It was interesting to see Deputy Connolly contributing just a minute ago and now she is in the Chair. That is what is called double-jobbing, capable work or capable use of time. Déanaim comhghairdeas léi as a cuid oibre.
I am glad to be able to speak on the budget again today. I welcome some aspects of the budget that are positive. However, as I said last night, the Minister is trying to spread it all too thinly. It is like a skip of snow on the Galtee Mountains that disappears with the first ray of sun. The Minister is trying to be all things to all people and to be Mr. Nice Guy instead of dealing with some basic problems.
The issue of disability was mentioned. This morning I received an email, which I hope the Minister got. It states:
Dear An Taoiseach, ministers ...
There are 643,000 disabled people in Ireland. [E]very year approx. 23,000 join those ranks from injury, strokes, development of disease or from birth. Those newly disabled persons will enter a world of discrimination and human rights abuses.
The budget yesterday showed scant regard for disabled citizens' gross inequality. 5 euro on benefits will not 'fix' the medical, financial, employment deprivation and discrimination, [€5 is welcome, but what will it get one?] experienced by large swathes of disabled people [those with difficulty accessing services and their costs].
The inequality of disabled people in Ireland amounts to wholesale Human Rights Abuses. Is this why this Government has not yet ratified the UN Convention on Rights for Disabled People (UNCRPD)? After signing up to it ten years ago, Ireland remains the only European country NOT to ratify.
The Minister might well put his head down and he should keep it down because this is shameful. I hope he is listening to me. The email continues:
The facts speak for themselves; Poverty rates for disabled people has been consistently rising (not falling) from 14%-22% in 2015 alone [a shocking increase in poverty rates].
I recently buried a very good friend from Tipperary, Daniel Gubbins. He was a wonderful young man of 25. His personal assistant, PA, whose name eludes me, brought him to a different level in his life. He was able to do so much. He was a wonderful doer in any event. He was a singer, an entertainer and a real activist on behalf of people with disabilities. His PA became part and parcel of his life and his living. The PA was in mourning because he empathised and was so involved with Daniel. I saw how a PA can assist emotionally. The email continues:
Budget 2018 makes no mention of funding for personal assistants (PAs) that would assist disabled people get into the community, become equal with others, enable employment, and release us from the prisons of homes, nursing homes and institutions.
FG made this a specific electoral manifesto promise in 2011. [I]t is recorded there as a promise. Broken [like so many others].
7,600 disabled people are on the social housing list. Disability accessible housing has consistently been ignored, condemning again disabled people to nursing homes or institutions.
That is an awful indictment. We know how bad the housing crisis is and how inept the Government is in dealing with it. This cohort of people who are disabled are extraordinarily disadvantaged by this.
The email continues, "At present 1,200 young adults are languishing, against their will, in old people's homes, where they are depressed, despairing and often close to suicide." Can the Minister imagine that? I am sure he has been to some of these homes, has seen them and knows the families. The email also states:
There is nothing in the budget addressing the crises in accessible housing provision or support for independent living [despite all the Government's pomp and €5 million for spin].
1 in 4 disabled people do not use public transport as it is totally inaccessible.
Out in rural areas we do not have it except for the rural transport such as Ring a Link, a model I am involved with. The email further states:
There is nothing in this budget offered to ameliorate isolation, loneliness of those disabled people longing to join the world but unable to due to abysmal transport equality. [It is an abysmal failure.]
Basic mobility equality begins with having a decent wheelchair! My group hears how substandard, second-hand wheelchairs offered to disabled people by the HSE simply cause restriction, pain, disadvantage and create inequality to mobilise and be fully participatory in society.
That is one part of it. The Minister did not mention disabled people; it is as if they were never there. In all the pomp and spin, the spin doctors get so engaged with Ministers that they forget these issues. They become accustomed to them and want to feel they are not even there. There is a saying, "If you want to know me, come and live with me." The Government has an attitude of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. All those issues are there, not very far from us, and it is so sad.
Rural areas were very scantily dealt with. I will not go into housing and the crisis in Dublin too much, as I already did so last night. It is plain and simple. The Government has lost the will to build the houses and it has lost the ability to do so. At the stroke of a pen, the Minister could have cut the VAT rate to the purchasers of houses if he was so hung up on not giving it to the builders. I am not a spokesperson for the builders, but we should cut the VAT rate there and instruct the county managers to cut the development charges and reduce the charge relating to change of use. Many empty business properties have not been used for five or ten years. Change of use should be allowed, without any red tape or bull. The Government has also made matters more difficult with the new layer of architects' fees. Some 53% of the cost of a house goes in taxes, fees and levies. If the Minister had the will, he could halve that to 25%, the level at which it used to be some years ago, overnight. I totally welcome the increase in the vacant and unused sites tax, but it is too slow. Kid gloves are being used and the increase will not really kick in until 2019.
