On Question No. 1, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald is substituting for Deputy Gerry Adams.
Ceisteanna - Questions
Cabinet Committee Meetings
1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on regional and rural affairs last met. [29979/17]
The Cabinet committee on regional and rural affairs last met on 9 May 2017. The Government will shortly make a decision to re-establish more streamlined Cabinet committee structures. The Cabinet committee on regional and rural affairs was established to co-ordinate the work of Departments that affect rural Ireland. Its main focus has been on the preparation and implementation of the action plan for rural development which was published in January. The action plan contains 276 actions for delivery across government, State agencies and other bodies to support improved quality of life, economic activity and public service delivery across Ireland's rural communities.
Good progress has been achieved since the action plan was launched and an interim progress report was submitted to the Cabinet committee and published in May. It identifies progress in areas, including the provision of rural broadband, a €20 million investment in the town and village renewal scheme, 500 additional places for the rural social scheme and establishment of the Atlantic economic corridor task force. One pillar of the action plan is to support enterprise and employment in all regions, with the objective of creating 135,000 extra jobs outside Dublin by 2020. While there are still disparities between areas, the quarter one figures from the CSO show that 77% of all jobs created in the past year were created outside Dublin and that the unemployment rate had fallen in all regions in the past year. The new Minister for Rural and Community Development now has responsibility for leading implementation of the action plan and the first formal six-monthly progress report is due to be published in July.
The decision at the weekend by the British Government to exit the London Fisheries Convention will have serious implications for the Irish fishing industry. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade tells us that he only heard about it through the media. Was no one in government forewarned about this action? The British stance is obviously part of the hard Brexit Ms Theresa May appears to be absolutely determined to pursue.
According to 2015 figures released by the British, about 10,000 tonnes of fish were caught by other countries under the London Fisheries Convention, worth an estimated £17 million. Can the Taoiseach state how much of that figure was caught by Irish boats operating from this State? The potential consequences for the rural communities that depend on fishing are enormous, as we all accept. Has the Government raised this matter with Mr. Michel Barnier and the EU negotiating team? Will the Taoiseach stress to our EU partners the economic importance of fishing to the Irish economy and the need for EU support for those communities that will be affected by these British decisions? Will he agree to hold a debate in the Dáil on this matter before the recess? Will he instruct the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to appear before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to outline the measures the Government intends to take to protect the livelihoods of Irish fishermen, fisherwomen and families? Rural communities and families are also under threat from the announcement made last week by European Commissioner Günther Oettinger of farm subsidies certainly facing cuts as Brexit will leave a black hole in the EU budget. The Commissioner said reductions under the CAP were likely. Has the Government spoken to the Commission about these matters? Has Commissioner Hogan given any information to the Government on these proposals? The European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Ms Corina Creu, has also warned that governments will have to consider topping up direct payments to farmers. Is the Taoiseach prepared to sanction this?
When the re-establishment of a Department of community and rural affairs was announced three weeks ago, no details were provided on what its responsibilities would be. There has since been near-complete silence. In the Taoiseach's leadership manifesto there is very little detail on rural affairs, with the programme simply promising to implement existing policies. It is clear that the Department of Deputy Michael Ring will be significantly smaller than that of its predecessor before it was abolished by Fine Gael six years ago. I believe that was an incorrect decision. Development schemes for the Gaeltacht and the islands have been left to the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, under Deputy Heather Humphreys. Nothing appears to have moved from the Department of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten. Drugs policy is remaining under the Department of Health. The last point indicates a highly regressive move and decision. In the past two decades, the major progress made in drugs policy was based on working with communities, partnerships and task forces in various areas, both urban and rural, through development work and schemes, particularly for young people at risk. That was a far more effective way of dealing with drugs policy and implementing a draft strategy than operating singularly through the Department of Health.
On Leader programme funding, the last Government performed a desperate deed against rural communities by savaging the Leader programme and taking autonomy away from leadership groups and subsuming it under the county council. It is now bedevilled by over-regulation and bureaucracy such that the reduced funds available to it cannot be drawn down by many of the groups involved.
The implementation of broadband policy has been an absolute failure in rural areas. I echo what has been said about the challenges facing fisheries and agriculture arising from Brexit. These are two of the main economic pillars of rural areas.
