Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

There was much discussion in the context of the local elections about restoring power to local authorities. The housing crisis is continuing, and giving more discretion to local authorities in how they manage their projects would assist in solving that crisis. A commitment was given last year that that discretion would be increased and the limit would be increased from €2 million to €6 million. That limit can be increased with full transparency and oversight if there is a willingness to give local authorities that power. I see the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, gearing up to respond. Does he have any additional response to that which he gave the housing committee yesterday?

I thank the Deputy for his question. What I told his colleague at yesterday's committee meeting was that a commitment was made last year to review the public spending code, in order to see if we could increase the threshold from €2 million to €6 million. Doing that would require a derogation to the public spending code, which would have to come from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Upon review of what doing that would actually mean, I met with the county and city managers this morning to talk about housing delivery for this year. We will deliver 10,000 new homes into the social housing stock this year, which is a huge improvement on previous years. Increasing the threshold might save six to eight weeks on our timelines, but we would also risk delaying projects even longer, and in doing so, the Department would lose oversight of 44% of the capital budget for housing. That is too much of a risk. We want to make sure that we are properly overseeing capital spending on behalf of taxpayers. I said yesterday that it would be reckless to lose oversight of more than 44% of the housing budget, and that is why the plan is currently not proceeding.

The Minister does not know what he is talking about. Local authorities-----

There is no trust in them.

I call Deputy Pearse Doherty.

I want to raise an issue I previously raised with the Tánaiste before the summer, and which has gotten worse since we last met. I refer to the issue of insurance premiums, and the fact that certain sectors in Irish society, particularly the leisure, bouncy castle and paintballing sectors, cannot get insurance anywhere in Ireland or even in Britain, and are now closing down one by one. Two adventure centres have closed down in Meath, as has a swimming pool in Kildare, a nightclub in Cork, and some bouncy castle operators. Such businesses are closing down day in, day out, and these are only the ones hitting the headlines. Companies are closing every single day as a result of hikes in insurance premiums or because no insurance company in Ireland or in Britain is willing to insure them. The Government needs to get a grip on this, and should meet urgently with Insurance Ireland for some straight, tough talking.

We cannot allow these jobs to go. We cannot allow the tourism product that we and these companies have built up over many decades to be wiped out as a result of an industry that is unwilling to quote them, or that will quote them four times what they were quoted last year. This is a crisis that affects the very fabric of Irish society. As I said to the Minister at a committee last week, unless this is dealt with it is possible that a child will never experience a bouncy castle on the island of Ireland ever again, because no company in Ireland or in Britain is willing to insure bouncy castle operators. That is just one example. Will the Tánaiste and his Government take action on this and hold urgent meetings with Insurance Ireland in order to give some succour to companies at their wits' end? They know their policies run out in November, December, or January, and when that happens, they will be out of their jobs and their companies will have to fold.

There is a whole range of legislation in this area, but as of now it has not been enough for the specific problem to which the Deputy is referring, which is that certain sectors either cannot get insurance at all, or are being quoted ridiculous figures that will make it impossible for them to stay in business. I have met a number of those companies, particularly in relation to child activity centres which cater for children's birthday parties and so on. In one of those categories within the sector, the only insurance company I am aware of that is quoting at all is based in the UK. This is an issue. We had a long discussion about this at a Cabinet subcommittee meeting recently and all I can say for now is that the Government is looking at this closely to see what more can be done. We are somewhat limited in what is possible without changing the Constitution in some areas, however, there are some things we can do, and I expect the Government will come forward with some new thinking in this are in the coming weeks.

The Government has prioritised the Defence (Amendment) Bill for this session. However, as the Tánaiste knows, there are deeper issues within the Defence Forces, including pay allowances and conditions, which require urgent focus. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has agreed in principle to accept the Permanent Defence Forces Representative Organisation, PDFORRA, which is the representative body of active service personnel, as a member. That is the right decision. It is something the Labour Party has argued for in government in the past, and we passed a motion supporting this in the previous Dáil. This would bring Ireland into line with Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and the Nordic countries, where their armed forces have the right to be involved in their national trade union movement. This is not a right to strike, and we can deal with that issue if it is a concern. PDFORRA is not asking for that right, which we can deal with by way of legislation. This is about putting in place a professional process for the determination not only of core pay, but of all the ancillary issues that normal discussions in a trade union setting provide for, such as contracts and so on. Will the Government approve the affiliation of PDFORRA to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions as has been requested?

