Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Foreign Policy

I am thankful this Topical Issue matter has been selected for discussion because this issue has been ongoing for a while in international foreign affairs. It has not, however, been aired at all in this House.

The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, will be aware that the disgraced President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, was re-elected for a six-year term in May 2018. The opposition parties boycotted the election. At the time the European Union described the presidential and regional polls as having gone ahead without a national agreement on an electoral calendar and complying with the minimum international standards for a credible process, in not respecting political pluralism, democracy, transparency and the rule of law. It reiterated recently that the presidential elections in Venezuela last May had not been free, fair or credible and lacked democratic legitimacy. It also stated the country urgently needed a government that truly represented the will of the Venezuelan people. My party and I subscribe to that statement. Mr. Maduro's socialist policies and those of his predecessors are supported by the Sinn Féin Party. Many Irish people were completely disgusted by the stance taken by that party when it sent representatives to the recent presidential inauguration in Venezuela to cheer on and fete the now discredited Nicolás Maduro.

The muzzling of parliamentary democracy and the economic policies introduced have brought the once middle income country to the brink of collapse. There is hyper inflation and shortages of medicines and food. Venezuela is also now a security basket case, with rioting on the streets. The country is disintegrating before the eyes of the international community. There is, however, a viable alternative in Juan Guaidó who has now been subjected to sanctions. It is only right and proper that the international community has responded with an expression of support and solidarity for him.

It is notable which countries have declared their positions on the situation in Venezuela. The countries supporting Nicolás Maduro include Russia, China, Cuba and Bolivia. We have, unfortunately, seen a pretty slow response from the European Union and the Government. We only received the Government's response at 12.30 p.m. today. Why did it take it so long to take a definitive position on the situation in Venezuela? I ask because we have seen what is clearly an abject breakdown of law and order and any form of decent rule by civil society. The Government should be called out for being so slow in its response. It is particularly the case given that some of our major partners in the European Union, including France and Germany, have taken the lead in stating a position on Venezuela. Others within the European Union, of course, have sat on the fence. I am referring to Belgium, Finland and Sweden. As a result, there has been a disjointed and disconnected approach by the European Union. I ask the Minister of State to address the reason the Government took so long to come to a stated position on such a corrupt regime. If fresh elections are not forthcoming, what further action will the European Union take? What position will Ireland take within the European Union in advocating for and seeking fresh open, free and transparent elections? That is the key to resolving the issue. Has the Government taken any decision or had any discussion on providing humanitarian aid for the people of Venezuela?

Germany recently pledged €5 million when Angela Merkel announced Germany's position in support of Juan Guaidó. Will the Government definitively outline its position on humanitarian aid?

In summary, why did it take the Government so long to arrive at its position? What will we do to ensure that there will be fair, free and transparent elections? What is the position on humanitarian aid?

I should address some of the points that Deputy Niall Collins raised. Elections in Venezuela are normally held in December but in December 2017 and January 2018 there were talks between the government and the opposition in Venezuela. The opposition insisted on the election being held in early summer and the government caved in and agreed. The opposition was warned by the Americans that it should boycott the election, that it should not stand and that it had other plans. The opposition boycotted the elections. That is their idea of democracy. I would not blame Deputy Collins for not knowing Mr. Guaidó's name, given that 80% of Venezuelans did not know him either six months ago. It is not "Gwee-doh" but "Gwy-doh".

We should put matters in perspective. Since 1904, when Theodore Roosevelt declared the US's right to exercise an international police power in Latin America, the US has successfully intervened more than 40 times in Latin American elections. That is 40 times in 100 years of elections. We should acknowledge the role that a century of US-backed military coups, corporate plundering and neoliberal sapping of resources has played in the poverty, instability and violence that drive people in Latin America towards Mexico and the United States border. For decades, US policies of military intervention and economic neoliberalism have undermined democracy and stability in the region. What the US has done to those lands is horrific. In the Caribbean alone, the US physically intervened 30 times in the first three decades of the 20th century. It has wreaked havoc on the place.

It is gas to think that today there is serious instability in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador because they are experiencing a growing militarisation and neoliberal policies through various initiatives, mostly sponsored by the US Government and the US private sector. They have stolen much of the land to use as banana plantations by American-owned companies and run millions of people out of their land in the region, many of whom end up on the Mexican-US border, trying to make new lives somewhere else after their lives have been destroyed.

