1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his Department's plans to conduct market research. [41633/17]
Vol. 960 No. 5
1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his Department's plans to conduct market research. [41633/17]
2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on changes to his Department's website; and if changes are being made to merrionstreet.ie. [41863/17]
3. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on plans in his Department to conduct market research. [42741/17]
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the advertising undertaken by his Department. [43749/17]
5. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on changes to his Department's website; and if changes are planned in respect of the website of the Government Information Service, merrionstreet.ie. [43823/17]
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the status of the commitment in his own Department's strategy statement to examine the balance of power and responsibility between the Government and the Civil Service. [43829/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
The strategic communications unit in my Department represents a step change in how we as a Government communicate with our people. It is about informing people of the work of Government in a co-ordinated, focused and cross-governmental way so that it becomes easier for people to understand what the Government is doing and the full range of State services, benefits and entitlements available to people, both new and current. It is citizen-centred, will represent value for money and will, over time, reduce overall costs in line with international best practice. It is the first time in the history of the State that there will be a whole-of-Government approach in how we communicate with people in a sustained and systemic way. The strategic communications unit will be integrated within the Civil Service structures in my Department, with the director of the unit reporting to the Secretary General of the Department.
The Civil Service Management Board, CSMB, has decided to establish a subgroup which will act as a high-level working group and will be chaired by the Secretary General to the Government. Its membership will be finalised shortly. In addition, responsibility for communications will be assigned to an assistant secretary in every Government Department who will work collectively to ensure cross-Government co-operation and co-ordination.
This initiative will be progressed as part of the Civil Service renewal programme. This oversight is in line with my Department's strategy statement, its core values being a deep-rooted public service ethos of independence, integrity, impartiality, equality, fairness and respect and a culture of accountability, efficiency and value for money. These core principles will inform how the unit will conduct its business. Its task will be to simplify Government communications and to increase efficiencies across the public sector when dealing with the Irish public. It will achieve this by streamlining communications to citizens, developing and delivering major cross-Government communication campaigns and improving communications capacity across Government.
My Department, working with the Office of Government Procurement, has invited tenders for a research survey to help us learn more about public awareness and understanding of Government services. The research will explore the public's view of Government, their perception of services provided by Government, their knowledge of the range and quality of those services and what the role of Government should be in their lives with a view to helping us communicate more effectively with citizens. I expect the contract to be awarded shortly and the research will be published when completed. This work will inform the future output of Government communications. This kind of approach is in line with international best practice. Other Governments that have undertaken this kind of work include those in the UK, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
I have no plans at present to make changes to merrionstreet.ie. However, as part of an audit being conducted of the many Government Department websites and online services, these may undergo a rationalisation process in order to maximise cost effectiveness, reduce confusion and fragmentation and improve usefulness for users. My Department has undertaken four information campaigns to date which incorporate advertising, namely the Data Summit, the Back to School campaign, Ireland's Rugby World Cup bid and budget 2018.
The Taoiseach has acknowledged that a tender worth €130,000, excluding VAT, was issued to conduct polling on attitudes towards Government, along with a six-month rolling tracker poll. Who commissioned that research and who designed it for Government? In terms of Question No. 4, last week there was a series of sponsored advertisements on Facebook promoting the budget, with prime positions for the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, along with promoted tweets. That was the first time we have actually seen bought advertising promoting a Government and particular Ministers. How much was spent on this political promotion? Is it co-ordinated by the new strategic communications unit? Will this now be an ongoing feature, with paid-for advertising, rather than the use of merrionstreet.ie in the normal way, showing shots of the Minister for Finance at budget time? Will we see more of this paid advertising targeted at individual Facebook and other social media users?
In his response today, the Taoiseach said that an assistant secretary in each Department will now be put in charge of communications. I take it that this is not an exclusive role for an assistant secretary. Can I presume this will simply be an added role for an existing cohort of assistant secretaries?
Following on from what Deputy Howlin has just said, I seek clarity on a few points. I am trying to get my own head around this. I would have understood that each Department had its own press function and that the central co-ordinating press service was the Government Information Service, GIS. I find it difficult to understand the need for another layer in the form of a strategic communications unit. I ask the Taoiseach to clarify the relationship between GIS and the new unit. What platform will the strategic communications unit be using? Is it social media only or does it also use merrionstreet.ie? Is merrionstreet.ie still the preserve and under the control of GIS?
