Tuesday, 6 March 2018
Before I call the leaders, I wish to bring to the attention of the House that, under Standing Order 29, the time limits for Leaders' Questions are ordered by the House. There are three minutes per question and three minutes for supplementary questions. We have not been adhering to that for quite some time. I put it to Members that if the leaders do not adhere to the orders and are regularly in breach of them, it is, in fact, disorder. If the leaders cannot be orderly, it is very hard to expect the followers to be orderly. I appeal to the leaders to adhere to the time limits laid down. I call Deputy Micheál Martin.
Last week, the Taoiseach was in full denial in regard to the activities of the strategic communications unit and the party-political nature of the advertisements related to the national development plan. I subsequently wrote to the Secretary General of the Taoiseach's Department outlining my concerns and complaints, and particularly what I believe to be a breach of the Civil Service code and the blurring of lines between the independence of the Civil Service and the promotion of a political party. Subsequently, at the end of the week, the Taoiseach indicated he had also contacted the Secretary General in respect of a review. However, the revelations in The Sunday Business Postconcerning the origins and intentions of the strategic communications unit have revealed far more detail than anybody knew about and than the Dáil itself knew about. It is interesting that the Taoiseach's Department resisted every attempt to release this information. It was released only on the instructions of the Information Commissioner. What did the Taoiseach have to hide? Why did he resist the release of this information? Is it because it revealed too much and gave the lie to the idea advanced by him on many occasions that the unit was at arm's length from him and the Government? We now know from the emails that it was anything but and that three weeks after Deputy Varadkar was elected as Taoiseach, he had a meeting with the Secretary General, the now-assistant secretary, Mr. Concannon, and his adviser, Mr. Brian Murphy, concerning the establishment of the strategic communications unit. It was his idea and he appointed a head. An audit began immediately of all Government expenditure and a memo was sent out by the assistant secretary, Mr. Concannon. The emails and issues discussed were quite revealing in terms of the level of activity that was ongoing.
What no one realised from the beginning was the idea that the Government or Taoiseach's office would seek to centralise and control up to €180 million in communications expenditure across agencies and Departments, channelling it all through the Taoiseach's office. That represents enormous purchasing power and enormous leverage for the Taoiseach's office with the media industry. It also represents the politicisation of established agencies, such as Bord Bia, IDA Ireland and the Revenue Commissioners, which are separate for a reason.
My question for the Taoiseach is whether, given his recent comments, he now accepts that the strategic communications unit should be stood down and abolished. Will he ensure that the independence of the Civil Service is ring-fenced from party-political promotion given what has happened over recent weeks? Will he agree to release all information pertaining to the establishment of the strategic communications unit and its relationships with third parties and the media industry itself?
Some parts of the country remain inaccessible by road and we have 20 Irish Water crews around the country trying to reconnect people to the water supply. The Leader of the Opposition's priority is the strategic communications unit.
It does show their priorities. It really shows why it is a good thing that the party that I lead and the Government that I lead, with the Independent Alliance and other Independents, is in office and not a party that is obsessed with spin and other people's communications.
The decision to establish a strategic communications unit in the Department of the Taoiseach to modernise, professionalise and streamline Government communications was made by the Global Irish Forum in 2011. The decision to do so was first announced to the Dáil in February 2013 by the former Deputy and then Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore. It was not followed through on at that point. However, I took it as part of my job when I became Taoiseach to follow through on that. It remains a good idea. In my view, Government communications are fragmented, siloed and expensive. It has been pointed out that €180 million was spent by Government Departments, agencies and semi-States on communications annually. There are 700 press officers and information officers across the public service, many of whom are not trained to do the job they are asked to do. They go from processing employment permits one week to being press officer the next to doing a policy job a couple of months later.
As a result, there are hundreds of external consultancies and these are very expensive. There are too many websites, logos and little empires. Ireland is an outlier when compared to other European countries in this regard. The idea was to streamline things; that is all. It was not to centralise everything in the Department of the Taoiseach. There was no proposal that specialist promotional agencies such as Tourism Ireland, IDA Ireland or Bord Bia should be controlled by the Department of the Taoiseach. That is absurd and a political charge. That was never intended, nor was it ever intended that it would apply to semi-State bodies, which are State-owned enterprises.