As the Deputy probably knows, the Minister is looking at this issue and has been for a while. There are some real concerns about this, which we should not dodge. I am a former Minister for Defence, and while we have to ensure appropriate representation for Defence Forces members, we also have to recognise that the Defence Forces, like the Garda in many ways, are in a different category from other public servants. The State needs to know that it can rely on them in all circumstances. The Chief of staff has expressed some legitimate concerns about this, so we have to work through them to make sure the decisions made in this area are right for both Defence Forces personnel and the State.

I expect the Minister of State at the Department of Defence will be able to come forward shortly to give a detailed commentary and decision on this issue. It is not as straightforward as some people have made out.

I raise the issue of the proposed VAT rate on vitamins and supplements in the upcoming budget. A decision in this regard was deferred last March. The Tánaiste will probably not comment on the budget and is not privy to the finer details. Supplements and vitamins currently attract a zero rate of VAT. If the 23% rate is applied to them, this will place an unfair financial burden on many people who use them. The VAT rate on fast food is 13.5% but the Government wants to apply a rate of 23% to vitamins and supplements that are good for us. This does not make sense. Perhaps the Tánaiste will comment on the matter. Will he ask the Minister for Finance not to apply this rate of VAT to vitamins and supplements?

This is a matter for the Government in the context of the budget. The Deputy will not have long to wait. The budget is only a couple of weeks away.

Since the start of the school term, Deputies have been inundated with queries from families whose children do not have access to school transport. The Department is not intervening, Bus Éireann has stood back and parents and children are suffering. Enniskeane national school is the feeder school for the secondary schools in Bandon. Up to 20 children attending these schools from the greater Ballineen area have been refused school transport to Bandon, making it a nightmare situation for their parents who have to work each day. I have made some inquiries and one does not have to be a rocket scientist to solve this problem. I ask the Tánaiste to immediately work with the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy John Halligan, to push through a solution for the families of these children in the Ballineen area.

I have a related question. The programme for Government contains a commitment to examine how best to improve integrated services in the rural bus network for the regions, including school transport. I was very encouraged to hear that an additional €1 million in funding was announced by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, in mid-August in order to address the issues within the school transport system. Although very little detail was released, I was hopeful that the Minister would focus on children who had used school transport on a concessionary basis but who have been left without transport this year. I wrote to the Minister in August to highlight two very problematic school transport issues in my parish in south Kilkenny that require urgent attention. One of the issues concerns a secondary school and affects 13 children, while the other, which relates to a private school, affects 11 children. Unfortunately, the situation remains the same for these young families whose children do not have access to school transport despite indications that a solution would be found. Will the Tánaiste clarify whether the €1 million has been spent and outline the criteria for the allocation of it? Will the he indicate if any of the money is left to cover problems such as those I have mentioned in Carlow and Kilkenny? I have been reliably told that a small amount of money would sort out the concessionary tickets for those children who have been left on the side of the road. I am told that another €1 million would do it.

I, too, ask the Tánaiste to intervene for the people of Ballineen who have been left hanging while waiting for school transport places for their children. What plans are in place to address this debacle? The school transport system is a debacle. Across west Cork, some students got tickets who were not allowed on the bus, some students who should have got tickets did not, and we have many cases of students who qualified for tickets and yet their siblings did not. Some students have places on buses, while their parents are behind those buses driving their siblings to school by car. The situation is ridiculous. Plans must be put in place for next year, but I put it to the Tánaiste that the situation in Ballineen needs to be resolved in the meantime.

