Thursday, 20 November 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Tánaiste: It is proposed to take No. 3, the Arbitration Bill 2008 — Second Stage (resumed); No. 28, Nursing Homes Support Scheme Bill 2008 — Second Stage (resumed); No. 24, statements on the report of the joint committee’s contribution to the European Commission on its White Paper on Integration of EU Mortgage Credit Markets, COM (2007) 807; and No. 23, statements on the special report on new EU legislation, 1 January to 30 June 2008, and the order shall not resume thereafter.
It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that the proceedings on No. 24 shall be taken at 12.30 p.m. today and shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 1.30 p.m. and the following arrangements shall apply: the opening statement of the Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Affairs and of the main spokespersons for the Government, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, who shall be called upon in that order, shall not exceed ten minutes in each case, the statements of each other Member called upon shall not exceed ten minutes in each case and Members may share time; and the proceedings on No. 23 shall be taken at 1.30 p.m. and shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion at 3.30 p.m. and the following arrangements shall apply: the opening statement of the Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny and of the main spokespersons for the Government, the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, who shall be called upon in that order, shall not exceed ten minutes in each case, the statements of each other Member called upon shall not exceed ten minutes in each case and Members may share time.
Deputy Enda Kenny: I do not object to it but I wish to give a pointer to the Tánaiste. This report comes from the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. The Government elevated what was a sub-committee to full committee status, which I strongly support. This report is one of a series of reports that are absolutely critical to the way this House of Parliament deals with its interaction with Europe on behalf of our citizens.
The people of Ireland voted recently in a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Many people said they did not understand what was in the treaty. The Joint Committee on European Scrutiny has the potential, if properly resourced and given the space and time in this House and other locations, to be able to explain to people what Europe is about and how it impacts on us. Other reports will come from the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny and I expect they will be given proper time for full discussion and debate in this House because it is so important that we are not isolated, but rather that we are central to that process.
Deputy Enda Kenny: I have a number of questions for the Tánaiste. There are reports in all the media outlets today of the Minister for Finance calling in the heads of the banks for discussions. In the past 24 hours, my office has been contacted by five small businesses that will not be in existence in the next three weeks unless there is some easing of the tightness that exists for credit lines at the moment. Will the Tánaiste indicate when we can expect an announcement from Government, and what form it will take, with a view to the recapitalisation of the banking system in whatever form the Government decides so that business can be conducted and lines of credit can be eased?
The Dáil will sit for 12 days between now and Christmas. During that period, we will see a brutal assault on Irish families through the Finance Bill, the legislation to deal with medical cards, the Social Welfare Bill, which makes an attack on jobseekers benefit, and the health insurance programme announced yesterday. When will the medical card legislation come before the House? Is the Government running scared of bringing in the legislation or where is it?
An announcement was made yesterday by the Minister for Health and Children about health insurance. We are all aware that risk equalisation was struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this year and that it made recommendations to the Government on how matters should proceed. Will the Tánaiste state when it is proposed to have risk equalisation legislation and outline the preparatory work being done thereon? Yesterday’s announcement by the Minister for Health and Children was confusing. In the notes appended to the statement the relief was referred to as a tax credit, but in the statement itself reference was made to a tax relief. Is it a tax credit or tax relief?
It seems the Government, including the Minister for Health and Children, has announced a levy on the health insurers, to be paid for by the customer when the insurers increase their premiums. Is this the case? Has the Government had discussions on this with the VHI, which is dominant in the market and which has high overhead costs? In many cases, there are poor contracts. Has the Government had discussions with the insurers on increases in medical insurance premiums that will be passed on to the customer to pay for the levy the Minister is imposing on the insurers? This is with a view to protecting community rating, which is underpinned by risk equalisation and which has been in evidence for so long.
I saw a report that stated some hope or relief is being offered to the people in that the Taoiseach apparently announced yesterday to the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party that he has a plan for the nation.
The Tánaiste: It is in that context that the decision was made by the Government on the health insurance initiative. The Leader of the Opposition asked me to clarify whether a credit or relief is proposed. It is a tax relief in the form of credit.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: With regard to the risk equalisation legislation and the health insurance announcement made yesterday by the Minister for Health and Children, I understood the Tánaiste said the legislation would take some time to prepare. The Minister for Health and Children stated yesterday it would be presented before the end of the year. Will the Tánaiste clarify when we are likely to see it?
