I am grateful for this opportunity to appear before the select committee as it considers the 2021 Estimates for Votes 1 to 3, inclusive, and Votes 5 and 6. The committee has been supplied with a detailed briefing document for each of these Votes in advance of the meeting.
I will outline the work of my Department in light of the proposed 2021 Estimates, and touch on the proposed 2021 Estimate allocations for the President’s Establishment, the Office of the Attorney General, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. While I have certain responsibilities to the Oireachtas for administrative matters in some of these offices, they operate independently of my Department.
On Vote 1, the Estimate for the President's Establishment is €4.51 million. This includes €3 million for pay and administration, with the balance to fund the centenarians' bounty. On Vote 3, the Estimate for the Office of the Attorney General is €17.46 million. Of this €12.26 million relates to staff costs and €2.46 million is allocated to the Law Reform Commission. On Vote 5, the Estimate for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is €44.7 million. This provides €16.5 million for fees to counsel engaged by the director to prosecute cases, €7.3 million to fund the local State solicitor service and costs awarded against the State arising out of legal proceedings. On Vote 6, the Estimate for the Chief State Solicitor’s Office is just under €37.69 million, the bulk of which relates to salaries and administration. A provision of just over €16.4 million is allocated for the payment of legal fees incurred.
The Estimate for my Department, Vote 2, is just over €50 million. Almost 47% of that relates to staff and administration. The remaining €26 million provides funding for Covid-19 public communications, the Citizens’ Assembly, the National Economic and Social Council and several independent inquiries.
My Department will continue its central role in providing, co-ordinating and overseeing a whole-of-government focus on the response to Covid-19. It is vital that we ensure that our overall approach to the management of the pandemic continues to be one that is prudent and sustainable over the immediate-, medium- and longer-term. It is essential that disease prevalence is brought to lower levels, hospital and critical care occupancy are reduced to low levels and that the most vulnerable are protected through vaccination before further easing of restrictions is considered. Any easing of measures should be gradual, with sufficient time between phases to assess the impact and to respond if the situation deteriorates. Subject to the prevailing public health situation, the areas under consideration for after 4 May are a full return of construction, the reopening of cultural institutions, a phased return of non-essential retail and the recommencement of personal and religious services on a staggered basis.
Ireland is working as part of the EU in securing a stable supply of Covid-19 vaccinations. Vaccines continue to be administered very quickly after their arrival here and Ireland is ahead of the EU average for doses administered. As of yesterday afternoon, a total of all 1,407,184 vaccines had been administered, including 1,007,003 first doses and 400,151 second doses. One in five of the population who can get the vaccine have received the first dose. A total of 12,000 vaccinators have also been trained in anticipation of the ramping up of vaccination corresponding with increased supply.
From the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was recognised that providing clear and timely public information would play a vital role in the State's response to this public health emergency. There is provision for €50 million for Covid-19 public communications in this Estimate. The communications programme needed was of an unprecedented scale, comprising the majority of Departments and a large number of State agencies. Platforms used include national and local print and radio, television and a variety of digital channels depending on the specific audience being targeted. There have been 45 campaigns completed to date, covering multiple strands, including public health, business reports, well-being supports, societal supports and communications on the various roadmaps to lift the various restrictions.
The impact of the pandemic on the domestic economy and public finances has been severe. However, the enormous scale of Government intervention has prevented even larger declines in economic activity, even higher rates of unemployment and an even more rapid rate of firm exit. We hope it has laid the foundations for a swifter recovery by ensuring businesses can stay viable and survive and that jobs can be retained. As the virus is effectively brought under control, there will be a need to move away from these extensive and wide-ranging emergency supports, with a move first to more targeted interventions for sectors which remain subject to restrictions, as well as towards investments which support recovery and opportunities for future growth.
We know that the pandemic has not impacted everyone equally. It has had a disproportionate impact on people who work in contact intensive sectors, many of whom are younger and on lower pay. We must ensure that the recovery is inclusive and balanced and recognises the unequal burdens and risk of increasing inequality stemming from the pandemic. We must also ensure sustainability is to the fore as we rebuild. There will be challenges, but there will also be opportunities as we transition to more sustainable economic development.
Work is progressing on the development of the national economic recovery plan to support and reboot the economy to meet all of these challenges. It will set out a roadmap for a resilient, innovative and productive economy aligned with the Government's green and digital ambitions. Like all sectors, housing and construction have been impacted by the pandemic. However, we are committed to working with the sector to deliver an increased supply of affordable, quality and accessible housing.
