Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I appeal to the membership to behave with a little decorum in the course of debates.

I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, for Leaders' Questions. She has a babysitter with her just in case; the independents are at last taking charge of the Government.

The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, will take all responsibility.

It is interesting that Fine Gael Ministers have gone missing today. We have just finished a debate in which the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, discussed the need for fiscal stability in the context of wage agreements. Everyone agrees with that, but it is very difficult to take that lecture, given what is happening with the national children's hospital project. There was no worry about fiscal stability and taking responsibility or control during that debacle. For the thousands of nurses who are on the picket line for a third day, patients and psychiatric nurses who are subject to an overtime ban, it is very difficult to listen to lectures, in the light of the information that is continuing to come out on the goings on in the context of the cost overrun on the national children's hospital. Within the past few minutes Jennifer Bray has released information in The Irish Times which outlines that there was a meeting of the project management board of the national children's hospital in September 2018 which was chaired by the Secretary General of the Department of Health at which information was presented which suggested there would be a cost overrun of up to €400 million. We have been asked to believe this information was not passed on to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, or the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, despite the fact that the Secretary General had it in his possession in September ahead of this year's budget preparations.

Is that credible? Is it credible that such information has been floating around at Secretary General level and was not passed on? What does it say to the Minister about relationships at the heart of the Government and those within the Department of Health? Until now we have heard the Fine Gael defence - a backstop defence, if you will - which has been repeated with absolute discipline. We now need to hear a different view. This is the chance of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to put her stamp on the controversy. Is she comfortable, as a Minister, with the manner in which the issue has been handled? We all agree that we want to see the project delivered, but it cannot continue to be delivered in the manner in which it is being carried out. We have had a drip drip of information and seen the undermining of collective Cabinet responsibility, while thousands of nurses are on strike today. GPs were on strike yesterday. There will be more strikes. Will the Minister bring some sense and perspective to the debate? As she is known as a straight talker, she should talk straight on this issue. Does she accept that the information was not shared at senior Government level? When was she, as a member of the Cabinet, made aware of the cost overruns in the Department of Health? Can she understand the frustration of the thousands of nurses who are picketing today at being lectured by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, about the need for fiscal responsibility? He said meeting the nurses' pay demands would cause a spiral in the public finances. He was asleep at the wheel and is now lecturing people about the need for fiscal responsibility. Can the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs understand the frustration in that regard?

I thank the Deputy for wishing me well and noting my willingness to take the opportunity to answer these questions. I understand the connection people are making between the overrun in costs on the national children's hospital and the nurses' strike. I have spoken to many people who are making that connection, including on doorsteps in my constituency. I have spoken to a number of nurses, even retired nurses, about it.

The Deputy asked whether it was credible that information had not been passed on. I believe what has been said by the Ministers. I am the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and have come to the debate with that role in mind. The major questions asked by the Deputy concerned credibility, management, political oversight and accountability and they are important. It is the job of this House and the Opposition to hold Ministers to account and that is what Deputy Calleary and other colleagues in the Chamber are doing. This is the third time this week different members of the Government have been asked questions by the Opposition about the extraordinary increase in costs at the national children's hospital, as well as questions about the nursing strike. The Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, have just answered questions about the strike and have both appeared before committees this week to answer questions. I know that there are outstanding questions and that we have to get to the bottom of them. The Deputy wants answers. As an Independent member of the Government, I also want answers. For that reason, PwC has been commissioned to review the escalation in costs.

It will not provide for political accountability.

The review is being carried out at considerable expense, about which I also have reservations.

What about PwC's ability to review the matter?

(Interruptions).

However, I believe the review is necessary.

What about what happened at the Fine Gael meeting last night? That party does not think much of the public.

Ministers have answered the questions that they can answer at this point. They answered the questions put to them at the committee. I do not think we will to progress our understanding of how we ended up where we are by asking the same questions over and over again and getting the same answers. I expect the questions to be answered in the PwC review which will be completed at the end of March, at which point we will have further exchanges in this House. I agree that it is our job as the Government and that of the Opposition to get answers for citizens. I understand people are angry; I talk to them too. I hope that when the report is finalised, we will be wiser and able to apply what we will learn.

