Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

The Government announced that the new human papillomavirus, HPV, test - I may have inadvertently called it the "HPV vaccine" earlier - would be available last September, and that the programme relating to it would eventually replace the current programme. Unfortunately, this target was missed and it was then set for January. However, January has come and gone and it has not been announced. There does not appear to be any alternative date yet for the test or the new programme to be available. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health this morning, officials stated that the delay in the roll-out of the new HPV test was due to a decision taken by the Minister and the additional backlog and workload that has resulted. Their focus now is to try to eliminate the backlog. Is this the case? Can the Government give a date for when the new HPV test will be introduced? The officials could not commit to its introduction in the entirety of 2019.

The funding was allocated in the budget and the HSE service plan in order to do it this year, although I appreciate that simply allocating the funding is not the same as making it happen. I am advised that the preparatory work for the switch is under way. Laboratory capacity planning is a key part of this and its finalisation is dependent on the conclusion of contractual arrangements with MedLab and the Coombe. This will allow the programme to determine the required capacity to be procured and will inform the timeline for the switch. Based on that information, it would be wrong of me to provide a date that I cannot necessarily stand over.

The Taoiseach gave a date last September.

I did so in good faith. Having learned from that experience, I am not going to give a date unless I have an assurance from CervicalCheck that the date can be delivered. What I can say is that the funding is provided and is in the service plan and in the budget, and the policy decision to do it is made.

In June of last year, the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board sent a memo to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, outlining the benefits to be gained by the members of that board continuing to serve for another term. In July, the board was informed that the Minister had accepted its memo and had written to the chairperson to confirm that all of the individuals involved were to be reappointed to the board. We now know that the scale and trajectory of the overruns at the national children's hospital were known to the board during that period. We know there was an overrun of €95 million in June, rising to €191 million in August. It is clear from the minutes that the board also had concerns regarding the ability of the main contractor, BAM, to deliver the project. Yet, it appears the Minister reappointed the entire board without question. Did the Minister conduct a performance review of the board members before reappointing all of them? Did he have any details or engagement with the members before he reappointed the entire board or with the project? Did he discuss with the chairperson how the project was running before he reappointed an entire board?

No legislation is promised on this matter. The appointment of that board is not in the programme for Government and all the questions are for the Minister. I suggest that if the Deputy wants to ask questions of the Minister, he will have an opportunity to do so later today.

The Public Service Superannuation (Age of Retirement) Act 2018 allows public servants to continue working up to the age of 70, if they so choose. Community employment, CE, schemes, as the Taoiseach will know, provide essential services across towns, villages and parishes. They are publicly funded and provide employment and retraining opportunities with excellent social outcomes. There are currently 44 CE supervisors aged between 65 and 66. I am aware of one scheme where the supervisor is being made to retire in April. The ad for a replacement for that person has been up for a month, with no applicants or inquiries. Will the Government apply the Act to CE supervisors, given that it has broad support in this House and would allow people to work until they are 70? Will it end the age discrimination that applies to this unique group of people?

That legislation is enacted. As CE supervisors are not public servants, however, they are not covered by the legislation. It is, therefore, up to the employer in each case to decide whether it should be applied.

I see no reason the employer should not, but it is up to the employer to make the decision.

The Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018 is framed around measures arising from the Mahon tribunal, which attempt to eradicate from the political system any hint of corruption, cronyism or favouritism and to bring us up to a clear, transparent standard in politics. The Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPOC, is the body that requires us to adhere to standards and ethics, including financial standards. It found a very serious failure by a Fine Gael councillor in Mayo. He did not reach those standards, yet last weekend the same councillor was nominated to run for the local elections at a convention in Mayo. There is either a gap in the legislation or there is a problem in Fine Gael when someone fails the ethical standards of the State and the party returns him without any question to represent the constituency in Mayo. Councillor Cyril Burke was clearly found by SIPOC to be in breach of the standards of ethics in public office. What does Fine Gael have to say about it? What does the Government have to say about it? More importantly, from a legislative point of view-----

The time is up.