Do people realise that Mike Pence phoned Juan Guaidó on 22 January? The next day, Guaidó appointed himself President of Venezuela. The US, which advised the opposition to boycott the election, wants a coup to be organised to get rid of Maduro. What does that have to do with democracy? I do not think Maduro is a wonderful fella who is doing a great job in Venezuela, but I would leave it to the Venezuelans to get rid of him. It is clear he is only a shadow of the man that Chávez was. It should be up to the Venezuelans. We should stop meddling and we should not promote other people meddling. People talk about democracy but they ignore the number of countries, leaders and dictators that the Americans prop up. The US supplies military assistance to 73% of the world's dictators, yet it is worried about Maduro. It is worried about him because it does not like that he does not have an open-door policy to American capitalism and financial imperialism.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. It has an abundance of other natural resources, such as gold, bauxite and coltan, but many of the resources in the hands of the Maduro government are not easily accessible to US and transnational corporations. Much of the oil industry was nationalised in 1973 and it is quite obvious that the latest coup attempt - let us remember it is not the first or the only one - has been done to get the US's hands on Venezuelan oil.

I felt sick listening to the points that Deputy Niall Collins made. It is not true that none of the opposition took part in the elections. Some did and some recognised its fairness after all. One cannot whinge about elections not being fair while supporting as an alternative somebody who assumed a position and who could not be bothered standing in an election but came along at the behest of the US puppet masters and decided he would be president. For the recent Irish presidential election of Michael D. Higgins, the turnout was 43% whereas in Venezuela, it was 46%. If I say Michael D. does not have a mandate and I will be the President, do we want Donald Trump to support that over the heads of the Irish people? Where are the Venezuelan people? They are on the streets in their millions saying, "Yankees, go home" and "Hands off Venezuela". They have seen it before in Chile and in the interventions in Syria and so on. I am sickened to the pit of my being by the issue. It will be a game-changer if it is allowed to go ahead.

When we were first elected, I remember the former Deputy, Ms Lucinda Creighton, standing in the Chamber and telling us to support the initiative of our European pals in the bombing of Libya. She said it was for democracy and that it would make matters better for Libyans. Look at the state of that country now. Many people have been killed and the society is a basket case in utter disarray. We have visited Iraq and seen the aftermath of the slaughter during the intervention there. We have visited Syria twice in the past number of years and seen the outcome of the intervention there. Will we please stop meddling in the business of other countries?

I note that Deputy Collins did not say anything about the Italians, the Greeks or the people who have stood by the elected Government of Venezuela and said, "back off." They will not recognise the imposter Guaidó. There are significant problems with the Venezuelan economy - there are significant problems with our economy - but Venezuela managed to build 2 million social houses last year and, therefore, it is doing some things right. The cause of those problems, however, is the sanctions imposed by the West.

A recent report by the UN special rapporteur, who is the first person to undertake such a project in Venezuela in 21 years, was very clear about what he saw in Venezuela last year. He said the sanctions are illegal and that they could amount to crimes against humanity under international law. This is the former Secretary General of the United Nations Human Rights Council and an expert in international law. The orchestrated sanctions are killing people and have put pressure on the economy, forced people to emigrate, caused a run on medicines, caused all the economic problems and interfered with the currency, and they were orchestrated to weaken the leadership, which the US attempted and failed to do under Chávez and which it is now attempting to do under Maduro. If we were truly neutral, we would stand in Europe and tell the US to back off and keep out. We should take a leaf from the Greeks and the Italians, rather than slavishly following the rest of Europe. It is an appalling situation.

I apologise on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, who is unable to attend because he is abroad.

The Government continues to be deeply concerned by the political, economic, social and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. The crisis continues to have a grave impact on the Venezuelan people and has resulted in mass migration, affecting countries in the region and overall regional stability. The human impact of the crisis is particularly distressing. The UN estimates that more than 3 million people, approximately one tenth of the entire population, have left the country and the acute humanitarian needs within the country are well known, particularly in respect of the shortages in access to medicine and significant increases in malaria, infant and maternal mortality and acute malnutrition.

On 10 January, President Maduro started a new mandate on the basis of non-democratic elections held in May 2018.

