Mary Lou McDonaldQuestion:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [42202/18]
Vol. 975 No. 2
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [42202/18]
2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [44955/18]
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [45825/18]
4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [46826/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, 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. In accordance with the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006, I have certain functions, such as appointing the members of NESC, presenting reports to Government prior to publication or prior to laying them before the Houses, as in the case of the annual reports. The council is funded through my Department’s Vote and my Department also has governance responsibilities in regard to the council.
NESC membership comprises representatives of business and employer organisations, ICTU, agricultural and farming organisations, community and voluntary organisations and environmental organisations, together with heads of Departments and independent experts. This composition means it plays an important and unique role in bringing different perspectives from civil society together with Government. It helps NESC to analyse the challenges facing Irish society and to develop a shared understanding among its members of how to tackle these challenges.
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. I have brought both reports to Government in advance of publication.
The council has recently adopted a work programme for the year to September 2019, comprising three themes, namely, housing and land: transport-led development; social insurance and the welfare system: towards a sustainable developmental welfare state; and climate change and low carbon transition.
A Programme for a Partnership Government specifically notes there are policy challenges where long-term thinking is required. I hope and trust the council will continue to contribute to policy development, with a focus on the strategic and longer-term view.
One of those key long-term challenges that requires long-term planning is climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy. I know one of the main areas of the work of NESC is in this arena. Last week the European Parliament approved four of the eight proposals comprising its clean energy package for 2020 to 2030. The directives in question originally had binding renewable energy targets in place for each EU member state to achieve but, regrettably, national targets have been removed in favour of an overall EU-wide target. Under the current 2020 targets, the State faces hefty fines for not meeting our 20% energy efficiency and 16% renewable energy targets. Our current shift to renewable energy is not even touching 10%, which we should regard as an abject failure. Without a binding target for 2030, where is the incentive for us to make real, significant changes in respect of climate change policy?
The Climate Action Network Europe has reported in the past that Ireland has played a negative role in climate change negotiations, so it is possible, if not probable, that the Government played a part in removing national targets during negotiations on the important directives agreed just last week. The Taoiseach might enlighten us as to the Government position on this.
As the Taoiseach rightly said, NESC is an important forum where workers' representatives, through their trade unions, meet employers' groups and Government. Over the years it has done an amount of important background research work that informs national policy on areas like public housing and so on. The set of priorities the Taoiseach has indicated for NESC into the future includes, as Deputy McDonald said, the whole issue of climate change. I said recently at our party conference that this is one of the moral imperatives of our time. I genuinely believe that public opinion is light years ahead of opinion in this House, and certainly ahead of opinion within the Government, which talks the talk but, in terms of actually achieving the targets, is pitifully bad.
We will not meet our 2020 target and there is no rescuing that at this stage. However, it is also highly likely that we will not meet our 2030 target, which would be shameful, not only because it is an indictment of this generation and the whole issue of generational solidarity, but also because, economically, it is hugely damaging to us. We will have to make those changes to become a carbon neutral economy. The longer we delay the achievement of those targets, the more expensive it will be, because the fines that will accrue to the State will be extremely severe at that stage.
In terms of the work programme of NESC to inform the Government, will the Taoiseach make it clear in terms of national priorities on the economy and social policy that climate change is a priority, and that carbon reduction and carbon abatement will be practically implemented as a matter of urgency?
Has the Taoiseach read the NESC report on land management produced in April 2018? I ask this because it will explain to him what those of us who will be marching for emergency action on the housing and homelessness emergency on 1 December want and the sort of radical change in policy we are looking for. What the NESC report does is set out examples of what is done in places like the Netherlands and Austria. The contrast with the policies the Government has pursued on housing is stark in the extreme. It points out that in Amsterdam, for example, 80% of zoned building land is in the hands of the state, which does not sell it. Some 30% of Dutch housing stock is social housing, which contrasts with 5% here because of the failure of the Government to build social housing. In Austria, between 2000 and 2014, the austerity years when Irish Governments slashed housing budgets, helping to generate the current housing crisis, the Austrians did the exact opposite. Between 28% and 36% of all housing built in Austria in that period was social housing. It is extraordinary. In the period when we stopped building social housing, more than 30% of all of their housing output was social housing.
