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Tuesday, 14 Dec 2021

Ceisteanna - Questions

Departmental Strategies

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 95)

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress of the Strategy Statement 2021-2023 of his Department. [58551/21]

View answer

Alan Kelly


2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress of the Strategy Statement 2021-2023 of his Department. [60111/21]

View answer

Cathal Crowe


3. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress of his Department’s Strategy Statement 2021-2023. [60574/21]

View answer

Peadar Tóibín


4. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress of the Strategy Statement 2021-2023 of his Department. [61415/21]

View answer

Mick Barry


5. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach he will report on the progress of the Strategy Statement 2021-2023 of his Department. [61471/21]

View answer

Cian O'Callaghan


6. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress of the Strategy Statement 2021-2023. [61735/21]

View answer

Christopher O'Sullivan


95. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach the main policy achievements and initiatives undertaken by his Department during 2021; and his main priorities for 2022. [62205/21]

View answer

Oral answers (28 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, and 95 together.

My Department's Strategy Statement 2021-2023, published earlier this year, reflects the role of the Department to support me as Taoiseach and the Government to ensure 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 its citizens. My Department will provide progress reports under the six strategic priorities set out in the strategy through the normal annual reporting cycle.

My Department continues to work at the centre to ensure that policies developed support the Government's commitment to develop Ireland in a sustainable way which supports economic development and social progress. It achieves this mainly through the Cabinet committee structure. Through the work of the ten Cabinet committees supported by my Department, a range of work across government has been advanced under the new strategy statement. Included in this is management of the whole-of-government response to Covid-19 including the national vaccination programme roll-out. The economic recovery plan, which was published in June, is also included. The implementation of this plan is helping to drive a sustainable recovery in economic activity and employment, while also investing in the transition towards a decarbonised and digital economy. The strategy statement also includes delivery of an initial well-being framework for Ireland and supporting information hub, which are being developed to better understand and measure our progress as a country. It also includes support for the cross-Government work to manage the ongoing economic and political impacts of Brexit, the establishment of a social dialogue unit in my Department, which is working to co-ordinate and support the Government's overall approach to social dialogue, and the delivery of our shared island commitments on a whole-of-government basis through the shared island unit in my Department and the shared island fund.

The strategy statement also includes the Future of Media Commission, which has now concluded its work, the completion of the work of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality and the launch of the revised national development plan, setting out the roadmap for investment of €165 billion in new and upgraded infrastructure over the decade ahead. Included also in the strategy statement is the publication of the Housing for All plan, which is an ambitious and far-reaching plan to address the provision of housing. Support for the development of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 and the Climate Action Plan 2021 is also included. These are key elements of a suite of measures introduced to alter fundamentally Ireland's approach to climate change. The strategy statement also includes supporting Ireland's role in Europe and the world, including through my participation in the European Council and Ireland's seat on the UN Security Council, and with respect to continuing EU-UK discussions on the Northern Ireland protocol. The strategy statement also includes the recent publication of the National Risk Assessment 2021-2022 - Overview of Strategic Risks and three legislative programmes published setting out priority legislation across the Government.

My Department's priorities for 2022 will include continued focus on the whole-of-government response to Covid-19 and vaccinations, economic recovery and investment, driving delivery of the housing plan and measures on climate action, progressing health and wider social reforms, EU engagement and Northern Ireland, and advancing specific new work relating to the citizens' assembly and a new digital strategy.

The programme for Government makes a number of significant commitments to those working in our Defence Forces, and the Department's strategy statement commits to implementing them, but members of the Women of Honour group have been to hell and back and have been let down again by their Government. They have demonstrated incredible courage, strength and dignity in disclosing the horrific sexual assaults as well as the disturbing emotional and physical harassment they experienced in the Defence Forces. These women were failed in the worst way imaginable. The very least they are entitled to is the full support of the State as they seek truth and justice. It is unbelievable that the Government intends to do the exact opposite. The group has expressed its deep disappointment with the insistence of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on committing solely to an internal review of their allegations, which will not have the power to compel witnesses or hold perpetrators to account. Essentially, the process will see the Department investigating itself. These women have no confidence this will deliver justice. Why is this happening? Has the Taoiseach spoken to the Minister, Deputy Coveney? Does he stand over the process the Minister intends to follow? The Women of Honour must have a robust, impartial and independent investigation, one that can compel witnesses and hold accountable those who inflicted the abuse and those who mishandled the women's initial complaints.