Ireland was not represented at the inauguration and fully supported the related declaration by European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini which urged President Maduro to release all political prisoners; to uphold the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms; and to urgently address the needs of the population. Ireland, alongside our EU partners, has repeatedly called on the Venezuelan Government to engage in dialogue with the opposition, respect the electoral calendar and fully restore the country’s democratic institutions. It is regrettable that the Venezuelan Government has not heeded the calls for fresh presidential elections in accordance with internationally recognised democratic standards and the Venezuelan constitutional order.

Ireland fully supports the most recent EU 28 statement made by High Representative Federica Mogherini on 26 January which reiterates that a peaceful and inclusive democratic solution is the only sustainable way from the current crisis. It reaffirms the full support of the European Union of the democratically elected national assembly. It indicated that if no announcement of fresh elections was made in the intervening days, the European Union would take further actions, including on the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership. In the absence of such an announcement, Ireland has joined other EU member states in acknowledging and supporting Mr. Juan Guaidó, President of the democratically elected national assembly, as President ad interim of Venezuela in order for him to call for free, fair and democratic presidential elections. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has today announced that he intends to speak to Mr. Guaidó to communicate our position.

Ireland is committed to finding ways to foster shared democratic solutions that can bring political stability and address the pressing needs of the Venezuelan people, including by increasing EU humanitarian support. A credible, meaningful dialogue leading to an inclusive democratic solution is the most effective way of achieving a peaceful and sustainable resolution of the current crisis in Venezuela. Ireland also supports the remarks made by High Representative Federica Mogherini following the informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Bucharest on 31 January, including those regarding further EU actions to increase humanitarian support and consider additional targeted sanctions. High Representative Mogherini also took the opportunity to announce the establishment by the European Union of an international contact group, ICG, for Venezuela. Ireland, while not seeking membership, welcomes its establishment and believes it will be a useful vehicle for facilitating dialogue in working towards a democratic solution. I look forward to the report on the first meeting of the ICG to be held in Montevideo this Thursday.

I welcome the high priority given to the issue by the European Union and the regular consultations at the highest levels on developments on the ground. Ireland will remain in close contact with our EU partners to consider next steps for co-ordinated EU action.

As the Minister of State did not really address the questions I raised, I would appreciate it if he addressed them in his supplementary reply. What a load of balderdash we heard from Deputies Wallace and Clare Daly. They want to have it every way. They want to be against everybody and for nobody. We stand for the Venezuelan people. The Deputies are happy to see the political and civil chaos and upheaval, while saying we are hypocrites and they are right. However, they are as bad as Sinn Féin. Law, order and civil society are breaking down in Venezuela. We have stated we should support the interim presidency of Mr. Juan Guaidó, while calling for fresh elections in order that the Venezuelan people can make a decision. The elections should be fair, open and transparent. One cannot be against everybody and everything, while being for nothing. I have not heard any credible solution coming from Deputies Wallace and Clare Daly; they just want to bring forward competing agendas, which is fine.

Why did it take the Government so long to come to this position? What will the European Union do and what will Ireland's position be if we do not see open and transparent elections in the foreseeable future, which is what the Venezuelan people want? Will the Minister of State give some commitment to provide humanitarian aid?

I am sorry that the Tánaiste eventually gave in to pressure from the Americans, but we will see how it develops. In 2015 the former American President, Barack Obama, introduced sanctions against the Maduro Government. They were designed to make the people suffer by depriving them of food and medicine, as well as the Venezuelan Government of money to run the country. It is an ongoing process. If Venezuela is in a difficult position today, it can thank the UN sanctions for it.

What do we want and are we against everything? No, we are not. We are in favour of democracy. The people of Venezuela should be able to decide their own destiny. They should pick a president and not have him or her picked for them by the Americans. If the French President, Mr. Macron, had a row with the US President, Donald Trump, and decided to nominate Mr. Bernie Sanders as President, seeking support for such recognition and calling for immediate elections, it would be unbelievable. The notion that Americans can pull somebody out of a hat as the new President of Venezuela and that Fianna Fáil would go along with it is unbelievable. I do not understand where these people come from. Are they living under a rock?

The Deputy seems to be against the holding of elections.

Did they learn anything from supporting the intervention in Libya?

The Deputy is against the holding of elections.

Did they learn anything from the regime change effort in Syria or the demolition they supported in Afghanistan?

The Deputy is against the holding of elections.

They allowed Shannon Airport to be used in destroying hundreds of thousands of lives in Afghanistan. Will Fianna Fáil ever learn anything? Is it any wonder the Taoiseach is not afraid of that party?

