Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

We are all shocked and appalled that there have been three gangland murders over the last eight days. Clearly, these drug gangs have no respect for human life or for the communities in which they live, given the risk that so many people faced yesterday. This involved someone driving into a housing estate in Coolock in broad daylight at 3.30 p.m. to assassinate a man who was visiting the family of a man who had been murdered last week. There are families with children who are afraid to walk the streets in these areas in Dublin, Drogheda and elsewhere.

Heroin use is still a major problem but cocaine use has gone up by 32% on 2017 and its use has doubled in the last six years. Is the Taoiseach satisfied legislatively the programme for Government gives the additional capacity to the State to deal with this indiscriminate murder rampage by gangs involved in criminal activity? In particular-----

The Deputy's time is up.

I regard my primary obligation as Minister for Justice is to ensure that our criminal justice code is robust by way of legislation. I keep matters under review. I share the Deputy's concern on organised and gangland crime. I am in constant contact with the Garda authorities. The Taoiseach spoke earlier about the unprecedented level of resources.

I would be happy to engage with the Deputy or his party. I have a good record as far as that is concerned. I am really keen to ensure that we have a robust response to what is a very serious challenge.

I call Deputy Cullinane.

May I come in on that issue?

No, the Deputy may not. I am sorry. He is on my list and I will get to him.

I wish to ask the Minister for Health about the commitment in the programme for Government to reduce the average waiting times for appointments, procedures and diagnostic tests across the health service. Last week, I tabled a parliamentary question regarding waiting times for child supports in the south east. The reply seemed to state that the average wait time in Waterford for a child occupational therapist is seven years. For Carlow-Kilkenny and south Tipperary, it appears to be ten years. The figures I received indicate that the average wait time for a child speech and language therapist in 2018 was 204 months in Carlow-Kilkenny and 223 months in south Tipperary. The average wait time for a child occupational therapist was 122 months in Carlow-Kilkenny, 122 months in south Tipperary and 84 months in Waterford. There is a dire shortage of child psychologists across the State. This is having an impact. In my constituency office yesterday, we saw five families of children with complex needs who were in need of supports. Can the Minister clarify the replies that I received to my parliamentary questions? I find them astounding and want to know if the figures are accurate.

I am sorry, I do not have those numbers in front of me. I will inform the Minister for Health and the Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues that the Deputy raised them and I will ask them to send him a written reply. The programme for Government commitment, as I recall, refers not just to diagnostics and therapies but also to much-needed operations and procedures. I can inform the House that the number of people waiting more than three months for an operation or procedure is 10,000 lower than it was this time last year. The number is also down 2,000 in the past month. Comparing today with July 2017, the number of people waiting more than 12 weeks to have their cataracts operated on is down from 8,000 to less than 4,000. The number of those waiting for a camera test or scope is down from 28,000 to 14,000. The number of those waiting for hips or knees to be replaced is down from 2,500 to 1,500.

They are all going to the North.

The number of those waiting to have their tonsils removed is down from 2,500 to 727. The number of those waiting for an angiogram is down from 1,940 to 803. Comparing July 2017 with today, there has been a reduction of approximately 50% in people waiting more than 12 weeks.

The question was about speech and language therapists.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about Friday, when the country's first ever national 24-hour ambulance strike is due to take place. Originally, the strike was due to last ten hours but it will now be for 24. What contingency plans are in place? Thus far, the HSE legal team has been dealing with the legal team of the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, strikers, and has not been engaging directly with the strikers. Is the Taoiseach going to ask the Minister to step in or is this a deliberate tactic to undermine the union? Is the Government willing to endanger lives rather than deal with the strikers face to face in order to put a contingency plan in place?

The HSE has not responded to three invitations from the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, to have discussions about this dispute. It seems the Government would prefer to see about €250,000 paid to a legal team to engage indirectly. On the Taoiseach's head be it that the first ever strike of this nature is going to proceed and that there has been no direct engagement with the workers involved to put contingency plans in place.

This is an industrial relations matter. The Deputy knows how industrial relations work in the State. There is no direct Government involvement.

Of course there is.

Pull the other one.

It is managed through management, the WRC and the Labour Court. My understanding is that this is largely an inter-union dispute and that one union is going on strike while the other three are not. I am confident that the HSE will put in place the necessary contingency plans.

The HSE engaged with the nurses.

