Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on arts and culture will next meet. [25611/20]

Alan Kelly

Question:

2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with issues relevant to the arts and culture will next meet. [26661/20]

Alan Kelly

Question:

3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [27099/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans for public services reform to be driven by his Department. [28337/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [28338/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that addresses matters relating to justice will next meet. [28339/20]

Alan Kelly

Question:

7. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality last met; and when it will next meet. [28351/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that addresses matters relating to the arts will next meet. [28556/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [28893/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.

The role of the social policy and public service reform division is to assist me, as Taoiseach, and the Government, in delivering programme for Government objectives, and public policies and services, which help create a socially inclusive and fair society.

Specifically, the division assists the work of the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality, and associated senior officials’ group, established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, equality and public services, including matters relating to arts and culture, children, justice, policing reform and community safety, disability, social inclusion, gender equality, direct provision, the Irish language and sport; the Cabinet committee on education, and associated senior officials’ group, established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the area of education, and further and higher education; the Cabinet committee on health, and associated senior officials’ group, established to oversee programme for Government commitments in the area of health including implementation of health reforms, including Sláintecare and the development of mental health services; and the Cabinet committee on Covid-19, and associated senior officials’ group, established to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and oversee the cross-government response.

The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality is expected to hold its first meeting on 2 November and is due to meet again before the year end. The Cabinet committee on health is expected to next meet on 19 October. The Cabinet committee on education is due to meet on 19 November.

A policing reform implementation programme office also forms part of the division. This office drives the implementation of the plan, A Policing Service for our Future, which was approved and published by Government in December 2018 as the vehicle to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

The Department of the Taoiseach has had a direct involvement in a range of public service reform initiatives over the recent period and this will continue under the new programme for Government. Major public reform initiatives will continue to be informed by external inputs and overseen by the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality, supported by the Department.

The division also assists the work of the Civil Service management board, which oversees Civil Service renewal; has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council; advances Dublin's north east inner city initiative, including through supporting the work of a programme office, programme implementation board and oversight group; assists the delivery of public service reform through membership of the public service leadership board and public service management group, which oversee implementation of Our Public Service 2020; monitors and reports on the implementation of the programme for Government; provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues; and participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.

As the Taoiseach knows, I have been shouting very loudly for a long time about the need to fund and support the arts and particularly arts workers in the current situation who have been starved of funding and supports to date. However, in one area of arts funding there has been great largesse and I call for an investigation into this. It is on foot of a dossier that has been produced by the Irish Film Workers Association. If these allegations are true and very credible facts are put forward, there is a scandal in the Irish film industry that dwarfs the scandal of the FAI and John Delaney. It needs to be investigated as a matter of urgency. According to this dossier, a relatively small number of producer companies have received over the past five years €668 million in tax relief, money from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, money from RTÉ, and grants and loans from Screen Ireland. Under law, that money is conditional on quality employment and training. The recipients of that money are required to sign a Revenue declaration that they comply with all legal and employment rights and issues such as the fixed-term worker's contract. The very same groups that are getting this money are, as we speak, in the WRC claiming that they have no employees, that only designated activity companies are employers and that even though they receive the money from Government, they are not employers.

Incredibly - this is shocking stuff - I have a letter dated 1 September in which the auditors of, for example, the producers of "Vikings 5", "Vikings 6", "Badlands 3", and another "Badlands" production, confirm that during the period no income was earned from profits derived from the exploitation of those series. In addition, they have no employees even though they get the money from the Government that is conditional on quality employment and training.

Even more incredibly, under EU law, Revenue is required to publish the state aid given to these companies. The Revenue documents indicate that for those four productions by those two companies, they were given either €40 million in section 481 tax relief, or €120 million. That is what Revenue is saying. We do not know if we gave them €40 million or €120 million, even though under EU law, Revenue is required to be very specific about the state aid that is given to them. That is scandalous and it needs to be investigated. If there is a shred of truth - the evidence is very credible - something very rotten is going on. Based on the allegations in this dossier, I want a commitment that the situation in that industry is investigated as a matter of urgency.

