Tuesday, 29 January 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
The Government legislation programme was published on 15 January and sets out our legislative priorities until March 2019. There are six Bills on the priority list for publication this session. Three are Brexit-related; the miscellaneous provisions (withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 29 March 2019) Bill, which is the primary legislation for the spring programme; the regulated professions (health and social care) (amendment) Bill; and the European Parliament elections (amendment) Bill to enable the number of MEPs for Ireland to increase. The remaining three Bills on the priority list consist of the constitutional amendment Bills necessary to facilitate the referendums on extending the right to vote in Presidential elections to Irish citizens abroad and to change the law regarding divorce, as well as enabling legislation to establish a tribunal to deal with issues regarding cervical cancer screening.
The programme reflects the need for the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to prioritise work on Brexit-related legislation to ensure that the necessary primary and secondary legislation can be enacted and commenced by 29 March 2019 in the event of a no-deal Brexit. As part of the Government’s contingency action plan, the miscellaneous provisions (withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 29 March 2019) Bill comprises vital legislation that will need to be enacted prior to 29 March in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The general scheme of the proposed primary legislative actions was published by Government on 24 January. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, is the lead Minister for the overall Bill and will lead the Second Stage debate on it in the Dáil, assisted by the Minister of State for European Affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee. The draft Bill focuses on the broad themes of protecting our citizens and assisting the economy, enterprise and jobs. Amendments to the Interpretation Act 2005, which would be required in the event of an orderly Brexit with a transition period, are also included. As set out in the Government’s contingency action plan and in the update provided on 15 January 2019, work is progressing in parallel on the required secondary legislation. On 15 January, the Government approved the drafting of statutory instruments covering a wide range of issues where secondary legislation is needed, from recognition of driver licences to recognition of some qualifications.
As timelines are tight, the Government will work very closely with all Opposition parties in the Oireachtas and all Members of the Dáil and Seanad in ensuring that the necessary no-deal Brexit-related legislation will be in place before 29 March. This Bill will complement the steps currently under way at EU level to prepare for the UK's withdrawal, notably as regards the implementation of the European Commission's contingency action plan and the associated legislative provisions. The draft omnibus Bill may need to be adjusted in light of ongoing developments.
Aside from the legislative priorities, the spring programme also includes 32 Bills that are expected to undergo pre-legislative scrutiny and work is under way on a further 91 Bills. Work is also continuing on other legislation across all Departments and several Bills that are at an advanced stage will be introduced in the coming weeks to be progressed alongside those currently on the Dáil Order Paper. Those on the Order Paper include the National Surplus (Reserve Fund for Exceptional Contingencies) Bill 2018, the Health Service Executive (Governance) Bill 2018, and the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2018. It is intended to prepare and publish a further legislative programme towards the end of March.
Last Friday, only after significant pressure from the Opposition, the heads of the Brexit legislation were finally published by the Government. Even though Ireland is the country which would be worst hit by a no-deal Brexit, we are near the back of the pack when it comes to legislative preparations. In fact, we are by some distance the least prepared of the economies that would be significantly exposed to a no-deal Brexit. For example, the Dutch published their draft legislation early last November. It was sent to the parliament where it was discussed and suspended until this week, when the government negotiated amendments with the opposition. Because legislation was published two months ago, it has been scrutinised and the opposition has been given full access to Ministers, officials and background work.
Now that we have draft legislation we need the background material relevant to the various sectors covered by the overarching Bill to be published. There are as many as 11 different sectoral impacts. We need to see the analysis that lies behind the proposals and whether the measures proposed address the issues that have been raised over the past two years in different fora and studies. Can the Taoiseach give us an assurance that he will immediately publish this background work? In regard to the drafting of statutory amendments, there might be a need for a more comprehensive presentation to the House on the detail of all of those statutory instruments.
Given that today the Taoiseach has finally published the Government's assumptions on the fiscal impact of a no-deal Brexit, can he explain why he refused to provide this information on the many occasions we have asked for it in the past two months? Interestingly, the projections published today show a significantly lower impact than that projected by the Central Bank study only a few days ago. As the Taoiseach knows, the Central Bank is headed by an eminent economist who is the favourite to hold Europe's most important economic post. Can the Taoiseach explain the basis on which the Government has decided that the impact of a no-deal scenario will be lower than that projected by the Central Bank of Ireland?
I wish to speak about the omnibus Brexit legislation, the heads of which were published last Friday.
Obviously, we need to have a methodology. How will the detail of that be discussed with the Opposition? Will there be briefings on the component parts of that on a spokesperson by spokesperson basis? Is the Bill to be dealt with entirely in a committee of the full House? I honestly submit that is the best way to do it. The notion of referring it to a particular select committee with either Ministers or spokespeople alternating would be cumbersome and not the correct way to do it. Also, the importance of this legislation commands the centrality of this Chamber. I ask the Taoiseach to agree to that.
