Tuesday, 8 December 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on Europe oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments on the EU and related issues. It last met on 8 October 2020 in advance of the meetings of the European Council on 15 October and 16 October, when it discussed the agenda for that meeting, including climate action and the EU's relationship with Africa. I also used the meeting to brief colleagues on the visit to Dublin earlier that day of President of the European Council, Mr. Charles Michel. My discussions with him included the state of play in the Brexit negotiations, EU co-ordination in response to Covid-19, climate action and EU relations with Africa.
The next meeting of the Cabinet committee on Europe is scheduled to take place later today in advance of the European Council meeting in Brussels this Thursday and Friday, 10 and 11 December. The agenda for that meeting includes: further discussion on Covid-19, including the roll-out of vaccines and travel; climate action and the question of increased ambition in the European Union target for 2030; terrorism, in light of recent events in France and Austria; European Union relations with our southern neighbours; relations with Turkey; and European Union-US relations.
There is also likely to be discussion of the multi-annual financial framework and recovery package with the Germany Presidency continuing to lead discussions aimed at reaching agreement on rule of law conditionality in this context. While not on the agenda at this point, we will take stock of the current state of play in the European Union-UK negotiations. We may also discuss other current external relations issues.
I wish to raise the decision of the European Committee of Social Rights, ECSR, and the Government's compliance with the right to equal pay, as well as the right to equal opportunities in the workplace. The Irish Federation of University Women, through the University Women of Europe, lodged a complaint within the framework of the collective complaints procedure with the ECSR as the monitoring body of the European Social Charter.
Ireland was one of 15 EU member states against which complaints were made. In its complaint against Ireland, the University Women of Europe argued that the gender pay gap for women here persists despite the State's international and domestic obligations. The committee found that Ireland is in violation of the European Social Charter on three separate counts. It was found that pay transparency is not guaranteed in practice and that the absence of gender pay gap reporting is a major obstacle for victims of pay discrimination as their rights cannot be effectively enforced. It was also found that there is an absence of indicators showing measurable progress in promoting equal opportunities between men and women in respect of equal pay. The committee noted that the previous Government was unable to provide gender pay gap statistics for the previous five years in its submission. It was found that Ireland has made insufficient progress in ensuring a balanced representation of women in decision-making positions in private companies. Ireland's breaches of the European Social Charter are even more disappointing when we consider that addressing the gender pay gap was a key commitment in the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020. Can the Taoiseach please confirm when the Bill will be released from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth for Report Stage and also the specific actions the Government has taken to address all three violations of the European Social Charter?
The Garda Síochána is currently engaged in a joint EU-funded research programme called real time network, text and speaker analytics for combating organised crime, ROXANNE. The programme has been in place since September 2019 and runs to August 2022. Among the participants on this programme is the Israeli Ministry of Public Security, which oversees the Israeli prison service, police, border control and so on. It has been involved and implicated in repeated, terrible human rights abuses of Palestinians, including many children, administrative detention, detention of children without trial and many other human rights abuses that have recently been documented by, among others, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign in a report it produced in August. The latter has written to the Minister for Justice. I submitted a parliamentary question that was ruled out of order asking what on earth the Garda Síochána is doing. The Garda has, as part of its code of ethics, specific and clear commitments to human rights and yet is partnering with an Israeli body that is deeply implicated in human rights abuses.
I put to the Taoiseach that we should have no hand or part in a project involving the Israeli Ministry of Public Security. Indeed, we should be suggesting that the EU, which is supposed to respect human rights, should have nothing whatsoever to do with such a project if the Israeli Ministry of Public Security is involved.
This is obviously a critical week for Brexit, and I know things are live at the moment as to where we are at. A number of key issues are outstanding regarding a level playing field, fisheries and the governance of any trade deal. What assurances has the Taoiseach in the area of fisheries that will allow access to UK waters to continue?
What we are now hearing about Brexit is positive and certainly better than it was earlier. However, in the event that things go the other direction, what contingencies are in place for a no-deal Brexit as regards financial supports that were mooted last week? When would they came into place if, unfortunately, we end up in that scenario? Has anything changed with regard to what the Taoiseach has told this Chamber about potential shortages of food, medicines or goods? Has he had any discussions with President Macron, the Dutch Prime Minister or Chancellor Merkel in the past week on what specific measures they are potentially ready to compromise?
