Tuesday, 25 June 2019

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

Micheál Martin


5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of times Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, has met to date; and when it last met. [25195/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin


6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it will next meet. [26284/19]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald


7. 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. [26554/19]

View answer

Michael Moynihan


8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the number of times Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, has met in 2019 to date. [26565/19]

View answer

Joan Burton


9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it will next meet. [26567/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett


10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met. [26622/19]

View answer

Oral answers (60 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

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

Cabinet committee B last met on 21 February and is scheduled to meet again on 27 June. It covers social policy and public services, including education, children, social inclusion, the Irish language, arts and culture, and continued improvements and reform of public services. Although the committee covers a broad range of areas and topics, its overarching aim is to introduce or reform public policies and services that help create a socially inclusive and fair society. With the economy doing well and returning to near full employment, it is important that the benefits of economic growth generate opportunities for everyone to progress and flourish, particularly those who are often marginalised or disadvantaged in society.

The Cabinet committee has considered a range of social policy issues recently, including childcare and the early years strategy, child protection and welfare issues, social enterprise, immigration, the publication of the LGBTI+ national youth strategy, the action plan for online safety, 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 meet regularly with Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues in their brief, including issues relating to social policy and public services.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. In recent weeks, there have been quite a few stories about the impact of personnel shortages on key services. The failure to hire, and critically to retain, key people has led to a serious waste of public resources and is contributing to rising budgets. The most obvious example of this can be found in the health sector, where basic planning and cost controls are much harder when the ability to roster and schedule activity is undermined by a failure to fill vacant positions.

I presume that the Taoiseach is aware of the current campaign by the Irish Hospital Consultants Association. However, that campaign is not needed; going through the data, we can see that there are significant shortages and vacancies in key consultant areas. For example, in Cork city alone, 13 consultants have resigned in the past three years, and ten of those were involved in delivering cancer care. Some of these key positions have been filled by locums but some remain vacant, and this is replicated across the country. I know the Taoiseach can give us the macro figures and say that we are getting more people in than are leaving, but the bottom line is underneath the figures. There is a real crisis in the retention of key personnel in our health services. Given how central this has been to health budgets under this and the previous Government, has he received a report on the impact of vacancies on services?

The Taoiseach will also remember that the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has said that, in the past, one of the most important reasons for the new phenomenon of significant overspends in the health system is the habit that developed in recent years of Ministers promising levels of service that have not been planned or funded. This has led to a deeply wasteful stop-start approach to service delivery. The Taoiseach has admitted that his decision, and that of his predecessor, to operate the HSE without a management board has caused serious problems in planning and cost control. Equally, he has repeatedly promised that measures are in place to avoid the need for significant supplementaries in health. He has said that repeatedly and told the House that any overspends would be identified and published without delay. In that context, will he comment on the fact that spending pressure are already evident and that the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, appears to be repeating last year's approach of denying any concerns until as late as possible in the year?

Finally, on Sunday, the Minister reported that 800,000 extra home help hours will be delivered. There is a serious and profound disconnect between official statements of that kind and the reality on the ground. In each healthcare area, people are being told that there is no funding left and that there is a curtailment of home help services across the board. The Taoiseach said last week that he was trying to get to the bottom of the issue. More than 6,000 people are on the waiting list for home help and no cover is being provided for annual or sick leave. The budgets appear to have dried up, and yet we get the mantra from central level that there is nothing to see here and everything is fine because there will be additional positions. Will the Taoiseach comment on that?

Committee B deals with public services and a major public service strike is looming. Tomorrow, 10,000 of the lowest paid workers in the health system are going on strike. They are the pivotal workers who provide for the basic running our hospitals, and they are going on strike because of a job evaluation scheme that was agreed to in a chairman's note under the umbrella of the Lansdowne Road agreement and formalised in 2017 in a deal with the HSE. A timeframe was set out for that, stating that the initial phase would conclude by 30 June 2017, phase 2 by November 2017 and phase 3 no later than 30 May 2018. The outcome of phases 1 and 2 was to be reviewed at the conclusion and no payment would arise at a date earlier than the conclusion of phase 2, that is, the earliest payment would be on 1 December 2017. We are now well into 2019.

