Wednesday, 14 June 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Kenny: On 30 May last year, the country was astounded to see the “Prime Time Investigates” programme showing disgraceful scenes at the Leas Cross nursing home in Dublin, including patients with appalling bedsores and others abandoned in chairs and suffering abysmal standards of nursing care and inspection. It amounted to a savage assault on their dignity as well as their civil and human rights.
A year and two weeks ago, the Taoiseach stood up in this House and faithfully promised to act with speed on the inspection of nursing homes. That is the standard response from the Government, a reflex action whereby it promises the world and does nothing. The Taoiseach promised specifically that we would have the legislation for an independent nursing home inspectorate by autumn 2005.
However, there is no legislation, and there will be none until 2007. The Taoiseach is running out of time in power. Those who have been betrayed by his Government are also running out of time as they are old. What they do not have is time and confidence in his word. Tomorrow, 15 June, is world Elder Abuse Awareness Day, a time to take cognisance of the problem. As we speak, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Catherine Byrne, is hosting a reception in the Mansion House to highlight the issue.
When one considers the Government’s record in this matter, one sees that there are three questions for the Taoiseach to answer — perhaps I should wait until the Tánaiste has given him her advice. First, why has the legislation not been produced, second, why will the inspectorate not be independent, as the Taoiseach promised on six occasions in this House last year, and, third, where are the reports commissioned into the handling of Leas Cross by the authorities?
The Taoiseach: Deputy Kenny will remember that it was decided that we should incorporate all the proposed legislative changes into the Health Information and Quality Authority legislation. I have announced many times that the legislation in question is being prepared. The inspectorate will be independent of the HSE, the group that provides the service, and that is one of the key issues.
At present, we are spending €150 million, the highest amount ever spent on the elderly, for whom there has been an unprecedented increase in services. Many of those resources have been put into home care support packages, with €55 million allocated for them in the last budget. They are based on 1,100 pilot home care packages, delivering a wide range of services. We have increased old age pensions, access to medical cards, carer’s benefit, care leave, child carer’s benefit and the carer’s allowance means test threshold. That has all been very helpful. There have been increases in nursing home subventions. All that has gone to help with housing.
It is good that people focus on the elderly, as this Government has, having put enormous resources into building up capacities, capabilities and staffing to help them. The inspectorate is included in the new legislation and it will be independent. The resources are being spent.
Mr. Kenny: The problem is that the Taoiseach promised on six occasions that the inspectorate would be independent, but I understand that the HSE will retain overall authority, meaning that it will not be independent. Why has the legislation not been produced? The Taoiseach stood here over a year ago and said that the legislation would come before the House in autumn 2005, but there has been no sign of it, and neither will there be before 2007. Why has he failed to deliver on a promise that he made to elderly people who do not have time on their side? Second, why has the O’Neill report into 95 deaths at Leas Cross not been published? It has been in Government hands for some time. I see that the Tánaiste is giving the Taoiseach a running commentary. Perhaps she will stand up and answer the question.
Mr. Kenny: There were 95 deaths at Leas Cross and the Taoiseach expressed concern over that report. Why has it not been published? Has there been an explanation for the delay? As I said, tomorrow is world Elder Abuse Awareness Day. To end such abuse and show concern for elderly people, it is about time the Government got at least one fundamental correct. It has promised legislation and failed to introduce it. It has not published a report which has been on its desks for eight or nine months, and the inspectorate that the Taoiseach promised on six occasions last year will not be independent. As someone once said, the older one gets, the less one listens to what people say and the more one watches what they do. In this case, the Taoiseach’s Government has failed yet again to address the scandalous abuse of elderly people.
The Taoiseach: I reject all that. The Government has put in more effort, resources, staff, equipment and services for hospitals, homes and carers than any other Government. The Deputy’s contention is simply not correct, and he knows it. The heads of the Bill have been published for consultation. I was pressed in the House that they be put out for consultation, and that has been done. We hope to pass the legislation later this year after it has benefited from the wisdom of the consultation process. The inspectorate is independent of the HSE. Deputy Kenny misunderstands the process. An inspectorate is already in existence while we are in the process of establishing the new inspectorate and putting together legislation with stronger powers.
