Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

At the very end of my slot on Leaders' Questions, the Taoiseach confirmed that repeat cervical tests would happen and that the Minister for Health informed him about this some weeks ago. Can the Taoiseach indicate how many women will have to have tests repeated? Could he indicate when the women concerned will be contacted by the Department and CervicalCheck? One should bear in mind that the programme covers 230,000 annually and that there are to be 90,000 to 100,000 extra because of the Minister's decision. There is no extra capacity and there are no extra resources. I understand quite a significant number of tests are null and void because of the delay. The backlog is resulting in a delay of six months. The programme is in crisis mode. I asked the Taoiseach a number of questions. They call for an up-front, comprehensive statement from the Minister for Health. In the public interest, he owes it to this House to appear before it to make a comprehensive statement on this issue. I ask the Taoiseach to allow for this.

I thank the Deputy again. I should clarify that I was informed of this through my adviser, who was informed by the Minister for Health. That was a few weeks ago. I understand there are some tests that need to be repeated and that the patients will be informed individually by letter. I believe some have been informed already but I do not know for sure so I will ask the Minister to provide the information that the Deputy requests.

Why was this withheld for so long and kept secret?

The Deputy may not explore that matter.

The Ceann Comhairle knows I asked the Taoiseach a parliamentary question on 15 January.

We cannot discuss that now.

I asked a question on 15 January and it was not replied to. I have complained under the standing order about the decision of the Minister not to reply to the specific questions I asked.

If the Deputy sends me a copy of his complaint, we will have the matter investigated.

There was a deliberate attempt to cover this up. I hope I am wrong.

I have no difficulty in asking the Minister for Health to provide answers to these questions. I do not believe they are unreasonable. I will ask the Minister to provide the answers to the Deputy but obviously not in a way that would compromise anyone's medical information. I am sure the Deputy is not asking for that.

I hope the backbench Deputies who regularly complain to me about not being able to contribute will not keep complaining to me if leaders keep consuming the time.

It is the leaders who are at fault.

This is a serious issue.

Next Wednesday, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, will commence industrial action, and the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, is to follow in February. The Government sits on its hands. Last April, Sinn Féin introduced a motion to the Dáil that was agreed unanimously but the Government has refused to implement its recommendations. It called on the Government to work with unions to draw up a roadmap for full pay equality, with an implementation plan to deliver pay equality within a short timeframe, not the eight years the Government had in mind. Despite this, at the eleventh hour letters are being sent informing patients of cancelled surgeries. It is clear that the Government has failed comprehensively to tackle the recruitment and retention crisis. It refuses to accept pay is an issue and that this needs to be resolved. I ask the Taoiseach to ask the Minister for Health to appear before the Dáil to explain to its Members, who voted last April and set out a series of reasonable, thoughtful steps that the Government might take, why he has ignored the motion agreed by the Dáil and allowed this situation to escalate to the point of industrial action, which we are facing.

I will deal with the matter as it relates to public pay. I will deal with each of the Deputy's contentions in turn. Her first was that the Government has sat on its hands regarding this issue. She will be aware that we had a commitment under the current pay agreement to put in place the Public Service Pay Commission. We honoured that commitment. There was a commitment that this issue would be the first that the commission would examine. That is what happened. The commission then issued a recommendation, which the Government accepted immediately, in the next few days. We made a specific commitment in our budget to honour those commitments. Since then, extensive engagement has taken place between the HSE and the representatives of the nurses. The matter is now very likely to be referred for further engagement in our industrial relations machinery and the Government will play its full role in this process. We have to be conscious, however, of all the other public servants, the tens of thousands of others, to whom we have also made commitments. We have a duty to them just as we have a duty to seek to resolve this issue.

The Deputy's final point was on the effort we made to deal with new entrant pay and determine how the matter could be dealt with. We put in place a comprehensive plan in this regard that was accepted by the leadership of many of the key unions. We are now engaging actively with them to determine whether there are ways in which this issue can now be resolved.

There is a strike on Wednesday. Well done.

My question is also directed to the Minister for Finance. It is just as well because the Taoiseach has obviously had to leave. In the context of budget 2019, one of the tax measures that was not provided for in legislation but that seems to have been sneaked in was a 23% rise in the price of food supplements, which is to come into effect on 1 March. This was not done by way of legislative change, whereby Deputies of this House would have been able to deal with it in the Finance Bill. It was done by way of reinterpretation by the Revenue Commissioners.

