Leaders' Questions

I call Deputy Stephen Donnelly.

Is Deputy Calleary substituting for Stephen?

Bhí sé ansin.

Bhí. He grew some hair.

I join the Ceann Comhairle in welcoming our guests and wish them every success in their talks. If they know what is going on, they might let us know.

Yesterday the Taoiseach talked about being interested in the next generation and not the next election. The Tánaiste will excuse my scepticism about his remarks when one looks at today's newspapers; the heat must be getting to him in more ways than one. Nobody in this House would object to any plans for the next generation - we are discussing them here today - but we also have to think about the current generation and the pressures people are experiencing in their daily lives.

It is all very well to talk about the macro-investments in health and education being the highest in the OECD with €10 billion in education and €15 billion in health, but the reality on the ground is very different. Families and patients are being made wait longer than ever with more than 7,000 people on waiting lists. This day last week we discussed the 6,181 children on CAMHS waiting lists. Some 6,400 people are waiting for home support hours which have been approved, but they cannot get them. Waiting lists for assessments of need under the Disability Act are the longest ever in many counties and the number of consultant vacancies is at its highest ever. Approximately 450 approved consultant posts, 15% of the total in the country, cannot be filled on a permanent basis. Our acute hospitals and our mental health services are finding it impossible to recruit and retain the number of consultants required to provide services to the people on these waiting lists.

We spoke last week about Dr. Kieran Moore. I remind the Tánaiste again of his comments when he resigned as a CAMHS consultant in Wexford and Waterford. He said: "I am resigning from Wexford because it is untenable and unsafe. Two of my colleagues are doing the same." He went on to say: "Patients are coming into a building that is in a state because staff are burned out." He said that the mental health services required continual funding and it was also about "looking after the people who look after the patients."

Many of the consultant vacancies are being filled by agency posts at up to three times the salary being paid to new-entrant consultants. The cost for agency consultants specifically comes to more than €100 million a year. Consultants are retiring early, as Dr. Moore has, because of low morale, pressure on the service and their inability to give the best service to their patients. We need consultants to lead our health services and to deliver to people on waiting lists.

What is the Government doing to ensure these vacancies are filled? This is the time of year for turnaround in hospitals for consultants. How many hospitals will be left without consultant-led services and how many more people will join the 700,000 already on waiting lists on the Government's watch?

I thank the Deputy for raising those issues. The House has spent the past hour and a half talking about healthcare. Deputy Donnelly was here - Deputy Calleary is now filling in for him, according to the Ceann Comhairle - asking the relevant questions.

The Deputy asked what we are doing to recruit consultants. We have active recruitment campaigns both at home and abroad. We are increasing the number of training places to ensure that we can produce more homegrown consultants. There is a worldwide shortage of consultant psychologists and psychiatrists. We are actively competing to ensure that we fill vacant posts. I answered questions last week about the specific shortages of staff in the area of child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, particularly in the south east. There is real urgency in Government dealing with those recruitment challenges.

As the Taoiseach reminded the House this week, the challenges we face in healthcare are not solely financial. We are spending significantly more on healthcare than we have ever done, but certain areas are under pressure with waiting lists that are far too long, even though in many areas waiting lists are now shortening. We will continue to spend the resources we need to fill those gaps to provide a basic and good high-quality level of healthcare provision to people. In specific areas we have challenges in getting the skill sets that we need. We need to increase the training spaces in those areas to ensure we can fill those gaps domestically.

There is no sense in increasing training spaces when people do not want to remain in the service. They see people like Dr. Kieran Moore and many others resigning or retiring because of low morale. We need to start actively filling the 450 vacancies. While there is international competition for those positions, our pay structures for consultants and our backup for consultants are not at the races. There is no sense in having what the Tánaiste called "active recruitment campaigns" when we are not dealing with the issues. When prospective consultants look at working in Ireland, they look at the pressures we are under.

We need to address the waiting lists. It is unbelievable that in May we had more patients on trolleys than we had in November. I listened to the Tánaiste's response. We have a Cabinet of commentators on our health service. The Tánaiste and his colleagues are in charge. We need proactive and decisive action on this or we will have more people on waiting lists, more people on trolleys and more people suffering while the Tánaiste and his colleagues continue to commentate.

