Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

National Reform Programme

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the National Reform Programme 2018. [43710/18]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the National Reform Programme 2018. [43839/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the National Reform Programme 2018. [45636/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The national reform programme is an important element of the European semester. This is the annual cycle of enhanced economic and fiscal policy co-ordination at EU level. Each semester is commenced by the publication by the European Commission of the annual growth survey, which identifies economic priorities for member states for the period ahead.

In April, Ireland, along with other member states, submitted its national reform programme to the European Commission in conjunction with a stability programme update. The national reform programme provides an overview of structural reforms and policy actions under way, including in response to country-specific recommendations given to Ireland as part of the preceding year's European semester. It is co-ordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach with input from relevant Departments and agencies. Stakeholders were consulted and submissions were received from 11 groups before the programme was finalised. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs was also invited to share its views on the European semester.

Ireland’s national reform programme for 2018 reported on policies in place to respond to the main challenges and imbalances Ireland faces, including those identified in the 2018 country report published by the European Commission and Ireland’s country-specific recommendations for 2017. The programme also reported on progress towards Ireland’s Europe 2020 targets in the areas of employment, research and development, climate change and energy, education and poverty reduction. Finally, the programme provided an update on Brexit and reported on the use of structural funds.

The national reform programme justifiably highlights the disparity in employment rates between men and women, which have widened once again in recent years. However, it completely fails to mention the disparity in pay that women in the workforce experience. Yesterday marked the Work Equal campaign's day of action to highlight the gender pay gap in Ireland. It was in effect the date on which women stopped receiving an income for their work for the remainder of the year relative to their male counterparts. CSO data show that on average, women in Ireland are paid 14% less than men. Ireland is not an outlier in its failure to address the gender pay gap and addressing it should form part of the national reform programme. European Unequal Pay Day was marked on 31 October. The bottom line is that Irish women, like many women across Europe, work two months out of 12 for free when compared with men.

I understand the general scheme of the Gender Pay Gap (Information) Bill will be before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality next week for pre-legislative scrutiny. While gender pay gap reporting is an important tool that will assist in identifying pay differentials and might assist in tackling the pay gap issue, there are other tools at the disposal of the Taoiseach. The programme for Government commits to strengthening the role of the Low Pay Commission in tackling the gender pay gap as well as in-work poverty and also commits to strengthening regulation on precarious work. Women workers are disproportionately represented in low pay sectors such as retail and hospitality. What actions have been taken to strengthen the role of the Low Pay Commission in tackling in-work poverty, precarious work and the gender pay gap?

On the country-specific recommendations and the national reform programme, there is a call for specific emphasis on resolving long-term non-performing loans through resolution strategies, that is, making provision for write-downs to allow indebted homeowners to resolve their debt and be able to secure their family home. The same would be true for viable businesses, as is referenced in the reports, as well as for households. Ireland is unusual in that there is very little evidence here of any debt write-downs at all. Instead, the debt is being sold to vulture funds. There is much suggestion from those in government that the vulture funds are in some way nicer and easier to deal with. I do not think that is true. The principle of debt reduction is to allow indebted people to get back into an arrangement with their bank.

Will the Taoiseach instruct AIB and PTSB, for example, to deliver debt write-downs to their remaining customers who are in serious arrears? Billions of euro of loans have been sold to vulture funds at a steep discount. This is not being passed on to homeowners. The country-specific recommendations called for better targeted measures in terms of tax expenditures and general government expenditures.

On 1 December, the National Housing and Homelessness Coalition will be organising another demonstration on the ongoing housing and homelessness crisis which we have talked much about in this House. The national reform programme makes significant reference to the Government's plans to address the housing situation, and reiterates its targets under the Rebuilding Ireland plan. Does the Taoiseach accept that even at this point in the year, the Government is not meeting even those completely inadequate targets? The figures at the end of quarter 2 for the building of social housing show a total of 1,400 units and just under 500 council houses. The Rebuilding Ireland targets were for 6,385. The Government is way below the targets it set itself in Rebuilding Ireland, which are totally inadequate compared to the number of people on housing lists and in homelessness and emergency situations. Does the Taoiseach accept that Rebuilding Ireland is failing even on its own terms, and that what is stated in the national reform programme in respect of it is simply not going to happen? What is the Taoiseach going to do to address that?