Tackling climate change and transitioning to a climate-neutral economy remains a key focus of this Government. My Department plays an important role in driving the implementation of our ambitious climate agenda. This year the key architecture that will frame our approach to climate action for years to come is being put in place. This includes the climate Bill, Ireland's first carbon budget and an updated climate action plan, all of which will reflect a step up in ambition committed to in the programme for Government.
My Department played a key role in ensuring a successful outcome in the finalisation of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which came into force on 1 January 2021. This work, together with the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, secured Ireland's key objectives in the Brexit process. These were protection of the Good Friday Agreement and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, ensuring the best possible outcome for the economy, trade with the UK and the protection of Ireland's place in the Single Market, maintenance of the common travel area and our continued commitment to our place at the heart of Europe.
My Department has been strongly engaged in the national Brexit readiness work, in close collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs and across government. This has included the development of primary legislation, the provision of financial upskilling and advisory supports for business, extensive stakeholder outreach and a multi-year public communications campaign to promote readiness
Whole-of-government readiness work must continue as we support businesses or individuals encountering difficulties with customs checks or clearance and as we prepare for the introduction of new UK import controls. Right across government, we will work to mitigate the impact of Brexit on our economy and citizens. Covid-19 has also thrown into sharp relief how interconnected and interdependent our world is. As we work this year to overcome the pandemic and rebuild our economy, we will do so with the added strength and resilience of EU membership and through continued engagement with the wider international community.
At the beginning of January, Ireland took its seat at the United Nations Security Council. Our two years on the Security Council is an opportunity for Ireland to make a meaningful contribution to international peace and security. Three principles underpin our approach: building peace; strengthening prevention; and ensuring accountability. I plan to participate in a number of high-level debates in at council during our term in office and attend a regular UNGA high level week in September, a month during which Ireland will hold the presidency of the council.
We marked the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April. The Agreement represented a new beginning for political and community relationships on the island, with a new ethos of tolerance, equality and mutual respect. We must continue to protect and nurture the potential of the Agreement. I have established a shared island unit in my Department, which is funded from the Department's Vote as a whole-of-government priority to invest in and look to our shared future on the island in an open, inclusive and constructive way, engaging with all communities and political traditions.
In budget 2021, we established a shared island fund with a major commitment to €500 million in capital funding over the next five years, ring-fenced for North-South investment, to deliver projects that will enhance connectivity, sustainability and opportunity across the island. To inform how we deepen our co-operation and connections on the island, the unit is progressing the comprehensive research programme, working with the ESRI and other partners to enhance understanding across a range of policy areas.
Three shared island dialogue events have been held to date. There has been engagement with young people on climate and biodiversity issues and on the pivotal role of civil society in our peace process. There have been really refreshing, practical and thoughtful contributions in the dialogues from a range of community and sectoral perspectives.
Through the work of the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality, my Department will continue to support whole-of-government efforts to combat poverty and disadvantage, improve the position of vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities, promote diversity and inclusion, tackle inequality in all its forms and provide ongoing support to children and families.
Work of the implementation group on policing reform is supported by an implementation office in my Department. I am encouraged to see the responsiveness and flexibility shown by An Garda Síochána in dealing with the demands of Covid-19. Its contribution at an organisational and individual level has been immense and we are extremely grateful to it.
My Department, together with the Department for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, provides the secretariat to the future of media commission, an independent expert body established by the Government to establish how public service aims can be delivered and sustainably funded through broadcasting, print and online media in Ireland over the next decade. Since it commenced its work last October, the commission has held a public consultation process that received more than 800 submissions from the public and has run six online dialogues with experts, stakeholders and the public. The commission is working to a very tight timeline and I expect it will bring forth a set of recommendations to Government by July of this year.
My Department continues to promote the deliberative democracy process by supporting the current Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality. The assembly published the results of its voting on 45 key recommendations last Saturday and I thanked the citizens involved for their commitment and hard work. Their full report, which will set those recommendations in context, is expected to be submitted to the Houses for consideration in June. The assembly’s experience of operating on an online basis will inform the approach to be taken with regard to the other citizens’ assemblies outlined in the programme for Government.
Provision is also made in the Estimate in 2021 for a number of independent inquiries, including the Moriarty tribunal, the Cregan commission and the Cooke commission. The Estimate includes an allocation of just over €2 million for the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, for its work in providing forward looking, strategic advice on economic, social and sustainable development issues. The current NESC work programme includes a programme of research to support the Shared Island initiative and to contribute to policy response and analysis on Covid-19. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Revised Estimates with Deputies.