1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet Committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it will meet again. [52001/17]
Vol. 963 No. 5
1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet Committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it will meet again. [52001/17]
2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet Committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [52880/17]
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet Committee B, social policy and public services, will next meet. [1831/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
Cabinet Committee B last met on 16 November. While the date of its next meeting is not yet scheduled, I expect it will be within the next few weeks. The committee oversees the areas of social policy and public service reform including education, children, social inclusion, the Irish language, arts and culture, and continued improvements and reforms to public services. The committee seeks to co-ordinate work across Government on planning and implementing policies that contribute to a more equal and socially inclusive society. Some of the particular initiatives this committee will focus on include the roll-out of improved child care services and subsidised child care, targeting educational disadvantage and improving services for people with disabilities.
The Government is committed to bringing forward policies and programmes in line with the programme for Government that improve people's lives and support individuals and families through targeted and efficient public services. Implementing fair policies alongside budget measures to increase the minimum wage, social welfare and pension payments and reduce the burden of taxation on working people helpS to ensure that everyone can benefit from our improving economy. The Cabinet committee provides the opportunity to shape proposals on issues such as equality, disability or poverty which might require input from multiple Departments.
This is obviously a very important Cabinet committee dealing, as it does, with social policy. Is the committee looking at the issue of the pension anomaly that currently exists that disproportionately adversely affects women? When will we see proposals emerging on this? There are two elements to this issue. The most obvious one is the impact of averaging on women who spent periods outside of the workplace, particularly for child rearing and specifically the impact of calculating the average from the first day worked. The second issue is the impact of raising the pension age for people who have contracted to finish work at 65 and how the gap between the formal ending of work and qualification for a State pension will be addressed.
I wish to raise one other issue with the Taoiseach. Last September a campaign called Make Way Day was run by the Disability Federation of Ireland. It was a very simple campaign involving people with disabilities, particularly people in wheelchairs and those who are visually impaired, making their way around our thoroughfares, footpaths and streets and putting stickers on obstacles including things like sandwich boards, improperly placed seating and signage, in order to make us all aware of how such things negatively impact on the freedom of people with disabilities to move about our towns and streets. Would the Government consider examining this campaign with a view to formally promoting it? The Cabinet social policy committee might be the vehicle through which Government could determine how it could become a national campaign that would have meaning, possibly leading to legislation to improve accessibility and mobility for people with disabilities in our country.
I am just trying to figure out how this committee could work and am looking at some of the contradictions that arise. One of the contradictions arising relates to the significant increase in cyberbullying directed at children as well as in online predators. The Taoiseach knows that digital technology plays an increasingly major role in the lives of young people and is a tremendous educational resource. There seems to be a contradiction between the position set against the Taoiseach's name with regard to bringing forward a digital safety commissioner and the position articulated by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten. Just before Christmas the Taoiseach called on international technology firms to do more to protect children from these threats but indicated that he was cancelling plans to create a digital safety commissioner who would have the power to impose substantial fines on social media firms that permit harmful or illegal material to be published on their platforms. It seems from what he said that the Taoiseach thinks the onus should be on the technology companies themselves to police their services. However, the Law Reform Commission has recommended an online safety watchdog and the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, supports the introduction of a digital safety commissioner, as does the relevant Minister.
There seems to be a lack of co-ordination in the Government's position on this issue. While I do not want my remarks to be misinterpreted, these technology companies are lobbying against EU proposals to strengthen online privacy rules which would affect the money they make from online advertising. Is this the type of issue that deserves the attention of the Cabinet committee? Sinn Féin supports the creation of a digital safety commissioner and Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire brought forward a very good Bill on same. We believe that an office of a commissioner for digital safety could promote safety online, review and regulate harmful digital communications and so on. Is this the type of issue that would be put before the committee to make sure that the Government has a joined-up position on it?
Could the Taoiseach indicate his current position regarding a digital safety commissioner?
