Ceisteanna – Questions

National Economic and Social Council

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department with the National Economic and Social Council. [28558/20]

Alan Kelly

Question:

2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department with the National Economic and Social Council. [31297/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department with the National Economic and Social Council. [31337/20]

Alan Kelly

Question:

4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the State boards and agencies that civil servants from his Department are appointed to by the Government. [31300/20]

Mick Barry

Question:

5. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department with the National Economic and Social Council. [31710/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

The National Economic and Social Council is an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of my Department. The NESC is a valuable forum where strategic policy matters relevant to Ireland's economic social, environmental and sustainable development can be analysed and discussed between a variety of actors and Departments.

The work of the council focuses on the strategic and longer-term view. It recently agreed a new work programme comprising the following core areas of work: shared island; housing; sustainable development, climate and biodiversity action; good jobs and resilience in transitions; elder care; and galvanising vision. In addition, to date in 2020 and in response to the Covid-19 crisis the NESC secretariat has published seven working papers on Covid-19 across a range of issues, including the implications of Covid-19 on housing in Ireland, protecting enterprises, employment and incomes and progressing sustainability in the context of Covid-19.

In accordance with the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006 I have certain functions regarding NESC, such as presenting reports to Government prior to publication or laying them before the Houses, as in the case of the annual reports. The council is funded through my Department's Vote and my Department also has governance responsibilities in respect of the council.

I appoint members to the council under the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006 and SI 603 of 2010. Each of the following sectors nominate three representatives to the council: business and employer interests, ICTU, farming and agricultural interests, community and voluntary sector and the environmental sector. There are also seven independent members on the council. A further six members are public servants, mainly Secretaries General, and this group must include a representative of my Department and the Department of Finance. The Secretary General of my Department is the chairperson of the council and an assistant secretary of my Department is the deputy chairperson. Since becoming Taoiseach I have made one appointment to the council.

The National Economic and Social Development Office is the body corporate for the NESC. Section 13 of the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006 provides that the chairperson and deputy chairperson of NESC are members of the NESDO. The National Statistics Board was established under the Statistics Act 1993 to guide the broad strategic direction of the Central Statistics Office and in particular to establish priorities for the development of official statistics in Ireland. The legislation provides that the NSB shall consist of eight members, including an assistant secretary or equivalent or higher grade from my Department and the Department of Finance and the Director General of the CSO. In August I made one new appointment to the NSB. Three other members were reappointed for second terms.

All appointments to NESC and the NSB have been made in line with the relevant legislative provisions and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform guidelines on appointments to state boards. Finally, one principal officer in my Department has been nominated to the council of Gasice. These appointments are made by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, is hosting the annual conference of the European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils Network next week. NESC published an important paper earlier this year that addressed employment vulnerability as part of a just transition in Ireland. The paper recommended that Government take steps to improve the evidence base for policymakers and that future efforts to gather evidence to inform policymaking for a just transition should involve a combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques to ensure data findings are amplified by first-hand expertise from businesses and communities. Perhaps the Taoiseach could provide us with an update on the Government's implementation of these recommendations and where these measures are placed in the climate action and low carbon development (amendment) Bill, which was published earlier this month. The Bill does not make reference to a just transition, nor did the Government make mention of fairness when launching this legislation. My colleagues, Senator Boylan and Deputy O'Rourke, have already expressed concerns at the omission of any mention of a just transition, workers' rights or social justice in the Government's climate Bill.

As political leaders, we need to meet people where they are and bring them where they need to be on matters of such island-wide and global importance. Deputy O'Rourke has highlighted the absence of workers' rights or social justice expertise on the Climate Change Advisory Council. I ask the Taoiseach to address this omission. Solutions to the climate crisis can create an income crisis for workers and their families. As a result, climate action is all too often unnecessarily framed in a negative context. Inequality is central to this. Where agriculture is placed within the climate action discussion is an example of how the Government is getting this wrong. The Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, and others have highlighted how unequal the agricultural sector is in terms of income. Farmers, like those in other sectors affected by the changes we need to make, need to know that fairness and climate action can and will go hand in hand. The Government's climate legislation needs to incorporate solid evidence-based data, amplify expertise from businesses and communities as recommended by NESC, and place a just transition, workers' rights and social justice centre stage. I would be grateful if the Taoiseach would share his point of view on these matters.

