Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Joan Burton

Question:

1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A (economy) last met. [26519/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A (economy) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [27580/18]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A (economy) last met; and when it plans to next meet. [27721/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A (economy) last met. [29395/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

Cabinet committee A held its first meeting on 12 September 2017. The committee covers issues related to the economy, jobs, the labour market, competitiveness, productivity, trade, the action plan for rural development and the digital economy and pensions. There has been significant progress on these issues this year to date, including publication of the roadmap for pension reform, publication of the Action Plan for Jobs 2018 and the review of Enterprise 2025, the Government's medium-term enterprise policy.

The last meeting of the Cabinet committee took place on 18 January and the next meeting is scheduled for 9 July.

I am particularly delighted by the very significant continuing fall in the unemployment rate, which is currently at approximately 5%. However, between 11% and 12% of young people under 25 are unemployed at a time when IBEC has stated that there are 80,000 skills shortages, in particular in the construction industry. This reminds me of the period when Bertie Ahern and Mary Harney were in Government and went around the world advertising for skilled people to come to Ireland while a significant number of Irish people at home lacked the skills to be able to take up those jobs. Does the Taoiseach plan to leave a key group of young Irish people sitting at home while Ireland again sends recruiters around the world to entice people here? That seems to be the Government approach.

I do not know if the Taoiseach would be shocked or concerned to discover that there are significantly more than 700 unemployed young people in the constituency which he and I represent. In the neighbouring constituency of Dublin Central the figure is far higher. I am concerned that the Government has forgotten about people in areas such as Dublin West and Dublin Central who could find training that they would enjoy and prosper from but cannot do so because of the cap on further education places. The Government considers skills something to be sourced from abroad rather than developed in our own young people who would go on to get traineeships or apprenticeships, go to college and become completely independent in terms of employment and income for themselves and their families, should they have a family.

I share Deputy Burton's concerns in regard to skills development and valuable pathways for people, younger people in particular, to acquire the skills they need and which are also needed by the economy at this time.

I welcome the fact that the living wage technical group has recommended a 20 cent increase in the living wage. I note that recommendation is largely due to price inflation in housing and accommodation. It is past time that the Civil Service and public sector, as leaders in good employment practices, ensured that each of their employees earns at least the living wage.

I also wish to raise the issue of the gender pay gap, which remains one of the most stark and persistent reminders of the continued inequality faced by women in the State. The programme for Government committed to addressing the issue but progress in that regard has been painstakingly slow. The latest statistics show that the problem is getting worse. Recent figures from the Central Statistics Office indicate that, on average, women are paid 14% less than men compared with a 12% difference in 2012. That deterioration and discrepancy is unacceptable. It sends a clear message that the work done by women is somehow less valuable and less valued than that done by their male counterparts and that must be tackled head on. As the Taoiseach is aware, women play as vital a role as men in our workplaces but that is not reflected in their pay or position in the labour market. It makes a joke of the concept of equal pay for work of equal value which has been a central tenet of domestic and European law since the 1970s. When does the Taoiseach intend to introduce the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (Gender Pay Gap Information) Bill? What other measures does he propose to tackle this issue?

The Government has decided to provide only an additional €800 million of fiscal space for new measures next year. The arbitrary fiscal stance taken by the Government is that €500 million will be set aside for the so-called rainy day fund that is likely to be invested abroad and a further €900 million will be unspent. Some €2.6 billion will be added for previous commitments which are already accounted for. The Taoiseach stated during Leaders' Questions that he envisages a tax package forming part of the additional spend. Is it his view that the ratio of 2:1 on additional spend to tax will be reflected in that? If that is so, will that 2:1 ratio include the €2.6 billion of commitments made on additional capital, public pay and demographics which are embedded in the numbers for next year?

