Questions on Promised Legislation

Mar is eol don Taoiseach, d'fhoilsigh an Teachta Lawless an Bille um Fhógraíocht Ar-Líne agus na Meáin Shóisialta (Trédhearcacht) 2017 anuraidh. Mar is eol dó freisin, tá raic ar siúl faoi láthair maidir leis an mhéid atá ag tarlú le Cambridge Analytica agus Facebook. Tá daoine ar fud na hEorpa agus ar fud an domhain buartha agus feargach faoin mhéid atá tar éis titim amach. Mar is léir anois, tá sé scanrúil nach raibh aon saghas cosc ar na comhlachtaí móra maidir le eolas príobháideach an saoránach. Tá mé ag súil go mbeidh an Bille seo os comhair an choiste sar i bhfad. Tá sé tábhachtach go n-admhaíonn an Rialtas go bhfuil gá ann reachtaíocht a chur i bhfeidhm chun cosc a chur leis na comhlachtaí móra seo. An mbeidh an Taoiseach agus an Rialtas sásta gach cabhair agus gach tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille seo ionas go mbeimid in ann é a chur i bhfeidhm sa Teach seo chomh tapaidh agus is féidir?

I am advised that the Bill was rushed through the Dáil before Christmas without proper and due consideration. The experts who have since examined it have stated that it is riddled with technical and legal flaws and, in particular, presents serious unintended consequences for the democratic process itself. For example, the definition of "political end" in the Bill is so broad that the Bill essentially prohibits the spending of public money on any kind of online advertising on any matter dealt with or funded by the State. It could even prevent a public meeting organised by a local authority about a landfill from being advertised online. Although I am sure Deputy Lawless was well intentioned, this is perhaps a case of poor legislation being rushed through the Dáil------

It was not rushed through the Dáil.

-----and not undergoing the proper scrutiny for a Bill. If it were a Government Bill, the heads of the Bill would have been drafted along with other scrutiny of the Bill prior to its publication.

It can be amended on Committee Stage. Tá sé dochreidte.

Ar an ábhar céanna, cé go n-aontaím leis an mBille sin, is dóigh liom go bhfuil i bhfad níos mó ag teastáil. Maidir leis an raic atá ann faoi Cambridge Analytica, mura gcuirfear srian reachtúil ar na comhlachtaí seo, cuirfidh an chumhacht atá acu alltacht agus sceon ar dhaoine. Tá an Bille um Chosaint Sonraí 2018 ag dul trí Thithe an Oireachtais faoi láthair. The Department of Justice and Equality yesterday published an amendment to section 43 of the Data Protection Bill, ostensibly to the end of restraining companies such as Cambridge Analytica. However, the amendment is not good enough. It does not properly define when data can be used for political purposes and, as it stands, leaves the data of citizens wide open to abuse. Consent is key. Citizens should know for what purpose their data is being gathered and used. Ba chóir don Aire, an Teachta Flanagan, athdhréachtú iomlán a dhéanamh ar an mBille. Does the Taoiseach accept that the provisions as currently drafted, including the new amendment, in regard to data use for political purposes are contrary to the European general data protection regulation, GDPR? What protections will the Government offer to ensure people are protected from abuse of their data?

An tAire Dlí agus Cirt.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. It is essential that Members do all we can to ensure there is no manipulation of voters nor any undermining of the fundamentals of our democratic system. The Deputy is correct that the Data Protection Bill is currently going through the Seanad. I have tabled several amendments to the Bill and understand that debate on it will resume tomorrow. I am on the record of the Seanad as stating that I am open to several amendments. I hope that we can work together to ensure that we have the best possible legislation that will protect the privacy of citizens and I look forward to completing matters in the Seanad and having the legislation brought before this House at the earliest opportunity.

Tá ceist agam don Taoiseach, nó b'fhéidir don Aire Dlí agus Cirt agus Comhionannais. I understand the Cabinet yesterday appointed three new judges. It is reported that these will be the last judges appointed under the current system. In fact, today's newspapers report some rancour at the Cabinet. Obviously, there were earnest protests from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, indicating that this would be the last time such an appointments system would be allowed, but seeing as he has allowed many judges to be appointed, that remains to be seen. When will the Judicial Appointments Bill be brought forward on Report Stage? Perhaps the Minister will inform the House but we are told the hold-up is in the Department of Justice and Equality and that it is examining the amendments made by this House on Committee Stage.

