Dáil debates

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

11:30 am

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In order to compensate for what happened yesterday, six questions are being taken. I ask all party leaders to co-operate and adhere to the time limits.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The tobacco industry is one of the most evil industries that has ever existed, although it works within a legal framework. It has consigned millions of people to their deaths, destroyed millions of lives and injured and maimed millions more. It infamously targeted children to get them addicted young and secure customers for life. It suppressed for decades knowledge and research that proved how fatal tobacco smoking was. The comprehensive anti-tobacco legislation of 2002, coupled with the smoking ban of 2004, helped to de-normalise smoking and allowed for worker safety, while also preventing younger generations from engaging in a killer habit.

The tobacco industry, however, has struck back via the vaping epidemic. The vaping industry mirrors many of the strategies deployed by the tobacco industry, particularly in hooking young people and getting them addicted to nicotine. The financial muscle behind this epidemic is provided by the tobacco industry. Children are being targeted with colourful and flavoured vaping products. Pop-up shops selling vaping devices and e-cigarettes are located in the country's shopping centres and on main streets. Advertising campaigns have proliferated on nearly every Dublin bus, as well as on strategically placed billboards all over Dublin and across cities and towns. Last week the United States Center for Disease Control, CDC, produced some alarming statistics which confirmed that over 1,000 lung injuries and 19 deaths had already occurred in 48 states due to vaping. The CDC has warned that the aerosols users inhale and exhale from e-cigarettes can potentially expose them and bystanders to other harmful substances such as heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. As a result, there has been a flurry of legislative activity in a variety of US states banning the use of vaping devices and advertisements to varying degrees, particularly those aimed at young people. There has been an unacceptable level of youth usage of these products. Teen e-cigarette use has risen sharply since 2017. When will the Government introduce legislation to ban the sale of vaping products to people under the age of 18 years? Will it introduce legislation to ban all advertising and sponsorship of vaping products, as we did for tobacco products? Will the Government extend the existing ban on tobacco in the workplace to vaping? One wonders how such devices ever came into being. I ask the Taoiseach to send me at a later date a comprehensive account of the regulatory framework governing the vaping sector.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We can all agree that consuming tobacco is seriously injurious to one's health. It causes many forms of cancer, as well as severe illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD, which leads to disability and other effects. I acknowledge Deputy Micheál Martin's work as Minister for Health and Children over a decade ago in banning smoking in the workplace, which saved lives. That work was followed up on by Senator James Reilly and others by bringing forward plain packaging and other measures which have made a huge difference. Fewer than 20% of people in Ireland now smoke and more people have quit tobacco than now use it.

Vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, although it has been around for a number of years. We need to look at the science and listen to doctors and public healthcare experts on such issues. Research is still under way on the impact vaping can have on the health of both adults and children. One can eat, drink, consume, or do many things that can be bad for one's health, but we do not necessarily prohibit or restrict them or ban their advertising. We need to assess the extent to which a product is damaging to someone's health and respond proportionately, having taken this into account. The Government will consider this issue and look at restricting the sale of vaping equipment to minors and prohibiting or restricting advertising, as the Deputy suggested. The question of vaping in the workplace relates mostly to second-hand effects, that is, whether somebody vaping has an impact on the person beside them. That was the basis for the workplace ban. The Government will definitely consider these policies, but we will do so based on the evidence, the scientific advice and what public health doctors and experts say. I am sure the Deputy agrees with that approach.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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This epidemic developed from 2007 onwards. The fact that the tobacco industry is involved should send a warning signal to all concerned. There is terrible complacency about this issue. I do not know how these devices ever got onto the market without some controls. Young people are being targeted with the same strategies as previously, using flavoured vaping devices to get children on board and hook them on the product.

There is now growing teen use of vaping devices. We had been really succeeding in terms of getting young people away from the whole idea of nicotine addiction. The whole strategy here is to get young children and young people addicted to nicotine via these vaping devices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, has always been the leader in terms of research and work in public health generally. It is sending out alarm signals and is producing an advisory saying to people not to use vaping devices. I accept there are complications in terms of the utilisation of THC in some of the devices in the United States, and the vitamin E acetate as well. The very fact that 1,000 people have had lung injuries, including young people of 22 and 23 years, and 19 deaths have occurred, should really send alarm signals here. This is a global epidemic fuelled by a massive, resourceful industry and we need far more urgency in our national response to it than has been evident to date.