There is a legitimate expectation from these workers, all of whom stepped up to the plate in the worst of times. I know that, because I was in touch with our unions throughout the most difficult phase of our economic history. Uniquely across Europe, our public service balloted for and accepted significant wage reductions and curtailments in costs. The Taoiseach knows that we would not have got through the crisis without that. The quid pro quo is that we should honour the agreements we have entered into with them.

I am concerned by the comment made today by the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and Deputy Brophy.

It is provocative.

It is deliberately intent on inflaming, rather than calming, the situation.

The WRC process is not concluded, so the notion of a Labour Court intervention does not arise because a real offer has not been made. The evaluation agreed a cost of €16 million, but €1 million has been put on the table to date. For 10,000 people, €1 million is less than €2 a week. That is not a realistic offer. Will the Taoiseach ensure that this goes back to the WRC and a realistic offer be put on the table to avert a strike and not undermine fundamentally confidence in the ability of the Government and the State to be honest dealers in industrial relations?

Link Group manages thousands of distressed mortgages for Cerberus, a vulture fund, and others. Last week it described Ireland as "the gift that keeps giving" in an address to its investors. This was in anticipation of more mortgages being sold by the banks to the vulture funds. Some of these banks are in majority shareholder ownership of the Irish State, the shares being held by the Minister for Finance.

It is ludicrous that vulture funds are looking at Ireland as the gift that keeps on giving while distressed mortgage holders are worried and wondering what approach these vulture funds will take to their mortgages. I have given countless examples to the Taoiseach and others as to how some of these vulture funds are calling in all of the debt, to be paid within a 30-day notice period. That is organising a structural default and repossessing properties as a result. Is it not time that we implemented the code of practice of the Central Bank whereby no mortgage can be sold without the consent of the borrower which has been on a voluntary basis since 1991? I have tabled legislation which has already passed the Dáil and is before committee. Is it not time that the Government stopped Ireland being the gift that keeps on giving to these vulture funds that are treating borrowers in such an intolerable way?

I also want to mention Cabinet committee B. We face severe challenges in public services. We have heard about issues for home help and Sinn Féin will be leading a discussion about that during Private Members' time this evening. There are pressures elsewhere in health and in affordable housing. A document produced by Government on climate action had absolutely no costings or commitments for Government investment. The Government's summer economic statement completely disregards the critique of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. It told the Government that there is a return to boom and bust and that has been ignored. It also told the Government that there was an over-reliance on corporation tax receipts, which are highly volatile and concentrated. That has also been ignored. There is nothing additional in the summer economic statement which deals with that issue. The council told the Government that it has failed to account for the Christmas bonus, which costs €300 million. That is ignored in the summer economic statement. It also said there is no allocation for a just transition in climate change policy, which was also completely ignored. Instead there is fiscal space or an unallocated amount of €700 million which must cover all of the different pressures I have outlined and uses up every single cent of corporation tax, outside of the rainy day fund, and the Government is committing to use that, as the Taoiseach earlier articulated, in a tax-cutting agenda that will not benefit 79% of income taxpayers in the State.

If I heard the Taoiseach correctly, he said that Cabinet committee B, which is concerned with social policy and public services in Ireland, met most recently towards the end of February and will meet again before the end of June. That is a gap of four months. Public services require constant attention on the part of any competent Government because moving from the period of economic collapse to recovery includes very delicate negotiations and considerations as to how to recompense people who have lost out.

I am concerned about school completion programmes and services for children with autism. There is no collective Government policy about these issues at all. It is spread over a whole lot of different Departments and the relevant Government committees do not seem to meet or, if they do, they meet infrequently. We can see the gaps in policy and it is difficult to discuss them in the House.

A movement started in Dublin 15 about autism spectrum disorder services with large public meetings of hundreds of parents of children on the autism spectrum over the past nine months. Some 60 children in the area were identified as being without services. We have moved to quite a good resolution where there will be a special autism school on a small scale for children who have both high-level needs in respect of autism and other problems such as behavioural issues.