If there is a difficulty with any of the changes made by the Dáil the Minister might set them out for us so that we can have a clear timeline for the legislation.

The Deputy is around this House long enough not to believe everything that he reads in the newspapers about reports.

When it is coming directly from the Cabinet what can one do?

Having served in a number of Administrations the Deputy will have always abided by the doctrine of Cabinet confidentiality.

Bypassing the communications unit.

I can say to the former Minister, in respect of this legislation, that we have had in excess of five days on Committee Stage, wherein a number of important amendments were made. There is now a period of reflection between Committee and Report Stages. I expect that in the next few weeks we can bring matters back to the House in terms of having Report Stage and have the legislation enacted. It is very important legislation and it is a priority for this Government as underlined in the programme for Government and I can assure Deputy Howlin that it will be back in this House for early enactment within the next few weeks.

In the education section of the programme for Government the Government promised to establish "a new relationship with students" and also promised to improve accessibility to third level education. I wonder what the Taoiseach thinks in that context of the row that took place last week between students in Trinity College, who were forced to occupy college buildings over attempts to introduce absolutely extortionate repeat exam fees of €450; to increase on-campus student accommodation to €240 per week; to further increase, for the third or fourth year in a row, postgraduate fees and non-EU student fees as well as dramatic increases in registration fees in recent years. I went to Trinity College a couple of times last week and the students said their relationship with the college authorities was broken. They said trust had completely broken down and they were appalled at what this meant in terms of access, in particular for working class students, and they wanted to know that the Government and politicians would back the students in their fight against those extortionate fees.

Good progress has been made in terms of access, which was the initial part of the Deputy's question. There has been a 32% increase in the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going through third level in the past four years and a 55% increase in the number of students with a disability so there is significant improvement.

Unfortunately, the matter the Deputy raises is one for the college not for the Minister for Education and Skills or the Dáil.

I welcome the Taoiseach back from his travels and his little fireside tales about planning permissions and other issues.

As reported by Lara Marlowe and Pat Leahy in The Irish Times, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, was asked what would happen if the proposed referendum on the eighth amendment was lost. She replied: "The people who have brought us, and who have been very vocal on this issue for a number of years, they are certainly not going to accept a No." While declining to say directly if the Government would call a second poll in the event of a rejection, Ms Doherty said she envisaged the pro-choice movement would strongly push for one. The remarks have caused significant concern among those who are campaigning in good faith to retain the eighth amendment. Is it the intention of the Government to campaign for another referendum if the proposed repeal of the eighth amendment is unsuccessful? Those remarks go to the heart of the fears many people have about the entire campaign and the mockery and sham of the democratic process. Is there collective Cabinet responsibility and will the Taoiseach restrain the Minister and ask her to withdraw her remarks or is it what will happen and we are only hearing about it in a leak such as this? It is shameful.

I am happy to clarify this matter. The Government will respect the result of the referendum, so if the referendum is passed, I hope people will respect that and if the referendum is defeated the Government will respect that decision and will not bring forward a proposal for a new referendum during the period of this Government.

Second Stage of the referendum Bill has concluded and we will move to Committee and Remaining Stages. It has been a very respectful debate so far but I believe a line was crossed last night and there is great hurt at some of the comments that were made, possibly unintentionally. Could I ask that perhaps a minute is afforded to Deputy Danny Healy-Rae to withdraw some of the very hurtful comments that were made about people who have terminated a pregnancy due to fatal foetal abnormalities and apologise for the hurt caused?

The programme for Government commits that significant Exchequer resources are invested in both current and capital spending in the higher education sector. As other Deputies have raised, in Trinity College, the Taoiseach's own alma mater, in recent weeks the burden of investment in education has fallen squarely on the shoulders of students with the introduction of a €450 flat fee for supplemental exams. The Minister has just said that the protests and the ongoing negotiations have nothing to do with the Government but at the heart of this issue is the Government's lack of investment in higher education which is leading to those stealth fees being imposed on students. The current situation in Trinity College is that the students are waiting for the ongoing negotiations with the university administration to conclude and the exams are only a month away, which is causing unnecessary stress for the students. What plans does the Taoiseach have to further invest in higher education to prevent universities from resorting to demanding those types of fees from vulnerable students in the future?