Rather, the intention was to collapse dozens of websites into one, namely, gov.ie, to train-up a dedicated press corps across the public service, to develop a single identity for the Government, which is the Government of Ireland, to run cross-Government information campaigns - such as Healthy Ireland, the campaign relating to the self-employed and others - and to empower the Government to communicate directly with the public.
I appreciate that the unit that I set up to better explain how Government works and what it does has now become a distraction from the work of the Government. I appreciate that mistakes were made, that controls were too loose and as a result, problems arose. For that reason, the unit is under review. The Secretary General is undertaking that review and will conclude before Easter.
There is nothing as grave or as fundamental as the independence of our Civil Service. That is something that will outlive any particular storm at any particular time. I will decide what I raise and when I raise it. I have plenty of opportunities to do so. There is nothing more fundamental in a parliamentary democracy. This is a parliamentary democracy system of Government, not a presidential system of Government.
I do not accept the rationale behind the audit of the strategic communication unit. Bord Bia has been the most successful food promotion board that we have had. IDA Ireland has been very successful. They have discrete, important communications agendas. The vast bulk of the €180 million in spending is with the agencies. However, let us look at the Departments. It took a long time to establish the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, particularly in terms of acceptance of the idea that a Department should have responsibility for children. The Taoiseach's first initiative was to grab the good news regarding the child care subsidy; that it must come through his Department. That is what happened.
I wish to put a key point to the Taoiseach. There was a party political dimension to the promotion of the plan. The strategic communications unit was about political promotion and not the provision of hard information.
Four marginal constituencies; Limerick City, Limerick West, Roscommon and Longford-Westmeath all just happen to have Fine Gael candidates emblazoned across advertisements that have been paid for by the taxpayers' money. The utilising of taxpayers' money for a political spin machine-----
In our political system every constituency is a marginal constituency. The last seat, if not the last two seats, in every constituency are marginal. The Deputy has his conspiracy theories about that. I have my conspiracy theory about the fact that two of the four controversial advertisements appeared in particular papers. The Deputy has a lot-----
There have been a lot of slurs bandied around. A lot of what the Leader of the Opposition has said has been personalised, it has been vituperative and it has even been venomous towards me and my staff and towards some people in the Civil Service. I regret this is the tone that he has adopted, but he has. Deputy Martin has made a lot of allegations, based largely on innuendo and conspiracy theories. The Deputy has presented scant evidence to back these theories up. He has alleged that I and members of my staff pressurised newspaper editors. What is Deputy Martin's evidence of that? All I see are anonymous claims from a third party, an agency that did not even have a contract with the Government-----
The Deputy has nothing on which to base these allegations. He has made a lot out of an email that has appeared in the newspapers with an instruction that content should be laid out as normal editorial. This email is from August 2017, which predates the establishment of the strategic communications unit and it relates to Creative Ireland, an arts and culture promotional campaign.
He said they were refused first. He said that it was interesting that the Taoiseach had concealed a lot of information and it was interesting that there was opposition to revealing information that was contained in a freedom of information request that The Sunday Business Postreceived. They were first refused and then they went to the information commissioner for the reasons why the Government refused to release it. The Deputy asked why did the Government hide and why would the Government refuse to release this material.
The Deputy opposite has been a Member of this House for longer than most people have been alive. He knows how the Freedom of Information Act works. There is a deciding officer and a Civil Servant decides what is released and what is not. They are not allowed to ask a politician about it. A politician is not allowed to direct them on what they should or should not release. One minute Deputy Martin accuses me of politicising the Civil Service and in the next minute he makes a bogus, false assertion and says that I should. He should withdraw that. The Deputy should apologise and withdraw that.
Deputies please. Whatever about strategic communications I do not know what the public looking in here thinks that this House is communicating to them. If the leaders in this House are incapable of adhering to the rules of the House then the Members must change the rules if they do not like them. As they are the rules, please do not continue to show the disrespect we have seen here today.
