Tuesday, 9 July 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
Cabinet Committee Meetings
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
The remit of Cabinet committee C covers EU and international issues, including Brexit. Cabinet committee C last met on Thursday, 21 June 2018.
Given the significance of Brexit for the country, it is important that all Cabinet Ministers are fully across what is happening. Consequently, over the past 12 months, Brexit has been discussed more than 25 times at full Cabinet level rather than Cabinet committee level.
Several other important EU and international issues, including the EU budget and future strategic direction, and Global Ireland 2025, have also been discussed at full Cabinet level in recent months.
I also meet regularly with individual Ministers, or groups of relevant Ministers, to focus on particular issues, including those relating to Brexit and other EU and international issues, with a view to seeing how Government can best ensure the delivery of priorities and commitments.
I do not think the Taoiseach quite answered the question. Did he mention the number of times Cabinet committee C met in his reply? I think he said the committee met on 21 June but the question I asked was how many times did it meet in 2019. The Taoiseach might answer that in his response to my points because it is important.
Today, for the second day in row, we have had front-page stories in newspapers briefed by Government about how it is supposedly now stepping up its preparations for a no-deal Brexit. These stories are indistinguishable from the ones which were briefed to newspapers this time last year. In fact, on at least four occasions now, the Government has announced it was redoubling preparations for a no-deal scenario. However, the evidence is that, on 29 March last, Ireland was not ready for a no-deal Brexit. The question is what has been done to ensure that the gaps that were evident in March are fully addressed in time for the new deadline. Why has no new survey been published on levels of preparedness in Irish businesses? These surveys were supposed to be regular but, for some unexplained reason, stopped last year.
If preparations for a no-deal Brexit are serious, they have to include a target and the baseline assumption for the number of businesses that are prepared for handling a no-deal situation on 31 October.
Will the Taoiseach give the figures to the House?
In an intervention during the local elections the Commissioner, Phil Hogan, announced funding for Brexit-related payments to farmers. I note that the Government has today recommended his reappointment. It was the first time a Commissioner had chosen to intervene on a significant issue during an election campaign here. In many respects, it was quite irregular. What was not announced at the time was the conditions attached to the scheme. Will the Taoiseach outline the final details of the scheme announced seven weeks ago? Will he tell the House how many times the Brexit committee has met in 2019? I noted his comments last week about Cabinet sub-committee meetings and his preference for general meetings. That is an important indicator of how seriously the Government has taken this matter since March.
I understand a briefing of opposition parties is taking place on the most recent contingency plan for Brexit. There is a feeling of Groundhog Day. At first glance it does not appear that contingency planning has moved forward to a significant degree, still less that it has taken leap forward that is necessary as we face the real possibility of a disorderly Brexit. Information on the extent of contingency funds which must be made available for the initial impact of Brexit's economic shock has not yet been forthcoming from the Government. Sinn Féin proposed a fund, initially worth €2 billion, to make provision for the shock effect. Will the Taoiseach enlighten us on whether it is part of the package on which we are being briefed today? I put it to him that he could and should put a stop to the Mercosur trade deal as a means of protecting the rural economy, farm families and the consumer in a Brexit scenario. It is extraordinary that the Government has reappointed Phil Hogan as Commissioner with Brexit looming. He is the man who has described the deal as "fair and balanced." It is anything but; it may prove catastrophic for many people's livelihoods and that is without considering its effects on the Amazon and the damage caused to the planet. Part of the preparations for Brexit must be the provision of adequate contingency funds for the initial shock. The second part is to see off the Mercosur trade agreement. Should a crash-out Brexit happen, the absolute priority must be ensuring there will be no economic border on the island and that we will not step backwards. The only way we can do this is by having a conversation on constitutional change.