The Taoiseach will know that before the pandemic hit, 72% of artists in Ireland were earning less than the national minimum wage. Yesterday the Government agreed that the national minimum wage should increase by a mere 10 cent. On Monday in a very high-profile decision, the Government decided not to accept NPHET recommendations. The Tánaiste said that they had not been thought through. However, yesterday it took the Low Pay Commission's recommendation of a 10 cent an hour increase even though union representatives had walked away from the table. The Labour Party backs an increase of 20 cent. The difference for a full-time worker between 10 cent and 20 cent is €2.16 in take-home pay per week or just €4.37 in additional labour costs for the employer. What is the point in having a national minimum wage when almost three quarters of artists fall below the line that is set by Government?

The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, is also a critical support for the arts industry. Those in that industry will not get a chance to return to full work soon. There will not be a chance in any realistic way for this auditorium, for example, to be used for real entertainment any time soon.

There have been some hints of a sectoral approach in the budget. Does the Taoiseach accept the need for a sectoral approach in the budget? We have previously raised this question with him in respect of the hospitality industry. I would like him to reply on the national minimum wage, the PUP and a sectoral approach to the arts.

I object to nine questions being grouped together. I raised four different, absolutely distinct areas in my questions and would like to register my objection and ask that it does not happen again.

Question No. 4 concerns plans for public service reform to be driven by the Taoiseach's Department. I particularly want to raise again two long-running pay and pension issues. The community employment, CE, scheme supervisors and their trade union representatives have, as the Taoiseach knows, been engaged in a protracted campaign that dates back to his previous term in government. Thus far, three Governments have refused to implement a 2008 Labour Court recommendation that a pension scheme be put in place for CE scheme supervisors. Previous Governments have taken the position, as they have with section 39 workers more generally, that CE scheme supervisors are not public sector workers. It is to their very great credit that they have persisted with a campaign that now spans 12 years. I understand the resolution proposed by the unions has been considered by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and is now with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for decision. What comfort can the Taoiseach give to the supervisors that this Government will finally act on the Labour Court recommendation that goes back to 2008?

I mention also the outstanding pay restoration for section 39 workers. The Taoiseach will recall that they joined CE scheme supervisors on the streets earlier this year. Governments past and present have sought to treat these workers as public sector workers for the purposes of deducting pay, such as under financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, provisions, for example, but have consistently failed to deliver on pay restoration. I do not have to remind the Taoiseach that multiple pay increases have been advanced for politicians. I do not need to tell him how that sticks in the craw of society generally but the craw of the aforementioned workers in particular. I could say much more abut this but time is limited. Their case has been proven. The Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, deal reached with the Department in 2018 included pay restoration for staff in 50 bodies on a pilot basis with further payment due in October 2020 and 2021. These commitments have not been met and they must be met.

The Taoiseach has a little over three minutes for a response.

I will address Deputy Boyd Barrett's question on the film industry first. I have not seen that dossier and cannot really comment on its substance without having seen it in the first instance. I do not know whether the Deputy has submitted it to Revenue or to other authorities which may be in a position to investigate it, if there was wrongdoing. I am not clear on the status of the dossier. The Deputy can certainly send it to my Department but again, as to the capacity to act on whatever information and how accurate the information is, I would have to wait until I saw what is being alleged. I surmise that the vast majority of the resources relate to Revenue as this concerns tax relief and so on in the film industry. Many would see such reliefs as a very significant catalyst for the creation of employment in the industry and for creating work for those employed more broadly in the film industry. The Deputy is right that there are state aid implications and conditionality attached but again, I would like to see the dossier. The divide between the tax relief issue and straight grants from the Irish Film Board or from RTÉ's procurement policies would all have to be broken down. What is important is that the basic entitlements of people working in the industry are met and underpinned. It would not be acceptable if unacceptable practices obtained in a particular sector of the economy to which significant State resources were allocated.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin raised the minimum wage increase. Since the establishment of the Low Pay Commission, previous Governments have accepted its recommendations. The Government decided to accept the recommendation that has been made. There are obviously wider issues here. I point out that the Government is supporting a lot of employment at the moment. Under the wage subsidy scheme the State is essentially supporting about 350,000 employees. As such there are issues about some employers' capacity to pay. The rate of €10.20 per hour is what the Commission recommended. No one has ever intervened with the Low Pay Commission in terms of the statutory underpinning of that. In fairness to the Deputy, moving to an ad hoc situation would not be the right approach. We have to work on the unions and employers getting back together for future arrangements, albeit in the context of a living wage. There certainly has to be a statutory system to arbitrate on the minimum wage and other issues pertaining to it.

