Ceisteanna - Questions

Commissions of Investigation

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the status of the commission of investigation into IBRC. [53031/18]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the status of the commission of investigation into IBRC; and the projected costs in this regard. [1292/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

Following consultations with the Opposition parties by the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, the IBRC commission of investigation was established in June 2015. The commission is entirely independent in its work and Mr. Justice Brian Cregan is its sole member. The commission is required to investigate certain transactions, activities and management decisions at the IBRC. In its first module it is investigating the Siteserv transaction which has been identified as a matter of significant public concern in Dáil Éireann. Deputies will recall that following determinations made by the commission that banker-client confidentiality and legal professional privilege applied in relation to certain documents supplied to it, the then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, invited views from the Opposition parties on the issues arising and, following consultations with them, the Commission of Investigation (IBRC) Act 2016 was enacted by the Oireachtas in July 2016. The Act is bespoke legislation which gave a new legal basis to the commission’s investigations. Deputies will also recall that arising from issues raised by the commission, its terms of reference were also amended by the Oireachtas in 2016 following consultations with the Opposition parties.

Following requests from the commission and further consultations with Opposition parties, the timeframe for the commission’s report has been extended on several occasions. On 23 November 2018, the commission submitted its fifth interim report to me and requested a further extension of its deadline for reporting until the end of March 2020. I consulted with Opposition representatives on this request and there was a shared strong concern about the level of progress achieved by the commission to date, the timeframe now proposed for concluding the first module of the commission’s work and the risks of further delays and cost escalations. It was agreed to request a further interim report from the commission under section 33 of the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004. This report should include any interim findings or conclusions which the commission is in a position to make at this stage; any options which the commission believes would reduce the timeframe and-or cost for production of a final report on the first module of the investigation; the commission’s view of risks to completion of the first module of the investigation within the requested new timeframe, that is, the end of March 2020; and the commission’s best estimate of the likely final costs of the first module. I also extended the commission’s timeframe until the end of March 2019. A decision on any further extension of the commission’s timeframe will be taken, in consultation with Opposition party representatives, after the interim report has been received.

From the time of its establishment to the end of 2018 the commission spent approximately €5.065 million on direct costs, including salaries, administration, overheads and its own legal counsel. The commission has not provided any estimate of the third party legal costs incurred to date but they are likely to be substantial and it would be prudent to assume the final cost of the commission could exceed €30 million.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. As outlined, the Taoiseach received the commission's fifth interim report in November. The commission has sought an extension until the end of March 2020 but the Taoiseach has not made a decision on granting that extension at this point in time. He suggests that the commission of investigation is likely to cost in excess of €30 million and I ask him to give the House an indication of how such a figure was arrived at, given that the commission itself has not provided that estimate in its interim report. I also ask the Taoiseach to outline to the House his views on the Siteserv module. A balance must be struck here with regard to the overall work of the commission in terms of ascertaining the truth and the overall issue of costs. There is an issue of public importance at play here and the Siteserv module must be concluded. Has the Taoiseach arrived at a decision with regard to the conclusion of the Siteserv module, which is of utmost public importance and which will require an extension to the timeframe for the commission?.

The Taoiseach's response concerning dialogue with the commission of investigation is unclear. The whole idea behind commissions of investigation is to make inquiries quicker and more efficient. We have had five interim reports from the IBRC commission of investigation and it would be reasonable to say that none of them contains anything of great substance. The reports simply provide a chronology of what has been done to date.

Has the Taoiseach written to the commission to say that he is granting an extension until March 2019? Is that what he is telling us? Has there been any response to that, given that the commission requested an extension out to 2020? I attended the aforementioned briefing and fully appreciate the Taoiseach's concerns on this matter. There is a need to ensure that there is a full and rigorous investigation and that the full facts are known but the cost of the investigation is now likely to exceed the total value of the transactions being investigated which does not seem right. Has the Taoiseach had any response from the commission of investigation to his decision to extend its timeframe to March of this year rather than to March 2020, as requested? Will the Taoiseach put his letter to the commission and the commission's response, if any, on the public record?

Before posing my question, I would like to point out that three questions were transferred, wrongly in my view given that they related to the Taoiseach's Brexit-related meetings with Prime Ministers, to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. My office is now dealing with the relevant office and our point has been accepted but greater attention is required. I ask that the Taoiseach would keep an eye on this because I do not think that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is meeting Prime Ministers on the Taoiseach's behalf-----

Not that I am aware.

