Leaders' Questions

I wish to raise with the Tánaiste the report of the expert panel on concrete blocks in counties Donegal and Mayo published two weeks ago. The report outlines how up to 4,800 homes in County Donegal and 345 homes in County Mayo are affected by defective blocks.

It identified the issue in County Donegal as being the presence of the mineral muscovite mica in the blocks, while in County Mayo it identified the presence of pyrite as the reason for their being defective. The report also outlined that this happened as a result of a failure to implement appropriate manufacturing standard and of a failure of the building control authorities to properly oversee manufacturing standards.

Anyone who watched "Prime Time" last Thursday and saw Eddie and Maria McDaid from Buncrana, County Donegal, show their home to the cameras, and who saw Mr. McDaid put his foot to the base of the block at the outside of his home and take it apart with his foot, would have been horrified. I commend "Prime Time" on its public service in broadcasting that programme last week and a similar programme a number of months ago. Families such as the McDaids are living a nightmare. They are faced with a situation where their homes, into which they have put their life and soul, are deteriorating and, in cases, crumbling around them. They are facing a situation in which they still have to pay a mortgage on those homes and cannot insure them.

Up until now the Government's response to this issue has been entirely unsatisfactory. It has tried to delay having to deal with it. It delayed initially when agreeing to the expert panel. When it announced the establishment of that panel in November 2015, the terms of reference gave the panel a report date of May 2016, yet the Government did not put the full membership of that committee in place until April 2016. This meant that the report was delayed until October of last year. It was then delayed until December of last year. When the draft report was submitted to the Department in February of this year, the Government still did not get around to publishing it until two weeks ago.

This delaying must stop and these families must be offered hope and a way out of their nightmare. There was a large meeting of affected homeowners in Donegal last night. What we now need, and what those people who are living that nightmare need, is a commitment from the Tánaiste and the Government that a remediation scheme will be put in place, as happened previously with the pyrite cases in the east of the country. Will the Government give a commitment to put a remediation scheme in place? Will it implement the full recommendations of the expert panel report?

I thank the Deputy. The Government and I recognise the seriousness of the issues which he has raised this morning and the impact they have had on individual families. It is very distressing for these families. It involves more than 5,000 houses, including local authority and private housing. The Minister received the report recently and is now examining the recommendations. The Government has not delayed. It takes the issue very seriously and is determined to find solutions to help those families. The expert report has been received very recently. It was the right route to take to have experts examine what precisely the technical solutions should be. We have to examine what they might be and what action can be taken and then put the solutions in place. I am sure the Deputy will agree that the Department and the Minister should, in the first instance, examine the recommendations.

I wish to assure the Deputy, and all of the people who have been affected by this, that the Government is determined to deal with the situation and to take action to help the families which the Deputy has described because it is extraordinarily distressing to either buy a house or be living in one in which such serious problems as this have emerged. The Deputy has talked about a remediation scheme. I want to assure him that the Minister and Ministers of State are determined to deal with this, to put the proper solutions in place, and to help the families who have been impacted by this issue.

My specific question to the Tánaiste was whether the Government will give a commitment to put a remediation scheme in place. So far, neither the Minister of State, Deputy English, nor the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, nor the Taoiseach, when I raised this here with him last week, have given such a commitment. Nothing less than that is required. Perhaps when the Tánaiste replies further she can address that point.

The terms of reference for the expert panel did not include dealing with whether there should be a remediation scheme. That was left for afterwards. It was left for the politicians to deal with. After the delays in the panel reporting which I have previously outlined, this draft report has been with the Government since the beginning of this year. There has been sufficient time already to consider the issue and the recommendations of the panel. We should not be delaying any further. Will the Tánaiste give a commitment here this morning that a remediation scheme will be put in place? Will the panel's full recommendations be implemented in order that controls are put in place to ensure this can never happen again?

I understand there are eight recommendations in the report which has been received by the Minister, two of which are being implemented immediately. As a number of different stakeholders are involved in this issue, there is a need for the expert report to be analysed and to bring the stakeholders together before I can answer the question precisely. The Deputy will appreciate that we need to see precisely what the technical solutions are and to look at who the stakeholders are, where the responsibility lies and so forth. As I have said already, the Minister is determined to deal with the issue. The Government recognises how very difficult this is for the families involved and the need for an urgent solution, which the Deputy has raised. It was the right route to take to get the expert report and to look at the solutions. The Minister and Ministers of State will act on it immediately.