I have been seeking clarity on the rainy day fund for some time. Where will the fund, comprising €500 million, be placed? Is the figure the Taoiseach gave to the House of a deficit target for next year of 0.1% of gross domestic product, GDP, a sum of approximately €250 million to €300 million, accurate? Is it his intention to borrow that sum to put it aside? That does not make any sense to me.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach about precarious employment, the creation of meaningful jobs and, in particular, the large amounts of public money being put into the film industry. I do not expect him to have all the answers here but I ask him to give the matter serious consideration. Some €70 million per year is put into the film industry through tax relief and film board grants. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in January, representatives of Screen Producers Ireland and the Irish Film Board stated that the investment has generated 17,000 whole-time-equivalent jobs. I do not know if the Taoiseach has seen the very long Olsberg report which was issued last week and shows that there are nowhere near 17,000 jobs in the Irish film industry. That confirms the statements of workers in the industry, who have recently protested about the amount of money put into it in view of the fact that there are virtually no permanent jobs, there is no continuity of employment, and there is widespread bullying, harassment and victimisation of people who ask for their rights and so on in it. A report commissioned by Screen Producers Ireland shows that the film industry, which receives €80 million in public funding per year, does not provide 17,000 jobs but, rather, there are 7,000 direct jobs in film, television and animation. When one strips out RTÉ, TV3 and so on, there are 3,000 whole-time equivalents in the film industry. Those are not full-time jobs because those in the industry work from project to project. For €80 million we might be getting 2,000 totally precarious jobs.

I would love it if the Irish Film Board or Screen Producers Ireland would provide clarity on this issue. How many people are working in the film industry in Ireland today, 4 July? It is likely that there are almost no people working in Troy Studios, possibly ten to 15 in Ardmore Studios and possibly approximately 100 elsewhere, all of whom are on project-by-project contracts. In the context of €80 million in public funds going into the industry, does the Taoiseach believe it is acceptable that there is almost no permanent continuous employment or even some sort of guarantee for people in the industry that they will get employed in the next project?

The national risk assessment has identified Brexit as the number one risk to the economy and it is one which is becoming more ominous by the day. During both Taoiseach's questions and European statements last week, the Taoiseach and his colleagues failed to answer any of the specific questions put to them by the Opposition about their strategy and the reason the June target the Taoiseach talked about for six months was missed. Subsequently, the Taoiseach told journalists that he is preparing for a no-deal hard Brexit and not preparing for any measures on this island. I do not disagree with that. We should have been preparing for a hard Brexit a long time ago but the Taoiseach should outline here what exactly is involved. Will he state if he has discussed this matter with the European Union and if they have agreed to this particular scenario?

Further, on Friday, the Taoiseach stated that it is unrealistic for the backstop to apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. That is in direct opposition to his statement of 8 December last and subsequently that explicitly said that the backstop provided a mechanism for the United Kingdom as a whole. Will he explain when he changed his mind on this matter?

To pick up on the last point first, what we are doing in terms of preparing for the possibility of a hard Brexit, which we believe is unlikely but for which it is prudent to prepare, is contingency planning for different scenarios. We should be in a position to share that in the next couple of weeks. It is very much contingency planning for all sorts of different scenarios but the most obvious one that may arise if the United Kingdom leaves the Single Market and the customs union, as it intends to do, is that sooner or later we will need to reinforce our customs and Revenue checks in ports and airports, so it is in that space. We will be happy to share that when we are in a position to do so.

On the UK backstop, again, I am very happy to clarify that. What I said was that a UK-wide backstop could apply to customs but what could not apply was a UK backstop where the four freedoms are separated and that that exceptional scenario could only be made for-----

I was there in Brussels so I know what I said, and certainly what I meant. I believe it is what I said.

No. The Taoiseach said it here last December.

No. The Deputy is suggesting there is a conflict between what I said last December and what I said in Brussels last week. I am saying there is not. What I said in Brussels last week was that a UK-wide backstop could apply to something like customs but could not apply if there was to be some sort of division of the four freedoms. The European Union is willing to make exceptions for Northern Ireland to allow the European Single Market to apply to Northern Ireland when it comes to goods and services but not other items. However, such an exception would not be made for the UK as a whole. That is at least what I was trying to say, and I am fairly sure it is what I said, but I am happy to clarify that.

Going back to Deputy Burton's comments, I am pleased that there was a welcome for the fact that the unemployment rate is now down to 5.1%. It was 16% at one stage. The long-term unemployment rate, which is people out of work for a year or more, is about 2%.

The youth unemployment rate is down from over 30% to 10% or 12%. It is the case in Ireland for decades, and across the world, that youth employment is generally about double the national rate. There is a reason for that. It is because when youth unemployment is calculated, people who are in education or training are not included so it is a different measure of how the workforce has done. For example, very few people in their 40s or 50s are in education and training. If we take people who are under 25, a huge number of them, perhaps even more than half of them, are not in the workforce. They are in education or training. The unemployment rate, therefore, is based on a minority of people between the ages of 16-----

The unemployment rate is based on people not working. The Taoiseach should know that.

