1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has met with Mr. Michel Barnier recently. [41065/18]
Vol. 974 No. 7
1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has met with Mr. Michel Barnier recently. [41065/18]
2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he and his officials have met with Mr. Donald Tusk recently. [41066/18]
3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Brussels on 4 October 2018; the meetings he held; and the issues that were discussed. [41069/18]
4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Guy Verhofstadt on 4 October 2018; and the issues that were discussed and the responses he received. [41803/18]
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings in Brussels on 4 October 2018. [43456/18]
6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagement with the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk. [43708/18]
7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Brussels on 4 October 2018; the meetings he held; and if he has met with Mr. Michel Barnier. [43840/18]
8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent meeting and conversation with Mr. Michel Barnier. [46824/18]
9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent meeting and discussion with Mr. Donald Tusk. [46825/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.
On 4 October, I travelled to Brussels for a series of meetings with the staff of the EU institutions ahead of an important phase of negotiations on the EU-UK withdrawal agreement. I met the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, the chief EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the chair of the European Parliament Brexit steering group, Guy Verhofstadt. At all three meetings, I said we wanted the future relationship between the EU and the UK to be as close, comprehensive and ambitious as possible, but that it was essential that a legally robust backstop is set out clearly in the withdrawal agreement. I expressed my appreciation for the ongoing efforts of Mr. Barnier and his team in the negotiations with the United Kingdom and thanked all my interlocutors for their robust solidarity with Ireland. The EU proposals outlined in the draft protocol earlier this year are practical solutions to protect the gains of the peace process and to keep the Border as open and invisible as it is today. They represent no threat to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.
We want to see a future relationship agreed between the EU and the UK that makes the backstop unnecessary once the period of transition ends, but that outcome cannot be guaranteed. The backstop must, therefore, be in place as part of the Irish protocol to offer full confidence that under no circumstances will there be a return to a hard border in Ireland. My interlocutors reaffirmed their solidarity with Ireland and reiterated their strong view that the UK is under an obligation to deliver on the clear commitments and guarantees that Prime Minister May gave in December, March and September if there is to be a satisfactory withdrawal agreement, including provision for a transition period to the end of 2020. I assure the House that these and other reassurances of solidarity that I receive in private are every bit as robust as those voiced in public. EU backing has been unwavering. Ongoing political engagement with our partners remains crucial and I will continue to take every opportunity to ensure our partners fully understand our particular concerns to enable the best possible outcome for this country.
Along with my fellow members of the European Council, I met Mr. Tusk and Mr. Barnier again at our most recent summit in Brussels on 17 and 18 October. I have seen President Tusk twice since then, including at the European People's Party conference in Helsinki. I also recently met President Juncker in Paris.
It is fair to say that recently there has been a significant amount of coverage of the Brexit negotiations, but there continues to be little hard detail about what has been agreed. The practice of ongoing commentary caused many problems over the past year and it is understandable that the EU side is determined to allow maximum room to manoeuvre in the discussions. There is a desire to try to create some space to allow people engage in negotiations without megaphone diplomacy. It is noteworthy that Tony Connolly's piece last Saturday suggested that our Ministers had been asked to stop constantly commenting and making political points during the latest phase of discussions.
From what we can see, it seems clear that there is a deal on the table with the organisation of its choreography in London the outstanding issue. The London Government has secured its main objective of having a buffer of access to the customs union until it is ready for an alternative to seeking to maintain control of when it should exit that union. Britain staying in the customs union is good for Ireland because there has been a lamentable lack of focus on the east-west axis. Our trade with Britain is critical and the idea of Britain staying in the customs union is one that should be encouraged, and for longer than some in the British Parliament would wish.
