Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 6 Dec 2016

Vol. 931 No. 3

Order of Business

I call on Deputy Brendan Ryan to announce the Order of Business for the week and to make the proposals regarding the arrangements for the taking of that business.

Today's business shall be No. 7, motion re PQ rota swap between the Department of Defence and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, without debate; No. 8, Further Revised Estimates, back from committee, without debate; No. 14, Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016 – Order for Report, Report and Final Stages; and No. 1, Medical Practitioners (Amendment) Bill 2014 [Seanad] – Second Stage.

Private Members' business shall be Item 26, Electoral (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014 - Second Stage, introduced by Fianna Fáil.

Wednesday's Government business shall be No. 8a, motion re appointments (3) to GSOC, without debate; No. 15, Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 [Seanad] – Second Stage, resumed; and No. 1, Medical Practitioners (Amendment) Bill 2014 [Seanad] – Second Stage. Private Members' business shall be No. 79, motion re pension equality and fairness introduced by Sinn Féin.

Thursday's Government business shall be No. 9, Supplementary Estimates, back from committee, without debate; No. 15, Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill 2016 [Seanad] – Second Stage, resumed if not previously concluded; and No. 16, statements re climate action and low carbon development. Second Stage of No. 27, Social and Affordable Housing Bill 2016 will be debated in the evening slot.

In relation to today's business, there are two proposals. It is proposed that:

(1) the motions re parliamentary questions rota swap and further Revised Estimates, back from committee, shall be taken without debate and any division demanded thereon shall be taken immediately. The further Revised Estimates shall be moved together and decided by one question.

(2) In the event a division is under way at 8 p.m., Private Members' business shall commence immediately on the conclusion of the division and the proceedings on Second Stage of the Bill shall be brought to a conclusion, if not previously concluded, after a period of two hours. The Dáil shall adjourn immediately on the conclusion of Private Members' business.

In relation to Wednesday’s business, it is proposed that the motion re appointments (3) to GSOC shall be taken without debate.

In relation to Thursday’s business, there are three proposals. It is proposed that:

(1) The Supplementary Estimates shall be moved together, taken without debate and decided by one question.

(2) For statements on climate change and low carbon development, on the opening round, the speech of a Minister or Minister or State and the main spokespersons for parties or groups, or a member nominated in their stead shall be ten minutes each; there shall be a second round of ten minutes in total for members of the Government, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to be divided proportionally on a 40-40-20 basis, respectively; there shall be five minutes for all other Members on the subsequent rounds and all Members may share time.

(3) If at 3.30 p.m., the statements have commenced and the opening and second rounds have not concluded, the statements shall continue but shall adjourn following the conclusion of those two rounds and Oral Questions to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation shall then be taken. The Dáil shall adjourn on the conclusion of the proceedings on Second Stage of the Social and Affordable Housing Bill 2016.

There are three proposals to be put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with Tuesday's business agreed? Agreed. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed? Agreed.

I put a question to the Taoiseach concerning Deputy Adams volunteering to make a statement tomorrow. Can we provide time for that?

I would not object to that. I think this is a matter of national importance. If Deputy Adams wishes to have the opportunity to make a statement, he should be allowed to do that.

That can agreed among the Whips. Is the proposal for dealing with Thursday's business agreed? Agreed. We now move on to Questions on Proposed Legislation. I will be very strict. I want to give an opportunity to speak to as many Members who have indicated as possible. Let us respect the one-minute rule on both sides.

In the chapter in the programme for Government dealing with improving the lives of people with disabilities, I am struck by the number of reviews proposed. They focus on enabling people with disabilities to live independent lives, providing greater independence in accessing the services they choose and placing them in a stronger position to tailor supports to meet their needs and plan their lives. The programme for Government states

[D]isability policy and supports cross most government departments and agencies resulting in complexity for service users. A review of State structures and delivery will take place to respond to the introduction of personalised budgeting tailored specifically to the needs of the individual.

Can the Taoiseach indicate if this review has been established and when we can expect an outcome? The programme for Government promises a review of the role of the National Disability Authority and a proposal to consolidate all means-testing under a single national body ensuring a single application for services or entitlements across all Government agencies.

