Leaders' Questions

Yesterday afternoon the Taoiseach told the Dáil that he accepted Deputy Leo Varadkar's version of events regarding his leaking of a confidential document to his friend when he was Taoiseach. Yesterday evening Deputy Leo Varadkar, now Tánaiste and leader of Fine Gael, came to the Dáil to give his explanation of why he leaked this confidential and sensitive document to a personal friend and political supporter in April 2019. His defence fell apart.

We learned that the scenario that played out is more serious than any of us could have imagined. Deputy Varadkar's core alibi, that he was operating a strategy to get the National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, on board in the public interest, was blown out of the water. The claims the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, made on radio, that the Tánaiste's leak was part of an ongoing process of engagement with that organisation, are simply not true. The Minister for Justice misled the public because there was no such process of engagement between the NAGP and the Department of Health. There was direct engagement when Deputy Leo Varadkar's friend, the president of the NAGP, requested and was given a confidential document. Similarly, the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, claimed on RTÉ news that the Tánaiste's actions were not so serious after all because no amendments had been made to the leaked confidential document. This is also absolutely untrue. The truth is that the document leaked by Deputy Varadkar was not the final document and amendments were made by the time the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, voted on the contract on 19 May 2019. As such, the Tánaiste's claim that he was acting in the public interest has been exposed as absolute spin. This was a dig-out for a friend and a political ally whose organisation was in free fall and who needed the information contained in the contract to try to fight for his organisation's survival.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach told the Dáil that the Tánaiste's leaking of this document was a one-off event and that it was not part of a pattern of behaviour. He said the Tánaiste had assured him that something like this had never happened before and that he accepted that assurance. However, on the floor of the Dáil yesterday evening, the Tánaiste admitted very clearly that he has broken Cabinet confidentiality in the past. The Taoiseach clearly was not aware of that. He is aware of it now. I want to know if he has asked the Tánaiste about this. Can he establish what information the Tánaiste has leaked before?

We also discovered on the floor of the Dáil that the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, had also been approached by the Tánaiste's friend looking for the same document. Was the Taoiseach aware of this fact or did the Tánaiste fail to give him the full facts? Will the Taoiseach tell us what on earth is going on here? It seems that members of Fine Gael in the Government are providing the public with wrong information and perhaps providing the Taoiseach with no information. The truth is that this is a very Fine Gael thing - government by who one knows. Thousands of struggling families are wondering if the reason they did not get an extension to their mortgage break is because another Fine Gael friend and former Minister of State, Brian Hayes, now represents the banks. I have no doubt that people in businesses being ripped off on insurance costs will scratch their heads and wonder when they see another former Fine Gael Minister of State and friend, Michael D'Arcy, the Minister of State who was supposed to take on the insurance industry, jump ship and become a lobbyist for big finance. This is the politics of the cosy club, of favours for friends. I want to know what the Taoiseach is going to do about it, because the story is not over.

The Taoiseach promised yesterday that all documents relating to this matter would be released. That needs to happen immediately. We need the full paper trail. Will the Taoiseach speak to the Attorney General to establish, for the avoidance of doubt, that the then Taoiseach did not in fact break the law?

When I spoke to the House yesterday evening, I made it very clear that I believe that what the Tánaiste did when he was Taoiseach was not best practice, was inappropriate, was the wrong way to deal with that issue and was the wrong thing to do. To be fair to the Tánaiste, he had no issue with coming before the House. He has come into the House, addressed the issue and answered questions for a quite considerable period of time. He explained in detail what happened and his motivations behind what happened. He accepted that his actions were an error of judgment and he has apologised. As far as I am concerned, the fact that he has acknowledged that it was an error of judgment and that he has apologised is important. He dealt with the issue at some length yesterday. That is important. I accept his acknowledgment of an error of judgment and his apology.