In terms of funding, the Taoiseach said the unit is cost-neutral. When I look at the budget documentation, I see a new budget measure providing €5 million within the Taoiseach's Department for the establishment of the strategic communications unit but I do not see the corresponding reduction, that is, where that €5 million is coming from. I would have thought, in order to be transparent, that the Taoiseach would spell out exactly the source of the €5 million saving. If one takes taxation, for example, if there is a new budget measure, favourable or otherwise, that detail is set out in the budget documentation. I do not see that transparency in terms of how this particular proposal is going to be cost-neutral. What I do see is a new budget measure providing €5 million.
I would have thought that Teachta McGrath would have been across that detail, given that his party facilitated the budget. That said, to go back to the issues raised, the Taoiseach published this tender for the production of tracking polls, amounting to €130,000 plus VAT every year. That is a substantial amount of public money. I ask the Taoiseach to provide examples and to clarify precisely the purpose of these polls.
Who will be responsible for determining which issues will form part of the tracking process? If I understood him correctly, the Taoiseach said the poll results would be published. When he announced the establishment of the strategic communications unit, he said it would be cost-neutral. An additional €5 million has now been set to one side for it. As I am sure the Taoiseach will agree, that is hardly cost-neutral. Is the cost of the tender for the production of tracking polls included in the €5 million? The Taoiseach has said the public has a right to know what the Government does and how taxes are spent. I absolutely agree with him. Will he now give the Dáil the overall annual cost to the public purse of the strategic communications unit? How much will the Department of the Taoiseach pay overall for publicity and communications staff?
I ask the Taoiseach to deal with all of the questions asked.
Most of the questions were very detailed and would really be more for a civil servant than a politician to answer. However, I will answer them as far as I can.
I do not know who commissioned and designed the research, but I assume it was the director of the unit. The thinking behind the unit is very simple, one I hope most Members of the House will understand, namely, that if we do not measure, we cannot improve. If we want to improve something, we have to be able to measure it. One example is Ireland's first ever patient experience survey carried out not by the strategic communications unit but by the Department of Health. We are all aware of the public perception of the health service. Sometimes it is very good-----
The strategic communications unit is doing it?
No. As I said, I am giving the House an example of the concept involved.
That has nothing to do with the strategic communications unit.
That is correct. It was done separately. I am doing my best to answer the Deputy's question, with all of the others. The concept behind it, as used by governments across the world, is that when it comes to research, one cannot improve something, unless one can measure it. Separate from the strategic communications unit, the Department of Health has for the first time commissioned a patient experience survey. The results of the survey will inform us about people's experiences of the health service and how they compare from service to service and hospital to hospital. This will allow the Department to improve the service and see if the public agrees with the improvements made. That is exactly the approach the Government should take. We need to ask citizens and customers what they think of the services we are providing, look to see where there may be deficiencies, make changes and then see if they have actually worked. The only way we can know if they have worked is by again asking people after the changes have been made whether their perceptions have improved. The basic concept for a very long time has been measure it, improve it, measure it again, and see if the improvements have made a difference. What matters most is what citizens think, not what politicians think, be they on these benches or elsewhere.
In response to the question on advertising bought by Departments, they have bought advertising for all sorts of information campaign for as long as I can remember. What is slightly different this time is that much more of the advertising is being carried online through Twitter, Facebook and so forth. This is 2017 and communications have changed. I look back with a degree of amusement at the controversy when Fianna Fáil was in government and set up www.merrionstreet.ie. My own party and the Labour Party for that matter made much the same criticisms at the time that the Opposition is making today. It was felt that it was terrible for the Government to set up a website and people wondered what the whole thing was about. All Fianna Fáil's setting up of www.merrionstreet.ie amounted to was a move towards modern communications and the Government having a website, although there was a big fuss about it at the time. What we are doing now also embraces modern communications, involving Twitter, Facebook, videos and that manner of modern technology.
On the issue of assistant secretaries in each Department, Deputy Brendan Howlin is correct in saying it will not be a dedicated post but rather a position included among their existing responsibilities. This position already exists in many Departments but not in others.
