Estimates for Public Services 2020

I move the following Revised Estimates:

Vote 1— President’s Establishment (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €4,500,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Secretary General to the President, for certain other expenses of the President’s Establishment and for certain grants.

Vote 2 — Department of the Taoiseach (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €54,013,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Department of the Taoiseach, including certain services administered by the Department and for payment of grants.

Vote 3 — Office of the Attorney General (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €16,180,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Attorney General, including a grant.

Vote 4 — Central Statistics Office (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €65,690,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Central Statistics Office.

Vote 5 — Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (Revised Estimate)

That a sum not exceeding €43,968,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Vote 6 — Office of the Chief State Solicitor (Revised)

That a sum not exceeding €37,381,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December, 2020, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Chief State Solicitor.

The group of votes which we are discussing today involves my Department and five others. While I have certain responsibilities to the Oireachtas for administrative matters in some of these offices, they operate independently of my Department. I will first briefly outline what is involved with the other Votes and then address them in greater detail.

On Vote 1, the Estimate for the President's Establishment is €4.5 million. This includes some €3 million for pay and administration, with the balance to fund the centenarians' bounty. On Vote 3, the Estimate for the Office of the Attorney General is €16.18 million.

Of this, just over €12 million relates to staff costs and almost €2.45 million is allocated to the Law Reform Commission.

Vote 4 relates to the Central Statistics Office, CSO. The CSO plays a vital role in the functioning of the State in providing independent and verifiable data on a broad range of topics including social, economic and environmental issues. In a world where alternative facts are regularly circulated to try to distort debate, institutions such as the CSO are becoming ever more important in providing the essential foundation of expertise to underpin policy. In recent months, the CSO has taken a lead in gathering data relevant to understanding and overcoming the impact of Covid-19 on our society and economy. It has also moved rapidly to adapt its methodologies, and its work will be fundamental as we plan for a recovery which benefits all of our people. The Estimate for the CSO is €65.7 million and provides funding for additional cyclical work, in particular the delivery of a census of agriculture in 2020 and planning for next year's full census of population.

Vote 5 relates to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the allocation for which is €43.97 million. This Vote provides for fees to counsel, costs awarded against the State arising out of legal proceedings, and the cost of the local state solicitor service.

Vote 6 is the Estimate for the Chief State Solicitor’s Office and amounts to €37.4 million, the bulk of which relates to salaries and administration.

Vote 2 is for the Department of the Taoiseach. The largest provision in this group of Votes relates to my Department, for which the Estimate is just over €54 million. Approximately 41% relates to staff and administration. This funding is intended to enable my Department to play a unique role in co-ordinating Government and leading on certain critical issues. The programme for Government sets out transformative policies on the full range of issues of concern to the people. Starting with urgent action for social and economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and continuing with actions on health, housing, climate change and education, the three parties in this Government have jointly committed to a programme of sustained action. In order to deliver this, we need a new approach to managing Government. We have begun establishing a series of new Cabinet committees that will mark a significant departure. They will cover more topics, will meet more regularly and will allow a much deeper engagement with policy development and oversight of delivery. They will ensure that all relevant Departments take responsibility for their roles in delivering priorities rather than placing sole responsibility on a single lead Department. Reflecting its new roles and the priorities set out by Government, a new departmental strategy statement will be published in the coming months.

The Department of the Taoiseach has taken a central role in co-ordinating the State’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. This will continue to be an overriding priority for as long as is necessary. We are only just beginning to understand the full impact of the pandemic and we continue to face new challenges as we work to control the spread of the virus, treat it effectively and move towards recovery. In the fifth month of an unprecedented national effort, and with three steps of the reopening plan implemented, we simply cannot let our guard down. We are reopening, but this reopening absolutely requires us all to continue to act to control the possible spread of the virus. When people ignore basic precautions by gathering in large numbers with no social distancing, no masks and no hygiene measures, they represent a direct threat to the control of the virus. I do not intend to provide a running commentary on major instances where guidelines have been breached, and all of the evidence is that the vast majority of people continue to act responsibly, but let no one be in any doubt, the virus has not been defeated and we must all continue to play our part.

We also need to understand that there are still many in our society who are vulnerable and many others who are fearful. All of the economic and social research available to us confirms that the impact of the crisis is not being felt equally. We must do everything possible to protect those who are vulnerable and to help those who are suffering other impacts such as to their mental health. The first step in showing continued solidarity is to accept the restrictions which remain in place.

My Department has taken the lead in key elements of the public communication challenge of ensuring that we all know what is happening and what is required of each of us. This represents the largest unanticipated cost in these Estimates. The focus of the public awareness programme to date has been to build mass awareness and understanding of key information relating to the Covid-19 emergency response as quickly and efficiently as possible. The approach is aligned with World Health Organization and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control advice. The scale of the effort required to reach as many people as possible, with regular messages to raise awareness and build public support for the collective effort required, has necessitated a significant spending. A provision of €20 million for this work is included in the Revised Estimates for 2020. In the early stages, the work in question involved providing information to the public on the various restrictions as they were implemented and on the wide range of business supports, social welfare supports and community supports available. Targeted campaigns have addressed specific issues such as social distancing and the leaving certificate. At the moment, the emphasis is on explaining each phase of the Roadmap for the Reopening of Society and Business as they come into effect. The public awareness campaigns have cost €10.5 million to date.

Comprehensive public communications with broad media reach will continue to be run for as long as is necessary to inform on crucial public health guidance. My intention is that in the coming weeks we will specifically review the most effective messages for the task of ensuring that people both take advantage of reopening steps and continue to take essential precautions. People must understand that until there is an available and widely-administered vaccine, full normality is not going to happen.

I would like us all to note that in a free democracy such as ours, the independent media is the principal channel of communication with the public during a major emergency such as this. I want to acknowledge the commitment of journalists to covering this crisis in often stressful circumstances and also for asking the tough questions essential to challenging us to be more effective.

In the Government’s first week in office, our two overriding priorities have been to take decisions relating to the control of the virus and to rapidly commence work on an initiative to address the devastating economic impact of the pandemic. We have been reviewing work by the Department of Finance on high-frequency data on economic activity to try to get a level of understanding of the current situation. Overall, the data shows that many sectors are seeing a strong rebound as the reopening of the economy has moved forward. However, we are also seeing that other sectors are stabilising at a lower level. This could become a new normal unless we act. We will act and we will do so with urgency. An investment-led, jobs and recovery initiative is being developed and will be finalised in the coming weeks. Our priority will be to protect businesses - and the jobs relating to them - which are still struggling and need help to be able to first survive and then compete as the international economic situation improves.

Later in the year, we will also produce a new economic plan. This plan, will detail how we will secure a strong and dynamic economy, prepare workers and businesses for the challenges and changes of the future, enhance our skills base, retrain and support workers to seize new opportunities, and bring about the transformation in our economy that the crisis of climate change demands. This work will be overseen by the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment which we established last week.

I intend that this Government will build further on Ireland's record of being an effective and active participant in both the European Union and international organisations. This is a grave moment in world history. Those of us who believe in free democracy and co-operation between nations cannot stand on the sidelines while they are under attack. As is signalled in the programme for Government, we will be promoting the strengthening of the European Union and the extension of its ability to be a driver of progress and a protector of core values. We will implement a whole-of-Government approach to cross-cutting EU and international issues such as the sustainable development goals and international trade. We will also take a seat on the UN Security Council for a two-year term from 2021 to 2022. This gives Ireland another opportunity to advance our foreign policy objectives and values, and influence decisions that impact the lives of millions of the most vulnerable of the world’s citizens. We will continue to increase the scope and impact of Ireland's global footprint in terms of diplomacy, culture, business, official development assistance, tourism and trade.

