Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

The programme for Government reads: "We support the expansion of Local Drug Taskforce projects". Funding was cut in the years up to 2014 and has remained at the same level since. As the Taoiseach knows, the task forces are funded by the Department of Health and the HSE, the budgets of which have increased significantly in that period. However, the same has not applied to the core funding of the drug task forces. The drug and alcohol task forces are well overdue an increase in core funding to support their existing programmes and projects, as well as emerging needs. Deputy Curran recently questioned the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne. In her reply she stated: "Although we did not have a great deal of success in getting money via the budget, we have received more funding in the past couple of weeks. I intend to look into how to use that money in the next couple of weeks..." Deputy Curran who has responsibility for this area on our behalf and others in the field are anxious and clear that core funding must be increased. Therefore, the money mentioned should go towards meeting the core funding needs of the task forces involved.

That is a matter for the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne. There was an increase in funding for social inclusion and addiction services provided for in budget 2019. The increases are provided for in the budget and the Revised Estimates Volume. The Minister of State will examine the matter and make a determination on how best to spend the money.

The programme for Government commits to introducing measures to ensure the more efficient and timely recruitment of nurses. However, the HSE continues to pay hundreds of millions of euro in employing temporary agency staff. Last year saw the largest increase in spending on agency staff since 2014, up €26 million to a staggering €318 million. Since 2011, when Fine Gael took office, the Government has spent almost €2 billion on temporary staff to fill gaps in staffing because it has continuously failed to address the recruitment and retention crisis. Agency staff were originally intended to plug temporary and short-term gaps in rostering, but the figures prove that, far from being temporary, there is now a reliance on agency staff in the health service. Some hospitals' dependency on agency staff is significant. There is a figure of €9 million at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda; €10 million at the Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise; and €11 million at University Hospital Limerick.

The Deputy's time is up.

The Minister cannot plead ignorance or shirk blame. What plan is in place to end this misuse of taxpayers' money?

I do not agree that it is a misuse of taxpayers' money. The amount spent last year by the public health service on agency staff was €300 million. It is a lot of money, but it represents 4% of payroll in the health service.

What is another €300 million?

Agency staff are often used to cover for staff on sick leave and maternity leave and overtime. Often, it is our own staff who work in agencies who are working overtime. Notwithstanding the fact that there was an increase in staff numbers in the health service last year, with an extra 800 nurses and midwives being recruited, there was a 20% increase in the spend on agency staff. Therefore, this idea that there is a connection between the number of staff we have and agency staff is incorrect.

The Government has promised to advance the Judicial Council Bill 2017 to establish a new judicial council to promote high standards of conduct and investigate accusations of wrongdoing by judges. The Council of Europe has stated the lack of such a body is a major flaw in Ireland's judicial system and many judges have also called for one to be established. We now have a Bill, but it has been on the Seanad Order Paper for two years. The last time I raised this matter the Taoiseach stated it was because of delays in dealing with the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill, but it cannot be true that the 40 Bills in the Department of Justice and Equality cannot progress because one Bill is taking up a great deal of time. No Department could operate on that basis. Will the Minister for Justice and Equality clarify when we will see the Judicial Council Bill which is needed? Will he allow it to progress in parallel with other Bills? It is not unusual for more than one Bill from a Department to be before the Houses. The Minister could bring it to the Dáil if he does not want to bring it to the Seanad. It is important legislation and we are subject to international criticism for not having such a body.

The Deputy mentioned earlier that he was a long-standing Member of the House. I am sure he knows the practice and procedure not only of this House but also of the Upper House. I cannot allow legislation to be passed or processed. I am subject to the rules of the Houses. I am also subject to the Business Committee.

Bring the Bill here.

I share with Deputy Howlin a keenness and anxiety to progress the Judicial Council Bill. I spent more than two hours in the Seanad last evening discussing the judicial appointsment Bill.

The Minister is now an honorary Senator.

I am due to be in the Seanad again at 3 p.m. to debate the same Bill.

Give the Minister a medal.

I spend a significant amount of my time in the Seanad taking its business. This House is restricted in the manner in which it can comment on business in the other House, but I will say there are some amendments to the Judicial Council Bill that I have at an advanced stage and that I intend to publish shortly. I hope the Seanad will facilitate an early debate of the Bill.

I have told the Deputies the reason.