The Minister for Education and Skills made some ten exceptions this year on school transport, including one in my constituency for which I lobbied. The problem is, however, that there are other people in my constituency who could not avail of these exceptions. Their applications had failed last year and they did not know they should apply for the exception. I have discussed this matter quite a lot with Deputies Michael Collins, Murphy O'Mahony and Aylward, and it has been raised previously in the Dáil. Other areas have had all sorts of problems with school transport but they did not get exceptions this year. The Government would not have a leg to stand on if this matter were brought to the Ombudsman. The rules were bent for some, correctly, but while the rules were changed and money was allocated for certain students, this was not done for others. Those who failed in their applications last year, including some in my constituency, did not get the opportunity to come back this year because they did not know the rules would be changed this year. The Department is operating on a completely ad hoc basis and the Government would not have a leg to stand on if all the people we represent were to go to the Ombudsman in respect of this matter.

The Tánaiste cannot answer with specifics but perhaps we can find a way of having a further debate on the issue raised by the Deputies.

This issue takes up a huge amount of the Minister's time. I am familiar with the case in west Cork. Senator Lombard and the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, are both working on the same cases probably that the Deputies are working on. Temporary alleviation measures have been put in place to try to deal with specific problems in different parts of the country. Clearly, a more comprehensive response is needed for next year. The Minister and his Department are continuing to try to deal with individual issues and problems in different parts of the country in response to demand. The Deputies will have to put down a question to the Minister for a more comprehensive response.

In the Government's legislation programme for this session, the Road Traffic (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2018 has been prioritised. If passed, the Bill would introduce graduated speeding penalties. The law, however, is only as good as the level of enforcement relating to it. The Tánaiste will be aware that a private consortium, GoSafe, was awarded a five-year contract, reported to be worth up to €115 million, to operate speed cameras. GoSafe is facing notice of industrial action by the end of this week in a row about pay and conditions. Drivers have revealed that they routinely work nine to 11-hour shifts, most of which are spent in their vans without access to toilet facilities or a proper place to eat lunch. GoSafe has refused to implement a Labour Court recommendation which confirmed that SIPTU representatives have the sole right to negotiate with management on behalf of its members. Will the Government introduce a legal requirement in public procurement to oblige all contracted private sector contractors to fully engage with trade unions and the industrial relations apparatus of the State?

The publication of the legislation is due this session and I understand that some of the issues that have been raised have been discussed at Cabinet sub-committee level.

When will we hear of it?

I do not have an answer for the Deputy today.

On page 54 of the programme for Government, there is a commitment to expand primary care service. This is also one of the principal platforms of Sláintecare. I draw the Tánaiste's attention to the situation of doctors from outside Ireland who try to get registration to work as general practitioners here. Responsibility in that regard lies with the national doctor training programme in conjunction with the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service. It is my understanding that the latter does not have a problem but that the difficulty and the red tape relating to obtaining registration for doctors coming into Ireland to work are a disincentive for them. We are fortunate that we have an arrangement with Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand for bringing in their qualified GPs. As a result of their circumstances, however, doctors from South Africa are the only ones who seem to want to come to work in Ireland. The Government is well aware that the State is short of at least 500 GPs. Everything should be done to promote and incentivise to try to attract GPs into the country, particularly from South Africa. A few weekends ago, the out-of-hours service in Tralee, County Kerry, had no GP for the entire weekend. People then had to go the accident and emergency department, which is an already stressed service. Will the Tánaiste please discuss this issue with his colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to try to make it as easy as possible for such doctors, while at all times adhering to the necessary qualifications criteria.

I will raise the issue with the Minister and I will ask him to get back to Deputy Brassil directly.

In a very quiet way, the public services card was removed yesterday as a requirement by the Passport Office. Clearly, not all Departments and Government offices share the same confidence as the Taoiseach and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, that the continued use of the public services card beyond the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is legal.

We need clarity on this issue, particularly as the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is still requiring applicants for the new national childcare scheme to have a card. We understand that the Department is examining alternatives, but as it is stated on its website that a hard copy of the public services card application form will not be available until January, which is a number of months after the scheme goes live, parents need clarity on whether they can submit an application under the new national childcare scheme if they do not have a public services card.

