Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

There have been few new Brexit related developments since yesterday and the House will have a chance to discuss the current situation later on today. Last year the Government promised that one of the key responses to Brexit would be Project Ireland 2040 and the capital plans associated with that document. However, yesterday amid all the drama, the Minister for Finance attended a meeting of the Select Committee on Budgetary Oversight and revealed that it would be necessary to change many of the key capital plans in terms of both start dates and possibly their scale, owing to rising costs and labour shortages. He spoke specifically about the lack of skilled workers in construction and mentioned electrical engineers in particular. He spoke about the challenge of capital projects across Europe and the competition for labour and contractors. He told the committee that as we move through 2019, this will have to be a factor in capital project decisions that are made and that because we are seeing higher tender prices than expected, this is having an impact on the public budget. He then outlined a review process.

At the same time yesterday, the chairman and project director of the new children's hospital were attending a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health, outlining the disaster that is the management of that particular project. The new hospital was originally meant to cost €650 million but it may now cost €2 billion, if not more. What was very clear yesterday, as was pointed out by my colleague, Deputy Donnelly, is that those in charge of the project do not understand the costs or where this will end up. The chairman and the director were unable to outline the premium or the extra costs for building the hospital on the confirmed site. We are now looking at a potential overrun of between €1 billion and €1.5 billion. That money has to come from other capital projects, placing additional pressure on capital budgets, particularly within health.

We were told that Project Ireland 2040 was the great panacea for all of our ills but it has turned out to be built on a hill of beans. How did the Government allow this happen? Why did the Minister for Health fall asleep at the wheel while costs went catastrophically out of control? What other key projects in the capital plan are under threat and what launch dates are under threat because of cost overruns? By how much is the national broadband plan currently overrunning, for example? Will key projects such as Dublin metro run to schedule? When will the review announced by the Minister for Finance yesterday be completed? Will it be published with the same fanfare as Project Ireland 2040? I doubt it.

I did not hear the Minister for Finance's contribution yesterday but I expect that it was the kind of contribution one would expect of him, outlining the practical realities of how to manage a plan to spend €114 billion over ten years in order to significantly improve infrastructure across the country, including schools, hospitals, roads, flood protection systems and so on. This Government has, for the first time, outlined a ten year plan for capital expenditure which will, of course, face challenges along the way. Those challenges will require review mechanisms and will require us to respond to issues such as skills shortages, particularly in construction. This is particularly problematic at the moment in the context of housing challenges, what we need to build and how quickly we need to do it.

It would be very strange if a Minister for Finance was not outlining the challenges we face in delivering the potential of a plan with the level of ambition contained in Project Ireland 2040. That document is a 20-year planning framework within which we have outlined in detail how we want to spend capital and where we want to spend it over the first ten years. In that way, we have medium-term to long-term planning in place so that we can deal with the kinds of challenges that may arise, including construction cost inflation, the skills we need to deliver on that or the planning systems that we may need to alter, change, improve or amend to get the work done. That is the whole point of ten-year planning. The idea that the Government would announce €114 billion of expenditure and that there would be no challenges in terms of adapting, changing and improving delivery systems over a decade long period, particularly in the context of factors like contingency planning around Brexit, with which we are currently dealing, or other pressures on the system, is unrealistic. The Deputy should not try to create the impression that a hugely ambitious development plan for the country is not deliverable because there are some challenges and blockages that we need to overcome, which was always going to be the case if we were going to deliver on the potential of the Project Ireland 2040 plan. The Deputy is not dealing with reality.

The only person not dealing with reality this morning is the Tánaiste with an answer like that. We are not even one year into this plan. I accept it is a ten-year plan, or possibly even a 20-year plan but one year into it and one project alone is overrunning its initial cost by €1.5 billion. The national children's hospital is going to be, on a per-bed basis, twice as expensive as the most expensive hospital ever built in the world.

This is only one project in the plan. What about all of the other projects? How much is the national broadband plan going to overrun the budget announced for it last February? Projects are overrunning their costs. These are not just practical difficulties. The Project Ireland 2040 document was published with great fanfare, roadshows and spin but is has now been exposed as completely lacking in substance. The commitments made to communities around the country are now under threat. The commitments to capital improvements as a response to Brexit are now under threat because of the lack of planning and foresight in the first place. There was a rush to publish the document but there was no planning behind it and no substance within it. The national children's hospital is the first project to expose this lack of both planning and substance. How many other projects with the Project Ireland 2040 document are in the same position?

Fianna Fáil's record on the national children's hospital is not one to write home about.

Never mind our record.

