Wednesday, 6 December 2017
Leaders' Questions (Resumed)
I also want to refer to last night's "Prime Time" harrowing programme which focused on family members who were providing care for their loved ones. It highlighted the fact that the Government was failing in a very profound way those in need of care. It also painted a stark picture of the incredible stress and distress experienced by many families who were struggling to provide care with little or no support from the State. Today one in 20 people is a family carer, but that figure is set to rise to one in five by 2030. According to Family Carers Ireland, carers provide €10 billion in unpaid care each year. Census data show that there are 3,800 young carers under the age of 15 years and 29,000 over the age of 65. The human cost of the State's failure was evident for all to see and those of us who run constituency clinics see it every single day.
I have been raising with the Taoiseach for some time the case of Sam O'Carroll from County Louth. He is autistic and incontinent at night. He bangs his head, has broken his bed three times and can hurt himself. He had been receiving respite care from the age of 13 years, but lost this service on turning 18. Speaking about the loss of this service, Sam's mother said, "I can’t tell you the difference it makes having respite. If you know you are getting a break in two or three weeks time, you can carry on in between but if there is no break on the horizon ... That’s where we are now – there is nothing – that’s really really hard.” Sam has taken to having violent episodes and recently seriously assaulted his mother. A social care worker has stated he is a risk to his mother and that appropriate funding should be provided to ensure he receivess safe, secure levels of care, but that has not happened.
Brendan is 13 years old and has a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, which condition is life-limiting. He has profound and significant medical needs and is bedridden with bed sores. His mother has not had a break for weeks. I spoke to her on Saturday or Sunday last. Brendan has not received respite care for months.
The Taoiseach has a duty to ensure these citizens and their families will receive the necessary supports and services. I have a proposal for his consideration. A 20% increase in the number of respite care hours would cost €13 million and meet the expected demand. The provision of 2 million additional home help hours and 2,500 extra home care packages would cost €72 million. These are very modest proposals, but they would make a huge difference to the lives of these citizens. I, therefore, ask the Taoiseach to take and implement them as a matter of urgency. I ask him to make this a republic of opportunity for these citizens. Will he do what I ask?
As I acknowledged in my earlier contribution, I understand, as does everyone on this side of the House, the value and importance of respite care. It is hope on the horizon; it gives family carers the hope they need to continue doing what they are doing, knowing that they will get an evening or a weekend off. It is also very important for other members of the family. Often if there is one person in a family who needs care and attention, other children do not receive the attention they deserve. The fact that respite care is provided allows parents to give other members of the family the attention they need.
I can guarantee the Deputy there is no lack of understanding from this Government or on this side of the House of the value of respite and the need to make it more available.
In terms of the specific proposals made by the president of Sinn Féin, we are certainly happy to consider them in the context of the HSE service plan for 2018. As I have mentioned before, the budget for disability services, out of which respite is funded, has increased dramatically in recent years, from €1.4 billion in 2014 up to €1.59 billion the year after that, then to €1.558 billion after that, and it will rise to €1.763 billion next year. Therefore, there is a very significant increase in the budget for these services, and I understand there is a €75 million increase in the budget for next year. Exactly how that will be broken down in terms of additional home care packages, additional home help hours and additional respite provision has to be determined but we will certainly take into account any considered proposals that people have.
I expect the Taoiseach to come back to me on that, in his own time. Some 643,000 citizens are recorded as having a disability. Budget 2018 had no commitment to increase personal assistant hours or respite care services, despite the increased need for support. In fact, overnight hours of respite care for children with disabilities have dropped from 44,000 overnight hours to 40,000. Therefore, the Government is providing less despite the fact there are more requests for overnight respite care than ever before.