-----and 25. If we move more people under 25 into education and training, the unemployment rate as a percentage potentially increases because of the way it is calculated. Those people get taken out of the calculation because they are not considered to be part of the workforce. The standard unemployment rate is calculated as a percentage of the workforce. There is a difference between percentages and raw numbers but I can provide a written briefing for the Deputy on that if I have not explained it properly. It is not that young people are more likely to be unemployed. It is that the denominator is different because so many young people are involved in education and training, they are not counted as part of the workforce. That makes the percentage higher, if not the probability of unemployment.

When it comes to the minimum wage, the Government takes advice from the Low Pay Commission, a statutory body established by the Oireachtas to make recommendations on minimum wage. We have increased the minimum wage twice during the period of this Government. The living wage is calculated differently. There is no input from employers in that, which I believe is a weakness. If a minimum wage or a living wage is being calculated, it should have the input of employers as well. Ultimately, they are the employers. They are stakeholders. Their views do matter, and their views should be heard. Ultimately, they create the jobs and they can advise us as to whether jobs may be put at risk.

The living wage does not give adequate regard to the views of employers. It also takes into account housing costs, which are very high, but it is not the case that everyone has housing costs. There are people who own their home. There are people who live at home, for example. It is based on certain assumptions which are different from those made on the minimum wage, which is drawn up by the Low Pay Commission which advises Government on that.

On the gender pay gap, Cabinet has approved the heads of a Bill on that issue. The legislation will require companies of more than 250 employees initially moving to companies of more than 50 employees to calculate the gender pay gap in their companies and publish it. Having published it, I imagine they will be required to explain it, particularly if we see disparities from one company in the same business to another company in a similar business because there will be pressure brought on as a consequence of transparency to deal with it.

We have equal pay for equal work and there are often other reasons there is a gender pay gap. It is not necessarily down to a female worker getting paid less than a male worker for the same work. It is often down to women not getting a fair go when it comes to promotion or not being able to rise up the ranks of a company or business because they are not getting a fair number of promotions. Also, women often work shorter hours than men because women often take on more of the caring responsibilities than their partners. That is something companies cannot change but we can change through public policy.

I asked a question about the film industry.

The film industry, Taoiseach.

I asked about the budgets. The Taoiseach started at the back and then went to the front but left out the two questions in the middle.

If the Ceann Comhairle can give me another few minutes, I will go through them.

Yes, Taoiseach. Go ahead.

On the budget, the total budget package for 2019 will be in the region of €3.5 billion. The vast of majority of that is committed but it is important to remember how it is committed. There is €1.5 billion in additional capital spending for public infrastructure, housing, broadband, healthcare, climate action and all those areas. There is additional funding for health and education, especially having regard to demographics, the increase in the number of children at school and the number of patients that will be seen next year. There are the increases in public sector pay, with pay increases for nurses, doctors, teachers, civil servants and local authority workers all programmed in. That has to be paid for. There is also the full-year cost for elements such as the welfare and pension increases, which kicked in in March last year. The vast majority of that is committed but it is committed to good measures. We stand over the fact that we committed that early.

I do not believe everything has to be announced on budget day. There is a different approach now-----

Demographics are always done-----

-----in that we have announced measures in advance, for example, particularly on capital spending so that there can be proper planning.

It was done in the last five programmes.

On the tax package, the focus will be on income taxes. Last year, we paid for the reduction in the USC and the reduction in income through tax increases elsewhere. It was paid for through measures such as the sugar tax, for example, and the increase in stamp duty on commercial property. We paid for the tax package last year through tax increases in other areas. I imagine, although it is far from decided yet, that we will adopt a similar approach, which means the entire budget package, never mind the 2:1 model, will be 10:1, 20:1 or 100:0 when it comes to public spending because the focus is very much on increasing spending on public services and public infrastructure. Unlike last year, it may be the case that the tax package is fully funded by tax increases in other areas. That is the approach that was taken last year, but as I said, the budget is far from negotiated yet and far from written, and a lot can change between now and then. Anything greater than a package of €3.5 billion would require more borrowing. I hear people talk about there being more money available. It is only available if we borrow it or if there is more fiscal space that could be used. Again, it can only be used if we borrow it. It is very much my view-----

Or raise it through-----

It is a different proposition to raise it through additional taxation but others, not Deputy Boyd Barrett, in fairness, are arguing that we should borrow more.

