Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Micheál Martin

Question:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he or his officials have spoken to the Scottish First Minister since her last visit here in January 2017. [8463/17]

Micheál Martin

Question:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the economic assessments his Department or any other Department have or which are going to commission in relation to Brexit. [8523/17]

Micheál Martin

Question:

3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs on 15 February 2017, in particular the reference to the social dimension of the EU respect for human rights, workers' rights and equality; and the way in which he and his Department envisage that these will apply to citizens of the Republic and citizens in Northern Ireland after Article 50 is signed by Prime Minister May. [8771/17]

Joan Burton

Question:

4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit last met. [10024/17]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he has instructed his Department or has plans to prepare a White Paper on the Government’s position and policy objectives on Brexit. [10033/17]

Gerry Adams

Question:

6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he has had engagement with the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, since her visit to Dublin in January 2017. [10131/17]

Gerry Adams

Question:

7. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent address to the Institute of International and European Affairs at the Mansion House on 15 February 2017. [10133/17]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.

The Government has identified its priorities for the negotiation process that lies ahead as our economic and trading arrangements, the Northern Ireland peace process, including Border issues, the common travel area and the future of the European Union. The Government’s preparation is extensive. Important organisational changes have been implemented in Departments and agencies, with additional resources provided in key areas.

On a point of order, is Question No. 1 being taken in this group?

Yes, Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, are being taken together.

Question No. 1 relates to discussions with the First Minister of Scotland.

The questions relate to Brexit, the Cabinet committee on Brexit, the preparation of a White Paper and the Scottish First Minister, Ms Sturgeon.

For Deputy Martin's information, Questions Nos. 1 and 6 are on the same issue.

My first question is on whether the Taoiseach or his officials have spoken to the Scottish First Minister since her recent visit.

That is correct. The second question refers to economic assessments, while the third relates to my speech at the Institute for International and European Affairs on 15 February. They all fit together.

Substantial work has been undertaken across government to identify the key strategic, policy and operational risks of Brexit. A framework of seven work group streams has been established to further deepen the Government’s Brexit analysis across key themes and sectors, including the economy. Advice from all work groups will have an input in the Government's consideration of Brexit negotiation strategy and broader policy actions.

The First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, and I held a meeting last November following the British-Irish Council Summit in Cardiff. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, also met the First Minister during her subsequent visit to Dublin. While I have not had direct contact with her recently, there is ongoing engagement at diplomatic and official levels with the Scottish Government, including through the Consul General's office in Edinburgh and our embassy in London.

The Cabinet committee last met on 26 January and its next meeting is scheduled for 8 March.

In my keynote speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs on Wednesday, I set out in some detail my Government's position on key aspects of Brexit. I spoke of our history, culture, relationships and ability to endure and succeed. I spoke of the strong external forces at work and the major challenges posed by Brexit to our peace and prosperity. I spoke of our future at the heart of the European Union and how our EU membership had furthered social progress in Ireland through the social dimension of the EU. I commented that respect for human rights, workers’ rights and equality reflects a distinctly European set of values which we in Ireland share.

The United Kingdom remains a member of the European Union until such time as it leaves. This means that even when Prime Minister May writes to the European Council to invoke Article 50, there will be no change to the rights and obligations on the UK as an EU member state, including with respect to employment and other rights for citizens, for the two years of the negotiations on the UK exit.

The three questions in this group in my name deal with separate issues. I will try to get through them as quickly as possible. On contact with the Scottish First Minister, while the British Government has established extensive consultation processes with the devolved administrations, there is so far no evidence that the concerns of these administrations are being listened to in any way. Representatives at the civic dialogue meeting on Friday last sent out a strong message that the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive has left Northern Ireland without a coherent voice at a crucial time in Europe's history, in particular with regard to Brexit. Unlike the Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Executive has been very clear. While Ireland is not in a position to make demands on behalf of Scotland, when the United Kingdom Government refuses to seek any mitigation of a hard Brexit for its devolved administrations we can speak up for the principle that Scotland should be speedily admitted to the European Union if it seeks membership. Unlike some parties in Northern Ireland, there is nothing opportunistic about the Scottish National Party's long-term commitment to the European Union. The SNP has been a euro-positive party for more than four decades and Scotland has shown time and again that it values its European identity. Will the Taoiseach ensure that our formal contacts with Scotland will increase during the Brexit negotiations and in subsequent years?