The programme for Government commits to assist owners of latent defect properties by identifying options for those who have been impacted by defects to access low-cost long-term finance and to bring forward law reform to improve the legal remedies for homeowners dealing with defects. Last night, I had a meeting with the Construction Defects Alliance. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Department have put together a working group which is investigating this issue, as the Taoiseach is aware. We are anxious to know whether the working group is still on schedule to report by the second quarter of 2022 so that any financial implications that may arise from the working group can be included in the budget for next year.

The Department's Strategy Statement 2021-2023 lists the restoration of the economy as one of the key Government priorities. While the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and countless other sectoral specific supports helped to stabilise the economy and bolster it during the pandemic, the construction sector remains very much in a state of flux with huge volatility in the price of materials. Throughout Covid we have seen a 30% rise in the price of steel and similar increases in the costs of timber and insulation. Over the weekend, I saw three letters from building suppliers in Clare indicating a further price hike in January 2022. Construction prices need to settle and stabilise. Supply chains need to be fixed. Has the Government engaged with the Construction Federation of Ireland and other stakeholders? At the European Council, has the Government used its voice in Europe to look at the breakdown of supply chain materials in construction at European level?

I also want to raise the case of the Women of Honour. They have been battling for justice after their experience in the armed forces for a number of years and not just in recent times. Their particular case has become centre stage due to the work of the Katie Hannon documentary a number of months ago. Their allegations are with regard to sexual abuse, bullying and discrimination and that the State has stood idly by in relation to these actions but it is not only about this. The key issue is that there has been a systemic battle against these women in their efforts for justice. Their careers have been held back for decades within the armed forces as a result of them standing up for themselves. It is incredible that we have armed forces where people suffered these crimes and when they fought those crimes they were identified and pushed out of the armed forces over a period of time. They were promised an independent external investigation. They were promised they would be able to add into the terms of reference. This has been refused to them. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has met them only once since the crisis broke a number of months ago. Will the Taoiseach ensure that there is an independent external investigation and that these women feed into the terms of reference that govern it?

A sustainable economy as referred to in the strategy requires at the very least that the earnings of workers keep pace with inflation. With inflation running at approximately 5%, many people are limited to 1% pay increases and some are getting nothing. Workers are in effect taking a pay cut at present. I want to know what the Taoiseach will do about it. I will ask him very specifically about one group who were absolutely critical during the pandemic. These are private security workers. There are approximately 28,000 of them in the country. Their earnings are capped at €11.65 an hour. They work in our hospitals, schools and public transport. They were recommended a 4% increase at the end of 2020. They still have not seen a cent of it because it was not signed off by a Minister and because some nasty employers in the sector are resisting pay rises. It is a miserable 4%.

These are workers who carried us and worked all through the pandemic to provide security at every level of our society, in supermarkets, hospitals, public transport and concerts, you name it. I asked the Taoiseach to look into this before.

The Deputy knows the answer.

I do not know the answer.

The Deputy does know the answer.

The workers are asking me if they are ever going to get a pay increase on those miserable levels of wages.

As the Taoiseach knows, for a long time we have been stressing the importance of ventilation and filtration in a strategy to fight Covid-19, which is an airborne pandemic. We were therefore very glad that People Before Profit’s Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021 received the support of the entire Dáil. The Minister of State, Deputy English, who contributed to the debate on behalf of the Government, pledged that he would contact me that afternoon to arrange a meeting to discuss how its aims could be rapidly implemented via regulation. During that debate, the Government promised that this would not be “a case of sending it to [the] committee and setting it to one side”, but that seems to be precisely what is taking place. I never got that call. We contacted the Minister’s offices seeking a meeting, but we never received the arrangements for a meeting. Instead, we got a long letter raising various legal questions over our Bill and saying that the Minister is going to write to the Health and Safety Authority over the coming days to ask it formally to review the regulation. The absence of urgency on this crucial question of workers' right to clean air in schools, colleges, pubs, restaurants, offices and factories is a central issue. Will the Taoiseach intervene to ensure we have regulations before the end of the year on this issue?