I heard mention earlier of the €1.7 billion in funding for the Garda. Clonmel, County Tipperary, has one of the smallest contingents of gardaí in the country. The contingent is less than half the size of that in Kilkenny. Clonmel is a big town under the guidance of Superintendent Willie Leahy. Extra officers are needed. There is also a severe shortage of cars. I do not know if it is cyclical or whether it is due to the fact that squad cars are only allowed to clock up a certain mileage, but gardaí are being obliged to use their own vehicles or to hire vehicles. This is appalling. The Minister mentioned that there is to be a new fleet but there is something wrong with the way the cars are allocated. The gardaí in Clonmel do not have vehicles at present. It is robbing Peter to pay Paul. The officers in question are working in Dickensian conditions in Clonmel Garda station. Right through Tipperary, there is a shortage of gardaí. They do a good job and I support them. We need them but they require resources. Above all, they need vehicles. I do not know if we are ever going to see a new Garda station in Clonmel.

The Deputy has raised three issues pertaining to his constituency. As far as Clonmel Garda station is concerned, the new Garda headquarters for Clonmel is part of a public-private partnership, PPP, project. I expect that development will be commencing there later in the year.

On Garda numbers, as we have already heard, there are in excess of 14,000 gardaí on the force. I expect to visit the Minister's constituency next week to welcome a further 200 gardaí, many of whom will be sent to stations in Tipperary.

As Members will be aware, I do not direct the Garda Commissioner as to the number of officers deployed to various areas. Places such as Tipperary are constantly under review.

As far as vehicles are concerned, this year 300 new Garda vehicles, some of which will be assigned to Tipperary, are due to be rolled out.

I am sure Deputy Mattie McGrath will be happy with the promotion the Minister has given him.

The Minister for Health has stated in the House on a number of occasions that negotiation and discussion is the priority rather than workers having to take strike action. The ambulance medics are going back out again on Friday for a 24-hour strike. They have been out three times already and have engaged in two protests outside the Dáil, yet this matter has still not been resolved. These people have a human right to join the union of their choice. On the contingency plans, for the previous three days of action the workers came up with the contingency plan, not the HSE. It is absolutely outrageous that this is happening. I would like the Minister to intervene.

Deputy Haughey is next.

Deputy Broughan has indicated.

Yesterday, I raised the series of brutal assassinations in my constituency and in nearby Fingal in recent months. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, as always, was helpful but the Minister for Justice and Equality was not present. I wanted to ask the Minister about Garda overtime. Is there a problem in that regard? Have there been cuts? Are there sufficient personnel to police what is effectively an emergency situation? Is the 2006 Act - the McDowell Act - infirm in some regards in respect of combating gangland crime and gang leaders? Do we need to urgently revisit the legislation? This morning, the Minister mentioned on the radio that he will be liaising with other stakeholders on whatever resources were needed. I presume these would include Dublin City Council and local community bodies.

On the same issue, does the Taoiseach accept that the citizens of Kilmore West, Darndale and north Dublin are entitled to go about their daily business without the threat of being caught up in the crossfire? It is quite extraordinary that, to date, innocent people have not been caught up in the rampant shootings that are taking place. Obviously, it is a question of providing more resources and more Garda personnel in that area. Is the Minister satisfied that the Garda has the expertise to deal with gangland crime and the feuds that are taking place throughout the city and the country? Would he agree that there is a need for investment in these communities in north Dublin, in Kilmore West and Darndale, including investment in employment, education, youth and community services? There are great organisations like Northside Partnership, the Dublin North East Drugs and Alcohol Task Force, the Kilmore youth project, and the City of Dublin Youth Service Board. What is needed is a whole-of-Government approach and a targeted response designed to deal with this problem.

In the past few days there have been three killings, two of which occurred in my constituency of Coolock and Darndale, just a few miles north of this building. I am from Darndale.

I grew up there and it is correct to state that great people live in Darndale. The people of Darndale, Kilmore and Coolock feel they are being ignored. They feel that resources are going elsewhere. Will the Taoiseach explain why Garda numbers in Coolock went in one direction, namely, down, between 2011 and 2017? Will he explain why the number of gardaí assigned to the local anti-drugs unit has plummeted by one third? Will he also explain why Garda vehicles are not being replaced quickly enough? The lack of support for those communities and for the gardaí working there is unacceptable. This matter needs to be addressed.

