Tuesday, 5 November 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 7 together.
The role of my Department is to assist my work as Taoiseach and to co-ordinate the work of the Government and Cabinet. While there are currently no plans to change the structure of my Department, its staffing needs and structure are reviewed on an ongoing basis. My Department is currently structured around five main divisions: the international, EU and Northern Ireland division, including responsibility on Brexit matters; an economic division; a social policy and public service reform division; a Government secretariat, protocol and general division and parliamentary liaison unit; and the corporate affairs division.
The remainder of staff in my Department include those in private offices or constituency offices, and the Government information service and internal audit unit. Recent changes in my Department include the establishment of the following: a secretariat for a new citizens' assembly; the National Security Analysis Centre; a climate action unit; a policing reform implementation programme office; a unit dealing with Brexit preparedness and no-deal planning; and a team dealing with the north-east inner city initiative.
With the exception of politically appointed staff, staff assignments in my Department are the responsibility of the Secretary General and the senior management of the Department.
I know. I just wanted to say that I am not being rude but must leave to take a call.
I propose that the Taoiseach take the issue of disability under his Department's remit. Disability advocacy groups and service users have been calling for this for some time. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability, UNCRPD, has been ratified, although the Government notably opted out of the optional protocol which would make it legally accountable for ensuring equality for people with disabilities. This is important because the equality that people with disabilities should have under law due to the UNCRPD is not being delivered. One of the reasons is that the issue is spread across a series of Departments and areas, including housing, health, planning, transport, jobs and enterprise, and so on. Nobody is responsible for ensuring that a huge cohort of our citizens have the equality to which they are legally entitled. I suggest that the Taoiseach take the issue of disability under his remit. I will listen back to his answer later.
One of the problems this Administration has is its competence when it comes to joined-up government. There are many Ministers and such a huge number of Ministers of State that we cannot even remember their names or functions. It is not clear from what we discussed today how the children's hospital got into its current state of bad budgeting. The Taoiseach did not comment on the boil water notices during my earlier question, but we were told today that Irish Water needs significant amounts of money to do up the treatment plant in Leixlip. Yet, there does not seem to be any joined-up government. A boil water notice was issued two weeks ago, and another was announced today which will last until Thursday. We could have them all the way up to Christmas. Where does the Government interact? The Taoiseach mentioned the 2015 climate change legislation that I, as Tánaiste, ensured came into effect. That only happened because I demanded it. The Taoiseach seems to be floating somewhere above this as if he is not affected by any of these things which affect people in their daily lives.
The Taoiseach has stated in the past that he is happy with the structure of the Department of the Taoiseach as it has been since 2016, when the last significant change was implemented. In that case, the change was a reversal of a decision taken five years previously to incorporate the EU division from Iveagh House into Government Buildings. If we assume that the UK's withdrawal agreement or something close to it is ratified next year, we will potentially be facing into many years of ongoing negotiations with the United Kingdom, both bilaterally and through the European Union. That is particularly true given that the deal Boris Johnson has negotiated would entail a harsher Brexit than that negotiated with Theresa May. That does not seem to be getting much attention, but that is the reality. Things may change in the upcoming election and a Government with a softer position may be formed. Nonetheless, there will be discussions on this issue.
I put it to the Taoiseach that we as a country must put in place a more substantive mechanism for maintaining ongoing relations at ministerial and official level. The British-Irish Council is too unwieldy and too focused on once-off events and initiatives to play this role. I have consistently argued this for four or five years. We must anticipate and deal with the many problems which could arise in the common travel area, for example, such as maintaining a seamless common travel area in the years ahead, particularly in areas of reciprocal rights such as health, education, and social protection. The devolved administrations also will have a significant role to play in this. In Scotland, where health and education services are governed from Edinburgh, maintaining alignment in the absence of EU frameworks and legislation will be a significant task. I ask the Taoiseach to indicate what extra resources will be provided on that front.
In recent years, there have been growing calls from the disability sector for a full seat at the Cabinet table. We do not have a great record when it comes to interdepartmental work, and this remains a challenge, particularly in the areas of health, children and youth affairs, education, and justice. This is an area of our public administration that has yet to be truly reformed. Others have asked that disability be brought under the remit of the Department of the Taoiseach, thereby giving this broad policy area a home at the highest level in Government. Placing disability with the Department would give policy development and delivery added authority and perhaps it would give service users confidence that the UNCRPD will be implemented in full. I am happy to add my voice to those that have been calling for this for a long time in order that persons with disabilities will be placed at the centre of the Government and policy formation, and that they will not fall between two stools, as has so often been the case when it comes to interdepartmental work.
This Government, made up of Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance, has established a Minister of State for disability who sits at the Cabinet table. This is the first time we have had a dedicated Minister with responsibility for disability sitting at the Cabinet table.