseach accept that the personal insolvency strategy is flawed and will not work for many families? Accordingly, will he put in place a contingency measure if the analysis from Grant Thornton proves to be correct in order that no one is excluded?

Following analysis of the scale of mortgage distress, the Government has put in place a programme of actions and options for people who find themselves in mortgage distress or mortgage arrears. The rights of borrowers and lenders have been rebalanced, with the biggest shake-up of insolvency law in over 100 years. We have given additional mortgage interest relief to those who bought their houses during the so-called boom years of the bubble. The tools are in place for a range of options to be considered for people who find themselves in mortgage distress, of which there are many. At the end of June, there were 770,610 private residential mortgage accounts, of which 97,874, or 12.7%, were in arrears for greater than 90 days. The level of early mortgage arrears, for less than 90 days, continues to drop - it stood at 3.3% at the end of the first quarter. This is a welcome and positive trend and there are some signs of progress emerging. Some 80,000 mortgages have been restructured, while almost 24,000 new restructures have taken place in the past quarter. The Central Bank has indicated that almost 76.5% of the stock that was restructured are deemed to be meeting the terms of the restructured arrangements, in other words, that they can be a sustainable solution that works for the lender and the borrower.

That represents an improved position on what certainly was there previously. In addition, the banks have now 4,500 split mortgages, either in operation or being offered to customers, and those split mortgages will be listed on the Central Bank's statistics when they have operated successfully through a trial period for six months.

In regard to the other matters, the Grant Thornton report makes observations on the position. The personal insolvency arrangement was never deemed to be the be all and end all for all of these matters. It was another option to be considered where a practitioner would sit down with the person in mortgage distress and work out all of the options available in terms of the person's circumstances. Clearly, prior to getting into the personal insolvency agency, which only opened its doors quite recently, there is the requirement for banks and consumers to engage to see can a deal be cut in respect of what the customer's particular circumstances might be. From a Government point of view, I recognise that this is a fairly horrendous situation for many but, as I stated, 80,000 mortgages have been restructured, 24,000 of which have been in the past quarter. The Central Bank is the regulator here. It has set the targets for the bank. It has got the first reports in. It must audit these and verify that they meet sustainability criteria, in other words, that it works for the borrower and for the lender, for the time ahead. While Grant Thornton has made its observations, one needs to have the circumstances in every case laid bare before one can identify what is the best solution in respect of all of those so they can have a sustainable position worked out on both sides.

I thank the Taoiseach for his answer. Sinn Féin wants this project to work. We want borrowers to be taken out of mortgage distress but what Grant Thornton has come up with is not a view, but an analysis. The figure is quite revealing and telling. They found that 86% of the families they analysed have nothing left to use to pay down their mortgage debt. The problem with the scheme that the Government has put forward is if one allows the banks a veto over any insolvency arrangement, one also allows insolvency practitioners to charge up-front fees of between €5,000 and €7,000. Given that these facts perhaps indicate something of which the Government or those who planned this might not have thought, is it not important to get an independent element into the adjudication process so there would be a new category of agreement which would be an independent agreement on mortgage distress where the Government would set up a body where a mortgage restructuring panel would have the authority to impose whatever it thought was an appropriate way out of these difficulties? If these folk do not have the money to pay it, then what happens to them? Under the Government's scheme at present, they will end up homeless. I ask the Taoiseach to consider what I and my colleagues have suggested.

I remind him that two weeks ago during Leaders' Questions the Tánaiste gave an Teachta McDonald a clear commitment that no one would be barred from the insolvency service. The Taoiseach might not be able to respond to the detail that I outlined but surely he would repeat the Tánaiste's commitment that no one would be barred from the insolvency service. Under the current rules, that 86% would be barred.

The important aspect here is to be able to work out a solution for those who have a mortgage problem. The first issue is that there should be engagement between those who have borrowed and those who have lent. There is no point in having a situation where there is no engagement between them, which has been a feature of some of these cases. It will not go away. It is better to be dealt with. It has got to be dealt with by sitting down with the borrower to work out, based on the circumstances of each of them, what is the position. It is in the best interests of debtors and creditors to conclude an acceptable bilateral agreement, be it under the Personal Insolvency Act 2012, by debt settlement arrangement or by personal insolvency arrangement, and that can only be worked out when they sit down and talk to each other.

