Mary Lou McDonaldQuestion:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans to establish a unit in his Department to co-ordinate social dialogue. [15951/20]
Vol. 995 No. 3
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans to establish a unit in his Department to co-ordinate social dialogue. [15951/20]
The Government recognises the importance of regular and open engagement with all sectors of society.
This is particularly important as we steer our way out of the pandemic, rebuild our economy and support communities that have been severely impacted by Covid-19.
As outlined in the programme for Government, we will establish a unit within my Department to help co-ordinate future social dialogue.
This unit will seek to create new models of sectoral engagement with a wide range of stakeholders across civil society. It will be part of the economic division of my Department, which is already involved in dialogue with the social partners through existing mechanisms such as the Labour Employer Economic Forum and the annual national economic dialogue.
The Labour Employer Economic Forum in particular has helped ensure good discussions between Government, employers and trade unions during the Covid-19 crisis and I believe that further social dialogue will help in the many challenges which lie ahead.
Throughout all of our engagements, however, the Government will continue to ensure that the role of the Oireachtas is fully respected and recognised as part of the policy formation process.
I would like to get more detail from the Taoiseach in respect of the way this unit will be configured. What are its precise objectives? Could he expand on this model of sectoral engagement? What will it consist of and what will be its modalities? It would be very helpful to get a sense of how this unit will engage with the Tánaiste in terms of his ministerial responsibilities. For example, what role will the unit play in responding to the recent High Court decision to strike down sectoral employment orders, SEOs? Last week, the Tánaiste confirmed that the Government will appeal that judgment and its strategy to lodge the appeal with the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court at the same time. That is welcome in as far as it goes. However, when he was questioned further on that matter in the Dáil, the Tánaiste did not adequately address the Government's reluctance to introduce legislation that would protect those very workers now excluded from the protections of these SEOs. It is my hope that the Taoiseach might be able to shed some light on that.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions advises that primary legislation can be enacted to address the deficiencies identified by the High Court. Does the Taoiseach share that view? Importantly, congress notes that there is nothing in the judgment that would preclude the Oireachtas from enacting legislation in the same terms as the sectoral employment orders previously enforced. Does the Taoiseach share that view? As the Government has acknowledged, new entrants will not be covered by the SEOs and instead will only be entitled to the minimum wage along with minimum terms and conditions. Arising from this pandemic, these new entrants will be significant in number because many will have lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown. I ask for clarity regarding Government contracts. The Government's position appears to be that the SEO terms and conditions should still apply, and not will still apply, in respect of Government contracts. It would be very helpful if the Taoiseach could at least give that small amount of comfort to the particular category of workers affected by the judgment.
I am anxious to develop and expand the engagement with the social partners more generally.
As I said earlier, that is particularly important in the context of economic recovery from Covid-19. The labour-employer economic forum, LEEF, mechanism has been useful. The Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance have been involved in that, as was the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation in the previous Government. That will continue. As we emerge from Covid-19 in the fullness of time, we need to work with various sectors of the economy, listen to what they have to say and respond with the strategies required to get them back up and running. The model used to get back to work in the context of Covid-19 has been constructive. ICTU and IBEC have worked well under the aegis of LEEF to facilitate a safe return to work for workers. In terms of economic development more generally, I am a great believer in strong engagement with the social partners to collectively develop a roadmap for the social and economic dimensions of Irish society. We must work collectively on several issues of benefit to workers.
Regarding sectoral employment orders, SEOs, I would have thought that before we move to primary legislation that it would be important the outcome of the appeal to the Supreme Court be known because that could inform the content and nature of the legislation. It will give clarity to the overall legal framework governing sectoral employment orders. The important issue is the protection of the pay and rights of construction, cleaning and security workers who have been particularly affected by the recent High Court judgment. That remains the priority of the Government in the interim period before the hearing of the appeal in the Supreme Court.
I thank the Taoiseach. I am sure he can understand the anxiety of workers who now no longer enjoy the protection of SEOs and their desire for absolute clarity on the protections afforded to them. Can the Taoiseach state in a very straightforward way for the record of the Dáil what the interim protections for those workers are?
