1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure last met. [42284/19]
Vol. 988 No. 6
1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure last met. [42284/19]
2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure last met. [43183/19]
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure last met. [45217/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on infrastructure met yesterday, 4 November. It works to ensure a co-ordinated approach in the areas of infrastructure, investment and delivery, Project Ireland 2040 and Rebuilding Ireland. Significant work is under way across each of these areas covered by the committee through Departments, agencies and a range of interdepartmental groups such as the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. These matters are also regularly considered at meetings of the Government and in bilateral meetings with the relevant Ministers.
Significant progress is being made on the implementation of Project Ireland 2040. In May last, the Government launched the first annual report for Project Ireland 2040 and it is clear it is already delivering better transport links, facilitating better health and environmental outcomes and yielding more housing. Project Ireland 2040 is set to deliver 14 major projects by year-end and a further 20 major projects in 2020. More than 25 more projects are due to be commenced by the end of 2020. On longer-term projects, more than 200 of these will be ongoing in 2020, including the national broadband plan, the north runway at Dublin Airport and the national train control centre.
The four funds launched under Project Ireland 2040 have a total of €4 billion to invest across the areas of rural and urban regeneration and development, climate action and disruptive technologies innovation. The first round of funding allocations under these funds, amounting to just over €150 million in 2019, have been announced. Second round calls have been launched for the disruptive technologies innovation fund and the rural regeneration and development fund. A further call for the urban regeneration fund will be announced soon and work is continuing on legislation to underpin the climate action fund. The Government is also considering some reforms to the oversight and governance of project selection, appraisal and delivery, including updating the public spending code.
It was reported at the weekend that the Government plans to finally sign off on the national broadband plan next week after much delay and at six times the original cost. In response to a recent question in this House, the Taoiseach stated that the delay was due to a challenge by another broadband provider which has apparently contested the maps. The company in question, Imagine, recently denied this accusation, however, and stated that it merely made the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment aware of the availability of its existing investment and its plans for further expansion. What exactly is the state of play? The named company warned as early as February this year, before the Government signed off on the controversial €3 billion plan, that proceeding with the current plan was an unnecessary State intervention and could lead to difficulties with state aid approval in the European Union. Despite this warning and much fanfare before the May elections, the Cabinet endorsed the €3 billion plan. Now it is reported that Imagine's existing services cover potentially 234,000 of the 540,000 premises that the new intervention was scheduled to cover. This raises two serious questions, on which I ask the Taoiseach for clarification. Has the Department revised the proposed intervention area and, if so, will the State subsidised plan headed by Granahan McCourt's private investment fund be entitled to yet more compensation? If no intervention is made and the area provided for in the plan is successfully challenged by a private operator, what are the financial implications for the Government breaching state aid rules? Reports suggest the figure could be up to €500 million. What is the Taoiseach's understanding of the matter?
Has the Cabinet committee on infrastructure discussed the ongoing issues with the national children's hospital? Responding to a parliamentary question, the Minister of State highlighted another cost overrun estimated to be €73 million. The State's chief procurement officer has resigned from the development board. If we are to believe reports, this is in no small part due to the spiralling cost overruns. Questioned on the resignation, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform stated that the chief procurement officer sat on the board in a personal capacity and not as a representative of the Department. The Minister has effectively washed his hands of the issue. Has the Cabinet committee on infrastructure followed his lead? Is the committee not concerned that the Minister does not believe the Office of Government Procurement should have a role on the board of a flagship project, the costs of which have tripled since the first budget allocation? The Minister and the Office of Government Procurement appear to have washed their hands of the project. If the Minister of Health cannot contain the costs and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform believes he has no role in cost containment, surely the Cabinet committee must take a different view. People incur a real cost as a consequence of the perpetual overspend and overrun, not just in money terms but also in terms of vital services.
As I am sure the Taoiseach understands, these overruns are not victimless. Has the committee addressed the cost overruns of the hospital and the resignation of the Government's chief procurement officer from the board?
The housing crisis has reached absolutely dire proportions and, to be frank, in my part of Dublin it is getting worse every day. There are many reasons for this but one is the failure to put in place the necessary infrastructure in order to develop public lands for social and affordable housing. Our representatives on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council have discovered something that I suspect is the case right across the country. Of seven major sites in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown that were identified in 2016 and zoned for public and affordable housing, only one has been progressed in any way, although no bricks have been laid. Nothing has been built. Six of those sites, or the overwhelming majority, have problems arising from infrastructure, with much of these down to Irish Water not putting in the required water infrastructure. Nothing has moved, houses have not been built and the housing crisis gets worse.