-----much as he might like to do so.

It is four years since the IBRC commission of investigation was first established. It was established for a very good reason, namely the real and increasing public concern at information emerging about IBRC's sale of public assets at rates which appeared to be well below what should have been sought and other related issues. It is now an issue of concern that an inquiry can drag on for so long and at such expense. The Taoiseach is now estimating that the commission will cost €30 million, which is extraordinary, particularly when compared to inquiries in other countries which do not take the same length of time or incur the same level of costs.

There simply must be something wrong when a commission can take years to focus on a single transaction. To put it in perspective, there appears to be little more than three months involved between the decision to put Siteserv's assets up for sale and the conclusion of that sale. We will soon be in the fifth year of investigating a transaction that took three months, which I am sure the Taoiseach will agree is absurd by any definition.

Does he have any idea what the obstacles that have been put in the path of the commission are? As it is a private rather than a public commission, we do not know if it has been delayed by lack of co-operation, legal issues or simply bad procedure driven by acting as though it were a court with powers beyond those held by a commission. What can be done to get to the bottom of this? We are owed some detailed explanations, given that we are the body charged with establishing it along with the Government. We worked in consultation with the Taoiseach's predecessor and the Taoiseach in this regard. Does he accept that it is not good enough merely to express frustration and that he has a responsibility to seek a detailed statement on why we are entering the fifth year of investigation into a transaction which took approximately three months?

I missed the Taoiseach's response, but what is important is the context of the letter he wrote to the commission about extending the timeframe. Like everyone else, I have concerns about the delay and costs, which I shared with the Taoiseach. I am also concerned that some people could be above scrutiny if we cannot reach a satisfactory conclusion on this matter.

I am at a bit of a disadvantage in answering these questions because it is an independent commission under Mr. Justice Cregan and I am not in charge of it. Rather, I am just the Minister named in the Act and, therefore, I do not know, nor can I know, many of the answers to the questions that people are asking. I have extended the commission's timeframe until the end of March 2019 and requested a further interim report on the items I mentioned, namely, any interim findings or conclusions which the commission is in a position to make at this stage, any options the commission believes would reduce the timeframe, cost or both for production of a final report in the first module, the commission's view on the risks to completion of the first module of the investigation within the new requested timeframe of the end of March 2020, and the commission's best estimate of the likely final cost in the first module. That is essentially what the letter contains and I have no difficulty putting it into the public domain unless there is some legal reason as to why I cannot do so. If I have received a response, I have not yet seen it although I do not think there has been.

The costs are an estimate drawn up by my officials. In November, I indicated that the tentative estimate of the final cost of the commission would be between €20 million and €25 million, given the rate of expenditure. The commission's timeframe for reporting has been extended, at the risk of further delays and the significant third party legal costs that will arise. The commission has not provided its own estimate of the total costs, which are likely to rise from the first module. As I said in my reply, I have asked it to provide me with its best estimate in the interim report.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee E, health, will meet next. [51725/18]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee E, health, last met; and when it next plans to meet. [52101/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee E, health, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [53030/18]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

6. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee E, health, last met. [53142/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 6, inclusive, together.

Cabinet committee E last met on 22 November 2018. A date for the next meeting has not yet been scheduled. In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I often meet with Ministers and their teams on an individual basis to focus on particular issues. In this regard, I regularly meet with the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to discuss issues relating to our health service.

The Government’s continuing commitment to improve access to health and social services for the people through investment across community and hospital services is reflected in the significant increases in health investment in recent years. This year will see the highest ever level of health funding in the history of the State. We have also committed almost €11 billion in capital investment over the next ten years through the national development plan and Project Ireland 2040, which is approximately double what was invested in infrastructure in healthcare in the past ten years.

The recently published national service plan sets out in detail the level of health services to be provided by the HSE within the available funding for the coming year. It outlines the provision of a range of Government initiatives including mental health enhancements, disability services, cervical screening, the HPV vaccine for boys, the introduction of termination of pregnancy services and the merger of the three children’s hospitals in Dublin into Children’s Health Ireland, which took effect on 1 January. Primary care enhancements include provision for funding for a new general practitioner, GP, contract should negotiations on it be successful, reduced prescription charges, reduced drug payment scheme charges from March, an increase in the GP visit card thresholds from March and the initiation of a programme of care redesign in line with Sláintecare.

