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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Vol. 969 No. 8

Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)

Programme for Government Implementation

Brendan Howlin


1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the status of the implementation of A Programme for a Partnership Government. [21242/18]

Mary Lou McDonald


2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of measures in A Programme for a Partnership Government. [21282/18]

Joan Burton


3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the status of the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government on political reform. [21443/18]

Michael Moynihan


4. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government regarding increasing the role of Ministers of State; and the progress on same. [23436/18]

Pat Deering


5. Deputy Pat Deering asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of A Programme for a Partnership Government. [23578/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett


6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the status of the implementation of A Programme for a Partnership Government. [23579/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

The Government recently approved its second Programme for a Partnership Government annual report which provides a comprehensive update on progress since May 2017. The report will be laid before the Oireachtas in the near future. It highlights progress on the specific plans put in place to tackle issues, in the short and longer terms, in the areas of housing, homelessness, education, rural and regional development, job creation, broadband, agriculture and climate action. It also underlines the emphasis this Government has placed on ensuring that everyone benefits from the strong economic recovery. Budget 2018 reduced the tax burden on low to middle income earners and weekly social welfare benefits and pensions were increased by €5 for the second year in a row. Funding has been prioritised to increase front-line posts, providing more teachers, nurses, gardaí and Defence Forces personnel. These are measures that benefit everyone in our society.

It also demonstrates that the Government that is looking ahead and planning for Ireland's future. This is reflected in the significant work undertaken in the past year to ensure an effective whole-of-Government approach to planning for Brexit and maintaining Ireland's position in the associated negotiations. The economy performed strongly in 2017 and job creation was widespread across the country. Incomes have risen by approximately 2.5% quarter on quarter, income inequality is reducing and poverty and deprivation rates are falling. The Government has a set of priorities and actions aimed to protect our economy and jobs from the implications of Brexit. The report acknowledges that despite many measures having been implemented, much remains to be done to bring about further improvements in the areas of housing and health. The Government is resolute in its determination to deliver results for its citizens in all of these areas. This is why investing in housing and health feature strongly in Project Ireland 2040, the ten year, €116 billion investment plan. Despite our best efforts, we do not yet have a health service that current levels of spending should provide. Guided by the Sláintecare report and the recently published health service capacity review, the Government will shortly publish our implementation programme for the future development of Irish health services. This programme will complement the €11 billion infrastructure investment in healthcare set out in Project Ireland 2040, ring-fenced for new buildings, equipment and investment in ICT.

The report also highlights the many areas of progress on political reform, including new arrangements in the Oireachtas dealing with weekly business, Private Members' Bills, the new Parliamentary Budget Office and my recent meeting with the Chairs of Oireachtas committees, underlining the new collaborative model.

Ministers will continue to play a central role in getting things done across various Departments, both in carrying out the statutory functions assigned to them and other work assigned to them under the programme for Government.

Two years on, this Government is on the right track and will continue with its ambitious programme over the next three years to invest in and care for its people and to lay the foundations for Ireland's future progress.

The Taoiseach referred to two areas on which I wish to ask questions, the primary one being housing. He referred to the budget and spending on housing. Could I ask him specifically about spending on social and affordable housing, and not allowing publicly owned land to be sold or used for private profit? Most house prices are now out of the affordability range for people, in particular in cities, especially Dublin. Will the Taoiseach give us an undertaking that there will be a substantial amount of funding for social and affordable housing and that we will not use public sites for other purposes?

If I am permitted to ask a second question I will ask one about education.

There are references in the programme for Government to increase diversity in education. The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill is in the House at the moment. Will the Taoiseach consider reconvening the Citizens' Assembly to deal with diversity in the education system and in particular the fact that patronage is so much controlled by one church, namely, the Catholic Church?

The Taoiseach mentioned the Project Ireland 2040 plan. He regularly refers to it as one of the policies that form the centrepiece of his Administration. Why was Rosslare Europort omitted from that strategic plan? That seems extraordinary given the threatened disruption posed by Brexit. The port is significant and important in any event but it will take on an additional strategic significance not just for the region but potentially for the entire island. Will the Taoiseach explain the omission to me? Will he also address issues around the provision of fibre broadband, in particular in Wexford, but also more generally?

In respect of the implementation of the partnership programme, what is the status of the Taoiseach's discussions with his partner in Government, Deputy Micheál Martin, in respect of prolonging this happy arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil? Are we to expect that there will be another lease of life in this partnership Government or are we looking at a scenario whereby, come the autumn, the Taoiseach will call it a day?

