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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 8 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 3

Ceisteanna - Questions

Civil Service

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Civil Service Management Board, chaired by the Secretary General of his Department, will next meet. [9274/22]

Peadar Tóibín


2. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach when the Civil Service Management Board, chaired by the Secretary General of his Department, will next meet. [11390/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett


3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Civil Service Management Board, chaired by the Secretary General of his Department, will next meet. [11770/22]

Paul Murphy


4. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Civil Service Management Board, chaired by the Secretary General of his Department, will next meet. [11773/22]

Michael Moynihan


5. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when the Civil Service Management Board, chaired by the Secretary General of his Department, will next meet. [12883/22]

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

The Civil Service Management Board provides collective leadership to the Civil Service renewal programme. The board is chaired by the Secretary General to the Government and its membership consists of all Secretaries General of Departments and heads of major offices. The board meets, in general, once a month and the minutes of these meetings are available on the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform web page on The Civil Service renewal programme management office, based in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, co-ordinates and drives the Civil Service renewal plan.

Civil Service Renewal 2030 is a ten-year strategy that looks to build on the achievements of the 2014 Civil Service renewal plan. The strategy is centred on three core themes, namely, delivering evidence-informed policy and services; harnessing digital technology and innovation; and building the Civil Service workforce, workplace and organisation of the future. The ten-year strategic framework, throughout its lifetime, will deliver the following: a continuous improvement approach to our policy development capacity, including investment in strategic policy infrastructure and improved policy co-ordination across the whole of Government; and enhanced transparency as to how and why public data is being used to inform policy development and benefit society. In terms of digital first and innovation, the framework will ensure 90% of applicable public services will be available and consumed online and designed with the customer at the centre, while the work of staff will augmented through appropriate analytical, automation and other digital tools. In terms of workforce, workplace and organisation of the future, there will be strategically planned workforce requirements based on capacity, capability and skills needs and the use of flexible working models for greater impact and agility. There will also be an equal, diverse, inclusive, engaged and empowered workforce.

The strategy will be implemented through a series of three-year action plans. The plans detail the precise goals and initiatives that will progress each of the strategic priorities. Our progress on the commitments within these action plans will be continually measured, evaluated, and reported on. The first such action plan, Civil Service Renewal 2024, has been published and will deliver on specific actions over the next three years.

The independent panel on strengthening Civil Service accountability and performance made a number of recommendations in 2014, one of which was the establishment of the Civil Service accountability board, chaired by the Taoiseach. My colleague, Deputy Mairéad Farrell, raised the issue of the board's work with the Taoiseach last month. The Taoiseach confirmed then that the board had not met in some time. In fact, it has not met since 2016. That is six years ago. Has the board been stood down?

If so, is that because it had concluded its work? If so, was the decision to stand down the Civil Service accountability board formally announced at any stage?

The Civil Service management board, by distinction, does meet regularly and is tasked with strengthening the performance of the Civil Service, strategic oversight and delivery of stringent governance, as the Taoiseach described, but it does not seem to have any accountability function. The Civil Service Renewal 2030 strategy published last year briefly notes the strategy will build a Civil Service that encourages - that is the word it uses - accountability and this work will be supported by accountability mechanisms, but those are the only references to accountability in the entire strategy. What body or board is currently responsible for ensuring effective accountability of Civil Service and public service management? Specifically, I ask the Taoiseach to answer my questions in respect of the Civil Service accountability board which, as I stated, has not met since 2016.

I have a practical question for the Taoiseach. How many employees of Departments are currently working remotely, in percentage terms or in real terms? Every time I, one of my staff or even a constituent picks up a phone to seek to talk to somebody within a Department, we are met with an answering machine. Strangely, many of these answering machines actually declare the messages will not be checked. We are living in 2022. This is a tech island and it is really difficult for people to understand that phones cannot be diverted to people who are working remotely. I am very much in favour of people working remotely. It is a good thing. I represent Meath West. Half the people of County Meath are forced to leave the county every day to go to work. It is a good thing that people are able to work from home. Can we not have a system, however, whereby phone calls are diverted to key staff so we can talk to them and gain an understanding of questions on which we are working?