I wish to focus on two areas, the first being broadband. Most people outside the major cities were profoundly worried about the impact of the delay in the rolling out of broadband. Obviously, I was directly involved in the previous Administration in examining this issue and setting out clearly what would be commercially available and the areas in which the State had to step in. We had every expectation that the tender would have been out by now to fill the gap in order that provision would be made for the entire country, to be completed in the next 18 months or so, but we have not even got to analysis stage to determine what the tender will look like. This is a really important issue.
My second question relates to regional rebalancing. The Taoiseach has been around the country campaigning to be leader of his party. He will know, just as I know from travelling around the country, that there is a real need for somebody with a big idea, the big idea of rebalancing the country. Bluntly, that will not be done with the rural plan we have of making sure every county receives something. We need to have concrete action to have a focus on the mid-west, the south and west to rebalance away from the east in order that not all economic activity will be sucked into the east. Considering that the Taoiseach is a big admirer of both the Canadian Prime Minister, whom he is hosting today, and the French President, Mr. Macron, who present themselves as big ideas persons, does he have a view on developing a big idea to have true regional rebalancing in the State?
With regard to fisheries, to the best of my knowledge, we were not given any prior notice of the UK Government's notification that it intended to withdraw from the London Fisheries Convention. As I mentioned earlier, it has no immediate effect, as withdrawal takes about two years. In reality, it will get tied up with the Brexit negotiations, which of course involve the UK leaving the Common Fisheries Policy as well, should it proceed with Brexit as it plans. Some 35% of the fish we land is taken from UK waters, including some of the most valuable fish such as mackerel and prawn. As I mentioned, I was not aware that we take so much valuable fish from British waters. I had often heard the reverse being spoken about but had not heard so much about what we take from UK waters.
It is the beneficial side of the Common Fisheries Policy.
With regard to debates, I am scheduling them as a matter for the Business Committee, but Sinn Féin is free to use its time to discuss fisheries or marine matters at any time it so wishes. When it comes to committees, invitations are issued by the committees and not by me. We have of course discussed issues relating to fisheries and the reform of the CAP with both Commissioner Hogan and Mr. Michel Barnier. In addition to that, the Minister, Deputy Creed, has been working closely with counterparts in other EU member states with a particular interest in fishing in the north-western waters. We plan to have a united front and a common negotiating position for Ireland as part of the European Union during this period. The Minister, Deputy Creed, will be speaking to the UK Secretary of State, Michael Gove, this week about this and other priority issues.
With regard to the new Department of rural and community development, the Department will be taking the rural affairs and regional development section from the Department of arts, heritage and Gaeltacht, and the community section from the Department of Housing, Community, Planning and Local Government. Also, it will most likely take the charity sector from the Department of Justice and Equality. The new Department will not be taking Gaeltacht affairs. That will remain in the Department of arts, culture and the Gaeltacht, with its name still to be finalised. What is being recreated there is the Department that existed in 1997, when it was originally created under President Higgins. It will be slightly smaller than the previous Department, but that is mainly because the Gaeltacht portfolio is not going to be a part of the Department of rural and community development. An interim Secretary General has now been appointed. Work is under way to get that Department up and running. There is much important work to be done there.
Like many things, one could place something like drugs in many Departments and could associate it with justice, education, health or community. My view is that drugs and addiction are health issues and that the best place for drugs is in the Department of Health and not the Department of Justice and Equality or the Department of community affairs. Of course, that is a matter of opinion. I am also conscious that the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, is now finalising the new national drugs strategy. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to allow her to finish that work and to finish it in the Department of Health and not to disrupt things by moving that area of policy to a different Department. What is more important than which Department it is in is that the work gets done and the new strategy is produced and implemented.
With regard to Deputy Howlin's question on regional development, I noted that he mentioned the mid-west, the south and the west, but not the south east. I am not sure whether that was an oversight on his part-----
I did not want to sound parochial.
-----as to whether he believes the south east should be left out as we focus on development in other regions such as the mid-west, the south and the west, which he mentioned.