The Taoiseach: I am not saying the current inspectorate is ideal. Obviously, we would not be changing it if we thought it was ideal. Nevertheless, an inspectorate exists so it is not the case that no checks are being done.
The Government has not received the O’Neill report, which I understand is with the HSE. Constitutional issues of natural justice have arisen which must go through a very painful legal process before this is dealt with. The central point is that we have put an additional €150 million into services for elderly people this year. Our spending on health care services for elderly people has increased greatly. A total of €150 million is allocated towards improving services for older people, approximately three quarters of which will go towards services in the community, home care packages, primary community care for older people, medical cards, carer’s benefit, carer’s allowance and carer’s leave, and nursing home subventions.
The Taoiseach: All these improvements, most of which are new, significantly help elderly people in their homes and hospitals. We are continuing to build on what is a good service and to put more people into it to improve the service.
Mr. Rabbitte: What does the Government propose to do about the plight of thousands of people, most of them young, who find themselves burdened with management companies in housing estates located for the most part around Dublin? These are young people who in many cases did not know when they purchased their homes that they would end up contractually wedded to a management company for an excessive fee to deliver often illusory services.
Local authorities have for some time made it a condition of planning approval that these management companies be set up. Such companies are customarily a front for the developer. They start out with this condition in the purchase so the unsuspecting young person does not know until a year later when he or she receives an invoice that he or she is required to pay what is usually a grossly excessive fee for services that do not materialise. In some cases, fees have more than doubled from one year to the next.
There are several examples of major estates around Dublin where the householder is helpless to establish who is responsible for which service. He or she contacts the management company, which refers him or her to the developer. The developer then refers him or her to the local authority. He or she returns to the management company, which refers him or her to the management agent who collects the money. The householder finds out that he or she is contractually bound.
Mr. Rabbitte: The local authority will not assume responsibility for these estates until they are finished to a satisfactory standard. The estates are left unfinished or some units are retained by the developer so that residents do not have the facility to assert themselves in the direction and control of the management company.
There may be a case for setting up a management company in an apartment block to look after a specified and narrow set of services which are regulated and whose fees are regulated. However, a scenario can arise where an estate consisting of one block of apartments surrounded by a few hundred houses is subject to this arrangement. Rates have been abolished but the present situation is more penal than rates ever were.
Mr. Rabbitte: The system introduces rates by the back door. Most management companies are not responsive. These young people are already in hock up to their eyes after purchasing apartments or duplexes and now find themselves faced with fees which were once €200 or €300 but are now over €2,000 in some cases. What will the Government do about this? It represents an abuse of power which management companies are being allowed to get away with.
The Taoiseach: This issue was raised in the House approximately three months ago. On that occasion, I asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to carry out a full examination and produce a report on how this situation can be legislatively addressed, if this is the only way it can be dealt with, which Members argued is the case. This process is being examined in the Department.
I acknowledge that there are a number of difficulties in this area but there are issues surrounding planning permissions in local authorities and why local authorities in many instances permit the formation of management companies. I acknowledge that management contracts are a good idea in some apartment blocks. A management company can probably best look after the combined needs of all residents in developments with open complexes and land and recreational space. Some of these residents are renting, while others are owner occupiers.
That was the purpose of management companies. When they began, it was never envisaged that they would be used in large housing estates and I do not know why local authorities allowed such a scenario to occur. I am aware that this is a major problem in Kildare and parts of Dublin. I have seen cases put forward by a number of Deputies when we debated the issue about three months ago. I have asked the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to examine whether the situation can be rectified through legislation. At the moment, there is no legislation governing the way in which management companies control their business and the services for which they are entitled to charge. It is only set out very loosely that they are responsible for services and environmental matters. This allows them to venture into many areas in which their role was never envisaged.
I do not know if there is a way because I have not read the latest report from the Department. As I understood it, the only way in which Government can control this situation and set guidelines is to examine the legislative process if local authorities cannot take control of the situation. I do not understand why local authorities give planning permission that permits management companies in residential housing areas. Why should it be a condition of planning permission that a management company looks after 30 or 40 houses? I do not see why that should be a condition of planning permission.