On the economic assessment of Brexit, the Taoiseach stated at the all-Ireland dialogue on Friday that studies have been commissioned. Why has the Government not asked for input into the content of these studies? It would have been reasonable to request suggestions for specific scenarios and mitigation ideas. Have detailed sectoral assessments been completed and, if so, are they being used to shape our negotiating position on fiscal policy? Will the Taoiseach provide us with such sectoral analyses as may have been undertaken by his Department?

Will the Government publish a White Paper on Brexit? The Taoiseach appeared to suggest last week that a White Paper would be done. Will he detail the structure of any proposed White Paper?

On the Deputy's final question, we cannot answer all the questions that are being asked until the British Government issues its letter of intent to leave the European Union. As soon as the letter has been written, sent to the Commission and enters the public domain, the Government will respond. We have done analysis on the 14 sectoral areas and a briefing on these is available to the Deputy at any time. We can also supply whatever information he wishes to have. The Government will respond clearly and directly once it becomes clear what relationship Britain is seeking in respect of trading relations with the European Union and, by implication, Ireland.

We have set out our priorities and outlined them on many occasions. I agree with Deputy Martin in the sense that business people from Northern Ireland who spoke to me at the civic forum in Dublin Castle were very pleased to make direct contact because they know what are the implications of negotiations being conducted from the side of the 27 EU member states. Some are very concerned about their future livelihood and income base. For example, farmers currently receive support through the Common Agricultural Policy and they are very concerned about what will happen in the meantime. Others made a case in respect of INTERREG and PEACE funding and cross-Border activities.

As we have already pointed out in respect of major infrastructure such as the A5, which is the road link to Derry, in the review of our capital programme we must make arrangements on an all-island basis. We have been discussing the possibility of some all-island solutions, for example, in areas such as water, energy and animal health.

While we clearly do not speak for Scotland, we have close connections with the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Sturgeon, and between the embassy here and our business location in Scotland. We will enhance those contacts. I have already made the case in Brussels in respect of Scotland's wish to remain a member of the European Union. A second vote on independence is a matter between the Scottish Parliament and Downing Street.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply but it did not clarify when the Cabinet Committee on Brexit last met.

The Cabinet committee last met on 26 January 2017 and the next meeting is scheduled for 8 March 2017.

The Taoiseach is probably aware that as we speak Jean-Claude Juncker is presenting a White Paper on the future of Europe in the context of Brexit to the European Parliament and, I assume, given the details available on social media, also in the context of the advent of President Trump in the United States. In regard to the meeting which the Taoiseach has already indicated he will be attending at the end of May, as I understand it some of the headings which Mr. Juncker proposes to lay out for discussion at that meeting include: carrying on - not much change; nothing but the Single Market; those who want more do more; doing less more efficiently; and doing much more together. The Taoiseach has been batting the ball back and forward across the Chamber in regard to the Government's White Paper. Over the last two weeks, unless I totally misunderstood the tenor of the Taoiseach's comments, he indicated that he would produce and publish an Irish Water Paper. Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach about strategy and he responded by telling me about his priorities. Strategy is about how one proposes to achieve objectives.

Thank you, Deputy.

When the Taoiseach met recently with Mr. Juncker did he discuss his proposed White Paper? Did he offer the Taoiseach a briefing on the likely contents of that paper and, if so, why has the Taoiseach not shared that with us?

The Deputy must conclude.

The Taoiseach is famous for talking to people in the street. People are tremendously interested in Brexit.

We are out of time, Deputy.

Anybody who is out talking to people knows that Brexit is the key issue for them. People are worried and have doubts about their hopes and expectations for their future and that of their families. Perhaps the Taoiseach would level with us on the status of Mr. Juncker's White Paper and on whether Ireland has a ready response to it.

The Deputy's time has expired. We are operating to a very tight timeline. If Members do not stick to the allocated time then not everybody who has a question will get in.

Let us not get our colours mixed up. A Green Paper is a statement of aspiration. A White Paper is a statement of intent, that is, how it is intended to implement what is set out in the Green Paper. I cannot draft a White Paper without knowing what it is that I am expected to do. I cannot know that until I have clarity on what the British Government is looking for in respect of its relationship with the European Union, nor can Mr. Juncker.

He is apparently trotting into the Parliament with a White Paper as we speak.

