Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
National Economic and Social Council
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, advises me on strategic policy issues relating to sustainable economic, social and environmental development in Ireland. The NESC work programme includes work in five areas. With regard to shared island, NESC is undertaking a programme of research covering a range of issues, including economy, regional development, poverty, mental health, climate, biodiversity and well-being. It will produce a comprehensive report on the shared island in quarter 1 of 2022. This research is part of a comprehensive research programme on shared island matters, involving NESC, as well as the ESRI, the Irish Research Council and other partners.
NESC is providing advice on just transition, including case studies and work on developing indicators. It is also beginning a significant piece of research and consultation on climate, biodiversity and transition in agriculture.
NESC research has helped build consensus on the need for change in our housing system. In 2022, it will further consider practical aspects of a more proactive land management system. It will also continue to examine housing systems that achieve affordability, inclusion and sustainability, drawing on aspects of the Irish system, including initial cost-rental projects, and international experience.
In 2021, NESC carried out a consultation with a range of stakeholders and experts in the context of Ireland's well-being framework. In the coming year its work will examine the implementation of well-being frameworks, looking at international work and drawing on selected Irish work in such areas as performance and equality budgeting, and sectoral approaches in certain areas, such as children's well-being. It will also look at how specific groups within society experience inequality.
The work on recovery and resilience will examine aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic to help identify strategic lessons about public governance and how Government can be supported to arrange and manage its activity to deliver the best results for society. The council has so far published five reports in 2021: NESC Report No. 152, Grounding the Recovery in Sustainable Development: A Statement from the Council; NESC Report No. 153, Shared Island: Projects, Progress & Policy Scoping Paper; NESC Report No. 154, Digital Inclusion in Ireland: Connectivity, Devices & Skills; NESC Report No. 155, Ireland's Well-Being Framework: Consultation Report; and NESC Report No. 156, Collaboration on Climate and Biodiversity: Shared Island as a Catalyst for Renewed Ambition & Action. As reports are finalised in the relevant areas they are brought to Government for approval in advance of publication.
A report from earlier this year from the NESC highlighted the LEADER programme as a crucial programme for addressing and developing the rural economy. In fact, in the Taoiseach's remarks yesterday, he made a similar point and he was right. The difficulty, though, is that the LEADER programme has been hollowed out in recent years. In the 2007 to 2013 programme, the allocation to LEADER represented €60 million per year. Between 2014 and 2020, it was nearly halved to €35 million per year. The proposed funding for the next round will see, in real terms, a reduction of somewhere between 6% and 10%. Does the Taoiseach acknowledge and accept that the LEADER programme is crucially important for regional and rural development? There is not a community that has failed to benefit from it in recent decades. The €100 million that has been allocated to the programme needs to be €300 million in order for LEADER projects to deliver the type of investment that those communities need. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that that money is provided to the programme.
At the start of the pandemic, NSEC published a series of papers on the crisis, including one on protecting enterprises, employment and incomes. One of the key Government policies was the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. I have long called for this to be turned into a permanent short-term working scheme - a call which the Government has obviously ignored. More critically right now, cuts to the rates of payment under the EWSS come into force today. I ask the Taoiseach to reverse that. As I was sitting here, I received a WhatsApp message from an employer who is basically saying his business will not survive. Last month, 25,900 employers availed of the scheme using it to supplement the wages of 290,400 workers at a cost of €52.7 million. As the Taoiseach will be aware, the restaurant and hospitality sectors are being badly hit now. I was just sent a list through WhatsApp by a gastropub owner in my hometown of Nenagh showing details of hundreds of cancelled reservations. It is a well-known gastropub, and the owner does not think the business will survive because he was depending on trade during the Christmas period.
This is short-termism. The Government needs to change tack here. Otherwise, these businesses, particularly restaurants and those in the hospitality sector, really will go out of business. Young workers, women and single people with children are most at risk of seeing their disposable income fall or disappear altogether if this scheme is wrapped up. I urge the Taoiseach to look at the issue again.
The Taoiseach mentioned that under the framework for well-being, particular groups were being looked at, and that NESC produced a report on building a new relationship between voluntary organisations and the State, including disability groups in that sector. I will repeat a point that I have made previously to the Taoiseach. In the area of disability, we are failing at many levels. Covid has highlighted further the deficit in supports and services for people with disabilities.
I will cite two examples, but the issue is urgent. Accessible Community Transport Southside is a charitable, not-for-profit, voluntary group that provides 1,200 door-to-door trips for people in wheelchairs and those with mobility issues. It is threatened with closure now because of the impact of Covid on its income streams. For the lack of approximately €50,000 in funding, this critical service for people with disabilities is faced with closure in the next two months. It is going to run out of funding.
Accessible Community Transport Southside, ACTS, is a door-to-door service for people who are wheelchair users and who cannot use public transport, and for those who have significant mobility problems.
Autism-specific residential respite services cater to a group of people who have been particularly hit. Many of the day services were closed during Covid-19. There is a huge deficit of those services, especially in our area. This needs to be looked at in a coherent and cohesive way.
