1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the status of the report submitted to him on 21 December 2018 by the Seanad Reform Implementation Group. [4261/19]
1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the status of the report submitted to him on 21 December 2018 by the Seanad Reform Implementation Group. [4261/19]
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group. [5189/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
The Seanad Reform Implementation Group chaired by Senator McDowell submitted their report to me on 20 December 2018. The report was also published online and copies of the report and draft Bill issued to all members of the Oireachtas.
I am very grateful to Senator McDowell and all the members of the group for their work in producing a report. The report also includes four statements of position from various groups outlining their position where they did not completely agree with the recommendations of the report.
The dissenting statements were from Senators Bacik and McDowell and Deputy Noel Grealish setting out their position on the higher education constituency; from Sinn Féin setting out its position that further reforms should be made by constitutional change and how they could facilitate a modern, diverse and democratic Seanad; from Deputy Tommy Broughan, on behalf of Independents 4 Change, indicating their opposition to a reformed Seanad and stating that they favoured a unicameral option - in the absence of this, he and his group favour constitutional change and the Seanad being elected by universal suffrage, and the Seanad and the Dáil being elected on the same day; and from Senators Maria Byrne, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer and Gabrielle McFadden, on behalf of Fine Gael, calling for constitutional change as well. While being supportive of Seanad reform more generally, they do not believe that the final report will enhance the working of the Seanad.
The report will be considered by Government shortly.
Reform of the Seanad is like draining the Shannon and restoring the Irish language; it is a permanent agenda item. The default position of everybody is to set up another review. We had a comprehensive review chaired by the former Senator, Maurice Manning. That review has now been reviewed by another all-party group led by another distinguished parliamentarian, Senator McDowell, and that 130-page report is before the Cabinet.
In order that we can deal with the issue, is it the Government's intention to decide on a set of reforms that will be implemented in advance of the next Seanad election? Is it the Taoiseach's view that the general 130-page report submitted before Christmas to him by Senator McDowell is the basis for those changes? Does he accept the conclusions that there should be an open franchise to all Irish passport holders abroad as well as people in Northern Ireland to vote on the panel? In terms of a timeframe, when can we expect decisions to be made, even if the decision is that the Taoiseach will not make any reforms this side of a Seanad election?
The issue of Seanad reform has gone on and on. We need to get to a point where a decision is made, as mentioned by Deputy Howlin. We have had review after review. We have the Manning report. We now have the review of the Seanad Reform Implementation Group, which met last May and produced a lengthy report at its first meeting as well as legislation it claims will give effect to the recommendations contained in the Manning report. I understand that legislation is with the Taoiseach. Will it ever see the light of day? Is it his intention to bring that legislation to Cabinet? Is it his intention to amend or scrap that legislation?
Can the Taoiseach provide a timeframe on when we will see something of substance? If that legislation is the vehicle that is to be utilised to bring about the Seanad reform that is required, what is the timeframe for introducing it? If it is not the vehicle that will be used, what is plan B from the Government's point of view or, indeed, that of the Taoiseach?
Behind the report from Senator McDowell's group, there is a clear and hard reality which it points to in its statement. That reality is that there is effectively no way of preparing such a massive scheme for a new national and international election during the lifetime of the Oireachtas. That is clear. From a practical perspective, it seems that the next general election will involve the same system we currently have for electing Members to the Dáil and Seanad. The group's mandate was to propose an approach to implementing the Manning report and it has accomplished this. Can the Taoiseach outline the measures he proposes to take to add any extra detail regarding the core challenges such as registering member of the electorate, protecting the integrity of the ballot and ensuring that the public will be in a position to understand the process and actively engage in the election? There has been a proposal to hold a referendum on reform of the electorate for the office of Uachtarán na hÉireann and that has been delayed for practical reasons. We need a better debate on that in the House in terms of extending of the franchise if we are honest. We need to have a debate on the detail of that, how it will be accomplished, who will be entitled to vote and the whole idea of no taxation without representation. That is an old concept in many ways but there are issues that we need to reinterrogate rather than just saying it glibly and not providing detail.