We discussed this in Bratislava and Valletta and I discussed it with Mr. Juncker the other day. As of now, the European agenda is very clear: this Single Market, the digital single market, the capital markets and implementation over the next number of years of the report of the Presidents. That is the European agenda. In the meantime, Brexit has arisen. Article 50 has not been triggered and negotiations have not yet commenced. Mr. Barnier's task force is gathering information. In terms of Ireland, we have done an extraordinary amount of work in respect of options to be considered. I cannot present to the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Howlin, a White Paper which sets out what we intend to do because the decision in respect of the trading relationship, which is crucial for the Border and the links we have with Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, is also crucial in respect of our position as a member of the European Union into the future and how that will impact on that relationship.

As I said already, once Article 50 is triggered we can then respond with much greater clarity as to how we intend to achieve our priorities, which again are jobs, our citizens, our economy, our Border, our peace process, our common travel area and our future as a member of the European Union.

It seems to me that there are two separate but vital issues for Ireland in this regard. We know that the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. The first priority is a settlement in respect of that divorce that is in the best interests of the economic wellbeing of the island of Ireland and its people. The second issue is what will be the future of Europe of 27. In other words, what pathway are we going on after the exit of the United Kingdom? It is clear that President Juncker is putting out his blueprint in terms of options for the latter. What is Ireland's view? What is the future of the 27 that we envisage? When will we have that discussion and what is the view of the Taoiseach on this issue? In regard to mitigation of the settlement alluded to in relation to the first priority, I am sure the Taoiseach will be aware of Vice President Timmerman's question around what is Ireland's ask so that it can be shaped in the negotiating position of the 27 remaining members.

Yesterday, the Scottish First Minister, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, warned that the sheer intransigence of the British Government over Brexit could lead to a second Scottish independence referendum. I hope that happens and that the result will reflect the Scottish desire for independence. The First Minister's comments are based on the dismissive attitude of the British Government in regard to devolved assemblies and administrations. In January, the Taoiseach met the First Minister. Has he spoken to her since and does he intend to speak to her prior to next week's Cabinet Committee on Brexit given the commonality between much of what is happening to the Scottish and will happen in the North?

I take this opportunity to correct a statement made earlier by the Fianna Fáil leader. The SNP did not always hold the same position in regard to the EU. In 1975, it sought to withdraw but now it seeks membership of the EU, but a substantially different EU to the current one, in respect of which it has major reform proposals.

In regard to the Taoiseach's comments regarding white papers, green papers and so on, the British Government has made its decision clear. It is withdrawing from Europe. Beyond that, it has stated on a number of occasions what exactly that withdrawal will mean. Is a White Paper being prepared to react to the already declared position of the British Government under Prime Minister, Theresa May? Not to do so would be a major failure.

Deputy Howlin raised an important point of the divorce proceedings that have to take place in the context of Brexit and what Britain wants. The Prime Minister has said, and I agree, that the retention of as close as possible a trading relationship as currently exists is in our best interests. Deputy Howlin spoke about Ireland continuing as a member of the European Union, which it will do. This has been endorsed on many occasions by the Irish people. We want to continue our membership of the EU, which has transformed the country into an outward looking, global orientated country with many opportunities for trade and so on. The Deputy also spoke about the future of the 27. The Deputy will be aware of the upcoming elections in The Netherlands, France, Germany and possible elections in Italy. These may well change the future of the European Union as we know it. We do not have any control over the electorates in those countries in terms of who they wish to elect or what form of government they intend to elect.

Ireland is committed to the euro and the future of the European Union and this means an expansion of the policies currently in place to ensure future opportunities for trade, investment, productive growth, output and jobs. I have not spoken to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon since January. It is my intention to speak to her before the next meeting in Brussels.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh is not entirely accurate when he says the British have been clear about their intentions. They have been clear on wanting to leave the European Union and the Single Market, but they are not quite so clear in respect of how they see their future trading relationships. In her Lancaster House speech, the Prime Minister said she did not have a predisposition in this regard. That is bound to have an acute bearing on what the relationship will be in future.

They want to have their cake and eat it.

If a state is a full member of the customs union, it is not in a position to do bespoke trade deals with other countries, which is what the Prime Minister has said she would like Britain to be able to do. Associate members of the customs union also have a difficulty in that Europe has made it perfectly clear there will not be any cherry-picking of criteria for inclusion. The British authorities have not yet made their position clear in this regard, but we expect that clarity to come when the Prime Minister issues the letter of intent to withdraw and triggers Article 50 of the treaty. There has been clarity from the UK in some areas but not in others. We will respond very clearly and directly once the picture of what it is we have to contend with becomes clear.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet committee on health has met recently. [8468/17]

Joan Burton

Question:

9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met. [10022/17]

Gerry Adams

Question:

10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [10132/17]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on health last met on 2 February. It will meet again on 21 March.