The children's hospital was being planned long before the Project Ireland 2040 plan was signed off. The Minister for Health advised the Government in December that the overall cost to complete the national children's hospital project was €1.4333 billion-----

What happened to €650 million?

-----which is €450 million more than advised to Government in April 2017, when the Government gave the green light for the construction of the hospital. A full €319 million of additional costs relate to construction costs and the balance of €131 million, which includes €50 million in VAT, relates to costs associated with staff, consultants, planning, design team fees, risk and contingency planning and so on. It is very clear that the Government is not happy with the fact that the cost of this hospital-----

What other projects will be affected?

-----has clearly increased.

Yet the Government did nothing about it.

There are many other projects that are being delivered on time and within budget.

The capital expenditure programme that we are now managing is increasing by around €1.4 billion this year alone. This represents a 24% increase in capital expenditure in one year and is based on our recognition of the under-investment in capital for the last decade, for reasons that we all understand. Of course, as we ratchet up and increase expenditure we must keep costs under control and the national children's hospital is a good example of that not happening. However, there are many other examples of costs being managed well and projects being delivered on time.

I raised an issue on Tuesday last and I do so again today because of its importance. I refer to the increase in the number of cases of meningitis that is causing huge worry for parents, particularly because a number of children have unfortunately passed away as a result of meningitis in recent weeks. I am sure that I speak for everybody in this House when I say that we send our deepest sympathy to the families affected at this very difficult time. We know that meningitis is a horrible condition and is one that all parents fear, myself included, as the father of young children.

I am sure the Tánaiste is no different.

It is a cause of major justified concern and distress that the meningitis B vaccine is not available for children. The programme for Government commits to extending the childhood vaccination programme to include vaccination against meningitis B, which was done but only for children born after October 2016. For children born before that date, availing of the vaccine costs up to €450. The vaccination is not available for free for parents whose children have medical cards. The Tánaiste knows as well as I that the cost of the vaccine is a considerable sum which most parents simply cannot afford, particularly if they have more than one child. This means that the vast majority of children over the age of three are not vaccinated against meningitis B, which is worrying for those of us who want to eradicate the strain.

It is also worrying for parents that general practitioners, GPs, have stated that they have been inundated with calls about the vaccine in recent days and weeks. Dr. Maitiú Ó Tuathail, the president of the National Association of General Practitioners, went as far as to stated that this amounted to medical apartheid. He is spot on in that regard. The situation is such that those whose parents can afford to pay are vaccinated and protected whereas those whose parents cannot afford the cost are left vulnerable to the disease. This leads to significant stress and anxiety on the part of parents because of the choices they face. I appreciate that meningitis B has not been identified as the cause of the reported deaths but it has been identified among the cases notified to the HSE.

If making the vaccine available to all children can be done, then this should and must happen. Is consideration being given to what the tens of thousands of parents, as well as thousands of GPs, across the State are calling for, namely, to ensure that a catch-up programme for meningitis B vaccination is put in place for all children up to the age of 18 in order to ensure that our children are protected from the strain? This was done in respect of meningitis C and, therefore, surely there can be no reason, except lack of political will, that we cannot do it for meningitis B.

I am also a father of young children, as are many other Members. To outline how the system works, the primary childhood immunisation scheme was amended in 2016 to include the introduction to the meningitis B vaccine for all babies born on or after 1 October of that year. This change to the immunisation scheme took effect from 1 December 2016. The three doses of the vaccine are administered to children when they reach the ages of two months, four months and 12 months, respectively. Meningitis B disease is most common in babies under the age of one year, and the timing of the administration of the vaccine under the immunisation programme is provided on this basis. All vaccines administered through the primary childhood immunisation scheme are provided free of charge.

There are no plans to introduce a catch-up programme for older children at this stage, which is what the Deputy inquired about. Ireland is the second country in Europe to make the vaccine available free of charge as part of its national immunisation programme. It is important to reassure parents that to our knowledge no deaths that can be attributed to meningitis B have occurred. The Deputy has also confirmed this and he is not suggesting otherwise. However, parents are asking the question and it is important to clarify matters for them.

The national immunisation advisory committee makes recommendations for at-risk groups but not all of these are included in the current immunisation scheme. That committee's recommendations are based on the epidemiology of the relevant vaccine-preventable disease in Ireland, as determined by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and international best practice in immunisation. In plain English, this means that we are proceeding with caution and taking the advice of medical experts and the committee in charge of making recommendations to Government in this area. If we felt that extending the scheme was the right thing to do for healthcare, as the Deputy suggests, that is what we would do but that is not the recommendation at this stage.

