Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

We have 24 Deputies offering already. I call Deputy Calleary.

The Minister will be aware of the announcement by Bord na Móna yesterday that up to 150 jobs are going to go in Offaly as a consequence of restructuring and decarbonising the Bord na Móna business. This is going to have a huge impact. I know from speaking to Deputy Cowen this morning that he is particularly concerned about the impact in Offaly. What plans has the Government put in place to assist Bord na Móna through this process? Will it look to speak to the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund in the context that this loss to Offaly is similar to the losses in Waterford Glass and in Dell and given that the company has no option but to make these redundancies because of its decarbonisation obligation?

I have not as yet seen the statement to which Deputy Calleary refers and I am not sure if Bord na Móna has made a specific statement on its future intentions. What I do know as a Deputy for the constituency to which Deputy Calleary refers is that Bord na Móna needs to meet some challenges and, to meet them, it must identify new business opportunities that provide profitability. I would be happy to engage with the new Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, on this issue but I acknowledge that there are opportunities for Bord na Móna. I would be as keen as anyone in the House that the Government would play a part in ensuring that these opportunities come to fruition.

The trolley crisis has continually escalated under the tenure of Deputy Harris as Minister for Health. Last year we saw the largest number of patients on trolleys in the history of the State, at almost 100,000.

This year's trajectory is going the same way. As winter approaches, the number is beginning to rise. Yesterday 542 citizens were lying on trolleys in hospital wards and accident and emergency departments across the State. Today the number is 507. If that trend continues as we approach the winter months we will see absolute chaos in our hospitals. Will the Minister commit to publishing the winter initiative and fast-tracking it before the winter months come in order to try to avert as much as possible this crisis given that the Government has sat on its hands and not dealt with the core issues of capacity and recruitment and retention of workers?

I very much regret the distress, upset and trauma being experienced by people in our overcrowded accident departments. It causes difficulty not only for the patients but also for their families and, of course, it stresses people who are working on the front line. However, I acknowledge improvements in what has been regarded as the trolley count. I also acknowledge that budget 2019 provided an additional €10 million to prepare for the expected demands over the winter months. I assure the Deputy that the Minister, Deputy Harris, is fully engaged on the issue and will be in a position to address the specifics if required by way of Topical Issue or other more appropriate-----

That money is for next winter, not this winter.

For a year we have been awaiting Government legislation to protect tenants and to beef up the Residential Tenancies Board. The latest move from landlords is to charge non-refundable so-called viewing fees; we have actually drafted a Bill to deal with that practice. Rent pressure zones have been in place for nearly two years, but we are still waiting on laws to allow the Residential Tenancies Board to enforce the 4% increases. The Labour Party and others have proposed significant amendments to Bills to cap rents and restrict the capacity to evict tenants. There have also been Bills to provide rent certainty for students in student accommodation. When will the Government finally publish the residential tenancies amendment Bill? Will it include provision to ban the practice of charging so-called booking deposits or non-refundable viewing fees for rentals?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The delay with the legislation was not at our end but in the Oireachtas because a number of Bills were before it and there was filibustering that did not allow us time to get the legislation into the Dáil when we wanted to. The committee also looked for pre-legislative scrutiny when we did not think that was necessary. Notwithstanding those delays, the legislation is ready to be published. A number of additional elements will be introduced by way of amendment on Committee Stage.

The programme for Government makes a serious commitment to improve mental health services for young people and adolescents. A shocking letter was sent yesterday by the Psychiatric Nurses Association to the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, which shows that the number of operational beds in the Linn Dara child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, unit in Cherry Orchard has been reduced to 13 from 24. For the past two years we have been protesting both here in the House and outside the hospital about the lack of services for adolescents with serious mental illnesses.

We only saw yesterday reports of cyberbullying incidents that resulted in suicide and shockingly an increase in the level of suicide among young women. A society should be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. This is an indictment of the Government. Despite the programme for Government commitment to young people and mental health, the Minister should look at the state of our services. What future do young people who are vulnerable have to look forward to if the Cabinet cannot sort it out? I ask the Minister to bring this to Cabinet as an issue for urgent consideration because we cannot continue to have half of good units shut down and made inaccessible to young people.

I acknowledge the seriousness of the issue. Just before this session, during Question Time to the Minister for Justice and Equality, we had the opportunity to deal with the issue of cyberbullying and the adverse consequences on citizens' mental health. I am taking a legislative proposal in that regard. I acknowledge the work of Deputy Howlin, in particular, on this issue.

