Richard Boyd BarrettQuestion:
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
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
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
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
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
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 benefiting 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 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 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 anymore 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.
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the projected costs of the commission of investigation into IBRC. [25245/19]View answer
Following consultations with Opposition parties by the then Minister for Finance, the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, commission of investigation was established in June 2015. The commission is entirely independent in its work and Mr. Justice Brian Cregan is its sole member.
The commission was originally due to issue its final report by the end of December 2015, at an estimated cost of €4 million, excluding any third party costs.
The commission is required to investigate certain transactions, activities and management decisions at the IBRC and in its first module it is investigating the Siteserv transaction, which has been identified as a matter of significant public concern in Dáil Éireann.
In the commission’s sixth interim report, Mr. Justice Cregan requested an extension of the deadline for reporting until the end of March 2020. He also responded to several issues that I had raised with him in December last year regarding the estimated final cost of the investigation, the timescale for completion of the commission’s work and whether it would be possible for the commission to reach interim findings.
On 31 May 2019, following completion of consultations with the Opposition party representatives, I agreed to extend the commission’s timeframe for reporting until 31 March 2020. I also arranged for the commission’s sixth interim report to be published on my Department’s website and laid before the Houses.
Other than what has been published in the commission’s interim reports, I have no information on the status of its investigation as the commission is completely independent in its work.
Regarding costs, the commission’s sixth interim report provides an estimated final cost of the completion of the first module of its investigation, regarding the Siteserv transaction, of €11 million to €14 million. However, this estimate assumes the investigation is completed in accordance with the timetable set out in the interim report and excludes costs or delays associated with judicial review hearings.
The commission also acknowledges that it also involves a substantial degree of uncertainty regarding the amount of costs actually recoverable by parties before the commission and it assumes that the commission’s legal costs guidelines are not successfully challenged.
As I have informed Opposition party representatives, my Department continues to be of the view that the final cost is likely to significantly exceed Mr. Justice Cregan's estimate and could be of the order of €30 million.
We clearly do not have a firm indication of the projected costs of the first module of this commission of investigation. The Taoiseach is suggesting that the report indicates something of the order of €11 million to €14 million. Nor can we be in any way confident that the report will be concluded by 31 March next year. I appreciate that judicial review proceedings are under way that almost certainly will impact on the timeframe the Taoiseach has set out. We are in the fifth year of this commission of investigation relating to the controversial Siteserv transaction, which is the first module of many. It might be worth the Taoiseach's time to remind the House the number of modules that are expected. This is the first one and we do not have a timeline or an end cost on it.
We have had six interim reports to date. The commission has not revealed any substantial details surrounding the controversy in the six interim reports over five years. As the Taoiseach has indicated to the House again, the latest deadline for completion is set for the end of March next year and the cost may be €30 million, but we do not know. However, it seems that even this extended deadline is in jeopardy. Mr. Justice Cregan stated in his most recent report that a legal action taken "could pose a significant obstacle to the commission's ability to complete its work by its proposed end date".
We need to have an open and clear conversation about where this commission of investigation is going. How long does the Taoiseach perceive it will be before we finish the first module? What is his best estimate of that? Is it intended then to continue on to the many more modules, and at what ultimate cost? That will enable us to understand when the issues of concern will be addressed and we can have answers to the questions that were posed in this House. What cost will the full investigation of these matters reach?
Next month, this inquiry into a small part of the transactions process by the IBRC will have taken longer than the entire period in which the IBRC existed. That is an extraordinary fact. It is quite shocking on any reasonable level that it would take so long to investigate a transaction with the objective of ascertaining whether value was achieved for the taxpayer.
When commissions of investigation were established originally they were meant to be an alternative to tribunals. They were meant to be a far more cost-effective way of getting the facts of any basic issue identified. In this context, we amended the legislation to create a particular model to facilitate this investigation and the Oireachtas agreed to that. To call a spade a spade, whatever one says and whatever one's views are, this has not worked in terms of the objective of investigating one transaction.