More borrowing is the wrong policy at the moment. The economy is growing fast, tax revenues are very buoyant and we are approaching full employment. Now is not the time to increase borrowing. Now is the time to balance the books and pay down the debt.

The Government already borrowed to set it up.

That is the responsible thing to do in my view. On the rainy day fund, it is intended that will be managed by the NTMA.

On the film industry, I have not seen the report that Deputy Boyd Barrett mentions. He indicated there are few or no permanent jobs in the film industry. I suspect that is related to the nature of the industry in many ways. Film projects are discrete projects and television series are often discrete series. Jobs are available for a year or another period of time. The nature of the film industry and programme production is that projects are very often discrete and jobs are not for life. In terms of tax incentives, we are operating in a very competitive environment. That is the truth of the matter. Many different countries have tax incentives to encourage the film and audiovisual industries. Without such incentives, we could lose out entirely. If we were to remove tax incentives, rather than having a better outcome, we would end up with fewer jobs and less investment all around.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Joan Burton

Question:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met. [26520/18]

Micheál Martin

Question:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that has oversight of child policy. [27689/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [27646/18]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B (Social Policy and Public Services) last met; and when it plans to meet next. [27722/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B (Social Policy and Public Services) last met. [29097/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 9, inclusive, together.

Cabinet committee B last met on 7 June. A date for the next meeting has not yet been scheduled. The committee covers the areas of social policy and public service reform, including education, children, social inclusion, Irish, arts and culture, and continued improvements and reform of public services. Cabinet committee B acts as the forum through which Government advances policies and services aimed at ensuring all citizens, including the most vulnerable, receive the necessary supports and opportunities to improve their lives and fulfil their potential.

The committee aims to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of the relevant commitments in A Programme for a Partnership Government. It provides the opportunity to shape proposals on issues such as equality, disability and disadvantage which require input from multiple Departments. Through policy interventions at Cabinet committee level and measures introduced as part of the budgetary cycle, the Government has introduced a number of sustainable reforms aimed at improving the lives and standard of living of those most in need. These include affordable childcare measures, the increase in the national minimum wage to €9.95 per hour and a €5 increase in all basic weekly welfare and pension payments.

The committee has a very broad remit and has sought to bring added value to a number of important social policy matters such as ensuring ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability; advancing several important gender equality actions; and implementation of structures and funding to support the north-east inner city initiative.

I suppose I should thank the Taoiseach for his rather patronising remarks to myself and Deputy McDonald in respect of young people being unemployed. I do not care whether the figure of 750 young people being unemployed in Dublin West is by his calculation really only 5% - the statisticians in the CSO say it is 11% or 12%.

On the gender pay gap, I will have to read back over the Taoiseach's reply. Yesterday, his Minister for Finance told me that the seven top jobs in the Department of Finance are all held by men. That sounds to me as though, for the women in the Department of Finance who are bright, capable and ambitious, a penalty is being exacted for having children and families. It is not that they do not want to be promoted, as the Taoiseach is patronisingly suggesting to women, but that we have not amended the position in respect of women who, over a 40-year career, take three or six years off work because they have a number of children. What is unusual about women taking time off in such circumstances? That is what we need to change. I have said before that I was one of four women around a table of 18 men in the Cabinet. The Taoiseach has actually reduced that number since he came into office. I am not sure he gets gender equality. The reason for the pay gap is that women are concentrated in the lower echelons of the public service. When it comes to the Department of Finance, the budget, the rainy day fund and so on, nobody at the top level is a woman.

In the context of the social economy, we have been awaiting a report on social and community based banking from the Government for some time. The main banks are closing their branches, particularly in rural Ireland and disadvantaged urban communities, and the post offices are planning to do the same. There is a proposal for community based banking with perhaps a pilot scheme from Sparkasse, the German community bank that has been operating for a long time. It has offered to run a pilot scheme in Ireland to show how a new form of community banking that would include home loans would operate. I am told the Department of Finance - with no women at the helm, by the way - is actually set once again to give this the thumbs down. Is this real in terms of the crisis we have heard about this morning in different parts of rural Ireland? There is also a crisis in a significant number of disadvantaged communities that still have high unemployment.