I also welcome the cut in prescription charges and the changes to DIRT. However, nothing was done in respect of motor insurance. Every person living in a rural area has to have a car because they do not have access to public transport. Some families have two or three cars. There is a racket going on in the insurance industry in respect of both young and elderly people. The Government set up a working group which came up with 77 - or was it 97? - actions; three would have been enough. We need to put manners on the insurance companies and get them to support the people, not persecute them. However, the Government did nothing in that regard. Insurance was not even mentioned in the budget. It is as if it was never a problem and was swept under the carpet. The report was put up in Government Buildings or perhaps the Government had to rent out another building to fit all the reports it and the HSE commission.
Nothing has been done with regard to a land tax, which we debated last night. My budget submission, which I handed to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, last week proposed a land tax on farms of more than 750 acres.
Above that there would be substantial land tax, because no farmer needs more than 750 acres. There are farmers in my county who are not farmers but vulture funds. They are vulture funds, fair and simple. They are amassing 10,000 acres, 12,000 acres or as much as 17,000 acres of land. No small farmer can buy a ha'penny worth of land or do anything else. That is an option the Government shied away from because these farmers are its friends, its buddies. Charles Haughey introduced an innovative scheme in respect of tax on stallions decades ago that proved hugely successful. The equine industry has benefitted from it. We have a lot of pride in our equine industry and we support it but companies involved in the industry do not need to become vulture funds, buying every ha'penny worth of land out there and leaving nothing for anybody else. There are many areas which the Government could have looked at, but it did not. It chose the old reliables. The Minister can say that fuel duty was not increased or whatever else but he could have looked at many areas.
I welcome the measure on the pupil-teacher ratio. While the ratio will only change by one pupil, I welcome it. It is a step in the right direction and tús maith, leath na hoibre. On the area of counselling services, support services and audiology services, the Minister tells us about the big budget which the HSE is given. It is ever growing, like a wild mushroom, and expands every year. There are fewer outcomes however. I am sorry, I will correct that. There are many outcomes and many of them are very good but it is now normal to see patients on trolleys in my local hospital in Clonmel, south Tipperary. We had the highest number of patients on trolleys in the country the other day. It is chronic. The Government spent money to change the name of the hospital to South Tipperary General Hospital. It was always called St. Joseph's but the Government had to get rid of that. I still know it affectionately as St. Joseph's, as do most people. We have the highest levels of overcrowding in the country. The Minister of State is from Galway and will know University Hospital Galway and big places like that. Our hospital is a Dickensian old building. We have narrow corridors. We have more trolleys than Beaumont or Cork University Hospital or any other such hospital. That means the overcrowding is five or six times as bad because we do not have the space, the bed numbers or the wide corridors. We have nothing like what is in those hospitals and it unfair to be grouped with them and to always be ranked second or third to them. This week we rank ahead of them. Between Limerick and Clonmel, there were 80 people on trolleys this week. It is a shocking indictment. It is dysfunctional. The front-line staff and the doctors are under huge pressure. I cannot salute them enough.
There are blockages across the HSE. The consultants and the unions are too powerful. The whole shebang must be looked at. First of all, there are too many managers. There are managers for everything but the wind blowing over the roof. There are managers for everything else and I am sure there is a manager for the roof. There is an area manager, a ward manager, a bed manager, a linen manager, a hygiene manager and a food manager. There are managers for literally everything but no one is managing. The matrons should be brought back. They managed, but we cannot mention them. They are taboo. The HSE is dysfunctional and the Government must deal with it.
The Government is now building a children's hospital at the St. James's campus, which I opposed with might and main. It was pushed through. No one could answer me properly on what it would cost. The Government said €600 million at first, then €800 million, then €1 billion, €1.2 billion and €1.5 billion. It is the wrong place to build. There were 55-minute traffic queues in the area yesterday. I have pictures on my phone of staff and patients trying to access the hospital. Can it be imagined how many procedures were cancelled because staff could not get in? What will happen when the children's hospital and the maternity hospital are brought in? It is lunacy of the highest degree. I know the Acting Chair is a lawyer of some renown, I believe she is a barrister, but I would use a stronger word than lunacy. I would call it a corrupt decision. It will be proven in time. It is totally the wrong place when there was a greenfield site out where everybody could get access, including helicopters. We cannot even land a proper helicopter at the St. James's site. The porkies which have been told and the different spins which have been put on the decision are all public relations. Certain people are getting jobs that suit themselves. It is the wrong location. There was 55-minute queue to get in there by car, bus or minibus yesterday. Where will the ambulance go? It is pure sheer madness.
