Wednesday, 11 December 2019
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
National Economic and Social Council
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, together.
The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, is an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of my Department. The council analyses and reports on strategic policy matters relevant to Ireland's economic, social, environmental and sustainable development. The NESC is a valuable forum where economic, social and environmental issues can be discussed between a variety of actors and Departments. The council's work focuses on the strategic and long-term view and its current work programme comprises four themes: Ireland's transition to a low-carbon and digital future; reforms to the social welfare system; land use, land value and urban development; and climate change.
Future Jobs Ireland 2019 also includes a request for NESC to develop policy recommendations for the operation of transition teams to manage the impact of economic transition on vulnerable workers and sectors. The project will provide a forward look at the economy in the context of a transition to a low carbon and more digital future.
I present council reports to Government prior to their publication, or prior to laying them before the Houses, as in the case of the annual reports. Council reports published in 2019 include Transport-Orientated Development: Assessing the Opportunity for Ireland and Climate Change Policy: Getting the Process Right.
I appoint members to the council under the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006 and the NESC (Alteration of Composition) Order 2010 - SI 603 of 2010. Each of the following sectors nominates three representatives to the council: business and employer interests, ICTU, farming and agricultural interests, community and voluntary sector, and the environmental sector.
A further six members are public servants, mainly Secretaries General, and must include a representative of my Department and the Department of Finance. The Secretary General of my Department, Mr. Martin Fraser, is the chair of the council and an assistant secretary of my Department, Ms Liz Canavan, is the deputy chair. There are also seven independent members on the council. This composition means that it plays an important and unique role in bringing different perspectives from civil society together with Government. This helps NESC to analyse the challenges facing society and to develop a shared understanding among its members of how to tackle these challenges. Since becoming Taoiseach, I have made 12 appointments to the council in line with the legislation and the guidelines on appointments to State boards. The council is funded through my Department's Vote and my Department also has governance responsibilities regarding the council.
In the past couple of years, NESC has focused much of its work on climate change and sustainability. This has been welcome and constructive work. This was acknowledged earlier this year when the Government launched its much delayed climate plan. For the past two months, I have been trying and failing to get the Taoiseach to summon up his reputation for straight talking, which used to be promoted by his supporters, to answer some basic questions about the targets in the climate plan. At its launch, and during the extended period of partial briefing and marketing that surrounded its appearance, it was claimed by the Government that the plan was specific, ambitious and credible in setting out exactly how Ireland can reach its emissions targets. One of these targets is that, within ten years, Ireland will have 1 million electric vehicles on the road. It has been estimated that to hit the Government's target every car sold from January onwards for the next ten years will have to be electric. This is obviously nonsense. The cars are not available, the charging network is not available and there is no policy in place capable of delivering even a fraction of the target of a one hundredfold increase in sales starting in three weeks. Can the Taoiseach tell us how exactly he believes the target for electric vehicles will be met? We need precision, not the general stuff that he has been going on with for the past few months. What measures in the recent budget will deliver the proposed dramatic turnaround in the immediate future? When will we see an update on progress towards achieving the targets in the plan?
According to the latest census figures, there 79 black spots across electoral divisions in Ireland. These are areas where the average unemployment rate is above 30%, with those between the ages of 25 and 34 the largest segment of those without a job. Those who are jobless most frequently cite the construction sector as their previous occupation. In short, a large pool of potential construction workers are being left behind. This is a time we need a massive housebuilding programme, and a massive investment in retrofitting the existing housing stock to deal with climate change. The Central Bank stated that we need 34,000 homes per year and the Society of St. Vincent De Paul report on energy poverty launched yesterday highlighted the fact that a massive retrofitting project is urgently needed.
The national training fund, which is meant to fund apprentices, has been allowed to run a cumulative surplus of €460 million in spite of the fact that the NESC recommended its greater use to fund apprentices and get people in unemployment black spots, the areas of the country with unemployment rates of 30% or more, back to work. Will the Taoiseach act on this issue, use that available funding to create apprenticeship places for unemployed former construction workers and address the needs of our economy by building houses, retrofitting homes and ensuring the fund is deployed?