It seems to me that it all points to the need for an electoral commission to be established. I would have thought that the establishment of an electoral commission, which has been long promised by the Government, over time would give one the capacity to go into detail on these questions that come forward with practical logistical responses to the obvious logistical problems and consequences of the recommendations of this report and indeed other proposals.
I again thank Senator McDowell and the Members of the Houses who participated in the group which produced a detailed report and which also provided us with draft legislation to move matters forward. The group recommended that the next Seanad should be elected in the same way as the current one. Another of its recommendations is that any changes should not apply to the next Seanad election but to the one thereafter. I accept that, for practical purposes, any major reform would not apply at the next general election but at the one thereafter, particularly in view of the need to establish an electoral commission and so many other things.
It is also worth noting that the report was not agreed by consensus. There were dissenting opinions attached to the report from Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and Independents 4 Change, all advocating that we should go further and consider constitutional change. The legislation is now available and it is up to the Government, any party or any Member to bring it to the floor of the House for debate and a vote. That is not something that is solely under the control of the Government. Any Member who wishes to do so can bring that legislation before the House.
The report is to the Taoiseach. What is his view?
Cabinet has not discussed it yet. It is on the agenda and we intend to discuss it.
My view, which is not the view of Government because we have not discussed it at Cabinet yet, is that I have reservations about it on a number of levels. I referred to those reservations already in this Chamber. The first of them is that it would diminish the role of councillors and local authority members. I know many Members of this House will not want that to be the case. It would also reduce the number of seats that are elected by local authority members very considerably and diminish their role as a result. It would require everyone in the country to register to vote in Seanad elections. It is not even just everyone in the country but every Irish citizen in the world who wants to register to vote. People would have to choose which of the panels - the Agricultural Panel, the Administrative Panel, the Cultural and Educational Panel, the Industrial and Commercial Panel or the Labour Panel - they would like to have a vote on or whether they would like to vote for the University Members. I have reservations about that in that we may find large numbers of people not registering at all and not wanting to be part of this. Large numbers may register for one panel but not another and it would create a problem if 100,000 people registered for one panel but only 20,000 registered for another.
A further problem relates to the panels themselves, which, I understand, derive from a papal encyclical in the 1930s and which do not represent the 21st century. There is no panel dealing with science and technology, for example, but there is one which deals with administration. There is nothing in respect of sport. Those are my reservations and I have explained them to the House previously. The matter has not been discussed at Cabinet yet, so what I have outlined is not the formal view of the Government. It is open to any party that wishes to do so to put this legislation before the House for Second Stage debate and a vote. The latter is within the rights of any party that wants to make this happen.
Extending the franchise for presidential elections is something in which I strongly believe in and to which I am committed. I want us to hold the referendum in this regard in October. Our proposal is that all citizens, no matter where they may live in the world, will be entitled to register to vote for the next President. They will have to register to vote. It would be a postal ballot for those not living in this State. It would not be linked to having a passport because a passport is a travel document and there are many people who are Irish citizens who do not have passports or whose passports may be expired. As a result, it will be linked to citizenship rather than possessing a passport. While I appreciate the argument regarding no taxation without representation, I must point out that the Dáil sets taxes and passes legislation which applies to people who are resident here. The Presidency is different. The President does not set taxes and does not make laws. I would like to see a Presidency for the 21st first century that is different to that which currently obtains. I would like a Presidency that represents the Irish nation - not just the State - and that is elected by all citizens.
The current President represents the nation rather well.
He certainly does but he is not elected by the nation. He is only elected by citizens resident in the State.
We have no work done. There is no work done.
The President represents the nation well.
3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his plans to review and extend A Programme for a Partnership Government. [4262/19]
4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the next progress report in respect of A Programme for a Partnership Government will be published. [5188/19]
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach his plans to review and extend A Programme for a Partnership Government. [6711/19]
I propose to take questions Nos. 3 to 5, inclusive, together.