The reality of life for people with disabilities is in stark contrast with the commitments in the programme for Government. Nowhere is the word "respite" mentioned in the entire chapter of the programme for Government. I have met parents of people with disabilities. They have very significant issues and challenges, and they are getting no respite. What is going on is a scandal. I want the Taoiseach to outline how real this document is or if those reviews have been established.

I thank the Deputy for observing the minute.

The task force on personalised budgets was established in September with the remit to make recommendations on a personalised budget model for people with a disability, which includes, obviously, people who have need of respite. The national task force on youth mental health was established in August and the award of the contract for the national forensic mental health service in Portrane was approved. As announced in the budget all the weekly benefits, including blind pension, carer's benefit and allowance, disability allowance and invalidity pension are to be increased. Obviously, there are other issues in respect of health, including 10,000 medical cards for children in receipt of domiciliary care allowance.

On the specific issue, budget 2017 provided for the extension of entitlement for the treatment benefit scheme and the invalidity pension scheme to self-employed people. Obviously there are other elements of what has been followed through to date. I can advise Deputy Martin later on the specific issue he raised.

I wrote to the Taoiseach on 15 November to express my concern that the Government had decided not to purchase the final letter of surrender by Pádraig Mac Piarais at the end of the Easter Rising. The Taoiseach wrote back to advise that the Minister would contact me directly. The Minister's private secretary wrote to advise that she would be in touch as soon as possible. I am still waiting.

The letter is due to be auctioned, I think, tomorrow or by the end of the week. It was Pearse's letter of instruction to the Four Courts garrison. It is particularly bizarre that in the centenary of the 1916 Rising that the Government would pass up the opportunity to acquire a document of such historic import and significance for the nation.

I know that funds are limited, but I strongly urge the Taoiseach to reconsider this decision and to seek out possible mechanisms to fund the acquisition of the letter by and for the State, including utilising any remaining funding for the centenary celebrations or other funding carried forward in the Department. In many ways this is a metaphor for official Ireland's attitude to the men and women of 1916.

It is not the intention to buy it. The Government has put forward very substantial moneys for the improvement of the mezzanine interpretive centre in the GPO, another €5 million for Kilmainham courthouse and another €5 million for the development of the military archives, the purchase of Nos. 14 to 17 Moore Street and many other issues in respect of 1916.

This is an important letter, but the estimated cost is very high. All the issues surrounding the 1916 centenary commemorations have been accepted and participated in by hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country. This letter has been in private ownership for some time and is now offered for sale, but it is not the intention of the Minister to purchase it.

Every day more Ministers suggest they might favour a refund of water charges after all. The Minister, Deputy Coveney may be the last member of Cabinet to hold out on the matter. Reports of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting indicate that the Minister for Finance seems to be well disposed to the notion. Earlier this year, my colleague, Deputy Penrose, prepared a Bill, the water charges (fair treatment of customers) Bill 2016. Unfortunately because it imposes a charge, we cannot introduce it. I ask the Taoiseach to take on board this legislation. If not will he at least give a commitment to support the principle that law-abiding citizens who have paid their lawful charges will get a full refund?

As Deputy Howlin is well aware, a process was set up here whereby a specialist commission was asked to look at the entire issue in relation to water. Charges were suspended during that period. The commission has reported now directly to an all-party committee of both Houses. The Labour Party is represented ably by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan on that committee. The commission's report did not recommend the abolition of water charges. It recommended an increased allowance and a regime for contributions after that. The process is now in place for the committee to do its work. It referred specifically to the point raised by Deputy Howlin where it said that those who had paid their way should not be treated any less fairly than those who had not.

I think it is appropriate that we should let the committee do its work, for which it was set up. It was given a specific remit and there are a range of issues surrounding that, including those who have independent wells, those who have been on group water schemes and those who cannot drink the water because of its quality. In addition, there are 42 towns still discharging raw sewage into lake, river and sea. It is my view that the committee, set up for a specific purpose, should be allowed to do its work, to reflect on the proposed recommendations - on that statement in the commission's report as well as the others - and bring it back to the Oireachtas where a vote will take place in March 2017.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the reports in the media that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, was to tell the Cabinet that the pay-by-weight bin charges were to be abandoned and that the system is inflexible and will not work. Perhaps the Taoiseach will acknowledge if this is true and indicate when this matter will be brought before the House. We would welcome the measure and would recognise it as a result of pressure from ordinary people who see this as a problem. They are being penalised for the high costs of landfill at the behest of the profits of the big waste companies most of whom, as the Taoiseach is aware, keep their accounts off-shore in the likes of the Isle of Man where a significant proportion of their profits are kept from public scrutiny. The Companies Act will allow some scrutiny of those profits but I reject fully the Green Party argument that says pay-by-weight is a good thing as it would penalise the polluter. I believe that the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is now recognising that many of these polluters are people with large families, who by their nature will have more waste, and people with special needs and health needs. If one looks at the statistics, Ireland has a very high rate of recycling. When will the Taoiseach announce to the House the abandonment of pay-by-weight?