Clearly, the personal insolvency arrangement is of particular importance to those who are experiencing difficulties with repayment of their mortgages and will provide in the vast majority of cases a restructuring of their debt, although there are some cases that will emerge, the evidence of which we will see as the personal insolvency agency deals with increasing numbers of cases coming through, of clients who do not have any means, in which cases, obviously, one must find some solution. The creditor must consider carefully what the debtor's best options are and if the creditor uses refusal on that basis, it knows that it has no consideration if the person decides to go through to bankruptcy. Where this has applied in similar circumstances in other jurisdictions, the vast majority get worked out to a solution that is deemed to be, as they say, "sustainable". It would be in the interests of everybody, as the banks will be aware, to cut a deal to settle through the personal insolvency agency and avoid having to go the bankruptcy route where the banks lose heavily. That is why it is important that the other suite of measures that have been put in place by the Government should be explored by engagement between the borrower and the lender so that these matters can be worked out.

Will the Taoiseach commit that no one will be barred?

In that sense, I do not see where borrowers would be denied the right to have their particular circumstances explored and followed through, and a deal worked on.

I am asking the Taoiseach to commit that no one will be barred.

The Taoiseach should be aware that approximately six weeks ago St. Michael's House, a vital service for those with intellectual disabilities, was faced with the body blow of a further €1 million of cuts on top of the €12 million that it has already endured. This organisation, which has 330 persons on its waiting list, now must grapple with serious cuts with which, the Minister told us last week, it is dealing creatively and co-operatively - whatever that means.

Coincidentally, that €1 million, which has caused such heartbreak, is slightly less than the €1.12 million that the Comptroller and Auditor General identified the State has lost through not having a proper system of fixed charge notices in relation to company cars. This was merely one of a number of measures, which he identified and which he called "significant weaknesses" in the operation of the fixed charge notice system, which resulted in a substantial proportion of drivers avoiding penalties, a situation which he stated needs to be addressed "urgently". Of course, the problem here is that it is not the first time the Comptroller and Auditor General said this. He said it in 2000, 2003 and 2004, and now he is saying it again. The question really is why should we believe that anything different will happen now when it did not happen previously. Against the backdrop of austerity, revenue foregone is important. Based on the Comptroller and Auditor General's figures, if the motorists had paid, even at the minimum amount, it would have resulted in an extra €3.5 million which could have been used by St. Michael's House or others.

However, the issue here is much greater than revenue foregone. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report confirmed that there are widespread terminations of penalty points which, he stated, were in circumstances that do not satisfy the stated policy. He confirmed the incidence of multiple terminations to the same person and the same vehicle. He confirmed that there was no paperwork. He confirmed that substantial amounts happened outside Garda districts. To all of the problems identified by him, the response was that they have a new circular in place. Let us be clear.

The only reason for the new practices in place now is that two courageous whistleblowing gardaí came forward and gave their evidence which led to internal and external Garda reports and led to the Comptroller and Auditor General investigating the matter. Throughout that time, the Garda establishment sought to minimise the situation and to cover up. The Commissioner said there was no such culture; the Assistant Garda Commissioner, who had five months, five chief superintendents, six superintendents, all their staff and seven others, failed to find the 3,000 summonses that were statute-barred which the Comptroller and Auditor General found. He did not discover that half the summonses issued were never served. Last week, the Minister attempted to downgrade the whistleblower. Does the Taoiseach accept that the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act 2010 prohibits the penalisation of whistleblowers? Is he aware that one of the whistleblowers has been driven out of his job and the other has been prevented from accessing PULSE and doing his job? What will the Taoiseach do about it, considering that they have been vindicated by the Comptroller and Auditor General?

I am not aware of that. The media have been reporting that St. Michael's House has been forced to introduce cuts in the disability services arising from recent cuts introduced by the HSE. It should be noted that St. Michael's House provides a first-class service to families which includes individualised services, clinical therapies, early intervention services, special national schools, inclusive education, vocational training, adult education, adult day services, employment support, residential independent living, respite care, social recreation and very specialised Alzheimer services. St. Michael's House received over €70 million in 2012. The HSE has advised that the allocation to St. Michael's House for 2013 is €68.5 million, which is a reduction. This allocation is subject to review following the application of the Haddington Road Agreement, HRA and other once-off costings. It should be noted that the figure may not reflect the actual final outcome.

