1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken to Ms Arlene Foster and Ms Michelle O'Neill recently on restoring the Northern Executive. [37318/18]
1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken to Ms Arlene Foster and Ms Michelle O'Neill recently on restoring the Northern Executive. [37318/18]
2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with political leaders in Northern Ireland. [38645/18]
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with political leaders in Northern Ireland. [39830/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The devolved, power-sharing institutions are at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement and are the best means for achieving accountable, representative decision-making for all the people of Northern Ireland, and I am deeply concerned at the ongoing impasse in regard to their restoration. In my recent conversations with Prime Minister Theresa May, I have emphasised the Government’s full commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and our continuing determination to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. In this context, the Government is in ongoing contact with the political parties in Northern Ireland at political, official and adviser level. I last met Michelle O'Neill during my visit to Belfast in June and I last met Arlene Foster when I visited Enniskillen last November. I have had informal contacts with DUP representatives since then, including through a meeting in Washington in March. In addition, I have visited Northern Ireland on seven separate occasions since becoming Taoiseach, often meeting DUP representatives. Meetings are being arranged over the coming days with some of the Northern parties, and I have made it clear that I will be available to meet the other parties, should they wish to do so.
As well as keeping in close contact with the Northern Ireland political parties, the Tánaiste is also actively engaged with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on how both Governments can most effectively support that urgent work in the period immediately ahead. We want to put a political process in place that can secure an agreement on the operation of the devolved institutions. We will continue to engage with the Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek urgent progress on that in the period immediately ahead.
The question was whether the Taoiseach had met or spoken to Ms Arlene Foster and Ms Michelle O'Neill recently. Will the Taoiseach give me the specific dates when he spoke to Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill last?
We can all agree that, today, we are at a low point in terms of the Brexit process so far and the operation of the Good Friday Agreement. Let us be clear that what we have seen from the Tories and the DUP is belligerence and, frankly, ignorance. They do not get to change anything unilaterally in the fixed peace settlement on this island. Instead of spending our time escalating this dispute, the question is what we are going to do to overcome it. As someone who was intimately involved in very difficult negotiations on Northern Ireland, negotiations which led to real progress, I would have to say that the level of public sniping back and forth which we have heard to date is unprecedented. The lack of even basic working relations between key players is clearly a serious part of the problem. It may be that the Taoiseach thinks circumstances make this inevitable, but no one can seriously look at what has been happening and say that the tradition of the Department of the Taoiseach in building close relations and leading from the front on Northern Ireland is still operating. For major stretches of this year - seven weeks in the first part of the year and ten weeks up to the recent summit - there has been no personal contact with Downing Street. It is probably over 30 years since there was such a lack of ongoing contact.
This is not about laying the blame. It is about looking for what is causing the breakdown and trying to change the destructive dynamic which has taken hold. It is also undeniable that the continued absence of the assembly and Executive is directly empowering the DUP.
The anti-Brexit, common-sense majority in the assembly and Northern Ireland generally have, in effect, been silenced and denied any input into the discussions which are increasingly becoming sectarian. It is incomprehensible that the anti-Brexit majority have been denied a parliamentary platform for so long. The only political platform for any politician in Northern Ireland is at Westminster which is currently dominated by a belligerent and unco-operative pro-Brexit presence. There is no forum for anti-Brexit parliamentarians and the assembly and the Executive are a huge loss for those of us who want a soft-Brexit which would do the least damage. Will there be any initiative to unblock the operation of the institutions? It is blindingly obvious that current efforts are too timid and have failed miserably. It is beyond time to insist on a new initiative.