-----can we go back and revisit the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018 to make sure that there are consequences-----

The time is up.

-----for failure to adhere to those standards?

If I recall correctly, there were entire political parties in this House against whom adverse findings were made by SIPOC for not presenting their accounts on time. We are not just talking about accounts. There are no plans for additional legislation in this area.

He failed the ethical standards and yet he has been returned to stand for election.

Deputy Bríd Smith should please not interrupt. I call Deputy Broughan.

Last week we had another brutal assassination on our streets, one of a litany of serious gun crimes that have happened while Deputy Varadkar has been Taoiseach. In this case it involved a person going to work at 6.30 a.m. – one of the people whom the Taoiseach is supposed to admire - who was gunned down in cold blood. Can further legislative or security steps be taken to reach out to manufacturers of guns in the rest of the EU, the US or wherever else? This is a serious event that has traumatised part of my constituency and that of the Minister, Deputy Bruton. Stringent action is required. There are still complaints about the lack of community gardaí. We hear a lot of fine words at committees and in other fora but the situation still arises, following the criticism of Mr. Justice Charleton that An Garda Síochána can be mainly invisible at times. What reaction will there be to this dastardly event?

I assure the Deputy and the House that the Government takes gun crime particularly seriously. I keep in regular contact with An Garda Síochána, which enjoys the full support of this House. That is evidenced by record investment of in excess of €1.7 billion in the force. I assure the Deputy that we keep our legislative programme under review. In the event of there being any tighter legislative initiatives, we would be happy to hear from the Deputy or any other Deputy. These are issues of grave seriousness and I assure the House that every effort is being made by An Garda Síochána to tackle crime.

With all the scandals concerning money for the children's hospital and all the waste on projects and the responses that have been given, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, have made a major attack on health shops with the imposition of the 23% VAT rate on health supplements, including vitamins, which many people need to keep them alive while they wait years and years for treatment. One of the products treats macular degeneration. My colleagues are sending busloads of people to the North for eye surgery. Is the Government going to review the VAT rate? It is a penal rate to apply to small and fledgling businesses that are an important part of the fabric of small and big towns in rural areas. People like health shops and they give good advice and are very helpful to their customers. They have a good relationship with their customers. The Taoiseach had the cheek one day to refer to health products as snake oil. There are enough snakes going around without focusing on health food products. The situation is very serious. The Taoiseach is whispering to the Tánaiste and laughing. Is the Government going to review the savage blow of a 23% VAT rate on small business people and their products?

I call Deputy Butler on the same matter.

I also wish to raise the VAT increase on food supplements from 1 March, as I did last week. MacuShield is taken by many older people for macular degeneration. As my colleague said, the Taoiseach used the term "snake oil" in reference to some supplements. However, various health studies show that many supplements, including MacuShield, are of benefit to many. Will there be an exemption for certain supplements or will they all be subject to this unjust VAT increase?

This is not a Government decision; it is a Revenue determination. A distinction is made between products that are designated and proven as oral medicines, to which a 0% VAT rate applies, and foodstuffs where a higher rate applies.

The Taoiseach is in charge, not the Revenue.

It is a Revenue determination and it is under review.

I do not know whether the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste or the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, is best placed to answer this question. It relates to the proposal to use the Mourne Mountains as a storage area for nuclear waste by the nuclear authorities in the UK. My understanding is that the Scottish Assembly ruled out such deep geological storage of nuclear waste in Scotland but the Northern Ireland Assembly agreed. It is uncertain as to what the parties in government in Northern Ireland have agreed or why they did so. That is one of the details the Government should seek to find out. The State has an interest in the matter under the Espoo Convention and a range of other conventions on transboundary effects. The Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea but they also sweep down to our waters and land. What contacts has the Government had with the UK authorities? What legislative or other measures does it intend to take to protect the people of Louth and the wider area? The material will be there for millennia. What, if anything, is the Government doing about this?

I call Deputy Fitzpatrick on the same matter.

