Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Questions (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Michael Moynihan

Question:

5. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A on the economy last met. [49135/18]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A on the economy last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [50347/18]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A on the economy last met. [50391/18]

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Joan Burton

Question:

8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A on the economy last met. [50552/18]

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Michael Moynihan

Question:

9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee at which agricultural issues are discussed; and when it last met. [50822/18]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A on the economy last met; and when it plans to meet next. [51853/18]

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Oral answers (67 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to takes Questions Nos. 5 to 10, inclusive, together.

Cabinet committee A held its first meeting on 12 September 2017. This Cabinet committee covers issues relating to the economy, jobs, the labour market, competitiveness, productivity, trade, the Action Plan for Rural Development, the digital economy and pensions.

Issues relevant to the agriculture sector can arise, as required, in either Cabinet committee A which covers rural affairs, Cabinet committee C which covers Brexit or Cabinet committee D which covers climate action and the national planning framework.

Of course, as with all policy areas, agricultural issues are regularly discussed at full Government meetings-----

Is the Taoiseach replying to Questions Nos. 5 to 10, inclusive?

He is taking the economy and agriculture together.

Questions Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, ask about Cabinet committee A, which deals with the economy, Question No. 9 asks at which committee agricultural issues are discussed and Question No. 10 asks specifically about Cabinet committee A.

As I said, as with all policy areas agriculture issues are regularly discussed at full Government meetings where all formal decisions are made.

The most recent meeting of Cabinet committee A took place on 12 November last.

Brexit represents by far the biggest economic risk our country faces in the short, medium and long terms. The Central Bank has said it is already impacting on key parts of the economy. The budget documentation issued by the Minister for Finance two months ago states that the fiscal situation is exposed to a failure to achieve an orderly Brexit. Nearly half of exports are to the United Kingdom and critical sectors have said they would face severe difficulties with the exchange rate that was reached yesterday. The Government's data show that the majority of firms are simply not ready for Brexit. Given the events of yesterday and the Taoiseach's statement that he has decided to ramp up preparations for a no deal scenario, something he has said many times previously but he has not done, can he tell us what the likely implications of a no deal scenario are for our economy next year? If there is a failure to have a deal which comes into force at the end of March, what are the working assumptions of the impact of this on our economic and fiscal situation? While the European Union has published a no deal guidance, as has the United Kingdom, there is no Irish specific guidance, or at least no such guidance that is publicly available.

There are 108 days left until the Brexit day set down in UK legislation. At what point will we see any of the no deal preparations which we are told are on their way and, in particular, the memorandum brought to the Cabinet today by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade? Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to publish the essence of that memorandum, which deals with the central case scenario? Will the Taoiseach outline the preparations for what we are likely to encounter in the context of no deal?

I, too, ask the Taoiseach to publish that memorandum. Perhaps in the first instance he would share it with the Opposition so we can get a sense of the sectoral preparations. However, the point I made on Leaders' Questions still stands - there must be a far more comprehensive and long lasting response in the event of a crash and that revolves around resolving the constitutional issue and removing the Border.

In respect of the economy, the Taoiseach was questioned earlier about climate change. The performance index published by the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland yesterday made grim reading. We are ranked as the worst state in the European Union when it comes to addressing climate change. According to that report we will miss our 2020 and 2030 climate change targets. This will cost us. It will cost the State in terms of environmental consequences, and missing our emissions and renewable energy target means the State will also face huge fines. This is not acceptable. We have moved beyond the point of taking small steps. We need vision and action. Ours is a small state in global terms but I believe this island can lead by example. This means action being pursued cross-departmentally to tackle climate change. A range of commitments have been made over the years to get to grips with our lacklustre performance but they have not been kept.

First, is the climate change agenda central to the work of the economic committee? Also, can the Taoiseach produce a progress report on the implementation of the climate change measures contained in the programme for Government?

I wish to discuss the announcement of new guidelines for maximum building heights in towns and cities. Restrictions have been lifted by order of the Minister. My question relates to planning and economics, because one cannot have one without the other. Did the Department of the Taoiseach have discussions with NAMA at any stage? Did it inform NAMA of the likely impact the lifting of height restrictions would have on any planning permission application that might be submitted by developers and, most importantly, on the value of sites that NAMA was selling? When it discussed how the remaining sites and loans could be important to deal with the housing crisis and be utilised directly by State agencies to build social and affordable homes, was this just an example of NAMA gobbling up very lucrative lands in advance of the restrictions being lifted? There are two sites where this took place. One of them is in Dublin north docklands near Mayor Street on Castleforbes Road.