The Tánaiste mentioned, as did I, that none of the deaths has presented as a result of the meningitis B strain, but he must acknowledge that cases of children with meningitis B have been reported to the HSE. Thankfully, there have been no deaths thus far but we want to ensure that remains the case in the future.

The Tánaiste referred to the national immunisation advisory committee, which wrote to the Department in June 2018. It is carrying out a review of the matter but still the Department has not received the recommendations. Meanwhile, there has been an outbreak in which up to 20 cases have been identified, while the National Association of General Practitioners is calling for a catch-up programme to be rolled out. Tens of thousands of parents have signed online petitions, crèches and schools are warning parents and families to consider the issue and parents are sitting at home wondering what they should do. It is a case that Jack has been immunised because Jack is only two years old but Mary has not been because she is four years old. Parents wonder what they should do because they may not have the €450 to protect their children. God forbid anything would happen.

There is a review of the issue under way but the advisory committee has not reported. When does the Tánaiste expect that review to be completed? As a State, can we not involve ourselves in a catch-up programme? Why is the political will not there? Does the Tánaiste dispute the advice of the medical professionals in the National Association of General Practitioners when they say the policy is medical apartheid? Does he not accept this and that the Government is forcing parents to choose which children to protect and which to leave vulnerable?

I assure the Deputy that there is no issue with political will in this regard. It is about doing the right thing on the basis of medical advice and the recommendations of experts - in this case from the committee responsible for making recommendations for immunisation schemes. It is important to try to assure parents that meningitis B is most common in babies under the age of one, all of whom are covered by the current immunisation programme. That said, as the Deputy noted, the issue is under review. Once that review has been completed, the Minister and the Department will be able to provide further clarification.

Morale among Irish fishermen is at an all-time low. These hardworking men across the country have given blood, sweat and tears to their profession and have seen their every right eroded by successive Governments year after year, decade after decade. Fishermen have no faith in the political system. They feel strongly that there is no concession to be made in any negotiations with Europe and that their rights in the Irish Sea are being given away bit by bit.

A number of serious concerns have been simply overlooked by the Government. Yesterday, an Irish trawler was chased out of Irish waters by a Spanish vessel. I saw evidence of this because the incident was filmed. Last night, when I asked fishermen whether it had been reported, I was told it was a regular occurrence and that they worry that if they report anything, it is they who will be prosecuted rather than the foreign vessels which bully them with their huge trawlers.

Similarly, a couple of weeks ago I received a call from inshore fishermen of Castletownbere pleading for a cull of seals as the large number of them is causing chaos for inshore fishermen. Will a cull happen? I am afraid not.

Approximately six weeks ago I raised the question of why Irish fishermen have no bluefin tuna quota when there has been an explosion in the number of these fish in Irish waters. Other European countries - France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Malta and Cyprus - have applied and been granted quotas but Irish fishermen have none.

Last year, I raised the considerable losses of equipment many fishermen have experienced due to the severe storms along the shoreline at locations such as Schull, Castletownbere and Union Hall, and the need to set up a compensation package for them. However, my call fell on deaf ears. Another significant problem for inshore fishermen from west Cork and Kerry is that the only fishing they can do in bad weather is for scallops, which entails towing a small metal dredge with a net attached along the seabed. In bad weather, the equipment can simply be brought home every evening.

The fishing side of this job is the easy bit. The selling side is the problem as the scallop need to be tested for biotoxins once a week. No one sees the need to test them once a week. I find this extreme. Surely once a month would be more than enough. However, the nightmare for the fisherman does not end there as he is only allowed to fish 12 to 15 scallops. He must put scallops in a polystyrene box and send them by post to the Marine Institute in County Galway to get them tested. This is not only expensive but it is absolutely ridiculous. Whoever heard of posting fish to County Galway? If the d’Unbelievables did a sketch on it, we would say it was far-fetched. Would a person post meat to Galway and expect it to be fresh on arrival? The fisherman must then keep watch on a website to see if they pass the test. It could take one week before the fishermen can go back to sea. We must put proper facilities in place in Clonakilty so all this testing can take place in one day and fishermen can do the job they want to do which is to fish.

One month ago in Cork County Council chambers, my brother, Councillor Danny Collins, put forward a motion, which was fully supported by the councillors, that we need a stand-alone Minister for fisheries and the marine. Organisations like the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation cannot deal with the huge challenges fishermen face on their own. They need a Minister for fishermen with sole responsibility for fisheries.

Do not forget the fisherwomen.