Perhaps the Government is hoping the private sector will come in to save the day but it was also reported in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown that the amount from planning fees coming from the private sector has reduced in 2019. That means the private sector is doing less building and the expectation is the amount gained from these fees will reduce further in 2020. The private sector is slowing down in terms of housing delivery in a key part of Dublin that is affected by the housing crisis. It is very likely that this is also happening in many other parts of Dublin and elsewhere. Public land zoned for housing development is not seeing any activity because of a lack of infrastructure. Is the Taoiseach concerned about that or does he have an explanation? Is this indicative of a failure in the Government's policy for delivering the necessary infrastructure for housing and the affordable housing we so desperately need to address the housing crisis?
With regard to the cabinet committee dealing with infrastructure, the cost of many projects is now significantly ahead of what was stated when the current national development plan was prepared. For example, today's newspapers report that a review of water projects indicates that costs are running, on average, 15% ahead of what was previously stated. Some projects are below budget but the significant majority are well ahead of estimates. Adding this to the other well-established overruns, such as those in the national children's hospital and the national broadband plan, the obvious question arises of when we will see a full review of timings and projects in the national development plan. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach could give an answer to that specific question.
We have not received a satisfactory reply on the resignation of the Government's chief procurement officer from the hospital board. What is his role and his views on the children's hospital? Surely the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has ascertained those views on the specific project.
The overall point is that nobody can stand over a position where public money is being spent making claims about all the projects that will be delivered for a set amount of money while at the same time the Government knows the indicated funding is not there at all for these projects. When the national development plan was launched, we were promised regular updates and full transparency but in recent days all we are getting is more repeated announcements of already promised projects. When will the promised review of national development plan costs and timing be published?
My question concerned climate change but United States President Donald Trump would have been proud of the Taoiseach's recent comments on climate change. President Trump comes out saying things like we should not worry about climate change because we will have warmer winters and fewer people will die as a result. Perhaps the Taoiseach did not intend his comments as such but that is almost in the denial category. We could have far worse and more frequent storms, and this has already cost lives. Perhaps it could cost much more in future winters. I do not know what is going on in the Taoiseach's press office but apparently sources have said that Fine Gael Deputies will "roast" the Greens slowly on the barbecue. That nonsensical sort of behaviour must stop.
I asked about electric cars last week and I read a recent editorial in The Irish Times making a similar point. Nobody believes the target set by the Government on take-up of electric cars as we would already need to see dramatically more electric vehicles being sold than we are to have a chance of reaching that target. We lack the basic infrastructure to achieve anything close to that target. Has the Taoiseach reviewed the target, taking in the new information that has emerged around the lack of credibility in the numbers announced earlier this year? Nobody, and not even those in the Department, is standing over that figure it seems. The information coming from the Department is such that nobody attaches credibility to the figure.
What does the Taoiseach have to say to the 600,000 people in north and west Dublin who are again being told they are subject to a boil water notice, having seen the last one less than two weeks ago? On this occasion, people are unlikely to get a lifting of the notice before Thursday. Does the Taoiseach understand how difficult this is for families, particularly those with small babies or elderly people who may be ill? There was worry two weeks ago about what was happening with a boil water notice.
Irish Water has set out a series of programmes on capital investments to improve water facilities. It has stated that part of the Leixlip plant is 40 years old and, ideally, it would be closed for six to 12 months in order to carry out repairs. Irish Water cannot do this because it supplies 20% of households, mainly in north and west Dublin, and satisfies water needs and drinking water. The Government seems to be totally indifferent about this and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government seems to be adrift in his role of providing housing infrastructure. We now understand that water infrastructure is also down the river and far away as far as people who pay tax are concerned. These people have an entitlement at least to expect that the Government could function so that potable water can come from the taps.