Last night I spoke to Vera Twomey, a woman whose daughter, Ava, suffers from the extremely debilitating Dravet's syndrome. More than anyone in the country, Vera has brought to public notice the urgent need to provide access to medicinal cannabis for people with such conditions. Incredibly and despite the Taoiseach's promises to introduce a medicinal cannabis access programme, Vera still has to travel to Holland on a regular basis. When she went there recently, there was not a sufficient amount available to give her a three-month supply; therefore, she will have to return in three weeks' time with an ill daughter, her family and so on. She goes back and forward every few weeks because the Government has failed to put in place an access programme for medicinal cannabis to enable people like Vera and Ava to get it from their pharmacies. Is this promise ever going to be delivered on for the people who need to access it?

I understand the Netherlands permits the export of cannabis dried herb, but it does not permit the commercial export of oil-based cannabis formulations, which is why we cannot import them. Dutch law does not allow us to do so. However, departmental officials are continuing to work intensively to find a supply of appropriate quality assured cannabis products for Irish patients.

They have had extensive recent discussions with both our Danish and UK counterparts and are now in contact with a number of potential suppliers. The discussions may take some time to produce a result.

I wrote to the Taoiseach on 19 January about a very distressing television advertisement sponsored by the Road Safety Authority. I sympathise with the loved ones of anyone who has died or anyone who has been injured in a road accident, but several families are very annoyed about the advertisement. Thousands have signed petitions to try to have it removed. In fairness, the Taoiseach has provided me with a response today by way of a letter which states this is a matter for the Road Safety Authority. Who is in charge? I wrote to Ms Murdock in the Road Safety Authority twice, but she has not replied. I wrote to the Minister, Deputy Ross. He, too, has not replied. The Taoiseach is the man in charge. We need to do something about the advertisement which is not suitable for viewing on television. It is also carried on radio and Facebook and families cannot go to the cinema without seeing it. There are two sides to every story, but the advertisement is offensive in the extreme. The Road Safety Authority must have some respect for families and victims. Those who have lost loved ones are annoyed by the advertisement.

I call Deputy O'Keeffe to raise the same matter.

I also wrote to the Ms Moyadh Murdoch in the Road Safety Authority to express my concern about the format of the advertisement that is being carried on the airwaves. The alarm bells were ringing even prior to it being shown on television. During the week prior to Christmas a news item on "Crimecall" portrayed what was coming down the road on the issue as being of a personalised nature. I am becoming concerned about the Road Safety Authority. I have great respect for Ms Murdoch, but I am concerned about the manner in which appointments are being made to the board of the authority. If the Minister, Deputy Ross, continues with the line up of appointments being made, he will turn the Road Safety Authority into a vigilante organisation. I am concerned that it is moving in that direction. Will the Taoiseach intercede and ask the authority to rejig the advertisement?

Much as I would like to be involved, I am not really involved in deciding which advertisements should be shown on television and which should not.

(Interruptions).

I have received Deputy Mattie McGrath's correspondence which I have passed on to the Road Safety Authority. I have asked that it reply to him directly.

Is that all the Taoiseach can do?

It is. The Deputy should read the legislation.

I was discussing the issue of post offices with my colleague Deputy Eamon Scanlon. We have lost six in my constituency of Meath East. The Taoiseach also needs to know about the uproar in the town of Gurteen in County Sligo where my wife is from at the closure of its post office and the devastation being inflicted on the local community. It is still attracting hundreds of people to meetings. Many people live in the village. It something which An Post states incorrectly, which is outrageous. I pay tribute to Deputy Scanlon in his hard fight on this issue, but we now need the Government to state the post office should remain open. Apart from the six post offices that have been closed in my constituency, An Post has promised a new post office in Kentstown, County Meath, but there has been no word about it since last August.

I attended a meeting in the village of Gurteen at 6 p.m. last Sunday evening, to which 450 people turned up. The post office in the village is being closed and it is the wrong decision. To use An Post's protocol, Mr. David McRedmond stated on RTÉ radio that where there was a population of 500 people, the post office would not close. An Post is using the 2016 census figures which are three years old in the case of this post office and on that basis is going to close it. As I said, it is the wrong decision as it is a very busy post office that would survive. Rural Deputies ask in the House for support for rural people, rural areas and villages. We are now in this position. The pensioners who collect their pension payments in Gurteen, County Sligo will now have to make a journey of 14 km to collect them. As many of them do not have a car, they will have to pay somebody to bring them there and back. Five post offices in the area have already been closed. I know that some have to close as they are not viable, but this one is. To add insult to injury, An Post officials arrived yesterday and put up a brand new sign on the post office, which is due to close in eight days. I ask the Taoiseach to talk to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to see what can be done because this decision is wrong.

