1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the State boards and agencies that civil servants from his Department are appointed to. [7901/19]
Vol. 980 No. 1
1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the State boards and agencies that civil servants from his Department are appointed to. [7901/19]
2. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Taoiseach the appointments made by him since his election as Taoiseach to State boards or other agencies under the aegis of his Department. [7981/19]
3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the appointments he has made to State boards and other bodies under the aegis of his Department since February 2018. [9288/19]
4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the State boards and agencies that civil servants from his Department are appointed to. [9304/19]
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the appointments made by him to State boards and agencies under the aegis of his Department. [9422/19]
6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with the National Economic and Social Council. [9516/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, is an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of my Department. The council analyses and reports on strategic policy matters relevant to Ireland's economic, social, environmental and sustainable development. In accordance with the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006, I have certain functions, such as appointing the members of the NESC and presenting reports to Government prior to publication. The council is funded through my Department's Vote and my Department also has governance responsibilities relating to the council. In accordance with the legislation, two officials from my Department at Secretary General and assistant secretary level currently have the position of chairperson and deputy chairperson. Since becoming Taoiseach I have made eight appointments to the NESC, five of these since February 2018. Four appointments were made on the basis of nominations from sectoral organisations, as provided for in the legislation. In addition, four independent members were appointed following advertisement of the vacancies on stateboards.ie and a selection process conducted by the Public Appointments Service. The National Economic and Social Development Office, NESDO, is the body corporate for the NESC. Section 13 of the NESDO Act 2006 provides that the chairperson and deputy chairperson of the NESC are members of NESDO.
The National Statistics Board, NSB, was established under the Statistics Act 1993 to guide the broad strategic direction of the Central Statistics Office, CSO, and in particular to establish priorities for the development of official statistics in Ireland. The legislation provides that the NSB shall consist of eight members, including an assistant secretary or equivalent or higher grade from my Department and the Department of Finance, and the director general of the CSO. I made one appointment to the National Statistics Board last month following a selection process conducted by the Public Appointments Service.
All appointments to the NESC and to the NSB have been made in line with the relevant legislative provisions and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform guidelines on appointments to State boards. One principal officer in my Department has been nominated to the council of Gaisce, whose appointments are made by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.
It is odd that my question, No. 6, on the NESC was included in the five questions relating to State boards, but there we are. Have all departmental officials on State boards been apprised of Circular 12/2010, in particular that a Minister must be notified without delay where there is a significant strategic or reputational risk to the State body that is not being addressed? Is there a clear and uniform understanding of the role of departmental civil servants on State boards? What does the Taoiseach understand by civil servants on State boards serving in a personal capacity? I may be wrong and the Taoiseach can correct me but I am sure individual civil servants do not apply through the State boards system themselves as individuals. It is presumed they are appointed by Ministers because they have a role within the Department structure. Does the Taoiseach agree with the conclusions of the Comptroller and Auditor General when he said that concerns about the national children's hospital should have been passed on to Ministers if those concerns were not being addressed by the board? Does the Taoiseach think this is the correct working methodology for civil servants on State boards, that where there are concerns they believe are not being addressed by the board, in accordance with Circular 12/2010, the Minister should be directly advised of that matter?
The Taoiseach will be familiar with the public sector trends research carried out by the Institute of Public Administration, IPA. In its latest study published in December, it found that the proportion of women on the boards of non-commercial State agencies varies greatly by parent Department. The highest proportion of women are represented on traditional feminised boards with responsibility for areas of social policy such as education, children and youth affairs, although all of those fall shy of gender parity. One of the most disappointing findings was that the Taoiseach's Department had the lowest proportion of women on non-commercial State boards. I would be interested to find out whether this position has changed since the research was published.
The report also finds that boards that fall under the remit of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, whose responsibility it is to deliver Civil Service renewal, have the fourth lowest proportion of women despite the fact that there is now a higher share of women in professional posts, for example, working as senior economists or policy analysts. This demonstrates that there is no shortage of women with the necessary education and skills to populate these types of boards. A total of 40% of those on State boards are women but just 27% of them hold chairperson roles. Eleven boards have no female representation at all. Less than half of State boards have reached the minimum 40% target of female representation. I take no pleasure in noting that the Department of the Taoiseach has the worst report card when it comes to women's participation on State boards. This sends out a very bad signal to women of all ages inside and outside the public sector. I am sure the Taoiseach has read the IPA research and I would be interested to hear what action he has taken or intends to take to increase the number of women on boards under the aegis of his Department.