I am also concerned as north and west Dublin is a considerable area of investment for companies coming to Ireland and the repeated breakdowns in water services, combined with the way they have been handled, will cause enormous reputational damage to investment in the area. The Government seems to be entirely adrift on this. Has it called for a detailed investigation into what happened in Irish Water and has it heard the story of the bosses in Irish Water? Has the Taoiseach been to Leixlip to look at the creaking waterworks and see why this is happening? It is only down the road for him. The Taoiseach has mentioned all the money the Government will have for infrastructure up to 2040 but if this keeps going until 2040, Dublin and its water supply will be wrecked because the Government has not put in the investment.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. The word "challenge" was not the correct term for me to use with respect to the national broadband plan. Imagine sought an extension and this caused a delay at that point. It wanted to use the extension to submit additional maps and so on. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no revision to the State intervention area. The national broadband plan is now with the European Commission, a required process in order to get state aid clearance. We look forward to a positive outcome and if we get that it will enable us to sign the contract before the end of the year and start connecting homes, businesses and farms to high-speed broadband next year all over rural Ireland. It is our objective.
There has been no change to the budget allocated in December 2018 for the national children's hospital. The contractor, however, has submitted claims and these have yet to be adjudicated on. It is not unusual in a major construction project for a contractor to submit claims if it believes it had to carry out work beyond the contract.
The good news is the scaffolding is now at roof level. I would invite anyone who has an interest in the children's hospital to go and visit the site. It really is shooting up as a building.
It is highly impressive that we are at this point now. The first element of the children's hospital, the urgent care centre at Connolly Hospital, has already opened. It is not fully commissioned but it is already open. The outpatient department is operating fully. The urgent care centre is operating from Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is already making a difference. The number of children waiting to see a general paediatrician has fallen by 30% already. It is already having a significant impact on waiting lists because those children who were waiting a long time to see a general paediatrician can now be seen in the dedicated outpatient department at the Blanchardstown urgent care centre. It is a new service for people living in west Dublin and Meath and so on. They no longer have to take their children to Temple Street Hospital and can take them to the modern facilities at Connolly Hospital instead. Tallaght will open next year.
This project has been promised for as long as I can remember. I think it was first mooted when I was a medical student. I am very proud of the fact that we are now getting it done and delivering on it when other Governments failed to do so.
That is not true.
Other Governments failed to do so. There was an abortive attempt to build a national children's hospital at the Mater Hospital that failed. Other Governments failed to deliver this project.
We have run out of time.
The Taoiseach should not be so partisan in his comments. That was a planning issue.
This Government is delivering it. I appreciate that sometimes when Governments fail, it is not necessarily their fault, but I am unsure whether Deputy Martin acknowledges that too often.
The target for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles is ambitious. It is no secret that many people at official level thought it too ambitious, but often we are criticised for not having targets that are ambitious enough. This is one occasion when we have gone for an ambitious target. We believe it is deliverable. Over the course of the next ten years, roughly 1 million people will change their car or buy a new car. It is not inconceivable that we will get to a point where the majority of those will opt for an electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle instead. We need to invest in the charging points to make that possible. That is happening. There are grants available to encourage people to do so. Moreover, the cost of these vehicles is coming down all the time. That is when we will start to see the big change, with people opting for them instead.
I was asked about the issue of housing on public land. My view is that we should use public land for housing, and that is being done. We should use public land for all of the public, including those requiring social housing, people who want to buy their own homes and those seeking affordable and cost rental property. I welcome the fact that Dublin City Council decided to vote to go ahead with the O'Devaney Gardens project last night, because this will allow 800 new homes to be built on a site near the city centre. These will include homes that people can buy, social housing for those on the social housing list and homes that people can rent. It is a good step forward. It is regrettable that the council has delayed it for so long up until now but I am glad to see that it is finally now going ahead.
4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if climate change is covered by Cabinet committees he attends. [43226/19]
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if climate change is covered by Cabinet committees he attends. [45218/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together.
The Cabinet committee on the environment was established in July when the Government reorganised the Cabinet committee structures. It covers issues relating to the environment, including climate action and the implementation of the Government's climate action plan. The need for an all-of-government approach to climate action is obvious. This includes a deliberate and sustained focus by all relevant Ministers and Departments. The work of the Cabinet committee on the environment is an important part of this.
The Cabinet committee on the environment met for the first time on 30 September 2019. At its first meeting the committee discussed the first progress report on the climate action plan, which was published last week. The first progress report outlined the status of 176 steps for delivery, which were either due for completion in quarter two or quarter three of this year or are ongoing. A completion rate of 85% has been achieved, incorporating 149 measures across all sectors of society. The report details some of the key milestones delivered to date in furtherance of the climate action plan, including the introduction of a scheme for 1,200 on-street public charge points for electric vehicles. This is being led by local authorities.