I raised a question with the Department of Transport in respect of salaries within the Department. I was told the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, has a PR adviser on a salary of more than €93,000 per year. We have been talking about largesse in Civil Service wages for a long time. That salary is incredible because this particular role does not provide anything whatsoever of benefit to citizens. Does the Taoiseach have any PR consultants? What wages are they on?

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were spiralling inflation and cost-of-living increases. When I was briefed by the Department of Finance, it said the war in Ukraine and the impact on energy prices was going to add another 4% on top of that in terms of further inflation. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that and update the House on it. In that regard, when public servants, of whom the Government is the employer, are limited to 1% increases, that means the people the Government employs are going to be suffering significant wage cuts in the coming period. In that context, does the Taoiseach think we need to revise that and give pay increases to public and civil servants, and indeed all workers, but particularly the ones this Government employs, to compensate for the spiralling cost of living?

Has the Civil Service management board considered introducing a four-day week without loss of pay for public sector workers? There is a growing movement demanding a four-day week, understanding it would cut carbon emissions by up to 20% and, obviously, provide significantly more work-life balance for workers. Workers understand that productivity has gone through the roof yet the hours people work and much of the wages they get have remained the same, with the benefits going to the bosses, by and large. According to the OECD, workers in Ireland add $110 to GDP for every hour they work, twice the level that pertained in 2008. GDP per hour worked has doubled in Ireland in the past 15 years but where is the reduction in working hours and the increase in wages? Is this something the Civil Service management board has considered?

In the first instance, Deputy McDonald raised the issue of the accountability board. It has not met since 2016. In fact, two Governments have now passed and we need to reflect on what are the best accountability mechanisms in terms of civil servants more generally and otherwise. There are internal accountability mechanisms, of course, within the various pieces of legislation, such as the ministerial Act, that govern the role of the Minister and the role of Secretaries General in terms of accountability, benchmarking, standards and so forth. The Civil Service management board was established under the 2014 Civil Service renewal plan. It comprises Secretaries General and heads of offices and is chaired by the Secretary General to the Government. It provides a forum, mainly for sharing issues and challenging and strengthening the performance of the Civil Service as a collective. The immediate focus of the board is on overseeing the implementation of the priorities in the Civil Service renewal plan and implementing the ambitious programme of reform in the Civil Service Renewal 2030 strategy and the Civil Service Renewal 2024 action plan. As I stated, the minutes of that meeting are available on the website of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

In terms of wider issues of accountability, there are accountability mechanisms within each Department according to the layers of staff and so on and at different levels-----

Has the accountability board been stood down?

Again, it does not exist and has not met since 2016, so the de facto answer is "Yes". I will come back to-----

Was that announced?

No, I do not think it was. It just happened around 2016. I will have to check that out again and come back to the Deputy on it.

In relation to the point raised by Deputy Tóibín, I do not have a figure here in terms of how many people within the public service are working remotely. There was during the pandemic a general view that if we could facilitate off-site working, obviously for public health objectives at the time, we should do so. That was achieved but workers are now returning to work. I will endeavour to get some assessment for the Deputy in respect of the numbers and the situation in terms of how many staff members are availing of remote working, how many are coming back to the office and what type of pattern will emerge into the future in terms of how many days are worked in office and how many days are worked out of office.

I will follow up on the Deputy's point regarding phone calls being directed to key staff. It is a reasonable point that there is a need to get access to public servants who are in decision-making mode or who can answer or respond to a query, as opposed to getting an answering machine. There are other mechanisms, as all present are aware, in terms of seeking responses on issues or in terms of information that Deputies may seek from given Departments. That should be readily available. Departments generally take a proactive approach in that regard. For example, the Department of Social Protection, Revenue and others provide information up front on websites and so on. That will continue to be the case. It is also the approach in terms of publishing strategy documents and so on.