11:40 am

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I absolutely agree that the fact that the tobacco industry is involved in producing, marketing and selling this equipment is a cause for concern. It does appear to me as well that young people are being targeted through advertising, through flavoured devices and products and through colours. It has all the hallmarks of what we saw before with flavoured cigarettes, the type of advertising that was carried out, alcopops, all of those things. The Deputy's concerns are well placed. It is a matter that we need to examine, and I agree we need to examine it with more urgency than has been the case in the past. I will speak to the Minister for Health and the chief medical officer and ask them to look at that scientific advice and assess where we need to go from here.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Yesterday, the Minister for Finance announced an increase in carbon tax as part of budget 2020. The Government pushed ahead with a tax increase that it knows will disproportionately hit the vulnerable and low paid. The Government knows this because it has been told. The ESRI and the Department of Finance have told the Taoiseach that poorer households, rural areas and lone parents will bear the brunt of this decision. The Taoiseach should be in no doubt that his increase in carbon tax will deepen poverty and inequality. It will make life harder for those families that are just about getting by. This is not a climate action measure. It is not about making Ireland greener or cleaner and it is certainly not about changing people's behaviour. In order for carbon taxes to influence behavioural change, they have to be supported by investment and we have all of the evidence of this fact here in Ireland. The existing carbon tax has generated €400 million every year since 2015 without changing behaviour or Government policy and, critically, emissions are not dropping. This shows that we must provide people with alternatives for them to transition to a low-carbon lifestyle. That means investing properly in order to give viable alternatives in terms of transport, fuel and heating, but the Government is not doing this. Presenting this regressive tax as a climate action measure is a hoodwink, a ruse and an attempt to dupe people into believing that the Government is taking the climate crisis seriously when nothing could be further from the truth. The carbon tax hike is not climate action. At best, it might be called tinkering or a half measure. At worst, it is another PR stunt the bill for which is passed on to workers, families and pensioners. This will not change people's behaviour but it will make people poorer. The Government plans to keep increasing this tax over a ten-year period and therefore chooses to go after ordinary households rather than the big polluters and those most able to shoulder the burden. That is classic Fine Gael. Whenever there is a cost for the damage caused by those at the top, Fine Gael likes nothing better than to send the bill to the ordinary people.

Everybody accepts that we all have to do more and that we have to do better. We all have a part to play in meeting the challenge of climate change and we only have a few short years to rise to the challenge. I want the Taoiseach to do the right thing. I want him to pursue an alternative that will actually work. I want him to fund climate action through progressive taxation and then invest in a real plan in transport, energy infrastructure and a massive home retrofitting programme. That is what the Taoiseach should have announced yesterday. The morning after the day before, I ask him to do the right thing and to drop this carbon tax increase.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am afraid the Deputy is just wrong on this. She is out of touch with the facts and the science. She is out of touch when it comes to the enormous demand from people across Ireland, particularly younger people, that we should take action when it comes to climate change. I do not think for a second that increasing any tax is ever going to be popular or welcomed but sometimes it is the right thing to do. On this occasion, it is the right thing to do. This is a tax which is all about the environment and climate action. That is why it is being ring-fenced. Specifically, the revenues from it are being ring-fenced to protect the most vulnerable, those at risk of fuel poverty and to take specific climate actions, paying for some of that investment that the Deputy talks about being necessary, because investment has to be funded. The Deputy might consider what we have done in respect of the fuel allowance by increasing it by €2 a week. This fully protects the 22% poorest households in Ireland.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
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That is a pittance.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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This is what the ESRI research says. If the Deputy does not want to believe me, he should listen to the facts, the experts and the scientists. The ESRI research indicates that an increase in carbon tax will cost the poorest households about €44 a year. The increase in the fuel allowance is €56 a year so in fact the poorest one fifth of households in Ireland are actually better off as a result of what we have done in respect of carbon tax. Deputy McDonald suggests somehow that carbon tax is only paid by households. That is not what the facts or the research show. The facts and the research show that more than half of carbon tax is paid by business and by those big polluters the Deputy mentioned. The polluter pays principle applies. It is applied across the board, those who pollute the most pay the most and that is why business is going to pick up most of the cost of the carbon tax.