I will not announce the abandonment of pay-by-weight measures before the House. That is not what the Minister, Deputy Naughten, has been talking about. He was talking about a further extension of the current situation where charges were frozen. The Minister has been very clear about it. He said that whether a person is a small user or a very large user, everybody should have the incentive to reduce the amount of waste being sent out for collection. That is what he is looking at. There will be a regime in respect of incentivising everybody - small or large users - to reduce the extent of waste being put out for collection. This is what the Minister was talking about. It is not the-----

So it will not be brought in during January?

It is not the abandonment of pay-by-weight. That is not being abandoned. The Minister is looking at an effective workable position so that people - big users and small users - are incentivsed to reduce the amount of waste gong out.

I will call the Members in the order they indicated. The first is Deputy MacSharry. I have nine Members, so we will try and respect that and include all nine.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The programme for Government, in the section on jobs and rural development on page 41, it speaks of revitalising all of Ireland and creating a substantial number of jobs - some 135,000 - outside the capital. It says that we are going to give an additional €200 million to the budget of IDA Ireland to help it attract jobs to those particular areas. At what point did the Cabinet decide to begin to reverse the policy of decentralisation? It seems that the information section of the Department of Social Protection is set to be decentralised almost entirely to the Department's office in Dublin. That is 32 positions, and while those individuals will not lose their specific jobs because they will be redeployed into current or future vacancies, it will clearly have an impact on those who wish to transfer back in the direction of the north west as these 32 positions will have to be dealt with first.

It will also have implications from a cost perspective in Dublin, with the establishment of a new section that had been quite successfully decentralised more than ten years ago.

At what point did the Cabinet decide to reverse the policy, which was successful, of decentralisation and recentralise aspects of Departments and entire sections back to Dublin?

Go raibh maith agat.

When the Taoiseach answers the question-----

Deputy, there are other Members.

-----will he address how he expects IDA Ireland and other agencies to do their job effectively-----

I cannot allow the Deputy to continue.

-----when the Government is pursuing a policy to take jobs and sections out of constituencies?

Deputy, I have to be fair to all Members.

A structured and well managed decentralisation is always successful. We have gone a long way from the days of writing 53 towns on the back of an envelope and coming in here and announcing decentralisation just like that. Deputy MacSharry may remember those days.

You have decentralised nothing.

The policy is centralisation.

I hope the west and the north west are looking at the development of the new IDA plant in Sligo and I know the region is working very hard for the amalgamation of the institutes of technology to provide a technological university. I know the area is benefitting from the economics of the Wild Atlantic Way and the massive increase in tourism. I am sure the region appreciates the extra expenditure in Ireland West Airport Knock and the opportunity for new flights coming in. I am glad to see Norwegian Air has been approved in respect of Cork Airport and I hope it will extend to Shannon Airport, where pre-clearance exists, and possibly to Ireland West Airport Knock to an extent also.

It is not a case of reversing policy.

But the Minister has done so.

A very clear policy is being pursued by the Minister, with 135 out of 200 jobs outside the Dublin region and a massive programme for broadband provision throughout the country to make every place attractive-----

What about an answer to the question?

-----as a location for investment and growth, and power, water and communications are all being worked on.

What about what Deputy MacSharry asked the Taoiseach?

We cannot deliver with a magic wand as the Deputy might expect.

Is that an endorsement of the policy of the Minister, Deputy Varadkar?

Please observe the time.

There is implied recognition in the programme for Government that the pension problem in the country needs to be dealt with. Does the Taoiseach find it acceptable that a solvent profitable company can change and close down a defined benefit pension scheme on a whim to the detriment of its pensioners and deferred pensioners and there is no provision in Irish law to deal with it? When will such a provision be put in place?