Furthermore, the Ministers will be looking at a sectoral approach with the budget. We have already provided sector-specific supports in hospitality and in the arts. The Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, is very concerned about the situation because as I have said repeatedly, Covid-19 has had a terrible impact on the hospitality sector and arts and culture sectors. In the budget in particular, we will continue to see whether we can be more flexible with the income supports for those who are working, as well as availing of the PUP.

If I may interrupt the discussion, we are over time. Could we perhaps allocate five minutes from the next question to this to allow the Taoiseach to respond? Do Members want that?

Okay.

We are hoping the unions will come back and there have been talks with ICTU on this. We understand where it is coming from in that regard.

On public service reform and more particularly about the CE scheme supervisors Deputy McDonald mentioned, I will point out that Fianna Fáil have not been in government since 2011 and I certainly have not been in any executive position since then. I have always been a strong supporter of community employment generally and was when I was Minster for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Around that time, I changed the policy to protect the numbers involved in CE schemes, as well as the supervisors and those on the job initiative scheme at that time. The submission is with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, will consider the issue around the entitlements of supervisors and their claims, which were arbitrated a long time ago in the Labour Court. I will engage with the Minister about that. There have obviously been very significant challenges over the last three months since the Government was formed due to the impact of Covid-19, the financial and economic impact of the pandemic and the need to intervene across the board for a whole range of people in and out of employment, schemes and so on. We will be examining that issue.

On section 39 organisations, I raised this while in opposition. Unions got involved and there were negotiations around that and a process had been put in place for those workers. Again, the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and for Finance and the wider Government will continue to examine that.

We move on to Question No. 10. I think there are about 13 minutes for this question.

Departmental Staff

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the number of special advisers allocated to him; and the cost of each of these advisers in terms of salary, expenses and so on. [28550/20]

The requirement for specialist policy input and advice is a matter for each individual Minister to consider having regard to the area of responsibility and the support in place in the relevant Departments. I have put in place a range of appropriate advisory supports to support me in my role as Taoiseach and Head of Government. At present there are six special advisers working in my private office.

These staffing levels are in line with the instructions of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on ministerial appointments for the 33rd Dáil.

The make-up of my team consists of a chief of staff at deputy secretary level, a deputy chief of staff at assistant secretary level, a part-time economic adviser at assistant secretary level and three special advisers at principal officer level. It should be noted that all of these appointments are subject to Government approval over the coming weeks, following which relevant contracts, including salary scales, statements of qualifications and statements of relationship, will be laid before the Oireachtas.

The special advisers working in my office provide briefings and advice on a wide range of policy matters as well as performing other functions as I may direct from time to time. They liaise with other special advisers in Departments so I remain informed of developments across Government. In addition, they monitor, facilitate and help ensure delivery of the Government's ambitious work programme and commitments set out in the programme for Government.

As outlined in the programme for Government, a number of reforms have been implemented to ensure openness and constructive co-operation within Government. These include the establishment of an office of the Tánaiste and an office of the leader of the Green Party within the Department of the Taoiseach located in Government Buildings. The special advisers assigned to me will also work closely with their counterparts to ensure cohesion and good communication across the Government partners.

Where expenses are incurred by staff in the performance of duties relating to their brief the Department pays mileage and travel and subsistence at normal Civil Service rates.

People elected the Taoiseach, Deputies, including me, and Ministers to this House. Of course, Ministers, Taoisigh and Cabinet members have significant additional responsibilities but they also have a huge number of public servants and civil servants around them. To have on top of this an extensive layer of multiple highly-paid advisers raises questions in ordinary people's minds, particularly at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are on their knees economically and financially, having lost their jobs and had their pandemic unemployment payments cut. We then have this extensive layer of multiple advisers, who some might say do not seem to be giving great advice at present. If we take the Tánaiste's outbursts at the public health team, one wonders whether it was a result of very expensive advice. It is just jobs for the boys and largesse for those who get the prize of power, which is being paid for by the public and really is doing nothing for ordinary people. That is the perception out there. Does the Taoiseach not recognise that this is the case?

Frankly, even from the Taoiseach's point of view, these advisers often do more to confuse than assist in the business of government. The Taoiseach might do better to listen to members of the public and ordinary people outside the bubble of Leinster House advisers and Ministers, rather than paying extortionate salaries to a bloated layer of advisers.