In respect of rural areas, it is true that in general, people in rural areas are more affected by carbon taxes than those who are not. Again, that depends on the circumstances. Somebody living in a rural town like Kenmare in County Kerry who lives and works in that town and has a well insulated house will be no more affected by the carbon tax than somebody who lives in the city centre. People who have lifestyles that use a lot of carbon will be more affected, including people living in suburban Dublin who may have poorly insulated houses. The whole point of carbon tax is to incentivise behavioural change over time. That is why we did not go for a big increase as some recommended. We decided to go for steady, smaller increases. I would say to the Deputy that if she does not believe me, that is fine but she should listen to the 27 Nobel prizewinners who have spoken on this. She should listen to our own Climate Action Advisory Council, Friends of the Earth and all of the people who really care about our climate and improving our environment. They all say the same thing. They say that carbon tax on its own will not stop climate change but we will not stop climate change without it. It has to be part of the picture and it is part of the picture. This is being done in addition to a €22 billion investment in renewable energy, insulating our homes, and public transport. All of those things are being done.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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The history of carbon taxes in this jurisdiction is that they have not had the effect of reducing emissions. That is just a fact. It has been patchy but the trajectory is going in the wrong direction. The Government has had €400 million per annum to invest to support behavioural changes and it has failed abjectly. This is a case of the Government believing its own hype and propaganda. I am well aware, by the way, of what young people expect from us. I live with two young people who are very clear what they want to see. They want to see meaningful actions. That does not mean box-ticking by the Taoiseach to make himself look good and to don his new green credentials. Here is who the hike in the carbon tax is going to hurt: it is going to hurt poorer households. It is going to hurt lower-income people who are at work and do not qualify for a fuel allowance. It is going to hurt people living in substandard accommodation who cannot afford to retrofit their homes. The budget yesterday, the same budget that proposes this hike in carbon tax, was pathetically inadequate in terms of supports for those families in any respect but particularly in terms of retrofitting.

I put it to the Taoiseach that he is a green poseur and nothing more than that. He is not serious about climate action but he is serious about hammering those families and workers who ought to have been given a break yesterday.

11:50 am

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy and her party are not serious about climate action, and the same applies to the far left. She proposes solutions that make no difference because they are not unpopular, yet she will not support climate action that might be unpopular because it works. It is an entirely cynical and hypocritical approach to climate action to only support actions that do not make a difference because they do not inconvenience anyone and to oppose actions that do make a difference. I really hope that young people, who particularly care about climate action and the environment, see through Sinn Féin and the far left-----

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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They see through the Taoiseach.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----and see how left-wing and populist politics is actually anti-environment and how Sinn Féin is trying to hijack their movement to promote a philosophy that is profoundly anti-environment.

What we are doing by increasing the carbon tax and setting a trajectory to reach €80 per tonne is saying that while the tax will rise, we will ring-fence it. We have ring-fenced it to protect the poorest 20% of households, who will be better off as a result of this measure. We have research to prove that. The rest is being invested in climate actions, which is the exactly the kind of investment the Deputy talks about. Investment has to be paid for. Does it not make sense when investing in the environment and climate action to raise the money by disincentivising exactly those things that damage the environment?

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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That is really bad-----

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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It should be no surprise to the Taoiseach - I am sure it is not - that the Labour Party and Fine Gael have very different approaches to the economy. It turns out that Labour is better at managing the public finances and protecting the most vulnerable. Several commentators who are no friends of Labour described yesterday's budget as worse austerity than anything done during the period of economic collapse. This, however, is a time of immeasurably better public finances when the Government had real choices. Even if there is a no-deal Brexit, the public finances are close to being in balance. Next year, even without a hard Brexit, inflation is expected to be of the order of 1.5%. Inflation is a factor again in our economy. It was not during the past five or six years. The cost-of-living increase yesterday means the freeze on welfare payments is an effective cut to the income of the poorest people of the land. If the Government had not needed to pay an extra €200 million for the children's hospital or rural broadband due to the mismanagement of those projects, it would have had the money to address the increase required in welfare payments. If the Government had required the banks to pay their fair share after being bailed out by the public purse in exchange for the debt they owe the people, we would have had the money to protect the most vulnerable. Fine Gael, however, has not managed the public finances prudently and it has refused to demand from the banks the full payback required for the bailout. Fine Gael now has to stand over a real reduction in the income of the most vulnerable next year.

The ESRI has warned that many common supermarket items imported from Britain will increase in price if there is a no-deal Brexit, costing the average family between €892 and €1,362 per year. That will add €17 to €26 per week to the cost of the weekly shopping of a family. It is quite clear that many in society are going to have to do without if a no-deal Brexit comes about because there will be an effective reduction in their income and a rise in prices.

The Minister for Finance did not give us details of the spending measures he intends to take, if there is a no-deal Brexit to protect the most vulnerable. I have one simple and direct question for the Taoiseach: will the Government now undertake to raise social welfare rates in a supplementary budget if a no-deal Brexit comes to pass?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We have no plans for a supplementary budget or an emergency budget. The budget was framed on there being a no-deal Brexit, with the economy growing by only 0.7% next year as opposed to 5.5%, which was the rate this year. Since this is the budget that protects Ireland from the worst consequences of no deal, there will be no need for a supplementary budget or an emergency budget next year.