Deputy Micheál Martin is right that it is a monumental disaster that the voices of the majority in Northern Ireland on Brexit have no forum in which to contribute. The only forum for Northern Ireland representatives only includes those who are virulently pro-Brexit. Most of us were dismayed by the statement yesterday of the leader of the DUP. It is becoming increasingly clear that the DUP has taken a very strong position on Brexit and, in effect, exercised a veto on the possibility of the United Kingdom delivering on our understanding of the backstop into which it entered with the European Union last December. I would be interested in hearing the Taoiseach's view on the matter. Is it his understanding he can get around the obstacle of the DUP which appears to regard any divergence on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom as a matter of constitutional importance, whereas any divergence on fundamental social rights such as marriage equality and abortion would be regarded as affecting a defining characteristic of Northern Ireland. Go figure - it does not make sense to me. We could all list a myriad of instances in which Northern Ireland is demonstratively different, including in the areas of animal health and welfare, from the rest of the United Kingdom. In fact, the existence of the Good Friday Agreement underscores this point. My question is on a matter that is the source of profound worry. On the Irish backstop agreed to between the EU 27 and the United Kingdom last year, is the Taoiseach engaged directly with the DUP to understand and, I hope, assuage any concern it has? Does it appear to the Taoiseach that, through its veto on the proposal, the DUP will prevent the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, from delivering on her promise made last year?
The actions of the leader of the DUP yesterday have caused concern for many of us across the island, not least in relation to Brexit and how the negotiations will play out in the coming weeks. Brexit is of concern to many in my constituency of Louth. The onus is on political leaders to defend our political and economic interests. That is what has guided Sinn Féin in its approach to Brexit. We have not sought to play politics on it, as I am sure even the Taoiseach will acknowledge. We have supported the Government and the European Union negotiating team which we have met on numerous occasions in the course of its endeavours to get the best deal possible, which we certainly want to be the final outcome. That should be everyone's position, including every party across the island. However, there is now an onus on the British Government to step up to the mark, while the onus on the Irish Government is to defend and promote an all-Ireland view. Last December the Taoiseach said he had received a cast-iron guarantee in protecting Ireland, nothing less than which is acceptable. He must stand firm when defending the interests of the entire island and protect the rights of all citizens. He must remain resolute when he comes up against British intransigence. The European Union must remain true to its word that without an agreed, legally enforceable backstop, there will be no withdrawal agreement. Has it reaffirmed that commitment to the Taoiseach recently? Does he accept that we need a legal, as opposed to a, political guarantee?
I am afraid I cannot give Deputy Micheál Martin the specific dates of my contacts with Ms Arlene Foster. We have each other's mobile phone number and have had for quite some time. As such, we are able to keep in touch regularly.
I am asking about meetings.
I gave that information in my reply. We met a couple of months ago.
The Taoiseach cannot recall when they last spoke.
I can. As I said, we have each other's mobile number. I do not have the exact date, but it was within the last couple of weeks. We were counterparts before, have each other's mobile number and can be in touch. We have been trying to organise a formal meeting for quite some time. We had a date which fell through and are trying to organise a new one. The truth is that the environment is poor politically, not because of anything interpersonal but because of Brexit and the RHI inquiry. The efforts made at the start of the year to get the assembly and the Executive back up and running were unsuccessful. The Tánaiste and I take the view that our best chance to successfully get the institutions up and running again in the North will be when there is greater clarity on Brexit and when the RHI inquiry will either be completed or further on in its work. The focus for the next couple of weeks is very much on Brexit, the withdrawal agreement, the Irish protocol and the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. When that is agreed to, we will be in a better space to make another effort to re-establish talks among the different parties in Northern Ireland.
I met Ms Michelle O'Neill a couple of months ago, but, of course, she is the deputy leader of her party and her main contact is the Tánaiste. My main contact in Sinn Féin is the leader of the party, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald, with whom I interact and to whom I speak regularly. We have a date in the diary for a meeting to discuss Northern Ireland with both the leader and the deputy leader of Sinn Féin and the Head of Government and deputy head of Government. It is due to take place next week or the week after - I do not have the exact date in my head. Contacts between Downing Street and the Department of Taoiseach are very close. I note that the Leader of the Opposition is trying to make out that they are not or that there is some difficulty, but there is not. The difficulty is not a lack of contact or a question of personality, it has to do entirely with the political issues with which we are grappling, in particular Brexit. The ongoing contact happens at official level, sherpa to sherpa, at Secretary General and Permanent Secretary level, at adviser to adviser level and, of course, at Prime Minister to the Taoiseach level. There is regular contact and efforts are regularly made to understand the thinking and position of the Irish Government and the UK Government. That contact happens a couple of times a week.