One of the last remaining prime development sites in the docklands was sold for €110 million. The planning that was granted for that site could be scrapped and they could go back to issue new planning. If they had any sense they would. This would mean that developers have gobbled up public land owned by NAMA at a very giveaway price. I want to know if there were any discussions by the Minister or the Department with NAMA and with developers about this move to lift the restrictions on building height. It is quite a serious move and it would be very surprising if there had been no discussions.

Does the Taoiseach agree that a lot of people who are in mortgage difficulties, including those people whose mortgages were sold over their heads from PTSB to an investment vehicle administered by Pepper Finance with the agreement of the Taoiseach's Minister for Finance, must feel sick at the derisory level of penalties levelled on a former banking executive in the Irish Nationwide Building Society today? That information coincides with a report from the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, that says despite the Government pledging to cut taxes the Government's budget will actually leave households, and in particular the lower income households, paying more tax. Lower income households include large numbers of younger people who are being absolutely stung for rising rents and who are beginning to feel that they will never be able to afford a property. Through the budget the Government is essentially worsening their situation by some 0.7%, in terms of what the ESRI has to say on it.

I have two questions. The first concerns the worrying aspect of the recent inability of the Department of Finance to predict corporation taxes accurately. Will the Taoiseach indicate if there has been any analysis of this? France has announced recently that regardless of any European agreement it is going to introduce its own digital tax. This is likely to be followed by a number of other countries, as indicated by the Chancellor in the United Kingdom and by Spain. If they introduce the digital tax has there been any analysis of the impact of this measure on Ireland's tax base? I would be interested in hearing it. Is there any intention to have that sort of analysis?

My second question relates to the very worrying prospect of a hard Brexit and I want to focus on one tiny but very important aspect, that is the importation and exportation of goods to and from our island. In the event of a hard Brexit are there contingency plans to increase the capacity of our main exporting ports, especially the ports of Dublin and Rosslare? Will the Taoiseach clarify if the Government has plans to identify vessels that might be chartered in the event that the land bridge is so congested by the backlog in ports such as Dover that it would be useless to us? Have we looked at the international shipping market to see if Ireland can charter vessels to have direct access to the European markets in that eventuality?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. On the issue of a no-deal Brexit, it is of course difficult to predict the impact on our economy, on the British economy or the European economy because this situation where the UK leaves the European Union without a deal is unprecedented. No country has ever left the European Union before. There have, however, been a number of analyses and I refer Deputies to the Copenhagen Economics report that was published a few months ago, which gives at least an estimate of what the impact will be in different scenarios including a no-deal scenario.

No-deal preparations are not a big secret, nor are the central case plans. As I explained earlier, they happen at two levels: at European level and at national level. At the European level, 70 notices have been issued already and seminars are ongoing. The seminars will continue until mid-January. With regard to national level preparations we have had Brexit preparedness seminars also. The preparations involve a number of elements including the hiring of staff such as customs staff, veterinary inspectors for sanitary and phytosanitary controls, SPC, environmental health inspectors and property professionals. The preparations include additional infrastructure at Dublin Port, Dublin Airport and Rosslare Port. It also involves a suite of legislation that we will have to put through the Houses of the Oireachtas in the first quarter of the year, some of which is very simple legislation and some very complicated. IT systems and customs training for business are already under way. There are other planning measures too and we will be happy to publish those as we go along. We are not going to publish Government memorandums but we are happy to make public the information as we go along. It is essential that we make the information public because the public has to be involved in this. There are no preparations that do not involve the public and business. We will keep parties updated through the stakeholder forum. I am glad that many parties attend that.

We were told that we could not see what was put before the Cabinet. The Government is withholding stuff.

We are giving the information but not publishing a Government memorandum-----

The essence of what was in that-----

-----because that would be unconstitutional, but of course we will make information public. We have to. There is no way one could do these preparations in secret somehow. There are no means of passing secret legislation. There are no means of secretly hiring people. This will all be public and there will be less drama to it than the Deputy may think.