The Deputy is correct that the Labour Party and Fine Gael have different approaches to the economy. We decided to base this budget on there being no deal. We believe that was the right approach. Fianna Fáil, our confidence and supply agreement partners, agree. The Labour Party did something different in its alternative budget proposal, which I have to hand; it assumed there would be a deal. All its numbers and projections assume there will be a deal. The party promises welfare increases in its alternative budget but the truth is that, if there were no deal, they would have to be taken back in a few months. This is exactly the policy we wanted to avoid because we saw what happened in 2010. The then Government announced a giveaway budget, cut taxes, increased social welfare and the minimum wage and did all those things we all want to do and then took it all back again six months later after the economic shock. The Labour Party would pursue the policy of 2010, which was so wrong and mistaken. We do not want to do that. There is a serious risk of a major economic shock to our country in a few weeks. The Tánaiste and I are working harder than anyone else to avoid that shock but we had to do the right thing with this budget. The right thing was to base it on the assumption that we will not have a deal. What the Labour Party did was wrong. All its numbers assume there will be a deal. It promised increases in welfare and expenditure but it would have to take all of them back. That was the approach taken by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in 2010. It was wrong. While Fianna Fáil seems to have learned from that mistake in 2010, the Labour Party has not. That is disappointing.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Like a headmaster in school.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Taoiseach should be allowed to continue without interruption.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Let me say a final word. Deputy Howlin mentioned the term "austerity" and seemed to suggest that, in some way, the budget produced yesterday was an austerity budget. He and I know what austerity budgets are like. He and I had to bring in austerity budgets.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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So do the people, including workers.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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He and I had to talk about how much we were going to take out of the health budget when he was Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and I was the Minister for Health. This is not an austerity budget.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Taoiseach got his way that time.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We are increasing expenditure on services and public infrastructure by €3.3 billion next year. This is more than an extra €1 billion for health services alone. This is not an austerity budget; it really is not.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Howlin, who has one minute.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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With that response and with one minute, it is very hard to know where to start. That was a-----

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy should start by withdrawing the nonsense in his question.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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The Taoiseach is becoming more like Donald Trump every day, being detached from reality.

I want to make a few very clear points. The document the Taoiseach is holding up, Building an Equal Society: Labour's Alternative Budget 2020, which I am very glad he has read, is built on the figures presented by the Department of Finance. Unless the Taoiseach is suggesting they are completely false, they are all we can budget on. The figures were all proofed by the Department of Finance. They project a surplus next year of 0.2% of GDP, or €700 million, having provided €5 per week to every pensioner or anybody in receipt of a social welfare payment, including the disability benefit or carer's benefit. What it does do is ask the banks to pay their fair share. It is amazing that the Taoiseach believes asking the banks to pay their share in the normal times of funding the State will bring about an economic collapse and that it represents ruinous policy. It is that ruinous attitude to banks that brought us to disaster in the first place.

I question the notion that this was a Brexit budget because it ignores the most vulnerable. They are required to get no increase and meet the cost of additional price rises. Is that the Taoiseach's idea of a Brexit budget?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We introduced a measure in relation to the bank levy only last night, and I know the Deputy is supportive of it. He mad a point that is worth answering, on the fact that there being no increase in weekly welfare payments and pensions in the budget means they will not keep up with inflation. That is a fair point and that is true but I have two points to make to the Deputy with respect to it. In the past three budgets, brought in by Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance, we increased the weekly welfare rates and the pension by two to three times the rate of inflation. Taking our four budgets in the round, we have kept our promise to increase the pension and the weekly welfare rates well above the rate of inflation. This budget is different because of Brexit but, taking the four budgets together, we have increased the pension and welfare rates well above the rate of inflation.

12:00 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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That will be a great comfort to people trying to pay their bills next year.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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However, a second point that is valid is what the Deputy did not acknowledge is that for the poorest in our society, we have increased welfare payments. There is a €5 a week increase for those living alone - 250,000 people will get that increase. They are protected from inflation. That increase will be double the rate of inflation next year. For the poorest families, we have increased the dependent child allowance. Those families will also be protected.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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What about working families on low pay?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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For families working on low pay, we have increased the working family payment and the lone parent disregards. The poorest families, those living alone and those on welfare with children have been protected.