It is important to emphasise that while we are in contact all of the time to understand each other's perspective and position, we are not engaging in bilateral negotiations with the United Kingdom. While the United Kingdom may wish that to happen, it is not how the negotiations are being conducted. They are being conducted with representatives of the European Union, including Ireland, on one side of the table and of the United Kingdom on the other. We are determined not to allow the issues related to us to be subject to bilateralism in any way. Anyone who understands the issues will know why that is the right course of action to take.
The question was about the Northern Ireland Executive.
The same applies to the DUP, Sinn Féin or any other political party. We are not negotiating on Brexit with a UK or Northern Ireland political party; rather, we are negotiating with the United Kingdom in Salzburg.
The question was about the Northern Ireland Executive. There were two questions.
I am confused. The constant interruptions make it difficult to remember what the question was.
I am not interrupting. The three questions asked were about Northern Ireland, not Brexit.
The last contact on Northern Ireland between the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, and I was in Salzburg a week or so ago. All of our officials and senior advisers were there. As to what is being said in general about Brexit in the media, we need to understand there is a British Conservative-----
On a point of order, I am not trying to interrupt, but there are other questions about Brexit. The first three questions in this group are specifically about Northern Ireland and the restoration of the Executive. I am not getting personal but asking a basic question. The bottom line is that we have had an unprecedented absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive. In previous eras, major initiatives would have taken place, Prime Minister to Prime Minister, to try to unblock this. That is the point. That is all I am saying. I am not talking about Brexit.
On a contrary point of order, the written questions are indeed about Northern Ireland. They do not refer to Brexit, but I was asked about Brexit during the oral part of these questions. It regularly occurs that the questions in writing are about one topic but Deputies raise other issues verbally and I am then accused of not answering the question, even though it was not asked in writing. It is a no-win situation. I am asked to answer questions that are not among the questions and then constantly-----
My question is about engagement, not Brexit or Northern Ireland.
The first three questions in the group are about Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach should not muddy the waters.
The Deputies should let the Taoiseach respond.
Perhaps the different Opposition leaders should have a debate among themselves as to what question they are asking me.
The questions are written down.
It would certainly make it easier because what is written down are questions-----
Forget it. This is pathetic.
-----about Northern Ireland, not Brexit. I am nonetheless happy to answer them as best I can in the time I am given.
Yes, the Taoiseach should answer the questions about Northern Ireland.
However, when I am constantly interrupted and barracked, it makes it extremely difficult.
The Taoiseach has only 15 seconds left.
He is hardly being barracked.
I am afraid we will not get answers to any of the questions.
I know but I am-----
The Taoiseach is doing his best.
It is not my fault. I am doing my best.
Yes, I appreciate that.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle.
I was asked about respect for the Good Friday Agreement. As I said, the Good Friday Agreement has two major philosophies, two component parts, behind it. The first is respect for the principle of consent, and we respect that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom until such time as the majority of people in Northern Ireland consent to a change. The agreement also recognises, however, that Northern Ireland is a special place owing to its unique history and geography. At the heart of the Good Friday Agreement is a recognition that there are special arrangements for Northern Ireland. The fact that there are such special arrangements in any number of areas does not make Northern Ireland any less part of the United Kingdom.
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his plans to review and extend A Programme for a Partnership Government. [38644/18]
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach his plans to extend and renew A Programme for a Partnership Government. [39678/18]
6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his plans to review A Programme for a Partnership Government. [39725/18]
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he is satisfied with the progress on the implementation of A Programme for a Partnership Government. [39765/18]
8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the status of the commitments on defence policy in A Programme for a Partnership Government. [40023/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 8, inclusive, together.
A Programme for a Partnership Government was agreed in May 2016 during the formation of the Government. It is a five-year programme of work being undertaken for the duration of the present Dáil. The Government publishes progress reports on the programme each year, the second of which was approved by Cabinet in May 2018 and is published on my Department's website. This report reflects the significant work undertaken by all Government Departments to deliver progress across a wide range of issues, including housing and homelessness, education, health and rural development.