Two things are in development that I believe will have a big impact on rebalancing our country and ensuring there are alternative poles of development to Dublin. One of those is Ireland 2040, the spatial plan that is now advanced and being developed by the Minister, Deputy Murphy. The other is the new capital plan. Key to ensuring that all regions in all parts of the country have the opportunity to benefit from prosperity is to make sure that they have the infrastructure they need. I expect that to include extending and improving the road network in various parts of the country, such as between Cork and Limerick and into the north west, and continuing to invest in broadband. However, I believe there are limitations to how far Government policy can take us when it comes to these issues. Certainly, what we can see is a recovery that is taking hold all over the country. We see that in the employment numbers going up in every region, the unemployment numbers going down in every region and income stats improving in every region. It is also very evident that we need to accelerate the recovery and economic development in parts of the country that have not benefited to the extent that others have. That makes sense for many reasons, not least the fact that Dublin is becoming congested and price inflation is very much affecting this city. Therefore, it is to this city's advantage that there would be more balanced regional development. I hope that those two plans will help to bring us some of the way there.
2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach his plans in respect of holding constitutional referenda over the next 12 months. [29836/17]
3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the referenda he is considering as a priority in the coming period. [29967/17]
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his plans for constitutional reform. [29974/17]
Richard Boyd BarrettQuestion:
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach his plans in respect of constitutional reform in the coming months. [31172/17]
6. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach his plans for constitutional referenda in the coming year. [31189/17]
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his plans to hold constitutional referenda in the future. [31387/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 7, inclusive, together.
Under A Programme for a Partnership Government, the Government is committed to holding constitutional referenda on the following matters: Article 41.2.1°, regarding a woman's life within the home; Article 40.6.1°, on the offence of blasphemy; giving the Office of Ceann Comhairle constitutional standing; and Ireland's participation in the Unified Patent Court.
Three of these proposals arise from the Convention on the Constitution that sat from January 2013 to February 2014. The Government has responded to all the convention's reports. One of the convention's recommendations, of particular importance, is in relation to amending the Constitution to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections. In March of this year, Government approved, in principle, to the holding of this referendum and the Minister for Housing, Community and Local Government is now working on this matter.
In addition, A Programme for a Partnership Government committed the Government to establish a Citizens' Assembly with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues, including the eighth amendment to the Constitution. In July 2016, the Houses of the Oireachtas approved establishment of the assembly.
The assembly is chaired by former Supreme Court Judge, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy. It operates independently of Government and will report directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The assembly has concluded its deliberations on the first topic, the eighth amendment, and published its report on the matter only last Thursday and laid it before the Houses. The Houses will now refer it for consideration to the recently established Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment under the chairmanship of Senator Catherine Noone, which will in turn bring its conclusions to the Houses for debate. As I have already indicated, it is my intention to hold a referendum on this matter in 2018.
A Programme for a Partnership Government also says that on foot of the recommendation of the banking inquiry, the Government will seek a review of the powers of Oireachtas committees in conducting inquiries and, based on this review, will consider whether there should be a constitutional referendum to strengthen the power of Oireachtas committees.
Aside from a referendum on the eighth amendment taking place next year, no decision has been made yet as regards timing for other planned referenda. Before any referendum would be scheduled, I will of course bring a proposal to Government and hold discussions with Opposition leaders.
The Taoiseach has said that the Government will hold a referendum on the eight amendment next year. Can the Taoiseach please be more specific than that? We need a reassurance that the referendum will be put to the people early next year. It would be most welcome if the Taoiseach clarified that matter in the House this afternoon. The convention did, as the Taoiseach said, deliberate on matters and produced a report that I believe is broadly reflective and chimes with public opinion, broadly cast, right across the country. There is no doubt that there is now a level of public impatience with the Taoiseach's ongoing failure to deal with this issue. I know the Taoiseach will cite the committee and how it is up and running, but there now needs to be a sense of urgency around all this.
There was a revelation several weeks ago that a young girl who had requested a termination when reporting suicidal ideation due to an unwanted pregnancy was instead falsely imprisoned under the Mental Health Act. It is an absolutely appalling and shocking thing. That appalling situation echoed the experience of Ms Amanda Mellett. Last summer, the United Nations ruled that the State had failed her and that she had suffered discrimination and cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment. She is by no means alone in that experience.