There is no legislation governing this in respect of Ireland. As the Deputy knows, there are two defined benefit pensions in respect of the case to which he is probably referring.

I am not referring to any particular case.

In Britain, defined benefit is based upon levies and is only used when the company involved becomes insolvent. The major company to which we are referring is not insolvent.

This is a matter in respect of defined benefit contributions, which have caused a number of difficulties over the period. The last actual certificates filled by defined benefit schemes with the Pensions Authority show that more than 60% meet the standard and the remaining schemes have recovery plans. There is concern the certificates due in the coming months will show significant deterioration. The operation of a pension scheme is in the first instance a matter for the trustees of the particular scheme. The Minister recently met the chairperson of the Pensions Authority. He has asked the authority to report back to him with an assessment of the current overall position on defined benefit schemes. He will report to the House when it comes back to him.

On the same subject-----

The next Deputy to indicate was Deputy Eugene Murphy.

I will be very brief.

A number of weeks ago the Taoiseach and I had a conversation about the situation in An Post. On that occasion he told me the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, his constituency colleague and friend, would make a statement to the House, which he did. During our conversation, and during the presentation of the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, to the Dáil, there was no mention of increasing the price of postage. This morning we heard the Minister, Deputy Naughten, is to bring forward proposals for legislation to increase the price of postage at the very time we are trying to save post office services. We all acknowledge there is a crisis and I have one simple question.

Has the Government decided to increase postage costs?

The Government discussed this matter this morning and, under certain conditions, it was agreed that the cap would be lifted. The Minister has already pointed out that he wants to save the five-day service for rural Ireland and to protect the delivery of services. The chief executive spoke about the opportunities that exist for An Post in the time ahead to restructure the services it provides and to offer them at the highest level possible. The Minister has already identified the reasons for lifting the postal cap in respect of the shortfall and he has been very clear about protecting the levels of service of the post office network throughout the country. The Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Michael Ring, will report to the House and there is a Cabinet subcommittee meeting, either tomorrow or Monday, at which we will also have the report from Mr. Kerr.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to improve services in the health service, including South Tipperary General Hospital. The latest reply I have from the HSE is totally unclear. It tells me it had a closing date for tender submissions of 16 November and that these were being evaluated by a multidisciplinary evaluation team. It said it was anticipated that the process would be completed and the national framework agreement would be appointed in December. It said the framework agreement would facilitate drawdown by mini-tender competition, which would facilitate shortened process timeframes. It goes on to state that mini-tender competitions were tailored for each individual hospital.

I never saw such gobbledygook. Will the Taoiseach or the Minister knock heads together at the HSE? One would need a dictionary to understand the gobbledygook it sends out in its replies. They are all excuses for inaction while Clonmel hospital is at crisis point and has stopped taking admissions. It is asking people to go to their GPs as it cannot cope.

Can the Deputy please finish? I am anxious that he get a reply to his question.

He is right, though.

I will ask the Minister to put English on the reply the Deputy received.

Will he put plain English on it, please?

I call Deputy Aindrias Moynihan.

Come on. We indicated first.

Let there be no ambiguity. I indicated very clearly that I would call Members in the order in which they indicated. I am doing that.

They are all Fianna Fáilers.

Deputy Shortall has not indicated, though Deputy Catherine Murphy has.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to protecting local services, in particular in respect of the transport network where the Government acknowledges the importance of the bus for older and vulnerable people. It also speaks about examining how existing routes can be made more sustainable. Locals are in fear of the Cork-Tralee No. 40 express bus, which serves Ballyvourney and Ballymakeera, being downgraded and causing social isolation and difficulty of access. Is ábhar buartha é do mhuintir na Gaeltachta-----

-----go mbainfí amach an bus sin atá ag freastal ar Bhaile Bhuirne agus Baile Mhic Íre. Can the Taoiseach give assurances to passengers travelling to and from Ballyvourney and Ballymakeera that any change in bus services will not result in a downgrading of services?

The transport scheme is an essential part of the services provided to the people throughout the country. Bus Éireann will explain its difficulties to the Labour Court today and it is looking at the question of the continuation of the best level of services for the people of this country. I am not aware of the difficulties in respect of the route about which the Deputy speaks but I will see to it that the Minister responds to him.