As regards the final point raised by the Deputy, I am not aware of the specific position. I do not employ a PR consultant in my Department.

What about PR staff?

Well, the Government press secretary is there and always has been, and there is the Government Information Service, GIS, because communications are important. I can recall right throughout the pandemic the clarion call was for more communications on issues of vital importance to employers, employees, the general public and various sectors of the economy. Communications are important in that respect and information is given and presented to people.

In respect of the points made by Deputy Boyd Barrett around spiralling inflation, I agree with regard to the situation prior to the war in Ukraine but, again, security-related issues and issues in relation to the management of oil stocks and in terms of the release of oil and gas from Russia all had an impact, along with the pandemic. As economies are coming out of the pandemic, an imbalance between supply and demand has arisen. Demand rose dramatically as societies emerged from the pandemic. There was an inability to meet that with supply, and inflation occurred. It was 5.7% in February. I cannot confirm right now what the Deputy is saying in respect of it rising to 8% or 9% but that could be the case. Given what has happened in Ukraine, it is likely to increase. The Deputy is familiar with the fact that the price of a barrel of oil on the international markets has gone from $96 on 25 February to approximately $130 today.

That shows how international and global this problem is. Likewise, the UK natural gas and wholesale markets are now trading at approximately £5.70 a therm, which is a near-record high after prices more than doubled last week. This day last year, gas cost 45p a therm.

The latest Central Statistics Office data on wages show that average hourly earnings in the fourth quarter of 2021 were up 2.6% from a year earlier and were up 8.2% from the fourth quarter of 2019. The average annual consumer price index inflation rate was 2.4% in 2021 and -0.3% in 2020.

We are actively considering the situation right now because of the war in Ukraine. We took measures a couple of weeks ago to the value of €500 million. We introduced an electricity rebate and lowered the drugs payment scheme threshold. Transport charges are being reduced from the end of April, which will benefit 800,000 users. A fuel allowance lump sum payment of €125 will be paid to 390,000 recipients. Those measures will have an impact but the Government is giving active consideration to the current situation arising out of the war on Ukraine and its impact on oil prices.

Deputy Paul Murphy raised the issue of a four-day week within the public service, which we have not given consideration to. There have been various discussions and debates but in real terms I consider that this proposal is some time off yet in terms of where we are now. Full research needs to be undertaken in respect of such an initiative, which would have a very significant impact all around. We have announced an extra bank holiday the day after St. Patrick’s Day, which will be on St. Brigid’s Day every year after that. I believe I have covered all of the questions raised.

Question No. 6 withdrawn.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Neale Richmond


7. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the German Chancellor. [11438/22]

Mary Lou McDonald


8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the German Chancellor. [11090/22]

Seán Haughey


9. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the German Chancellor. [12786/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett


10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the German Chancellor. [12790/22]

Paul Murphy


11. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the German Chancellor. [12793/22]

Ruairí Ó Murchú


12. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the German Chancellor. [12798/22]

Brendan Smith


13. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the German Chancellor. [12802/22]

Barry Cowen


14. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the German Chancellor. [12884/22]

Mick Barry


15. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the German Chancellor. [12961/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 15, inclusive, together.

I visited Berlin for a one-day programme of events on 22 February. I met the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. We discussed the extremely concerning situation in Ukraine which has deteriorated significantly since our meeting. Ireland stands with our EU partners in making clear that there can be no compromise on Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The invasion by Russia of Ukraine and its attack on its people is an outrageous and immoral breach of the most fundamental and basic principles of international law. Our thoughts are with the people of Ukraine in their most difficult hour.

The Chancellor and I discussed bilateral relations between our two countries. Ireland and Germany are old and close friends and relations between us are growing stronger all the time. We looked forward to deepening even further our economic and trade links and to strengthening cultural connections between our two countries. We also work closely together in the EU, where we are of like mind on so many of the vital challenges we face.