It is clear the Tánaiste does not have faith in the legality of the continued use of the public services card given its removal as a requirement in respect of a passport application. Will other Departments also withdraw the requirement for a public services card in respect of citizens' access to services?

I have confidence in the Attorney General's advice on this issue. The Government is at one on this. We had a long conversation on it and had the legal position outlined to us by the Attorney General. In his view, and that of the Government, the legislation introduced by Fianna Fáil is good and allows for the public services card to be used across multiple agencies and Departments. The purpose of the card is to make it easier for citizens to access public services, including in respect of first-time applications for a passport. To address the confusion in the public mind arising from commentary in relation to the public services card, we have introduced a facility to enable persons who do not have a public services card to obtain a passport. We will not preclude people from getting a passport if they do not have a public services card but we have streamlined a process using the public services card which is the best way to get a passport quickly and the most reliable way in terms of the security and identity requirements. If there are exceptional circumstances, we will accommodate them. There is no great mystery about this. It does not in any way undermine the Government's position on this issue, which is rock solid and, if legally tested, will be strongly defended.

Page 53 of the programme for Government makes reference to healthcare in our communities. It was recently highlighted that 44% of general practitioner, GP, clinics are full, with rural areas being worst hit. In County Laois, 100% of GPs have stated that they cannot take on new patients and in County Offaly only 20% of GPs are in a position to take on new patients. The lack of GPs has reached crisis point in some regions. I have been contacted by many concerned constituents in Laois and Offaly on this issue. What actions will the Government and the Minister for Health collectively take to resolve this crisis, which is particularly pertinent and obvious in rural areas?

Also, will a stakeholder forum be convened in an attempt to resolve this ongoing crisis, which is worsening by the day?

The answer to the problem is the recruitment of more GPs across the country, which we are actively trying to do.

My question relates to the attempt by Government to secure a seat on the UN Security Council. I understand that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, via the Department of Defence, is sending a naval vessel to New York and, perhaps, other cities to engage with UN officials. What is the purpose of this operation? For example, is it to wine and dine officials or will serious business be conducted? The Tánaiste will be aware this is happening against the backdrop of docked naval vessels and difficulties around meeting service level agreements and the considerable costs being incurred by his Department in regard to securing a seat on the UN Security Council, which issue has been raised many times by my colleague, Deputy Niall Collins. In light of the aforementioned difficulties and the current recruitment and retention crisis, will the Tánaiste explain the purpose of the deployment of this naval vessel?

A naval vessel will be crossing the Atlantic and will be in New York next week and will visit other US cities as well. It is important to say that the role of the Naval Service is not solely one of fisheries protection or intercepting drugs and so on. While both operations are an important part of what it does, it has a broader remit, as seen in the Mediterranean Sea and will be seen next week when it will play an ambassadorial role not only in terms of the UN Security Council campaign - it is only one element of what the service is doing - but in reaching out to the Irish diaspora in large cities on the east coast. This is not new. Naval vessels have been sent abroad with a diplomatic role many times in the past. I appeal to people not to try to make this into something that it is not.

We are also trying to recruit people into the Naval Service. People need to see the broad spectrum of roles and responsibilities that Naval Service personnel play, which will be very evident abroad next week.

My question is to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. In May, in conjunction with the local and European elections, the people of Limerick voted in a plebiscite to accept the principle and concept of a directly elected mayor. I raised the following issue with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, last July by way of parliamentary question. What is the status of the legislation for the roll-out of the directly elected mayor? The Minister indicated to me in a written reply last July that he proposed to establish an implementation committee in early September. What is the status of that committee and what is the proposed membership of same? I believe its membership should be as broad as possible to include as many voices in Limerick as possible in light of the huge civil society campaign and buy-in to the principle of a directly elected mayor, which I support. It is great for democracy. In the context of the discussion we had earlier on promoting oversight of our local authorities, this will be a very positive oversight mechanism.