The issue is not as Deputy McDonald has portrayed it in the sense that the contract with the GPs of Ireland, all of whom are independent contractors at the end of the day, involves very significant improvements, not just to the lot of GPs but to chronic disease management for General Medical Services, GMS, patients, something all Members of this House have been pushing for. It was a significant advance in that regard. The essentials of the agreement were out there as soon as the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, published a press release stating it had reached an agreement with the HSE and the Government which included the reversal of cuts under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest, FEMPI, Acts, the provision of €80 million for chronic disease management in the community, better value in prescription of medicines, and provision for disadvantaged communities. All of that was outlined in considerable detail in the IMO document. That is the big picture.

This was not some sort of private commercial project that would benefit a person materially or monetarily. Clearly that is not the case and that should be acknowledged.

The Deputy keeps raising the issue of whether the law has been broken. I have made my own assessment in that regard but I am not a lawyer. Equally, I have no intention of embroiling the Attorney General or anybody else. The Attorney General advises the Government with regard to its agenda. The clear agenda of the Government is to make sure we can bring society through a global pandemic that has enormous implications for people's health, lives and livelihoods. The Government wants to deal, once and for all, with climate change and the existential challenge of climate change effectively and in a transformative way. It wants to invest in housing and to deal with homelessness and the capacity of young people to afford to buy their homes and to provide a far greater degree of social housing next year and in the years thereafter. Above all, the Government wants to invest in education, ensure we keep schools open and work with school communities to do that. That is what the Government is about. It is also about transforming North-South relations through the shared island initiative. Those are the issues that I, as Taoiseach, am focused on and driving forward.

The Tánaiste came before the House yesterday. In my view, he was accountable to the House for the actions he took when he was Taoiseach of the previous Government. On the issue of documentation, yesterday I read out a letter yesterday that was copied to the Department of the Taoiseach during the time of the previous Government. It related to GMS issues and not the specific issue at hand. I asked the Secretary General of my Department to trawl through the Department and that is the one that has come through at this stage. That is it. The Department keeps all documentation. Apparently there is no great cache of documentation in the Department relating to the issue.

May I again make it clear that I wish to see all the documentation? I am not surmising there is a vast quantity of it. On the contrary, I am asserting that there is very little documentation because the basis for the explanation that the Taoiseach, astonishingly, accepts from the Tánaiste is that he was acting in the public interest and on the basis of a deep and enduring level of contact with the NAGP. That is simply factually incorrect. I would not thank the Tánaiste for appearing before the Dáil and taking questions. I do not think any Member should get a round of applause for so doing.

I respectfully suggest that the agenda of the Government is hugely dependent on public confidence and trust and a sense that when a former Taoiseach and serving member of Cabinet is found to have leaked a confidential document to his friend, when that is established as a matter of fact, and when that same individual states on the record of the Dáil that he has before leaked confidential information from Cabinet, the people expect action to be taken.

The Deputy's time is up.

That is my view. I ask the Taoiseach again what he proposes to do. Will he ask the people simply to take all of this on the chin? Deputy Leo Varadkar's alibi was comprehensively dismantled on the floor of the Dáil. It bears no credibility.

Deputy, please. The time is up.

What is the Taoiseach going to do? What contact will he have with a man who has told the House that he routinely leaks from the Cabinet? Is that okay with the Taoiseach?

First, I was not a member of the previous Government and I am not accountable for its actions.

Fianna Fáil fully supported the previous Government.

All governments are accountable to the people. Deputy Mattie McGrath supported the accession of the former Minister, Shane Ross, to power. He regretted it later, but that is the role he played in the formation of the previous Government.

Fianna Fáil fully supported the previous Government. The Taoiseach should accept its mistakes too.

Through the Chair, I make the point that governments are accountable to the people in general elections. The previous Government was. A new Government has been formed and we have very clear approaches in terms of both the policy agenda of the Government and the procedural dimension to the new Government. The three party leaders in government meet regularly in regard to the agenda at Cabinet and issues of policy and procedure. We are very clear in that regard.