A defining feature of Fine Gael's management of the Department of Health has been major Supplementary Estimates announced late in the year. This has been going on for a number of years. After a series of years in which the Supplementary Estimates related only to additional measures announced during the year, we now see permanent use of them to fund core health services. This is not about additional measures or whatever but the funding of core services. This has been accompanied by Ministers and Taoisigh denying overruns until late in the year and also refusing to explain whether the under-provision for services was a political decision or an administrative error. In today's newspapers it is reported that the health budget is again over allocation by €167 million and that the final annual figure is likely to be much higher than that. No explanation has been provided as to what is involved and it appears that we are likely to get another demonstration of the Taoiseach and his Ministers shaking their heads as if it has nothing to do with them. Can the Taoiseach give an assurance that during the preparation of this year's budget, there was no interference by any member of Cabinet in the service plan costings provided by the Health Service Executive? What is the current projection for the likely full year costs in health?

The Taoiseach referenced disability. The Government is not performing on disability in respect of access to services for children, particularly the various therapies I outlined yesterday such as physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy as well as respite services and residential care. In the whole row about decongregation, many people with disabilities are being left behind. I get somewhat annoyed when people declare that we have ratified the UN declaration in respect of disability. It means absolutely nothing on the ground when vast sections of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 have not been implemented. The Taoiseach wrote to me following my raising of the matter on the Order of Business last week. It really puts a focus on the absence of delivery for children with special needs.

I am struck by the passive stance the Taoiseach and his Government seem to adopt around the gender pay gap. By way of response to me, he blithely stated that, as a matter of fact, we already have equal pay for work of equal value. I specifically referred to that provision, which has been on the Statute Book since the 1970s, for the simple reason that we do not have equal pay for work of equal value. Women are coming out on the wrong side of that bargain and, in addition, Deputy Burton is quite right to point out that it is scandalous that the top echelons in the Department of Finance are exclusively male. I do not believe there are no women of talent and learning and ambition who could perform at that level. It is the departmental equivalent of a "manel". I see the Ceann Comhairle looking at me curiously; that means a panel made up entirely of men.

Of course, it is much more serious because it is at the very heart of Government where key decisions are made. I invite the Taoiseach to be less passive and defensive and to engage properly and fully with these issues which, in the first instance, are of concern to women. They go to the very heart of a functioning economy, a healthy society and a representative democracy.

I am left with no option but to raise this matter in this format because I have written exhaustively to the Minister for Education and Skills and have received responses worthy only of an episode of "Yes Minister". It relates to the fact that nearly seven months have passed since the subcontractor walked off the site at Naomh Fionnbarra GAA Club in Cabra, which is my local GAA club, with just two weeks left to complete works on a pitch. The outstanding work is minor in nature. A pitch has to be laid and some electrical and fencing work must be completed. This publicly funded project was directly impacted by the collapse of Carillion. Despite dozens - and I mean dozens - of communications from me - I am sure others have been in touch - it appears that the Minister is either not interested or does not care but he is certainly not prepared to do anything to get the workers back on site.

As the Taoiseach said, this committee also deals with the area of arts and culture so I will continue to draw his attention to the film industry because €80 million goes out in grants from the Irish Film Board and section 481 tax relief. I will put it dramatically so that it will draw, I hope, the Taoiseach's attention. I do not expect him to know everything about this.

There is something rotten in the Irish film industry. The law governing section 481 requires that section 481 tax relief - €70 million per year - provide "an effective stimulus to film making in the State through, among other things, the provision of quality employment and training opportunities". That is the law. There is no training system in the film industry. Someone can be a trainee for years, be paid the trainee rate and have no career progression and no certainty of any kind of future employment no matter how long he or she has been in it. If the person steps out of line once with the production company that is in receipt of all this money, that person will not work in the industry again. That is how it works. It is project to project and it is a different kind of industry but it involves the provision of €80 million that is supposed to create an industry when nobody knows whether they will have a job next week.

Twelve companies are the recipients of this money. I went to the trouble of meeting the Comptroller and Auditor General for two hours two weeks ago to ask him to look into this. That is how seriously I take this. When I ask those 12 companies that received €183 million in tax relief in the past three years how many people they employ, they cannot give an answer because the number is three or four. That is not on. There is something wrong in the industry. People in the industry accept that it is project to project but something is wrong if the same production company that is getting all this money can employ a person for one project but say to that person when the next project comes along in a month or two that they are not taking that person because they asked about overtime or they complained about working hours in excess of the working time directive.

