Wednesday, 12 June 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Yesterday's supplementary report from Dr. Gabriel Scally on the CervicalCheck scandal will raise further concerns, while also providing reassurance in relation to quality and standards. It makes some interesting insights and recommendations. There is clearly concern about the number of laboratories which are being used to outsource testing, which is 16 rather than the original six, but Dr. Scally is assured that did not impact on quality. We must reassert that screening programmes are very important. They can help to prolong and save lives. The CervicalCheck programme has saved many lives and has had positive effects in terms of earlier interventions. It has been impactful and we should reassert the importance of the screening programmes.
Since the scandal broke a year ago, commitments were made on a number of issues, primarily the establishment of a compensation tribunal to take the issues out of the courts and the introduction of open mandatory disclosure. There have been significant delays in progressing both. Women have had to go through the courts and endure the trauma and distress of court appearances. We remain unsure of the timeline for the review being undertaken by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists on the Irish smear tests. It was August originally and it has now slipped back to October. Will the Taoiseach update us on that point?
Those within the 221 group still await reimbursement for the costs involved in their having to do their own independent slide reviews, which they were obliged to organise for themselves and was not included in the original support package. In the critical part of his analysis, Dr. Scally makes the point that there is a crying need for a change in approach to the mechanisms used to respond on the rare occasions when harm results from error in screening programmes. He notes:
The legal processes currently in place are deeply unsatisfactory. They convert error into injustice, and then convert that injustice into financial remedy. The process is traumatic and filled with uncertainty for the person at the centre of the legal action and for their family.
He notes that the established legal processes clearly fail to meet the wishes of the patient. A no-fault scheme with dialogue could bring about compensation with "listening, hearing, grace and compassion – and the real hope that what happened in the past shall not happen again". Scally's recommendation on this is central to how the screening programmes go forward in terms of its interaction with patients and those who avail of the screening programmes. There is no question that women caught up in the CervicalCheck scandal have been forced into very traumatic and expensive legal cases in the pursuit of an explanation or apology. Women want to be told the truth. They want to be given an apology and they want reassurance that it will not happen to anyone else.
It is well over a year since the scandal broke. Is Dr. Scally correct that a no-fault compensation approach the most effective way to deal with this? Will the Taoiseach indicate if the Government is prepared to introduce such a no-fault compensation scheme in the context of the CervicalCheck programme? When does the Government believe the tribunal will be established? Can he give the House a timeline for the establishment of a tribunal?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I thank Dr. Scally and his team for their supplementary report, which was published yesterday. It was discussed at yesterday's Cabinet meeting. Reading through the report yesterday, I was struck by the words of one of the women affected by the controversy who is quoted as saying "The only way we can ever fix anything, is by highlighting the failures of the past and fixing them". In many ways that sums up everything we are trying to do, which is to identify the failures of the past, to highlight them and then fix them. That quote contained in Dr. Scally's report is central to this in so many different ways.
The revelations that some of the laboratories outsources slides to other laboratories is serious and unacceptable. It was not approved and it may have been a breach of contract. It should not have happened and it should have been picked up by CervicalCheck's own quality assurance and management scheme, but clearly was not. It is reassuring, however, that the labs were accredited, albeit one retrospectively, and that Dr. Scally says that there is no reason to believe that those labs were in any way substandard.
On the actions undertaken in the last year, the Scally inquiry was established and has now reported twice. Most people accept that Dr. Scally and his team did a very good job. Had we gone down the commission of investigation route we would probably not have a report, and we would be talking about extensions. Dr. Scally has done a very good job in a relatively short period. A package of supports has been put in place for the 221-plus women and their families, including medical cards, experimental medicines and various payments, which now total over €1 million. The Government has decided to introduce the HPV vaccine for boys, which will begin in September. We also decided to move towards primary HPV testing of smears, which is more accurate. We will be among the first countries in the world to do so. Funding has been provided for that in this year's Estimates and the policy decision to do it has been taken.
The Deputy asked about the compensation tribunal. I spoke to the Minister of Health about it this morning. He is very keen to publish that Bill in the next couple of weeks and have it through the Houses before the recess. However, he will require the co-operation of the Joint Committee on Health on this, as in order to get this done in the next five weeks and have it made law by mid-July so that it might be established in the autumn, it will be necessary for the joint committee to waive pre-legislative scrutiny. Both he and I appeal to the members of that committee not to delay this and to please agree to the Minister's request in this case.