The service plan emphasises the importance of strengthening clinical leadership, improving patient and service user engagement and advancing a culture of patient safety, continuous quality improvement and learning. To ensure meaningful and sustained improvement in the health service over the coming years, however, we also need to develop a major programme of reform. The new Sláintecare programme office has prepared a detailed action plan for 2019 as committed to in the Sláintecare implementation strategy and I expect it to be published shortly. A Sláintecare advisory council has also been established under the chairmanship of Dr. Tom Keane. These new structures will drive implementation of the reform programme.

Budget 2019 provides for more than €200 million directly to assist a range of initiatives proposed in the Sláintecare report and committed to in the implementation strategy. Work is also under way to establish a new HSE board to strengthen the management, governance and accountability of the HSE. Mr. Ciarán Devane has been nominated as chairperson-designate of the board.

It is extraordinary to listen to the Taoiseach's answer on the health service: one would think everything is improving. We are facing industrial action by thousands of nurses from the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and the Psychiatric Nurses Association of Ireland. Incredibly, the Taoiseach's Cabinet committee on health has not met since November despite facing industrial action by the nurses. When he comments on the matter, he seems intent on criticising the nurses for taking industrial action. He fails to recognise, however, that Government policy has produced this crisis and forced nurses into a position where they feel they must take industrial action. He continues to peddle the myth that there is no retention problem for nurses, but the truth needs to be said. For every four nursing vacancies, there is only one application. Some 5% fewer nurses work in the health service than did in 2008, while the number of managers has increased by 40%.

Nurses are earning €7,000 less at every point of their career than similar graduate professionals working in the health service. The Taoiseach touts pay increases which are actually restoration of cuts that his party proposed and that remain not fully restored ten years after the austerity assault on public sector workers, including nurses, was launched. He does not acknowledge that nurses give up an hour and a half for free to the health service, or the costs resulting from overcrowding, waiting lists and cancelled operations because there are not enough nurses to staff the hospitals. Rather, there are myths about the cost of what nurses are demanding, despite €2 million a week being paid to agency nurses and overseas recruitment firms being paid €10,000 per nurse recruited because the Government will not directly employ staff nurses. All the costs of cancellations in the health service result from chronic staff shortages which in turn result from our failure to recruit enough nurses or retain them because the Government will not pay them properly. Will the Taoiseach face up to the reality of what is going on, talk to nurses, listen to them and concede to their just and legitimate demands?

I return to the issue of the overrun on the cost of the national children's hospital, which the Taoiseach answered in general terms earlier. He said he thinks the current estimate, that is, on 15 January, is the same as it was before Christmas, but in the past number of weeks there has been further speculation that it has risen from the staggering €1.4 billion, which he indicated to the House before Christmas, to €1.7 billion, although even that might not be the height of the cost.

The Taoiseach talked about the 15 operating theatres and all the rest of it. We know what this really good hospital will comprise. In my political career I have never seen a project so completely out of control in terms of cost. Even the expanded cost, which was originally €450 million but more realistically €650 million, is now likely to be three times that figure. How can that be? How did that come about? What are the factors? The Taoiseach indicated earlier that it was an issue of construction inflation. Construction inflation does not triple the price, otherwise every single project under construction right now would be triple the price of the estimate, which is not the case. What are the specific reasons? Why was this not drawn to people's attention before the end of last year in a very public fashion?

Finally, the Taoiseach indicated that €100 million of cuts would be required across the public sector capital programme this year and that €50 million of this would be in health. He more or less said it would just delay projects. People are urgently waiting for dialysis units to be constructed as well as facilities in hospitals up and down the country. Delays are really having an impact. Many school projects will be affected as a result of the €50 million to be found elsewhere. Some €100 million is a really significant sum of money. Can the Taoiseach indicate exactly where that €100 million will be found and give the House a real explanation as to how this particular project has completely gone off the rails in terms of cost oversight?

In the same vein, the response of the Taoiseach earlier that this will be the best hospital and will last for 100 years is fine and great. We need the hospital and nobody objects to that but the issue here is the runaway cost. He described this project back in 2014-2015 as spectacular, and it will be spectacular when constructed. He said it would cost €650 million and would be fully operational this year. It will cost three times that and will not be fully operational for many years to come.