The Deputy will be aware that in the budget we made provision for a €100 million increase in the current spending for the third level sector. In addition, on the investment side we have made provision for a €200 million investment in the institutes of technology under a PPP arrangement, investing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, and other facilities in the institute of technology, IOT, sector. In the investment plan outlined in Project Ireland 2040, we have also set out investment plans for €2.2 billion in the third level sector overall. We have very considerable ambitions for the improvement and growth of the third level sector as a key element in achieving balanced regional development. We have big ambitions for the third level sector and they are endorsed very clearly in the ten-year spending plan.

Broadband or the lack of it in Kerry is still a major issue for many people. I will not say it is confined to rural areas because I would class many of the places as urban but broadband has not yet reached them. To say people are disappointed is an understatement. Many people trying to conduct businesses or to keep going are very angry. Eircom was sold and a new company known as Eir was set up. Has the Government considered purchasing Eir again? Whoever gets the new contract will have to rent the infrastructure from Eir. Landline phones are becoming obsolete.

The time is up. We will get an answer for the Deputy.

Could the Taoiseach clarify whether it is a possibility that he might purchase Eir again because it should never have been sold in the first place?

Is the Taoiseach going to buy Eir again for us?

There are no proposals to do so, a Cheann Comhairle.

The Rebuilding Ireland programme has some very ambitious targets for providing homes by county councils this year and in future years. A very basic commodity must exist in order to achieve real traction in tackling the crisis and building homes for people, namely, land. I rarely hear speakers mention the word "land" in debates only people roaring and shouting that they want houses. They must think they are built on thin air because I do not hear people talk about that very basic commodity of land. In County Meath, bar one landlocked piece of land, we have no publicly owned land and consequently we cannot build council housing estates. I asked the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Mr. John McCarthy, about that at the Committee of Public Accounts two weeks ago and he said the Department would not get into the business of funding the buying of land. If we do not have publicly owned land, where the housing crisis is at its worst, and we do not intend to buy it so that we can build on it, is it not the case that the problem will only get worse?

What are the Minister's thoughts on how we can help those people in commuter counties such as Meath where there is no publicly owned land?

I thank the Deputy for the question. In the context of Rebuilding Ireland, it is important to know that our plans are working. Recent Central Statistics Office, CSO, data point out that planning permission was granted for 20,776 dwelling units last year. That was up 26% on 2016, so good progress is being made.

We need land on which to build houses. On the Rebuilding Ireland website, the Deputy will see hundreds of sites where there is local authority owned land, the level to which it is serviced and how we will build houses on those sites. From the second housing summit we had in January, councils are now coming back to me with the targets for the land they own.

If the Deputy reads Project Ireland 2040-----

Which I have done.

Good. He will have seen that there are plans for a new land development and regeneration agency that will be set up later this year to make sure that State and semi-State land is brought into local authorities to be developed for housing. Further details on that will issue once the new agency is established.

One piece of land-----

On page 47 of the programme for Government, under tourism policy, one of the Government's goals is to increase revenue from overseas visitors to €5 billion by 2025. Last week, I welcomed that the Taoiseach and other Ministers were selling Ireland all over the world to the best of their ability. Two of our greatest sports heroes, Gary and Paul O'Donovan, from the world class Skibbereen rowing club, are also selling Ireland all over the world, both on and off the sporting field. Gary and Paul are a media magnet, prompting calls last week from the Australian media for their tourism bodies to sign them up to sell Australia. Before we lose such valuable assets to that country, will the Taoiseach work with Fáilte Ireland to provide funds for both Gary and Paul to promote Ireland when travelling all over the world?

That is novel, and I think it is a very good idea as well. The Deputy will note that Gary and Paul appear in our new video promoting Ireland, which was launched last week. It now has 6 million views, which is a good investment.

Regarding Fáilte Ireland contracting them, I will certainly pass on that suggestion to the CEO.