The last time Fianna Fáil was in government nearly 1,000 post offices were closed across the country.

(Interruptions).

The situation is the same as it was then. Governments do not decide which post offices should be closed. It is not a Government decision, but there are post offices that are not viable.

They do not have enough business or footfall to be sustainable. There is a system in place to allow decisions on closures to be reviewed if the post offices are viable.

Five post offices in the area have already been closed.

I have a question for the Minister for Justice and Equality. In the middle of January Mr. Brian McCarthy from Killarney was imprisoned for alleged contempt of court because he was occupying a building that was being repossessed by Bank of Ireland. He disputed this and has continuously been trying to obtain a writ of habeas corpus-----

We cannot become involved in court cases.

This has to do with justice. The man in question has been trying to have a writ of habeas corpus issued to challenge his detention for contempt of court, but to date he has been denied it. There is an obligation on the Minister for Justice and Equality to ensure the writ of habeas corpus will be issued in order that the man in question can have his case heard.

We cannot encroach on areas pertinent to the courts. We certainly cannot encroach-----

It is a matter of false imprisonment.

-----or comment on a case currently before the courts. That would be highly inappropriate and cannot be done. I will not be calling the Minister for Justice and Equality who, even if I did call him, could not reply on it.

I do not have the details of the case.

I will give the Minister the details afterwards.

Yesterday the issue of additional lairage for livestock at ports, particularly Calais, was raised, but my question is wider. What efforts are being made to ensure Irish hauliers, goods and trucks that will be entering or exiting EU ports will be given priority over hauliers, goods and trucks from non-EU states post-Brexit, thus limiting or mitigating concerns, particularly those of the Irish Road Haulage Association and its members, about delays in carrying on trade within EU member states?

I call Deputies Michael and Danny Healy-Rae to raise the same matter.

Deputy Breathnach is after catching me on the hop. When he raised the issue of exports, I thought he was going to speak about the pressure we were under in trying to fulfil beef contracts with China. The factories are not doing anything to assist in that respect. I call on the Government and the Minister-----

That is a different matter. It is not about lairage.

No, but Deputy Breathnach spoke initially about exports. To be honest-----

I mentioned imports and exports.

Will the Ceann Comhairle indulge me in raising the issue of beef exports to China? Currently, there are 11 meat plants, six for beef and five for pigmeat. Will the Taoiseach ensure more plants are opened to enable us to fulfil our obligations and enable hard-pressed farmers to send their beef to China?

A Ceann Comhairle-----

No, Deputy; the issue being raised is not the same as the previous one which was related to lairage.

I hope I will be called soon.

The Deputy is on the list.

On the issue of haulage, what we trying to achieve in securing ratification of the withdrawal agreement is a transition period to the end of 2020 during which nothing will change at ports. However, in a no-deal scenario lorries going from Ireland to an EU port will enter just as they do now, but those that will use the landbridge and travel through the United Kingdom may face difficulty. I am not sure if it will be possible for receiving ports on continental Europe to make a distinction between lorries from the United Kingdom and those from Ireland, but it is something we are examining.

What about our beef exports to China?

Is the Deputy asking me to open factories?

I am asking the Taoiseach to ensure more factories and plants will be opened to process beef in order that farmers will be able to send it to China to fulfil contracts. The factories are monopolising and not allowing beef to be exported to China.

Does the Taoiseach have a response on that matter?

It is a matter for the factories, but we are available to assist in any way we can.

Yesterday the Taoiseach chided members of the Opposition for indicating that capital projects might be delayed as a result of the total mismanagement by the Government of the national children's hospital project.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about comments made in a radio interview in County Donegal by his Cabinet Minister, Deputy Joe McHugh, where he indicated that a number of community hospital projects would be delayed as a result of the national children's hospital mismanagement, namely projects at Carndonagh, Ramelton, St. Joseph's and Lifford community hospitals. Can the Taoiseach clarify today whether the Minister, Deputy McHugh, is correct that those projects will be delayed, or if the position has changed with regard to those areas?

