1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the priorities of his Department in 2019. [2738/19]
Vol. 978 No. 8
1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the priorities of his Department in 2019. [2738/19]
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the priorities of his Department in 2019. [3890/19]
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the priorities of his Department in 2019. [5669/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The Department of the Taoiseach's statement of strategy for the period from 2017 to 2020, inclusive, reflects the priorities in 2019 and the period ahead. The main role of the Department is to assist the Taoiseach and the Government in developing a sustainable economy and successful society, pursue Ireland’s interests abroad, implement the Government’s programme and build a better future for all citizens.
The strategy statement is aligned with the Government's main priorities and policies and sets out the following six strategic priorities: providing excellent support services for the Taoiseach and the Government; ensuring Ireland has a sustainable economy; helping to ensure Government policies and services support a socially inclusive and fair society; ensuring Ireland maintains strong relationships in Europe and the world; ensuring the best possible outcomes for Ireland with regard to Brexit across all four priorities identified by the Government; and planning for the future in the context of all of the many uncertainties in the international environment.
Priorities in the immediate period ahead which my Department will assist in progressing, together with other relevant Departments, include the Brexit negotiations and no-deal preparedness; ongoing reform of the justice sector, particularly in the area of policing reform; issues relating to health policy, particularly the implementation of Sláintecare; continuing to build economic resilience, including through the Future Jobs Ireland framework; tackling climate change; housing and homelessness; pensions reform; Northern Ireland; and doubling Ireland's global footprint. Through these reforms and improvements, we will protect our growing economy and ensure Ireland is a more equal society, which will create opportunities for all people to participate and share in its prosperity.
The Taoiseach has rightly acknowledged that, strategically, one of the most important issues within the purview of his Department right now is Brexit preparedness. His analysis at the beginning was right. It is correct to front-load the issue of the unique situation on the Border in Ireland and have it agreed to in advance of future trade talks. One of the proposals which seems to be gaining traction in the United Kingdom Parliament involves the notion that the Article 50 implementation date could be extended and that the United Kingdom could move directly into trade talks, which would fundamentally alter the strategic approach of the European Union which has been to have the question of the Irish Border settled in advance of detailed discussions on long-term trade arrangements between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Will the Taoiseach give us his take on, and his understanding of, the views of the EU 27 on this matter? In his view, what are the circumstances in which there would be agreement to extend the implementation date for Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty? Is he of a similar mind in believing issues regarding the arrangements on the island of Ireland and the only external border between the United Kingdom and the European Union should be wound into the long-term trade talks with the United Kingdom?
On Brexit, I invite the Taoiseach to again confirm to the Dáil that the negotiations remain a matter for the British Government and the EU bloc and that there will be no bilateral negotiations between Ireland and Britain on the matter of the backstop or any alternatives thereto.
Last week I raised with the Taoiseach the urgent need to publish an affordable housing scheme, something for which local councils are screaming. The absence of such a scheme is delaying the delivery of affordable homes. Following our brief exchange on the matter, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government heard from the ESRI, the Housing Agency and the Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance on the issue. The CEO of the Housing Agency, Mr. John O'Connor, said Government policy should strike a balance between the delivery of affordable homes for sale and rent and that the focus on home ownership must be tempered by the roll-out of affordable cost rental housing. The CEO of the Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance, Mr. Hugh Brennan, stated his housing association had the capacity to deliver many more affordable homes for purchase and that it was actively looking at sites on which it could deliver such housing. It is vital and ought to be a priority for the Taoiseach and the Government that the heel-dragging in the publication of an affordable housing scheme be stopped. The Government should move on the issue. It is badly needed because affordable homes are badly needed. Will the Taoiseach clarify exactly when the scheme will be published?