I understand that Dr. Kieran Moore did not have a waiting list and I compliment him on how he managed the challenges he faced.

His words were "untenable and unsafe".

He has expressed concerns over the service in the south east-----

A great man though.

-----and we are addressing those concerns directly.

We have no services.

On the broader challenges of recruitment, the State is limited in what it can offer in terms of salary levels and consultant contracts. We have consultant contracts that we believe to be appropriate. However, there is competition for consultants in certain specialist areas globally. We will need to continue to review how we get the numbers we need into the health system. I assure the Deputy that it is not because of a lack of finance, because that is available. It is a combination of targeted recruitment campaigns at home and abroad and increased training places in areas where there is a skill set shortage.

The Taoiseach is in Brussels today for a meeting of the European Council which was being heralded not so long ago as a massively important meeting for Brexit negotiations and the Irish question.

The Tánaiste stated in March that the summit is significant from an Irish perspective and the Taoiseach told us in April that he was optimistic progress could be achieved in June. We are all well aware that has not happened as a consequence of the prevarication of the British Government. There is, quite rightly, huge concern among people and businesses about this matter. There is massive worry right across Ireland, North and South, about the consequences of Brexit and the negative impact it will have on key sectors in the economy. The Tánaiste is well aware of those concerns.

As matters stand, the British position would impose a hard border on our island and would lead to the imposition of barriers in the context of east-west trade. It would also undermine and damage the Good Friday Agreement. Britain's negotiating position is to run down the clock, delay and delay again. Allowing some time for Theresa May to get her house in order might have been sensible for some time but now we are playing right into the hands of the British Government. We are told tomorrow's European Council statement will express concern that no substantial progress has been made on the backstop solution. Such a statement is meaningless if we are to turn a blind eye to the British negotiating side in these talks. Last December, we were informed by Government, with all the attendant fanfare, that we had a cast-iron guarantee. We were told that in the event of a no-deal scenario, there would be no border on the island of Ireland. We were told the backstop arrangement was our insurance policy and that it would come into play in the event of a hard Brexit. We in Sinn Féin supported the Government at the time despite the limitations of what was on offer in December last year. We did so because we want what is best for Ireland's interests. That means there is an onus on the Government to step up to the mark and not allow us to move into October without a resolution to the Irish issues. That means the EU negotiating strategy must be informed by Irish thinking. The Irish perspective needs to be at the centre of the table and needs to move things forward. If that requires a special European Council summit in September to deal with the issues relating to the Irish question, then so be it. We should be making that call because we need to initiate and lead. Will the Taoiseach make that call today and tomorrow? Will he be calling for a special summit in order to ensure that the issues relating to Ireland are dealt with before the October deadline?

I thank all parties in the House for the support they have given the Government. Politics in Ireland is remarkably different from politics in the United Kingdom on the issue of Brexit. The work the Government has been doing on behalf of everybody here has, by and large, been supported very strongly by all parties even though we come from different places on so many different issues. That has been hugely helpful. I hope we can keep that intact over the summer months when Ireland needs to hold its nerve in the negotiations and keep the pressure on to ensure we protect Irish interests and the interests of Irish people on this island. I assure the Deputy that is what we will do. I spend the vast majority of my time thinking about and acting in the context of my responsibilities on Brexit. I spent over an hour and a half this week with Michel Barnier talking through the detail of how we can approach the summer with a view to getting the results we need. I will be in London next Wednesday meeting a series of British Ministers to talk through the concerns and frustrations we have. Later today, I will take a phone call from a senior British Government Minister in that regard. I assure the Deputy it is an absolute priority for the Government. We have been frustrated and disappointed that the British Government has not delivered on the commitments it made to Ireland and the EU in December and March and in Prime Minister May's speeches, primarily the Mansion House speech. Over the summer months, the challenge will be to intensify those efforts to find a way of putting in place a legal text that can be part of a withdrawal treaty that will deliver on the cast-iron political commitments that have been made in writing, not only to Ireland but also to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and many others.