Any hopes I had that 2018 would see an improvement in the dire housing situation were dashed when a flood of people in dire circumstances attended my clinics over the first couple of weeks of the new year. I suggest that the report produced yesterday by the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, which claims successes in exceeding targets in the delivery of social housing, is misleading propaganda. When we look more closely at the claim in the report that the housing needs of 25,000 people have been met, we see that 75% of the successes in meeting people's housing needs involved housing assistance payments, the rental accommodation scheme or leasing from the private sector.
I will give an example. Gemma, who is a mother of two children, is included in the Government's success figures because she got a housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancy last February. After her landlord pulled out of the agreement in April, Gemma and her two children, aged four and two, had to go into emergency accommodation. They are now living with Gemma's grandmother, her three uncles and her aunt, which means that eight people across four generations are sharing a two-bedroom house. Last year's statistics consider her to have had her housing needs met. The reliance on the HAP scheme, which is not meeting people's housing needs because it is precarious rather than permanent, means that the figures are not credible. There is evidence in last year's figures that many of the people in respect of whom we are claiming success are back in emergency or chronically overcrowded conditions. Are we looking at the facts of this crisis, or are we just spinning propaganda about it?
It is clear that in the public mind, access to public services is a major priority. During the 2016 general election campaign, we had a debate on whether to prioritise improving public services or introducing a United States-style tax system. The social policy and public services committee is a key conduit of Government policy in this regard. The bottom line is that public services in sectors like health and housing are getting worse. There are 500,000 patients on waiting lists. Over 8,000 people are in emergency accommodation. There are 95,000 people on the social housing list. The Taoiseach has a habit of trying to use figures to suit himself, but the bottom line with regard to health is that approximately 2,000 extra beds were provided between 2000 and 2010. I accept that approximately 800 beds were taken out when the recession hit in 2008.
It started going down in 2007. There was no recession in 2007.
No. According to figures we received from the Department, an extra 142 beds were provided in 2007. I am not into the detail. The point I am making is that over 2,000 beds were provided. The number of beds was then cut by 800. In fact, another 450 beds were taken out in 2011 and 2012. We can go into who was in charge in each of those years, but that is not the point. I do not know whether the Cabinet committee on social policy has any bearing on the preparations for the budget. In the run-up to the budget, surely we need far more transparency about what it will take to deal with something like an accident and emergency crisis. When I asked the Taoiseach about Letterkenny University Hospital, I did not get any answer from him other than the general kind of stuff that drives people mad. He spoke about an allocation of €30 million. The fate of the specific bed capacity proposal that was made by Letterkenny University Hospital is a concrete example and illustration of the inertia in the system. The hospital authorities asked last summer for €1.8 million to open 20 beds. If that money had been provided, it would have enabled the hospital to do substantial work during this winter's crisis. It is alarming that this money was not provided and, as a result, we drifted into the crisis and people experienced significant distress.
I could not agree more with what Deputy Boyd Barrett has said about housing, which was raised repeatedly during the first clinics of January. It is awful that mothers and other young women who are doing everything they can to give something to their kids do not know where they will be in two months' time. I do not get a sense that the Government understands the gravity of the housing crisis. People with housing difficulties must go bananas when they see the figures and hear suggestions that targets are being exceeded. If we talk to people on the ground and go into their houses-----
We have to go to the Taoiseach to get answers.
The matter of pension policy generally, and pension policy reform in particular, falls under the remit of this Cabinet committee and is on its agenda and work programme for this year. There are many pension anomalies, but the pension anomaly about which people most often speak is often not as well understood as it might be. The anomaly is that some people get a full pension after paying PRSI for just ten years, whereas other people who have made payments for 30 or 40 years do not get a full pension. It is anomalous that someone who entered the workforce at the age of 55 might work for ten years until the age or 65 and get a full pension at that stage, whereas someone who worked for 30 or 40 years might not get a full pension. If we are to correct this anomaly, we need to move towards the total contributions approach, which will be a completely new system.
Not necessarily. The Government did not have to do what it did in 2012.
