Questions on Promised Legislation

We have a total of 15 minutes. In accordance with custom and practice I will be calling the leaders or their representatives. After that, there are 11 Members indicating, namely, Deputies Barry, Martin Kenny, O'Rourke, Curran, Ellis, Joan Collins, Durkan, Niall Collins, O'Loughlin, Stanley and Nolan. I will not be able to-----

On a point of order-----

There are no points of order on Question Time.

I just want to know whether the House will consider a minute's silence at some point.

I suggest the Business Committee would discuss that and agree an appropriate time.

Is that agreed? Agreed. I remind the House that the weekly divisions are all walk-through votes, so that will take a considerable time. Therefore, after those 11 Members, I will have to cut the business irrespective of whose name is on the list. I call Deputy Kelleher.

On promised legislation and with regard to outlining Government policy, I need help to find out what is Government policy with regard to homelessness and moving people from emergency hotel accommodation into more appropriate settings. Despite the fact the previous Minister said they would be all moved from emergency hotel-type accommodation into more suitable accommodation by the end of July, the new Minister has now stated that is not the case. There seems to be continual drift and regular change of policy. In the context of the scrapping of the help-to-buy scheme for first-time buyers, will that require legislative change and is the review ongoing? The Tánaiste might advise me where I can find out what Government policy is on housing in general, or is there a policy at all, given it seems to be changing very frequently? It is urgent, given many families are homeless continuously in this city and are being put into emergency accommodation that is wholly unsuitable.

There are two related questions. I call Deputy Dessie Ellis and then Deputy Joan Collins.

It is clear to everyone, apart from the Government, that the housing strategy is in tatters. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, promised to end the use of hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation for families by this July.

A question, please.

The Government's house building figures have been rubbished. The new Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has today acknowledged that the July figures are not achievable. Meanwhile, the homelessness and housing crisis and the waiting lists have continued to spiral.

A question, please.

The programme for Government promised to tackle the housing crisis but its ideology of cosying up to the private sector has only added to and enhanced this crisis, leading to the over-pricing of housing and exorbitant rents.

This is time for questions on Government policy, not for statements.

The Government should declare a housing emergency, review the housing policies and set up a State-run company to co-ordinate house building, which will deliver social and affordable housing-----

I call Deputy Joan Collins.

-----on a scale which will make a real impact-----

Deputy Ellis has exceeded his time.

-----and a real difference.

I raised this issue yesterday with the Taoiseach and I have to say his response was underwhelming. It turns out today we have heard the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, stating he will not meet the targets for taking families out of the emergency accommodation by 1 July, which the previous Minister, Deputy Coveney, promised earnestly to us and the Home Sweet Home campaign last December. The Government's housing policy is failing the families who are in dire straits.

What will the Government do about it? It is not good enough to take three months now to review Rebuilding Ireland. These families will be stuck again in accommodation that is not up to standard. It is an outrage.

Deputy Doherty has a related question and will relinquish his other opportunity.

Those families who are in emergency accommodation deserve a straight answer from the Government today. We all know the figures. There are 695 families living in emergency accommodation at present. We know 60 families present each month to emergency accommodation. We know the Government in its action plan last year set a target that none of those families would be in emergency accommodation on 1 July. We know now the Government will not meet this target. Will the Tánaiste give clarity to these families? What is the new target whereby all families will be out of emergency accommodation in terms of hotel or hostel accommodation? Will the Tánaiste tell us how many of them will go into permanent housing accommodation as opposed to being just moved on to a different type of emergency accommodation?

Today the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, outlined his top priority since his recent appointment as Minister is to ensure virtually all homeless families accommodated in commercial hotels at the end of May will, in the coming weeks, either have left their hotel accommodation or will have been notified of the alternative accommodation to which they will move. He made this clear today. It is worth noting that since Rebuilding Ireland was announced, more than 1,200 families have exited or have not entered homelessness. They have been prevented from entering hotel accommodation. They have been provided with alternative accommodation. That is a very significant number. It is important to say also that right now 650 homeless families are being accommodated in commercial hotels, but it is a reduction, which is going in the right direction, from the number of 871 recorded at the end of March, particularly against the background of the significant number of homeless families who have presented over recent months. The delivery of some of the accommodation solutions will extend beyond the 1 July deadline, but it is a considerable achievement now to have a very clear pathway out of commercial hotels for virtually all of the families accommodated in commercial hotels at the end of May.