The Taoiseach has made the commitment to the referendum.
That is to be welcomed. We now need to know when it will be held and we need to be reassured that there will be no further foot dragging.
In respect of the extension of voting rights, we must bear in mind it is limited to presidential elections. This matter was also deliberated on by the constitutional convention. Its view was crystal clear and yet we are waiting and waiting. Notwithstanding the work of the Minister, when will this matter be put to the people?
I welcome the Taoiseach's commitment to hold a referendum in 2018. Given the timeline of the Oireachtas committee, which has a number of months in which to do its work, whatever further deliberations the Taoiseach may decide are required in terms of these Houses and the actual preparation of the referendum, it would be highly desirable if the Taoiseach could commit to holding the referendum shortly after March and perhaps before the middle of June 2018. It is appropriate for it to be held then because it should not become embroiled in the visit of the Pope to Ireland towards the end of the summer. We want a respectful debate. It is a very difficult personal issue for huge numbers of people. The people who campaign on the "ultra" sides of either side may have very clear and shrill views but many citizens will want the opportunity to come to their conclusions about what is the most appropriate option. I agree with what has been said, namely, that there has been a sea change in people's attitudes in this area. I want to make it clear that the Labour Party wishes to see the repeal of the existing constitutional amendment, which was passed over 30 years ago. Younger people in particular want their opportunity to vote on that as soon as is practically possible. My view is that it should be early in the second quarter of next year.
I also welcome the clear commitment to have a referendum on the eighth amendment during the course of 2018. I do not want to rehearse or repeat matters that have already been raised by my colleague with which I strongly agree. However, I wish to get some clarification from the Taoiseach. I do not think anybody on any side of the House believes that this Dáil will last a full five-year term or anything like it. I would like to get some sense of what other issues are prioritised in the list given by the Taoiseach. He has given us a list of matters.
In respect of the Taoiseach's view on holding more than one referendum on the same day, which he will recall was debated in the Government of which he and I were both members, it was his predecessor's view that one could have a referendum day to address a number of issues. However, I think it is clear that on matters of substance, one cannot have the kind of focus and debate if there are a number of issues to be addressed. Some issues get put to one side and focused on at the last minute and we do not get a rounded debate on them. I would be interested in hearing the Taoiseach's view on two matters. What is his view on multi-referenda days? If he is of the view that they must be taken on a stand-alone basis, in reality, we will only have one referendum by the end of next year and probably in the lifetime of this Dáil. Where does this leave two matters, one of which is the issue of emigrant voting rights? We have a Minister of State for the diaspora and a Minister of State for electoral reform and I understand that we now have a special envoy for the undocumented Irish, so plenty of jobs have been given out but are we going to proceed on that matter? The Taoiseach has not raised the issue of Seanad reform, which was a matter for a referendum. Where are we in terms of what we do next?
Today, the Taoiseach and the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, were touting their support for the CETA agreement, an agreement that could result in thousands of job losses, fundamentally undermine workers' rights, subvert environmental protections and, crucially, undermine the sovereignty of the legal system and the Constitution in this country and countries across Europe. Bizarrely, much of the coverage of the Taoiseach's meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau focused on things like the pattern of the Taoiseach's socks and his youthfulness when this deal has hugely significant and potentially very damaging consequences for our economy and the sovereignty of our legal system. A wide range of NGOs and legal experts are saying that, effectively, this deal is illegal for European states because it will undermine their legal systems. Does the Taoiseach not think that it is wrong for us to go along with the provisional application of this corporate, globalisation-style agreement without a democratic process - a referendum - and some democratic input into whether or not we sign up to this agreement rather than just provisionally applying it, as the lingo goes, over the heads of this Parliament and the people of this country?
I am glad that there is now a commitment to hold a referendum on the eighth amendment in 2018. The question is what kind of referendum it will be. I hope it will be one that respects the findings of the Citizens' Assembly, which this Dáil established against the advice of many of us. It came up with a decision to trust women. I also hope that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution will be respected and that the parallel process we are hearing about in the media will wait for the committee to give its verdict.