More generally, on the area of social dialogue itself, is the Taoiseach committed to ensuring that workers' rights, collective rights and trade union rights are stitched into the very fabric of the model for economic recovery? Furthermore, is he committed to ensuring community development and a sustained model of empowerment for communities, particularly disadvantaged communities in urban and rural settings, are stitched into the fabric of the model for economic recovery? Can the Taoiseach give some assurance that social dialogue will not just be cover for co-opting workers and those who are least advantaged in society onto an agenda that is simply about bigger economic and corporate players? Given the complexion of the Government headed by the Taoiseach, I respectfully suggest that there will be a certain cynicism around his commitment to these elements, which I regard as essential to a successful and sustained recovery.
Throughout my political life I have had a long-standing belief in the value and importance of engagement with stakeholders in our society, particularly social partners. I have a long record of such engagement in the various Ministries I have held. I also believe in getting the right balance in doing that. This is not about co-opting anybody into any corporate programme. It is about how we navigate change in our society and the prioritisation of housing and healthcare. Ultimately we must all prioritise. In my view, making sure people have access to housing is a key social priority on which I would like to engage with the social partners. Proper access to healthcare is another. We will not be in a position to do everything. While there have been many faults in the process, my previous experience is that there is value in sharing the issues facing us all. Everybody knows we cannot do everything but we can prioritise that which makes life meaningful to people in society. Access to housing is one of the most basic entitlements. People need to be able to buy a home, access a council house or rent at an affordable rate. That is important.
Health is equally important. We have expanded our health service over a 30-year period. Our population is growing. We are living longer and are aging, which will create huge demographic strains in sustaining the system for our society in the future. We need to discuss those issues with our social partners.
In respect of sectoral employment orders, I understand that no unilateral diminution of terms and conditions can happen. We are committed one way or the other. The Supreme Court may deal with this so we must await the outcome of the appeal. Whatever decision is handed down will inform the primary legislation that will follow it.
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the discussions he has had with other heads of government since he assumed his position. [16788/20]
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the matters he plans to raise at the European Council meeting. [16790/20]
4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council. [16883/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, together.
Since taking office I have spoken by telephone with several leaders, including German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, United Kingdom Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, and the President of Lithuania, Gitanas Nausda. I attended a special July meeting of the European Council in Brussels, the focus of which was the budgetary package for the European Union for the next seven years, the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, and a new recovery proposal, Next Generation European Union, NGEU.
I am pleased to inform the House that earlier today the European Council reached agreement on a €1.8 trillion package to drive Europe's economic recovery and the climate and digital transformations. These were especially challenging negotiations, lasting for more than four days. With a significant number of other leaders I supported an ambitious approach, capable of meeting the scale of the challenges we are facing and equipping the European Union well for the future. That is what was agreed.
I met with my counterparts both formally and informally over the course of the meeting. I set out Ireland's position directly in my discussions with President Charles Michel, including in a joint meeting that the Prime Ministers of Belgium and Luxembourg and I had with him and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
As the House knows, protecting the Common Agricultural Policy was a priority for Ireland. The outcome delivers that, including a special allocation of €300 million to reflect the challenges facing the sector here. In further support for peace and reconciliation, the European Union will provide €120 million for the PEACE PLUS programme, an additional €20 million to what we had secured prior to the meeting. Together with funding from the Irish Government, which will match this contribution, and the UK Government, which has made a commitment in this regard, this paves the way for a very substantial fund to support valuable projects on the peace and reconciliation front.
The European Union has stood shoulder to shoulder with Ireland during the Brexit process. The package we agreed includes a €5 billion Brexit adjustment reserve which will help to support those member states and sectors most affected. The Government will now work hard to maximise the benefits available to Ireland. In addition, funding for competitive funds such as Horizon Europe has been substantially increased through the MFF and NGEU. We will work to ensure that Irish researchers and enterprises can access them.
Our discussions took place in the context of one of the most serious situations the European Union has faced. Covid-19 will continue to challenge our health systems and disrupt our economies for the foreseeable future. Governments across the Union are spending and borrowing significant amounts of money to drive economic recovery and get people back to work. Later this week the Government will announce an important stimulus package of our own. The agreement reached in Brussels on the MFF and NGEU will complement and support these efforts. It will also send a message to the world that the European Union has risen to the challenge and is united in facing it.
I look forward to briefing the House in more detail in my statement tomorrow.