While I said the strategic communications unit would be cost-neutral, I never said it would cost nothing. Any unit with employees and that will be involved in information campaigns will, of course, cost something. I said it would be cost-neutral. If anyone looks at the Department of the Taoiseach's Vote in the budget book, he or she will see that the overall budget for my Department is down by approximately €1 million. The savings made in each section are explained in detail, line by line.
With regard to the former Government Information Service, GIS, its former functions in respect of www.merrionstreet.ie will be integrated into the new structure, while the Government Press Office will continue to operate as before, dealing with day-to-day media queries under the direction of the Government Press Secretary.
I thank the Taoiseach for his detailed reply. I am concerned, however, about the new move into paid political advertising. The Taoiseach will know that political promotional ads cannot be paid for from the public purse. The issue of the allocation of moneys to parties in opposition arises because we cannot spend money in promoting our parties or party policies in an overt way. We have to raise our own money for campaigning, while we receive State moneys to run the party simpliciter. The Taoiseach has confirmed to the House that any advertising paid for will be conducted in the normal way in promoting Government schemes and making people aware of policies determined by the Houses rather than take the form of political advertising to promote the interests of the parties which make up the Government.
I have no problem with the Government using modern technology and the modern methods available to us. That is very sensible and appropriate. I return, however, to the Taoiseach's claim that the strategic communications unit will be cost-neutral. Will he explain it to us, given that there has been the allocation of an additional €5 million for the unit? He did not do that in his initial response to the question.
The Taoiseach has not explained that point. He has included a new budgetary measure of €5 million without showing where the corresponding savings are being made on the expenditure side in order for the unit to be cost-neutral. Nobody is suggesting it is cost-free, but the Taoiseach did say it was cost-neutral and the onus is now on him to demonstrate this. However, I do not see it in the documentation. Will the Taoiseach also clarify the role between the Government Information Service and the strategic communications unit? Might a situation arise where political appointees and advisers could be involved in meetings with the strategic communications unit, formulating strategy and selecting the particular messages Fine Gael wants to convey and the campaigns it wants to run, as part of the Government and as a party?
There will be no political advertising and no promotion of political parties. The Civil Service and public sector code will continue to apply in that regard.
On the issue of costings, I cannot explain it any better. Something being cost-neutral is not the same as it costing nothing. The money is being found within my Department and my departmental budget is, in fact, being reduced. The unit will actually save money over time, just as similar units did in other jurisdictions. Looking at the plethora of logos, communications functions, websites and press functions across Departments and agencies, any rational person will see that co-ordinating and pulling all of this activity together over time will actually save a substantial amount of money for the taxpayer.
On the issue of political advisers, they are departmental employees and it is normal for them to engage with civil servants all the time. They will continue to do so, but there will certainly be no engagement with party officials or party press officers.
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet Committee A (Economy) last met. [41642/17]
8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet Committee A (Economy) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [42742/17]
9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet Committee A (Economy) last met. [43751/17]
10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet Committee A (Economy) will next meet. [43786/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 10, inclusive, together.
Cabinet Committee A held its first meeting on 12 September. Its focus is on economic issues, including implementation of the Action Plan for Jobs 2017 and preparation of a new, more focused action plan for next year; labour market policies, including implementation of Pathways to Work and responding to emerging skills pressures; competitiveness and productivity challenges for businesses, including pressures from recent currency movements; rural affairs and implementation of the Action Plan for Rural Development; and also the development of a pensions reform roadmap. I expect to see further progress in all of these areas in the coming months, building on the measures included in budget 2018.
The next meeting of Cabinet Committee A is scheduled for 23 November.
I thank the Taoiseach for that information. The committee has met once and another meeting is scheduled. The Taoiseach has given an outline of the issues it will cover as part of its deliberations. Will he clarify whether the capital investment plan forms part of its work, or is that the responsibility of another Cabinet committee? Will he confirm when the capital plan will be published? Rather than listing every project for the sake of it, the plan should contain meaningful information on the prioritised projects, including timelines and indicative budgets. This can be done without compromising the commerciality of what will need to be done in that respect.
Will this Cabinet committee deal with the issue of corporation tax? There have been renewed attacks on Ireland's sovereignty in the corporation tax area. The common consolidated corporate tax base proposal has been brought forward by the European Commission again. Proposals have been made for new taxation mechanisms in respect of digital companies. President Juncker has done more than float his idea about the vetoing of corporate tax decisions. He has said he would like the veto to be removed. Will this committee deal with that issue? Does the Taoiseach have any views on the issues I have raised?