With the greatest of respect to the Deputy and everybody else, I happened to read the other night, which kept me up somewhat late, a wonderful article, which I would recommend to Deputy McDonald, published in GQ online, by the investigative journalist, James Harkin. It is an excellent piece of journalism and is called "Unmasking Stakeknife". It tells an incredibly sordid story of the IRA and Sinn Féin and the work of British intelligence agencies and the infiltration of both.

Deal with the leaks.

(Interruptions).

The Taoiseach's time is up.

The point is that-----

(Interruptions).

Deputy Mac Lochlainn should read the article. If I was a member of his party and movement, I would be looking around me every day, wondering who my friend is.

No danger of that.

The Taoiseach, without interruption, please.

The reaction is interesting. Sometimes it is dangerous to stand on the high moral ground. That is where Deputy McDonald has positioned herself in respect of this issue and people's alleged connections. It is a very dangerous place to be and she and her movement should approach it with a greater degree of humility. That is all I will say.

(Interruptions).

I think the Tánaiste came in-----

Is the Taoiseach threatening me?

No, absolutely not.

Taoiseach, please. The time is up.

I am simply saying to the Deputy that the high moral ground is a dangerous place to be.

No danger of the Taoiseach-----

There absolutely is in terms of Sinn Féin and its friends.

(Interruptions).

The Tánaiste came into the House yesterday and apologised for an error of judgment. I do not know where else the Deputy wishes to take the matter. He apologised for an error of judgment that was made during the term of the previous Government in respect of an agreement with GPs that, in essence, had been published. The essentials of it had been published and the Deputy knows that. She tried to say it was not.

The Taoiseach's time is up.

The essentials of the deal were published long before any document was sent to the president of the NAGP. The essentials had to do with chronic disease management, the reversal of FEMPI and other areas.

Incorrect information has been entered into the record of the Dáil.

I ask Deputy McDonald to resume her seat. I appeal to party leaders, including the Taoiseach, please, to have some regard for the order of the House that sets out time limits for these contributions. There are no exceptions in that regard.

By any standard, the past few days have been damaging to the Government. This has been another damaging episode for this short-lived Government. By extension, the past few days have been damaging to politics. We had the spectacle of a senior member of the Government being exposed for engaging in what can only be described as grubby activity for grubby purposes by leaking a confidential document to a rival union while the Government was engaged in ongoing negotiations with a licensed union. The Taoiseach stated that the Tánaiste described it as an error of judgment. It was an error of judgment, but it was also wrong. Does the Taoiseach accept that the actions of the Tánaiste last year were wrong? Will he ask the Tánaiste to admit that publicly? There were many weasel words yesterday. The Tánaiste's actions were either wrong or right. Does the Taoiseach accept they were wrong? Will he ask the Tánaiste to admit that?

The Taoiseach is engaging in weasel words himself by talking about the essentials of the agreement. Very minor elements of the deal were included in the press release, which comprised a five-page document. The document that was leaked was a 108-page document. There was an awful lot more there that was in negotiation and subsequently agreed.

What added insult to injury was the fact that the Tánaiste ludicrously dressed this all up as him somehow having a legitimate objective and, laughingly, claimed that he was honouring Government commitments. This insults people's intelligence. I think most people saw this episode for what it actually was. It was patently untrue for the Tánaiste to make that claim. He engaged in a deliberate distortion of the truth.

Very regrettably during the last couple of days this distortion was then repeated by a succession of Fine Gael Ministers - although the Taoiseach must accept they are his Ministers as well - going on the airwaves and trotting out cynically crafted spin lines. I heard the Taoiseach repeating some of those which I think is beneath him. It has been very damaging to public trust in politics. I ask the Taoiseach to take steps to restore that trust and get the Tánaiste to admit what this actually was; it was wrong. Will the Taoiseach undertake an immediate review of the code of conduct for officeholders? Those members of the Government are required to honour the existing code. However, it seems it is okay with the Taoiseach for members of his Government to personally interpret that code as it was okay, it seems, for the Tánaiste to personally interpret that message that this was a confidential document and not for circulation.