It became apparent this morning that the huge delays in maternity benefit payments did not come as a complete shock to the Taoiseach, who was the Minister for Social Protection at the time. In fact, he had been made aware of the delays a full three months in advance. One cannot ignore the fact that this issue was brought to public attention in May, when the then Minister was immersed in a leadership bid. Having 1,300 women on maternity leave without any payment and a further 2,850 claims for maternity benefit pending was hugely inconvenient for the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar.

This morning, through a freedom of information request, we learned that staffing levels within the Department had become unsustainable months earlier and that several warnings had been issued. The principal officer with responsibility for maternity benefits had emailed the assistant secretary general in the Department as far back as 14 February to caution that "unless we get an extra staff injection (and I am saying we need six immediately) we will remain in a position where we are paying far too many maternity benefit claims after the commencement of leave date".

Another document, dated March, shows that the office in Buncrana was down a full 20% in terms of staff levels. The documentation also raises questions about the impact the introduction of paternity benefit in September 2016 had on the Department's capacity. What was the Taoiseach's response to all of this? It was to do absolutely nothing. It was not until the delay in maternity benefit payments made the news in May that the Taoiseach eventually apologised to all the women concerned.

It seems that the Taoiseach and his Government simply do not get it. That was the message which was sent out and which is still going out. The Government simply does not get it. These are not just figures. This impacted the lives of new mothers in a very real way. It caused additional pressure at a time when there is no shortage of pressure. What was the Taoiseach's response? It was a shrug of the shoulders, a scripted apology and total and utter cold indifference. That apology has now been made all the emptier because the Taoiseach stood idly by and allowed it to happen. This shows an alarming contempt for all mothers. The Tánaiste's Government is a nasty government.

A question please.

It has no time for all those people who require social support. Why did the Taoiseach sit on his hands and abandon thousands of new mothers?

We are not nasty.

The Taoiseach in his then role as Minister for Social Protection clearly took action because the processing of maternity benefit payments is now up to date and claims from mothers going on maternity leave are processed as they start their leave. The message I want to get out to pregnant women is that those applications are being dealt with immediately and they will have their payment immediately. Approximately 18,750 claimants are in receipt of maternity benefit payment at present.

The Deputy is right in saying the Department has acknowledged delays in processing claims from February to early June, during which period some mothers experienced a delay of up to four weeks. The Department has apologised for those delays. It is a very efficient Department and it dealt with the problems. The delays were temporary and were caused by a combination of staffing and operational difficulties that can arise in a Department from time to time. The Buncrana office, which processes the maternity benefit claims, had a very high staff turnover. The time required to source staff to fill the vacancies and their subsequent training presented issues.

On the operational side, a new IT system was put in place which took a bit of time to become fully operational. The good news is that the applications are being dealt with immediately as they arrive in the office. Further good news is that the processing of paternity benefit claims is up to date. The Department continues to make every effort to ensure people are dealt with in a timely manner. To alleviate any delays, additional staff were assigned to the area and staff are working overtime, including on Saturdays.

Every initiative has been taken by the then Minister and by the Department to ensure that when claims for maternity benefit and paternity benefit are received, they are dealt with immediately. Both are completely up to date at present. Clearly, action was taken to deal with the temporary operational and staffing issues I have described.

The Tánaiste's response clearly shows again that the Government does not get it. It does not have any regard for people who depend on social benefits, and her response clearly shows that.

I concur with the Tánaiste that the staff in the Department are very efficient - efficient in the fact that they highlighted concerns over staff levels a full three months before the Taoiseach responded. He only responded because it hit the headlines. The response to the freedom of information request clearly shows there was a flurry of activity in the Department at the time to try to fix this problem. This only happened because it was in the spotlight and the media were focusing on it. It was an inconvenient time because it came in the middle of the Tánaiste's leader's leadership bid. Only then was action taken in a blind panic. The Taoiseach might have been too focused on his hate campaign against other social welfare recipients to pay attention to the issue affecting thousands of mothers who were entitled to their benefit and were not being paid.

I will again ask the question and maybe the Tánaiste will give an accurate response. Why did the Taoiseach not act a full three months prior to when he actually did? Why did he sit on hands and allow these payments go unpaid?