The exact nature of the legislation to be enacted will be contingent on decisions that are being made this week and next week in the House of Commons, in Westminster. I am reluctant to even put this in these terms but I will come to that. The British Prime Minister today is lobbying her own backbenchers to vote for an amendment that undermines the withdrawal agreement and the backstop that she negotiated and agreed to formally twice, and persuaded her Government to formally endorse. It is a backstop that was largely shaped by her own red lines and her submission that it would have all UK application. How can Ireland negotiate with somebody who formally negotiates for a year and a half, and agrees, but is now seeking to undermine the very agreement arrived at? Is that a basis on which we can continue to engage in good faith?
I appreciate that when there is a live negotiation any commitments made to mitigation or legislative measures have to be weighed against the dynamic and the positioning of the Irish State in that negotiation. Having said that, time is running short now. I would certainly welcome it if we could see the legislation before 22 February. It is imperative that we have ongoing briefings not just at leadership level but spokesperson by spokesperson. I am convinced by Deputy Howlin's suggestion that this be processed by means of a committee of the House. It seems to me to be the least cumbersome mechanism to do that.
We established that we are of one mind on the backstop. We expect that Dublin will remain firm in its resolve and that whatever happens in London, the Taoiseach will not be not convinced, cajoled or pressured to give way on the very basic protections that are required for Irish interests.
On the issue of contingency planning, where we part company and where there is a very significant gap in the Taoiseach's thinking is on the commitment to prevent a hard border on the island at all costs. He will have seen the conference in Belfast. The Minister, Deputy McHugh, was there on behalf of the Government and spoke very well. The Taoiseach will have seen the activism on the Border over the weekend and also the polling data, North and South. Nobody wants a hard border. In fact, a hard border will not be tolerated. The big gap in the Taoiseach's planning, if I can say it to him again, is the fact that he will not rely on the Good Friday Agreement and its provision for a border poll in the event of a crash Brexit-----
-----even though the Irish people are now telling him that given a scenario of a crash and a hard border, people want the opportunity to resolve the issue of the Border themselves democratically and to opt for a united Ireland. I want to impress on the Taoiseach again, and I hope he got feedback, that the genie is out of the bottle on this one. Indeed, I hope Deputy Micheál Martin got feedback from Deputy Calleary, who also spoke at the conference. The debate is under way. The responsible thing for the Dublin Government to do now is to plan-----
Briefly on that, the Taoiseach should start to prepare the ground for a border poll in the event of a hard Brexit and any effort by anybody to erect a border. It is a basic democratic call at this stage to let people make their decision if that eventuality occurs.
My question is more generally about the Taoiseach's legislative priorities. I urge him to make a priority of legislating to change the income thresholds for social housing because an absolute cull is happening of the social housing waiting lists where much of the time people are being forced because rents in the private sector are extortionate to do overtime on a regular basis or get marginal increases in their income that do not allow them to buy a house on the private market or pay the extortionate rents but are then taking them over the income threshold for social housing, which has not changed since 2011.
I was talking to a council worker the other day who has been on the list for years. In his wildest dreams his income would not buy him a house in the greater Dún Laoghaire area where rents are absolutely shocking. To pay his rent he has been forced to do Saturday overtime for the past year and a half or two years, and he has to do it because there are staff shortages, but he has now been taken off the housing list. That is happening again and again. A nurse came into our office recently who is on the housing list since 2004. She has just been taken off the list because her income has gone marginally over the limit. That is not acceptable. I would not mind if the Taoiseach had an affordable housing scheme, which he promised, so that those who go over the limit have some alternative available to them but despite promise after promise, we do not have an affordable housing scheme. Is the Taoiseach going to raise the income threshold for social housing to stop this cull of people from the housing list or, at the very least, could he say that basic pay is what should be taken into account? It is outrageous that marginal increases in income because of overtime that is enforced should take them off the housing list that they have been on for years.
To return to Brexit, last week there was a lot of speculation that in the event of no deal we might end up with border controls in Rotterdam or Calais. Unfortunately, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, in answering a simple question on what would happen in such circumstances stated that the dead parrot that is the withdrawal agreement would suddenly be alive and would fly again. That was not believable. In Davos, the Taoiseach then seemed to indicate that we might see Army personnel back on the Border. That has created a real sense of confusion and those in Westminster are using it by saying it represents confusion in the Irish position, which gives them hope that we may move. Will the Taoiseach clarify something in fairly simple terms? I presume the Government's line is that we will legislate for the package of measures in the event of no deal but the key issue around how exactly the Border would work is only something we would continence once it becomes a reality. We do not want to negotiate in advance. Is that the Government's position? Will the Taoiseach clarify that confusion, which has not helped matters and which became apparent last week?