The reform plan makes reference to research and development and how it has underpinned innovative ideas, particularly over the last 20 years. However, there is a sense that we are not putting the resources or emphasis into further research and development to allow policy makers and others to bring forward the best possible ideas. In resect of the Higher Education Authority, major issues have developed in how they are going forward. Does the Taoiseach accept that there is a major issue affecting research and development? It has been shown over the last 20 years that solid research and development has underpinned many innovative ideas but we do not seem to be putting the emphasis into getting the best possible research before we go into changing policy. The Taoiseach might comment on that.

Closing the gender pay gap is not in the national reform programme but I agree with Deputy O'Reilly that just because something is not in the national reform programme does not mean we should not do it. We should do it and we have a number of actions under way. The first is the gender pay Bill, which is going to the Oireachtas joint committee next week. I encourage all parties to work together to make sure we have pre-legislative scrutiny done next week and can progress the legislation. It will require companies and employers with more than 250 staff initially to be phased subsequently to 50 or more staff, to produce data on their gender pay gap so we can see where it exists.

It also enables us to drill down a bit more into the reasons for gender pay gaps among different employers. There can be many different reasons.

We have had equal pay for equal work since the 1970s but that is different from gender pay and very often it is because it is much more difficult for women to make their way up the promotional ladder. In higher education institutions, for example, 50% of lecturers are women, but only 25% of professors are women. That can be seen across the public service and in private sector companies as well. We need to push the promotion of more women in the workplace. Deputies will be aware of the package of actions published by Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, on Monday. We need to do those kinds of things across all parts of the public sector and in the private sector. In the next few weeks I will be involved in an initiative to encourage the promotion of more women to the boards of private companies, similar to what has been done in the UK. We have already made some good progress with State boards in that regard. More than 52% of people appointed to State boards through the PAS process were female - a majority for the first time. More than 40% of members of State boards are now women.

Actions such as increases in the national minimum wage disproportionately benefit women because more women are earning the minimum wage. In January, the fourth increase since 2011 will kick in. There are many other similar actions.

I had an opportunity to look at the Central Bank report on the code of conduct on mortgage arrears in recent days. The percentage of people in mortgage arrears of more than 90 days is 7%. People may often miss payments, but the number who are more than three months in arrears is now down to approximately 7%. That is a really dramatic fall. The number of people in mortgage arrears used to be 15% to 20% and it is now 7%. Some 120,000 mortgage loans have been restructured, which is a considerable number. Sometimes that means changing the term; sometimes it means a reduced interest rate; sometimes it means making it a split mortgage; and sometimes it can involve write-downs as well. Some 93% of people are paying their mortgages and are meeting their repayment schedules. Many of them are also struggling to do so, but are meeting them. However, tens of thousands are still in mortgage distress and we need to put in place workable solutions for them. Every circumstance is different and no one size fits all. In some cases it will involve restructuring the loans. There are many ways to do that, such as reduced interest rates and longer terms. In some cases it may be write-downs and in some cases it may be people voluntarily surrendering the home they are mortgaging to move to a smaller home for which they are better able to afford the rent or mortgage. There are many different solutions and it is necessary to look at each case individually.

It is not lawful for me or the Minister for Finance to make directions to the commercial banks even where we own a portion or a significant portion of the shares. They must operate independently and commercially. There are many reasons for that under European and Irish law. I would be happy to send on to Deputy Burton a primer explaining how it works.

Core to the solution to the housing issue is the supply of new homes and apartments. We need more homes and apartments for people to live in. Last year, the population increased by over 60,000. It stands to reason, therefore, that we need to be building at least 30,000 new homes and apartments every year just to meet the rise in demand of a country with an expanding population and an expanding economy. However, we are not doing that yet. We need to ramp up the supply of new houses and apartments of all sorts. We need homes for people to buy, homes for people to rent and also social housing. We need all those kinds of housing and also need cost rental.

We are making progress. We will build between 18,000 and 20,000 new homes this year, which is up from 15,000 last year - it was less than 10,000 the previous year and perhaps 5,000 the year before. If we could ramp it up quicker, I guarantee that we would. However, there are capacity constraints and limitations as to how quickly we can ramp up the building of new homes. To have gone from less than 5,000 a few years ago to nearly 20,000 this year, with more new homes being built this year than in any other year this decade represents considerable progress. I fully accept that it is not happening fast enough. We will do everything we can to speed up the rate of construction growth until it gets to the sustainable level of 30,000 to 35,000 new homes being built every year which is what we need to meet and get ahead of demand.