No, that is not a correct interpretation of where I stand regarding the code of conduct. As far as I am concerned, there is an obligation on all members of the current Government to adhere to that code in the spirit and in the principle of that code. I hold strongly by that. I have made it very clear that I regard what the Tánaiste did in the last Government was not best practice. It was inappropriate and it was wrong. It was the wrong way to do things. I have said that. I think the Tánaiste has accepted that and he has apologised for an error of judgment on that.

The agreement was a €210 million agreement. The Deputy knows there is a separate issue on this in terms of the approach of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission to all of this. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has very negative views of collective agreements with independent contractors and has taken actions over these types of agreements in the health service for quite some time. That has not been highlighted in the context of this. Be that as it may, in my view the essentials were out very early in terms of this. Of the €210 million, about €120 million was for the reversal of financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, cuts and about €80 million for the chronic disease management.

I have the statement from the IMO. As the Deputy knows, there is significant detail in that document, which is dated 5 or 6 April. It goes right down to maternity leave, contribution to locum costs and so on. There was considerable detail at that stage. As to the necessity to send it on to the NAGP, in my view it should have been published earlier in its entirety. I think most people in this House called for the early publication of that agreement with GPs, because it involves very significant public money and involves investment in our health services. Into the future, it seems to me that collective agreements of this sort with independent contractors will be more difficult because of the application of competition law and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.

I am very clear on this and have been. I think it was important that the Tánaiste addressed the issue in the House and took questions on it at some length. He acknowledged that he would not do this again and that it was an error of judgment on his part, but he did it from his perspective for the best of reasons and motivation.

An error of judgment is not the same as saying that something was wrong, and the Taoiseach's deputy also knows that; he made that point. The Taoiseach is also engaging in this distortion. That agreement was not signed off by the IMO until 16 April and was not published by the Department for another month. The code of conduct applying to a Taoiseach specifies that officeholders should respect confidences entrusted to them in the course of their official duties. Patently it is clear that the Tánaiste, when he was Taoiseach, did not do that. I am asking the Taoiseach to address this problem. It seems that the Tánaiste is of the view that that code is open to personal interpretation, which should not be the case.

The Taoiseach has a responsibility to restore some element of trust in Government negotiations. In the coming months and years, unions, employers and social partners will be asked to engage with the Government in negotiations. Can they trust the Government in those negotiations? It seems that from the actions of the Tánaiste last year they cannot do that because he interprets things to suit himself. The Taoiseach needs to take action now to restore trust. A starting point is to review the code of conduct and also to request the Tánaiste to admit this was wrong.

I will say three things. First, the Tánaiste in his speech yesterday said it was an error of judgment. He said he would not do this again; he has made that clear. Second, the IMO was very clear when it published this in a press release, which stated, "Following months of negotiations, the IMO announces details of €210 million investment secured from Government for General Practice."

Sorry, the Deputy said the opposite.

The Taoiseach is twisting-----

I am not twisting anything. This happened. This cannot be twisted because it happened. It was published.

(Interruptions).

I did not interrupt the Deputy and I would really appreciate if she gave me an opportunity to answer the question. On the issue of trust-----

Will the Taoiseach be straight with us?

I ask Deputy Shortall to resume her seat. She should let the Taoiseach answer without interruption.

On the issue of trust, I have met the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and IBEC. I am spanning the social-----

(Interruptions).

I will not say. I will not respond.

I have met ICTU and IBEC. I have expanded the social dialogue unit within my Department.

(Interruptions).

In many ways I am engaging and developing and building trust with the social partners and will build a stronger trust with the social partners. That is in my DNA.