There is more work to be done. The experience of the past two years means it is now reasonable to chart an ambitious path for the remaining three years of the current Dáil. That path is about ensuring that, to the greatest extent possible, every citizen is enabled to achieve his or her full potential and every part of the country benefits from our prosperity. We will continue to work towards improving access to our health services; increasing the supply of affordable housing; planning for Brexit; generating quality employment; driving justice and policing reform; continuing the progress that has been made in education; and much more besides.
As for specific commitments on defence policy, the Government is committed to building and maintaining defence capabilities. Progress continues to be made on defence-related commitments in the programme for Government, mainly through the White Paper on Defence. More than half the 88 projects identified for implementation in the White Paper on Defence will have either commenced or been completed by the end of this year. These include efforts to restore the Defence Forces to full strength in personnel terms, increase female participation and support veterans. Crucially, they also involve a massive investment in equipment and improvement of facilities. This is being progressed at present, with some €35 million worth of infrastructure projects now at various stages of implementation. In addition, there is a commitment in respect of new vessels and aircraft.
The Government will continue its work over its lifetime to strengthen our economy and to ensure that all citizens benefit.
There was a very public exchange of letters between the Taoiseach and the leader of Fianna Fáil over the summer about extending the existing confidence and supply arrangements between their parties. The Taoiseach lost a Deputy this week. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have a threshold agreed between them for maintaining the Government. The Taoiseach has also lost a member of the Independent Alliance, part of the coalition that supports the Government, which adds a certain fragility to the Government's existence. Has he opened negotiations with the Independent Alliance on the extension of this programme and, if not, does he intend to do so? Second, since all we know from the exchange of letters between the Taoiseach and the leader of Fianna Fáil is what is in the public domain, do they have an agreed timeframe by which they will sit down and negotiate an extension of the current arrangements, or is it intended to have such a discussion?
Regarding the programme for Government and the commitments the Taoiseach and his Government made, the Taoiseach cannot deny that there are serious crises in health, housing and the whole area of tax justice and fairness. In health, for instance, the Department of Health now reliably appears to be at least €600 million over budget, having in each of the past number of years got substantial infusions of cash. It feels like no one in the Government is in charge of health. Regarding housing, a plumber married to someone like a self-employed hairdresser with a reasonably good business and perhaps a joint income of €80,000 or €90,000 cannot get an affordable house. Where they can get perhaps a second-hand house, the loan levels in the Taoiseach's and my constituency for a modest but well-built house, as he knows, are now reaching approximately €400,000 because land is changing hands at ten to 15 times what it was just a few years ago. Again, the Government simply seems adrift.
On tax justice and fairness, we have had the Comptroller and Auditor General's report of last week indicating that several hundred high net worth individuals, with assets of €50 million - I ask the Taoiseach to think how many €400,000 houses they could commit to - are paying roughly the same in tax as a family on an income of anywhere from €40,000 to €70,000.
I thank the Deputy. She is well over time.
Is this not a programme for Government that is in total disarray?
The Taoiseach will not be able to answer if Deputy Burton does not abbreviate her questions.
I understand Fianna Fáil has an arrangement with Fine Gael, but it does not seem to be able to bring much influence to bear.
Next week we will debate budget 2019. It is, like all budgets, a matter of choices, and those choices have been made. We in Sinn Féin are firmly of the view that we need to make next week's budget a housing budget. If the Government or its partners in Fianna Fáil are serious about tackling the housing and homelessness crisis, this is what must happen. This means, as a key measure, doubling capital investment in social and affordable housing, as Sinn Féin proposes. Government expenditure on social housing for next year is projected at €1.3 billion, with a target of 7,410 social houses. This is a drop in the ocean given the scale of the crisis and when compared with what is needed. It is necessary to increase this expenditure by a further €1 billion. This would deliver an additional 2,850 social homes, which would bring the total number of social housing units delivered in 2009 to 10,260, as was recommended by the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness.
Another area which requires substantial investment is affordable housing. The Government has not delivered one affordable home in three years and has no affordable housing targets for next year either. We would deliver 4,630 affordable homes, of which 1,435 would be cost-rental and more than 3,000 affordable sale.
