Mary Lou McDonaldCeist:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [40782/18]
Vol. 974 No. 4
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [40782/18]
2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [42207/18]
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [45634/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of my Department covers work on all international, EU and British-Irish and Northern Ireland affairs within the Department, including Brexit matters. The division assists me in my international role, including as a member of the European Council, and in my other EU and international engagements. The division also provides advice to me regarding Northern Ireland affairs, British-Irish relations and Brexit matters. It also provides advice and briefing relating to my varied international engagements, including meetings of the European Council and other EU summits, bilateral engagements with Heads of Government of EU member states and other countries and international affairs more generally. The division also aids the work of Cabinet committee C, which deals with EU affairs, Brexit and international matters. It works closely with other relevant Departments, notably the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
To augment the ongoing work of my Department’s international, EU and Northern Ireland division on Brexit, my Department has recently established a new unit to work on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The new unit will assist a recently established Secretaries General group, which oversees ongoing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The unit will focus on cross-Government co-ordination, planning and programme management. It will work closely with other divisions in my Department, including the economic division, and with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit.
It says everything about the Taoiseach that when his performance or competence in the discharge of his duties is questioned, he lashes out. In an exchange earlier today, he accused me of being too radical and - ouch - apparently I am a bully. The Taoiseach levelled these accusations at me for having the temerity to put it to him that he is not acquitting himself well at this point, when the Brexit negotiations are at a sensitive point, and that he has taken his eye off the ball or lost his nerve.
The Taoiseach may have seen a letter published yesterday in the Irish News from over 1,000 people from what is termed "civic nationalism". They set out in the clearest terms their needs and the benchmarks required to protect their rights. They have written to the Taoiseach and I really hope he does not see them as being too radical and does not feel bullied by them on the open pages of a newspaper. If he has not read the letter, I suggest he study it very carefully. It sets out all of the well-trodden ground we have been across and all the reasons we do not have institutions in the North. For the record, those reasons have everything to do with the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, and its toxic relationship with British Prime Minister May, as well as the fact that the Government has failed to move forward those matters. The authors, not me, have asked that language rights, rights around marriage equality and so on be honoured and given expression to. If the Taoiseach finds me too radical, does not like how I put things to him or feels - God help him, the poor delicate soul - a bit challenged by the fact that he is being challenged on the floor of the Dáil, I invite him not to respond to me because that clearly causes him angst, but to the 1,000 people who signed the letter directed to him in which they set out his responsibilities, mar Thaoiseach, to them as Irish citizens. I ask him for a response to their letter.
Unfortunately, I missed Leaders' Questions earlier as I was attending meetings, along with colleagues, with the British Labour Party shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Tony Lloyd. It was to keep in touch with what is happening. As such, I may cover ground that has already been covered.
I will first make a general point. I have made it crystal clear in all my discussions with the British Labour Party and other politicians in Britain that there is a unity of purpose in this House across parties in our desired outcome for Brexit negotiations. There is nonetheless some merit in the view expressed by Deputy McDonald that if there is any questioning of the Government, there seems to be a tetchiness. There is an impression that this is somehow an undermining of our national effort when we are working, might and main, to be lock-step in a common objective. It is very unhelpful.
I have a question on the specific point made over the weekend because there was much rumour and counter-rumour as to where we were and whether we were close to a deal. I refer to the content of the telephone conversation between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, particularly the review mechanism on which they are willing to agree. Will the Taoiseach explain this specifically? I do not understand how a review mechanism can be used with a backstop, which is, by definition, fixed and immovable until and unless such time, as we understand from the December agreement, a better alternative agreement is put in place. Will the Taoiseach clarify that once and for all?
The Taoiseach may have had other discussions and it is important we do not isolate the DUP in any of this. Has he had any discussions with Ms Arlene Foster and the DUP on the type of final arrangements that they would be satisfied with? The Taoiseach should know their minds because they will clearly have an input in the British position towards the end of these negotiations.
We all know any re-imposition of a physical border between the North and South would be a disaster and we are all united in insisting that under no circumstances or in whatever agreement is reached should there be any question of a hard border. We should make it clear to Britain and the European Union that we will not in any way facilitate this, co-operate or play any part in the erection of a physical border if Britain and the European Union fail to agree.
I suggest to the Taoiseach that it would strengthen our hand in a situation where these intractable arguments go on and on and we have backstops, long stops, back long stops and long backstops if we were to put a full stop to this rather tedious discussion-----
That sounds like American football.