I am asking the Taoiseach to look at this. While we should give lots of money to arts and film because it is a very important industry, it must be an industry where there are some rights for employees and some sort of expectation of being able to work in the industry over their lifetime so that if people do not do something terrible, they will continue to be employed in that industry, because it is public money.

We have a gender pay gap in Ireland. There are many reasons for it, two of which I cited. I said that women do not get a fair go. They do not get a fair crack of the whip when it comes to promotion in the workplaces because women are very often unfairly expected to carry a greater burden of child care then men. I do not think there is anything wrong about that. I think both those things are very true. That is what I said, so if Deputy McDonald wants to check the record, she can do so. Those things need to change. We need to see more women being promoted in the workplace, be it in the public or private sector, because women do not get a fair go when it comes to promotion.

I am conscious that every couple is different but we need to see men taking on their fair share of caring and child rearing. We can do that through things like extending paternity leave, which we have introduced, much better family leave, and more family-friendly workplaces. Far from being passive, this Government is being active. We are the Government that is bringing in gender pay gap legislation. It could have been done by any previous Government. We are the ones who are doing it. That will require initially companies with 250 employees, reducing to 50 later, to publish their gender pay gap. That will bring about transparency. Companies will be asked to explain why they have a gender pay gap and why their gender pay gap is bigger than that of their competitors. That is an example of where we are being very active and are certainly not being passive.

Last year, for the first time ever, 52% of appointments to State boards by the Government were female. We want to get to the point where we have equal representation, from 40-60 to 50-50, but for the first time in a very long time, if not ever, 52% of people appointed to State boards were women and that is because of a major effort to promote that as a policy with hard targets. We will now introduce a new initiative around company boards similar to a measure introduced in the UK, a Government-led initiative to put pressure on private sector companies to put more women on their boards. Interview panels are developed from boards. Therefore, there will be more women on interview panels and, therefore, women will be more likely to get a fair chance of being promoted. This is an issue on which the Government is very committed to acting and where it is doing things no previous Government did and could have done.

In respect of community banking, the Government is considering the Sparkassen proposal. What might not come across a lot of the time is the fact that Sparkassen's request is that the Government would put €150 million or more into this. It is one thing if a bank wants to set up in Ireland, and we welcome competition and want more banks to set up in Ireland and give more credit, but it is another thing when the bank is asking the Government to pay for the setting up and to capitalise it. That is a definite difficulty we have. We must also bear in mind that we have some forms of community banking such as credit unions which provide all sorts of community banking and can probably do more. We would like to see An Post provide banking services more. For the Government to stump up the money for an institution to come in and do it is a very different question. This point has been missed in the debate.

The HSE service plan must be approved by the Minister for Health. It generally goes to Cabinet as well. There is a debate over the costings. It is the job of the Department of Health to second-guess costings of financial projections put forward by the HSE. It is the job of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to do the same, to examine any costings and projections Departments or agencies come up with and second-guess them. That happens and should happen.

Every year the Supplementary Estimate is part of the core services. It is as if a proper, accurate Estimate is not given at the beginning of every year and that there is a bit of manipulation going on and a lack of transparency.

I do not have any particular information about the educational matter raised by Deputy McDonald but I will certainly tell the Minister for Education and Skills that it was raised here when I see him tomorrow.

The fundamental idea behind any tax relief or incentive, particularly if it is one that is commercially focused and aimed at the private sector, is that the benefits should outweigh the cost, so the theory at least is that by having these tax incentives in place, film, media and audiovisual productions happen in Ireland that otherwise would not. They would happen in another country if we did not have those reliefs and incentives in place. That is the basic calculation we must do. Does having these very generous tax incentives and reliefs, and they are very generous, benefit the economy in the round because of the investment brought into the country?

It is not clear that it does.

It may not be. All tax reliefs should be regularly reviewed.

Who is in government?

National Economic and Social Council

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [26895/18]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

11. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [27723/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [28954/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 12, inclusive, together.

The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, is an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of my Department. The council analyses and reports on strategic policy matters relevant to Ireland's economic, social, environmental and sustainable development. Its membership comprises representatives of business and employers’ organisations, ICTU, agricultural and farming organisations, community and voluntary organisations and environmental organisations, together with heads of Departments and independent experts. This composition means that it plays an important and unique role in bringing different perspectives from civil society together with the Government. This helps the NESC to analyse the challenges facing Irish society and develop a shared understanding among its members of how to tackle them.