There is no real, fit-for-purpose way of getting these necessary and proper services for citizens with disabilities. It is chaotic and disorganised and is left to the endeavours of individual families. Parents have to become activists, campaigners and advocates on top of everything else. Sam and Brendan are citizens. Sam and Brendan have rights and it is our duty to uphold their rights. Their families have rights and it is our duty to uphold their rights also, but we are not doing it. Results count. I made a very modest proposal to the Taoiseach and he said he is going to come back to me. I will be back to ask him for a positive answer to that in the time ahead.
I will absolutely consider the proposal the Deputy has made. It has to be done in the context of the budget and the HSE service plan, and we will have to see whether his costings are correct because proposals that do not stand up and costings that are not correct do not merit much consideration. We will certainly examine what is being proposed.
In terms of what was announced in the budget, as the Deputy mentioned it, the budget provides an extra €75 million for disability services next year. A reduction in the prescription charge of 50 cent for everyone under 65 kicks in in a few weeks time. An additional 1,000 special needs assistants will ensure that people with disabilities get the educational opportunities they deserve and there will be 100 extra special education teachers. A €5 increase in disability allowance and a €5 increase in the carer's allowance are kicking in in March. We have secured additional funding for the decision support service, empowering people with disabilities to make their own decisions, so they do not have others making decisions for them. There will also be an extra €5 million for housing adaptation grants because, if people are going to stay in their own homes. Very often those homes need to be adapted to enable them to do so, and there was an announcement on that recently. In addition, in the next few weeks the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, will make an announcement on personalised budgeting and the progress we are making on that, giving more families the power to decide how the money is spent on their own care. Issues such as the number of home help hours, home care packages and personal assistant hours are all matters for the HSE service plan, which is yet to be finalised.
The Council of the European Union press release on PESCO has a promotional video that opens with the line, "In a troubled world, citizens want the EU to offer them more protection", followed by images of fighter jets, drones, Apache helicopters, armed troops running off military transport helicopters, aircraft carriers and warships, all to the tune of the kind of aspirational and emotive modern classical one would get on an advertisement for a new Mercedes car. Apart from that, there is no detail as to what exactly it will mean for those who sign up, especially in terms of actual warfare. The only thing that is obvious is that the arms industry is about to make even more money because, for some vague reason, we all need to be stocking up on guns and locking up our borders. What is this vague threat? Why does the EU need all these warships, fighter jets and aircraft carriers? The EU was set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours which culminated in the Second World War, or so it says on the European Union website. Now, it seems that if one wants to stay on the right side of the EU, one must sign up to enrich its arms producers. The German Defence Minister, Ms Von der Leyen, the main driver behind PESCO along with the French, said in 2014, "I believe that joint armed forces would be a logical consequence of an increasingly close military co-operation in Europe". After PESCO was set up in November, she said this was, "another step in the direction of the army of Europeans".
We seem to be the only country that is in denial and refusing to acknowledge that an EU army is being created. We are struggling to pay members of the Defence Forces a proper wage and some 335 Army personnel left voluntarily in 2017 alone, yet we are now going to join PESCO, which states that members must commit to year-on-year real increases in defence spending and investment. The speed at which the Council of the European Union has made this turn towards beefing up EU defence capabilities is frightening. In the space of seven months we have gone from arguing about €90 million of EU money being spent on defence research over a period of three years to the European Commission in June proposing the mobilisation of €40 billion by 2027 for research and development of weapons and military hardware through the European Defence Fund.
Our neutral status is already on a shaky footing. The lack of warning, debate and detail around joining this new military group, when we can join any time in the future, give us good grounds for fearing that this could be the final nail in the last notions of Irish neutrality. This matter is going to committee today and will be debated and voted on tomorrow. I did not hear one radio station mention it this morning and the public does not even know this is happening. There should be a proper debate in the public realm as well. Given that should take some time, I do not believe there should be a vote before Christmas. It is unfair to do so, given the people are, generally, unaware it is even taking place.