That means giving people a full pension for paying contributions for 35 or 40 of the 50 years for which they could have worked. It is inevitable that such a change could cause some people to lose out while others gain.
The Government could recognise child-rearing and things of that sort.
All of those things need to be taken into account in any change that may occur.
We are talking about the contributory old age pension. There is nothing between the two pensions in any event. It is a stupid debate.
By the way, these rules date from the 1960s rather than from 2012. A return to the pre-2012 situation would not correct this anomaly because the pre-2012 rules were unfair as well. There were people getting full pensions after working for just ten years while people who had worked for 30 years got 98% of their pensions rather than full pensions.
The Government could change the number of contributions.
Yes, it could change the number of contributions
I do not think we should mislead the public in this regard. It is certainly not practical to give people full pensions after paying in for just 20 years. Fundamentally, pensions have to be-----
Non-contributory pensions do not have to be paid at all.
We are talking about contributory pensions here.
The gap between the two is not huge, so it is an academic argument.
I am trying to answer, a Cheann Comhairle. I assumed Deputy Howlin was referring to the State contributory pension.
I assumed he was not proposing to abolish the State contributory pension. Perhaps he was.
Of course not.
I would be totally opposed to any proposal from the Labour Party or anyone else to abolish the State contributory pension.
That is stupid. It is a stupid thing to say.
I would oppose any suggestion that people who have paid PRSI for many years of their lives should lose their pensions.
The Taoiseach should not demean himself. The serious question we have raised deserves better than that.
The Minister for Finance has already expressed his intention to extend public sector workers' right to work to the age of 70. It will not be a requirement that everyone will have to work up to the age of 70. It is proposed to allow people who are currently required to retire at the age of 65 to work until the age of 66, or even until the age of 70 if they so wish. The Government has given the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform approval to go ahead with that legislation and publish it as soon as possible. The State pension age is increasing. Legislation introduced by the last Government, of which I was a member, increased the State pension age to 67 and subsequently to 68. It would be difficult to justify paying a State pension to some categories of workers who retire early but not to others. It is a complicated issue.
It is transitional.
The transitional pension was abolished by the last Government, of which Deputy Howlin and I were members.
I may have misspoken in December when I commented on the issue of the digital safety commissioner at a press conference. To the best of my recollection, the Government has not made a decision on whether to legislate to establish a digital safety commissioner. As I may well be incorrect in that regard, I will double-check it. I do not recall a Government decision being made. Obviously, any proposal would have to come to the Cabinet. It could come to this Cabinet committee first. I am certainly not opposed to the proposal. I just do not recall having seen a proposal, or its having been approved by the Government to date. Having said that, I am very conscious of the issue of digital safety. When we are talking about the Internet, we are talking about a worldwide web. We need to be realistic about what can be achieved by an Irish commission or Irish laws, which of course would have no extra-territorial effect whatsoever. That is why I have been putting pressure on the companies themselves, which operate on an international basis outside this country, to be more responsible and to mediate and edit the content that is on their websites.
On housing numbers, HAP works for many people. Deputy Micheál Martin cited an individual case and I have no doubt that what he said about it is true. However, I have encountered individual cases in my constituency involving people in receipt of HAP or rent supplement who do not accept social housing when it is offered to them because they would prefer to stay where they are. Even though they receive the HAP or rent supplement, they like the houses they are in, believe they are secure in them and do not want to move to different roads, parishes or school districts. It is important to bear in mind that every individual's experience is different and that the housing assistance payment works for many people. The evidence can be seen in the number of people in receipt of rent supplement or HAP who decline offers of social housing.
In terms of solutions, as the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has indicated, we will move more and more towards direct build and increasing the social housing stock in the years ahead. While HAP will be a solution for many people, the focus in the capital programme is already shifting towards building more. In 2016, only 657 houses were built and added to the social housing stock. The figure rose to 2,245 last year, which was an almost threefold increase. These figures include direct builds from local authorities, houses built by approved housing bodies, such as the Peter McVerry Trust and the Iveagh Trust, and houses acquired through Part V. The increase from 657 to 2,245 is significant and our target for this year is to have 3,800 social houses built. Building can only be ramped up at a realistic pace because there are only so many construction workers and firms in the country. We ramped up the number of social houses built from 657 in 2016 to 2,245 in 2017, a significant increase. We will continue to ramp up activity in the years ahead.