The work programme of NESC does not cover any issues around the educational system, which is a glaring omission as far as I am concerned. We all know the Minister for Education and Skills also does not sit at the Cabinet sub-committee on Covid-19. To make progress, economically and socially, we need to manage and monitor all our developments in education and how they will interact.

I will raise with the Taoiseach an issue that has become topical as a result of what schools have been saying in recent times. We will have to bring in rapid testing across economic and social settings. I will raise this matter in the House every week because I do not have the capacity to understand why this testing is taking so long to introduce in this country. We have a 250-page report on this. Rapid testing is not a silver bullet but it will complement polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing and help in schools, many economic settings such as factories and various social settings. Why is it taking so long? It will have a massive impact and would give some help in educational settings, whether third-level education or in schools. While it has not come through the regulatory validation process, the Taoiseach is aware that a secondary school in Cork city is using rapid testing all of the time. What is his opinion on that given that it is outside the regulatory setting? I understand the reason it is happening. It is because people are so frustrated. There are so many organisations that want to do this. We are allowing the GAA championships to go ahead, and I agree with that decision. What would happen if we could provide rapid testing to facilitate that and other elite sports all of the time? It would help those who are participating in the background in those sports. Will the Taoiseach outline to us where we are on this? When does he expect a decision on it? This has gone beyond a joke.

In June, NESC produced a paper called "How We Value Work: The Impact of Covid-19". One of the conclusions it drew is that Covid-19 has made good jobs better and poor jobs worse. That is an extremely interesting conclusion and the paper featured a fascinating graph, which I would be interested to know if the Taoiseach has seen. The graph shows that the people least impacted by Covid-19 tend to be the best paid people with the best ability to work remotely and so on. They are also less economically affected. The worst impacted and least remunerated are the people we have depended on most.

There is a great deal to be said about this and how we have failed to reward those who have carried and will carry us through the restrictions. One of the most damning examples is that of healthcare workers. They are subject to the highest risk and many of them are among the lowest rewarded. A shocking example of this, although there are multiple examples, was the case of nurses who applied under the Be On Call for Ireland campaign being put on agency contracts, to which unfair dismissal protections and sick pay do not apply. As I revealed last week, contact tracers were placed on zero-hour contracts. A few hours after I exposed this, we were told that it was a mistake, even though it was all over their contracts. Even if it was a mistake, which it was not, unfair dismissal protections and sick pay do not apply to contact tracing workers. It is no wonder we do not have the contact tracers to get on top of the virus.

Another egregious example is that of student nurses, who because of protest, were given healthcare assistant pay in March and April but who are working for nothing again. Thousands of student nurses who are effectively working as nurses and care assistants are not getting a red cent. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, suggests that, such is the exploitation of this group of student nurses, the HSE does not bother to directly recruit permanent healthcare assistants, which we desperately need. It can rely on the slave student nurses who also cannot do other work to boost their incomes because Covid-19 restrictions would mean they would be carrying infections into the hospitals, which they are effectively holding together in many cases while getting nothing.

This is unacceptable. This is fighting Covid-19 on the cheap, which will not succeed. This is a big part of the reason we are in this mess, with the levels of infections we have. We have not directly recruited for proper jobs in the HSE. The nurses, healthcare assistants and other healthcare workers who are most at threat from Covid-19 are getting little financially and, in some cases, nothing. Is the Government going to do something about this? Will it make sure these student nurses are paid and rewarded? Will it deal with the issue of proper recruitment to quality jobs for the front-line workers on whom we depend?

I will ask about youth unemployment and training. If we add the number of young people on the live register and the number of young people on the pandemic unemployment payment, we get a number in the region of 100,000. That figure will increase significantly in the coming weeks. Some €200 million was set aside for training in the budget. I question whether that is enough. There are 80,000 places but I also wonder if that is enough. I will not focus on that today. I want to talk about the quality of training. The track record over the years has been far from great. I only have to mention the JobBridge scheme. I am concerned that the new arrangements include internships paying €229 for 24 hours. That is €26 more than the jobseeker's allowance. It works out at €1.08 per hour for employers. Under the JobBridge scheme, less than 20% of the young people doing the internship ended up securing a job in the host company immediately afterwards.

How can the Taoiseach stand over internship pay rates at that level? What guarantees can he give that this will be genuine training and not exploitation of young people?

