Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Questions (6, 7, 8, 9)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [19916/18]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [21021/18]

View answer

Michael Moynihan

Question:

8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the detail of the public service reform unit within his Department. [21097/18]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [21100/18]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, together.

The role of the social policy and public service reform division is to support me, as Taoiseach, and the Government in delivering on the programme for Government objective of public policies and services that support a socially inclusive and fair society. The division supports the work of Cabinet committee B and the associated senior officials group. This covers social policy and public service reform and seeks to ensure a co-ordinated approach to policy in areas such as education, children, equality and reform of public services. It also supports the work of Cabinet committee E and the associated senior officials group which deals with issues relating to health including the delivery of health service reforms. The division further supports the work of Cabinet committee G and the associated senior officials group, which provides political oversight of developments in justice and equality issues, including the implementation of the Government’s programme of reform for the justice sector.

The division also provides the secretariat for the Civil Service management board, which is chaired by the Secretary General of my Department and oversees the implementation of the Civil Service renewal plan. It incorporates the programme for Government office which publishes regular reports on implementation of the programme for Government. It is responsible for liaison with the National Economic and Social Council which falls under the remit of my Department and supports the north-east inner city initiative, including the programme implementation board and the oversight group.

The division also provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues and participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups. Given the nature of its role, the division works closely with Departments that have day-to-day responsibility for specific policy areas.

If Deputies take all the time asking questions we will not have any time for answers.

I will try to keep it brief. The programme for Government office which is responsible for reporting on the implementation of the commitments in the programme for Government falls within the remit of the social policy and public reform division of the Taoiseach's Department. In April last year a progress report was published in respect of the programme for Government commitments but there has been none published since then. When can we expect the next progress report to be published?

On a related issue, my party leader, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald, asked the Taoiseach in March about his intentions with regard to the confidence and supply arrangements the Government has with its partners in Fianna Fáil. It was put to the Taoiseach at the time that there was a difference of opinion between the Taoiseach and the leader of Fianna Fáil with regard to when the agreement should be reviewed with Teachta Martin saying it could only happen post-budget. Is it the Taoiseach's view that it should happen before the budget? Will the Taoiseach enlighten the Dáil about whether they have discussed the matter since and have they now come to an understanding about when this review will take place? I would also be interested to hear Deputy Martin's views on this issue.

With regard to the public sector reform initiative which was very strongly driven in the last Administration, is it happening, in effect, under one Minister with the amalgamation of the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform? In particular with regard to making senior administrators accountable, we had embarked on a Secretary General's analysis system. Will the Taoiseach give us an update on it? Is there an annual evaluation of performance of Secretaries General, which is something that is extremely important?

The health service reform is the thing that is most on the agenda and most in focus now. I was intrigued by the comments the Taoiseach made earlier in Leaders' Questions that the Government intends to slim down the HSE. What specifically does the Taoiseach have in mind when he talks about slimming down the HSE? One of the things that Members of this House are very concerned about is accountability. The responses we are getting from parliamentary questions are at best wholly inadequate. We need to have a system that is understood. I say this to the Ceann Comhairle as well. If parliamentary questions were adequately and comprehensively answered it would obviate an awful lot of angst, concern and further inquiry. In terms of the reform agenda, I ask the Taoiseach that there be political oversight to ensure parliamentary questions tabled are properly responded to.

The Taoiseach will be aware that in the past fortnight very serious concerns have been raised about the situation with regard to one of our most important social services, which is the prevention of homelessness. I understand the social policy division is responsible for providing the Taoiseach with materials concerning many of the services that are part of the State's response to homelessness. A major concern now is the priority is trying to change the figures rather than acknowledging that current policy has not worked even though the Taoiseach announced last November that "we have a strategy and it is working."

Can he show the House that he will prevent changes to reporting which prevent the ability to compare figures over time? It looks like the Minister is preparing to move to a reporting approach which will both reduce the numbers reported and prevent a full, like-with-like comparison of the figures. Does the Taoiseach accept that the figures show that, since the general election, the overall figures are up by 85%, with the number of homeless children up by an astonishing 126%? Will he prevent his close confidant, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, from making changes that will undermine the ability to properly compare figures over time? He could tell the Minister that we could add many figures because some are not counted at all. Young mothers who go back to live with their parents in many local authority houses across the country where there are two beds and a cot in one bedroom are not being counted, but they are essentially homeless and would be without the goodwill of their parents, many of whom may not be in the best of health. If the Minister wants to change the figures for people who are looking for housing, we can all make a contribution which he may not welcome.

