Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the working groups or initiatives he has established or plans to establish within his Department. [23701/20]

On its formation the Government established the following Cabinet committees: the Cabinet committee on Covid-19; the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment; the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland; the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change; the Cabinet committee on housing; the Cabinet committee on health; the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality; the Cabinet committee on education; the Cabinet committee on Europe; and the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination.

Each of these Cabinet committees will work to advance Government priorities as set out in the programme for Government, particularly where cross-Government collaboration is critical. Cabinet committees, where appropriate, will be supported by a corresponding senior officials' group, which generally is chaired by an assistant secretary general in my Department, and with membership drawn from the relevant Government Departments.

As in previous administrations, supporting Cabinet committees is a core function of the relevant policy division in my Department and is undertaken in addition to other responsibilities of the staff involved.

As set out in the programme for Government, a new shared island unit has been established within the Department of An Taoiseach to support a renewed push to use the potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver sustained progress for all communities. This unit will work towards a consensus on a shared island and will examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected. Staffing and further development of the work programme for the unit is well under way, and information on this will be provided over the coming weeks.

A social dialogue unit has also been established as part of the economic division in the Department of An Taoiseach, and this will look to build on existing work and structures already in place to support social dialogue such as the Labour Employer Economic Forum.

I thank the Taoiseach for that response. When the Taoiseach gets to his feet to respond to me, will he clarify what Electric Ireland said to him when he contacted it? He confirmed that he had been in contact with the company and I ask him to set out its response in respect of energy costs.

I asked the Taoiseach in advance of the summer recess about the north inner city initiative, which had been sponsored by a predecessor of his as Taoiseach. I also asked him about community participation in the national drug and alcohol strategy, and in fairness to him, he responded to me fairly comprehensively, so I thank him for that. In his response to me, the Taoiseach states that the HSE and the Department of Health provide funding to support development and facilitate the involvement of communities in the local structures for implementing the national drug and alcohol strategy. This view is very welcome but unfortunately it does not accurately reflect the position of the HSE when these matters have been raised with senior management. The HSE holds the view that while the national drugs strategy makes reference to community participation, which it does, it believes there is no mandate for the HSE or drug and alcohol task forces to fund it. This is a fundamental problem that needs to be corrected. The Taoiseach also notes that the Department of Health is currently reviewing how best to support and promote community participation, and I would ask that the divergence of views between the HSE and the Department on the funding of community participation be fully addressed during this process.

I am disappointed that the Taoiseach has taken a kind of half-in, half-out position on the formal adoption of the north-west inner city into the initiative that I spoke of because that is a missed opportunity. I also asked about a review of the initiative, and I am disappointed that the Taoiseach has decided against that process. Reference is made to a spending review of the initiative and a value assessment. As someone who understands the value of digging into policymaking and of community participation, I am very surprised that the Taoiseach has not even considered a community-based review, which is far more important and would prove far more valuable.

Apologies if I missed it but which Cabinet committee or group, if any, is dealing with arts and culture? I would hate to think that this area has been overlooked, particularly given the really dire plight of performers, musicians, arts workers, crews and events people. The latter group are out protesting because, as with other groups, their incomes and livelihoods have been hammered by the current crisis. Very little support has been forthcoming, especially for the events sector. Are any of the Taoiseach's committees looking at this area because it is urgent?

Does the Taoiseach really think it is a good idea to have a new oversight committee chaired by Mr. Martin Fraser to finesse the public health advice received from NPHET? Is this really the way to deal with the huge inconsistencies and confusion around public health advice? We now have the expert advisory group, NPHET, this new committee and the Government involved. The roadmap says that people should not leave Dublin, the Minister of Health said that they can leave, the Taoiseach said last night that he was not sure and then the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe said this morning that they should not leave the city. Do we really need even further layers of confusion piled on top of that?

On the issue of committees, I seek some clarity. The Taoiseach said that there is now a Government co-ordination committee. Is that correct?

Does that deal with communications?

May I say that given the last few weeks, months, days, hours and minutes, the Taoiseach should probably include it to bring some clarity. The Taoiseach was very strong in opposition on the unit that was set up by the previous Government, and I shared a lot of his concerns in that regard, to be fair, but there needs to be co-ordination of communications. The work that some of the media did yesterday in helping the Government out by informing people about the roadmap should really have been done by the Government and should have been done more quickly. The Taoiseach can take this or leave it. I have already asked him during Leaders' Questions to deal with this before the weekend and I urge him to do so.