There is something incredibly hypocritical about speaking about undemocratic elections when the same people have no problem at all in having dealings with those who do not even bother masquerading about going through an election. I am speaking about the likes of Mohammed bin Salman and some of the other friends with whom the West has no problem engaging. What are the criteria for democracy, according to the Government? Is it whatever the Americans decide on a certain morning and whoever they decide to back? It is a case of all right Jack; it is good enough for us.

The Venezuelan economy is in a very difficult place. The recent visit by the UN special rapporteur made it clear that modern economic sanctions and blockades were comparable to mediaeval sieges of towns, with the intention of forcing them to surrender. This is about bringing a sovereign country to its knees and the Venezuelan people are suffering as a result. The poorest are out on the streets in their millions standing by their government, despite the existence of major difficulties. What is the solution and what are we for? Venezuelan society is incredibly divided and the opposition, in the main but not exclusively, is a revolt of the rich. As society is divided, there must be negotiations. In order to achieve this properly, the sanctions must be called off. The Venezuelans must be allowed to develop their economy without the blackmail continuing. For us to take part in the undermining of a sovereign nation is a terrible indictment of us, given that, almost in the same breath, we have recently recognised 100 years of parliamentary democracy in Ireland. It is absolutely shocking. Have we learned anything from all the coup attempts in South America and Latin America in recent years? I really hope we will change tack.

I reiterate that Ireland has continuously voiced its support for the democratically elected national assembly, in which Mr. Guaidó was elected President last month. We have also urged Mr. Maduro to fully respect and restore the independence and powers of the national assembly.

Ireland is committed to finding ways to foster shared democratic solutions that bring political stability and address the pressing needs of the Venezuelan people, including by increasing EU humanitarian support. A credible, meaningful dialogue leading to an inclusive democratic solution is the most effective way of achieving a peaceful and sustainable resolution of the current crisis in Venezuela. As I outlined in my original reply, the people of Venezuela are living through this crisis. The recent protests are a demonstration of their demand for a proper democracy. It is imperative that the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are respected. I wholly condemn the use of violence against these protesters by the Venezuelan authorities. I offer my condolences to the families of the victims and call on the authorities to refrain from the inappropriate use of violence against peaceful protesters.

Ireland supports urgent measures to address the humanitarian crisis and reiterates calls for humanitarian actors to be allowed to operate without interference to ensure the utmost is done to mitigate against the grave effects of the crisis and alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people to the greatest extent possible. We will continue to consult closely our EU partners at the highest level on this issue. The days and weeks ahead are crucial for the future of the people of Venezuela, and Ireland, in step with our EU partners, has emphasised the right of the Venezuelan people to choose their future freely. The Tánaiste and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will remain in close contact with their EU counterparts to follow this extraordinary issue.

Respite Care Services Provision

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, for coming to the Chamber to listen to me. I hope he might have some good news for me. There are 55,000 people in Ireland living with dementia. It might be hard to believe but 5,500 of those reside in the counties of Roscommon, Mayo and Galway. That is 10% of the overall figure. It is an extraordinarily high figure, I am sure the Minister of State would agree. The figure for Roscommon alone is 2,000 in a population of 65,000. I do not have the figures for east Galway but they are fairly large too. There is no budget for Alzheimer's sufferers in County Roscommon. I am looking for a commitment that the HSE, and the Government will assist us in this because I am sure the Minister of State would accept that it is of utmost importance. Dementia sufferers enter expensive long-term care when they could continue to live in their community, and we all want that, where possible, with proper supports in place such as day care and home support. There is a unit that could be used at the Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon. The management of the hospital has said it could allow the unit to be used. The fact that we are not in receipt of funds to provide care for Alzheimer's sufferers means that we cannot use that premises. The Western Alzheimers foundation is committed to staffing the service once the funds are allocated. The estimated cost of putting two days' care into the unit at the Sacred Heart Hospital is €40,000 per annum. That is not a big figure. We have co-operation all round. There is the Roscommon-Mayo Alzheimer's group, the management of the Sacred Heart Hospital, and I am sure the HSE would make a goodwill gesture towards this if it can. Will the Minister of State facilitate us and assist the people of County Roscommon, an extraordinarily high number of whom suffer from Alzheimer's?