There is also bedlam in respect of access to audiology services in the hearing services clinic in St. Joseph's hospital in Clonmel. There is a two-year waiting list to be seen for a basic interview. It can be more than two years, not to mention any treatments thereafter. This is discrimination against young people with learning difficulties and audiology difficulties. We speak about early diagnosis and give lip service to it. We must also consider the situation for older people, including ourselves. I had something in my ear last week and I could not hear a thing. When we get to a certain age there are problems. Young and old have to wait and are discriminated against. It is worse for young people because they have to receive their education and learn and so on, which is not easy. It is just trotted out.
Deputy Michael Collins and some of my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group invited a group down from Northern Ireland, from Kingsbridge Private Hospital, Belfast. It is offering to treat patients under a European directive. I have patients who have been waiting for hip operations for four years and then there is a mishap. Fair dues to that hospital. The HSE will have to pony up and pay the money because it cannot provide the treatment itself. Now it can be carried out under this European directive. I encourage anyone who is listening to invoke this rule in order to take their loved ones out of pain, agony, distress and trauma.
Mr. O'Brien, the chief executive officer, CEO, of the HSE, recently came out and made accusations about the group Regret, which has issues in respect of the HSE vaccine. I am not making any mention of the right or wrong of the issue but he described these parents as emotional terrorists. I say to Mr. O'Brien, the HSE and the Minister that emotional terrorism is being carried out by the system that treats people on trolleys for three and four days and nights without a blanket, a pillow or any modicum of respect and decency. That is emotional terrorism. How dare Mr. O'Brien accuse parents who are worried about their sick children of emotional terrorism?
The Minister backed him up. Of course he did. It is outrageous. They are the emotional bullies and the emotional terrorists. They cannot see what is going on under their own noses - the agony and the trauma and people going into hospitals and coming out with MRSA. I cannot use the word which I would like to use for it but that is bordering on manslaughter. These people are going in for a procedure while healthy and coming out with a condition that will kill them. This is happening in our hospitals despite all the money which is going in. It is happening because of carelessness, dirt, filth, bad conditions and lethargic efforts to keep the hospitals clean. It is just not good enough. It is as simple as that. They then turn around and call the 400 unfortunate parents who are worried about their sick children emotional terrorists. That is where the emotional terrorism is going on.
People are waiting for orthodontic treatment for four or five years. These are kids in their teenage years. My goodness, these are girls and boys who are being put through this trauma. I recently received a letter about a constituent who had been waiting for 48 months when I intervened. The letter was sort of telling me to get lost but said that the person would now be waiting 60 months. Imagine that I had to send that letter to the patient. I could not do it. I shredded it. This patient was being told it would be necessary to wait 60 months for dental treatment. It involved difficulties with braces and so on. If that is not emotional terrorism I do not know what is. If it happened in a Third World country we would be collecting money to help the people there.
We can keep pouring money into the deep morass of the HSE without any accountability if we like, despite the issue with the children's hospital and all the other issues which are going on. Why would it not continue as it has been proceeding when it has not been held to account? Two former Taoisigh told me that they were going to disband the HSE - the former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen. The present Taoiseach made similar mutterings himself when he was Minister for Health. We now have the Minister, Deputy Harris, who has become a complete puppet for the HSE. He will not take it on. He came down to Our Lady's Hospital, Cashel and saw the pristine condition of a new building, on which we were told €12.5 million was spent. When I asked questions it was actually €21.5 million. I have referred the matter to the Committee of Public Accounts. Everything was to be done with this building but nothing has been done. The replies I have had from the HSE have been a waste of paper, just more files. That hospital is frozen. It could be as good as Beaumont or anywhere else with the investment which has been made in it but it is a patient-free area. No patients need enter here, this building is for officials, paper and the armchair generals who run the HSE. It is not for patients. The Minister was shocked and admitted so on the radio but nothing has happened about it. I asked him about it in Tipperary three weeks ago. I asked him when we would see something there. He said that it would not be the early part of 2018 and would probably be late 2018. He is unable. I will not blame him as he needs support in the Cabinet too but it has to be sorted out. It is a patient-free area. Some €21 million was spent on it so that it could have nice armchairs, nice furniture, colour-coded carpets and the whole shebang. Admittedly, a few day procedures are carried out on the ground floor.
