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Departmental Strategies

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 15 June 2021

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Questions (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Alan Kelly

Question:

5. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the statement of strategy of his Department. [29457/21]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the statement of strategy of his Department. [29781/21]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

7. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the statement of strategy of his Department. [29784/21]

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Bríd Smith

Question:

8. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the statement of strategy of his Department. [29786/21]

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Jennifer Whitmore

Question:

9. Deputy Jennifer Whitmore asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the statement of strategy of his Department. [31557/21]

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Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the annual report of his Department for 2020 will be published. [31802/21]

View answer

Oral answers (15 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 10, inclusive, together.

My Department's new statement of strategy, published earlier this year, reflects the role of the Department to support me, as Taoiseach, and the Government to develop a sustainable economy and a successful society, to pursue Ireland's interests abroad, to implement the Government's programme and to build a better future for Ireland and all her citizens. The statement of strategy outlines the context and challenges ahead in pursuing this goal and is reflected in the six strategic priorities for the period ahead. These are: support for me, as Taoiseach, and the Government; securing our future by tackling Covid-19, Brexit and climate action; restoring the economy, including an absolute focus on housing; building a better society; strengthening Ireland's place in Europe and the wider world; and building consensus on a shared island, North-South and east-west.

The system of Cabinet committees has already been restructured to reflect these priorities to ensure that Government policy is well harmonised and responsive. The statement of strategy has been developed with particular reference to the immediate challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, but my Department will continue to be responsive to new and emerging challenges in the future. In addition to its ongoing work, my Department will undertake new work streams including the new shared island unit, the Future of Media Commission and developing social dialogue. It will also ensure the collective work on housing and climate action is prioritised right across all Departments.

My Department's annual report for 2020 will be finalised and published in the coming weeks and will set out the work of my Department last year, much of which involved supporting the whole-of-government response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past year, officials in my Department have been working night and day on matters related to the pandemic and pulling together the different departmental strands of that, ensuring a collective Government response. I pay tribute to all the senior officials in the Department of the Taoiseach for the extraordinary effort that has been required from the outset of the pandemic right up to today. It has been out of the ordinary in terms of the normal duties civil servants have had to attend to. It has been extraordinary work and speaks well of our public service more generally. The same applies to many other Departments.

Three of the Taoiseach's key strategic priorities for his Department are securing our future after Covid-19, restoring the economy and strengthening our place in the world. I want to refer to two very different issues. The first is something that has been raised continually in the House, namely, aviation. We all know the issues relating to Stobart Air and the loss of 480 jobs, the regional connectivity and the public service obligation, PSO, which I believe will be brought back. There is the issue relating to Lufthansa Technik in Shannon, which is very close to my own area, and a range of other issues regarding aviation.

We clearly need a plan. The Minister for Transport this morning stated there would be a task force for Shannon but will the Taoiseach elaborate on what that will be? Sometimes task forces work and sometimes they do not. I was part of one that worked and I have seen others implemented by various Governments, including those of which I was a part, that may not have achieved as much as desired. The position of chair of Shannon Airport is still vacant. We need a longer-term plan for Shannon, perhaps up to 20 years. Some Government must be brave enough to deal with Foynes, Shannon Airport and the entire area in one go.

With regard to the cyberattack on the HSE, there are two reports, with one commissioned by the board and another from an international agency. When will we have sight of those? We will need to look at them to consider what we must do when we progress our infrastructure for healthcare.

The Taoiseach's statement of strategy makes several commitments to supporting those affected by Covid-19 and assisting their economic recovery, allowing them to plan for a post-Covid future. One of the groups - I have raised this repeatedly with the Taoiseach - with a very uncertain future which has seen a massive and continuing adverse effect from Covid-19 is taxi drivers. After the Minister for Transport's announcement of a so-called package of support last week, taxi drivers wrote to the Taoiseach again to express their extraordinary disappointment at the failure of the Government to meet any of the demands they made. They made five very simple demands to save the taxi industry and their livelihoods. These included a financial package to cover ongoing costs, a moratorium on future licences and, critically, an extension of the requirement to replace a vehicle after nine years to approximately 15 years, given the loss of income and major debts taxi drivers would have to incur in a very uncertain position if they had to finance new vehicles. There were also requests to disband the taxi advisory committee, which the group feels is unrepresentative of taxi drivers, and the provision of access to bus corridors. None of those demands was met.

When the Taoiseach met representatives of the four taxi groups that organised the recent protest, he said he would get back to them about their demands but he did not do it. There was an announcement but there was no response from the Taoiseach and none of the demands was met. It is really not acceptable.

Five years ago, after Clerys left its workers high and dry, the Duffy Cahill report proposed a series of measures to prevent such an occurrence from being repeated. Five years of delay meant the Debenhams workers were left without legal protection when their company did the same to them. The promise was always that the Government would eventually take action.

Last week, the Government announced what it would do about the key recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report, namely, absolutely nothing. The key demand of workers from Clerys, Debenhams and elsewhere - that their collective redundancy agreements would be honoured in a liquidation process - has been rejected by the Ministers of State, Deputies Robert Troy and Damien English. The Duffy Cahill report recommended that companies that failed to provide proper consultation before liquidation should face serious sanctions of up to two years' of pay but the Ministers of State, Deputies Troy and English, want to overrule that recommendation and continue with a greatly reduced four-week sanction, which amounts to a mere slap on the wrist. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions called for Labour Court awards to be given preference in winding up and that has also been rejected, as has the proposal that directors of companies who break workers' rights be restricted from simply moving on to other company directorships.

How can the Taoiseach stand over this whitewash of the report from his Ministers of State? Instead of pushing through with this betrayal of workers from Clerys and Debenhams, will he intervene now to ensure the Duffy Cahill proposals are implemented in full to protect workers?