Does the Taoiseach see the point? The Government is selling off public land and allowing the private market to dictate, and we have a disaster. However, in other countries of Europe land is kept in public use, strict land management policies apply and a large amount of social housing is built.
NESC has done very valuable work in regard to housing. Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to have a conversation with NESC members or to address or meet them recently? Has he asked, for example, about the affordable housing scheme that was launched with great fanfare by the Government under Rebuilding Ireland? A recent report shows that, of 1,000 applications, only 60 loans were drawn down, and only 20 loans were drawn down in the city of Dublin. We are talking about people who have a joint income of about €75,000 or an individual income of €50,000, for example, skilled tradespeople towards the beginning of their careers. They are being turned down for these loans which the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government launched as a cornerstone of housing recovery.
I happen to agree with the Minister that affordable housing is critical to solving the housing crisis. With all of the expertise that is available from NESC, has the Taoiseach taken the opportunity to have a conversation with NESC as to why, under the Government's housing policy, ordinary people with decent jobs and an income which has passed the test are unable to get affordable housing, in the way their mothers and fathers could get affordable housing?
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: One of those key lnog-term challenges that rqeuires long-term planning is climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy. I know one of the main araes of work of NESC is in this arena. Last week the European Parliament approved four of the eight proposals comprising its clean energy package for 2020 to 2030. The directives in question originally had binding renewable energy
Fine Gael has taken away the right of people to an affordable home. It is great on the public promotion, but the report shows that its policy is producing minute numbers, with only 60 of the 1,000 promised produced. How can anyone stand over that?
In the last two years, NESC has allocated a lot of its time to trying to prompt a more substantive series of actions on two of the most pressing and critical issues for this country, namely, the housing and climate emergencies. However, it is not clear if its work is having any impact at political level in government. The council has presented its work, and that of conference speakers, on how to achieve a more sustainable impact on rough sleeping, for example, and land use. Two weeks ago, a man sleeping rough in a public park approximately a mile and a half from here became the 27th person to die on the streets of Dublin in less than a year and a half. In response, the Minister of State for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Damien English, claimed that enormous progress is being made and that there will be no issue with the number of beds in this area this winter. This was quickly followed by Fr. Peter McVerry's statement that there are more rough sleepers today than there were last year. He pointed out that the Government continues to miss the fundamental point that beds for rough sleepers would be only used if people feel they would be safe accessing the service. In regard to the Government's most recent claims, he said: "I don't see any evidence of them learning." Does the Taoiseach disagree with Fr. McVerry's point that many homeless people are reluctant to access beds because they are concerned for their safety? Is there not something terribly wrong that people would rather risk sleeping rough than access or enter some of our services? Is the Taoiseach confident that the policies and services are in place to stop this unprecedented level of deaths on the streets of our capital city, in particular this winter?
Last week, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Climate Action I set out some of the institutional arrangements that I believe we need to take up within the State to address climate change. Rather than having an outside agency telling us what to do, we need to use existing resources. The secretariat of the NESC could and should have a key role in advising the Taoiseach's Department on its work to tackle climate change. As I understand it, the Taoiseach wants to see an initiative like the action plan for jobs, which is run by his Department, for climate change, which makes sense. The NESC 2012 report on how to get a circular iterative approach to address this issue could give real practical advice and assistance to the Department of the Taoiseach in that regard.
Beneath that, we should give further resources to the Climate Change Advisory Council, chaired by Professor John FitzGerald, to improve the council's work. As recently set out in legislation from this side of the House, we need a just transition commission to assist the members of the NESC in dealing with transition difficulties. We also need a green investment bank and to change the delivery board for the national development plan, which is chaired by the Secretaries General of the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Planning and Local Government, to a delivery board for a climate development plan, co-chaired by the Secretaries General of the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The NESC secretariat has a critical role to play in co-ordinating this work. I commend this approach to the Government.
