Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the progress of his plans for a high-level review of the economy to be led by his Department. [41491/20]

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Paul Murphy


2. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the progress of his plans for a high-level review of the economy to be led by his Department. [43141/20]

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Paul Murphy


3. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if his Department has convened the well-being expert group as committed to in the programme for Government. [43143/20]

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Alan Kelly


4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the progress of his plans for a high-level review of the economy to be led by his Department. [43179/20]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the progress of his plans for a high-level review of the economy to be led by his Department. [43544/20]

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Mick Barry


6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the progress of his plans for a high-level review of the economy to be led by his Department. [43555/20]

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Oral answers (14 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

The Government will shortly publish the national economic plan, a high-level framework setting out the Government’s priorities for a jobs-led sustainable and inclusive recovery. The plan will build upon commitments in the programme for Government relating to a high-level review of the economy and the development of a well-being framework. The plan will reflect our priorities for how the economy can best recover in the next few years, including for sectors worst affected by the pandemic, and will build on relevant sectoral reviews and reports. There is a recognised need for more comprehensive and holistic tools to better assess well-being and progress. To this end, the Government is committed to developing a comprehensive well-being framework to allow a more rounded view of national progress. In developing this framework, the Government will build on national work to date and best international approaches, including recently published research by the Department of Finance, and will also engage in external consultation. The overall approach to the plan will be based on a number of key themes: building resilience across enterprise and sectors; an inclusive and regionally balanced recovery; and future-proofing our environment and economy. This approach will be supported by the two core principles of maintaining sustainable and credible public finances and supporting strategic investment to boost jobs and growth.

I note the Government decision to postpone the scheduled Dáil vote on the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, CETA, between Canada and the EU. Shoehorning the vote into this week's Dáil schedule was wrong, as was any attempt to use Brexit to justify rushing a motion through. After the Seanad rejected CETA in October 2016, the previous Government consistently set its face against a robust debate on this controversial deal. We had hoped that the Taoiseach would take a different tack and that a thorough analysis would be carried out on CETA before it was brought to the floor of the Dáil for discussion. Members of the current and previous Governments have sought to present the significant concerns raised across Europe as isolationist or anti-free trade. That opinion is not just reckless; it is lazy and does a massive disservice to citizens across the EU who are committed to peace, free trade, the upholding of employment rights and our shared responsibility to protect the environment. The Government needs to engage on the substantive issues of concern and to respond to them in depth. The investment court system is a massive problem for all member states. It is a repackaging of the investor-state dispute settlement scheme. On that basis, it is alarming that the current and former Governments have worked so hard to avoid a proper debate on this deal. Will the Taoiseach deliver a full impact assessment of the investment court system and CETA's non-tariff barriers in advance of a future Dáil debate on Ireland's ratification of this deal?

The Taoiseach's attempt to ram through the CETA deal this week has been pushed back but it is reported that he will try again in January to drive through what is bad deal for workers and the climate and a charter for billionaires and big businesses. This is a deal that gives corporations the right to sue states in a parallel justice system, which only corporations and investors can access, if governments and states take actions which impede their potential profits. I will give just three examples out of approximately 1,000 investor-state cases worldwide involving Canadian companies. Eco Oro is suing the Colombian Government for almost $1 billion for interfering with its mining rights, a different Canadian mining company is suing Romania for almost $6 billion for interfering with its mining rights and yet another corporation is suing Croatia for removing its illegal permits given for a golf course. How on earth can the Taoiseach stand over handing over more power to corporations which engage, in the words of Joseph Stiglitz, in "litigation terrorism"? The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was right in 2017 when he said it is wrong that this exact same deal provides for a dispute resolution mechanism under which corporations have power over governments and over our courts. Does the Taoiseach agree with what the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said then or does he agree with him now? The Minister has not explained his change of position or his apparent support for CETA now.

Today is day 250 of the Debenhams dispute. Almost 1,000 workers, most of whom are women, and their families have suffered terrible hardship. They have endured a long battle for a just and fair redundancy and still, in the teeth of Christmas, they remain out protesting. I heard the Taoiseach's response to Deputy Barry earlier. He spoke about not engaging in a blame game. I want to be very clear that this Government and the previous Fine Gael-Labour Party Government have a responsibility for the failure to legislate after Clerys. Anyone who has been in government since Clerys has a responsibility, not just to implement the Duffy Cahill Report but to address all of the issues that can leave a group of workers like the Debenhams workers in a situation where they do not get a just and fair redundancy. That failure puts a responsibility on the Taoiseach to sort it out, which he has not done, and to ensure a just redundancy for them.

I was on the phone to the Arcadia workers this week. They number approximately 470 and are employed in Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Burton and other outlets where liquidation is under way. They could find themselves in the same situation as the Debenhams workers. It is the Government's responsibility to ensure workers do not find themselves in that situation. The Taoiseach must take responsibility for the collective failure of governments to prevent this from happening in the first place.