We would also introduce measures to curb rents, which are out of control, as the Taoiseach knows fine well. It is now time to accept that the Government's rent pressure zone legislation is not working either.
That is what we are proposing - the introduction of a temporary tax relief for renters in tandem with a three-year emergency rent freeze. These are just some of the measures we are proposing, but the Taoiseach knows that because he is aware of them, despite the fact that he says repeatedly that we have no solutions. We are putting forward these solutions. Given the dismal failure of Rebuilding Ireland, if the Taoiseach is genuinely concerned about solving the housing crisis, will he accept and implement some of these proposals?
The review of the programme for Government published during the summer is quite striking in how it includes a statement of how much has been spent on everything but has almost no engagement with the impact which policies are or are not having. For example, the shambolic failures of this Government and the previous one in respect of broadband are ignored. So too are nearly all adverse statistics. It is a make-believe stuff because nothing has happened on broadband for the past three or four years and we are now told that it will be the greatest thing since rural electrification. People have to suspend their disbelief when they hear that kind of thing.
In respect of housing, the review has six pages of commentary and a list of claims concerning activity. In reading it, however, nowhere does one come across the figures for rising homelessness, the unaffordability of house prices, or the acute crisis in the private rental sector. Last November the Taoiseach announced that the Rebuilding Ireland housing plan was working. Since he made that declaration the number of homeless people has increased by 1,300, with an incredible 15% increase in child homelessness. Does the Taoiseach still think that the plan is working? It is reported this morning that the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, stated at an event for the Construction Industry Federation that some radical new policies are required in housing. Why are new policies needed if the Government's current plans are working?
On the defence question, will the Taoiseach confirm what he could not confirm yesterday, namely, that two ships could not set sail because no crews were available? I asked the Taoiseach that question yesterday. The Chief of Staff has said he would prefer the term "serious challenges" rather than "crisis". He would like to address the Public Service Pay Commission as he thinks pay is the big issue, but all he can do is advise Government. Clearly, reading between the lines, that is what he has done. The Taoiseach has failed in respect of the Defence Forces. I said that yesterday. Talking to the spouses and partners of members, it seems there are significant issues in terms of the depletion of officer ranks and a lack of morale among the force generally. Notwithstanding what is in the programme for Government, the reality is very different.
I thank the Deputies very much for their questions. The confidence and supply agreement is an agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. It has no expiry date as such but it has always been understood to last three budgets. The budget is taking place next week. There is also provision for a review before the end of this year, and we are now very much into the fourth quarter of this year. That is where it stands at the moment. I promise to update Deputies in due course should there be any change. The agreement between Fine Gael, the Independent Alliance, and the Ministers, Deputies Naughten and Zappone, is the programme for Government. That is a five-year programme and that stands. Therefore it does not require renegotiation, or certainly not at this stage.
It is true to say that the Department of Health is running several million euros over budget, but it is also worth recognising that is happening for a reason. It is because recruitment is happening at a great pace across our health service. There are approximately 1,000 extra nurses working in our public health service this year-----
Is the Taoiseach saying the recruitment was not budgeted for?
-----in comparison with last year. There are more doctors working in our public health service than ever before. Pay restoration is happening across the public service for more than 100,000 people. All those things cost money.
They are all budgeted for.
Waiting times are falling. There has been a significant fall in the number of people waiting for angiograms or for operations or procedures on hips, eyes, knees, cataracts and skin lesions. The number has fallen by more than 10,000 since this time last year. The average patient is now waiting less than six months for those operations.
It is because money is being spent-----
On the National Treatment Purchase Fund?
-----on the National Treatment Purchase Fund and other things, including both insourcing and outsourcing.
That is privatising a public resource.
That is having a result. Free GP care has also been extended to carers because carers need to be cared for too. Medical cards are now a right for children with profound disabilities who are in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance regardless of their parents' income. That was resisted in the past but this Government decided to do it. Additional hospital beds are also being provided. I note that HSE numbers indicate that in every month this year from May onwards-----
So the budget is only indicative.