On the climate Bill and a just transition, the Bill is transformative. It should be welcomed by the Opposition and Deputy McDonald's party, Sinn Féin, although I know they have issues with the climate change agenda, have taken a negative stance on the matter and are somewhat in denial about it in reality. As for the just transition, we moved in respect of the midlands. The Government provided €20 million for the first retrofit scheme, with quite a number of counties affected by the decisions relating to the peat-burning stations. That is one part of the pre-emptive moves that were identified in the NESC report to create alternative enterprises and employment in areas affected by climate change decisions that would have a detrimental impact on employment in a given area. In addition, the carbon fund that has been created from the proceeds of the carbon tax will provide fuel subsidies. Over the next decade over €3 billion will be put aside for that to make sure that people on low incomes are not disadvantaged as a result of the tax and also to deal with agriculture and environmentally friendly farming, which is very important.

As for the education system and rapid testing and antigen testing, I spoke to the CMO at the weekend about this and HIQA has, as was said, published its report. NPHET is now clinically validating that as far as the antigen tests are concerned. France is moving ahead with this. When I met the Prime Ministers of Portugal and Greece at the European Council meeting, they told me that their countries had been undertaking these tests for some time. The view up to now has been a policy issue as to whether the testing is as effective as PCR testing or whether it is effective at all. I think we have moved on from that position, so when the clinical validation is over we will be able to come back to the Deputies.

We will not get to the other questions. We have limited time.

We could agree to give the Taoiseach a few more minutes to answer.

There are questions in other people's names. I am sorry.

Cabinet Committees

Mick Barry

Question:

6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with housing last met. [28811/20]

Alan Kelly

Question:

7. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with housing last met. [31298/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with housing last met. [31338/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 8, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on housing last met on 28 September and will meet again shortly. The committee oversees the implementation of the programme for Government commitments in respect of housing and related matters. Significant work is under way on the delivery of these commitments through Departments, agencies and interdepartmental groups, which will be brought forward for discussion at the committee and among the Government.

The budget last week was an important step forward, providing for an overall investment of €3.3 billion for the delivery of housing programmes in 2021, including provision for 12,750 new social homes to be delivered through build, acquisition and leasing programmes. The committee operates in accordance with established guidelines for Cabinet committees, and substantive issues are referred to the Government for discussion and approval. In addition to meetings of the Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I regularly meet with Ministers, including the Minister with responsibility for housing, to discuss particular issues.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the question of a new mortgage moratorium. The Tánaiste is quoted in the papers this morning as saying the lockdown will cost 150,000 jobs. I do not know how many mortgage holders are in that cohort but I imagine quite a lot as well as many more who will have their incomes negatively affected while still holding onto their jobs. During the first lockdown, a six-month mortgage moratorium was put in place. What will be put in place in the course of this lockdown? Of course, the answer is not entirely in the Government's hands because with the privatisation of the banks, it cannot control what it does not own. The Government is, however, in a strong position to put the banks under serious pressure to provide for a proper mortgage moratorium in this situation.

On Leaders' Questions earlier, the Taoiseach indicated that the Minister for Finance will call the banks in. I would have thought they would have been called in today. I am surprised they have not. I wonder why they have not been called in. If they are not coming in today, when will they come in? Will it be tomorrow, Thursday or Friday? Surely to God it will happen this week. Huge numbers of mortgage holders are anxious and are looking at this question very carefully at the moment. What will the Taoiseach ask for? What will be his ask when he goes to meet the banks? What is he saying should be done in terms of, first, the duration of a moratorium and, second, this moratorium not being one whereby people are forced to pay interest, making money for the banks in a pandemic. The moratorium should be interest-free.

When the residential tenancies legislation went through the Seanad last July, we proposed a very clear enabling amendment that the Government and the Minister opposed. It would have possibly avoided the need for us to sit this week because it gave power to the Minister to reintroduce a ban on evictions. It was an either-or. It did not force him; it just gave him the power to do so if there was a second wave. In fairness, some of the Taoiseach's colleagues in government in the Green Party supported the amendment or at least did not oppose it. Now we have to deal with another rushed piece of legislation this week. We learn from our lessons. We call on the Taoiseach to extend the ban on evictions up to at least March. It is important that it goes to March. We cannot have a situation whereby it goes to just the first week in December because in that scenario people will have no certainty over Christmas, and surely this year of all years we have to ensure certainty.