This morning the chief executive of the Irish Exporters Association stated the obvious, that very few companies were 100% ready for an increasingly likely no-deal scenario. In planning one hopes for the best, but one must plan for the worst. The Government has not properly addressed the lack of readiness at Rosslare Port and Cork Port and the knock-on implications for Dublin city and the greater Dublin area. The Labour Party has called for Rosslare Port to be re-ranked as a tier 1 port in the context of Brexit, yet it has emerged that the site where checks are to be carried out after Brexit was only purchased in March, only weeks before the United Kingdom was originally due to leave the European Union. We do not know what will happen in Dublin if almost all freight in Ireland passes through Dublin Port. Will lorries be parked on the hard shoulder of the M50, northbound and southbound? That would be deeply worrying, particularly since the M50 is effectively clogged up on any given day at peak time. What leadership is the Government prepared to give? Does the Taoiseach appreciate that many people involved in business are very concerned and that some are absolutely terrified of the implications of a hard Brexit for their hard won business.
The likelihood of Boris Johnson taking over as leader of the Tory Party and becoming Prime Minister, God help us, is ironic. The upper class Etonian twit who harks back to the great days of the British Empire could be the person who will help to facilitate the break-up of the United Kingdom, but intelligence is not his strong point. It creates a dangerous scenario for us in that it increases the possibility of there being a no-deal Brexit. I have not yet read the entire briefing document - I will look at it - but I was alarmed by something the Tánaiste said. He gave reassurances that the European Union would not seek to protect the Single Market by imposing Border infrastructure, but he did say the tariffs that would be demanded to protect the Single Market would do immense damage to the all-Ireland economy. We have to say two things in response. The all-Ireland economy should not be scarified to protect the Single Market. We must tell the European Union that we want a special dispensation because of the damage it would do. It also raises the very serious prospect, as even Simon Hoare, MP, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster said, that a Border poll could result from this. If even Tories and unionists are discussing the possibility of a Border poll, we should also talk about it as a basic democratic demand in the event that there is a hard Brexit to give the people of the North the opportunity to say "No" to the madness of Boris Johnson and the Tory wreckers.
The Brexit Cabinet sub-committee has not met in 2019. The Tánaiste and I found it unworkable. Cabinet sub-committees involve Ministers, advisers and officials. When so many Ministers are involved in preparing for Brexit, having 60 or 70 people there made it unworkable. As I have told the House before, we decided to have Cabinet committee meetings to deal with Brexit. We have had 25 so far. Today, we dealt with it for over an hour, while yesterday there was a meeting with the Tánaiste and his officials to talk through some of the issues. I appreciate that Deputy Micheál Martin is a big believer in Cabinet sub-committees as it is a way to get things done or believes the number of sub-committee meetings or reports is a measure of how important something is.
I am restructuring the Cabinet sub-committees to make them more workable by having quarterly meetings. I propose to put Brexit, EU affairs and global Ireland together in a new committee.
I do not have the terms and conditions of the beef package before me, but I understand the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has made farmers aware of it. If he has not, I am sure he will do so as soon as possible.
Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke about a special dispensation from the EU customs code. There is no such special dispensation. The European Union is a union of treaties and laws and there are no special dispensations. It is in our interests to defend the Single Market and the customs union. The economy, jobs and trade are based on them and we will not allow Ireland to be pulled out of the Single Market and the customs union because of a decision made by the people in Britain.
With regard to Dublin Port, Rosslare and Dublin Airport, the temporary infrastructure is ready. It was ready for March and it certainly will be ready for 31 October. The Port of Cork does not arise as an issue. To the best of my knowledge, there are no vessels going from Cork to Britain. They go from Rosslare and Dublin. There are vessels going from Cork to Spain and from Waterford to the Netherlands. We have looked at the capacity between Ireland and mainland continental Europe, and there is a lot of available capacity to allow people to send their goods directly to continental Europe by sea, acknowledging that it would be slower than going over the land bridge.