Deputy McDonald raised the question of Women of Honour group. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, met with the group’s members. My understanding is that he was very taken by their presentation and was anxious to do the right thing for and by them. When the Deputy talks about an external investigation to compel witnesses, what does she have in mind? She needs to spell that out. Is she talking about a commission of investigation?

The women have said it.

I will come back to Deputy Tóibín, who also used that phrase. It is very important to know what we mean by that here in the House. We can all promise things and say we will do them but if crimes have been committed, and I think the Deputy is saying that crimes were committed, they need to be investigated. In the first instance, they have to be investigated by An Garda Síochána. Any abuse of women is clearly a crime and needs to be referred to An Garda Síochána to be investigated in the first instance. The challenge is how we arrive at a proper review of this and have it dealt with-----

Does the Taoiseach think what is proposed is appropriate?

-----without undermining any investigation by the gardaí. That is the problem and the challenge which I think the Minister may be grappling with. I will talk to the Minister again on this but we need to have clear lines of demarcation between different types of reviews. There is no question but that this needs to be addressed as an issue. I would like to think that any crimes should be referred in the first instance to the gardaí and should be pursued through that channel. Failing that, there would have to be further consultation with the group involved in this issue. I will talk to the Minister in respect of what has been said here today because it was not his intention in any way to have a development here that would not be in keeping with the spirit of his engagement with the group at his meeting with them. I will follow that up on behalf of the Deputies. It is important to point out once an investigation is initiated - if it is an impartial commission of investigation under legislation, for example - that has all sorts of implications for any other actions subsequent to or parallel with that. If the Deputies wish to engage with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, I am sure he will talk with them on this issue to work out what the optimal way forward is for the women involved, in particular.

What is proposed will not work and the women have-----

On the Construction Defects Alliance, Deputy Ó Ríordáin has said that the report should be due by the second quarter of 2022. The Minister is very conscious of this issue. We have already had a number of issues in the context of pyrite, mica and so forth. We will be moving on that and responding to the issues that arise out of that report.

Deputy Cathal Crowe raised the issue of the construction sector. Earlier in the House I dealt with some aspects of raw materials price inflation. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has changed the approach to tenders, for example on the fixed-price period and the material price variation. Anything over 15% can now be recouped by the contractor. Changes have been made to the tendering to recognise the supply chain difficulties that have been partially responsible for the increase in prices of basic raw materials for the construction industry. These difficulties have been largely related to Covid-19 on the international plane. They have been discussed at European Council level and I have no doubt that they will be discussed again. This issue is also affecting fertilisers and other agricultural prices, which are going very significantly higher as a result of a range of economic pressures that have arisen from the rebound from Covid-19, which has placed very significant strains on supplies generally. Brexit has also been a bit of a factor, adding to and compounding the overall Covid-19 situation. The Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform is very aware of this and is trying to facilitate greater flexibility and change within the public sector tendering process in this area. That being said, the economy has rebounded overall. Ireland enjoyed the fastest economic growth in the third quarter of any European country. There are 30,000 job vacancies in the economy now compared to 19,000 in the same period two years ago.

I dealt with Deputy Tóibín's question in response to Deputy McDonald.

Moving to Deputy Boyd Barrett, my understanding is that the joint labour committee, JLC, was legally challenged.

It was legally challenged.

Therefore, the Minister cannot sign off on it.

The Minister was supposed to sign off -----

The Minister cannot sign off on it if has been legally challenged.

He could have done so before. He was supposed to sign-----

I love the way the Deputy casually throws in that the Minister did not bother to sign it.

He was supposed to sign off in the summer.

That is not the way it worked.

In any event, our view is that we support the JLC process and we believe the awards should be followed through and fulfilled by employers in respect of JLC recommendations.

On the issue of ventilation raised by Deputy Paul Murphy, the legislation has been passed and very extensive guidance has been issued. To illustrate my point that one cannot have a universal approach, yesterday I was in a 1970s-built school where every door in every classroom opens out onto the yard. I was told that the school has no issue with ventilation as a result of the construction of the school in the 1970s.