-----there have been fewer people waiting on trolleys. The nurses' figures suggest that was true last month, but not for the other months. Certainly hundreds of people fewer were spending time on trolleys this summer compared with last. These are among the reasons the Department of Health is running over budget.
On tax, it is important to give the full picture. The Comptroller and Auditor General acknowledges that Ireland's tax system is one of the most progressive in the world. Those on the lowest incomes pay least and those on higher incomes pay most. That is as it should be.
That is not what the Comptroller and Auditor General said at all.
Approximately 30% of people, those on the lowest incomes, pay no income tax at all. He says that it is certainly not fundamentally flawed but that it does give rise to issues around so-called high-worth individuals. The Government is going to examine loopholes and reliefs to see what we can do to close any legal loopholes that are being abused or to take away reliefs that are allowing people not to pay their fair share of tax. It is important to acknowledge, however, as the Comptroller and Auditor General does, that some of these high-worth individuals are not resident in the country. It is possible to own property in Ireland and not pay income tax. I suspect Mr. Trump, who owns a hotel and golf course in Doonbeg, does not pay income tax in Ireland-----
Nor does he pay it anywhere else by the looks of it.
-----because he makes his income in the US. There would be many examples of people-----
He gets help with planning though. He gets a lot of assistance.
That is just one obvious example of someone who owns property or has wealth in Ireland and who does not pay income tax here because he does not earn any income in Ireland and lives in a different country. He earns his income elsewhere. It is important that we not be misleading about these things.
He is not resident in Ireland anyway. That is a ridiculous example.
There is also a difference between wealth and income. It is possible to own land or a business that is worth many billions of euro and not derive-----
The Taoiseach is talking about people who are not tax resident here.
They have no tax applications here other than on income arising. That is ridiculous.
The Taoiseach is out of time, we need to move to Question No. 9.
No, we cannot.
The Taoiseach did not answer the question on whether he would confirm-----
If we keep interrupting the Taoiseach-----
He deliberately avoids answering the questions.
There are constant interruptions.
He is not answering the questions.
He is deliberately avoiding the questions. There are not constant interruptions. He is just not answering the questions.
We are moving on to Question No. 9.
He gave us an absurd suggestion about President Trump.
He is deliberately refusing to answer questions.
We are moving to Question No. 9.
This is absurd and bizarre.
I do take issue with those comments. We touched on this earlier. I am not deliberately avoiding answering questions. The Ceann Comhairle has written to us all and asked us to keep to time. I am obeying his-----
We will have to organise a course in-----
We have to know how this works.
We do not need a course. Let us not overdo it here. We get less than a minute to ask questions. The Taoiseach deliberately goes off on tangents about-----
-----Donald Trump and all the rest of it instead of answering the specific questions that were asked.
He did not answer any questions on housing.
We are consuming time out of the next block of questions.
I know some of this is parliamentary pantomime from the Opposition.
That is just shocking.
To say that I go off on tangents in my answers-----
Will the Taoiseach confirm-----
All any reasonable person has to do is look at the questions that are put to me and then look at the tangents that other people go off on.
Housing? Health? Tax justice?
The Deputies are only accusing me of doing things they do themselves.
Can we deal with Question No. 9?
The public deserve a better quality of accountability than they are getting.
They deserve answers.
That is not down to me. It is down to poor Opposition.
9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his plans for reconvening a Citizens' Assembly. [38646/18]
10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if will report on plans to establish a Citizens' Assembly in respect of gender equality. [38650/18]
11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his plans to address gender equality issues in a Citizens' Assembly. [39541/18]
12. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if will report on plans to establish a Citizens' Assembly in respect of gender equality. [39680/18]
13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach his plans for reconvening a Citizens' Assembly. [39829/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 13, inclusive, together. With regard to gender equality-----
The Taoiseach is beginning to sound like Donald Trump.
Can we please let the man answer?
