Tuesday, 6 February 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 10, inclusive, together.
The Department of the Taoiseach recently published its revised statement of strategy, which reflects the priorities for the period ahead and the changes that have taken place since my appointment as Taoiseach. The establishment of a new configuration of Cabinet committees encompasses the Government's national priorities for the coming years. The statement of strategy reflects the Department's role in supporting the Taoiseach and the Government to develop a sustainable economy and a successful society, to pursue Ireland's interests abroad, to implement the Government's programme and to build a better future for Ireland and all of its citizens.
The statement of strategy, which is aligned to the Government's key priorities and policies, sets out six strategic priorities: providing excellent support services for the Taoiseach and the Government, ensuring Ireland has a sustainable economy, helping to ensure Government policies and services support a socially inclusive and fair society, ensuring Ireland maintains strong relationships in Europe and the world, ensuring the best possible outcomes for Ireland from the Brexit negotiations across all four priorities identified by the Government and planning for the future in the context of the many uncertainties arising in the international environment. It also incorporates the work of the Department linked to specific initiatives, including work relating to the Citizens' Assembly, data protection, strategic communications and a number of statutory inquiries.
Arising from the work to date of the Citizens' Assembly and the work of the previous Constitutional Convention, the Government has published an indicative timetable for a number of referendums in 2018 and 2019. The Government has a number of key priorities for the immediate period ahead. The Department of the Taoiseach, along with other relevant Departments, will assist in making progress with these priorities, which include Northern Ireland, the publication of the national planning framework and the ten-year infrastructure plan, the Brexit negotiations, the ongoing reform of the justice and health sectors, the doubling of Ireland's global footprint, reform of the Seanad, climate change, pension reform and housing. The protection of Ireland's growing economy is critical to ensuring Ireland is an equal society that creates equal opportunities for all of its people to participate and share in its prosperity. The new revised statement of strategy will guide the work of the Department in achieving these goals in the years ahead.
On the priorities of the Department of the Taoiseach, I referred during our discussion on the previous group of questions to the need for sectoral impact studies in the context of Brexit. I put it to the Taoiseach that we do not know what the sectoral impacts will be under the various scenarios that may emerge from the EU-UK deal on Brexit, if such a deal emerges. I am thinking particularly of the possibility of a Canada-style or a South Korea-style deal. There is a lack of clarity in respect of the services sector. I ask the Taoiseach to indicate whether further work on the sectoral impacts of Brexit will be published as part of the Department's priority work. If so, when will it be published? The Taoiseach gave commitments in that regard when he was appointed as Taoiseach. He said that detailed sectoral impact studies would be done under various scenarios.
I make the point that the Taoiseach's speech to the European Parliament was about the future of Europe. The entire purpose of Cabinet committee C on European affairs is to discuss that issue and issues like it. I am not talking about the mere speech itself; I am talking about proposals about the future of Europe emanating from the Government on behalf of the country. The Taoiseach promised that there would be consultation with the Dáil on such proposals. Is he now suggesting that when he goes off to speak about Ireland's position on profound issues like the future evolution and development of Europe, he does not have to consult his Cabinet colleagues, a Cabinet committee or indeed the Dáil?
I do not think that is the case. There is an onus to have full engagement with the Dáil on key issues about the future of Europe. For example, can the Taoiseach tell us if he has commissioned any studies on the impact of new digital taxes since this matter was last discussed? We know the Taoiseach is against harmonisation as we are and as are the people. What we do not know is whether concrete steps have been taken to move the discussion on digital taxation from broad generalities to hard specifics. Only when this is done can there be any idea about the implications for Ireland and other countries.
In terms of the Taoiseach's departmental priorities, clearly propaganda will be a core priority with €5 million being spent on priorities decided by the Taoiseach before any public consultation was launched. When this was last discussed, the Taoiseach laughed at the idea that he was deciding on ad buying. Of course he is not buying ads; he has an entire section created within his Department to do that for him. We were promised last year in the Dáil that the market research commissioned to guide the new unit would be made available to us before the marketing campaigns were implemented. This has not happened. Can the Taoiseach explain why it has not happened? Can he confirm that no campaign will be rolled out before the background documentation is made available for scrutiny?
There are many priorities for the Taoiseach's Department in the coming year. I would imagine that the publication of the national planning framework and, more significantly, its implementation are massively important. My party has engaged very extensively with this process and we have made a number of detailed submissions. We know it is important that we get this right. We all want a thriving capital city in Dublin, where there are huge pressures on public services, housing, public transport, infrastructure and population growth. We also need a release valve in different parts of the country and in the regional cities to ensure that we have significant population growth in areas outside Dublin.