I have a clear view on this matter. My view is that a Europe that is worth building is a Europe that is worth defending. For a very long time, all of Europe has relied on the United States to provide for its defence. There are real threats to European security and, over time, rather than relying on the United States to defend Europe and pay for European defence, Europe should provide and pay for its own defence and not be dependent on the United States in the way it has been since 1945. That is what PESCO and European security and defence co-operation are all about. It is Europe starting to take responsibility for and control over its own defence, not relying on the United States in the way it has done until now.
In Ireland, however, we have a particular, different view. We have a long-standing tradition of non-alignment and neutrality, one that I and this Government will defend because we believe our non-alignment and neutrality makes us stronger and gives us more influence around the world. PESCO, for us, is going to be something different than it perhaps is for other countries. The reason we want to join PESCO is precisely because it is not what the Deputy says it is for us, because we are going to join it on an opt-in, opt-out basis. We will only opt in to certain programmes and certain parts of PESCO that we want to be involved in, for example, counter-terrorism, given all European countries need to work together to defeat terrorism. Cyber-security and peacekeeping are further examples of areas we are going to opt into. I can assure the Deputy we are not going to be buying aircraft carriers, we are not going to be buying fighter jets and we are not going to be shopping around military trade fairs for any of these things, as that is not in our interest.
Defence spending will rise. We have already committed to an increase in defence spending that has been set out in the White Paper since long before PESCO. That increase in defence spending will go into bringing our Defence Forces up to the level we want them to be at, that is, between 9,000 and 10,000. It will go into pay increases, which have already started but which will kick in across January and through to October of next year. It will go into new equipment because we need new equipment for our Defence Forces.
Yes, we are going to increase defence spending, but we are going to increase it moderately and we are going to increase it so that our Defence Forces can carry out the job that we want them to do.
When it comes to PESCO, we are proposing to join on an opt-in, opt-out basis, only opting into the particular operations and programmes that we want to be a part of. In doing so, we are joining three other neutral countries that have already decided to join - Sweden, Austria and Finland, countries with long-standing traditions of neutrality and of not being members of NATO and that have already made the decision to join. I think we should, too.
If the Taoiseach is so hawkish and so confident that this is good for us, I do not understand why he is not prepared to allow for a more public debate on it outside the House. Did the Lisbon and Nice treaties teach the State about allowing people to think too much about these issues? For a number of years, we have witnessed the increased militarisation of Europe. The Taoiseach can say that what is happening now does not affect our neutrality, but there are few neutral observers who would share that view.
The Taoiseach says that we have relied for too long on the US to defend us. We are a small island. We have no intention of attacking anyone and no one will attack us. Why do we need the American military to defend us? We do not need it. Neither do we need a European army or to be a part of one for this island to be protected. I will tell the Taoiseach how to keep peace - do not bother anyone else and do not go to war with others. We should also stop allowing Shannon to be used as a US military base and a stopover point for the US to cause destruction, which has created many problems in the past 16 years. Do we not accept the fact that, even though the world is a less safe place today because the amount of arms has increased, we are now going to sign up to arrangements that will make us a part of that?
I do not accept that I am being hawkish. I do not think that sending peacekeepers all around the world is hawkish. I do not think that sending ships to the Mediterranean to rescue refugees and pull children out of the water is hawkish.
I do not believe that using our Defence Forces and our police to train defence forces and police in unstable countries and new democracies around the world is hawkish. It is part of our obligations as global citizens and I think it is the right thing to do in the interests of our country.
We want to be involved in PESCO. Not on the same basis as everyone in Europe, but on an opt-in basis whereby we opt into programmes that we want to be part of, for example, peacekeeping, cybersecurity, counter-terrorism, sharing expertise, training and all those things-----
-----and being involved in those kinds of programme.
For other countries in Europe, PESCO is going to be something different. They are going to opt as a bloc, en masse, into everything because they want Europe to be able to defend itself. France is in a different place than us, for example. So is Germany. Even now 70 years after the Second World War, there are American troops in Germany as part of Europe's defence. Europe as a continent needs to move away from that. We should be able to defend ourselves and not rely on Americans to do so, but that is not why we are joining. We are joining coming from a particularly distinct Irish perspective, where we are a neutral non-aligned country joining on the same basis as Austria, Sweden and Finland, opting into programmes as we wish to do so.