Photo of John BrassilJohn Brassil (Kerry, Fianna Fail)
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What about the cuts for pensioners?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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The Taoiseach is anti-republican.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge that some have not but taking the four budgets in the round we have increased the weekly rate of the pension and the weekly rate of welfare payments by three or four times the rate of inflation. I am proud to have led a Government that did that.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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Yesterday's briefing from Downing Street, presumably from Mr. Cummings, said that the Taoiseach thinks he cannot lose by refusing to compromise now and that the British will have to put the offer back on the table whatever happens after 31 October. However the UK Government says that the deal it offers now will not be revived, that its duty of sincere co-operation would be "in the toilet" as it was put and that we do not understand the electoral dynamics over there. We are electoral nerds and we follow UK politics. We have as much understanding of the form of the various parties in the UK as we do that of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea in the UK premier league.

Photo of Patrick O'DonovanPatrick O'Donovan (Limerick County, Fine Gael)
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What about Wolves?

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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We understand their-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Mind the wolves.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Would the Deputies have a bit of sense? The people of the country are observing this Parliament in action. Would Members please respect that fact and allow the Deputy to ask the question without interruption and allow the Taoiseach to respond without interruption?

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I do not mind levity but this is serious stuff. This is the issue of today beyond any historic moment I can remember. I can recall 2010. We are in a similar moment because what happens here in the next few weeks is important for the people of this country. This is deadly serious. I was using an analogy to show that we know politics in the UK inside out, intimately. I have ten first cousins over there and I talk to them regularly. We follow politics there and know exactly what the game is and what is being played out in this regard.

I know we have to be careful about chasing the latest media stories but the Tánaiste was in Brussels last night and I presume he can confirm the reports today that the EU may now be willing to accept a consent approach in Northern Ireland. They say it would be based on a double majority, which I think we would have to agree to that. We could not have a situation where one particular party could have a veto on proceedings. I am interested in the Taoiseach's position on this. Our party set out clearly during the summer that maybe there should be a referendum up North, not a Border poll about sovereignty or unity but one on the specifics of a deal. If that can be done instead, there is a mechanism in Stormont, for all its failed structures. Our party does not abide by this one side or the other approach; we have representation from both sides of the community up North. What is the Taoiseach's view on a double majority consent approach, if Europe has moved to accept that? Does that unblock that difficulty?

If the UK Government says the offer will not be back on the table, I presume our ask will be the same and I presume, if the consent issue can be agreed,there will not be customs arrangements on this island. That is all that holds us now from a deal. After the UK's electoral dynamics have played out, even if the Tories are returned to office, we would have the House of Congress on our side saying that any trade deal would not be acceptable unless our issues were addressed and, given the solidarity we have in Europe and the reports of Chancellor Merkel's comments yesterday, we can be reasonably confident of European support. Electoral dynamics or not, I presume our ask will stay the same. It is not a unity play; it is not to demean Unionism but to recognise that there will be no customs variation come what may.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am aware of the various anonymous briefings we are reading of in the newspapers about me, Ireland and Chancellor Merkel and I do not want to make much response to anonymous briefings of that nature. I do not think much of anonymous briefings, whether from Downing Street or from my own ranks. If people want to brief, they should do so publicly and openly. There has not been any change to the EU negotiating position. We decide our guidelines at EU Council meetings and they have not changed and they certainly cannot change until the summit next week at the very earliest. As far as the Government is concerned, we do want a deal. We are willing to work hard to get one. We will work until the last moment to get one but not at any cost. We are absolutely open to proposals that take into account the democratic wishes and views of the people of Northern Ireland on consent and democracy. We need to make sure, however, that any such arrangements are workable. It is a sad fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly has not met for three years and has met for only half of the time that it has been in existence. We have to bear that in mind in any clause on consent or democracy. We also need to bear in mind that the people of Northern Ireland voted by a clear majority to remain in the EU and when polled, they say they are in favour of the backstop that was negotiated with Prime Minister May's Government. Any solution that we come to or that I can recommend to this House has to have the support of the people of Northern Ireland and they have given their views on this - they do not want to leave the European Union, they would accept the backstop and they do not support the proposals currently on the table from the British Government.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I encourage the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to try to get a deal in the next week. There was a very good briefing this morning in the AV room from the Border people who are opposed to Brexit and the harsh reality of what a no-deal crash out would bring, particularly in Northern Ireland and in the southern Border counties. There would be massive unemployment and all that might bring. If there is instability now when there is relatively full employment, what would the political direction if it went that way?

The Taoiseach is correct that we should not pay too much heed to briefings. However, while the UK Government says the offer will not come back and it is going to plough on. This House needs to be clear that our request respects Unionist consent and that it is not about claiming dominion in any way at all but it is intended to protect our people on both sides of the Border. Our ask relates to the remaining issue of the customs arrangement and we should make clear that we are going to try to get a deal in the next week and, even if we do not get that, our ask will remain the same no matter what happens in the coming month and year.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I read the article written by the Green Party leaders in Northern Ireland a few weeks ago. I thought they made a helpful and constructive suggestion and their case was well made. We do, however, need to bear in mind that referendums are unusual tools in politics and sometimes when it comes to a referendum, people do not necessarily answer the question that is being asked. One concern we must take into account were it to come to a referendum in Northern Ireland is that, even though it would not be a Border poll on the ballot paper, there is a risk that it might become a proxy Border poll and cause division among the communities there. That is not a reason not to do it but it is something that we need to bear in mind in any of our considerations.