On the school completion programme, particularly those in the delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, programme, it is vital to keep children in school and for them to enjoy it, to prosper and be nurtured. A situation pertains whereby the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, under the relevant Minister, is threatening that these broad general programmes will be cut back. There are seven programmes, for instance, in schools in Dublin 15 and the Taoiseach privately visited Ladyswell national school, one of those affected, a couple of months ago. Nobody from any other political party or public representative accompanied him so that he could have a private conversation. I am using Dublin 15 as an example. The Taoiseach is influential on other parts of the Civil Service but there were threats of serious cutbacks in the school completion programme in Dublin 15. In order to save money, the whole-school approach will be changed to an individual, identified, targeted child who is deemed to be particularly at need. That is a disorganised and disconnected way for the Government to formulate programmes affecting the most vulnerable children in our society.

The Government has claimed it is supportive of a mix of social and non-social housing. A mix of people with different family sizes and in different income brackets is a reasonable aspiration although the net effect has been effectively to prevent large-scale social and affordable housing developments on public land because they are tied up with convoluted formulas around social housing that never seem to get resolved.

I put it to the Taoiseach that his stated aim of a mix of social and non-social housing is, in many cases, turning out to be something more akin to social cleansing or social apartheid. A report emerged today which stated that half of the counties in the country are unaffordable for first-time buyers. In those counties, and mine is one of them, people on low and middle incomes are being driven out. They are being cleansed from the area. These areas then only become places where very rich people can live. That is what is actually happening. There is a small number of developments where we are supposed to get a social mix on private developments with 10% social housing under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000. That is not happening in a number of those cases, particularly and disgracefully in strategic housing developments which involved fast-track planning and were supposed to deal with the housing crisis. What is actually happening in a development in Dún Laoghaire is that an extra 60 houses will be built and no social housing. The law allowed for that through some convoluted arrangement with the developer.

In areas of high property value, social housing is being provided off-site so there is no social mix. The social housing is somewhere else because we could not have people on low incomes living in certain areas. Even in areas where that 10% is being provided, the social housing element is being segregated in separate blocks, usually with one or two-bedroom units and no family-sized units in many cases, and where the specifications of the social housing element are considerably lower than the houses built in the non-social part of the development. That is social apartheid, not social mix. It is institutionalising and underpinning segregation of people on the basis of their income levels. Does the Taoiseach think that is acceptable? What is he going to do about it? What is he going to do about the fact that strategic housing developments are, in some cases, not delivering any social housing whatsoever? Does the Taoiseach think that is acceptable?

I am sorry Deputy Burton was not able to stay to hear the answers to any of the questions raised.

She just got a call to leave. The Taoiseach understands that these things happen.

I do and I appreciate her recognition that we had come to a good outcome and resolution of the issues around establishing a special school in Dublin 15. That will open in the autumn and it is a first for the Dublin 15 area. That was achieved without a need for a Cabinet sub-committee and there are many ways to get things done.

We need more schools, particularly special schools.

I will get back to her on the school completion programme.

The Government absolutely acknowledges the challenges we face in recruiting and retaining consultants in the public health service. They are particularly severe when it comes to psychiatry and small hospitals but they are not unique to those areas by any means. I have read some reports on this, including the Public Service Pay Commission report. Notwithstanding those reports, we have record numbers of doctors now working in our public health service.

What about the tertiary referral centre in Cork?

As Deputy Micheál Martin said, there are more coming in than are going out.

I did not say that.

It is positive.

The Taoiseach is saying that.

He said something approaching it. It is a fact either way that there are now more doctors working in our public health service than ever before. There are also more on the medical register than ever before.

Not on the specialist register.

I checked publicjobs.ie just the other day and there are currently only 20 consultant posts being advertised there. Others may be advertised through the voluntary bodies but on publicjobs.ie only 20 posts are being advertised at present. It seems we will need a fresh approach as notwithstanding the issues around pay, there are also issues around the recruitment process. It has far too many layers, with posts left vacant for months or years but never advertised.

We have new contracts with nurses, midwives and general practitioners, GPs, and I imagine we could have a new contract with consultants as well. I know the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, will want to engage with the Irish Hospital Consultants Association and the Irish Medical Organisation on that. The same principles will have to apply and we need to modernise our contracts if we are going to put taxpayers' money behind pay increases.

There has been a 50% increase in the budget for home help over the past three years, which is considerable. I am advised by the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, that provision has been made for an extra 800,000 home help hours this year and the waiting list is slightly shorter than it was this time a year ago. I have, however, heard anecdotal evidence from many Deputies and even from my constituency office that the position may be more difficult than suggested by the numbers. We are still examining that.