This is a case of a new Minister giving the same old response. We have not received answers, which is why we keep asking the questions. The Ministers have replied to questions but do not answer them. We believe PwC is receiving €450,000 - it might be higher - to give us the answers, yet at last night's Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting the blame was laid squarely at the feet of the HSE. It was a case of "nothing to see here", a Basil Fawlty "don't mention the war" type response. The HSE was blamed. If the Secretary General of the Minister's Department was made aware of a significant overspend and did not inform her, what action would she take? What if the Secretary General did not inform her during the negotiations on a budget?

If the Secretary General did not inform the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs during the negotiations of a budget, what action would the Minister take? Second, before we get to March and before we get the famous PwC report that will be the answer to all our dreams, what is going to happen - I want the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to outline the details - to projects throughout the country that will be postponed or "delayed" to use the Government's language?

The word is "reprofiled".

What projects will be reprofiled - with thanks to Deputy Cowen for the word - or delayed throughout the country to pay for the Government ineptitude around the children's hospital? When will we be made aware of those projects? Do we have to wait for PwC for that too?

First, I do not accept the fact that I answered in the same way as others did. I try to be straight with Deputy Calleary, as he requested.

Does that mean the others were not straight with us?

I indicated that I think questions have been answered to the best of their ability by the Ministers to whom it happened in respect of these issues. Moreover, I indicated that we will have further answers on the report.

The second set of questions asked by Deputy Calleary are particularly on the minds of people today. The Minister for Finance and for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, is going to bring proposals next week to Government in respect of departmental re-allocations to pay for the cost overruns that have been identified.

The Taoiseach told us last week it would be ten days.

How is that going to happen? First, as I understand it, there will be an audit process that will take place in terms of capital projects for 2019 that, apart from the national children's hospital issue, are already delayed. We need to see how much money might be available in that regard. Second, if there is still a deficit, and there probably will be, then a reprofiling of projects needs to be identified that would result in them being delayed, but only for a matter of weeks. That is my understanding.

There is a crisis in our health services and in the Government. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Health have proved utterly incapable of resolving the various issues before us.

Yesterday, we had general practitioners outside Leinster House due to the lack of Government investment in primary care. Our hospitals have the worst waiting lists right across Europe. Last month, there were 10,000 on hospital trolleys. Last year was the worst year on record in terms of the constant trolley crisis. The debacle surrounding the national children's hospital is beyond farcical now and we are no further along in it being resolved.

The issue I want to talk about, and the question I want to put to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs today, surrounds the issue of 37,000 nurses and midwives who have engaged in another day of industrial action. It is a 24 hour stoppage as a result of a complete and utter failure on the part of the Government to deal with the issues of recruitment and retention that have gripped our health service for many years.

I met nurses this morning and I have met them on many occasions since this industrial action started in late January. Their message is very clear. Their message is crystal clear to Government. None of them wants to be out on the picket line. All of them want to do what they do best, that is, caring for patients in our hospitals. Their actions are not selfish because they are taking their action and their stand on behalf of every one of us. The public, the people at home, know that. That is why their actions have the support of people throughout every community in the State, because they know that nurses are fighting for a better health service for all of us. That is at the core of it. That is what the people understand. That is why they are standing with the nurses and midwives in this battle.

The Government has, to this point, refused to engage on levels acceptable to the nurses and midwives. Earlier this week we had the Minister for Health and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform issuing a joint press release stating that they were willing to engage in talks at the Workplace Relations Commission. They said they would engage in talks on everything bar what is at the core of this issue, which is the issue of pay. The Government has spouted that line time and again and it has been rejected by nurses and midwives and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, and rightly so.

It is time now for the Government to get real. It is time for the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, as a Cabinet colleague, and the rest of her Cabinet colleagues to get their heads out of the clouds and deal with the issue at hand. The Minister said the Government will engage with the nurses but what the Government needs to accept and act on is the urgent need for that engagement without clauses or preconditions.

The approach that the Government has taken so far has failed utterly and dramatically. Let me be clear on this and let me spell it out to every Cabinet colleague. The Cabinet is putting patients at risk because nurses never put their patients at risk. The refusal and intransigence of the Government to deal with this issue on the basis of no preconditions is putting patient safety at risk. That is not surprising given this Government's record on health and the record of the Minister for Health. Despite this, within a number of days we will have industrial action involving a three-day stoppage planned for next week.

Your time is up, Deputy.