Last year, 2,266 acquisitions and 1,757 voids were brought back into use. If one leaves out HAP and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, the social housing stock increased by approximately 7,000 last year. While this was a significant increase, the figure needs to be closer to 10,000.
4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach his plans to ensure a whole-of-Government approach to policy development and problem-solving by his Ministers; and the way in which he plans to encourage co-operation between Ministers in respect of issues as they arise across Government. [52725/17]
81. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the position regarding policy formulation in his Department; and the way in which co-operation with other Ministers and Departments is co-ordinated. [2115/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 81 together.
The Government acts collectively and any work done by a Minister within a Department is done with a whole-of-Government approach. A Programme for a Partnership Government sets out the Government's ambitious programme of work and shared aims and we will continue to deliver on this programme.
The primary mechanism for ensuring a whole-of-Government approach is the weekly Cabinet meeting at which all major policy issues are discussed and co-ordinated implementation is agreed. On occasion, special Cabinet meetings are held to focus on key strategic issues such as, for example, climate change and health reform.
Cabinet committees are also used to ensure a whole-of-Government, co-ordinated approach to issues as necessary. The Government has established the following Cabinet committees, all of which I chair: Cabinet committee A, which deals principally with the economy; Cabinet committee B, which deals with social policy and public services; Cabinet committee C on the European Union, specifically Brexit; Cabinet committee D, dealing with infrastructure, including housing; Cabinet committee E, which deals with health; Cabinet committee F, which deals with national security; and the newly established Cabinet committee G, which deals with justice and equality issues.
I also hold regular bilateral meetings with Ministers to focus on issues in their areas of responsibility and to identify how the Government can support the delivery of priorities and commitments. Co-ordination also takes place at official level through interdepartmental and senior officials groups, a number of which are chaired by my officials.
Working in a collegiate manner is both an important aspect of government and a constitutional requirement. However, we have not seen this approach taken on every issue, including in respect of the constitutional amendment.
I will return to what all speakers have agreed is the most important social issue facing the country, namely, the housing crisis. I had the privilege of serving in three Cabinets. One of the difficulties at Cabinet is that Ministers become preoccupied with the particular focus and affairs of their respective Departments. We need to think outside the box if we are to solve the affordable housing problem. Based on my experience in government and on foot of my dealings with the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, at close quarters, I made a proposal almost two years ago that the latter be transformed into a housing delivery agency. It has the skill set and landbank, as well as access to capital and direct relations with developers and builders. While in government, we started, in a small way, to push a social and affordable housing agenda. Are discussions taking place between the Department of Finance, the Department of the Taoiseach and other Departments to ensure a new housing delivery agency is created from the NAMA framework? Has this important proposal been considered and, if not, will it be considered? I welcome the statement by the Fianna Fáil Party last week, which made more or less the same proposal.
The Taoiseach spoke of the number of social houses built in 2017. These houses were built under the allocation of €2.2 billion we made in government in 2015. Given the significant lead-in period for house building, we need to mobilise more than the local authorities and voluntary housing agencies to tackle the imperative of solving the social housing crisis.
There have been occasions in the past two years when Ministers have differed on certain Government policies and some have approached the media to express these differences. The planned trip to North Korea comes to mind but there have been other examples of differences on policy and the approach to be taken to particular issues. I was struck by the comment made by the Minister of State at the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Halligan, that the Korean adventure was triggered by an off-the-cuff comment by the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath. It would be alarming if the frequent off-the-cuff remarks of the latter Minister of State were to become the basis for formulating Government policy in future.