The CSO figures released this week speak for themselves. A total of 4,673 new homes were built in the three months to September, which means that 4,673 individuals and families in those three months being able to move into new homes and apartments. The big increase was in housing schemes. The increase in one-off housing was only 26%, but the increase in housing schemes, housing estates essentially, was 40% year on year, which is a pretty big increase in the number of new housing estates being built. It is disappointing that we have not seen a similar increase in the number of apartments being built, particularly in the cities where many single people want one-bedroom apartments and many people want to rent. The number of apartments being built is not increasing at all.

It is below target though.

That is a matter of significant concern. Of course, these figures do not include a further 2,000 student apartments, the reconnection of 654 vacant dwellings or unfinished housing developments that have now been completed.

Departmental Communications

Brendan Howlin

Question:

4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in establishing a single Government visual identity. [43841/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in developing a single Government visual identity. [45086/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together. A unified Government identity has been developed and adopted by Departments as part of the reform programme for Government communications.

A unified identity replaces a fragmented and expensive system that saw Departments and Government agencies use, and communicate through, a multiplicity of identities, logos and brands, resulting in confusion, a lack of clarity for citizens and greater expense. The unified identity makes it easier for citizens to understand and recognise when a Government body is communicating with them and when projects and initiatives are funded by Government as opposed to the private sector or NGOs.

The experience of governments internationally and the research done in other jurisdictions, notably in the Netherlands, confirm the confusion and lack of clarity resulting from a fragmented approach.

The Dutch experience and that of the United Kingdom and others is that a unified, consistent identifiable identity ensures greater clarity on the role and place of Government in society for citizens and in Government communications.

All Departments have been supplied with the logos, templates and guidelines necessary to apply the identity and this application is well under way in all Departments. This is evident in the use of the Government of Ireland identity at Government events, press conferences and at public events, conferences etc., where Departments have a presence.

The unified identity has also been applied at departmental level - from departmental logos through to a consistent approach to the design of communications campaigns, reports, online activity and identifying all Government communications campaigns as being very clearly initiatives of the Government of Ireland.

An example of how this unified identity provides a clear, identifiable presence for the citizen was at the recent National Ploughing Championships, where Government representation was immediately and clearly identifiable as a result of all Departments using the unified identity in the design of their units.

In alignment with the recommendations from the Secretary General's report, the reformed Government Information Service, GIS, is responsible for the implementation of the single Government identity.

I thank the Taoiseach for the reply, which indicates that the strategic communications unit lives on, perhaps in a ghost-like form similar to a hologram that can be seen at the back of the image.

Given what the Taoiseach stated, will all individual Department identities ultimately be dropped and subsumed into the Government of Ireland identity? I believe many citizens would not like that because they are familiar with different elements of Government services. For example, some Government services are well received but others are not. As the Taoiseach knows, the Government is mired in difficulties in the areas of justice, housing and health. Is there some discretion in that regard?

What is the spend to date on the development of the identity and what is the projected end-of-year spend? What agency - I presume it is some ad agencies or a single agency - is overseeing the implementation? Are departmental logos being phased out? Is that the Taoiseach's ultimate projection? The spirit of the strategic communications unit is still there. Has any cost-benefit analysis been done on what outcomes this is producing in terms of better services for citizens?

The Taoiseach said a single Government visual identity will provide greater clarity for citizens on the offering of services - or the complete lack thereof in some instances - and that he believes it will help in terms of Government communications. I do not disagree with that. The Taoiseach said all Departments have been supplied with logos, templates and guidelines necessary to apply the identity and this application is well under way in all of them. That is a useful clarification. Does the Taoiseach have the details to hand of exactly who put the design together? How much has the rebranding or redesign across government cost to date? What are the projected costs for the future? To echo the question asked previously, has a cost-benefit analysis or any kind of value-for-money analysis been conducted to ensure this will be cost-effective?

On the single Government identity, one could be cynical and say this is moving far faster in terms of reform-----

One would never find cynical people around here.