I have been through the issue of rent and a rent freeze many times. I know what the capacity of the Government is on this. I know it has extensive powers. I ask the Taoiseach to use those powers. In addition, it is obvious that in the coming days the Government will have to bring in the banks to discuss a mortgage moratorium. It is absolutely essential that the Government does this sooner rather than later.

A mortgage break has to happen. It is absolutely unacceptable that the people who will be hit hardest by the lockdown in economic terms, losing either income or employment, will then also potentially have some of the banks crawling all over their backs, adding to the pressure and stress they face. When people talk about protecting mental health, let us be clear what that means in many cases. Often mental health is about the stress of not being able to pay one's mortgage, rent or bills and the uncertainty of possibly losing one's home. There is nothing that will damage one's mental health more than that. If we are all in it together, the Taoiseach has to act with might and main to ensure that the banks do not crawl all over people's backs or load up debts during the coming period. If we can bring in emergency legislation to bail out banks, as we did a few years ago, we can bring in emergency legislation or do whatever is necessary in order to tell the banks they will not load up debt or harass people during possibly one of the most difficult periods in their lives. The Government has to do this; otherwise, it will wreck the sense of social solidarity we need. Similarly, simply reimposing the ban on evictions during level 5 restrictions is not good enough because it will mean that notices to quit can be issued and then, four or five weeks before Christmas, there will be a slew of evictions. That is totally unacceptable, so the Taoiseach has to do something about it.

I raised with the Taoiseach earlier the issues mortgage holders face. The real shame is that on 30 September the opportunity to extend a full break for mortgage holders was lost. That is on the Taoiseach and it is a big failure of his Government. Can he set out for us very clearly what alternatives, what propositions, he will put to the banks, given that MABS reports that banks, as I said earlier, are not playing ball? The Central Bank has to sanction banks for their failure to comply with the code of conduct for mortgage arrears which, as the Taoiseach knows, puts an obligation on the lender to present the borrower - the mortgage holder - with all options available to him or her as far as alternative repayment methods are concerned.

I want the Taoiseach to set out the details in that regard.

What does he envision in terms of the eviction ban? An eviction ban that lasts for a couple of weeks will not be sufficient. In our view, we needed a ban on these practices long before Covid-19 entered into the equation. In terms of rent freezes, will the legislation the Taoiseach is bringing forward deal with both a ban on evictions and a freeze of rents?

In terms of mortgages, the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform will engage with the banks on this issue. On the first occasion, good work was done. That is not acknowledged in this House, of course, but the payment breaks worked effectively.

Why did the Taoiseach end them?

Deputy McDonald knows the reason. It is not that we ended them. Once we came out of lockdown, there was a time limit to it with the European Banking Authority. It did not add to the number of non-performing loans.

That is entirely wrong.

This scheme did not create difficulties for borrowers either.

It should have been extended.

Indefinite payment breaks forever are not, on their own, the ideal solution either in terms of those who are borrowers or lenders. I refer here not just to mortgages but also personal loans, business loans and so on.

Repossession of a person's home is not great either.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. I would appreciate being given the opportunity to answer the questions asked by Deputies in this House.

Will the Taoiseach then try to make some sense?

With regard to the ban on evictions issue raised by Deputy Kelly-----

When are the banks coming in?

-----the bottom line is that there is a constitutional issue as well. Let us not pretend there is not. The ban came in during lockdown because a lockdown restricts movement. It gives a basis to prevent evictions because of the constraint on people's movement and then the danger of becoming homeless if evicted and so on. The Minister, therefore, will bring in legislation that will be effective from the duration of this lockdown and this level - that is, level 5 - which will prevent any evictions in that context.

Of course, the Minister also introduced the earlier legislation that was referred to, namely, the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, which came into effect on 1 August. That also protects tenants against experiencing rent arrears and who are affected by Covid-19. It also protects them from eviction and applies nationwide, of course, subject to the tenant making an appropriate declaration. It is my understanding that is there until 11 January and can be reactivated or kept going. The Minister will, however, bring measures before the House to prevent evictions in the context of level 5. His legislative solution will enable automatic application of the law if we move from a particular level to another where restrictions are brought in that restrict the movement of an individual as level 5 does with the 5 km rule.