As part of the EU institutional changeover last year, EU Heads of State and Government agreed a new strategic agenda to guide EU policy, ambition and budgets over the next number of years. The scale and urgency of many issues has evolved rapidly since then and Ireland will use every opportunity to support this new level of ambition, especially where it is based on addressing entrenched problems and is fair to all members.

In recent months, Covid-19 has caused a crisis without precedent at global and European level. Focus has rightly changed to managing and controlling the pandemic and to mitigating and recovering from its impacts, including the extensive economic damage it has inflicted. In the European Union, this has involved intensive discussions at all levels on limiting the spread of the virus, ensuring the supply of medicines, equipment and goods, supporting research, tackling socioeconomic consequences and co-operating to bring citizens home from other countries. I will continue the work with other European Union leaders to protect our citizens and to secure the speediest possible recovery. Reaching an early agreement on the European Union's multi-annual financial framework for the period of 2021-2027 and on the proposed recovery fund for the European Union would be a strong signal that the Union is determined to come together at this difficult time. I hope that when the European Council meets later this month, it will be possible to make strong and positive progress.

From the moment the Brexit referendum was proposed, I have been very clear in describing it as an error of historic proportions. However, it is done and the challenge we continue to face is managing its impact and developing a new and constructive relationship with our neighbour without the framework of joint European Union membership which we shared for nearly five decades. Negotiations are continuing on the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Achieving an agreement that fully protects Irish interests will be a central objective of this Government and Ireland will work tirelessly for that outcome as part of the European Union 27.

We will also continue to work with partners to ensure that the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is implemented in full, engaging closely with the European Union-United Kingdom joint committee and the specialised committee, to ensure bedding down of the new arrangements. My Department is also strongly engaged in the ongoing work on national preparedness for the outcome of Brexit negotiations, working closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and all across Government in anticipation of the end of the transition period in January 2021. While much work was done last year, we still have much more to do, especially in helping businesses who face new barriers to trade with Britain. A heightened round of stakeholder engagement will be undertaken and contingency plans will be updated.

Regardless of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland will take effect from the end of the transition period. During the remainder of 2020 we will engage closely with the European Union-United Kingdom joint committee and the specialised committee to ensure the bedding down of the new arrangements. The restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and the assembly provides a moment of hope for all who share this island. Among my first telephone calls as Taoiseach were calls with First Minister, Arlene Foster, and deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. I told them that this Government is determined to work actively and constructively with them in their vital work.

The Good Friday Agreement remains the defining blueprint for our island’s future and a vindication of democratic politics. The very genius of the agreement is how it shows that we need not bring constitutional differences into every issue. It shows us how to work together for the peace and prosperity which everyone can hold as a shared goal. This new Government will move forward quickly to try to fulfil the vision set out in the agreement and will work closely with the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. A new shared island unit will be established within the Department of the Taoiseach and will begin a renewed push to use the potential of the agreement to deliver sustained progress for all communities. It is my intention that the new unit will be in place and its work programme agreed by the Government at the end of this month. The Government is committed to having an early plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council as soon as possible so that we can make progress on the many shared challenges that we face across this island.

Tackling the climate crisis is a key focus of this Government. The programme for Government recognises that the next ten years are critical if we are to address the climate and biodiversity crisis which threatens our safe future on this planet. Under existing plans, my Department is tasked with supervising delivery and now has a key role to ensure the critical co-ordination across all Departments and agencies. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, leads a new Department with a clear and ambitious agenda across a number of the key areas for climate action and, in particular, energy and transport. The climate action unit within the Department of the Taoiseach plays an important role in ensuring centre-of-Government co-ordination, which is essential in making sure that every Department plays its part.

It is a fundamental premise of this Government that gains from the growing economy are shared fairly with all Irish citizens. We want to create a socially inclusive and fair society with opportunities for all. Under the new Cabinet committees agreed in the programme for Government, we will implement programme for Government commitments in the context of a new national social contract between citizens and the State. The ambition of this Government is to provide each citizen with accessible and affordable healthcare, housing, education, childcare and disability services, as well as working towards a living wage, upskilling, and a dignified retirement.

My Department also supports the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality established last July. The first meeting took place in February but subsequent meetings were postponed due to Covid-19. An online half-day seminar for members took place last Saturday. The secretariat is looking at the best way to progress the work of the assembly in light of the current public health restrictions.

The Revised Estimate for my Department also includes an allocation of just over €2 million for the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, for its work in providing forward-looking, strategic advice on economic, social and sustainable development issues. The current NESC work programme includes Covid-19 research contributing to policy response and analysis. The work of the implementation group on policing reform is supported by an implementation office in my Department. I am encouraged to see the responsiveness and flexibility shown by An Garda Síochána in dealing with the demands of this unprecedented situation. This is building on good work already undertaken in the reform programme but it has also highlighted, and brought to the fore, core values about our approach to policing in this country - policing for and with the support of the community.

Provision is also made in the Estimate for a number of independent inquiries, including the Moriarty tribunal, the Cregan commission and the Cooke commission. My Department also organises State events, including the anniversary of the Easter Rising and the National Day of Commemoration ceremony, which will take place this Sunday at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks. Work is ongoing with Cork City Council to plan the State commemoration in Cork on 1 November. Since it was first adopted in commemorating the 1798 Rebellion, the approach of expert and inclusive commemoration has proven itself time and again. Our history belongs to no one group and there is also no single correct version of history. I intend that we build upon this approach as we move towards commemorating a dramatic period in the foundation of our state and the assertion the will of the Irish people to live in a free democracy.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Revised Estimates with Deputies.

In the 15 minutes allocated to me, I have some remarks to make and some issues I would like to tease out with the Taoiseach. If we could engage in an interactive format and the Taoiseach could respond, that would be very helpful.

Today is the first occasion on which Deputy Martin, as Taoiseach, presented himself for Leaders' Questions and also the Revised Estimates. In building for the future, it should be understood that Irish unity is the very best plan for this island and for our people. It should be recalled that we are living in times of change across the island and in relationships between our island and that of Britain. Brexit and the Covid-19 public health emergency have reshaped how people think and talk about reunification. Both of these crises have shown very dramatically the danger and jeopardy of the Border on our island. No longer is Irish unity discussed only in aspirational terms, it is now increasingly regarded as a common-sense approach and essential to the prosperity of all of our people. I say that because growing our green economy requires an all-Ireland approach. Protecting and building public health services and protecting public health requires an all-Ireland approach, as does strengthening our agricultural sector and defending rural Ireland. All of these things must be all-Ireland in nature. This conversation is happening across the island. People from many different perspectives are reconsidering long-held views and they are looking anew at the prospect of a new Ireland, a united Ireland, and asking how this might deliver a better future for us all.

Given all of that, it is disappointing that constitutional change on Irish unity is not featured in the programme for Government. This missed opportunity was compounded by the fact that the Taoiseach failed to appoint anyone from the North to the Seanad. That was a grave mistake. I think we would all agree that the former Senator, Ian Marshall, made a very valuable contribution to the Seanad. He was a strong, independent, unionist and anti-Brexit voice and a very welcome addition to our political discourse. It is very important that Northern society be represented within the Oireachtas and that people from a unionist tradition be included, and so the Taoiseach got this one wrong. Ironically, it flies in the face of commitments made by previous Fianna Fáil Governments to ensuring Northern representation in the Oireachtas. The Taoiseach will recall that that was committed to by his predecessor Bertie Ahern - fadó, fadó.

In light of all that, I ask the Taoiseach about his shared island unit. He stated it will be up and running and have a programme of work by the end of this month. No provision is made for this unit in the Estimate. Will the Taoiseach explain that? What exactly is the unit going to do? Will he establish an Oireachtas joint committee on Irish unity? Will he convene an all-island representative citizens' assembly, or such an appropriate forum, to discuss and plan for constitutional change? Will he initiate the process for a referendum and get clarity on what the thresholds for triggering such a referendum might be? I ask that the Taoiseach respond to those initial questions and I will then raise two other issues relating to the Estimates.