Will the Taoiseach advise if the tracker mortgage scandal has been discussed by Cabinet committee A? He said earlier that the Government has lost patience with the banks that have prevented people who were paying tracker mortgages from continuing with those mortgages and have forced such people to pay higher charges. The Central Bank has said that just one in four of those who have faced these higher charges - this figure covers only the customers we know about - has received compensation. We know that as a result of the decisions of the banks, at least 23 families have lost their homes and 79 other people have lost properties. It is acknowledged that this scandal may have had an impact on more than 20,000 house owners. The Taoiseach has described this behaviour as scandalous and spoken about the need for a clear timeline for redress and compensation. At the same time, the Central Bank has said it can do little for those who were affected by the unscrupulous actions of the banks before 2013. In accordance with the Taoiseach's comments about losing patience on foot of this scandalous behaviour and about the need for a clear timeline for redress and compensation, does the Government intend to give the Central Bank additional powers to force the banks that are responsible for this scandal to face up to their responsibilities and deal properly with the home owners involved?
Is the capital plan being discussed by this Cabinet subcommittee or by the Cabinet as a whole? It will affect every area of Government and every Department of State. Will this House be able to make an input into the plan before it is determined by the full Cabinet?
We are all mindful of the damage that has been done in this country in recent days. The mitigation of the effects of climate change on our built infrastructure is an ongoing issue. What are we going to do about it? We need to look at all elements of it, including the prevention of flooding and coastal protection. The need to look at specific areas, such as the island of Cobh, has become very clear in the 48 hours following Monday's storm. The road from Fota is the only point of access to Cobh. My colleague, Councillor Cathal Rasmussen, raised this matter nationally last night. The vulnerability of Cobh is an issue that goes back many years. Will that kind of issue be comprehended in an overall climate change mitigation plan as part of the capital programme that is to be set out?
I would also like to ask about the duration of the capital plan. The Taoiseach previously indicated that it will cover a ten-year period. Will that be the case for every Department? A ten-year horizon is needed in the transport sector because it takes such a long period to develop certain major projects, such as metro north. As a result of changing demographics, more flexibility is needed to deal with other areas, including education. Will there be one ten-year plan for every Department? In the case of the previous plan, there was a longer-term plan for transport and a more agile shorter-term plan for other Departments of State.
President Donald Trump is claiming that Ireland is planning to reduce its corporate tax rate from 12.5% to 8%.
It must be right if President Trump is saying it.
President Trump is a dangerous and pathological liar and I do not give any credence to those claims. Does it concern the Taoiseach that Ireland is now a watchword for corporate tax avoidance by big multinational companies and for the race to the bottom on corporate tax? President Trump is simply using the low effective rate - the 0% effective rate on big multinational companies like Apple - as an excuse to accelerate the race to the bottom on corporate tax in the US. Does that give the Taoiseach cause for concern about the sustainability of our economic model?
Has the Taoiseach considered and discussed the enormous and expanding hole in revenues resulting from the dramatic increase over recent years in the deductions and allowances that are given primarily to American multinationals? The Taoiseach might tell us whether he has read the Coffey report, which notes that tax deductions and allowances for the corporate sector have increased from €18.9 billion in 2003 to €97.0 billion in 2015. The amount of money involved in these loopholes has increased from €18 billion to €97 billion. That money could be going into our Exchequer, but instead it is going into the pockets of the multinationals that are benefitting from our pitifully low tax rate. Is the Taoiseach looking at the implications for our Exchequer, and indeed for the sustainability of this country's wider economic model, of the likely changes in the corporate tax regime in the United States?
Could the Taoiseach mention in his response any document that sets out the Government's actual economic strategy? We debated the national planning framework this morning. It says we want to move to a low-carbon economy and to reduce the commuting distance but nothing is happening in either respect. As far as I could see, last week's budget contained no signal of an industrial or economic plan other than a willingness to get the buildings going again and to sell as much beef as we can to the UK, which reminded me of the approach taken by Fianna Fáil at the end of the last century. What is the economic strategy? Which industries are really going to grow? What are we going to be good at? Which businesses do we want to specialise in? Where can I find out what the Government's economic strategy is in advance of considering the national capital plan?
