Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Questions (9, 10, 11)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public consultations under way or planned by his Department for 2019. [10478/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public consultations under way or planned by his Department in 2019. [11856/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the public consultations under way or planned by him in 2019. [14252/19]

View answer

Oral answers (24 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 11, inclusive, together.

There is only one public consultation currently planned by my Department in 2019 and it relates to the Government's annual national risk assessment. Given that my Department is largely concerned with co-ordination across Departments, it does not generally hold a significant number of public consultations on specific policy issues. However, while no other public consultations are currently planned in 2019, it is, of course, possible that this may change during the course of the year.

It is intended to launch the public consultation planned as part of the annual national risk assessment in quarter 2 to help inform development of the annual national risk assessment report, which is generally published by July. The national risk assessment is an annual exercise which aims to ensure a broad-based and inclusive debate on the strategic risks facing the country. One of the lessons of the recent crisis is that Government did not pay enough attention to dissenting opinions. As such, the national risk assessment provides an opportunity for an open and inclusive conversation on the risks we face. This will be the sixth year the Government has produced the national risk assessment and the process has highlighted important issues since the first report was published in 2014, including one of the earliest official acknowledgments of the risks arising from a potential Brexit.

The development of the 2019 national risk assessment is at an early stage. In addition to interdepartmental and public consultation, my Department plans to hold an open policy seminar in quarter 2. All of these elements will inform the final report, which, as I mentioned, is generally published by July.

We will take 30-second questions before going back to the Taoiseach.

Last year, the Taoiseach organised a public consultation on a new national online strategy. In early March, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment announced that he would belatedly introduce legislation to appoint an online safety commissioner. This is something we support and it will be welcomed by organisations like CyberSafeIreland, the ISPCC and the Ombudsman for Children who have been calling for a commission for some time. Will the Taoiseach update the House on when that will be put in place?

I suggest that the Taoiseach holds a public consultation on the role of local government. There was a very good presentation today by a number of trade unions organising members in local authorities. It pointed out that we are at the absolute bottom of the European league table in terms of services provided by local authorities, the level of funding local government gets, and the extent to which services that should be delivered by local authorities have been centralised or outsourced and privatised with damaging consequences. If we want to reinvigorate local government and local democracy, we should seriously consider a consultation on that.

There are a number of public consultations to discuss, but to keep it to 30 seconds I will ask about only one which is very important due to its imminence. The Taoiseach's Department has carried out a consultation on online political advertising. We are now facing into local and European elections and will probably have a general election in a number of months. It is very important to preserve the integrity of our electoral system. The submissions phase of the consultation closed last October and an open forum was apparently held in December. What were the conclusions and how are we going to ensure there is no external interference with our election process in the next eight weeks as we face into local and European elections?

This Government is overrun with public consultations and, to quote Donald Trump, a lot of it is fake. One thinks of BusConnects in relation to which documents were sent out all over Dublin with complete confusion as to what the proposals were. These consultations are then extended and re-extended and then we wait for some years. Does the Taoiseach's office propose to have a framework of some kind for public consultations whereby people would be genuinely consulted and listened to on a plethora of issues?

Thank you, Deputy.

It is basically a gold mine for PR consultants employed by Government.

Absolutely. For most people, the Government's definition of "public consultation" is a marketing campaign where people are invited to listen to presentations on how great the latest action plan is. Given the scale of increased spending last year on advertising and the promotion of the politically determined priorities of the Government, such as the children's hospital, has any work been done to check public reaction to the spending? Last year, the children's hospital, rural broadband and the full Dublin metro were promoted by the Government based on plans, costs and designs which have subsequently changed radically or been abandoned.

Thank you, Deputy.

If it was important to spend public money to promote the original plans and costs, when will updated costs and plans be advertised?

A Cheann Comhairle, you will forgive me for once again being confused by the inconsistency and division on the Opposition benches, with some Members calling for more public consultations and others saying there are far too many of them. However, it is always good to have diversity on any benches. I do not agree with Deputy Burton's comments-----

It is the two Government parties.

The populists are for public consultation.

It is a Parliament of different parties.

Imagine a difference of opinion in the Parliament.

Let the Taoiseach respond.

I disagree with Deputy Burton's criticism of the National Transport Authority's public consultation on BusConnects and the MetroLink. On MetroLink, the NTA has demonstrated how public consultations can take the views of the public on board-----

Fine Gael certainly rowed back in Rathgar once it heard how the public felt.

The original MetroLink proposal has been changed because of very strong representations on behalf of Na Fianna from not just me but other political leaders. Accommodations have been made with regard to Ballymun Kickhams and changes have been made in respect of Ranelagh. That is an example of public consultation that was genuine. The NTA went to the public with the plan, listened to people and then changed it. I am sure the same will happen with BusConnects. People's views will be listened to and changes will be made. That is how democracy is supposed to work. I am not sure what the alternative is. Is it not to have any public consultations or to have them and then ignore the people? That is certainly not the model of government I would propose.

I agree, but when people make decisions the Taoiseach does not like, he calls it populism.

Regarding public consultation on the role of local government, it is something we can certainly consider. We are proposing a major reform of local government, which is the direct election of executive mayors, and people can vote on it on 24 May.

We must proceed to the next questions.