Wednesday, 2 December 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
Departmental Strategy Statements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, together.
In accordance with the provisions of the Public Service Management Act 1997, my Department is currently developing its new statement of strategy for the next three years. The strategy will reflect the role of my Department to deliver the executive functions of the Taoiseach and Government and to support me as Head of Government to carry out my duties and implement the Government’s priorities over the coming period.
My Department engages with the formulation and implementation of Government policy, especially through the Cabinet committee structure, and ten have been established by this Government, reflecting the full range of policy areas that it will work on during its lifetime. My Department is playing a central role in co-ordinating the State’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and preparations and planning for Brexit. The strategy will also reflect my Department’s involvement in other whole-government work, including the development of the national economic plan and delivering real action on climate change.
As set out in the programme for Government, a new shared island unit has been established within the Department of the Taoiseach to support a renewed push to use the potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver sustained progress for all communities. This unit will work towards a consensus on a shared island and will examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected.
A social dialogue unit has also been established as part of the economic division in the Department of the Taoiseach. This will look to build on existing work and structures already in place to support social dialogue such as the Labour Employer Economic Forum.
The new statement of strategy is due to be finalised before the end of the year. Following its submission to Government, the strategy will be published and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. It will also be published on thegov.iewebsite.
This is high level stuff. When is it intended to publish the strategy? Will that be done before the conclusion of the Dáil this term? It would be helpful if it was. The current statement of strategy is completely out of date.
How is the social dialogue, about which the Taoiseach speaks quite eloquently, perhaps from history, to work? What format or structures will be in place? Will the Government bring something new to the table regarding how we do things?
The Taoiseach spoke about the economy earlier. Will it be done sector by sector. I mentioned tourism but we need a sector-by-sector plan. It is about where we go after Covid.
On sustainability and the environment, it is rather embarrassing for the Taoiseach's Government colleagues, the Green Party, where it has been shown that progress in climate action has significantly slowed since the formation of the Government. What actions will be taken to remediate this? Just four of the 22 measures in the climate action plan that were due in the third quarter of this year have been delivered. Some were very deliverable, so why have they not been delivered? It needs to be prioritised. Will the Taoiseach explain why some have been delivered?
The Taoiseach accused me of giving a warped interpretation of what he said, so I will repeat what he said, which is very plain: "we took a more conservative approach on the household visits, and then traded that off with visits to hotels and restaurants". The Government chose not to follow NPHET's recommendations on household visits so that it could open up hotels and restaurants. It is very clear, it is not warped. The Taoiseach says that he did that not because of profit but because of mental well-being. I think that most people, if asked to choose between being able to visit family and friends or go to gastropubs and restaurants, they would say it is more important for their mental well-being to be able to visit family and friends. It is remarkable how the whole issue of mental health has been abused during this pandemic by many people who never spoke a word about it previously, and now it has become a byword for reopening the pubs.
Like everyone else, I would love everything to go back to normal, to go out to the pub with loads of people and so on, but we are in the middle of a global pandemic and there are consequences for the Government's decisions to put short-term profits before public health.
Interestingly, one of those consequences is decreased medium-term economic growth. Just last week, an article by Martin Wolf in the Financial Timespointed out that countries that have pursued an elimination strategy have had much better economic results. This roller-coaster of moving in and out of lockdown is a disaster for workers.
I agree with Deputy Murphy. The main point I wish to make concerns another issue. The Taoiseach is taking a very serious gamble, as Deputy Murphy said and as I pointed out yesterday. The gamble will be disastrous if it results in the further restriction of family visits because infections go crazy in the next few weeks. The Taoiseach will be in trouble if that happens.