I believe that the Taoiseach doth protest too much on this matter. I am not entirely clear what is his assertion of his own personal conspiracy theory. I am not entirely impressed with the Taoiseach's political priorities. In budget 2018 the strategic communications unit was allocated €5 million. I will put this in context. This is one third of the additional money that was promised for mental health - so much for the Taoiseach's political priorities. This communications unit is now mired in scandal. The Taoiseach can rant and rave, he can point the finger and he can talk about conspiracy theories but that is now where it is at.
He said in October that there would be no political advertising or promotion of political parties and that the Civil Service and public sector code would continue to apply in respect of this unit, and this has clearly not been the case. That was a piece of spin in and of itself. The Taoiseach's spin unit has followed a strategy to promote Fine Gael in newspapers in a very underhand and unprincipled way by directing editors to present paid-for political advertising as regular news articles. He referred to the email courtesy of Ellen Coyne, who is not on these benches but on the media bench above. The email stated: "Part of our deal is that we don't have any moniker such as "Advertorial" or "special feature" or anything like that - it simply runs as normal editorial." The Taoiseach is right - this referred to the Creative Ireland campaign. However, the Taoiseach also knows that this was very explicitly the template to be used for all other adverts and that this strategy was explicitly articulated. In this email, the words I have just put on the record were followed by the words, "I do hope your editorial team understands this". I am very sure editorial teams fully understood it. This strategy is underhand and clearly designed for party political promotion. It was carried out using not just public money, but the resources of the Civil Service. As the Taoiseach knows, the Civil Service is prohibited from being used to advance the party political objectives of whomsoever is in government. This unit was not about informing citizens-----
-----but about promoting the Taoiseach's party. It was not about news, but about propaganda. It was not done to benefit the people, but to benefit Fine Gael. The Taoiseach now says he has ordered a review of the unit-----
-----and has asked Martin Fraser, a person for whom I have the utmost regard, to carry out that review. However, the Taoiseach can hardly ask any of us to treat this as a credible proposition because, while I mean no disrespect to Mr. Fraser, was he not the person responsible for the oversight of the Taoiseach's spin unit in the first place-----
If the Ceann Comhairle does not mind, I will further put it to the Taoiseach that not alone should this unit be stood down, but he and any other relevant officials should go before the Committee of Public Accounts to give a full account-----
To state some facts, the budget for mental health this year is approximately €900 million. It has increased by €150 million or €200 million in recent years. One can argue about how much the increase was but it was certainly a lot more than €5 million. It was probably closer to €35 million.
Therefore, I am not sure whether Deputy McDonald's assertions count as fake news or spin but they are certainly untrue. The €5 million budget came out of my Department's administrative allocation. My Department is one of the few Departments that had their budgets reduced for 2018, and I imagine that €5 million budget will be reduced further, if not eliminated altogether, depending on how the review goes.
The Deputy asserted that I or someone in my office directed editors to present advertorials as news. She should present evidence to back this up. The only evidence I have seen is that a company did that, a company that was a subcontractor-----
-----that she is trying to put across is that someone in my office or the communications unit, or perhaps me personally, did this. If she has any evidence for this, let her present it.
If the Deputy has any evidence of that effect I ask her to present it. She quoted some correspondence between Media Force and an unknown media organisation. What she did not say was that was an email that predated the establishment of the SCU. She implies it came from the SCU.
What she did not say is it related to Creative Ireland, which was an arts campaign - and a relatively uncontroversial arts campaign - that had no connection with Project Ireland 2040. If that is not spin and innuendo what is spin and innuendo? To present something that predated the SCU that was about a different campaign as somehow being the same as Project Ireland 2040 and as somehow being from the SCU-----
-----and to make allegations about a fourth party, a subcontractor, and somehow imply that what was done by a subcontractor must have been done by officials in my Department is pure spin. That is pure conjecture. It is also a slur, in my opinion.
So five by three is 15. Those were the additional moneys. That is a very clear demonstration of the Taoiseach's political priorities. This unit, by his choice and by design, resides within his Department. It is simply not an explanation for him to say that agencies at an arm's length are the accountable ones in terms of the use or misuse of public moneys. It does not work that way. The Taoiseach is in charge, the unit is in his Department and he is answerable for the ethical and proper use and spending of those moneys. That is why I have made the point that the Taoiseach and the officials associated with the unit need now to give a full and transparent account of what was spent and how it was spent.