The HSE's new policy on open disclosure will be published very soon. The legislation around mandatory disclosure will be introduced in the autumn session.
He just avoided it. It is a tactic, a pattern that the Taoiseach engages in continually. I asked a very basic question on the central point that Dr. Scally made that the screening programmes are crying out for a no-fault compensation scheme because the trauma visited upon the women involved is too severe. They convert error into injustice, and then convert that injustice into financial remedy. The process is traumatic and filled with uncertainty for the person.
It does not take 15 months to discover that. I asked the Taoiseach whether he agreed with Dr. Scally that we should set up such a no-fault compensation mechanism and whether the Government is committed to doing that. It is central to the continuation and the future of screening programmes and how issues like this will be treated in future.
The Taoiseach, again, has a habit of endeavouring to deflect to the Opposition. The Opposition has been nothing but co-operative on this. It is not the Opposition's fault that the legislation on the tribunal was not produced until relatively recently.
The Taoiseach will find the Opposition constructive and co-operative, as we have always been, on this issue. Originally, we had agreed with the Scally inquiry. It was the Minister who caved in and said he was going to have a political investigation; no one else did. He came under pressure from some quarters in the House and he caved in on the floor of the House that night. That is fine, but the Taoiseach should not always try to blame the Opposition for everything.
The Taoiseach made commitments at the time. It is our job to hold him to account in terms of the fulfilment of those commitments and the bringing in of those commitments within a reasonable time.
Deputy Martin is being a little over-sensitive. I did not blame the Opposition for anything and I am not blaming the Opposition for anything on this matter. I did run over time, as did Deputy Martin on two occasions. If the Deputy asks so many questions that he runs over time by several minutes, I do not have the time to answer them.
With respect, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, there is a question of reasonableness. If someone runs over time and asks 26 questions, it is not possible to answer them in the time allowed. It is even harder when I am constantly interrupted while trying to answer them.
I think moving towards a no-fault compensation scheme is a good idea. It is something that requires consideration. We did not discover that as a Government in recent months or during the past year. We have set up a group to examine this matter and tort reform under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice Charlie Meenan. We are waiting for him to come back to us with his suggestions in that regard. This is a good idea. It is something that was in my party's manifesto. It was also in the programme for Government. However, I wish to say two things about it that are important. First, it could apply not only to screening errors but beyond them to vaccine-related injuries and cerebral palsy cases, which are difficult ones as well.
One thing needs to be considered about a no-fault scheme. Generally, when no-fault schemes are established - they exist in other parts of the world and in Ireland - the awards are quite modest and they are no fault. No fault means that nobody is to blame, nobody is held to account, nobody is deemed negligent and nobody is deemed liable. If we are going to go down that route, we need to understand that because many people are looking for accountability and want to know who made an error. They want that person held to account. That cannot happen with a no-fault scheme, so this needs to be thought through and teased through.
I want to return to the issue that Deputy Mary Lou McDonald raised with the Taoiseach yesterday, that is, home help hours. In recent weeks, we have learned that the HSE has effectively suspended the allocation of home help hours to new applicants until November of this year. The HSE also confirmed that there is to be a reduction in the number of recycled hours or reallocating of hours. This comes at a time more than 6,000 people are waiting for home care supports. There is no doubt that this will have a major impact on older citizens in need of care and their families, and on people with disabilities and their carers. It will also have a major impact on the wider community because reducing home help hours places pressures on our hospitals as a result of delayed discharges. It forces older people who are fit to be at home into nursing homes. These people want to be at home. They want to be in their own environment. They have been medically discharged and can go home provided the supports are in place. However, they cannot go home because the home care supports are simply not in place as a result of this decision.
All of this is happening because the HSE says it needs to balance its budget for 2019. The Taoiseach said yesterday, in response to a question from Deputy McDonald, that the budget for home care supports has increased. I accept that, although it has increased significantly less than the amount we in Sinn Féin called for at the time. The HSE has said that the increase had not translated to an increase in the number of hours of care that was expected. The reality is that the budget increase has been eaten up by demographic pressures and service provision. It is not even standing still compared to last year.
The real measure of the performance, if we need a real measure, is to look at some of the facts. There are now in excess of 6,000 people waiting for home care supports. Countless others have had their home care provision cut by half an hour here or an hour there. Now, we have a freeze on reallocating additional hours to patients until November and the recycling of other hours.