When the announcement was made about the appointment of additional special advisers for the Ministers of State there was something of a public outcry, not because people do not understand why Governments and Ministers need good advice but because the Government was, at the same time, moving to cut the pandemic unemployment payment. It did not recalibrate the payment but cut it. I want to place on the record, as per figures from the Taoiseach's Cabinet colleague, that those who will be in receipt of the reduced €300 pandemic unemployment payment on average earned €568 prior to the pandemic and the circumstances in which they could no longer go to work. That is an awful kick in the teeth and it is not sustainable. I remind the Taoiseach that MABS has forecast what it has described as a tsunami of household and domestic debt. We are facing into huge difficulties. The cut the Government has made will have a real price.

Will the Taoiseach explain how this unholy trinity of Government - the Taoiseach, An Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party, the Minister, Deputy Ryan - works? He speaks a lot about collaboration and co-ordination. How does it work in practice? Will the Taoiseach explain this to us?

With regard to special advisers and the special relationship between the three political leaders at the heart of government, all three individuals knew about the upcoming issue in the leaving certificate a week before it was announced by the Minister for Education and Skills. This information was not shared with the Cabinet. I am quite sure the special advisers attached to the Taoiseach's office knew. While the three party leaders knew, the entirety of the Cabinet did not know. Does the Taoiseach not think the Labour Party's recommendation of having an independent investigation into the entirety of the leaving certificate, including the involvement of the Taoiseach and his advisers, would ensure that we do not have a repeat of the debacle for the leaving certificate class of 2021?

To respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett, the Department of An Taoiseach is not a huge Department in terms of numbers given the range of co-ordinating work it does across so many other Departments. There is a bit of a myth about this. The Deputy made comments about this earlier.

The public service works extremely well and has worked particularly well during Covid-19. Many senior civil servants across the board have worked night and day and at weekends to cope with what has been an unprecedented challenge in many Departments. Advisers are important. The whole concept of what were then called programme managers was developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a view to having a clear strong relationship where there is a coalition Government to get the programme for Government implemented. Political parties are elected on a programme of policies. There was a view prior to that period that many elements of political programmes did not get implemented as strongly or effectively as they could have. The Labour Party, and I mean this in a complimentary way, came up with the innovation of working with public servants. Public servants appreciate the work of advisers in prioritising political objectives as manifested in a programme for Government. The implementation of these priorities requires constant work and follow-through. This is important because government is not a technocratic exercise and it was never meant to be a technocratic exercise.

The idea of political advisers is not heresy. It is not about jobs for the boys. The Deputy is helping to create that perception by constantly saying that. I have no doubt that if Deputy Boyd Barrett were in government, he would want people who are ideologically close to his position helping and assisting him in making sure his ideological position on a range of issues was followed through and that people would have a clear understanding of what his priorities were. That is the purpose and objective of having special advisers. Everybody is working extremely hard, be they in an advisory capacity or in a Civil Service or public service capacity.

Deputy McDonald is no stranger to policy advisers either and Sinn Féin uses special advisers and has used them repeatedly in the Northern Ireland Executive. Former elected representatives are now advisers in the Northern Executive. This system has been in use in the North for some time. They had a critical role in the recent inquiry into the renewable heat energy project and they were central to all of that.

I do not think people should be feigning surprise about the use of advisers. In the previous Government with Independents, there were again advisers representing Independent Ministers and Fine Gael.

There is a Cabinet co-ordination committee at which the three leaders meet in advance of the Cabinet meeting. It works to ensure that Cabinet agenda items are dealt with if there are particular issues around those items with which a political party might have an issue because of its beliefs and ideas. It works to ensure those issues get properly thrashed out and dealt with it. The various chiefs of staff in each party meet regularly to make sure there is agreement on issues where there may be competing views and beliefs. It is only natural in a three-party coalition Government that there will be parties who have stronger emphasis in some policy areas as opposed to others and vice versa. There actually is a need to work through various issues that arise from time to time. In the current climate with Covid-19, they arise frequently across the board in all sectors and Departments, requiring constant attention.

Regarding the leaving certificate issue, the overarching priority of the Government, the Minister for Education and Skills, the Tánaiste, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, along with the Minister, Deputy Harris, was the students. It was important that the full details of the issue around the code was ascertained, its implications, scale, volume and how it would apply. That was important rather than going half-cocked earlier publicly.

The Minister for Education and Skills handled this in the correct manner and dealt with it comprehensively. Obviously, the decision to have calculated grades arose from the decision not to have leaving certificate examinations because of the impact of Covid-19. That is why next year the Department's objective is to have the normal leaving certificate examinations back. Work is under way already to get to that situation. No one really wants to be in the position we were this year with a calculated grade system and the cancellation of the exams. It has been very challenging for this year's leaving certificate cohort because of all that has transpired. We are working in the best interests of the students concerned.