There are serious questions and we deserve answers as to how the Government got this so wrong. The Taoiseach will criticise others and will throw cheap shots but he was the Minister for Health. His colleague is the Minister for Health and he is the Taoiseach who told us that he was going to take a special role and interest in this. Every euro in terms of additional cost that will go into building this hospital will be taken from other public services, whether a school that will not be built, a community hospital that will be delayed or an extension to an existing hospital that will be delayed or put on the long finger. These are the concerns people have about this.

The Taoiseach tries to dismiss this as if everything is okay but this is a throwback to the Fianna Fáil era of calculations on the back of the brown envelope. If one closed one's eyes, one could pretend one was not talking about the national children's hospital but about the Dublin Port tunnel or one of the other capital projects Fianna Fáil continued to allow developers to benefit from in this State. The Taoiseach told us that would not happen with his Government and we expected it would not. Now that it has happened, he expects us just to ignore the fact these costs have increased to such a degree and expects us not to look for accountability.

There are serious questions in different communities. For example, in the Midland Regional Hospital in Mullingar, there are serious concerns that the MRI scanner that was part of Project Ireland 2040 will not be delivered as a result of the overruns in health. Are these the types of capital projects that will be cut or delayed? There is a responsibility on the Taoiseach, who has made such a cock-up of this over the past number of years, to explain to the public where the axe will fall? Which projects will be cut because his Government and his Ministers took their eye off the ball and did not ensure value for money on this project?

I was very upset, like many people, when I read that parents who have not completed meningitis vaccinations for their children will not be afforded a free vaccination but instead will be charged €200. For instance, if they have three children, which many parents have, who have not completed the vaccination cycle, this will amount to €600. That would wipe out many families on social welfare or on a minimum wage income. At the same time the Minister for Health announced a Department of Health variation of the strategic communications unit, that is, a public relations exercise fee of €75,000. Has the Taoiseach, his Minister or his Government any sense of how to address priorities in the Department of Health? Meningitis is a serious public health risk and it is a serious abuse of public funds not to ensure that children at risk are properly vaccinated and that those vaccinations are performed as a public health service.

I refer to the cost of the children's hospital which people are baffled by. The Taoiseach was in that seat at a very important time for that project. I was delighted to see the Taoiseach visiting Africa last week but if anybody from Europe went to a small or a large African country and was told by aid officials that a children's health project - for example, building a large children's hospital - was potentially running €1 billion to €2 billion over the estimate in the plan would immediately suspect that such a cost overrun was due to misappropriation or some form of corruption of the process.

The Taoiseach is here to provide the Dáil with answers as Leader of the Government. Can he explain these conundrums in the Department of Health under his command as Taoiseach?

At the outset, there needs to be an Oireachtas inquiry into the escalating cost of the children's hospital. The Taoiseach said earlier that when he was Minister for Health he thought it would cost €650 million. Yet in a couple of years, it has gone up to apparently to €1.7 billion, according to a Cabinet memorandum that was evidently given to The Irish Times. This was given days after the Taoiseach told me it was €1.4 billion. It seems the Dáil is the last place to be told anything in detail. I asked the Taoiseach in the last session of the Dail whether that the upper limit and, to be fair, he did not say it was but he did not use the figure of €1.7 billion, which is in the memorandum. The Irish Times got this memorandum from somebody, and it must have been someone in government, and it published it and a lot of material on this. To go from €650 million to €1.7 billion in approximately two years demands detailed explanation. We all know the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform keeps a tight rein on capital projects and it is meant to do so and there are procedures and mechanisms for that. It is not enough to say that a hospital group has been given carte blanche to do and spend anything it likes. That is not the way it works and I hope that was not what was being suggested earlier today in the answer to a substantive question asked by another Deputy during Leaders' Questions. There needs to be an Oireachtas inquiry of some sort and there should be full accountability as to how it has jumped from €650 million to €1.7 billion.

On the issue of the meningitis B vaccine, I am perturbed as to how that is being introduced. I happened to be the Minister for Health when the meningitis C vaccine became available and we did a full programme that cost €50 million at the time, most of which was a once-off cost because it was dealing with all children. There was no hesitation about that at the time given the expert advice. The Department of Finance accepted at the time that it had to be done on public health grounds.