I replied to questions on tomorrow's strike in detail in the past few hours and I do not really wish to add to my earlier comments except to say it is our view that an appropriate offer was made to start implementation of the pay rises in November this year.

Is that confirmed as €1 million?

That would follow a 1.75% increase for all staff in September, an increase earlier this year and, of course, an increase for new entrants, as well as increments. The matter should be considered in the round.

Deputy Pearse Doherty referred to a code of practice and I believe it is long defunct and it has not applied for quite some time.

It is still there.

If a loan is sold on, the customer retains all the same legal and contractual rights, and that is as it should be. I am a little bemused to hear Sinn Féin throwing the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council's criticisms at the Government's fiscal policy. I know Sinn Féin's fiscal and budgetary policy, which is on record. It is that we should have spent and borrowed more and that we should have increased debt. That pre-budget submission is on the Sinn Féin website for anyone to look at. I wonder what the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, would think of that.

The Government did that anyway.

The Sinn Féin policy was to spend and borrow more, increasing the deficit every year.

The Taoiseach cannot answer any of the criticisms.

The Taoiseach, without interruption.

It might be useful for Opposition parties to consider whether they would be willing-----

It would be useful if the Taoiseach answered IFAC's criticism.

When Sinn Féin has a question time we will ask them.

-----to have their budget proposals submitted to IFAC to see if thinks much of them.

This is how difficult it is. The Taoiseach cannot answer IFAC's criticism because the Government is involved with a boom and bust cycle.

We would have no problem submitting our plans.

Deputies may not be happy with the answers but I have no control over that.

I would be happy to not be happy with the answer if I got an answer with which I would not be happy. The problem is he cannot answer any of IFAC's criticism.

I have not finished answering.

In fairness, asking the Taoiseach about IFAC-----

It is a touchy subject.

The Taoiseach, without interruption.

The Deputy is not allowed to ask about it.

I shall continue to answer the questions. I do not agree with Deputy Pearse Doherty's assessment on corporation tax; it is quite the contrary. We have mitigated our exposure to risks from the very high levels of corporation tax we are receiving by setting up a rainy day fund. There is €1.5 billion in it already and an extra €500 million will be added.

Is that the Fianna Fáil rainy day fund?

Our receipts projections indicate the amount of corporation profit tax that we will take in this year will be less than what we took in last year. Again, it was prudent not to assume the graph would always go up and we are basing our projections on the graph turning and receipts going down this year.

We have also increased capital spending, and there has been a 25% increase in capital spending this year, with a further 10% increase next year. That equates to €700 million. Capital spending is different from current spending as once a school or hospital is built, it is built. We do not need to rebuild these every year. We are putting much more into capital spending and public infrastructure because it is needed but also because we understand that those receipts from corporation profit tax might not always be there so we should not spend it on things like pay increases, which must be paid every year. We should spend it on one-off projects like capital projects, which is exactly what we have done.

It was used for health last year.

Deputy Boyd Barrett is aware of our policy on the social mix in housing. Inasmuch as it is possible, it is desirable to have communities with a social mix and people with all sorts of backgrounds and different incomes in different types of housing. Most people in the House would agree on that approach. We do not want to build the massive sprawling estates that we saw so many of in the past. There were then social problems------

There was nothing wrong with many of the public housing estates built in the past.

-----down the road.

The Government needs to moderate its ideology.

The Taoiseach's time is almost up.

Fine Gael does not go into them.

They know nothing about them as they never visit them. There were some great estates built and I know about them. I enjoyed my childhood in many of them.

We will not get to the next group of questions.

I am doing my best. I am condemned for not answering questions but when I do, I am interrupted. This is not really a forum where much opportunity is given-----

Members from around the House should not invite interruptions.

That is addressed to everybody.

On occasions we must be practical. There may well be developments in Deputy Boyd Barrett's constituency where ten apartments cost €1 million each and the question is whether the local authority should spend €1 million to buy one apartment and assign it to one family or whether it would make more sense to use that €1 million to provide housing for three families. That is why sometimes, different locations are used.

As there is only a minute left, we would not do justice to the next set of questions so I understand they will be taken first tomorrow.