(Interruptions).

That will happen as Taoiseach. I will ensure, along with my Government colleagues, that we work collectively with the social partners to take the country through the greatest challenge it has with the global pandemic, to keep our economy and the edifice of our economy intact, to protect people's livelihoods, and to work in health, education and housing. These are the essentials for the people who are watching this. Those are the issues they care about most. Those are the issues they want this Oireachtas and the Government to focus on. As Taoiseach, I will do that, and I will not be distracted. I cannot be held accountable for what the previous Government did. At the general election that Government was held accountable. At the next general election this Government will be held accountable in terms of its programme for Government and its agenda.

Whatever about the finer details and implications of the matters concerning the Tánaiste yesterday, one implication is definitely that there are many groups of workers who are scratching their heads and wishing that they had such matey backchannels with the Tánaiste or Taoiseach of the day. One of those groups of workers that the Taoiseach has suggested it is in his DNA to communicate with is the Debenhams workers who have now been seven months on the picket line fighting for a just redundancy as we face into the winter months. They certainly have not enjoyed the level of access and communication they would like. Deputy Barry has sent an invitation to all Oireachtas Members to an online briefing at 2 o'clock today where the shop stewards will be briefing Oireachtas Members. They are hoping the Taoiseach or representatives from his office and the Tánaiste can make it to hear about their plight.

One very important development is that KPMG in an action that I regard as bullying and trying to demoralise these heroic, brave, decent, hard-working mostly women workers, is threatening to walk away from the liquidation process, offering them an even more insulting €500,000 when an already insulting €1 million was previously offered. It is suggesting that if the workers do not take this, nothing will be left for creditors, meaning even the State could lose out.

That should make the Government sit up and act in a way that it has so far failed to do to intervene for these workers, since Debenhams is effectively threatening the State as a creditor. All this is based on spurious claims which are being discussed at the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the failure of the Government to implement the Duffy-Cahill report and the way that companies like Debenhams hide assets which should be used in this case to pay a decent redundancy to workers. The online business and other Debenhams assets have been hidden even though Debenhams stood in court in April and said that an online business worth at least €30 million was an asset of the Irish company, which it is now claiming is an asset of the British company. All this is contrived to deny these workers a just redundancy and now, possibly, to rob Revenue and the State of money. Will this finally prompt the Taoiseach to engage with the Debenhams shop stewards to force the liquidator to sit down with those shop stewards to secure a just settlement where the actual, real assets of the company are used to give them the just redundancy and save them from having to stay on the picket line for the coming winter months?

I have said numerous times in the House that the staff in Debenhams have been treated very unfairly and appallingly in this very protracted dispute by the company. In fairness to the Deputy he has raised this issue consistently in the House and he is anxious that talks would develop. KPMG was approached to enter talks on behalf of Debenhams to try and resolve the outstanding claims. Those talks, which were being facilitated by the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, unfortunately broke down on Monday. I will contact colleagues in government to see where we take this now in terms of the situation which has emerged. I am not satisfied with that. I acknowledge the stance that the workers have taken to protect themselves. The Government has constraints with the legal framework on how liquidations are managed in the courts, which we must respect. I hoped these exploratory talks under the aegis of the WRC might lead to a pathway to resolve the issue once and for all. It has not borne fruit but my view is we should try to resurrect it. I will discuss it with colleagues this week to see if we can inject anything new into this to resolve it, particularly for the workers. The Ministers of State are meeting with the social partners today to discuss the Duffy-Cahill report and also reforms around redundancy and how best to progress those. We will do everything we can within the current constraints to resolve this for the workers.

The Taoiseach has an invitation to meet the shop stewards today to hear directly from them. They are also holding an online mass meeting on Thursday. The Taoiseach is also invited to that and they would be very happy for him to attend to hear from them.