I assure the community in north-east Dublin that every effort will be made to pursue vigorously those responsible for lawlessness and criminality in the area. I was in touch with the Garda Commissioner this morning because I am keen to ensure that those responsible will be brought to justice. I accept, as Deputy Haughey stated, that our fundamental duty is to ensure the protection of our citizens. That is why unprecedented resources, amounting to €1.7 billion, are now available to An Garda Síochána. I mentioned earlier the addition of vehicles to the Garda fleet and improved technology. I assure the Deputies from the area that An Garda Síochána is making relentless efforts to stop what is, in essence, a local feud. The armed support unit is active in the area, there have been thousands of Garda checkpoints in recent times and gardaí have been on patrol. While the unacceptable violence, resulting in murders, has been the issue on everybody's lips in the area, we must acknowledge recent successes on the part of An Garda Síochána in the context of arrests and the seizure of weapons, drugs and cash. On behalf of the Garda Commissioner, I assure the House that those responsible for and engaged in criminal activity will be brought to account.

I agree with Deputy Haughey that the response has to be more than one of a criminal justice nature. I spoke to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, during the week regarding this issue. I will be happy to engage with other colleagues from the area as well to ensure, as Deputy Haughey suggested, that there is a whole-of-Government response. My responsibility is in the area of criminal justice-----

What about Garda overtime, the number of hours gardaí can work and their availability?

-----and Garda numbers, which are now in excess of 14,000. I will be in Templemore next week for the passing out of a further 200 gardaí. I am happy to continue to engage with the Garda Commissioner to ensure that Garda numbers are sufficient in every area, including that mentioned by Deputy Broughan.

The Taoiseach did not answer my question. He ignored it completely.

The answer is the same as that which I gave to Deputy Coppinger.

It is the same answer.

He should have at least had the decency to say that.

A Programme for a Partnership Government contains a reference to the housing shortage on page 19. We all know what is happening in respect of housing. There are people in Kerry who are being deprived of the right to build their own houses on their own land by one serial objector. In all of these cases, Kerry County Council had granted planning permission. However, the objector in question has appealed all of the council's decisions to An Bord Pleanála. Even though inspectors have visited sites and decided that planning permission be granted in line with what Kerry County Council has ordained, An Bord Pleanála then refuses said permission. The people who made the applications are left without houses or without the opportunity to build houses for themselves. They cannot afford to buy houses in towns such as Killarney, Kenmare or Dingle, nor can they afford to seek judicial reviews. What is the Taoiseach going to do about these serial objectors?

I thank Deputy Danny Healy-Rae. His time is up and we will now find out the answer.

Approximately 18,000 new homes were built last year and we anticipate that 22,000 new homes will be built this year. Of the 18,000 built last year, some 3,000 or 4,000 were one-off homes, mostly, but not entirely, in rural areas. This means that people are obtaining planning permission and that those in rural areas are still able to build houses, as should be the case. There is a planning process, however, and that must take other important factors into account. People are entitled to object to a council if they do not believe that permission should be granted. They are also entitled to appeal to An Bord Pleanála if they do not agree with the decision of the council. I do not know if it is feasible in a democracy - and this is a democracy - to bar people from objecting to the granting of planning permission if they wish to do so.

These people cannot build the houses to which the Taoiseach is referring. What is he going to do about serial objectors?

Order, please. I call Deputy Eugene Murphy.

We are delighted that there is an emphasis on rural affairs in A Programme for a Partnership Government and also the return of a Minister with responsibility for rural affairs, namely, Deputy Ring. The most recent Fianna Fáil Government had a similar position and it was held by Deputy Ó Cuív. One of the things that had a great impact on many counties was the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Ring, two years ago to support the agricultural and industrial shows. There are shows in Ballivor, Longford, Strokestown, Mohill, County Leitrim, and Bonniconlon, County Mayo. There are more than 100 shows in all. The funding provided by the Department of Rural and Community Development was significant and important. I read an article by Eithne Dodd in The Sunday Business Post which indicated that funding has been cut back. I want to be fair. The grants are not being taken away entirely but the amounts provided are being reduced. Those agricultural and industrial shows now have increased insurance costs, as well as many other costs. They are vital for local economies and add much to the areas in which they take place. I do not expect the Taoiseach to have an answer today. Will he, however, ask the Minister and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, to restore the previous level of funding? It was a great initiative when it was brought in and it is sad that it has been cut back.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I had the opportunity to attend many shows last summer. I was at the Iverk show in Piltown and also at the show in Virginia. I hope to have the opportunity to make it to some shows this summer.

