Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Questions (8, 9, 10)

Michael Moynihan


8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has attended Cabinet committee meetings recently. [37416/19]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald


9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the number and type of Cabinet committee meetings held since June 2019. [37285/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett


10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he has attended Cabinet committee meetings recently. [38537/19]

View answer

Oral answers (45 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 10, inclusive, together.

In June, I chaired a meeting of Cabinet Committee G, justice and equality issues, and in July, I chaired a meeting of Cabinet Committee B, social policy and public services.

On 25 July, the Government decided to reorganise the Cabinet committee structures and established the following committees: economy; social policy and public services; infrastructure; Brexit, foreign and European affairs; environment; and security.

In September, I chaired meetings of the committees on economy; social policy and public services; infrastructure; Brexit, foreign and European affairs; and environment. The security meeting is scheduled.

I would say in passing that the Taoiseach's attitude to Cabinet sub-committees has been poor in terms of efficiency and the structures that he has brought in have been ineffective, particularly in housing and health. In particular, the issue of homelessness continues to get worse. The number, at more than 10,000 people are homeless with 70 new children becoming homeless last month alone, represents a policy that simply has not been working for the past three years. Given the large remit of these Cabinet sub-committees, it does not surprise me. There is no real back-up research under way in terms of initiatives that could change the sad story of homelessness in society which has got worse year after year under the Taoiseach's leadership.

I put it to the Taoiseach that it is likewise in the health area. The Taoiseach spoke about Supplementary Estimates. It has been my view, and it is the view of Mr. Tony O'Brien, the former CEO of the HSE, that the health Estimate has become a dark art and somewhat farcical, and no one seems to get any picture of the needs of the health service until after both the budget and the Estimates process. The Government keeps it closely guarded, gets technocratic and says that it is between the HSE and the Department of Health and then on to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. That is not acceptable. The idea that the Government will off-load the full amount of the overspend in health this year into next year for the first time means there will be significant problems for health in 2020. That is not sustainable. It is not acceptable because the system will not cope.

We already have serious situations in the health service. September was the worse month this year for overcrowding when over 10,000 patients went without a bed. Ten thousand people over the age of 70 are waiting over 24 hours in emergency departments.

I thank the Deputy.

That is not to talk about the home help situation where there are significant delays in terms of home care packages and home helps, with consequential delayed discharges of patients from the acute hospitals where we cannot get locations, etc.-----

Please, Deputy.

There is a real crisis. The Cabinet sub-committees seem ineffective in dealing with the issues of health and housing.

In 2015, we in Sinn Féin published a fully costed ten-year plan to increase the capacity of the health service to achieve equality of access and to ensure it is funded on a fair and sustainable basis. That was followed by the all-party Oireachtas committee's plan, Sláintecare, which similarly provided for the development of a single-tier universal public health service over ten years. Despite the critical need for the solutions outlined by my party and indeed all parties and groupings in this House, including the Taoiseach's, the Government has failed to implement year one of Sláintecare.

There is no sense of urgency from the Government on delivering Sláintecare and it does not appear that the Cabinet committee is pushing its delivery either. Perhaps the Taoiseach can outline for us what proposals or actions the committee has advanced to progress this vital reform in our health service. How quickly, for example, is the roll-out of GP care without charge going to happen? As the Taoiseach knows, because he had a copy of our budget 2020 document yesterday, we have proposed that everyone have access to GP care, not just those with an income so low that they qualify for a medical card or GP visit card, as is the case. The roll-out of free GP care should be advanced next year with two visits covered. That is the average number of visits that people who do not have a medical card make. There is no reason the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform could not follow our lead and introduce two free GP visits for everyone in next week's budget. He should also provide for medical cards for all cancer patients and make sure that older people are no longer forced to reapply for their cards so frequently. We need to see the Cabinet health committee taking a much more proactive role in transforming our health service, as was agreed by all of us through Sláintecare.