We know home care support is good value for money. We know it represents excellent value for money in the immediate term, the medium term and the long term because it allows people to remain in their homes and go safely from hospital to their own environments and settings but, without the home care supports or home help hours, patients are forced to remain in hospitals. This represents a drastic inefficiency within the health service. It has a significant cost and is a major burden on patients and their families. Individuals either have to remain in hospital or nursing homes or else families are forced to seek private operators and pay for the costs themselves. Neither of these options represents value for money - we know that clearly.
I am asking the Taoiseach what we asked yesterday. Will he give us an undertaking to look at where the funding can be found within the HSE budget to ensure that additional home help hours are provided for the rest of the year for those patients who are in need of them? That this would ease the budgetary pressures on other sections of our health service. Will the Taoiseach commit to doing this quickly?
I think we all acknowledge the enormous value of home care in terms of helping people who are sick, elderly or disabled to remain in their homes for longer, thus not having to go into a nursing home. Home care helps patients to get out of hospital quicker, thus freeing up hospital beds for others who need them. There is no disagreement in the House about that.
I spoke to the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Daly, about this matter yesterday. I understand there will be a debate on it in the House tonight. We are trying to get all the information about this. There seems to be quite a lot of variation from one community healthcare area to another. It may not be the case, as has been reported, that there will be no new hours until November, at least not in all parts of the country. We are trying to get a fix on that in advance of the debate tonight.
Resources are being increased for home help and home care. The budget for home help and home care in 2015 was a little over €300 million. This year, it is €446 million, which is a 50% increase in four years. While there has been an increase in population in the past four years, the population has aged slightly in the past four years and the cost of home care has increased in the past four years, they have not increased by 50%. It is reasonable for us, as citizens and taxpayers, to expect a much better service for a 50% increase in funding. It is the responsibility of the HSE and Government to ensure that happens.
An extra €30 million is provided for this year. This will provide 18.3 million hours in home support. That is an increase of 800,000 on last year. That is 800,000 more hours this year than last year, which is a significant increase. I am informed, on the basis of a note I was provided with earlier today, that this takes account of the Tyco decision and the fact that home help staff are paid for travelling time. We are trying to get to the bottom of this ourselves.
We are keen to ensure that the extra 800,000 hours of home help that is funded and that has been voted for by this Oireachtas is delivered to the people who need it.
I recognise the fact that there has been an increase in the budget, but there has also been an increase in the cost of providing the service and an increase in the number of people who need this service. We know all of that in respect of delayed discharges and the number of people who are on trolleys.
I am sure every Deputy in the House knows of multiple cases in their constituencies involving people in our acute hospitals who have been medically discharged and who should be in their homes but who are not at home because there are no home care supports for them.
Let us look at the numbers. The Taoiseach, coming from the medical profession, knows this. It costs the State €6,000 per week to have someone in an acute bed. It costs €160 if they can get the home care support package. This represents huge inefficiencies. We talk about inefficiencies and wastage in health. It makes no sense that patients who are medically discharged are not able to go back into their home environment because a blunt instrument from the HSE says it has run out of money and cannot provide home care supports for them. There is a need for both additional allocation and more money. We argued for that at the time but regardless, we now know the facts. We now know there are 6,000 people on waiting lists, that countless others have had their hours cut, that home help hours will not be provided until November and that the HSE is not going to recycle or reallocate home help hours when they come back into the system. We need more than a debate. The Taoiseach is in charge and his Minister is in charge. This is huge inefficiency and waste and it is causing serious distress to patients, their families and their carers. I ask the Taoiseach to act quickly on this.
We are going to act on this and the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, is going to meet the chief officers of the nine community healthcare organisations next week to see how we can resolve this issue. I come back to the basic, important, and fundamental point that the budget for home help has increased by 50% in four years. It has gone up from €300 million to €450 million this year. Wage inflation is about 2% or 3% a year, while demographics in aging might account for 1% or 2% extra a year. That is nowhere close to a 50% increase. What is happening commonly, unfortunately, in health and social care is that huge amounts of additional money are being put in; much more than is required to cover demographics and inflation. Yet, citizens, patients and people are not getting the increased service they should be getting. We must have learned by now that when it comes to health and social care, just allocating more money all the time is not the solution. If it were, the 50% increase in the past four years would have provided a much greater and better service. We need to listen to the advice of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council on that, as well as to our own common sense. Major increases in spending on health and social care in recent years to record levels, beyond demographics or inflation, have not provided the better services that people deserve, that patients need and for which taxpayers pay. The solution is not always more money.