In accordance with the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006, I have certain functions such as appointing the members of the NESC and presenting reports to the Government prior to publication or laying them before the Houses, as in the case of the annual reports. The council is funded from my Department’s Vote. My Department also has governance responsibilities in regard to the council. In the coming years Ireland will face into a period of significant change, both at home and abroad, which will present some new and exceptional challenges. In that regard, A Programme for a Partnership Government specifically notes that there are policy challenges on which long-term thinking is required. I expect the council to continue to contribute to policy development, with a focus on the strategic and longer term view.

The council’s current work programme comprises a key social challenge - low work intensity households, quality tailored services and participation; climate change - governance of the low-carbon transition; and land value, land use and urban development. The Government may ask the NESC to explore a report on certain issues, but how it will choose to do this will be a matter for the council which is independent in its day-to-day business and working arrangements. The most recent NESC reports are Urban Development Land, Housing and Infrastructure: Fixing Ireland's Broken System and Moving from Welfare to Work: Low Work Intensity Households and the Quality of Supportive Services. In recent months I have brought both reports to the Government in advance of publication. I have also appointed four independent members of the council to fill remaining vacancies, following an open process conducted by the Public Appointments Service through stateboards.ie.

On an issue I have already raised, the NESC's report refers 12 times to the problem of precarious work. When talking about economic benefits, one needs to look at the prevalence of precarious work and the extent to which the State is subsidising and facilitating work that does not have to be precarious. I again cite the film industry as an example. If we are putting in a lot of public money, we need to ensure it is being put in in a way that will create quality employment and provide training for people to create sustainable jobs and industries. I ask the Taoiseach to look seriously at this sector. Anywhere public money is put in, it should not unnecessarily subsidise precarious work, but that is what is happening in many sectors, including the film industry.

With reference to the report, Urban Development Land, Housing and Infrastructure: Fixing Ireland's Broken System and so on, Deputy Mick Wallace brought up these issues last night, while I brought them up two weeks ago in a motion against which the Government voted. The House passed Deputy Mick Wallace's Bill, about which I am delighted, but what is the Government is going to do about it?

There are vulture funds sitting on perfectly good empty units. I have cited two examples several times in the House because they are staring me in the face every week in Dún Laoghaire. A vulture fund, pollo Global Management, has been sitting on ten empty apartments for about two years in the centre of Dún Laoghaire. It tried to evict the tenants and got some of them out, although some fought it through the Residential Tenancies Board and are still in place. Nonetheless, there are ten empty apartments. Cerberus which bought a block of apartments from NAMA has been sitting on 25 perfectly good empty units for about five years. These are just two examples. Does the Taoiseach think it is a problem? Does he think it is acceptable that these vulture funds are also beneficiaries of section 110 tax relief? If he thinks it is not acceptable in the face of a housing crisis, what does he propose to do about it?

The Taoiseach mentioned the report, Urban Development Land, Housing and Infrastructure: Fixing Ireland's Broken System. It is a welcome piece of work which includes a number of very welcome recommendations such as building affordability into policies designed to increase the supply of housing, starting with land and rental costs; using publicly owned land to increase the supply of housing; and ensuring affordability in creating quality residential developments, all of which are music to our ears. They are very welcome recommendations, but what is important is actually implementing them. Having received and brought forward the reports, has the Taoiseach any serious intention of acting on their very sensible recommendations? I note that yesterday the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, organised a housing summit which really consisted of a reannouncement of existing policies which were not working and which demonstrated an ongoing and lamentable lack of ambition.

The NESC has probably been the body which has commented most on the climate change risks facing Ireland. Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to study the work it has done on climate change? In particular, has he had a chance to look at the report published last week by the Climate Action Network that ranked Ireland 27th out of 28, second last behind Poland which is a coal producing country, when it came to climate change actions? Will he consider commissioning an update from the NESC on a risk assessment of the cost to Ireland of abjectly failing to meet climate change targets? This is not to mention the fact that, of course, we know that it impacts on farmers in terms of fodder shortages resulting, in particular, from winter storms that cause flooding in communities. We are living with the effects of climate change, some of which are probably very pleasant such as the current warm weather, while some of which are pretty miserable during the winter. Does the Taoiseach and the Government have concerns about climate change? The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, while not a denier of climate change, barely acknowledges that it is a problem for us.