An additional €84 million will be provided for mental health services next year, bringing the total available funding for mental health to in excess of €1 billion. This is an increase of the order of 9%. I assure the Deputy that the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, is engaging with stakeholders throughout the country to ensure that every effort is made to maximise the efforts on the part of Government to deal with what is a growing and difficult challenge across society.

I ask the Minister please to read that letter and bring it to the attention of Cabinet. It is quite shocking.

The programme for Government commits to support An Garda Síochána. I know Deputy Michael Healy-Rae raised it. In Tipperary there is a huge division. I wish the new Commissioner well, but I want the Minister to clarify comments he made on overtime. With the evenings now drawing in, people are frightened in their homes. We have got very few of the new recruits to have come out of Templemore in recent years. I salute An Garda Síochána, from the gardaí right up to the sergeants, inspectors and superintendents, for doing its best with limited resources. The Minister knows the situation in Clonmel Garda station. I am talking about gardaí out on the beat to answer the calls. They need the assurance that they will have the overtime where it is needed. A contract worth €100 million has been signed for the GoSafe vans. The previous contract was for €87 million. These are of no use to anybody in addressing crime such as robberies and the associated fear. The Garda needs to be supported to tackle all these criminals, roving gangs and whatever in order to reassure the people of Tipperary that they will have gardaí at the end of the phone and available to come to their assistance. They must support the Garda.

I do not disagree with what the Deputy has said about rural crime and rural gardaí. The Deputy's colleague, Deputy Cahill, had a specific question on the issue before Deputy Mattie McGrath came into the Chamber. I acknowledge the challenge and difficulty with Garda overtime. This year's overtime bill is in excess of €130 million, which is not sustainable in the context of the recruitment programme which will see an extra 800 Garda recruits coming out of Templemore, fully trained and being billeted to stations throughout the country on a regular basis. I understand the Garda Commissioner is engaging in a review of Garda overtime. I welcome that and I would be happy to engage further.

That is in Dublin.

I am pleased that last week's budget provided €1.7 billion to the Garda Síochána in order to facilitate a very effective and modern police force.

That is here in the city, not in Tipperary.

Today An Bord Pleanála has turned down the planning application to build a plaza in College Green. Our city is grinding to a halt. The national planning framework proposes going back to the core and creating these civic spaces, but nothing is happening. There is not a single public transport project or cycling project. This plan was years in preparation and now it has been thrown out the door meaning that we have to go back to the drawing board. What will the Government do to send a signal that we really need a sustainable transport planning system? What is the new Government planning framework that might give An Bord Pleanála the wherewithal to make a hard decision? What will we do with Dublin as we are stuck in gridlock? Will we all just keep driving in to town or does the Government have any plans or proposed legislation to promote sustainable transport and save the city from the gridlock that is growing every day?

I have not had time to read today's An Bord Pleanála decision. I suggest that the Deputy tables a Topical Issue for answer by the Minister, Deputy Ross, maybe later this afternoon.

That would be a convenient means by which the issue might be addressed. In the meantime I will convey the concerns directly to the Minister, Deputy Ross.

Page 48 of the programme for Government states that the Government would establish a working group to identify the potential for local post offices to act as hubs to facilitate other services, such as health, transport and a one-stop shop for Government services. Unfortunately we have seen what has happened since that. In my constituency 11 post offices are listed for closure. We all know that people are retiring and that some post offices are not viable. However, some of those 11 post offices are viable.

I am referring to Gurteen and Ballinfull in County Sligo, which set up local committees which surveyed the areas and confirmed without doubt, based on An Post criteria, that these post offices are viable. They have appealed to the review body and have requested the findings of that review body, but they have been refused that. We live in an era of openness and transparency and it is extremely wrong that these people have not been given the findings of that review. I ask the Minister to ask the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, to instruct An Post to issue those findings to these voluntary groups that have worked extremely hard.

I call Deputies Jackie Cahill and Marc MacSharry on the same issue.

In September An Post was before the Oireachtas communications committee and it gave a commitment on that day that where post offices were closed in villages and towns, if there was an alternative business willing to take on the business of An Post, it would sit down and discuss that with the business. This is not happening. In Littleton, Clogheen, Templetuohy and other villages where post offices are closing, we have businesspeople willing to take on the services but An Post is refusing to engage.

I did not know the Minister would be deputising for the Taoiseach today and it is very good that he is. Deputy Scanlon mentioned page 48 of the programme for Government. I am beginning to wonder if that page is missing from the Government's copy of the particular programme because it gives this wonderful array of issues and resources and activities that will be provided in post offices throughout the country. A couple of weeks ago we passed a motion in the House to reverse the retrograde step by An Post, as negotiated with a private trade union, to close 159 post offices. I was wondering, as the Government is about to set out on a review of the activities of the last few years, with half an eye on an extension to the confidence and supply agreement, will the Minister and his colleague, the Taoiseach, demonstrate their commitment, if any, to the democratic will of this House by making any moves towards reversing that process. Last week I had the opportunity to raise with the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, on a Topical Issue-----

Thank you, Deputy.