We introduced a climate action focused budget with a commitment to increasing the price of carbon to €80 per tonne by 2030 and ring-fencing all new proceeds from the carbon tax for climate action and just transition. Other measures include the first Luas tram extension, the introduction of new requirements to ensure all new homes are at nearly zero energy buildings standard, and new rules for public procurement, meaning that €12 billion of State investment each year will be invested sustainably.
The Cabinet committee is due to meet again on 2 December 2019. Its focus will now shift to the delivery of quarter four 2019 actions and beyond, setting us on a pathway to decarbonising our economy and society.
I thought that was covered by the previous question. That said, it gives me the opportunity to go back to the Taoiseach on the issue of electric vehicles. The Taoiseach is not facing up to the reality of the points that I and most people are making. No one is criticising ambition, but there is a responsibility to ground whatever proposals we are making in some framework of reality. No one I have spoken to sees any credibility attached to the electric vehicle target. The Government needs to do more to illustrate how it came to that figure and how it expects an extra 1 million vehicles to materialise within the next ten years given the poor performance to date in terms of transformation of the public transport system, which has been especially slow and belated indeed. We can add to that the issue of the smoky coal ban. The Government has simply not taken up the cudgel on that. It has funked that particular decision and decided not to finish or complete it, even though it was started well over 30 years ago. That was when the ban was first introduced. The air quality is showing this in the capital and elsewhere throughout the country.
On the one hand we had the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, at the launch warning about increased exposure to ultraviolet rays and skin cancer caused by climate change. On the other hand, the Taoiseach is saying we will have warmer winters, less heating and energy expenditure and fewer deaths as a result of the cold weather.
The first point is that we are having more extreme weather. That is what people have identified globally, and when I say people, I mean experts. Not only will there be more severe and dangerous storms that will cause injury and loss of life, but there will be an increased frequency of those storms globally. Certainly, this has materialised in Ireland in recent years. It has been one of the factors in alerting people to the issue of climate change. It has heightened people's sense of awareness and concern.
The whole idea of the carbon tax in many respects was around this energy question in terms of reducing the dependency on fossil fuels. The idea of the fuel allowance was to compensate for that. This is the first time I have heard that we will have lower fuel bills in terms of this entire agenda. We have just passed a budget that includes a measure to help people manage their fuel bills in future. There has been a tendency, particularly from deniers of climate change, to suggest that climate change will be great because we will have warmer weather in Ireland and that this somehow has pluses and so on. The Taoiseach needs to be careful about making those comments because it can undermine the broader case to try to convince people about the reality of climate change, that it is happening, that it will impact on people's lives and that the overwhelming outcomes and consequences of climate change are negative in terms of the quality of people's lives and in society in general. Those of us in this country are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, especially low-lying areas. I am not clear at all that we have taken the proactive measures necessary to deal with that issue in the short to medium term.
Does the Taoiseach not think he should apologise for trivialising the issue of the climate emergency by making those comments? It really gives succour to climate deniers like Donald Trump to make glib trivialising comments of that sort. It would be helpful if the Taoiseach said they were comments he regretted.
I question the Taoiseach's more general bona fides on this given the continued commitment to go ahead with the liquefied natural gas terminal in Shannon, which is going to import toxic fracked gas from the United States. It is okay to ban fracking here, and rightly so, because of the damage it does to the environment, but we have no problem with visiting it on the people of the United States.
I also want to ask about public transport and the Government's commitments in that regard. We have been holding a series of meetings on BusConnects over the last while and when one looks into the facts of public transport in this country, one really has to wonder about the Government's commitment to getting people out of their cars. How does improving public transport square with the fact that bus fares in the last ten years have increased by 80%, the PSO subsidy to Dublin Bus has dropped dramatically from €87 million to €50 million and there are now fewer buses in the Dublin Bus fleet than in 2008? How do these stark facts about the poor state of our public transport system, which is one of the most costly in Europe in terms of fares, square with a commitment to improving public transport in order to get people out of private cars and thus reduce CO² emissions? I put it to the Taoiseach that they do not; they square more with a privatisation of public transport agenda which will do nothing to reduce CO² emissions.