The Government has missed its target and there is no new target. It is a disgrace.

Tomorrow, at least 25% of the shares of AIB will be sold despite the expressed wish of the House that it should not happen. The new Taoiseach has promised to increase capital expenditure but has not indicated from where the money will come. We remain committed to using the proceeds of this sale simply to pay down debt. There has been no discussion in the House on the sale. We rely on the media to tell us what the share price will be. Originally it was to peak at €4.90 per share and now we understand after two alterations it is to be €4.30 peak per share, which is 40 cent less than originally expected. This lower valuation means the State is selling AIB at a discount, potentially leaving €500 million on the table. Will the Tánaiste confirm the Government will sell the AIB shares tomorrow and that it will sell them at a price that, in effect, is giving away the people's investment at less than what it is worth, simply to ensure a good market reaction and good headlines?

I thank Deputy Howlin for observing the time.

As the Deputy has said, the book building process, which allows shares to retail and institutional investors, will continue until Thursday, June 22, at which point pricing will be decided and trading will commence on Friday, 23 June.

Yes, tomorrow. A final settlement, whereby the funds received will be deposited with the NTMA, which holds the shares, will occur two working days later on 27 June. The final listing price will be obvious as will whatever the proceeds for the State will be.

The one-off revenue in divesting the State of its banking assets is treated as a financial transaction and not counted as general Government revenue. Therefore, it will not result in a beneficial impact on the general Government balance. The Government's policy has been consistent that the proceeds should be directed towards debt reduction to reduce the cost of debt servicing in future years.

It is selling on the cheap for no great benefit.

Last Saturday morning Vera Twomey and her family packed their bags, left their home in Aghabullogue, County Cork and travelled to the Netherlands where they will remain not for days or weeks but for months, at least. They have done this to obtain medicine for their sick child. They have effectively been forced out of the country by Government policy. Shame on the Government. Last December, Deputy Gino Kenny's Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill 2016 passed First and Second Stages. Now, seven months later and mere weeks from the summer recess, it has still not been taken on Committee Stage. Why is that? The health committee has stated it is waiting for legal advice. When will it receive that written legal advice and when will it meet to discuss amendments?

On the case mentioned by the Deputy, the Minister for Health has met the family on numerous occasions. He has made it clear that a course of treatment can be prescribed where a consultant endorses that approach. If a consultant endorses that approach and recommends it in a particular case, the treatment can be prescribed and made available. However, the Minister does not make that decision. It is a clinical decision and if it is not made in a particular case, his hands are tied. In the meantime, the work of Dr. Máirín Ryan from the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, is ongoing. She is chairperson of the expert group that is developing the operational, clinical and practice guidelines for the access programme for medicinal cannabis in Ireland. Officials are working on the legislation.

I refer to the nearest school rule under the school transport scheme which was introduced a number of years ago. It has a particular impact on families living in rural parishes. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy John Halligan, established a group to deal with the issue but nothing has come of it. I can give an example of the rule's serious impact on people living in rural areas. In my constituency the parish of Gortletteragh is quite large, with 47 townlands. The school is smack in the middle. A number of families live on the periphery and are entitled to a school bus service but not to the school in the parish in which they live. They must travel to the next parish. In fact, some of them have to travel to Drumlish in the next county of Longford, which is totally inappropriate. When the rule was introduced, there was no consideration given to the impact it would have on people living in rural areas. My understanding is that it resulted from a directive or circular from the Department. Can an addendum be attached to it to recognise the situation in rural parishes? Everybody knows that people living in rural Ireland have a particular affinity with their parish. The school in Gortletteragh is holding a meeting next Saturday to discuss the issue. It is a serious problem throughout the country.

The Deputy has made his point.

Will the Minister indicate that he will do something about it rather than push the issue further down the road?

Deputy Eamon Scanlon has a short related question.