European Council Meetings

Alan Kelly

Question:

11. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the special European Council meeting on 1 October 2020. [28350/20]

I attended a special meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 1 and 2 October at which we discussed the health and economic impacts of Covid-19 and agreed the need to strengthen our co-ordination especially as regards the development and distribution of a vaccine at European Union level. The response to Covid-19 also formed part of our consideration of our agenda item on the Single Market, industrial and digital policy. The Single Market will be a strong driver of our economic recovery with the twin pillars of the green and digital transformations helping us to foster new forms of growth, cohesion and convergence while strengthening the European Union's resilience.

On the second day of our meeting, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, provided an update on the Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom. This followed a bilateral meeting I had with her on 1 October when we discussed the state of play of these negotiations. We agreed that for any deal on the future relationship to be possible, the United Kingdom would have to work to restore the trust of all European Union member states by implementing the withdrawal agreement fully and in good faith.

The Commission began the process of infringement proceedings against the United Kingdom on that day. Then I shared my assessment on the current state of play on the remaining prospects for a free trade deal to be agreed in the period ahead and on the importance of sustained and positive progress on implementing the protocol.

The European Council also discussed a number of important external relations issues. We considered European Union relations with Turkey and emphasised the need for a stable and secure environment in the eastern Mediterranean. We again considered the situation in Belarus which we had also discussed by video conference in August and we agreed targeted sanctions.

We had a broad discussion on European Union and China relations, covering our economic and trade relationship but also calling on China to assume greater responsibility in dealing with global challenges, including climate change and multilateral responses to Covid-19. We also expressed serious concern about the human rights situation in China.

We called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh where there has been an escalation of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We also condemned the assassination attempt of Alexei Navalny in Russia and agreed to return to this matter at our next meeting on 15 and 16 October.

While in Brussels, I took the opportunity on Friday to meet with the commissioner-designate Mairead McGuinness who earlier that day had her hearing before the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, ECON, of the European Parliament.

The Taoiseach shared his assessment of Brexit developments with EU leaders last week. Next week's budget is being prepared on a no-deal basis. Will the Taoiseach share with us the key outcome of that meeting and his discussions with Ursula von der Leyen?

Was there any agreement on taking action against Belarus? It appears to us in the Labour Party that the European Union has been very slow to speak strongly and with one voice about the rise of unrest across Europe and the rise of right-wing, almost neo-fascist, sentiment throughout the European Continent and within the European Union.

The Taoiseach will be aware of a high-profile campaign, the 400 Welcomes campaign, which calls for the relocation of 400 refugees after a fire which took place at the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece which affected over 13,000 refugees. Ireland has agreed to take 50. The Taoiseach will agree we could do an awful lot more, given our history and that we are the people of Famine ships and immigration which has seen us settle all over the world. We know Famine and we know sectarian violence and have fled from it. As part of our historical national moral obligation, we should look at the situation in this camp in Greece and accept the fact that taking 50, while welcome, is not anywhere near enough. Will the Taoiseach, along with the various Ministers with responsibility for this, consider increasing that number to 400? It is expected of us internationally to live up to our own history and moral responsibility. I think the Taoiseach will agree we should do more.

I wanted to bring up Lesbos and the call that we would take 400 of those who are being evacuated after the fires there. We should consider seriously doing that. As awful and harsh as the situation we face with Covid-19 is, these are people who are fleeing absolutely appalling situations, who have been driven from their homes and live in appalling conditions in holding camps in Lesbos. We need to put out the hand of support. It is very much in line with the tradition of this country as a people who side with the oppressed and the downtrodden. We should bear in mind our own history of exile in that regard.

On the economic and fiscal considerations of the EU relating to Covid-19, the Government in refusing our request, to date at least, to restore the pandemic unemployment payment has cited fiscal concerns.

I want to be clear on this because I met representatives from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council yesterday at the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, and they made clear that the normal restraints of the fiscal treaty are off the table and do not impact the situation. In fact, they argued strongly that as long as the situation remained uncertain and there were high levels of unemployment as a result of restrictions, income subsidies should be maintained and it would be good to put as much money into the economy as possible. I asked explicitly whether the council would have a problem from a fiscal point of view if we restored the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the PUP, and the representatives basically said they had no problem with that and there was no fiscal difficulty because of the current extraordinary situation and the ability to borrow money cheaply. They were sanguine about the issue of debt. The Taoiseach should bear that in mind and consider what they are saying in terms of PUP restoration.