We have learned that getting rid of the price cap will require emergency legislation and that the extent of the crisis in An Post is only starting to be revealed. There has been a decline of almost 7% in mail volumes this year, 10% is projected next year and the company is practically out of cash. How did we allow the situation to drift to the point that there is such an emergency? I understand there will not be any prelegislative scrutiny of the emergency legislation and that An Post, which was to have come before the joint committee today, is not now coming.

Could we or should we facilitate such a meeting in advance of the emergency legislation being introduced and the price cap being removed? This is a company in deep crisis and 9,000 employees face a bleak year in which it is hard to see how the company will survive, given the 10% drop in volumes and a price increase which will probably make it even worse. Surely the Oireachtas committee should examine it before the legislation and the price cap removal go through.

As a former Minister, the Deputy will appreciate the fact that there is a new management team for An Post. The management team has been in discussion with the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, about the matter. This morning, the Government approved the drafting of a Bill in respect of repealing section 30 of the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Act. The Bill would include a commencement provision whereby it would be introduced only at an appropriate time when the Minister would be satisfied that the company was doing everything possible to take action to address its financial position. The Bill would also include an appropriate provision which would enable the Minister to reintroduce some form of pricing regulation if necessary. This would ensure the company would not have unfettered power over pricing. I will arrange for a briefing for the Members so they can understand where the Minister is coming from.

It is very serious.

On the same issue which Deputy Willie O'Dea raised, namely, the deferred benefit pension in situations in which there is a solvent company, the Taoiseach is incorrect about the situation in the UK. In the UK a solvent company cannot walk away from a defined benefit pension scheme. Does the Taoiseach not accept that there is a gap in the law? Independent News and Media has had the benefit of having more than €130 million written off by AIB and Bank of Ireland. People who have worked in the industry and who have deferred their pensions are being left very exposed due to the gap in the law. The matter is urgent. Other companies are doing exactly the same. Does the Taoiseach not see that there is an urgent need for legislation to address the gap in the law?

In the UK, there is a pension protection fund which is paid for by levies. However, the fund comes into use only when the company is insolvent. The company the Deputy mentioned is not insolvent. The Minister has met the chairman of the Pensions Authority and asked him to report back on the issue of defined benefits pensions and the situation that will arise over the coming months and years. We will deliberate on it when the Minister has received the report.

The Taoiseach is incorrect. We should correct the record.

Please do not interrupt.

Due to the continuing and increasing seriousness of gun crime across the country, will the proposed bail legislation include restriction of bail for those arrested and charged with gun crimes?

Yes. The Cabinet approved the bail Bill this morning and it includes a range of measures which were not in existence before, including opportunities for electronic tagging and consistency of dealing with repeat serious offenders. The Bill will be published today and we will have a chance to discuss it here.

Regarding a commitment in the programme for Government for a sustainable rural Ireland, the Taoiseach will be aware of the huge losses incurred by grain farmers this harvest season, particularly west of the Shannon and in the south west. Many farmers have lost their entire incomes and there does not appear to be any aid package forthcoming to help them. Will the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, bring forward an aid package to help them and try to secure European funding to that end?

A grant aided targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, is being developed for grain farmers. The Minister, Deputy Michael Creed, has secured credit at a low interest rate.

In respect of the taxation, the Minister for Finance put in a gap year for farmers-----

I asked about the aid package.

-----who experienced a year like this one where grain was impossible to take out of fields in many places in the country.

I am concerned about the future of the technological universities Bill and the impact on proper regional development unless the legislation is brought before the Dáil quite soon. Is it true that the Independent members of the Government are vetoing the Bill? It is absolutely vital to develop our institutes of technology in all our major cities and towns, particularly in the regions, if we are going to have a greater power to attract investment and industry led by the IDA. We want to see more investment in industry but without the technological universities Bill I am concerned that very little investment will be attracted to the regions in future.

I have not heard that any member of the Independent Alliance was opposed to the technological universities Bill.

That is the word on the street.

It must be a big street.

The Boxer is a very strong advocate of it along with a lot of others.

It is what some of the Taoiseach's Fine Gael colleagues told a meeting in the south east.

Senator McFadden and Deputy Moran are very strongly in favour of it. It does not apply.

That is what they are telling people in Fine Gael. They might not be telling the Taoiseach.

We have to have some order.

He is well informed. Deputy Burton should not worry.