I think the Deputy has adopted a certain partisan approach to this issue. We have deliberately said we are setting up a shared island unit within the Department of An Taoiseach. As for why we use the term "shared island", in his autobiography the late Seamus Mallon talked about a shared home place. The agenda for the future on this island is how we engineer and develop an accommodation where we can all live in peace, harmony and reconciliation on the island and not to, at the outset, try to dictate to one tradition or one group what the solution is going to be, which seems to be the agenda the Deputy is pursuing.

My view, as I said earlier, is that the Good Friday Agreement is the defining document and the defining agreement because it was based on three relationships, namely, the British-Irish relationship, the North-South relationship and the relationship between the two different traditions within Northern Ireland. Irrespective of what may emerge in the future or how the island develops in the future, it is my view that those three relationships will have to underpin any future dispensation or arrangements. The idea of the shared island unit is to work, develop a process and seek to understand how we can develop a shared future on the island, politically, administratively, departmentally, socially, culturally and so forth. We want the unit to develop some research, to get some work done and to engage with other parties as a forerunner to other initiatives that could be taken. What is essential, however, is that we reach out to and try to persuade those who are not of the same view as us in terms of what we might see as the desired eventual outcome.

I do not believe that precipitating or organising a referendum immediately is the way to go. That was the Sinn Féin position since Brexit happened, although it has come back a bit from that. The over-focus on the Border poll was too divisive and too partisan and ran counter to what Sinn Féin wanted to achieve. That is my view. I favour a different approach. For example, I favour a stronger North-South dimension now. Aspects of that dimension of the Good Friday Agreement need greater development than it currently enjoys and some of the bodies need to be given greater support in terms of their respective agenda. This is a positive initiative we are taking in good faith involving all parties, traditions and communities and we want to try to move ahead with it on as non-partisan a basis as possible.

I do not dispute, nor does anybody else, that the three relationships the Taoiseach set out are absolutely key. That is at the core of the Good Friday Agreement. That matter is settled. Neither do I believe that anything I have said is partisan. It is a clear enunciation of my long-held and well-known beliefs. Far from excluding the other tradition, we supported Ian Marshall when he entered the Seanad and I voted for him as a Seanadóir, even though he clearly does not share my political perspective. It is, in fact, the Taoiseach and the Government that have failed to include a critical voice in the Oireachtas. They lost that opportunity and that is a great pity.

The Taoiseach did not really answer my questions so I will write to him and perhaps we will correspond on the matter. There needs to be-----

Which ones did I not answer?

The resourcing for the unit-----

That is within the Estimate.

-----and the nature of the work programme that will emerge. All these matters need to be clarified. I have not conjured up out of thin air the idea for a referendum on Irish unity.

I know that.

That is an explicit provision of the Good Friday Agreement and that did not happen today or yesterday. It happened in 1998. There are people now at work and voting who have lived their whole lives in a post-Good Friday Agreement Ireland - thank God - and that is a great credit to all concerned. The idea that we are moving with excessive haste, frankly, does not stack up at all.

I turn to the issue of the office of the Tánaiste, which will be established within the Taoiseach's office, and of an office for the leader of the Green Party. Am I right in understanding that the Fine Gael and Green Party leaders will have ministerial advisers, press officers and an aide-de-camp in the case of the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar? That is strange and the Taoiseach might explain the precedent for it. Moreover, the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will each have an additional team of staff, including a private office, a policy and programme implementation unit and a deputy Government press secretary. Will the Taoiseach explain and clarify for the House what additional resources the office of the Tánaiste and the new office for the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will have and where they will come from? Are they new resources or are they redeployments and what is it going to cost?

On the earlier comments, we want the shared island unit to lead the way in doing research and developing a work programme. I said the work programme will be complete at the end of the month and work is being done on it now. The objective is to develop consensus on the island. Earlier I got the sense that the Deputy was adopting a more territorial, majoritarian approach, whereas I prefer to develop a more consensus approach-----

No, I adopt a Good Friday Agreement approach.

That is my observation, and while we can talk about it again and engage, that is my sense of it and I had to put that on record as to where I was coming from in respect of the evolution of the Good Friday Agreement and trying to get it done-----

That is fine. I understand that. What about the question on the Tánaiste?

As for the functioning of government, the previous Government had a range of advisers, press secretaries and other support staff for not only the Fine Gael Party but also the Independent Alliance and other Independents. This is a tripartite Government and I will retain roughly the same number of staff that the previous Taoiseach had, but there will be a Tánaiste's office within the Department of An Taoiseach and the Green Party leader will also have staff. The full complement has not yet been finalised to my knowledge but as soon it has, it will be transparent and published. The idea is that this is a programme of Government and it needs to be delivered.

All three parties have clear priorities within the programme that they are anxious to have delivered. The complement of politically appointed staff under the previous Government was 20.6. There were a number of party and non-party participants. There is precedent for this going back to the early 1990s. Deputy Howlin would have been a member of the Government in 1992 when the Tánaiste's office was established, the idea being - there is an open debate about this - that political input is important in delivering a programme for Government. However, there has to be constructive interaction between the political advisers and the civil servants to ensure that the programme is delivered.

It is because there are precedents that I am raising the issue. I am well aware of the precedents. There is also a precedent for the number of Ministers of State appointed. We need to know not only the structure and rationale for any of the appointments or expansions but also the cost, because the taxpayer is picking up the bill.

It is also important to state that there is one Taoiseach in office. I am correct in understanding that. I suggest to the Taoiseach that it is not great for our system of government if there is any real or perceived rivalry from the get-go. I am at a loss to know why the Tánaiste needs an aide-de-camp. I am aware that others are at a loss also. The general public - the people we serve - look on and ask legitimate questions about how we are spending their money. I am unclear, having heard the Taoiseach's response, why somebody in ministerial office, for arguments sake, let us take the leader of the Green Party, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who has a big job to do and an extensive portfolio, might need additional resources and staff. An additional office is to be provided for the Minister. The Department of the Taoiseach will have a department of the Tánaiste within it. What will the other office be? Will it be the office of the leader of the Green Party? We just need to know what it looks like and, critically, the cost.

My final point, to which the Taoiseach may not get a chance to respond, is on citizens' assemblies. They are very effective mechanisms and involve deliberative processes and absolutely powerful stuff. The Taoiseach has committed to assemblies on biodiversity, matters relating to drug use, the future of education and, later, an elected mayor and local government structures best suited to Dublin. There is, however, no additional money in the Estimates for any of these. Are we to take it as read that the single Citizens' Assembly on gender equality is the only one that will be up and running between now and the end of the year?

First, within-----

I am sorry but I am going to have to stop the Taoiseach. There may be time left at the end. He can respond then.

That is fair enough.

Bogfaimid ar aghaidh chugh An Lucht Oibre. I call Teachta Howlin.

The Estimate for the Department of the Taoiseach and the associated group of Estimates cover a broad spectrum, as we have seen. As the Taoiseach rightly stated, the work of his Department, as in other areas of Government, will in the coming years and certainly in the coming months focus on and be dominated by the challenges and demands of the ongoing Covid crisis, from both health and economic perspectives. Please God, we have seen the worst of the crisis. I hope we will not be visited by a second wave. There will be a focus on the economic consequences of whatever stimulus will be presented in the coming weeks and months to deal with the unprecedented impact. As we go on, we will have very many opportunities to deal with these particular aspects.

I congratulate the Taoiseach on his appointment. This is my first opportunity to do so formally. It is an extraordinary honour for him. I wish him well. If he does well, the State does well. I genuinely wish him and his family every success in this regard.