How will the new committee that has been set up to oversee the workings with NPHET interact with the Cabinet? Will it be like a buffer? The Taoiseach said that it will ensure understanding across Government and gave a couple of examples. How is that going to interact with the Cabinet committees on health and on Covid-19?

I must ask for everyone's co-operation with regard to time because we ran over time leading into Leaders' Questions.

We started seven or eight minutes late.

I know, but that was because everybody spoke over time this morning. I am trying to be fair to everybody.

On the national alcohol and drugs strategy and the issue of community participation, I will discuss the matter again with the HSE. On the ground, the HSE clearly has a view and the Deputy is saying that there is a divergence of opinion between the executive and the Department of Health. My own view is that programmes work best when they have strong engagement with the community on the ground and there is significant community buy-in and participation. Again, I will seek to ascertain from the HSE its policy position on this. I sent a comprehensive reply to the Deputy and my position on the north-west inner city is a reasonable one to adopt at this stage. Again, I have no issue with a review of the community participation issue and will tell my officials to do so and arrive at an outcome in that regard.

In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett, there is not a specific Cabinet committee on arts and culture. Indeed, there is not a Cabinet committee for every Department. There are some key areas, including housing, health and climate change, Covid-19, Europe, social affairs and education, as I have outlined.

The issue of the events sector and financial and economic support for different sectors comes under the remit of the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment. That committee approved the wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment, as well as the extension of the latter and its opening up to new entrants. It has also considered the issue of sectors that do not fall readily within the scope of those particular interventions. The restart grant came through that committee, as did the commercial rates relief that was offered to a whole range of businesses. The credit loan guarantee scheme and the microfinancing initiatives also came through that particular committee. It will also be considering what is possible in terms of supporting companies and self-employed individuals in particular sectors, including the arts, events, the taxi industry and others.

The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is engaging with the arts sector on an ongoing basis in regard to dealing with the impact of Covid on their situation.

The principal focus of the Cabinet Committee on Government Co-ordination is preparation for Cabinet itself in terms of issues that might arise at Cabinet, various initiatives to make sure everything is agreed and so forth. It performs a very useful function, given it is a three-party coalition, in making sure there is agreement on the issues that go to Cabinet, and that all of those particular amendments have been thought through in all respects.

Cabinet Committees

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [22355/20]

Alan Kelly

Question:

3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet committee on education has met to date in September 2020. [22380/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [23667/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on education was established by Government decision on 6 July last and the first meeting will take place in the coming weeks. It will oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the area of education. In addition to the meetings of full Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I meet with Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues.

Yesterday, I launched our medium-term plan, Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19, which frames Ireland's approach to managing and living with Covid-19 for the coming six to nine months. The Government has identified the reopening of schools and early education and childcare services as a priority. The plan acknowledges the impact of school closures on children and young people’s social and emotional development, as well as their academic progress. Childhood education and care is also essential for parents to balance work with family responsibilities. Keeping schools and early education and childcare services open in any escalation of restrictive measures will continue to be a top priority for Government.

Sector-specific guidance has also been prepared and published for the early years sector, schools and further and higher education institutions, and this will be updated to reflect the new framework.

In the context of the schools reopening, I would have had quite a number of meetings with the Minister and the senior officials of the Department in terms of the logistical planning for the reopening and bringing 1 million people back into our schools. The resources required to do that, which were close to €370 million or €400 million, and it will go over that in time, were critical in terms of enabling our schools to come back.

I have also had a series of meetings with the Minister and her officials in regard to the calculated grades, which has been a very significant logistical exercise in itself in a unique year, with Covid-19 and no leaving certificate, as we would have known it, making it very difficult and challenging for the young people involved. If we contrast what has happened in other jurisdictions, to be fair to the Minister, Deputy Norma Foley, and to the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, in terms of the additional places that have been created at third level, those meetings, and that testing through of the various scenarios that were presented by the Department of Education and Skills officials around calculated grades, was work well done. Nonetheless, there are clearly difficulties emanating from it, and for many individual students it is very difficult in terms of the standardisation process and how it may have impacted on their own individual results. That said, in a unique and very challenging situation because of Covid-19, it was possible to deliver a calculated grades process and programme, and also to create additional places - more than 4,000 additional places at third level this year - to try to help with the pressures on students and help them to get the courses they obviously desired.

For the third time, I am asking the Taoiseach to set out what Electric Ireland told him when he contacted them. I raised this issue around energy bills, which is of massive concern.

I dealt with that earlier.

The Taoiseach told me earlier that he had been in touch with Electric Ireland. This is the third occasion I am asking him to clarify what it said to him, what commitments it made and so on.