I am just finishing. This is very important. I raised with him the fact the review process that An Post is following, in particular for Ballinfull post office, a catchment area within which the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, owns a home-----

Thank you, Deputy. Everybody else's item is very important as well. I ask you to conclude.

-----was flawed to the point that the decision was taken to close that post office four days before the submission was put in. I am sure that, as Minister for Justice and Equality, he could not stand over a process that was as shabby and disrespectful to the people as that one.

The announcement in respect of post offices was made by An Post, not the Government. An Post has given a commitment that there will be a post office in every community of over 500 people and within 15 km-----

That is not true.

-----which is 95% of the rural population, and also within 3 km of the urban population. I am sure everybody in this House will agree the post office network is in need of modernisation and that we need to both maintain and protect a service that meets the needs of communities. I have not yet been speaking to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, but I am sure that, at an early stage, he will be in a position to address the House fully on the Government's plan in respect of rural post offices and the Government's relationship with An Post. I remind Deputies, in particular Deputy MacSharry, that this was a decision taken by An Post following the agreement which was reached between the Irish Postmasters Union executive and An Post.

They do not speak for communities; we speak for communities. Will the Minister be saying next that SIPTU and Irish Water have decided to cut off the water in Sligo? Is that what is going to happen next? Who is driving the bus?

Will you contain yourself, please, Deputy MacSharry?

I remind Deputy MacSharry there is an appeals process which his constituents in Ballinfull and others might wish to engage with.

I have just told the Minister it is flawed. The Minister has his own summer house in Ballinfull.

They will not give them the findings of the review. That is the problem. They should do that.

Order, please. I call Deputy Willie O'Dea.

Among the many wonderful things promised in the programme for Government is, at page 7, improved delivery of services. In that context, is the Government aware of the plight of people who are either in receipt of, or applying for, illness benefit at present? Many of those people have had their illness benefit suddenly reduced. I got a text in the last five minutes from somebody who got €33 this week instead of the €198 they were entitled to get. Some are now paid intermittently and, in some cases, payment has stopped completely. Nobody can get through to the relevant section of the Department, including me.

I have had a number of calls from senior officials in the Department of Social Protection itself, not to mention from community welfare officers, CWOs, who have told me they are frustrated with the lack of response to tens of thousands of the most vulnerable people in the country. I questioned the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection in the House a couple of weeks ago in regard to the change of forms, and she assured me everything was under control and about to return to normal. It has not returned to normal; it has got far worse. Can the Minister tell me what the Government is going to do about delivering an adequate service to these most vulnerable citizens?

I call Deputy Michael Moynihan on the same matter.

I would like to support my colleague. The process has ground to a halt. There is no contact with the Department, good, bad or indifferent. The information I have is that there was some change in computer systems during the summer. No illness benefit payments are being made and people are being told to go to their CWO. Illness benefit is a contributions based system. To go through the CWO takes weeks and people are being left without money.

I understand, and Deputies will be aware of the fact, there is a challenge regarding the modernisation of the payment arrangements. I assure Deputies whose constituency offices may have queries on this issue that the old forms in respect of illness benefit will still be accepted and discussions are ongoing on the matter of the new software systems which have been put in place. The object of the exercise is to enhance the process, and that will happen. I very much regret there is something of a delay in respect of that transition period but every effort is being made to reach a resolution.

Sam Bailey is an eight year old boy who lives in Rathcoole. This week Sam is in hospital in Crumlin. Glen Farrelly is 16 years of age. He lives in Clondalkin. Sam and Glen and 20 other children suffer with spinal muscular atrophy, which is a degenerative condition. Their parents are without hope at the moment. They are looking at their children with a condition that, week on week, month on month, is getting worse. For anybody in this House who has ever had a child in a serious condition, they will know that the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness is undescribable.

I raise this issue here today because those parents cannot do it themselves. I have raised it before, as have other Deputies, and I have heard the official response. I reiterate the point. The programme for Government in regard to new drugs, in particular, Spinraza, which is the hope for these children, commits to engaging with European countries to make these types of drugs available. The problem is we have evaluated it here and the evaluation system has not made it available-----

Thank you, Deputy.