On this particular issue, and as we are mentioning the Defence Forces, it is worth informing the House that a Defence Forces exercise is taking place today in the Dublin area that will allow them to practice various operational and tactical procedures. Approximately 500 members of the Defence Forces, including the Army Ranger Wing, explosive ordnance disposal team and specialist search engineering team will be in Dublin today. In addition, the Air Corps and the Naval Service will provide support. The Defence Forces are working closely with the Garda in this exercise. The exercise will also help them to develop their procedures with An Garda Síochána and other emergency services and build their preparedness. The Defence Forces constantly prepare on an ongoing basis to support the civil authorities in the event of a national security incident. This exercise today is a part of our preparations for that.
I was involved in negotiating the creation of an all-island electricity market with Ms Arlene Foster and Mr. Nigel Dodds. I mention this because of the lessons that were learned. We got the market over the line by saying nothing in public, by building trust and by doing the work behind the scenes. Does the Taoiseach regret that we were not slightly quieter and that we did not say less on Monday? Did our commentary throughout the day aggravate the difficult circumstances that were playing out? What did the Taoiseach say to Ms Foster that day in Enniskillen or subsequently? Did he set out the broad approach that we were following with our European partners?
The second lesson from the energy market process was that we got it over the line because we were committed to working east-west as well as North-South. Similarly, there is some agreement in the Brexit talks. I listened to Mr. David Davis, the UK's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, saying something yesterday that every Member of the House of Commons in Westminster said, namely, that the UK was seeking a regulatory alignment that would apply to all of it. Yesterday, the Taoiseach articulated that that was the first default position. Some sort of trade deal that would avoid a border with friction, be it east-west or North-South, would be delivered, although the Lord knows how.
The Taoiseach stated that, failing this, the second option would be a technological solution. We do not know what that would be, but we would be willing for the UK Government to propose ideas. That is a concession, given that there are no specifics.
As I understand it, the key element of the text related to something that the Government was seeking and on which we received agreement, namely, if those two options failed, there would be a backstop guarantee to the effect that, in the absence of agreed solutions, the UK would ensure full alignment with the rules of the Single Market and customs union and protect the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.
This morning in London, the British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. Boris Johnson, stated that the Border issue could "only be discovered in the context" of the second phase of the negotiations and that we should grate on through. On Question Time, the Prime Minister of Britain is making a cast iron commitment that it will leave the customs union and Single Market.
Is the Taoiseach's backline issue that, at the Council meeting on Thursday of next week, he will apply a veto to the talks progressing to the second phase if that backstop guarantee, which is not necessarily our desired solution or, as the Taoiseach stated yesterday, a nationalist grab, but is rather about trying to protect both communities on either side of the Border, is not given? Is that the key element that would stop the Taoiseach from allowing the talks going to phase two? Will the Taoiseach apply a veto or, if not, what is the way out of the impasse that has opened up before us?
I thank the Deputy very much. He will appreciate that this is still an evolving situation and it would be unwise and undiplomatic of me to answer his question as fully as I might like to in this Chamber, given that many people are paying attention to what we say here, and not just in this country.
Regarding last Monday, if the Deputy checks the record, he will see that I actually said nothing at all all day. I maintained a studied silence throughout Monday. The press conference, which I had arranged for 2.30 p.m. Irish time and choreographed for 3.30 p.m. Brussels time after the lunch was supposed to finish, was deferred precisely for that reason. I only spoke that evening after things had gone awry in Brussels.
I was in Enniskillen for the entire day, as the Deputy knows, on 11 or 12 November attending the events there, visiting the local hospital, speaking at the Royal British Legion and also having a bilateral meeting with Ms Foster, where we discussed, of course, all of these matters and the future.