-----by making it clear that the question of the Border was not up for negotiation. The Taoiseach's hand and ours would be strengthened if we were to make it clear that the Irish people would get to vote on any final deal if it were in any way ambiguous or ambivalent on the question of the Border, now or in the future. That would be pure democracy as far as I am concerned, but the people of Ireland should have a vote on any final deal if it might be adverse to their desire to ensure there will be no border.
We should not be opposed to a review within this process, even if it is very late and we are all waiting, but it should only be a review with a view to replacing the backstop on the basis of consensus. There can be no UK insistence that at the end of a review it would remove the backstop. As we are all absolutely agreed on that point, I hope the Taoiseach can come up with creative structures for such a review. I presume it is within the political declaration how the customs arrangement will work in practice which gives the alternative backstop and I hope it will break the deadlock which it is in all of our interests to avoid.
I agree with Deputy McDonald on the need to maintain our concentration on the rights of Irish nationalists in the North, but the State and the Government should extend it by looking to defend the rights of civic unionism in any agreement. A colleague of mine, Steven Agnew, was in Brussels recently and one of the major difficulties he has is that UK passport holders in the North may not be able to continue to avail of the Erasmus programme, for example, or the EU health card, whereas an Irish passport holder living in the North may be able to do so. We should stand up for that part of the Unionist community on these practical measures which they also deserve to have as part of the Good Friday Agreement in order that we start to break down some of the nationalist divide that has bedevilled the country for years.
One of the major problems in the Brexit negotiations is the central role megaphone diplomacy seems to be playing. It is never constructive when leaks and tweets play a major part, yet it seems that both Governments are at it nearly every day. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, MP, appears to believe tendentious leaks and hardline statements help. Equally, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste continue to engage in an ongoing public exchange back and forth. The other day the Tánaiste tweeted a particular position. In negotiations there are tried and tested ways of engagement, particularly when the eleventh hour is approaching. It seems that this megaphone diplomacy has been one of the problems from the outset, even going back as far as last December when it was unhelpful to what transpired that month, with the subsequent need for Prime Minister May to go back to Brussels to meet Mr. Tusk and Mr. Barnier to come up with a solution to that problem which has only worsened and complicated the situation in which we now find ourselves. Equally, a proper post-Brexit relationship with Britain is required. It is welcome that both Governments now acknowledge this. In other words, there is a need for a new intergovernmental arrangement post-Brexit between Britain and Ireland. We have put forward our ideas on it. The text of the draft withdrawal treaty includes a specific mechanism for a specialised committee to oversee issues related to Ireland in Article 158. Some have suggested this is a mechanism by which a decision on Northern Ireland's permanent status can be agreed. Can the Taoiseach confirm whether the operation of the Irish specialised committee is again being discussed? Furthermore, this is a withdrawal agreement stage that is being negotiated and everybody seems to agree that at this stage Britain and the European Union are talking about a Canada+ type trade agreement to be the basis of the permanent full-time relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. The Taoiseach said in reply to questions that the backstop would be in place until and unless it was replaced by an alternative agreement. Is that the ultimate permanent relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom which is envisaged to supersede the backstop at the end of the day because a Canada+ type trade agreement would not be good for Ireland, would have a damaging economic impact for Ireland and be less than optimal for Northern Ireland?
For the record, I did not say Deputy McDonald was too radical; I said she was too extreme and indeed she is. I noted that she accused me of constantly lashing out. In fairness, that is her signature performance piece, whether it is at me, the British Government, the DUP one minute ago, Mrs. May one minute ago or Fianna Fáil on occasion; she is constantly lashing out. What she does not do is come up with workable solutions and alternatives.
That is not true.
That is what a responsible Opposition party would do. Sinn Féin comes up with demands. There is a big difference between demands and coming up with alternatives and solutions. I read the letter to which Deputy McDonald referred and agree with the sentiments expressed. I will reply to it and do what they have asked me to do to the best of my ability both in terms of a Brexit deal and in terms of what we are trying to do in Northern Ireland to get the institutions operating again-----
I hope they are not too extremist.
-----and to ensure people living in Northern Ireland will have the same rights and freedoms as those living in Britain and Ireland. I note that some of the signatories, although not all, are Sinn Féin supporters. I hope they have also written to Deputy McDonald to ask her to do her job-----
They do not need to. I am doing my job.