In fairness, the most recent lease of life given to the Fine Gael component in government was given by Sinn Féin when it strengthened the Fine Gael Party in Seanad Éireann in the recent election. That is a concrete demonstration of the underlying direction of the Sinn Féin Party in recent times as opposed to the rhetoric we might hear from time to time.

In terms of the programme for Government, in the past seven years Fine Gael's handling of health policy has been appalling and has compounded an already difficult situation, in particular in the absence of any proper governance following the removal of the HSE board. Various service level commitments were given in the programme for Government on accident and emergency departments, for example, but we now know that overcrowding in such departments is at historic proportions. That is despite the fact that there is a specific promise in the programme for Government to reduce overcrowding in accident and emergency departments.

There have been significant failures in the mental health area in terms of meeting the targets in the programme for Government and building further capacity in child and adolescent mental health services. Many children throughout the country, in particular in the south, are waiting extraordinary periods to access vital services that are needed for young teenagers who are at risk of suicide and who have very challenging mental health issues. The three commitments on page 66 of the programme for Government are simply not being met in respect of mental health.

I could speak about homelessness.

I thank the Deputy.

May I make one final point?

The Government has not been good enough in terms of Oireachtas reform. Will the Taoiseach take the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to one side and say we have all agreed that proper status should be given to the various entities that have been established such as the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser and the Parliamentary Budget Office? We need high status individuals to come into those offices and not have them pegged at unrealistic levels by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

It is amazing that it is more than two years since the Government was formed. Many people inside this House and outside it did not think it would last even six months. It is important to point out that the party on this side of the House took responsibility in forming the Government while others were prepared to sit on the fence and contribute to negativity on an ongoing basis.

The Taoiseach in his contribution referred to job creation. One of the good news stories in recent years has been the recovery in the economy and the number of jobs that have been created. It is very important that everybody has an opportunity to go to work and be able to provide for him or herself and his or her family. The target in the programme for Government was 200,000 jobs to be created by 2020, with 135,000 of those jobs to be created outside the Dublin area. I come from the south east, specifically Carlow, which is an area that suffered and is still lagging behind. While recent figures have been encouraging, many people who got jobs in recent times had to leave the area to find employment. The promotion of a technological university for the south east has been promoted as a key driver in recent years. It has been part of the programme for Government since 2011 and we have had numerous false dawns in regard to it. The legislation was passed in recent months. It is now time to see tangible evidence of what will be provided in that regard.

As fascinating as electoral speculation is, most people in the country are concerned with the capacity of Members to deliver on the issues that matter to them. I have a word of advice for all who are speculating. While I would be happy enough to have an election, nobody will be thanked for bringing about an election prompted by considerations of political advantage rather than clear-cut issues and policy-based platforms.

One of the key issues people want to see resolved, which the Government promised it would resolve and on which it would be tested, is housing. Mel Reynolds, the housing analyst and architect, said today that essentially the figures for the delivery of public housing are being massaged. He said the actual number of direct builds is half of what was claimed, which was already an abysmally low figure. The Taoiseach needs to respond to that. The official housing waiting list is 86,000 but when those on schemes such as the housing assistance payment, HAP, and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, which are not secure forms of housing, are added to the figure, the number increases to 144,000.

I could not get there today but 12 rapid build houses that took two and a half years to be built in Dún Laoghaire on a site called George's Place, were opened today. The families who move into them will be very happy but what is frustrating is that People Before Profit started a campaign prior to the previous development plan for the site to be fully developed for social and affordable housing. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil voted consistently against its development as a public site because the council wanted to sell off part of it. Even now, only a fraction of the site is being used for the development of public housing because I think the council still wants to sell off parts of it rather than build public housing.

The Deputy should conclude.

We need a clear commitment, as called for by Mr. Mel Reynolds, that public land will be utilised for public housing.

The programme for Government should focus on the future. I will be seeking the Taoiseach's support over the next six months on the issue of climate change. The Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment will be considering the Citizens' Assembly report on climate change. I hope the committee's recommendation will be that we set up a short-term committee which will sit until the end of the year to determine how the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly could be implemented within the framework of the new energy and climate plan that we must prepare for the European Union, the first draft of which must be submitted by the end of the year. The committee would exclusively deal with how the State works. It would not bring in outsiders but would concentrate on bringing in the Secretaries General of key Departments to outline the measures the Government intends to take to raise our game on this issue. I am just flagging this for the Taoiseach now and hoping that he might support it. I hope the proposal will be presented to the House in the coming weeks. It is one of the ways we can co-ordinate the work of this Dáil with the programme for Government in a manner which I hope is beneficial.

