Questions on Promised Legislation

Approximately 15 Members have indicated so I would ask everyone to be brief.

There are commitments in the programme for Government to improve waiting times for hospital procedures and to reduce the length of time from when a patient presents at an emergency department to his or her discharge home or admission to a ward. To implement these commitments, however, there must be a full quota of nursing staff. Today there are 3,500 fewer nurses employed by the HSE than in 2009. There are shortages in most specialised areas. The HSE is spending €1.2 million on agency nurses per week instead of making real efforts to fill the vacant positions. There are no real incentives to attract Irish nurses home to work in Irish hospitals. In the past two to three years, up to 20,000 Irish nurses applied for certificates to work abroad. This in an alarming reality in our health service today.

Nurses are working overtime, are not being replaced when on leave and are expected constantly to meet increased demands with fewer staff. The Government and the HSE seem detached from this and are not tackling the issue. Last August a report was prepared on the crisis in emergency departments. It recommended recruiting 200 additional nurses to cope with the extra patients in emergency departments who were waiting for admission, but not one nurse has been recruited. The Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, will launch the HSE service plan today which will read like a work of fiction unless practical measures are taken to address what is, by any yardstick, a substantial manpower crisis in our health service, particularly in nursing where there is an acute shortage. That shortage is now impacting on the quality of care and the delivery of services to patients. It is quite staggering.

I thank Deputy Martin for his question. The HSE service plan will be published today. The agency's budget is €14 billion, the highest amount ever allocated to a health service plan. The plan contains a number of very important and positive developments.

The Deputy raises an important point. The HSE has recruited 500 staff for each of the past two months and before that. Of the most recent 500, 160 were nurses, 180 were community therapists and professional health care workers and 73 were medical posts. We have difficulties in some areas because of viruses and other illnesses which have led to a shortage of staff.

I welcome that the HSE announced today that it will host a further open recruitment event on 28, 29 and 30 of this month for nurses and midwives from all disciplines who are interested in working in the Irish health service. This will target nurses returning home for Christmas. There will be walk-in interviews on each day. This will be the first in a series of career day events for nurses throughout 2017. The Deputy will also be aware that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, restored the incremental credits to trainee nurses. When they emerge from training, they are offered permanent jobs. Recruitment is a challenge, admittedly. Other countries offer different facilities, but I hope that we can make an improvement as time goes on.

The former Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, told the Traveller community more than 20 months ago that Traveller ethnicity would be recognised within six months. This, understandably, raised expectations which were not delivered on. I have raised this issue consistently with the Taoiseach and have pointed out that there is no legislative or constitutional bar to the Government recognising Traveller ethnicity immediately. All it requires is the Taoiseach or some nominated Minister to come into the House and make such a declaration.

I know that the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy David Stanton, has been working on this very important issue. I support him, have met him and wish him well. My party will do anything it can to help. Recently Government sources were quoted as saying that the Taoiseach was going to recognise Traveller ethnicity. Pavee Point described this possibility as a "major step forward for Travellers, cultural diversity and equality". The Taoiseach can make this possibility a reality. When will he move to recognise Traveller ethnicity?

I discussed this with the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, at a recent meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee dealing with social affairs. He is doing quite an amount of work on the issue. I have asked him to invite the four Traveller representative non-governmental organisations, NGOs, to speak to the Oireachtas committee in January. There are a few particular issues that need to be addressed. I would expect, if we can reach agreement on this, that there would be all-party support for it. These are the last two pieces of work that the Minister of State is undertaking. I will report to the House again at the end of January on the matter.

One of the hidden crises in society is gambling addiction. It gets far less attention than other forms of addiction but in many ways it is more insidious and causes incredible harm. The gambling control Bill, which has been promised for some considerable time, was to provide a new regulatory and licensing framework to deal with gambling and to provide for a new regulatory body. The Taoiseach will recall that the previous Administration established a regulator for the national lottery. Part of the thought process at that time was that, in time, the lottery regulator might well become the gambling regulator. We need to have an authoritative body with strong legislative powers to deal with gambling and especially the growing propensity of people to gamble incredible amounts of money online. What progress has been made on the gambling control Bill? Will the Taoiseach make it a priority? Will he share his thoughts on the possible structure of the authority?

Yes, I will make it a priority. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy David Stanton, is also working on this. This morning I attended an event hosted by the Gaelic Players Association. GAA players, who are ambassadors for sport and role models for young people, are working hard on the issue of addiction to drugs, drink or gambling. In many cases, the latter addiction is the worst of all.

The general scheme of the gambling control Bill was published in July 2013 following approval by the Government, which I am sure Deputy Howlin will recall. The scheme was then referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. That committee received 29 submissions and held public hearings. It finalised its report on 6 November 2013 which considered eight conclusions, and that report was laid before the Houses.

That 2013 scheme provides for the conferring of responsibility for all regulatory matters in this area on the Minister for Justice and Equality, including licensing, inspections and prosecution. It is envisaged that these functions will be carried out by a body located within the Department of Justice and Equality. That scheme also provided for a dedicated inspectorate to ensure compliance by licence holders with the terms of their licences and the new legislation generally.