I intend that the capital plan will be considered by the Cabinet as a whole because it will have an impact on all Departments. I am not suggesting that it will not be discussed by individual Cabinet subcommittees as well. My intention is that it will be discussed and approved by the Cabinet as a whole. I would welcome the involvement of this House in discussing the ten-year capital plan and the national planning framework, which are inextricably interlinked. I would like such a debate to take place in this House sooner rather than later so that the contributions of Deputies can inform the decisions that are to be made. Of course it is up to the Business Committee to make those arrangements. I have said in the past that I would welcome such a discussion.
As Deputies are aware, a public consultation is under way as well. We anticipate that the national planning framework and the ten-year capital plan will be published together on the same day. We aim to do this in December in the form of a new national development plan, which will run from 2018 to 2028. It is intended at this stage that all Departments will be covered by the plan for ten years, although these things can change. We will allow for at least one review, if not two reviews, during the course of those ten years to take account of the fact that things change over the course of a number of years. As Deputy Howlin has said, it makes absolute sense to have a longer-term perspective in transport.
We should also have a longer-term perspective on other matters. Take, for example, our national cultural traditions. The renovation of the National Gallery next door is most impressive. If we were to build a national theatre, for example, that would not be a three-year job but a longer-term one. It is not just transport which requires long-term planning; many other things do too. I take the point about the need to be flexible, given changes in demographics and other things.
It will be as detailed as possible. I hope it will be a similar model to the national development plans published under previous Governments. It will not contain every detail but I would like it to be as detailed as possible.
In respect of our corporate tax rate, I can confirm that President Trump's claim that we are proposing to reduce our corporation profit tax rate to 8% is indeed fake news. There is no such plan to do so. Our corporate profit tax rate is 12.5% and has been for a very long time, through changes of Government, recessions and periods of growth. It is as much that certainty which is important to businesses now as is anything else. Businesses investing in other countries, such as the UK, the United States or other parts of Europe, could invest in a country, and then governments may change and taxes may go up, down or up again. We offer certainty in respect of corporation profit tax. It is a good thing that the vast majority of parties in the House, including Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil, support its retention because anything else would damage our country, its employment prospects and its economy. Any uncertainty could be damaging, aside from a change in the rate.
We are totally committed to the OECD process on corporate tax. We are closing loopholes. Very smart people find loopholes in tax law no matter what we do. We have already closed the loophole in respect of the double Irish.
Not until 2020.
We have closed a loophole in respect of stateless companies.
I read the Coffey report. We are closing some of the loopholes in respect of intellectual property. That was in the budget and will be addressed in the Finance Bill tomorrow. A very good report to read for anyone interested in this area is the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General from a number of weeks ago. It contained two takeaway messages for me. Even though we have a low corporate profit tax rate in Ireland, we take in a lot of corporation profit tax and revenue compared to other countries. That has proved that our policy works. Having a low tax rate brings in more revenue. That may not always be true, but it is in this instance. Countries with higher corporation profit tax rates bring in less revenue. That is proof that our policy works and attracts enterprise. We take in more revenue than countries with higher rates.
Even though there are many ways to calculate the effective tax rate, it is interesting to note that when one compares Ireland with other countries we are taking in more corporation profit tax than countries such as France, which are critical of Ireland. It takes in less because while it might have a higher rate on paper, it has so many exceptions, incentives and loopholes that it takes in less. Countries which are critical of our tax policy will be reminded of that in my conversations with them. It is good to have documentary data to back up what I am saying.
We are not ruling out giving the Central Bank additional powers. It is worth pointing out that additional powers were given to it in 2013 but, unfortunately, are not and probably cannot be made retrospective. What was done to those holding tracker mortgages was done prior to 2013. We are not ruling out new measures or powers for the Central Bank. I ask Deputies to be aware of the limits of retrospectivity in legislation.
It could put moral pressure on the banks.
We have any number of economic strategies. I encourage Deputy Eamon Ryan to read them. They include, for example, the Action Plan for Jobs, the speech I made to IBEC outlining our five key economic policies, Enterprise 2025 and the trade strategy. There are any number of documents which could supply the Deputy with bedtime reading for a number of days and inform him fully of our enterprise policy.