The Taoiseach mentioned the discussions in Europe about the need for a stimulus and the package that has just been agreed. I referred to something earlier which I find quite shocking. It beggars belief, to be honest. The EU4Health programme was a €9.4 billion programme to create strategic medical stockpiles and a pan-EU medical response force, strengthen public health systems, improve warning systems for epidemics and generally boost and increase healthcare capacity in response to Covid-19. One of the outcomes of the discussions which the Taoiseach is trumpeting as a success was that this fund is being cut from €9.4 billion to €1.7 billion. Is that true? I find that absolutely unbelievable, and it is indicative of how all of the concern about the health dimension of the Covid-19 crisis has dropped off the agenda and it is back to business now. I think that is reflected and will be reflected in the lack of focus on our health services in the Government's own stimulus. It seems to start at the top in Europe, presumably with austerity hawks. Was the Taoiseach aware of this cut? Did he argue against it? It is just shocking that when we should be massively increasing support to and investment in public health services, the original plan for €9.4 billion in funding was reduced to €1.7 billion. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether that is true, what he said about it, and what this reflects in terms of priorities?
I too would like to hear a very clear answer to those questions in respect of the health funding. Given that we are in the throes of a global pandemic and a public health emergency, it is extraordinary that moneys promised for a health programme would vanish like snow off a ditch, it seems, and we need to know what position the Taoiseach took on that.
I would also like a clearer answer than the Taoiseach was prepared to give earlier in respect of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, budget. I would like him simply to confirm or deny, in very simple terms, whether the budget will be cut by 9% in constant prices when compared with the last seven-year multi-annual financial framework, MFF, programme. It is a straightforward enough question and I would like the Taoiseach to answer it.
Will the Taoiseach tell us whether workers' rights formed any part of his discussion with EU partners? I am very conscious that the levels of precarious employment, low-paid employment and all of that will be exacerbated in the Covid and post-Covid environment. To what extent was that consideration part of the agenda? Did the Taoiseach advance any of those issues and what positions did he take?
First, there is an existing health programme within the multi-annual financial framework. There are two dimensions to this, namely, the multi-annual financial framework, which is the seven-year budget for the European Union, and, alongside that, the Next Generation EU recovery fund. Going into the summit, the Commission's proposal was for a €750 billion package. The Commission and the President of the Council, along with a number of member states, including ours - I was a very strong advocate of this - wanted the proportion to be more grants than loans. Going in, it was approximately €500 billion in grants and the remainder in loans. The frugal four, as they are called, of four member states, disagreed vehemently in regard to the size of the package - €1.8 trillion when one combines the two - and in regard to the balance and ratio between grants and loans. The entire dynamic of the Council was trying to resist efforts to cut the grant dimension which had been proposed by the Commission.
The fund was not in any existing budget. The fund was something that had not been agreed but was to include significant additional amounts, including for health. The Deputies are correct in terms of what happened to the health funding. I would have argued trenchantly in terms of the need to preserve the grants. We fought for their retention and we wanted the maximum amount in grants. I made the argument that there is no point in piling debt upon debt on member states that are in difficulty as a result of Covid-19. That was my absolutely unequivocal position. I said that Ireland, historically, had benefited from cohesion funding and solidarity in Europe when one compares where we were in the 1970s with where we are today. Equally, Ireland is an exporting country, and if Europe recovers significantly, we will do well. That is the overarching theme I approached this with, while also seeking to protect our core budgets and the Common Agricultural Policy. The latter, on current, is retained, which is an extraordinary achievement in itself. The issue regarding constant versus current is a fair point, but there is no way that people can understate the significance of what was achieved, given the UK's exit and the resources that went with the UK, in terms of the retention of Common Agricultural Policy plus the Brexit special reserve fund of €5 billion, for which Ireland and others are in the front line in terms of being negatively impacted by Brexit.
The real battle was to try to maintain the level of the overall package so that Europe could respond at scale. What we are getting is that all those projected amounts were put into the Next Generation EU fund, which had never been agreed and was still there to be debated. We had to get an agreement, which I think was important, with those countries that are net contributors but which were clearly - this is public knowledge, not just my view - vehemently against giving the grants at all. They started out with a zero grant position and we have ended up at around €390 billion in grants funding and €360 billion for loans. We have retained the level that was there.