And fisherwomen.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to respond to the challenges facing the fishing industry. It is an industry I know well. Indeed I know many of the people who work in it well, having been Minister with responsibility for fisheries. The current Minister Agriculture, Food and the Marine, with responsibility for fisheries continues to prioritise it, whether it is through the Brexit discussions, through the roll-out of the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF, which has seen almost a doubling in the funding available to the fishing industry under the new Common Fisheries Policy, or through new innovative policy around banning large trawlers from the six mile zone to try to create space for smaller trawlers and artisan fishing industries in west Cork, west Donegal and elsewhere. We will continue to prioritise the fishing industry and to protect it from the challenges it is undoubtedly facing, whether around sustainability, marine litter, achieving a fair share of the quota, ensuring we maintain and protect fish stocks by applying the science appropriately in deciding on available quota each year or ensuring we drive a hard bargain and protect our fishing industry in the context of Brexit decisions. All those things are a priority for Government and, if I may say, are being handled effectively by the current Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine who continues to raise the fishing industry's issues around the Cabinet table and elsewhere.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. Irish fishermen face uncertain times in Irish waters due to Brexit. In the UK British Ministers and MPs are making it very clear that when Brexit kicks in, Irish fishermen are to be kicked out of UK waters. This is how they will protect their fishermen going forward. What will happen when other European vessels are put out of UK waters? The real concern is they will head straight into Irish waters where they have been made more than welcome down through the years. The Tánaiste knows the position as a former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine down. I want to make very clear that this is not a criticism of the Minister but a criticism of continuous Governments that have simply left Irish fishermen on their own. If this Government is serious about protecting Irish waters and fishermen now is the time to stand up and be seen. It must appoint a stand-alone Minister for the coastal communities who will stand with those who have been the poor relation in Irish politics for far too long, namely, the Irish fishermen and women.

I share the view that the Irish fishing industry needs to be prioritised, because like in farming, many of the decisions we make as politicians, whether in Brussels or in Dublin, impact directly on the livelihoods and the opportunities for fishermen in terms of the stocks they catch and the trade deals done that allow us to export and sell that catch profitably. The connection between political decision-making and the future of the fishing industry is hugely important. That is why fishing has taken on a hugely important part of the Brexit negotiations.

The Deputy may have noticed that in the most recent decisions before the end of last year, on finalising the text of a withdrawal agreement in the context of the backstop about which people talk so much and the single customs territory which allows UK products to be potentially sold into the EU Single Market tariff-free, it was fishing, fish products and fish that were the exception there. The EU was making it very clear that until there is a comprehensive future trade agreement, including on fish, we are not willing to give any concessions at all, even relatively low-level tariff concessions to fish caught in British waters being sold into EU markets, which by the way is about 70% of fish caught in EU waters. We have work to do here but I can assure fishermen very directly that they are a big priority in the context of our Brexit negotiation approach.

Is the Government willing to change Irish agriculture and food policy based on the latest report today from the The EAT-Lancet Commission which sets out so clearly the science on the need for the whole world to change in order that we can feed 12 billion people, improve our health and ensure we stay within the planetary limits we risk tripping over. I grew up with the food pyramid and we have known for years that we must reduce the amount of beef and dairy we eat but today I see a food pie that is very clear. Half of our food is coming from vegetable and fruit and a huge amount of plant-based protein. I am glad it is still saying that we must eat dairy, beef and other food products because I eat meat too. However, I know for my health and for ethical reasons we need to change. It is not right for Ireland to follow a completely alternative policy to the one that is set out here. Our Food Wise 2025 plan is saying there will be great increase in meat consumption around the world and that we should get in there and massively expand our beef, dairy, pork and chicken industries to benefit from this and that we should be out there in a world where the growth in meat consumption will be an opportunity for us but the science is clearly saying the exact opposite. That market is going to dramatically shrink and it has to.

We need to change food policy. We had Macra na Feirme in here yesterday and we were in agreement with it that for the future of Irish farming, we need to look at this obsession Fine Gael has in supporting industry and big business doing well out of this, and they are the only ones doing well out of this obsession with meat, dairy, poultry and pork expansion. It is not the Irish family farm that is doing well. Sticking to the current massive expansion in meat, beef and dairy provides the opportunity to start paying Irish farmers better and to give them a more secure income by diversifying away from big international beef and dairy markets which is where the Government is leading them.

More than anything else, is it not hypocrisy for the Taoiseach to say we are going to cut back our own meat consumption but, as a country, we are going to sell and expand as much as we can when everything we know now from science and health is that we all need to adjust our diet from which we will all benefit? Irish farming should and will benefit from that. Will the Government change Food Wise 2025 and recognise the reality?