The Chancellor and I also discussed a number of issues on the European Council's agenda, including economic recovery and investment. As we drive forward with the green and digital transformations, we need to ensure we take advantage of these new opportunities to deliver high-quality and high-skilled jobs across the European Union. Our Governments share a high level of ambition on climate action and we both support the EU's climate goals for 2030 and beyond.

I was glad to have the opportunity to thank the Chancellor in person for Germany's support and solidarity throughout the Brexit process. I also took the opportunity to brief Chancellor Scholz on the difficult political situation in Northern Ireland, and the importance of ensuring a period of calm ahead of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in May. Both Ireland and Germany want to see a strong and durable partnership between the European Union and the United Kingdom in the future. For this to happen, existing agreements, including the protocol, need to be implemented in good faith.

While in Berlin I had a meeting with Dr. Christian Bruch, CEO of Siemens Energy, and representatives of IDA Ireland, during which we discussed the outlook for renewable energy development across Europe and here in Ireland.

Before departing Berlin, I laid a wreath on behalf of the Government and the people of Ireland at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

As there are at least eight speakers for these questions, I will allow one minute per person. We are already over time.

When I submitted this question two weeks ago, the content and tone of the Taoiseach’s meeting would have been very different from today. It is absolutely telling that when the Taoiseach finished his comments, he mentioned that he laid a wreath at a memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust. Just last week, we saw the graveyard of many people who had been killed by Nazi soldiers in Ukraine bombed again.

My four supplementary questions might not relate directly to the Taoiseach's recent meeting but might be relevant to future discussions. I would have liked to have talked a great deal more about the economy and Ireland’s bilateral relationship. I will put my four questions. First, do the Taoiseach and the Chancellor believe there is scope for further EU sanctions against Russia? I believe a great deal more can be done in respect of tying up loopholes. Second, what discussions were there on future energy divestment? I refer not only to moving away from a reliance on fossil fuels but also and in particular from a reliance on imported gas and oil from Russia. Third, an area that needs real focus is greater co-operation between Ireland, Germany and all partners in identifying security threats. Fourth, has there been any discussion on organising refugee airlifts from Poland?

As the Taoiseach said, since his meeting with Chancellor Scholz, the situation in Ukraine has deteriorated. Russia’s violation of international law and its succession of war crimes have played out and continue to play out before the eyes of the world. Nearly 2 million men, women and children are estimated to have fled. As today is International Women’s Day, we are particularly mindful of the Ukrainian women who have fled in such numbers with their children and we send our solidarity to them. Under the Geneva Convention, Russia has an international obligation to open humanitarian corridors to facilitate evacuations and to enable NGOs to provide food, water and medicine for those who remain. As a respected non-aligned nation with a long and distinguished history of peacekeeping and a seat on the UN Security Council, I believe we are very well placed to press for that.

I thank the Deputy.

I echo the Taoiseach’s thanks to Chancellor Scholz and to the German Government for their solidarity regarding the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish protocol. It is extremely difficult to run through all of my contribution in one minute, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

We are way over time.

It is a bit ridiculous.

I agree absolutely but now is not the time to argue because the clock is running. Certainly, it is very difficult. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett, who also has one minute.

Today, the Taoiseach once again rightly, as we all do, condemned the crimes against humanity of Vladimir Putin in the invasion of Ukraine. The Taoiseach has cited his support for sanctions and so on against Russia, with the possible replacement of Russian gas and energy. The Taoiseach may be interested to know that as one response to this, President Joseph Biden’s advisers are considering that he should go to Saudi Arabia to replace Russian oil with Saudi Arabian oil. I wonder what the Taoiseach thinks about the irony of this because Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship supported by the US and the UK, armed by them, and engaged in a bloody war in Yemen. Does the Taoiseach think it would be consistent to replace the oil and gas from Russia, one despotic warmongering country, with the oil of another despotic warmongering country, Saudi Arabia?