The treatment of Irish fishermen's rights has been ignored for decades by successive Governments. When we negotiate in Europe and have to hand over any of our rights in these negotiations, we have been handing over the rights of our fishermen and the Irish Sea bit by bit. This has meant our fishermen have had to travel out of their own waters as they fight for a livelihood and watch frustratedly as foreign vessels flood the Irish Sea every day without any rule or regulation to prevent them from doing so. Only two months ago, a small crisis erupted in Irish seas as two Irish fishing vessels from Northern Ireland were detained for fishing within six nautical miles of the Irish coast. Our Government then frantically jumped through every guideline so we could hand over the only rights we had to the coast around Ireland. I was called unpatriotic by a Minister in the Government when I and other Independents pleaded with the Government to stop the panicked handover, and to put the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2017 through pre-legislative scrutiny so as to give us time to weigh up all options. However, the Independents in the Dáil were not listened to and the Government, together with Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, panicked to give away the rights of Irish fishermen once again.
Fast forward just two months, and we now see the shocking error we have made as the Scottish Government has made it very clear to this Government that it intends to fully protect its fishermen going forward. It has clearly instructed our Government that it will ban all Irish fishing vessels within 12 miles of Rockall, an area where Irish fishing vessels had previously operated unhindered, fishing haddock, squid and other species. Since this has become public, we have heard calls from all over the Irish political spectrum to intervene but many fishermen have rung me to say these are crocodile tears, as the time to stand up and be noticed was a few months ago when these same politicians handed over our fishing rights without the blink of an eyelid. The frantic rushing through of the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill in the Dáil a couple of months ago left huge unanswered questions. All I or any of my Independent colleagues ever wanted was more time to look at that Bill in more detail to see if we could negotiate a better deal. We were ignored by our Government, however, and now we are in a serious situation where the Scottish want us out. We also potentially face further crisis in the fishing industry regarding Brexit, because the British have made it clear that they also want Irish vessels out of their waters after Brexit. The fishermen of this country deserve honest answers. How long has this Government been aware of the Scottish issues with Rockall? Was it aware before the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill was rushed through the Dáil two months ago? Was the Taoiseach aware of this problem? Were Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin made aware of the potential Scottish Rockall crisis in their negotiations around agreeing to vote in favour of the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill two months ago? In my view, this is the only bargaining chip Ireland had, and we frantically handed over further fishermen's rights inside the Dáil two months ago. I am convinced that if any political party in this country which had the interests of the people at heart knew of this problem in Scotland, no one in his or her right mind would have thrown away our rights without first having fishermen's rights protected elsewhere.
I do not agree with the Deputy's assessment that the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill was rushed through the Dáil. There was no guillotine, nor has any legislation been guillotined in this Dáil, which has now been in existence for three years. Adequate time was provided for the discussion of that legislation, and there was no attempt to curtail or limit debate on it. The Government was informed in relation to the position the Scottish Government has taken. The Tánaiste and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, were informed several months ago that Scotland had a view and an opinion that it had exclusive rights to fishing within 12 miles of Rockall, that it was minded to enforce that, and that it would come back to us and give us notice before it was enforced. That happened in the last week or so. I cannot say whether Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin were aware of that. The Deputy would have to ask them.
The Deputy is very touchy today. Deputy Michael Collins's question about Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin has been answered for him. Ireland's position regarding Rockall is that there is no basis for excluding Irish fishing vessels from Rockall waters, as they are legitimately pursuing EU fishing opportunities and have done so unhindered for decades. We believe any concerns should be handled through dialogue rather than universal enforcement action. The House will be aware that the Tánaiste recently received a formal letter of notice from the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, stating that Scotland would deploy vessels in the Rockall area to take enforcement action against Irish vessels found within 12 miles of Rockall from last week onwards. Jurisdiction over the 12-mile area has long been disputed. The UK claims sovereignty over Rockall and thus a 12-mile territorial limit around it. The Irish Government position has been and remains that we do not recognise this claim, that the waters around Rockall are part of the UK's exclusive economic zone and they accordingly form part of the European Union waters under the Common Fisheries Policy, to which the principle of equal access for all European vessels, including Irish vessels, applies. Irish vessels have operated unhindered in the Rockall zone for many decades, fishing haddock, squid, and other species. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine met representatives of the fishing sector on Friday to inform them of the letter from the Scottish authorities but also to confirm that Ireland's position on Rockall has not changed. The industry was appreciative of that engagement but was also extremely concerned about the possibility that unjustified enforcement action might be taken against it. In engaging with the Scottish authorities, Ireland's position has been that there is no basis for excluding our vessels from the Rockall waters as they are pursuing EU fishing opportunities in these waters and have done so unhindered for decades. It has been agreed that a process of intensified engagement will now take place, led by senior officials from both Administrations.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I speak to fishermen from my constituency of Cork South-West daily. Whether they are inshore fishermen or fisherwomen or work on larger trawlers, they are furious with political parties that time and again have thrown away any rights Irish fishermen have. They want a stand-alone Minister in this country whose sole responsibility is to fight for their rights, the same as in other European countries. Every call for fishermen by myself and others has gone unheeded. Only last year, I made call after call for Ireland to apply for a bluefin tuna quota like its fellow European nations. This was resisted until the Government was eventually embarrassed into doing so.