I support what Deputy Martin Kenny said. I am aware of the problem. The school transport scheme is based on regulations that were introduced 50 years ago. The system must be re-examined. Owing to the changes in how the distance between the home and the school is measured, children who have been attending schools and are taking the junior and leaving certificate examinations find that they have to move 13 km or 14 km away. It is the wrong time to do it. These children are under enough pressure as it is taking their examinations without having to change schools.

The scheme costs €175 million and provides support for 116,000 children. It has been designed on the basis of eligible children being necessary to define a route for carriage. Those who are not eligible can be carried on a concessionary basis.

It also defines eligible children on the basis of distance to the school, and that is the way it is administered uniformly throughout the country. Any new approach would also have to be administered uniformly across the country. It is not possible for the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, to devise a scheme for Leitrim, Laois or any other county and then say the Government will follow those contours because that would have a knock-on effect on other areas. The all-party approach was tried to determine whether there was an arrangement that could be uniformly applied. That is the basic difficulty. This is a uniform scheme applied nationally.

With regard to the programme for Government's reference to building capacity for emergency and acute services, which is geared at reducing the number patients on trolleys, there is a four-pronged approach, each of which prongs I could discuss with the Tánaiste in detail demonstrating how it is not having a positive impact in reducing the numbers of patients on trolleys. I do not have the time to do that today, however. The problem affects Naas hospital, in my constituency, and the feeder hospitals of Tallaght and Blanchardstown. What is the Government doing to achieve better delivery in this area? Trolley Watch shows there are 303 people on trolleys today. This is 23% more than for the very same time last year. This is a considerable issue, as the Tánaiste is aware, and we need action and delivery for the people directly affected.

Data from the HSE TrolleyGAR indicate that there was an improvement nationally from January to early May. The Deputy is correct that there has been an increase in trolley numbers since May. This is due to a series of factors, including an increase in emergency department attendances, elective activity and delayed discharges in certain hospitals. The figures remain too high; there is no question of that. The Department of Health continues to work with the HSE to identify measures across all hospitals to reduce overcrowding and drive those key implementation measures, which the Deputy referenced, aimed at reducing trolley numbers and improving patient experience and access to care in our emergency departments.

The Tánaiste visited Clonmel Garda station in her role as Minister for Justice and Equality over ten weeks ago and made a commitment, which we welcome, that there will be an announcement in a number of weeks. We greatly appreciated that. Could she ask the current Minister for Justice and Equality to clarify the situation? I welcome to new Minister and wish him well. The gardaí in Clonmel cannot continue to work in those Dickensian conditions, which the Tánaiste saw herself. The station is a fire hazard. We are talking so much about fire. The station is not fit for purpose and we need a purpose-built Garda station.

There is a priority need, which I acknowledged when I was Minister for Justice and Equality, to replace the Garda station in Clonmel. I will ask the Minister to write to the Deputy directly in regard to it.

The programme for Government commits to the development of a national drugs strategy. I understand the steering committee has been established and that work has been ongoing for a considerable period. That steering committee last met about a month ago. My first concern is that, while the committee met a month ago, there is no report and we are months behind schedule. People who are at the front line are particularly concerned that the emphasis on alcohol in the last substance misuse strategy will not feature. The new strategy is now likely to be published some time after we go into recess. Could the Tánaiste, with the Minister for Health, ensure the principles of the strategy, if the not the strategy in full, are published so Members will have a chance to debate it? Ultimately, the strategy will run for several years and needs broad support to be successful. If it is not to be published before the House rises, could the main points of emphasis be published?

I shall ask the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, to write directly to the Deputy. I will convey to her the point he has made on this, which is interesting. I will ask the Minister of State to follow up with the Deputy.

The international recovery of child support (Hague Convention) Bill is promised legislation. The heads have been under preparation for some considerable time. Might it be possible for the Tánaiste to indicate the progress on the Bill, when the heads will be produced and when it will be ready to come before the House?

I do not have a date for that legislation but I will ask the Minister to communicate with the Deputy.

With regard to the ongoing crisis we are unfortunately experiencing in regard to primary care, what is the Government's position going to be on the rolling out of primary care centres? There is chaos in terms of the HSE's ability to deliver primary care centres.