The principle of a directly elected mayor has been knocking around in the now Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government for nearly 15 years. I would welcome an update on the status of the legislation for the Limerick directly elected mayor and the implementation committee. Also, is it still the Minister's intention to hold the election for the position in May or June 2021, as indicated to me previously?

I thank the Deputy for his question. This was a fantastic decision made by the people of Limerick. To give credit where credit is due, Deputy Niall Collins did a great job, working with other parties and people, to get it over the line. It is a pity other members of his party did not take a similar view in places like Cork. However, that has been decided now.

I met the outgoing council manager in Limerick to talk through what needs to be done in terms of implementation. I also attended a public meeting organised by Senator Maria Byrne to discuss some of the issues that still need to be resolved. We are in the process of putting together the implementation group. Some people have been identified and approached. As stated by the Deputy, it is important there is a wide spectrum of representation, including people who have experience of being in local government working on the corporate side but also in terms of accessing services. All of these matters need to be addressed in the implementation group.

In terms of the timelines and legislation, the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, will be the lead in taking the legislation through the relevant processes. We believe we can get this done. On the timeline, it is important the legislation for the first directly elected mayor of Limerick is in place for the next local elections to ensure that election can take place in tandem with the local elections. We will have an announcement on the implementation group very shortly.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to more investment in economic, regional and social infrastructure but there do not appear to be any legal guarantees for schemes and funding already agreed. In County Louth, the N52 Ardee bypass was earmarked for funding by Transport Infrastructure Ireland. Local communities, which have grown in recent years and will be seriously and adversely impacted by the realignment project, have called for the original scheme to be modified. Following on from considerable campaigning with Louth County Council and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, I welcome that a technical review of the scheme and the junction arrangements linked to the N52 bypass has been agreed. The review is to allow the project team time to consider the issues fully, which include a national heritage area and the growth of the local community.

However, we have been told that the funding for this may be redirected to other projects, which would be a grievous mistake. This funding should be legally guaranteed. Ardee needs this bypass. It has been in the pipeline for more than 13 years so will the Tánaiste give a commitment or ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to give a commitment that money set aside will be ring fenced until the review is completed? We are talking about 13 years. If the money is not there, it will be put back for another five to ten years.

I am not familiar with this project. I know capital expenditure is up significantly on last year, which was up significantly on the previous year. Capital expenditure will continue to increase even with a budget designed around a no-deal Brexit but I will have to ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy on this issue as I do not have the answer today.

The Government promised to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and to introduce over 1 million electrically propelled vehicles by 2030. In the past 12 months, the number of electric vehicles has doubled. The function of the ESB's ecars programme, which was introduced in 2010, is to hasten the introduction of 1 million electric vehicles and to move transport away from the dirt, poison and pollution of hydrocarbon fuels to lovely green-fuelled transportation as quickly as possible. Since 2010, the Government has apparently given €37 million to the ESB to install these electric charge points. We have 1,200 charge points, some of which are standard and some of which are quick. If I divide €37 million by 1,200, it means that each one of these charge points will cost €30,000. There is no way anyone can expect to pay €30,000 for an electric charge point. It is just a pole with an ESB connection.

We are looking for value for money. I was lucky enough to get the loan of an electric car last weekend that I drove around Dublin. It was fantastic but I had a problem finding a charge point and a quick one to get me back home to Dundalk instead of sitting in a car park in Dublin for nine hours. I have spoken to many owners of these electric cars. The problem they face is that they have a 50-50 chance of finding a charge point and 50-50 chance of finding one where they need it. I am 100% behind electric cars but we must put a plan in place. Charging €30,000 for one charge point is not value for money.

The vast majority of electric cars will tell the driver where the nearest charge point is. The technology permits that and that technology will continue to improve. However, there is a problem regarding having sufficient numbers of charge points and sufficient numbers of fast charge points, particularly for people driving on motorways. The situation is improving and I think the Deputy will see a significant increase in the pace of roll-out of charge points across the country in the coming years.