A Programme for a Partnership Government was agreed in May 2016 during the formation of Government. This is a five-year programme of work being undertaken for the duration of the current Dáil.
The Government publishes an annual report each year, the second of which was approved by Cabinet in May 2018 and is published on www.gov.ie.
I expect the next report to be published in May 2019. This report will reflect the significant work undertaken by all Departments to deliver progress in respect of a wide range of issues, including housing and homelessness, education, health, rural development and Brexit contingency planning.
One of the central tenets and commitments in A Programme for a Partnership Government is, "We will also provide additional exchequer capital, if needed, to deliver on our commitment to bring next generation broadband to every house and business in the country by 2020." Clearly, that commitment will not be delivered upon. Many people across the State are very fearful that not only will it not be delivered by the target date of the end of next year but also that it may never be delivered. In the context of that very firm commitment, what is the status of the national broadband plan? In view of what we have learned about tendering, is the Taoiseach satisfied that the tender that has been agreed by Government is robust? On the nature of that tender, is it still the Government's commitment to provide a direct fibre link to virtually every house or business if not to every house or business? On the comment the Taoiseach made yesterday about lowballing and the comment the Minister for Finance made this morning that something went very wrong with the children's hospital tender, will the tender for the national broadband plan be reviewed in the light of what the Taoiseach now knows?
I would be interested to hear whether the tender process that has been already agreed can proceed.
Many people in my constituency of Donegal and in rural areas, in particular, are waiting for broadband. This process has been something of a shambles with deadlines missed repeatedly.
The programme for Government states that the Government will alleviate pressures on household budgets and refers to a number of those pressures such as energy, childcare, medical and insurance costs. I wish to focus on the latter one. Yesterday morning, the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, was on radio trying to explain away the huge increases being faced by soft play centres and other businesses. He referred to whiplash, which I do not believe occurs in these play areas. He then used the excuse that some members of the Judiciary are awarding "bananas, off the wall amounts". Does the Taoiseach agree with the Minister of State offering that reason and blaming the Judiciary? The Minister of State blamed the Minister for Justice and Equality at one point in the interview as well.
However, the soft play areas have a serious problem. In Donegal, premiums increased from €2,500 in 2017 to €6,500 in 2018. That is a 160% increase even though there was no claim. A centre in Inishowen in Donegal closed down citing high insurance costs as the reason. The cost of insurance went from €2,500 to €16,000 for a company in Meath over a period of five years, again with no claims. The problem is that there is a monopoly. No insurance company in Ireland will quote for these companies while only one insurance company in Britain will. The working group set up by the Government is simply failing and the Minister of State is blaming the Judiciary as well as his colleagues in the Department of Justice and Equality for blocking his plan A or B. He is now on plan C, D or something of that nature. When will we see serious action on this, such as through the Garda fraud unit or action on the insurance industry, and less of the blame game?
Over the past year, I have repeatedly raised with the Taoiseach the income thresholds for social housing. The programme for Government makes extensive commitments on the provision of affordable housing to our citizens as an absolute priority. However, due to the failure to address the income thresholds, there has been a significant cull of people from council housing lists. Some of the examples I have include people who have been on a housing list for 15 years. I have three such cases. Due to working overtime, which they must do to pay the high rents on the private market, they are taken off the housing list and lose the 15 or ten years of waiting time on the list. They are left in limbo because their income could not possibly allow them to afford housing on the private market. I appeal to the Taoiseach to expedite an increase in these thresholds. He should even issue an instruction that people who are forced to work overtime should not be taken off the list and those who have been should be put back on the list. I strongly appeal to him to do that.
