Dáil debates

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

Departmental Staff Data

1:05 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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1. To ask the Taoiseach the number of staff in his Department who provide supports for Independent Ministers in government. [50348/18]

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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My Department, as outlined in the strategy statement, provides assistance to the Taoiseach and the Government, including the Independent members of Government, through the Government secretariat, the parliamentary liaison unit, the programme for Government office and the Cabinet committee structure to ensure Government business is managed to the highest standards. The chief strategist for the Independent Alliance and the political co-ordinator for the Independent Ministers in government are also based in my Department.

The Government press secretary acts as a spokesperson for the Taoiseach and the Government and is assisted by the press office in his role of co-ordinating the media relations of all Government Departments. The deputy press secretary, who is also based in my Department, is tasked with co-ordinating communications for all the Independents in government.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The question was about Independent Ministers in government but I notice that Fianna Fáil's negotiators are to report back to their party leader on the state of talks with Fine Gael to renew the confidence and supply arrangement. Will the Taoiseach or even the leader of Fianna Fáil enlighten the rest of us as to the state of play in that regard? What is on offer and what is being demanded? What timeframe will the new confidence and supply arrangement cover? What role, if any, will the Independents who are propping up the Government play? Are they party to these negotiations? What is their role in the process? What asks, if any, have they tabled or are they, like the rest of us, in the dark about all of this? It is now two months or thereabouts since the budget. We are told discussions and negotiations have taken place in that time. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the parties of Government, talked a great deal about stability and certainty, not least because of Brexit, yet we have this most uncertain of situations. Will the Taoiseach enlighten us regarding my questions? I am sure that if he is not able to give full and comprehensive answers, his partner in government, Deputy Micheál Martin, will no doubt oblige.

Photo of John BrassilJohn Brassil (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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At least we have a Government.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I remind Deputy McDonald that this jurisdiction has a Government and that this House facilitated its formation unlike Northern Ireland, which has been without a government for two years, a record length of time. The people of Northern Ireland have no voice in any democratic forum because of very wrong decisions that were taken.

The Taoiseach will remember that he repeatedly said that everything needs to be branded as coming from the Government and that the extraordinary amount of attention paid to promoting himself and his colleagues is important because people need to understand that it is the State that is helping them. He then identified the expansion of childcare as a particular priority for Government publicity. In this respect, is the profile the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is giving herself regarding initiatives such as the Government-funded website, affordablechildcare.ie, acceptable? This website is headlined with a photograph of the Minister whose introduction implies that every support for childcare was created in the past 14 months. In addition, there is not the slightest mention of the Government or indeed the Oireachtas, which applied the pressure that delivered much of the new funding. Is this good or acceptable practice? Can the Taoiseach confirm to the House that Independent Ministers are subject to the same standards of oversight and accountability as those who belong to a party?

In the same vein, it has become a regular occurrence that public bodies are being requested to delay announcements and grants until a Minister is available to claim credit. While it has always been the case that a ministerial presence at an announcement can be helpful, it has been suggested to me that there are cases where the efficient running of programmes is being impacted by a loud demand from the centre of Government that nothing happen until the politicians are ready. Can the Taoiseach assure the House that this is not the case?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I am interested in the issue of branding because it seems that anything that is good or perceived to be good is delivered by the Government but I have noticed that all the very strong radio and television advertisements demanding people pay their TV licence or face jail are a matter for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Is it only good things that result from collective decisions? Who makes the decision about what gets branded? Is it an official, a committee or a working group? Who determines whether initiatives taken by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs' are her initiatives or initiatives of the Government?

Regarding supports to Independent Ministers, where stands the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten? Is he getting supports from Government? Is he part of the support base? If so, what specific supports are assigned to him?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The talks on the review and renewal of the confidence and supply agreement are ongoing between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The House and members of the public will know the outcome I have put forward, which is that we should not have an election until the summer of 2020 and we should agree a date for an election in the summer of 2020. I am very keen to get down to talking about the nitty-gritty and detail of what can be achieved for the public by the Government and Oireachtas between now and then in areas such as the economy, tax, jobs, health, housing, education, infrastructure and climate change - everything that we care about.