Be that as it may, the absence of joined-up Government is a critical weakness in the delivery and execution of policy. This applies in areas such as disability and special educational needs where individual Ministers operate in silos.
The strategic communications unit, SCU, illustrates the obsession with spin, announcements and pronouncements as opposed to substance, delivery and Government action. For example, while a new campaign manager for Healthy Ireland and four or five other campaigns, including a new hospital campaign, has been appointed to the SCU, the latter will not have any involvement in explaining what is being done about the hundreds of extra patients on trolleys. I do not believe the unit will ever speak about trolleys or children with special needs who have been fostered or are not receiving the supports they need from the Health Service Executive and Tusla.
There needs to be a focus on cross-departmental co-ordination and delivery of targets in the programme for Government. People are fed up with announcements, reviews, strategies and so forth and are much more concerned about the absence of delivery on these core issues. This remains a significant weakness in terms of the Government's delivery of the aspirations contained in its programme.
The woeful lack of effective, joined-up action on the housing crisis has prompted civil society to take the sort of joined-up action that is necessary.
That will be made manifest on 7 April when trade unionists, civil society groups, homeless groups, construction workers and all those affected by the housing crisis - these are the same people who can offer solutions to the crisis - will be mobilising on the streets of Dublin to demand action on housing.
I appeal to the Government to think about this. One problem with the housing crisis - it is a feature of some of the crises in other public services as well - is that we cannot get the workers to do the work that is necessary to solve the crises. We talk about capacity problems in housing. We cannot get nurses and teachers in a range of areas. Why is that? Part of the answer was outside the Dáil today. A construction worker, who is also involved in the national housing and homelessness coalition organising the march, was protesting along with other construction workers because they work for agencies on zero-hour contracts. They literally do not know from day to day or from week to week whether they will have a week's work or a day's work. They maintain they do not want to work in construction anymore. Why would they? Thousands of construction workers have walked away from construction, but they would come back if they did not have to put up with zero-hour contracts and agencies that treat them like dirt.
If the Government wants to solve some of the crises like those in housing, health and education, it should do something about people who are working for these agencies on zero-hour contracts. These people do not have proper jobs or proper pay. That is why we cannot get people in who could help to fix these crises.
Obviously, the whole-of-government approach, as it is described, is a perfectly sensible way to come at things. However, what we want is delivery, action and a joined-up approach. There has been failure to deal with these major crises. I keep coming back to this point - I imagine every other Deputy has the same experience. There is unnecessary stress in the lives of people, especially women, because of the crisis in our emergency services, the homelessness crisis, the issue of people being on trolleys, the issue of children who are homeless and the report from the Ombudsman for Children that lifts another lid on what is another stressful situation for the children involved as well as their carers.
We do not have a joined-up approach. The Ombudsman for Children report shows that each of the Government and State agencies did not know what the others were doing. No one knew the strategy of the others. We see this all the time at local level. The various Departments or agencies are working in slightly different silos and there is no joined-up approach.
There is also a major issue around the ideological basis on which the Government moves forward. If the Government decided to make it a priority to tackle and resolve the housing crisis, health crisis or any of these issues, then there would have to be a whole-of-government approach. There is no evidence of that. There is evidence of public relations and of a Government of Ireland approach, mar dhea, to these things. It is a matter of the substance, action and delivery that is required.
Reference was made to affordable housing. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Murphy, will be making an announcement on a new scheme and a revised scheme in the next days or weeks. That will come as welcome news to many people who do not qualify for social housing but who are unable to secure a mortgage because their income is higher than the social housing limit but lower than what is realistically required to get a mortgage. Details of the scheme will be announced shortly.
Deputies are right to raise the whole issue of affordable housing. When it comes to discourse in the House and public discourse the focus tends to be on homelessness and social housing because those issues are so important. However, we should not forget that the vast majority of people in the country provide their own housing and most people want to buy and own their own houses. We need to ensure that is possible for the vast majority of people. That requires measures such as the affordable housing scheme and ensuring that it is affordable to build houses. That is why new regulations are coming to reduce the cost of building apartment blocks. This will allow us to build more of them in our cities and towns and give people the opportunity to buy apartments and to get on the housing ladder again. Programmes like the local infrastructure housing activation fund use public money to provide services and access sites on which we can build houses.