People were very taken aback by the Taoiseach's very flippant comments that climate change would make our winters warmer, bring all sorts of health improvements and increase people's longevity. To be honest, one would expect stuff like that in tweets from Donald Trump but not from the Taoiseach. I doubt that many people on the island of Ireland would agree, given the kinds of storms we have been having recently. The Taoiseach has gone out in his full gear with various front-line workers. He has been delighted with the photo opportunities and has warned us all to stay indoors. Now, suddenly, it is all about having sunny, warm back gardens once climate change comes. He should withdraw the remarks and to younger people in particular, who are deeply interested in climate change, he should say it was a joke that just went wrong.
Air quality in Dublin is very poor and getting worse because there are so many vehicles on our roads emitting particulates. As a result, we have an epidemic of asthma, which is not a recognised illness qualifying for free medical care. Huge numbers, particularly of children, are suffering from asthma. People in bad housing are also suffering. We have lots of children in bad housing where there is mould and so on and they are particularly at risk of asthma. How does the Taoiseach join the dots? That is really what this question is about. Does he have someone in his Department who takes a look at how we deal comprehensively with these issues?
At the moment, BusConnects is promising or promoting the possible destruction of over 1,000 very mature trees in different parts of Dublin. The Taoiseach must see the trees with the ribbons around them as he travels around the city in his car. We just do not have enough public transport. There are people standing on buses most of the time. Unless this Government picks up the baton and starts working in the here and now on climate change, we are not going to persuade people to get out of their cars. We must have more public transport which should be cheaper. We must do everything possible to get people out of their cars in order to lower emissions which are very damaging to the people of Dublin, particularly to those who suffer from asthma triggered by the poor air quality in our capital city.
I do not think the Taoiseach will be offended if I say that he has a tendency to be a bit flippant in his public commentary. Sometimes it gets him the headlines that he desires but, as Deputy Micheál Martin will attest, it does not always go that way. His recent comments about climate change do a grave disservice to his office, his Government and to the responsibility that he, as Head of Government, has not just to this State but to the broader global community. Attempting to trivialise what is effectively a climate emergency sends a very poor message to campaigners and those who are dealing daily with the effects of climate change, including asthma sufferers and those who are confined to their houses due to severe storms and so on. In truth, the Taoiseach probably knows that his comments were ill-judged or did not land correctly.
The inference of this group of questions is that we are facing a potentially catastrophic climate emergency with such overarching policy implications that it warrants a Cabinet sub-committee of its own. Is that something that the Taoiseach would consider given that climate change has an overarching impact on all policy areas? I do not think there is any Cabinet position or Department that is immune from the impact of the climate emergency.
Before I call the Taoiseach, I remind Members that we have only 13 minutes remaining so we may not get to the next question.
I state at the outset, in case anyone has any doubt about it, that climate change is real, is happening right now and is man-made, unprecedented and detrimental to human life and well-being both in Ireland and globally. Any benefits that may arise from it are far outweighed, many times over, by the damage it is doing and will do. I said that last Thursday as well. That is why we are taking action. In the last few weeks alone, we took the decision to increase the carbon tax. That was not a popular decision but it is one that anyone who is serious about climate action knows must be part of the solution. We secured €500 million to build an interconnector between France and Ireland so that we can sell our wind energy to Europe. We decided to restrict exploration in our waters. We ordered more rail cars which will increase capacity on our rail services around Dublin by 34%-----
We ordered them for the fourth time.
The Luas capacity expansion is under way and a new national train control centre has been approved. We have decided to take coal and peat out of the energy system in favour of wind and solar power. We are promoting electric vehicles and changing our bus fleet to hybrid vehicles. We have introduced new building regulations to make sure that new buildings are zero or near zero energy rated. We are investing in retrofitting. We have banned fracking. We set up a climate action fund by way of a levy on the oil industry. That is only the start; just a few examples of the practical things the Government I lead has done-----
The Oireachtas has done-----
-----in the last couple of months to bring about climate action, something about which we are very serious.
On what I said on Thursday, I am happy to clarify that it was, as The Sunday Business Post stated, an observation, not a policy statement. I can see how it was open to misinterpretation by those who may be pursuing a climate sceptic agenda. However, I would like to provide a little bit of context for my remarks. The document we were launching was the climate change sectoral adaptation plan for the health sector, 2019 to 2024, published by the Department of Health. Page 14 of the plan states:
It is also important to note that there are a number of health benefits projected to occur as a result of climate change, for example warmer weather may reduce the risk of cold-related illness and death and may potentially improve mental health and wellbeing and increase physical activity levels.