In and around the rent freeze, rent control measures are already in place, some of which, if I recall, the Deputy introduced originally. They are still in place in terms of the rent control zones but, again, in terms of the legislation the Minister introduced earlier this year, the capacity exists to protect tenants under that Act. As I said, there will be engagement with the banks on this. They are obliged to deal with the codes and the Central Bank has a role in that. The European Banking Authority created a regime which facilitated member states to bring in and to work with the banks which would not affect the borrower's credit ratings. That was important.

The Government let that slide.

We did not let it slide. The Deputy deliberately misreads the situation. She knows that is not the case.

If the Deputy is so certain, I am amazed improvements have not happened in the North with regard to it. The Deputy is in government in the North. I do not understand.

The Taoiseach's friends in Fine Gael met their banking buddies. History will record what happened.

If the Deputy is so certain that is the case, why does she not do it in the North where she is in power and has the influence and decision-making power to do so? I presumes it is because of similar reasons.

Is that the Taoiseach's single transferable excuse? It is pathetic.

No, it is not. It is just an important point.

Deputy Boyd Barrett also raised the issue of the mortgage break and the lockdowns. We do not want people in a long-term overloading of debt. Of course, we do not. The evictions issues will be dealt with. The Ministers will see what we can do to make sure people with mortgages are not put under stress and anxiety and those people's situations can be helped.

In terms of earlier issues, I did not get to student nurses. Again, I will engage with the HSE and the Minister for Health on student nurses working on the wards in the current context. As they were earlier, they should be paid in accordance with the agreement arrived at earlier in the year. I will follow up on that.

The Deputy used the phrase "Covid on the cheap". Some 20% of our normal budget has been borrowed this year to deal with Covid-19. We now have a deficit of more than €21 billion. That will rise even further as a result of our going into lockdown. We need some accurate and precise language from time to time-----

We need decent contracts.

Hyperbole and polemic are some of the Deputy's great strengths but there comes a time to stop. No one can say that we are doing "Covid on the cheap". The health service received a €4 billion allocation in the budget, that is, €2 billion for Covid-19 and €2 billion to permanently embed improvements into the service. That is not Covid on the cheap. We have built the testing and tracing capacities from zero-----

It is not cheap labour. The health service is not using cheap labour.

It is not. Look at the entirety of the workforce. It is not cheap labour. That is another myth and fallacy to put forward.

According to NESC's report, it is.

Equally, our objective is to learn lessons from Covid-19 and accelerate improvements and reforms in our health service delivery in the context of community delivery, rehab, home care-based provision and community diagnosing, keeping people out of hospital as long as we possibly can and moving more into prevention, primary care and community care sides. That is the objective of Government while also increasing capacity in the rehab community hospital beds and in the acute hospital situation.

Deputy Barry referred to youth unemployment. The €200 million is a sizeable allocation. I take the Deputy's point on quality. That must be looked at, and not just looked at but proper mechanisms must be in place to ensure that the quality of the provision is of a high order. There is a very good scheme to incentivise apprenticeships and, historically, we had a good apprenticeship system. The institutes of technology were great providers of apprenticeship training. The education and training boards are now leading it. I want to get good structured quality training that will get people opportunities and employment.

Programme for Government

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the status of the implementation of the programme for Government. [29923/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans to establish additional Cabinet committees as outlined in the programme for Government. [29925/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 10 together.

Notwithstanding the impact of Covid-19 on all aspects of the social and economic life of our country, we have been working hard to implement commitments in the programme for Government across a wide range of issues in all Departments. A structure comprising ten Cabinet committees with specific responsibility for a range of issues has been established to support the achievement of these objectives. These committees deal with the following matters: Government response to Covid-19; economic recovery and investment; housing; health; environment and climate change; social affairs and equality; education; Europe; Brexit and Northern Ireland; and Government co-ordination. Cabinet committees meet regularly, consistent with the provisions in the programme for Government, and further committees will be established by the Government if necessary.

A range of social and economic issues which impact on programme for Government commitments and which cut across many Departments have been considered and progressed through the Cabinet committee on the Government response to Covid-19, leading to the development of Ireland's national plan in response to Covid-19, the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business and Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with Covid-19, which was launched recently. Issues considered in each of these plans include the social and societal impacts, employee impacts and business continuity, supports for individuals and businesses, economic and budgetary implications, modelling, communications and international response measures.