It is important for parties to be aware that when it comes to NAMA we have an agreement and an understanding with the European Union on the role of NAMA. The understanding covers what is not and what is required to keep it off-balance-sheet. If Deputies were not aware, they should now be aware that any proposals to change the role or remit of NAMA, or to transform NAMA, following discussions with the European Commission could run into significant difficulties. Changing the remit of NAMA may force the agency to go on-balance-sheet or we could run into issues around state aid. If NAMA was competing with the private construction sector in the private rental market and the private housing construction market, that could constitute state aid. I am keen to ensure everyone is aware of that if they are developing policies for the future.
That was a Fine Gael proposal.
NAMA is already building social housing now.
I repeat that if NAMA were to get involved in the private rented sector or the private construction sector, that could constitute state aid. I want to make everyone aware of that as they develop policies in the coming months and years. Any such change could backfire badly on the State if suddenly NAMA was transformed into a body that was on-balance sheet or one that had to seek state aid approval to compete in the private housing and rental markets.
The Government has decided to do something different. We announced some months ago the establishment of home building finance Ireland. Provision for this is made in the new legislative programme on the A list. We anticipate bringing the legislation through the House in the coming months. That body will take the staff and expertise from NAMA and will be capitalised from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund. In many ways, it will do what Deputies are suggesting, that is to say, taking the expertise, knowledge and staff from NAMA as it is wound down. It will be capitalised from the State using ISIF and will be able to do certain things. However, Deputies should bear in mind my warning on what some people are suggesting about NAMA and how it could backfire badly on our State and community.
Healthy Ireland is very much a cross-government initiative. It is not simply an initiative of the Department of Health. It involves the Department of Education and Skills and what happens in schools. It involves the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as well. That is one of the reasons the strategic communications unit is assisting with Healthy Ireland. It is a cross-government initiative and involves many different Departments. It is a very positive initiative and I welcome the campaigns under way at present to encourage people to make small changes to their health which, in turn, can make such a major difference for them. Ireland now has more people who have given up smoking than those who are smokers. We are seeing some evidence of increase in physical activity. These campaigns are welcome.
By the way, the question was on joined-up government.
Where will we get the workers?
We are out of time.
A total of 2 million people are at work now.
We do not have enough working in construction. That is why we cannot build enough houses.
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the newly formed Cabinet Committee G, justice and equality. [52726/17]
6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if Cabinet Committee G, justice and equality, has been established; if it has met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [52881/17]
7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet Committee G, justice and equality, last met; and when it will next meet. [1839/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, together.
Cabinet Committee G was formally established by the Government last week and is scheduled to have its first meeting on Thursday. The Cabinet committee will provide political oversight of developments on justice and equality issues, including implementation of the Government's programme of reform for the justice sector as well as Government measures on gender equality.
Establishment of a dedicated Cabinet committee will allow for a dedicated focus on the substantial reform of the policing and justice systems that the Government is determined to achieve. This will build on the work already completed or under way, including the establishment of the Policing Authority, which is overseeing implementation of the existing Garda modernisation and renewal plan.
The Government expects to see further progress in the year ahead in areas such as civilianisation, a new divisional model of policing, improved information and communications technology, ICT, systems, and victim support services. The Government has also approved arrangements for a competition to recruit a new Garda Commissioner.
In addition, the Commission on the Future of Policing is due to report later this year and will no doubt make recommendations for further change. I intend that this committee will monitor its implementation. The committee will also ensure that further reforms are implemented in the Department of Justice and Equality and the Government will shortly finalise the terms of reference and membership of an independent change management group to follow through on this.
I expect that the committee will also consider reforms in other aspects of the justice system, and I have also indicated that it will pay particular attention to the Government's ambitious plans on gender equality and reform of the Judiciary, including the Judicial Council Bill 2017 and the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017, both of which are before the House.