The practice of zero-rating vitamins, minerals and fish oil supplements has applied since 1972. This is a very significant issue. There are hundreds of thousands of people across the country dependent on taking vitamins as part of their health regime. Such a fundamental change deserves much better consideration than has occurred. Will the Minister for Finance agree to halt the increase and engage with the stakeholders to determine whether some compromise can be arrived at?

I thank Deputy Howlin for raising this issue. It is one that I am now aware of. As the Deputy fairly acknowledged, this is not an issue that was dealt with in the Finance Bill, nor was it legislated for in the House. It concerns an interpretation of our tax code by the Revenue Commissioners which, as everyone knows, are independent of direction from me. I had been aiming to deal with the matter through the tax advisory group, which publishes papers on topics such as this each summer that allow the Government and stakeholders to explore options to determine how issues can be dealt with. In the case in question, the Revenue Commissioners have now made a decision on the interpretation of the law. I have to accept its right to do so and the consequences of that. In answer to the Deputy's question on whether we will engage with stakeholders on the matter to determine how it can be dealt with, we will do so but I am bound, as Minister for Finance, to abide by the interpretation of the Revenue Commissioners, which I will do.

The Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill is to be considered in the Dáil this afternoon. If passed, it would have the effect of banning the importation of goods produced in Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands already condemned as illegal by both the United Nations and the European Union. It is an important and modest Bill. I want to ask about an issue related to it but that is not covered by it, namely the arms trade between Ireland and Israel in the context of human rights commitments given by the Government in the programme for Government. The Minister will be aware that, since 2005, there have been military imports from Israel to this State worth nearly €15 million.

The time is up.

Military and dual-use hardware worth more than €6 million was sold to Israel since 2011. In the context of 9,000 Palestinians, including more than 2,000 children, having been killed by the Israeli State since 2000, what plans does the Government have, given the human rights commitments, to introduce legislation and deal with this issue?

Trade with third countries outside the European Union is a EU competence, which is why the Government will not support the Bill when it is introduced later today by Fianna Fáil. There is very clear legal advice from the Attorney General and other sources that the Bill is not legally sound. Therefore, we could not support it, even if we wanted to. On trade with Israel-----

The arms trade.

-----as the Deputy seems to suggest, boycotts are not something Ireland can deal with unilaterally. It is an issue we need to discuss at EU level.

I am disappointed that Taoiseach has left as he has agreed to set up a task force for Tipperary town where 5,000 people took to the streets. They intend to do so again in February. It is meant to be an interdepartmental task force. It needs to embrace and collaborate fully with the various groups in the town. Will the Tánaiste ensure the Ministers for Transport, Tourism and Sport and Business, Enterprise and Innovation are involved and that all of the groups in the town which want to engage, be involved and collaborate for the betterment of its people are also involved?

I am very familiar with Tipperary town and understand why local business interests and stakeholders want to see a more co-ordinated approach to its future planning. The Government has committed to assisting in that regard.

Yesterday we learned from our colleague, Deputy Colm Brophy, Chairman of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, that the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Mr. Watt, had refused to come before the committee to speak to it about what is a major project for, considering the massive overspend in the area of health. In particular, we have an interest in the huge overruns in building the national children's hospital. Mr. Watt's Department is responsible for public procurement. I understand other committees of the House are also interested in interviewing the Secretary General. What is the view of the Tánaiste that the most senior civil servant in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is not prepared to speak to the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, which is an important initiative of the Dáil?

I refer the Deputy to the long answer given earlier by the Taoiseach on this issue. He explained that the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform appeared before Oireachtas committees all of the time but that issues related health expenditure were the responsibility of the Accounting Officer with responsibility for health expenditure, the Secretary General of the Department of Health.

In the absence of the Taoiseach, my question is to the Minister, Deputy Bruton. The climate forum held last Friday at Croke Park was very welcome, until the moment everyone present realised that while the Government was stating it wanted to be a champion of dealing with climate change, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment had just issued another frontier oil exploration licence in distant Atlantic waters. The Government cannot do this while in the same breath stating it is a champion of dealing with climate change. Yesterday, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, we had yet another debate on Deputy Bríd Smith's climate emergency Bill. The Government is using amazing Kafkaesque techniques to put the Bill in limbo. There is the amazingly weird technocratic issue of whether there is a report of the committee. Because of the inability to decide, the the Bill is going nowhere, which is a disgraceful abuse of the power of the Parliament to manage legislation. One of the ways to unlock the issue, apart from getting into an incredibly legally dense row about the powers of Parliament, is for the Minister to allow a debate on the fundamental issue of climate change. Are we with the global environmental community in stating we must keep fossil fuels in the ground or will we keep playing on both sides and be hypocritical in what we are doing?