I suggest that the Taoiseach takes five minutes to answer these questions. We can take some time from the next slot.

Yes. I have housing, education, Rosslare, the coalition, health, employment in the south east and climate change on my list so even with five minutes, it will be hard to do justice to all of the important questions that have been asked but I will do my best.

On affordable housing, I do not have a specific figure. What we usually do in the context of affordable housing is not so much to provide public money but public land on which affordable housing can be developed. The intention is to use public land for housing but not just for affordable, council or private housing, but a mix of both public and private in the interests of creating integrated communities. Some people would like us to go back to previous policies of building very large council-only housing estates similar to Ballymun, Jobstown or Wellview in my own constituency but I do not agree with that approach. It is better to have integrated communities which is why we will use public lands for mixed developments of private, public and affordable housing.

In terms of social housing, €6 billion has been allocated in Project Ireland 2040. We managed to increase the social housing stock by 7,000 last year. I acknowledge that this was done in lots of different ways. In some instances, local authorities built housing directly while in other cases they bought housing from developers or acquired it through Part V. In some cases, local authorities increased their stock through affordable housing bodies like Clúid Housing and the Iveagh Trust. As Deputies know, the latter has provided public housing in this city for decades. The social housing stock was also increased through the use of long-term leases. There are lots of ways in which we can expand our social housing stock. There is a very active but academic debate about statistics ongoing and I know that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and Deputy Ó Broin love to debate those statistics. I have met and handed over keys to people in my own constituency in places like Waterville, where the council bought houses from a developer, Hansfield, where the council went into partnership with a developer, and Wellview, where the council built houses on its own land and none of the people taking those keys or living in those houses was terribly concerned about what mechanism was used to acquire that social housing. The people just wanted to live in a property that was owned by the council or, at the very least, leased by it on a very long-term basis and they wanted secure tenancy. I saw joy on the faces of people who had been in insecure tenancies or had been living in hotels who were moving into council owned or council leased house with secure tenancy. We can tie ourselves up in knots having very academic arguments about the exact mechanism used to expand our social housing stock but the most important thing is that it happens.

It is not happening.

If that involves a combination of measures, including direct build, affordable housing bodies like the Iveagh Trust, acquisitions under Part V, long-term leases or direct purchase from developers, so be it. That is the best way to do it quickly. We managed to add 7,000 units to our social housing stock last year. I understand that Deputy Ó Broin disputes that and says the total is 6,300. I will not argue over the difference between 6,300 and 7,000 because either way it is a big increase on the previous year's total. We will increase it by even more next year, with the aim of getting to about 10,000 or 11,000 units per year so that roughly 20% of all new homes built in the country in any given year will be publicly owned. That is the space in which we need to be.

In terms of education, I answered a question on the Citizens' Assembly yesterday but I want to restate the Government's commitment to greater diversity in education. We spoke a lot about choice and the right to choose in recent weeks. I also believe in the right to choice when it comes to education. Some people will want a Catholic or Protestant education while others will want to send their children to a Gaelscoil, a Gaelcholáiste, an Educate Together school or to one of the many other types of school that exist. While it is not always possible to give everyone his or her first choice, we should try to provide for choice and diversity in education. We recognise that there are more Catholic run or owned schools than are justified given the changes in our population. We now need to see more schools that are not under Catholic patronage. This is very much underlined in the Government's commitment to providing 300 to 400 additional multi-denominational and Educate Together schools in the years ahead. It is also underlined in our commitment to surveying parents on the type of school they want when a new school is being built. In my constituency, parents in Tyrrelstown decided that they wanted to have a Catholic secondary school and the Le Chéile school has now been built. It is a beautiful school and is doing really well. In other parts of my constituency, parents decided that they wanted an Educate Together secondary school. That has now been built and is also doing really well.

We must move on to the next group of questions.

Freedom of Information Requests

Joan Burton


7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests his Department has received to date in 2018. [21442/18]

Mary Lou McDonald


8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department to date in 2018. [23290/18]

Brendan Howlin


9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of freedom of information requests his Department has received to date in 2018. [23582/18]

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, together.