In the past few years the NESC has spent a lot of time in focusing on the short, medium and long-term problems in the housing sector. It has brought important experts to the country and emphasised the hard substance in looking at every angle of the problem. It is unfortunate that much of this work has not had the impact on the Government we would have expected it to have and that the Government has not been able to come up with proposals to overcome the chronic delivery deficit between promises and outcomes. Because the Taoiseach is so concerned to ensure issues of substance will be covered in the media, he will have noticed the extensive coverage last week that noted that there were close to 10,000 people on the homeless lists, even after the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, had acted to change the way the statistics were prepared. A further 137 children have become homeless for the first time, as revealed by the figures, yet, when the figures were released, there was no comment from the Taoiseach who had nothing to say about the continuing rise in the level of homelessness under the Government and the increasingly hapless performance of the Minister. Last year the Taoiseach announced at the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis, "We have a plan and it is working." He came into the House many times to announce that everything was looking up. Will he accept that he was wrong to declare that everything was in hand? What are the new emergency measures the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, told journalists he would soon be publishing?

In fairness, probably two days do not pass when I do not have something to say about housing or homelessness.

No, the Taoiseach does not. He never comments when the official figures come out.

I did at noon today.

That is beside the point. When the figures are announced, the Taoiseach always hides away.

If anyone cares to check the record, there is not a week, or even a period of two or three days, that goes by when I am not asked about housing or homelessness and I do not have something to say about it. It is not necessary for me to issue a press statement every time a set of figures comes out. I do not do that as standard, even if the figures are positive and there are plenty of such figures.

As to Deputy Boyd Barrett's earlier question, I do not know the circumstances of the developments he mentioned and I do not want to comment on them without knowing. However, we have introduced a vacant sites levy which is now in place. It imposes a levy on the value of vacant land which is not being developed. I am aware that Deputy Wallace has made interesting proposals about how that can be strengthened, which we want to examine. We have given some consideration to the application of a vacant home tax or levy albeit there are many complications in doing so. Local authorities have the power to CPO units. Louth County Council has been particularly active in compulsorily purchasing vacant housing units. I would certainly like to see more local authorities using the powers they have to CPO homes or apartments which are vacant to bring them into use as social housing. It is something the Government very much supports.

Including those owned by the vulture funds.

It should not matter who owns them. Local authorities have CPO powers to purchase unused properties and add them to the social housing stock. Whether they are owned by the Deputy, me or a vulture fund should not really matter. The objective is to get vacant homes into use at a time when we need more homes.

The NESC land use report is very strong and we intend to act on it. We have outlined already our proposal to establish a Government land agency which will identify and take control of publicly owned lands which could be made available for housing development and development more generally. The agency may also on occasion buy privately owned land to unlock its development potential. It will be a real step change in the way in which the Government is active in the housing market. We have seen some examples of how measures like this were introduced in the docklands, Grangegorman and through the Limerick regeneration project. This will be on a much greater scale and it will make a big difference.

I have acknowledged in my speech to the European Parliament and elsewhere that Ireland has fallen behind on climate change. I used the term "laggard" in describing our performance. It does not give me any pleasure to say that and I do not say it without wanting to act. We must focus now on what the Government will actually do to enable Ireland to meet its 2030 targets. From the middle of next year, for example, any new buses bought by Bus Éireann or Dublin bus will be low-emission or no-emission vehicles. We have confirmed that in 2025, we will take coal off the grid and no longer burn it at Moneypoint. By 2030, we will have taken peat off the grid and that time will allow for a just transition in recognition of the fact that a great deal of employment in the midlands is created by that industry. From 2030, there will be no new diesel or petrol-fuelled cars for sale in Ireland, which gives us time to electrify the fleet. There will be a renewable heat initiative, a whole programme of deep refitting of public buildings and private homes. We will also have a new refit or RESS scheme to promote investment in renewable energy. We will need to solve the problem of foreshore licences which is creating major difficulties in respect of the development of offshore wind energy. We have run into constitutional issues there which I am determined to resolve. Project Ireland 2040 outlines €22 billion worth of investment in climate action.

Rather than commissioning reports, we want to get on with the job of tackling climate change and meeting our obligations under the Paris Agreement and our 2030 targets. We are not doing ti to meet targets or avoid financial penalties but because it is absolutely the right thing to do.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.