My calls for a cull of seals have gone ignored. The livelihoods of inshore fishermen in Castletownbere and throughout west Cork have been destroyed by the large number of seals at sea.
The throwing away of our rights within six nautical miles was the last straw for many fishermen. We can now see the major fallout for them. The Bill was rushed through the Dáil. There was no pre-legislative scrutiny and no time given for us to discuss it. It was cut short. Why was the Dáil never told about the Rockall dispute with Scotland two months ago during our short discussions on the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2017 when there had been ongoing issues since 2017? Had we known of them during our discussions, surely we would have tried to negotiate a deal that would have protected the rights of Irish fishermen for once.
I again thank the Deputy. I am afraid I just do not see how the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Act 2019 relates to the Rockall dispute. This is a question of the Scottish Government, on behalf of the UK or, rather, off its own bat, asserting sovereignty over Rockall and thereby claiming an exclusive zone of 12 miles around that. We take a different view. When the exclusive economic zones were drawn, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was applied, and that treats uninhabited, uninhabitable rocks such as Rockall as if they do not exist. We accept that Rockall is in the United Kingdom's exclusive economic zone - everyone does - but what we do not accept is that Rockall has a 12-mile exclusive limit around it. For so long as the United Kingdom is part of the European Union, these are European waters and Irish fishermen are entitled to fish for their quota and for non-quota species in any part of that UK exclusive economic zone, but obviously with Brexit that will change. One thing that is often not fully appreciated is that Irish fishermen take a lot of fish out of UK waters. Perhaps 35% of all the fish that we take comes out of UK waters, including some of the most valuable species such as shrimp, mackerel and so on. That is why in any negotiation around Brexit we are going to need to do a lot of work to limit the damage to our fishery sector and to make sure that our rights are protected.
The Taoiseach is the Minister for Defence and is responsible to the Dáil and the public for the state of the Defence Forces. During the recent local election campaign, the undermining of our Defence Forces was one of the most frequently raised issues on the doorstep. It is clear that the policy being pursued by the Taoiseach and his Government, which that commenced with the so-called reorganisation of the Defence Forces and the closure of barracks in 2012, has led to a crisis in the service. There have been significant reductions in numbers, pay, allowances, pensions and conditions of service. There is low morale, anxiety, increased stress and mental health difficulties among serving personnel.
On 1 March this year under the Taoiseach's watch, there were 210 fewer serving personnel than on 1 March last year. Some 3,200 personnel left the Defence Forces between 2014 and 2018. In the first four months of this year, there were 256 discharges. Staff shortages mean that ships are unable to go to sea and aircraft are unable to fly. This is a picture of a service that is not fit for purpose due to the deliberate policy of this Government.
Please do not tell us that we do not have the money to resource and pay our Defence Forces properly. Ireland is the eighth richest country in the world. We know that the top 10% of financial asset holders have €50 billion more than they had at peak boom levels in 2006, yet they are not asked to pay a single cent in tax on that windfall. We know that the top 10% of income recipients pay a smaller proportion of their incomes in tax than the lowest 10%. In today's edition of theIrish Examiner, Social Justice Ireland confirmed that the poor in this country are subsidising the rich through tax reliefs.
I wish to take this opportunity to commend the community group, Respect and Loyalty, which is campaigning to raise awareness about the plight of our Defence Forces and is lobbying for the restoration of pay, allowances and pensions.