-----which is to establish a Northern Ireland Assembly and a Northern Ireland Executive and build relationships with people like Mrs. Foster to try to get an agreement done.
We did the work last February.
Sinn Féin holds the world record in negotiations failure, something on which I hope it will work.
Deputy Howlin asked about the review mechanism. I am aligned more with what Deputy Eamon Ryan had to say on it. Review mechanisms are not bad in themselves. Many international treaties have review mechanisms and much of the legislation we pass in the Oireachtas has them. It is not something to which I have committed; it is only something the Government has agreed to explore on the basis and understanding it cannot involve an exit clause which would allow the United Kingdom to resile from the backstop unilaterally and cannot involve an expiry date.
I met Mrs. Foster for dinner in Dublin about two weeks ago. I know her mind on this issue and she is very clear. She says she wants Northern Ireland to be treated in the exact same way as the United Kingdom in everything, whether it be customs, regulations or anything else. That is her position and we have to respect that it is.
Deputy Boyd Barrett talked about a vote. As this is an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom, there is no provision for a vote, but I am confident that if there is an agreement, it will not be one on which we will need a vote because it will do what we want it to do and satisfy our needs.
Deputy Eamon Ryan mentioned UK citizens in Northern Ireland. He makes a very valid point. One of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement is that UK citizens in Northern Ireland should be treated in the same way as Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and vice versa. However, there is a difficulty. What I am trying to achieve for Irish EU citizens in Northern Ireland is that they will continue to have the same rights as though they were resident in the European Union, even though they will not be. That is a tricky aim to achieve. When it comes to citizens' rights, there is a difference between rights as a citizen and rights as a resident citizen. For example, an Irish citizen living in Mullingar has different rights from an Irish citizen living in Montreal. The same applies to European Union citizenship. If someone is an EU citizen, he or she has the right to reside, work and study anywhere in the European Union, but rights such as an entitlement to the European health insurance card or to participate in the Erasmus programme are linked with residency, as well as citizenship. We are trying to get to a position where EU citizens living in Northern Ireland will be treated as though they are living in the European Union, even though they will not be. It will be difficult to deliver, but we are working on it. To deliver it for UK citizens living in the North also will be another ask. Perhaps it might be an ask too far.
4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic division of his Department. [40783/18]
5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the economic division of his Department. [43432/18]
6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the economic division of his Department. [45635/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, together.
The economic division in my Department assists me and the Government in developing and implementing policy to deliver sustainable and regionally balanced economic growth and quality jobs and to promote effective planning and delivery of infrastructural developments, including housing. The Cabinet committees and associated senior officials' groups, backed by the division, help to deliver policies in these areas. Cabinet committee A deals with issues relating to the economy, the labour market, competitiveness, productivity, rural development, the digital economy and pensions. Cabinet committee D works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery and ongoing development of policy in the areas of infrastructure investment and delivery, housing and climate action, and provides political oversight with respect to Project Ireland 2040.
The economic division also monitors implementation of the Action Plan for Jobs, leads Ireland's participation in the annual European semester process and prepares the annual national risk assessment, which provides an opportunity to identify and consider potential economic risks and challenges on a structured basis. The 2018 report was published in July and the national risk assessment for 2019 will commence shortly.
The division is responsible for liaison with the Central Statistics Office and is also leading the preparation of the future jobs initiative in partnership with Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. This is the Government's new economic initiative to ensure we are well placed to meet future challenges. Future jobs will drive our development as a resilient, innovative and globally connected economy capable of coping with technological and other transformational changes ahead. It is aimed at enhancing productivity, labour market participation, innovation, skills and talent, and the low-carbon economy, and will be launched in early 2019.
A unit within the economic division works with the Minister of State with responsibility for data protection to ensure a whole-of-government approach to data protection and broader digital issues. In this regard, the unit provides the secretariat to the interdepartmental committee on data issues and to the Government data forum. The division is leading, in collaboration with other relevant Departments, the development of a new overarching national digital strategy to enable Ireland to maximise the societal and economic benefits from digitalisation. The division also provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy issues.
I ask Members to stick to the allocated time or we will not get through the business before us.
The proposal for an EU digital sales tax was raised earlier by the leader of the Green Party and, in response, the Taoiseach gave a critique of the model that is proposed. Does he have a concern in respect of this tax in the context of overall Irish tax sovereignty?