If the Cabinet committee on health is worth anything at all, it should be concerned, as a priority, with the extreme suffering of people in this country who need urgent medical help. Has the committee discussed the situation of Sarah-Ann Mitchell and the promise made three weeks ago by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to meet her mother, Karen? Sarah-Ann is suffering from scoliosis and her situation is deteriorating while she awaits an operation. Karen is now wondering whether the Government has simply decided to ignore her daughter's situation and her own plea that the Government not only help Sarah-Ann but go further by introducing a preventative programme of screening to avoid the same happening to other children in the future.

Another case of extreme suffering is that of Ms Vera Twomey and her daughter, Ava. Yesterday the Taoiseach misinformed the Dáil that no application had been submitted for the use of a medicinal cannabis product to alleviate Ava's suffering. That is not true, as I have double checked with Ms Twomey to confirm. An Irish-registered doctor submitted the application, which is what the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, told us on 15 November was necessary to be done. Furthermore, the paediatric neurologists who are treating Ava wrote in support of that application, stating their opinion that the product being sought is alleviating Ava's suffering. Why has the Taoiseach moved the goalposts in this regard and why is he playing politics with Ava Barry's very serious condition? Why is he playing politics in terms of progressing the legislation which is clearly necessary given the chill factor that is preventing medical practitioners in this country from prescribing health products that could alleviate the suffering of people like Ava? All this is down to the refusal to lift the ban on those products. Will the Taoiseach ensure the Minister for Health issues a licence for Ava Barry to avail of the product her doctors have requested? Will he, in addition, allow Deputy Gino Kenny's Bill to go to Committee Stage?

It is Deputy Boyd Barrett who is playing politics here.

I most certainly am not.

He has chosen to raise individual cases, as is his right, in the Dáil.

I do so at the request of the parents whose children are suffering.

The Deputy is fully entitled to talk directly to the Minister for Health about any of these serious cases, some of which were raised in an RTE programme some weeks ago. I cannot give the Deputy details regarding Sarah-Ann Mitchell's case, but I will have the Minister respond to him. Reduction of waiting times for scoliosis patients is a major priority for the Minister and he recently met with representatives of the Health Service Executive, the National Treatment Purchase Fund, senior officials in the Department of Health, the CEO of Crumlin hospital and the CEO of the children's hospital group to discuss how it can be achieved. As a result, additional theatre capacity is being provided for scoliosis procedures at Crumlin from April and an orthopaedic post at the hospital will be filled by June. An action plan for scoliosis will be presented to the Minister shortly. In addition, the NTPF, at the Minister's request, will audit practices at each of the hospitals highlighted by the individual cases featured in the "RTE Investigates" programme and report directly to the Minister on its findings.

The Minister promised action would be taken three weeks ago.

In regard to the medicinal cannabis application, as I pointed out earlier, the Minister does not need legislation to approve an application provided there is a prescription request from a paediatric neurosurgeon.

The goalposts have been changed.

Deputy Boyd Barrett indicated that more than one neurosurgeon has stated in writing that the product in question is alleviating the child's condition. I do not have that clinical evidence here. The Minister confirmed this morning in answer to questions on legislation that, within the existing legal structure, he still requires a prescription to be directed by a paediatric neurosurgeon.

That is not what the Minister of State told us in November.

I am not speaking for whomever the Deputy is speaking for. I heard the Minister clarify this very clearly this morning. He further indicated his intention to introduce a compassionate structure for prescribing of medicinal cannabis but that this would still require its authorisation being approved by a paediatric neurosurgeon. These are issues that are outside the range of politicians, as the Deputy is well aware. While an application has been lodged by a doctor in the individual case to which he referred, it requires the sanction of a paediatric neurosurgeon to progress such an application.

The application was submitted by an Irish-registered doctor, which is what the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, told us last November is required.

The same applies in respect of any other application, but the doctor is not the person who approves it in this instance. It is required to be approved by a paediatric neurosurgeon. The Deputy may speak to the Minister directly about this, but he clarified it here this morning.