Fear is spreading rapidly in my home county of Louth that the UK Government is considering dumping hazardous waste in the Mourne Mountains on the border of County Louth. We must nip this in the bud straight away. The UK Government radioactive waste management group is currently looking for suitable properties in Northern Ireland to take hazardous waste and the Mourne Mountains are believed to be on the list.

More than anybody else, the Taoiseach realises that Louth has had its fair share of problems due to hazardous waste, as Sellafield is right across the Irish Sea. The proposal is not acceptable. I hope this is not happening because Northern Ireland has no government for the past two years. Currently, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, MP, and civil servants are keeping the Departments operational and even today are looking for more power, including for the appointment of the Northern Ireland Attorney General, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, as well as members of the Commission for Victims and Survivors and the Livestock and Meat Commission. I urge the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to please help County Louth. We had Sellafield for years and the last thing we want is to have hazardous waste in the Mountains of Mourne.

We are aware of this story and are following it closely with some concern. I will meet Karen Bradley later this week and I will raise the issue with her. We need more details on it. I take on board the concern of both colleagues.

Legislation is needed to deal with the illegal use of quad bikes and scramblers on streets and in parks. An Oireachtas committee was set up to address the issue and to make recommendations. This issue has been constantly raised at joint policing committees and in safety forum meetings that I attend. It is clear that it is an issue of significant concern to local communities. It is also clear that the situation is getting progressively worse. There is a feeling of being almost powerless to tackle this endemic problem, which is a source of great frustration for both the local communities and the gardaí on the street. When will the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee be available, as the problem of the illegal use of quad bikes and scramblers is currently making life hell for many of my constituents, and, with summer approaching, the situation will only get worse? There is an urgency about the need to progress the issue and no longer hedge what is needed to deal with this problem.

I broadly share the view of the Deputy. It is an urgent and important matter. I assure him of every effort on the part of the Government and, in particular, my Department, which convened a group of interested stakeholders across a range of Departments and local authorities. I acknowledge receipt of the report and I assure him that it is gaining full attention.

I expect to be in a position to announce further new initiatives very shortly.

One of the main tasks of this Government is the provision of housing. However, one action taken by the Department and the local authorities is the purchase of second-hand houses around our county. This means the local authority is in direct competition with people who wish to purchase a house for themselves. The local authorities and the Department should be building houses for social housing rather than competing with private individuals who are doing their best to purchase a house and put a roof over their heads. Those people are up against competition from the local authorities.

Moreover, there are no loans available from local authorities to renovate a second-hand house. There are no loans of €50,000 or €60,000, the kind of figure that would put a roof over people's heads. I ask the Taoiseach to look at those issues because they affect a lot of people.

Is a loan for the refurbishment of second-hand houses proposed?

There is a scheme.

Rebuilding Ireland.

I may ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to come back with more details, but there is a scheme whereby someone can get a loan to renovate a house and then rent it out to the local authority for social housing. I forget the name of it.

That is different.

That is an urban house.

On the other point, it is open to local authorities to purchase homes for social housing. In some parts of the country it is considerably less expensive for the local authority to buy a home than to build it. In general, however, I agree with the Deputy. We would prefer to see local authorities building houses from scratch or buying them from developers than bidding for second-hand homes, often against people who are trying to buy them for themselves.

Under the programme for Government and the capital investment plan more than €10 million was promised for two major works in Middleton Community Hospital and Youghal Community Hospital. These works were to be completed by 2021. Moneys were also promised for flood relief in east Cork, as well as remedial works on the weir in Fermoy. All these projects may be affected by the €100 million saving that must be found. The Taoiseach will correct me if I am wrong. Were we not promised during the week that we would receive a report on which projects will be affected? Is that report ready? If it is, can we get a copy of it?

I will be very brief because I know Deputies want to get in and get away. On the same issue, we have been told there will be a cut of €3 million in that budget. While significant amounts of money are being spent, we really need to know where those cuts are going to come. As the Taoiseach knows, in my part of the country and right along the River Shannon we have suffered significant flooding, including in areas that were never flooded before. It is crucial for us to know where those cuts are to come and whether they will affect flood relief.