I will finish on this because it is an important point. The evaluation process has not made it available here in Ireland, yet it is available in many European countries such as France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. My question is this. There is a small group of people who need this and need it urgently. Their condition is deteriorating. Will the Minister for Health look at a new access programme or have a review of the evaluation process? These children need a response soon.

I thank the Deputy. This question has been raised by Deputies from all sides of the House numerous times recently. I know the cohort of people is very small. It is very frustrating because we would all like to see the process concluded as speedily as possible. However, as the Deputy will be aware, this process is governed by legislation, the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013, which was decided by this House. It is not a political decision to decide what drugs are prescribed, although I am not suggesting the Deputy is unaware of that. It is a very prescribed process under the HSE and the drugs procurement agency, which both have a role to play. As I understand it, we expect the senior team in the HSE to make a decision. As the Deputy knows, it was not approved at the initial attempt.

It is a difficult balance to get right when dealing with multibillion euro drug companies which are coming to the Government and effectively charging what they want. We cannot say "Yes" because if we can get a better price for this drug, and if it is approved, then we can see so many more people treated. As with any other drug, there are cost efficiencies and clinical evidence to be considered. The process is at an acute stage. We, as public representatives, can continue to make the case to have it done but we also have to allow the independence of that process, as set out in the legislation of the House.

While I understand there is a willingness to progress the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016, its year of publication indicates that it has been around for some time at this stage. In the meantime, the general directive on data protection has been introduced and people seeking to trace parents tell me the directive is being presented as a further obstacle. They have faced enough challenges in trying to trace people. Will the proposed legislation address this matter and how soon will it be advanced?

On the same matter, I note the condemnation of Tusla in the Charleton report. In light of that condemnation, does the Government agree that it should no longer be considered necessary to have social worker led adoption information and tracing? This requirement is part of what causes delays. Will the Government proceed to complete the introduction of adoption and tracing legislation to give adopted people access as of right to their own files and information? We are not asking for anyone else's files; we are asking as a matter of human rights for access to our own files. Mr. Justice Charleton's condemnation of Tusla speaks to this issue in that Governments have, unfortunately, been advised to allow social workers to dominate this area and that is what is causing the delay.

As a former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I retain a keen interest in this issue and acknowledge the expertise and input of Deputy Burton and others in the area. I note to Deputy Aindrias Moynihan that the Bill is before the Seanad on Committee Stage. It is a priority Bill of the Minister, Deputy Zappone. I hope the Business Committee of the Seanad and all parties directly involved can determine how to progress the matter between now and the end of the year.

Over recent years, Ireland has experienced an explosion in the number of bluefin tuna feeding in our waters during annual migration, but Irish fishermen have no commercial quota to target this valuable species. In fact, they must actively avoid catching these fish while fishermen from France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Malta and Cyprus are allowed a catch allowance. Quotas for bluefin in European waters are set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, ICCAT. This year, the authorisation was given to 1,088 vessels and the EU quota has been set at 15,850 tonnes, of which Ireland has been allocated zero. Denmark, which had no commercial quota like Ireland, has now applied for quota. Has the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine made the same request to the EU or ICCAT on Ireland's behalf?

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter. As the Deputy says, the species is the subject matter of a quota and of international negotiations between the EU and other interested parties. The State pursues its interest in consultation with the various fish producer organisations, including the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation Limited. The Deputy is correct to state that we do not have a quota as we prioritise other species.

The programme for Government states in relation to crime that the Government will invest in CCTV. While I understand that there are difficulties with data protection and so on, where are we with this process? It is going to be a vital tool in fighting crime. Will the Minister provide the House with an update on CCTV and how he intends to proceed? It needs to be tackled and we need to make progress.

I was very pleased to announce a fund of €1 million to assist communities to provide CCTV cameras in their localities. I acknowledge the take-up on the part of communities nationally of that funding. I encourage more communities to become involved because the funds have not yet been exhausted. There are a number of preconditions to engagement given the sensitive information that will be kept on film and the sensitive aspects of the endeavour. I encourage communities to engage with local crime prevention officers, local authorities and local joint policing committees on this. There are a number of challenges from a data protection perspective, but the Department and I are available to engage with local communities to ensure the regulations are complied with in full.

As far back as 2013, the Government introduced the Gambling Control Bill. Earlier this year, Fianna Fáil introduced the Gambling Control Bill 2018. Yesterday, what happened in the UK regarding a £2.2 million penalty package for social responsibility and money laundering failures on its gambling exchange were widely reported. I ask the Government to imagine the number of cases in Ireland. Where exactly are we in bringing forward a gambling regulator for Ireland and can we have a definite timeline in that regard?