It would be a first, I suppose. The sense is there is greater emphasis given to the reform of various Departments by the single Government identity. Statements have been made on a single Government identity and greater participation by the public and more information on Government services. When there is a complete lack of Government services it is an issue. The issue of home helps and kids with disabilities was raised repeatedly during questions on promised legislation earlier. The services are not there. If more State services are made available, the public is discerning and will find them quickly. The emphasis cannot only be on branding. The emphasis has to be on improving the quality of the services, particularly to vulnerable people. There are challenges across a wide variety of Departments. I would like to see greater emphasis in Departments on the issues affecting citizens. Whatever branding is there, the public will be able to find services if they are available. It is not correct to say that a single identity gives the citizen greater interaction with State services. If State services are not there, no matter what brand there is, citizens will not get involved in it.

To pick up on the final comment, I could not agree more. Good communication is no substitute for good services, nor is it a substitute for good infrastructure but good communication can help to provide a good service and make sure people know where to find it. Different identities will continue to exist. Nobody is suggesting for a second that the Garda Síochána will cease to be the Garda Síochána. We know from Deputy Burton's leadership in reforming the Department of Social Protection, the Intreo brand is one that is quite strong.

Óglaigh na hÉireann will still be Óglaigh na hÉireann.

I assure the Deputy that is the case.

That is good to know. It is helpful.

I appreciate there is suspicion to the point of paranoia around this but I assure the Deputy not only will the gardaí still be the gardaí, the Navy will still be the Navy and Intreo will still be Intreo. It means Departments will adopt a common and unified brand. It is a harp. It makes sense that Departments, which are essentially just branches of Government, should all have the same logo. If one went to a major enterprise or company, every department or division of that company or service would not have its own website or logo. It is one Government. We want to have joined-up government in terms of policy, delivery and communications. Over time, it stands to reason that doing that will save money. We want to give people clarity around communications so they know what is coming from Government and what is not. There is much debate in the House about online advertising and information campaigns and how often the source of that information or the people behind such campaigns is covert. This is the opposite of that. It makes sure people know if there is information being put out or if there is a communications campaign that it comes from the Government of Ireland so it will not be obscured by an entity they have not heard of if they are not sure the entity is a Government body, a private enterprise or an NGO, for example.

The cost incurred so far for the unified Government identity is €47,000, excluding VAT. That covers design work and the roll-out of services as well as the production of comprehensive guidelines for the use of all Departments.

A unified identity for Government replaces a fragmented system that saw Departments and agencies use and communicate through a multiplicity of identities, logos and brands resulting in confusion and a lack of clarity for citizens, as the number of Government bodies has proliferated over past decades.

The experience of Governments internationally and the research done in other jurisdictions, notably in the Netherlands, confirms the confusion and lack of clarity resulting from a fragmented approach. The Dutch experience, and that of the United Kingdom, is that a unified, consistent identity ensures greater clarity around the role and place of Government in society for citizens and in Government communications. The unified identity makes it clearer for citizens to understand and recognise when Government is communicating with them and when projects and initiatives are funded by Government. Departments are represented online by multiple distinct websites and platforms, each providing different visual styles and user experience. The vision for gov.ie is it will provide one portal for citizens to access Government services. The site is being developed with the citizen at its centre and will provide coherent digital experiences for citizens in communicating with Departments. The design prioritises ease of access to services provided by Government and represents a move away from today's situation where website designs are aligned to how Governments are organised internally. These changes are being driven by the eGovernment strategy and Our Public Service 2020. Significant advancements have been made on gov.ie since its launch in November 2017 both on structure and the interface of the website and on the use of the site more generally. It is being used to host many cross-government communications campaigns, including Healthy Ireland, Be Safe Online, Sláintecare, Project Ireland 2040 and budget 2019. The current phase of the project entails the migration of departmental websites to gov.ie. A set of guidelines has been developed, which all Departments will adhere to, in the migration to the website, leading to a uniform and intuitive experience for the citizen and its interaction across Departments. The Department of the Taoiseach has been the first Department to migrate and this migration is due to be completed by the end of this year with other Department websites moving across throughout 2019.

Public Sector Reform Implementation

Michael Moynihan

Question:

6. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the public sector reform measures that have been introduced in his Department since 2017. [41811/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public sector reform measures under way in his Department. [45087/18]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the public sector reform measures under way in his Department; and his priorities in this regard. [46730/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 8, inclusive, together.

My Department continues to implement public sector reform actions which aim to develop both staff and the organisation to deliver excellent services. This work is guided by the successive reform plans published by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Civil Service renewal plan. The latest plan, Our Public Service 2020, sets out the next phase of priorities with a strong emphasis on promoting innovation to enhance our public services.