Government Communications

Questions (7, 8, 9)

Mary Lou McDonald


7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit. [59968/21]

View answer

Cathal Crowe


8. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit. [61363/21]

View answer

Alan Kelly


9. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit. [61497/21]

View answer

Oral answers (18 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take the Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, together.

The Government Information Service, GIS co-ordinates cross-Government communications and comprises the Government Press Office and the Merrion Street content team. The GIS co-ordinates communications on cross-Government priority issues such as Housing for All and the State’s response to Brexit and Covid-19. The GIS manages press conferences and media briefings, both for the Department and the Government in support of cross-Government programmes and priorities. The GIS also manages the Government of Ireland identity, and supports and encourages capacity-building in the area of communications and engagement across the Civil Service and the public service, including through training and development and the holding of meetings of the Government communications network on a quarterly basis.

I think it is fair to say that the past few weeks have not been the Government's finest hour in Covid-19 communications. For months parents were told that schools were safe, and then suddenly they were not. Measures were introduced with little explanation to the general public. The initial circular from the Department to schools was militant and divisive. I note that the Taoiseach sought in his commentary over the weekend to lay blame for these failures at the door of the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, and his team.

I beg the Deputy's pardon?

Despite failing to prepare the ground for additional public health measures in schools, the Government is still dragging its heels and mixing its messages on the substantive investment in ventilation needed to keep the school community safe. There is no clear communication from the Government on this issue. When he is pressed on the matter, the Taoiseach continues to lay responsibility for his Government's shortfalls in classroom ventilation, for example, at the CMO's door. This needs to be rectified and clarified. Government communication on the booster roll-out has not fared much better with the Taoiseach making particularly divisive comments last week.

There has been a myriad of issues with the booster roll-out campaign but instead of recognising that the Government strategy was to blame, the entire population was blamed for these shortfalls. We know that people have attended walk-in centres across the country in their droves, queueing for long periods to get the booster vaccine. People are going to their GPs and waiting for appointments with their pharmacists. Throughout the pandemic, people have demonstrated time and again their commitment to keeping themselves, their families and their communities safe. I urge the Taoiseach and his Government to be much more considered and thoughtful in their communications on Covid and to shoulder responsibility for shortfalls when the responsibility rests with them and not with other agencies or individuals.

Is the Cabinet insisting on some form of investigation taking place in respect of the leaking of NPHET guidance in recent weeks before it came into the public domain or even, at times, before it came to the Cabinet? It is very frustrating. As a backbench Deputy, I sometimes feel like we are fighting fires with some of that information. It is circulating in the public domain and then, hours later, comes out officially and is clarified and subsequently clarified again.

As we negotiate our way further through Covid and the fourth wave, with the Omicron variant now taking off, I ask that daily Government Information Service, GIS, briefings be provided for all Deputies, particularly those of us who support the Government. I do not think it is fair for us to have to phone the Minister for Health on his mobile phone to get a brief. The GIS should circulate the short scripts daily. There is a short script, but it needs to be disseminated again now that we are in a fourth wave. There was a time when the public did not want to consume Covid statistics every single day but I think the GIS should circulate the short script daily to make that communication through the tentacles of democracy a little bit easier.

The Taoiseach stated last week that NPHET had not been gagged after the announcement that all Covid communications and requests for interviews were now to be put through the GIS. Who decided that is the way it will be? He also stated last week that he had checked back on what happened the weekend before last and that nobody was stopped from going on any media programme. Is that still his position? Is an investigation under way into who leaked the NPHET decision in the first place or was that just a fabricated row for the Government to distract from the communications omnishambles of the past two weeks? I remind the Taoiseach that I appeared on a media programme last night in respect of the HEPA filters grant that has just been announced by the Government. That RTÉ programme could not get a Government representative to appear on it to discuss the issue.

The Government information on HEPA filters in schools has been all over the place, to put it mildly. After months of campaigning by People Before Profit, trade unions, parents and teachers, the Government has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to accept the necessity, in some limited circumstances, of HEPA filters in schools. It is progress and some new money actually promised this week, but it is inadequate.