The staff of 700 have been identified and are in place. They are in Revenue, customs, the HSE and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. A lot of the work they will do is contacting businesses. Any business that trades with the UK that does not yet have an EORI number will be contacted by letter and followed up by phone to encourage them to get that number so they can be ready for customs procedures. It is important to say that while 40,000 companies have a number, another 40,000 do not. It appears those that do not are those that do not do regular trade with the UK. They may have ordered only one or two boxes of things from the UK in 2018. Those that are regular or weekly traders with the UK seem to have them in place but we will still contact every business, by phone and letter, that traded with the UK in 2018 to encourage them to make sure they are ready.
In terms of more general business preparations, we are encouraging businesses that have not yet done so to engage. It is not a case of saying it will be all right on the night. Some people may assume there will be a deal, and I hope there will be. Some people may assume there will be an extension if there is no deal but I do not think businesses can make that assumption and I would encourage any business that has not engaged to do so. There is still time between now and 31 October but not as much time as people may think.
The Getting Ireland Brexit Ready campaign was launched back in September. A total of 104 stakeholder events have been held in 21 counties so far, with many more planned. With regard to financial assistance for business, there is a €300 million Brexit loan scheme with affordable loans of €25,000 to €1.5 million for eligible businesses impacted by Brexit. There is also a €300 million future growth loan scheme for SMEs, including farmers, to back strategic long-term investment after Brexit. Enterprise Ireland has its be prepared grant of €5,000 to assist client companies develop strategic plans to respond to Brexit. InterTradeIreland's start to plan vouchers of up to €2,000 will help SMEs to get professional advice on Brexit. There are also Enterprise Ireland's market discovery fund and agile innovation fund, and the LEO financial supports, such as technical assistance and micro-export grants. There is also a rescue and restructuring scheme for SMEs that has increased from €20 million to €200 million to allow the Government to offer rescue aid and temporary restructuring aid to SMEs that need it. Practical assistance also includes the Brexit scorecard, the Brexit readiness check for tourism, the Brexit advisory clinics, the Brexit barometer and the trader engagement programme.
I asked a question about the number of times the Cabinet committee met and when the Taoiseach said 21 June, I understood that to be this year. I assumed there had been one meeting this year but we now learn there were no meetings in 2019. There has been no meeting since June 2018 of a key co-ordinating mechanism for Brexit. The Taoiseach is saying all of the interdepartmental committees that work to lead into a Cabinet sub-committee add nothing and the core co-ordinating mechanism involving all Ministers responsible in the case of a no-deal Brexit means nothing.
There is a contradiction at the core of what the Taoiseach is saying and I share the alarm that the June meeting was last year and there has been no meeting this year. The Taoiseach is saying the sub-committee does not work as a mechanism and his proposal is to put Brexit in with EU affairs and global matters. To extend the scope makes absolutely no sense.
The Taoiseach's dismissal of Cabinet sub-committees is wrong constitutionally and foolish because they are a mechanism for people and senior officials such as Secretaries General to share information and become more broadly advised on important topics. I mentioned Rosslare Port and the Taoiseach did not refer to it in his reply.
To explain, the Brexit Cabinet sub-committee is just one mechanism by which people can meet. I do not believe Cabinet sub-committees exist under the Constitution. The Cabinet is the main mechanism by which Ministers meet. We have had 25 detailed Cabinet discussions on Brexit. Ministers, officials and advisers meet, and we did so only yesterday with a meeting of my officials and advisers and those of the Tánaiste.
The senior officials group also meets. This is the main co-ordinating body on the Civil Service side. The main co-ordinating body on the political side is the Cabinet.
On Rosslare, the matter to which Deputy Burton referred falls into the TEN-T regulation and that is revised periodically. We would have to wait for the next time the TEN-T regulation, which is connected to the connecting Europe facility, is revised to make any changes to which ports are designated as tier 1 and tier 2. There is a set of criteria matched to that connected to road links, rail links and the volume of trade.