Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Questions (5, 6, 7, 8)

Joan Burton

Question:

5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B (Social Policy and Public Services) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [9423/19]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B (Social Policy and Public Services) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [10479/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B (Social Policy and Public Services) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [10480/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B (Social Policy and Public Services) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [10926/19]

View answer

Oral answers (24 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, together.

Cabinet committee B last met on 21 February. The date of the next Cabinet committee meeting has not yet been finalised. Cabinet committee B covers social policy and public services, including education, children, the Irish language, arts and culture, and also monitors continued improvements and reform of public services. More broadly, the Government has sought to introduce reforms through Cabinet committee B which ensures the gains from recent economic growth are shared fairly with all citizens to create a socially inclusive and fair society, with opportunities for everyone to flourish. Among the matters that have received attention and scrutiny by the Cabinet committee are the new affordable childcare arrangements; the recently launched national childcare scheme; child protection and welfare issues, particularly those related to Tusla; social enterprise and the new social enterprise strategy; immigration and direct provision issues; the publication of the LGBTI+ national youth strategy; the action plan for online safety; the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and a range of gender equality actions. In addition to meetings of the full Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I often meet Ministers on a bilateral basis to focus on particular issues, including those related to social policy and public services.

Last week the Fund the Future campaign was launched by the Coalition for Publicly Funded Higher Education. The Taoiseach will be aware of same. It is seeking a commitment to the funding of higher education. Michael Brennan reported in the Sunday Business Post that the extra revenue raised through the national training fund increases had been used to reduce the core contribution of the Government to third level institutions. Is that correct? In effect, there was a €15 million cut in Government funding, which was offset by €51 million in additional revenue from the national training fund. Some €36 million covered the cost of additional pay under the public sector agreement, while there was €16 million to meet the cost of increased student numbers. There was, however, no additional funding for new initiatives, which is not right. I ask the Taoiseach to address that issue. It is three years since the Cassells report was published in March 2016 on the funding of third level education. There are big issues to be dealt with, but there are really important issues to be dealt with related to the future of third level education in Ireland. I specifically ask the Taoiseach when the Government will make a decision on how the critically important area of third level education will be funded into the future?

Last Friday the HSE published Dr. Gabriel Scally's progress report on the implementation of recommendations made in the CervicalCheck scoping inquiry. It should be acknowledged that Dr. Scally has said he is encouraged by the progress made to date. However, there are a number of issues raised in his report that warrant our attention. He notes that a significant number of actions are due for completion in the second quarter of this year and that they need to be managed closely to ensure the timeframes set will not slip. I was very alarmed to learn that there were few, if any, departmental staff for whom the implementation of the recommendations was their dedicated task. Dr. Scally has warned that as the recommendations impact across divisions and units, careful monitoring will be needed. Surely, given the scale of the challenges and the nature of the crisis and for the 1.2 million women who rely on cervical screening programmes, the Minister for Health should appoint staff full time within his Department to ensure the inquiry's recommendations will be implemented. It should also be noted that the issue of open disclosure continues to present a problem. Dr. Scally's inquiry described the policy and practice on open disclosure as contradictory and wholly unsatisfactory. The Taoiseach might recall his commitment when Minister for Health over three years ago to enshrine open disclosure in legislation. The inquiry found that there was no compelling requirement for clinicians to disclose. Dr. Scally's latest report finds that the deeply flawed policy on open disclosure remains in place, which is not good enough. It is unacceptable that the paternalistic model of relationship between women and their clinicians continues in the health service and that there appears to be absolutely no sense of urgency on the part of the Government to fix it. When will the long-awaited patient safety Bill be introduced in order that women can be confident that all information will be disclosed to them?