In the few minutes I have, I want to deal with some of the aspects of the Votes the Taoiseach says are under his remit but over which he does not have direct administrative control. He does, however, have legislative control over them. I want to focus on the role of the Chief State Solicitor. Obviously, the Office of the Chief State Solicitor is part of the Office of the Attorney General. The Chief State Solicitor represents the State in litigation, including before the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The office deals with immigration and asylum and has an administrative law division. It represents the State in judicial review proceedings on matters of immigration, nationality, citizenship and applications in that regard.

I raise this matter with the Taoiseach because the application of the International Protection Act 2015, which is relatively new, has been a cause of concern for me recently. The Act was to consolidate, in a single process, asylum applications and so on. I am glad to have the opportunity to raise this with the Taoiseach as opposed to the Minister for Justice and Equality. I have written my email on this matter to the Minister for Justice and Equality but I got a response not from that Minister but from the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, telling me what I had outlined as a problem in the first place. As we have known, we have had various issues with the agencies of the State dealing with complicated issues. It is always a good idea for every agency of the State to be subject to the overview of this House and its Members. INIS is not. One gets the standard reply that, because the House has enacted the International Protection Act 2015, which I support and which came into effect on 31 December 2016, Members of this House cannot make representations regarding anomalies and concerns we have about the processing of applications. The only people who can actually communicate with INIS, or the International Protection Office, are an applicant and his or her legal representative. I ask that we review this. I hope the Taoiseach will consider it.

It was good to move responsibility for direct provision to a new Department responsible for integration, whose Minister is Deputy O'Gorman. Given that this Department is to be responsible for direct provision, surely the International Protection Office and INIS process would be better housed there than in the justice-focused, law-focused, procedure-focused Department of Justice and Equality. We will have other opportunities to raise that.

There are a couple of other points I wish to make. I will give the Taoiseach an opportunity to respond. With regard to Brexit, there will be a lot more litigation in regard to State aid, competition law and so on. It is an area in respect of which we need to have much more capacity in the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. It is a matter that the Taoiseach might examine. I will revert to him on it.

The Taoiseach has raised the Louise O'Keefe case. Since he has done so, I will not overemphasise it now. The State has expended a lot of money fighting it. I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach said he will be meeting representatives from the Department responsible for education on Friday and will subsequently have a timeline for the implementation of redress schemes. Maybe he will indicate if that is his intention.

My final point is on the operation of extradition arrangements by the Office of the Attorney General and the Chief State Solicitor's office. As of this minute, thankfully, we have no extradition agreement with China - and we are not likely to have one - but we do have, from last year, an extradition agreement with Hong Kong, specifically the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. I refer to SI 395 of 2019, signed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, last year. Owing to the new national security law now imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing, it is important that the instrument be reviewed. I ask the Taoiseach to do so. My time is very limited so I shall give two minutes to the Taoiseach in which he may respond.

I thank the Deputy very much for his kind comments.

Obviously, the work of the Chief State Solicitor's office is independent of the Department of the Taoiseach but I will take up the Deputy's point on the making of representations to INIS. What is occurring should not happen. We should have the facility to make representations on behalf of individuals or, as the Deputy is essentially saying, to have the process subjected to the oversight of this House.

It is, so one could actually-----

Yes, perhaps people could expound on matters. As Deputies, we have all come across matters in individual cases. My experience has been that solicitors are not shy about sending matters to our constituency clinics, and that is where the heavy lifting is done in many cases.

The matter arose in the allocation of portfolios with respect to migration policy and the security dimension, and whether the wider issue would be moved over with direct provision. The view was-----

The "securitats" won.

I would not say they won. A bit of logic won out as well. In fairness, the Department that will deal with children, equality, disability and integration will take on a lot that is over and above what it had previously. A substantial section of that new Department - in respect of disability services - would have been part of the Department of Health. There is a discrete piece around direct provision and integration and, if managed well, it could make a significant difference to people's experience on the ground.

The Deputy spoke about specialist work to give more capacity on Brexit matters and we will certainly look at that. There is no issue in that respect.

It is about resources.

Yes. If the Office of the Chief State Solicitor comes to us, we will respond sympathetically.

On the survivors and victims of child abuse in primary schools, the outgoing Taoiseach told me that 13 settlement offers were made after the judge's review and that the redress scheme was being updated and changed. That has not come through yet but I will examine it. I am meeting officials to discuss more general matters on Friday and I will raise this specific matter with them.

What about the extradition agreement?

I will look at that agreement with Hong Kong.

I have questions on a few areas but I will allow time for a response from the Taoiseach. Overall, the Revised Estimates do not have anything remarkable in them. The only standout figure is the €20 million for Covid-19 communications, of which €10 million or thereabouts has already been spent. There has been concern expressed about many of these Revised Estimates in that there are very few metrics to identify where the money is being spent and whether we are getting value for money. I hope this will be rectified in the remainder of the year so people can make proper assessments.

I will make a point on communications. I do not agree with the Taoiseach that they have been good. There has been much confused and mixed messaging coming from the Government, not least with regard to foreign travel. Today, I will raise the question of face masks, about which there is a high level of confusion among the public. On the one hand, masks are supposed to be mandatory in certain circumstances and wearing them is strongly advised but there is no clear guidance on the types of masks to be worn or enforcement of the recommendation. We are told there are three different types of masks and people in at-risk groups are supposed to be wearing medical-grade masks. What are medical-grade masks? Are they blue and white or are they the type that can be bought cheaply in a supermarket? What about the concern that people will be competing with front-line medical staff, as we are told we should not be using any medical-grade masks for that reason, etc.? Overall, there is a high level of confusion and no quality standard has been set. Masks are being sold in all kinds of places and goodness knows where they are coming from or if they do any good at all.

I ask the Taoiseach to pay some attention to that and provide a clear message on where masks need to be worn. Last week, we were told they were mandatory on public transport but that does not seem to be the case. I was on a bus on Sunday and very few people seemed to be wearing them. There is a need for a clear message as people's guard has dropped in the past couple of weeks. If we are mixing more as the economy opens and so on, there must be very clear direction on wearing masks, including what types of masks are to be worn.

I ask about staffing in the Department of the Taoiseach and specifically the additional offices being set up for the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party. What exactly is meant by "office" in this respect with regard to the Tánaiste and the Green Party leader? I take it this amounts to much more than just an office. What is the staff complement for the office? Why is this necessary? I accept there needs to be a high level of co-operation and co-ordination between the three parties but both the Tánaiste and Green Party leader have departmental offices and offices in the Oireachtas, and they probably have constituency offices. Why is there a need for these additional offices? What is the estimated cost of this? Will the estimated cost of providing these new offices within the Department require a Supplementary Estimate or will it be catered for in the overall current funding envelope?

My next question relates to political staff. The Taoiseach already has 200 staff in the Department. I do not know if he will continue with the position of the previous Taoiseach, who had five special advisers in addition to 17 staff in the Government Information Service. That seems quite excessive when viewed in addition to a chief of staff, a head of policy, the support of the Secretary General and assistant secretary, etc. Is it the Taoiseach's intention to continue with that level of staffing?

I do not have anything against advisers and it is important that Ministers have good quality advisers. Will the Taoiseach at least give us an undertaking that the advisers he will appoint will have expertise? Could we see an end to this practice of bringing in party hacks to ministerial offices, particularly the Taoiseach's office? These people need to be properly qualified with expertise relevant to the job.

We also need clarification on salary scales. It is important that the salary scales applied to advisers be transparent from the beginning. Ideally, they should be tied to particular scales in the Civil Service. I hope there will be early clarification in that regard.

It also strikes me that there seems to be a large number of specialist staff. With issues like Brexit or Northern Ireland, one would expect there would be sufficient staff in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Taoiseach's Department has a complement of 20 staff in the social policy unit, and there is also the €2 million spend on the National Economic and Social Council. There is a fair bit of overlap and potential duplication. I hope the Taoiseach will bear that in mind.