Did the Taoiseach raise with Chancellor Scholz the urgent need for the cancellation of Ukrainian debt? If not, will he raise it at the meeting in Versailles? This is a demand from ordinary people in Ukraine for a cancellation of the debt which is a crushing burden on the economy. The total foreign debt of Ukraine is $125 billion and debt-servicing expenditure for 2022 is expected to be around $6.2 billion, or 12% of all state budgetary expenditure in the year. The IMF component of that debt is approximately one half. The people of Ukraine are subject to a brutal austerity programme by virtue of an IMF so-called bailout. The people of Ukraine are saying that this debt needs to be completely cancelled.

That is an immediate assistance that could be provided to the people. Will the Taoiseach raise this at the meeting in Versailles?

The situation has obviously got worse since these questions were tabled. Some of us met the Ukrainian ambassador earlier. She is calling for the Russian ambassador here to be given his marching orders and, beyond that, to cut off seaports and such to the Russians. This creates difficulties, particularly for Germany. What conversations have there been in that regard at EU level? I also accept Deputy Boyd Barrett's comment with regard to Saudi Arabia and the fact that the west has failed to deal with other sets of oppressors and invaders. Was there any conversation about the dangers of hybrid and cyber attacks? What mitigations are there in respect of the energy costs we are dealing with?

Did the Taoiseach discuss the energy crisis during his meeting with the German Chancellor? For example, did the Taoiseach seek the German Chancellor's support were he to raise at the meeting in Versailles the option for the European Union to champion the provision of a European renewable super-energy grid, combining the potential of Ireland's west coast offshore capabilities with southern Europe's solar potential? While this would surpass the programme for Government commitments in this regard by the Government, it would be the beginning of a solution that would see us at the start of a pipe rather than at the end of one for Russian gas. This creates a huge opportunity for our country and for Europe and I hope the Taoiseach will initiate a process in the leadership meeting to allow Europe to return at the next meeting with a response to that request.

The German Chancellor has decided to triple military spending and to rearm Germany. Presumably, he will attend the meeting of European leaders in Versailles this week and, no doubt, will encourage other European leaders to follow his example. Who will provide a voice of sanity at this gathering and say, "No"? Europe should not engage in a massive arms race. The Continent should not be divided into armed camps. Will anyone dare to point out that a German rearmament, an arms race and increased co-operation with the United States and NATO will play into Putin's hands and make it easier for him to rally Russians behind him and try to undermine the anti-war movement in that country? Will Ireland provide such a voice of sanity, or will the Irish Government join with the other leaders and take further steps down the road of militarising Europe?

For the last three months, Aontú has been calling for a decrease in excise duties and VAT on fuel. The reduction of VAT and excise duties would drastically reduce the cost of fuel immediately. Many other countries have done it, yet this Government appears not to have even asked the European Union if it can do it. Also, with regard to OPEC, what pressure is this country and the international community putting on OPEC to increase the supply of oil into the market to help with the cost spikes?

Finally, should this time not be used to redouble our efforts to decarbonise the economy for global warming reasons, cost-of-living reasons and geopolitical reasons? Should we not be looking to increase the number of microgeneration units that can have access to the grid with a feed-in tariff? Should there not be more of an effort now to provide grants for electric cars? Should there not be a stronger effort to reduce our level of dependence on carbon fuels?

First, there is an overall theme in the replies. Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of Saudi Arabian oil as opposed to Russian oil. I believe Deputy Cowen hit the nail on the head. It is not to choose, but to end our dependency on fossil fuels and to end our dependency on Russian gas and oil, in particular, because there is a vulnerability-----

Not so much Saudi Arabia.

I do not agree with the Deputy's moral equivalence.

Jesus, they just chop up people with swords.

The one country in the world that has wreaked terrible war on a people is Russia. The Deputy keeps trying to qualify and dilute it.

I am just against all dictators.

Let us keep a singular focus now on Russia and what it is doing - killing women and children.

Why not Saudi Arabia?

Stop coming in here every day trying to qualify it and having an each-way bet.

It is the same in Yemen.

It is the same in Yemen.

What I am witnessing is appalling. I want to say this much: I have no truck with any despot or any dictatorship regime.

