1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet committee on infrastructure, environment and climate action. [32150/17]
1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet committee on infrastructure, environment and climate action. [32150/17]
2. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet committee on housing. [32151/17]
3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his plans to establish a Cabinet committee on infrastructure and housing. [32693/17]
4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet Committee D (Infrastructure) will next meet. [39619/17]
5. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if all of the new Cabinet committees have met; and if Cabinet Committee D (Infrastructure) was one of these. [39623/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
As I outlined to the House in July, the Government agreed to streamline the Cabinet committee structure and approved the establishment of new committees. Cabinet Committees A, B, C, D and E met last week. The next meeting of Cabinet Committee D has yet to be scheduled.
Cabinet Committee D covers housing, climate action, infrastructure investment and delivery, and the national planning framework. Among other issues, this committee will provide political oversight of our efforts to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis and our transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy.
Providing affordable, quality and accessible housing is a priority in A Programme for a Partnership Government. The previously constituted Cabinet committee on housing met regularly to oversee the development and implementation of the Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness.
On 14 June, I outlined to the House my view that while Rebuilding Ireland is working, it may not be enough. I tasked the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to review the plan and to consider what additional measures may be required.
The first set of measures, with a particular focus on homelessness, was presented following the recent summit with local authority chief executives. Yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, announced a further set of measures in relation to the rental market. Further announcements will be made over the coming weeks. Work continues on implementing the actions already in the plan.
In addition to housing, the new Cabinet committee covers a wide range of infrastructure investment and climate action. These are two of the most significant challenges facing the country and were considered at a special meeting of the Government on 19 July 2017 in Kildare. Following this meeting, the Government published Ireland's first national mitigation plan. Prepared in accordance with the provisions of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, the plan is an initial step to set Ireland on a pathway to achieve decarbonisation by mid-century in line with the Government's policy objectives. The Cabinet committee will help to ensure a co-ordinated approach across all Departments to this transition.
The Government recognises that increasing capital investment in our public infrastructure is also required. Targeted increases in capital expenditure will support the efficient growth of our economy and the delivery of Ireland's climate objectives.
Decisions in relation to this increased capital expenditure will be informed by the review of the capital plan, published last week.
The Cabinet committee will help drive the development and delivery of infrastructure and associated policy through the forthcoming national planning framework and new ten year national investment plan, both currently under preparation. This long-term approach will provide clarity and certainty in planning and capital expenditure, while facilitating a sustainable approach to meeting Ireland's future investment needs.
There are four Deputies offering. Is it agreed that we take all the questions and then go back to the Taoiseach for a response? Agreed.
In the Taoiseach's reply during Leaders' Questions I missed whether he gave a date for the publication of the capital plan and the related planning framework. Is there a date in mind? During Leaders' Questions, the Taoiseach talked about facilitating, and in fact welcoming, a protracted open-ended debate on the capital plan and planning framework. Will the Taoiseach produce some grounding documentation so that we can have a base on which to discuss that before any final decisions are made? I would be interested in the Taoiseach's thoughts on that.
I ask the Taoiseach to put clearly on the record of the Dáil that there is sufficient money available now to build the national maternity hospital. We read in national newspapers a strong suggestion from the Department of Health that it warned that it did not have enough money to build the national maternity hospital and other key infrastructural projects to be undertaken, including primary care centres and a major refurbishment of information technology, IT.
It is important for the people who have invested so much effort in preparing so long for the national maternity hospital that we put it completely to bed today with a very clear and unambiguous statement from the Taoiseach. I must refer to the additional amount of €2 billion sought by the Department of Health. The Taoiseach will know that it is always a nice round figure from the Department of Health when it looks for additional money-----
It used to be €1 billion.
That is true; it was €1 billion. Everything was in bundles of €1 billion. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach make it crystal clear that these projects are going ahead.