Most people understand why we have not made the kind of progress we would like to have made by now. We are listening to the ongoing political debate at Westminster. The British Government is essentially negotiating with itself. Until that process comes to a conclusion it is difficult to make significant progress on some of the key and difficult political issues in the discussions between the British negotiating team and the EU task force led by Michel Barnier. Our focus will remain on the negotiations and the technical detail that is required in terms of legal language to make sure that we will have a withdrawal agreement we can support. As Michel Barnier has been, let me be very clear: there will be no withdrawal treaty if there is no legally operable text on the so-called Irish backstop. It is a fundamental part of it. The commitments have been made by the British side as well as the EU side that it will be accommodated as part of that treaty. The treaty will not happen if that does not happen. The challenge for me and many others is to work with the British Government as much as we can to try to find a way to achieve that outcome and to show some imagination in terms of how we get there.

The backstop and the form it takes are crucial. To allow those negotiations only to be decided upon at the time when everything else is in the melting pot is the wrong strategy for this country. There are serious dangers in it. The best strategy the Brits could have hoped for is that these issues would have been all dealt with together. I have asked the Tánaiste a very simple question. They have missed the deadline. We expected serious progress. They are now intending to roll this into October. We need to take the initiative and inform European thinking. I am asking the Tánaiste to make it very clear on the Government's behalf that there needs to be another deadline set and another Council summit and that we will not allow this to roll into October.

The Tánaiste mentioned that the British Government is negotiating with itself and that this process needs to conclude. That process may never conclude. That is why we need to put firm deadlines in place. The Minister For Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, stated on radio this morning that contingency plans are made for all scenarios including Britain crashing out of the EU. When will the Government give certainty to people, commuters and businesses about what that means for the Border? We know there were contingency plans previously developed by the Revenue, which looked at checks. The Tánaiste mentioned that if there is regulatory non-alignment there will need to be checks. When can we bring some certainty to businesses that are deeply concerned about the likelihood of no backstop arrangement, which will mean no withdrawal agreement and Britain crashing out of the European Union?

For anyone who has been following the detail of what has been happening, suggesting that this is the best strategy for which the UK could have hoped does not make sense. What we have got is consistently conflicting messages from different British Government Ministers. This has made it very difficult to progress anything, including for Britain. No country needs an agreement before October more than Britain does. Ireland is second in line. The damage to the British economy of a crash-out, no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic. The fallout from that would also be very damaging for Ireland, which is why I do not believe we will have a no-deal Brexit. That is why the focus has to be where it should be which is in the negotiating room in Brussels between senior British negotiators and the Barnier task force to tease through the complexity of the issues they face. The British negotiating team needs direction from its political system to be able to do that. We will hopefully see that after the next important meeting in the UK, which will happen at Chequers on Friday, 6 July.

We have done an enormous amount of work on contingency. We deliberately have not been speaking about it publicly because we do not believe it advances some of the negotiating positions we want to maintain. We certainly do not want to create some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that contingency can solve the issues when it will be the negotiations, and the outcome thereof, that will solve them.

I welcome our young guests to the Gallery. Ireland has one of the world's most open economies but it also has one of the world's most open societies. One in eight people living in this country was not born here. Many vibrant cultures and ethnic communities make valuable contributions right across the island. Membership of the European Union has widened the horizons of many people in Ireland, not least students who take part in the ERASMUS programme. Membership of the EU is not just about enjoying the benefits, however, it is also about taking shared responsibility for our part of the world and pooling our efforts into common solutions for the problems we collectively face.

We have enjoyed EU-wide solidarity for Ireland's real concerns about Brexit and we have just heard about that again. Just last week, EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, reiterated in this House the community solidarity and support for Ireland. However, Brexit is not the only issue being discussed at the current European Council. In fact, it is sixth on the agenda. Migration will be the first issue to be discussed by the Heads of State in Brussels. Our European partners are seeking to develop a comprehensive approach to migration, asylum seeking and control of the EU's external borders.

The issue of migration should also be of concern to us. Many lives have been lost as desperate people seek to cross the Mediterranean, some fleeing war or abuse, others simply seeking a better life as many thousands of Irish people did for generations. Politically, we need to be at the heart of the EU when it comes to a humane response to these issues. I have previously called for a Marshall plan for Europe's neighbourhood, to develop the economies in countries surrounding us in the Middle East and Africa. In the short term, that would make the hazardous migration journeys less attractive and, in the long term, it would be in our interests in terms of expanding and growing trade. Meanwhile, we need to show leadership on migration, integration and asylum right here and now in Ireland. We cannot lecture others if we do not set things right here. Too many people have had their lives put on hold for years as they struggle with the administrative barriers to full naturalisation in Ireland. Given the scale of the migration crisis, it is time to take the action we need and to take it urgently.