On the deal specific to Northern Ireland, the British Attorney General is reported as being prepared to argue that the wording is flexible, that the withdrawal treaty is, by definition, not capable of permanently binding the United Kingdom and that the backstop is capable of being ended if the United Kingdom so desires. As a result of a motion currently before the House of Commons, the advice of the British Attorney General will be made available. I understand that the British Government recently decided to make its legal advice available to the Commons. Our Attorney General was in Brussels last week to examine the proposed wordings. There is a real possibility that there will be one wording on the backstop but two contradictory legal interpretations as to what it means. It is entirely conceivable that the United Kingdom Government will insist that it can end the backstop unilaterally while our Government will state that it cannot. We may have an agreement with multiple interpretations.
Will the Taoiseach assure the House that he will, at the very least, make available to it the same level of information that will be available to Members of the United Kingdom Parliament, namely, the legal advice? We cannot have British parliamentarians having more information available to them than is available to their Irish counterparts. If there is a deal, will the Taoiseach commit to delivering full information on the legal implications? Will he also commit to publishing an immediate update of economic forecasts of the implications of what is agreed? Brexit has already had a significant economic impact on Britain and Ireland. We have a right to know the best estimates regarding its future impact while the agreements are being discussed and not merely after they have been concluded.
During his discussions with European colleagues, has the Taoiseach raised the issue of Palestine? This year, the EU has the chair of the Kimberley process, which is the certification process for the diamond industry and its exports. Ireland will hold the chair between 12 and 16 November. A key aspect of the Kimberley process is to prohibit the export of blood or conflict diamonds. Palestinian activists and civil society have called for the Kimberley process to include conflict diamonds coming from Israel on the grounds that the latter is engaged in ongoing systematic abuse of human rights, most recently launching a bombing raid on Gaza in which five people were killed. That followed a covert Israeli military operation on Sunday during which seven Palestinians were killed and also the killing of four Palestinians only a few weeks earlier. Over 200 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the Great March of Return this year. Should Ireland not use a power that we will hold this week as chair of the Kimberley process, to call Israel out and impose a sanction which would have a real impact? We ought to demand that Israel no longer has a diamond trade while it continues to deny and suppress Palestinians their basic rights and wantonly kills individuals as part of its brutal oppression of the Palestinian people.
I echo Deputy Boyd Barrett's concerns about the ongoing situation in Palestine, the siege there and the continued breaches of international law by the State of Israel.
Returning to Brexit and the imminent deal, there have been several waves of discussion and negotiation regarding the Irish protocol. The initial position held by the British Government, notwithstanding commitments into which it had previously entered, was to contest the notion that there is a need for a specific backstop for Ireland. We have come through the discussion regarding the backstop's scope. While it was ongoing, there were those - Government and others - that held steady in insisting that Northern Ireland is not as British as Finchley, that we have particularly Irish concerns and needs which must be met and that, therefore, a bespoke solution and insurance policy are required.
We then moved to the question of a backstop's duration. Tension emerged between the British demand for something that would be temporary and the Irish demand for something enduring. Many Deputies argued that temporary protections are no protections at all. I understood that we were all on the same page in respect of these matters. In our dealings with the British Government, Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt and others, we went to great lengths to reiterate our position, which we believe to be commonly held across the Irish political landscape. Then the Taoiseach began to talk about a review clause and mechanism. I am deeply troubled and puzzled by that. Will the Taoiseach explain what this is and its provenance?
I want him to consider the following points. First, in any review clause or mechanism, this State, and whoever is in Government, will not be a direct party to such a review. Second, I assure the Taoiseach that even thinking out loud about the concept of a review offers the Tories the prospect of these being temporary little arrangements. Third, we all spoke of achieving stability and certainty for our politics, society and economy. By definition, review mechanisms prolong uncertainty. The Taoiseach was wrong to raise this. Has he conceded a review mechanism? Will he clarify if a review mechanism is part of the deal that is on the table? I cannot understand why he shifted substantively the Government's position at this point in the negotiations. Has he seen the review wording? Has the Attorney General similarly viewed words that constitute a review clause, as Deputy Micheál Martin has suggested? If the Taoiseach has agreed to this, why has he done so? If he has not, then why was he thinking out loud along these lines? At a time when we require clarity of purpose, a singular focus, steadiness and sticking to the bottom line in the context of this country's needs, the Taoiseach has wavered. His words and actions in this are very dangerous.