It is important, though, to remind the House that this is a structured negotiation. We are not negotiating with a political party in the North, in Britain or anywhere else. This is a structured negotiation - on the one side the EU task force, led by Mr. Michel Barnier and into which we have a very strong input, and, on the other side, the UK Government. This is how this will be concluded. We are in a much stronger position being part of the European negotiating team and being represented by the task force as a Union of 27 countries and 440 million people negotiating with the UK than we would be in some sort of trilateral negotiation involving the Irish Government, the British Government and one of the parties in Northern Ireland. We are not going to do that. We are going to continue to negotiate as we have been up until now.
It is important to bear one thing in mind. I would like to quote something said in the House of Commons yesterday by a British MP or, rather, an MP from Northern Ireland who is British, Lady Sylvia Hermon, who is a unionist MP from North Down.
Although I readily accept that there are 10 duly elected DUP Members in this House, nevertheless the DUP does not speak for or represent all the people of Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State therefore take a few moments to explain to the House, and particularly all of the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, the benefits to the whole country of the proposals the Prime Minister took to Brussels yesterday?
We should remember that there are many voices in Northern Ireland. Even some unionist voices are very much behind the proposals taken to Brussels in recent days. We need to listen to all voices and parties in Northern Ireland, not just one.
I accept that the Taoiseach cannot answer the latter part of my question. I accept the import of what he said about having to conduct business in private to a certain extent. In my first question I referred to our relationship with the North. I agree with the Taoiseach that it is vital for us to maintain good relationships with the unionist community in the North which we have built in the past 20 years, as difficult as that is on a day-to-day basis. I would love to see the Assembly return to help that process, but we also need to play our part. I agree that we do not want to get into a trilateral debate in the talks. However, at some point the Taoiseach will have to pick up the telephone to talk to Arlene Foster. Does he have plans to do so? In recent days she seemed to indicate that the DUP had been completely outside the loop for five weeks and did not know what the text or structure was. Surely in Enniskillen or at other meetings we have had on an ongoing basis during that five-week period we broadly outlined the strategy and the backstop guarantees for which we were looking, but that is history. The key question is where we do go from here to try to restore good relations North and South. Whenever the Brexiteers sail off to a future on the Cayman Islands, we will be left together on this island and have to try to work, co-operate and build trust and relationships together. How does the Taoiseach think we can do that?
I have a slightly different view from the Deputy. I think it would be appropriate for all parties to see the text at the same time. Obviously, the European Commission, with our involvement, negotiates on one side, with the UK Government on the other. At the point at which texts are being shared with political parties, I do not see why the Green Party which operates North and South should not see the text at the same time as Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and the DUP. We should listen to all parties in Northern Ireland and not accept the idea which seems to be gaining prevalence in some parts of London and perhaps other places that there is only one party in Northern Ireland which speaks for everybody there.
I intend to speak to the Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, in the coming days. The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mr. Mark Rutte, is coming here today to meet me. There will, of course, be ongoing contacts at European level. As has been the case, the negotiations will happen between the Commission task force on the one side and the UK Government on the other. It is now the role of the United Kingdom to come back to us. I understand the Prime Minister is managing difficult issues. There are different views within her party on Brexit and she also has to manage a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP. I accept that she wants to come to an agreement and is acting in good faith. I want to give her time to speak to her party and partners in the confidence and supply agreement before we move things forward. I restate that it is the desire, ambition and wish of the Government to move to the phase 2 talks. We want to move to phase 2 and approve that move next Thursday and Friday in Brussels because it is in our interests to move to phase 2. That is when we will talk about the transition period we need in order that individuals and businesses will be able to prepare for long-term changes. It is also when we will talk about the new trading arrangements which will be so important for Irish importers and exporters, the agrifood industry and anyone whose job in Ireland depends on trade with Britain. We want to move to phase 2, but if that is not possible next week, given the problems which have arisen, we can pick it up in the new year. I have received confirmation from the Commission which is meeting now that we stand by the text which had been agreed to on Monday.