I have two questions for the Tánaiste. Does the Government agree that it is now time for a once-off general amnesty to take the few thousand people in direct provision off what is, by common consensus, an ineffective and inhumane system and to allow them to regularise their lives and work in Ireland? Does the Government agree that we should do what we have spent years urging the United States Government to do for the undocumented Irish, which is to regularise the situation of undocumented migrants here in Ireland?

There were a lot of questions there.

There were only two.

Let us see if the Tánaiste can answer one of them.

Deputy Howlin also made a lot of comments. I am in very strong agreement with what he said regarding Africa in particular. I have been making a very similar case at EU Council Foreign Affairs meetings. The EU relationship with Africa needs to be the big new idea in the context of the future of Europe and its external policy. We are going to witness a population growth of about an extra 1 billion people on that continent in the next 25 to 30 years. Given the strains that Africa currently faces in the context of water security, food security, climate change, conflict, migration, political challenges and regional conflicts, the only way the EU can act responsibly is to dramatically increase its levels of ambition, politically as well as financially. We should partner with Africa, rather than see it as a charity case. Real, integrated partnership is the only way these issues will be solved in a manner that avoids a dramatic crisis in the future arising from the mass movement of people.

As for the issues being discussed today, there will be a lot of debate on trying to get a collective agreement on the EU approach to migration. I hope this will involve burden-sharing across the EU in order to ensure that Italy and other Mediterranean countries are not isolated and asked to carry an unfair share of the burden because of their geographic location. I hope it will involve generosity, adherence to international law and accepted international humanitarian standards. I hope it will also bring some predictability and order to how we collectively manage migration, which is clearly something of which many electorates in Europe are frightened. These things are not easy to overcome, particularly in light of the difference of approach and perspective in the countries of the European Union.

From an Irish perspective, we need to lead by example and, today, the Taoiseach will offer a significant increase in Irish funding for an EU central fund for Africa. He will provide more detail on the immediate assistance we are giving to Malta to accept 10% of the migrants on the ship currently there. We are changing our own domestic approach towards asylum and direct provision and we are now allowing people who have been waiting for asylum decisions for nine months to work. That means thousands of people will now be able to enter the workforce and that will be good for integration and well-being, as well as in a whole range of other areas.

The Deputy made a request for a once-off general amnesty but this would probably send out the wrong signal right now. We need to bring order, management and good systems that are fair to everybody in the context of asylum applications and that is what we should focus on.

I welcome the Tánaiste's views in respect of the big idea, that is, a major initiative for Europe's neighbourhood, particularly on a new Marshall plan for Africa. This is really good and we should be leading on the issue. We should also be willing to contribute significantly to it. Our moral authority to argue on any of these issues is greatly diminished as long as we have patently inadequate facilities for dealing with migrants into this country. I do not agree that it would send out the wrong signal - something I have heard on many occasions - to regularise the few thousand people involved. The number is, in comparison with what Spain, Italy, Greece or Malta is receiving, minuscule. It would end direct provision and deal with people expeditiously as they arrive from now on.

We should also regularise the undocumented, many of whom, or whose parents, we invited here. For example, the Mauritians who came to work here, or their children, should now be regularised. If our moral authority in asking the Americans to regularise the Irish undocumented is to have any force, we must do that.

We are giving leadership on the EU-Africa issue and hopefully in the autumn I will be visiting Africa with the German Minister. Germany has a very similar approach to Ireland on this issue and we need big countries and big economies to back this type of thinking if we are to fund any project addressing the neighbourhood relationship we are to have with that continent. A big part of the migration response needs to be how we invest in, and partner with, the source countries for many of the migrants who are looking to come to Europe at the moment.

I have a very liberal approach to migration generally. However, I also believe that we have to have systems which provide certainty-----

We do not have such a system. People have been waiting years for decisions.