In the normal course of events, EU policy decisions are taken at EU level and member states get significant time to digest and implement them locally. Unfortunately, in these negotiations we have moved into classic brinkmanship mode, with all the hard decisions being left to the final hours. We have heard that negotiators are up until 3 a.m. and resume their meetings at dawn, negotiating in what has been called "the tunnel".
Everything is now urgent. There is little time left for information to be released, digested and analysed.
Like others, I want to make it clear that we need time to see specifically the structure, content and import of any withdrawal agreement and to make sure we are legally clear before we vote in this House on any of these matters. Will the Taoiseach make Government officials available to brief us, other Members of the House and parties across the House once the agreement is finalised, if it is finalised, and provide us with any legal interpretation upon which the Government is relying?
I agree with Deputy Martin's point that the east-west part of the equation is extremely important for us. I say that not only as leader of the Labour Party but as somebody who represents Wexford and Rosslare port. A UK-wide customs union would be a great advantage but it must be established on a permanent basis. I cannot see how that could be acceptable to the UK authorities. We will see what is on offer and what is acceptable to Britain when the time comes.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach about a review mechanism that was mentioned. I asked him about that last week and he gave me some answers on it. Perhaps more has been made of this than it merits but we need clarity on it and the Taoiseach might give us that clarity now. Has he discussed the review mechanism with Michel Barnier and what is his understanding of what is meant by that term?
We have had a report today covering the common travel area. I have had discussions with a number of people on this matter. Some legal advice I got is that we should not try to codify the common travel area because once we start legally framing it we are perhaps in some ways reducing the rights base of it. The common travel area is a very shallow term for a very broad range of rights enjoyed by Irish citizens in the UK and UK citizens here right down to access to health services, education, housing and even the right to vote. My fear is that if we had an acrimonious parting of Britain and if it was perceived by the British, or certainly by the Tory Government, that the Irish issue was at the heart of the reason for an acrimonious departure, then rights enjoyed that are not legally codified and agreed may well disappear. In private briefings there has been discussions on this but perhaps the Taoiseach would put on the Dáil record what exactly is the extent of negotiations on the rights of Irish citizens and British citizens here which, separate from our European Union rights, would endure in what we now know to be, or call, the common travel area.
I call Deputy Burton, who has tabled Questions Nos. 8 and 9.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the backstop agreement. Has he seen a legal draft of it? Has Mr. Barnier proposed such a legal paper or draft which has been shown to the Taoiseach or to Irish officials, or other representatives? Does he believe he still has bullet-proof proposals on the backstop? What is his desired deadline for agreement on Brexit? Is it the December Council meeting or later than that again?
Does the Taoiseach agree that the Good Friday Agreement changed the constitutional status of Northern Ireland? Will he expand on how that has affected his discussions with both Mr. Barnier and Mr. Tusk? Does he agree it is almost inevitable that if Brexit proceeds along the lines we understand it to be proceeding, there will be a constitutional crisis in the UK, specifically regarding Scotland, which voted against it but has no power in terms of the negotiation, while in the North we have no functioning Executive to represent, in a legitimate way, the views of the different parties, communities and traditions in Northern Ireland? It looks like we are drifting inevitably - I said this a long time ago - to the last few hours of the last night of negotiations. I encourage the Taoiseach to be forthcoming to the Dáil, on what is a most important decision for everybody on the island of Ireland, for the EU and for the UK, as to where he thinks it stands now. I ask him to cut out the spin and tell us where he believes it is at.
Many questions have been raised and I will do my best to answer as many of them as I can in the time permitted. The negotiations are happening in private. They are happening in a "tunnel" and in private for a very good reason. I have always said throughout these talks over the past year and a half that it was not helpful to give a running commentary on negotiations. It is certainly not in our national interest to do that. That is particularly true when we are approaching a very sensitive phase. I believe we are approaching a very sensitive phase now so I hope Deputies will understand why I need to be a little cautious in the way I answer questions. However, I am very happy to make officials available for confidential briefings with the party leaders and their teams this week and also should we come to the point where we have an agreement. I would be very happy for that to happen. I will ask my officials to contact the leaders' offices to set that up as soon as possible.
