Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach his views on the report on A Programme for a Partnership Government published in May 2019. [25213/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his views on the annual report on A Programme for a Partnership Government; and his plans to review or amend the agreement. [26684/19]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recently published programme for Government progress report. [26757/19]

View answer

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The Government recently approved its third programme for a partnership Government annual report, which provides a comprehensive analysis on progress since May 2018. Since its formation in 2016, the Government has been working in a unique political environment in the spirit of partnership to deliver our ambition for a better Ireland. We are now three years into our five-year programme. In that time, we have made significant strides forward. There are more people working in Ireland now than ever before. Incomes and living standards are growing. There have been consistent reductions in poverty and deprivation, including a 30% reduction in child poverty. The benefits of our economic recovery are increasingly being spread throughout the country.

This third annual report highlights progress on the specific plans put in place in areas including housing, homelessness, education, rural and regional development, job creation, supports to families, agriculture and climate action. It also underlines the emphasis the Government has placed on ensuring that everyone benefits from our continued economic recovery. Budget 2019 reduced the level of personal taxation, especially for low and middle-income earners, and the maximum rate of weekly social welfare benefits and State pensions were increased by €5 for the third year in a row.

Funding has been prioritised to provide more teachers for schools, more nurses for hospitals and more gardaí. These are actions that benefit everyone equally in our society.

The Irish economy performed strongly in 2018 and job creation was spread across the country with 132,900 jobs created outside Dublin. The Government has a set of priorities and actions, including the Future Jobs Ireland strategy, that aim to protect our economy and jobs from the implications of Brexit. Nine regional enterprise plans have been developed to reflect the new challenges, strengths and opportunities that each of the regions currently face.

Despite this, things are far from perfect. Much more progress is needed in many areas and often the pace of reform is too slow. When it comes to homelessness, we are determined to reduce the numbers of people, particularly families, in emergency accommodation. The solution is increased supply of housing, both homes for people to buy and social housing. The fact that in 2018 more houses were built than any other year in this decade, and that almost one in four of them was a newly-constructed council house, is a major step forward. We will maintain this momentum in the years ahead.

The annual report acknowledges that, despite many actions implemented, there is still much to be done to improve the area of health and the Government is resolute in its determination to deliver results for citizens in this area. This is why budget 2019 delivered the highest ever health budget of €17 billion, a €1 billion increase on 2018. This unprecedented level of investment will make a real difference to the service we can deliver and will allow the health service to deliver better access. Three years on, the country is very much on the right track and the Government will continue with its ambitious programme over the next two years to invest in, and care for, the country and its people and to lay the foundations for Ireland’s future progress.

There are many points I could make about the programme for Government commitments that the Taoiseach made but given that I spent early this morning down on the picket lines with auxiliary health workers at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, I think it is fair to ask about two particular commitments made in that programme. One was for a fair and inclusive prosperity and the other was a commitment to honour agreements with public sector workers. On both of those counts, when one looks at those auxiliary health workers, who were forced out on strike, the Government has failed to meet those commitments. It was apparent and telling that these workers in the National Rehabilitation Hospital were very reluctant to be out on strike because, given the nature of the patients they have to deal with, they have quite a personal relationship with them and any suffering or hardship those patients go through is unpalatable to them. They felt they had no choice because they had taken a hammering during the austerity period.

The Government recommended setting up an independent body to evaluate their jobs. It was that body, and not the health workers themselves, that recommended they should get these increases based on the fact that their jobs had been upskilled and the nature of them had changed. They have been waiting for those increases, and accepted the waiting time, but they now feel they have waited long enough. The Government has not honoured its commitments and these people are not getting a fair crack of the whip. What does the Taoiseach say to them?

They did not want to be on the picket line but they were determined that the Government had reneged on its promises to them and they were not being treated fairly for the vital work they do in our hospitals.

The 124 page annual report on A Programme for a Partnership Government was published in May but at no point does it address the national carers' strategy. The programme for Government committed to the implementation of the 2012 national carers' strategy in full and the most recent progress report on the strategy was published in 2017. However, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified by these Houses last year, and it raises the need to significantly revise the national carers' strategy. The convention places a duty on Ireland to ensure assistance to the parents and caregivers of children and adults with disabilities. Specifically, the provisions include assistance with disability-related expenses, as well as adequate training, counselling, financial assistance and respite care.

In advance of the Labour Party's motion on carers tonight, which will deal with a number of related matters, will the Government commit to developing a new or updated national carers' strategy to take account of commitments in the programme for Government and the ratification by this House of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

A Programme for a Partnership Government makes many promises and some of those have simply not been fulfilled. One of those promises is to reduce waiting times for a range of healthcare treatments in specialties right across the board and across regions. The Taoiseach stated earlier that everybody is benefitting from the recovery, or at least that everybody should benefit from the recovery, but there are certain cohorts who depend on public health services who are not benefitting from any recovery. One of these consists of people waiting for orthodontic treatment.

I will give the Taoiseach the breakdown of public waiting times for orthodontic treatment in the south east as of today. It is 59 months in Carlow-Kilkenny and Wexford and 60 months in south Tipperary and Waterford, meaning the average waiting time is five years to have orthodontic treatment carried out. Within those classifications of waiting times, the Health Service Executive has had to prioritise crisis cases. The waiting times in that respect are 20 months in Carlow-Kilkenny and south Tipperary, 18 months in Waterford and 16 months in Wexford. How can that be the case? The capacity is not there and we do not have enough orthodontists.