-----as opposed to relying on amnesties. We need faster turnaround times for decisions and we need generosity, openness and transparency in terms of how those decisions are made. The signal we need to send to other European countries, and to the Irish people, is that we need a fair and generous system, that makes decisions quickly.

This weekend, the Pride parade, with the theme "We are Family" will take place in Dublin. The theme is apt when one considers how far we, as a country, have come with the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum. Ireland was the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by means of a popular vote.

Although it can seem like Ireland is becoming a fully inclusive and open society, if one looks more closely, there remain systemic inequalities, particularly for the LGBTQI community. This is because three years after the passing of the marriage equality referendum, Parts 2, 3 and, crucially, 9 of the Child and Family Relationships Act still have not been commenced, despite promises and commitments from the Government to do so. Last week, the Taoiseach himself promised it would be done before the end of this Dáil term.

The Child and Family Relationships Act 2015 was to provide vital legal recognition and rights for same-sex couples with children but it has fallen short due to the lack of commencement of those provisions. It is astonishing that same-sex couples are still unable to register the name of one partner or spouse on their child's birth certificate. That can have a huge impact on parental rights. As a result of this Government's inaction, hundreds of families are being left in vulnerable situations, including children, while parents are not granted full parental rights. Many are unable to obtain passports for their children or are left in limbo without the same rights or protections afforded to other families.

When will the Government fully recognise the diverse range of families in Ireland and protect them equally? I welcome the recent announcement by the Minister for Health that he is bringing in legislation seeking to commence Parts 2 and 3 of the Child and Family Relationships Act. The Government is falling short again, however, by not also commencing Part 9, which is required alongside Parts 2 and 3 as it deals with the registration of birth amendments to the Civil Registration Act. It will allow for Parts 2 and 3 to facilitate retrospective declarations of parentage. To register the birth of a child, Part 9 will need to be commenced as well. When will the amendment Bill be progressed through the House, as a matter of urgency and is it envisaged it will before the recess? Will Part 9 also be commenced alongside Parts 2 and 3 and will a timeline be provided for this to happen?

I know Dublin Pride is happening this weekend. I expect in this weather that it will be a great celebration, as well as a great party, full of colour and with many families. Every year the Pride parades, in Dublin, Cork or elsewhere, involve more children and that is to be welcomed and supported. Turning to the specifics of the questions Deputy Pringle raised on legal official recognition of same-sex parent families, there should not be any doubt in anybody's mind of the commitment of the Taoiseach or the Government to this issue. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has confirmed that he wants to commence Parts 2 and 3 as soon as he can.

I am not familiar with each individual provision that the Deputy outlined, Parts 2, 3 and 9, but I will come back to him with a more detailed answer. I assure Deputy Pringle that this Government is looking to bring legal certainty to this issue as soon as we can but we have to go through the appropriate procedures to make sure that legislation is introduced properly. It is a priority. The kind of social reform we have seen happen in Ireland over the past five years is something we intend to continue and provide legal certainty around, and that goes for this issue, like many others.

That is the point; it is not enough to just do the headline issues as these are the actions that need to happen for them to have real meaning. The Tánaiste is right when he says that many families will be celebrating this weekend at Pride. It will, however, be empty unless they can see these actions will take place. It is a mundane part of the recognition for them. Perhaps the Tánaiste could ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, about Part 9 because it is her Department that will enact it. Will that happen along with Parts 2 and 3? It is vital that they all happen together because Parts 2 and 3 on their own will not do enough to deal with the issues that same-sex couples have. For this to mean more than just a celebration, we must see practical actions and I ask the Tánaiste to make sure that happens.

Those are fair questions and I will come back to Deputy Pringle with a detailed answer because I do not want to give an off-the-cuff response to a detailed provision of a broader item of amending legislation. I will say directly to people listening outside of this House and to same-sex couples looking forward to having their family unit fully and properly recognised in law, that legislation is on the way. We will follow through on the expectations of same-sex couples and on the promises made. On the detailed provisions of the Bill, I would like to come back with a fully informed response, rather than giving a half-baked answer on the hoof. As I said, to the many people listening to the response to this question, any timelines that have delayed the implementation and the commencement of elements of this legislation are not because there is a policy problem with the Government. It is quite the opposite. It is clear that it is because we need to get this right legally and we need to be able to implement it in a timely manner.