On social housing, I was interested in remarks made by the Taoiseach during the summer about the need for a bespoke agency to drive a housing plan. I suggested a year ago - it was a strongly held view of mine in the latter period of my time in government - that it would be a suitable role for a reconfigured NAMA because it had access to capital and land banks and had negotiated with developers as a matter of course during the years. Will the Taoiseach outline his views on whether it would be a good idea to reconfigure NAMA as a new national housing delivery agency to supplement and complement the work done by local authorities which obviously also have to be prime drivers in these matters.
Six years of failed and flawed policies by a Fine Gael and Labour Party Government and, more recently, a Fine Gael, Independent and Independent Alliance Government have left us with a national housing and homelessness emergency. I want to know more about the references the Taoiseach belatedly made - six years too late - to the possibility of NAMA, instead of flogging land and property as it has done for the past six years, being transformed into an agency to deliver social and affordable housing. I know that the Taoiseach is fond of jogging and will be familiar with the Nike slogan, "Just do it". I am wondering if he will just do it, albeit six years too late. Will he just do it and transform NAMA into what it should always have been, namely, a vehicle to deliver social and affordable housing, using what is left of its land banks and assets?
Today Dr. Rory Hearne and Dr. Mary Murphy from NUI Maynooth added their voices to those of Fr. Peter McVerry, the Mercy Law Resource Centre, MLRC, and the Simon Communities on the necessity to insert the right to housing into the Constitution. Dr. Murphy pointed out - this is related to the NAMA question - that states within the European Union that had such a constitutional imperative had gained flexibility within the EU fiscal rules. This is very relevant in the context of our capacity to deliver housing, if what she says is true. Will the Taoiseach heed the advice of the academics in the area of housing, the MLRC, the Simon Communities and Fr. Peter McVerry, and pass our Bill tonight which seeks a constitutional amendment to insert the right to housing into the Constitution?
We are all now aware of the stats, as they are called. There are 90,000 homeless households, including 3,000 homeless children, while three homeless citizens died over the summer. It all comes down to an ideological question. Sinn Féin believes every citizen has the right to a home. We believe it should be a constitutional right, but the Taoiseach's Government does not share that belief. It is clearly of the view that this fundamental right should be subject to the whims of the market. In other words, the profit motive dictates the way in which the Government deals with the homelessness crisis. In my constituency and across the north east the number of homeless children has increased, but the Government has ignored the gravity of the issue. There is a special need for the Government to limit the grounds on which landlords can evict citizens; we should be keeping citizens in their homes. This week's Residential Tenancies Board quarterly rent index report found that rents in Dublin were 10% higher than they were at the peak of the Celtic tiger. The Government is failing to protect renters. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have opposed motions we have introduced to introduce rent certainty, with rent reviews being linked with the consumer price index. I welcome the decision to extend the rent pressure zones to include Drogheda which should have been included in the first instance. Will the Taoiseach tell us if the return of the bedsit was discussed by the Cabinet committee? Will he also explain why the Government does not accept that a citizen has the right to a home?
Last week we had a very curious situation when the Taoiseach announced that NAMA would be taking a role in providing housing but subsequently said nothing had been decided. It was the latest in a lengthening list of policy announcements, both anonymous and claimed, by the Government which are not actually announcements. Will he explain the status of his statement about NAMA? Has the issue been considered by the Cabinet committee or the wider Cabinet or is it just something that was inserted at the last minute to try to grab a headline? The Taoiseach knows that for nearly two years we have been pushing for a significant role to be played by a changed NAMA in helping to make up the huge deficit in social housing. It is extraordinary that 4,000 units offered by NAMA last year to local authorities were turned down. That is extraordinary when there are 3,000 children in emergency accommodation in hotels. We do not have the luxury of being able to turn down the offer of 4,000 houses. Will the Taoiseach indicate why he has suddenly reversed course on this approach?
We do not yet have a date yet fixed for the publication of the new national development plan, but it is intended to publish it before the end of the year - most likely in November or December. There will, of course, be additional capital allocations which will be assigned to Departments on budget day. They are additional allocations for the years 2019, 2020 and 2021. The existing capital plan, with which the Deputies are familiar, runs to 2021; therefore, there will be additional allocations for Departments announced on budget day, but the ten year plan will not be published until the end of the year.