Deputy Martin was correct in saying that the UK staying in a customs union for a time or staying in a temporary customs arrangement would be beneficial for Ireland because of the benefits of frictionless trade east-west between Britain and Ireland, which is very important for the agrifood sector our small and medium enterprises and also for Northern Ireland. Let us not forget that much of the trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain goes through Dublin Port and Rosslare. It is the quickest way to get from Northern Ireland to the midlands and the south of England. It is not Larne to Stranraer and all the way down. It is Dublin to Rosslare and across to England. I hope business in Northern Ireland will see the benefits of the UK staying aligned to the customs union. In terms of legal interpretation, again Deputy Martin made a very valid point. There have been some discussions on this already. We want to avoid a situation whereby we have an agreement that is made and then, two or three days later, we have the European Union interpreting it differently from the UK. That is something we are aware of and some consideration has been given to making sure we have a common legal interpretation, as it were, of the agreement whenever it comes.
The British Government in the last order said it will make it available to the British Parliament in advance of a vote
There is a difference there. I will make everything available to the Dáil that I can but there is a difference there. We are talking about legal advice. This is an EU-UK agreement. It is not an agreement between the UK and Ireland or the UK, the EU and Ireland. It requires ratification by Westminster and the European Parliament so the UK Attorney General is in possession of his own legal advice. The European Union legal advice is in the ownership of the European Commission legal service and the European Council legal service. It is very likely they will make that available to all of us but it will be made available to all the European Parliaments-----
Hopefully, the interpretation will be the same.
We would have an interpretation of that advice as well.
-----not just specifically-----
I recall a former Attorney General had a difficulty with the EU legal service.
We need our own interpretation of it.
Regarding Palestine, Palestine is regularly raised at European Council meetings, most recently around the status of Jerusalem, where the European Union was united in our view that the embassy should not be moved to Jerusalem until the final status of that city is decided.
Deputy Boyd Barrett has raised the Kimberley process before. I have written to him about this. I am not sure if he has received that letter yet but it explains why it does not apply to Israel and why what he proposed cannot be done, in the view of the people who know all about the Kimberley process.
Palestine was also discussed last week in Helsinki at the European People's Party, EPP, congress. There was a discussion around the Human Rights Watch report on human rights in Palestine, Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent, which is worth becoming familiar with. It refers to the extent to which Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face oppression by both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. It is important that when we talk about the conflict in Israel and Palestine, we do not turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses being committed by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Sometimes it seems that if a Palestinian is a victim of human rights abuses by Israel, it is raised. However, when a Palestinian is a victim of human rights abuses by Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, there is silence. I hope that the Deputy does not have a higher level of tolerance for human rights abuses committed by Hamas or other Palestinian groups than those committed by the state of Israel.
I do not but I know what the source of the problem is.
He never mentions them and I just thought I would put that on the record.
On the backstop, it is important to remember the joint report in December which set out options A, B, and C. Option A is about avoiding a hard border through the future relationship; option B provides for specific solutions proposed by the UK; and option C is the backstop. We should never forget that this is intended to be a backstop. It is intended that it will never be invoked. If it is ever invoked, it would only be temporary as a bridge to option A or B.
It should be there.
It has to be there. It has to be legally operative. It cannot have an expiry date and cannot be cancelled by one side unilaterally. That is the position we have had persistently all the way through. We should always bear in mind the objective, namely, the avoidance of the emergence of a hard border on our island. That is the objective. Whether it is a double backstop, a backstop to a backstop or a hybrid backstop is not the point. The point is having a legally binding guarantee that a hard border would not emerge between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
I know Deputy McDonald is hostile to the review clause. I just do not agree with that position.