Deputy McDonald was not quite correct in her assertion. The league table was not published by the UN climate conference. It was published by a German NGO. This speaks to the point I made earlier about how often in this House, and more broadly, people do not make a distinction between the statistics produced by official bodies, be they the Central Statistics Office, the UN, the EU or the Environmental Protection Agency, and the statistics produced by NGOs or campaign or advocacy organisations. I have no bugbear with NGOs, or campaign and advocacy organisations but they do have a particular agenda. We need to make a distinction between statistics produced by independent bodies and those produced by campaigning bodies. There is quite a difference.

The question is "Is it true?"

I do not know because the table is not based on an index that is produced by a UN body or an environmental body. It has been produced by a campaign organisation. Is it true? I do not know and neither does Deputy Howlin. That is the point.

But you do know.

At least we know that if the figures come from the EPA or the CSO they are-----

The Taoiseach said that we were the laggards----

----statistically accurate.

----and that we are approximating the truth, unfortunately.

That is true but each of the Deputies is speaking about different things, I am afraid.

I am talking about our performance in trying to change the country, and it is very poor.

Could we please allow the Taoiseach to finish?

That particular league table had Ireland at a particular place in the world. One would have to go through the data-----

We might be better than Kazakhstan.

-----for each of those countries to analyse it objectively and have it peer reviewed to see if it actually stacks up. The answer is that none of us knows whether that table is true. We can say, for example, that the EPA data is true. That data does not come from a campaigning organisation. It comes from a body that assesses these issues statistically and independently and has them peer reviewed. It is the difference between a fact and a claim. There is sometimes a big difference between fact and claims, and we should know the difference-----

That is why we do not believe the homeless statistics either with the-----

-----if other people do not.

Deputy Burton's assertion that loans were sold by the Minister for Finance is not correct. The Minister for Finance does not sell any loans and nor was agreement sought.

He has a 75% shareholding.

The Minister has no role in it and nor is there a shareholder vote on it.

He had approval so he had a role in it.

No. That is incorrect. For the record, the Minister for Finance did not have to approve it and did not.

Pepper Finance is regulated and all mortgage holders whose mortgages have been sold on will continue to have the same consumer rights and protections as they did beforehand. We will make sure that this is the case.

I discussed the ESRI reports earlier. It is based on a wage index model. There are different models including an inflation index model and a low-index model and each one produces different results. The ESRI is saying that pensions are going up next year, welfare is going up next year, income tax is going down and USC is going down but because 1.5 million people are getting a pay increase of roughly 3% as well as all of that, everyone is worse off. It is a particular model based on a wage index. If one looks at it differently wages are going up: the minium wage, public sector wages and private sector wages. Pensions are going up, welfare is going up, income tax is going down and USC is going down. Everyone is better off in cash terms. Even when one adjusts for inflation, everyone is better off in cash terms.

Not according to the ESRI.

Yes according to the ESRI. The Deputies do not understand the difference between a wage index model and an inflation index model.

We bow before the Taoiseach.

The point that it validly makes-----

We bow before the Taoiseach.

------is that if we do not increase tax credits every year either in line with inflation or wages-----

-----if we do not widen tax bands every year, whether it is indexed to inflation or wages, we end up having more people paying more tax. That is why it is the right thing to do to increase tax credits every year. That is why it is the right thing to do to widen the index bands.

For the 25% who are on the higher rate.

People are being quite contradictory in what they are saying-----

What they are saying is what the ESRI says.

-----in that if we want to avoid a situation whereby people end up worse off on this index we must increase tax credits every year and we must widen the tax bands.

For the top 25%.

Parties that oppose that policy, which is my party's policy, are actually the ones that want to make people worse off.

It is the pensioners who will be worse off.

The Taoiseach did not answer my question on the height restrictions and NAMA.

I have run out of time. I am happy to add more time.

We have one minute left and I think we will have to move on.

Can we take that minute to answer the question on the height restrictions and NAMA?

Yes, that is fair enough.

I am answering the questions one by one.

Keep going, then.

Answer that one. There is one minute left.

Yes, the height restrictions.

The Taoiseach has one minute to conclude. We are not going on to question No. 11.

If there had been fewer interruptions while I was answering I would have been able to answer more questions. I do not interrupt the questions.

There should be no inviting of interruptions either.

The Taoiseach is never one to interrupt.

This is not the "Late Late Show".

I do not interrupt the questions ever but my answers are constantly interrupted. I do want to-----

Ryan Tubridy was a lot easier.

There are 50 seconds left. We will move on. Question No. 11 in the name of Deputy Michael Moynihan will be dealt with first the next time Taoiseach's Questions are being answered.