The budget of the Department of Rural and Community Development increased significantly this year. I think it was one of the biggest percentage increases overall. It is, however, the responsibility of the Minister to decide how those funds are divvied up. I am not sure what the situation is exactly in the context of rural shows. The Minister is in Castlebar at a very important political event, namely, the impending election of Maria Walsh to the European Parliament, giving Fine Gael a second seat in that constituency and topping off our best result in the European elections since 1984. I digress but I will definitely get the Minister to check on the issue raised by Deputy Eugene Murphy and respond to him directly. It might be four seats or five, but it will be the best result for Fine Gael since 1984. As a result, I have given the Minister the day off.

We cannot get into the political developments. I call Deputy Butler.

I have a question in respect of the electoral register. On Friday last, people voted in local and European elections, a referendum and, in three counties, a plebiscite. The turnout was just under 50%. I have heard reports about inaccuracies in the electoral register. I will give an example. A 73 year old man from Mount Melleray in west Waterford turned up to vote, having never missed a vote in 55 years. When he got to the polling station with his wife, he discovered that he had, through no fault of his own, been removed from the register. I have also heard reports that people who died in the past year were still on the register. Are there any plans to try to update the electoral register to ensure that it is accurate? We hear many reports that it is not accurate. I imagine that we will be facing into an election cycle in the next 12 months-----

Is it about to be announced?


-----so it is very important that the electoral register should be in order.

Public consultation was completed just prior to the local and European elections on updating the electoral register. Similar complaints to those raised by the Deputy have reached me from other parts of the country in recent days. The public consultation report will be published as soon as possible. The aim is to introduce a new process of online registration, as well as a hard-copy registration process, in the autumn of this year. Matters are slightly complicated by the fact that we do not want to do anything that would undermine public confidence in the system and the process. As the Deputy pointed out, we are not yet sure when some future voting events might take place. However, her point is accurate. Most of the returns from the public consultation focused on the desirability of using people's PPS numbers to ensure that those who have passed away are removed and also that those who have changed address are registered at the right location.

While the Taoiseach is in a good mood because of the results in the European elections, he might be able to help me out before he does anything else electorally. I speak specifically of the children with spinal muscular atrophy, SMA. This is raised in this House every week. I am not just speaking on my own behalf because Deputies Calleary, Aylward, Lisa Chambers and Ó Caoláin have raised this also. We are meeting the parents of the affected children. The matter has been on the agenda for a long time. The Taoiseach, as a medical doctor, will realise that the physical condition of the children is deteriorating. The one thing they do not have on their side is time. I have met the affected children in my area. Their condition is deteriorating. In the response, the Minister of State will say negotiations are ongoing under the 2013 Act and that there will be a meeting and the HSE will revert to him. This has gone on month after month and we have not had a positive outcome. If after the next meeting this is not resolved, will the Taoiseach amend the legislation? Ireland is the only country in Europe that has not been able to make what I propose available. If the legislation is impeding what should and must happen soon, will the Taoiseach amend it?

The House made the right decision in 2013 to ensure decisions on which medicines are licensed or reimbursed are not political decisions. I do not believe they should be political decisions. We decided as a House on a cross-party basis in 2013 to allow independent pharmacologists, doctors and economists to make these decisions. A decision is made by the HSE's national drugs committee on the advice of the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics. So far, 23 new medicines have been licensed for reimbursement this year but Spinraza is not yet one of them. I understand the applicant has made a revised proposal. The applicant was not willing to accept the fair price proposed by the HSE and has made further representations. The HSE is currently considering that information. I hear what the Deputy is saying, however. Very often in Ireland, we fund medicines such as Orkambi long before other countries. The case in question is an anomaly in the sense that we are one of only two countries in the European Union that is not funding the drug. This appears to me to be anomalous and I am keen to see this resolved as soon as possible.

Page 128 of the programme for Government states, in respect of energy and housing, the Government will invest in the better energy programme for up to 170,000 households during the lifetime of the programme. As of the end of May, it appears that the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland's budget for 2019 is committed. This could have a negative effect on the insulation and retrofitting of homes. Will the Government ensure sufficient funding is available for the remainder of 2019 so schemes such as the warmers homes scheme and other energy-saving schemes will continue in west Cork and not be restrained because of a lack of funding?

I assure the Deputy that a very good budget has been made available. It will be managed so we can meet the commitments. It is very encouraging to see very high demand for these schemes. One of the challenges we will be working on will be to show how we can scale those up and develop new models that are capable of being scaled up because of the levels of interest and need. We are putting a lot of thought into the future rolling out of retrofitting right across the country.