The frugal four, or is it five now, should be more aptly described as the austerity hawks. "Frugal four" is just too nice for the attitude these people seem to be taking. I am absolutely stunned that one of the victims of this negotiation should be an eightfold reduction in a health scheme to respond to Covid. The EU4Health programme and the details of it are set out on the EU's website. It tells us that there is this fantastic programme which is about recognising the lessons of Covid-19 and responding at every level to support and increase healthcare capacity. The website goes into great detail about the programme, but now it has, in effect, been eliminated at these negotiations, which are being heralded as a success, when we are facing the very strong likelihood of a second wave. It beggars belief. I will bring this particular issue up later but when one thinks about the St. Mary's nursing home and Caritas convalescent centre on Merrion Road, which is being closed down by the Sisters of Charity at a time when we desperately need nursing home capacity, and when we think about what happened in nursing homes during the Covid-19 crisis, it is extraordinary that the EU has slashed the budget that might give us the resources and funds to invest in those critical areas.
When we think of the difficulties that were experienced across the European Union and beyond in respect of the provision of personal protective equipment, PPE, and the really harrowing scenes we saw in hospitals - I am thinking of northern Italy, where it was a race for ventilators - and reflecting on the fact that many Italians, understandably, took the view that the European Union did not stand in solidarity with them in terms of making supports and resources available, that makes it all the more extraordinary that resources for health, in particular, and a collective approach to health, have collapsed in this negotiation.
I take it that the Taoiseach is confirming finally - it was my third attempt - that the answer is "Yes", that the CAP is being cut by 9% in constant prices when compared with the previous seven-year MFF programme. The Taoiseach has answered that in the affirmative. I want to say for the record that it is a far cry from the approach he took earlier with my colleague, Deputy Carthy, whom he attempted to dismiss.
Ireland will be a net contributor to the package. What will be the amount of the additional contribution that the State will make? I have seen the calculation in terms of GNI, but, in cash terms, what will be the additional contribution from the State?
I am awaiting the specific calculations in the context of constant and current. I will not take heed of any figure that is thrown about. There was always a difference between current and constant. The important achievement with regard to the CAP is that we have protected the funding during this round. That is particularly important in light of the significant pressure in the context of getting an agreement to reduce the funding.
There is a health programme within the MFF. It is still there. What was proposed was a significant addition to the next generation fund the Commission had proposed. Ideologically, several states - they have been dubbed the frugal four - were against any grant-based approach being taken. This is an unprecedented package. Health is primarily a competency of member states. Europe does not have competency regarding the provision of health services within member states. There are certain rights and entitlements in this area. This issue was about the procurement of vaccines and similar matters, as well as joint approaches to which Ireland has already signed up. Ireland is involved in an EU-wide approach in respect of vaccine development and procurement in the context of Covid-19. The discussion involved states that were in favour of loans, rather than grants, being allocated to member states which are vulnerable as a result of Covid and which might need them.
The Deputy may remember that Chancellor Merkel and President Macron originally proposed a package of €500 billion. The Commission went way beyond that with a €750 billion package that is divided into grants and loans. That was the battleground for the summit. I fought strongly and intervened regularly to state that Ireland wanted the right package in the context of responding to the scale of the impact of the Covid crisis on the European economy. It was vital that an agreement was reached. The agreement reached is unprecedented in terms of the European Union collectively borrowing for the first time ever to respond to a global pandemic of this scale. That needs to be acknowledged. The 27 member states represented at the Council meeting had all sorts of competing interests. Several member states, including Ireland, took what I consider to be the correct line and stated that it is no longer about competing national interests but, rather, about doing the right thing for Europe as a collective.
Ireland exports to mainland Europe. European markets are vital to our agricultural industry and many SMEs and other companies, jobs and services. The Single Market has been very important to Ireland and our growth and development as an economy. Deputy Boyd Barrett may disagree that this is the case. He may not agree with the Single Market or the economic model that governs it, but the development of the European Union has had a very beneficial economic impact on Ireland from the 1970s onwards. That is the context in which member states argued over the agreement.