On the clean energy package, I am not across the details of it. I imagine it was handled by either the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, or the current Minister, Deputy Richard Burton, or perhaps by their respective officials. The advantage of EU-wide targets is that they allow for burden-sharing. In other words, where some countries are doing well and others are not, the targets can be offset against each other. One country might meet its targets in one area but not in another area and another country may meet its targets in the latter area but not in the first area, in which case the targets can be offset against each other. Often these negotiations are done through the big blocs, with the EU negotiating on behalf of all of us with China, India, America and so on.
CO2 emissions are lower than they were notwithstanding a significant increase in population but we are nowhere near close to reaching our target of a 20% reduction by 2020. With the reduction likely to be closer to 1%, it is evident that we will not reach our 2020 targets but I do think we will meet our 2030 targets. I am determined that we should do so for renewable energy and CO2 emissions. Project Ireland 2040, by way of investment in energy -renewables and grid - transport and the insulation of homes and public buildings, will bring us about one third of the way towards this achievement. Other measures will make a difference too. For example, a carbon tax, if we get it right, can make a difference, as can other changes. We need to put them all together, particularly changes in agriculture.
On the NESC report on land management, I have read it. It is a very good report, which informed the Government decision to establish the land development agency, LDA, which is modelled on similar agencies in The Netherlands and Austria. The LDA follows on from the successes of the models in The Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Austria and its purpose, as the House will be aware, is to develop publicly owned land for housing of all sorts, including social, cost rental and private housing because housing of all types is needed in Ireland. The LDA is also tasked with acquiring privately owned land and other land banks that may be developed and zoned into the future, which flows from the advice of the NESC report and is in line with the model in The Netherlands. The LDA staff have visited The Netherlands to examine its model with a view to replicating it here. Cost rental is huge in Vienna. The House will be aware that the first cost rental project is being developed on Emmet Road. It follows the Austrian model. The LDA is modelled on The Netherlands model - a Government agency taking a much more active role in developing housing and acquiring and putting together land banks for development.
We estimate that in 2018, excluding ghost estates that are being brought back into use, student accommodation and reconnections of abandoned homes, approximately 18,000 new homes and apartments will be built in Ireland. We know 5,000 alone were built in the last three months. Of those, 4,000 are social housing, that is direct builds by local authorities and approved housing bodies. This indicates that in terms of new build this year between 20% and 25% are social housing, which is the percentage of social homes for which Members opposite have been advocating. This is where we are at this year. We are just not there in terms of quantum. We want to get to a build of 35,000 per annum, of which 10,000 to 12,000 or between one quarter and one third will be social-public housing. I am sure Deputy Boyd Barrett will be horrified to hear that what he is describing is Fine Gael policy.
The Government should not be selling public land.
I ask the Taoiseach not to invite interruptions.
In The Netherlands they partner public land with private industry and provide a mix of housing.
On rough sleeping, the latest count as Deputy Micheál Martin will know records a decrease of 40%. However, a new count is due soon and I have no idea what the outcome of it will be. We all understand that rough sleeping is a complex social phenomenon. It is not just about housing, it is also about mental health, addiction, alcohol, drugs and family break-up. Often, people have been in trouble with the law and many are non-EU migrants as well. It is a very complex social problem. These are people with enormous needs who need a lot of help. I had the opportunity to visit Merchant's Quay last night to get a better feel for the kind of services it provides and to meet some of the people who use those services, many of whom are rough sleepers. When one gets a feel for the diversity of people who sleep rough - I have also been out with Safetynet to meet people who are sleeping rough, living in tents and so on - and when one gets a feel for the individual stories one understands why they may not wish to accept a bed or accommodation. There are lots of different reasons for it, which are individual reasons in different circumstances.
However, we are doing a lot of work with Peter McVerry Trust on Housing First, which is a programme whereby we assist rough sleepers into housing and give them wrap-around supports so they are able to hold onto the housing. We know that when many rough sleepers get an apartment or other accommodation, for various reasons they are not able to hold onto it. We have seen a lot of success with Housing First. If housing is provided to people who have been sleeping rough and the supports around them continue to be provided, there is a much better chance they will stay in their housing. This is a partnership we have with Peter McVerry Trust and, I think, Focus Ireland, and it has worked very well.