I ask the Taoiseach about the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection's treatment of social welfare branch managers in 58 branches across the State. After committing to engage, and negotiate a new contract, with the branch managers last October, on reaching agreement on the remuneration aspect of the issues raised the Department ended the talks, refused to engage and put an outright end to negotiating with the branch managers' association, bizarrely citing competition laws, which makes no sense. The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, needs to put the proposed payment structure in place, as already agreed, treat the branch managers fairly with a contract that actually deals with the issues they have raised, and produce a revised list of the work and services they are expected to provide. The treatment of the branch managers has to be described as appalling. It is a sad reflection on Government and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Will the Taoiseach ensure there is engagement with the branch managers, that the remuneration package, as agreed, will be rolled out and put in place and that all the other aspects that have been raised will be dealt with by him?

That is a contract negotiation. It is not a promised legislation or a programme for Government matter. I would advise the Deputy to table a parliamentary question to the Minister.

There is a guarantee for the seamless delivery of services. This is a sad reflection on Government.

This morning, I read with interest the announcement regarding the papal visit to Ireland in August. The Taoiseach might give us an update on that. Has he been informed of the visit as yet?

The Vatican confirmed this morning that Pope Francis will visit Ireland for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin on 25 and 26 August. While it is not a formal State visit, it is the visit of a Head of State and the spiritual leader of 1 billion Catholics, and millions of Catholics in this country. He is certainly a welcome guest and I look forward to greeting him during his visit. There will be appropriate involvement of civil authorities, including security, public safety, protocol and co-ordination.

An issue has developed within the Revenue Commissioners. Page 29 of the programme for Government outlines the help-to-buy scheme. I understand that because of the software in the Revenue Commissioners some people who applied for the help-to-buy scheme were given a commitment in error by the Revenue Commissioners that they qualified for the scheme. Following an audit of the help-to-buy scheme, letters issued on 7 and 8 March regarding this issue and people are being told they are no longer entitled to join the scheme. They are being told they will have to repay the money, pay a fine of €3,000 or €5,000 and an interest rate per day of a percentage of that. Depending on how that is calculated, it comes to more than €100,000. Is the Minister taking control of this very serious issue? People have contacted me about it and they are frightened by the documents coming from the Revenue Commissioners. I understand some officials are trying to resolve it, but what is the Government's solution to the issue?

I thank Deputy Moynihan for raising this matter. I will be meeting the Revenue Commissioners soon. I have regular engagements with the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners on many matters. I will follow up directly on this issue and revert to the Deputy with a response.

Is the Minister aware of the issue?

I am not aware of the scale of the issue to which he has referred.

Many farmers are still awaiting green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, payments. We are being told that administrative issues are causing the problem. The Taoiseach knows the weather has had a very bad effect on farmers. There are no cattle out. There is a scarcity of fodder and a massive increase in the cost of fodder they can buy. Farmers need money right now. Representatives of the Irish Farmers' Association are in town today, and I welcome them to Dublin. They are a great organisation fighting on behalf of our farming community but if the remaining GLAS payments cannot be issued, surely an advance payment can issue immediately if there are problems in particular cases. Farmers need their money now, not next month or in a couple of weeks' time. Anybody who has cattle in a shed and is running out of feed is trying to buy feed. There is no grass growing. The Taoiseach might not know about grass growing under his feet but I can tell him there is no grass growing, and that is causing an awful problem for farmers throughout the country. I ask the Taoiseach to please get this issue dealt with as a matter of urgency.

I am advised that 50,000 GLAS payments have been issued so far. There are some outstanding and in many cases that is because the Department is still seeking further information from the grantee.

Louth County Council has received €2.2 million from the European Regional Development Fund and the council has matched the funding through development levies, so it has €4.4 million to spend in Dundalk. That money has to be spent very soon. The council intends to spend the money on Clanbrassil Street and Church Street, leaving out Bridge Street and an adjoining street. It was hoping the €4.4 million would do the job. Louth County Council has agreed to expand the design to include Bridge Street plus the adjoining street. That will mean we will know how much it will cost and what is needed. However, Louth County Council has no money but it has made a commitment that it will match the funding. In terms of Brexit, we do not know whether we will have a soft, hard or no border. Dundalk needs this development, which will take between 12 to 18 months to complete. It will be a shame if only half the job is completed. I am delighted that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is in the Chamber. I ask him to contact Louth County Council and perhaps the shopkeepers in the area. This would be a fantastic development and it would also help in terms of the Brexit issue.