In the areas of shared services, my Department has migrated in line with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform requirements with HR, pensions and payroll services completed. Preparations are under way within my Department for the next major shared services project, which is financial management shared service.

The Department liaises closely with the OGP on all matters related to public procurement and monitors all areas of expenditure on an ongoing basis to ensure value for money is achieved.

The Department is currently engaged in approximately 40 OGP central frameworks for supply of goods and services, such as provision of cleaning supplies, taxis, travel management and Irish translation services.

In 2017, my Department was a pilot organisation for the implementation of the eCorrespondence system as part of the move towards the use of common applications across the Civil Service. We have also implemented a wide range of actions as part of Civil Service renewal since 2017, including adopting the new shared learning and development training, which makes 60 newly tailored courses available to all staff; the new service-wide mobility scheme for executive officer and clerical officer grades; a gender balance action plan setting out actions to provide a positive work environment; employee engagement and well-being initiatives in response to the 2017 Civil Service employee engagement survey; participation in senior public service initiatives, including executive leadership programmes for senior managers, as part of a new talent management initiative; and the introduction of the single Government visual identity. Other initiatives under way include preparing a new human resource strategy to underpin the delivery of the people strategy for the Civil Service at a local level, and moving the Department website to the single Government platform, gov.ie, which I mentioned earlier.

I am satisfied the fruits of reform and renewal are evident in my Department with services and staff who are responsive and deliver high quality service. There is a strong track record of the Department being able to adjust and respond quickly to emerging needs. Specific programmes of work to which my Department has responded in recent years include the Citizens' Assembly, Brexit preparedness, justice reform and the social and economic regeneration of Dublin’s north-east inner city.

The Taoiseach mentioned the various public sector reform policies and their aims. Are public servants given enough support in advancing those specific policies in every Department? Are they given every possible support? When there is a gradual change in policy, they should be supported and presented with ideals. There has been a trend, in particular among Government politicians, to say that any major crisis that occurs is the fault of the Civil Service or the public service. We talk about public sector reform but these people give considerable service. In general, since the foundation of the State, the public sector has given great service to the people, and there are many fine public servants across the sector, whether in the Civil Service, An Garda Síochána or the health or education sectors. While a small minority of people have abused their positions, most have given great service.

Significant challenges face our society as it evolves, which it has been doing at great speed over the past number of years and which it will continue to do. There is a need to support the public service in each of its facets. What human resource supports are in place? How are public servants being encouraged or equipped for public sector reform? The reform will have an impact on them and the service they are expected to deliver.

The programme for Government contains a range of commitments for political reform, such as Ministers of State playing a more substantive role in policy formation and a re-examination of their functions within departmental structures and of their relationships with Ministers.

There is also a commitment to examine the creation of unpaid roles of parliamentary private secretaries and the balance of power and responsibility between the Government and the Civil Service. What progress has been made in this regard? Has an examination been undertaken? What is the level of engagement, to date and planned, with the men and women who will deliver this reform programme? One often hears civil and public servants say they have reform fatigue, that is, they are busy and working but they do not feel engaged in the decisions that are made in the political sphere.

Over the past two nights, RTÉ showed two riveting programmes about what happened to Sergeant Maurice McCabe, his wife, Lorraine, and their family. Did the Taoiseach get a chance to watch these programmes by Katie Hannon? They are required viewing for anybody interested in how Irish public administration and reform work. I expect them to be on management and university courses in the decades to come. The key question that emerges from the programmes is whether anyone will be held accountable. In recent days, the Taoiseach discussed the matter in regard to the former Garda Commissioner and his legal position. The questions that stand out from the programme, however, are what happened to Tusla and how the false allegation, which for any person would be a truly dreadful allegation, namely, of violating and raping a child, was transferred to a file.

This matter cuts to the core of public service reform. How does the Taoiseach propose to deal with the issue, which has been the subject of endless inquiries? A grave wrong was done to a particular individual and his family, which the programme shows clearly. What are the Taoiseach's priorities for public service reform? The need for it was shown by the tribunal and the facts of the case. This House agreed to the establishment of Sláíntecare, which would affect some of these areas, but has there been any progress on that?

There was also an agreement on an electoral commission, on which I recall the Taoiseach being keen, but has there been any progress? We are approaching another election but there is no control of political messaging and its sources on social media. We could be in the same boat as other countries which have suffered vast interference in their electoral processes.