As we see every day, the breakdown of normal relations within different strands of the peace settlement has caused deep damage. Irrespective of the form Brexit will take, we will need a new approach to relations with Britain. We also need a new approach to North-South relations. Given the problems even before June 2016, does the Taoiseach agree that we have to take a serious look at how the Government operates with respect to North-South and east-west relations? With the rapid decline in the level and quality of political leadership in these areas, does he accept that we need to ask whether we are approaching them in the right way? This must surely have implications for how the Department of the Taoiseach and the Taoiseach operate. A core function of the Department of the Taoiseach is to operate a system of Cabinet committees. The committees are supposed to involve much greater levels of preparation and longer discussions than are possible at a full Cabinet meeting. The committee dealing with European affairs used to meet regularly. The meetings involved detailed cross-government discussion of measures before the European Council. Last week it was revealed that the committee on Brexit and Europe had not met for seven months. That means that there have been no meetings with senior officials, no advance circulation of detailed documents and no separate minutes. The Taoiseach's claim that he prefers to discuss things at full Cabinet meetings suggests he prefers general discussions to getting into the level of detail which used to be involved in Cabinet sub-committee meetings.
Equally, it appears that the Cabinet committees on health and infrastructure have been sidelined on the vital issue of the massive overspend on the national children's hospital, which is quite extraordinary. It is an unfolding saga. The replies to Deputy Howlin's questions beggared belief and lacked credibility. The overspend on the project will have implications for other capital projects across the board, not just this year but also in future years. Will the Taoiseach outline how the background work which used to happen through the Cabinet committees is now done? If committees are not dealing with the major strategic challenges, why do they exist? If the committee on health is not dealing with the national children's hospital, what is it doing? Likewise, if the committee on Europe has not met for seven months, why does it exist?
I inform the House that today the Cabinet dealt with Brexit as a line item, as it almost always does. The reason we do not have regular meetings of the sub-committee on Brexit any more is that the issue impacts on pretty much every Department.
Without all the officials present.
Every Cabinet meeting now dedicates time to Brexit and EU affairs. The infrastructure subcommittee met last week, for example. The way preparation is done is that memos are prepared in the normal way, advisers meet at an advisory meeting and senior officials meet at the senior officials group, SOG, to prepare it. There is a senior officials group dealing specifically with Brexit but when the matters come to politicians they are dealt with by the whole of Cabinet, pretty much every week at this stage. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, attends on occasion when relevant. For example, there were two memos today at Cabinet on Brexit alone. One was dealing with tax, getting into more detail on the legislative provisions on tax that will have to be in the Brexit omnibus Bill. They particularly relate to corporation tax and VAT and how we can maintain the existing arrangements for a period in the event of a no-deal Brexit, until that gets clarified. There was some time spent on that. A little bit more time was spent today on the transport memo on Brexit, which related to the ports and airports, confirming that we will not need planning permission to make any of the necessary changes at Dublin Airport. It is already covered under exempted development. When it comes to Dublin Port and Rosslare, where we now control the land we need at those two ports, there are different scenarios for no-deal and in the event of a deal. In a no-deal scenario we will be able to use emergency legislation and emergency powers that the Minister for Finance has to direct the OPW to carry out certain works. That will be in the form of parking spaces for trucks and temporary buildings and portakabins to house officials. That will be the no-deal scenario. Obviously if we have a deal, we will have more time to put in place more permanent structures. That memo obviously was prepared in the normal way, seen by officials, put up on eCabinet and discussed by advisers. It is the same process we would use for a Cabinet subcommittee except there are 20 in the room rather than 50 or 60.
Tomorrow I will visit Brussels and we will meet with President Juncker, President Tusk, Mr. Michel Barnier, Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, MEP, and Commissioner Hogan to discuss the ongoing impasse in respect of Brexit and also to have an opportunity to discuss no-deal planning. People will be aware that there is a Commission delegation in Dublin at the moment discussing no-deal planning. It is going to every country. We are the ninth country they have been to so far. That is its main reason for being here. On Friday, I will travel to Northern Ireland where I will meet with the political parties there. When we travel to Northern Ireland, we should always listen to all of the parties and not just to any one party. Certainly I will be listening to the major parties and to the smaller ones if time allows as well. I also plan to speak to business and civil society in respect of Brexit. However, I will not be carrying out any negotiations with any political parties in Northern Ireland because, as Deputy McDonald rightly points out, the negotiations are between the EU and the UK. While we can certainly have discussions with the UK and with political parties or individual politicians, the negotiations can only happen with the EU and Ireland on one side of the table and the UK on the other. We are in a much stronger position in that regard and will not be departing from it. It is not just our strategy; it is also in the EU negotiating guidelines.