To the end of April this year my Department received 206 freedom of information, FOI, requests. Of these, 121 were granted or part granted, 12 were refused and no records were held in relation to 25 requests. Six requests were withdrawn or handled outside FOI, one request was transferred to another public sector body and 41 requests were ongoing at the end of April. There has been a significant increase in the number of FOI requests received in my Department since the new Freedom of Information Act came into operation in 2014. In 2013, my Department received 92 requests while this figure rose to 290 in 2015 and to 344 in 2017. This represented an increase of 374% over 2013 and the upward trend is continuing this year.

The majority of requests submitted to my Department are non-personal requests and come from the media. All requests received in my Department are processed by designated officials in accordance with the FOI Acts. If a requester is not satisfied with an FOI decision, he or she can seek an internal review followed by appeal to the Information Commissioner. The FOI statutory framework keeps the decision-making process at arm's length from the political head of the Department. I have no role in the decision-making process for requests received in my Department nor do I see copies of decision letters issuing.

There are two members of staff working in the Department’s FOI unit, both of whom perform other duties. Staff from across the Department are also involved in processing requests in addition to their routine duties, for example, in relation to searching and retrieving records and making decisions on requests received. At times detailed and complex FOI requests are received which involve significant time and resource implications for the staff involved.

Section 8 of the Freedom of Information Act 2014 requires each FOI body to prepare and publish a publication scheme. My Department's scheme is published on its website and sets out a range of information about the type of records it holds. My Department also publishes a range of information on a quarterly basis on its website. This includes details of foreign travel expenses, details of invoices paid in excess of €20,000, minutes of the Department’s management advisory committee meetings and a log of non-personal FOI requests.

Who makes the decisions on when to release information on foot of FOI requests? I ask this because on Friday evening last, while the country was voting in an historic referendum, the Taoiseach's Department released a long delayed batch of records for which journalists had been waiting for some time. These records related to the strategic communications unit advertorial controversy which the Taoiseach may recall. Was there a specific reason for choosing Friday evening? Was this an effort to bury the bad news over the weekend? Separately, is the Taoiseach concerned about how long it is taking sometimes to release records.

One of the controversies of note in recent months has been the operation of the strategic communications unit in the Taoiseach's Department, as Deputy O'Sullivan has just noted.

It was noticeable that the Department chose last Friday evening to release a number of documents under freedom of information that had been requested by many journalists for several weeks. Was it entirely coincidental that they were released on the day of the referendum? Was Friday chosen as the release date for these documents because of the inevitable distraction of the media focus on the referendum? Is it the case that the spin unit might be gone, but the spin is continuing?

The documents that were released show that a so-called sentiment analysis was carried out by PHD Media to ascertain the perceptions of those who interacted with online advertisements about Project Ireland 2040. It appears that PHD Media planned to track online users who engaged with Project Ireland 2040 content so that they could be targeted for future campaigns. It was also planned to use the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste in future advertisements. Surely the Taoiseach will accept that this blatant politicisation of Government communications flies in the face of his previous remarks on this issue. We are glad that the strategic communications unit has been scrapped, but there are still questions to be answered. Does the Taoiseach accept that the strategic communications unit was a political operation? Does he accept that it was an inappropriate vehicle for him and his Ministers to influence the media and, by virtue of that, the citizens of the State?

The reason the Department of the Taoiseach was swamped with freedom of information requests about the strategic communications unit was that the information was withheld for quite some time. Media inquiries, Dáil questions and letters to senior officials failed to secure the necessary information. Considerable time and expense was required to obtain information which should have been made available more freely. The Taoiseach should not stand over the extraordinary cynicism of releasing a dump on documents on the day of an historic referendum. The documents sought under freedom of information were released at 5.38 p.m. last Friday.

I remind the Taoiseach that his predecessor confirmed previously that while decisions on what to release are taken by officials, it is regular practice for the Taoiseach's political and communications staff to know in advance about potentially controversial releases. Which members of the Taoiseach's staff were aware of the timing of this release? Why did they do nothing to ensure the information was not buried on a busy news day? We know that ministerial advisers in Britain have been obliged to resign over the years as a result of this kind of behaviour. Will the Taoiseach admit that this should not have happened? Will he give a commitment that it will not be allowed to happen again? It falls entirely within his remit in the Department to instruct that no action should be taken which might be construed as trying to reduce coverage.

I know the Taoiseach sees himself as a victim in this issue. He believes his commitment to modern communications has suffered at the hands of a sinister opposition. What has been revealed, and particularly what has been alluded to by Deputy McDonald, confirms that blatant politicisation was involved in this entire exercise. It was an abuse of taxpayers' money for a political project.