I am very pleased that planning permission has now been granted for the national maternity hospital. The project will go to tender as soon as possible. The amount provided in existing capital plans is €150 million, but, obviously, it is only when something goes to tender that one will know how much it is going to cost. It is absolutely my intention, without offering a blank cheque to anyone who might tender for the project, to make sure it will goe ahead. Deputy Brendan Howlin will recall that when we were working in government together, there was a discussion back and forth on the national children's hospital, how much it would cost and how we would fund it, but no one ever doubted that we would fund it. It is under construction and Deputies will know-----
There is also a sum of €200 million which has been ring-fenced from the sale of the national lottery licence.
There is, but that is for the national children's hospital, not the national maternity hospital. Deputies will know that while we have extended and renovated a lot of hospitals, no new hospital has been built from scratch since 1997. Next year I anticipate that we will have at least three new hospitals under construction - the national children's hospital, the new mental health and forensic hospital and the national maternity hospital. Perhaps we might build even more after that.
My principled view is that social housing should be built by local authorities and approved housing bodies, not by NAMA. Local authorities are in place to build social housing and they are now getting back into that business. Approved housing bodies have been doing it for quite some time. They are the best vehicles to build social housing. What I said in my speech in Clonmel was that we were examining the role of NAMA with a view to giving it a new role in the provision of housing.
NAMA will soon complete the job it was asked to do. It will be able to repay all of the senior debt over the coming months.
Has a decision been taken?
No, a decision has not been taken because many of the details have yet to be finalised. There has been a great deal of discussion with NAMA by the Departments of Finance and Housing, Planning and Local Government. Any change in the remit of NAMA would require primary legislation, which would have to come before the Houses for debate, and consultation and discussion with the European Commission because, as Deputy Howlin will be aware of having been in government at the time, NAMA was established under particular conditions to be off-balance sheet, to which we must have regard. It is not a case of just doing it because were we to do so we could quickly find we do not have the finance to build any houses and that would not be particularly useful to anyone.
It was a handy announcement.
What about the right to a home?
I will come back to it.
The Taoiseach may respond now if he wishes.
As I understand it, the proposal for a constitutional amendment will be referred to the finance committee, where it can be given full and due consideration. I believe that is appropriate. I am sceptical of the claim that a constitutional right as exists in other countries provides some sort of flexibility when it comes to the fiscal rules. I would like to see that in writing from a European body, not an academic. If I did see that in writing from a European body I would certainly be interested. As in the case of all capital spend, not only housing spend, there is capital smoothing provision under the European rules which allows for only one quarter of it to be counted in the first year. I would be interested in any European document that states that there is some sort of exception made if a country has a right to housing in its Constitution. I would also be interested to know whether countries that have a right to housing in their constitutions have a homelessness problem, which I suspect they do; whether they have people on housing lists, again I suspect they do; and whether they have people who cannot afford homes, which I expect they do because a right in a constitution does not build homes. Developers and local authorities build homes and this, I believe, is where the solution lies and not in rights that may not be realised on the ground. I would be interested to learn if those countries have a homelessness problem. I expect we will find out that they do.
The wording of the proposed amendment put forward by one of the parties opposite appears to suggest that there would be no limits on eligibility such that everyone in the State would be entitled to social housing, which I imagine would be akin to what was done in eastern Europe in the Communist countries, whereby everyone would be required to live in a government-owned apartment block. I would have a difficulty with that.
That is disingenuous.
It is the secret plan of those proposing the amendment to make everyone the same and put them in a box.
We will move on to Question No. 6.
I would like to ask a brief supplementary question in regard to my Question No. 3. The Taoiseach touched on the issue of bed capacity in our hospitals, which has been an issue of much focus, and he mentioned additional hospital build. In terms of acute hospital bed numbers, is the Taoiseach of the view that we have the required bed capacity or do we need more as per the broad spectrum of opinion now and, if so, will Government be providing additional acute beds within existing hospitals or in new hospitals?