I also raise the undertakings on citizens' assemblies. I welcome those outlined by the Taoiseach and I presume additional funding will be required over and above the specified €1.8 million. There is a standout topic that is missing, namely, the need for a citizens' assembly on private property and the provisions relating to private property in the Constitution. These have been used as an excuse for holding up progress on tackling land issues and how they affect the price of housing. The other issue with private property is that it is increasingly being used to undermine workers' rights. Will the Taoiseach give consideration to establishing a citizens' assembly specifically on the topic of private property?

Finally, will the Taoiseach give us some more detail on the proposals for social dialogue? I know time is tight but perhaps the Taoiseach will correspond with me on the outstanding matters.

On the first question, there will be no additional cost to the Department arising from those offices. The Estimate at the beginning of the year indicated an extra €800,000 for staff in general within the Office of the Taoiseach.

Will there be a Supplementary Estimate?

No. The cost will be met with the existing Estimate. The Deputy asked about staff salaries being tied to particular grades and that will happen. There will be specialist advisers and people who will be qualified in their own right. I believe in the principle behind this in the political world.

I am not arguing with that.

There must be an avoidance of overlap. This is an efficient Department. The citizens' assemblies could also be covered within the administrative framework and the Estimate provided. The real issue with a citizens' assembly will be Covid-19 and the capacity to get work done. It is a challenge and we must develop innovative ways in which a citizens' assembly can do its work.

I will work with the Deputy on the issue of face masks. There is work under way on that, particularly in terms of public transport and the need to wear them in crowded or indoor areas, such as shops.

Will the Taoiseach consider establishing a citizens' assembly on property rights?

We have about five matters to get through the Citizens' Assembly under the programme for Government. They are the priority right now but depending on the progress of Covid-19 and the capacity of the Citizens' Assembly to get its work done-----

I have to stop the Taoiseach to ensure everybody gets to speak.

My apologies.

He may be able to come back in at the end. I am moving on to Solidarity-People Before Profit.

It is difficult to scrutinise figures that are mainly inherited from the Taoiseach's predecessor but I want to flag something from the record of the past for the future. On the €20 million Covid communications Estimate, it is perfectly understandable that communications during the pandemic would be substantial. However, we know from experience with the Taoiseach's predecessor that a considerable amount of taxpayers' money was put into the strategic communications unit, which came in for strong criticism during the time of Project Ireland 2040, the national planning framework. That episode remains a brazen misuse of State funds to paint the ruling party in government in a positive light. The Taoiseach will recall the public disquiet, and indeed a Dáil motion supported by his party, Fianna Fáil, that eventually saw the end of the spin unit. At the time, he spoke of "a huge danger of the blurring of the demarcation lines between bona fide departmental campaigns and full-blooded political campaigns." My plea to the Taoiseach is that we learn from the mistakes of the past and do not repeat them and that the communications budget should never again be used to present a Government or a party of the Government of the day in any sort of a glorious or positive light. It should be used to impart actual information to the public. I am asking the Taoiseach for a commitment from his Government that he will depart from that practice of the past and will not use the budget of communications to advance any Government party or even put the Government in a good light.

I have two other questions for the Taoiseach. One is on the budget for commissions of investigation and tribunals of inquiry, for which two figures totalling approximately €8.6 million were given. If I am not wrong, the Taoiseach mentioned three investigations but did not mention any budget for an independent inquiry into the death of Shane O'Farrell. I remember clearly his party campaigning for a motion, which was passed here and voted for by the Taoiseach's party, that there be an independent public inquiry into the death of that young man. What does the Taoiseach intend to do about this? Is he now turning his back on Lucia O'Farrell, whom his party met time and again, and the commitment he gave her in regard to an inquiry into her son's death?

While I have the floor, I will return to an issue which the State views as a complex and structural question but one which is, in fact, straightforward. I am referring to the views the Taoiseach expressed this morning in response to a question by Deputy McDonald on extending maternity leave and benefit. This is an issue of equality for mothers and for children. Those whose maternity leave was utterly disrupted and damaged by the Covid pandemic need to be looked after. I cannot understand the reason the Taoiseach and his predecessor seem to be determined to turn this into a most complex and difficult question to address. The previous Government addressed, and I am sure the Taoiseach's Government will continue to try to address, even more complex matters related to the pandemic, whether payments to businesses, workers or farmers or payments for health. Why has this become such a convoluted issue given that it is necessary? I put it to the Taoiseach that his answer to Deputy McDonald earlier was no different from the answers we were given previously by the Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar, when he was Taoiseach, the former Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and the previous Ministers for Justice and Equality and Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We have been around the houses on this issue. I ask the Taoiseach not to do that again and to deliver instead some kind of an answer and show the sense of urgency this matter deserves because the clock is ticking for these mothers and their babies. It appears to us, to the women outside the gate this morning and to everybody else that the Taoiseach's regime seems to be unable to distinguish itself on this issue. Is the future of this Government to be that, on key questions, it is unable to distinguish itself from the past?

First, the Government Information Service is broadly responsible for the Covid-19 communications campaign. The staff in the GIS are established civil servants. I accept the principle, as enunciated by the Deputy, that there is a need to keep the GIS non-party political and that it should not be used to advance a party in government. In fairness, over the past six months that has not been the agenda in the Covid-19 communications material. As Deputy Shortall noted, there are metrics on the reach and types of campaigns, for example, on business supports, the pandemic unemployment payment schemes and the advertising around all of that, the lockdown, the community call, business supports, well-being and the reopening roadmap. All of that took with it extensive advertising. We have figures on the people reached, the target audience and how high it was and so on. To be frank, it was also very helpful to the media, both national and local, in terms of their getting through Covid-19 as well. Fundamentally, however, it was about information. That is an important point to make in fairness to all concerned over the past number of months, and that will continue to be the case.

On commissions of investigation, the Estimate relates to those that are up and running and established. The three mentioned are the Moriarty tribunal, with regard to settling some legal costs; the Cooke report, in respect of Project Eagle; and Mr. Justice Cregan's commission of investigation on Siteserv. The cost relates to those three commissions of investigation.

With regard to the death of Shane O'Farrell, that inquiry had not been initiated. We are one week in government. We will examine these issues. There are various Ministers involved but we are very conscious of that case and have been for quite some time, as have a significant number of Deputies. I have met Lucia O'Farrell and I know the anguish she continues to go through as a result of her son's death. It is something we will examine and on which we will come back to the House.

Regarding the extension of maternity benefit, these issues are not as simple as presented. They merit examination and, as I said earlier, this matter is being examined by the relevant Ministers with responsibility for justice and equality - the outgoing Department - social protection and public expenditure. It involves policy issues. Some women's maternity leave would already have expired. We are looking at a cost of approximately €78 million. I believe approximately 24,000 women could benefit from this. That as to be gone through before a final decision can be made in regard to it. The matter will be brought to Government and we will come back to the House in regard to it, one way or another.

On the points the Taoiseach made on the moneys allocated for tribunals, a sum of €4.2 million is allocated in the Revised Estimates by the Taoiseach's office. There are serious concerns with regard to the expenditure of taxpayers' money with negligible oversight and controls. Only last week, I got a response from the Taoiseach's office in which it admitted there are no controls over the length of time or costs incurred by the Commission of Investigation into the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC. I also asked the Minister for Finance that question. The Minister did not answer and the Ceann Comhairle informed me that the Minister for Finance had no responsibility in this area. The Taoiseach knows that the commission of investigation was established in 2015 during a serious political crisis. The commission was tasked to investigate serious decisions by the IBRC, most notably the sale of Siteserv to Denis O'Brien with a write-down of approximately €119 million. Other serious questions were discussed at the time around a surge in share dealing that happened just before that sale and the issue of shareholders getting about €5 million in dividends for a company that was basically insolvent. That commission of investigation was due to deliver the first report on its first module in 2015.