With regard to gender equality in society, we must ensure that women have opportunities to participate fully and effectively in economic, public and political life. We need to see more women participating in decision-making roles across society so as to empower future generations of women and girls. As I have stated publicly, most recently at the Congress of Women's Caucuses on 10 September, I intend to bring forward proposals for the establishment of a new Citizens' Assembly to consider the issue of gender equality shortly. I would further propose that a Dublin Citizens' Assembly be specifically convened to consider the issue of directly elected mayors for Dublin and the form that should take. This is part of a comprehensive local government reform paper brought to Government by the Minister of State with responsibility for local government, Deputy John Paul Phelan.
The Taoiseach has informed us that he will reconvene a Citizens' Assembly to address the issue of gender equality. He may be aware that today the Seanad is dealing with Report and Final Stages of the Labour Party's gender pay gap reporting Bill to deal with the issue of gender equality. It is expected to pass this week. When it does, it will come back to the Dáil. The indication is that it is to be parked at that stage and the Government will introduce, at some future date, its own Bill which will have to start off the entire process again. Will the Taoiseach give consideration for allowing the Labour Bill, even if it needs to be amended, to become law this side of Christmas?
The Taoiseach also said yesterday that there would be a Citizens' Assembly specific to Dublin to deal with the possibility of a directly elected mayor for Dublin. That is not a bad idea. The Citizens' Assembly model has worked well.
Yesterday, I asked for a Citizens' Assembly to discuss the future ownership and control of schools, an issue very much on the agenda. I do not believe that one Citizens' Assembly on gender equality and a bespoke Dublin one should prohibit us from considering another one to address that particular issue.
On the proposal in respect of Dublin and other large cities and towns, we all value community and the development of strong community bonds. These are essential not just to the economic development and presentation of an area but to the quality of the lives of the people who live in it. Is the Taoiseach amenable not just to having a potentially elected mayor in the whole of the Dublin region but to have large towns, such as Swords, Blanchardstown and Dún Laoghaire, clearly represented by an identifiable mayoral figure?
On the Citizens' Assembly on gender inequality, does the Taoiseach propose to include in its terms of reference an indication in favour of quotas of women, as well as an indication in respect of narrowing and eliminating the gender pay gap? What we are getting at the moment is occasional participation by many women in a field. Then, when those exceptional women who have held that position pass on to something else-----
Thank you, Deputy. Time is up.
-----it just reverts to the male, stale and pale model that the Taoiseach and his Government have focused on so far in its term of office.
Will the Taoiseach outline when the Citizens' Assembly on gender inequality will actually be established and what timeframe would be involved? He has also stated that the gender pay gap should be one of the issues considered by the Citizens' Assembly. It remains one of the starkest reminders of the continued inequality faced by women in this State. The most recent figures available from the CSO, Central Statistics Office, indicate women are paid 14% less than men on average. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that is a shocking statistic.
The Government announced it intends to introduce a gender pay gap information Bill. Sinn Féin would broadly welcome its intention but we do intend to introduce significant amendments to it in order to name and shame companies which fail to make information public and to shorten the timescale for its implementation. When will the Bill be introduced?
Domestic violence is another critically important issue. Before the summer, the Taoiseach informed the Dáil that the expert group considering a second SAVI, sexual abuse and violence in Ireland, report was nearing completion of its work. Will he confirm if it has completed its work? What is the timeframe for the completion of the study to identify the prevalence of sexual abuse and violence? When will it be published?
I agree with Deputy Burton on gender equality that there is a whole range of areas to be addressed, not just pay equality, such as under-representation of women, for example, in the senior echelons of universities and third level education which is quite striking. Where the Citizens' Assembly model has been effective is where the question put to it has been specific rather than covering a general area. Where its recommendations have had the most impact, it has been where the Oireachtas has had a complementary process for considering the issue. With the repeal of the eighth amendment, we all agree that work of the Oireachtas all-party committee was an essential part in ensuring that the final proposal considered by the people answered all reasonable questions and was soundly based.
On past recommendations, the assembly recommended that an electoral commission should be established with some urgency. This recommendation was recently supported by the committee looking at electoral integrity and disinformation. Will the Taoiseach explain why relatively straightforward but important legislation has been delayed so long? If one looks back, the then Minister, John Gormley, began drafting work on legislation in 2010. For some reason, however, this was stopped and not restarted, in spite of the following two Governments committing to enact the legislation. Will the Taoiseach clear up the mystery as to why there seems to be an incapacity and inability to have legislation on an electoral commission?