We have 24 minutes left. I respectfully suggest that if we are to get to the three groupings of questions, we spend 12 minutes on each.
The Taoiseach has just taken seven minutes to respond.
I know. I am reminding everyone that we must control the time.
5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if A Programme for Partnership Government progress report will be published in December 2018. [42203/18]
6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the next progress report on A Programme for Partnership Government will be published. [44887/18]
7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if A Programme for Partnership Government progress report will be published in December 2018. [45824/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 7, 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 an annual report each year, the second of which was approved by the Cabinet in May 2018 and is published on my Department's website.
I expect the next report to be published in May 2019. This report will reflect the significant work undertaken by all Departments to deliver progress across a wide range of issues, including housing and homelessness, education, health and rural development.
Although the Government last weekend seemed more interested in needling Fianna Fáil about renewing the confidence and supply arrangements that support the Government, it is important at this juncture for the Taoiseach to set out, as committed to, what in the programme for Government has been achieved, especially in the areas of housing and health. The programme pledges to "reduce the percentage of patients waiting longer than six hours in emergency departments from 32% currently to less than 7% by 2021, and reduce average Patient Experience Times for patients attending emergency departments and average waiting times for appointments, procedures and diagnostic tests across the health service". I do not have time to go into all the details of each of these sections, but in every single case we are going backwards, not forwards. I now deal with cases in which people get appointments in the south east four years hence. I raise these cases with the Department constantly. Even getting accurate information from the Department and the HSE is becoming increasingly difficult. Reports we now get from various sources claim that hospitals are being instructed to cancel elective surgeries to bring down waiting lists to make people believe that the waiting list problem is being resolved.
I will ask the Taoiseach a very direct question which should have a very direct answer. Is there an instruction to hospitals emanating from Government - from the Department of Health, the Taoiseach's Department or any other Department - to reduce waiting times and hospital trolley figures by cancelling elective surgeries? Is this or is this not a fact?
The obvious question to ask is whether or not this current Dáil will still be here come May 2019. Whereas the toing and froing - it seems to me like a sham battle between Fine Gael and its partners in government, Fianna Fáil - might be depicted as a matter for themselves, it has implications for the entirety of the Dáil and, more importantly, for policy delivery and for the people who elect us. I have no doubt that the Government's progress report, should it arrive in May of next year, will reflect that the housing and health chaos and crises continue. Of course, if the Taoiseach were thoughtful about these matters, he might take a few steps back and figure out that this is because the policies the Government is pursuing are simply the wrong ones.
I hope the progress report in May 2019 will not reflect the current state of play, which is that one of the measures in the programme for Government that I actually support, namely, the commitment to recognise the state of Palestine, still has not been met. This is despite the fact that, as the Taoiseach knows, in 2014, a Sinn Féin motion was passed in the House in which we resolved that such recognition would be delivered. The Seanad, I should add, likewise passed such a motion. Here we are, however, in a state of splendid inertia on the part of the Taoiseach's Government and nothing has happened. I did hear the Tánaiste a number of weeks ago float the notion of Middle East peace talks here in Ireland, possibly in January. As the Taoiseach knows, Israel has boycotted previous attempts such as these, but he might enlighten us as to the current state of play in this regard. Whether the Government is ever serious at all about recognition of the state of Palestine or whether it will remain in its state of splendid inertia remains to be seen. In this regard the Taoiseach might let us know if the confidence and supply agreement between Deputies Martin and Varadkar will remain in place.
I call Deputy Boyd Barrett. I remind the House that we have six minutes in total to deal with two questions.