In regard to NAMA, having a bespoke organisation like NAMA that is already off-balance sheet provides a great advantage. I would not re-open a discussion with the European Commission on keeping it off-balance sheet. I believe it is possible to alter the focus of NAMA without having to seek fresh permission to keep it off-balance sheet. I would be very concerned that would not happen if we went down the road proposed.
We are running over time. I will allow only brief supplementary questions.
I have not spoken to the next question.
I understand that. We are still on Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive.
I have two questions which the Taoiseach neglected to answer. Was the return of the bedsit discussed by the Cabinet subcommittee and will he explain the position of Fine Gael or the Government on the principle that I have expounded, that a citizen has a right to home?
To be helpful to the Taoiseach in his consideration of the question I asked, the proposed amendment to the Constitution seeks to define the common good as specifically including the right to secure and affordable housing and further requires the Government to prioritise the allocation of resources and its policies to vindicate that right. There is no compulsion to live in social housing as he suggested. Somebody has misinformed the Taoiseach. Given that I have clarified the matter, and bearing in mind, as I said, that the Mercy Law Resource Centre, Peter McVerry, the Children's Rights Alliance, academics and just about everybody who knows anything about housing have been saying for the last ten years that this would help clear the way for securing housing and removing obstacles to the provision of housing for everybody who needs it, would the Taoiseach have a problem with inserting that proposal into the Constitution?
I ask the Taoiseach to give a brief response to those supplementary questions.
I will do my best. The bed capacity review is not yet complete and as such we do not have a figure on the number of acute hospital beds.
Does the Taoiseach have a date for completion of the review?
It will have to be completed before the capital plan so that it can inform what health investments may be required in the years ahead. The review is not just about beds, it is also about types of beds. There is an active debate in health policy circles on whether we need more acute hospital beds or not. Some people say we do. They point to overcrowding and waiting lists as a reason for additional acute hospital beds. Others would point to the fact that on a per capita basis, the NHS has as many hospital beds as we do yet it does not have the type of overcrowding or waiting lists that we have because it uses them more efficiently and it does a lot more outside of hospitals.
It deals with an older population too.
Yes, and as such it should need more beds than we do. These are the complexities that always need to be considered in health policy. We will need to examine what can be done in primary care rather than hospitals and how we can use our beds much more efficiently than we currently do. It is evident they are not being used as efficiently as they might be.
On the return of the bedsit, the issue was discussed at the Cabinet subcommittee. No decision was made but the proposal is under consideration. I gave my view at the committee, as I have done in the media. I do not favour any diminution of safety standards or fire standards, which some people have tried to conflate with the issue. I would not be interested in entertaining that.
I absolutely believe that every citizen has a right to a home. Whether that right should be a constitutional provision is a different question. Before we put anything into the Constitution we need to consider what the consequences of doing so might be. We have previously put into the Constitution measures which have been interpreted by the courts in a manner other than was intended. We need to tread carefully when it comes to our Constitution because changes to it take power away from this House and put it in the hands of the courts, which is something we should always be very cautious about doing.
In saying that a citizen has a right to a home, I am not saying that everyone should have a free home because I do not believe that is possible. I do not believe that everyone should be housed for free. It is appropriate that people would contribute to the cost of their accommodation. In fact, I believe that is the only way to deal with the problem. Also, I do not believe it is possible for everyone to have the home of their first choice. These are the kind of complexities that always need to be considered.
6. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet Committee on Social Policy and Public Service Reform. [32097/17]
In early July, the Government approved the establishment of Cabinet Committee B which will primarily cover the areas of social policy and public service reform. The new committee met for the first time on Monday, 11 September.
The committee provides a forum to ensure that relevant Departments work together to deliver on commitments in the programme for partnership Government in areas such as education, children, equality, social inclusion, supports for particular vulnerable groups and continued improvements and reform of public services.
The work of this committee will help realise the Government's ambition to provide opportunities to everyone living in Ireland of all ages and backgrounds to participate fully and benefit from a recovering economy.