What we need is proper dialogue before that. Does the Minister accept that the Government's approach to tackling the recruitment and retention crisis so far has failed? Does the Minister accept that pay is an issue and is going to need to be addressed? Will the Minister accept that a process of engagement is needed right now without any preconditions and without any clauses?

First, in respect of Deputy Doherty's first question, we are not there yet. Clearly, we are not there yet. As he has identified, with great eloquence, the risks are escalating. We understand that. That is why there is such significant contingency planning going on between the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and the HSE. I am fully with Deputy Doherty and aware of that with regard to the risks that are escalating.

Second, I am here today as an Independent Minister because I am part of the Government and it is my responsibility to answer some of these questions as well. In my view, we need something to shift to bring the people to the table. That is what needs to happen. On what basis do I say that? First, there is reasonableness on both sides. There is reasonableness, as Deputy Doherty eloquently set out. I have spoken to nurses as well about their concerns. The issue of the safety of their patients is primary to them. Their understanding is that they need the issue of pay addressed to address the issue of safety effectively. That is what they are saying to us. On the other side, including the Government of which I am a part, there is reasonableness as well. When I came in I was listening to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, identifying issues relative to pay, the collective pay agreement and all of the other aspects of that. These are reasonable for us as the Government to lay out. We have reason on this side and we have reason on that side.

At the same time, we need something to shift to bring the parties together to begin to have that conversation. Deputy Doherty asks whether it has to do with pay. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, has laid out clearly an understanding of that in terms of the current agreement as well as the future agreement, and pay is part of that. No doubt that will be part of those discussions in terms of the safety and conditions that are required. How that is discussed and what is decided will be determined once they get to the table. This is the most important thing that needs to happen. The talking needs to begin. We require significant engagement and genuine and real intensification to find what the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, referred to as innovative solutions. In my view, and I imagine Deputy Doherty shares it, before the significant intensification and the potential disruption that will happen next week, we need something to shift to get intensification in terms of engagement. This requires the support of the INMO as well as ICTU and the wider union movement.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs says something needs to shift. I put it to her that what needs to shift is that the Government needs to indicate – it can be done today, right here, right now – that it will enter into negotiations with the INMO on the basis of no preconditions. What the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, have said is that the Government will enter into talks, but not about pay. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Richard Bruton, was on "Morning Ireland" this morning. He said, "I think we are prepared to talk about pay in the context of an agreement". Is that the position of Cabinet today or is it the position of the Minister for Health and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform that pay cannot be discussed? We need something to shift but those in the Government have dug their heels in and do not want to talk about what is the core issue of this dispute.

Will the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs give clarity? This is Leaders' Questions and not oral questions. What is the situation of the Government at this point? Is the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment correct in his proclamation this morning in which he said the Government was willing to enter into talks to discuss pay in the context of an agreement? Is it the old position of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Health in their press release that the Government will talk about everything bar pay?

This is a dispute in terms of two parties. I know which side I am on. I know which side the public is on. I believe the public believes the Government is being intransigent on the matter.

Thank you, Deputy. Time is up.

What we need is meaningful dialogue without preconditions.

Will the Minister clarify who is right and who is wrong or is it the case that everybody is right with their differing messages in Cabinet?

I am aware that this is Leaders' Questions. I also listened the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, this morning. I did not think the way he answered the question was necessarily at odds with what the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, was saying or how I answered the Deputy. As I have already said, we agree that we need a shift shortly to bring the parties together. When that happens there will be discussion on the issue of pay, whether in the context of what has been agreed, which will start soon, or of allowances that have been determined in relation to nurses, which will also begin soon. No doubt issues in relation to the future will also be discussed. That is all. That is what the Minister, Deputy Bruton, was saying and I think the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, would accept that if we get there, while at the same time identifying that there have been agreements and they are beginning to be followed up in relation to what the Government has promised.

I do not think that there is a difference, but based on the concern that the Government and nurses share for the safety of our patients, we need to come together.

This week has seen the culmination of the Fine Gael and Independent Government's incompatibility with industrial relations, and its blatant disregard for workers' rights. The Government has refused to engage with the INMO on issues of pay and recruitment in the health sector. This has forced nurses to rightly protest for better working conditions. The Government has refused to meet with the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, on issues such as the much-needed investment in the GP sector, particularly in rural Ireland, it has refused meaningful engagement with the Psychiatric Nurses Association over pay and conditions and has even refused to meet the union of choice for ambulance staff and the national ambulance representative association. They do not even have the opportunity to meet with the Government on key issues of concern. Even the Government's agencies refuse to engage or, in some cases, even recognise unions.

