Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Questions (5, 6, 7, 8)

Micheál Martin

Question:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the annual strategy update report in his Department. [24320/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the annual strategy update report for his Department. [24992/19]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the annual report for 2018 of his Department will be published. [25301/19]

View answer

Joan Burton

Question:

8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the annual strategy update report in his Department. [25592/19]

View answer

Oral answers (26 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

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

My Department's statement of strategy 2017-20 sets out six strategic priorities, the first of which is providing excellent support services for the Taoiseach and Government. The second priority is ensuring that Ireland has a strong economy, making work pay and backing business. The third is helping to ensure that Government policies and services support a socially inclusive and fair society, ensuring that nobody feels left behind and that the family is at the centre of society. The fourth is ensuring that Ireland maintains strong relationships in Europe and around the world, while the fifth is ensuring the best possible outcomes for Ireland on Brexit across all four priorities identified by the Government. The final strategic priority identified is planning for the future in the context of the many uncertainties arising in the international environment.

The Department published its second annual report under the current strategy a few days ago on 14 June. The report reflects the work done throughout the year to progress these strategic priorities. In 2018, the Department provided a wide range of support services to me as Taoiseach, to the Ministers of State assigned to my Department, the Government and the general public.

My Department works closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit. Brexit provided one of the most challenging and demanding aspects of the Department’s work during 2018. The Department did extensive work on a range of Brexit related issues, including throughout the negotiations, and also established a new unit focusing on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Department also assisted me in a broad programme of international engagements, both within and beyond the EU, including many Brexit related engagements. The Department also engaged with the formulation and implementation of a broad range of Government policies such as Project Ireland 2040, pension reform, housing and homelessness, climate change, health and justice reform programmes, childcare developments, gender equality and disability as well as the north-east inner city initiative.

Additional responsibilities undertaken in 2018 included working on Future Jobs Ireland, the action plan for online safety, the national digital strategy, the innovation district advisory group for the Grand Canal area, policing reform, the interdepartmental group on the security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation and the implementation group on Seanad reform. Departmental staff also provided the essential corporate services underpinning the work of all divisions and ministerial offices in the Department. Press and protocol services assisted with a large programme of events, including visits by Heads of State and senior EU officials, the visit of Pope Francis in August and the inauguration of the President in November.

Central to the Department of the Taoiseach's statement of strategy is the support of an active system of Cabinet committees. In spite of this, the Taoiseach has said that he prefers to bring most issues directly to Cabinet for discussion. The net impact of this is that less time is spent on the issues involved, detailed preparatory papers are not circulated and responsible officials are not present to ask questions. Which of the Cabinet committees, if any, does the Taoiseach believe needs to meet regularly and to be the main place for detailed discussions?

Separately, departmental staff play a crucial role in providing economic analyses which are independent and are intended to take a wider perspective. They are responsible for briefing the Taoiseach of the day on economic matters and providing the secretariat to the Cabinet committee on the economy. Given the scale of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council's criticism of the Government's control of budgets, how it is responding to revenue buoyancy and the threat of Brexit, is the Taoiseach satisfied that he was aware of these issues before the council issued its criticisms? Were those criticisms a surprise to him, given his regularly stated position that the Government is fully in control and implementing exactly the right policies? The Taoiseach will remember that when his €3 billion tax cut was announced last year, he toured studios raising it as a hugely significant promise. Last week, however, he said it was not significant and was just what others had been proposing all along. Has the Taoiseach's Department provided him with any analysis of the cost and impact of his headline policy?

As the Taoiseach has outlined in his response, a broad range of issues is captured by his Department's strategy statement and the report published recently but I wish to focus on two specific issues. In the Taoiseach's message in the preamble to the Department's 2018 annual report, one of the commitments he makes is to establish a policing reform office in his Department to drive the implementation of A Policing Service of the Future report. The actual report indicates that this has happened and that such an office exists. What has that office done in the past six months? Does it publish reports on implementation and can we follow exactly what this departmental unit is doing so that this House can have oversight of the unfolding reform of policing in this State?

My second question relates to a matter discussed here previously, namely, the security of our electoral process and dealing with disinformation. Has there been any post-election evaluation, or is such under way, of the recent European and local elections in terms of disinformation, external manipulation or input into our electoral process? Can we be assured by the Taoiseach that there is a capacity within his Department to give assurances on one of the most basic bedrocks of our democracy, namely, that our electoral processes are secure?

