Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Questions (4)

Joan Burton


4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach to outline the status of Bills under preparation in his Department. [42282/19]

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Oral answers (15 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

The sole Bill being prepared by my Department is the national economic and social development office (amendment) Bill. This Bill will provide for the dissolution of the national economic and social development office corporate framework, which is no longer necessary. It also deals with related matters, including the transfer of functions to the National Economic and Social Council, NESC. Work is under way to prepare the heads of the Bill, but it is not a legislative priority for Government as it is merely a technical change that does not impact on the essential or day-to-day functions of the NESC.

One of the reasons there has been a great deal of support for the Taoiseach and the Government in the context of Brexit from parties across the House is that we had a model of economic and social structure and oversight that has allowed national debates on issues of national importance with the aim of progressing economic and social issues.

I am disappointed that more progress has not been made with this Bill. The Economic and Social Research Institute has made a significant contribution to the debate on how we should address the housing crisis. Bringing forward the Bill would give us the opportunity to relaunch social partnership and social dialogue, though I am aware that Fine Gael has problems with these. The outcome of Brexit is likely to be difficult for much of the United Kingdom and, in different areas, for Ireland. As a result, having a social partnership structure through a national economic and social development office, under the oversight of the Department of the Taoiseach, would offer us an opportunity to look at where we want to go and what kind of society we want to have. In particular, we could examine issues like working people being paid properly and moving to a living wage rather than just being paid a minimum wage, and providing training and education opportunities for young people and the 8%, 11%, 15 % and 25% of those who, in certain areas, are unemployed in an economy in which the overall unemployment rate is close to 5%. This would be an important focus for a national economic and social development office. Does the Taoiseach intend to bring forward this legislation or has it been permanently parked until there can be some agreement that it would contribute to national economic and social development?

As every Deputy knows, in the past few years the reality of hard drugs has hit more and more communities. In places where heroin was unknown, even during tough times, young people have been targeted by the ruthless gangs who promote addiction and destruction for their own profit. The Taoiseach will be aware of the report of the Blanchardstown drugs and alcohol task force on a new and devastating trend of gangs recruiting young children to sell drugs for them. Deputy Curran has published a Bill to target the savages who recruit children as young as eight to sell drugs. Notwithstanding the paucity of legislation coming from his Department, would the Taoiseach agree that this is a measure to which he could contribute and which he could help to accelerate in order to ensure that it is passed as soon as possible?

The policy adopted in 2011 to permanently abolish a highly effective approach to local development has directly undermined the focus on helping communities in which there are high levels of drug use. Deputy Burton is correct that the social partnership framework facilitated a targeted approach and that an all-agency approach, in which central Government took a major role, has been replaced by one which is more fractured and lacking in any real central leadership. The Taoiseach indicated how much he admires the work of the north-east inner city task force but that is what we had in many of the areas which suffered most acutely from drugs. Why is an approach with more dedicated funding and central leadership not being extended to other areas?

I have a positive suggestion in the context of something the Department could do, namely, take the lead role in the area of disability rights and services. Even today, two Deputies raised various issues of mental health and disability services on Leaders' Questions while carers were protesting outside about what they did not get in the rather miserable budget. This morning, two disability activists were removed from Connolly Station following their ongoing campaign to highlight the constant breakdown of lifts at DART stations, a matter I raised last week only for more lifts - ten in total - to be broken last weekend than ever before. The lift at Seapoint in my area has been out of service for months. The list goes on and there are many issues. Activists state that disability issues are dealt with by the Departments of Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Health but nobody takes the overview of driving through the commitment to equality as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Department of the Taoiseach is ideally suited to this role as it could afford the issue the importance and significance it deserves in order to achieve equality and real rights for people with disabilities.