From a democratic and a financial perspective, something needs to be done because the public deserves answers. The Dáil and the Oireachtas deserve answers in terms of these issues. I do not know whether it is open to the Dáil to undertake an independent evaluation into the procedures being used and the extent of the areas being covered and whether the Oireachtas can then satisfy itself that it should continue to proceed or look at another way of getting answers to the basic questions that were put in regard to that transaction. After all, this is about the public having access to all of the information through the Oireachtas.
I appreciate the fact that the Taoiseach is not in a position to have access to what the inquiry is doing but it would be interesting to know whether core accounting and economic work has been undertaken in regard to the issue. I was not able to attend that last meeting but I am not clear about the Taoiseach's own views on how it should proceed from here onwards. I would be interested in his perspective on that.
Deputy Cullinane has asked to make a short supplementary question.
This is a challenge for us all. A balance must be struck between establishing the facts, which is why the commission was established in the first place, and the commission doing its work in a timely and cost effective fashion. The Taoiseach has brought representatives of all parties and groupings together on several occasions to seek advice, which was the right thing to do. Advice was given. I deputised for Teachta McDonald at the last meeting. I understand that she wrote to the Taoiseach asking that he seek a commitment from Mr. Justice Cregan that the costs be kept to an absolute minimum and that the one-year extension that is being examined be a one year extension and that then we would see a report. There are risks attached to this, including court challenges and there might be issues outside the control of Mr. Justice Cregan, and us.
Has the Taoiseach written to Mr. Justice Cregan since that meeting with the representatives of different parties and groupings and, if so, what was the nature of the communication and what was his response? As others said, there is a reasonable attempt to get information about something important and something which some people see as questionable in terms of process, and establishing the facts and the truth, but also making sure that is done in a timely and cost effective way. We can all accept that it is not happening to the satisfaction of all parties and groupings in the House including, I imagine, the Government.
Deputy Howlin asked about the number of modules so far. Only one module is currently being dealt with, namely that on Siteserv. I think there are 20 or 30, off the top of my head, but I will have to double check.
There are 28, I think.
One is not yet complete and there are 27 yet to begin. The commission was established by the Oireachtas, largely on foot of demands from members of the Opposition. It is independent and is not being run or directed by the Government in any way. The time it is taking and the rising cost of the investigation demonstrate the real difficulty in carrying out inquiries into what are ultimately commercial transactions, as well as the need for the need for us to be cautious when we set up commissions of investigation. Between ten and 20 commissions are currently running and we must ensure that the threshold we set is appropriate.
On costs and the commission's approach to its work, in its fourth interim report the commission stated that it is open to discussion with the Department of the Taoiseach on how to conduct its work in the most efficient manner possible, consistent with the applicable legislative and constitutional requirements of due process, as to how the duration of its investigation might be shortened. On foot of this, my officials met the commission to discuss the matter. As I said, the commission is independent in its work. It must also be borne in mind that any changes to its terms of reference or the number of modules to be completed as part of its investigation would require both Government and Oireachtas approval.
As required under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004, the IBRC commission's legal cost guidelines were prepared at the commission's outset by the Taoiseach as the specified Minister with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and in consultation with the commission. The fourth interim report said that in its view, the guidelines are inadequate and there needed to be proper consultation between the commission and the Departments of the Taoiseach and Public Expenditure and Reform in order to establish supplemental guidelines to meet the particular needs of persons involved in the commission. The commission also stated that various witnesses have made submissions to it and are concerned that they will be out of pocket for legal expenses that they incurred in order to comply with the commission's directions and to protect their own good names and reputations. My Department met with the commission to discuss this proposal for supplemental guidelines, however it is not intended to revise the commission's legal cost guidelines. In this context, the potential cost implications for other existing or future commissions must also be considered.
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit. [25247/19]View answer
6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit of his Department. [25591/19]View answer
7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit. [26758/19]View answer
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, together.