The strategy was put in place in 2014 for dementia and dementia care. We are five years on from that and it is very hard to accept that there is one county that has no funding for Alzheimer's care. I hope that in his response the Minister of State will tell us that he is able to come on board to assist us and leave us in such a position that we will be able to use that unit at the Sacred Heart Hospital. If that was available for a day care service two days a week, it would be of great benefit and help to the many families throughout the county who have to deal with members of their families who suffer from Alzheimer's. It is a genuine case and cause. In fairness to the Minister of State, when he addresses these issues he does try to assist. I think he will agree that the allocation of money is quite small, at €40,000 per annum, but it would make a massive difference. It would send a clear signal to the people of Roscommon that the Government and the HSE are united behind them and trying to assist them in dealing with this big challenge.

I thank Deputy Eugene Murphy for raising this issue. Many people with dementia are able to live long, fulfilling lives after their diagnosis, and fostering compassionate and inclusive communities can greatly improve the quality of life for persons with dementia and their families. It is Government policy that people should live and receive care in their own homes and communities for as long as possible.

To support future development of services and supports for people with dementia, the National Dementia Office and the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland undertook a joint project in 2016 and 2017 to map dementia-specific community-based services throughout the country. Information from the project is included in an online service finder on the Understand Together website so that people can find out what services are available in each county. In County Roscommon, the HSE provides a psychiatrist of later life, a memory clinic for diagnosis and clinical care, and a memory technology resource room which offers opportunities to learn about and be assessed for assistive technologies, while funding has also been allocated to the Alzheimer's Society of Ireland and Western Alzheimers for a community dementia support nurse and a dementia carers support group.

While there are gaps in access to services and a variation in what services are provided, efforts are ongoing to address this. The National Dementia Office has met senior HSE officials in each community healthcare organisation, CHO, area to highlight service gaps in each area and to provide guidance and support on dementia service planning and development throughout the country. A dementia needs framework has been developed to support existing services. On a national level, as part of the national dementia strategy implementation programme, a range of supports have been introduced to assist people with dementia and their families and carers. Dementia-specific intensive home care packages offer tailored home care to people with dementia with complex needs.

The primary care education, pathways and research project is training general practitioners, GPs, and primary care teams, giving them the skills to diagnose and manage dementia. In excess of €6.26 million has been secured from the Dormant Accounts Fund to offer a range of additional supports. These include diagnostic and post-diagnostic supports, a national dementia training programme for HSE home care staff, and a nationwide network of memory technology resource rooms. A carers' needs assessment will be rolled out in community healthcare west during 2019 and 2020.

In response to Deputy Murphy's specific query, community healthcare west recently met the voluntary provider seeking to provide this additional respite in Roscommon town to discuss the proposal of part of the annual service level agreement, SLA, process. All applications for section 39 grant aid funding will be considered and prioritised based on their application in accordance with the agreed community healthcare west criteria. This prioritisation will determine the allocation of available funding. Community healthcare west has advised that the SLA process is ongoing and will conclude by the end of the month.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply which contains much information. There is limited care afforded to Roscommon people, and this funding is coming from the funding allocated to Mayo, which I think is €90,000 per annum. The Minister of State can correct me if I am wrong. The bit of funding for Roscommon comes out of that. There is a one-day centre in Four Mile House, four or five miles outside Roscommon town. I acknowledge the work done there.

There is now a standing voluntary committee in the area that is committed to setting up a centre. In the interim, this €40,000 is being requested to provide two days' respite, perhaps over weekends, at the day-care centre at Sacred Heart Hospital in Roscommon town. That centre is available and its management is willing to co-operate and assist in the running of this respite service. I acknowledge, as was mentioned in the Minister of State's reply, that negotiations are going on. We hope they will come to a conclusion and will not go on indefinitely. The most important thing for now is to secure that €40,000 per annum. This would be highly significant and a really good gesture to the people in the county. The Minister of State will know, from meeting groups and perhaps from family experience, that it is a massive challenge for people to have a family member suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Many such people can be looked after but the day-care centres are extremely important. Respite is also a comfort and gives families some time and a break from constantly looking after a family member who has Alzheimer's disease 24-7. I hope the Minister of State will be able to use his good offices to see that we get that €40,000 in order to get these two days' respite going, particularly at the weekend, and to help those families.