The meningitis B vaccine was not ready at the time and the advice was that the impact of meningitis B could be potentially worse than meningitis C. There needs to be a very serious review of how the meningitis B vaccine is being rolled out because of its devastating impact on children and young people generally when the illness occurs.

I could raise many other issues, but I do not have the time. I ask the Taoiseach to comment on the article by Susan Mitchell last weekend on Sláintecare in which she said the hospital groups would be broken up and merged into regional integrated care organisations, RICOs. In a speech in November 2015, the Taoiseach heralded the hospital groups as central to reform. Has that changed, and does he now support the proposals to abolish them at the start of the Sláintecare project?

I spoke earlier on the threatened nurses strike and the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, answered the question on meningitis B so I will use my time to answer questions that have not been answered.

The Taoiseach could answer the question we asked him.

The Taoiseach could answer the question I asked him.

Deputy Boyd Barrett said that listening to me one would imagine that everything was fine in the health service, but I do not think that for a moment. Listening to him, one would think absolutely nothing at all is going right. Let me tell him about some of the things that are going right. The waiting times for operations and procedures in hospitals – hips, knees, eyes, cataracts and angiograms – are now at their lowest in five years.

What I asked is why the Taoiseach thinks the nurses are going on strike.

Will the Deputy please allow the Taoiseach to respond?

Cancer survival rates are improving, stroke survival rates and heart attack survival rates are improving. Suicide rates are going down while life expectancy is increasing. None of that has happened by accident. It has happened because the right policies and strategies have been put in place by the health service. They have been funded by the Government. It has also happened because of the professionalism and hard work of all of our healthcare staff.

That is why the nurses are going on strike.

No, I was just talking about patients.

My question was about the strike.

I noted in Deputy Boyd Barrett’s lengthy speech on this issue that he did not mention patients at all.

For me, patient outcomes should be at the centre of our concerns when it comes to the health service.

I mentioned patients.

If the Deputy did, it was fleeting because I did not hear it.

I did not read Susan Mitchell's report but I have read the Sláintecare document, which recommends that we move towards integrated healthcare structures rather than the current system of hospital groups and community healthcare organisations. Hospitals will be combined with community services as part of the Sláintecare reforms.

Another structure.

Sláintecare recommends structural change.

That is the fifth.

People are very quick to criticise the Government for not implementing it but when we do, we are criticised as well. Either one is for Sláintecare or one is not. Sláintecare recommends this reform, namely, that we move towards integrated healthcare structures again.

The ESRI recommended paying the nurses but that was ignored.

In terms of the rising costs of the children's hospital, my assessment is that the costs were underestimated in the first place but construction inflation has had a significant impact. Changes also had to be made to the sprinkler system-----

It is a very expensive sprinkler system.

-----and the cost of the electrical engineering system in particular was much higher than had been intended.

It could cost €1 billion.

The Department of Health is inquiring further into the issue. The National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, which is the dedicated State agency set up to deliver the hospital, is available to come in and answer questions in detail. It will have the financial people working on the project do that at the Joint Committee on Health.

So should the Minister.

He is happy to do it too.

So should the Ministers and the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach was also Minister for Health.

We are happy to do it too.

The Minister has statutory responsibility for the matter.

I am sure the Minister for Health will be asked all of these questions as well.

There are other health projects under way, including the new national rehabilitation hospital in Dún Laoghaire, for example, and the new national forensic mental health hospital in Portrane. As things stand, those projects look like they are going to come in on time and on budget.

The Taoiseach should be careful.

I accept that may change but for context, let us at least bear in mind that other national hospitals are being built-----

That could mean they are definitely going up.

-----which are coming in around budget.

In terms of the reprofiling or delays that may happen to other projects, that is still being worked out by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We believe we will be able to do it in the context of a €5 billion capital budget for this year, which is 25% higher than last year, by reprofiling projects rather than cancelling them. As Deputy Howlin will know from his time profiling expenditure, on occasion one finds that another project does not get planning permission or it runs into problems with the tender and that can create savings but that has not been determined yet.

Departmental Staff Data

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the number of staff employed in his Department in 2018. [53032/18]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of staff employed in his Department in 2018 by grade and gender; and the way in which it compares with 2017. [53035/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 8 together.