Other programme for Government commitments that have been progressed in the past four months or so include ongoing monitoring and management of the impact of Covid-19 on the provision of both Covid and non-Covid healthcare to ensure sufficient capacity, utilise new technologies, support vulnerable groups and develop new pathways of care. The HSE's winter plan for this year, supported by the allocation of an additional €600 million, will deliver essential healthcare in a Covid-19 environment while advancing the goals of Sláintecare through prioritisation of primary care and community services.

The 24th plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council was held in Dublin Castle on 31 July. It provided the new Irish Government and the restored Northern Ireland Executive to meet formally for the first time and exchange views on a wide range of issues of mutual interest and concern, including Covid-19 and Brexit. A shared island unit has been established in my Department and its work is underway. Budget 2021 included a shared island fund with a planned €500 million to be made available out to 2025. This fund will provide the resources to deliver on our commitment to build a shared island underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. The fund will foster new investment and development opportunities on a North-South basis and support the delivery of key cross-Border infrastructure initiatives set out in the programme for Government.

The July jobs stimulus was launched that month and comprises more than 50 measures and includes in excess of €4 billion of direct expenditure, €1 billion of taxation measures to directly support businesses, as well as €2 billion in credit guarantees. A unit to help co-ordinate future social dialogue has been established within my Department. This unit will seek to create new models of sectoral engagement with a wide range of stakeholders across civil society. It is part of the economic division of my Department which is already involved in dialogue with the social partners.

A number of key climate action commitments have been achieved including the publication on 7 October of the draft text for the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2020, which will set the country on course to become climate-neutral by 2050. Work is under way to have the Bill enacted this year.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Funding of more than €3 billion has been granted in budget 2021 for housing, along with additional funding in the July stimulus package. A €118 million skills package has been announced as part of budget 2021 to help workers to reskill and retrain in areas where there is a skill shortage or potential for future employment. A €121 million budget package has been announced to provide additional funding to Tusla, for direct provision services, for youth and childcare services and for Traveller and Roma initiatives. A suite of support measures has been announced for tourism, culture, arts, Gaeltacht, sport and media, including a €50 million support package for live entertainment and an additional €50 million for the Arts Council. There are ongoing negotiations at European Council level on the Multi-annual Financial Framework, MFF, the seven-year budget for the EU, and on the Next Generation EU recovery package. Other issues considered at last week’s European Council meeting which I attended in Brussels, included EU-UK relations, climate change and external relations.

The pandemic is hard for everyone but it has been a uniquely horrific time for victims of domestic abuse and violence. Demand for services has increased by at least 30%. I heard the Taoiseach when he was reflecting on level 5 and the gravity of imposing such stringent restrictions on citizens. He cited his concerns about child protection and domestic abuse and violence. What additional supports and resources will be put in place for victims in terms of refuge places, additional resources and funding for support services to meet the demand over the next six weeks? Will the Taoiseach set that out for us? The Government needs to communicate very clearly to victims. These are people who, in many instances, now live lives and daily routines of terror in these extraordinary and difficult times. What resources are in place? Staff working in these essential services need to know now that the funding and resources they require to meet the needs of these women, men and children are provided for. I am running out of time but there is a commitment, for example, for a plan for future refuge space on publication of a review of domestic violence accommodation provision. This needs to happen. This issue is routinely gets kicked down the road. It gets a lot of worthy rhetoric by times from Governments after Government and then it gets forgotten.

There are many other issues, including domestic homicide reviews that I wish to raise with the Taoiseach but, sadly, time does not permit this afternoon.

The programme for Government refers to the need to address the issues that arise out of cases similar to the Debenhams case and to protect workers who have been impacted during Covid. Earlier, the Taoiseach effectively refused to answer the question Deputy Barry put to him. That question, by the way, came directly from the shop stewards and they want to know his answer because it is very important facing into the next number of weeks. They want to know if the Taoiseach will state clearly that the removal of goods by KPMG from a retail outlet over the next six weeks would breach public health guidelines. The Taoiseach needs to be explicit. KPMG need to hear that that is the case so that the workers do not have to worry during the imminent period of level 5 restrictions about round the clock picketing to prevent the removal of those goods. Will the Taoiseach state that in order to be clear? To me it is obviously the case but there needs to be no ambiguity from the point of view of the workers or KPMG.