I confirm again to the Deputy that, as I have outlined and as he has acknowledged, discussions are taking place in respect of the annual service level agreement. These will conclude by the end of the month. I certainly will be happy to pass on the Deputy's representations to the HSE on that front but as the Deputy will appreciate, I cannot prejudge the outcome of the discussion. I know the Deputy is not looking for that but rather is simply requesting my support for the application. He will be updated on the outcome of those negotiations at the end of the month.

Legal Aid

I understand that leave has been given for me to delegate some time to Deputy Pearse Doherty. I am very disappointed that no Minister or Minister of State from the Department of Justice and Equality is here, given the significance of this issue for hundreds of families and the implications it could have, which could include people being put out of their homes.

The phrase "equality of arms" is occasionally used in the context of court cases. It is a central part of a fair trial that there be a fair balance in the opportunities afforded to each of the parties involved in litigation. The changes to the legal aid rules brought in last Friday have absolutely destroyed that balance for families making insolvency applications and who may be facing repossession of their homes. They will make it much easier for banks and vulture funds to repossess homes. People will be left completely to the wolves.

Up until now, people applying for a personal insolvency arrangement, or appealing a bank's refusal to grant one after the veto was removed, could avail of the advice of a solicitor and a barrister. As of last Friday, the Government has removed the debtor's right to have a barrister in court other than in exceptional circumstances and has halved the fees paid to solicitors and personal insolvency practitioners, PIPs. I ask the Minister of State to bear in mind that these are people who, if they are not granted a personal insolvency arrangement, could be on the verge of losing their home. They are people who, by definition, cannot afford their own legal representation. On the other hand, they are taking on banks that have the very best of legal representation available and they are dealing with very complex legislation. The banks will spend €5,000 to €10,000 on each interlocking case. Even in the exceptional circumstances in which a barrister will be given, the fee of €1,200 represents a loss for a barrister. Therefore a person will not be able to get a barrister to take on his or her case.

I will give a brief example before I pause. Just yesterday, the case of Ms Lisa Parkin was decided. The judge approved a personal insolvency arrangement and accepted that the bank had been making a different case on entering the case from that upon which it ended up relying. Had Ms Parkin not had a barrister capable of responding to the bank, which was changing the goalposts in the case, there is every likelihood that she would have lost her home. To that could be added countless more cases which could result in people being out on the street. This is an attempt to disarm the debtor, who may well be fighting repossession.

This is an absolute scandal. We need to call a spade a spade. This is an attack on vulnerable people - people who find themselves insolvent, people who are going through the insolvency process, and people in respect of whose arrangements a PIP has recommended restructuring, which has been blocked by the bank. The Government has now restricted the fees available in such a way as to prevent those individuals enlisting the services of a barrister to fight the banks that are trying to block the arrangements suggested by the PIPs. When these reviews under section 115A of the Personal Insolvency Act 2012 do come before the courts, 65% of debtors are successful. They actually beat the banks. That is probably the core of this change because the Government is in the pockets of the banks, it is on the side of the banks and it is always against the struggling debtors. We see that in a number of the initiatives this Government has brought in. This is scandalous and needs to be reversed. We need a level playing field. We cannot have a situation in which banks march in with teams of barristers and solicitors and in which vulnerable debtors - who, as I have said, usually win in these cases - are allowed to be left in vulnerable positions. I call on the Government to reverse this decision, even at this late stage, and to make sure that there is equality of representation in our courts.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. The Legal Aid Board recently notified some changes to professional fees payable to lawyers and personal insolvency practitioners in cases that are legally aided under Abhaile. I should emphasise these measures do not reduce the protections afforded to borrowers under Abhaile, as has been claimed by the Deputy.

Under section 115A of the Personal Insolvency Act 2012, if creditors refuse a reasonable personal insolvency proposal by a borrower to resolve his or her mortgage arrears, the borrower’s PIP can apply to the court for review. The court has power to impose the proposal on creditors if satisfied that it is fair and reasonable to all parties.

Where legal aid is approved for a court review under Abhaile, the Legal Aid Board pays set fees to the PIP, the solicitor, the junior counsel and, where needed, the senior counsel representing the borrower. Under Abhaile, the Legal Aid Board has already approved legal aid for more than 1,000 court review applications. Some 64% of these were decided in favour of the borrower in the year ending June 2018.