As only 14 minutes remain, I suggest we move on to the next group of questions.
11. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU digital summit in Tallinn, Estonia, on 29 September 2017. [41635/17]
12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the informal EU meeting he attended in Estonia; the issues that were discussed; the bilateral meetings he attended; and if bilateral meetings were held. [42454/17]
13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if immigration to the EU was discussed in Estonia at the informal EU meeting. [42459/17]
14. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings at the recent European digital summit in Tallinn. [43748/17]
15. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU digital summit in Estonia. [43750/17]
16. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach further to Parliamentary Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, of 4 October 2017, the outcome of his meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on the margins of the European digital summit. [43767/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 16, inclusive, together.
The digital summit in Tallinn was an important opportunity for EU leaders to discuss the evolution of digital technologies and their wide-ranging implications in a less formal setting than regular European Council business. The Estonian Presidency prepared a very useful, forward-looking agenda to stimulate discussion on how Europe can develop its competitive advantages in a fast-changing digital world which is reshaping key drivers of innovation, growth and living standards.
While we did not adopt formal conclusions, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas shared his assessment of the key broad-based agreement which emerged from our exchanges. This identified much common ground on issues such as bringing government and the public sector into the digital age, an area where Estonia has taken a lead; making Europe a leader in cyber security, to ensure the trust, confidence and protection of our citizens; ensuring that our regulatory environment in Europe is one which supports innovation and entrepreneurship; empowering our people with digital skills and modernising our education and training systems to support lifelong learning opportunities; and, of course, supporting necessary investments in next-generation infrastructure.
Ireland wants to see a high level of political ambition in unlocking the full potential of the European digital Single Market, and it is clear from our discussions in Tallinn that this is a view shared by most of my European Council colleagues. Prime Minister Ratas will report on proceedings at the October European Council this week, where I expect we will have the opportunity to set a further clear orientation for ongoing legislative work in the European Council and Parliament.
The evening before the summit, a dinner was hosted by President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, during which there was a discussion on the future of Europe. This continued the process which began last year in Bratislava and followed Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent state of the Union speech in Brussels and President Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne. Migration was mentioned as an ongoing priority for action, but was not discussed in depth.
At the margins of the summit in Tallinn, I had a bilateral meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Irish embassy. We discussed progress in regard to the Brexit negotiations, and I thanked the Prime Minister for his understanding of Ireland's particular concerns. We also exchanged views about the Bratislava process and the future direction of Europe. I invited him to visit Dublin later this year when I hope we will have a further opportunity to discuss these issues in detail. Dates for his visit are currently being explored.
I suggest Deputies take one minute each as there are six questions.
The Taoiseach had the opportunity to discuss the future of Europe informally. Although he said the discussions were not in-depth, I presume they included Brexit and so on. We will have the chance to deal with the European Council summit and will have statements on it today.
I picked up on what Commissioner Phil Hogan said, namely, that it is clear that the British Government is not going to propose workable solutions for the benefit of the people of the island. We have said this repeatedly. The focus of the British Government is firmly on what it sees as its national interest. The Commissioner said he was disheartened by the low priority afforded to the Border by Mrs. May's Government. It was clear at the time of the summit that the Commissioner had concerns. Does the Taoiseach share them? Has he raised any of these issues in the informal discussions he had with other European leaders?
I refer in particular to the British Government's rejection of the European Court of Justice, which has been a long-standing position of the Tory Party. It is opposed to the European Convention on Human Rights. That tears at the very heart of the Good Friday Agreement, of which the Taoiseach's Government is a co-guarantor.
I refer to the Taoiseach's remarks on the BBC yesterday about any future unity referendum. They were most unhelpful. The Agreement is very clear on all these matters and the Taoiseach, as a co-guarantor, should not cherry-pick. Of course, we want to get the maximum level of agreement in any future referendum but the Taoiseach has a legal and moral responsibility to uphold the letter and spirit of all of the measures contained in the Agreement which was voted for by the people of the island, North and South.
On the issue of Brexit, the Taoiseach said he felt there were better vibes around the talks in Estonia. Can he give us the view of the Government on whether we support the likely recommendation that the talks not proceed to the next phase, that is, the future trading relationship between the European Union and the UK?