I ask the Taoiseach to consider the amount of money involved. I recently spoke to the principal of a school with 400 pupils and 15 classrooms. It will get €6,000 extra according to the Government figures and will be able to put one HEPA filter in every third classroom. The principal will have to choose. The principal stated that the school absolutely does need the HEPA filters. It also means the burden is placed on teachers and principals to go out into the market and buy these filters for themselves rather than the Department of Education getting them.

It also raises a question in respect of something the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, stated twice. He stated it first on the "Today with Claire Byrne" programme on 29 November and dealing with HEPA filters, when he claimed that the advice the Government has from HSE antimicrobial resistance and infection control, AMRIC, which looks at this in great detail, is not to put them in. He effectively repeated the same on RTÉ "Prime Time" on 30 November. The claim was a surprise to me and to the NPHET expert group on ventilation, so I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister, asking for a copy of the advice where AMRIC advises against HEPA filters. It is clear from the reply that no such advice was ever given. AMRIC did not advise against HEPA filters. Once again, it seems the Minister was simply making it up as he went along. The advice the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, hid behind on two RTÉ programmes to defend the absence of HEPA filters to keep students and teachers safe in school did not exist. Can the Taoiseach have confidence in a Minister who is making things up on RTÉ programmes to explain away the disastrous policy of the Government on Covid?

The Government needs to get clear information out to people whose incomes and employment are impacted as we head into Christmas. I do not know how many times in the past two years I have raised the issue of the plight of musicians and entertainers. They are in a dire state at the moment because the public health measures and restrictions and the voluntary decisions of many people to scale back their social outings and social activities mean that the work of musicians and entertainers has collapsed. Some of the venues are getting money and so on but the work of jobbing musicians, of whom there are thousands, has collapsed. These are people who have been hit again and again and again. They have had to fight all the way along to get little crumbs of support in terms of the music and entertainment business assistance scheme and the other Covid support scheme, but both of those funds are now depleted and apparently will not be reviewed until January. As we head into Christmas, some of these people are not able to get the full PUP. They are on lower payments and jobseeker's payments and so on. There is no fairness or consistency and their incomes are hammered. Some of them are now experiencing banks moving against them in terms of their homes. They wrote to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, on 22 November, asking for an urgent meeting which she has not given them. A cross-party group that meets with entertainers met yesterday. They are seriously worried about the situation facing musicians and entertainers. I plead with the Taoiseach to make it easy for them to get the PUP, to reactivate the support funds and to ask the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, to meet as a matter of urgency with representatives of musicians and entertainers before Christmas.

This day last week, the Taoiseach stated that only 93,000 of 180,000 people showed up for their booster appointments. He suggested there was not the same urgency for boosters as there was for the first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. Does he stand by that statement? Is it still correct? Was it even correct last week? My office and those of other Deputies are getting calls from people who want the booster shot and are eligible but have not received a text message, people who have received a text message but already got the booster shot elsewhere, people who are being told by their GPs that there are no boosters available to them and people who have gone to the open vaccine centres and waited several hours in a queue for a vaccine. On Sunday morning in Navan, for example, there were hundreds of cars stretching far up the roads outside the vaccine centre. People were queueing for hours at that vaccine centre. In many ways, the confusion in respect of this mirrors the confusion in respect of the roll-out of the vaccines at the start of the Covid crisis. I remember that at that stage there were people on consultants' lists and other doctors' lists who were getting two invitations. I know a person with stage 4 cancer who could not get an invitation from either list and had fallen through the stools in that regard.

What the country actually needs - the Taoiseach probably knows this because he has experience - is a centralised patient database to enable us to roll out these programmes efficiently, as countries such as Denmark have done. Until we have that central patient database, we will always have this type of confusion in respect of what is happening to patients and the messages we are getting. Will the Taoiseach commit to the development of such a centralised patient database?

I have to stand back and reflect on some of the commentary that is emerging. Deputy Tóibín stated that this reminds him of the confusion at the start of the vaccination programme. We have a great capacity to knock ourselves as a country. I will go to the European Council meeting tomorrow. When I have gone to such meetings recently, the refrain has always been about the extraordinary achievements of Ireland in vaccinating close to 93% of the adult population. All Deputy Tóibín can say about that is "confusion". That is the only comment he can make about it.

Was anything I said incorrect?

Through the Chair, just to make the point-----

Was anything I said incorrect?