Will the Taoiseach explain what it is then?
We often have review clauses in treaties and legislation. I have no doubt that if the Deputy was leading the negotiations, she would have walked away by now over the review clause. We then would have no deal, just as we have no deal in Northern Ireland.
We did the deal last February. We should not become distracted. What is the review clause?
I am adopting a different approach, which is willing to consider creative solutions and creative language where necessary.
That is dangerous language.
When I met Mark Durkan at the presidential inauguration on Sunday night, he reminded me of the fact that the Good Friday Agreement has a review clause. Part of the understanding behind the Agreement was that if one wanted it to be long-standing and enduring, it made sense to build into it review mechanisms.
That is totally different.
What are they?
That was his understanding of it which I thought was wise. There is no review clause yet. It is a proposal that has been put forward and is under consideration.
I cannot describe something that does not exist yet. It was put forward by the UK side.
We have been clear that we are willing to consider a review clause but we are not willing to consider a backstop that can be unilaterally terminated by one side.
So the Taoiseach has openly entertained a review clause suggested by the British but the content is unknown and-----
Every time we try to have a serious discussion about Brexit, I am more convinced that there would be no deal if Sinn Féin were leading these negotiations. It is evident that this uncompromising and extreme approach would not work. If we are going to have an agreement between the UK and the EU, one has to be willing to be generous on occasion and give them something, so long as one maintains one’s objectives and outcomes. The approach Sinn Féin would pursue would ensure we have no friends in Europe and there would be no deal with the UK.
That is absolute rubbish.
We have taken up two slots. I respectfully suggest that the next two questions, Questions Nos. 10 and 11, are factual and we deal with those immediately in order to move on to the more substantial questions, Questions Nos. 12 to 14, inclusive.
They are all factual questions. Getting factual answers is the problem.
10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of Cabinet committees he has attended since June 2018. [41075/18]
11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the number of Cabinet committee meetings he has attended since June 2018. [43709/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 11 together.
It is a totally factual answer.
I have chaired five Cabinet committee meetings since June 2018. Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, met on 7 June and 22 October. Cabinet committee C, European Union, met on 21 June. Cabinet committee A, economy, met on 9 July and 12 November. Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, is scheduled to meet on Thursday, 15 November.
Factual answers are important. In the previous Administration, much work was done through Cabinet sub-committees which usually met for a full day. I know it is the Taoiseach's practice that more work is done at full Cabinet meetings rather than at Cabinet sub-committee meetings. However, that means one has long agendas.
Does the infrastructure committee deal with the national broadband plan? We went through a hiatus on one of the most important infrastructure projects in the State because of the resignation of the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The Taoiseach himself has described the roll-out of broadband as analogous to the rural electrification programme. What has happened on this? Has a Cabinet sub-committee discussed the national broadband plan? Where are we now with the review of the integrity of the plan's process to date? When will proposals be brought back here?
Tens of thousands of people living in my constituency and throughout the country are desperately anxious to know when they will have access to broadband. This is one of the areas one would imagine a bespoke Cabinet sub-committee would be set up to bring in all the officials concerned from across various Departments to ensure there is a full and vigorous evaluation completed of the process to date, what needs to be done to mend the fatally damaged hand of the Government and how we proceed.
I am not sure at which committee the idea was floated by the Minister of State, Deputy D’Arcy, that the Government would consider a referendum to override judicial discretion in the awarding of compensation claims if judges do not reduce injury payouts over the next two years. The cost of insurance working group, which the same Minister of State chairs, published its seventh progress report yesterday which highlighted, again, the Government’s failure to set up an insurance fraud unit. This sums up the Government's overall failure to tackle the insurance rip-off. Yesterday, we were told that the Garda Commissioner has yet to form a view on the proposal and that several issues will require further consideration before any decision to proceed is taken. This is a disjointed and messy set of messages coming from the Government. Will the Taoiseach afford us some clarity on the matter?