The Taoiseach: I will confine myself to Deputy Rabbitte’s question. Management companies were never regarded as desirable or essential for residential housing estates. Management companies in housing estates represent an unnecessary cost unless residents wish that they are established, and that is a decision to be made when people are living in their houses rather than beforehand. The matter is being examined and if legislation is required, it will be considered.
Mr. Rabbitte: I have encountered this phenomenon in several areas of Dublin, Kildare and Galway and I am sure it exists elsewhere. In the debate which took place in this House last November during which Deputy Gilmore introduced a Private Members’ Bill, the only offer made by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was that he would examine the proposals that would come from the Law Reform Commission. The commission is unlikely to make any report, not to mention implement such a report, this side of the general election. Meanwhile, all types of practices are occurring. It seems the Taoiseach agrees with me in this respect, but the difference between him and me is that he is in office.
Mr. Rabbitte: That should mean he is in power and is able to do something about this matter. I agree with the Taoiseach when he says legislative changes can be made, but will they be made? The answer given last night to my colleague, Deputy Burton, by the Minister, Deputy Roche, did not provide much hope.
There is a practice of local authorities making it a condition of planning approval. The backlog of taking developments in charge can be as much as eight or nine years in parts of this county, whatever about the city. There is no way the local authorities want to hear anything about taking those areas in charge. Meanwhile, young people find that if they do not deliver on any arbitrary increase in the fee charged, they are likely to find themselves——
Mr. Rabbitte: Whatever the Law Reform Commission might recommend down the road, can the Minister not take action now, legislatively if necessary or directly with council managers, to end this practice and permit management companies for specified services only in traditional apartment blocks?
The Taoiseach: Deputy Rabbitte asked what the Government is doing about this matter. I have discussed it with the Minister and his advisers. If it cannot be done by his giving directions or instructions to local authorities, the legislative route should be examined. I am not sure how far that has gone, but I will check. It has been a number of months since I answered a question on the issue and I asked the Minister to address it.
However, I do not accept that local authorities, at a time when they have far more resources and are getting more in subventions from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, are putting management contracts into their planning permissions so that they can avoid taking over sites. I do not consider there is an argument for that. At a time when authorities were severely strapped for resources, a time we all remember, they were able to take over sites, even if two or three years had passed. The arrangements they are using in their planning permissions are highly unfair. I agree with the Deputy on that point, but I have asked the Minister whether he can instruct the local authorities on that issue. If he cannot, I have asked him to examine the legislative route.
There is a problem and I accept the argument in respect of apartment blocks. Where there are no management contracts for them, what tends to happen is some people look after them very well, some sporadically and some do not care at all. Very quickly, difficulties arise. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of that in this city and elsewhere. Management contracts were designed in this respect. Making a management contract for 35 houses or duplexes——
If the practice cannot be stopped in the planning and development stage, it should be examined. It is an unnecessary increase in the cost. Most residents say they could live with the contracts if they got the services, but the management companies, even though there are regulations, do not manage the services. It is difficult to find who is behind the companies. For these reasons, the legislative route is probably the only way in which the issue can be controlled.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Is the Taoiseach aware that the latest report published by the Combat Poverty Agency and launched by his colleague, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, confirms that 17% of children in this State live in income poverty for five years or more of their young lives? Does the Taoiseach agree that this is unacceptable in one of the wealthiest economies in the world?
Does the Taoiseach further agree that increasing child benefit and other income supports alone is not the whole answer and what we need is a wide-ranging strategy? Does he accept that within the strategy, there must be a commitment and clear plan to combat educational disadvantage? It is my understanding that the Government has a target to reduce class sizes to 20 pupils or fewer for all children under the age of nine years by 2007. Will the Taoiseach ensure the recruitment of the necessary additional teaching staff? Will it be done now? Will he ensure the provision of all the required assessments and the additional teachers required for children with special needs?