I am just reflecting on it. It says a lot about the lack of balance and perspective in terms of his commentary in respect of what has been achieved by those involved in the vaccination programme. In terms of GPs, for example, stocks can be supplied to a GP within two days now. Those are the logistical operations the HSE has established with GPs.

I have heard that GPs have said they are short of vaccines but they can get on to the HSE and within two days they will have a supply.

What about the idea of this being centralised?

More broadly, without doubt the Omicron variant has created a very strong sense of urgency. There is no question about that. It is vital that we vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible. To be fair, every effort is being made. We are working with GPs and pharmacies and the Defence Forces are helping by providing additionality with logistics support for the booster campaign.

We are number one in Europe in terms of the primary vaccination programme and the number of people vaccinated. We are fourth in Europe with our booster campaign, with approximately 1.25 million boosters administered, starting on 4 October based on advice from the national immunisation advisory committee in respect of when to commence those vaccinations.

Deputy McDonald raised the issue of communications, people's behaviour and so forth. People took up very quickly the core message over the past two months, particularly our intervention around behaviour, working from home and so forth. They were not confused by the central message on the need to adjust behaviour in response to the Delta variant wave, getting hospitalisations and ICU admissions down. The result has been a reduction and stabilisation in the numbers admitted to hospitals and ICUs. People have got the message fairly clearly in terms of behaviour and so forth.

I take issue with a comment from the Deputy when she said that at the weekend I laid the blame on the CMO and his team. I certainly did not and whoever wrote that script for the Deputy should rewrite it and stop being divisive like that now because I do not lay the blame on the CMO, nor have I ever laid the blame on him. I have great respect for the CMO and his team, NPHET and public health advice. I have been very consistent since my days in opposition when the pandemic started that public health advice had to be central to combating this pandemic. The Deputy knows this because she was in the same room when I said it to the then Government. Deputy Shortall and others were in the room at that stage. That has always been my view and I do not lay the blame on anybody. I do not know the context but it seems to have been a deliberate "mis-spin" from the Deputy or her scriptwriter in respect of my behaviour at the weekend.

On the question of schools, we have again followed public health advice all the way. It has been the consistent approach from the beginning of the pandemic. A specialist team from the HSE has advised consistently on how to approach schools in respect of that.

The overall picture is that the booster vaccination programme is gaining momentum. There will be further developments and expansion of it. Our focus right now is on really expanding the programme and ensuring people are conscious of the significant threat that the Omicron variant represents. Its potential impact is a matter of real concern to us all.

Could I get an answer about musicians?

The Minister with responsibility for tourism has been given additional funding by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for performers. We want performers to perform and venues to stay open as much as possible. There is the Omicron variant threat but we have supports put in place because we acknowledge such people have been hit by the Delta variant threat and guidance we have issued in respect of people not congregating excessively and so on. We accept that and we have provided supports.

Economic Policy

Questions (10, 11, 12, 13, 14)

Richard Boyd Barrett


10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the newly published response to Ireland’s Competitiveness Challenge 2021. [60208/21]

View answer

Paul Murphy


11. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the newly published response to Ireland’s Competitiveness Challenge 2021. [60211/21]

View answer

Mick Barry


12. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the newly published response to Ireland’s Competitiveness Challenge 2021. [61472/21]

View answer

Alan Kelly


13. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the newly published response to Ireland’s Competitiveness Challenge 2021. [61499/21]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald


14. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Government's response to Ireland’s Competitiveness Challenge 2021. [61495/21]

View answer

Oral answers (23 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I do not agree with the language-----

We will allow the Taoiseach reply to the questions first.

I do not know what language he does not like because I have not answered yet. Was his comment anticipatory?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 14, inclusive, together.

The National Competitiveness and Productivity Council published its annual Competitiveness Challenge report in September. This makes recommendations to the Government across a range of policy areas. On 30 November, the Government published a formal response to the council's recommendations. This response was co-ordinated by my Department, drawing together material from relevant Departments. This is the second year in which a formal response was issued by the Government to the Competitiveness Challenge report.