Finally, I have a Valentine's card for the Taoiseach. In fact, I have a number of them. They do not profess my undying love for the Taoiseach but are from school children who were outside the Dáil today. The cards I have are from children in John Scottus national school, but there were also children there from Educate Together schools all over Dublin. The cards, for Valentine's Day tomorrow, make an appeal to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, to take more radical emergency action on climate change, something the Taoiseach also promised to do in the programme for Government. Those children feel he is not doing that. I wanted to let the Taoiseach know that and I will give him the cards afterwards. He might consider what the children who were protesting outside the House were saying.
Does Deputy Micheál Martin have any Valentine's cards?
I have some, but not for anybody in the House.
They do not need a card to profess their undying love to each other. That has already been done on many occasions.
Yesterday's belated apology from the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, was accompanied by a list of projects for this year that will be delayed. The Taoiseach must admit that it is beyond bizarre that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform claimed that the overspend is serious but that no project anywhere will be cut. Is this the first time in recorded history where €400 million is taken out of a fixed budget but everything will still get done? Can the Taoiseach say when he will be updating the rest of the figures impacted by the overrun? It is not just this year as it affects the entire national development plan.
Last year the Taoiseach toured the country with his Ministers and promoted projects which will not be finished for a decade or more. It went on repeatedly and the Taoiseach had supposedly allocated money to them.
They will not be started for a decade or more.
No, they will not be started in a decade. Perhaps they will, but I do not know. Can the Taoiseach be specific? If he can be specific about ten years of promises when launching the NDP, can he now be specific about the huge hole in the NDP which the overspend represents? The fact that the single largest project impacted by the cuts this year is the A5 has caused anger and concern, not just in the north east but for everyone who knows how important that road is to relations on this island. As with the Narrow Water bridge, people are concerned that we are witnessing another case of Dublin backing off engagement with North-South infrastructure. It was taken for granted even during the worst years of the recession that we would get those done. The Government is blaming the lack of a Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive for that, but we require more detail about it.
Finally, I wish to raise the delayed HPV vaccine test. Forgive me for saying this, but one gets a sense from the Government that announcements and commitments are made glibly or very shallowly. For example, it was announced with great fanfare that we would have this test last September. That did not happen and then we were told it would be in January. Today we are told by health officials that they cannot give a date. They blame the backlog created last April as a result of the Minister's decision on the smear tests. There is now a backlog of approximately 90,000 and that is their priority. As a result, they cannot focus on the HPV. Indeed, the Taoiseach said this morning that a great deal of pre-tendering work is still to be done. How did the promise get made? When this broke out in April or May last, how could anybody say that the new test would be available by September? Now it appears that it cannot be introduced for 2019. People should be forgiven for not attaching credibility to anything that is said or committed to by the Government. We must have a more detailed timeline in terms of the HPV vaccine.
The Taoiseach also acknowledged this morning that under pressure he made decisions from the heart rather than the head. My argument is that the decisions were perhaps political knee-jerk responses to an unfolding crisis. There are lessons to be learned from the series of promises and announcements that were made and that never had a chance of realisation. It is no way to respond to a crisis. The knee-jerk reaction that occurred has now created damage and delay for projects that are desirable and should be a priority.
With regard to the introduction of the primary HPV test, we are very keen to get that done. We are committed to it. The original target date came from the Department of Health, which would have received it from the HSE or CervicalCheck. That was not met. The target time was not invented by a politician but was one that came from the same officials who are now saying they are unable to meet that target date. Obviously, I will not express a target date until I am convinced that whatever date is given to us by the HSE, CervicalCheck and the Department of Health is one we can stand over. Unfortunately, one often finds in politics - and the Deputy also served as a Minister - that other people break one's promises for one. One can make commitments in good faith but agencies and people who had committed to deliver sometimes do not
Those agencies never anticipated the Minister's decision of last April to add 90,000 tests. Let us be fair to the officials and the CervicalCheck team.
I do not believe dealing with the backlog is the reason for the delay in commissioning a new test. It is a different test.
That was said at the committee this morning.