The Citizens' Assembly was set up by the Dáil. It has come up with a position of trusting women. That position is beyond what most of the parties in this Dáil are in favour of - bar Solidarity-People Before Profit and probably a handful of other individuals in this Dáil. Given that the Dáil is more conservative than the wider public, I hope the public will not be prevented from at least having a say on those proposals. How could this be done? We need a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment. It is vital that we remove the eighth amendment from the Constitution and not police women's bodies or health in our Constitution. Would the Taoiseach be open to the idea of a second vote - a consultative vote - where people could have a say on the options put forward by the Citizens' Assembly? This would be a plebiscite. Generally, we do not hold plebiscites in this country but a plebiscite was considered with regard to water charges and public ownership of water. Otherwise, people may not get an opportunity to have a say on those progressive proposals. The pro-choice movement, the repeal movement, young people and women would campaign for a "Yes" vote to all of those options. That would give people a democratic say on what are historic proposals rather than the Dáil possibly coming up with a more restrictive proposal.
The fact that there have been more public consultations on the content of referenda is a positive development. The referendum to abolish the Seanad failed because it was seen as a party political objective as opposed to one that was necessarily good for the country. The people saw sense in terms of maintaining a second, Upper, House to have the proper articulation of views, views independent of the Government in many instances.
In respect of the eighth amendment, it seems that the key determinant is the Oireachtas committee that has just been established in terms of both the timing and the content. Let us be honest. The content will be central to whatever proposition is ultimately put to the people. There will be varying degrees of interest around the committee. That will be the challenging part in terms of the process and a workable proposition to be put to the people because it is an issue on which the people deserve to be consulted and have their say. The precise nature of the question will be the difficult part of this. It was our view all along that we wanted this to be considered by the Oireachtas in advance of the Citizens' Assembly.
We would have preferred for the Oireachtas to start working on it much earlier. As it is, we now have the recommendations from the Citizens' Assembly. The Oireachtas committee will have to work on that and then the issue has to be put to the people.
The Taoiseach mentioned the European patent court as necessitating a potential referendum. That is economically important and I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could indicate to me what the up-to-date position is. Has the Government set priority on the other referendums that the Taoiseach identified and referred to, apart from for one on the eighth amendment?
On the Dáil debate on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, last week following a Private Members' motion that we tabled, along with other issues pertaining to enterprise, if one talks to small and medium-sized companies, they actually see benefits to be derived from CETA from new jobs-----
Wait until it happens.
-----and exports. The overall point that I would make is that Ireland cannot go anywhere if we do not have access to markets. I would like to hear about the opposite to the CETAs of this world. Is Ireland to be an isolated, closed market that does not engage with other markets across the globe? We thrive when we have a free trade environment globally. That has been the fundamental change in Ireland's industrial and economic history from the late 1950s and the 1960s to the current day.
Time is limited. I call the Taoiseach to respond.
I have submitted my case, Deputy Boyd Barrett.
There are a number of matters to speak to there. Everyone in this House has been involved in a number of referendums and we all know what is required to have a referendum. First, there needs to be wording, even if that wording is as simple as "delete the following sentence", so that has to be agreed with regard to all of these referendums. Secondly, there needs to be legislation. While it probably is not needed, it is advisable so that people know what legislation is going to come into force if an amendment is made. We did that for divorce and for marriage equality. I imagine we would also have to publish legislation so that people know what the new law is before they vote on the amendment. An electoral commission also has to be established, and electoral commissions will want a certain amount of time. We have faced complaints from electoral commissions before, telling Government that it was rushing a referendum and that it did not give the electoral commission enough time. We have also had court cases on campaigns and the validity of referendums as a result of that.
When it comes to a referendum on abortion, on the eighth amendment, I have no interest in long-fingering it. This issue has been discussed for a very long time and I think people should have their say. If it is possible to have it done before the summer of next year, I would have no difficulty with that, but I do not want to make a commitment in the House here that that is possible and then suddenly have to come back into the House in March and April and say that it cannot be done for various reasons. The first step is the Oireachtas committee completing its deliberations. The Citizens' Assembly report was only formally published last week and I understand the committee is not going to have its proper hearings until September, so I expect it will be near to the end of the year before it is able to advise us on the potential wording of legislation.