No single person in the Department of the Taoiseach makes all decisions on freedom of information requests that are received. When such requests are received, they are assigned to the relevant section of the Department. Staff deal with requests in addition to their normal duties. The functions of general examination and primary decision-making have been delegated to assistant principal officers and a few higher executive officers in specialist areas. The function of internal review has been delegated to officials not below the grade of principal officer. All requests that are received are monitored by the Department's freedom of information liaison officer.

On the specific question of whether responsibility for requests lies with me or with my officials, section 20 of the Freedom of Information Act 1997 provides for the delegation from a Minister to his or her officials of functions relating to the processing of freedom of information requests. While there is no formal delegation order under section 20, the long-standing practice adopted by the Department and by successive taoisigh, including me, is that the political head of the Department has no role in processing freedom of information requests or determining the timing of the release of information on foot of such requests. When freedom of information requests are received in the Department, the functions of general examination and primary decision-making are delegated to assistant principal officers and a few higher executive officers in specialist areas. As I mentioned earlier, the function of internal review has been delegated to officials not below principal officer grade. All requests are monitored by the Department's freedom of information liaison officer.

I have been asked about the most recent release of documents relating to the strategic communications unit. As Deputies will be aware, there have been a number of freedom of information requests and releases. I have not seen or reviewed the documents in question, but I have seen the online coverage of their release from The Irish Times. Its report confirmed that the director of the unit, John Concannon, insisted that all Project Ireland 2040 advertorials should be clearly marked as being from the Government of Ireland. Having read that story, I formed the opposite view from that of the Deputies. If I had been given a say in the matter, I would have had these documents released on a slow news day so that they would have received more coverage.

If the report in The Irish Times is correct, the documents in question provide further confirmation that many of the allegations made by Deputies against the strategic communications were false. It is regrettable that I have yet to hear any of the false allegations being withdrawn by the Deputies in question. False allegations were made in respect of regional newspapers. It was suggested that the strategic communications unit leaned on the editors of certain publications in some way to ensure prospective candidates were included in advertorials. We know from the report that was compiled by assistant secretary Ms Canavan, and from documents that have been provided by newspaper editors that this was not the case and that these decisions were made by the editors themselves. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear any of these false allegations being withdrawn by the Deputies who made them. I would welcome the withdrawal of some of the allegations. It has also been alleged that the Civil Service code or the public sector standards code may have been breached. We know from the Canavan report that such breaches did not happen. Rather than being precious about this - I certainly do not feel like a victim in this regard - I am asking the Deputies who made the false allegations that have been refuted in the Canavan report or in documents released under freedom of information to go back over the various allegations they made and have the decency to withdraw those that were false.

Is the Taoiseach serious?

We need to move on to Question No. 10.

Will the Taoiseach answer the question I asked? Who knew about the timing of the release of these documents?

I do not know who knew. I did not know. I honestly do not know who knew. I guarantee the Deputy that I was much too busy with the referendum.

Did the Taoiseach's adviser know?

Possibly, but not to my knowledge. We were all pretty busy with the referendum, as the Deputy can imagine.

Agreements with Members

Micheál Martin


10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has specific deals or arrangements with Independent Deputies. [21487/18]

Mary Lou McDonald


11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he has specific deals or arrangements for support with Independent Deputies. [23291/18]

Micheál Martin


12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if the deals being done with Independent Deputies or other Deputies are being updated; and if there have been additions or new commitments regarding same. [23441/18]

Brendan Howlin


13. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he has specific deals or arrangements with Independent Deputies. [23584/18]

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 10 to 13, inclusive, together.

There are no understandings of the nature suggested by the questions with any particular Independent Deputies. A Programme for a Partnership Government sets out the agreement between the party groups and the Deputies who are participating in or supporting the Government.

Government deals with Independent Deputies in return for support have been a feature of political life in Ireland for 36 years. The assignment of a small number of officials to facilitate such arrangements is a long-established practice. The refusal of this Government, however, not only to provide details of what exactly it has promised in return for support but also to clarify who is supporting it is unprecedented.