Part of the difficulty at the moment is that the position of the UK Government is that Northern Ireland must leave the EU customs union and be part of the UK customs union no matter what the people of Northern Ireland think. That is its position and that creates a grave difficulty for us because we want there to be a deal that respects the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and the people in this Republic too.

12:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We will move now to the two additional questions. In accordance with the provisions of the rota, I first call Deputy Micheál Martin.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Back again.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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He has not gone away, you know.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It happens once a year and I am not the author of it.

I raise the issue of the prevalence of drug abuse in our society, which is at an all-time high. We all know people in our communities who are addicted or who have lost loved ones through addiction. The latest statistics from the Health Research Board are alarming. Between 2010 and 2017, some 63,000 cases presented for treatment of drug abuse alone. Anecdotally, according to anybody in third level education, access to drugs is now the norm. There is no element of surprise. It is all-pervasive in our society. Cocaine use has risen year after year. Since 2016, in particular, it has risen dramatically. The following figure, on which I ask Deputies to reflect, is staggering. In 2016, the Garda secured 30 million seizures, whereas in 2017, that rose to 70 million seizures. The Garda is working at the limits. It seems that Fine Gael-led Governments, in particular, have dropped the ball in respect of the deeper community based response that is required.

In the 1990s, the drug task forces were introduced. I pay tribute to the former Ministers and Ministers of State, Mr. Pat Rabbitte, Mr. Noel Ahern, Mr. Eoin Ryan, Mr. Pat Carey, Deputy Curran, Deputy Shortall and others, all of whom understood the importance of the drug task forces and the need to empower and resource communities. It is unacceptable that since 2013, the drug task forces have had no increase in core funding. Communities have been disempowered against those who peddle drugs within their communities. Alternative facilities have not been developed. The RAPID programme was additional to the drug task forces initiative, which was impactful and had a significant effect in the early years. Too many people are dying and too many people's lives are being destroyed. Access to addiction services, to counselling, to mental health services and, in particular, to child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, is poor. There is considerable anxiety and frustration among parents, for example, in respect of gaining access for adolescents to CAMHS. Overall, there is an absence of a comprehensive strategy for drugs embracing the various Departments. Given that I saw no reference to the matter in yesterday's budget, I ask the Government to reflect carefully and to ensure a significant increase in the core funding of the drug task forces this year and into the future.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I absolutely agree that the issue of drug abuse is a significant problem in our society. Drugs are ubiquitous and widely available. It is not a rural or urban problem; it is all over the country and is not just about disadvantaged areas. They are ubiquitous and available in all sectors of society, including among the very well-off. Our approach has been led by a few policy considerations, one of which is to move away from a criminal justice-led approach to a more health-led approach. I am sure the Deputy will have read the report of the expert group on the matter, published only a few weeks ago. We want to move away from the idea that if somebody is in possession of illegal drugs, he or she is criminalised. We want to move more towards a health-led approach. We have not gone as far as decriminalisation, which the expert group did not recommend, but we are moving to a more health-led approach where we try to help people who are found to be in possession of illegal drugs, rather than giving them a criminal record, which could destroy their lives, reduce their employment prospects or make it harder for them to migrate-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is not the core of the issue.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----and one can see where we are going in that regard.

The second policy consideration is improving addiction services, for which there has been increased funding in recent years. The naloxone project has made a big difference to a large number of people who would have overdosed and died five years ago but who now survive because of the availability of naloxone. There has been investment in CAMHS, which the Deputy mentioned. I spoke last night to the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, who told me the waiting list for CAMHS has fallen by 25% over the past few months, which is a considerable improvement but we need to do better again.

There has also been a public health-led approach on areas such as alcohol. We finally got the Public Health (Alcohol) Act through the House, which will be a game changer in respect of alcohol abuse. As the Deputy will be aware, alcohol and drug abuse often go together . As far as I am aware, the drug task forces' funding has been held level for the past couple of years and there have not been reductions for quite a few years. As I mentioned earlier, there was a very considerable increase in the budget for health announced yesterday, namely, an increase of €1.15 billion, which is a pretty huge increase in the health budget. Over the course of the next few weeks, the Minister for Health, the Ministers of State with responsibility for health and the HSE will determine where that goes. Some of it may well go to addiction services, as I hope it will. I am sure some of it will go to mental health, while some of it will potentially go to the drug task forces.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I believe that the health expenditure increase is €665 million, based on the Minister for Finance's comments yesterday when he mentioned that the €1.15 billion figure includes €335 million of a supplementary being brought into next year. We will park that for a moment.