I will explain the parallel process. It is not an attempt to circumvent the Citizens' Assembly or to circumvent what is happening at the Oireachtas committee. Rather, I have asked the Attorney General and the Department of Health to pay attention to what the Citizens' Assembly has recommended and to pay attention to the deliberations that are going to be happening in the Oireachtas committee, so that if and when the Oireachtas committee makes its report, perhaps at the end of November or December, it does not suddenly arrive on the desk of the Attorney General or Minister for Health and have them asking what it is all about. I want them to pay attention to what the Citizens' Assembly has recommended and to what the committee deliberates on so that we are ready to have a referendum in 2018. If it can be done in the first half of 2018, that is fine with me, but I do not want to make that commitment without knowing that is possible, because I do not want to make a commitment that I might not be able to honour.
On the promised referendums, there are many potentially in train. There is also one on divorce, with Deputy Josepha Madigan having a Bill to liberalise our divorce laws. There are potential referendums on blasphemy, on the patent court, which is slightly in abeyance now because we do not know what the UK is going to do but that does not mean we should not go ahead with it, extending the vote on the Presidency to citizens abroad, women in the home, the eighth amendment and the Office of the Ceann Comhairle. There is much in train. I do not yet know myself which should come first and which should not, but my sense is that the greatest public demand and potential impact on people's lives is from the eighth amendment and the votes for the Presidency for citizens overseas, though for that one, even if we have the referendum in 2018, is not going to be in place for the presidential election, for all sorts of reasons. It would apply to the presidential election after that.
What I would be interested in knowing from the House today and perhaps sitting down with the main party leaders in the weeks ahead is to hear their views and perhaps agree some sort of schedule of referendums. I am not totally averse to the idea of several on one day. I see the upsides and downsides. We have opportunities and potentially a referendum day of some sort in the first half of next year.
What about CETA?
The presidential election, which may or may not happen, depending on whether there is an election, is in November 2018, and the European and local elections are the year after. People are going to the polls anyway in November 2018 and again June 2019, so there are potential dates.
I am very interested in hearing people's views on it. There is no proposal to have a referendum on CETA.
8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when he plans to establish new Cabinet committees; and the committees which will be established. [29980/17]
9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee meetings that he has attended since he was appointed. [31015/17]
Richard Boyd BarrettQuestion:
10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when he plans to establish new Cabinet committees; and the committees which will be established. [31171/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, together.
All Cabinet committees stand dissolved at the very end of every Government's term in office. I expect that the Government will shortly establish a small number of Cabinet committees to deal with specific aspects of policy, which I will chair.
It is the Taoiseach's intention to continue the practice of chairing all of the Cabinet committees. That is interesting to know. The function of these committees is to ensure that policy is developed and implemented which reflects the Government's programme for Government. This system and the time restrictions which are simply implemented really do not afford us the latitude to question all of those matters in the way that we might. There is also the issue of Cabinet confidentiality and I recognise its necessity and value, but it is difficult to get under the bonnet of these committees as they similarly enjoy that privilege. Has the Taoiseach considered not just the establishment of Cabinet committees, but the workings of them and better mechanisms to report back here to the Dáil for scrutiny by all of us?
During the recent Fine Gael leadership campaign, the media was told that the Taoiseach intended to make "radical" transformative changes to the nature and role of Cabinet committees. From what I have heard, the most radical move seems to be to get rid of some of them or to bury them altogether. The Taoiseach may have reason for that. I have a question on some Cabinet committees. If one looks at the last Government in the last five years, the Cabinet committee on health has been an outstanding failure. This is the committee that cleared a White Paper, which had no costs or implementation schedules and was ultimately abandoned within two years of its publication, on universal health insurance. It insisted that HSE service plans would commit to levels of service that were impossible to deliver with the provided funding. To put it bluntly, there is a huge question mark around the Cabinet committee on health and how it works, and indeed others as well, particularly on housing. The help-to-buy scheme was launched with great fanfare last year. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, was entirely confident about it. He was warned that it would inflate house prices. Ultimately, the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, agreed with Deputy Michael McGrath to a review of that. We learned within 12 months that the new Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has a very negative view of the help-to-buy scheme and is contemplating its abolition.