Will the Government introduce a primary school database linked to the secondary school database to track attendance levels and flag and help combat early school leaving? Within that strategy, will the Taoiseach also ensure we will have an extension of the school meals programme to all children in disadvantaged areas, which is not currently the case?
In what is supposed to be one of the best educated countries in the world, I expect the Taoiseach will acknowledge that we have a chronic shortage of speech and language therapists. This robs many children of their real opportunities and potential in life. Will the Government increase the number of training places to ensure we have adequate speech and language therapists in place as quickly as possible to correct the severe shortage and difficulties arising therefrom for young people facing into the future?
The Taoiseach: As the Deputy knows, the recent report also showed 100,000 young people have been taken out of consistent poverty in recent years. We remain firmly committed to eliminating consistent poverty, combating social exclusion, ending marginalisation and creating a fairer society.
We have significantly reduced poverty levels. The last major report in this regard, the UN human development report of late last year, showed that continued substantial increases in social transfers have resulted in real improvements in the living standards of persons depending on them. For this reason, last year, we provided a large increase in social welfare payments, especially the basic State pension and our commitment to get it to 30% of the industrial wage by next year. This will continue to enhance the welfare and overall well-being of those who are caught up in the daily struggle to make ends meet. Children at risk and those of lone parents rank highly in the report the Deputy mentioned, as did carers who look after people with difficulties.
We have dramatically increased the number of teachers. There are 10,000 extra teachers in schools. We weighted this very much towards schools in disadvantaged areas. We did the same in respect of home-school-community liaison posts so that they would not only be in schools, but would link up with homes to try to help children with special difficulties. The case of child assessment services is the same, as psychological services work with home liaison officers to try to deal with families with multiple difficulties. The Deputy has a point on speech therapy, which is why we have substantially increased the number of training places. It is very difficult to find speech therapists from anywhere and vacancies cannot be filled by people from outside the country, as we have done with other positions. Training takes time and there have been difficulties in providing it.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: To say I have a point on speech and language therapy is a serious understatement. We have a real and serious crisis as regards young people’s needs for speech and language therapy support. That has been identified throughout the State and I urge the Taoiseach to outline what steps he now proposes to take, not those he has already taken, the details of which he trundled out in response to my earlier question. It is very important to recognise that this summer many parents, preparing their children to return to school in September, will face the added burdens of the provision of school uniforms and books, as well as all the other needs that young people have. Is there any plan, for example, for the Government to increase the back to school clothing and footwear allowance? It would be a practical step but on its own is not the panacea for all needs. What measures does the Government propose, as a matter of urgency——
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: ——in recognition of the fact that many young people will not have a school placement come September, because we continue to allow unco-ordinated development whereby housing approvals in significant clusters——
The Taoiseach: The Deputy asked what we will do in the future. We will continue to work to eliminate poverty, particularly child poverty. The next national action plan to combat poverty and social exclusion is due to be published later this year and will reflect that strong commitment. Next year we will achieve a new benchmark level of €150, in 2002 terms, for social welfare payments, which is hugely important. As part of the programme of reform specifically addressing child poverty more than 21,000 families are set to benefit from substantial increases in the weekly income thresholds for family income supplement. Those increases will deliver an extra weekly income of €11.40 per week, bringing the figure to €169.20, which is a far higher increase than ever before. We have further relaxed the means test for non-contributory payments for those on pensions.
Measures for schools including staffing, resources, capitation grants and the building programme, which includes renovations and repairs and is at an all-time high, are all under way. The back to school allowance was increased in the last budget and will come into effect for the next school year. We continue to enhance the welfare and overall well-being of those in receipt of it. Every part of the enormous resources of €12 billion we have put into social welfare is targeted to help those most in need. In the most recent five or six budgets the largest allocation has been to those in danger of poverty, including relative poverty. That is why enormous numbers are moving out of that category. Some people are still in difficulties and we must focus on those——
The Taoiseach: ——by helping them with education, with employment schemes such as those administered by FÁS and by tracking them under the Youthreach programme when they leave school. We have put in place structures to ensure all these measures are being implemented. An examination of the figures and what we have achieved shows we have made enormous strides in this area and will continue to do so.
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