Some of the particular initiatives this committee will focus on include improved child care services, implementation of the action plan for educational disadvantage - I am pleased there have been significant improvements in the number of people with disabilities and the number of people from non-traditional backgrounds entering higher education - and improving services to people with disabilities. While social welfare income supports continue to be an important part of reducing child poverty rates in Ireland, achieving real progress in this area will also require improved access to public services, particularly early years and continuing education, reducing the cost of accessing services and increasing the number of parents who are at work.
The work of the committee will complement other approaches including bilateral meetings with Ministers to discuss and progress priority issues within their areas of responsibility.
Was the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities discussed by the Cabinet committee? It was raised earlier in Leaders' Questions. It is time we in this House give a firm date for whatever needs to be done - as this process has been going on for a very long time - and that it will be completed in order that people who have been campaigning and are dependent on this convention to vindicate their rights will know that it will be enacted by a given date. I ask the Taoiseach to give a date for the formal ratification of the convention by Ireland.
On a second matter, with respect to employment, thankfully, there has been a discernible and measurable decrease in the number of unemployed to a rate of 6.3%. I understand the Government target is to reduce it to 5.5%. I also understand there is no target beyond that. I would like the Taoiseach to focus not only the unemployment rate but the employment rate. Only 65% of our working population actually works, which is much lower than that found in many developed countries. The UK and other countries have achieved a rate of 75%. If we consider those who are not in the labour market, and therefore not counted, it is primarily women and people with disabilities. The last census found that only 30% of people with a disability were in work. That is a miserable standard which we need to address. Will we, as a State, set new standards not only to provide jobs for the working population who are registered but consider excluded individuals, particularly people with disabilities, to ensure that their right to participate in our economy is fully vindicated?
A decision was taken by the previous Government not to publish standard income distribution tables from budget documentation. That was clearly because of a desire to hide the impact of budgets, which the Taoiseach has described as unfair. Can he give a clear undertaking that this data will be provided in the context of the forthcoming budget?
Separately, the Taoiseach will recall that in August the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection announced in The Irish Times that old age pensions would come after other payments to social welfare recipients, if increases were to be proposed. A few days later she announced in the Irish Independent that the opposite would be the case, that old age pensions would be the number one priority and would get a substantial increase. Given the Taoiseach's policy when serving as a Minister, is it now the case that members of the Cabinet are free to make whatever statements they wish about the budget? He might indicate what the Government's priorities are in terms of the social welfare budgetary provision.
Is the Taoiseach considering changing or inserting serious conditions and penalties in public contracts and public procurement where firms awarded contracts by the State are found not to be in compliance with the tax code, are fraudulent in their tax affairs or are, as is the case, I would argue, with some accountancy firms here, encouraging tax avoidance strategies for wealthy people? I refer to some construction or consultancy firms that are awarded big State contracts and are then often found to be up to this sort of practice. For example, on foot of a question I raised in the Dáil prior to the summer recess, a raid was carried out on the building site where the regeneration of Dophin's Barn is taking place during the summer because the workers on that site had not received payslips for two months. They were working on a public contract project. That raid was carried out subsequent to my raising the issue here, but, as of the last report I heard, those workers still have not received payslips. Is that not incredible? This is a public contract for a major job and those workers are not getting payslips. I contend that is due to bogus self-employment practices, but that needs to be investigated. Any firm found guilty of that practice should never ever be awarded another public contract. Will the Taoiseach consider measures like that for firms that are awarded public contracts and then found to be up to this sort of sharp practice?
Will the Cabinet committee on social policy and public service reform examine the crisis faced by young people in receipt of jobseeker's benefit, who, as a result of Government policy, have had their income sliced from €193 to €102 a week? Focus Ireland and the National Youth Council of Ireland have been highlighting the consequences of this since 2009 and have called for these discriminatory cuts to be reversed. Will the Government consider providing an increase or ask the Cabinet committee to examine this issue in order to provide an increase in payment to these young people in next month's budget?
I would state again that no decisions on the budget or the welfare package have been made but obviously the priorities will be informed both by what is in the programme for Government and in the confidence and supply agreement with the main opposition parties. Therefore, what is in those will be prioritised but no decisions have been made.