It was meant to cost about €4 million in total but in the latter half of 2020 the first of 38 modules has not been completed. In the last week the commission asked for a further extension of three months. The cost of this module alone is expected to top out at about €14 million. The former Taoiseach estimates that the cost of the whole investigation will exceed €30 million. Several senior analysts reckon this is only half the story. The cost may exceed €70 million. The commission is investigating a write-down of €119 million, meaning that its costs are expected to be between 60% and 70% of the value of what it is investigating. This shows that something is radically wrong with the process. We have form in this country for tribunals that run way over time and over budget. We need to see some control over what is happening.

We in Aontú want to see justice. We want to see the commission get to the heart of what happened with decisions by the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC. We are calling on the Government to get to grips with these runaway costs. The Taoiseach might not be able to answer now, but perhaps he can send me answers to the following questions. How many tribunals, public investigations and commissions of investigation are currently in process? How long has each of these been underway? When are they expected to conclude, what costs have they incurred so far and what is the expected cost of each one on its conclusion?

I would like to touch on the barrister's expenses listed within this document. There has been a 14% increase in legal costs. Is that simply because more cases are being taken, or is the State being far too generous with its money? The Government has spent €8.4 million on trying to stop Apple paying the €13 billion it owes to Irish citizens. This expenditure by the Government, coming when the country is on the precipice of an economic tidal wave, is two fingers to many people in the State. Spending that amount of money trying to stop taxes being paid rather than trying to help citizens with the difficulties they have at the moment shows what are the priorities of the Government. Rather than fiscal prudence, spending €8.4 million trying to stop Apple paying its taxes is a form of fiscal self-harm.

In the few minutes I have left I wish to raise the issue of the unit for a shared island. Irish self-determination should be a critical objective of this Government. It is one of the most practical elements of the development of this country's future. Decisions made close to the people are better decisions because people can affect them and hold the people who make them to account. People in Ireland, North or South, cannot hold the decision-makers in London, Brussels or Berlin to account. We need more self-determination on the island of Ireland. We know in practical terms that a lack of self-determination in the North of Ireland has led to economic ruin. The North was one of the richest and most productive parts of this country for hundreds of years, but with the lack of attention from London since partition the North has become an economic backwater. It has suffered radically in the last several years. Self-determination and Irish unity should be practical objectives of this Government. There is also a justice to Irish unity, justice that was known to many generations of Fianna Fáil members who were not afraid to say out loud that they supported it. The Taoiseach spoke about the need to reach out to unionists. I believe that we have to reach out to unionists, but we should not be afraid to make a strong case for self-determination and Irish unity as well. Instead we see a wishy-washy shared island unit which has yet to be formed and is apparently to function on fresh air.

Interestingly, the Taoiseach talks about the dangers of taking the majoritarian approach to constitutional change. The Good Friday Agreement is based on a foundation of majoritarian decision-making. If the Taoiseach does not agree with that, he does not agree with the Good Friday Agreement. In the minute left, I ask the Taoiseach to reaffirm his commitment to the future of Ireland depending on majoritarian democracy.

I do not need to pander to any electoral base. I am totally self-confident in where I come from. The people from whom I sprung fought for Irish Independence, understood it and never gloried in it. We have long gone beyond this business of trying to ask people if they are for it or against it. The Good Friday Agreement is about relationships. It has been for a long time. It is not about declaring that my will is the best will. I was involved in the negotiations around the Good Friday Agreement. I was at the heart of Government when the Good Friday Agreement happened. It was a tremendous achievement for all involved. I do not believe in a divisive approach. I talked about a time when circumstances are right. We have work to do to build a shared island. It is easy to engage in rhetoric and sloganeering and with respect, that is what Deputy Tóibín is doing.

Not at all. That is absolutely not what I am doing.

That is what I take issue with.

Self-determination is a valid idea.

That is why we are setting up a shared island unit - to go through the nuts and bolts. What would an all-island health service look like? How would the political structures work? If we believe in the three sets of relationships there could still be an assembly. That is a longer debate. The Deputy has provoked me into saying that.

I am going to have to move on.

Commissions of investigation are important. The Deputy says we need more control. That is within our hands. The minute one exercises control one is interfering. The minute a Taoiseach of the day says to a tribunal that he or she will cut its resources or undermine it, the charge will come from the other side of the House that the Taoiseach is interfering and undermining an independent tribunal. I say to everybody in the House that we need to be careful when we instinctively call for inquiry after inquiry after inquiry. There are difficulties. The Deputy is correct to note that there are real difficulties with the length of time that this has taken.

I am going to stop the Taoiseach there. We will run out of time for the other speakers. If the Taoiseach has not been left enough time it is not his fault.

I accept that.

Some of these Revised Estimates are quite staggering, particularly in these times of hardship. I see the cost of running the Department of Taoiseach has gone from €34,337,000 to €54 million. The Vote for the Central Statistics Office has reached €65.6 million, up from €54 million. This is a runaway train. The Department of the Taoiseach has been allocated a massive increase of 57%. I know the Taoiseach has just entered office and I wish him well. Some €20 million has been allocated to public communications concerning Covid-19, with €10 million already spent on providing the public with information on the various restrictions as they were implemented. This is crazy. We all saw them. I attended a meeting with the then Taoiseach, as did the current Taoiseach, where we were told it was very serious and sympathies were expressed for everyone who died. We cannot pay the nurses but we can afford this kind of spin. This is outrageous money as far as I am concerned. It is reckless and it should be seen as such. The communications team recommended providing the public with clear information. We did not get clear information on some things and we still have not got it.

For example, I refer to rates. With great fanfare it was announced that rates on small businesses would be parked or put to one side. These businesses were forced to shut down by the actions of the Government. That was necessary and we supported it. The measure was called a "rates holiday". Now the county councils are sending out the July moieties, having sent moieties out for June. The councils have not received a shilling from the relevant Department, nor have they received any clear guidance on how to deal with this. Businesses that are still closed are getting huge demands for the next moiety of rates. They do not have any information about the break they were supposed to get. Those rates must be paid as well. The councils do not have a cent, but there is plenty to pay the spin masters.

I refer to the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA. When the late Deputy Brian Lenihan, God rest him, set up NAMA I said in this House that it was like releasing a wild animal in the woods. No-one knew where it would end up. A decade later it is still out there and it cannot be reined in. What is going on?

We do not know the costs involved and there will be another extension in September. It is like a wild animal. At least the rangers can get the deer, but we cannot get anybody to take control of this vehicle. There will be demands and statements about NAMA and inquiries into it, as sure as the Taoiseach is sitting in that cathaoir. Will he answer those questions? The runaway train of waste is not acceptable and I would love to know what the Taoiseach is going to do about it during his term in office.

The Deputy is correct that there has been a major increase, of €20 million, in respect of the public communications campaign around Covid-19. That has to be accepted because in a pandemic, particularly a global pandemic of an unprecedented kind, comprehensive communications are vital at every step along the way. That was done and I think it worked. It needs to continue as long as we have the pandemic with us and as long as we have a need to communicate comprehensively with the public.

I called what is happening a scamdemic and it has proven to be such.

In terms of inquiries, I would make the point that the demand for such inquiries usually comes from the Oireachtas on behalf of the public. Once a chairman is appointed, an inquiry is independent of the Taoiseach's office in terms of the conduct of its work, but it is open to the Oireachtas or the Government, at any time, to put forward proposals to terminate that inquiry or give it a final deadline. The reluctance to do that historically has always been because people would then accuse the Government of trying to undermine or interfere with the inquiry.

We must move on to the next speaker.

I am happy to have a chance to speak about these Revised Estimates for public services. I take the opportunity to urge that a closer scrutiny be made of how moneys are spent in various Departments to ensure they are not wasted, as we have seen happen with projects such as the children's hospital. That is one of many instances where massive amounts of money have been paid out.