Second, will the Taoiseach commit, as I, together with Deputies Barry, McDonald and so on have asked, to convene a meeting with KPMG, the shop stewards, and the unions to try to resolve this dispute and save 1,000 mostly women workers yet more hardship, uncertainty and anxiety? Will he use his offices to try to resolve this in a just way? The Taoiseach should do this for their sake. The least he could do is organise a meeting of that sort.

On Deputy McDonald's point about domestic abuse, resourcing will not be an issue in dealing with this, particularly during the lockdown. If there are particular issues she has identified with any specific refuges or centres that need additional funding, the Government will certainly respond. The issue is that the evidence from the first lockdown was that the level of domestic violence did increase and that is a worry and a concern in the context of a further lockdown. The Ministers concerned have been looking at what additional measures can be taken to help and to assist the staff involved, with awareness helplines but also engagement across the different Departments. That work will continue and funding will not be an issue in this regard.

Even at today's Cabinet meeting, the level of work under way illustrates that the programme for Government is moving at pace. The marine development Bill, which was before the Cabinet earlier, will help to unleash a lot of economic development. It still needs a lot of legislation but the heads were essentially agreed today. On housing, the Land Development Agency Bill was agreed today. There is a lot of work still to be done but our aim is to get it published before the end of the year and through the House. The electoral reform Bill dealing with the establishment of an electoral commission went through Cabinet today. I refer to Erasmus for students in Northern Ireland, notwithstanding what may happen with Brexit. If there is an agreement, UK students may be able to avail of the Erasmus programme. If there is not, that will leave Irish citizens in the North in jeopardy. We are taking measures to ensure students in the North can avail of the programme through universities in the Republic. That was passed today. We agreed Covid-19 measures to make sure we can sign up two other companies so we can procure vaccines when they become available. We dealt also with the Covid-19 fines and penalties legislation and Cork flood support. On direct provision reform, the report by Ms Catherine Day was considered by Cabinet today. It is a very substantive report and the Ministers will launch it with her shortly. The heads of the finance Bill was passed today. A starting date for the CervicalCheck tribunal was sanctioned at Cabinet today. Regarding victims and witnesses, the implementation of the O'Malley report on sexual violence went through Cabinet today and the Minister for Justice and Equality is acting on that.

That is the level of pace and substance that this Government is about. In the past four months, the quality and substance of the legislation has been without precedent, from what I can see, in such a short period. The major issues we have dealt with economically, financially and in respect of health have been very substantial and we intend to continue with that pace.

On Debenhams, I spoke to a shop steward this morning. They are under a lot of pressure.

The flooding that occurred in my city of Cork this morning created pressures for the workers concerned. I will see what I can do regarding whether we can facilitate a meeting between KPMG and the shop stewards. I know Mandate has been working on this and I do not want to overtake its role in it. Mandate, along with ICTU, has been leading on behalf of the workers.

Yes, if it is possible. The issue in terms of the application of level 5 is clear. Essential work is listed as to what is exempt and what is allowed. What we are discussing here is a very difficult situation. It involves a liquidation. The Government provides ordinary statutory redundancy. The capacity to go over and above this opens up a whole new chapter in terms of how the State will intervene in future liquidations. This is an issue. There is also the degree to which one can legally interfere with a liquidation that is before the High Court. That is not doable either.

Will the Taoiseach clarify whether the removal of goods is not compliant?

I will not, as Taoiseach, start listing what is in and what is out. That is not something I will engage in until the Government makes these decisions.

It is non-essential retail.

Non-essential retail is not part of level 5.

Is liquidation part of level 5?

I will go and check the full list. The issue here is to try to get this matter resolved. As someone said, after the lockdown, we do not want them back picketing up until Christmas. We do not want people on the streets. Gardaí use their discretion all the time, and have done since the outset of this dispute when the first lockdown was in place. To be fair to the Garda, it will be equally discreet in the exercise of its duties on this occasion also, of this I have no doubt. The more pressing point is whether we can get the issue resolved once and for all within the legal frameworks and the law, conscious of any precedent that might be set but which we can deal with and accommodate. It is very difficult but I will come back to the Deputies on the matter.

Sitting suspended at 4.22 p.m. and resumed at 4.45 p.m.