Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the status of Bills under preparation in his Department. [25074/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [25246/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [26621/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the status of Bills under preparation in his Department. [26683/19]

View answer

Oral answers (22 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, is an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of my Department. The council analyses and reports on strategic policy matters relevant to Ireland's economic, social, environmental and sustainable development. The NESC is a valuable forum where economic, social and environmental issues can be discussed between a variety of actors and Departments.

NESC's work focuses on the strategic and longer-term view, for example in the area of climate change. In recent weeks the council has published two reports: "Climate Change Policy: Getting the Process Right" and "Transport Orientated Development: Assessing the Opportunity for Ireland". As part of the Government’s climate plan, a just transition review group will be established within the council. Through this group NESC will review the ongoing transition, identify specific needs and challenges, and publish a periodic review and strategic advice. Other work published by the council includes: "Moving from Welfare to Work: Low Work Intensity Households and the Quality of Supportive Services" and "Urban Development Land, Housing and Infrastructure: Fixing Ireland’s Broken System".

In accordance with the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006 I have certain functions such as appointing the members of the NESC and presenting reports to Government prior to publication or prior to laying before the Houses as in the case of the annual reports. Since becoming Taoiseach, I have made nine appointments to NESC in line with the legislation and the guidelines on appointments to State boards. The council is funded through my Department’s Vote and my Department also has governance responsibilities regarding the council.

The sole Bill being prepared by my Department will provide for the dissolution of the National Economic and Social Development Office, NESDO, corporate framework, which is no longer necessary. It also deals with related matters including the transfer of functions to the NESC. Work is under way to prepare the heads of a Bill but it is not a legislative priority for Government as it is a technical change which does not impact on the essential or ongoing functions of NESC.

The House may also wish to be aware that the current director of NESC, Dr. Rory O'Donnell, will be retiring next month. I thank him for all his work over the years. An open competition has been run to select his successor and the new director will be announced shortly.

Since this Government came to office, despite the promises of new politics it has resorted to declining to grant money messages for Bills with which it disagrees, even when these Bills have the support and approval of this House. In many instances the use of money messages is an abuse of power which undermines the democratic right of the Legislature, as distinct from the Executive, to pass legislation. There is a valid debate to be had about the Government's veto power in respect of money Bills, but many of the Bills about which I am talking are not, in themselves, money Bills. They are Bills that incur no more than incidental expenditure. An example of such a Bill is legislation which Sinn Féin produced which sought to protect the traditional fishing rights of fishermen on our islands. We were told that it would cost money to post out the licences, that is, to put stamps on the letters. This is the type of mechanism the Government is now using to frustrate the will and the view of this House. Is it not the case that the use of money messages has undermined the role of parliamentarians in this House and that the Government needs to think seriously about how this abuse of the system has taken place?

The NESC legislation the Taoiseach again referenced has been on every legislative list since the Government came into office and has made no progress at all. Not even the heads of the Bill have been produced. I expect that will remain the case and that we will not see the legislation in the lifetime of this Dáil. Is it the Government's intention to proceed with it or not?

With regard to the work of NESC, in 2018 Dublin was found to be the third most congested city in the world, ahead of major urban centres like Paris and London, in respect of transport congestion. At the launch of NESC's report on transport development earlier this month, which was referenced by the Taoiseach in his response, the council's director stated that development in Ireland continues to be car centred. As of this month, we are still car centred in this regard. There is a lot of focus in the climate plan on the shift from combustion engines to electrically-powered vehicles but, as one commentator said, all this will do is provide cleaner traffic jams. It does nothing to deal with congestion. We still have no significant public transport project under construction right now. That is amazing.

What are the Taoiseach's reflections on the views expressed by NESC in its commentary on the transport development plan published earlier this month? Did he engage with NESC on its findings on the climate action and transport development plans when matters were being finalised in that regard? Is it his view that we now need to increase significantly our investment in public transport in towns and cities throughout the land?