A total of €58 million has been allocated to the Department of Health to support greater access to services for patients, particularly during the very challenging winter period. The Minister said this funding will be used to open additional hospital beds and provide transitional and residential nursing home scheme spaces. There is no doubt as to the importance of this additional funding, as long as it is spent in the parts of our health system that urgently need funding. One facility where spending is needed is Bantry General Hospital, and I hope the Taoiseach may be able to tell me if funding has been allocated to it. In 2008, the then Minister came to Bantry will all the usual glorious trappings to announce an endoscopy unit for the hospital. To date, nothing has been delivered. The most important money that could be spent for the benefit of the more than 80,000 people in west Cork who use the hospital is for the hiring of a full-time anaesthetist. We were told over and over again by the previous Minister for Health that services at the hospital would not be reduced. However, for those services to be retained, we need a full-time anaesthetist to be hired immediately. The programme for Government refers to a large number of hospitals where investment and improvements are to be made but there is nothing in it about Bantry General Hospital. This leaves me and many other people with serious questions to ask. Will the Taoiseach tell me today that funding for an anaesthetist for the hospital is included in that funding?

I have a question concerning the statutory instrument that was signed by the then Minister in 2016 putting off until 2021 the bringing of our community hospitals up to standard. In recent weeks, I have noticed at meetings of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that there seems now to be an acceptance that these hospitals will not meet the new deadline that was pushed out in 2016. Will the works promised for community hospitals such as Clonakilty be delivered or will they, once again, be put on the long finger? Announcements of funding always sound good but the question will always be about where that funding goes.

I am concerned as to whether the hard-working taxpayers are getting value for money in all of this. Coronavirus testing is an area where significant savings can be made. The previous Government used the new PC-12 aircraft to take swabs to laboratories in Germany. When I asked the then Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, how much it was costing to get a test result, he said it was €200. We have since found out that the tests can be done for less than €50 in west Cork and elsewhere in Ireland. Why are we wasting such huge amounts of the health budget flying test samples abroad when, with a little investment in Irish laboratories, we could have same-day results for a fraction of the cost?

There are many more issues I would like to raise but there is only a minute remaining for the Taoiseach to respond.

The matters the Deputy has raised come under the Department of Health Vote rather than the Vote of the Department of the Taoiseach. However, I am well aware of Bantry General Hospital and, as Minister for Health, I was very supportive of it. It performs a critical role for a wide rural hinterland. In regard to the appointment of an anaesthetist, the issue is not funding, as the Deputy knows. The HSE is saying that it is facing a challenge in recruiting somebody to locate permanently to the hospital, but it is committed to getting a resolution to the issue. It is also looking at what additional services can be provided at Bantry General Hospital as part of the wider South/South West hospital group. I will be keeping a close eye on that and working with the HSE on it. Deputies Christopher O'Sullivan and Cairns, among others, have also been in touch with me to convey their concerns in this regard.

This is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate the Taoiseach on his appointment. I wish him and his Government well because good government is good for the people.

We are debating the Revised Estimates today. When we vote on them, as Members of this House and representatives of the people, we will be deciding how our constituents' tax moneys are spent. We know these moneys are required because of the Covid-19 crisis and because we want to be better prepared for Brexit, which certainly is something we need to do. However, the question many people watching this discussion today will be asking is whether these Revised Estimates represent value for money and if they will contribute in a positive and tangible way to improving services and protecting our economy. I am somewhat new to this House but in the previous parliament in which I had the privilege to serve, the European Court of Auditors would assess the spending set out in our budget. The Comptroller and Auditor General performs that function in respect of the Oireachtas. My first question is whether the Comptroller and Auditor General will review these Revised Estimates in three months, six months or whenever. Is there an automatic review process or does it only happen in certain circumstances? I am thinking of the ordinary people watching this debate on the television, seeing that we men and women in Leinster House are deciding how to spend their money and wondering whether they will get value for it. The Taoiseach has made some good points in this regard but my question is specifically about whether the Comptroller and Auditor General will review these particular Estimates and come back to the Oireachtas with that review. Is such a review process automatic?

The Deputy has asked a good question. It is, of course, within the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General to review these Estimates. We have no difficulty with that and we would welcome it. The Comptroller and Auditor General reviews all Government expenditure, both by Departments and by Government agencies. In the case of the Department of the Taoiseach, there are different Votes, including for the Chief State Solicitor's office, the Central Statistics Office and the Office of the President. It is a smaller Department in terms of overall public expenditure and I think it is fair to say there is good value in terms of how it spends its money. This has been an exceptional year because of the Covid-19 crisis. As I said, evaluating the cost of the communications response and so on is something that will happen in the course of time.

Will the Taoiseach indicate whether the review process is automatic?

I will check that for the Deputy.

I thank the Taoiseach. I take this opportunity to join others in paying tribute to Dr. Tony Holohan and his work. He has stepped back now and I know that the good wishes of the entire country go with him.

The Taoiseach talked about the co-ordinated response from his office. People want to hear that because it gives them confidence. He also spoke about public awareness campaigns around Covid-19. I would reiterate the importance of making sure we have a proper regional spread when it comes to giving out that message by using local newspapers and radio stations. That will be some help in supporting local media but, more importantly, it will ensure that good public information reaches all parts of the country.

Several Deputies raised the issue of the wearing of masks. It is my fourth time to raise it and, in doing so, I am not being critical for the sake of it.

The messaging in respect of masks has not been clear. I know many people who are more than willing to follow the guidance they are given, but many of them consider that there is no clarity regarding the wearing of masks. We run the risk of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. It is not perfect if I wear a mask, but it makes a difference. The message on this issue has been sent clearly and concisely to people. Further effort is needed, however.

The Taoiseach referred to an investment-led jobs and recovery initiative. I addressed the previous Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, a few times on this issue and I am pleased to have an opportunity to raise it with the current Taoiseach. I acknowledge that the July stimulus is yet to come. I refer to the idea that we attempt to rebalance grant aid and loans for businesses and SMEs. The restart grant of €3,000 is quite small when compared with the grants available in the UK, Germany and several other countries. The average grant in the UK is approximately £10,000, while in Germany a company employing up to ten people can avail of a grant up to a maximum of €15,000. We need to consider the level of grant aid that is available. Of course, the grants are connected to the rates paid by the business last year. The average grant is approximately €3,000, with a maximum of €10,000. However, many businesses do not pay rates. Before she left office, the former Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and current Senator, Regina Doherty, announced a new scheme of €1,000 for such businesses. It is a very small scheme. Many of the businesses have incurred significant costs.

I wish to raise the specific issue of community and voluntary groups which run their local community centre as a business. The centre may offer language or Irish dancing classes or other activities to bring in a bit of revenue to keep the place open. Unless such groups were specifically involved in Covid-related activities, for which the former Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, allocated funding, they are not getting any money. I have sought clarity on whether the grant of €1,000 will be available to these groups, but I have not found it. Perhaps the Taoiseach will enlighten me. If he cannot, I wish to make the point that these groups need support. They do not need not huge sums of money, but they have a level of debt that they wish to clear before opening their doors. I ask him to keep that in mind.

I echo the Deputy's comments regarding Dr. Tony Holohan. I am on the record as having recognised his outstanding contribution, which has assisted the country in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, his calm delivery of messages to the public and his understanding of the gravity of the issue. He conveyed that very effectively. We offer him and his family our best wishes at this difficult time.

I must stop the Taoiseach there. He is out of time.

I will examine the issues raised by Deputy Harkin and revert to the relevant Departments on them.

I thank the Taoiseach. We will run out of time for the remaining speakers unless we keep to the time limits.