Following on from Deputy Howlin's questions and in light of the debacle around the national children's hospital, the reporting obligations of civil servants appointed to the board require very considerable further explanation, and not just in that particular instance because of the particular clauses referred to by Deputy Howlin. More generally, the issue has arisen with public interest directors in the banks and semi-State bodies. In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, and I presume it is replicated everywhere else, bizarre situations arose where, when issues relating to the body to which they were appointed were being discussed, public representatives would walk out of the room claiming that they had a conflict of interest. I do not understand that. What is the point of us putting civil servants or indeed public representatives on boards of State agencies if they are not responsible to this House or democratic bodies and have responsibilities relating to reporting? What is point of putting them in there and if, in this case, they are somehow subject to the confidentiality of a project group? It seems to defeat the purpose of putting them on the board in the first place. Surely the only point of putting a civil servant on a project board like that or on the board of any agency or semi-State agency is that they are there to mind the public interest and to report back if the public interest is adversely affected.
Some time ago, we discussed the issue of women on boards. I understand that the Taoiseach has committed to increasing gradually the numbers of women on boards, particularly in areas like finance. That is all to the good. How long will we have to wait in those areas, including with reference to the Department of Finance and the Department of the Taoiseach?
Ireland is now a very different country in terms of the most recent census compared with what it was 20 or 30 years ago. We now have people from diverse backgrounds all over the world who have made their homes in Ireland and whose children have grown up in Ireland, many of whom, especially in our constituency, are now past the teenage stage, have qualified from college and have achieved very significantly. Notwithstanding the contribution of immigrants to Ireland, when we look at the composition of the boards, we see that not only are there relatively few women and even fewer female chairpersons of boards, ethnic diversity is almost entirely missing.
The Minister for Finance told me the other day about the new holistic approach taken by his Department to policy issues, which I welcome. What I want to know is whether the Taoiseach would be conscious of the issue given that he represents Dublin West where about 30% of the population is either not born in Ireland or has parents who were not born in Ireland. The Taoiseach knows that there are significant numbers of young people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds in our secondary schools, yet when it comes to public positions like boards, they see very few people like them. What is the Taoiseach going to do to address this?
The issue of civil servants on State boards has not been resolved in the context of the national children's hospital. The public servant on that board had an obligation to report to his line Minister and the Minister for Health. I do not think that has been adequately responded to by Government. The circular is clear, as is the opinion of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
When the previous Taoiseach announced various procedures for making appointments to State boards and changed them a number of years ago, he said they would be reviewed over time to check whether they were delivering better boards. The early evidence was that the new procedures were confirming that people appointed previously were overwhelmingly being viewed as suitable for reappointment, that the range of people applying for appointments was broad, but that it was uncertain whether there was any improvement in the functioning of boards. Has the Taoiseach commissioned any independent research on the operation of State boards and whether they are actively performing the role of supervising the strategic direction of State agencies and protecting the public interest? This is of particular concern in the context of the national children's hospital because, last August, the Government reappointed in full the board of the national children's hospital, and little more than six months ago, the Government expressed full confidence in the board's work. This was at a point when the Government was fully aware of the outcome of the tendering procedure overseen by the board. Then suddenly the Taoiseach and Minister for Health began calling for heads to roll.
Indeed, the chairperson was offered up as a sacrifice to stop more politically sensitive accountability. Is the Taoiseach satisfied with the procedure by which he and the Government reappointed the children's hospital board last year? What review did it conduct of their work before nodding through the reappointment of the chairperson and the board?
With regard to circular 12/10, while I may have clarified this last week, I am happy to do so again. It has been clarified that the responsibility is to report to the line Minister of the Department under which the board is established, not the Department in which the relevant public servant works. For example, if it is a health board, the responsibility is to the Minister for Health, and if it is an education board, it is to the Minister for Education and Skills, not the Department in which the public servant works, which could be the Department of Finance or the Department of the Taoiseach, or otherwise. The National Paediatric Hospital Development Board has its own code of governance, which is available on its website and which covers the whole issue of confidentiality and the need for board members to maintain collective confidentiality.