The programme for Government gives a strong commitment to drive down the costs of providing new drug treatments. The Minister for Health will be aware of the case of Mr. John Holmes from Kilkenny, who has a very rare form of cancer. One of the country's foremost experts, Professor John Crown, has recommended that he be treated with Pembrolizumab. The John Needs Pembro fundraising group and the local community have been doing sterling work in attempting to raise funds to pay for the 30 infusions of the medicine, at a cost of €5,111 for each treatment. They need help. The Government must assist Mr. Holmes in accessing this treatment. I request that the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, meet the Holmes family as urgently as possible to assist in the case. I also request that he take immediate steps to reduce the unaffordable price of the drug by removing the cost of VAT on it. The Government must take steps to assist this man, who has been in a fight for his life for the better part of a decade. The treatment is effective and the drug is already approved for cancer. Since the man in question has a rare cancer, it is not recognised. If it were recognised, he could be treated, at cost. There is a life at stake here.

We are not going to comment on an individual case or an application from an individual on the floor of the Dáil but I am happy to relay the Deputy's concerns to the Minister, Deputy Harris.

The Official Languages (Amendment) Bill is to amend the Official Languages Act 2003 to introduce a statutory plan for services in the Irish language. The heads of the Bill were approved in June two years ago and pre-legislative scrutiny has taken place. The Ceann Comhairle may have noticed that the exit poll last week indicated 60% of individuals here believe it is important to use, promote and protect the Irish language. Ar maidin, shínigh a lán daoine litir a sheoladh chuig Príomh-Aire na Breataine agus chuig an Taoiseach faoi Acht na Gaeilge ó Thuaidh. Tá a lán tacaíocht agus a lán grá ag daoine fá choinne na Gaeilge. Can the Taoiseach tell the Dáil when the Bill will be published and brought before the House? Will the Taoiseach respond positively to today's letter in support of Acht na Gaeilge?

This is priority legislation. As the Deputy knows, all legislation was delayed up to the end of March because of the work on the Brexit omnibus Bill. My Department and the Office of the Attorney General have been working on the Bill since then and good progress has been made. We are hopeful the Bill will be published before the summer.

Luaigh mé an litir atá sna nuachtáin faoi leith Acht na Gaeilge.

Ní fhaca mé an litir sin.

Ní fhaca an tAire Stáit é go fóill. Iarraim air é a léamh nuair a bheidh seans aige.

Déanfaidh mé é sin.

Chonaic mé an litir.

In view of the number of statements being made in the past 48 hours by a number of Government spokespersons, including the Minister responsible for business yesterday, that the Government has in mind a number of specific measures to deal with the outrageous cost of insurance, I do not see anything in this regard in the programme for Government or legislative programme. Can the Minister outline to me precisely what measures, particularly legislative measures, the Government has in mind? When will they be introduced?

I am sure the Taoiseach will not thank us for raising the issue of insurance costs although I am not raising it in the context of what everyone else is discussing in that regard. I am prompted by a constituent who contacted me to advise that Fingal Adventure Centre will not open at North Beach, Rush. It is saying it is because of the astronomical quotations it has received. We have no Garda insurance fraud unit and no evidence of the Judicial Council Bill being enacted by the summer. We have not seen the amendments the Government promised to bring forward to review awards. There are no amendments from the Minister to Sinn Féin's Consumer Insurance Contracts Bill, which, as I understand it, is ready to roll. Individuals, including small business owners, are watching this and businesses are being forced to close. Jobs will be lost. Vital tourism in my constituency will be lost. Vital tourism revenue will be lost if action is not taken on this. What is the Taoiseach saying to small businesses about the escalating cost of insurance?

I share the Deputy's concern over the very high cost of insurance and the arbitrary nature, often without evidence, of premium increases, often where there have been no claims. From my perspective, as Minister of Justice and Equality, there are two areas, in particular, where I can act. The first concerns the Judicial Council Bill and the setting up of a judicial council, one of whose functions will be to introduce guidelines to assist the court. I expect to have the amendments published within a couple of weeks. I appeal to Opposition parties in the Dáil to assist the Government in ensuring the enactment of the legislation prior to the summer recess.

The other area within my remit, raised by Deputy O'Reilly, concerns the matter of insurance fraud. Again, this is an issue I have discussed with An Garda Síochána. I am satisfied there is an expert team within An Garda Síochána dealing with this issue. I appeal to the insurance companies to assist in the provision of evidence to the Garda to ensure these issues can be tackled to a greater extent. I advise Members of the House that any fraud is a crime and is treated as such.

That concludes questions on promised legislation today. Eight Deputies were not reached but will be given priority tomorrow.