What about what is happening in Yemen?

Let the Taoiseach reply.

I know that the European Union is the most peaceful organisation on the international geopolitical landscape right now. Europe is the biggest donor to Ukraine right now. Europe is the biggest donor to Africa right now. Europe has been the biggest donor of vaccines across the globe. Europe is playing its part, and all I hear here are attempts to try to undermine Europe's role. The next objective has to be-----

It is selling arms to the Saudi dictatorship. The Taoiseach does not want to mention that. It is embarrassing.

My view, in terms of what everybody has said here, is that the fundamental change and the lesson from this war, which is as clear as night follows day, is that we must double down on renewables. That is the ultimate way out of this, so that countries do not have leverage to shield and protect their despotic regimes. That is the lesson. Germany has worked very hard for decades to reach out the hand of friendship to Russia, to work with Russia and to have strategic patience in terms of how Russia might develop and so forth. I do not decry, and we are in no position to lecture, Germany now. Germany has not invested in its military to the same extent as others have for decades, for obvious historical reasons. However, this attack, turning the world's rule-based order upside down, means Germany has to take the action it is taking. I cannot criticise Germany for what it is doing. Germany must make sure that its people and its way of life are protected. It is vulnerable. Europe is vulnerable now, if one looks at the array of military hardware that was on display at sea, in the air and on the ground by Russia in the last month or so. We have to wake up and smell the coffee.

The Taoiseach certainly does.

There are realities here.

Taoiseach, we are out of time.

I believe Europe needs to work very hard on renewables. The idea of a super, pan-European renewable grid is something that will take time to develop, but it is something on which Europe should focus. I will raise it with the European Commission and others. By the way, the European Commission has said that when it looks at the energy map of Europe, the only way out is more renewables.

Question No. 16 withdrawn.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Seán Haughey


17. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [12787/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett


18. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [12791/22]

Paul Murphy


19. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [12794/22]

Brendan Smith


20. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [12803/22]

Mick Barry


21. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [12962/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 to 21, inclusive, together.

Like public representatives generally, I meet church leaders informally from time to time in the course of attending official functions. The most recent formal meeting I had took place on 15 April 2021 when I met with the leaders of the all-island Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Irish Council of Churches. We discussed the ongoing contribution to peace building and the work churches undertake on an ongoing and daily basis at community level in Northern Ireland.

The church leaders and I recognised the remaining years of the decade of centenaries as profoundly important and sensitive moments in engaging with the shared history of these islands, and agreed that it would be important to promote a sensitive, inclusive and respectful approach in the marking of the centenaries still to come. I briefed the church leaders on the Government's shared island initiative. Both the church leaders and I recognise the importance of dialogue, engagement and respect for all communities and traditions on these islands.

The church leaders and I agreed that the pandemic has posed challenges for all citizens in terms of their mental health and well-being, and recognised the importance of faith to the spiritual and mental well-being of many people and communities. Thankfully, restrictions have been lifted and places of worship are now fully open.

As the Taoiseach knows, this is International Women's Day. In this country, church organisations have played a pretty terrible role, historically, in their treatment of women and their denial of rights to women. This is something we have begun to overcome with the successful campaigns to repeal the eighth amendment, for marriage equality and so forth. Yet, it is still the intention of this Government to pay for the new maternity hospital we need, but to leave it in the ownership of the Sisters of Charity.

This is an organisation that was part of the Ryan report and the residential institutions Bill; in other words guilty of abuse of women. It will be leased from them through a company that will be owned by the Sisters of Charity. By the way, at present, as I highlighted last week, they are just about to evict a blind 70-year-old woman who was in one of those institutions on that site. She still has not received compensation for her treatment at the hands of the Sisters of Charity. She is now being evicted by them. This is the organisation to which the Taoiseach will give the national maternity hospital. The Sisters of Charity have cancelled the lease with the HSE, which provided disability housing for this woman. Does the Taoiseach really think this organisation, which is doing this to women such as Eleanor, should be handed the national maternity hospital?