The parliamentary liaison unit, PLU, was established in 2016. There are currently 3.5 whole-time equivalent staff working in the unit: one principal officer, 1.5 higher executive officers and one clerical officer.
The make-up of this current Dáil and the new procedures that have come into place as a result of Dáil reform have resulted in the Government doing its business in a different way to previous Governments. This has also meant an increased work load for Departments particularly in relation to the volume of work related to Private Members’ business.
The parliamentary liaison unit was set up to perform a liaison function to help ensure that Ministers and Departments are properly informed of new responsibilities and procedures in the Thirty-second Dáil.
Its role is to facilitate the enhanced relationship between the Government and the Oireachtas and in this regard its work is complementary to that of the Office of the Government Chief Whip helping to ensure the implementation of the Government’s legislative programme.
The unit also liaises on a regular basis with advisers and Departments with a view to ensuring that they are aware of Oireachtas issues and to assist them in engaging with the new procedures arising from Dáil reform.
In addition, the PLU works closely with Departments on their input to Private Members' business in both the Dáil and the Seanad. In the current Thirty-second Dáil, 11 Private Members Bills have been enacted, which is a record. In the previous four Dáileanna, going back to 1997, just seven such Bills were enacted.
The PLU will continue to provide guidance and advice for Departments on parliamentary business.
The parliamentary liaison unit meets "on a regular basis with advisers and Departments with a view to ensuring that they are aware of Oireachtas issues and to assist them in engaging with the new procedures arising from Dáil reform." One of the most controversial aspects of this new politics and the new parliamentary arithmetic is the use by the Government of money messages to stall Opposition Bills. To date 55 Opposition Bills are stuck awaiting a money message. It is increasingly seen as a tool simply to prevent opposition Bills from advancing despite discussions we had at the outset of this Dáil that we would try to equalise the capacity of every Member of this Dáil to bring forward legislation. Obviously, it would have to be up to a standard, be appropriate and so on.
Alongside the money message delaying tactic, the Government has adopted a new strategy of bringing in parallel Bills on matters of public interest where the Opposition has already tabled Bills. Recent examples are Government Bills promised on tips, fur farming and on the gender pay-gap, on which the Labour Party has tabled legislation. This is instead of working in the spirit of new politics with the Opposition on Bills on the Order Paper.
I am sure the Taoiseach has seen the opinion of law lecturers Dr. Eoin Daly and Dr. David Kenny in The Irish Times last week outlining how the abuse of the money message provision is constitutionally dubious and could precipitate a constitutional crisis. They say:
Article 17.2 exists for a specific and narrow purpose: to prevent the Oireachtas from pursuing a conflicting fiscal agenda and undermining the coherent management of State finances.
The phraseology is also quite specific: it refers to laws “for the appropriation of revenue” which suggests it refers to laws whose purpose is to spend, and not laws which may have the effect of incurring some expenditure.
Whether it is in the Oireachtas itself or in Departments, a much broader interpretation has been taken of the money message rule than is clearly intended in the Constitution.
Will the Taoiseach reflect again on this issue? Is it his view that the money message issue should be resolved so that, even in terms of perception, it is not seen as a device to be used to stop the advance of Opposition legislation?
Last week, I accused the Government of sabotaging the democratic and legislative process because of the use of money messages on 55 Bills. I am glad that generated quite a significant debate in the following week. People Before Profit seems to be particularly hard hit by this and I do not believe it is a coincidence. Our climate emergency measures Bill, medicinal cannabis Bill, Anti-Evictions Bill and objective sex education Bill were all money messaged. Quite a way back, we introduced the first Bill to ban fracking in this country and, as Deputy Howlin indicated, lo and behold, shortly afterwards a Fine Gael Bill to ban fracking was published, although it permitted offshore fracking to continue.