I also note that the Ombudsman for Children has published its annual report today. It is raising specific concerns about mental health policy and provision for children and young people. I want to reflect that concern to the Taoiseach. It is the issue of remote education for children who live with a medically vulnerable person that I want to raise with him. I have had a very significant number of contacts from families and from parents who are afraid to send their child to school because one of their children living at home has a significant underlying or life-threatening medical condition. They are terrified to send their children to school because they are afraid of that child bringing the virus into the home. In turn, they cannot keep their children at home as schools have received no direction from the Department on how to manage this specific scenario. Currently, the only option available to them is to register with Tusla for home-schooling, and that is not what they are asking for.

My colleague, Teachta Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, has raised this with the Minister countless times. We are asking that a circular is issued to schools, enabling them to provide remote teaching to pupils who live with the person who has a certified serious medical condition. I am asking the Taoiseach to act on this quickly because it is causing such considerable distress.

Deputy McDonald has raised a real issue, which has also come to my attention, and I am glad she has put it on the record, although I do not want to repeat it.

There are three issues the Taoiseach might look at. As regards testing in schools, we need a plan. In fact, we need a whole session on where we are going with testing. I accept what the Taoiseach said earlier, by the way, and I am coming at this from a different angle. Given the new technologies that are out there in regard to testing, I have had discussions with the Minister, the HSE and others as to how we were going to bring about rapid testing in schools, and how we are going to use and leverage these technologies. Other jurisdictions and other countries have done this, so where are we at in this regard? I accept it has to go through a regulation process. That is the first question.

Second, what are we doing to prepare schools for the eventuality that the leaving certificate next year will go through something similar to this year, which is a strong possibility?

Third, in the roadmap just launched, one of the things the Taoiseach did not say at the press conference but which was subsequently outlined for Dublin is that higher and third level institutions should consider enhanced protective measures. What does that mean? Third level institutions also have an interest in housing, so it is in their financial interest to bring people up. Could we be at a point in the near future where the Government will be instructing third level institutions to do all their teaching online for a period of time? Those are three reasonable questions.

To follow on from Deputy McDonald's question, there is not only the issue of pupils who may have underlying conditions but there are also parents who are worried and who have serious underlying conditions. It is not clear to me, and I have had quite a few calls about this, what those parents should do. They do not know what to do or whether there is a danger in them sending their children to school. We need support and we need advice for people about what they should do in that situation.

The Department and the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, have agreed a plan to monitor school compliance with Covid-19 restrictions but they do not intend to publish the outcome of those inspections or, it seems, share that information with, for example, the teachers themselves, but only with principals and the boards. This does not seem to me to be acceptable.

As well as principals, and this extends to all workplaces but certainly in schools, surely there should be health and safety representatives appointed in every school among the school staff who will also receive the information if there are problems and who can represent the staff in terms of any concerns they have about failure to apply public health guidelines, restrictions, distancing and so forth properly in schools.

First, I have not personally spoken to Electric Ireland. I told the Deputy that I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. We have been in touch with Electric Ireland, and when we get a response, I will revert to the Deputy. I also told the Deputy that there was a reduction in utility prices earlier this year and that the presentation she made on the previous occasion in the Dáil was not entirely accurate. Regarding the public service obligation, PSO, I outlined our policy on renewable energy.

As regards arrangements for children with high risk medical conditions who cannot attend school, the education roadmap provides a model of support and guidance to schools for pupils who cannot attend due to Covid-19 public health requirements and their underlying conditions. A key element of that is a two-way link between the school and the home, if at all feasible. Home tuition is an option in a situation where the other siblings might not be able to go to school either, due to a fear of bringing infection into the home. Home tuition is one intervention.

They do not want it though.

We are not going to produce optimal solutions left, right and centre.

I have acknowledged that.

It is an option and some people avail of it. The third option is some other model to be developed which has to be fleshed out.

That is the point.

It has to be fleshed out. It is not as simple as just calling for it. It has to be developed-----

The Department needs to do it.

-----and worked through.

In terms of mental health supports, additional psychologists have been recruited under the roadmap to the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS. In addition, there is full provision for school guidance counsellors. That is something to which I committed during the confidence and supply arrangement and it is now 100% restored because of my commitment to doing it both in opposition and in government. It provides very important supports to students at second level when returning to school. To be fair to the education roadmap, it had a particular focus on the psychological well-being of pupils as they returned to school, given the prolonged lockdown and closure of schools and the impact on their lives. Children and young people are developing, and have developed, significant resilience in the face of the pandemic. It has been particularly challenging for them, but I am of the view that they have responded with a degree of resilience.

Deputy Boyd Barrett's point related to-----

The inspections and monitoring.