The Taoiseach said officials should be congratulated for pulling together various strands of all the Departments during the Covid-19 pandemic. I am sure the process has been very challenging. Where in the name of God did the general scheme of the Garda Síochána powers Bill, published on Monday by the Minister for Justice, Deputy Heather Humphreys, come from? It was described by one legal academic as a land grab by the Department of Justice and having read the information about it, I must agree, particularly in light of recent and historical controversies that we have raised here. It is unacceptable when we think of the cases of Dara Quigley, George Nkencho and Terence Wheelock.

We know emergency powers have been used overwhelmingly in working class areas and against young people and there is every chance these new powers will be used in the same way. We also know there is an utter lack of accountability when it comes to Garda actions. Some of the shocking details include the fact that search warrants could be issued by Garda superintendents, as opposed to judges. This reminds me very much of the internment without trial period in Northern Ireland. These powers go too far and are too sweeping. We must ask where the Taoiseach or the Department of Justice believes the need for these powers comes from

Where is the demand for such sweeping powers of the State and police control coming from? We know this started with emergency powers given during the Covid-19 pandemic but will the Taoiseach give us the justification for these powers? It is shocking that the Bill purports to allow a position where the presence of a lawyer at an interview would no longer be guaranteed. The Taoiseach may as well ask Garda Commissioner Drew Harris to introduce internment without trial as pass this sort of legislation.

The Citizens' Assembly on gender equality has, in effect, given the Government a people's charter for change. It has set out in clear terms the enhanced role of the State in protecting and sustaining society and building a fairer economy. Many groups and individuals engaged in the assembly's work were alarmed by the Fine Gael Party's opinion of limiting consideration of the assembly's recommendations to the proposals that require constitutional change. Establishing a special Oireachtas committee to only consider such matters would fly in the face and spirit of the work of the assembly. In addition to the recommendations on the Constitution, the assembly's work has given clear guidance to the Government on policies and leadership; caregiving and childcare; domestic, sexual and gender-based violence; pay in the workplace; and social protection. As Dr. Catherine Day has said, the recommendations agreed by the citizens do not just call for incremental change but big changes that can make Ireland better and a more gender-equal place to live for all of us with changes to the Constitution, new laws and policies and stronger enforcement.

Many of these policies intersect so they cannot be considered or addressed in isolation from each other. Does the Taoiseach share Fine Gael's view that the Oireachtas should limit its consideration to just constitutional recommendations and, if not, will he take responsibility for the implementation strategy that is so clearly needed to deliver gender equality for Ireland?

Unfortunately, there is very limited time for a response.

Deputy Kelly raised the question of aviation and made a very fair point. The Government is very clear about the importance of connectivity for our economy and society. I have said repeatedly that we are a small, open economy and society. Covid-19 has hit us hard. We have provided a direction of travel, so to speak, for resuming travel in a structured way from 19 July, arising from our adoption of the European Union Covid certificate. That gives an indication to airlines of where the country will position itself from approximately 19 July.

Substantial supports have been given to the aviation sector. Many Deputies are standing up to say the Government has neglected aviation and so on but approximately €300 million in supports has been allocated to aviation. That includes the employment wage subsidy scheme and a range of other income supports. Additionally, capital funding has been provided to airports, with approximately €80 million alone in 2021. There has been €21 million provided under the regional airports programme, as well as €32 million for Cork and Shannon through a new one-year Covid-19 regional State airports programme. There is a €26 million state aid scheme to compensate airport operators for the losses caused by Covid-19 and the travel restrictions imposed by Ireland to limit its spread. That scheme augments supports already in place and will help the industry to maintain connectivity and make a recovery from the impact of Covid-19.

Aer Lingus has received very substantial liquidity supports in a loan through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund.

The bulk of the support to airlines is through the wage subsidy schemes. They were specifically designed to maintain the link between employers and employees. Overall there has been very substantial support given to aviation but unfortunately, travel has been way down due to the impact of the pandemic. This is just the reality.

I am in agreement with Deputy on the Shannon Estuary task force and that it must be broadly based. We want to ensure that the local development plans are developed to stimulate economic activity for those areas where we would expect economic developments arising, for example from fossil fuel infrastructure, but which is not taking place, but where other infrastructures can take place such as wind energy. Offshore wind energy offers substantive opportunities in the Shannon Estuary area. We believe that we need to take on board the wider regional agenda there with regard to economic development across transport, logistics, manufacturing, renewable energy and tourism, and to develop a strategy to achieve this potential with support from the Exchequer. This is the context of the task force. The Tánaiste will make announcements on the personnel shortly.

I am not sure where we are at, but the time is up. Is there something else left?

There were other queries from Deputies, but I can only deal with them within the time I have. Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the taxis again. Through the Chair, I do not believe that what the Deputy has said is fair. A package was announced last week that dealt with the issues as raised with me in a meeting. On the extension of the requirement to replace a vehicle to 15 years, people wanted an extension but as far as I can see, 15 years was a bit higher than-----

It was an extension of ten to 15 years, the same as-----

But 15 years was not mentioned. I stand to be corrected but I do not believe that 15 years was identified at the meeting.

On the access to bus lanes, this has been agreed. I have gone back on numerous occasions to double check. The delegation asked about this in the context of BusConnects. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was clear that they will have access on the arterial routes within BusConnects. Those questions were asked. There is a reluctance in the Department around the moratorium on licences but there are elements to the package announced last week that will help financially-----

Paltry. They were absolutely paltry.

-----in addition to the supports already there.

We are way over time now and I ask the Taoiseach to conclude. We will now move on to the last round of questions.

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