I wish to take the Taoiseach back to what was a fairly disappointing response to the Stardust families earlier and what I feel is a bit of a buck-passing exercise on his part when one considers the programme for Government and what it says about what the Government would do about the Stardust tragedy. It stated, "Full regard will be had to any new evidence which emerges which would be likely to definitely establish the cause of the fire at Stardust". The reason the Stardust families have had to go to the lengths of collecting 48,000 postcards appealing to the Attorney General is that the Taoiseach's Government has failed on this promise in the programme for Government to have regard to evidence that has been provided and gathered by the families. Thirty-seven years on, they are still fighting and are now having to go to the Attorney General because the Taoiseach's Government failed on a promise to take into account evidence gathered by them which suggests that the real cause of the fire was completely different from the causes claimed in the official reports. This evidence has been provided and I do not understand why the Government will not look at it, acknowledge it and give the families what they are asking for, which is an independent commission of investigation into the real causes of the fire so they can finally get truth and justice.
Will the Taoiseach not pass the buck but rather answer the families? Why has this not been done? A desktop report by Pat McCartan was not what they asked for. It did not look seriously at the new evidence they had provided, evidence that is staring the Government in the face, about the fire having started earlier in the roof space, eyewitness reports, maps of the Stardust building used in the original inquiries that were completely inaccurate and many other things I do not have time to mention. This evidence has been provided. Why will the Government not look at it and give the families the commission of investigation they have asked for?
I wish to pick up on another strand of the work of the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, in respect of the programme for Government. The fight against climate change was relegated by the previous Government and there has been little more than lip service since. When Commissioner Phil Hogan was a Minister, he led the charge when Fine Gael came out of the 2011 election and climate change policy went backwards. I was interested to hear yesterday on the "Six One" news the Minister, Deputy Bruton, say he will announce an action plan for climate change. This is very worrying because we all know that when the Government says it will have an action plan for something, it means more claims of action rather than any reality of action. What the Taoiseach said earlier is extraordinary. He said we will not make our 2020 targets but will make our targets for 2030. He is getting fairly benign media treatment on this issue because it is an extraordinary story of failure. I understand there was a memo before Cabinet this morning about the purchase of carbon allowances. They will cost somewhere between €96 million and €500 million, perhaps on the lower end of that scale - I do not know. Perhaps the Taoiseach could enlighten the House as to how much it will cost the State to pay fines to buy carbon credits in order that we can make some effort to meet our targets for 2020.
The Taoiseach is in a position to outline how much he thinks can be afforded in tax giveaways for the next five years, so surely he or the Government has some idea as to how much it will cost to purchase carbon credits or pay the fines we may face as a result of our failure to meet our climate change targets by 2020. That failure is dramatic. Instead of going downwards, our carbon emissions are going upwards in every sector, from transport right across. This represents a monumental failure on the Government's part. It is not good enough to state we will get there by 2030. That is 12 years away, when it will be the next generation's issue.
The Taoiseach will retire in 12 years.
I thank Deputy Howlin for that insight. It is an enormous failure and I would like an explanation from the Taoiseach. Above all, will he give some specific information on the costs that will be attached to this failure?
It may be unfair but I ask the Taoiseach to make the best of two minutes.
We should give him more time.
I will do my best, as always.
How many minutes do we have left?
We have 13 minutes left.
We should give the Taoiseach more time.
It always takes longer to answer a question than to ask one, as I am sure Deputies appreciate. The progress report on the programme for Government was published over the summer. We do them every six months now, so I imagine we will have another one soon enough.
On climate change, I am a little disappointed by Deputy Micheál Martin's attack on the former Minister, Commissioner Phil Hogan. It is unfair because Mr. Hogan ceased to be the Minister responsible for climate action in 2014. That position was held by Deputy Alan Kelly thereafter.
He went against the Green Party and everybody at the time.
I do not think we should forget-----
I remember well the line he took.
I ask the Deputies to focus.
-----who held the climate action and housing Departments up until three years ago. The only reason I mentioned 2030 was that is the next date for targets. It is not that there are 2022, 2023 or 2026 targets. That is the way this is done. I am determined, in reaching our 2030 targets, that we are on the trajectory to do that right away. That is what I mean by that. It is not possible to reach 2030 targets next year but we can be on the trajectory to reach them by 2030 and that is where I want and expect us to be.
Deputy Martin is a bit cynical about action plans. Let us not forget that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, introduced the Government's first action plan, the Action Plan for Jobs, when he was the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. That action plan was to create 100,000 jobs and we actually created 200,000 jobs.