I also wish to speak about the NESC report on public transport. The Government's climate plan is pathetic when it comes to public transport. We need public transport anyway to deal with dire congestion. On many important bus routes, students and workers just cannot get on buses in the morning. In the context of a climate change emergency, the Government is doing nothing in response to the call by NESC, for example, for high quality and frequency of transport services.

I will outline how bad it is. Both Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus have fewer buses in their fleets than they did in 2008, which is shocking. We are going backwards. In the same period bus fares have increased by 80%. The demands on the public transport fleet have significantly increased in the intervening period. We have fewer buses nationally and in Dublin, bus fares have increased and we have the lowest subsidies for public transport almost anywhere in Europe. This contrasts with, for example, Luxembourg which is now introducing free public transport. Dunkirk has already introduced free public transport as has Estonia. Oslo has made a dramatic shift to cheaper better public transport. Interestingly it is now moving against electric vehicles, which is the centrepiece of this Government's transport plan, because it is not working. Instead Oslo is moving towards a dramatic increase in investment in the quality, frequency and affordability of public transport.

What does the Taoiseach have to say to that? In the last three budgets, we have proposed moving to free public transport, having subsidies for public transport at the level of the best in Europe and for a significant increase in the national and Dublin Bus fleet to improve the quality of bus services.

I agree with some of the previous comments about NESC and its various reports. The last Government to introduce a substantive free-travel scheme on public transport was, of course, a Fianna Fáil Government in the late 1960s, when Charles J. Haughey was Minister for Finance, for those in receipt of the old-age pension. It has a radical impact on the quality of life and utilisation of public transport for those people. An evaluation of that scheme would be informative in terms of expanding it out because there is certainly an issue with public transport.

NESC has produced quite a few valuable reports on public transport, housing and climate change. What matters in this work is not the holding of media-focused events, but a real two-way engagement. A very clear piece of feedback from two years of the Government's new focus on marketing is frustration about how often State-funded events, billed as forums and consultations, are in fact little more than advertising roadshows with a preselected audience.

Last year the NDP roadshow involved a long series of events throughout the country, with many claims about what would be delivered, but no answers when hard questions were asked. No one was willing or able to answer the simple question about how decisions were made to choose between different options in expanding acute hospital services in certain locations and so on. I invite people to look back at all the projects announced at that roadshow and go through the more detailed work of trying to find out their status now, as I have done with various hospital projects that were announced but have not gone beyond the preliminary planning phase.

At national level we have a highly repetitive process where Government spends months trailing a new strategy in advance of its announcement. It then arranges a series of leaks promoting the key elements, followed by a stage-managed Cabinet event somewhere, presented as deciding on the strategy even though the advertising material is already printed - last week the Cabinet went out to the Technological University Dublin on the hybrid bus. There then follows a regional roadshow. The climate one was down in UCC. No one from the public can attend the UCC meeting; it is a selected audience. The Cork Environmental Alliance has been holding meetings for the past three years inviting all political parties, but which party was noticeable by its absence from all of them? The Fine Gael Party did not bother its barney turning up. I could not understand why it did not, but it did not. We then have showmanship in UCC.

I thank the Deputy.

Of course, the resident university is thrilled with the profile and we are all happy campers. Meanwhile we cannot implement the smoky coal ban. Thirty years after Mary Harney introduced it in Dublin, it has still not reached places like Enniscorthy and the Government caves in to the fuel companies and says it will not implement a smoky coal ban-----

We are running out of time.

-----in the remaining 20%.

When the children's hospital happens and when broadband happens, there is no roadshow. At one meeting, it was revealed that within a month the cost of that had increased by €300 million and no one bats an eyelid, just saying, "That's okay; just add €300 million to the €2.6 billion we agreed last August." If all else fails the Government will just blame the Opposition. That is where we are right now.

We should use NESC more. NESC should be the platform for more inclusive and genuine discussions as opposed to the marketing-led approach, which has not worked to date.