In respect of the various proposals that Deputy Howlin mentions, there are myriad proposals at this stage emanating from the House of Commons and it is hard to keep track of them all. There are no clear proposals yet from the UK Government other than a certain level of revisiting things that have already been rejected by the European Union. Specifically, Deputy Howlin asked about extending Article 50. Obviously, for Article 50 to be extended, the United Kingdom would have to request that, which it has not yet done. The Prime Minister has indicated that she does not intend to do so but, as we have said on a number of occasions now, if Article 50 were extended it would have to be extended for a particular purpose and that purpose would need to be agreed. We should never forget that the threat of no deal on 29 March is not a threat that Ireland or the European Union is making. The deadline of 29 March was set by Britain in Britain and it is open to it at any time to take away that no-deal possibility either by revoking Article 50 or by seeking an extension to Article 50, either of which it can do.
On affordable housing, Deputy English informs me that local authorities have already submitted seven or eight schemes for the construction of affordable housing. Councils can now proceed with those schemes so houses are built and ready so that people can purchase them under the new scheme. Cost rental is under way in Emmet Road. That is the pilot project, as it were, for cost rental in Dublin city. There is another project as well, I cannot remember exactly where, I think it is south Dublin somewhere in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. The scheme is going to be one of shared equity similar to what was there before. It will be published in a few weeks' time but there is already wide-scale awareness of how it will work. It will work on a shared equity basis with the council retaining equity in the home which people can then redeem at a later point. The affordable homes obviously have to be built before they can be purchased and there is no delay in allowing local authorities to proceed to build those houses.
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of politically appointed staff in his Department. [2740/19]
There are currently 21 politically appointed staff employed by the Department of the Taoiseach. This includes those working directly for me in my office, those working in the Government information service, staff working for the Independent Alliance and Independent Ministers, staff in the office of the Government Chief Whip and staff in the office of the Leader of the Seanad. The ten staff working directly with me are my chief of staff, head of policy and programme implementation, five special advisers and three personal assistants. In addition, the Government press secretary acts as a spokesperson for me and for the Government and is assisted by an assistant Government press secretary in co-ordinating the media relations of all Departments. The deputy Government press secretary is also based in my Department and co-ordinates communications for all the Independents in government. Also employed by my Department are the chief strategist for the Independent Alliance and the political co-ordinator for the Independent Ministers in government.
In the office of the Government Chief Whip, which is also based in my Department, there are two special advisers and two civilian drivers. My Department also employs two civilian drivers who are based in the office of the Leader of the Seanad in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Special advisers working with the Ministers of State, Deputies McEntee and Kehoe, are employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence, respectively.
To be clear, the figure of 21 is excluding the drivers and including everybody else the Taoiseach has listed. Has the Taoiseach given instructions to Ministers to hire journalists as political advisers? There have been some raised eyebrows at the number of journalists who have now been hired to work for Ministers. Is it something the Taoiseach recommends? He has eight special advisers including the Government press secretary, plus a further two for the Independent Alliance and the deputy press secretary. Is that right? A large number of junior Ministers now also have special advisers. I recall in the previous Government, of which the Taoiseach and I were both members, that only two junior Ministers who did not attend Cabinet had special advisers. One was the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs and the other was a Minister of State in the Department of Health. Now I understand the figure is up to five, with the latest ones to have special advisers being the Ministers of State, Deputies Halligan, McEntee, Jim Daly, Moran, and D'Arcy. Can the Taoiseach confirm if Deputies Canney and Doyle have been granted special advisers? What are the criteria to determine who gets a special adviser in the junior ministerial ranks? What is the total cost of the political staff in the Department of the Taoiseach? Based on a rough calculation it is at least €1.5 million. Am I in the ballpark with that? Can the Taoiseach confirm the figure?
As our most instinctively political Taoiseach for many years, the Taoiseach obviously puts significant store on his appointed advisers. He makes sure that he always has at hand a political attack for when he is under pressure. Equally, his political advisers are expected to be very active in looking for marketing opportunities. What is incredibly surprising is that in spite of the sheer number of times he talked about the children's hospital in the first half of last year - he talked quite a lot about it, including using public money on social media promotion of his good self - for some reason it basically disappeared from his speeches as the year went on. In his Árd-Fheis speech on 17 November he did not mention it or the health capital programme at all. At the start of last August, the Government reappointed the entire board of the National Children's Hospital. A few weeks later, information emerged about the significant scale of overspend and apparently this was accepted by the Government without any review and without calling for any heads to roll.