There were 211.5 whole-time-equivalent staff working in my Department on 31 December 2018. That compares to a figure of 203.5 whole-time-equivalent staff on 31 December 2017.

My Department is structured around seven main work areas. The breakdown of posts currently in each of these areas is as follows: there are 28 posts in the international, EU and Northern Ireland division, including responsibility on Brexit matters; 26 posts in the economic division; 27 posts in the Government secretariat, protocol and general division and the parliamentary liaison unit; 21 posts in the social policy and public service reform division; 35 posts in the corporate affairs division; and eight posts in the information and records management unit. The remainder of posts in my Department include services staff and those in the private offices, constituency offices and internal audit.

While the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has overall responsibility for Brexit, in recent months my Department established a small unit to assist with Brexit preparedness and contingency planning to augment the ongoing work of my Department's international, EU and Northern Ireland division. The unit has a current staffing complement of six. The existing responsibilities of the international, EU and Northern Ireland division with regard to Brexit are unchanged.

My Department uses workforce planning and succession planning to ensure that there are sufficient staffing resources in place to deliver the Department's strategic goals. With the exception of politically appointed staff, staff assignments in my Department are the responsibility of the Secretary General and the senior management team of the Department.

The information requested regarding numbers of staff in my Department by grade and gender is set out in tabular format. The majority of senior management staff at assistant principal and principal officer level in my Department are female. Female officers at principal officer level currently hold the posts of head of section or division in the economic division, the Britain and Northern Ireland Affairs section, the EU section, the protocol and general division, the social policy and public service reform division, and the Government Information Service.

Since 2017 female representation at assistant secretary or director level on my Department's management committee has increased from 29% female to 40%.

Table 1: Department of the Taoiseach Staff by Grade and Gender - 31 December 2018*

Grade

Total No.

% Male

% Female

Secretary General

1

100%

Second Secretary General

1

100%

Assistant Secretary

5

60%

40%

Principal Officer

15

47%

53%

Assistant Principal Officer

40

32%

68%

Higher Executive Officer

34

26%

74%

Administrative Officer

16

31%

69%

Executive Officer

37

19%

81%

Clerical Officer

37

43%

57%

Services Staff

18

67%

33%

Total

204

37%

63%

*excludes politically appointed staff

Table 2: Department of the Taoiseach Staff by Grade and Gender - 31 December 2017*

Grade

Total No.

% Male

% Female

Secretary General

1

100%

Second Secretary General

1

100%

Assistant Secretary

7

71%

29%

Principal Officer

13

46%

54%

Assistant Principal Officer

36

42%

58%

Higher Executive Officer

31

26%

74%

Administrative Officer

19

37%

63%

Executive Officer

32

22%

78%

Clerical Officer

42

31%

69%

Services Staff

18

67%

33%

Total

200

37%

63%

*excludes politically appointed staff.

Less than 3% of the staff, six out of 211 whole-time equivalents in the Taoiseach's Department are working specifically on Brexit contingency planning. As we enter a period where the clock is running down on our nearest neighbours regarding its decision on whether to accept or reject the withdrawal agreement, we need to question whether that is the appropriate allocation of staff given some of the scenarios before us that may play out.

It is almost certain that the withdrawal agreement agreed between the British Government and the European Union will be rejected by the Westminster Parliament this evening. It is important to state that no matter what the outcome across the water Ireland's interests need to be protected and defended. The Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement and the Government is a co-guarantor of the agreement which needs to be protected in all of its parts. That needs to be the fundamental principles that define us as we go ahead and try to muddle our way through whatever the outworkings of the British decisions are in terms of Brexit. It is important that there is support and a deeper understanding of what the Good Friday Agreement means right across the European Union, and that is to be welcomed despite some of the narrative that has come from those that are pro-Brexit.

The DUP's position has been reckless. I am on record in the Dáil saying that. It is irresponsible and is definitely not in the interests of those whom the DUP claims to represent in the North of our island. The DUP has gone beyond recklessness to the extreme bizarreness of the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, today claiming that there was never a hard border on the island of Ireland. One could not make this up. As a young lad coming to Dublin on a school tour, I can remember passing Lifford and Aughnacloy and the British Army with its guns and rifles and going through the fortified installations that were on the Border and the army base on each hilltop as we travelled through the countryside.

That is where some of this situation has come from.