I did not hear the Minister's remarks so I cannot really comment on them. None of those projects is being deferred or delayed as a result of the consequences of the escalating costs of the national children's hospital. They may well be delayed for other reasons but not one euro has been taken from the budget for community nursing units for the children's hospital.

Last week the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Michael Ring, announced more than €60 million for rural communities in the rural regeneration and development fund. When the Taoiseach launched the fund last year he said that it would provide investment and support for rural renewal for suitable projects in towns and villages with a population of less than 10,000. Some of the recipients of last week's funding were Coillte, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and LEADER groups. These groups have their own funds and are now getting millions from this fund, which is a change from when the guidelines were first published. My constituency, Cork South-West got zero funds in last week's announcement - not one brown cent - in spite of Cork County Council putting forward 48 projects from many of those areas. I spoke with some of the organisations over the weekend throughout west Cork which had applied and they are staggered at the zero return for the whole of west Cork. One of the projects that ticked all of the boxes but got zero funding was the Schull Community Harbour Development Company. It has proposed a project for a marina in Schull and it was put forward by the council. It is a category one, shovel-ready project that would have guaranteed year round jobs in a rural community that is starved for jobs. Why did west Cork, which is one of the most rural constituencies in Ireland, get zero funding in last week's announcement?

The announcement last week was very welcome. It was €60 million for rural Ireland and the projects that got going were projects that went through a process with a review group. If there were particular projects submitted by the county councils that did not get funding or onto the list they will get feedback as to where their applications were not up to the standard. Applicants may be able to address that in the next round.

That was promised to them the last time and they did not get it this time in Cork South-West. Not one brown cent. We are forgotten people in Cork South-West.

Please Deputy.

I am sorry, Ceann Comhairle, but it is an outrage.

The Deputy is certainly not forgotten in this House.

Under the spring legislative programme, which includes the mental health (amendment) Bill, the Bill was first listed by the Government in autumn 2017, which states that work is progressing. In 2018 it said that draft heads of the Bill were in preparation. It is now 2019 and the status of the Bill is still the same. Will the Taoiseach commit to a deadline for publication of the Bill, will he give a timeline for the work ahead and will he confirm that the Committee on Future of Mental Health Care will also be re-established?

I understand that the heads of Bill are currently being drafted but they will have to be sent to the Mental Health Commission, which will be consulted. This may cause a delay.

With regard to the committee-----

The protection of farmers' incomes featured strongly in the programme for Government. Farmers' incomes, however, are now at a new low. The price for sucklers and beef is at a new low. Can the Taoiseach explain why beef or cattle make more in the North of Ireland or on mainland England while at the same time we are being told that beef is coming into Germany and Italy in return for those countries being allowed to sell cars in Argentina and Brazil? Is the beef coming in from South America and is it competing with our Irish farmers? What is wrong that the price of beef is so low in the 26 counties? What is happening? There is only a ditch between us and the North of Ireland.

Can the Taoiseach reply on the price of beef?

Seeing as he does not eat it.

I am not responsible for the price of beef but I do know that the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, will be in Kerry on Monday and he will meet with the farm organisations on these issues.

One of the commitments in A Programme for a Partnership Government, on page 58 to be specific, is to reduce emergency department overcrowding. Yesterday there were 512 people on trolleys across the State. Of those, 69 were on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick. Will the Taoiseach tell the House when the new 60 bed unit, promised as a result of the reorganisation of accident and emergency services in the mid west, is going to materialise? Is it yet another project that will be put on the long finger, delayed or cancelled as a result of the children's hospital fiasco or for other reasons?

The number of patients on trolleys this morning was 326. That is a 20% reduction on this time last year. We know from January that the numbers were at their lowest for maybe three years. It looks like it may be the same for February's figures. Due to the actions taken by Government overcrowding is, thankfully, going down although nobody is denying for a second that it is far too high. Those actions include additional bed capacity and investment in primary care. I gave an answer to Deputy McDonald on that particular project yesterday.

A man came into my office yesterday who has been on the council's housing waiting list for more than nine years. He was offered a house with Louth County Council and later on, after filling in the assessment form, the council phoned him up refusing him the house. The council said that he was over the income limit. This man has a child and he had received a promotion only in the last few weeks. The problem is that in Louth County Council the band two income limit is €30,000. I cannot understand it. If this man had gone through the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, there would be no means test and automatically if a house had become available he would have got it. Instead, his family took him into the family home. Are we going to stop people from going back to work and from getting promotions? What are we supposed to do in these situations? This man has been waiting for nine years for this house and he had the offer. To be fair to Louth County Council it will hold the house for a few days to see what will happen in this case. This man pays €70 for child maintenance. If this was taken into consideration for the means test he would be well under the income limit. I ask the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government please to look at this. This man has waited nearly ten years for this house. What can we do?

