Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

We are on the cusp of being hit by Storm Callum. Will the Minister confirm whether the national emergency co-ordination group, NECG, will meet this afternoon? In the context of what are expected to be 130 km/h winds with spring tides, there is considerable disruption forecast for the morning. As the impact of this will be felt at commuting time, when will the Government be in a position to alert people about travel plans for the morning? Is it satisfied that adequate preparations are in place for what may be ahead?

I thank the Deputy for raising this because it gives me the opportunity to inform the House that the Department has convened a meeting of the NECG for 3 p.m. this afternoon to review preparations and public safety messaging for the arrival of Storm Callum, as well as to highlight to Departments and agencies the need to be prepared and to make any necessary decisions concerning their sectors on Thursday or Friday morning. Depending on the impact of the storm, the Department will make further decisions on Thursday night or Friday morning about whether to convene the NECG again on Friday. Storm Callum is due to arrive on the south-west coast this evening and will track north west, simultaneously affecting the west, the south and then the east coast with very high winds.

Will the Tánaiste circulate a note to the Members?

Yes. The preparations are under way.

There are travel plans. People need to know.


People should try to make early decisions on the basis of the information provided to them. Following the meeting of the national emergency co-ordination group later, I expect the Minister will be very clear in his advice.

Before the summer break, the Government produced a general scheme for the airport noise regulation Bill 2018 which makes Fingal County Council the designated noise regulator. Doing that disregarded the concerns of local communities, as the airport noise plan will undermine the noise restrictions that should be retained as per the planning permission granted in 2007. The Government is also ignoring an EU directive which clearly states that any review should be conducted by an independent noise regulator. When will a genuinely independent noise regulatory authority be established to ensure that the opinions of local people and communities are taken into account and that they are centrally involved in the decision-making process?

My understanding on that legislation is that the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport started the pre-legislative scrutiny process last week. All of these issues can be raised during that process.

The Minister for Finance announced in May that the Government had approved the drafting of the so-called rainy day fund Bill. The budget allocated €500 million to that fund and another €1.5 billion is to be transferred to it from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF. The national surplus (reserve fund for exceptional contingencies) Bill - not an elegant title - was mentioned in the Programme for a Partnership Government. We have not seen any heads of that Bill, although they were apparently approved in May. When will we see the draft legislation? Will there be pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill? Can we please have a copy of the draft heads of the Bill that were approved?

As the Deputy said, the heads of this Bill were cleared in May. I understand that the committee decided not to go through a pre-legislative scrutiny process in September. I am assuming that this legislation will now move ahead. I acknowledge that the Deputy has an interest in it and he raised concerns about it with the Taoiseach yesterday. I look forward to hearing his commentary as that legislation moves through the House so that we get it right.

In recent months, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has advertised that employees who feel they may be victims of bogus self-employment practices should report that, which is welcome. It has been a long time coming because such practices are widespread, particularly in the construction industry. Does the Government have any intention, in the forthcoming Industrial Relations (Amendment) Bill, to deal with this in a comprehensive manner? There are still problems in this regard. That is particularly the case in an area that we could do something about, which is public procurement contracts. For example, I received a call I this morning from building workers employed on such a contract in St. Mary's Mansions on Gardiner Street building houses for Clúid, the voluntary housing association. The workers say there is bogus self-employment on the site. They have not received their wages for weeks, they are not getting pay slips and no pension contributions have been made. The joint investigations unit should be down there today or tomorrow. We need the Government to act on this issue of bogus self-employment.

New legislation is proceeding in this area and I suggest that the Deputy tables an amendment. He will then have the opportunity to debate it with the Minister.

It was announced yesterday that, as part of the budget process, that the Government has committed an additional €9 million to RTÉ. That money largely comes funding restored to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. That is it, however. We are in a situation where the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, has said that it would be in real trouble if it did not get €30 million and TG4 has a similar problem. Is what was announced yesterday the sum total of what this Government intends to do to help Irish media? Our Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment recommended a suite of different measures that could provide further funding. In a world where all the big international media are becoming increasingly wealthy and dominant in Ireland and Irish media are in crisis, is that all we can expect from this Government to help Irish broadcast media?

I want to be careful about what I say in respect of RTÉ because I have a brother working there at a senior level. I do not want to be accused of having any vested interests or anything like that. Decisions were made on RTÉ that I think were sensible. RTÉ has funding pressures. The budgetary announcement will help somewhat in that but RTÉ also has responsibilities to provide a significant volume of programming in a cost-effective way. However, we will continue to have a discussion with RTÉ, and indeed with other parties in this House, in respect of how we fund public service broadcasting. That discussion needs to continue but it is not true that this was the only measure in the budget for Irish media. We decided to retain the VAT rate of 9% for the newspaper industry, despite changing that rate for many other sectors. Irish media did get preferential treatment for the reasons the Deputy Eamon outlined.