I presume the social policy sub-committee discusses disability issues and the implications of ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. How does that fit with planned changes in special needs assessments which speech and language therapists and the Psychological Society of Ireland believe will significantly undermine the supports available to families who have children with special needs? There is a legal entitlement to an assessment within three months, although the target is rarely met. As and from April, a new standard operations procedure has been brought in which will mean that there will be screening within three months, but this will not result in a diagnosis. To receive support one has to have a diagnosis. Previously, if one had an assessment, one would obtain a diagnosis and then receive support, but that will not happen now. A person will be placed on a waiting list which will extend way beyond three months and he or she will not be able to access support which will force many families to go privately. It looks like this is a move to make it appear that there will be a three-month assessment when there will not because the goalposts have been moved. The Psychological Society of Ireland and speech and language therapists believe there will, as a result, be wrong and missed diagnoses and that children with special needs will be robbed of the support they need.

On the programme for Government, the progress report for year two was cleared by the Cabinet this morning and we will publish it at the most opportune moment in the next couple of days or weeks. It sets out all that has been achieved by the Government since it took office two years ago and signals what it wants to achieve in the next two or three years, should it survive that long. I believe it can, but, under the confidence and supply agreement, it is a matter for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. We will let everybody know when we believe it is the best time to tell them. My commitment remains and we are working on its ongoing implementation.

On health reform, we propose to follow the prescription laid out in the Sláintecare document. We will be in a position to appoint an executive director of the Sláintecare office within a couple of weeks, provided the person accepts the offer. When the office is established, we will have somebody whose sole job will be to report on the health reform programme, operating under the aegis of my Department and with my support.

Following what is recommended in the Sláintecare report, the HSE, as a national entity, will be slimmed down and become a national centre with its own board of nine or 12 members with a much more high-powered chairperson. We do not want it to be the type of board that just receives board papers once a month and will have a meeting the next day. We need more involvement and focus than the board of a smaller organisation would have. We are examining the possibility of having a chairperson in addition to the CEO who would give it a day or two each week and have the support to do so. We discussed this issue in detail at the Cabinet this morning and are considering whether we should establish the board and the chairperson before appointing a new CEO, using the board and the chairperson to do so.

The Taoiseach might bring in the RTÉ cameras while he is doing it, as his predecessor did.

On the structures below it, the recommendations made in the Sláintecare report are for community health organisations and hospital groups to be realigned. There are community health organisations which are geographical and usually cover two or three counties, or bits of counties, and there are hospital groups which do not align with them. The Sláintecare reports recommends bringing them together and that work is under way. It is intended that they will be made separate legal entities with their own CEOs and boards, as is the case with health and social care trusts.

What about the Ireland East group?

Ireland East does not align with the CHO but extends from Navan through the Mater Hospital all the way down to Wexford, which made sense from the point of view of putting hospitals together to make them part of an academic group but which did not make sense geographically when it did not align with community health organisations. Putting hospital groups and CHOs together is going back to the philosophy of integrating primary care and secondary care services.

I do not have the answers on the SNA issues raised by Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett, but I will check them and correspond with him. I am sure what he said is not the intention, but I will get a proper answer for him.

On housing and homelessness, I am not particularly interested in engaging in a statistical debate on the number of people in emergency accommodation as the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and Deputy Eoin Ó Broin seem to be doing on a weekly basis. Whether the total is 9,000, 10,000 or 11,000, there are considerably more people in emergency accommodation than there used to be. My focus is on solutions and I am reassured by the figures from Ulster Bank yesterday which showed that the level of construction activity was really picking up. I can see it in my constituency where new apartment blocks and housing estates are being built. That is not the case all around the country, but it is starting to happen in Dublin, particularly in west Dublin. Some 18,000 new homes began construction in the past year and we need to get the number up to 25,000 to meet demand, before getting above it in the following year in order that we can catch up with pent-up demand from the years when very few houses were built. Last year we added, by various mechanisms, 7,000 units to the stock of social housing, which allowed us to move 4,000 families out of homelessness. The struggle we have, of course, is that as many families and people are becoming homeless as we can provide social housing for. The time will come when we will reach equilibrium and get on top of the issue and the position will start to improve, but we are not quite at that point yet.