I thank the Deputy for the question. I cannot speak to individual cases but I am very sorry this person has been waiting so long for support. In 2018 we supported more than 27,000 families and individuals into new housing supports through the work of Rebuilding Ireland. Some 8,400 of those supports were increases to the social housing stock, with new homes built, acquired or long-term leased. This is having an important impact in reductions to the housing list, which now stands at just over 70,000 people. This is down about 20,000 since the beginning of Rebuilding Ireland. HAP is a great support if it can work but I also know the income eligibility bands for local authorities have not increased since 2011. When the review was done in 2011 an additional amount of money was put in for the coming period. A review is happening currently by the Housing Agency and when we have the results of the income eligibility review it will then be rolled out across the State.

The Government has made great hay out of the announcement to amend the fair deal legislation to make it fairer for farming families but has done little to progress the Bill to make it a reality. When can we expect to see the heads of the Bill? It will take a significant amount of time to pass the legislation. Due to the wait for the Bill there are many farm families, especially the older generation, locked out of access to a nursing home.

The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, is working on that legislation and we expect to have it published this year.

As I represent a very rural constituency I have a very many questions for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, and thus in essence for the Taoiseach. My question today is about accessibility to public transport. There is no bus from west Cork to Cork city with wheelchair accessibility. I have submitted several parliamentary questions and every time I get the answer that 80% of Bus Éireann's fleet is wheelchair accessible. West Cork, unfortunately, comes under the 20%. When will people who live in west Cork and who have a disability be able to get a bus to Cork city?

I cannot give the Deputy a date but recognise that this is a real issue and a point well made. It is very important that people who have a disability are able to use public transport, which is not always the case. I will certainly advise the Minister, Deputy Ross, that the issue was raised in the Camber today and perhaps he will be able to give the Deputy a timeline for those improvements to be made.

With the ongoing spiral in insurance costs, many businesses across the spectrum state they will have to close because they are not able to get insurance cover or operate without it. Many fine words were spoken about a new unit being established within An Garda Síochána for the referral to the Director of Public Prosecutions of false or misleading claims brought before the courts. Has the Government met the Garda Commissioner to discuss the resources needed by An Garda Síochána to ensure the unit will be set up without further delay? While the Minister for Justice and Equality will say it is an operational matter for the Garda, should that give me the impression that the Government is not taking the matter seriously and refusing to take a hands-on approach to dealing with it?

Deputy Moynihan is right that it is an operational matter for An Garda Síochána. However, I assure him and the House that I have raised it with the Garda at the highest level. I acknowledge the ongoing work being done to tackle fraud and fight white collar crime by the Garda National Economic Fraud Unit and assure the Deputy that I will continue to raise these issues with the Garda Commissioner and his team, albeit they are operational issues. The Garda is very conscious of the need to ensure every effort is made to fight fraud.

There is a report in the Ireland edition of The Times today which I did not think could possibly be true. Perhaps the Taoiseach might clarify the position. The position of Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland will become vacant if, as expected, Philip Lane is appointed as chief economist of the European Central Bank on 21 March. It is reported that the name of a former Fine Gael special adviser is being floated in senior political circles as a possible replacement for Mr. Lane. I ask the Taoiseach whether the Central Bank is now to be politicised. Ultimately, it will involve a Government decision following a selection process. Will the Taoiseach clarify whether he intends to appoint Mr. Andrew McDowell to the position of Governor of the Central Bank? What procedure does the Government intend to follow in the selection process?

I record my congratulations to Philip Lane on his pending appointment as chief economist at the European Central Bank.

It is a very important role and Mr. Lane will be one of only six people on the executive board. It is good to have an Irish person among the six key decision makers at the European Central Bank. He was a very good appointment to the Central Bank of Ireland a number of years ago. We have not yet had a chance to decide what procedure will be used to select a new Governor of the Central Bank. I anticipate that there will be a proper process involving an advertisement in order that people can apply for the job and that there will be a system of interviews, but the procedure to be used has not yet been decided.

That concludes questions on promised legislation. Seven Deputies were not reached.