As Hurricane Lorenzo careers towards this country, we have further evidence of the greater frequency of extreme weather events and of what the scientists tell us are the results of climate change. The Taoiseach says he wants to do something about that. However, this week - I want to ask if this was discussed at the environment committee - the Government is going to put forward a liquid natural gas terminal, which will cost hundreds of millions, to be built on the Shannon Estuary as a project of common interest on a list for the European Union to import fracked gas, potentially locking this country into the use of fossil fuels and dirty, dangerous fracked gas from the United States for decades to come. That is being done without the approval having been discussed at the joint committee or here in this House. It is absolutely outrageous. As we speak, there are people here from Pennsylvania and other parts of the United States who have come to give testament to the extraordinary pollution, damage and adverse health effects that have been inflicted on the people of Pennsylvania and elsewhere from this fracked gas. Mark Ruffalo, the actor, has been tweeting all week appealing to the Government not to approve this terminal because of the damage to human health and the environment fracking is doing in the United States. We banned fracking in this country because we did not want those effects in our countryside. Do we think simultaneously that it is okay to inflict them on the people of the United States for a so-called transitional fuel which in actuality is every bit as dangerous for global warming as carbon dioxide when we take into account methane leakage?

Deputy Boyd Barrett is absolutely right. We need a full debate on expenditure of any moneys that would facilitate the long-term importing into the State of gas that is produced by fracking. There are real concerns about that.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the whole Cabinet sub-committee structure. Certainly from my experience in government, it was one of the most useful things we could do. We cannot debate in detail with the senior civil servants present at a full Cabinet meeting but at the sub-committees we can invigilate questions, drill down, demand answers, bring in all the relevant people and get papers presented in advance. I do not get a sense that is actually happening but I may be wrong. The Taoiseach might dispel that idea if I am wrong. I am very concerned about an area I was responsible for, namely, public sector reform. It was a mistake not to have a stand-alone Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform because there is just too much to do for a Minister who is jointly responsible for finance and public expenditure and reform. I always believed the reform side would fall by the wayside. Reform is not simply a subject to be focused on in times of crisis; it is ongoing. I repeatedly said that and I think the Taoiseach believes it too. There are big issues in terms of Garda reform that need clear public debate, encouragement and explanation so that people can be brought with us. The issue of morale in the Defence Forces has not been addressed. In terms of the health Estimate - I think I have a fairly good insight into the way health Estimates are constructed - there is a unique dichotomy between a Department of Health which actually organises the budget, makes the bid and argues the case and a HSE which expends and seems to be outside the control of anybody in terms of how it spends money that is argued for by our Department of Health.

The little-known Department of Rural and Community Development is presided over by, it seems at times, a rather unhappy Minister, Deputy Ring. He is happy to be a Minister but deeply unhappy to have no capital funds. I want to give the Taoiseach an example from the constituency that he and I share of something that is being experienced all over the country. In Huntstown and Hartstown in Dublin 15, two community centres have recently been the subject - properly and at their request - of examinations in respect of issues like safety and fire safety. As a result, it has been suggested that significant sums are required for these vital local centres to continue to provide preschool, after-school, Irish dancing, sport and a range of other activities that are vital to every community large and small around the country. These communities do not have the capacity to raise more than €250,000 to refit these community centres to meet, correctly, fire standards. This kind of thing and other issues such as rural roads are small beer in terms of what Taoisigh are involved in. Unless people around the Cabinet table discuss and share the experiences of people who are suffering the loss of services or threatened with losing services, how does it come to the Taoiseach's attention that a simple little community centre in Huntstown and another one in Hartstown desperately need funding? Nobody in government will take responsibility because there is no venue where the matter can be reasonably discussed and proper provision made for what ordinary people and their children do.

To pick up on the Deputy's last question, the Department of Rural and Community Development actually has a very substantial capital budget. I think barely a week or a fortnight goes by that the Minister, Deputy Ring, does not announce capital grants all over the country.

He has a slush fund.

That is a slush fund.

There is, for example, a €1 billion rural development fund and he also has other capital schemes, like the town and village scheme, CLÁR and LEADER. He has made an allocation to Hartstown community centre to assist with the fire safety works. He would be happy to consider a request from Huntstown community centre for the same.

I have a letter on my table this morning telling me this will be brought to the Taoiseach's attention.