On the issue of jobs and job plans, it is very obvious that throughout this island, North and South, there are very severe skills shortages in many sectors. There is also a very big concern around the availability of labour and staff, not least because of the very hostile and negative messages that have been sent out by Brexit which are being felt very much north of the Border. Yesterday I met 21 leaders of Northern Irish business from every sector and the message was the same. I know that their concerns are echoed south of the Border. Will the Taoiseach report on any ongoing work on those issues?
One of the greatest risks facing us in terms of our revenue sources is, as the Taoiseach acknowledged, our overdependence on corporation tax from multinationals. A small number of companies are producing a very significant chunk of the corporation tax collected, which also represents an increasingly large chunk of the overall tax take. Has the economic division looked at this issue? Do we know why, in the past two years in particular, the Department of Finance has been so inaccurate in its forecasting of the income stream from corporation tax?
On the digital tax issue, there may be no OECD solution and many individual countries are planning unilaterally to introduce such a tax. The UK announced in the previous budget the introduction of a 2% digital services tax. Spain and Italy are pursuing their own measure and France and Germany have proposed a levy from 2020. This is a tax on the turnover of multinationals. It is coming down the tracks and will either be introduced by agreement across the OECD, which it is hoped will be the case, or it will be done unilaterally. What is the thinking of the economic division on that matter?
The Taoiseach said that Cabinet committee D deals with housing, among other things. As well as being a social and humanitarian emergency, housing is increasingly becoming a very serious economic threat to this country. Vast numbers of our citizens, working people and others, simply cannot afford to put a roof over their heads. I spent last Saturday at the national assembly of the National Housing and Homeless Coalition, one of the pillar groups that organised the Raise the Roof demonstration outside the Dáil on 3 October. The assembly agreed that another demonstration will be held on 1 December to commemorate the death of Jonathan Corrie, who died not far from the front gates of Leinster House. There was real anger at the meeting that despite the passing of a Dáil motion and an enormous public protest, the Government has failed spectacularly to change its policies or to take the radical emergency measures necessary to deal with the housing crisis.
One point that was underlined at the meeting, on which I would like the Taoiseach to comment, explains much of the delays, problems and the escalating crisis. People railed against the fact that in council after council, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and, in some cases, Labour Party councillors are voting for the disposal of public land for private sector development. In Kilcarbery the proposal is that 70% of land will be for private housing. In Dún Laoghaire, similar proposals are being made for public sites. Councils are selling off public land, which should be used for public housing, to the private sector. That is why we have a housing emergency. The Government's policy insists on privatising public land.
The Taoiseach explained that the economic division has a central role in the oversight of infrastructural development and supports the relevant Cabinet sub-committees. A number of weeks ago, the Taoiseach announced that broadband provision will be a personal crusade. I do not understand why it has not been thus all along and has only now become a personal crusade, after the Deputy Naughten affair. Why did the Cabinet committee on infrastructure only meet once in the first ten months of this year? The Taoiseach insists that he likes to have full discussions at Cabinet. He has said that he considers Cabinet committees to be ideal fora for detailed discussions and in-depth examination of issues, drawing on papers circulated in advance, with an ability to question closely those managing issues day to day. It is clear, however, that the delivery in critical policy areas such as broadband, housing and health has been very poor. The Taoiseach has accepted that targets have not been achieved. That suggests a very hands-off approach, where there is no real central driving force behind issues that the Government has identified as priorities.
For example, the Government has hinted and leaked to the effect that the cost of the national broadband plan will be multiples of the original estimate. Did this news just suddenly appear yesterday or in recent weeks? Were officials within the relevant Department and Ministers not aware of this all along? This issue is now a personal crusade for the Taoiseach but how has the fact that it will cost multiples of what was originally envisaged only emerged in the past month? Does the Taoiseach plan to make any changes to the way in which he and various Departments oversee policy areas in Cabinet committees in respect of key areas such as broadband?
On the digital tax issue, the Government certainly is concerned about it in the context of our sovereignty. Our view is that tax is a national competence and we would not like a digital tax to lead to other proposals such as a common consolidated corporate tax base, CCCTB, which we do not support. That said, ours is not an absolutist position.