On the same point, both Deputy Boyd Barrett and I took part in the debate with the Taoiseach on these matters last November. In fairness to him, the Taoiseach responded quite sympathetically to the concerns we raised. I referred then to the case of a nine year old girl who has severe scoliosis and an intellectual disability and is a wheelchair user. One can only imagine the level of pain she is suffering and the difficulties for her family. The Taoiseach or the Minister must explain in detail precisely what is being done to tackle this issue. It is way beyond politics and concerns the welfare of children and families. We are not getting any answers from the Minister.

I wish to raise the issue of the children's hospital building project, which is very relevant to the issues referred to by Deputy Boyd Barrett. The management of the project has stated that one of the reasons the costs have escalated so dramatically is the rise in annual construction inflation from 3% to 9%. Apparently, the estimated cost increase, potentially from €1 million to closer to €2 million per bed, is because of this inflation. I have searched the available construction data and can find no evidence of an inflation rate of 9%. In fact, I cannot even find a reference to 3%. Will the Taoiseach indicate the construction workers who received a wage increase of 9% last year and this year? I do not know who they are.

Whether St. James's Hospital or Connolly Hospital is chosen as the location for the children's hospital - there has been expert advice to the effect that the latter would be much cheaper at this point - in both cases, the sites are free. I realise the people involved in the project are very well-meaning but we must have answers to these questions. If the Cabinet committee on health is to have any useful purpose, surely it will examine this issue? What is the reason for the massive increase in the cost of the project? Can we have clarity on the claim that there was a rise in construction costs inflation from 3% to 9%?

There is no evidence for that anywhere that I can find.

I have a number of questions on the Cabinet sub-committee. Was there a discussion on the growing number of children on the waiting list for scoliosis treatment? The House has debated that matter, but action has not been taken. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the new theatre in Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin, will be in operation in June and that sufficient nurses will be recruited to service it? The latter is the greater question, given that theatres in the hospital have lain unused because of a lack of staff.

Will the Taoiseach indicate whether he received an update at that meeting on the status of the bed capacity review which is supposedly under way and will he share that information with the House today? When will the review be completed and, more importantly, will it be published? December was the worst month on record for the number of citizens on trolleys and 2016 was the worst year.

Did the Cabinet sub-committee discuss the proposal of the Minister, Deputy Harris, to set up the equivalent of a modern field hospital, namely, prefabs in hospitals, at a time when many hospital wards are sitting vacant because there are not enough nurses?

Was the meeting informed, or is the Taoiseach aware, of the balloting for action by Dublin Fire Brigade? Were contingency plans to deal with the withdrawal of service by ambulance and fire crews in this city discussed? Management is unwilling to negotiate directly with a service that has been up and running for 150 years and been of significant help not only to the population of Dublin but also the populations of nearby counties.

When is the next meeting of the sub-committee?

Well actually this is getting to the stage of utter ridiculousness, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I do not answer here for all of the details of the Ministry of health. In fact, I am always advised that I am not even supposed to mention what is being discussed at Cabinet sub-committees because they are sub-committees of the Cabinet and one does not discuss Cabinet business in an open forum, but they are valid questions and people have to have a facility to have them answered, and that is either by Topical Issue to the Minister for Health of the day or the Oireachtas committee that deals with health and all of the opportunities to ask these questions.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh asked me some detailed questions to which I simply could not have the answer. He asked me if the theatre was going to be ready by June. What I said in my reply was that the orthopaedic post would be filled by June. I expect that the theatre, which has been provided for for quite some time, should of course be ready to deal with children who come before the hospital for treatment in June.

The Deputy mentioned other issues there. He talked about field hospitals. What is he on about? The Minister for Health came down to Mayo general hospital and looked at the emergency department down there, not at his suggestion, but at the suggestion of the staff and the manager who run the place. They said they needed extra space there. They were very happy to say that we provided them with an expansion of space out the back adjoining the existing emergency department, which is not for overnight stays, but which will relieve the pressure and the stress and the distress upon people. To come in here and describe it as some kind of a field hospital is-----

Just build it. If it is a prefab-----

This is not-----

-----it is permanent. We have seen that over the years.

Field hospitals do not appear and are not provided within hospital structures. "Prefabs" goes back to the question-----

Neither should prefabs be.

-----that Deputy Ó Caoláin asked yesterday about the sort of prefab concept as something that one could put a finger through after five years 20 years ago when people built prefab dwellings or prefab school rooms.