The HSE has advised the Department of Health that the application of additional measures under the HRA has presented a significant challenge to St. Michael's House. Discussions are under way between the HSE and St. Michael's House to identify the impact on services of those budgetary reductions. The Department has received assurances from the HSE that both organisations are committed to working together within the terms of the HRA.

The Deputy referred to the collection of fixed charge notices. The allegations by a member of the Garda Síochána of improper cancellation of fixed charge notices led to this examination by the independent Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and to a separate examination earlier this year by the Garda Síochána. Two Garda reports resulted from the examination. A report by Assistant Garda Commissioner John O'Mahoney, on the allegations recommended some changes and a second report by the Garda professional standards unit made further recommendations for improvements to the fixed charge processing system. The Minister for Justice and Equality published the two reports and referred them to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.

The O'Mahoney report covered a longer period of three and a half years than the period covered by the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General which was two years. It also examined approximately 1,500 cancellations arising from the allegations, together with nearly 700 cancellations selected at random. The examination by the Comptroller and Auditor General analysed the Garda fixed charge database and looked specifically at a random selection of approximately 350 cancellations. The O'Mahoney report identified approximately the same rate of cancellation of fixed charge notices at 4.55% compared to 5% identified in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The O'Mahony report also identified broadly the same key issues of concern relating to the operation of the fixed charge processing system. This pointed out the need for change. Disciplinary proceedings were taken against a number of members of the Garda Síochána and a number of others were advised of the absolute necessity to follow correct procedures. Arising from the two Garda reports, a new Garda directive on the cancellation of fixed charge notices was issued to the entire force on 31 August 2013. This is aimed at significantly tightening up procedures for cancellation. The report by the Comptroller and Auditor General made specific and helpful recommendations on improving the fixed charge notice system and how this interacts with the Courts Service and the driver licensing system. The report notes that these recommendations have already been accepted by the Garda Commissioner and will be fully implemented.

St. Michael's House does not need to be patronised by the Taoiseach; it needs €1 million which was cut from its budget recently and it needs a restoration of some of the €12 million which was cut previously, in order to allow it to provide accommodation for the 330 people who are on its urgent priority list.

The Taoiseach absolutely failed to address the question he was asked. This is not surprising because it has been the modus operandi of his Minister for Justice and Equality in this regard and, indeed, the Garda Commissioner. They have sought consistently to adopt a defensive approach and to cover up what has gone on behind the scenes. The Minister has repeatedly sought to rely on new protocols and agreements which have been put in place. Most of these measures are not new at all; they are simply a reiteration of the protocols already in place. The fact it has been necessary to re-issue them is an acknowledgement that they were not being implemented in the first place. In reality, serious abuses have been uncovered but the Taoiseach's Government has failed to acknowledge the severity of it. In fact, I do not think the media has done the issue great service either but maybe that is because Stephen Rae and others in the Sunday Independent get their own penalty points written off and so on.

Put a question, please, Deputy.

The Garda Síochána and the Government have admitted to the shortcomings in the system but they have not held their hands up and taken responsibility. The only people for whom there have been repercussions are the two men who put their jobs on the line, one of whom has no job, who was driven out of the force and the other who cannot do his job properly because he has been denied access to PULSE. This is the treatment given to whistleblowers who save the State money, who bring in new protocols and who shine the spotlight. My question again is what will the Taoiseach do about it.

The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the two Garda reports highlighted deficiencies in the system. While the Deputy may sneer, there is no difficulty. Indeed, there is an obligation to renew people's acquaintance with regulations so that they understand them exactly. The Garda Commissioner issued new notices to the entire Garda workforce at the end of August and these speak for themselves. The Comptroller and Auditor General has made recommendations in this matter. These are accepted by the Garda Commissioner and they will be fully implemented. I will provide an update for Deputy Daly in respect of the whistleblower legislation and the protection of those in the public service.