When is it the Taoiseach's intention to issue a formal response to the decision that will be taken later this evening in the House of Commons? Will it be tonight after the vote is taken or tomorrow? I raise this in the context of the Order of Business earlier. Given the urgency of this issue and the uncertainty we may be entering into, it is crucial we have an open debate on this tomorrow and that we respect this House-----

The Deputy is way over time.

I will finish on this point. In the week leading up to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the first Dáil, we need to recognise the primacy of this House and have the debate here, not through briefings to the media or individual briefings to different political parties. It should enter this space early tomorrow, when we will have a proper and full discussion on this.

The Deputy should respect the rules of the House and try to adhere to the time limits. I call Deputy Howlin.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I have three questions regarding staff deployment in his Department. First, what happened to the staff who were hired or assigned initially to the strategic communications unit, SCU? Were they assigned elsewhere in the Department or where are they now? Second, in regard to the six staff allocated to the Brexit advisory group, are they civil servants who have been given that task or experts hired in with a particular skillset? Will the Taoiseach indicate what is the skillset and job specification of those six individuals? Third, he announced some time ago that he would take a hands-on oversight role on health because one of the issues he has been concerned about, right back to our own time in government, is managing health expenditure. Has he experts in health economics in his Department to advise him on his announced role in regard to taking a hands-on oversight role on managing health and health expenditure into the future?

The Taoiseach will no doubt remember that in July 2017 he informed the House it was his intention to review the workings of the Department of the Taoiseach and then implement changes to its structure and staffing. With the exception of the now abandoned SCU and some increase in PR staff, can he be clear with me, given I am not clear, as to what structural changes have occurred within the Department and what changes he has implemented? Will he tell us what concrete changes he made to the structure or to the balance within the Department in terms of allocation to different sectors?

We hear regular reports from the Taoiseach about how he is going to make certain issues a priority. I recall that before Christmas he said he would take a hands-on approach to rural broadband and that it was going to be a personal crusade. Has he made changes to his Department to assist him with this particular crusade on broadband provision? Given the clear failures to meet the targets that have been set, or to address increasing public concern on health and housing, does this not suggest the current approach to overseeing plans and co-ordination of action simply is not working? Beyond the Taoiseach simply making general statements about prioritising this or that when the latest crisis emerges, there is no system or structure in place within his Department to enable him to do that. What specific expertise in health and housing has he available to him, as chairperson of the Cabinet committees which oversee these areas?

Regarding the vote that will happen in Westminster tonight, the sequence is that any initial response will come from the EU institutions in Brussels. We will co-ordinate with Brussels and I imagine any initial response will come from there, and perhaps from us thereafter, but more likely tomorrow than today.

In terms of the SCU staff, some have transferred to other Departments, some have taken up jobs in the private sector, some have been transferred to the Government Information Service, GIS - indeed, that is where many of them came from in the first place - and some have been reassigned within the Department. I do not have any experts on health economics in the Department, to my knowledge. There may be people who have degrees in health economics but I do not know that for sure. My focus is always on working with my Ministers and trusting the line Departments. I appreciate there are different approaches and I know that, in the past, Heads of Government have set up mini-departments within the Department to monitor what other Departments are doing. My general approach is to trust my Ministers and to trust those line Departments. My job as Taoiseach and the job of my staff is to co-ordinate and to lead but not to try to do the job of line Departments for them, because they have the expertise.

What of the personal crusade?

I would never have thought a personal crusade would mean appointing an adviser. Perhaps that was the Deputy's approach to Government but it is not mine.

It means the Taoiseach does not trust the Minister.

Order please. There are just two minutes left for the Taoiseach to reply.

I may be wrong but I might be the first Taoiseach who is regularly criticised for not having enough advisers and experts in my Department.

In terms of the structural changes that have been made, there is the Brexit group, which has six members of staff. Of course, behind them are the entire Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Taoiseach. We also have some people working on justice reform. I want to make sure the reforms proposed by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland happen, so I have a few people working in the Department on that and pursuing it, and they are working closely with Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda authorities. We will set up a strategic threat analysis centre, STAC, given the O'Toole commission recommended that such a centre be established within the Department of the Taoiseach, with a national security co-ordinator. We anticipate doing that in the first half of this year. I also have a small group of civil servants who have taken a particular role in monitoring Sláintecare and the implementation of those healthcare reforms.