Exactly and they stayed for 40 years.

The Taoiseach without interruption, please.

They are all gone. The last Government eliminated all of the prefabricated school buildings. What is being provided in south Tipperary and in Mayo general is not that kind of prefab. It is a place where people will be able to go and have attention given to them - medical attention that they need - in very comfortable surroundings and they will not have to stay overnight on any trolley.

It is not a purpose-built hospital.

Did the Taoiseach address Deputy Burton's question?

I might just say that, in respect of the children's hospital-----

Will the Taoiseach address Deputy Burton's question now so that we can move on?

I will. The figure of €650 million relates to Exchequer funding that was approved when Deputy Burton was in government in 2014 for the core construction of the new national children's hospital, together with the two satellite centres. She was at the Cabinet table when that decision was made, and that does not include equipment, commercial spaces or educational facilities for students, as those elements were always to be funded and to be procured separately. That funding was approved following a cost estimate that commenced in 2013, which was completed early in 2014. At that time, construction inflation was estimated at 3%. The pricing proposed by the tenderers did take account of current construction inflation, which is now running higher than 9%.

Where is the evidence of that?

That does not mean a 9% increase in wages. It takes into account the extended projected timeline to 2021 and the final market cost of that build. The costs set out, for Deputy Burton's information, in the final project brief consist of the design brief, the definitive business case and the project execution plan. They provide for the construction of the core hospital and the satellite centres. They include provision for VAT, risk provision, inflation provision, all fees, decant, external works, enabling costs and project management costs for a building that will cater for 25% of our population for the next 50 years. This also includes commercial spaces like the underground car park, retail space, higher education spaces, the children research and innovation centre and equipment.

I am sorry, but they were excluded.

It also covers some shared infrastructure and services that will be used by both St. James's and the Coombe Women and Infants University Hospital when all three hospitals are on the one campus, thus avoiding duplication of services in the future.

The updated costs, finally, have been incorporated into the final project brief and were submitted to the HSE for review and the HSE has now submitted that final brief to the Department of Health. The Minister intends to bring a memo to Government very shortly - in the coming weeks - on the new children's hospital. This will be the major health building in this country of the last 100 years and it is in addition to the long discussions that have thankfully ended in respect of the moving of the National Maternity Hospital out to the site at St. Vincent's, but this will not be finished until 2021. It is really and truly a world-class piece of infrastructure and investment in the children of the nation. There is a very, very specific committee that will be looking at a fixed contract price for this out to 2021.

We have taken four minutes-----

Very briefly-----

We are moving on to the next group of questions.

The Taoiseach must be aware that-----

Members got four minutes extra.

-----in terms of the construction contracts-----

We are out of time.

-----variations and arbitration are resulting in post-build cost increases of up to 20%.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Joan Burton

Question:

11. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social policy and public service reform last met. [8526/17]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social policy and public service reform last met. [8776/17]

Micheál Martin

Question:

13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social policy and public service reform last met. [9999/17]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 13, inclusive, together.

The answer here is that the Cabinet committee on social policy and public service reform last met on 6 February. Sin an freagra.

What is the situation regarding terms and conditions of employment in the public service or publicly owned companies? Specifically, has the Cabinet sub-committee met to discuss the deteriorating situation in the terms and conditions of employment at Bus Éireann and the threat that this poses to social services, given people's need, particularly in rural Ireland, to have a bus service on which they can rely? People who work in Bus Éireann should not be reduced to the minimum wage. Given the important job that they do throughout the country in providing what is not simply a bus service, but a quality public service, they should not be stripped of their rights, terms and conditions as workers.

The Government should commit to maintaining a quality bus service, via Bus Éireann, for rural areas and the many people there who depend on the service. Has the Cabinet sub-committee met to discuss the matter? The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, is rather hands off, and I understand the Taoiseach must cope with that, but this is just too important an issue for people in rural areas. The Taoiseach proudly represents the west, and as the first Taoiseach from there, he must be able to give us reassurance both on services and proper terms and conditions for workers and bus drivers.