There has always been a health-based approach. The whole idea of the drug task forces was about a health based approach. Two people per day now die because of drug addiction. That is a terrible and damning statistic. Existing policies are simply not working. Drug exchanges on our streets are now the norm, as are the selling of drugs and the utilisation of young children and teenagers to sell drugs in communities. It is everywhere but is particularly acute in some communities, where certain gangs use particular communities as the base for the distribution of their drugs. The reality is one of death and destruction. We are at an all-time high. We are not succeeding as a society in dealing with the issue, not least in respect of youth usage of drugs and alcohol. I am surprised the Taoiseach mentioned the Public Health (Alcohol) Act, given that it has not been commenced, particularly in respect of the below-cost selling provision. We had a lot of agonising debate in the Chamber over a year and a half ago. How many sections of the Act have been commenced? It illustrates the sincerity and urgency attached to these issues.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not have the exact figures in front of me but I believe that the increase in the health budget is €669 million on projected outturn but €1.15 billion year on year. Either way, it is an awful lot of money. In the past two years-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The outturn is the key.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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It depends on how it is measured.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We do not yet know what the outturn-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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It depends on how it is measured.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----will be for 2020 but we will see how it goes.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Some 500 people are waiting on trolleys in Limerick.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach should go easy on the €1.15 billion. He is giving false impressions.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Either way, it is an awful lot of money and an unprecedented increased investment in our health services over the past two or three years since I have become Taoiseach.

On the Public Health (Alcohol) Act-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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What about when the Taoiseach was Minister for Health?

(Interruptions).

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I wish that when I was Minister for Health, I had got the increases that the current Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, is getting, quite frankly-----

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach might have stayed longer as Minister for Health if that had been the case.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----but we are in different times. I believe I got zero the first year and was delighted to get €350 million the second year. I am pleased to be part of a Government that is able to give the Minister, Deputy Harris, such large increases-----

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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The Minister, Deputy Harris, is wasting the money on the children's hospital.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----in the health budget but that would not have been possible, had it not been for how well the economy has been managed by the Government in recent years.

For the Deputy's information, approximately 1.27% of the health budget next year will go on the children's hospital, with 98% on everything else.

On the Public Health (Alcohol) Act, some sections relating to promotions and advertising have been commenced. I am told that 23 sections have been commenced.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Will the Taoiseach provide a written note on the matter?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I will. We are keen to address minimum unit pricing in 2020 but we have a genuine concern about cross-Border trade. It is a real concern-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Was that not the whole purpose of the Act?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----if one lives along the Border or retails along the Border.

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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It is a concern.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Little is achieved for public health if people just cross the Border and buy cheap alcohol in the North. We want everyone to do it at the same time.

It has been done in Scotland, but it is not capable of being done in Northern Ireland because of the problems there.

12:20 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We waited for years until it was done in Scotland and now we are not doing it.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It is a real issue.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Taoiseach did not flag it.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Can we, please, move to Deputy Howlin?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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As I have indicated previously, clearly the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection has had little influence on the budget. She said yesterday that she wanted to defer raising the minimum wage as recommended by the Low Pay Commission until late 2020 or not at all in the event of a no-deal Brexit. That is bad economics. Research from the IMF and countless other economic studies have shown that raising the wages of the lowest paid has little or no negative impact on overall employment in any economy. I can send the Taoiseach the statistics. On the contrary, any extra money in the pockets of workers is spent locally in shops and businesses. It is a sensible counter-cyclical spend which would offset any economic downturn due to a hard Brexit. There is no economic logic to any decision to postpone raising the minimum wage in the event of a hard Brexit. It is simply wrong. The only conclusion to which one can come, therefore, is that Fine Gael is seeking to undermine the principle underlying the Low Wage Commission's determination. The Labour Party's position is clear. No one who works full time should be living in poverty. As soon as the Labour Party entered government, we restored the previous cut made to the minimum wage. That was done at a time when we had no money. Before we left government, we added a further 50 cent per hour, which was equivalent to €1,000 a year. The original minimum wage set by the then Minister, Mary Harney, was approximately 60% of the median average wage, which is what the OECD considers to be the threshold for low pay. Later increases did not match the rising cost of living. That is why the Labour Party had passed the National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Act 2015 which the Taoiseach will remember well. The Act provides for an evidenced-based approach to setting the national minimum wage, rather than leaving it to decisions made on a political basis. The issue is far too fundamental to the economic well-being of low paid workers to allow that to happen.