This morning I attended the latest meeting of the Raise the Roof housing campaign. It was agreed that there would be another major demonstration on 18 May because of the failure of the Government to address the housing crisis and provide the desperately needed public and affordable housing required to address the housing emergency. I have to say one aspect of the Government's policy commitments has been talking about the social mix and affordable housing. On Friday there were promises to provide 6,000 affordable homes with no fanfare and I am not terribly surprised when the contents are looked at. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, published the regulations on affordable housing. We have been promised 6,000 affordable homes, but not a single one has been delivered. We have been waiting for two years for the regulations, but what is in them? There is absolutely nothing in them that will do anything to provide affordable housing. They talk about 40% of the market price being the discount that will be offered. In south Dublin the average house price is €590,000. A 40% discount will not help to provide affordable housing for those on low and average incomes. As it does not even include income eligibility criteria, we do not know who will actually be able to apply and, most importantly, there are no affordable houses planned to be delivered. Could the Taoiseach blame us for thinking we have to get out on the streets again in advance of the local elections to say the Government has failed, that it is not delivering on the promises it made, that there is not a single affordable home being delivered and that the affordable home scheme the Government is offering will not actually deliver affordable homes?

I congratulate the Taoiseach on the fact that in less than six months he has managed to reduce the claimed cost of his tax cut promise in half without changing anything about it. At the weekend he claimed that there were clear plans in place for public services and social policies and that they all could be implemented and still leave room for a tax cut which supposedly is so significant that it is the only new budget policy announced since the budget. People will be aware of a detailed and costed proposal that the Taoiseach developed in opposition before the last general election when he said he would abolish the universal social charge. He said in an interview at the weekend that the Government had given very detailed consideration to the proposals and that it proposed to abolish USC at the cost of billions of euro.

Of course, it was abandoned as soon as the election came in afterwards. On this proposal, has the Government prepared any particular study or is it still relying on the documents published with the budget last year? We still do not have full transparency on the budgetary figures for next year in terms of what is available next year to spend. What is the amount that the Government will have at its disposal within the fiscal framework and rules to allocate to services and to tax issues?

In recent days the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection has said once again she believes the pension increases for old age pensioners, which we insisted on in the last budget and the one before, should be reduced and kept in line with lower benchmarks. The Taoiseach will remember that in August 2017, the Minister announced that Fine Gael was not committed to a pension increase of €5 and that the money should go elsewhere. After that bit of honesty, there was an attempt at a massive clean-up operation, which ended in the ridiculous sight of Fine Gael Ministers issuing press releases claiming credit for pension increases they had actually opposed. The clear implication of the Minister's words is that this determination to reduce pension increases below levels received by other groups remains as strong as ever and is core Fine Gael policy. Will the Taoiseach confirm that the Minister is not going rogue and that she has the right to speak on behalf of her party and the Government on pension matters? If, on the other hand, she is going rogue and the Taoiseach does not support her statements, will he be taking any action to correct the record?

There have been increases of funding for the third level sector for the past couple of years running. There is funding in Project Ireland 2040 for a building programme. Anyone who visits our third level institutions regularly will see the number of new buildings that have been constructed in our universities and institutes of technology, ITs. I acknowledge that it is not all public money but some of it is. There is a lot of building under way across our universities and ITs. We have also established the first technological university in Ireland, TU Dublin, and I hope Munster and the south east will also come through this year. There has been funding for pay restoration and pay increases for staff. There has also been funding for extra students.

I will have to check into the specific issue Deputy Howlin raises in respect of the National Training Fund money. My understanding was that a 0.1% increase in the national training levy raises about €50 million, which would be additionality and would not be offset by a cut in funding from central Exchequer, but I will double check that. I do not think it is so, but if it is, I had better know about it. I will check it out. We have also identified a super surplus in the National Training Fund of €300 million, which will be available as part of a human capital initiative for third level institutions to bid for.

In terms of future funding, the model of increasing the National Training Fund by 0.1% has been largely accepted by employers. I thank employers for accepting that small increase in the contributions and payroll taxes they pay every year. It provides an extra €50 million a year for higher education.

The Exchequer took it back.