The Government wrote yesterday to the climate committee saying that it wanted to be a champion and that we wanted to be central to the process of doing what was right. One cannot say that in a letter and then not recognise the need for us to change our entire food and farming system. Does the Tánaiste agree with the science? Does the Government agree with the way it says the world is going to go and will it change Government food policy on the basis of that?

I do not think the Deputy is giving a fair reflection of what the food policy in Food Wise 2025 actually is. He talks about massive expansion in beef production, which we are not planning for. We are planning for a sustainable and controlled expansion, particularly in the dairy industry, but we are not talking about significant expansion of beef production. What we are doing is recognising the fact the Irish food industry and indeed family farms across this country survive in terms of their income on the back of the reality that Ireland is a very significant food exporter.

We continue to explore and develop new markets but the way in which the Irish food industry contributes to a global challenge of climate change is to show how it can be done with the lowest carbon footprint. We are already achieving good results in dairy in particular but I think we can do better. We are already also doing reasonably well in how we produce beef in terms of the carbon intensity of the production systems, which are, by and large, intensive grazing-based systems, but we can do much better in that area too. We are spending €300 million of taxpayers' money on a beef genomics scheme to improve the genetic integrity of our herd, ensure that our beef animals become more efficient, that we can slaughter them earlier and make sure that they are emitting less methane in their life cycle. That is the reason we have asked all exporting food producers in this country to sign up to the Origin Green programme, so that this journey is a transparent one in terms of how and where they source water and the carbon footprint of the production system as a whole as well as the carbon footprint of farming on beef farms in which Ireland is a global leader.

I accept the food industry has a responsibility, as do farmers, in terms of the climate change challenge. We will potentially need to look at radical solutions in how we farm, how we produce food and also our lifestyles. If Deputy Eamon Ryan wants to talk about that, he should do so accurately in terms of what we are doing and achieving as a significant food exporter in the European Union and as a country that is determined to show the way by means of the beef and dairy product that will be demanded in the future, regardless of changing patterns. If Ireland through its technology and production systems can show others how to produce food in a much more carbon-efficient way then surely we should be seeking to make that global contribution, rather than shrinking our food industry and farms.

I have been absolutely accurate about what is happening. We have been working on this in real detail in the various committees of this House. We heard an impressive presentation from Macra na Feirme. The witnesses said we are on target to meet the plan for an 85% increase in exports, primarily in dairy and beef. Its presentation was very impressive. It is not all bad in Irish farming. There is a lot of good farming going on. What those young people said yesterday is true: the young farmers of the future will be green. They will be the young environmentalists of this country. However, we also know as a fact that despite all the good things such as the beef genomics programme and the various methods that are used, Teagasc and the Tánaiste's former Department, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, are projecting that we will increase our agricultural emissions. The Tánaiste cannot use the line that we are the most efficient and the best and sell hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fake baby milk powder to China and pretend that we are solving the global problems. If we are serious about the sustainable development goals and climate emissions, we will have to do more than we are currently doing.

Let us bring it back home: I accept we are a big food exporter but we are also a significant food importer. I would like to give Irish farming a chance and a fair deal so that we are not buying a kilo of carrots in the local supermarket for 49 cent, which is one of the things that needs to change to allow us to diversify. We could grow a range of different crops and start paying farmers properly. That could be one of the changes. We could also improve the health of the population and improve the country and its landscape and be part of the change. That is the type of change we need. On the one hand we cannot significantly increase our exports of dairy and beef and on the other do what the The Lancet and other scientists say we need to do. We need to change.

I agree with much of what Deputy Eamon Ryan says. We do need to change and I contend that we are changing. We probably need to accelerate the change in many areas. We have, for example, put a lot more money into organics, which by the way is probably less carbon efficient in many ways but it needs to be an important part of our food mix. We have many more indigenous Irish food companies now providing innovative products into local supermarkets than perhaps we have ever had before. We are living in, operating in and building an industry in a Single Market across the European Union so there are things we need to do collectively as a European Union to protect the share of the consumer price that primary producers get. We also need to continue to drive efficiency as well as encourage a change in lifestyle in terms of diet, how we travel, where people live and how they work and in so many other areas that are in some ways part of the 2040 plan and in other ways part of the Food Wise 2025 plan. I am not suggesting that we somehow absolve agriculture from its responsibility in terms of climate change.

I thank the Tánaiste. The time is up.

Nobody in government is advocating that approach. What we are saying is that we need a vibrant industry that keeps families employed in rural communities in Ireland at the same time as doing something significant from a climate change and emissions management perspective through agriculture, which is what the Food Wise 2025 plan is trying to do.

The Chinese cannot see their noses with fog and smog.