With regard to the negotiation of a new GP contract, I will give the example of my own constituency where there are 46 GPs. Eleven of them are due to retire within the next five years. They cannot find replacements, cover or locum GPs. In the context of the negotiation of the new GP contract, bearing in mind that the existing contract is 40 years in existence and is not suitable to the modern day delivery of GP care, when will that legislation be tabled?

The Government regards the development of our primary care centres as an absolute priority. The Minister said that he has three priorities. One of them was the development of the new GP contract. I am glad to say that discussions are under way through initial engagement with the GP representative bodies. That has been very important and it started in January 2017. The aim is to develop a new and modern GP services contract because, as the Deputy said, it has not been renegotiated for decades. It is absolutely essential. The discussions have started and it is a priority. The situation we want to arrive at is that the GP services contract will incorporate a range of standard and enhanced services to be delivered to the public. The discussions are under way and there is engagement.

There are three Deputies remaining - Deputies Fiona O'Loughlin, Brian Stanley and Carol Nolan. I ask for brief and relevant questions.

The Programme for a Partnership Government stresses the need to intervene early and set a path for vulnerable children, including foster children. This is certainly not working at this point in time. I will give one example. A foster mother in my constituency that I have been dealing with in the last few months took into her care a nine-year old boy whose parents are drug addicts and whose dad is in jail. She has provided a very loving and caring home for a child with very particular needs.

Does the Deputy have a question?

She has been fighting for counselling and supports for this child for months. The school has been excellent as well. Yesterday, she heard that the child was going to be removed from this loving and caring home and put into a residential home.

A question, please.

This is absolutely wrong and is not putting the child at the centre. I believe that this commitment in the programme for Government is failing.

If the Deputy has details about an individual case, I ask her to liaise with Tusla because, of course, it puts the child at the centre. Any decisions about the care of a child in the circumstances the Deputy describes would be taken on a professional basis. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment on any case. We have developed, and the Government has prioritised, early childhood care. We have prioritised the funding of Tusla. We have prioritised making sure that there are enough social workers available to do the kind of work in the professional way that the Deputy outlines that needs to be done. Very importantly, we have had a whole series of reports from HIQA into fostering services identifying the very many strengths. Again and again, we have seen reports that state that children are getting an extremely good service from our foster parents. There has been increasing support of foster parents, which of course they need.

I know that Deputy Brian Stanley will ask a short and relevant question.

My question relates to A Programme for a Partnership Government and the commitment for a new model of affordable cost rental scheme. It is a measure that Sinn Féin broadly supports. I know that there is broad support for it in the House. There is a commitment to develop that and to set out a plan within the first 100 days of Government. A situation is arising with the cost rentals. In their absence and in the absence of the affordable housing scheme, which was cancelled by the last Government, in County Laois a couple on more than €26,250 cannot get onto the social housing waiting list. That is an income of €504 per week. If they went into a bank to look for a loan, they would be swept out through the door by the bank manager. They would not even get a look in. We have a whole cohort of people caught between incomes of €500 and €1,000 a week who can neither afford a place to rent nor can get a mortgage. We have no affordable housing scheme and we have no cost rental scheme. This is in the programme for Government and we broadly support it. What is happening to it? We are 400 days into the Government and this was promised in the first 100.

We are looking at affordable rental on a project by project basis. O'Devaney Gardens is a very good example of it, as is the Poolbeg development.

Down the country in Laois and Kildare-----

Please, Deputy Stanley.

Work is underway on this and it is being looked at on a project by project basis. I have no doubt that this will see developments in the months ahead.

Page 48 of A Programme for a Partnership Government states that the new Government will act swiftly on the recommendations of the Post Office Network Business Development Group. I am sure the Tánaiste is aware that the future of many of our post offices is at risk. The post office is an essential service that is the heart beat of rural communities that have had too many of their services decimated over the past number of years. Could the Tánaiste advise us about what is happening in this area and update me regarding the Government's plans to protect our post office network, the timeframe for the completion of the review and the actions taken by the Government to implement the commitments in A Programme for a Partnership Government?

The content of the Kerr report is included in the strategy that is being developed by the board of An Post at the moment. I understand that detailed discussions have commenced between the Irish Postmasters' Union and the company to try to progress the issues and put a long-term plan in place for our post office network.