Successive Governments failed to legislate for Duffy-Cahill and now Debenhams find themselves in a situation where a company is once again hiding assets. Staff are furious that the Government, Revenue and the liquidator show no interest in the fact that the directors of Debenhams Ireland stated explicitly that the online business worth €30 million in 2018, and almost certainly more in 2019, has not been pursued while Debenhams says it has nothing, despite the balance sheet which it put forward in court during pre-liquidation showed a balance of €30 million as at the end of 2019. That is three times more than would be necessary to pay their workers their just redundancy yet neither the Government nor the liquidator show any interest in pursuing these assets from a company that swore in court that it had these assets magicked those assets over to Britain a few weeks later, pretending they did not exist. They are asking the State to go after those assets to pay the just redundancy as well as Revenue the money that Debenhams owes them.

If only it was as simple as the Deputy articulates it, but it is not and he knows that. That is the unfortunate reality. The implementation of the Duffy-Cahill recommendations would not have resolved this. The Government is committed to and is undertaking the reform of company law, particularly in improving the rights of workers where collective agreements have been formulated and signed off by both employers and unions and to give greater and stronger protection to such collective agreements in the event of liquidations than currently. That should happen and the Government is committed to making that happen but retrospectively applying that will not resolve this situation.

I have maintained an interest in this issue all along. I have not led people up a hill with a view that it can all be resolved very easily. My gut instinct is that it cannot, particularly when the liquidation is in the High Court and within the Court's parameters and procedures. Governments cannot just walk in and make declaratory interventions of the kind that the Deputy suggests. That said, I will still try to exhaust every opportunity to try to get some meaningful response for the workers concerned. I regret that the WRC channel has not borne fruit and that the talks broke down earlier this week.

As we read in a message quoted in that infamous Village magazine article, a WhatsApp message dated 6 November 2019 said: “Leo literally couldn’t give a f--- about the refugees. It’s Flanagan’s baby. There would be a huge amount of work required to get it over the line.” November 2019 was the 20th birthday of Flanagan’s baby and there have been many reports about the need to change the system for applicants for international protection here and calls to end direct provision.

In December 2019, the interdepartmental group on direct provision reported to the Minister of Justice and Equality. The group was to review the implementation of our obligations under the EU Reception Conditions Directive. One recommendation was that applicants for international protection be accommodated in short-stay congregated reception and screening centres and then moved to permanent State-provided or leased accommodation centres. This is at odds with the more recent Report of the Advisory Group on the Provision of Support including Accommodation to Persons in the International Protection Process, submitted in September 2020 and recently published. This advisory group, chaired by Catherine Day, recommended “ending the congregated and segregated accommodation of applicants for international protection and providing own-door accommodation sourced through the local authorities within three months of an application for protection.”

Which report recommendations does the Taoiseach plan to implementing? When will the White Paper be available for review?

In August 2020, Powerless – Experiences of Direct Provision During the Covid-19 Pandemic, a report by the Irish Refugee Council, was published. It outlines a chronology of key events and shows that the Government was asked that vulnerable people be moved out of cramped direct provision accommodation on 22 March. On 23 April the Ombudsman's annual report on direct provision was published. By 8 May, advocates and organisations were calling for the closure of the Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen. By 19 May, 171 cases of Covid-19 were reported in 13 clusters in direct provision settings and the following week the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response looked at congregated settings. By the end of July, the residents of the Skellig Star Hotel were on hunger strike to highlight the inhumane conditions there. It was reported that approximately 1,600 people remained in shared bedrooms in August.

Also, in August, we learned that the Department of Justice was using resources to examine social media posts that are critical of direct provision.

This week, it emerged that two healthcare workers have been denied leave to remain in Ireland, despite having worked in nursing homes throughout the pandemic.

On 1 November 2020, the Sunday Independent reported that a mother in a direct provision centre claimed she was locked into her room without food or access to care during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic while waiting to be moved to the HSE isolation centre.