Regarding unemployment, the target is to reduce unemployment to between 5% and 6% and to reduce long-term unemployment - there will always be a certain number of people who are in between jobs or out of work for some reason - to less than 2.5%, which is a target we can achieve but it is not one that will be easy to achieve. Those targets are updated and reviewed from time to time.
Deputy Howlin was correct in what he said. The participation rate - it is a different thing - is the number of adults who are working or involved in the workforce. Our participation rates are still relatively low by European standards and they are lower than they were the last time the economy was this strong. We want to see those increase significantly in the years ahead. The action plan for jobless households, published by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, very much sets out how we can do that in terms of extending activation to more groups of people and increase participation rates.
In terms of participation rates by people with disabilities, I very much agree with other Members of the House that I want to see the number of people with disabilities who are able to take part in the workforce improve in the time ahead. A number of measures have already been taken in that respect. Only last week the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, announced €10 million in funding for pre-activation supports for people with disabilities to assist them to enter the workforce. Before I finished my term of office as Minister for Social Protection, I changed the rules around the free travel pass to provide that if a person in receipt of a disability allowance or an invalidity payment takes up employment, he or she will retain their free travel pass for five years. Also, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is changing some rules around the disability allowance because many people in receipt of that allowance fear that if they take up a job and it does not work out, they will find it hard to get that allowance again. The Department will change the rules to provide that a person can have their claim suspended for a period of time, 12 weeks or longer, to enable them to try working and if it works out for them, that is great. If it does not, they will be automatically reinstated on their disability allowance. In addition to that, we will change the income limits around medical cards for people who are on disability allowance and other disability payments. From the survey we have done, we have found that the biggest single fear people with disabilities have is that they will lose their medical card if they take up employment. We have already agreed to change the income limits for people who are on disability payments. The Minister for Health intends to legislate for that in 2018. We will also raise the target for the percentage of people with disabilities employed in the public service from 3% to 6%.
I am delighted to see the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection in the House because her Department is almost at the figure of 6%, but other Departments and agencies are not doing quite so well. One of the things we discussed at the Cabinet committee was having a bespoke recruitment campaign or bespoke access to positions for people with disabilities because if somebody who has a disability goes up in an interview against somebody who does not, he or she will be at a disadvantage. Perhaps what we should do is have dedicated positions or a dedicated entry route for people with disabilities. They were the things that we discussed and on which we agreed to make progress at the Cabinet committee. The main discussion was about the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I have explained the reason for the delay in that regard.
On the young jobseekers issue, it is welcome that the number of young people who are unemployed is falling rapidly and much faster than the general level of unemployment, which is extremely encouraging. In Great Britain and Northern Ireland, for example, the jobseeker's payment for young people is £50 or £60 which is unbelievably low and it is not the case that welfare rates are set in London. One of the changes we have made is that any young jobseeker who does anything else will receive the full adult payment. If he or she take a place on a community employment, Tús or Gateway scheme or goes back to education or if he or she is a carer, he or she will receive the full adult payment.
The Taoiseach did not answer my question.
That is the answer.
About public procurement and public contracts.
We are out of time.
7. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet Committee on Brexit will be retained when Cabinet committees are re-established. [32321/17]
8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the status of the all-island civic dialogue. [32896/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 8 together.
The Government has approved the establishment of a total of six Cabinet committees, one of which will deal with EU affairs and Brexit. In particular, this committee will assist the Government in its ongoing consideration of Brexit issues, including input to the negotiation process, both on the issues that are of unique or particular concern to Ireland and more generally. The committee met on 11 September.
The third plenary session of the all-island civic dialogue on Brexit will take place on Thursday, 28 September. It will provide a forum for civic society groups from both parts of the island, with political representatives from across the political spectrum. It will be an important opportunity to update participants on the Brexit negotiations and the Government’s policy response to Brexit. The session will also focus on how both enterprise and communities can best prepare for the challenges of Brexit. To facilitate the widest possible audience, the event will be streamed live on www.merrionstreet.ie and a report will be published following the event.