In response to this, the Taoiseach said the Ceann Comhairle made the decision and it had nothing to do with the Government. That is not true when it comes to the climate emergency measures Bill and this needs to be said very publicly. Last February, after it passed Second Stage, the Ceann Comhairle stated the Bill to keep fossil fuels in the ground did not need a money message. Subsequently, on Second Stage and during pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, the Government did not raise any suggestion there was a charge on the Exchequer, not even incidental costs, because it thought it could stop it another way, which it attempted to do by holding it hostage at the joint committee. We voted to get it back to the committee and just a few days before it was due to go to the committee for scrutiny, the Minister contacted the Ceann Comhairle and said that by the way, 18 months later, there were a few costs through the return of licensing fees and potential legal action. None of this is true. We have a legal opinion from barristers to state they are made up costs.
The Government has misinformed the Ceann Comhairle because there are no licence fees to be returned. The terms and conditions for licences for gas, oil and exploration are explicit. They explicitly state the Minister cannot have any actions taken against him or her. He or she can vary the licences, withdraw, cancel or delay them and do what the hell he or she likes with them and this is set out clearly in the terms for issuing licences. The Government has misled the Ceann Comhairle in a desperate last-minute effort to apply a money message to a Bill that even it did not suggest needed a money message before and where the Ceann Comhairle had previously concluded it did not need one. There could not be a clearer example of the subversion and abuse of the democratic and legislative process than this. This should stop. The Government should withdraw the suggestion there are costs related to the Bill when they do not exist.
I remind Deputies only six minutes remain in total.
Committee Stage of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 has been deferred and I want to raise a number of concerns relating to the Government's treatment of adopted people in the context of the Bill. Last week, the Minister, Deputy Zappone, told Senators that she met advocacy groups, lawyers and social workers only the night before to listen to their views on controversial amendments to the Bill. Adoptees and their advocates were not consulted in the drafting of any of the amendments or before they were circulated to Members. It is not enough just to listen to and hear arguments against limiting adoptees' rights to their own information. The Government must now reshape the legislation. The Minister has committed to delivering a culture of transparency and openness for adoptees but that is not what the Bill provides. The Adoption Rights Alliance warned that if the legislation proceeds as it is, the Minister will facilitate an egregious step backwards in the era of progressive social change. Information and contact are two completely different matters and the balancing of rights arguments behind which the Government and Attorney General have hidden are ill-placed and ill-judged. Why, in 2019, is the State's instinctive response to issues such as this still to be secretive and paternalistic? How does the Government intend to proceed with the legislation, given that it has been deferred? Will the provisions of the Bill dealing with access to information be revised and when will this be completed?
I agree with what Deputies Howlin and Boyd Barrett have said on the money message. At the beginning of this Dáil there was a general view it would be a new era in terms of utilisation of the money message and that it would not be abused. In fact, the Standing Order subsequently adopted goes further than the Constitution and restricts legislation even more. The Government has shamelessly abused the money message. Deputy Boyd Barrett need not develop victimhood because it has happened to all Bills.
A Bill from Deputy Jack Chambers on thalidomide victims was money messaged. Deputy Jim O’Callaghan's judicial appointments Bill was money messaged because the Government had to look after Deputy Shane Ross and his persistence and vendetta against the Judiciary. There are many more examples. There is a need to amend the existing Standing Order and Deputy Jack Chambers has tabled a motion to do so to circumvent the abuse going on.
The political liaison unit has come up at various times in the past and we are slowly getting a picture, which is a lot more complex than the Taoiseach originally informed us. His opening position was that the unit was there to make sure the entire Oireachtas was consulted. Eventually, he said the unit is there to liaise only with Deputies who support the Government and is not a general aid to all Deputies. This raised questions because some Deputies who do not have public deals with the Government appeared to have some formative arrangement with this unit in the Taoiseach's office. A number of Deputies raised this with the Taoiseach and demanded the full list of Deputies receiving preferential treatment be published, as it had been in every previous Government supported by Independent Deputies. The Taoiseach said he had no problem telling us who is helped by the unit and on what basis they receive this help but we have still not received this information and there appears to be a refusal to provide it. Will the Taoiseach explain why this information is being withheld? It is fairly simple. Which Deputies who do not have a published arrangement with the Government receive support from the Taoiseach's special unit for helping some Deputies? We could take this down the route of a freedom of information request but it would look very suspicious if we were forced to go that far to drag this information from the Taoiseach.