Has the sub-committee discussed the contributory State pension? In 2012, when Deputy Burton was a Minister in the previous Government she made changes to the contributory pension scheme. At the time we were told the new system was fairer and would reward those with more contributions but in reality it has turned out to be a massive rip off with 36,000 pensioners - the number is rising all the time - 22,000 of whom are women, who have lost out very significantly in their pension entitlements. The loss is between €19 and €30 a week. They are devastated to find that out when they reach pension age. To add insult to injury, many contributory pensioners – again mostly women - also experience a further hit. If they brought up their family prior to 1994, and took time out of work, they are affected by the averaging system and lose even more of their pension. That is completely unacceptable. What I want to know is whether the sub-committee has discussed the matter and if it is the intention to reverse the unfair and draconian cuts that affect pensioners, in particular women?

I put it to the Taoiseach that the issue of social dialogue needs to be reflected on again in terms of the need for a proper framework within which public services generally can be debated and industrial strife adequately addressed in the sense of having someone who is looking ahead of the game. There seems to be a complete absence of any framework in terms of engagement with the social partners or considering how we retain standards in public services and enhance and improve them in the future.

The Bus Éireann dispute is one example of a breakdown in such a framework and dialogue. The absence of a proper manpower policy and the decline in human resource capacity in the health service is also reflective of the lack of social dialogue or engagement. The haemorrhaging of people from the health service has been quite dramatic, in particular in terms of nurses and doctors. In some cases it has been catastrophic. There has also been a high turnover of staff.

The Bus Éireann issue has given rise to the fundamental point facing public services in general. Notwithstanding the need for some reform and efficiencies is the fundamental point about getting bus drivers in the public sector down to very basic minimum wage-type conditions? That is the belief. It is not just about the Expressway service. The document that was issued two weeks ago refers to back offices being recentralised, for example. There was reference to eliminating entire tiers of supervisors and inspectors. The changes are much wider than to the Expressway service. There was also reference in the document to redundancies.

All that is happening in the absence of a proper vision or perspective on where we want public services to go. Taking globalisation into account, the big ticket item facing societies all over the world is the fact that incomes are going down. The number of people on low-level incomes is rising as an overall percentage of the working population. Some politicians do not understand the reason for the dissatisfaction and unhappiness that exists but it is basically because of the ongoing downward pressure. That seems to be what is now happening in Bus Éireann as well.

The Taoiseach has three minutes to deal with all the questions.

That is most unsatisfactory, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. It is impossible to answer all the questions in three minutes.

I know it is but the Taoiseach should do his best.

I accept it is not your doing, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

The Taoiseach should not have taken seven minutes to answer the first question.

Deputy Boyd Barrett inquired about pensions. That is not dealt with directly by the sub-committee, but the Minister is working on a range of issues in so far as social welfare payments, rights and conditions are concerned. They are all part of the work that must be done in respect of the preparation for the 2018 budget.

Let me say in response to Deputy Micheál Martin that last night we had a meeting with a number of representatives from ICTU and IBEC to discuss the issues that arise both in respect of current situations and the necessity to have a much closer relationship in respect of Brexit and the challenges that exist in that regard. Out of that, for instance, came the requirement to have a detailed discussion on the housing figures in terms of output, skills and the necessity for training so that everybody is fully informed both on the union side and the employer side of the exact scale and where developments are taking place.

There is no intention on the part of the State to drive down public service bus drivers to minimum wage levels. In the Bus Éireann situation, the company has pointed out that it is going to become bankrupt unless some changes are made. That issue relates specifically to the commercial arm of Bus Éireann. The PSO has increased substantially both in respect of Bus Éireann itself and the rural transport scheme, which has increased by 26%. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is not a member of the committee in question. He is a member of the committee dealing with transport.

The Government progress which was discussed at the committee includes supporting preparations for the introduction of a second preschool year and the new single affordable child care scheme; the development of the new allocation model for resource teachers; the increase in special needs assistant, SNA, provision and supporting the implementation of the DEIS plan for 2017; the work that is under way in the north inner city under the ministerial task force; publication of the action plan for education; the establishment of the Irish refugee protection programme to take in 4,000 people; the introduction of the two-week period of paternity leave and the associated social welfare payments; the implementation of the McMahon report recommendations in respect of direct provision; and the establishment of a youth mental health task force. Those measures are all either completed or work is proceeding on them. Work is also proceeding in respect of a number of key national strategies covering disability inclusion; Traveller and Roma inclusion; the national women’s strategy; the migration integration strategy; and the new national drugs strategy, among others. Those are all serious issues that would require committee meetings to give detailed answers to all the Deputies.

There may be others who are interested in contributing but we must move on as we have exceeded the time for questions to the Taoiseach.