EU tax harmonisation is in place already, for example the VAT directive is EU law underpinning how VAT works across the European Union. We have no difficulty with that. We are annoyed sometimes by the inflexibility that arises but it makes sense to have a VAT directive in the Single Market and customs are harmonised across the European Union. The vast majority of customs revenue goes straight to the European budget. It is not an absolutist position but we have a concern about anything that may threaten Ireland's tax sovereignty. There are no proposals for a national digital service tax of our own.
We recognise corporation tax is vulnerable. There has been an increase in the amount of tax paid by corporations to the Irish Exchequer in recent years. We do not know for sure why that is. Part of it is down to the fact that those companies are making a lot more profit, or are accounting for more of their profits in Ireland, and there have been changes to laws around intellectual property and there have been changes in accounting standards and practices in the US that seem to have had a particular impact on the increase in this year's tax receipts.
We are being prudent about it. We have established the rainy day fund and corporation profit tax receipts are being earmarked to go into that rainy day fund. It does not make sense and is bad policy to make long-term spending commitments on tax receipts that might be temporary windfalls. That mistake was made in the past, particularly with stamp duty. This Government is not going to repeat that mistake. That is one of the reasons for the establishment of the rainy day fund and the earmarking of corporation profit tax receipts as the revenue that will go into that fund. The Government has budgeted prudently for next year. The budget projections for next year project that the amount of money in corporation profit tax will be less than this year. If there is a surprise, it will be an upside surprise, rather than a downside surprise and I think that is prudent by the Minister for Finance.
It is my strong view that the way out of the housing crisis and solution to the housing shortage is primarily about supply. It is not just about supply, but is very much about supply. There will be 20,000 new houses and apartments built this year, more than any other year this decade. That will go up to 25,000 next year and hopefully 30,000 or 35,000 the year after. We will get to the position whereby the number of new homes being built exceeds demand and we will start to see a real change when that happens. There are over 100,000 new homes already on architects' desks for design currently and that shows what is potentially coming through in terms of additional supply.
I had the pleasure to be in Stormanstown, Dublin 9, yesterday to open a new housing development of 42 units with 150 people moving in there. That was done as a partnership involving Dublin City Council and a housing trust. Some people say that does not count because it was not a direct build by Dublin City Council. The people moving in there do not think that. They are pleased to be moving into those new homes with secure tenancies and are not concerned about the model that was used.
I disagree with Deputy Boyd Barrett. The problem with a lot of councils is Sinn Féin and others on the left wing voting down housing projects and proposals. That is being done in Dublin City Council, South Dublin County Council and other areas. There is a real ideology there that the only type of housing that should be built is social housing and the only way social housing should be built is through direct build by local authorities. I disagree with that.
That is not true.
At the moment we are facing a crisis and an emergency and there needs to be as many houses built as possible as quickly as possible, by any mechanism. Those ideological ideas and constraints, if implemented, would restrict housing supply and reverse the progress that has been made in the past couple of years.
Can I get an answer about broadband?
Can the Taoiseach say anything about broadband?
What was the question about broadband?
The Taoiseach knows damn well what the question was. When did he find out about it becoming a multiple of the cost?
I would have to look up my diary. It was a couple of weeks ago.
Is that all?
That is ideologically driven.
Contractors have to submit a price before one knows what it is.
The Taoiseach is not being up-front or transparent with people.
The Deputy knows well that if I were to divulge a price in a contract negotiation that I would be accused of something else.
7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [40784/18]
8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [43433/18]
9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [45823/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, together.
The role of the social policy and public service reform division is to assist me as Taoiseach, and the Government, in delivering on the programme for Government objective of public policies and services which drive a socially inclusive and fair society and to assist in renewing and transforming the public service. The division assists the work of Cabinet committees B, E and G and the associated senior officials' groups. Cabinet committee B covers social policy and public services including education, children, social inclusion, Irish language, arts and culture, and continued improvements and reform of public services. Cabinet committee E deals with issues relating to health, including delivery of health service reforms. Cabinet committee G provides political oversight of developments in relation to justice and equality issues, including implementation of the Government’s programme of reform in the areas of justice and policing.
The division also provides the secretariat for the Civil Service management board, which is chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. It incorporates the programme for Government office which publishes regular progress reports on implementation of the programme for Government. The division assists Dublin's north-east inner city initiative, including through the programme office, programme implementation board and the oversight group. It is responsible for liaison with the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, which falls under the remit of my Department.
The division also provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues and participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.