Last week Údarás na Gaeltachta announced a year-on-year increase in job creation figures for 2018, which is welcome. Some 156 of those jobs were created in my constituency of Donegal. However, a question remains over the quality of these jobs with employers that either refuse to engage with unions or simply refuse to recognise union membership at all. For example, last year I supported workers at Rapid Action Packaging in Gweedore who had voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action in a ballot taken by SIPTU due to the continued rejection by management of the company to recognise the workers' union. This company and many others were given grants by Údarás na Gaeltachta, a State agency using State money - our money. To this day, there is no way for us to ensure that employers are respecting workers' rights because the power imbalance benefits the employer. This, through Údarás na Gaeltachta funding, is being reinforced by the Government.

It is time that union recognition is granted once and for all to all workers and not left to the discretion of employers. It should be the case in 2019 that Údarás na Gaeltachta makes it a precondition for companies to recognise workers' union of choice before grants may be issued to that company. It is not enough to create jobs, they must be good quality jobs with the appropriate conditions attached, including mandatory trade union recognition by the employer.

Will the Government commit to making State agencies such as Údarás na Gaeltachta impose a precondition for companies seeking grants to recognise trade unions representing future workers of that company?

Go raibh maith agat, a Teachta. The Deputy's question raises a very significant issue. He is asking for a substantial policy change in relation to unions and industrial relations. I understand the question and am in sympathy with the Deputy's position. However, Údarás na Gaeltachta has confirmed that under current legislation it has no statutory role, contracted or implied, to undertake any role in assisting, intervening or monitoring industrial relations between a private company and its employees or to make any statement in such an instance. The practice of all enterprise agencies is that to undertake such a role and to include conditions regarding union recognition and support grants would not be appropriate.

That is the nub of the answer for now. I understand the Deputy's point which he made with great strength and persuasion, particularly as it relates to his constituency, and the importance of not only creating jobs but quality jobs and the possibilities and ways in which companies can acknowledge or recognise unions that could contribute to higher quality jobs and even better pay and conditions. It is very helpful for the Deputy to raise this issue in the context of the recent report by Údarás na Gaeltachta which, as he noted, is very positive and deals with the many excellent aspects of its work. It is a good time to raise this issue but there is no legal obligation on employers to negotiate with a union on behalf of an employee member unless previously agreed. This does not prevent a dispute about trade union recognition from being a lawful dispute.

The Minister is saying that the current policy says there is no right to union recognition, but who does Údarás na Gaeltachta represent? Who is it supposed to represent and look after? Údarás na Gaeltachta is supposed to look after the people living in the Gaeltacht which not only means providing them with jobs but also the right to defend themselves and talk to their employers in a fair, balanced manner that is based in equality. Otherwise, agencies such as Údarás na Gaeltachta are giving money to employers to provide jobs but are effectively saying "good luck" to the people who work there, that they can look after themselves and defend themselves because the agencies are having nothing to do with it. It is not right that these agencies give all this money to employers and let them do what they want, and it fails to recognise the position of workers. We represent those people and we should accommodate them that they may do their work properly. It is not about creating conflict or strikes but about creating fairness so that workers can have their rights recognised. That should be the role of all Government agencies including Údarás na Gaeltachta.

The Deputy has argued there is effectively a power imbalance without the possibility of union recognition. As I said, I am in sympathy with that and understand that.

He also spoke of the need to give additional supports to the Gaeltacht and this issue could be a good place to begin. I also understand that. Although this is not current policy or legislation, I would be happy to ask the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Minister Humphreys, to engage with the Deputy further on this matter.

The Government should not tax our health. People are sick to death of additional taxes appearing at every opportunity. The latest attack on consumers is the increase in VAT on food supplements which is proposed to come in soon.

The majority of products in Ireland affected by the 23% VAT rate are supplied by Irish companies which work closely with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to ensure their products' safety and compliance with regulations. They employ hundreds of Irish people.