This is a scientific and evidence-based document with seven pages of scientific references and citations backing up its contents. I also draw Members' attention to the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, introduced by the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly of the Labour Party when it was in government. It is an Act that we all voted for. Section 5 of that Act requires the Government, in its national adaptation plan, to avail of any "positive effects of climate change that may occur". The then Minister and those Members who voted for that legislation in the House at the time not only believed that there may be positive effects of climate change, they also wrote it into the law and made it a requirement that the Government take them into account in its adaptation plans. I do not think anyone would argue that Deputies Alan Kelly, Eamon Ryan, Micheál Martin or the environmental NGOs, who all supported writing that provision into law, are like Donald Trump or are climate change deniers.
What about the electric vehicles?
Sorry, on the electric vehicles-----
I seek the evidence base for the figures.
I will have to get that for the Deputy.
I need to see that evidence base.
If there is one, I will get it for the Deputy.
If there is one.
It is fair to say that there-----
There really should be one.
-----are plenty of targets that do not necessarily have an evidence base behind them.
Come on. It cannot be back-of-the-envelope stuff.
They are ambitions.
There is always an evidence base.
No, there is not always one.
Switching to electric vehicles is an important part of the low-carbon transition. The Government will continue to help individual motorists who want to make the switch to an electric vehicle. We have allocated €8 million in the budget to maintain grants at their current levels for individuals purchasing electric cars.
This is in addition to the planned departmental expenditure. A further €3 million will be provided for new electric vehicle infrastructure and an additional €3 million has been allocated for investment in new electric vehicle charging infrastructure. This includes additional funding towards the cost of installing on-street charge points, the expansion of the home charging scheme and the provision of funding to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to roll out fast charging points to taxi ranks and transport hubs around the country.
I was asked about extending the ban on smoky coal. I explained previously that we have received strong legal advice from the Attorney General that to do so would be legally fraught because burning turf, briquettes and wood does as much damage to our air quality as burning smoky coal. We do not believe we would be able to stand over that in court were we to do it.
The Government has been doing it for 20 years.
When one goes to towns such as Enniscorthy and smells the air-----
Why did the Government not follow Deputy Kelly's example and ban it?
Air quality in such areas is hugely related to the burning of peat and briquettes. In Dublin, it is largely due to diesel cars.
Will the Taoiseach give me the Department's evidence base for the electric vehicle figure? He might send that on to me if he does not have it now.
I remind the House that we have eight minutes left for one question.
I will send it on if there is one. There may not be.
I ask the Taoiseach to clarify whether there is.
Do Deputies want to continue with this question or do they want to move on?
Time is running out.
The Deputy wasted 25 minutes.
The Deputies are still wasting time.
Not of this time.
There was a full half an hour.
We have eight minutes. I ask the Taoiseach to take Questions Nos. 6 and 7. I will limit the time for questions.
6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he is considering new divisions in his Department. [43258/19]
7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he is considering new divisions in his Department. [44457/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 7 together.
The role of my Department is to assist my work as Taoiseach and to co-ordinate the work of the Government and Cabinet. While there are currently no plans to change the structure of my Department, its staffing needs and structure are reviewed on an ongoing basis. My Department is currently structured around five main divisions: the international, EU and Northern Ireland division, including responsibility on Brexit matters; an economic division; a social policy and public service reform division; a Government secretariat, protocol and general division and parliamentary liaison unit; and the corporate affairs division.
The remainder of staff in my Department include those in private offices or constituency offices, and the Government information service and internal audit unit. Recent changes in my Department include the establishment of the following: a secretariat for a new citizens' assembly; the National Security Analysis Centre; a climate action unit; a policing reform implementation programme office; a unit dealing with Brexit preparedness and no-deal planning; and a team dealing with the north-east inner city initiative.
With the exception of politically appointed staff, staff assignments in my Department are the responsibility of the Secretary General and the senior management of the Department.
I ask all Deputies to limit their contributions to one minute each.
I apologise in advance for the fact that I will have to leave before I can hear the Taoiseach's answer.
The Deputy does not have to wait.
I know. I just wanted to say that I am not being rude but must leave to take a call.