The programme for Government committed to targeting waiting lists in our hospitals. Unfortunately, they have not improved. They are worse than they have ever been in the history of the State. I refer to Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe in my constituency. A unit with 50 beds is shovel-ready and ready to go. At the request of management and staff, I recently visited that hospital. Despite the outstanding service of the staff, the conditions are appalling. It is a €17 million project and everything is ready. It is simply waiting for the green light from the Government.

Going back a number of years, a Government, in which the Tánaiste was a Member, blatantly closed the emergency department in Roscommon town. It was a brand new building that cost €8.5 million and it was closed, which was an outrageous decision. Portiuncula Hospital then became the emergency department for patients from Roscommon. It is important that this project gets the green light immediately. I know that the Tánaiste cannot give me a concrete answer today but he might pass on this message to the Minister for Health to give the green light without any further delay.

In respect of waiting lists, in the budget for next year we have announced €75 million in expenditure for the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, to try to reduce waiting lists and to make sure that, while people might not have the operations they need in their local hospital, they can certainly get them done somewhere. Expenditure will increased by between €20 million and €25 million, which is a welcome development. I will, however, pass on the Deputy's request directly to the Minister.

Commitments were given in the programme for Government to restore cuts made as part of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation. Earlier this morning, the Tánaiste said that negotiations on general practitioner, GP, contracts were ongoing. He said that restoration is happening in all sectors. There is one sector, however, where it has not commenced and that is the pharmacy sector. As a pharmacist, I am aware the role pharmacists play in primary care in all communities is very valuable. They are much underutilised but I also believe that the FEMPI restoration should commence for that profession. Pharmacists are all working hard and they deserve the same respect as every other healthcare professional.

I defer to the Deputy's expertise in that sector. This is a matter for negotiation with the Minister for Health.

Despite seven years having elapsed since the inspection of places of detention Bill first appeared on the Government's legislative programme, we still await its publication. This Bill would provide for Ireland's ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, OPCAT. With some 90 states having ratified the protocol, it is to our collective shame that this legislation, which would oblige the State to ensure the safety of all vulnerable people behind the closed doors of children's care homes, nursing homes and places of detention via independent inspection has not been enacted. When will the Bill be presented?

I am told that the heads of the Bill are still in preparation. I am sure that the Deputy has heard that previously. I will try to come back with a more detailed response.

Seven years is a long time for something to be in preparation.

I take that point.

Last week I raised the issue of the deficiencies of the Garda fleet in Louth with the Minister for Justice and Equality. I referred to the fact that there was only one community policing van shared between Drogheda and Dundalk, there are only two Garda cars to cover the entire town of Drogheda and the surrounding areas and that gardaí are forced to use their own cars or to walk.

They are effectively starved of the resources required to carry out their duties effectively. Not only did the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, not show any concern for this serious situation, he absolved himself of all responsibility, stating that the local community should raise the issue at the joint policing committee, JPC. The Taoiseach sat there and ignored the fact that his Minister for Justice and Equality has absolved himself of all responsibility.

We raise issues and ask questions every week. The Minister for Justice and Equality is paid a salary in excess of €163,000 per year to take responsibility. I have to ask the question again, because I got no response last time. As the Minister for Justice and Equality has not turned up to the Chamber this morning, will the Tánaiste insist that he states clearly, on the record, when the Garda in Louth will receive the fleet resources it needs to carry out the work it is supposed to be doing? We have had enough of the "could not care less" attitude of the Minister.

The Deputy has the wrong impression of the Minister. In my experience he is a ferocious advocate for An Garda Síochána around the Cabinet table.

That is more than can be said for Sinn Féin.

His response is on the record.

It is nice to hear Sinn Féin advocating for more resources for the Garda in Louth.

The Minister's response is on the record.

The Minister has secured an increase of €110 million for the Garda Vote for next year, which will deliver an extra 800 gardaí. He has also delivered a further €10 million investment in the Garda transport fleet, which seems to be the issue the Deputy is raising.

When can we expect to get the new equipment?

It is earmarked for next year, which is not too far away.

That is the question we asked.

For further detail on that the Deputy will have to ask a parliamentary question.

The Deputy could table a Topical Issue and we can discuss the matter then.

On 13 April, the Minister for Education and Skills announced that 42 new schools would be built around the country, including 17 which would be up and running by next September. We are now six months on from that announcement, and almost nothing has happened. During the summer four patronage processes for secondary schools began, but they have not been completed because we do not have the results of the processes. Parents are currently visiting schools with their children to decide on the schools they might attend next year and they are asking about the schools the Minister promised six months ago. The Joint Committee on Education and Skills was promised that we would have an update on each of the 42 schools and the progress made on them by the end of September. I have not received that update, and I would be grateful if the Minister could update the House as to his announcement and give parents the information they need.