Yes. Everything that has been done so far in the reopening of schools has been done in partnership. It is important that the inspections take place and that they are done as a way of ensuring improvement and constructive compliance. I surmise, and I will seek further information on this from the Department, that it wants to bring schools with it and that it does not wish to be naming and shaming, which is how some types of inspections can evolve. Instead, where the inspectors see shortcomings, they would work with the school management, the board and the principals to point to the shortcomings and the need to get them sorted. The board has parent, community and teacher representatives. I am only surmising that this might be one of the rationales. The partners in education will have a say in this as well. However, I will revert to the Deputy in that regard because I read that report this morning as well.

As regards testing in schools, I gave Members figures this morning. The positivity rate is less than 1% for those up to 14 years of age. It is quite comprehensive. A number of schools are getting advice. There has been a great deal of pressure on the testing system since the schools reopened. That was understandable and expected. Testing has increased overall. Today, we passed 1 million tests administered in Ireland. Last week saw the largest number of tests ever recorded in a week. There has been a significant degree of input from the HSE in that regard and it has been working closely with the schools in respect of the situation that pertains to schools, students and children who require testing.

On the leaving certificate, in my meetings with the Department and the Minister for Education and Skills, they have been absolutely determined that there will be a physical leaving certificate examination next year, come what may. We do not want to return to the calculated grades system. They are planning and preparing for how to manage this year's leaving certificate students who were in fifth year last year and lost some months as a result of the lockdown. Some of the ideas being developed include a broader choice in the range of questions that will be offered to students who may be fearful that they did not get the time to cover the entire curriculum. There would be greater choice for students in subjects such as English, history and geography, in fact, in most subjects. I will leave that to the curriculum experts and the people who set the examinations. It is important we do everything we can to have physical examinations next year.

The planning for that starts now. The chief inspector was adamant that this is the plan and the commitment.

In terms of higher education and the enhanced protection measures that NPHET has asked the universities and institutes of technology to take, each college is adapting various measures suitable to the campus and location. A number of them are online for many courses. One is looking at blended learning and students being physically on campus for some hours of the week, but much of it is online. Different colleges have different policies.

That might have to change.

That is why NPHET has advised. The Minister with responsibility for higher and further education is engaging with the various institutes and universities with a view to enhancing their measures further.

Departmental Bodies

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the status of the activities of the shared island unit in his Department. [23668/20]

The programme for Government sets out the Government's commitment to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus on a shared future. This work will be underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement and respect for the principle of consent. I wish to see a renewed push to use the potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver sustained progress for all communities on the island.

The Government committed to establishing a shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach to work towards a consensus on a shared island. This unit has now been established. The unit will examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected. Strengthening social, economic and political links on the island and the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland, North and South, will be key objectives for the unit.

The unit is led by an assistant secretary with two staff appointed and further assignments in train. The work programme for the unit is currently being further developed. The unit will work collaboratively across the Government and with research, civil society and sectoral, business and community organisations on the island, and seek broad-based engagement with political and civil society representatives.

People Before Profit is an all-Ireland party. We believe we must move to a united Ireland and end partition. A number of groups and parties in the House would say they subscribe to that view in one way or another. This is a very opportune time in view of the Covid-19 pandemic and how it has highlighted the irrationality of partition when we need an all-Ireland approach to health and dealing with the virus.

I am from the James Connolly school of fighting for a different republic. Connolly understood that if one was going to win people over to the idea of a united Ireland, it had to be a better and different island. It should not just be the pushing together of two states which have been dysfunctional in many ways for most of their history. It has to be a better place.

One of the key areas the Taoiseach's unit should be looking at is an all-Ireland health service. Why would anybody in his or her right mind wish to be part of this State when he or she sees a two-tier, dysfunctional, under-resourced health system with massive waiting lists, where nobody is really in charge because half of it is privatised and another bit of it is run by this or that religious organisation? I wish to give a shout out to the all-Ireland national health service campaign that has been established. I ask the Taoiseach and his unit to examine this. Looking seriously at establishing an all-Ireland national health service that works would take us a considerable way towards convincing people of the argument for a united Ireland.