The Government did not create any jobs.
We can see from figures released by the Central Statistics Office today that nearly 2.3 million people are working in Ireland now. That is more than ever before. We more than exceeded the targets we set for ourselves in the Action Plan for Jobs.
We have had a couple of plans.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, also achieved some positive outcomes when he was the Minister for Education and Skills, as is clear when one goes through the details of the Action Plan for Education. When I hear the Minister talking about an action plan for climate change I am enthused and reassured that we will get there because I know we got there when it came to the Action Plan for Jobs and the Action Plan for Education.
I will now address Deputy Howlin's comments.
Will the Taoiseach give me the details I sought on costs?
I do not have them with me.
What about the cost of carbon credits?
I do not have those numbers with me but-----
They were presented to Cabinet this morning.
Yes, but I do not remember them.
I do not buy that. The Taoiseach must know them.
Time is running out and we are moving on.
I am sorry. There were 28 memorandums before Cabinet this morning and I do not remember everything that was in them. I am sure we can provide the numbers.
The Taoiseach must know them.
Time is running out.
There was a range of between €98 million to €500 million, but the figure is at the lower end. I honestly do not know the exact figures.
I thank the Taoiseach. I ask him to confirm that figure.
I am not entirely sure. There are two sets of figures. There is one for-----
Will the Taoiseach answer the other questions?
I am not quite sure what Deputy Howlin was talking about when he referred to people spending more than six months in accident and emergency departments. I think he may have been mixing up patient experience times in accident and emergency departments and waiting times and waiting lists for people who are waiting for an operation or a special appointment. Those figures are collated independently by the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF. The numbers of people waiting for hip, cataract, eye, knee and similar operations as well as angiograms and similar types of procedures have been falling for well over a year.
The figures I tend to look at are for those waiting for more than three months. There will always be tens of thousands of people waiting for a procedure for four, six or eight weeks. That is also the case for people who go private and it is certainly the case in any public health service across the world. For this reason, the figure I tend to look at is for those waiting more than three months. That figure has gone down from more than 60,000 in July 2017 to about 48,000 now. I may not be 100% accurate because I do not have the figures in front of me. We know, however, that the average waiting time for those operations and procedures is now less than six months. Much progress is being made in respect of operations and procedures.
To answer the Deputy's question, there is a long-standing protocol in the health service that when emergency department overcrowding reaches a certain point elective operations and procedures are cancelled or not scheduled in the first place. This is often the case during the busiest period.
Is there any direct communication from Government on that?
There definitely was when the Deputy and I were both in government.
I am talking about now.
That has not been the case, that I am aware of, for the past three years but I remember when Deputy Howlin and I were in government together that such a direction was made and it was policy. While I am not aware of it being issued in the last three years, I doubt it would have to be renewed as it has been in place for a very long time.
We must move on.
Can we get responses to the other questions?
There is no point in making an agreement and then not abiding by it.
On outpatients, unfortunately we are not making the same kind of progress. The number of people waiting more than three months to see a specialist is now more than 350,000. However, the number of missed appointments is 500,000. The slots are available but they are not being filled. I know it is not as simple as that but this demonstrates the efficiency problem we have in managing the waiting lists. We need to do a big job on that and we will give the NTPF the job of centrally managing waiting lists into the future. It has done a good job on operations and procedures, on which I outlined the figures, through a combination of outsourcing and insourcing. People forget that the NTPF now acts as a commissioning agent and pays public hospitals to do much of this work, often on Saturdays and during the evening time.
On recognising Palestine, the programme for Government position is that we support the recognition of Palestine as an independent state but we will do that in the context of there being a two-state solution. Unfortunately, that is not yet the case. We stand together with our western European partners in believing that is the best context in which to recognise Palestinian statehood. Sweden acted unilaterally and decided to recognise Palestine on its own, as it is absolutely entitled to do. Other western European countries have decided that we should do that in the context of there being a two-state solution, which is not yet the case. It would be more powerful for western European countries to do this together rather than individual countries doing it on their own.