The Government has shown total respect for people who are making such claims and always will because we recognise the difficulties claimants have. The Deputy's characterisation is extremely inaccurate and the bottom line is that the issue has been dealt with. The action has been taken. The staff-----

It was only dealt with because it hit the headlines.

It was dealt with.

It has been dealt with because the Department recognised there was an issue and provided the staff resources and training to ensure the people who needed this benefit in a timely way were dealt with.

It was not timely. Three months earlier would have been timely.

The issue has been dealt with. Everyone, including the then Minister and the staff in the Department, recognised that it was an issue that needed to be dealt with. Action has been taken and I ask the Deputy to recognise that.

The national economic dialogue has been taking place yesterday and today, but in truth it is a farcical exercise. The dialogue is happening without any indication from Government of what the fiscal space for next year might be. We are asked to discuss expenditure without knowing how much there is to spend. As my colleague, Deputy Burton, noted last week, the summer economic statement - up to last year it was the spring economic statement - which according to the programme for Government was originally to be produced in spring, will now not appear for another couple of weeks. Last year it was published on 21 June - we were told that was because it was the first year of a new Government. This year it will probably be a month later than that.

Any notion of genuine budgetary oversight has gone out of the window. Certainly, the notion of meaningful input from a committee of the House is gone. Instead of open and accountable budgeting, we are forced to look at the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to give us titbits of information on economic planning. He has told us he expects approximately €500 million of fiscal space to be available. He reiterated last week that this would be divided in a 2:1 ratio between spending and tax cuts. Indeed, the Taoiseach has indicated that tax cuts are higher up the list than any welfare increases to the most vulnerable.

If a third of the funding is used for tax cuts, it would leave €335 million for public spending, €180 million of which is already ring-fenced for the new public sector pay deal. That will leave a grand total of €155 million for investment in public services next year. Over the past three years, additional spending in health alone came to €300 million in 2015, €910 million in 2016 and €500 million in 2017, this year. There is no way the Government can produce a realistic Estimate for the Department of Health out of €155 million. That would leave nothing for pensioners or anyone else.

When will we have the summer economic statement, setting out in clear terms the fiscal parameters for next year in order that we will not have a farcical debate but one anchored in reality? Does the Tánaiste accept there is not enough fiscal space available to allow for any tax cuts next year? When will the Committee on Budgetary Oversight be given the information it needs to do the job it is charged to do by this House?

I was at the dialogue yesterday. It was an extremely worthwhile exercise. The various partners and stakeholders attended and all contributed in a very positive and constructive way. It has been an extremely useful exercise over the past two days with huge participation by all the stakeholders. I have no doubt interesting initiatives and recommendations will arise from that discussion. I chaired a session discussing productivity and competition in the Irish economy. It was very relevant and useful in dealing with issues to support enterprises in this country. I have no doubt a number of initiatives will emerge from that discussion.

It is too early to speculate about the upcoming budget. We have committed to a 2:1 split in the programme, as the Deputy knows. I can assure the House that it will be a fair budget and one that helps people in every part of Ireland. As the Taoiseach said yesterday, we should focus on the totality of expenditure and taxation and examine existing spending programmes as well.

Of course, it also has to be a budget that prepares us for Brexit and ensures our competitiveness is at the heart of everything we do. We now have hard data since the Brexit referendum that shows the immediate impact from Brexit has been more muted than initially anticipated. This is consistent with trends emerging in the US and the euro area. We welcome those improvements in the euro area which will be positive for us, although the UK growth has slowed in the first quarter of 2017. We know the Irish economy is particularly exposed because of the decision in the UK. The Minister for Finance will address the Deputy's points about the statement and giving the information to the Committee on Budgetary Oversight. I have no doubt that will take place in the coming weeks.

The programme for Government promised a new era of transparency in budgetary formation. It was the most important dialogue between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the formation of Government. It meant we would have the participation of this House in budgetary formation. I suggested the national economic dialogue but it was not simply to be a forum where people came and did what they always did, namely, lay out a list of aspirations, hopes and demands; it was actually to engage in the real negotiations for the budget by knowing what was available and saying what the priorities should be within that fiscal limit.

What is happening now is the opposite of that transparency. It is making a mockery not only of the commitment for this House to be a real participant in budgetary formation but of an open budgetary system. I despair of real parliamentary accountability in relation to budgetary reform. When will the summer economic statement, which was due weeks ago, actually be published, and will it be published before the Dáil goes into recess?