The Taoiseach is the Minister for Defence. In view of the crisis affecting the Defence Forces and the resulting national danger that he and his Government have allowed to develop, why has the matter of allowances not been addressed in line with allowances in other public sector bodies? Will the Taoiseach fully restore to pre-2008 levels the pay, allowances, conditions of service and pensions of serving and retired members of the Defence Forces immediately?
I thank the Deputy very much for raising this important issue. I confirm to the House that the Cabinet yesterday approved the deployment of the Army ranger wing to the UN mission in Mali. That will require a motion of the House, so I ask for the House's support for that. It is the first time in nearly ten years that the rangers have been deployed in this way. It is something that the Defence Forces very much welcome. It is a big part of our peacekeeping efforts and our commitment to the UN, but it also will help them to maintain and develop their skills. I know it has been very much welcomed by the Defence Forces.
We are investing in our Defence Forces. The budget for defence this year is €50 million higher than last year. What does that mean? It means new vessels. Our fleet has never been as modern as it is now. It means new aircraft-----
It means improvement to our barracks. It means new equipment. It also means increased pay, pay restoration and increased pensions. It is not the case that money is handed back at the end of the year-----
-----even though that has been claimed by some. Recruitment is going very well but retention is not. I absolutely acknowledge that a large number of people are leaving our Defence Forces for various reasons, not least the fact that, because they are so well skilled, their skills are very much sought after in the private sector where there are also major skill shortages and labour shortages because of full employment.
When it comes to the issue of pay - I acknowledge that pay is an issue for a lot of members of our Defence Forces - the public sector stability agreement, the deal that we did with ICTU and all the trade unions that covers 300,000 public servants, applies to the Defence Forces as well. That means ongoing pay restoration. For the vast majority of public servants, including the vast majority of people in the Defence Forces, they will have their pay fully restored by October of next year. That is already happening in tranches.
However, the Deputy is asking me to single out one group, the Defence Forces, and fully restore their pay, pensions and allowances before everyone else's. While that might appeal to me as the Minister for Defence, I could not possibly do that as Taoiseach because that would be totally unfair to all the other public servants-----
-----including civil servants, local authority workers, nurses, teachers, doctors, all the people who work in this House and all the people who work in the public service all over the country.
Everyone must have restoration happening at the same time. Nor would it be affordable to do what Deputy Healy is asking. The public sector pay bill is nearly €18 billion a year. A 2% increase alone is €360 million. We have heard the advice and the criticisms from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council telling us that we are increasing spending too fast. The Opposition needs to hear that advice as well. If we are going to listen to that advice and heed it and keep spending increases where they should be at around 4% or 5% per year-----
The Opposition has a responsibility as well. Government has heard that message. We are going to heed it. We are going to try to keep spending increases under control-----
-----without the support of this House. We also need this House to reorientate its attitude to these things as well and come with us in trying to keep public spending under control.
Time and again, we have heard the mantra of the public service pay agreement. It has been repeated ad nauseamthis afternoon. I remind the Taoiseach that, in November 2018, the Government gave the average garda an extra €4,000 per annum through an increase in rent allowance and other concessions under a €50 million deal.
I remind the Taoiseach that when he and his Government dealt with the nursing dispute under the public service pay agreement, the nursing recruitment crisis forced them to back down and make significant concessions to nurses in pay and allowances. We have a similar situation in our Defence Forces at present. The Taoiseach has acknowledged the significant difficulties that exist in the Defence Forces. The cases of the gardaí and the nurses offer the Government a clear precedent in dealing with the issues in the Defence Forces. All it takes is political will on the part of the Government to ensure the Defence Forces are properly paid and get their proper allowances. It is a matter of political will for the Government to ensure pay and allowances are restored in full immediately. The Government should do this now.
There were disputes with the gardaí and two of the nurses' unions. Those disputes were resolved following negotiations and, in the end, in the Labour Court. In resolving those disputes, we needed to make sure we did not bring down the entire public sector pay agreement. We cannot afford to bring it down. We are trying to resolve the Defence Forces pay dispute. We asked the Public Sector Pay Commission to examine issues like allowances that are specific to the Defence Forces. The commission has reported. We have the report and we will bring it to the Cabinet in the next couple of weeks. I hope that will be adequate to resolve this issue. We cannot provide a fast track to pay restoration and additional allowances to one group of public servants without accepting that it will have a knock-on effect across the board.
It will have a knock-on effect across the board. The public sector pay bill is €17 billion or €18 billion a year. An increase of 2% across the board would amount to €360 million. That is not something we can afford to do.