Last year, the NESC published its important report No. 145, entitled Urban Development Land, Housing and Infrastructure: Fixing Ireland’s Broken System, which described the housing system as speculative, volatile and expensive. Launching the report, Dr. Rory O'Connor stated, "We know from experience that in countries with more effective, affordable and stable housing systems - such as Austria, Germany and the Netherlands - public bodies actively manage land supply, housing provision and affordability." NESC research indicates that public institutions need a strong development mandate, political authority and executive capacity to drive housing supply. It appears the Government has abandoned the report's recommendations. Everything that has been done since its publication has gone in the other direction. For instance, the Land Development Agency, LDA, which does not have compulsory purchase order, CPO, powers, is off-balance sheet and, effectively, is a fully independent commercial entity that only has regard to Government policy rather than delivering on it. It is under no statutory obligation to deliver social or affordable housing. When a conflict of interest between commercial concerns and social goods arises for the LDA, the commercial interests always win out over affordable housing, as was previously the case with NAMA. My question is simple. Can the Government provide examples of the policy outlined in the NESC report being implemented or applied through legislation or anything else it is doing? It seems to be one of the reports that went straight to the top shelf to gather dust.
When the issue of the NESC last arose, it was noted that the legislation governing it appeared to have stalled. It could be a very useful forum for dealing with some of the difficult problems besetting our society. At the time, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of drugs gangs in Blanchardstown and the report that had recently been issued regarding young children in the area being used as runners by the gangs. Today, a devastating report was published regarding the south city area of Dublin. It delivers a similar message, namely, that drugs gangs are seeking to take on many young children who may become the serious criminals of the next 20 years. They are paid with money, mobile phones, the latest runners and other shoes and so on. Has the Government used or considered using the NESC to bring in a variety of people to talk to it about how drugs are destroying many communities in this city and other areas? The greater Blanchardstown area, which the Taoiseach and I represent, as well as the adjacent areas of Finglas and Cabra, are suffering dreadfully from the scourge of drugs. Has he considered using the NESC as a forum to bring in representatives of the Garda and other organisations to try to make sense of the matter to deal with the drugs problem before it destroys many young lives?
I thank the Deputies for their comprehensive questions.
On climate action, I welcome that Ireland has gone up seven places in the climate action index produced by environmental NGOs. We came from a very low base and, as such, the improvement is not something to celebrate or crow about. However, it indicates measurable progress by Ireland on climate action in the view of NGOs. It is based on data and interviews from 2017 and 2018 and, as such, does not take into account the significant progress in the past year, including the publication and implementation of the climate action plan. When I became Taoiseach, I set the ambition for Ireland to go from being a laggard on climate action to a leader. I am glad we are no longer considered a laggard, although we are certainly not a leader yet. It is good that we are going in the right direction and I am confident that we can become a leader in the years to come.
I acknowledge our electric vehicle targets are ambitious. My understanding is that the starting point for all targets in the climate action plan was the extent to which we needed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The targets must combine to reduce our emissions by approximately 30%.
I will provide it if it exists. I am not sure it does. I will check that out.
It is correct that there is a significant surplus in the national training fund. We are liberating some of the surplus. Some €300 million of it was assigned to human capital initiative announced and launched a few weeks ago by me and certain Ministers at an event in Trinity College Dublin. Most of it will go to third level institutions, including institutes of technology, but some will go to apprenticeships. I will have to double check that. We have liberated €300 million from the large surplus in the fund for higher and further education.
On the LDA, as Deputies will be aware, it has been established by statutory instrument but we need to put primary legislation in place to give it full powers and teeth. It has not been decided whether it will be on or off-balance sheet. It may have CPO powers, but the legislation governing such powers is very out of date. We may need to bring in primary legislation to address CPO powers generally rather than another Bill to give an agency some form of CPO power. That area of law needs to be tidied up. The Law Reform Commission has done very good work in that regard.
On land use, the scheme at O'Devaney Gardens is a good example of where we are following the advice contained in the land use report referred to by Deputy Martin Kenny.
It is a high-density housing development on a city centre site involving housing for all and incorporating a mix of social and private housing as well as homes to rent. The Enniskerry Road site, which is our first cost-rental development, is under construction in Dún Laoghaire.
I replied to several questions on the Connolly report earlier today. I will give consideration to whether the NESC could have a role in examining drugs policy and drug-related crime, but the best place for people to come together on that issue is through the existing joint agency response to crime initiative.