The ordering of business in the Dáil is entirely a matter for it; it not one for which I am accountable. On the wider issue of Deputy Smith's Bill, it is not one I support. The reality is that in any transition to a carbon neutral environment Ireland will have a high dependence on gas. Until the discovery of the Corrib gasfield, we were 90% to 95% dependent on imported gas to support our needs. As a result of the discovery of the Corrib gasfield, this figure has dropped to one third. I must be mindful of the need for energy security in the path to decarbonising the energy environment. I recognise why Deputy Bríd Smith has brought forward the Bill, but I do not believe it is consistent in following the path we need to follow. I am wholly committed to achieving the decarbonisation of the economy along the lines we have committed to following.

Suicide is a desperate sickness that affects the entire country and County Kerry is no different. Parents are losing their children, while children are losing their parents. The services available are just not effective or good enough. We know that before they died people had gone to doctors and hospitals in County Kerry and been sent home with a fistful of tablets. That is not good enough and I am asking for definite action. I am sorry the Minister for Health is not present as there are five Ministers in his Department. If the number who die by suicide were killed on the roads, the roads would be ploughed up and grass seeds spread all over them such that people would have to travel through fields. What I am asking for is proper one to one personal treatment for those who go to doctors or emergency departments and proper facilities.

The Deputy is way over time.

As a parliament, we must get behind this because what is happening in our communities is terrible. Communities and families are being ripped apart by this terrible sickness.

On the same issue, I support Deputy Danny Healy Rae. I have two questions.

The Deputy can only ask one.

Last year the Minister for Health made a commitment to establish a permanent mental health committee. The work done and the reports issue very frank and honest and offered solutions. I reiterate how bad the system is. A total of 70 children under the age of 16 years died by suicide last year. They were schoolgoing and the number excludes 17 and 18 year olds who should have been in school. If, tomorrow, 70 children were to die when a school bus overturned on the M8, it would be mentioned in every newspaper. When I see nodding heads here, I become angrier and angrier and I am sure it can be heard in my voice. The days for talking are over. We have to start to take people's lives seriously. The people who have been left behind have been torn asunder. There are no excuses for it. It affects people in schools and sports clubs. It is across the board. I appeal to the Government, for Christ's sake, let us get real and listen to the people affected. We speak about the health service and overspends. Who will staff the services? We cannot even get staff for CAMHS today. It is an absolute disgrace.

I recognise that youth mental health, in particular, presents a significant challenge for many families and young people and that the ultimate consequence of death by suicide and the impact it has on loved ones are extraordinary. We have all worked with families who have found themselves in that tragic situation and the Government is taking it seriously.

Then make a commitment to do something about it.

We are not just talking about it. We are increasing resources significantly. I will ask the Minister for Health to come back to the two Deputies concerned on the provision of supports in their geographical areas.

On page 53 of the programme for Government it is stated the Government recognises the value of rural transport and will examine how best to improve rural bus network services in regions. Over Christmas and new year period hundreds of people vented their fury to me at how the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, had been allowed by the Government, supported by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, to freely inflict almost complete lack of movement in rural Ireland without any rural-proofing of the effects it could have, or an examination of how a proper transport service could be put in place to counter such a mess that could lead to the loss of thousands of jobs in the pub and tourism industries and to allow hard-working people to come and go on a night out, something now they cannot do.

Thousands of young drivers are now not allowed to drive unless accompanied by the holder of a full licence. That is another piece of work by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, without any measures set in place. Young people in west Cork are waiting six months for driving tests. How can the Government reverse the mess being made for so many of these people in rural Ireland?

I will point out a number of things. The ministerial management board met yesterday in the Department. Rural transport issues were again to the fore. Many issues were discussed, such as the extension of the Nitelink bus service. That is a recent decision. The Department is also exploring how we can best serve rural communities further with alternative and newer types of rural transport. These matters are under consideration in the Department.

It is important that information is available for people awaiting driving tests and who need a driving licence for work or for college. I advise Deputy Collins, or any other Deputy approached by members of the public seeking a test, to contact the Road Safety Authority, RSA. There are numerous cancellations every week and there are vacancies. If somebody needs a test at short notice, that avenue exists. The rationale behind the legislation on unaccompanied drivers was that, statistically, such drivers were far more likely to be involved in a fatal accident and the cause of that accident.

We have had that debate already and the time is up. I call Deputy Michael Healy-Rae.