I take the Taoiseach's point that he will either reduce the Cabinet subcommittees in size or have fewer of them, but it is difficult to ascertain how effective they have been in terms of decisive policy interventions that have made a difference to the biggest crises that are facing the country.
Notwithstanding that there have been policy failures in multiple areas by this Government, the principle of Cabinet subcommittees is a good one because it allows for joined-up thinking between different Departments. I want to ask again about the need for a Cabinet subcommittee in the area of education. We did not have one in the previous Government and it is critical that we have one for multiple reasons. There are a lot of controversial issues emerging. Education, it goes without saying, is a very important area.
In particular, as I have said to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education and Skills, there is a very serious threat to the facilities of schools throughout the country because of religious control of schools and school lands. To my mind, playing pitches and recreational areas around school are not an optional extra. They are critical for all sorts of health reasons and to allow for the expansion of schools, and yet we have discovered in many schools, such as Clonkeen College in my own area, religious orders are flogging off their lands at the expense of the quality of the education and amenities provided to school students. The Government is letting it happen.
There needs to be a serious policy discussion at a high level within the Government about the threat this represents to school facilities. I have said I believe that compulsory purchase powers have to be used to prevent the religious orders, which are accountable to nobody, flogging off playing fields and recreational areas for schools all over the country. I would ask the Taoiseach to seriously consider that instead of merely saying it is nothing to do with the Government, the religious orders are private entities and the Government does not have any control. This is what we are getting and it is a threat to the quality of the education that is available to our young people.
I call the Taoiseach. We have just over four minutes. Sorry, does Deputy Burton want to make a short contribution?
Sorry, I am taking a question for Deputy Howlin.
Can I stop Deputy Burton there? Deputy Howlin's question is not in this group. It is in the next, Questions Nos. 11 and 12. These are Deputies Micheál Martin, Boyd Barrett and-----
Is the Acting Chairman taking Question No. 11 separately?
We are dealing with Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive. We are not taking Question No. 11.
The Acting Chairman has allowed other Members to do that.
The Acting Chairman has allowed other Members to take other Cabinet matters on board.
I have not.
No. We are on Cabinet committees.
We are on Cabinet committees.
I have not. Not in this case. I call the Taoiseach and we have just over three minutes.
He said he is included.
To answer some of the questions, it is my intention to chair the Cabinet committees myself but clearly on occasion the Tánaiste may chair some of them in my absence.
Cabinet subcommittees are useful in general. They allow the Taoiseach and other Ministers to be across what is happening in a lot of different Departments and they can be useful in troubleshooting issues before they get to Cabinet so that they can then be agreed by Cabinet once they have been agreed and teased out at Cabinet subcommittee level.
Overall, there are too many. There are ten at present. That is too many, and too many people attend them. There can be 30 to 40 attending Cabinet subcommittee meetings.
Thirty to 40.
On occasion, yes. One could have the Taoiseach, Ministers, Ministers of State, their senior officials and their advisers. It would not be unusual for 25 people, 30 people or so to attend Cabinet subcommittees. That is not the best way of doing things.
That explains a lot.
I intend to change it. I expect there will be fewer Cabinet subcommittees, probably, approximately five. There will be an economic focused one, one focused on public services and social policy, another on EU affairs and international affairs, another on infrastructure and housing, and probably, we will retain a dedicated one on health given the high priority that will be attached to that. I will have many fewer people attending them, meeting in different formats.
I am also doing a lot more on a bilateral level. For example, yesterday I met bilaterally with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, their Secretary General and their adviser. I also met the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, on disability issues with his three Secretary Generals. I will be doing that a lot more - meeting bilaterally with Ministers to try and drive the agenda and get things done.
I will also have longer Cabinet meetings. For example, there will be two Cabinet meetings next week because there will be a special Cabinet meeting to deal with the summer economic statement. Something like that deserves full consideration by the Cabinet for two or three hours, and not being one of 28 or 50 items at a regular meeting.
There will also be full-day Cabinet meetings. The first full-day Cabinet meeting will deal with climate change and the Government's actions on that in the morning and then the capital plan in the afternoon.
Those are the kind of changes that I intend to make. We will see how they work out. The key is to troubleshoot problems and drive the agenda, and that is what I will try and do.