I understand the Minister for Justice and Equality has finally brought outstanding legal advice to Cabinet this morning that will enable his Department to progress redress payments to survivors of the Magdalen laundries. A year has passed since the Ombudsman published his report of an investigation into the administration of the Magdalen redress scheme. That investigation found a serious inconsistency in the Department's application of the redress scheme's eligibility criteria. Women recorded as admitted to a different institution closely associated with another named laundry were wrongly refused admission to the scheme.
Even as the investigation was complete and the recommendations prepared, the first instinct of the Department was to push back and, at the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality earlier this year, Mr. Peter Tyndall told members that, in his ten years as Ombudsman, he had never reached a point where a Department had, prior to publication of a report, absolutely and categorically refused to engage in the process of accepting and implementing the recommendations made. While I welcome the belated decision to accept in full the recommendations made by the Ombudsman, I am utterly disappointed at the amount of time it has taken to do so and, more to the point, so are the women involved.
I am also alarmed to learn the Department has changed the redress scheme application process to require that elderly women include the weekly hours they worked in their respective laundries. Can the Taoiseach explain why this change was made and can he say if he believes it to be appropriate? Can he indicate that the women's applications will now be fast tracked with payments issued before Christmas?
I ask the Taoiseach to give information to the House about the specific public service reform measures being led by the social policy and public service reform division. Are there discrete units of reform that the Taoiseach has prioritised and the division is on top of? In particular, has it oversight of the reforms of An Garda Síochána? Previously all the work suggested by the Garda Inspectorate was to be driven centrally with a specific role for the Garda Commissioner.
Does the division have a role in Sláintecare reforms? Is it looking at implementation, timelines and funding requirements? What, in the reform agenda, specifically is under the remit of this division?
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation is meeting, as we speak, to consider possible industrial action over the failure of the Taoiseach's Government to recognise the pay crisis at the heart of a complete inability to recruit nurses into the public health service and the consequent crisis in that health service. Pay and conditions are so terrible that, for every four nursing jobs advertised, one application is received. The Taoiseach refuses to take on board the need to increase nurses' pay significantly.
Teachers, having rejected the Government's plans not to restore pay equality for new entrant teachers, are engaging in and potentially escalating industrial action. I commend both groups because they have no choice but to fight for better pay if we are to recruit the nurses and teachers we need to provide staff in the public health service and education system. Is the problem - this is related to our earlier discussion - that much of the reason nurses and teachers have to demand and fight for extra pay and are not willing to work in these jobs at current pay rates is that their pay will not allow them to put a roof over their heads? When the Taoiseach says we just need to ramp up supply and that it is okay to sell public land to private developers to build houses at market prices, he fails to recognise that building houses nobody, including teachers and nurses, can afford when they cannot afford to pay rent either is pointless. It was that approach to housing that led to the last economic crash. It is not for ideological but practical reasons that we insist that the State needs to build public and affordable housing on public land because market prices are impossible to meet for ordinary working people.
What is striking about the Government's response to the interview given by Mr. Tony O'Brien to The Sunday Business Post last weekend is how it has tried to focus on one personal comment about the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and ignored everything else said in the interview, particularly about health policy. We have all noticed how there has not been any credible attempt to deny the other substantive claims made in the interview about there being an obsession with media management and, in particular, lip service being paid to Sláintecare. We now have new figures for the unprecedented vacancies in key medical posts and all of the evidence is that they have impacted directly on services. I raised this issue with the Taoiseach the week before last in the Dáil. It is a very serious issue which goes to the heart of the quality of care provided and safety for patients in hospitals. Does the Taoiseach intend to bring forward proposals to address the critical shortages of qualified consultants in key positions? The decision by Fine Gael to abolish the board of the HSE has been identified by everybody, from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council to the Department of Finance, as a key cause of the continuing excessive deficits. The excessive deficits in the health sector really started in 2015 and 2016. They began at approximately €100 million to €200 million under the then Minister, Senator James Reilly, in 2012 and 2013, but they catapulted from 2015 onwards to the extraordinary Supplementary Estimate of €700 million this year. The Government now wants to bring back the board of the HSE. Will the Taoiseach outline if he has accepted the error of his policy in abolishing the board which he is now going to restore? What other priorities does he have for structural change and when will they take effect?