The Taoiseach set out as one of the pillars of his strategy the idea of a socially inclusive Ireland in which, as he put it, no one is left behind. His Department's annual report mentions the Government's work on housing in numerous sections but the portrayal of this Government's record in that area is wildly at variance with the reality and the facts on the ground. I was perplexed to read this morning that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has attempted to refute the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, Ms Leilani Farha, published earlier this year. Ms Farha was damning in her assessment of the performance of the Government. She said that the Government is facilitating the "financialisation of housing" by providing preferential tax breaks to corporate landlords and standing over weak tenant protections. She was absolutely spot on and I completely agree with her. I now understand that the Government has responded by saying it is important to recognise the positive effects that institutional investment can have on the supply of housing. The Government has actually defended the cost of housing in this State and has gone so far as to say that affordability is not an issue here. My good God, that is beyond bizarre, if I may say so. We are now coming into budget preparations and I am very worried that even with all of the paraphernalia of government, including committees, sub-committees and advisers, the Government is not conversant with the basic reality on the ground which is that housing is wildly unaffordable, the rental sector is wildly insecure and we have record numbers of citizens in homelessness. The Taoiseach, with his strategy to create an inclusive society in which no one is left behind, seems to be wilfully oblivious of the aforementioned facts. What part does reality, realism and experience on the ground play or does it not feed in to the formulation of his Department's strategy and work programmes?

Was the Taoiseach personally disappointed by the recent report of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council which states that, notwithstanding the recovery in employment which has been so good for so many people, there are serious problems with the economy, many of which can be laid at the door of Government mismanagement? I imagine that he must have been bitterly disappointed, particularly when he read the news from his former Department of Health that there is no sign of it being able to return to financial and budgetary stability.

There does not seem to be any sight of our health services being able to return to financial and budgetary stability. Instead, because we have a growing population of older people and children, we have increased demands on our health services. The Government has also parked many proposals. There has been much talk in this Dáil but relatively little has been achieved. For instance, the pension reforms I proposed when I was the Minister for Social Protection have basically been parked until 2022. For workers in their 30s, 40s and early 50s, having a pension is becoming increasingly important given that many of them will never be able to purchase a house. They will need a pension which has been built up during their active working years.

The Taoiseach will be aware, having been on many doorsteps in Dublin West in the run-up to the recent elections, that people are very anxious to get an affordable home. However, the Government has still not clarified what is happening with the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. The Minister responsible has promised that the scheme is continuing but on the ground there is a great deal of confusion as to how people will be able to access this important loan opportunity.

Community policing is meant to be at the heart of policing our communities. In the constituency the Taoiseach and I share, there are 13 community gardaí for a population that is bigger than the population of Limerick or Waterford. It is simply impossible for the Garda to meet the demographic demands of the area and local people do not feel safe. People should be able to feel safe in their community.

The Taoiseach said that one of the key priorities for his Department was to make work pay. I put it to him that he is failing dramatically in that regard. For large numbers of people, getting a pay increase means they lose their medical card and are pushed off the council housing waiting list and into an income bracket where they have no chance of being able to afford to put a roof over their heads. People on council housing waiting lists do not have much chance of getting a council house but they may get one after 15 years. When people who are working, as the Taoiseach wants them to do, receive a pay increase that brings their income over the threshold to qualify for council housing, they lose any chance of ever putting a roof over their head.

I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government yesterday at which representatives of the National Development Finance Agency and the Housing Agency effectively acknowledged there is no national affordable housing scheme. There is a series of sites on which they are desperately trying to provide affordable housing because the market is completely incapable of delivering affordable homes, particularly in Dublin. Even on sites where these agencies have been charged with coming up with affordable rental or affordable purchase schemes, they cannot do so, essentially because Government subsidies are not large enough. That is what emerged at yesterday's meeting. There was no consistency in terms of the affordable scheme. In one incredible example, the National Development finance Agency and the Housing Agency said one of the reasons they could not deliver affordable housing on a site in Ticknock was the prevalence of Japanese knotweed, which was driving up the costs of developing the site. This means site specific issues are derailing the capacity of the State to deliver a national affordable housing scheme that will ensure that work pays. In fact, work is doing the opposite. It is pushing people into an income bracket where they have no chance of ever being able to own or rent a house. Does the Taoiseach accept there is problem that he has not dealt with? What does he intend to do about it?