It was only when the overspend became public that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, began to say they were very concerned and that it was wrong. They then made calls for the PricewaterhouseCoopers review. One has to ask, given the extent of the political operation at the heart of government, whether the Taoiseach is surprised that the issue did not surface earlier. Would it have been identified if the Cabinet committees had met more regularly? Should the Cabinet committees on infrastructure and health have been receiving regular updates on the costings of such a major component of the national development plan as the national children's hospital? Was it buried because the Taoiseach was planning a general election? I listened to the answers he gave to Deputy Howlin. He said the Minister for Health had become aware of the overspends in August. I assume the Taoiseach is saying the Minister did the right thing by waiting until-----
-----November to tell him and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister, Deputy Harris, did not ask further questions between then and November. That does not add up and it is not credible, particularly given the major issue of the overspend in the health service of some €800 million. While we were discussing it, the Minister and many others were aware of a massive overspend on a capital investment infrastructure site but did not mention it to anybody. It is only because the news got out that the Government is racing to try to patch up and cover its tracks by announcing the PwC review. The chairman of the hospital board has also resigned. There was none of this between August and November. The Government must give a meaningful and credible explanation as to why the Minister did not alert his Cabinet colleagues to the overspend of which he was aware in August. We are talking about a massive overspend. Furthermore, in September Deputy Cowen was told that the price might rise to €1 billion. I heard the Minister speak about this on the Sean O'Rourke radio show yesterday and was not happy with his response. He seemed to suggest commercial sensitivities took precedence over telling the truth to the House.
The Minister is the not the first to cite commercial sensitivities to keep full information from public view, as we are all aware. Will the Taoiseach confirm or deny reports that the Cabinet has decided to put back the referendum on the extension of presidential voting rights from May until October? Will he give us the rationale for this? He might cite whether his political advisers advised him on the issue and the basis of that advice.
I note that Deputy Micheál Martin has described me as one of the most instinctive politicians. I am not sure he meant it as a compliment, but as instinct is very valuable in politics, I choose to take it as a compliment.
I knew that the Taoiseach would take it as a compliment, which is why I said it. That is the point.
He took it as a compliment instinctively.
The 21 political staff mentioned include drivers. I am not included as I have garda drivers, but the Chief Whip and the Leader of the Seanad have drivers. The figure of 21 is inclusive of drivers. It also includes staff in my office in the Department of the Taoiseach and my constituency staffs. Also included are staff assigned to the Independent Alliance, Independent Ministers and the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, who, as Chief Whip, is a Minister of State in my Department. While all of the people concerned are on the payroll of the Department of the Taoiseach, they certainly do not all vote for me. I am sorry; I mean that they do not all work for me. I do not know who they vote for, but they certainly do not all work for me.
We can safely guess who they vote for.
They work for the Chief Whip and the Independents. Of course, those who work for the Independents may well vote for Independents.
In terms of the cost, I have fewer political staff than all three of my predecessors-----
-----and the total payroll cost is also lower. My forebear had 23 staff and iar-Thaoiseach Cowen had more again.
I do not have the exact figure, but it is the lowest of-----
How does the Taoiseach know it is lower if he does not know what it is?
I know it for a fact because I make sure it is lower.
Perhaps there are optical reasons for it.
There are also financial and factual reasons. It is good that I have fewer advisers-----
-----and that their salaries cost less than for any of the last three Taoisigh going back to the 1990s.
Tell us what the cost is.
The Taoiseach cannot tell us what it is.
It is uniquely unusual that when this issue arises in the Chamber, I am criticised for not having more advisers-----
I am asked why I do not have an adviser for X or an adviser for Y. It must be the first time in decades when a Taoiseach has been criticised for not having enough advisers. I do not have as many as the previous three Taoisigh.
Nobody is criticising the Taoiseach.
Who is criticising him?
What is the cost of the advisers?
I will provide the figure for the Deputy, but I do not have it in front of me.