On the issues Deputies identified in the context of the net contributor status of Ireland, the country is now a net contributor to the MFF. The figures in that regard will have to be calculated because this latest package involved a higher number. I will get the exact figures for the Deputy. In fact, Ireland will now benefit in the context of the contribution to the fund in respect of the repayments that were to have been made until to 2058. We would have been paying far more if there were more grants, to be frank, although I did not see it through that prism. Rather, I saw it as a matter of engineering economic recovery in Europe and showing solidarity with other countries which, ultimately, will benefit Ireland. In key areas such as Brexit, the PEACE PLUS programme and the CAP, we preserved the essentials we went in with in the context of the MFF.
We are over the time allotted.
I need a point to be clarified.
We will move on.
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the timeline for the implementation of the programme for Government. [16789/20]
The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, as agreed between the parties in government, was approved by the Government on 27 June 2020.
The programme for Government sets out policy and legislative proposals for the full term of the Government across several missions, namely: a better quality of life for all; reigniting and renewing the economy; a green new deal; universal healthcare; housing for all; balanced regional development; a new social contract, building stronger and safer communities, better opportunities through education and research; a shared island; at the heart of Europe and global citizenship; and reforming and reimagining our public life. It also contains a chapter on the functioning of the Government.
Since the formation of the Government, we have been working hard to implement these commitments.
The Cabinet committee on Covid-19 and the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment have met and the July jobs stimulus will be published later this week.
The Cabinet committees on health, housing and environment and climate change are due to meet before the end of the month. Work is under way on the priority action in each area.
Significant legislative measures have been published and are being progressed through the Oireachtas. They are focused in particular on supporting the economy and businesses.
I have had initial discussions with IBEC and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on the challenges ahead.
I visited Northern Ireland and met the First Minister, Ms Arlene Foster, and the deputy First Minister, Ms Michelle O'Neill, as well as other parties. The North-South Ministerial Council is due to meet next week.
As I have stated, I spoke to a wide range of European leaders in preparation for the European Council meeting which took place last weekend and at which the historic Covid-19 recovery fund was agreed.
The programme for Government sets out an ambitious programme of work to recover our economy, rebuild our society, renew our communities and respond to the challenges we face nationally and internationally. We have already made a substantial start on delivering on the programme.
On one level, the programme for Government contains everything. It is motherhood and apple pie. Some of us have criticised it because, when one looks at the detail, it is vague and aspirational and does not make tangible commitments in the key areas in which people demanded change at the general election. That is where my question is focused. For example, the section entitled "An Age-Friendly Ireland" sounds great and appears broadly nice, but it is totally aspirational. We need to look at what is actually happening. There was a disaster in nursing homes in the context of Covid-19. There were significant infections and fatalities because our system of nursing home care is completely dysfunctional. A report published by HIQA found that more than 50% of nursing homes were below standard.
I refer to the situation involving two nursing homes on Merrion Road. I wish to send a shout out to the workers and residents in the homes and their families. The homes in question are situated on land that is directly or indirectly owned by the Sisters of Charity and both are closing down because, essentially, a religious organisation decided that the land on Merrion Road is very valuable. It probably wants to flog the land to developers. The Sisters of Charity unilaterally ended the lease for the Caritas Convalescent Centre and shut down St. Mary's Centre, leaving the elderly residents, their families and the workers high and dry. By the way, these nursing homes did not have Covid cases. These were the good ones.
This situation is indicative of the dysfunctionality in this area of policy. The Sisters of Charity are deciding to end care provision in these nursing homes. What is the Government doing about this? What tangible measures are going to be taken in the aftermath of Covid to ensure that the State is in charge of ensuring that we have the capacity we need in nursing home care? What will be done to ensure that the State has genuine control in that regard, that the sector has the resources it needs and that workers and residents in nursing homes are properly protected? Specifically, what will the Government do about the scandal that is unfolding on Merrion Road? It is just one example of dysfunctionality in the sector.
A similar point could be made in respect of the specific commitment in the programme for Government to protect tenants during Covid-19. It is now unclear whether many tenants will be evicted on 1 August when the temporary ban ends. Where is the tangible action on the things people asked for?
The Taoiseach will be aware that earlier this year the Israeli and US Administrations announced an intention to further annex the West Bank and East Jerusalem by seizing an additional 30% of that landmass after 1 July.