Also this week, I received a call about an alleged issue with a direct provision centre in Donegal, where a pregnant woman was trying to access transport for a hospital appointment. The centre is located way off the transport route.

Will the Taoiseach immediately grant leave to remain for any front-line workers who have been putting their lives on the line during the Covid-19 pandemic? Will he clarify whether he intends to implement the recommendations of the report by the expert advisory group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day or those contained in the report of the interdepartmental group?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Government recently considered the report of the group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day. It is a very comprehensive report which goes through the entire spectrum of issues in regard to international protection. The programme for Government contains a commitment to end the current system of direction provision within the lifetime of the Government and replace it with a new international protection and accommodation policy centred on a not-for-profit approach. We accept that the current system is not for purpose and we are committed to changing it. That will take some time.

The Government has accepted the expert advisory group report and we are committed to publishing a White Paper by the end of this year, informed by the recommendations of that group. The White Paper will set out how a replacement for the direct provision system will be structured and the steps required to achieve that restructuring. Following the transfer of this function to his Department on 14 October, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth will progress the matter and make any decisions around future accommodation provision. The Minister for Justice will address the recommendations relating to the international protection application process, including how to better engage with applicants who fail in obtaining asylum status or permission to remain. In addition, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will engage with the report's recommendations on accommodation. That will be challenging because it will mean significantly more construction of housing and own-door facilities, over and above what is in the existing housing programme.

The process around the White Paper provides a mechanism to consider how these challenges can be addressed and dealt with. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is already taking action to introduce immediate reforms to the system, as recommended by the advisory group's intermediate report in June. These reforms include a formal system of vulnerability assessment that will ascertain whether those needing accommodation when applying for international protection have vulnerabilities that must be taken into account when allocating accommodation, determining the accompanying services they need, monitoring the accommodation and services provided to those accommodated in our centres against the national standards that will come into effect in January 2021, and providing a means for people in the international protection system to open bank accounts and to provide access to driver licences. All of these reforms will be progressed in tandem with steps to ease access to employment in terms of the applicable timeframe following people's arrival into the country.

I urge the Taoiseach to look up the excellent work of Catherine Griffin. She helped to set up the social enterprise, Recruit Refugees Ireland. In addition, she designs and sells "End Direct Provision" T-shirts for Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland, MASI, and she is running a fundraiser to provide laptops for residents in direct provision. There are many volunteers, advocates and civil society groups trying to make a difference to the lives of asylum seekers. For example, Fingal Communities Against Racism recently held a winter coat drive. The organisers knew that coats were needed because they speak to the people in direct provision. The Sanctuary Runners project is another great initiative in community solidarity, integration and respect.

Will the Taoiseach show the people in direct provision that his friends and his Government colleagues do not just see refugees and asylum seekers as moneybag emojis? Will he commit to implementing the recommendations of the expert advisory group chaired by Dr. Catherine Day? Finally, will he state clearly that the report of that group will not be used as cover for the implementation of the interdepartmental report? That is very important.

I am meeting Dr. Catherine Day tomorrow to discuss the work of the advisory group, with a view to examining in detail how we can develop and implement the very comprehensive agenda set out in the group's report. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, one of the reasons we brought in serial testing was to make sure we could help the residents in direct provision. We wanted to be of assistance in terms of communications around Covid-19 by ensuring multilingual information would be available to those seeking international protection. We ensured that the Covid illness benefit would apply and that we could communicate the message that if anybody-----

What about the report of the interdepartmental group?

We will continue to progress that as well.

It should not be progressed. That is what I am saying.

It is not going to be put to one side because of-----

It should be set aside.

There are elements of it that can be progressed and we will drive on with them. There will be improvements but there are also significant challenges. The accommodation aspect is something we will have to work on in order to ensure we can deal with those challenges and move on with the White Paper process. There are immediate issues that we can deal with, as I outlined. The Deputy can take it that we want to implement the programme for Government's objectives in this regard.