Regarding the national broadband plan, the tender prices are in from the last remaining bidder. They have been evaluated by two external parties - an expert panel involving international expertise and an outside consulting firm - and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which is the promoting Department. We are not yet in a position to appoint a preferred bidder, which is the next step. After that we will be signing the contract. There is still some due diligence to be completed and there are some decisions to make.
My understanding of the project and tender is that it involves fibre to the home in 95% of cases but the company is given flexibility to use alternative technologies for the final 5% once a minimum speed of 30 Mbps is provided. I may be wrong in that regard, but that is my recollection. That has been in the specifications since the very start of the process. As people have asked whether the tender will be reviewed, it is important to recognise that it is very different from that for the national children's hospital. The national children's hospital is a two-phase build contract. This will be a single-phase tender. We will know if and when we sign it what will be the final cost and possible contingencies. Unlike the national children's hospital, it is a public private partnership, PPP, with the cost spread over 30 years. The private company which will form part of the PPP along with the Government must invest in the project. It is a very different contract from that for the national children's hospital for those two reasons.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of the cost of living. Obviously, energy costs are not under the direct control of Government. Rather, they relate to prices on international fuel and energy markets. However, the Government has not taken any action which would increase energy prices. The prices have fluctuated with the markets, as they often do. The policy of the Government, working with the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, is to increase competition in the sector in order to reduce prices.
The Deputy also referred to childcare costs. Much has been done in that area. Early childhood education has been extended to two years for all children. Maternity benefit has been increased and will increase further in March. Paternity benefit was introduced for the first time and has been availed of by 50,000 fathers. It will increase further in March. An additional two weeks of paid parental leave will be introduced later this year. In addition, various actions have been taken to reduce the cost of childcare and will culminate in the affordable childcare scheme which will kick in towards the end of the year. Childcare subsidies have been increased and extended to more parents. In October or November, subsidies will be increased and approximately 10,000 or 20,000 middle income families will qualify for subsidies for the first time. For example, dual income couples earning up to €100,000 per annum will qualify for subsidies for the first time.
I do not accept that there is a black hole in the national development plan or Project Ireland 2040. It is a ten year funding plan to which €116 billion has been allocated. There is contingency within that €116 billion, albeit in the later years of the plan. We anticipate being able to manage within the €116 billion over ten years. We have not increased the ceiling of €7.3 billion for this year. There is an opportunity to change some of the projects from direct capital projects to PPPs, thus changing the spending profile. Although very few PPPs were initially envisaged, having PPPs in some areas would spread the cost of those projects over a period of 20 years or 30 years rather than ten, thus freeing up money which could then be allocated to projects where there are overruns.
We will move on to the next set of-----
I ask the Taoiseach to briefly address my question on the social housing income threshold.
I ask that my question on insurance be addressed.
It is the same answer I gave on the last occasion Deputy Boyd Barrett raised that issue.
When will it be done?
I do not have an exact date.
What was Deputy Pearse Doherty's question?
I asked the Taoiseach about insurance premiums and whether he agrees with the view of the Minister, Deputy D'Arcy, in that regard.
There are many questions which I did not have time to answer.
We must move to the next set of questions.
Four Deputies asked questions of the Taoiseach and he chose not to answer mine.
The allotted time has elapsed.
On a point of order, the Deputy is incorrect. I wrote down the questions in the order in which they were asked and I went through them one by one. I did not reach the questions on social housing and climate change. I will need more time if I am to reply to the outstanding questions.
On a point of order, if the Taoiseach wrote down the questions in the order they were asked, he would have noticed that I asked my questions before Deputy Boyd Barrett asked his. The Taoiseach did not answer my questions but he answered some of those asked by Deputy Boyd Barrett.
Deputy Doherty's question on insurance was next on my list, followed by social housing and climate change. If I am given more time, I am happy to address those questions.
I will afford the Taoiseach a brief opportunity to address them.