Building on the plenary sessions, 19 all-Island sectoral dialogues have been hosted by Ministers since December, attended by more than 1,500 industry and civic society representatives from across the island. Most recently, on 8 September, the Minister for Health hosted in Dundalk an all-island sectoral dialogue on cross-Border health co-operation.
It is very welcome that the all-island civic dialogue on Brexit will meet next Thursday. It has been a good initiative, both in the sectoral and plenary session gatherings. It has been useful in informing the Government and I hope citizens across the island have some sense that we need to come at this issue in an all-island manner. If I understand the Taoiseach's answer properly, it is also welcome that the committee which will be re-established will have Brexit as a major component of its responsibilities.
I attended the national ploughing championships yesterday. I offer my condolences to the family of the former national ploughing championships title holder, Mr. Martin Kehoe Jnr, who was tragically killed in a farm accident. Most of the talk at the national ploughing championships was about Brexit. Farmers in the entire agrifood sector are concerned about what is coming at us. I very much welcome the remarks of Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, MEP, in the North earlier. He said the North should remain in the customs union and the Single Market. That would effectively be special designated status for the North for which the House voted and which a majority of MLAs in the Assembly support. The people of the North voted to remain in the European Union, something the Government must uphold. I acknowledge that time is limited, but perhaps the Taoiseach might give us indication of where he understands the negotiating process to be between the British and the European Union. There appears to have been a complete failure thus far by the British Government to make progress on the issues that have been set aside. Will the Government insist on the Brexit negotiations not being allowed to move to the next stage of discussions until these issues are satisfactorily dealt with?
There are five minutes left. I will give the other party leaders one minute each and three minutes to the Taoiseach in which to respond if that is acceptable.
Will the Taoiseach clarify whether he is responsible for overseeing Brexit policy? The Brexit unit is in his Department, as is the official in charge of the negotiations on our behalf. In spite of this, this week his office transferred a direct question on the issue to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the basis that it was not the Taoiseach's responsibility. I have had many bad experiences in questions being transferred. Will the Taoiseach explain why this happened and will he make sure it will not happen again? He has just replied to questions on Brexit.
In the civic dialogue on the last number of occasions we have met different sectors and communities have expressed their fear of major damage being done. In most cases, there has been a promise to take action but no specific action has been outlined. Has the Taoiseach discussed sectoral support plans with Mr. Michel Barnier and the European Union and the need to come up with solutions on our side with an accommodation on the EU side?
During his trip to Belfast the Taoiseach said we would not help London to design a border. That is fine rhetoric, but in reality if there is to be an EU border, we will have to try to influence it, even though we do not want it. Given that the British Government has rejected the trial balloon of having the border in the middle of the Irish Sea, what is our specific negotiating position other than hoping Brexit will disappear? I have said publicly that I believe there should be an economic zone to include the North and the Border counties. There is a need to engage with the European Union to get some idea of where it stands on the idea of an economic zone post-Brexit to include Northern Ireland and the Border counties. Has the Taoiseach asked his officials to present any material on a special economic zone?
I am becoming increasingly concerned about the British negotiating position. Over the weekend the British Foreign Secretary directly challenged the stated position of the British Prime Minister. It seems that there is no coherent view within the British Government which is extremely worrying, particularly in the context of there being no clear solution to the problem of having a border on this island which none of us wants and given the lack of a voice in Northern Ireland in a functioning Executive. I understand the very good reasons the Government disengaged or halted the bilateral work on contingency planning, but we all cannot stand back and look at an emerging train wreck and allow it to happen before being flabbergasted by the consequences. As Deputy Micheál Martin asked, what specifically has the Government fed into the EU negotiating position in respect of the island of Ireland and the solution if the United Kingdom leaves the customs union? Is it a bespoke all-island solution or something else? We need to hear exactly what is the negotiating position of Ireland.
I join others in expressing my condolences to the family of Mr. Martin Kehoe Jnr.
Martin was a constituent of mine and it was remiss of me not to refer to his tragic death. He was a well known figure in a very well known family.