Among the reform measures the Taoiseach has mentioned the most urgent goes back to the Toland report, the fundamental restructuring of the Department of Justice and Equality. It is important that the Taoiseach leads on this. What is his view? The Government's stated view is to have a division of functions within the existing Department, each reporting to a separate Secretary General whereas I think the strong view now is there should be two separate Departments. The Taoiseach said that the Constitution restricts us to having 15 Ministers but it does not restrict us to having 15 Departments of State. It is important to have a stand-alone Department, ideally with a stand-alone Minister for each but that might not be possible. We need to move fairly rapidly to that structural reform.
I am interested in the recruitment campaign the Taoiseach mentioned for the new Garda Commissioner. What salary scale has been approved by Cabinet for the new Garda Commissioner to be recruited?
I wrote to the Taoiseach in the past two weeks about the Kenneally case in Waterford and I have received an acknowledgement from him. I received a fuller reply from the Minister for Justice and Equality and thank him for that. I have been asked to ask the Taoiseach if he will agree to meet the victims of the convicted abuser Bill Kenneally.
It has been revealed that almost 50 additional boxes of files have been supplied in recent weeks to the Charleton tribunal. I know that is a result of the Taoiseach's directing that all relevant files be sent to the tribunal. I am sure, however, that he was surprised at the volume, and perhaps he was alarmed at revelations that some hearings of the tribunal had to be rescheduled because dozens of additional boxes were delivered from the Department of Justice and Equality. Does the Taoiseach acknowledge and accept that this reflects badly on the Department? It took his intervention as Taoiseach to get co-operation with this tribunal. Mr. Justice Charleton asked everyone to bring forward information to help him understand who did what, who said what when and in what terms and who communicated with whom, by whatever means. This is a vindication of those Deputies who persisted in challenging the narrative from the previous Minister for Justice and Equality that the tribunal was receiving full support. Will the Taoiseach share his view on that with us?
I have tabled parliamentary questions on the resourcing of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, and I am waiting for replies. It was very striking that Ms Justice Ring has been unable to bring a single protected disclosure investigation to a satisfactory conclusion because of chronic understaffing. This issue has affected and contaminated this Government as it did the last one. GSOC is saying it cannot bring a single protected disclosure investigation to a satisfactory conclusion because it does not have the staff. Ms Justice Ring has also called for GSOC to be independent of the Department of Justice and Equality, to be answerable to the Committee of Public Accounts and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. She said GSOC has failed people who came to it to make protected disclosures and has warned that without resources, it would not be able to meet its central objective of ensuring that all investigations are conducted effectively, efficiently and fairly.
We spoke earlier about a whole-of-government approach. Is this issue of lack of accountability, of scandal, of allegations and so on, not by ordinary citizens but affecting them, and of allegations discrediting those who come forward, not at the root of the discomfiture, cynicism and disillusionment with public affairs and politics? The sum is relatively small, €900,000. It costs much more to set up tribunals and investigations. Does the Taoiseach accept that GSOC needs this funding and does he accept that this is another serious example of mismanagement by the Department of Justice and Equality which undermines public confidence in our system of justice?
The Toland review is very pressing. Nothing has happened since 2014 on its fundamental recommendations vis-à-vis separation of units within the Department. Where are we in respect of that and the group that we discussed before Christmas to oversee implementation of the Toland report? When will the Government appoint the three individuals who will assist the incoming Secretary General to ensure the programme of reform for the Department is implemented?
Are there established protocols for political officeholders and those within State agencies and institutions, just as in An Garda Síochána, on the use of personal email addresses to communicate official policy or for official communications between officeholders? Unwittingly, people could circumvent freedom of information as a consequence of using two channels of communication on official and policy issues.