I explained this in the Dáil yesterday and the Minister for Finance outlined exactly which projects are to be deferred. None of the projects raised by the Deputies is to be deferred. Those savings will happen through reprofiling within very large existing budgets.

On page 41 of the programme for Government, under the heading Jobs and Rural Development, it was promised: "As the economy recovers it is essential that the new Government, together with the Oireachtas, puts in place measures to revitalise all of Ireland so that the benefits are felt inside every doorstep and in every community."

The reality is that many businesses are facing many problems and possible closures because of insurance problems. I raised West Cork Secret near Kilbrittain, a hugely popular activity centre in west Cork, with the Taoiseach this time 12 months ago. This centre is a great employer. Last year its insurance went from a couple of thousand euro to €20,000. Worse has now hit it and all activity centres throughout the country, as many activity centres and community-run playgrounds cannot get an insurance quote. When will our Government resolve the insurance crisis that is putting businesses and community groups under enormous pressure in this country?

I obviously cannot comment on the individual circumstances of the particular business the Deputy has mentioned. As a Government we have acknowledged the very high cost of insurance, particularly public liability insurance, for businesses and how it impacts on them. It is a private market, of course, and insurance policy premiums have to match the risk. The Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, has been working very hard on proposals to reduce insurance costs and has seen some good success, with motor insurance costs coming down since 2016 and health insurance stabilising. There will now be a big focus on commercial insurance and public liability insurance.

The Taoiseach's announcement yesterday that the €27 million earmarked for the very important A5 western transport corridor, running all the way from Clontibret in County Monaghan to Derry city, has now been abandoned is another shocking blow to the Border counties. In November 2011, the Government announced that this contribution would be delayed due to austerity. In February 2012, the Government committed to phased development of that project. Now this project is one of the first to be made collateral damage of the Government's overspend on the children's hospital. With Brexit hurtling towards us, the Border counties cannot wait any longer for the A5 western transport corridor. The lack of investment is now definitely hampering the Border counties' potential.

No, I did not say it would be abandoned. I am very committed to the A5 project. I was involved in it when I was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport many years ago and I am very keen to see it start as soon as possible, connecting not just Derry and Donegal but also the Border counties, including the Deputy's county. The reason it is deferred is that the authorities in Northern Ireland have been unable to start the project. We are not going to pay €27 million for a road that has not been started. Once they are ready to start the project we will honour that commitment.

Is the Taoiseach aware of a letter sent recently to three umbrella disability groups asking them to make savings of up to €500,000? If he is aware, can he tell me the rationale behind sending these letters?

I am afraid I am not and I cannot say, but I am sure that the Minister of State with special responsibility for disability issues will know.

I acknowledge the agreement of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, to speak with the Secretary of State on the issue of the waste disposal facility discussed earlier. I also acknowledge the replies to parliamentary questions on the issue today.

My question is addressed to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan. The family of Shane O'Farrell, as we all know, has been calling for a public inquiry. This Dáil fully endorsed such an inquiry in June 2018. Why has the Minister decided to appoint Judge Haughton to carry out a scoping inquiry, rather than granting the wishes of the majority of people in this House and commencing a public inquiry? It is clear a scoping inquiry has limited power and only a fully independent inquiry can deliver answers to the numerous serious concerns and the litany of failures in this case. Would the Minister care to comment on why this is a scoping inquiry rather than what was called for by this Dáil?

I am very keen to ensure progress is reported on this long-outstanding issue in order to provide the O'Farrell family and the community with answers. There is an extensive debate on a motion this afternoon in the Upper House. I would be happy to deal with the matter more comprehensively by way of a Commencement debate attached to the motion. I assure Deputy Breathnach that the scoping exercises under the auspices and guidance of Judge Gerard Haughton will be an important part of ensuring that outstanding questions are answered. I look forward to hearing from Judge Haughton within eight weeks of the date of commencement of his work.