The Taoiseach addressed the issue yesterday and, as Deputy Howlin said, the Government will publish the summer economic statement in the coming weeks.

What does that mean?

It means in the coming weeks. I do not have a specific date.

Will it be before the recess?

It is clear that the fiscal space in 2018, in particular, will be limited and that reflects the carry-over of the full-year cost of commitments from budget 2017 and the impact of the recent public service pay agreement, if ratified.

Given that Deputy Howlin has raised the economy it is worth reflecting on the fact that we have the fastest growing economy in Europe. Unemployment is down, incomes are up and inequality is narrowing.

Not in the regions.

As the Taoiseach said again yesterday, as the budget approaches balance we have better scope to make decisions about investment in the future. We have to plan for this growing economy, the growing population and the growing workforce. Because of the prudent management, in which Deputy Howlin himself played a part, we are now in a much better economic position to make those decisions than we were before.

The news has just come through from the Central Criminal Court and I am the first to report it to the House. Deputy Paul Murphy, not guilty; Councillor Michael Murphy, not guilty; Councillor Kieran Mahon, not guilty; Frank Donaghy, not guilty; Michael Banks, not guilty; and Scott Masterson, not guilty. That is a stunning defeat for the Deputies on the Government benches and the political establishment. The political establishment in this country wanted to create a powerful chill factor, a powerful warning against anyone who would engage in serious protest against the Government, austerity and the anti-working class agenda. It has failed. I make the call that all the remaining charges in the other Jobstown trials would be immediately dropped. The Government is wasting a fortune in taxpayers' money on these cases.

What about the separation of powers?

More than €10 million will be spent on trying to make out that the accused in Jobstown are guilty. Let us save some money here and be prudent. Let us drop all the remaining charges.

That is up to the court. On a point of order, a Cheann Comhairle.

I congratulate-----

There is no point of order.

There is a point of order. The House cannot instruct the courts.

No, there is separation of powers.

Nobody is instructing anybody as far as I can see.

I congratulate the Jobstown defendants, the community of Jobstown and the men and women of the jury for defending the right to protest.

Does Deputy Barry have a question?

I have a question and I will soon come to it. Could the Tánaiste comment on the appalling vista that now opens up regarding the role of the Garda Síochána in this affair? The jury has just thrown out a case that was based on 180 witness statements from members of the Garda Síochána, three of whom – a chief superintendent, an inspector and a sergeant – said they heard Deputy Paul Murphy say: "Will we let her go or will we keep her all night?" That claim was completely contradicted by the video evidence. One could understand that one garda might have misheard but not that the three gardaí misheard the exact same words. Can the Tánaiste deny that there was an orchestrated conspiracy by the Garda Síochána to pervert the course of justice?

One thing we do not do in this House is re-run court cases. There is a separation of powers.

We just heard the result of this case and we respect the court decision. Justice takes its course in any trial. The evidence is considered. This was a jury trial and the jury made its decision. Justice takes its course. We can discuss lots of things in this House but we certainly do not re-run the evidence that is given in a trial and I do not intend to do that now.

Deputy Barry spoke about a Government agenda on the issue but that is simply untrue. The courts do their work and we do our work in this House.

This is a stunning defeat for the political establishment. A Government Minister gave evidence for the prosecution in this case. The former Tánaiste was the star witness for the State. To the crimes of the Labour Party of heaping austerity on working class voters down through the years we can now add a shabby attempt to frame socialists and working class activists for standing up for their communities and against austerity.

That is shocking.

Ordinary people will think the role of the Labour Party in this affair has been shocking.

That is an outrageous argument.

Clearly, there was an attempt to gain revenge against those of us on the left who have defeated the Government on bin charges.

Deputy Barry should ask a question please.

Does the Tánaiste disagree that what was at stake, with four of the six defendants who stood in the dock today being members of Solidarity, was an attempt, following the surge to the left and the Corbyn surge in the UK, for the Government to get its retaliation in first and to knock the left back? That has failed quite spectacularly and the left is on the front foot now.

While a court case is under way in this House we have always followed the precedent of not commenting on it in detail. We follow that very carefully, as in many court cases there is always the possibility of appeal, and I intend to continue to do that today.