I refer to the CSO and its role in the collection of data. The CSO collects data about our people and society. Those data are essential to informed decision-making in many industries, such as construction, healthcare and finance. as well as for European governing bodies. The data provide essential information on employment and unemployment, providing accurate quarterly labour force estimates and information on household income and expenditure. The nationwide shutdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the suspension of face-to-face surveys by the CSO and that has made its job very difficult. It now relies entirely on the goodwill of the public in the context of replies to written requests for information. Those replies will be crucial in recalling the effects of the pandemic on society and the economy as well as informing decision-making and policy to guide our recovery. The CSO also commissions the census, an important routine data collection service which involves a form being issued to every household. In light of the importance of these essential services, will the Government increase the amount of funding available for the advertising of these services? Doing so would inform the public on the important work of the CSO and educate us all regarding why the services it provides are imperative to the formation of public policy that affects our everyday lives.

I endorse the Deputy's comments regarding the value, importance and centrality of the CSO as an independent data-collection body. Its agenda for the coming year includes a census on agriculture and a population census. I will examine the Deputy's proposal that, if I understand it correctly, the Government should consider increasing the level of funding available to the CSO in respect of advertising its role, sending its message to the public and getting the public to respond. I will revert to the Deputy on that issue. It is a good idea. Resources should be available within the Department to see whether we can do more to help the CSO, particularly in the context of Covid-19 and the limitations it has placed on its work and its capacity to undertake research.

I congratulate the Taoiseach on his appointment and wish him well. I wish to address insolvency and free legal aid. On insolvency, Covid-19 has brought about an informed truce between creditors and debtors. Many of those paying rent or mortgages have been given a temporary reprieve while they unable to work as a result of the current situation. However, this truce will soon end as income support measures and rent moratoriums are gradually lifted. Even though the economy was doing well in the lead-up to Covid, many people were still recovering financially from the recession. More than 26,000 mortgage accounts were in arrears before the pandemic. That figure is now likely to rise. This situation needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

The Government has recognised the clear need for an extension of rent freezes for those who have been economically hit by Covid-19, but there have been legal challenges to extending such freezes for longer than three months. Similarly, according to the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, several protections have been put in place to assist borrowers, such as the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform (Amendment) Act 2019, but there have been delays in the implementation of the legislation and its benefit has yet to be felt by the public.

There is much uncertainty among members of the business community. Given the current climate, many business owners do not know when they will be able to start planning and recovering their livelihoods. This, in turn, creates the risk that many employers will be forced to make redundant the unprecedented number of staff who have been temporarily laid off. Although these are uncertain times, this stable Government must mitigate to the greatest extent possible the uncertainty faced by Irish businesses.

I ask the Taoiseach to comment on the State infrastructure for dealing with over-indebtedness, especially with regard to those who are still recovering from the previous recession. What will the State do to help prepare for the coming situation? What action will the Government take to streamline legislation and implement measures that would lessen uncertainty for most renters, those in mortgage arrears and business owners experiencing difficulty?

One of the fundamental pillars of Government intervention to date has been the wage subsidy scheme to which all parties agreed. It will be continued. The Government has made clear that there will not be a sudden cliff edge for those coming off the subsidy. Work on the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment is under way n the context of the job stimulus package to be decided upon by the Government and published later this month.

On the insolvency truce, as the Deputy described it, analysis is being carried out with regard to protections that could be put in place for ordinarily viable businesses that may be in difficulty and vulnerable to exploitation as a result of Covid.

That is being looked at. The ESRI is publishing work and research about the impact of Covid on those with mortgage arrears. That work will inform subsequent responses from the Minister and the Government about how we can help and protect those in arrears. Fundamentally, the job stimulus programme will be about trying to protect workers from being laid off and reskilling and retraining. It is an immediate response and an economic recovery plan has been developed because we have to look at different sectors of the economy. What sectors can create employment more quickly than others in the context of Covid-19? In that respect, can the retrofitting initiatives, which will take some time, become an avenue for greater employment? Do we need programmes in our institutes of technology and education and training board schools of further education to ramp up the number of people who can be trained and then allocated to sectors where employment would be provided as a result of increased State intervention in some programmes? That is the approach that we will take.

My second question relates to free legal aid. The pandemic has brought about many unprecedented changes to life in Ireland and nobody has been untouched by the efforts to combat the spread of the disease and flatten the curve. As we settle into our new normal, the need for stability is paramount. One of the biggest worries for many in the months ahead will be housing. This was the case prior to Covid but housing has taken on a whole new dimension since. With the moratorium on evictions, those who have had a stay on their eviction are uncertain of their future status. Many more are worried that they will be unable to pay rent in the coming months and will be forced into similar situations. The public needs to know where to turn for legal advice. Will the Taoiseach speak about the difficulty that many people have faced in seeking civil or legal aid or advice for home repossession cases? Will he indicate how hangover repossession cases will be dealt with in the aftermath of Covid? Will more information on timing of these cases or aid be available to the public?

Does the Taoiseach want to take the opportunity to address any outstanding issues in addition to that? He is the last speaker.

How much time do I have?

The Taoiseach might answer that question, after which he will have five minutes. Does the Chief Whip, Deputy Calleary, want to speak?

Do I have ten minutes after that?

We are finishing up quicker. I was making up for interrupting the Taoiseach.

I will go back over all the notes.

The Taoiseach does not have to.

We will have to work with organisations such as Threshold to be in a position to have the capacity to support people who could be in difficulty in the months ahead with either rent or mortgage arrears, or with evictions. There is currently a moratorium on evictions and a freeze on rents. As restrictions have been lifted, issues with those will arise. As I said earlier, the ESRI report will be important in that regard and we need to work with all concerned. Much work has been done in recent years. The numbers did not turn out to be as high as people thought. We have one of the better records in Europe with regard to the number of repossessions. In my experience, if people engage early with either the banks or Members, we can often intervene to try to create and find resolutions. When people leave it too late, one ends up with a court case from which it can often be difficult to pull back. Early engagement with agencies and various non-governmental organisations that have been supportive in this field is critical. We have to make sure they have the capacity to deal with whatever challenges emerge.

Deputies raised a number of points. Regarding the tribunal of inquiry and various Estimates, there is concern about continuing escalating costs. To be fair to Mr. Justice Cregan's Irish Bank Resolution Corporation inquiry, the inquiry will cost between €11 million and €14 million. Department officials believe it could go to €30 million. It is important to point out that once the Oireachtas decides to establish an inquiry, it is then totally independent. I recall all the leaders in the Dáil looking for this inquiry in 2015 and agreeing on a bespoke Act in 2017 to facilitate the establishment of the IBRC inquiry, yet it is now 2020 and it will go to the end of the year. It is unclear whether a conclusion will be arrived at by the end of the year. That means that the Oireachtas must give far greater deliberation to the establishment of inquiries and commissions of investigation in the future. We have to be clear-minded about it because once we do so, there is no point in complaining later about the costs and how long an inquiry has been going on, or saying somebody should be in control. The minute any Government Minister or the Taoiseach tries to intervene, there will be an accusation that it is an attempt to undermine the objectivity and independence of the inquiry.

A point to take away from this Estimate is about the communications spend of €20 million more than was expected at the beginning of the year. The Government Information Service in the Department has 16 or 17 staff. They are civil servants who have been extremely busy over the past six months. They deserve credit for the amount of work they have put in and the logistical operation they have engineered, including all the press conferences they have organised and their co-ordination of communications. I was going to bring in some posters and such to demonstrate the non-party political nature of the GIS, which would be a concern of some Deputies. Some Deputies have articulated that about the roadmap and so on, and it is an important point.

I would like people to give the shared unit a fair shake, irrespective of their particular positions, which they are entitled to. We want to develop good background work and research on the issue of how we develop a shared island in the future, and to look at it in a considered way with detailed policy, as opposed to all having rhetoric that we like to engage in from time to time. There is an opportunity to move things on in a consensual way as well as we can. That depends on others too.

Votes put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 5.50 p.m. and resumed at 6.10 p.m.