James Connolly also accurately predicted the carnival of reaction that partition would give rise to. Tragically, we have seen that play out over generations. We are very fortunate to live in these times as we have a democratic pathway and international agreements that provide a framework for the kinds of things that the Taoiseach has described, such as creating that sense of participation, inclusion and sharing right across our island. We also have a democratic and peaceful pathway to constitutional change. We have seen in recent days the real danger posed by Boris Johnson's Government and the impulse to simply shred international agreements and walk away from them. It is very important that we do not go down that road. Therefore, I ask the Taoiseach to clarify his position on a referendum on Irish unity. We will have our views on the timing of it but I think we are all agreed that it needs to be prepared for. It is part and parcel of the Good Friday Agreement infrastructure - a central part. It is the mechanism by which self-determination is realised and the constitutional question and contested Border issue are resolved. In a recent interview in The Irish Times, the Taoiseach gave the impression that the referendum was an optional extra. I know the Taoiseach has a view on the timing of a referendum and so on but this is very important for people across the island. Like Deputy Boyd Barrett's party, my party represents people in the North and they are very clear that the referendum is part and parcel of the Good Friday Agreement settlement. It is very important that the Taoiseach makes that clear too because when it comes to adhering to and respecting our international agreements, it has to be all. It cannot be selective.

It has to be all but that applies to Sinn Féin as well. Sinn Féin needs to adhere to international agreements, the Good Friday Agreement being one of them. I do not believe Sinn Féin should have collapsed the Executive over a heating initiative but it did. We were without an Assembly and an Executive for three years. This cuts all ways.

I do not believe in or agree with what Boris Johnson or the British Government did. I have made that very clear to him. It is wrong. One should not breach agreements, which were signed up to internationally, in the withdrawal treaty or the Northern Ireland protocol. One should not do that. It is wrong. It undermines credibility and erodes trust. I am working with the European Union leadership in our response to this, which is firm and is carefully calibrated not to play into any particular initiative or ploy that the British Government may be pursuing. We believe the joint committee is where the British Government needs to resolve any issues it may have with the working of the protocol and those issues were being worked out fairly amicably prior to the sudden publication of the Bill and its offending clauses.

I take exception to Deputy McDonald playing politics with this all the time, though that is the nature of her party. For example, she said that I gave the impression that the Good Friday Agreement was optional extra. I did not give that impression at all. The Deputy threw in the line about me saying a referendum was an optional extra but I never said that.

Then the Taoiseach should clarify his remarks.

I do not have to, because the Deputy is creating all these straw people.

I ask the Taoiseach to clarify what he said. If I am wrong, put me right.

The Deputy is wrong, but worse-----

Taoiseach, can we-----

I am trying to give my political views on this and respond to the question. I am simply saying that these things are deliberately misleading, and are deliberately said in order to be misleading and misrepresent people's positions for the electoral base and electoral advantage. We have had too much of that in the politics of the island, particularly insofar as they relate to a fundamental issue that I have worked hard on all my life, as a public representative, a Deputy and a Minister. I have sought to work with people with different views from mine and assist them to progress. That has always been my commitment and it is regrettable that, week after week, the Deputy's approach is to be divisive, undermine and make suggestions that are not true.

I ask the Taoiseach to clarify his position.

I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Good Friday Agreement.

Is that in all its parts?

I only wish Deputy McDonald and Sinn Féin were consistent on the agreement since it was signed. There is provision in the Good Friday Agreement for a referendum. Of course there is. Equally, I have made the point that I believe it would be very divisive to have one in the next number of years because we need to bring people together.

I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett's points on the health service. That is precisely what the shared unit can do. In the first instance, let us commission research on the respective strengths and weaknesses of both health services, because there is a significant gap between the health services in Northern Ireland and the Republic, in both ways. Both have their challenges and they need to be worked out and thought through. We also need to think about what we can share. On the Northern Executive side, one paediatric centre for cardiac surgery is agreed. An island-based approach to tertiary services in key areas where children require services, such as cancer, trauma, cardiac care and a range of other services is being looked at in the new children's hospital and in Crumlin at the moment. That is very important.

We need to repair and deepen relationships on the island. That is part of what the shared unit will be about as well. It will engage with people of different perspectives, politics and views with a view to getting and developing a consensus on this matter. We are never going to develop a consensus if there is constant sniping, undermining and saying one person is not as pure as someone else on the national question, which is what I am getting repeatedly.

The Taoiseach was asked a question. He is the Head of Government.

It is no longer about whether one is the purest on the national question.

For Christ's sake. Talk about touchy.

It is about doing something pragmatic and significant on issues such as health, education and work.

The North needs an economic transformation. I have said consistently that the disadvantaged areas in the North, both loyalist and nationalist, need a Marshall plan for school completion and access to third level education. The levels are too low in some communities in the North and have been so for too long. I want the shared unit to delve into those areas because that is ultimately how we build peace and reconciliation on the island and bring together different communities, not through divisive politics.

The Taoiseach is the one being utterly divisive and rude.

There is very little time left so we cannot go on as the next questions are grouped.