Next Monday community employment, CE, supervisors and assistant supervisors will go on strike. They have been forced to take that action following the Government's continued failure to honour a Labour Court recommendation made in 2008. That recommendation called for an agreed pension scheme to be put in place for those advisers and assistant advisers, funded by the Government. We know the fantastic work done in communities by CE supervisors, assistant supervisors and CE schemes the length and breadth of the State, including in TidyTowns projects and GAA clubs. Since that Labour Court recommendation in 2008, 250 supervisors have retired with no occupational pensions.

During the week, the Department for Employment Affairs and Social Protection issued a letter requesting the names of any supervisors taking part in strike action. That threatening letter is appalling. I use the word "threatening" because it stated that funding of schemes will be reviewed having regard to industrial action taken.

The Deputy's time is up.

This issue can be resolved if the Government sits down with the trades unions, negotiates this issue and-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----honours the Labour Court recommendation of 2008. Will that happen?

I agree with the Deputy that CE schemes are very valuable and that the people who work on them make a significant contribution in their own communities across the country. However, it is important to acknowledge that those employed in CE schemes are not employees of the State and, therefore, the pension arrangements that would apply to employees of the State do not apply in the case of CE schemes. The Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform has outlined the reasoning behind that on more than one occasion.

I know the question has been asked as to when the guidelines for wind farms will be published, which we last had in 2006, but I have an addendum in that regard. When our neighbours across the water sneeze, we get a cold. Not many years ago, when an issue arose about planning for wind farms in my area in north Cork, there was a major campaign at the same time in Britain to call a halt to the building of wind farms on land. That campaign was successful because, first, an abundance of wind farms had been constructed and, second, in terms of supply to the grid, the surplus was such that some wind farm owners had to be paid money to turn them off. My question is for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. In providing the guidelines, will a solution be provided in respect of a cap on the number of wind farms being granted planning permission? That would ensure the fears of other communities could be allayed in respect of pending planning applications.

The position on those guidelines is that they are issued by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. I understand the consultation was delayed because of new provisions relating to noise, which were required to be incorporated into them. I understand also that the Department will shortly enter into consultation on those onshore wind guidelines.

In respect of offshore wind, there is work to develop new legislation in the area of foreshore. In the context of the type of wind energy that will come onto the grid, it is intended that there will be a renewable energy support scheme run by way of auction. That will be technology-neutral so that all forms of renewable energy can compete for the opportunity to supply the grid.

What about the number of wind farms? That is the question I asked.

No cap is being set by Government. The decision on a wind farm is decided by planning application issued under the guidelines the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is revising. No cap is issued by Government in that regard.

Under the new data protection laws that were enacted, an issue came to light last night at a meeting of the community alert group in Kanturk, County Cork regarding the information captured by the closed-circuit television, CCTV cameras, which were installed at considerable expense by the State in communities across the country. The meeting was about deterring crime and allowing people to feel safe in their own homes and communities but it now transpires that there is no home to store that CCTV footage. It cannot be stored with the local authority or the Department of Justice and Equality. The information is not available in a way that would help to ensure the system provides a suitable deterrent to crime for all communities, in particular rural communities. In light of the fact that the Department funded much of the investment in these facilities, they seem to have been futile.

I would be happy to engage on a bilateral basis with the Deputy. There appears to be a form of misinterpretation or misunderstanding as to the operation of the scheme. A number of conditions that must be complied with have been laid down in legislation. I am not sure if the Deputy is adverting to any particular scheme. I suggest he may be but a number of applications have been successfully processed through my Department, and my officials are willing to assist in any way to ensure the conditions of the scheme are fully complied with and understood.

Is there an issue with data protection?

The Minister will engage with the Deputy directly so I think that will get the matter resolved.

The implications for the general data protection regulation, GDPR-----

That concludes questions on promised legislation. All Deputies were reached today. We proceed now to questions to the Taoiseach.