The Taoiseach says he knows that it is lower than the figure for the previous Taoiseach.
Of course, it is; we took €5 million out of the communications unit, which would have put the Taoiseach far ahead of his predecessor. No other predecessor had a €5 million communications unit. Get off the stage.
To answer the other questions I was asked, I have not given any instruction to Ministers on who to hire. On occasion, they will ask my opinion if they are going to hire someone. They do not always do it, but they usually do. It is true that a number of journalists have been hired by Ministers as their advisers. One of my advisers is a former journalist. It is particularly useful, if one is going to be a press adviser or work in a press role, that one have experience as a journalist. I am surprised at the number of press officers and press advisers who have never actually worked as a journalist.
I believe it is useful experience for a person-----
It is, absolutely.
-----who is going to be working in the media-----
-----to know how the media work and operate. There are also many journalists who know a lot about topics.
Did the Taoiseach say many journalists know about topics?
Quite a large number of journalists have been following a particular issue or policy matter for many years, indeed decades. While they may have not worked for an NGO or might not have a particular academic qualification in that area, they do actually know a lot about what they write about-----
Many of them are Fine Gael supporters it seems.
-----precisely because they have been following a particular matter for ten or 20 years.
It is an astonishing trend among the commentariat.
The Taoiseach should hire a nurse as an adviser.
I am fascinated by the quality of the advisers among Deputy Micheál Martin's staff who have trawled through all of my speeches to find out how many times I have mentioned the children's hospital.
Will the Taoiseach answer my question on the referendum?
I am not sure trawling through my speeches is the best use of taxpayers' money. I had not noticed that was the case, but I will make sure to include the national children's hospital in more of my speeches in the future. It is a project the Government will deliver. It has been said many times that it will cost €1.7 billion. One only gets to that figure by including the €30 million or €40 million a Fianna Fáil Government spent on the Mater hospital site on a hospital that was never built. This project will be delivered and will be there for 100 or 200 years.
I am answering the questions as they were asked, but the number of interruptions makes it harder to answer them.
I was also asked-----
I asked about the Minister, Deputy Harris.
I am getting to it. As I said, I believe he did the right thing back in August in seeking full information. He did not have a figure in August.
What was he told in August?
I do not know what he was told, but he was-----
The Taoiseach should know and should tell us. That is the basis of his answer. We have been getting this now for-----
The clock is running down.
I am happy to answer that question again
I ask the Taoiseach to answer the questions he was asked.
As I was not party to the conversation, I do not know exactly what he was told-----
Has the Taoiseach asked him since?
-----but what he has told me is that he was told that there was a concern about escalating costs at the national children's hospital and that he wanted due diligence to be carried out. There was no figure and he asked for figures to be provided. It was part of commercial negotiations with the contractor. Due diligence was carried out in order to bring down costs; to negotiate with the contractor to find out what the costs were for-----
The costs did not come down; they went up.
-----to investigate whether there were other options, including retendering-----
The expenditure was profiled in September.
-----and to see if specifications could have been taken out. There was no definitive figure until November.
The Taoiseach has said the figures came down, but they actually went up.
I explained it earlier. Deputy Micheál Martin referred to it "getting out". It got out in December because we disclosed it. The Government made a decision-----
That occurred on the day the Dáil adjourned.
-----to allocate €1.4 billion to cover the construction costs of the children's hospital. There was no secret about it; we disclosed it publicly in December, before Christmas.
On the referendum on voting rights for citizens abroad, we had a-----
And citizens in the North.
There was a memo before the Cabinet on the issue today. We agreed that we would proceed with a referendum to extend voting rights to all citizens, no matter where they lived, be it Northern Ireland or other parts of the world.
It will not only be passport holders. It will be all citizens because some citizens do not have a passport or cannot afford one or perhaps cannot travel. We have taken the decision that this referendum could be contentious. It will involve a good deal of planning, it needs a good campaign and we want to win it. Given the uncertainty around Brexit at the moment and the fact that we have local and European elections and other referenda on 24 May, we want to have it in October instead to give us more time to prepare the ground and inform people. This will give us a better chance, I believe, of getting it passed. Of course the next presidential election is not scheduled until 2025, so we have a good deal of time yet to get it done. The commitment is to do it in the last week of October.