Question No. 9, the next question, is to be dealt with on its own. I propose that we allow the Taoiseach to use five minutes of the time provided for that question to respond to the Deputies' questions. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am not sure I will be able to deal with all the Deputies' questions in the five minutes provided but I will do my best.

On the balance of meetings as between Cabinet committees, sub-committees and also ministerial meetings, the Cabinet meets regularly, probably more regularly than would have been the case in the past. For example, this week we had two Cabinet meetings, each lasting for almost three hours. This allowed for detailed discussions on climate change on Monday-----

That was a public event.

-----and on a wider range of agenda items on Tuesday. Cabinet sub-committees meet as needed and that is often when we want to have other people involved, whether it be officials, advisers or people from outside Departments. Last week or the week before, the Cabinet sub-committee on justice met, which allowed us to have the Secretary General of the Department in attendance to talk about the reforms being made in the Department of Justice and Equality. The Garda Commissioner was also present. This is done where there is a particular purpose and on that occasion it was done to review progress on Garda reform and on the internal reforms taking place in the Department of Justice and Equality. We will adopt a similar approach with climate change. The sub-committees meet as needed and they are effective. Separately, I will often meet Ministers one to one or accompanied by their Secretary General or advisers.

With regard to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, while I do not get the reports in advance, I read them of course. It is advice to which I and the Government will listen. I remember 12 years ago when the European Commission warned that spending was increasing too quickly and that we were overreliant on stamp duty, those in government at the time dismissed those warnings and reacted angrily. The Taoiseach at the time suggested that people should take their own lives. I will not make that kind of mistake and I will listen to the advice we are getting from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council but I also have to listen to other advice.

Was the advisory council's report a surprise? That is what I asked.

While the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council is saying to us that we are increasing spending too rapidly and are overreliant on corporation profit tax receipts, others are saying to us that there are enormous demands for additional spending and we need to invest in our public services and infrastructure. Other people are saying to me that they want to be able to keep more of their hard-earned money. We cannot just follow the advice of any one advisory body. We have to take into account advice from many different sectors, particularly those charged with providing it, including, for example, the European Commission and the ESRI.

There are many reasons to believe the economy and public finances are being managed well. If we consider employment levels, more people are at work than ever before and unemployment is at its lowest level in 14 years. That is a major achievement which is very much down to the hard work of the Irish people and also the right policies being pursued by the Government.

We have a budget surplus. We had one last year and we will have another this year. It is a long time - more than ten years - since we had a budget surplus for two years in a row. Debt as a proportion of GDP is being reduced. Debt quadrupled under the last Fianna Fáil-led Government as opposed to the most recent Fine Gael-Labour Party Government. It is being reduced significantly as a percentage of GDP and probably in cash terms this year also but that is to be confirmed. We have also set up a rainy day fund which now stands at €1.5 billion. The European Commission, the guardian of the fiscal rules, has said this year's budget was within the parameters of the fiscal rules. The rating agencies are restoring our triple A ratings and the Central Statistics Office has indicated that incomes will rise by between 3% and 3.5 % this year, which is significant. It has also stated that deprivation and poverty rates are falling and that child poverty is fallen by 30% in the past three or four years. These are significant developments, which should be given as much of an airing as the report of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council receives, or at least some airing.

In terms of income tax policy, I was asked about my ambition for the next five years. My party's policy as opposed to Government policy is to have a five-year programme to reduce income tax.

Was that analysis carried out by the Department of the Taoiseach?

I am starting to answer the Deputy's question. He will have to let me answer it. The analysis was not done by my Department but we got a costing from the Department of Finance. The ambition over a five-year period is to make sure that people who earn the average income do not pay the highest tax rate. Ireland is unusual in that people earning the average income pay the highest tax rate.

They cannot afford to buy a house.

The average person in Ireland working full-time earns €47,000 a year now and they pay the highest tax rate on some of their income but I want that to change. It cannot be done in one budget or in one year. It can be done over a five-year period.

Will the House agree that to allow the Taoiseach to answer all the questions raised-----

What is the point of doing that? We have had five minutes of the Taoiseach broadcasting-----

Government policy.

-----fiscal policy without answering any of the questions raised.

I do not mind-----

Should we move on to the next question or does the Taoiseach wish to continue answering the questions?

He has had five minutes to answer them.

Let us establish if the Taoiseach wants to-----

I would be happy to continue to answer the questions but I can also move on to the next question if Deputies wish.

They want to move on to Question No. 9.