On the rural roads, the budget for roads has increased considerably in recent years. I do not have the exact figures in front of me but it is a very considerable increase in funding for local and regional roads. I think this falls under the remit of the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, rather than that of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross. The Government has restored the local improvement scheme to provide funding for roads that have not been taken in charge but are in rural areas. That had been scrapped by the previous Government.

The Taoiseach's drivers must be driving on pothole-free roads.

On the issue of Cabinet committees in general, I believe the Cabinet committee structure is working well. It has been amended slightly in recent months but, for the record, we had five Cabinet sub-committee meetings last month alone. These meetings are attended by officials, advisers and Ministers. They can work well provided there is a tight enough agenda and they are properly prepared for.

The senior officials group which sits behind each of those Cabinet sub-committees does that. For example, the Cabinet sub-committee on the environment met this week, and that was a very good opportunity to review the progress being made on the implementation of the climate action plan and also some other issues around the just transition in particular.

I know from Deputy Martin's contributions in the Chamber that he is very keen on having extra reports and extra committees, and setting up new Government Departments and agencies. While that is not wrong in itself, I suspect it might actually be concealing a lack of real policies from the Fianna Fáil Party. For example, the Fianna Fáil Party policy on education is to set up a new Department of higher education. While that is fine, it cannot set up a new Department with a senior Minister unless it is willing to get rid of an existing Department. We have yet to hear from Fianna Fáil whether it intends to get rid of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or the Department of Rural and Community Development. The same goes for the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It is possible to have two separate Departments with two senior Ministers but it is not a serious suggestion if one is not willing to say which of the existing Departments one would downgrade.

We have already published our position on that.

I thank the Taoiseach. We move to Question No. 11.

I will look up which Department the Labour Party wishes to abolish or downgrade.

The Taoiseach should concentrate on his own policy.

Even more recently, the response by Fianna Fáil to the appalling attack on Kevin Lunney was to set up a new agency. I do not think that is much of a policy, quite frankly.

The Taoiseach should not be flippant about that. It is a serious issue.

It is a serious issue and it requires a better response. What it requires is the response we are getting from Government, which is more gardaí and an armed support unit in the Border region, and much more co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána. The solution is not setting up another agency, it really is not.

The Taoiseach is wrong.

In regard to the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services, the last meeting of that committee was held only last month and it reviewed progress being made in regard to the implementation of Sláintecare. That goes to the Cabinet committee first and then the quarterly report goes to Cabinet. That indicates the good progress that is being made and it will be published quite soon.

In terms of Government policy on extending free GP care, as has been indicated already, we intend to extend it to all seven and eight year olds next year, around July, and to all nine and ten year olds the year after, adding two years in a stepwise fashion. I think it is important to do it gradually because we do not want to overwhelm GP surgeries with extra attendees. We know from the extension to the under sixes that there was a very considerable increase in attendances when it was made free, so we need to do it bit by bit.

Extending it to seven and eight year olds is, of course, in addition to groups that have already been brought in, such as the over 70s and the under sixes in coalition with Labour Party, and in coalition with the Independents, to carers, in regard to the higher income limits for the GP visit card and to all children in receipt of disability care allowance.

We must move on to the next question.

Can I have an answer on LNG?

I want to make the point to Members, with all due respect-----

Mine was the only question not answered.

With all due respect to everyone, this is meant to be questions to the Taoiseach. If Members avail of the opportunity to make long speeches, the time is not left for the Taoiseach to reply. I am entirely in your hands. Can we now-----

Mine was the only question not answered.

The Taoiseach asked questions of the Opposition.

They never get answered.

As far as I can observe, we have a minute and a half of commentary rather than a minute and a half of questions. Can we go on to Question No. 11, please?

Can I have a brief answer to my question?

No, you cannot. We are moving to Question No. 11.

Mine was the only question not answered.

I will tell you what we will do. Will we forget about Question No. 11 and keep going on this?

I just want a brief answer.

We are out of time. Does the Taoiseach want to say something briefly?

The question the Deputy asked was whether the LNG terminal was discussed at the Cabinet committee. It was not. My understanding is that the LNG terminal could be used to receive fracked gas, but not necessarily or exclusively. It could receive any liquefied natural gas so it could be used to receive gas transported by sea that is not fracked.

That is not acceptable.