When the old system of Cabinet committees was changed and replaced with, allegedly, much broader mandates, we were told this was to enable a more dynamic and active role from the committees. The opposite seems to have happened. I agree with Deputy Howlin that the reality is that many of the committees meet rarely. It cannot be argued that the Cabinet committees play any substantive role in moving policy forward. If one looks at two critical issues, health and broadband, there is no evidence that the relevant committees have made any impact. They have only met several times this year.
The last time he was challenged on this, the Taoiseach said he liked to raise issues at full Cabinet meetings. That would mean brief and limited papers being prepared, as well as brief discussions. There would be none of the more detailed discussions which were the norm with Cabinet sub-committees of the previous genre. Previously, there would have been a full afternoon on a particular topic.
It would also be attended by all relevant officials.
Yes, all relevant officials would have been available.
Relevant Ministers also attended and that is how well functioning Cabinet committees worked. The infrastructure committee met once at the start of the year and will meet once or twice this year. Is the Taoiseach happy that this represents adequate strategic oversight of an issue like broadband? Given the growing shambles and incoherence in relation to rural broadband, which is now the subject of a personal crusade of the Taoiseach, how has Cabinet been carrying out its oversight role, in particular in view of how rarely the matter has been discussed at Cabinet-committee level? It is a real issue given what we are now learning about costs being multiples of what was originally understood as well as in relation to what transpired over the last five to six weeks with certain meetings. One gets the distinct sense that the Cabinet's eye was off the ball in relation to rural broadband and that there was no Cabinet committee which was on top of the issue.
The failure of the Government to deliver social and council housing for people on housing lists or in homelessness hubs is well known. What discussions has the Taoiseach had, which sub-committee deals with it and to what extent does the Taoiseach have a handle on the issue of affordability for those whose incomes are above the eligibility threshold but too low to get a bank loan? Yesterday, for example, I had a distraught mother telling me about her son and daughter-in-law. Her son is highly qualified and works for a telecommunications company. He cycles all the way from Ballybrack to Dundrum every day and gets a reasonable wage while his wife works as a hairdresser. They applied for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme but were refused without explanation. They have their deposit and a clean credit rating but they were refused. That mother simply asked me if the scheme was a scam. If someone like her son and his wife, making the efforts they have made to get themselves educated and working, cannot get this scheme, who can? How could they possibly be turned down? She went on to say that her research shows that 67% of applications for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme are being refused. Can the Taoiseach confirm that?
That is correct.
It is a shocker. What is the Government doing? What sort of scheme is that to help those who cannot get on the housing list and yet have absolutely no chance of being able to afford a home on the open market?
It was never designed to give people access.
It is extraordinary. Does the Taoiseach have a handle on this? Does he understand it? What does he have to say to that distraught mother and her son?
To comment on the last point, I produced a similar case to the Taoiseach not long ago of a tradesman married to a hairdresser with her own business. Their only child is ten years old which means their childcare costs are not as high. They meet all the criteria and yet they have been turned down.
Some time ago, I asked the Taoiseach about meetings of the Cabinet committee on security and related issues, including An Garda Síochána, and on the report on the future of policing. The Taoiseach told me that he had a different style as Head of Government, which is fair enough, and that he did not like having Cabinet sub-committees. He prefers to have reports like that discussed by the Cabinet as a whole. That is fine and it has always happened. However, I asked him in a follow-up question what had happened and he said the report was noted. Since then, I have seen no evidence that the report has been acted on. From my experience with a report as detailed as the one on the future of policing, I cannot see how progress on the detailed list of actions can be discussed other than at some kind of sub-committee. It is at a sub-committee that detailed actions can be commissioned by the Taoiseach for the implementation of this vital report. In our constituency, people are complaining strongly that they simply do not see enough community policing which is at the heart of the proposals in the report on the future of policing.
The Taoiseach may not be aware of it, but in the last five minutes, RTÉ has broken the news that a text has been agreed between UK and EU negotiators. It was agreed last night at 9 p.m. and, as such, the Taoiseach is probably aware of it. Apropos the response to Deputy Burton's earlier question, the Taoiseach might comment on that. The text was agreed last night at 9 p.m.