Let me make this point also.
In the midst of all of this has been a very clear tactic on the Taoiseach's part, or officials or agencies on his behalf, to exploit the financial situation of regional media. That is not lost on people either.
The approach has been cynical. It has been underhand. The Taoiseach needs to stand this unit down and answer also the issue I raised with him on the Secretary General of his party - or of his Department, a Freudian slip perhaps - actually carrying out this independent review.
-----when she speaks about a public servant in that way. It is not that long ago that Deputy McDonald stood up in this Chamber and accused any number of people of having Ansbacher accounts and offshore accounts and they did not have them. She has yet to apologise for having done that. Once again, she has stood up here in this Chamber and maligned people who are not in this Chamber and I think that is wrong. It is not respectful. It is disrespectful. It is very wrong.
I understand in relation to this matter a complaint has been made to the Standards in Public Office Commission. It is chaired by a High Court judge. It is independent. It is the guardian of the standards Acts, the ethics Acts and also the electoral Acts. That is the best body in my view to carry out any independent investigation. I am happy to answer any case that needs to be answered if there is a case to be made there.
In relation to committees, I believe there are three committees looking for me to go before them. The committee I will go before is the one on finance, public expenditure and reform and Taoiseach. That is the one for my Department which, of course, covers the Estimates.
I understand the kind of thing that is going on here, which is try to inflict political damage on me and on the Government. It is a real shame that decent hard-working independent civil servants, not just the Secretary General of my Department-----
-----but also the 15 people working in that unit, are having allegations made against them and are having their reputations questioned but yet no evidence whatsoever is presented to back that up. All there is to it is a series of claims about an agency with which the Government did not even have a direct contract. That is the truth of it.
The last six days have seen an heroic effort in those areas affected by Storm Emma and the blizzard caused by the so-called beast from the east. That effort continues now. The impact on the east coast was extraordinary. The first official day of spring began with a number of counties blanketed in snow and ice. Communities have pulled, pushed and shovelled together, in a powerful display of the old Irish concept of meitheal, that is, working together to help our friends and our neighbours. Stories of the snow will not be forgotten for decades. I instanced one myself this morning on RTÉ, that of Mr. Declan Cunningham, an advanced paramedic with the National Ambulance Service based in Wexford General Hospital, and Corporal Steve Holloway of the Defence Forces. In the middle of one of the worst snowstorms in living memory, Declan and Steve were tasked to attend to an extremely sick child whose home was inaccessible. They trekked 2.8 km through snowdrifts to reach the boy, and then carried him 2.8 km back on foot to their Army ambulance. Every community, in my county and in many other counties, can tell stories like this. It shows the best of us in the worst of circumstances. We have been served incredibly well during the last week by a range of public services. I refer to our health services, our emergency services, our local authority workers working to the point of exhaustion and all who worked in those terrible conditions, from the ESB to Irish Water, from teachers to public servants, from Met Éireann to the Office of Emergency Planning. Our systems worked to make sure that we were warned in a timely fashion and thankfully, there were no fatalities.
However, this is the second red alert in the space of five months. The impact of climate change is far too real, and our country has to be prepared for stronger and more damaging storms and weather events. The first time a status red weather warning was issued was in advance of Storm Ophelia, during which, sadly, three individuals died. At the time, I raised this with the Taoiseach. When events like this occur, we need to know what specifically is expected of employers and employees in the event of a declaration of a status red warning. The Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, SIPTU, has called for clear protocols to be put in place. A review was to take place after Storm Ophelia, and a report was to be prepared and submitted to the Government task force on emergency planning. Members were told this would happen in January 2018. Can the Taoiseach tell Members whether the responsible Minister, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has submitted that report? Moreover, will the Government now prepare clear guidance and protocols to employers and employees who are affected by a red alert warning in the future in order that we can have absolute clarity across our country?
At the outset, I join Deputy Howlin in showing my appreciation, respect and gratitude to our emergency services and the work they have done in the past several days. I was in the ambulance base in Wexford on Friday and met that paramedic, and he told me the story of how he trekked across the snow.