Has there been enough progress at this point on the three pillars in the current phase in order to move on?
A second and related matter I wish to raise relates to EU state aid approval for certain supports of Irish firms that are very dependent on the UK market and exposed to the fallout from Brexit. What efforts are under way and what steps are being taken to secure EU state aid approval for supports of those firms, including long-term and competitively priced funding, for example?
I take it we will have an opportunity to hear the Taoiseach outline in some detail his approach to the upcoming Council, and particularly the major matter of Brexit, when we get to the statements. The EU digital summit is the focus of these questions. We understand that at the summit French President Macron proposed an EU-wide tax on Internet companies. What was the Taoiseach's response to President Macron on that matter? Was it discussed?
Following the summit, President Tusk put together a leaders' agenda and the Taoiseach referred to it as the Bratislava process on the future of Europe. The published agenda sets out a working agenda up to the end of 2019. What element was submitted by the Taoiseach for inclusion in the agenda of work for the leaders between now and the end of 2019?
I will concentrate on the purpose of the visit around the digital economy and the meeting in the margins with the Dutch Prime Minister. The UK is potentially leaving the European Union and it tended to be a party we worked with on digital policy and shaping the European agenda. Does the Taoiseach see that kind of role with the Dutch? I am conscious we also have a difficulty in that part of the controversy around the tax haven status was that we were engaged with the Dutch with the "Dutch sandwich" or "double Irish". The process used them and us so there is a certain controversy, particularly in the digital company side, as to how we and they work together. Is there a wider sense in which the Taoiseach sees us aligning with the likes of Holland and Denmark in the absence of the UK if we want to be a modern, advanced, digital economy? This goes back to my earlier question. I do not have a sense of strategy in this. The digital economy is huge here and this should be big for us. What will be the play in terms of working with the Dutch or others in the European Council when it comes to digital matters?
If Commissioner Hogan made new comments today, I am not aware of them. I would prefer to see his comments in full and in context before commenting on them specifically.
The informal dinner was very much about the future of Europe, including future co-operation and integration. It touched on what is already in train as a result of the Bratislava process, as well as the Juncker and Macron speeches. It brought into focus in my mind the extent to which, although Brexit may be the most important thing happening in Europe to us, it is not necessarily the case for other people. In the Baltic states, they are much more interested in Russia and security matters while those along the Mediterranean are much more interested in migration. France and Germany have their own ideas and we cannot be disengaged on the future of Europe debate. Whereas we are primarily concerned with Brexit, we need to engage in the future of Europe debate as well and not allow it to pass us by.
On the Good Friday Agreement, Deputy Adams mentioned the Irish Government is co-guarantor of the agreement, and it is a role we accept and take very seriously. The Good Friday Agreement also states Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom but that does not mean one must like it. I am sure the Deputy accepts the Good Friday Agreement but he does not want that to continue to be the case. I accept the referendum provision in the Good Friday Agreement would allow unity by consent with a majority of one but I do not like it; it would be a bad idea to move from a constitutional settlement that has a decent amount of cross-party support, with 70% of people in Northern Ireland having voted for it, to a process with the support of one more person over those against it. That is the point I made and people understand that point.
Deputy Michael McGrath asked about sufficient progress with regard to the Brexit negotiations and the Government agrees with Mr. Michel Barnier's assessment that insufficient progress has been made across the three areas. As a result, we intend to support the draft Council conclusions, which we had a role in helping to write.
On the state aid matter, some initial work is being done, not just within Departments but through initial contact with the Commission, about approving state aid for businesses that may be affected by Brexit. It is very much a work in progress and it is not possible to apply for state aid clearance to compensate people for something that has not happened yet. It is something that may well have to form part of our armoury if Brexit goes wrong.
With regard to President Macron's advocacy of an EU-wide digital tax or tax on digital companies, I expressed the view that it was a bad idea. A number of countries shared that view, including Sweden, Malta, Latvia, Romania, Cyprus, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic. The argument I made was that if we are going to introduce a digital tax, it should be done on an international basis and not just by the EU. If we were to impose such a tax within Europe, all we would do is hand the advantage to Japan, America and perhaps even the United Kingdom. As it leaves the EU, it would have the advantage of not having the tax applied. That is the approach we will be taking.