The Catholic bishops have, this week, finally agreed to hand over patronage of eight schools so that they can become secular schools. This is after a decade of talk following the forum on patronage in 2012. At this rate it will take 3,000 years to finally have a secular primary school system in this country. Even more alarming are the reports today that the church may be doing with these schools exactly what Deputy Boyd Barrett explained in respect of the national maternity hospital, that is, hanging on to ownership of the schools and expecting the State to pay it rent every year for the use of the schools. Will the Taoiseach clarify whether the schools are being fully transferred into public ownership or will they be leased from them? When will the full details of the deal be published? We stand for fully secular, fully public education and healthcare. They should be taken fully out of the control of the church and into the hands of the State, democratically controlled by staff, parents and the communities they serve.

The Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018 is being blocked by the Taoiseach under Article 17.2° through a money message. The Bill would remove the issue of a school's ethos as grounds for not fully teaching objective sex education. In the aftermath of the killing of Ashling Murphy I suspect there is massive support in society for a range of legislative changes, including the passing of such a Bill. One in five detected sex crimes reported to gardaí involved people aged under 18 as victim and perpetrator. Is the Taoiseach prepared to tell church leaders that school ethos can no longer interfere with the teaching of objective sex education? Is he prepared to remove the money message he has been using to block the Bill?

It was reported the Catholic Church Primate has not yet met the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to discuss the church's financial contribution to the mother and baby home redress scheme. Needless to say, this is very disappointing; it is alarming actually. The Taoiseach did not indicate whether he has had this discussion with the religious leaders. What progress has the Minister made in his discussions with the Church of Ireland on these matters? Has he formally requested a meeting with Archbishop Eamon Martin to discuss these matters? It is important to say, although this is known, religious orders require the approval of local bishops to open any of these homes. We know from testimony and State records that the Catholic church and the Church of Ireland were deeply involved in the operation of these institutions, all under the watchful eye of the State. Will the Taoiseach shed some light on this? On the issue of the redress scheme itself, I appeal to the Taoiseach on behalf of children who were boarded out and who experienced heartbreaking exploitation, neglect and abuse in the families and communities in which they were placed. The Government cannot proceed with any redress scheme that excludes these victims.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Ashling Murphy. It has been a while since her death. It is horrendous that when Deputies discuss this shocking event they bring into question the role of the education system in this country. They bring into question the role of the curriculum, the teachers and the people who have been delivering education in this country. There is no link between the two and efforts to make a link between that shocking event and the education system is absolutely wrong. I listened to the debates when they happened a while ago. I refused to get involved because I did not want to politicise that shocking event in any way. It is an awful pity that it is still being done in the Dáil.

We live in a pluralist republic. In a pluralist republic Catholic, Protestant and dissenter should be able to be who they are to their full extent without fear or favour from the State. Parents should be able to select the education system they want for their children. No two children are the same. The idea we should create a uniform education system to replicate the uniform education system of the 1950s, except with a different ethos, is absolutely wrong. Pluralism should be the goal of this Republic.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the national maternity hospital and the Sisters of Charity. The Government is not handing anything over to anybody. That is the first point I will make on the national maternity hospital. The original objective of all of this, in terms of clinical advice, was that a new maternity hospital should be aligned with a tertiary hospital. This was recommended 20 years ago. It happened in Cork with the maternity hospital we built. Two public maternity hospitals agreed to go to a new site at Cork University Hospital. At the time we got a state-of-the-art maternity and neonatal hospital built. The idea was that it would be alongside a trauma and level 4 hospital. The same was to happen in all of the Dublin hospitals but this has not happened and we need to reflect on this.

The reason clinicians say we need it to be adjacent to a tertiary hospital is for the best outcomes for women. In certain cases where women could get into difficulty in pregnancy being adjacent to a tertiary hospital, where immediate intervention could occur, could save the life of a woman. Likewise with a neonatal unit available the life of a baby can be saved. This was the original motivation behind Holles Street engaging with St. Vincent's hospital. We seem to have forgotten this in the debate that has ensued.