The Taoiseach questioned the science behind food supplements. All claims made for such products are governed by the European Food Safety Authority. The claims relate to the support and maintenance of health. The rulings are based on international large-scale clinical trials and peer supported research. When I questioned him in the Dáil recently, the Taoiseach was not sure whether folic acid was a food supplement, but he will find out soon enough on 1 March when the Government applies the 23% VAT rate to it, affecting women who are trying to look after their health during pregnancy. It is the same Taoiseach who told people a couple of weeks ago that he was going to reduce his carbon footprint by decreasing his meat intake, one of the most idiotic statements ever made by a Taoiseach. For a Taoiseach to send the message that he will stop eating meat to a farming country that is proud of its tradition of farming and in which people survived with nothing for years was so stupid and beyond belief. He was encouraging people to adopt a healthy lifestyle, while at the same time agreeing to a 23% VAT rate on food supplements.

"Operation Transformation".

The health food stores I will discuss are independent. For example, we have a great person in County Kerry, Mr. Dan Horan, who is the proud owner of Horan's Health Stores and last week celebrated 30 years in business, giving much needed employment in County Kerry and beyond, just as other independent health food stores have done. These businesses have customers who are young, middle aged and older and who, in taking care of themselves, rely on health food supplements for their well-being and in staying away from the doctor's surgery and out of the hospital system. The Government's answer is to tax them at a rate of 23%. I will provide a couple of examples shortly, but I want to hear whether Deputy Zappone, as an Independent Minister, supports the Government in applying the 23% VAT rate to such customers.

I thank the Deputy for his question. As I have an interest in this issue, I am glad that he raised it. I will give the House my view as an Independent.

There are at least two aspects to the Deputy's remarks on vitamins. First, many people, including me, take them and avail of supplements regularly or, if we forget, sporadically in order to improve or optimise our health and well-being. This is often the case for people, in particular older people, who believe they are deficient in certain areas and need supplements to counteract it. In other cases people take vitamins while recovering from illnesses or because they feel run down. From that perspective, I understand why the Deputy has raised the issue. Many Irish people depend on vitamins and supplements for their well-being, including me.

The second aspect relates to the viability of businesses that depend on the sale of these products for their livelihood. Given the general uncertainty about Brexit, additional impediments such as the increased VAT rate cause concern and deserve our attention. As my father sold health food products and vitamins, I understand the issue from the consumer's perspective, as well as from a business perspective.

These issues have been raised previously and I have listened to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, address them. I was in touch with him about them. I am pleased to say he is reviewing the matter, albeit with the caveat that it involves an interpretation of the law that could prove to be an insurmountable difficulty. However, I understand he will be in a position to come to a conclusion on the issue in the coming days.

I very much appreciate the Minister's genuine response, but I remind her that she is not a person outside on the street making an observation. She is a Cabinet Minister and a person who should have influence in the Government. Will she and its other Independent members, many of whom I respect, including the Minister of State who is sitting alongside her, Deputy Moran, use their influence to try to make the rest of the Government see common sense? I will provide a couple of examples. A married lady with two teenage children who take a number of supplements currently has a bill of €87 per month. This figure will increase to €107. A 48 year old married person with two children who works four days per week takes a number of items at a cost of €70 per month. That figure will increase to €86. I have another case which involves a person who is 88 years of age. These are the types of people we respect. A semi-retired farmer, he still does a lot of work on his farm and is grateful to be in extremely good health.

His good health is due to the support of his local GP and the vitamins and supplements he takes.

Is he Deputy Danny Healy-Rae?

His bill of €91 which he manages to pay will increase to €112 per month.

The Deputy's time is up.

These are real cases of people who are taking care of their own health. Will the Minister and other Deputies who support the Government, please, use their influence with the Taoiseach? He made a derogatory statement the first day-----

Please, Deputy.

-----but there was such a backlash, he was not long in copping on to the seriousness of the issue. I would appreciate it if the Minister and her colleagues did something to stop this before it starts. I apologise to the Ceann Comhairle.

I thank the Deputy for making those points and bringing to our attention the lives of the real people on whom this will impact significantly. I have seen evidence of supplements increasing the health and well-being of people, both young and old, who take them. The Deputy mentioned something in his initial contribution that I did not get a chance to address. My understanding is folic acid is not included and will remain subject to the zero rate of VAT.

We will know in March.

To respond to another of the Deputy's points, yes, I sit on this side in this row and will use my influence. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has indicated that he is reviewing the position. We will hear the results of the review shortly.