Will the Taoiseach respond to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, fiscal assessment report that was published today, which makes the central point that the Government has not budgeted for action on climate change or for the implementation of Sláintecare? This is in line with criticism we have made of the Government's approach to the climate action Bill, for example, outlining the scale of the plan at €125 billion, the vast majority of which is to be offloaded onto private individuals as opposed to the necessary State-driven public investment along the lines of an eco-socialist green new deal to transform the nature of the economy and a just transition to transform people's lives for the better while rapidly moving to a zero carbon economy. Similarly, to actually move to a fully public healthcare system will clearly require public investment. We would also make the case that it should involve nationalising by taking the private hospitals out of for-profit ownership and taking them into the public system,. At the very least, the Government certainly needs to budget for public healthcare.
During a Question Time last July I referred to the work commissioned from the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, by the shared island unit of the Taoiseach's Department, across all areas of possible co-operation on a North-South and an all-island basis. That comprehensive research project is to be welcomed. In that context, I requested that a specific study be undertaken by the NESC on the particular challenges faced by the Border region, North and South. I again emphasise that the needs of the central Border area need particular attention.
Brexit unfortunately impacted on areas such as Cavan, Monaghan and Fermanagh where our economy is very dependent on the agrifood, engineering and construction product sectors. In turn, those sectors are very dependent on Britain as an export destination. Covid-19 will also have an impact in the longer term, more severely on small-scale enterprises that are the backbone of rural economy.
As well as the challenges, I believe that our strengths in the Border region need to be considered in the context of forward planning. Let us face the reality that the Dublin-Belfast corridor would be more than capable of looking after itself. It is the areas that have fewer advantages that need a particular focus. The strengths, the opportunities, and the potential of the region - not just the difficulties - need to be part of a detailed analysis in planning the further development of the all-island economy and the cross-Border economy. Without sloganeering, thankfully there has been a huge development of the all-island economy since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. We have a huge infrastructure in the social and voluntary sector, and in education in areas such as Cavan, Fermanagh and the neighbouring counties of Tyrone and Armagh. We can cater for growth in population but we need proper planning for the infrastructure needs of the region, as well as using the potential of the region.
What is the Government's vision for the development of our cities? Is it a vision in which the agenda is dictated by developers and by speculators, or is it one where the agenda is the needs of ordinary people? We have already seen a real debate open up in Dublin on the issue of Dublin docklands and the question of gentrification. I believe we also need a debate around what is to happen to the docklands in Cork. Last week there was announcement on the plan to develop on the South Docks. The highlighted key points were three office blocks of nine to 12 storeys high, a private hospital and apartment developments. The last big announcement for the Port of Cork was for a 34 storey hotel, which would be Ireland's tallest building. I described it then as a capitalist glory project, and I stand over that statement today. In the meantime, we have the greatest housing emergency in the history of the State, there is a huge need for social housing and a huge need for affordable housing. There is talk in relation to Cork docklands about housing targets but I would like to see specific targets for social and affordable housing. We are talking about a city where the price of a home last year increased by more than the average annual wage of a young worker. Is Cork docklands to be for profit or for people?
There will be no cut to the LEADER programme. It is the same as the transition funding, which I believe the Deputy is ignoring in his presentation, which is the allocation during the transition years.
On Deputy Kelly's questions on the pandemic, as I said earlier, we are keeping this under constant review. The economy-wide measure of EWSS has been very effective and successful. About one quarter of employers who benefit from EWSS are in the hospitality sector and some 40% of employees who benefit are working in the hospitality sector. It is economy wide and we are going to keep this under continual review. I hear what Deputy Kelly is saying.
I will check on that particular individual service for Deputy Boyd Barrett. It is well documented on the well-being framework that equity, stakeholder engagement and equality are very important aspects of a well-being and sustainability framework.
With regard to Deputy Murphy's comments on Sláintecare, IFAC is worried about expenditure levels. It may have a different perspective to that presented by Deputy Murphy.
With regard to climate change, we have provided a very extensive programme in legislation that sets the agenda for the next ten years. On Sláintecare, the investment in health since this Government came in has been very significant, and this may be causing concern for IFAC. So far, within the fiscal framework we have announced, we have managed to come in within that framework.
Deputy Brendan Smith spoke about the Border area. Certainly, the NESC work on the shared island is informed by broad consultation with stakeholders North and South. The research has put a considerable focus of the circumstances of the Border regions, and of the potential to deepen beneficial co-operation on a cross-Border regional basis, right across the island in a range of social and economic and environmental domains. NESC is bringing a shared-island lens to issues including the economy, regional development, tackling poverty, mental health, social enterprise, and climate biodiversity and environment. NESC is also conducting a cross-sectoral examination of issues relating to sustainability and connectivity on the island.
NESC will be asked to conduct work next year to further inform the development of our shared island initiative. In light of the conclusions and recommendations of the forthcoming report I will ask that there is consideration of what more work could usefully be undertaken for the Border regions, and the forms that might take.
On Deputy Barry's question, the development of cities is about people. We have invested a lot in regeneration, in retrofitting in Knocknaheeny and in Hollyhill, and we will continue to do so in other parts of the city. The city council had extensive consultations on the docklands and on the development of the city more widely.