I call the Taoiseach to make the best of two minutes.
I will do my best. I do not have any direct involvement or contact with the parliamentary liaison unit but I understand its main involvement is with Ministers rather than Deputies. It was established to perform a liaison function to help Ministers to be properly informed of the new responsibilities and procedures in the Thirty-second Dáil. In this regard, the main focus of the unit is to liaise with Departments and advisers on Oireachtas matters, with particular emphasis on assisting Departments with Private Members' business. It is not the function of the unit to ensure the support of Deputies in the House; that is a political function. The parliamentary liaison unit provides factual information on Dáil and Seanad issues and on Dáil reform. Primarily, the unit assists Departments and advisers on Oireachtas matters.
With regard to Private Members' Bills, as I said previously, perhaps yesterday, it is the Ceann Comhairle's function to decide whether a money message is required and it is entirely within the prerogative of the Ceann Comhairle to make that decision at whatever point he deems appropriate. Whether they are issued is, of course, a matter for the Government. In doing so, we always want to make sure the legislation is properly costed in terms of the direct effect on the Exchequer and an effect on the Exchequer that may occur down the line as a consequence of the legislation. We also need to assess whether those costs are budgeted for and whether the Oireachtas has voted money to meet those costs. A protocol on money messages has been in place for approximately six months. It is working relatively well but we agreed to review it at the end of the parliamentary session and perhaps we should do so in the coming weeks or before the next session begins.
As I mentioned earlier, 11 Private Members' Bills have been passed by the Dáil in the past three years. Only seven were passed in the entire 20 years before that. We have seen a step change in the number of Private Members' Bills that have become law.
The 11 do not include legislation superseded by Government legislation with the same objective. It is much higher if they are added. Article 17.2 of the Constitution requires a money message for any vote, resolution or law to be passed by the Dáil involving the appropriation of revenue or any other public moneys.
The memorandum of understanding, MOU, between the Government and the Dáil on Private Members' Bills provides a framework for decisions to be made by Government on the issuing of money messages. The MOU acknowledges the role, responsibilities and accountability of the Government under the Constitution regarding public expenditure. The MOU between the Dáil and the Government states:
The Government has a constitutional role in managing the fiscal and executive affairs of the State and is accountable to the Dáil under Article 28. The Government has absolute prerogative under Article 17.2 of the Constitution as to whether to grant a Money Message or not.
The MOU puts in place a procedure where Private Members' Bills will undergo detailed scrutiny in exchange for a response from the Government on whether a money message will issue or not. Scrutiny is undertaken by the relevant committee after the Bill has passed on Second Stage. It constitutes a separate course in advance of Committee Stage. The Order for Committee Stage cannot be moved until that is completed. A scrutiny report will then have to be laid before the Houses and the money message is not requested until the Order for Committee Stage is moved.
The Government is committed to providing a response to the Oireachtas within six weeks of receiving the request for a money message. Currently, 68 Private Members' Bills have been referred to committee. Of those, 55 require a money message and the Government has provided a response to eight of those. Money messages issued for the National Famine Commemoration Day Bill 2017, Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014, Electoral (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014 and Consumer Insurance Contracts Bill 2017, while reasoned responses issued for the Waste Reduction Bill 2017, Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2017, Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2015, and Island Fisheries (Heritage Licence) Bill 2017.
Some 15 Bills are still under consideration and a number of committees and sponsors have been contacted by Ministers requesting more time to consider the proposed legislation. Another 32 Bills are either undergoing, awaiting or have completed scrutiny. Two Private Members' Bills have received a money message and completed Committee Stage but are not yet enacted.