We all know that the Tánaiste and many other Ministers were very embarrassed at the Taoiseach's gaffe last week with regard to trying to stop people eating beef. I also want to raise-----

(Interruptions).

That is misleading the Dáil.

I also want to talk about-----

That is fake news.

Can I go on or is "The Muppet Show" going to continue across the way?

The Taoiseach did say it.

There is a lot at stake here.

(Interruptions).

I want to raise the proposed VAT increase on food supplements. I know it was discussed here earlier but the Member who raised it was not aware that in December I went through the official channels and raised this matter with the Taoiseach. He said there was no increase coming. Think about the total anomaly here. Our Government is trying to hurt our beef industry on the one hand and then at the same time it is telling people they should be eating healthier foods. The VAT on these health food supplements is increasing from 0% to 23% in March. This is going to devastate an industry. We are encouraging people to lead healthier lives while at the same time we are increasing the VAT on the food we are telling them to eat. For God's sake, will the Government try to get this right? There is no way in the world that the rate of VAT should be allowed to go from 0% to 23%. It is totally wrong.

Does the Government want to starve us altogether?

Please, Deputies. I call the Tánaiste.

I know the Tánaiste is embarrassed.

There is no fear of the Deputy starving. I am very familiar with the food industry and the issue of food supplements is important. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has responded on this issue in some detail already today. This is a matter of interpretation by the Revenue Commissioners. The Minister has indicated he will ask that this issue be looked at and recommendations will come to the Government by the summer. On the broader beef issue, this Government has been, continues to be and always will be, as long as my party is involved in a Government in Ireland, supportive of the agricultural sector. The beef industry is an important part of that.

Tell that to the Taoiseach.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae misled the Dáil earlier. The Taoiseach did not say he was giving up beef. He, like any other person-----

He said that he was going to reduce it.

-----can make personal choices in respect of diet and health.

(Interruptions).

This Government remains a very strong and solid supporter of the agrifood industry and the beef industry.

I thank the Tánaiste and I call Deputy O'Dea.

When can we expect to see the legislation to extend jobseeker's and parental benefit to the self-employed? Will the Tánaiste also explain the Government's U-turn on extending unpaid parental leave? The Government initially supported legislation to do that proposed by Deputy Shortall. There is no cost involved for the State but now, at the last minute, as the legislation is about to complete its passage through the Houses, the Government has decided to oppose it.

Legislation for jobseeker's benefit for the self-employed and paid parental leave is being drafted. I expect to bring the legislation to Cabinet during the next couple of weeks or months. Those pieces of legislation, however, need to be passed by the Houses, probably before the summer or September, because we anticipate both of the schemes going live and being active in quarter 4 of this year. On the-----

The extension of unpaid parental leave.

On the second issue raised by Deputy O'Dea, on proposed parental leave, that matter is on the Order Paper of the Upper House. In accordance with long-standing tradition and conventions, it would be inappropriate for this House to discuss it. I understand there are ongoing issues that are the subject of discussions between the parties in the Seanad.

A Programme for a Partnership Government has commitments on disability services, particularly in respect of children with intellectual disabilities. I raise the situation in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 9 covering Dublin north city and county. I refer to the early intervention team, early intervention services and access to multidisciplinary teams provided by Beechpark Services and St. Michael's House. There is a waiting time of 27 months for these services, which involve children seeing psychologists, speech and language therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, paediatricians, social workers, educationalists etc.

There are complex problems in that part of the city. There is also an increase in the number of children and a resultant increase in the numbers presenting, as well as those presenting with complex needs. Parents are at their wits' end. In some cases, children are receiving no services at all. I refer to children with autism and other forms of intellectual disability. Will the Tánaiste ask the HSE and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to fill the positions for all of these roles I outlined and to provide these services for the children and their parents? They very much need them at this time.

As I am sure Deputy Haughey will expect, I will have to ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to respond to him with the detail of that particular matter. I will ask him to do so directly with Deputy Haughey.

The leaving certificate examination is very important for students. The examinations are a stepping stone to college placements for many students. One young student, Ms Rhona Butler, who is no relation although I know the family, was in the middle of her examinations during the summer when, unfortunately, her 50 year old mother, Margaret, died of cancer. Ms Butler had to sit her leaving certificate business exam 12 hours after her mother passed away. I am sure this is not an isolated incident and it happens throughout the country.

I am calling for a reasonable accommodation scheme for students who find themselves in this position. If Ms Butler had not sat her examination that morning, she would have had to wait for another 12 months. Examinations are stressful enough, but losing a parent during the examination makes it even more difficult. Some form of bereavement process must be put in place. A student who loses a parent during the examination process should have the opportunity to resit the examination two to four weeks later at some examination centre in the country.