The council outlined a set of 20 priority actions or recommendations across a broad set of areas for Government consideration. This areas include business, environment, boosting productivity and infrastructure, with issues such as insurance, climate action, childcare, housing, skills and the changing world of work highlighted. The Government welcomed the focus of the council on the priority areas outlined and agreed both on their importance and relevance to Ireland's continued competitiveness. The Government's response demonstrates that the council's recommendations are aligned with the Government's own ambitious agenda for economic recovery and sustainable development.

What I was about to say was that I do not like the language of competition in terms of a sustainable economy but nonetheless some of the matters discussed in the document are important. This relates to my previous point about musicians. If we do not support key sectors such as music and culture, we will really pay for it. I ask the Taoiseach to look at that because although some venues are getting some supports, individual jobbing musicians are not getting the support they need. Many of them will go out of business and they will not be musicians and entertainers on the other side of this pandemic. That will be a great loss to our society and economy, including our competitiveness, much as I dislike that term.

This is also true when it comes to low pay and the cost of living challenges that large numbers of working people are facing now. Another of my hobby horses is the plight of taxi drivers. If we are to be competitive, we will need taxi drivers at the airport for tourism and all the rest of it but not many will be left in business if they do not get the support they are being denied now? More generally, there are many low-paid workers in critical sectors and we cannot get people into those areas. The Government is complaining that everybody is on the PUP and that is why we cannot get people. It is not the reason; it is because the pay is too low for large numbers of workers in many areas.

Recommendation 3.4 of the report is:

To increase certainty for individuals and businesses, publish a timetable that shows how the national broadband plan roll-out is being brought back on track

This was clearly conceived before the latest and emerging very significant scandal relating to National Broadband Ireland. I found the Taoiseach's answers earlier wanting in him seeking to kick the matter to the Minister's regular questions later today. To be blunt, we know from very good work of The Currency, in summary form, about what looks like a massive swindle perpetuated on the public, facilitated by a lack of transparency from the Government and all to the benefit of a shadowy hedge fund. In essence, the requirements for providing equity have apparently been satisfied not by providing equity but instead by providing loans at extortionately high rates. All this is done while very substantial fees are collected, paid for by the public.

There is a list of 14 very appropriate questions on but I will not get a chance to ask all of them. I will ask some and encourage the Taoiseach to look at them and provide answers. Why has the contract not been published in full as promised to the Oireachtas by the then Minister, Deputy Bruton? Why are the sections of the published contract governing how investors contribute capital to National Broadband Ireland redacted? Why was this deemed commercially sensitive after the contract was signed and the parties were no longer exposed to competition? There is a series of other relevant questions.

The Sunday Independent reported last weekend that the Cabinet was secretly briefed about massive job losses and warned that tens of thousands of jobs could be lost when the EWSS ends next April. Can the Taoiseach confirm this is the case? Is the Government carrying out an analysis of companies that have been getting this support and what supports will be put in place to save jobs?

The rising cost of living has been mentioned and it is having a major impact on workers and businesses. Private sector unions are to seek pay claims of up to 4.5% next year to reflect the surge in inflation that is eroding what people can afford and standards of living. As the Taoiseach knows, issues around energy bills have been well ventilated in this House.

Will the Taoiseach reflect on the fact that going back to normal is not what many people in this economy need? A total of 23% of Irish workers pre-pandemic were in statistical low pay, according to the OECD, and 40% of young people under the age of 30 were in insecure work. That is not an economic model we want to return to and that is not the type of competitiveness that does young people or vulnerable workers any good at all.

I too would like to raise the reports of over the weekend that the Cabinet received a memorandum earlier this month warning that thousands of businesses may fail and tens of thousands of jobs may be lost when the EWSS ends next April. We are told the memorandum highlights that many of these jobs are in the hospitality and entertainment sectors. Did the Cabinet receive this memorandum before the latest round of restrictions was announced by the Taoiseach? Will he provide us with more detail on the projections given to the Cabinet? It seems astonishing the Government ploughed ahead with closing the schemes, knowing they needed to be extended at current rates so that workers and businesses would not face a cliff-edge scenario.

Speaking at an Oireachtas committee last month, representatives from the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council underlined the need to create a more robust economy that is less vulnerable to economic shocks. What is the scale of job losses and business closures that are expected next year and are they to be concentrated in a limited number of sectors? Data provided to the Government need to be analysed but it also needs to be shared with those most affected. Has this happened? If not, is it the intention of the Government to share this information and data?