There are concerns about the plan. We have an issue about the serious imbalance between the plans for urban and rural areas. We also have significant concerns about its proposals for the north west and the vagueness of the North-South dimension. Given the Brexit issue we discussed earlier, I imagine that an all-island and North-South impact and focus would need to be front and centre in any national planning framework.
In respect of the south east and my own constituency, there is hope for a very important project as part of the national planning framework. That is the North Quays, where €300 million of private sector investment is being put on the table and €60 million to €70 million of State funding is necessary to realise the project and get it over the line. This is one of a number of projects which need to underpin any national planning framework if it is to be successful and if it is to be aligned with capital infrastructure. Can the Taoiseach inform the House if plans and proposals like the North Quays project will feature and be properly funded so that we can actually allow those cities that will be identified as regional cities to grow their populations, provide leadership and provide the capacity that is necessary for the entire region and, in that case, the south east to grow and develop? I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could give a response specifically on that issue but also more widely on the national planning framework and its impact on the entire island.
There are many priorities one could talk about but I want to focus on one of them. I believe the Cabinet is, sadly, 11 years on, still discussing the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I hear that we are close to the moment when the Government will ratify it. While I hope that happens, I want to know what the Taoiseach intends to do to actually implement it and to ensure that people with disabilities receive the equality of treatment, support and services that they need to make the convention a reality.
I will cite one example of what I mean. We submitted a parliamentary question in the past week or two about waiting times for walk-in showers for elderly and disabled people in Dún Laoghaire. Quite to our shock, we discovered the waiting time is 18 months. Many of those people cannot be released from hospital and are blocking up beds because they cannot get a walk-in shower. The waiting list for ramps is ten months. People often cannot be released from hospital because of this and the council says it is because it has difficulty getting contractors to do the work. They are absolutely unacceptable waiting times for people who really need things such as ramps, grab rails and showers in particular because of the difficulty getting contractors; in other words, the outsourcing process is preventing it.
The obvious answer is to return to directly employing people in the maintenance departments of local authorities so they do not have to spend six or eight months trying to identify a contractor. We would then have people employed by the local authorities directly to go out and install these things for people with disabilities and the elderly. Would the Taoiseach consider that? The unacceptable situation in Dún Laoghaire is almost certainly replicated right around the country and it is people with disabilities who are suffering the consequences.
Beginning with the sectoral analyses with regard to Brexit, last week I listed the documents and studies that have been published already. I think there have been 20 or 30 and more are forthcoming. We need to acknowledge that they are largely speculative. We do not actually know what the new relationship between the UK and the EU is going to be or whether there will be a different relationship between Britain and Ireland specifically. I think we will have a better idea in that regard in the next few weeks. The most important thing and our priority at the moment is to ensure that there is a transition period so that we actually have time as individuals, as a Government and as businesses to prepare for any long-term permanent changes that may take place in the relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
In terms of my speech to the European Parliament, it very much reflected my own views on the future of Europe but was also in line with Government policy. The draft and text of the speech were shared with other Ministers and there was certainly nothing I said about tax or the multiannual financial framework with which the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, would disagree. Nothing I said about the future of Europe contained anything with which the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, or the Minster of State, Helen McEntee, would disagree. On Brexit, my words absolutely and totally reflected Government policy and priorities.
My Department is currently co-ordinating two information campaigns. One is the Healthy Ireland information campaign, which is a cross-Government initiative to encourage people to take charge of their health, improve their health as individuals and also to improve the health of our society. Another campaign that is now under way targets the self-employed and informs them of the supports that the Government provides for setting up businesses, the tax changes we are making to bring about tax equality for the self-employed and also the new benefits we have extended to the self-employed in recent years, such as paternity benefit, dental treatment benefit, invalidity pension on a non-means tested basis for the first time-----
That market research would be commissioned by this famous strategic communications unit to inform the campaigns that were going to be launched. The Taoiseach has launched campaigns without any market research being published from what we can see. That is all I am asking. Can the Taoiseach make it available?
Certainly if any market research has been done, I have not seen it myself but I have absolutely no difficulty with it being published.
In respect of the matters raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett, there is a labour and skills shortage across the construction sector which is causing difficulties. It is driving up tender prices and making it harder for us to accelerate house building to the extent we would like, notwithstanding the fact that there were probably more houses built last year in Ireland than in any year of the past decade.
That is a problem and it belies the fact that so many people here promise that if they were in government, they would be able to build tens of thousands of houses overnight or next year. That is not the case.
We have a labour and skills shortage but we are dealing with that by expanding the number of apprentices very considerably. We are seeing skilled construction workers migrating into the country again because they are paid better here than in other countries. Whether local authorities want to take people on as direct employees is entirely a matter for them and they can do so if they wish. However, let us not forget there are many sectors in which there is direct employment by the State, like health care, for example, where there also are skills shortages and labour shortages. The assumption that moving back to direct employment will eliminate a skills shortage is incorrect.