In regard to Mr. Paul Quinn, again, as I explained to the House last week, he met the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and discussed the situation. I understand that he judged that he had no responsibility or obligation to report to the Minister for Health on the matter of the overrun, as the chairman of the board had done so.
In regard to women on State boards, we set a target of making sure that at least 40% of people on State boards were women. That has been exceeded and it is now 41% or 42%. Last year was the first year during which more than 50% of appointments were female, and we are now aiming for a higher target to go well above 40%. The focus is particularly on boards where there is gender imbalance, which can happen both ways. One will see that on many of the education, health and social care boards there is a predominance of women and very few men, whereas on finance and enterprise boards one will see a preponderance of men rather than women. Gender balance should work both ways. The focus is on evening that out across those different types of boards and going up from 40% towards 50%.
I am also leading an initiative to increase the participation of women on boards of listed private companies, where fewer than 20% of the membership are female, which is half the proportion on State boards. Now that we have exceeded our 40% target, we are in a strong position to put pressure on the private sector to do much better. I am leading that initiative.
With regard to my own Department, I am happy to correct the Deputies. I do not appoint most of the members to NESC; they are generally appointed by what we used to call social partners. Of the appointments that have occurred since I became Taoiseach, three were made by me but on the nomination of farming bodies, and all three were male, and one was made by me but on the nomination of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and he was male. However, of the appointments I have made myself and which I had discretion over, three of the five were female, or 60%.
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on developments and centralisation of the website of his Department into one Government website. [8032/19]
8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his Department’s new website; and the person or body responsible for updating it. [8222/19]
9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the update of the website of his Department. [9289/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, together.
Departments are currently represented online by multiple distinct websites and platforms, each providing different visual styles and user experience. A Government decision was taken in December 2017 to migrate all primary Department websites to one single portal, gov.ie. This aligns with international best practice. Gov.ie has been developed with the citizen at its centre, with an emphasis on policy and service areas, as opposed to how a Department is structured internally. Gov.ie will be the one trusted source which makes interactions with the Irish Government more citizen-focused and data-driven. Information is presented in a clear, understandable and accessible manner. Gov.ie has been used to host many cross-Government communications campaigns, including Healthy Ireland, Be Safe Online, Sláintecare, Project Ireland 2040 and information around budget 2019.
My Department was the first to migrate to gov.ie, with more to follow on a quarterly basis over the next 18 months. Our new web address is www.gov.ie/taoiseach. The next to migrate across will be the Departments Public Expenditure and Reform, Finance and Rural and Community Development, and they are now in the process of transitioning. All remaining Departments will transition between now and the end of next year.
Users of the taoiseach.ie website were notified in mid-November 2018 that the information on the taoiseach.ie website would move to the new central gov.ie website. The old taoiseach.ie website was available until 22 February and has since been archived in co-operation with the National Library of Ireland.
The Taoiseach will recall that the report into the now disbanded marketing unit in the Department of the Taoiseach demonstrated that the decision to move to a single State website is far from being accepted best practice. In fact, the head of the marketing unit, who has now been transferred to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, produced a report which looked at only three countries and produced no evidence to say the public found it easier to access official information. The United Nations ranking for eGovernment, which was cited repeatedly as a reason for the promotion of a single site, gave a high ranking to certain states due to completely different factors, access to broadband being the most important.
In all of the controversy last year, one thing that did come out of the meagre research competed by the unit was the advice of other countries not to implement anything before first checking with the public what they want and in what form they want it. This was, of course, a piece of advice which was completely ignored. Before the Taoiseach proceeds further with the single Government portal idea, will he tell us what research has been undertaken to gauge what people want and whether they currently find it difficult to access information? What is the status of the public opinion research which was contracted back in late 2017-----
It is abandoned.
-----and which we were told would involve consultation with the Opposition leaders before it was carried out? That has been the subject of many questions in the House and it just seems to have disappeared into the ether.
I am interested in the Taoiseach's assertion that the migration of all departmental websites to a single Government portal is international best practice. He might share with us the analysis that led him to that assertion in order that we can examine best practice internationally and see the models he is aiming to replicate here. I am aware there are difficulties in regard to finding specific data since the Department of the Taoiseach website has been stood down and migrated into this new common Government website. People who are looking for information want specific departmental information and Government structural information, and they need to be clear where they are looking.