This is a tragic case with tragic circumstances. I know that and it is sensitive. My understanding is that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, made contact with the individual and the family concerned. He has agreed to look at this issue so we can respond in a compassionate way in cases like this.

A Programme for a Partnership Government, on protecting local services, states that one of the biggest challenges facing rural Ireland is to bridge the digital divide with urban areas. It is also stated that to remedy this situation for the next 25 years is to guarantee the delivery of next generation broadband in every household and business. We all know that is not happening. That is a major issue in my own county and in my constituency of Roscommon-Galway. We have heard announcement after announcement and yet nothing has happened. When can we expect an announcement on the roll-out of the national broadband scheme? I ask that because it is so important for many towns in my constituency. Very progressive work is being done by community groups but they are being held back because we cannot deliver broadband. It is essential that we do that. Is there an update for me today?

We had a considerable debate on this last night when all parties contributed. The Government recognises the importance of this issue.

Indeed, it is a central plank in the programme for Government that we would seek to deliver high-speed broadband to every home in the country. That is an ambitious target. As a result of the initiatives we have taken, we have seen an increase in private sector participation. However, 23% of our community can only get access through a national broadband initiative, which is a non-commercial initiative supported by the State.

A submission of a final tender was made in September. However, because of the nature of the development of that tender, there is considerable due process to be undertaken to make sure that I can bring this forward to the Government. That work is continuing. There is no unnecessary delay occurring but it is a complex issue and we need to get it right, as Deputies confirmed last night.

There are four Deputies remaining. I will give them each 30 seconds and block the four questions.

I want to raise the issue of residents in private nursing homes who have full medical cards but who are being made to pay for medicines which are free of charge to their fellow citizens who live ordinarily in the community. These residents are not being provided with basics such as wound management products free of charge. They are forced to pay for physiotherapy and occupational therapy, as well as speech and language therapy. When their family members raise concerns and objections to the charges, they are told quite bluntly that there are other service providers if they do not like the rules.

Thank you, Deputy.

Elderly citizens with full medical cards have the exact same entitlements whether they live at home or in a nursing home under the fair deal scheme. This is blatant discrimination. Can nursing home contracts supersede the law, the rights and the entitlements of these residents in private nursing homes?

Please, Deputy.

What will the Government do to stop this blatant discrimination? It is disgraceful and it has been going on for quite some time.

Over the weekend, John Horan and Tom Ryan, the GAA president and director general, announced a 33% increase for match tickets for Allianz national football league divisions 1 and 2, Allianz national hurling league divisions 1A and 1B, as well as an increase for all-Ireland semi-final and final matches.

This will cause much hardship for people, as the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, well knows. I am concerned how this will affect old age pensioners. They will experience a hike of almost €5 a week for attending these matches which will take away the €5 given to them in the last budget. What does the Government intend to do about it? Does it intend to make representations to the GAA to ensure that the games would be affordable for people?

When the Taoiseach was Minister for Health, he signed a statutory instrument which provided that pharmacy students in their final year must do an eight-month unpaid work placement. Are there any plans to remove this provision?

The rural walks scheme gives rural communities a great opportunity to develop tourism in their own areas. We have seen walks such as the Ó Súileabháin Bhéara way coming through Cork and on up through the country. Other communities want to develop walks on old railway lines, such as those in Muskerry. People in Muskerry have developed the walk but are locked out of the rural walks scheme and cannot get paid for maintaining their walks. Similarly, others in Coachford and Crossbarry want to develop walks along the old railways.

When we raised this matter with the Minister last year, he said a review of the scheme was being conducted. It has not started, however. To get the scheme up and running, the review needs to be completed. Has it got under way? When will people be able to make applications for the rural walking scheme again?

On the question of residents in nursing homes with medical cards having to pay for products which otherwise they would be able to access for free, that would seem to be a contractual and management issue for the nursing homes concerned. I will follow up on that. It is the first I have heard of it.

They have their entitlements.

The GAA has made it clear that it is a body which makes decisions independently of the Government. The ticket price increase is a matter for the GAA to answer.

The statutory instrument concerning final year pharmacy students is a policy decision for the Minister for Health. I will pass on the question to him. It is not a decision for the Taoiseach at this stage.

I do not have a timeline for the review of the rural walks scheme. Cork County Council, however, has been proactive in facilitating greenways, cycleways and walks. I will endeavour to come back with a timeline for the review.