The Government is currently reviewing the travel and accommodation allowance for student nurses and midwives. I want to remind him that the allowance was introduced in 2004 at a maximum of €50.79 per week. Sixteen years on, it still stands at €50.79 per week. It has not increased by one single penny in 16 years. I am sure the price of travel has gone up quite a bit in 16 years and I am absolutely certain that the price of rent has increased. Would the Taoiseach agree that the fact that this allowance has been frozen for 16 years is yet another sign of a massive underappreciation of the role of student nurses and midwives by the political establishment? Would he further agree that any rise in this allowance must now be major rather than minor?

A debate on CETA was initiated by Fianna Fáil in the last Dáil. Indeed, we initiated it in our own Private Members' time. I have always been in favour of debate on the Canada-EU free trade agreement. I believe in trade. The decisions of Seán Lemass in the 1960s led to the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1965, which removed tariffs and quotas on trade with Britain. That was a precursor to Ireland joining the European Union. Seán Lemass was way ahead of his time, as was Fianna Fáil, while many other parties objected to joining the then EEC. We have the same old continuation of some of the residual legacy arguments from that time. I have heard very few pro-trade contributions in this House in recent years. As a former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I know that trade is the esprit de corps of our economy.

The owners of many small and medium-sized companies depend on trade to create jobs and to add value to those companies. Those in the SME sector were very happy with the Canada-European Union free trade deal. They saw it as a positive move that would help them sell more of their software, healthcare solutions, water products and so on. We have a very exciting entrepreneurial sector in Ireland that depends on exporting its goods and services abroad. With regard to creating jobs, the more of these agreements we have, the better.

People talk about corporations having too much power under CETA. Corporations in Ireland employ hundreds of thousands of people. I never hear Deputies Paul Murphy, Barry or Boyd Barrett say that. That debate needs to happen. No one was trying to ram any debate through the House. Sinn Féin sought an extra ten minutes. That was its contribution. It was happy with an extra ten minutes. Now that this political situation has arisen, it may feel it can create the impression that we are trying to ram something through, which we are not. This agreement has been in place provisionally for the last three years. It is actually operational.

The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has correctly pointed out that the agreement has changed. The Court of Justice of the European Union, CJEU, in its opinion 1/17, dealt with the question of whether CETA's reformed investment rules comply with certain fundamental principles of European law, such as autonomy. In a nutshell, the court held that CETA's chapter on investment is fully compatible with European law and the treaties, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

That does not mean it is right.

It is the Commission's contention that the chapter of CETA on investment fully guarantees the protection of public interest measures from challenges by investors. One of the concerns raised in that case was whether CETA was compatible with the principle of equality before the law under Article 20 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of nationality. In this regard the CJEU reiterated its previous ruling that treaties concluded by the European Union must be compatible with fundamental rights, including those found in the charter. The CJEU also held that the CETA tribunal would have no jurisdiction to interpret or apply rules of European Union law other than the provisions of CETA itself. Furthermore, the tribunal may not challenge choices democratically made within Canada or the European Union regarding the level of protection afforded to public order, public safety, public morals or the health and life of humans and animals, the preservation of food safety, the protection of plants and the environment, welfare at work, product safety, consumer protection or any equally fundamental rights. Those are the facts with regard to CETA and the permanent investment court, which now consists of ten judges. This difference from the original agreement has not been acknowledged in the contributions thus far. The CETA tribunal has no jurisdiction to declare incompatible with the agreement the level of protection of a public interest established by European Union measures. That should lay to rest any of the assertions made in this regard. There remains the issue of our economy. How is the Irish economy to develop into the future if we do not have export opportunities and if we do not conclude agreements with other countries?

We do not have to sign up to investor-state dispute settlement measures to do so.

This does not endanger, in any way, the environment or any public interest measures or other measures we take. I have just returned from a meeting of the European Council at which the highest ever level of ambition with regard to the environment was agreed by all member states.

What would the Taoiseach say to investors who sue the Irish State?

It was agreed that greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 55% by 2030 and that the EU would be carbon neutral by 2050. That is the European Union's agenda with regard to climate change. How, in the name of God, can CETA undermine that? It cannot and it will not.

The Taoiseach does not even know what it stands for.

The only challenge we have within the European Union is the reluctance of some member states to be as fully engaged in action on climate change as others. This will be required if we are to achieve the goals to which we have all agreed. In this debate, I have heard the same points I hear on an ongoing basis. No one ever debates the merits. I am not clear on the economic model the Deputies would apply to Ireland but it is a fair assessment that they are against multinationals. That is fair enough; they are entitled to take that position. These multinationals, however, employ hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland. The Deputies do not seem to care about the small and medium-sized enterprises that need markets overseas to create jobs, particularly in regional Ireland. I do not know where they think we will create jobs in the future or who is going to create them. I do not know what economic model they are proposing. I believe they would create enormous destruction in the area of employment if their policies were to be adopted.

I dealt with the Debenhams dispute earlier in a reply to Deputy Barry. On Deputy Boyd Barrett's point on that issue, we will do what we can but the State has a number of responses it can make with regard to liquidations. These include statutory redundancy, helping the workers to secure alternative employment in any way we can and providing and financing programmes and courses to allow workers to gain additional skills to enable them to get work in other areas, if possible. A significant degree of resources is provided by Government in that regard.