On the appointment of unpaid parliamentary private secretaries, we have decided not to proceed. We are relatively slim on the Government benches in this Dáil, with only 56 or 57 Deputies, many of whom, if not most, are Ministers or Ministers of State. In a different context, however, with a larger or majority Government, there might be a case for giving Deputies some experience in the ministerial ranks, but it is not something with which we propose to proceed in the current Government.

Ministers of State are heavily involved in policy formation in the areas for which they are responsible. Almost all Ministers of State have a delegation order which legally prescribes functions to them, while others have a delegation letter from a Minister which assigns them certain areas. They are the lead people, therefore, in policy formation on those areas. They also engage with their line Minister on broader matters, as well as through the Cabinet sub-committee system, and Ministers of State often attend Cabinet meetings where relevant. At the Cabinet meeting on Brexit today, for example, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, attended for obvious reasons. This is not a new practice and it ensures Ministers of State are fully engaged in decision-making when decisions need to be made.

I did not have a chance to watch the documentary on Maurice McCabe over the past two nights, although I saw a few clips last night. I very much want to watch it from start to finish but, unfortunately, I have not had much time for television in the past couple of days given everything else that is going on. Between now and Christmas, I certainly intend to watch it from start to finish. From what I have heard, it is essential viewing for anyone involved in politics and public administration, as Deputy Burton said. I will make it my business, therefore, to watch it.

In regard to progress made in other areas, I must admit that progress on the electoral commission has been slow. It was discussed at Cabinet on Tuesday and I asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, to get on with the job, the next step of which is to produce a regulatory impact assessment of the electoral commission.

However, that section of the Department has much work to do. It is also working on local government reform and the referendums that are pencilled in for next May on extending the franchise in presidential elections to all Irish citizens no matter where they live, as well as the plebiscite. They have a great deal on their agenda but I appreciate that the electoral commission has been on that agenda for a long time and there ought to have been more progress. The idea is that the electoral commission could replace the Referendum Commission, in effect having a standing referendum commission which would be useful as it would no longer be necessary to set the commission and then close it down each time there was a referendum. It would also have responsibility for issues such as the electoral register, and could take on responsibility for registering Irish citizens who live outside the State, for instance if they register for postal votes under the reformed franchise for presidential elections in the event that people vote for that, or for the reformed Seanad franchise. It is a constitutional requirement for Seanad elections to operate by postal vote which makes them expensive. That is something we ought to examine. It also might have a role in the regulation of political advertising and posters. The Referendum Commission will publish its report on the abortion referendum shortly. It expressed particular concerns that no body was regulating poster or online advertising, but we must always be careful that in regulating these areas, we do not infringe on free speech. We need to get that balance right. I would never make changes on those issues without cross-party consensus, and people will understand why.

We are making a lot more progress on Sláintecare. The implementation office has been established and it has a director, Ms Laura Magahy. On Friday, I spent two or three hours going through the implementation plan with Ms Magahy and the Ministers for Health and Finance. Many of the measures in the budget speak to Sláintecare, including the move towards universal healthcare, reduction in prescription charges, the reduction in the drugs payment scheme threshold, and an increase in the income threshold limit for the GP visit card so that more people pay less for healthcare. It is happening at a slow pace but we must do it at a pace that is affordable and ensure there is sufficient capacity in the health service to deal with it. Negotiations are under way with the Irish Medical Organisation on a new GP contract. Were we to reach agreement on that in the coming months, it would be a significant step forward.

The implementation of the bed capacity review is also under way with 250 additional hospital beds provided this year. I do not know how many will be provided next year but I hope it will be more than that. The De Buitléir report on whether we should, and how we might, remove private practice from public hospitals is near completion. That would be a radical step forward. Project Ireland 2040 provides €11 billion for investment in healthcare in new hospitals and hospital extensions. Some 120 new primary care centres are up and running and there is new equipment and ICT. The National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, has been given a greater role in the management of waiting lists. Waiting lists in Ireland are not well managed. Through the resources it has been given, the NTPF, has made progress on waiting times for operations and procedures. The average person waits less than six months on a waiting list for an operation or procedure, but the waiting times remain bad for outpatients. However, there are more missed appointments than there are people waiting more than three months. That says a great deal about the need for more reform, as much, if not more, than the need for more resources, because in excess of 300,000 patients are waiting to see a specialist, whereas 500,000 appointment slots go unfilled. All those issues need to be managed centrally.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.