This is a programme for Government commitment that has not been met as waiting times have increased. They have doubled in the past five years rather than going down. Will the Taoiseach outline to the House the extra capacity and resources that will be provided for orthodontic care and treatment to ensure people do not have to wait five years in some parts of this country for orthodontic treatment?

It is striking that as we reach the second anniversary of the Taoiseach taking office, the principal message from Fine Gael is relentless negativity. With yesterday's economic statements, most people would have expected a message about Government proposals but instead Fine Gael's initiative was to publish yet another attack video on Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.

The programme for Government states clearly that the Government will tackle homelessness and bring the crisis to an end. I heard what the Taoiseach had to say in an earlier reply. On the day that promise was made, there were 1,881 homeless children but today the figure is over double that, at 3,794. It is a damning indictment of the Government's inability to deal with the issue of homeless children. We have seen recent reports detailing the psychological impact on children, the consequences of an absence of security and the effects on their education development etc. Does the Taoiseach consider that this promise is being delivered? He has much economic and policy advice available to him. Has he asked his advisers when the number of homeless children will return to the level existing when the Government took office? At that stage the Government argued the level was unacceptable and would be reduced.

We keep coming back to people just asking very basic questions. The Government has accepted the outcome of the job evaluation scheme and the Taoiseach and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform have said they agree with the recommendations and are willing to pay. The issue seems to be about implementation. There is a an absence of transparency and a breakdown of trust between the Government and those representing workers, who are on the low pay spectrum of health service workers. The broader issue is very poor morale across the board within the health service, which the Taoiseach must acknowledge. He has not come to grips with it.

There has been a terrible failure by the Government in providing access to therapies. Deputy John Curran yesterday got a letter from the HSE about a young child who needs continuing access to occupational therapy and physiotherapy when the child moves to another school. Deputy Curran was told the child would have to wait for two years for access to essential therapies. The one defining quality in the area is inertia from the Government when it comes to access to therapies for children with special needs.

To do justice to the other groupings, the Taoiseach will have three minutes to respond.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. When the programme for Government mentions building fair and inclusive prosperity, there are a number of things which the authors, including me, had in mind. The first was that we would get to a point where there would be employment for anybody who wants it, and we are quite close to that point now, with unemployment down to 4.4%. We are approaching full employment, which is a massive turnaround from eight or nine years ago and a significant improvement from three years ago. It was also very much about regional development. Three years ago one of the major criticisms of the recovery was that it was not reaching all parts of the country. While we can never have economic growth absolutely even in every part of the country, it is fair to say that in the past three years we have seen economic growth and increased prosperity spread throughout the country in a more balanced way than it was in the past. We can see that with unemployment going down and employment rising in each county, car sales and many other indicators. It was also about reducing poverty and deprivation. According to the Central Statistics Office, the independent body which examines these things, we have now had four years of the rate of poverty and deprivation falling, with child poverty down by about 30%. These were the kinds of things envisaged when we used the term of "fair and inclusive prosperity". There is of course more to be done and a journey yet to be travelled, which I acknowledge.

With regard to today's dispute in the health sector, I refer Deputies to what I said earlier but add that talks will now resume at the Workplace Relations Commission. I hope those talks will be conclusive in the coming days but if they are not, I still believe the Labour Court is the last port of call and should have been used before this strike happened in the first place.

It would be timely to update the carers' strategy now, given the passage of time and the fact that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has finally been ratified. I point to some of the significant progress that has been made to support carers better in recent years, including additional respite hours and houses; the full restoration of the carer support grant, which is not means-tested; the €15 per week increase in carer's benefit and carer's allowance; and the new 12 week rule that means somebody who has been a carer but is not a carer any more because the person being cared for passes on or moves into an institution, can continue to receive carer's allowance for three months to allow them the opportunity to get back to work or organise life. Free GP care has also been extended to all recipients of carer's allowance and carer's benefit, which is significant because carers have their own healthcare needs. That should not be forgotten.

It is not possible to do everything we would like to do in any one year but I believe those past three years have seen some real progress.

On orthodontics, it is fair to say that we all agree that the current system is not satisfactory. The new oral health policy points out a pathway by which we can adopt a different approach to oral health. That is entitled Smile Agus Sláinte, and I would encourage Deputies to familiarise themselves with that.

I note that Deputy Micheál Martin accuses me of being relentlessly negative. He does not usually accuse me of that. He usually accuses me of being too positive and not willing to accept that there are issues about which to be negative but perhaps I am getting a better balance than I had in the past.

In regard to housing and homelessness, as I mentioned earlier, there were just over 5,000 sustainable exits from homelessness into independent tenancies. That was a significant increase on 2017. Many more people are being lifted out of homelessness but, unfortunately, a roughly similar number are still becoming homeless every year. It is not possible to project when the numbers of people in emergency accommodation will fall because we cannot project accurately the number of different reasons people become homeless, and we know from research that they are manifold. It involves family breakdown-----

The programme for Government said you would bring it to an end. It is the context.

-----notices to quit from the private rental sector and issues around migration, for example. There is no Government that can predict the number of people who will enter into homelessness, any more than we can predict how many families will break down. What we can predict is the number of houses that will be built, particularly the number of houses that will be built by Government. We added 9,000 units to the social housing stock last year and would anticipate 10,000, or more than 10,000, being added to the social housing stock this year. That is the biggest programme of investment in social housing in a very long time and I believe it will make a difference in due course.

So far in the past 12 months alone, there are 22,000 new homes in Ireland, both houses and apartments. People can see that that increase in housing supply is now having an impact on house prices moderating, and falling in some parts of the country, and not increasing as fast as they were in many other parts also.