The Low Pay Commission makes an annual recommendation. Its recommendation for 2020 was that the minimum wage rise by 30 cent per hour to €10.10. Under the Act, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection must, having received a recommendation, implement it or set out in a statement the reasons she is setting it aside. Will the Taoiseach confirm that if the Minister fails to make an order to raise the minimum wage to €10.10 per hour, as recommended by the Low Pay Commission, she will set out her reasons in a full statement to the Dáil? Does the Government accept the findings of the IMF and others that raising the minimum wage does not have a negative impact on employment?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, had a huge influence on the composition of the budget, in particular in relation to her own Department, for which an increase in spending of approximately €500 million is projected next year. It is a very large increase. Albeit the package is modest and targeted, it was very much one of the Minister's design, in respect of which she had my support and that of the Government. There will be an increase in the living alone allowance to ensure the poorest pensioners and those with disabilities who live alone will receive an increase at close to three times the rate of inflation. The package focuses on the children of families on welfare payments to lift more people out of poverty. In the last year or two 20,000 children were lifted out of poverty and the budget will help more to come out of it. It focuses on lone parents, increasing the working family payment for low income working families and providing hot school meals and for returnships to encourage more women to return to the workforce. It is very much a package that was designed by the Minister with my support and that of the Government generally.

Deputy Howlin is correct that all of the research shows that modest and realistic increases in the minimum wage do not have an adverse effect on employment. The research also shows that increases in the minimum wage do not have much of an effect on poverty because of the nature of those on it. While that it not often quoted, it is what the research also shows. That is because minimum wage incomes are generally second incomes in households, not the primary wage. That is why increases tend not to have a significant effect on poverty. However, raising the minimum wage is good and the right thing to do. Anyone who gets up early in the morning for less than €10 per hour is very hard working and deserves an increase. That is why I was pleased to be part of a Government with the Labour Party when we reversed the cut in the minimum wage and then increased it. I am also glad to be part of a Government with Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance which has increased the minimum wage for three years in a row.

I encourage people to read the report of the Low Pay Commission on its recommendation. It has recommended a 30 cent increase in the minimum wage in the new year if there is a deal and an orderly Brexit. Yesterday the Cabinet accepted that recommendation. If there is a deal and an orderly Brexit, the minimum wage will increase by 30 cent per hour in the new year. If that does not happen, we will be in a different space and must consider the fact that we face rising unemployment. We do not want to do anything that will make it harder for employers to keep people on or which might cause them to cut people's hours, which would actually make them worse off. That is what we need to bear in mind. The recommendation of the commission is to increase the minimum wage by 30 cent per hour in January based on an orderly Brexit. I hope we will know by January whether that will be the case.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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The Taoiseach cannot argue both ways. If raising the minimum wage has no impact on employment, he cannot argue that he must not do it to protect employment. That does not make sense to me. In what he sets out in response to this and my previous question, he says the budget announced yesterday was a Brexit budget intended to Brexit-proof the nation. Rightly, significant sums of money have been provided to protect employment and support jobs and vulnerable sectors of the economy. What he has told me twice now, however, is that the Government has no protections in place for the most vulnerable people who are dependent on fixed incomes. I refer to those on welfare payments, 80% of whom the Taoiseach has acknowledged will experience a real pay deduction next year. In the event of a hard Brexit, that reduction will be significant owing to price rises. Low paid workers are not to be Brexit-proofed either. Their modest 30 cent per hour pay increase is to be put on hold if there is a hard Brexit. Relief and supports are rightly put in place for some but not for the lowest paid workers and social welfare recipients.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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In the event of a no-deal Brexit, the people who will be most vulnerable are those who will lose their jobs. That is what the budget is all about. It is about ensuring we protect Ireland from the worst effects of a no-deal Brexit. We are putting in place the firepower to make social welfare payments to those who may need them because they lose their jobs and, more importantly, to save businesses and jobs. I would rather borrow money to save jobs than to pay the dole. That is the policy we are pursuing. That is for what we need to protect our resources. The Deputy knows as well as I do that modest or even small increases in social welfare rates across the board and modest tax cuts to take account of indexation cost a great deal of money. Indexing tax credits and tax bands alone would have cost €600 million. Indexing welfare payments with inflation would probably have cost another €300 million or €400 million. That would have been €1 billion gone to take account of indexation and inflation. That is the €1 billion we need to protect Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit by saving businesses and jobs. That is the choice we have made.