Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions
Departmental Strategy Statements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
My Department, as outlined in the strategy statement, provides support services for the Taoiseach and the Government. As part of this service, the parliamentary liaison unit was established to perform a liaison function to help ensure that Ministers and Departments are properly and fully informed of new responsibilities and procedures in the Thirty-second Dáil. The unit provides support to Ministers and their Departments on Oireachtas matters with a particular emphasis on assisting Departments with Private Members' business. It provides Departments with detailed information on the rules and procedures with regard to Private Members' business.
In performing this function, the unit liaises on a regular basis with advisers to the Independent members of Government, including the chief strategist for the Independent Alliance and the political co-ordinator for the Independent Ministers in Government, to ensure that they are informed of Oireachtas issues and to assist them in engaging with the new processes arising from the Dáil reform changes. In this regard, the parliamentary liaison unit provides detailed information on upcoming matters in the Dáil and Seanad and highlights any new Oireachtas reform issues for their information.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government that arrangements with Independent Ministers and Deputies would be fully transparent, open and accountable, and certainly that such deals that are in place would be published. A cynical public would expect this course of action. Therefore, I ask what deals have been done, particularly with various Independent Ministers and Deputies. Many of these Ministers and Deputies are claiming success in various projects in their constituencies arising out of the negotiations establishing the Government last year and the public need more information in this regard. We need to be open, transparent and accountable. There is much secrecy about this. In regard to staff, for example, are special staff being seconded for these Independent Ministers and Deputies in order to shore up the Government? In the interests of openness, transparency and accountability, the public needs to know.
I also raise the issue of the deal done with the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, in regard to Beaumont Hospital. There is a commitment in the programme for Government for a new emergency department and a dedicated cystic fibrosis unit in Beaumont. I asked the Taoiseach about this previously and got a note from the Minister for Health, but it does not look encouraging. It does not look like it will be in the capital plan for 2017. There is much discussion and negotiation, committees are looking at it, etc. We need to add some impetus to that project because it is in the programme for Government. I hope the Taoiseach can update me on the situation.
For the information of Deputy Haughey who asked this question previously, arrangements have been made by the Government, which has a different structure of government than any previously in a situation where there is a supply and confidence agreement with the Deputy's party, with Deputy Micheál Martin as leader, and which is set out to be followed. The same applies in the case of the Independent Alliance and any others who support the Government. All of these have been published.
This liaison unit does not have anything to do with that. It is staffed by a principal officer, a higher executive officer and a clerical officer. As I said, it provides support for Ministers and their Departments on Oireachtas matters with particular emphasis on helping with Private Members' business. As the Deputy will be aware, amendments can be quite complex and detailed and the structures of that are explained to Ministers and their Departments as to what particular amendments might mean. The unit does not have any political function, for example, in dealing with Beaumont Hospital or a new emergency department there. That is an arrangement that has been agreed, between, in this case, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the Government, and to fulfil that it must be able to be the subject of discussion by the Minister for Health and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and be in compliance with best practice. However, they all have been published.
When Deputy Haughey states there is a need for transparency, openness and accountability, I share that view. The Deputy is long enough in the game to understand that people will jump at the first sign of seeking credit for issues that might just happen. Of course, anybody in politics who looks for credit anyway is a fool because the public will move on to the next item very quickly indeed-----
-----not that Deputy Haughey ever sought that kind of shallow outcome for his politics.
All these aspect are published and the staff involved comprises, as I stated, a principal officer, a higher executive officer and clerical officer. They do not have a political policy function. They explain the workings of the new changed Dáil, including Private Members' time and Private Members' legislation, and explain to Ministers the detailed rules and procedures that now surround Private Members' business.
The Department of the Taoiseach's strategy statement for 2016 to 2019 contains one line which refers to support for Independent Ministers in Government. The Government exists by the gift of Fianna Fáil and the involvement of some Independent Deputies in the Cabinet. The deal with the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, has already been referred to. In recent weeks, we have also seen how the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, has been able to step outside of his ministerial brief and pressurise the Government into adopting new procedures for the appointment of judges. On other occasions, the support of individual Deputies has been dependent on the Government meeting their demands for specific investments in their own constituencies. Last autumn, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skill, Deputy John Halligan, threatened to resign if services were not increased in his local hospital. All of this is reminiscent of times past when Fianna Fáil was in a Government supported by Independents and Fine Gael was criticising such arrangements.
The Taoiseach's Department has responsibility for managing the Ministers of the Independent Alliance. Given that the Dáil will vote on a new Taoiseach shortly and that a transition will take place in the make-up of the Cabinet, has the Taoiseach been involved in any conversations with his soon-to-be former Cabinet and ministerial colleagues about their support for the next Taoiseach?
In respect of the issue that the Deputy raises, it is important when an election is over that the judgment given by the people is then considered carefully to see is it possible to put a government together. It took some time to put this one together last year. It is a Government of the Fine Gael Party supported by the Independent Alliance, a number of Independents in Cabinet and some others outside, and of course, the main Opposition party, Fianna Fáil, in respect of a confidence and supply agreement.
Part of the discussions that took place at the outset was about a change in the way that members of the Judiciary are appointment. Deputy Nolan will appreciate that the Constitution is clear in that the Government makes the appointments and the Cabinet must have choices when making those appointments.