I dealt with this matter extensively during Question Time and I know the Deputy is very interested in it, as we all are. Since 2013, there have been severe technological and other changes in this area and the Government has had to review matters. I chaired five meetings of the interdepartmental group on this issue up to June and a report is being prepared for Government, which I expect will be available very shortly. As soon as that is ready, I will be able to report to the House as to where we are going. We are committed to establishing an independent regulator rather than an office as was first envisaged in the 2013 scheme. It is also a major difference having regard to the Bill Fianna Fáil brought forward.

I call Deputy Brassil. I ask Members to be brief as I am trying to get everyone in.

The much-anticipated greyhound Bill has been promised for many years. What stage is it at and when can we expect to see it finalised and in place?

The Greyhound Racing Bill 2018 was recently approved by the Government and I expect it to be introduced in the Seanad shortly.

On Wednesday last, many Members from both Houses stood outside the gates of Leinster House to pay their respects to the late Emma Mhic Mhathúna who lost her battle against cervical cancer. The Scally report made 50 recommendations. What timeframe is envisaged for the implementation of those recommendations? Was money allocated in budget 2019 to ensure the recommendations are implemented?

This matter was approved by Cabinet yesterday and I expect the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, will take some weeks to engage further. The timeframe is that he will revert to Cabinet in November to advise on the next steps. I acknowledge the urgency and importance of this issue.

Page 20 of the programme for Government refers to housing affordability. Ireland has the highest mortgage rate for first-time buyers in the eurozone. Our average rate is 3.15% as opposed to the eurozone average of 1.77%. This is a particularly frustrating and ludicrous interest rate because it means Irish people pay €157 more than the average European mortgage payer. That can equate to €60,000 over the life of a 30 year mortgage. Under the influence of Fianna Fáil, an affordable housing scheme was announced in the budget. I want this to be teased out further and I ask the Minister whether it would make more sense to provide a benefit through tax relief to keep the interest rate near the average eurozone level rather than to see the money end up in the pockets of builders, which is a concern.

I announced during the budget last week that we were carrying out an assessment of the current Rebuilding Ireland home loan to see how it is working for people nationally. This loan has a fixed rate of interest over its lifetime of between 2% and 2.25%, which does not exist among the banks. It is an innovative product. I am aware, however, of inconsistency in its application throughout the country. We are also considering whether it can be applied to things it was previously not permitted to apply it to, including vacant buildings in town centres. That work is taking place and it will help to provide affordable mortgages and loans for people throughout the country.

The second thing we are doing is with the serviced sites fund. In the budget, we agreed to invest more money in an affordable scheme which I implemented and commenced earlier this year to get more affordable homes from the scheme to be sold at a price that is 40% below the market price. Those are the two main affordability measures which came forward in last week's budget.

At what point is the Parental Leave (Amendment) Bill? It must be signed into law. Will the Minister advise the House on the timeframe for the matter to conclude? There are parents on whom it will have an impact if it is not presented shortly.

It is in the Seanad and under deliberation there. I do not have a schedule of forthcoming Seanad business but I would be happy to have someone in the Seanad contact the Deputy as to when it might next be ordered.

Like the Ceann Comhairle, we are all always very complimentary of the great people working in the different sections. Over the past ten days, however, the illness benefit section has been uncontactable. Until yesterday, the phones had not even been ringing. Today they are ringing but the issue is that no one is answering and there are no replies to emails. I have raised this with the Minister-----

The matter has been raised.

Sorry. I had to leave for a minute. It is a very serious situation.

It has been covered, but in view of what Deputy Michael Healy-Rae has said about representations made this morning, I would be happy to convey his comments directly to the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, in the hope that everyone in need of an appropriate level of contact can receive it.

There has been a proposal in recent days that a tribunal be established to deal with the cases of women affected by the CervicalCheck controversy and which lives up to what the Taoiseach promised, and that the cases be dealt with through mediation and not in the courts. I understand that those affected have given a cautious welcome to the Meenan report. Has the Government signed off on this proposal to have a tribunal? If so, when will the legislation required to establish such a tribunal be brought before the Dáil, given the urgency of the matter?

I acknowledge the welcome that has been given not only by Government but also by Members of this House and people outside it to this person-centred way forward. It will be fast and effective. I cannot say for definite when the legislation will be brought forward. The Minister, Deputy Harris, is engaging across other Departments. It is his aim to have a further initiative in the form of a recommendation to Government within four weeks. I am sure he would be happy to keep the House fully informed of developments over that period. I acknowledge the importance of the report and the work of Mr. Justice Charles Meenan in this regard.

That concludes our elongated questions on promised legislation.