I propose that the Taoiseach take the issue of disability under his Department's remit. Disability advocacy groups and service users have been calling for this for some time. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability, UNCRPD, has been ratified, although the Government notably opted out of the optional protocol which would make it legally accountable for ensuring equality for people with disabilities. This is important because the equality that people with disabilities should have under law due to the UNCRPD is not being delivered. One of the reasons is that the issue is spread across a series of Departments and areas, including housing, health, planning, transport, jobs and enterprise, and so on. Nobody is responsible for ensuring that a huge cohort of our citizens have the equality to which they are legally entitled. I suggest that the Taoiseach take the issue of disability under his remit. I will listen back to his answer later.
One of the problems this Administration has is its competence when it comes to joined-up government. There are many Ministers and such a huge number of Ministers of State that we cannot even remember their names or functions. It is not clear from what we discussed today how the children's hospital got into its current state of bad budgeting. The Taoiseach did not comment on the boil water notices during my earlier question, but we were told today that Irish Water needs significant amounts of money to do up the treatment plant in Leixlip. Yet, there does not seem to be any joined-up government. A boil water notice was issued two weeks ago, and another was announced today which will last until Thursday. We could have them all the way up to Christmas. Where does the Government interact? The Taoiseach mentioned the 2015 climate change legislation that I, as Tánaiste, ensured came into effect. That only happened because I demanded it. The Taoiseach seems to be floating somewhere above this as if he is not affected by any of these things which affect people in their daily lives.
The Taoiseach has stated in the past that he is happy with the structure of the Department of the Taoiseach as it has been since 2016, when the last significant change was implemented. In that case, the change was a reversal of a decision taken five years previously to incorporate the EU division from Iveagh House into Government Buildings. If we assume that the UK's withdrawal agreement or something close to it is ratified next year, we will potentially be facing into many years of ongoing negotiations with the United Kingdom, both bilaterally and through the European Union. That is particularly true given that the deal Boris Johnson has negotiated would entail a harsher Brexit than that negotiated with Theresa May. That does not seem to be getting much attention, but that is the reality. Things may change in the upcoming election and a Government with a softer position may be formed. Nonetheless, there will be discussions on this issue.
I put it to the Taoiseach that we as a country must put in place a more substantive mechanism for maintaining ongoing relations at ministerial and official level. The British-Irish Council is too unwieldy and too focused on once-off events and initiatives to play this role. I have consistently argued this for four or five years. We must anticipate and deal with the many problems which could arise in the common travel area, for example, such as maintaining a seamless common travel area in the years ahead, particularly in areas of reciprocal rights such as health, education, and social protection. The devolved administrations also will have a significant role to play in this. In Scotland, where health and education services are governed from Edinburgh, maintaining alignment in the absence of EU frameworks and legislation will be a significant task. I ask the Taoiseach to indicate what extra resources will be provided on that front.
In recent years, there have been growing calls from the disability sector for a full seat at the Cabinet table. We do not have a great record when it comes to interdepartmental work, and this remains a challenge, particularly in the areas of health, children and youth affairs, education, and justice. This is an area of our public administration that has yet to be truly reformed. Others have asked that disability be brought under the remit of the Department of the Taoiseach, thereby giving this broad policy area a home at the highest level in Government. Placing disability with the Department would give policy development and delivery added authority and perhaps it would give service users confidence that the UNCRPD will be implemented in full. I am happy to add my voice to those who have been calling for this for a long time in order that persons with disabilities will be placed at the centre of the Government and policy formation, and that they will not fall between two stools, as has so often been the case when it comes to interdepartmental work.
This Government, made up of Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance, has established a Minister of State for disability who sits at the Cabinet table. This is the first time we have had a dedicated Minister with responsibility for disability sitting at the Cabinet table.
That is not a full seat.
It is not the first time.
It is not.
When was the last time?
We have had specific Ministers with responsibility for disability before.
In previous Governments.
Did they sit at the Cabinet table?
It was a full seat at the Cabinet table.
I really do not think that is the case. This is the first time we have had a Minister of State at the Cabinet table whose sole responsibility is disability.
Is he effective?
He is not a full Minister; he is a Minister of State.
As he works across a few Departments, he is able to co-ordinate the work of the Departments of Health, Employment Affairs and Social Protection and so on.
He could not get the Beaumont centre for cystic fibrosis built.