The legislation on Brexit will the most important, complex and technical to come before the Dáil for quite a number of years. The only more significant legislation I can recall in recent history is the ill-fated bank guarantee and the NAMA legislation. When we are talking about very complex legislation, if we fail to have adequate scrutiny and understanding of it, we often end up with bad outcomes that we spend many years seeking to redress as all the information resides with Government for obvious reasons. Has the Taoiseach considered whether individual Deputies, parties or spokespeople should have additional resources, specifically in terms of legal resources? Second, in the analysis supporting the Bill, it is very important that we understand the relationship of the proposed legislation to the Belfast Agreement.
In terms of the future of the island, it is absolutely important that we both protect the Belfast Agreement and that we have a clear understanding of what we are doing legally, but from talking to lawyers, there seems to be a wide swathe of difference in what we are doing. Has the Taoiseach given any thought to how to address this?
We have a bit of a dilemma because the time for this question is gone. The Deputies have asked their questions but there is no time for an answer. Do Members want to take time from the other questions and give the Taoiseach an opportunity to respond?
I will do my best. I was asked about the legislation at the start and we will have the legislation done on time. Some countries have no legislation done and I am not sure the British will have the legislation done on time but we will. The heads have been published and the Bill will be published on 22 February. If we can publish it any sooner than that, we certainly will do so. It is simpler than Members may think and I am not sure what background information there is to publish. What the officials did was go through all the different areas where legislation may be required and they came up with 17 different areas where we would require primary legislation and then other areas where we will require secondary legislation. Members have that information on the different areas such as healthcare, business, communications and so on. I do not need to go through them because the heads have been published.
On the procedure, as indicated when I met the party leaders last week, we will consult with the Opposition on the appropriate procedure. I heard some support in the House for taking this legislation in a committee of the House. That makes sense to me because it means the lead Minister, Deputy Coveney, or the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, can be there and the line Minister can also be there. Splitting it up into nine different committees or having Ministers coming in and out of the same committee would be unworkable. I am conscious that I do not have a majority in the House and will require the support of the Opposition to get this through. I would be happy to have those conversations again, either at the level of Whip or at party leader level.
On the fiscal impact, the Department of Finance's projections in the event of a no-deal hard Brexit were not published sooner because they were only finalised last week and they had to go to Cabinet first. I would say that the Central Bank projections are similar, with the Department of Finance's projections being a little bit more optimistic. However, the ESRI and Copenhagen Economics projections were much more optimistic than the Department of Finance's ones. The difficulty with economic and fiscal forecasts is that they are just forecasts and nobody knows for sure what impact a hard Brexit with no deal would have on Ireland. We do not know how much it would affect consumer confidence, for example, and at what level tariffs would be imposed by the UK, if at all. These are assumptions but we have to build our budget and we have to operate on assumptions and these are our revised assumptions.
The public finances indicate that rather than having a small surplus in 2019, the budget will go back into a deficit of about 0.2% of GDP, that the deficit would rise to 0.5% of GDP in 2020, that it would rise again in 2021 and that we would then go back into surplus in 2022. In many ways, it proves the position that the Government took around budget time to be correct. There were many people in this House, particularly on the left, arguing that we should spend more and fund that spending through additional borrowing and because we did not take that advice-----
-----and because we kept borrowing at a minimal level, we now have the capacity to borrow. This is exactly what I mean when I talk about breaking out of the boom and bust cycle. What we saw in the past was that-----
What we saw in the past, during times of economic growth and times of boom, was that Governments fuelled that and cut taxes and increased spending at unsustainable levels and when we ended up in a financial crisis, there was no headroom and no money and austerity was imposed on people. We will make sure that does not happen no matter what happens with Brexit and because we have managed the public finances prudently in recent years, we can afford to run a small deficit for the next couple of years if we have to. That means we will not have a return to recession or to austerity measures in the event of a no-deal hard Brexit. However, it means that we will not be able to deliver the levels of increased spending that we might have wished to have done, or that we still intend to do should we able to secure a deal.
On the Good Friday Agreement and a Border poll, we all know what the Good Friday Agreement says. It enshrines the principle of consent, that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom until such a time as the majority of people in Northern Ireland wish it to be otherwise or wish for unity to happen. The judgment call is to be made by the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as to when those conditions exist. My judgment, which I know is shared by many in this House, is that mixing the issue of Irish unity with trying to secure a deal on Brexit is unwise. Some of the unionist voices who have been opposed to a deal on Brexit are concerned that some Members of this House or some political forces may be trying to exploit Brexit to bring about Irish unity. That is not the Government's agenda, that is not what we are doing at all and we do not want to threaten anyone's loyalty or identity. We want to deliver an agreement that avoids a hard border, that gives us a transition period and that secures free trade between Britain and Ireland. The issue of Irish unity at some point in the future is a separate one and should be dealt with at some point in the future and not mixed up in these Brexit negotiations.