Deputy Burton is absolutely correct that the broad policy consensus in Ireland regarding social, economic and foreign policy has been beneficial. It has been one of our strengths in recent years that the political parties are so similar in their outlook in those areas. This has given people, such as those who invest here, and governments in other countries a great deal of confidence in Ireland. Those to whom I refer know that even if there is a change of Government here, fundamental social, economic and foreign policy will probably not change all that much.

The reason the Bill has not been prioritised is that it is really just technical legislation designed to restructure NESDO-NESC, while having no impact on the workings of the National Economic and Social Development Office and the National Economic and Social Council. The Government can get through in the region of 40 items of legislation per year. The 40 we pick tend to be those we have to do for one reason or another or those which will make a positive difference in people's lives. Those we do not prioritise are measures that would not have much effect on anything at all. This is a logical and sensible approach to prioritising legislation.

On the wider questions of social partnership and social dialogue, I would argue that the Government has relaunched a form of social partnership with the national economic dialogue, which was spearheaded by the then Minister, Deputy Howlin, but has been continued by this Government. In addition, the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEAF, allows Government to engage regularly in a structured way with unions and employers on issues such employment law, pensions and other things on which Government should engage with ICTU and IBEC, among others. We have tried to avoid going back to the form of social partnership that existed before the financial crisis, which we feel took decisions away from the elected Government and the elected Dáil and Seanad. While it was inclusive of some, it was exclusive of others and there was nobody there to represent the self employed, sole traders, the majority of small businesses that are not affiliated to IBEC, the taxpayer - though lots of people wanted to spend taxpayers' money - or consumers, even though there were many who produced things which they expected consumers to buy. That was the flaw in the old form of social partnership and I am pleased that neither the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government nor the Fine Gael-Independent Government decided to go back to it.

The north-east inner city partnership has been a very good and very successful project. I am not sure it would be possible to follow the model in all areas of deprivation around the country.

We had it before.

We did not. What is being done in the north-east inner city goes way beyond what was done in terms of community development under RAPID and other schemes. I have asked my Department, along with the Department for Rural and Community Development, to examine what we could do to learn from the north east inner city task force and apply it to areas of significant disadvantage around the country. We do not want to reinvent RAPID but we are considering an initiative that will enable us to learn from it, and from the north-east inner city task force.

What about Deputy Curran's Bill?

To which Bill is the Deputy referring?

The Bill aims to make it a criminal offence for gangs to use young people to sell drugs.

It provides for sanctions against those who use young people to deliver drugs, sell drugs or gain entry to complexes where they deliver drugs. It is a real problem in Dublin.

I know it is a problem but I am not familiar with the Bill. I will check up on it.

The Bill aims to sanction such activities. There is currently no such offence.

There is no such offence, but the Bill would provide for such a sanction. I ask the Taoiseach to give it further consideration.

I will. I am familiar with the issue but not with Deputy Curran's Bill. I will check up on it. If it is a good idea and the Bill is in good order, I am sure we can work with the Opposition to progress it.

On the question asked by Deputy Boyd Barrett, people often suggest that X, Y or Z be brought into the Department of the Taoiseach because they believe that would afford it more priority and more co-ordination. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It is a very small Department with only 150 staff. It is minuscule compared with the Department of Health or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, for example. What would happen if something as important as disability was brought into such a small Department is that it would fall behind our core functions such as Brexit, European affairs, Northern Ireland and engaging with other Prime Ministers' offices. That would not be a good idea.

We have taken the right approach by having for the first time a Minister of State at the Cabinet table with sole responsibility for disability services at the Departments of Health, Justice and Equality, and Employment Affairs and Social Protection, thus co-ordinating all of the work that is being done. As we have a Minister of State with responsibility for disability at the Cabinet table, that is why we are in a position to do what other governments did not, namely, ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, increase the budget for disability to more than €2 billion for the first time, increase the disability allowance and have a real and meaningful programme to encourage and assist more people with disabilities to get into the workplace. All of those things that were done in recent years were aided by the fact that for the first time ever there was a person at the Cabinet table with sole responsibility for disability and co-ordinating that work.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.