The separation of the Department from An Garda Síochána has not happened, notwithstanding the establishment of the Policing Authority. Has a review been undertaken in respect of the statutory remit of the Policing Authority and is the Government of a mind to revisit this? We suggested that it should be revisited in respect of the powers and the statutory nature of the Policing Authority and the relationship between An Garda Síochána, the Policing Authority and the Department, in respect of lines of demarcation and whether the authority has sufficient capacity and authority to deal comprehensively with the full range of issues.
I agree that the unprecedented articulation by the former judge, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring, on GSOC that despite the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 nothing has been done to give GSOC the capacity to follow through on protected disclosures is alarming. To an extent the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement has similar issues, which Deputy Howlin raised some time ago, in respect of the delay and procrastination in recruiting and providing it with sufficient staff to follow through on corporate crime in an effective and comprehensive way. All this illustrates the huge disconnect between the rhetoric and announcements and subsequent delivery on the ground.
The Toland report recommends that the Department of Justice and Equality have one Secretary General and be one Department but two divisions, each headed by a deputy Secretary General.
That is the proposal and the report has been accepted by the Government. Deputy Brendan Howlin rightly says it is possible to have two Secretaries General and two Departments under the one Cabinet Minister. That is what we have under the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. I have asked the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the head of the Civil Service, Mr. Martin Fraser, to examine this as a possibility. We have to advertise for a new Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality. If we are to go the whole hog and split it into two Departments, this would be the appropriate time to advertise for two Secretaries General, rather than one. That is being scoped out as an option. We must bear in mind, however, that it would be a deviation from the Toland report which recommended having a single Secretary General of a single Department, with two deputy Secretaries General heading up different divisions.
The Cabinet has not yet agreed a salary scale for the new Garda Commissioner. That issue has not yet been considered by the Cabinet.
On the Kenneally case, the Government is very keen to allow the commission of investigation to begin its work as soon as possible. We have no interest in delaying the commission's work. At the same time, we do not want to jeopardise potential future prosecutions. The Attorney General and the Minister for Justice and Equality are working on the issue and the Minister will meet the families as soon as he has some news. We are working towards a solution that will allow the commission to begin its work. It might not be able to do all of its work, but it would at least be able to commence it. The Minister for Justice and Equality certainly speaks for me and all of Government on these matters.
On the additional documents provided by the Department of Justice and Equality for the tribunal, I am not sure what their volume is. I have heard reports that the volume is great, but I do not know that for a fact. I directed the Department of Justice and Equality to provide all documents for the tribunal and in doing so asked it to err on the side of generosity. If the officials were unsure about whether a document fell within the terms of reference, I asked that they send it anyway. It may be the case that many of the additional documents handed over do not fall within the remit of the tribunal. We will see that matter play out in the coming weeks and months as the tribunal does its work.
The budget of GSOC for this year has been increased to just over €10 million, up from €9.6 million last year, or an increase of over €400,000. The number of staff was 77 in 2015 and 2016. This figure increased to 84 in 2017 and will rise to 94 in 2018. That is not rhetoric; they are the facts. Consideration is also being given to additional staffing for the new protected disclosures unit once it is up and running. GSOC is already being given a bigger budget and more staff and may need a bigger budget and more staff into the future. However, the Government has to be prudent. We always have to bear in mind that we are dealing with taxpayers' money. Every public body states it is understaffed. I have yet to come across a public body since the foundation of the State that has stated it has enough or too many staff. Public bodies always seek additional staff. We have a job as a Government and custodians of taxpayers' money to validate requests or bids for additional staff; to prioritise, given the fact that even with an expanding budget, budgets are limited; and also to understand what the outcomes would actually be for taxpayers and society.
On changing the role of the Policing Authority and the independence of GSOC, these matters are being considered by the commission on the future of policing, which will report this year. Rather than make changes now to the role and remit of the Policing Authority or to whom GSOC reports, it would be appropriate to allow the O'Toole commission to make its recommendations. When we have them, we can make decisions on policy changes.
I do not know if there is a protocol on the use of personal email accounts. If there is not, there probably should be. I will check to see what the position is.
Of course, there should be.