I omitted a section of my initial reply. There will be a meeting of the Euro Summit which is expected to take stock of recent developments at Eurogroup on banking union and capital markets. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, will attend the Euro Summit in his capacity as president of the Eurogroup and a report on last week's agreement on finalising reform of the European Stability Mechanism is an important step in strengthening the resilience and crisis resolution capabilities of the euro area. The Cabinet committee on Europe will then continue to meet as appropriate, including to discuss issues on the agenda of the European Council. I pay tribute to the Minister, in his capacity as president of the Eurogroup, for the important work he did there in advancing and finalising reform of the European Stability Mechanism.
Some of the questions that Deputies raised are not directly applicable to the work but I will take the question about the gender pay gap, the insufficient progress in addressing it and, indeed, the number of women in senior positions in the private and public sectors. The Government is committed to dealing with and progressing those issues and will work with Europe to advance and progress them. I will talk to the Minister concerned about when he will be in a position to bring the legislation to Committee Stage. I will come back to the Deputy on that point. Generally speaking, we know the situation regarding gender pay. The gender pay gap is not acceptable and needs to be rectified. It needs to be dealt with in a progressive and timelined way. The Government and I are committed to doing that.
Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to a joint European Union research group, as I understand it, to combat organised crime. I commend the European Union for organising a group to deal with organised crime across Europe because crime is now international and knows no borders. It is important that An Garda Síochána is a participant in any European Union project that will subsequently enhance its intelligence and insights into how organised crime works globally and how analytics can be used to combat organised crime. The question is should the Israeli police force be a part of that European initiative. That is the more relevant question to ask, rather than saying that the Garda should not be a part of a European consortium that is working on advanced mechanisms to defeat organised crime. My view is that the defeating of organised crime is critical for us in Europe. When one looks at what is happening in South America, for example-----
-----the power of organised crime is such that it challenges the rule of the state. Indeed, it has penetrated the state in many instances in terms of influence and power, ultimately to the detriment of the ordinary citizens of the state.
There are always balances to be struck in situations like this but I take the Deputy's point. There are issues around the performance of the Israeli police and military forces, without question, in terms of human rights abuses in Palestine and towards Palestinians. That is unacceptable and Europe has taken a strong stand on the matter. Europe has been supportive of Palestinians-----
-----through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and other infrastructural initiatives in the West Bank and Gaza. Europe will continue to be supportive of Palestinians' human rights and of enabling them to build a state apparatus for themselves. That will continue. There is a balancing act in terms of the approach to these issues.
Different member states have different perspectives. They do not all share our views on the Middle East. There are 27 EU member states so we cannot dictate every issue or the composition of every committee or consortium. We are not in a position to do that. Neither do I want to be in a position where we take the Garda out of important consortiums that could be of use to the force and to this country in the context of combating organised crime. We should not underestimate the devastation that organised crime wreaks on societies and people across Europe and in this country. We have to work with others to combat it.
Deputy Kelly asked for assurances on fisheries and access to UK waters. I cannot give such assurances right now, particularly if we are heading towards a no-deal scenario. I caution that we should not over-interpret welcome moves from the UK Government in respect of the protocol and the withdrawal agreement, in so far as they have withdrawn the offending clauses of the Internal Market Bill and, I understand, similar clauses that would have ended up in a taxation bill. That is positive and to be welcomed. This is a strand of the talks relating to the Border, which is important, and the seamless interaction of people, services and goods on the island of Ireland. It is to the credit of Commissioner Šefčovič and, on the British side, Michael Gove and his team of negotiators that they were able to iron out many difficulties regarding the operation of the protocol.
The situation in respect of the future trading relationship is much more difficult and will be hard to resolve. It should be resolved in the interests of all the citizens of Europe, the United Kingdom and Ireland. We will all lose if there is no deal. The absence of a deal would bring unacceptable disruption to ordinary people, workers and businesses. I have said this to all who would listen to me, including European negotiators, who are anxious to avoid a no-deal scenario, and the UK Prime Minister, when I have spoken to him. He knows my view that common sense should prevail. It is in everybody's interests that we avoid a no-deal situation and get a deal that facilitates workers and gives clarity and certainty to businesses.
On medicines, I have checked with the Department of Health, which is not sounding any alarm bells as yet regarding access to and procurement of medicines, particularly in the first six months after Brexit. There will be disruption on some scale, even if we achieve a trading deal, because of the fact that Britain is outside of the customs union and the Single Market. Being outside the customs union means a lot of checking and documentation.