On the question on the Stardust fire and the programme for Government, as I mentioned, the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, secured a commitment in the programme for Government that this matter would be examined. A former judge and Member of this House - I do not know him personally but I know he is held in high esteem by the vast majority of Members - was given that work to do. He examined the matter and the evidence presented and issued his report. He took the view that the evidence presented was not sufficient to warrant further inquiries. There is now a request for a new inquest. I explained earlier in the House the procedures as to how that could happen. That is a decision for the Attorney General acting independently of Government.
He did not talk to witnesses.
We have seven minutes left in which to deal with this group. I must ask Members who want to ask a supplementary question to confine their contributions to 30 seconds as there is little point taking the group otherwise.
8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of special advisers in his Department. [42206/18]
9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the number of special advisers in his Department; and the areas of policy to which they are assigned. [45088/18]
10. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the number of senior positions held by men and women, respectively, in his Department. [46804/18]
11. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the number of special advisers and the number of females in senior positions in his Department. [48105/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 11, inclusive, together.
I have seven special advisers working in my private office. These staffing levels are in line with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's instructions on ministerial appointments for the 32nd Dáil.
The special advisers working in my office provide briefings and advice on a wide range of policy matters, as well as performing other functions as I may direct from time to time. They also liaise with other special advisers in each Department so that I remain informed on developments across Government. The details are as follows. Brian Murphy is chief of staff. John Carroll is head of policy and programme implementation. Patrick Geoghegan is special adviser mainly on research and speech writing. Angela Flanagan, Philip O’Callaghan, Clare Mungovan and Jim D’Arcy are the other special advisers.
In addition, the newly appointed Government Chief Whip has two special advisers. Special advisers are also working with the Ministers of State, Deputies Helen McEntee and Paul Kehoe. Those special advisers are employed by the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Defence, respectively. Excluding politically appointed staff, 23 staff currently hold senior positions in my Department, namely, those defined as at the grades of principal officer and above. Of these positions, 13 or 57% are held by men and ten or 43% are held by women.
In line with action 8.5 of the Civil Service action plan, my Department has in place a gender balance action plan. As part of this, my Department has committed to 15 actions to improve gender balance, including further flexible working arrangements and actions and that the gender balance of the nominees for the talent management programme is at least 50-50.
I ask the Deputies to abide by the rule of speaking for 30 seconds only as otherwise all of them will not get the chance to contribute.
The Taoiseach described the special advisers, but how many of them are working in the areas of communications, the media and public relations? I do not know if I caught what he said correctly, but did he say there were five male and two women special advisers? Did I get that wrong? He said there were seven special advisers. I just want him to clarify his comments as I could not hear him properly. I heard him mention the names Angela and Clare, but the rest seemed to be male names.
Last year the Taoiseach indicated that there were to be three basic principles in how he intended to run the Department of the Taoiseach. He said he would reorganise Cabinet committees to make them more dynamic, but it has since been revealed that they rarely meet, irrespective of the urgency of the issues involved. The health reform committee is almost dormant, while the committee responsible for broadband has met once this year. We all know what happened on that issue before a meeting was scheduled for this week. The Taoiseach also said he wanted to align the Department closely with Government policy priorities, but in practice this simply meant a major increase in resources for marketing. He indicated that he would ensure his team of advisers would see to it that active progress would be made in dealing with priority issues. Will he explain if he is happy with the level of engagement by his staff and the Department on health issues? Some years ago the Department took a formal role in overseeing budgetary restraint in the Department of Health, but given the record Supplementary Estimates required to keep that Department going, is the Taoiseach satisfied with how it is operating? Will he explain how he ensures the Department stays closely engaged on housing and major infrastructural projects such as broadband provision?
There are nine special advisers.
There are nine.
There are two working on press and media matters and seven on policy and other matters. Of the nine, six are male and three are female. I mentioned Angela and Clare, but perhaps I forgot to mention Sarah who is head of the Government Information Service. One third are female; therefore, it is the same proportion of women as in the Labour parliamentary party. It is not a bad figure in that sense.
It is not the same as for political staff.
It is one third.