I was a patient in that hospital myself a number of times. There was a fine big bed lift there at the time. I would go up and down in it with the help of a nurse when I was in the hospital for my appendix as a young boy, a buachaill óg. I was also in there in my later years, probably 20 years ago. It now has no lift. During the reconstruction on which we spend €21.5 million - not €12.5 million - the lift was removed. That was a deliberate act of vandalism as far as I am concerned. It was an act of sabotage which prevented it from being used to bring an unfortunate patient upstairs. We cannot bring patients upstairs now because there is only a service lift. A chair can be brought up. That is sabotage and no one has been held accountable. Why would it be taken out? The lift shaft is still there. It is part of the structure of the building and cannot be changed. The lift itself, however, is gone. That was nothing but sabotage.
I mentioned disability and armchairs a while ago. We should think of all the people who have crutches. I collected thousands of them myself for the Jack and Jill Foundation. I wish the Jack and Jill Foundation well on the "Up the Hill" events it organised last Saturday and on the wonderful work it does for very sick children.
We collected thousands of crutches, wheelchairs and everything else and the HSE wanted to take them back but pulled out at the last minute and will not take them back from anyone. It will not take back something like a set of crutches I might get today if I had an injury and might use for a week or two. If that is not wilful waste I do not know what is. It is the same with wheelchairs, even motorised wheelchairs. They are left out to be dumped.
There is a hospital in Clonmel that regularly has no blankets or pillows, with patients taking off their jackets to put under their heads. The front-line staff there do their best under appalling conditions. Of course, we were promised a mobile hospital by my colleague, Deputy Michael Lowry, a year and a half ago now. It was going to be helicoptered in and was going to be great. There is no sign of it. Of course, we were promised a 40-bed unit to be delivered by next year. I set up planning meetings with the planners and asked for a senior person in procurement for the HSE estates to come to the meeting. Nobody turned up. It has no interest in planning for it. It just likes to make these announcements. The units will not be there in October 2019, never mind October 2018. It is very hurtful to the patients I represent from west Waterford, south Tipperary, north Tipperary, Carrick-on-Suir, Clonmel, Thurles, Cahir, Cashel, Tipperary town and all the rural areas to be told this kind of stuff without even a planning meeting taking place - it is just spin, spin, spin.
All is not well in the health system and the Government knows that better than I do. The sooner the Government realises that throwing in an extra €780 million a year or whatever with no better outcomes is no good, the better. It is not until Mr. O'Brien and company are held accountable and told not to be threatening people - mothers and fathers - that there will be improvement. Mr. O'Brien as the head of the HSE has to be held accountable. He accused parents of being emotional terrorists. That is an awful thing to do when he is the emotional terrorist, or at least he is responsible for the emotional terrorism that is going on with sick people and people who cannot access operations. There are a lot of good things going in the HSE, a lot of hard work. The community nurses and district nurses and whatever do tremendous work and go above and beyond the call of duty and there are many good outcomes, certainly, but we are tarnished with this.
I am encouraging anybody who has a loved one living with them or near them or a neighbour to apply under the European directive - I do not have the number of the directive here but I will get it out there in the media - to travel to Belfast to do this work. The Rural Independent Group is setting up a meeting with the National League of Credit Unions because the one snag is it has to be paid for upfront. The money has to be repaid under the European directive within a period of three months, I think. The Government will have to pay for this, it has no choice and it will have to wake up and smell the coffee. The people need to do whatever it takes to get out of pain so anyone who has loved ones, friends, neighbours or anybody else, I urge them to go up the road to Belfast, it is not that far over the good Border, while we have no border.