The Taoiseach will be very well aware that this would hollow out the existing state of Palestine. It would fatally damage any remaining prospect of a sustainable two-state solution as provided for under the Oslo Accords of 1993. There are commitments in the programme for Government which read very well. However, I put it to the Taoiseach that they are not sincerely made. I put it to him that he has allowed one party, namely, Fine Gael, to defy the will of the Oireachtas in the ongoing failure to recognise the state of Palestine as per the 1967 border. That decision was made in 2014, six years ago. The Taoiseach has also allowed Fine Gael to face down the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018, even though he and his colleagues in opposition supported those measures.
I want the Taoiseach to act in good faith. I want him to make real and give real meaning to the programme for Government commitments, for example, by honouring our commitment to recognise the state of Palestine. That needs to be done now. If the Taoiseach is going to uphold international law, face down any prospect of any level of further annexation and, critically, face down the ongoing breach in international law by the occupation itself, he needs to act to ensure that the occupied territories Bill becomes law and is placed on our Statute Book.
Putting the occupied territories Bill on our Statute Books would not change anything in terms of Israeli Government policy right now, if we are honest. What is important is that I do think we have to take a stand in respect of any proposals by the Israeli Government to annex more lands, as has been proposed but has not happened yet. There is significant opposition to that. The provisions in the programme for Government are well made and sincerely made. I have had an interest in this for quite a long time now myself, and when I was last Minister for Foreign Affairs I took action. I went to Gaza and met with the UNRWA. One of the most practical things the State has done along with the European Union for quite a long time has been supporting UNRWA with a huge investment in education in Palestine. That is important. It never gets said in here. Where practically we can improve things, we should do more. The issue of recognition of the Palestinian state is on the agenda of the programme for Government, to have other language in there, as the Deputy knows, in terms of timing and the optimal time to do it and in consultation with other EU member states. There are important considerations.
I take it that the Deputy is sincerely committed to this but I would suggest that the next time she or her party is in Capitol Hill, they might raise it.
I am not sure they do. They might raise it with Congress representatives or Senators there. Sinn Féin has a sort of dual approach to this which is very strong here, but when it comes to the United States, I do not get any sense that they raise this with the same degree of commitment as they do here in the House. That is my sense of it. I have raised it with US Congress members and Senators. They have raised the issue with me and I have given my sense of it. Israeli Government policy is wrong. It is not conducive to the establishment of a two-state solution or better relationships. Ultimately, people have to live together and share that territory. Policies that have been pursued in recent times work against a proper, long-term accommodation between Palestinians and Israeli society. This Government remains committed to the two-state solution and to doing everything it possibly can to achieve that and to opposing measures that will work against it, such as those the Deputy has outlined in respect of the proposed Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory.
Thank you, Taoiseach.
If there is time, would the Taoiseach come back on my question?
The Taoiseach can come back in the next response but his time has expired.
I will give him a bit.
Can I suggest that we finish out the Palestinian conversation and then Deputy Boyd Barrett gets his questions answered?
Was Deputy Boyd Barrett in first?
It is best that we stick to Standing Orders and the Deputy will get the response to his question.
That is not strictly in accordance with Standing Orders, but how and ever.
Maybe Deputy McDonald should read them.
In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett's point, there are two dimensions. Our system has evolved. The Deputy mentioned himself that those particular nursing homes were Covid free. We need to put on record that quite a lot of nursing homes in Ireland did well in preventing Covid from spreading within them. I do take the Deputy's point that in the initial response, all the emphasis was on the acute services, for understandable reasons in terms of protecting ICU capacity and so on. There was a very significant spread of the virus within nursing homes which caused loss of life. That has happened in other societies. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. To be fair, since then over recent months, a lot of support has been put behind nursing homes in terms of personal protective equipment, PPE, engagement with the HSE and clinical oversight. That is important. The testing has been really systematic and the HSE has organised to do testing of nursing homes and staff of nursing homes on a regular basis. I would favour the development of home-based care. There will always be a need for nursing home care but we need to resource home-based care significantly as well, and to enable people to avail of the fair deal scheme in the context of home-based care. I will follow up with the Deputy in respect of the exact situation in St. Mary's and Caritas.