I will answer them as quickly as I can. On insurance, the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, is heading up several actions to reduce the cost of insurance. Motor insurance costs have fallen from their peak in mid-2016 and health insurance costs have stabilised. Public liability insurance is now the major focus of the Minister of State. In particular, he is facilitating work on a more realistic book of quantum in line with other countries. We expect that will have a knock-on effect in terms of reduced premiums. There will also be far more data gathering regarding settlements to see if they are out of line and more action on fraud, which is an issue of particular concern.
On climate change, the Government's efforts focus on three main areas: investment, the carbon charge and regulation. Investment as detailed under Project Ireland 2040 will get us approximately one third of the way to meeting our climate change targets for 2030. It will comprise investment in renewable energy, public transport, home insulation and all those things we need to do. Regulation relates to decisions such as the ending of the burning of coal at Moneypoint by 2025, taking peat off the grid and banning the sale of new diesel and petrol cars from 2030. The third area is the carbon charge. We we are currently working on that model. All three strands are necessary. Nobody honestly believes one can meet one's targets unless one is willing to do all three. I hope that Deputy Boyd Barrett informed the people who gave him the Valentine's card of the extent to which he objects to a carbon charge and why it would not be possible to meet those targets without a carbon charge that drives changes in the behaviour of people and businesses.
We must move on.
The Government did not bring it in a carbon charge. Fine Gael backbenchers ensured it did not.
6. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach his plans to increase the number of staff in his Department to work and assist on Brexit preparedness. [4353/19]
7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if additional staff have been recruited in his Department to work on Brexit preparedness. [5488/19]
8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the response he has given to the European Commission since its latest call on 29 January 2019 to increase the contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit. [5628/19]
9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of additional staff recruited in his Department to assist with Brexit preparedness. [6511/19]
I propose to take questions Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, together.
My Department works closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit. Within my Department, staff across several divisions contribute to the work on Brexit, including the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division and the economic division. To augment this ongoing work, my Department established a small unit to work on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. This unit assists a Secretaries General group which oversees ongoing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The unit also focuses on cross-Government co-ordination, planning and programme management.
Managing a no-deal Brexit would be an exercise in damage limitation. It would be impossible to maintain the current seamless arrangements between the EU and the United Kingdom or to put in place arrangements equivalent to those provided for in the withdrawal agreement. We are firmly of the view that the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal is to ratify the withdrawal agreement. However, given the ongoing uncertainty in the UK and the proximity of the date of Brexit, the Government is continuing to take concrete steps in preparation for a no-deal scenario. Our contingency plans are now being implemented.
Preparation and planning for a range of Brexit scenarios has been ongoing since well in advance of the UK referendum in 2016. A comprehensive set of Government structures is in place to ensure that all Departments and their agencies are engaged in detailed preparedness and contingency activities. On 19 December last, the Government’s contingency action plan setting out its approach to dealing with a no-deal Brexit was published. The plan includes analysis under important headings, including economic and fiscal impact, security and Northern Ireland and North-South relations. It provides detailed sectoral analyses and approaches to mitigating the impacts of a no-deal Brexit.
On 24 January, the Government published a draft omnibus Brexit Bill as the next in a series of actions to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. It comprises vital legislation needed by 27 March and focuses on protecting our citizens and assisting the economy, enterprise and jobs. On 30 January, an update to the contingency action plan was published, setting out how preparations for a no-deal scenario have intensified since 19 December. This includes key decisions by Cabinet to advance our Brexit-related legislation, and Cabinet review of several important areas such as transport connectivity, including ongoing preparations at ports and airports; supply of medicines; agrifood and fisheries; the common travel area; and impacts on the Irish economy. There were further updates on supports for Irish businesses and the Government’s public information campaign, "Getting Ireland Brexit Ready".
Our preparedness and contingency planning takes full account of and complements the steps under way at EU level to prepare for the UK’s withdrawal, notably as regards the implementation of the European Commission’s contingency action plan. Irish officials discussed contingency planning issues with a delegation of Commission officials who visited Dublin and the Border area on 4 and 5 February as part of a series of engagements with all EU member states.