Of course. The condolences of the House go to his family and friends at this time. It was the 16th farm fatality this year, something that concerns us all.
Deputy Gerry Adams is absolutely right to express the concerns of the agrifood sector about Brexit.
It was certainly the main talking point at the ploughing championships last year and I imagine it will be the main talking point this year as well. We share those concerns and the Government is very much aware of the scale and value of exports to Britain from this island, particularly but not exclusively with beef. We are working to maintain as close a trading relationship as possible with the United Kingdom so trade can continue. That is what we are working towards. Initially there will be a long transition phase, during which the rules of trade would remain the same, and after that a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom in which the rules of trade would remain much the same. We are clearly just one of the parties negotiating in this space.
On the North all I can say is I strongly encourage the political parties in Northern Ireland to come together to form an Executive and have the Northern Assembly up and running. Deputy Adams has expressed the wish that Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union and European Single Market. It would be useful if the Assembly and Executive said that, and it would certainly strengthen the position of those who wish to ensure there is no economic or trade border between North and South. It would strengthen our position if the Executive and Assembly, representing the people of Northern Ireland, met and said that and did not leave it to politicians in London to speak for them. That is something I encourage the parties in the North to do.
On Brexit, Deputy Simon Coveney is the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade with special responsibility for Brexit. That means in practice that he is responsible to the Dáil, initially, for matters related to Brexit. He is the vice chairman of the Cabinet committee dealing with European affairs and Brexit.
The Taoiseach's predecessor answered questions on Brexit since the decision was taken.
Is the Taoiseach saying there has been a change?
I am outlining to the Deputy the division of responsibilities, which has changed. Deputy Coveney is the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade with special responsibility for Brexit.
That is not on.
I announced that on the day he was appointed. I will obviously continue to answer questions here through Leaders' Questions and questions for the Taoiseach, as I have before.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade takes questions every six weeks.
The role is Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade with special responsibility for Brexit. He will be responsible to the Dáil for matters related to Brexit.
The person briefing us is from the Taoiseach's office.
I am explaining the division of responsibilities. If the Deputy wishes to ask further questions, he might allow me to answer his first question.
I want to table questions.
The Taoiseach may give a clarification.
The Minister will be vice chairman of the Cabinet committee dealing with European affairs and Brexit and he will lead on Brexit in the media. Memos relating to Brexit will come from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and he will lead and co-ordinate the all-island civic dialogue and sectoral meetings. I will, of course, retain responsibility for the European Council as the person who represents Ireland and for any dealings with heads of state and government. We will work closely on these matters.
This is important. Is the Taoiseach saying that from now on-----
Will the Taoiseach answer questions on it?
I answer questions through Leaders' Questions and questions to the Taoiseach. I will be happy to continue to answer questions in this Chamber on Brexit. Written questions will be referred to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
I had a question for the Taoiseach that was referred to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.
We can have two extra minutes for clarification of this.
The precedent has been that during questions to the Taoiseach, we could ask him questions on Brexit and the Taoiseach of the day would respond.
He said he will continue to do that.
There was never an issue.
I am anxious that this is clarified. Far be it from me to offer an interpretation but it seems from what the Taoiseach said, he will take oral questions and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will take written questions.
I have a brief supplementary question. The Taoiseach knows well that Sinn Féin wants and is working to see the institutions in place in the North. He also knows the largest party in the Assembly, the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, has signed up to a confidence and supply agreement not unlike Fine Gael's relationship with Fianna Fáil. It will support legislation on Brexit. We will not get the Executive speaking with one voice, even as a majority of MLAs support the position we have advanced for a designated status. The Taoiseach knows that so why does he feed false information into the debate?
It is not false information. The DUP is a political party in Northern Ireland and Sinn Féin is a political party in Northern Ireland. There is no Assembly or Executive to speak on behalf of Northern Ireland. The Assembly could, of course, adopt a resolution and the Executive could, of course, take a particular position. I encourage the parties to do exactly that. It is not the case that either the DUP or Sinn Féin can speak on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland as Northern Ireland does not have an Assembly or Executive. It is regrettable.