In fairness to employers, they recognise that this is an investment in their future workforce among other things. Provided we continue to have economic growth, we will be able to provide additional funding from central taxation as well. In terms of student contributions, as I have said before in the House, I am very reluctant to see student contributions being raised. I am very reluctant to go down the model of a student loan system because I see in other countries how that leaves students graduating from college with very large debts. To a certain extent that is true in England and it is very true in the United States. That has long-term consequences. One of the reasons healthcare is so expensive in the United States is that people graduate from medical and nursing school with such high debts. That gets reflected on in terms of the cost of healthcare.

None of them could afford to go into politics.

I am not enthusiastic about or inclined to go down the road of increased student contributions or a student loan system for that reason. On the Scally report, I thank Dr. Scally for the work he did in preparing it in the first instance and the ongoing work he is doing for Government in monitoring its implementation. We want to make sure it gets implemented and that is why we have asked him to come back every three to six months to do a progress report. People who have seen his progress report will know that a lot of progress has been made in some areas while a lot more needs to be made in others.

On open disclosure, the Civil Liability (Amendment) Act has been commenced so the protection of open disclosure is provided for in legislation now. The next step is the patient safety Bill, which is to make it mandatory in certain circumstances, particularly for serious events but more broadly than that. I understand the heads are at committee for scrutiny at the moment and we anticipate having it in the House later in the year.

The delivery of affordable housing is of course a Government priority. The best way to make housing affordable is supply because supply will help to moderate and bring down the cost of housing. There were 18,000 new homes built last year, more than any year this decade-----

The crisis is still going on.

-----and we are aiming for about 25,000 this year and 30,000 the year after. We are seeing evidence now of house prices stabilising. There is even evidence that they are falling in the Dublin area. That is what the latest results say. It is too early to read too much into that and there are other factors at play. I acknowledge that. There is very strong evidence now of a slowdown in house prices and maybe even a fall in house prices in Dublin, and a lot of that is connected to the additional supply. It is not true to say there is not a single affordable home. The average price of a house outside the Dublin area is €250,000 and in many counties it is possible to buy a home for €100,000 to €150,000. I acknowledge that this is not the case in all parts of the country and that is why we need special affordability schemes in places like the Dublin area. They are under way. Other things are available too, of course, like the help to buy scheme, which has helped 10,000 first-time buyers to put together a deposit for their home, and the Rebuilding Ireland loan, which has helped hundreds of people to afford a home they otherwise would not have been able to afford.

On the projections for the budget for this year and next, we intend to have a summer economic statement as normal in the next couple of months, probably in April or May. That should allow us to set out the budget parameters for 2020, but obviously Brexit does affect that.

The Minister was saying he was going to change those parameters. Every year up until now we have had what we call the fiscal space figure. It has been conspicuously absent and has not been provided. The Taoiseach might check that.

I do not think we had that last year. I think we are trying to move away from the idea.

Why not have the information anyway? It is up to the people to decide what to do with it.

The data the Minister will make available will be available in the summer economic statement, which should happen in April or May. On the issue of pensions, if I recall correctly, the Fine Gael general election manifesto included a commitment to increase the pension by €5 a year, which is exactly what we have done. I think the Fianna Fáil one tried to outbid us by going for €6 a year. I may be mistaken but that is my recollection.

The Taoiseach is mistaken there.

We have implemented that commitment by increasing it by €5 a year.

The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection has announced she wants increases just to be at the cost of living.

The pension has been increased by almost €1,000 a year since this Government of Fine Gael and Independents took up office. What the Minister is talking about is indexation. I spoke about it myself when I was Minister for Social Protection. It is broadly supported by the charities and the NGO sector. It is done with the purpose of it being a floor, not a cap.

One would index pensions and social welfare. They could be indexed to inflation or to wages or lots of other things. If they were indexed to inflation, increases would be much less than they have been.

The Minister wanted it to be the increase last year.

If they were indexed to wages, they would be greater than they have been. Indexation would never predetermine the outcome. It would just set a floor. The Government could and should do better if it can afford to do so.