Given the way Brexit is unfolding in the United Kingdom, it may go on for quite some time and it would be responsible to give Ireland the stability and certainty of having a Government in place until the summer of 2020 so we can get through the entire Brexit period and perhaps most of the transition period. The talks are going on longer than I would like but I respect the fact that Fianna Fáil wants to do a detailed and in-depth review of what is happening in different Departments and I respect its wish that this be done. That is being done. I think eight or nine Departments have been reviewed. While the talks have been ongoing for a long time, they have certainly not gone on as long as the DUP-Sinn Féin on-and-off talks. In fact, I do not think those two parties are talking at the moment. It is always better to talk than not talk when it comes to getting things done for citizens. As Deputy Micheál Martin rightly said, the DUP and Sinn Féin now hold the international record for failing to agree a government and form a coalition.

As a result of that, people in Northern Ireland, Irish and British citizens alike, have been left largely voiceless over Brexit, unlike south of the Border. The number of people on waiting lists for operations and procedures is spiralling. Homelessness in the North is getting worse and people are forced to live on meagre welfare payments and pensions worth half of those in the Republic of Ireland. A large share of the responsibility for that lies with the failure of Sinn Féin to form a government in Northern Ireland.

The Independents in Government are not involved in the confidence and supply talks because it is an agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but I have given the Independents my commitment that Fine Gael will not sign off on a new confidence and supply agreement, or renewal, without them also being happy with it. Ultimately, any new agreement would fall to the Government, not just Fine Gael, to implement and I could not sign up to something which the Independents, in good faith, did not feel they could deliver on. That is where it stands. The Independents are not involved in the negotiations because Fine Gael has already negotiated a programme for Government with the Independent Alliance and the Independents in government and that runs for five years.

Childcare is a particular priority for Government and it is particularly important, and more important, to families, many of which struggle with the cost of childcare. It is an area in which Government has made much progress in recent years. Everyone is guaranteed two years of free pre-school, early childhood care and education, which I know many parents find extremely valuable. The Government has introduced the universal subsidy which gives a subsidy to any child in childcare between the ages of six months and three years. That is not means tested, which is important because hard-working middle income and middle class parents, who pay a lot of income tax, should also benefit from childcare subsidies and that is why we made sure there was not a means test for that particular subsidy.

There is also the affordable childcare scheme and there will be further improvements to that scheme in 2019. It will be put on a universal basis, merging the existing schemes into one. There will be an increase in the subsidies paid to low income families because they need it most, but it will also be extended to many more middle income families because they need help too. Middle income families, with combined incomes of about €100,000, will receive childcare subsidies from next year and that is only right and appropriate, given that they are the same parents who pay an awful lot of income tax so they should also get things back from the system.

It is absolutely appropriate that the public are informed about all this and I am glad that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is making sure that the public is informed of what is available to them in childcare supports. I do not regulate or control that in any way.

1:15 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is a big problem with the Government.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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She is the Minister in her own Department and is doing an exceptional job.

Deputy Howlin complained about the Government claiming credit for anything that is good but not wanting to associate itself with things that are bad. Often, when I am in this House, it feels like the shoe is on the other foot. The Government gets no credit for all the things it is doing and the successes it has achieved, whether that is employment at a ten-year low, a budget that is balanced, or perhaps even in surplus, ahead of schedule this year, rising living standards, falling poverty and so many other things I could list. The Government is solely to blame for everything that is going wrong and nobody else has any responsibility, not the Opposition, local authorities - nobody. I can understand Deputy Howlin's frustration but he can be sure that it works both ways.

The Government does not have any agreement with Deputy Naughten at present. As is the case with all Independents, we do our best to assist them with queries they may raise, particularly about their own constituency.