I will move on to the whole area of An Garda Síochána and the row over Stepaside. I visited Stepaside with the Minister, Deputy Ross, during the Government formation talks. He met the people there and I saw it myself. I attended the protest march when it was closed. Of course it needed to be opened. The media now love to attack the Minister, Deputy Ross, as some kind of an alien because he did this. I would be delighted if I got a new Garda station for Clonmel, which I am trying to do as it is the most Dickensian station in the country. It is unfair to expect gardaí to work in it. The public office is not as big as the row of three seats where I am standing. It is antiquated and not fit for purpose. The people of Clonmel would be delighted. I do not know why the people in Dublin and the modern media lads think that the Minister should be ashamed, or that it should be a badge of dishonour to get a Garda station opened. There were five listed and I am delighted and I compliment him on his efforts. I differ from him in many other areas, with his road transport Bill and everything else, but fair play is fine play as far as I am concerned. I would love to get Clonmel sorted. We were promised and are depending now on the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW to get it over the line. We are in a bundle of four. It is not good enough to have the gardaí and the public of Clonmel treated like that. There are many other rural stations and there is investment needed in police cars and equipment. They are still using ink in some stations to do fingerprints. It is just a disgrace.
I know we have huge problems at the top in the Garda Síochána and there are some bad apples at the bottom too and we never hide them. I have been a victim of one myself. I will not go into it today. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Catherine Connolly, is relieved. I think she thought she might have to stop me again. There are problems there as well but we need to support them and we cannot have people like my colleague, Deputy Alan Kelly, who is not here, attacking them every day at the Committee of Public Accounts about Templemore. There are problems in Templemore, but we want to keep Templemore. We want to keep the gardaí going through there to be able to come out and police the streets and give some modicum of security and safety. We need to stop attacking them and support it. If there were wrongs there they must be outed and rooted out but it is not all a bad morass.
Maybe we want Templemore moved to Dublin; the OECD recently did a survey and found that 53% of all economic activity is now inside the Pale. That is a disaster for rural Ireland and it is continuing. I cannot walk around the city now but I am struck by the shadows of cranes. It is great to see it but they are not building houses. They are all building business premises for people to come in and work in the city. Where are we going to get beds for them? Where are we going to fit them? Where is the transport infrastructure? It is not there. This is another crash on the way.
A nephew of mine is working not 200 yards away from here and he is trying to get back cousins and friends who were in England with him and they are mad to come back but they will not because they cannot afford to live in Dublin. The choice is to travel from Tipperary every day and that is bedlam, taking three or four hours if they hit traffic. We have to get that right. It is going wrong and we will not listen to the OECD or anybody else. We all know it but this is our whistle. That is where the activity is happening. We need to have some bit of forward planning and some bit of one hand knowing what the other hand is doing.
There is €5 million, then, for spin - my goodness. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Catherine Connolly, referred to it when she was speaking as well. We had a small meagre bit in the budget which the Rural Independent Group fought for, along with Deputy Harty, for people who collect money, who fundraise out of their own money that they pay taxes on, and support voluntary groups for defibrillators, wheelchairs, accessible minibuses and ambulances. There is VAT charged on it. There is only a small move there. It has to be a physical charity that affects health and the maximum figure is €5 million. It is no bother finding €5 million for spin and more spin, as if we had not enough of it.
A question was asked this morning about the hiring of staff to try and spin this budget out above all our heads. The people are clever enough. We have an educated electorate now and they are sick and tired of the spin. They were sick and tired of the spin in 2016. That is why Fine Gael got the fright of its life. The former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, said he got a wallop. He is gone now and fair play to him, I wish him a happy retirement and do not wish him any ill will. The public is sick of spin. They are too smart, educated and savvy now for the spin and what they want is a decent modicum of services and respect for their vote and for the way they get up the morning. A big play was made of that by the current Taoiseach, the people who get up in the morning and go to work. He gave them some thanks in the budget. After tax, people on under €20,000 will be €1 a week better off. Deputy Alan Kelly was saying yesterday that people got a cup of coffee a day. That increase would not buy a packet of spearmint gum, never mind a cup of coffee. Most cups of coffee I get are €2 so I do not know where he was going with that. It must be Labour Party economics. It is an insult to ordinary working people that the Taoiseach would leave them like that.
It is a budget of spin and a little for everyone and nothing for an awful lot of people. The INMO, the IMO, the Disability Federation of Ireland and its CEO, John Dolan, are just saddened. I have the farming organisations lined up to say how disappointed they are. The road hauliers were not even mentioned, as if they never existed. People like that are keeping rural Ireland going. There is the Farm Contractors Association of Ireland and above all the volunteers, the makers and movers who are carrying this country. If they pulled out of every organisation the country would close down and nothing would be happening. I call on the Government to go back to the drawing board and rethink what it is doing and rethink the spin. It should tackle the fat cats. I mentioned one in my own constituency - we had more last night. They are there. We cannot have a cosy cartel and deny ordinary working people and abandon the ordinary people who are sick and vulnerable.