We are way over time. The Taoiseach has just three minutes for a response to this.

I understand the decision as to whether a money message is required is one for the Ceann Comhairle and his office, rather than for Government. A key consideration by Government as to whether one is granted is whether the proposal has been costed. Do we have an accurate estimate of what it will cost, not just implementation costs, but also the broader cost to the Exchequer? Then, can that cost be met? Has it been budgeted for? Has the money been voted by the Oireachtas? We need to consider those matters. A protocol on money messages was agreed several months ago and I think it is working relatively well, but it is always appropriate to review things again. As we approach the end of a session, perhaps we should do that or do it again at the start of the next session.

Deputy Howlin is right in saying that Ireland is very much a car-centric country. That cannot be changed easily. It is very much a feature of our spread-out settlement pattern, with many people living in housing estates and many people living in rural areas. Countries in other parts of the world have denser cities and even in their rural areas housing is much more clustered around villages rather than spread along roads in the way it is in Ireland. In truth we will remain very car-centric because of our settlement patterns and that is why electric and hybrid vehicles are part of the solution. It will not be possible to provide high-frequency public transport to everyone in the country. That is not possible.

If everyone lived in a densely populated village or a densely populated city, it might be possible, but given our settlement patterns it is not. We need to do a few things. When it comes to future planning, many new houses will be built in Ireland over the next ten or 20 years. We need to ensure the bulk of them are built in existing urban centres on brownfield sites to have the smart compact growth we refer to in Project Ireland 2040. That is also much more efficient in terms of public transport and climate action.

There is also investment in cycle facilities. Record numbers of people are cycling into Dublin city centre, but it can be many more if better facilities are provided. Last week a €40 million investment in the greenway programme was announced and there is public transport as well. Deputies will be aware of quite a few public transport projects that are in train. There are MetroLink, BusConnects and the DART extension. The procurement process for the hybrid carriages for the DART extension has begun. MetroLink and BusConnects are throwing up many concerns in local areas which need to be taken into account and modifications may need to be made to those projects. That is where we are with some very major public transport projects in train: MetroLink, BusConnects and the DART extension.

If we look at the new projects in Project Ireland 2040 there is a 2:1 split in favour of public transport over roads, when we look at the new projects as opposed to maintenance. I am concerned when I hear people calling for a review of the roads aspect of Project Ireland 2040 because the bulk of what is provided for is maintenance and restoration. I would not like us to allow our roads to deteriorate again. If maintenance is taken out, there is a 2:1 split in favour of public transport over the roads programme.

It is a fantasy at the moment.

I do not ever hear people saying which roads they want cancelled or which roads they want delayed, whether it is the M20, the Dunkettle interchange-----

The Dunkettle interchange was agreed.

-----the Ballyvourney to Macroom road, the Galway bypass, or the N4 because the roads programme comprises those projects and maintenance. Athy as well.

If we are looking for a shift in Project Ireland 2040-----

Could the Taoiseach explain why the Dunkettle interchange has not happened?

-----away from roads and towards public transport, either some of those projects will have to be cancelled or maintenance will have to be slashed. That would be a big mistake, and I am alarmed to hear some Opposition parties suggest it.

The climate change papers produced by NESC fed into the climate action plan and were very helpful. The transport papers are in line with the national spatial strategy and the climate change papers fed into the governance models in the climate action plan.

As Deputy Martin mentioned, we already have free public transport for large sections of our society including senior citizens, many people with disabilities and young children. That was expanded in recent years, but two factors would have to be considered before expanding free public transport to everyone: first, the cost, which I imagine would run into hundreds of millions of euros, and second, what the capacity constraints might be. We all want to encourage more people to use public transport, and I have no doubt that public transport being free or much cheaper would do that. However, the additional capacity would have to be provided in advance, if not in parallel.

It is not happening.

I was not at the UCC climate change meeting but I understand that everyone else was, from the IFA to the climate strikers so it seems there was a broad attendance.

The public were not allowed in.