My point, arising from what happened with Covid-19 in the nursing homes sector and from the Caritas and St. Mary's situation, is that we have a completely fragmented nursing home care sector. Some of it is good and some of it is not so good, but we are in control of hardly any of it. The nuns in this case seem to have turned into property magnates and to have lost any interest in the workers or the residents in the nursing homes. They just decided to close it down because it is valuable land and they can flog it, and that is allowed. This should be part of a cradle-to-grave national health service, yet its fate is decided by the Sisters of Charity, who have just become big business and see property value as more important than nursing home care, which was what was being delivered, and a good standard too, but the workers are just gone and the residents and their families are left high and dry. That is not acceptable. We need intervention. The State should just take that land and make sure those nursing home places and jobs are protected. That is the lesson more broadly of the Covid crisis. Paul Reid said it at some of the briefings the Taoiseach attended. When we asked him what was happening in the nursing homes, he more or less said he did not know because the HSE only controls 20% of them. That is the problem. They need to be part of a national health service so we know what is going on and we have the power to step in and ensure consistency, standards, proper resourcing and oversight.
Quite irrespective of what anybody on Capitol Hill might think, and our position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is well recorded and fully understood everywhere, the fact is that we have the power here to recognise the state of Palestine. As the Taoiseach knows, that matter was settled and agreed by the Oireachtas six years ago. I am saying to him to do it, and to do it while there still is a Palestinian state to recognise. On the issue of the occupied territories Bill, the Taoiseach knows full well there has been a strong pushback against this legislation because it would be groundbreaking and would bring about a change in diplomatic, political and legal terms in respect of the issue and the economy of the occupation which the Israeli state has carefully fostered. The Taoiseach knows the Bill is a game changer that would very much shape and confront Israeli policy. In taking leadership on this matter, Ireland would lead the way for others to follow suit.
We have to act on this. There is no point of us being of good sentiment and being well-meaning and wishing the best for the Palestinians when the Irish State stands back and allows an ongoing occupation, and even the prospect of further annexation. We can lead on this. If I was sitting in the Taoiseach's seat I would be telling Deputies of the date on which the Palestinian state would be recognised, as per the collective view of the Oireachtas. I would not have allowed Fine Gael, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, or anyone else, to face down the occupied territories Bill. That is what happened. One of the negotiators from the Green Party, when asked what happened to the occupied territories Bill, answered in two words: "Simon Coveney". The Taoiseach cannot stand over that and nor should he.
The answer is that it is not legally possible to do it.
That is wrong.
The Deputy asked a question. The advices are there on the issue. There are quite substantive comprehensive advices, which I have seen. Let us be clear about the Bill. I met with its advocates. I identify with the principles behind the Bill and support them. No one, among the international people I have met, ever suggested that it would be a game changer. Let us keep it in perspective and keep some reality about this. No one said it would be a game changer.
That is dishonest.
The problem is very little internationally is impacting on Israeli Government policy, if the truth be told.
Very little is being done with our clout internationally.
Israel enjoys strong support from the United States Government on a continual basis. That is why I suggested that the Deputy should raise it more vociferously. My sense of it is that Sinn Féin goes silent when it comes to Capitol Hill. I take it that the Deputy is sincerely behind the issue but-----
The Taoiseach should do his job and not worry about Capitol Hill. He should worry about here and what is done here in the name of the Irish people.
The Taoiseach, without interruption.
I am not worried at all but the Deputy knows there is an inextricable link with US policy underpinning and supporting Israeli Government policy.
The Taoiseach cannot change American policy, he can change Irish policy.
We have put it in the programme for Government. A former Minister for Foreign Affairs from Fianna Fáil, the late Deputy Brian Lenihan senior, was the first Minister in Europe to recognise the right of Palestinians to a homeland. We are very committed to this. This is about strategy and how to do it best; that is what this is about. I would like Israeli Government policy to change and for there to be a two-state solution but we will work within a framework that can enable us to do that and we will continue to support Palestinians in their basic entitlements to housing, education and healthcare as we have done consistently over many years, and per capita above many others.
To respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett, many State-owned healthcare centres have had huge challenges with Covid-19, some worse than nursing homes in the private sector. Some of the significant clusters happened in some elderly care settings within the State system. I agree it is wrong to sell and close down those nursing homes but the State does not have the constitutional or legal framework to stop people making decisions of that kind. The Deputy knows that and yet he says we should go in and stop it. It is easier said than done.
They should not control the health service.
Time is up.
We must change the model of caring for our elderly. That is what the programme for Government is committed to in home and community based interventions as well as long-term nursing home care, for which there will always be a need.