On the current situation, it remains the intention to proceed with this legislation at the earliest opportunity. Quite a lot of legislation has been coming through, as the Deputy is aware. I will regard it as a priority and I will have the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, update Deputy Howlin on the current state of progress in respect of the Bill.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government that Fáilte Ireland would be directed to develop the Irish lake lands brand as a separate proposition alongside the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East. The Wild Atlantic Way has worked in terms of tourism along the western seaboard. However, only 4% of tourists visit lake lands districts and the potential of the Shannon as a tourism attraction is seriously under-developed and under-resourced. I press the Government to move ahead with this direction to Fáilte Ireland to develop the lake lands of the Shannon region for tourism. Undoubtedly, it has potential but it needs to be branded and progressed.

I accept what Deputy Cahill is saying. I would assume that no area will thrive unless those who live in it make it attractive so that people will hear about it and want to visit for a good hospitality experience. Fáilte Ireland has its brief in this regard. The concept of the Wild Atlantic Way is one that has caught on very much because of its very nature. Lake lands are beautiful areas across the midlands of the country, and the Ancient East. Part of the Creative Ireland strategy and the strategy to be published in January for the development of rural Ireland will include this aspect. All these things are interlinked but at the end of the day, it is up to the proprietors and proposers in those regions to market their areas and outline the reasons tourists should visit them. Whether it is lake boating, fishing, the scenery or whatever, there are endless opportunities. I would like to think it can happen over the next number of years and that a lake district will become very much better known than heretofore.

Following on from the Stormont House Agreement, the Irish and British Governments came to an agreement to establish the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, ICIR. The ICIR agreement was signed by the Irish Minister in 2015 and laid before the Oireachtas in January 2016. The objective of the ICIR was to enable victims and survivors to seek and privately receive information about the deaths of their kin in the conflict. The independent commission will only be formally established after the necessary legislation has been enacted and the two Governments have notified each other of completion of all other domestic legal procedures required to bring the agreement into force. When will the Government complete this domestic legal procedure, and when will we see the ICIR agreement being established?

We might have made more progress on this but for the arrival of the Brexit decision and the fact that 2016 was a different year, with the election and a long period in between before a partnership Government was put together. I strongly supported the principle behind the agreement. The heads of this Bill are being prepared here. I will advise Deputy Crowe of the current state of preparation. The intention is that where somebody lost a loved one, however far back, whatever information is available, from whatever source, will be produced by an independent adjudicator. It remains to be seen whether that will become a reality. There were many difficult cases over many years, as the Deputy is well aware, where people were not able to find out the full truth and extent of what actually happened. I will advise Deputy Crowe of the progress being made on the heads of the Bill.

As early as last month, Simon Coveney said in an interview in the Cork Examiner that this Government will not be introducing rent controls.

The Irish Examiner.

Pardon me - the Irish Examiner; I am old fashioned. In a very short space of time, therefore, we see a Damascene conversion, which is welcome, but St. Paul went the whole nine yards and became a Christian. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, falls well short of sainthood in these proposals in finally introducing the discussion around rent controls, but we have not seen the amendments. When will the Bills Office receive those amendments so that we can read them, and how much time will we be given to amend them and to deal with them? I remind the House that the question of the introduction of rent controls was strongly resisted by this Government for years.

I call the Taoiseach.

Finally, it is coming under pressure to do something about it but it is not going far enough. We will introduce a Bill tomorrow that will go the whole nine yards and, if it is passed, will see rent controls linked to the CPI. We will bring in other measures also.

Deputy, I want to call another Deputy.

Will the Taoiseach please tell us when we will see the amendments Simon Coveney is proposing so that we, as Deputies, can deal with them?

Deputy, I am old fashioned as well and if we are referring to Deputies or Ministers, we will refer to them as Deputies or Ministers. I presume the Deputy is referring to the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney.

I beg your pardon.

It is just that I am the old stock as well. I call the Taoiseach.

I am a bit old and a bit new.

That old stock has been very loyal. St. Paul did see the flash on the way to Damascus. He said: Laborare est Orare; to work is to pray. If the Deputy had checked with her colleagues she would understand that the amendments, which I believe total 15, were given to the committee last night and therefore her colleagues have them. Any updated changes will be made available immediately.

The Bills Office does not have them.

The committee had the amendments last night and if the Deputy checks with the members now, she will know they have them still.

Deputy Smith must have gone home early last night.

I call Deputy Willie O'Dea. In terms of the other names I have, if they are here tomorrow they will be first on the list.

That is very unfair.

If anyone is suggesting I am not fair and impartial, let us hear that now. I will make a suggestion to Deputies. A lottery may be the only way we can do it. I have 15 minutes-----

On a point of order, I had my hand up to indicate I wanted to speak. This is the third morning that I had indicated.

Deputy O'Dea will not get the opportunity. If anybody can suggest otherwise, they can deal with that.

I think the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is very fair.

Thank you, Deputy.

I remind the Taoiseach about the reply he gave to this House two weeks ago regarding defined benefit pension schemes. He said that the Minister for Social Protection was meeting the chairman of the Pensions Authority with a view to taking action in this regard. I presume the meeting has taken place and I want to know what is the follow-up.

I do not have that follow-up for Deputy O'Dea but I will advise him of the outcome of the meeting, if it has taken place, between the Minister and the chairman.

Has the meeting taken place?

Again, I apologise to Deputies not called but I have no control over it.