Mandatory disclosure has been a priority for a while, particularly since the CervicalCheck issue. Is there a specific reason for the ongoing delay in delivering the legislation when there seems to be all-party agreement on this key issue? When will the expert group on the public-private mix in the health sector report? Does the Taoiseach accept that there are far too many vacancies in the mental health service and that it is a significant problem which has not been met to date? Will he indicate whether implementation of the social care provision recommendations of Sláintecare, particularly universal palliative care, has started? Sláintecare recommended that €50 million be allocated for palliative care services in the next five years. Does the Taoiseach intend to do anything to start that process?
There were many questions asked and I will do my best to answer as many as I can.
With regard to the Magdalen redress scheme, the Government accepted the Ombudsman's report last May. The Minister for Justice and Equality and I met the Ombudsman after he gave evidence at the joint committee. I was struck by his evidence. He is a mild-mannered man, not given to condemnation, and when he criticises a Department in the way he does, while many criticise it daily, one wants to listen to his criticisms because he is very measured and a very competent public servant. On foot of his appearance at the joint committee, I asked to meet him with the Minister for Justice and Equality. We considered his report which we have accepted in full. It recommended that we extend the Magdalen scheme to women who were not resident in Magdalen laundries but who lived nearby, often in adjoining institutions, and who were required to work, unpaid, in the laundries. We are paying compensation to these women. It is for work for which they were not paid in the past. That is why there is a question about how many hours or days they worked. It is only to make sure we can maximise the amount of money paid to women making an application. It is not to try to restrict it in any way. We fully appreciate that, given the passage of time, in some cases it could be very difficult for someone to remember how many hours she worked 30 or 40 years ago. It is not to catch people out but to work out how many hours and days they worked in laundries in order that we can calculate how much they should be compensated for. I guarantee that nobody will be left short. We are trying to give people the payment they deserve. The Cabinet agreed today to pass primary legislation to extend the medical card and other health-related supports to the women concerned. We had hoped we would be able to do so without primary legislation, but it requires such legislation. It was approved by the Cabinet today and I ask for the co-operation of all Members of the House in getting it through quickly. Every time Members demand that time be set aside to deal with certain matters, they should bear in mind that it is having on a knock-on effect and delaying the passage of other important legislation. They cannot demand more time one minute and then the next complain that something is not happening. I ask them to be sensible in the use of Dáil time. Let us use it to get necessary legislation through and not make statements and speeches. That is all I ask for from them.
We have never not been forthcoming.
Deputy Howlin asked which reforms were being overseen by the division. Different divisions oversee different reforms. I cannot remember exactly where they all fall. This one comes under the assistant Secretary General Elizabeth Canavan. She is overseeing reforms at the Department of Justice and Equality, as well as the Garda and Sláintecare reforms. They are mainly led by the line Departments, but it is the role of my Department and Cabinet subcommittees to oversee them.
On recruitment in the public sector and nursing, it is important to acknowledge that recruitment and retention are a challenge across the economy. It is a challenge from fruit farms to the ICT sector and in the public sector, too. When full employment is approached, recruitment and retention inevitably become difficult because there are so many job opportunities. There is an international recruitment and retention challenge in the health sector that every country is facing. It is present in the NHS, Germany and America too. Notwithstanding this, we have been able to recruit an extra 700 nurses in the last year. An extra 1,500 nurses have joined the payroll in the last two years. If Deputies do not believe me, they should look at the Public Sector Pay Commission's report, page 57 of which details by how much the number of nurses in the country has increased every year for the past four years. They are nurses hired by the State. We also have 5,000 more teachers than two years ago and 600 more gardaí. Notwithstanding the recruitment and retention challenge, we have more nurses, gardaí and teachers this year than last year and many more than two years ago. This often does not come across, but it is a fact.
On public sector pay, we have a pay deal. We are in the first year of a three-year deal with the public service. It involves pay increases this year, including an increase in October, as well as pay increases next year, with two increases for staff on less than €30,000 and a special increase in March for recent entrants. There is a limit to how much the Government can do and how much taxpayers can afford. There is an extra €1 billion for the health service next year, of which over €300 million is already earmarked for public sector pay increases. I hope the rest will go towards new drugs, equipment, new buildings, new medicines and new services. I do not want all of the money to be eaten up by pay increases and pay claims. We need to get the balance right. Significant resources are already going towards pay increases for public servants next year and I do not want us to be in a situation where we will have to start curtailing our plans for service improvements next year, in the process taking money away from patients, students and users of public services to increase public sector pay more than we have already agreed. That would not be right.