I thank the Deputy for the question. If he would not mind giving me the particular details I can look at them in more detail. It is important to note, however, that the commercial rates Bill, which will allow local authorities to vary rates bills, is priority legislation that will be taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, very shortly. Also, there are special funds in Project Ireland 2040 for local authorities for regeneration and development. That might be a potential avenue for the schemes that have been mentioned but if the Deputy wants to give me the particular details, I will look into the issue in more detail.

On page 144 of the programme for Government, the European Court of Human Rights yesterday rejected a request by Ireland to find that the so-called hooded men who were arrested by the British authorities suffered torture in a British army camp.

I am sure the Taoiseach shares my disappointment that the court did not revise its judgment and correct the record. Fourteen men were subjected to five techniques, namely, being placed in stress positions, sometimes on heaters; being subjected to white noise; being subjected to sleep deprivation; being subjected to deprivation of food and water; and receiving beatings and death threats. That was torture. At a press conference in Belfast yesterday one of the tortured men, Francis McGuigan, stated the court had missed a great opportunity to stamp out torture all over the world and called on the Government to appeal the decision. Will it do so?

I note the decision yesterday of the European Court of Human Rights which voted by a six to one majority to determine that the men concerned had not been subjected to torture. They were certainly subjected to terrible abuse and degrading punishment, but the European Court of Human Rights has determined that their treatment did not extend to torture. The Government will consider the judgment and, having done so, make a decision on whether to appeal it.

The Government, in its programme for Government, committed to commencing a review of the July provision scheme on the advice of the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, to examine issues of access and funding, with a view to extending the scheme to children with Down's syndrome. Despite this, children with Down's syndrome remain ineligible for the scheme as Down's syndrome is still not considered to be a qualifying condition for access to support. Given that the issue was raised earlier, the Minister for Education and Skills will be aware that 21 March is World Down Syndrome Day. Will the Taoiseach mark this global day by giving a commitment to extend eligibility for the scheme in order that children with Down's syndrome and their families will finally have access to vital supports and have their needs met?

I am aware that for many years a restriction has applied under the July scheme. I understand, however, that it has been established policy for a considerable period and that the policy is based on recommendations made by the National Council for Special Education. In the light of the Deputy's request, I will ask the NCSE to review the position.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to support underwater search and recovery units. They are, in the main, volunteer groups, with which many people are not familiar until a person, sadly, goes missing and a search is commenced. Underwater search and recovery units carry out searches of the River Blackwater, Cork Harbour, the River Lee and many other bodies of water to try to bring peace of mind and closure to families. The groups rely on volunteer resources and receive support from community groups through the provision of boats, RIBs, sonar equipment and so forth. Given that the programme for Government has been in place for almost two years, when will underwater search and recovery units expect to receive the promised support or will the Government continue to take advantage of the voluntarism of the groups? They need Government support.

I would never describe volunteers as being taken advantage of because the nature of voluntarism is that people want to volunteer and do so for altruistic reasons. I understand some of the bodies in question receive funding through the Irish Coast Guard Vote of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I will ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, to furnish the Deputy with a more detailed reply.

I raise the issue of afforestation in County Leitrim which has been highlighted previously in the House. More than 18% of County Leitrim is under forestry. Arable land is being bought for plantation, with townland after townland being bought up and planted. People can no longer exist. This practice must be curtailed because European policy is that not more than 17% of a county should be under afforestation. The amount of land in County Leitrim under forest far exceeds 17% and the figure will continue to increase unless something is done. It is wrong that people who are not farmers are receiving grants to plant land, particularly in an area in which there is excessive forestry.

I note the Deputy's comments and concern. Afforestation and more forestry are part of our response to climate change and very much part of our climate action plan. At the same time, I acknowledge that, for many people, having to live beside a forest or in a heavily forested area impacts on their lives and residential amenity. I will ask the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Andrew Doyle, to furnish the Deputy with a more detailed answer.