Governance is very important. If the State is investing 100% in a full facility - and it is the State that will finance the hospital - then the State has to be on the board and in the governance structures. It has to be reflected because it is a long-term operation. I also think in terms of ownership it has to be reflected. Prior to the Government coming into office Mr. Kieran Mulvey had been asked by the previous Government to engage in a process of mediation, which he did. He came up with an outcome that at the time was agreed and accepted all round. It was raised again. Approximately one year ago we were not happy with some aspects of it and there was a big public debate. There have been further discussions with all of the stakeholders. The objective remains to build a state-of-the-art maternity hospital adjacent to a tertiary hospital of the quality of St. Vincent's that will provide for women for the next 50 to 100 years. The current conditions are appalling. They are absolutely not acceptable in the 21st century.

People say we should go somewhere else as if we could just click our fingers, switch on the light bulb and get a new site somewhere on its own and develop a new hospital. I only wish it were so simple.

There is land right beside the hospital. Use a compulsory purchase order.

This has gone on too long. It has gone on far too long for the well-being of women in particular. I read the recent correspondence from consultants who are adamant. Everybody who has anything to do with this is adamant that all procedures, operations, diagnostics and everything allowable in this country will take place in this maternity hospital. What worries me is that from the time of decision, because of all of the discussions that have ensued in the past year with the stakeholders, we will then have to get to design, then tender and then get the hospital built. This will take its own time. The balance is not in the debate at that moment. This is genuinely my sense of it. The Minister will bring forward a memorandum to the Government that we will bring before the House where it will be debated.

I am very clear that there is an imperative to get this hospital built and that there should be no religious ethos underpinning it or having any role in it, good bad or indifferent.

Why should a religious body own it?

That is the key point in this regard.

With regard to schools, there are now 159 primary schools with a multidenominational ethos. That is nine above the 2009 figure of 150. At post-primary level, the number of multidenominational schools has increased by circa 11%, from 321 in 2009 to 359 in 2020. That is 359 out of 800 or 850, if I am not mistaken. I can check that figure. It has moved much more quickly at post-primary level.

I accept elements of what Deputy Tóibín said. In 1998, the idea was to establish a pluralist basis for education and to give parents the right to choose a particular form of education. There were different patrons, including Gaelscoil patrons and Educate Together. By the way, as Minister for Education, I facilitated the growth of Educate Together by reducing the contribution that patrons had to make towards site acquisition. At the time, that condition was very prohibitive and was the biggest barrier to building new schools. There are other patrons for religious ethos schools, including Church of Ireland and Catholic schools, and various trusts have been set up as the orders have declined in numbers. What has evolved over time is a pluralist system of provision. That has been made possible by State investment. It is a more expensive model than simply providing one uniform type of school across the board.

I favour greater involvement of the education and training boards in any new schools at primary level because they have capacity and resources to provide for schools. When I was last in government, that Government was the first to develop State-owned vocational education committee, VEC, primary schools in the Dublin area, where there were fast growing populations and a need for such schools. Multidenominational patrons and Educate Together have grown their administrative capacity to be able to accommodate the expansion of multidenominational and non-denominational education. Equally, if parents want to send their children to a school with a particular religious ethos, they are entitled to do so. Plebiscites are held in given locations. There is transparent election in which parents vote for their choice of school patron.

They then wait 20 years for a building.

That has happened.

On the transfer of buildings, I will follow that up because the State has invested a lot in these school buildings. In many cases, we built new schools on existing sites. That has to be reflected. The mission of the churches in the past was to commit to education. That ethos should continue as a contribution to the State.

My question was not answered. It was on mother and baby homes.

I am sorry. In respect of the mother and baby homes, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, has written to the religious orders. He has not had a substantive reply yet with regard to contributing to the payments scheme. I hear what the Deputy is saying in respect of the redress scheme. That has to be legislated for. A Bill will have to go through the House so there will be opportunities to come back to that issue again.