If it is to take some time for the legislation to be prepared, when is it likely to take effect? The Minister for Health and Children gave the impression yesterday that it would be effective from the beginning of next year. Families are considering what their health insurance bill is likely to be next year. The proposal is such that the health insurance bill of a couple with three children will increase by approximately €500. Such families will want to know when the legislation is likely to take effect. This should be clarified.
With regard to the meeting the Minister for Finance is having today with the heads of the banks, is it intended that he will inform the House after the meeting of its outcome? Is it anticipated that any developments will arise from that meeting between now and next Tuesday, when the Dáil is due to sit again? Are there plans arising from the meeting to recall the House between now and next Tuesday? Will there be any changes made to the business scheduled for next week arising from the meeting between the Minister and the banks?
The other legislation raised by Deputy Kenny is a new risk equalisation Bill arising from the Supreme Court decision. Our legal advice suggests it will be some considerable time, at least two years, before the legislation, which is to be based on a risk equalisation model, will be introduced to the House.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: On the health legislation, the Tánaiste has now clarified there are to be two Bills, the first of which will affect health insurance premiums in the short term. Do I understand correctly from the Tánaiste that this legislation will be before the House and that it will be put through before the end of the year? Is that the position?
The Tánaiste: It will take effect from 1 January. It requires EU approval and it will be a matter for the Government to determine whether we enact that legislation prior to the Commission’s approval. That decision has not yet been finalised. There is a methodology by which we can pass legislation and withhold its enactment. One way or another, it will be retrospective to the first day of January 2009. That is the absolute clarity of it. It will take form on that date.
An Ceann Comhairle: The enactment of the legislation is not a matter for the Order of Business. The Deputy may put a question concerning when the Bill will be published. The Tánaiste has explained when it will be published and the question of the enactment is for a later date, as the Deputy well knows.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: As I understand it, the issue here is that the Government proposes that health insurance premiums will be changed on 1 January. What the Tánaiste is saying, in effect, is that this apparently will be done without statutory authority. A Bill will be published.  Presumably, it will contain a date. It will not necessarily be enacted but the insurance premiums will be changed.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: We now have this situation and it is reasonable to discuss it because people whose health insurance premiums are going to be changed next year will have a higher health insurance payment. The Government states that they will have to pay it from 1 January next year. It also states, first, that legislation will not be enacted to give authority to that measure, and, second, we may not even know what the view of the European Commission will be on the matter. That is a very unclear situation and we are entitled to get some clarity on it.
The Tánaiste: The Government is not dictating the premium that must be paid. We will introduce legislation arising out of the Government health insurance initiative. The European Commission must clarify this, which will take two months. It will be retrospective to 1 January if we decide not to enact prior to the Commission giving its signature. That is possible in this type of legislation — it is similarly so with the Finance Bill. It is not criminal legislation. The Government will decide whether to enact the legislation prior to the Commission’s determination. It would probably be sensible to await the outcome of the Commission deliberations, but it is the Government’s intention to publish the legislation prior to Christmas.
Deputy Seymour Crawford: In light of the fact that area payments were reduced in the budget, and that since last night single payments are to be reduced also, when will there be a full debate on agriculture in the Dáil? Can we use the opportunity of the Animal Health and Welfare Bill to debate this area? We certainly have the welfare of farmers to consider.
In light of the ongoing situation with regard to health structures as a whole, can we find out who is actually eligible for treatment and in which hospital? When will the matter of eligibility of health and personal and social services be brought in?
The Tánaiste: I am taken aback that Deputy Crawford did not take the opportunity to congratulate his constituency colleague on the fine work he did on behalf of the farmers of Ireland in the negotiations.
Deputy Kathleen Lynch: Will the Tánaiste confer with the Minister for Health and Children, who is sitting next to her, and ask her to withdraw the increase now being implemented for people with intellectual disability in long-stay care——
Deputy Kathleen Lynch: I promise the Ceann Comhairle that I will sit down because I do not intend to disrupt the House. Every morning Deputies stand up here with requests for an Adjournment of the Dáil under Standing Order 32, which are always refused.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: I return to the insurance legislation. It appears that the Government is walking us into a legal minefield. We are to be asked to pass retrospective legislation prior to permission from the EU Commission.
Deputy Jan O’Sullivan: I would like clarity from the Tánaiste as to what is the Government’s intention. Are we to be asked to pass legislation prior to the approval of the EU Commission, without any idea of whether it is going to be enacted?