I have been far too busy dealing with a national emergency and matters of state such as Brexit to organise invitations to Deputies personally in order that they felt included but I do genuinely apologise to the Deputy if his dignity was offended-----
In regard to the red weather alert warning, which was the question asked, this was an issue that was highlighted in the aftermath of Storm Ophelia. The review of the policy response to Storm Ophelia is approaching conclusion but has not been submitted to Cabinet. It will now be informed by the experience of the past week. As people will appreciate, the individuals involved in the National Emergency Co-ordination Group over the past week are the same people responsible for the review of Storm Ophelia, and their priority focus has obviously been to deal with the current weather challenges.
Our weather warning is divided into three categories - yellow, orange and red. Yellow means to be aware, orange means to be prepared and red means to take action. The issue of the red level severe warning is a comparatively rare event and implies that the recipients take action to protect themselves and-or their properties. Since this red warning system was put in place in 2013 there have been only six alerts, with only two having been issued at a national level, but those two have happened in the past six months. It is important to recognise that weather warnings issued for snow, high winds, rain and so on are quite different in their implications and, as a result, giving a one-size-fits-all answer on weather warnings simply will not work. Furthermore, it may result in services that are essential but not normally categorised as emergencies being closed down, creating greater problems.
For example, we would have had major issues over the past week if our hotels closed down. What would have happened to all the tourists who had booked in and to all the people stranded in the country? We would have had thousands of people on the streets if we told all businesses to close. That is why, while there will be further guidance, it will not be as simple as one-size-fits-all. It will depend on the circumstances, the location and the nature of the warning.
The Taoiseach finds it very difficult to answer any question without some personal slur. Red weather alerts are a matter of life and death. I am looking for clarity in regard to this. I am here a long time too, like Deputy Micheál Martin. Whenever there is a briefing on an issue like this for the Taoiseach, it is normal, and a matter of courtesy, to invite key local representatives and others to attend. That is all I am saying on this.
In terms of the net point, in the middle of the crisis the Minister for Health had to tweet a response countermanding a HSE memo on workers using annual leave to cover absences. What we need is clarity. These are no longer once-in-a-generation events and we have had two in five months. If, as the Taoiseach told me last October, there was to be a review and it was to be presented in January, where is the review and what is the policy? Let us debate it so we can have clarity for all these brave, heroic public sector workers the next time we face a red alert, and there will be a next time.
I understand the Minister for Health did clarify the situation using Twitter. It is a very succinct and quick way to get a message across and I noted that, within a few minutes, there were tweets from the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and the Irish Medical Organisation welcoming the Minister for Health's tweet clarifying the matter. Perhaps it is actually a good way to communicate directly.
The Government's role in this is to give the greatest level of clarity to employers as to the threats posed and the actions they should take themselves. I believe that, over the past week, the advice was clear and unambiguous. However, the final decision must be left to employers themselves, who know their own business best and who, in the vast majority of instances, will take the best decision that is in the interests of their staff.
With regard to compelling employers to pay wages for staff over the days the employer had to close or where staff could not make it into work, I would be reluctant to propose a one-size-fits-all approach. The vast majority of employers are responsible and want a good relationship with their staff, and vice versa.
I answered that. What I said in the first section of my initial answer is that the report is not ready yet. It is the same group of people who are doing the report who are dealing with the emergencies, and it has not been prepared yet.
The events of last week overtook that but it will be ready. I have asked the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Projection to continue to work together to review the guidance.
From practical experience of having been through this in the past couple of weeks, it is not as simple as offering a blanket instruction to employers. Employers need to take into account the nature of the work they do, where their employees are coming from and whether they can get home. With a blanket ban saying, for example, that all hotels should have closed, we can imagine the effect that would have had in the past couple of days, when everyone would have been thrown out of hotels onto the street. It is not as simple as a blanket ban. Think of the power stations, for example.
Last week the Rural Independent Group brought a motion before the House regarding the high costs of motor insurance and today I raise an issue of equal importance, namely, the spiralling cost of business insurance.