Deputy Lowry has toured County Tipperary telling people he has an arrangement with the Government. There is evidence that he has privileged access to Ministers. The Dáil record shows that Deputy Lowry is one of the Government's most reliable supporters in votes. In recent weeks, he has sided with the Government in votes on matters like fisheries, affordable housing, judicial appointments and data protection. It appears that Deputy Lowry has a much higher rate of attendance for votes than he previously had, although this needs to be confirmed. Is there a relationship between the Government and Deputy Lowry? It is clear from the Deputy's constituency that he is of the view that he has a relationship with the Government. The Taoiseach has filibustered when answering questions on this matter to avoid giving a direct response to a simple question. Will the Taoiseach explain the arrangement he has made with Deputy Lowry? All the evidence confirms that there is such an arrangement.

Deputy Canney has left his group after falling out with the other members of it on the issue of the coin toss that was used to determine who would serve as Minister of State. He has said he is still supporting the Government. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether any special deals or arrangements have been agreed with Deputy Canney?

Earlier this month there was a very well publicised disagreement within the Independent Alliance which resulted in Teachta Seán Canney's resignation from the alliance and as Government deputy Whip. It seemed to have been the culmination of a few weeks of disagreement over the position of Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works. Following a meeting with the Taoiseach, Teachta Seán Canney said he would continue to support the Government on budgetary and confidence issues. I would like to know if the Taoiseach has in place any form of deal with Teachta Seán Canney. I am curious to know whether assurances were provided for him in return for his continued support for the Government.

On another matter, I wonder if the Taoiseach will inform the Dáil whether he and the leader of Fianna Fáil have discussed the impending review of the confidence and supply deal. The two Deputies have taken contrary views on when that should happen, but given that the budget is only a matter of months away, it would be useful for the Taoiseach to inform us of his current thinking on the matter. While it might be a private conversation and arrangement between the two Deputies, it is also a matter of public concern. There ought to be a clear articulation of their positions and the interaction they have had.

As I have informed the House before, there are no written or formal agreements with Independents. There is a commitment in the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil to publish any written agreement. As there are no written agreements, there is, therefore, none to be published. I noted Deputy Micheál Martin's remark about precedents which I do not think are quite correct. I recall that the Deputy was a Minister in a Government that had written agreements with Independent Deputies but which did not publish them on the basis that they were not agreements with the Government but with Fianna Fáil and, therefore, did not need to be published or released under freedom of information legislation. I assure the Deputy that there is no private or secret written agreement with me in my capacity as leader of Fine Gael that I am somehow concealing in the way Fianna Fáil did in the past. There is no written agreement with the Government or Fine Gael. If there were a written agreement, I would, of course, publish it.

I did not mention the phrase "written agreement". I asked if a deal had been done.

The Deputy referred to something as being unprecedented. The precedent was a very strange one - a private written agreement between a Fianna Fáil-led Government and Independent Deputies which was not published or released under FOI legislation on the basis that it was an agreement with Fianna Fáil, not the Government. I assure the Ceann Comhairle that I would not engage in that sort of skullduggery. There is no such agreement of either nature. While there is no agreement or special deal with Deputy Michael Lowry or Deputy Seán Canney, they do support the programme for Government which they believe benefits the country and their constituencies. They generally vote with the Government, although they do not always vote in all divisions. They do, of course, have access to the Government in the same way all Independent Deputies who support it do. That means that they are able to raise queries and issues, often related to their constituencies, on which we try to assist.

Therefore, there is a deal.

That does not constitute a deal.

Of course, it does.

Often for one reason or another, it is not possible to assist, but if it is, we certainly try to do so. In many ways, that courtesy is often extended to Independent Members who do not support the Government. If we can provide them with assistance, we do. Even members of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin come to the Government to raise particular issues. On the confidence and supply-----

I said it was unprecedented in respect of who was giving the Government support. I asked for clarity on who was supporting the Government.

I understand Deputy Michael Lowry also supported a Fianna Fáil-led Government in the past.

I only found out about Deputy Michael Harty last week in terms of his role as a conduit for the Rural Alliance.

May we hear the Taoiseach's response, please?

The confidence and supply agreement states it will be up for review at the end of 2018. We are in the middle of 2018, not quite at the end of it, but that date is approaching and not very far away. There has not been any discussion on renewing it, although I have expressed my opinion that, as is the case with any agreement, it should not just drop dead one day. If it to be extended, it should be extended in advance, in the same way as we would renew in advance a contract or pay agreement, for example. Governments cannot operate if they are on borrowed time. We are only in the middle of 2018 and my focus is not yet on elections or renewing the agreement. It is very much on the business of the Government, keeping the economy on track, creating jobs, preparing for Brexit and the negotiations related to it, as well as trying to make progress in health, housing and so many other areas.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.