I wish to return to the arts and music industry. I suggest that the Taoiseach acquaints himself with it and develops a strategy. Our writers, poets, musicians, artists and the crews that stand behind them are shockingly undervalued. A row over this issue is erupting as we speak. It has been on the radio and in the news. More than 80% of the people who applied for funding for recordings under the music industry stimulus package have been refused. This is because the amount allocated to that package was miserable. People are insulted and demoralised. None of the other business support schemes, which run into billions of euro, sets limits on the number of people who could get them. If an applicant fit those schemes' criteria, he or she got the support. Only the scheme for musicians had a numbers limit. This restricted it to fewer than 20% of applicants. That is typical of the lack of respect shown by successive Governments to musicians, artists, entertainers, performers and crews. The Taoiseach should acquaint himself with this sector and it should be central to any strategy for this country.
The Taoiseach's statement of strategy must place a strong and renewed focus on the very many challenges facing Ireland's young people. Youth unemployment now stands at 45%. The release valve of emigration, which was relied upon by successive administrations, is not available to us. The ball is now firmly in the Government's court. It must deliver innovative interdepartmental solutions to the big policy issues facing young people. Market interventions such as rent caps are needed. We need rapid delivery of public housing. We need social and affordable public housing. We need to end the unsustainable rents which have placed incredible and unacceptable burdens of stress on young people, sometimes leading to disaster. This is not just a financial burden - it is an emotional one as well.
I know many people who have been lucky, as I am sure the Taoiseach does. They have enjoyed every opportunity and advantage, got an education and worked throughout that time. They may have secured permanent employment in their chosen fields. However, they are still unable to see owning their own home as a realistic prospect. They look at the cost of childcare with absolute dread. This is an appalling legacy of previous Governments.
We have consistently voiced concerns about the existing job activation programmes. I do not have time to rehearse these concerns today, but this issue must also be addressed. I hope that when we finally see this statement of strategy it will have a very deliberate focus on our young people.
The Government will publish a national economic plan that will deal the broader issues on the economic landscape. Housing will be a key part of it, particularly the provision of sustainable sources of social and affordable housing. In response to Deputy Kelly's question, I note that there will be key developments in the areas of digital transformation and the green economy. Those are two areas where opportunities will present themselves in the future.
The land development agency Bill 2019 is important from a housing perspective. The marine planning and development management Bill is particularly important for renewable energy and the exploitation of our seas' potential for economic development. I have made both pieces of legislation high priorities and I have worked with the respective Ministers in that regard. They are both complex Bills and it has therefore taken a while to get them over the line.
Deputy Kelly talked about the implementation of measures under the existing climate action plan which were due in the third quarter of this year. That is not fair to the Green Party. It is not its fault. This Government has only been in place since July. The pandemic has impacted on the implementation of some of its priorities. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will update that climate action plan and take measures to accelerate the implementation plan. His Bill is progressing through this House as we speak. It will be strengthened before it comes out the other end of the legislative process.
My Department's social dialogue unit is seeking to enhance the structures and relationships by which we engage with the social partners and the substance of that engagement. We will build on the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, and make it more substantial. My unit will co-ordinate with the major social partners with a view to getting agreement on some key societal issues.
We have not maintained restrictions on household visits as a trade-off in the crude sense Deputy Murphy suggests. All the public health evidence and advice, particularly during the second wave, has identified visits to households as the cause of much of the spread of the virus. That applies particularly at level 2 and higher. That is why I said the Deputy's description was warped. There are always challenges. We cannot keep people locked up forever. I do not agree with the Deputy's zero-Covid-19 strategy in light of our geographical position. We have a Border with the North, a jurisdiction where we do not have public health control, and we are in close proximity to the United Kingdom and Europe. Others might differ, but I do not think we can pursue a zero-Covid-19 strategy. The level 5 restrictions were not as severe as in the first lockdown.
In reply to Deputy Boyd Barrett's point, I note that the Government put very significant resources into the music, culture and arts sectors in the recent budget. Several schemes and supports are available. I listened to this morning's commentary on the music industry stimulus package and I know the Minister is aware of it. I have no doubt that the Minister will re-engage with that process. There is no negative agenda towards arts and culture in this Government. The Arts Council has received a €50 million increase in funding. We prioritise the arts and believe in their fundamental importance to our society.