I add my voice to the 400 Welcomes appeal. Globally, we are living through difficult, chaotic and, for some, catastrophic times but none more so than for those people who have lost everything and have fled to look for the shelter of international law and the decency of the international community. The Irish people are more than fit to rise to that obligation and challenge. I would also like that the number of 50 be reviewed and that we demonstrate the genuine capacity and spirit of generosity that is a mark of Irish people.

I thank the Deputies. They caught me by surprise there. I thought there might be more.

Deputy Ó Ríordáin was first regarding the position on Brexit. It was a brief discussion. I met the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on the Thursday. It was a very good meeting. She reaffirmed EU support for Ireland on Brexit and emphasised the importance of getting an overall agreement. The following day, President von der Leyen spoke to the Council and summarised how she saw the state of play in negotiations. I was then given the opportunity to make observations from the Irish perspective. There was one other contribution after that because it was not a general discussion on Brexit and we will return to that next week.

The Commission President indicated to me and the Council that she would be speaking to the British Prime Minister over the weekend. That has happened and I spoke to the Commission President again over the weekend. We had a good discussion on the phone. There has been agreement on both sides to intensify discussions between the UK and the EU. There are significant challenges on the level playing field, fisheries, which is a difficult issue, and governance, that is, what arrangement will be arrived at to ensure any agreement finalised, if one was finalised, would be adhered to. We have had an issue with trust being eroded in the context of the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland and Northern Ireland protocol. That is the position. As of now, those talks are intensifying and the President of the Commission and the British Prime Minister have agreed to keep in close contact to oversee the talks and make sure momentum continues in them.

On Belarus, the meeting was successful in that it broke the logjam on an issue between Cyprus and Turkey. Cyprus had withheld its position in agreeing sanctions on Belarus, pending a resolution of the issue around the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey in particular. The issue concerns Turkey drilling disputed Cypriot and Greek waters, which is an infringement of their sovereignty. That issue took up a lot of time at the meeting. It got resolved with conclusions, which will result in constructive mediation processes opening up that had started between Turkey and Greece and will now embrace Cyprus as well, utilising the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, with a view to arriving at a proper basis for a more satisfactory relationship between Turkey and the EU into the future. That facilitated unanimity on Belarus and it was agreed at the meeting to impose restrictive measures and sanctions, including an asset ban and travel restrictions, on 40 individuals in leadership positions in Belarus. EU leaders strongly condemn the indiscriminate detentions, harassment, intimidation and ill-treatment that continue in Belarus despite repeated calls for them to stop. I am glad we managed to get unanimity on it and get that out as quick as we could. There was no hesitation on the sentiment of the EU position on Belarus. To be fair to Cyprus, it has real issues around what is happening in the relationship with Turkey and it felt these needed to be addressed by the Council.

On Lesbos, it has been agreed to take 50 refugees. People say they want us to take more. I share the concerns for the trauma people have gone through and the need to help them but we must make sure those we take in are properly and comprehensively looked after in all aspects of their self-development and life and so on. That is something I am keen on. I will talk to the Minister on it again following the representations that have been made here and the moral responsibility people have articulated that we as a country should take on in respect of this very difficult situation. I know those involved want to make sure we do this properly and comprehensively for the longer term in terms of looking after those we take into our care and supervision.

On the economic and fiscal situation and the fiscal council, that is one aspect of the issue and we are spending an unprecedented amount. We are borrowing close to the middle twenty billions. I do not know what the final figure will be. As we are moving to level 3 now, a significant increase in the PUP was anticipated at today’s oversight group meeting between the different Departments. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection suggests there could be 40,000 to 50,000 additional applicants by the end of the week. There was a significant increase of 11,000 applicants at the close of business last night, which compares strongly to a norm of between 1 million and 2 million claims. We want to make it sustainable and we are extending the scheme. We want to look at other supports as well. It is also about fairness. There are people who lost their jobs prior to the pandemic who were never on the PUP but are on the jobseeker’s allowance. A total of 213,000 people get the basic allowance. There are issues there, to be fair to those, as well. There are carers and so on that people spoke about.

Deputy McDonald also spoke about the 400 Welcomes appeal and I think I have addressed that in my reply.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.