We were the ninth country to be visited in such a way.
At my meeting with President Juncker in Brussels last week, we agreed that while we will continue to seek agreement on the orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom, we will also further intensify our preparations for a no-deal scenario given the ongoing uncertainty.
Deputy Micheál Martin is taking Deputy Michael Moynihan's questions.
I thank the Taoiseach for his comprehensive reply. During yesterday's questions, he was prepared to indicate he has no idea how many businesses will be Brexit-ready on 29 March, next month. Given the scale of the threat posed by Brexit, most people were working under the assumption that the Taoiseach would at least have monthly monitoring of readiness and a list of companies, or at least all companies over a certain size, that will be asked by the Government or State agencies to report regularly.
Equally, it would have been expected that the Taoiseach would be receiving weekly responses from State agencies on the uptake of funding schemes. It is quite striking that there is still money being spent on promoting a "start to plan for Brexit grant". With six weeks to go, should the Taoiseach not be somewhat worried that it is a bit late to be starting to plan? It is now 13 months since the Government published its last survey on SMEs' preparedness. Why has there been such a delay in publishing another one? I have never claimed one can ensure every company is prepared but it is absolutely reasonable to expect that we and the Government will know how many are prepared. Yesterday, Allied Irish Banks suggested up to 50% of SMEs are not prepared for Brexit. What percentage of businesses that need to prepare for Brexit will be prepared by 29 March? What are the Government and its agencies saying about that?
I was briefed by the Taoiseach's staff last week to the effect that the Government impressed the Commission's team when it reviewed no-deal preparations. Does the Taoiseach intend to publish the specific data he provided to them with regarding the number of staff who will be in place by 29 March? How many of the extra staff announced last year will be trained and in place by 29 March across the various agencies?
Obviously, we are approaching D-Day, 29 March. Comments on Brexit still have us all wondering what Brexit actually means. The UK Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, has reneged on her position on the backstop. In the Taoiseach's engagement with her at the dinner last Friday, did she indicate to him why she had changed her position on the backstop? Did she give any indication that she was willing to revisit our earlier position, namely, the position shared by the Irish Government and all parties in this House?
On preparation for Brexit, a colleague raised yesterday with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport a very simple matter, the ability to travel across the Border, for which we will need a green card. If the Leas-Ceann Comhairle and I want to come to the Dáil, we will have to apply to our insurance company before the end of this month, in two weeks, for a green card. If we do not have one, we could be stopped and fined as we travel through the North. Is it the same for motorists who will be travelling from Strabane across the bridge into Lifford? Do they also require documentation so as not to be in breach of the rules pertaining to their insurance?
In light of the statement by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, that there will be no need for a supplementary budget for this year in the context of dealing with a crash-out Brexit, how does the Taoiseach square the circle given that there will obviously be a need for financial supports for sectors and regions that will be hit hard as a result of a no-deal Brexit? Is the Government preparing to leave those sectors without the necessary supports? We know from all the various studies that it is my region, the north west, particularly Donegal, in addition to the Six Counties and the south east, that will be particularly hit. On the Taoiseach's table, as part of his contingency plan for a no-deal crash out, which we all want to avoid, are there proposals for financial supports for the sectors and regions?
I understand the Taoiseach said he now expects the United Kingdom to leave the European Union at the end of March. It is alleged we got some insight into Prime Minister May's thinking through overheard remarks made in Brussels by her chief negotiator, Mr. Olly Robbins. According to a British journalist who overheard the comments, Mr. Robbins said there were two ways for the departure to be achieved: the deal will be approved in time for a March exit or there will be a long delay in achieving Brexit, whatever that means. Does the Taoiseach agree with the analysis attributed to Mr. Robbins? It is said that Mr. Robbins stated the backstop is a bridge to the long-term trading relationship. It is reported that he wants the withdrawal agreement amended to insert "subject to the future trade deal" into the withdrawal agreement after the word "necessary". In order to have clarity, could I ask whether the withdrawal agreement is being negotiated? Has the Irish Government been informed of or even sounded out on any insertion to or deletion from the withdrawal agreement? Alternatively, is the position the one the Taoiseach has outlined repeatedly in this House, namely, that the withdrawal agreement is complete, cannot be reopened and will not and cannot be subject to any further amendment?