While Brexit is probably the number one issue of concern at the moment, the cost of insurance affects every single Irish business from a small shopkeeper to a large exporter. Many small business owners tell me this is the number one issue that is likely to force the closure of their business in the next two years, affecting their viability and ability to grow and expand. While I welcome the establishment of the cost of insurance working group and the publication of its report, action is not happening quickly enough and many businesses will close before there is a real reduction in insurance premiums, unless the Government takes decisive action now. Last week I listened to Michael Magner, owner of the Vienna Woods Hotel in Cork, who is also chairman of the insurance committee of the Irish Hotels Federation. While being interviewed on the "Today with Sean O'Rourke" show, he stated his own insurance costs had risen from €10,000 in 2006 to €86,000 in 2016 and to a staggering €156,000 last year. In my own constituency, McCambridge's of Galway, which is one of the longest-established businesses in Galway city, has seen its total insurance bill rocket from €20,000 in 2015 to €50,000 in 2016 and then to €102,000 in 2017. These are just two examples, I could list hundreds of horror stories. No business can sustain this.
Such is the concern that after a decade and a half, the Alliance for Insurance Reform was relaunched in January to represent businesses, community and voluntary organisations amid concerns that the spiralling cost of cover is causing firms like shops and pubs to go out of business. This group is headed up by Pat McDonagh of Supermac's, who has long been critical of the compensation culture that is to blame for much of the rising cost. He has used closed-circuit television, CCTV, in his business to try to reduce the number of fraudulent claims but he is still frustrated by the fact that claims are often settled by insurance companies without consultation, which in turn encourages others.
The number and diversity of businesses and voluntary organisations that have joined the Alliance for Insurance Reform since it relaunched is a clear indication of the level of concern among business owners about this issue. The alliance is calling for an urgent response from the Government to address the level of awards and the effective bypassing of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board as a means for dealing with claims. It wants to prevent exaggerated and misleading claims being pursued and settled and real transparency on how premiums are calculated, including information on how and why claims are settled.
Can the Taoiseach outline exactly what clear and decisive action is being taken right now by the Government to address this issue, which is affecting the viability of so many businesses and voluntary groups across the country?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I am very conscious of the impact of the rising cost of insurance and its enormous cost burden on individuals and in particular on businesses around the country. In recognition of the increased cost of insurance for motorists and businesses in recent years, a cost of insurance working group was established under the chairmanship of the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy D'Arcy. It examined the factors that led to increases in the costs of motor insurance and insurance for business. In respect of businesses specifically, the working group examined employer liability and public liability insurance areas as these represent significant business lines that have been identified by a range of business sectors as having increased disproportionately in cost in recent years. Work to implement the recommendations of these reports is now advanced and is well under way. It is hoped that the implementation of the recommendations will lead to greater stability in the pricing of insurance for both motorists and businesses.
We must remember, however, that neither the Minister for Finance nor the Central Bank can interfere in the pricing of insurance products. This is a private market and as these matters are of a commercial nature and are determined by insurance companies, they must be based on an assessment of the risks they are willing to accept.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response. The Alliance for Insurance Reform, relaunched in January, brings together 20 civic and business organisations from across Ireland. It represents 35,000 members, more than 600,000 employees and 41,300 volunteers. This time around, it is much more broadly based than in the past, taking in charities, festivals and sports organisations, as well as small and medium enterprises.
The alliance issued a statement today calling for the establishment, on a statutory basis, of a financial conduct authority to oversee the insurance industry on the back of the insurance companies having announced massive profits. For example, last week, FBD Insurance announced profits of €45 million and RSA Insurance Ireland announced profits of €10 million. Directors of the Alliance, Mr. Peter Boland and Mr. Eoin McCambridge, have called for the establishment of this authority as there has been no meaningful reform of the insurance industry despite the establishment more than 18 months ago of the insurance working group.
Will the Taoiseach commit to the establishment of a financial conduct authority to protect the interests of policyholders and revert to this House with a clear, meaningful change on insurance costs for businesses?
I cannot give a commitment that I will set up a new authority. It is often the solution in Ireland to set up a new authority but it does not always solve the underlying problem. The people referenced by the Deputy are a serious group of people and we will take their proposals on board. The Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, who is taking the lead on behalf of the Government in regard to reducing the cost of insurance for individuals, homeowners, motorists and business, has invited them to meet him to discuss their proposals. I welcome that the Deputy has raised this issue. As I said, the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, is keen to meet the group and to examine its proposals with a view to making some progress on them.