I do not know what happened to the Deputy, but the update was provided to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills last week, as requested and as we indicated we would. There are 42 new schools scheduled to open up to 2022. We are acting to provide a better pre-planning process in order that we can anticipate needs and make plans, and to have a timely programme for construction. As the Deputy mentioned, in the case of post-primary schools a parental selection has been invited and an independent commission considering the view of parents as to the preferred patron for those second-level schools. Before Christmas a similar process for primary schools due to open in September 2019 will begin. The Department is identifying temporary sites in most cases, which is the norm for new schools. The Department is working with local authorities to find the permanent sites these schools will need in the long term.

My question concerns the review of the aquaculture sector which was completed and provided to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine more than a year ago. There is no implementation strategy yet or timeline for how the 30 actions contained in that review are going to be implemented, which is crucial for the development of the industry and the sector. One example is Marine Harvest, in Fanad, County Donegal, which has been waiting for seven years for an answer on an application for a license for one of its sites in Cork. Its processing site in Donegal is operating at 30% or 40% capacity. If licences could be dealt with in a more timely manner additional employment could be created but we need a timeline in which that strategy will be implemented. Can the Minister update us on whether he will put an implementation strategy in place for this sector?

I appreciate the Deputy's interest in the aquaculture sector. We conducted a review of the aquaculture licensing regime and I understand that a date was agreed with the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine for an update on the process. I can confirm that we are on track to eliminate the arrears of processing of aquaculture licences. There was a two-year timescale in which to clear the backlog, and we are well on track to deliver. We will provide a comprehensive report to the committee at some stage later this month.

My question relates to survivors of historical child sex abuse at Creagh Lane national school in Limerick and in other schools. The Minister for Education and Skills will be aware that the Dáil debated a motion on 4 July on this matter, and it was passed the following day. When will the Government publish Mr. Justice Iarfhlaith O'Neill's report, and will it now act on the will of the Dáil, as expressed in the July vote, and allow these people to access compensation for the awful abuse they suffered while attending these schools? So the Tánaiste is satisfied, in our pre-budget statement we have provided for the compensation money that would be required.

The position is that Mr. Justice O'Neill has been appointed to review cases where people have not been successful in applications for compensation under the European Court. He is continuing his work, and no report is available to my Department at this point. We have submitted all of the information requested by Mr. Justice O'Neill, and I understand he is working on it.

When can we expect that report? It was due in August.

On page 108 of the programme for Government, there is a range of commitments on farm incomes and supporting next-generation farmers. Not many young farmers are going into sheep farming in particular. At the recent graduation in Macroom, it was wonderful to see 18 new farmers receiving their green certificates. Only one person, who was from a very hilly area, was going into sheep farming from that group. Sheep farming is not seen as a viable option for people and they are voting with their feet. The introduction of the sheep welfare scheme was positive but because only two thirds of sheep farmers are involved in it, amounting to just over 20,000 people, there is an underspend and a large number of people are interested in getting into it. Is the Minister reviewing that scheme or is he considering redistributing that funding in order that extra people can get into it, or will there be top-ups for people already in the scheme?

It is a demand-led scheme, open for applications on an annual basis. Anyone who applies gets a payment of €10 per ewe on the basis of actions they commit to, whether for hill farmers or lowland sheep productions. There is a menu of options specifically designed and tailored for either commodity area.

On generational renewal, the Deputy will appreciate that as well as increasing area of natural constraint, ANC, payments in the budget, which will specifically deliver more money to those farmers in more marginal and disadvantaged lands, we also renewed a suite of taxation measures to encourage land mobility and young farmers, including measures on stamp duty relief.

Applying for a medical card today reminds me of applying for planning permission. One applies for planning permission and seven weeks later one gets a request for further information. One sends the information in and then one might get a subsequent request. That is fair enough for planning permission, but for medical cards, people are being notified four or five weeks after they apply by text message or by letter that more information is required. After sending in that information, people can then get a further request.

I do not know if this is a staff issue. I want to say that the staff of the dedicated line to the medical card office that we have as Deputies are courteous and helpful. They try to do the best they can for us. However, there must be a policy to stall, delay or frustrate these applications. I do not know what the problem is. Are more staff needed? More GP cards are provided for in the budget, but unless there are staff to deal with the current backlog, it will not work.

I thank the Deputy for his points. As practicing politicians, we all understand the frustrations arising from the application system. To be fair to the system however, it is very fair. It is a centralised national system. Previously, this work was carried out separately in different geographical areas, using different yardsticks. This is a better way of doing it, notwithstanding our frustrations with delays. Documents can go missing, and things like that are frustrating. By and large, the central office is doing a reasonably good job. It has made huge strides and treats everybody exactly the same. That element of fairness has to be welcomed.