With regard to helping businesses to prepare for Brexit, the Government has a public information campaign, Getting Ireland Brexit Ready, which is designed to warn businesses and stimulate them to take the actions they need to take to prepare for Brexit. In the past two weeks alone, for example, there have been outreach events in eight counties, and more are planned. The all-Ireland civic forum on Brexit will take place on Friday. I will be part of it. An array of financial and practical supports, including the Brexit SME Scorecard and the Be Prepared grant, are available from Enterprise Ireland. There is the Prepare for Brexit regional roadshow and Brexit advisory clinics are being run by Enterprise Ireland and the local enterprise offices. The Brexit Start to Plan voucher is being provided by InterTradeIreland. Brexit Barometer seminars, workshops and training are being run by Bord Bia. The Get Brexit Ready programme for the tourism industry is being run by Fáilte Ireland. There are Revenue trader engagement programmes to assist businesses and familiarise them with customs processes and so on. Also, there is a €300 million long-term loan scheme to assist strategic capital investment after Brexit. More than €450 million was allocated in loans already to businesses in previous budgets.
We also continue to engage with the European Commission on challenges for business. The Commission has acknowledged those challenges exist and states it will stand ready to help us to find solutions. I encourage all businesses and other organisations to take the necessary steps to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, if not already doing so.
To answer Deputy Doherty's question on my dinner with the UK Prime Minister, she indicated the UK Government had changed its position on the backstop for the simple reason that she was unable to secure a parliamentary majority in favour of it.
On insurance, I am afraid I do not yet have certainty on the issues raised by the Deputy. I am trying to get a full briefing on it that I fully understand. I have not yet got one. I understand, however, that it may be possible for some of the insurance companies to waive the requirement for a green card for a period, but that has not been bottomed out yet.
On the budget, budget 2019 was designed with Brexit in mind. It provides for a budget surplus and a rainy day fund. It provides for a €1.5 billion increase in capital spending or record levels of investment in healthcare, housing and education. Therefore, we will not need a mini-budget in the event of a no-deal Brexit but it is likely that, rather than going into surplus, we will go into deficit.
That is the right thing to do, quite frankly, if we end up in sort of that economic scenario as it would allow the automatic stabilisers to take effect. It will not mean a requirement for a mini-budget. It will not mean increased taxes or cuts to spending, welfare, pensions, or any of those measures that people experienced ten years ago. We do not need to enforce those kinds of measures on people again precisely because we have balanced the books and we are running a budget surplus. We will run a deficit if we need to and it will be a modest deficit, as the Deputies have seen from the Central Bank and Department of Finance projections.
We may need Supplementary Estimates for certain sectors, for example, to support the beef industry, agrifood and business that will be adversely affected by Brexit. That will not change. When people hear reference to a mini-budget or a Supplementary Estimate, they think it means the Government will come along and raise taxes or cut services, pensions or welfare. None of that will happen, or is even being contemplated, because the public finances are in such good order. That will not happen in a no-deal Brexit but there will need to be Supplementary Estimates and supplementary budgets to support businesses, agriculture and the agrifood sector in particular, small exporters and others who need funding to restructure and save their businesses and the jobs they provide, in some cases.
I have met Mr. Olly Robbins on many occasions and he is a very capable civil servant. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on words that were overheard in a bar. It would not be right for me to form any conclusions based on it.
Can the Taoiseach assure us there will be no reopening of the withdrawal agreement? That was the question I asked.
There are no plans for that.
There has been no sounding out of people about that.
There has not been with me.