Part of the discussions with the Independent Alliance was about the nature of that structure. As the Deputies are aware, the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, JAAB, has been around for quite a number of years. That board assesses the credentials, legal experience and the kinds of cases that candidates may have heard to determine their suitability for appointment to the District Court, Circuit Court, High Court, Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court. What was approved yesterday by Government was the Judicial Appointments Bill which will now proceed through the Houses and hopefully become law this year. The other Bill in respect of the conduct and the oversight of conduct by members of the Judiciary is the Judicial Council Bill.
This does not represent a Minister stepping outside his brief. In this case, the Minister, Deputy Ross, working with his group of Deputies, said that this was an issue that they considered to be very important. It became a focus of discussion between the parties in terms of including it in the programme for Government. That is why it is there in the published document. In the case of Waterford, this was not an issue that came out of the blue suddenly. There was a very particular letter issued by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, which had been considered very carefully by the medical personnel in Waterford. The Minister has responded with a mobile unit providing cardiac facilities in Waterford.
It is not that there were any secret deals done here. We had a situation, before Deputy Carol Nolan came into this House, where a deal was done with a particular Independent Deputy who used to say that it was worth "milluns" but nobody ever saw what was in it. That meant that whatever arrived in tír na ríthe down in the south could be claimed as being part of the agreement and the deal.
All these points have been published and the unit just provides the procedural, detailed information for Deputies, Ministers and their Departments.
I will pursue those two points again and hopefully we will get a little more clarity from the Taoiseach on them. I have no difficulty with any member of the Government pursuing areas outside his or her own direct purview. The Cabinet acts as a collective and that is quite proper. I am more concerned about the reports in last week's Sunday Business Post that after a year of lecturing us all on the probity and unacceptability of political interference or political selection of judges, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport said that not only did he hand pick them, he went through each application with a fine-tooth comb. Is that proper? Does the Taoiseach think it is proper that before judges are appointed, an individual member of the Cabinet would do that? I can only imagine the high dudgeon if any member of the Fine Gael Party or a member of any party in a previous Government made that assertion when the current Minister was sitting in the back row of the Opposition benches. He would have gone into high indignation at the notion that such political, improper interference in judicial appointments was occurring and yet he used a "fine-tooth comb" on each individual application and if they met his personal assessment, they were deemed appropriate. Apparently that is not political interference because the Minister, Deputy Ross, is, as I said yesterday, like Donald Trump - he is not a politician. He is to be seen in some different light. He is not contaminated like the rest of us who were elected to this House, apparently.
I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's view on that.
Regarding the Taoiseach's assertion that there is a mobile catheterisation laboratory in Waterford, I spoke on local radio this morning on this very subject. A bilateral arrangement was committed to, subsequent to the Herity report. That report, which was a sop to the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, had terms of reference which led to a conclusion that did not please the Minister of State or the people of Waterford and the south east. The conclusion was that there would be a mobile unit in the first quarter of this year. We are well beyond that now and still there is no comprehensive, 24/7 catheterisation laboratory facility in the south east.
As the Taoiseach said, for nearly two decades the principle of the Department of An Taoiseach having specific procedures for contacts with Independent Deputies supporting the Government has been accepted. The current arrangement is a little unusual in that one such Independent, Deputy Lowry, keeps telling his constituents that he has an arrangement with the Government and that he is getting preferential treatment but the Government keeps denying this. The questions posed to the Taoiseach address a more novel innovation, namely, special support measures for Independent Deputies who are Ministers. Every one of them has political staff of their own so it is unclear as to why extra staff would need to be paid for from the public purse. The liaison unit to which the Taoiseach referred has three staff members. At Cabinet level none of the three Independent Ministers is part of the same electoral or even Dáil grouping so it cannot be argued that this is similar to any past arrangement for smaller parties. Is it not true that the extra staff have been put in place specifically for the Minister, Deputy Ross, and his group? What is quite interesting is that the extra staff were hired after he got a run of very bad publicity. It is a bit like the Donald Trump situation. He did not like all the negative headlines and wanted something to be done about it.
How would Shane Ross, the tireless campaigner against political costs and expenditure, have reacted to the costs that he has now imposed on the State for supporting his political grouping and for making sure that he is political squared off on every occasion? Does the Taoiseach think that Shane Ross, the great campaigner on cronyism, political costs and so on, bears any relation to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport who now needs extra political staff to shield him and to help him out when he is going through difficult and choppy waters? I ask the Taoiseach to comment on that. Does he think that some major transformation has occurred in the Minister, Deputy Ross, who was on the Opposition benches and the one who is now under the Taoiseach's shield and umbrella?
Well, his name is Shane Ross, not Walter Mitty. I must say that his brief carries him into stormy as well as calm waters. As someone who has been a national journalist for many years, he has learned a good deal about the responsibilities of politics at ministerial level. I am very happy with the way that he goes about his business.
In respect of what Deputy Howlin said, he will be aware from his own experience that Cabinet operates on the basis of collective responsibility. All the candidates whose names came to Cabinet were deemed to be experienced, professionally competent and suitable to be nominated to the particular bench to which they applied. It is not a case of somebody going through the file and the experience of each nominee-----
I can confirm to Deputy Howlin that when the nominees were presented by the Minister for Justice and Equality, they were accepted in the normal way by the Cabinet, unanimously and without any comment. I do not want to say anything about newspaper reports and analysis. All the nominees were cleared by the JAAB as being competent and professional. The new Bill, when it is passed, will reduce the number of nominees for each position but it will still be the responsibility of Cabinet, under the Constitution, to make the choices.
I acknowledge the mobile unit is not yet in place. Obviously, the Minister for Health is conscious of that fact and is working on the matter. That was the outcome of the discussions that were held with the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, at the time.