I want to raise the issue of Spinraza with the Tánaiste. This is my fourth time raising this issue in the Chamber. Today Grace, an amazing little girl, and her parents came to Leinster House again. They met Deputy Finian McGrath, the Minister of State with special responsibility for disability issues, and by all accounts it was a good meeting. However, we still await a response from the Minister for Health, who has simply sent a holding response. He acknowledged receipt of their letter and that was it. There has been no decision. These parents have been waiting week after week for a decision from the HSE as to whether it and this Government will provide their daughter and the other 24 affected children with the medication they need to live and to have some quality of life. Will the Tánaiste endeavour to get a response to those parents and children? For God's sake, I ask him to ask the Minister for Health to get in touch.

I actually raised this matter with the Minister this morning because I anticipated that somebody would raise it today. Everybody wants to move towards a decision here. The Minister does not make the decision himself. He has to get a recommendation from an ongoing negotiation process. There are two parties to the negotiation. A company is also involved. The State has managed to negotiate a more realistic price for a whole series of products in the last 12 months. This is a medication on which we would obviously like to see progress and we are endeavouring to bring that about, but I am afraid I am not in a position to give the Deputy an exact timeline today.

The voisinage agreement was agreed between Britain and Ireland in 1964, before we joined the European Union, to allow for fishing rights across the Irish Sea. That agreement fell down due to a court order a few years ago. The House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee reported recently that if something is not done about this by a deadline of the end of March next year, Irish fishing vessels will be prevented from going into British waters. That is a serious problem for the fishing community throughout the country, particularly for those on the coastline of the Irish Sea. We need negotiations. We know Brexit is imminent and that has its own problems but this is something that predates our entry into the European Union. I would like an update. Have our officials been engaging with the British Government and British officials in this regard? Has any progress been made? When will progress happen? We need a new agreement as quickly as possible.

I can go into the technicalities of that agreement on another occasion if the Deputy wishes. I assure him that our officials are very much aware of it despite that court case. We want to protect the status quo whereby Northern Irish boats and Irish boats share each other's waters. We are talking about waters close to shore, as opposed to those governed by the Common Fisheries Policy. We are working to protect that understanding and arrangement between Britain and Ireland.

I wish to ask the Tánaiste about the building of houses. Over the last number of years, scores of families have called into my constituency office with problems in this regard. Local need rules from 2005 are still in place. These rules prevent people from owning their own house. I hear from families who live in the countryside and have sites they got from their father, mother, granny or aunt and on which they are not allowed to build. I also hear from families living in villages who want to move to the countryside because their family has gotten bigger and the house they live in is too small. The local needs rules are preventing us from building these houses. Local authorities all seem to have different rules. I will say one thing. The Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, has done a lot of work on this issue in recent years, and I thank him for his work. I believe the EU will issue new directives in October this year. When can I tell these people the good news that they can build in their own community?

There is an ongoing conversation on the local needs aspect of the rural planning guidelines. We expect to see some movement on that in the autumn. To be clear, more than 6,000 one-off houses have been built every year in this country for the last several years, so many one-off houses are still being built. Each local authority is its own planning authority. The local councillors will vote through certain interpretations of local needs provisions, which will be different in each area. However, I believe most people with a social or family tie to the area and a local economic need are in a position to build their house. Some clarification on the rules around family and social needs will issue in the coming months.

Page 38 of the programme for Government addresses economic infrastructure development and Irish Water. Last Friday a "Do not drink" notice was issued to 2,500 costumers in Rathkeale and the surrounding areas of County Limerick due to the increased turbidity in the raw water supply. Work is ongoing on this. I would be grateful if Irish Water could furnish us with a comprehensive update and timeline on this matter. Updates are posted on the Irish Water website but I would prefer if they were a lot more frequent. Moreover, I would like specific times and locations to be announced for the delivery of tanker water in addition to the deliveries that have taken place in Knockaderry and Rathkeale. Last Friday night we were given to expect that bottled water would be distributed on Friday evening. That changed at 10.30 p.m. or 11 p.m. on Friday. Obviously many people, who were ready to collect water, were disgruntled. If we are to learn from this incident, this process should be streamlined. I understand that emergencies happen, but when something like this happens the way we react and communicate with the public has an ongoing effect. That created a fear factor among the public over the weekend, and we need to correct this. I would be grateful if Irish Water could issue an update on the matter.

I will make sure my office relays that concern to Irish Water in order to improve its communication. To be fair, Irish Water is usually pretty good at this stuff and works very closely with local authorities to make sure communities are informed. I am sure the company will respond to the criticism accordingly.

That concludes questions on promised legislation. We managed to accommodate everyone. I thank Deputies for the brevity of their questions and answers.