The Sunday Independent reported that 300,000 jobs are being supported and approximately 25,000 businesses are under pressure as a result of Covid and the restrictions that have been implemented. IBEC has stated that in hospitality, there will be 40,000 fewer jobs in 2022 than in 2019, an incredible figure. The majority of these jobs will be lost by women and the second greatest proportion of these jobs will be lost by young people aged between 16 and 25.

We have recently seen the emergence of zombie businesses, that is, businesses that are surviving only because of the supports the Government is providing. They are racking up massive debts monthly. I know of one café with four staff that had no debt in 2019 but, because of debts to the landlord, suppliers and Revenue, it now owes €100,000. Some of those businesses are saying they will lash out for Christmas period, in order that they can earn as much as they can, but close once January comes along.

Many of these businesses are not going to survive. As a State, we have to look at dealing with the debt they are experiencing and support it in some way. The Taoiseach did it for the banks a number of years ago; now, a large cohort of SMEs are in a similar debt situation and need the Government's support. The livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers hang in the balance as a result.

The questions related to the competitiveness challenge report. Deputy Boyd Barrett, to be fair to him, spoke to the report and the question that was asked. I acknowledge his aversion or discomfort with the word "competition" but we need a competitive economy. Competition at a certain level can bring standards, although it can have the opposite impact in different contexts. We need a competitive economy and that needs good infrastructure, which needs to develop. Housing for workers, for example, is a big challenge for us in order to continue to create economic opportunities in cities and towns across the country. People need places to live in comfort and there needs to be a good public realm to facilitate the attraction of companies, whether foreign direct investment, FDI, or indigenous companies, to various towns and cities. "Competitiveness" is a broad term but it is an important aspect of national policy. It is important we have the annual competitiveness challenge report and that the Government benchmarks its performance against emerging issues.

On the issue relating to EWSS, PUP and CRSS, the intervention by the Government has been unprecedented in supporting incomes and in supporting companies and businesses to keep workers on their payroll in order that we will be in a position to bounce back when we come out of Covid. We have done well this year since March and the emergence of the Alpha variant crisis. We have reopened society and the economy and our exports have done very well since then. Manufacturing has increased, construction is going well in terms of activity levels and house construction, and retail has had a bounceback. Revenues are strong. The Exchequer deficit will be much smaller than originally envisaged. We were facing a deficit of €18 billion to €19 billion but that could be closer to €10 billion at the end of the year.

The economy has been managed well and competently by the Government so far. Of course, there are challenges in respect of how we evolve from a pandemic era back to normality. Because the EWSS and CRSS supports are so unprecedented, there has to be a judgment call at some stage as to how to amend them or evolve out of those schemes, which are economy wide, with a view to, perhaps, having more bespoke supports for different sectors. We need a bespoke support-----

Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to meet musicians in that regard?

There is no issue there. I recently met more than 30 organisations with the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. Separately, I also met individual musicians with Senator Murphy to discuss issues they had. What comes to mind in the context of music, performance, entertainment and hospitality is the wide diversity of interests and sub-sectors within the sector, so we do-----

There are a number of other questions and we are out of time. I do not mean to interrupt the Taoiseach but we will have to address the questions.

This is the final set of questions.

Is it? I beg your pardon.

The ideal way forward is more bespoke models.

I am not responsible for headlines. The only briefings we get relate to the numbers on EWSS. We certainly did not get a headline saying hundreds of thousands of people could be laid off. In fact, what seems to be emerging - this is not a fact but rather it is suggested by trends - is there has been less scarring of the economy than we might have thought at the commencement of the pandemic that there would be, but many people are still dependent on EWSS. We have brought in the rates waiver for the first quarter of 2022 and restored the PUP in limited circumstances. We are working very hard to support people.

There was no memorandum at the meeting, as reported.

I did not say that. I have answered the questions. Come on, now. The Deputy is trying to put words in my mouth, as she has done previously.

Was there a memorandum?

I said the memorandum was got did not relate to the headlines. I am not responsible for headlines. There was no memorandum predicting that 300,000 jobs would be lost.