I found a memorandum I produced in 1996 for the then Government on it.
It is important to the credibility of the Citizens' Assembly and the Oireachtas.
I am not sure who Deputy Burton was referring to as being male, pale or stale. I am definitely not pale. When we talk about gender equality and gender diversity, whether in politics, the workplace or in any field of life, I do not think it is right to be diminutive or dismissive of anyone based on their gender, pallor or level of experience. I hope that when we talk about these issues, we will not use that kind of language about anyone, whether it is men or women, older people or younger people, white people or black people. I do not think that sort of language serves us well.
I agree with Deputy Martin's assessment on the Citizens' Assembly. It would very much tie in with Ms Justice Laffoy's assessment that the assembly works best when it is asked to examine specific proposals rather than wide-ranging issues, as well as having the input of the Oireachtas and people with experience of legislation, policy and politics. This can be useful and we saw that very much with the process around the eighth amendment.
The gender pay Bill was discussed at the Cabinet just this week. I would like to have the legislation passed in this calendar year if that can be done. It could be done with a bit of give and take and compromise. The best thing to do might be for the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, or the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, to sit down with the Bill's sponsor, Senator Bacik, to see if it is possible to amend the Bill, as passed by the Seanad. With goodwill and compromise all around, that is achievable and we could get the legislation enacted by the end of the year and actually implemented next year. I would be very open to that.
On the Dublin Citizens' Assembly, there are many different ideas as to how local government should work. In Cork city, Limerick and Waterford, we will be offering people a plebiscite on a directly elected mayor with executive powers. Dublin is more complicated because it has four local authorities to which people feel differing degrees of attachment. The proposal put forward by Fianna Fáil and the Greens in the past was that the four authorities would stay with their own mayors and then there would be a super assembly with a super mayor. It would be a whole new layer of governance with a directly elected mayor over that. That might work.
My preferred model, however, is a different one which is more akin to London and Paris which I accept are much larger cities. It would be one where one would have a single Dublin authority, say a greater Dublin council, with a directly elected mayor over it. Then there would be many small borough councils to which people would feel they have an identity or connection, whether it is Swords, Lucan, Blanchardstown or Malahide.
I do not have the monopoly of wisdom on this nor do I claim to. That is why a Citizens' Assembly would be valuable in asking the people of Dublin what they think would work best. Deputy Eamon Ryan has proposed the assembly should also involve a number of councillors and politicians.
We will give consideration to that matter. The Constitutional Convention worked on that basis. On its make-up, two thirds of its members were citizens, while one third were politicians. Perhaps something along the lines of that model might work.
On proposals for other citizens' assemblies, we can only have so many at any one time. The plan is to approve before the end of the year the proposal for a Dublin citizens' assembly and a citizens' assembly on gender equality and have them meeting next year. I am totally open to suggestions for citizens' assemblies that might follow, but there is limited bandwidth in determining how many there can be at any one time. It is best to have one or two at a time properly, rather than trying to have four or five at the same time.
I was asked about the expert group on sexual violence. It has either completed its work or almost completed it. The Government will proceed with the new survey of gender based violence to follow up on the SAVI report from ten years ago. It was necessary to involve the Central Statistics Office, CSO, because we wanted to make sure it was accurate. As people are increasingly relying on the CSO to provide accurate statistics, it took a bit of time. Also, there was an issue with what would happen if somebody reported during the survey that they had been a victim of gender based or sexual violence because we now have many rules for mandatory reporting which would not have been in place ten years ago. There were many issues in that regard. For example, would the person carrying out the survey then have an obligation to make a report to the Garda and so on? Matters about which many people and I did not think have become issues, given that so much has changed in ten years. However, we intend to do it with the involvement of the CSO which will give everyone confidence that the results will be accurate.
On that point, does the Taoiseach know if the report has been published?
Does the Taoiseach have any idea of when we can expect it to be published?
It will have to be brought to the Cabinet first.