Has that just broken now?
There are often things in the media that are reported-----
Tony Connolly gets it right.
Obviously, I have been here for the last two hours and I have not spoken to my officials or been able to speak to them in that time. I was asked about working mechanisms and it is always sensible to be flexible in that regard and practical about how one decides to operate Government business. As Members have acknowledged and unlike the case with previous Governments, I have focused on involving the whole Cabinet in decision making as far as is practical. Today, for example, we spent an hour on Brexit. While Cabinet committees include officials and advisors, they often exclude Ministers. I like to do more things with Ministers than was the case in the past and often hold bilateral or trilateral meetings, in particular around health and housing. These meetings involve me, the line Minister and another relevant Minister, usually the Minister for Finance. We also use the Cabinet committees. For example, we decided specifically in regard to the O'Toole report on the future of policing that the Cabinet would note it and agree to its publication and that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, would come back to the Cabinet sub-committee with a reasoned response to it and an implementation plan. On that occasion, the right approach was that it should be noted by Cabinet and published and then referred to the Cabinet sub-committee for further consideration.
The infrastructure committee, which is sub-committee D, covers the national broadband plan and I receive a report every two weeks on the progress being made. On Thursday, we will have a meeting of that Cabinet sub-committee to deal with two major issues, namely housing and the implementation of Project Ireland 2040, respectively. The latter discussion will include broadband. There are two steps to come in the national broadband plan. The first involves the report of Peter Smyth on the process and whether it has been okay.
When is that due?
It is imminent. I do not have an exact date, but it is imminent. The second matter is the making of a decision on the bid. We will have to take into account the costs, timelines and practicality in deciding whether to go ahead.
What is the review saying?
I have not seen it. As I said, it has not arrived yet but it is imminent. There are no proposals for a referendum on compensation payments currently. I acknowledge in this context the work done by the Minister of State, Deputy Michael D'Arcy, and his predecessor, the current Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, which has had results. For example, motor insurance premiums peaked in 2016, having risen very steeply, and they have now fallen by 20%. Much of that is down to the work led by those Deputies. Health insurance costs had been increasing very rapidly under previous Governments but they have levelled off and even fallen in the last year or two. Much of that is down to the legislation we introduced on lifetime community rating, which has worked. It is legislation I brought through the House and which has made a difference to health insurance costs which had been rising every year for I do not know how long. They have now levelled off and actually fallen for VHI customers.
On affordability, I am advised that approximately 1,000 Rebuilding Ireland home loans have already been approved, which is a not insubstantial number.
However, 20,000 have been refused.
Under the rules one has to have been refused by a bank or credit institution but one must also be able to afford to pay the loan back. That is a prerequisite of any loan. There have been a lot of complaints, however, including at least six to me from my constituency. It is a new product and 1,000 people have already qualified for it, but it may be the case that it can be improved. That is something the Department is working on.
Deputy O'Dea has 106 cases.
What about the report on the future of policing?
I dealt with that but the Deputy was not listening. She was chatting. It is on the record.
We have just over one minute remaining for the third batch of questions and I will take the Taoiseach's response.
Perhaps the Taoiseach might speak on the text of the EU agreement.
Should we not invite the Taoiseach to say something on Brexit and how we will be briefed?
I do not know how Deputies can expect the Taoiseach to comment on a matter on which he has not been briefed.
We discussed the issue in the context of the previous group of questions and the Taoiseach stated that he would revert to us.
On what is the Deputy stating that I will revert to the House?
The agreement that was reached last night.
What are the Deputies asking the Taoiseach to do?
I ask that we be briefed on any agreement which has been reached.
I have been in the Chamber for the past two hours and ten minutes. I have yet to be briefed on the developments.
It is unreasonable to expect the Taoiseach to comment on a matter on which he has not been briefed.
RTÉ reported that the text of the agreement was agreed at 9 o'clock last night. Perhaps that is incorrect.