Two reasonable changes have been introduced to the fees for all professionals. First, the full fee will not be payable in undefended cases, that is, where no creditor opposes the court review. Second, personal insolvency cases often involve parallel applications by both partners where a couple has the same home mortgage. In practice, the vast majority of parallel applications are treated by the courts as single cases. There is no reason for taxpayers to cover two full fees in such cases. A full fee will be paid for one spouse and a reduced fee, equal to 10% of the full fee, will be paid for the second spouse in order to represent the actual extra work involved. There is no change to the legal aid fees payable to the PIP and the solicitor for a defended personal insolvency court review.

Barristers’ fixed fees are being reduced, but only to bring them into line with fees payable to them in other areas of civil legal aid where complex legal or procedural issues arise. It is not correct that borrowers will be left without barristers to argue their case.

Barristers will not be approved automatically. In undefended cases, for example, there may be no need for a barrister, but the Legal Aid Board has expressly underlined that counsel will be approved where a creditor is raising legal issues that need to be argued by a barrister or in exceptional circumstances.

The Minister of State has attempted to outline that there are no changes but clearly when we look into the text and the detail there are significant changes. The specific example I gave was based on the case of a husband and wife with interlocking cases, in which the reality is that banks will spend €5,000 to €10,000. What is now being allowed, even in those exceptional circumstances where someone can get a barrister, is €1,200. That is not going to be enough to pay for a barrister. Nobody is going to take that job given the complexity of what is involved. To give the Minister of State an insight into that complexity, section 115 processes are complex. The brief would run from 300 to 500 pages, four or five affidavits and substantial exhibits. There is a substantial body of jurisprudence and one cannot expect a solicitor to do this alone. It should not be only in exceptional cases but as of right. This needs to be reversed.

The long and the short of it is that the Government has moved to cut the amount of support available for struggling homeowners in a case where a bank or vulture fund is blocking a PIP arrangement. It has done so in such a way that no barrister is going to take instructions from a solicitor knowing that the maximum amount payable to him or her is €1,200. Barristers know, because they see it in the courts, that the banks and vulture funds are losing these cases on the basis of the numbers and figures. What the banks and vulture funds are doing now is raising legal technical issues and homeowners will not be represented for that. The Government is literally throwing these debtors to the vultures, which is absolutely no surprise. It is not acceptable. The Minister of State talks about the principle of the Government being to keep families in their homes wherever possible. This is exactly the reverse of that. This is taking away the safety net of legal representation to fight the army of solicitors and barristers who walk into the courts with the banks and vulture funds. They know they are on the wrong side of the argument as has been proven in the past, when 65% of cases were ruled in favour of the borrowers, who have been able to remain in their homes. There is no reason for this to be cancelled.

This comes in the same week as the Government was proclaiming the success of Abhaile. Within a number of days, it pulled the safety net from those using the Abhaile service and has seriously undermined the service as a result.

I acknowledge the Deputy's concerns and wish to ensure that the protections available under Abhaile remain in place. I emphasise that these changes do not undermine the free legal protection afforded to borrowers under Abhaile. Borrowers can still access full financial and legal aid services and help, including legal aid for a personal insolvency court review, without any charge. The Minister has already outlined, when launching the recent Abhaile reports, the priority that he attaches to the good work being done under Abhaile and to ensuring that the personal insolvency review will function effectively. It is emphatically not the case that borrowers will be left without a barrister to argue their case. Most will benefit from a PIP, a solicitor, a junior counsel and, wherever needed, a senior counsel. The Legal Aid Board expressly indicates that counsel will be approved if a creditor is raising legal points that need to be argued by a barrister.

The question was raised that Abhaile does not also provide legal aid for contesting repossession proceedings. This criticism misses the point. Abhaile does not focus on contesting repossession proceedings because in most cases doing so will not help the borrower. As the lender still has an enforceable mortgage contract, it can reissue repossession proceedings as long as there are mortgage arrears. Instead, Abhaile focuses on getting into place an integrated solution to the arrears themselves in order that the borrower can remain in his or her home and return to solvency. This is a far more effective focus for public intervention. It is better for borrowers and for taxpayers. Meanwhile, Abhaile provides court mentors and duty solicitors to assist in ensuring that the repossession proceedings can be adjourned while the borrower is working with Abhaile to get a solution in place.

I do not accept the assertions of the Deputies that we are throwing these people to the vultures. In my constituency of Wexford, I am aware of the important work Abhaile has done, which it will continue to do going into the future.

The Government has just undermined it. There is no justification for this.