An Ceann Comhairle: Let us be clear. It is not really fair to look for this type of detail. It is more appropriate for a parliamentary question, as the Deputy knows well. It is not possible to answer all these questions, which are more appropriate to the line Minister. They are not appropriate for the Tánaiste on a Thursday morning during the Order of Business, as Deputy O’Sullivan well knows.
The Tánaiste: The measures announced yesterday will require new health legislation. It is our aim to publish and present this to the Oireachtas for enactment before the end of the current session. It is also the case that the implementation of these measures requires the approval of the European Commission competition directorate. A formal notification has been made and in the normal course, the Commission will deliver its decision early in the new year.
Deputy Joan Burton: I wish to raise two points, the first of which is on the announcement made by the Minister for Health and Children in the company — appropriately — of the Minister for Finance that tax allowances would be made available on an ascending scale in respect of additional payments for health insurance by people aged over 50 years.
Deputy Joan Burton: It is in order. I want to know when the measure will be legislated for. As a tax measure, will it be included in the Finance Bill or will we, as many of us expect, have another Finance Bill in——
The Tánaiste: If the Opposition wants to write the legislation that is fine but I have given an answer. The Minister for Health and Children will take questions in the House next week if Deputies want to raise questions.
Deputy Joan Burton: The Ceann Comhairle confirmed yesterday, during a discussion with another Deputy, that my second point is in order. Will the Government provide time for a debate on the powerless position in which the banks find themselves and the fact that taxpayers are guaranteeing——
Deputy Alan Shatter: In 1999, the Children First child protection guidelines were announced and put in place. These are non-statutory guidelines designed to ensure a uniform approach is taken to dealing with the problems of children at risk and investigation of reports of children at risk. At the end of July, the Office of the Minister for Children published a review which confirmed that our child protection services are totally dysfunctional and the guidelines are not being uniformly applied.
Deputy Alan Shatter: I am coming to the point, Sir. We know there are hundreds of children reported to be at risk whose cases have not been investigated. Does the Government have plans to make the Children First child protection guidelines mandatory, giving them statutory effect and ensuring their uniform application?
In the context of promised legislation, specifically No. 11, the child care Bill, I ask the Tánaiste to ensure that children who are at risk are protected before we have another tragedy. Will she ensure the Children First guidelines are made mandatory to force the Health Service Executive to comply with them?
The Tánaiste: As the Deputy is aware, the Ombudsman for Children, having carried out a preliminary examination of the matter, indicated publicly today that she will decide whether further investigation is required. We will await the outcome of that process, after which a decision can be made.
Deputy Alan Shatter: I do not normally interrupt the Tánaiste but she has alluded to my concern. The Ombudsman for Children appears to be re-investigating a matter which has already been confirmed in the Department’s review, namely——
Deputy Alan Shatter: ——that the guidelines are not being complied with. I want to ensure the Ombudsman for Children’s investigation does not become an excuse for inaction by the Government because children’s lives are at risk.
The Tánaiste: A process is under way. The Ombudsman for Children will make decisions and the matters will be addressed in the child care Bill. It is intended to introduce the child care legislation this session.
Deputy Alan Shatter: In recent days, we have observed in England circumstances in which a young child lost its life due to the child care system being dysfunctional. Our child care system has been dysfunctional for decades under this Government.
I seek clarification on the pending legislation. The Tánaiste indicated that the measure announced yesterday was a tax relief provided in the form of a tax credit. When I telephoned the Department of Finance this morning, I was informed that the tax relief would be provided at the applicable rate, either 20% or 41% of the relevant sum.
Deputy James Reilly: This is important because people are confused. Why is this legislation being introduced? Are we being prepared for a serious hike in premia at a time when the VHI is making profits of more than €100 million and community rating is still in place?
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Thankfully, I am much younger than that. At this time of fluctuation on the international financial markets, I was pleased and reassured to note that the Government has a better regulation agenda and has promised legislation to consolidate and modernise financial services legislation. In view of the current international and national financial position, is it not advisable to introduce the legislation as a matter of urgency, with a view to generating debate and giving reassurance as to the Government’s intentions in this area?
Deputy Michael Creed: ——will the Tánaiste arrange for the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, to come before the House at the earliest possible date to account for the important decisions made at last night’s meeting?
Deputy Kieran O’Donnell: Last Thursday, the Tánaiste stated recapitalisation of the banks was not necessary at this time. The Taoiseach now believes the recapitalisation option needs to be considered. I support Deputy Burton’s call for a debate in the House.
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