I want to ask some specific questions. What individual person has overall responsibility for this project; in other words, who is leading this migration? Has there been an assigned budget line for this project and, if so, how much has been allocated to it? When does the Taoiseach expect it to be fully completed?
The Taoiseach might share with us the evidence that migrating to a single website is the most effective and user-friendly manner to interact with the public. He might cite for us the evidence that this is what the public want. Having discrete access points that are Department-specific, whether that is in regard to social welfare or enterprise, for example, strikes me as having the best prospect of being user-friendly and easier to navigate than migrating all of the State's Departments onto one site. That, of course, is just my hunch and I could be entirely wrong. I am sure the Taoiseach is not operating on the basis of a hunch so he might cite for us the source of evidence for this approach. In addition, how much is this costing?
The Taoiseach said the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is about to transfer to this system. Did I understand correctly that the Department of Finance is to follow later?
No, it is part of this next one.
I wonder what is happening to the Revenue Commissioners.
Like the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Revenue Commissioners deal with vast amounts of personal data and queries individual to the person. That information is really important to people. The current changes being made by the Revenue Commissioners concerning smallscale employers, such as a person employing a child minder in his or her house or at the child minder's house, are generating great numbers of requests for parents, very often the mum, to comply with a huge number of new regulations. All of this detail is currently and quite properly located with the Revenue Commissioners, and it is hard enough to get an answer from them as it is very confusing currently. It is the same with social welfare queries, as both the Taoiseach and I know.
I do not get why everything should be under one roof, when the nature of some queries, like to Revenue and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, are so specific to the individual, that citizens need a trusted source to which they can go, instead of some kind of public relations outfit. Under the current changes, people will have to keep going down from the upper and opening elements of the site into the parts of the information system they really need.
I thank the Deputies for their questions and their interest in this matter. The project is being led by the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer, OGCIO. That is not in my Department, so I have only a limited knowledge and role in this matter. That role relates largely to my Department’s website migrating over to www.mygov.ie. Turning to public opinion research, that is on ice and not a priority at present.
I am sorry?
It is not happening at present.
It has been abandoned.
It is suspended.
Forever. Was that announced?
It was announced before.
I announced it several months ago. I am not sure whether it is international best practice but I will dig out the evidence and provide it to Deputies.
The Taoiseach said it was.
It seems to be common sense to have a single website for an organisation with different departments.
Not for the Revenue.
Many large organisations, such as RTÉ, have different-----
There may be a county council on the same website-----
-----departments. I do not think each department has its own website. The same applies to most organisations that are broken down into different departments: they have a single website and the different departments are accessed within that. The same applies to universities. It makes sense, particularly with www.mygov.ie being developed and more people using it. About 250,000 have their www.mygov.ie credentials. I imagine in a few years millions of people will have their www.mygov.ie set up and will be able to use the same password and unique identifier to transact with Government online for all sorts of different reasons and services. My understanding is that it applies to Departments and not to agencies. It would not, therefore, apply to the Revenue Commissioners. I may, however, be mistaken about that.
What about the cost?
It goes back to a Government Department.
That is going into the mix.
Yes, that is correct.
How much will it cost?
I do not have a figure. It is not my Department.
What Department is it?
It is the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
It is the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
It has data sharing and this now as well. It is being given many responsibilities.
10. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the number and type of Cabinet committees held since January 2019. [8460/19]
11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the number and type of Cabinet committee meetings held since January 2019. [9290/19]
12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the number and type of Cabinet committees held since January 2019. [9305/19]
13. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number and type of Cabinet committee meetings held since January 2019. [9514/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 13, inclusive, together.
I chaired a meeting of Cabinet committee D, which deals with infrastructure, on 31 January and a meeting of Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, on 21 February.
Cabinet committee D works to ensure a coordinated approach to the delivery of work and the ongoing development of policy across the areas of infrastructure investment and delivery, housing and climate action. It also provides political oversight on Project Ireland 2040. Significant work is underway across each of these areas through Departments and agencies and a range of interdepartmental groups such as the climate action high level steering group and the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board.
Cabinet committee B covers social policy and public services including education, children, social inclusion; Irish language, arts and culture; and continued improvements and reform of public services.
In addition, these matters are regularly considered at meetings of the Government itself.
The Taoiseach will remember that in 2017 he informed the House he was reorganising the Cabinet committee structures so they would become more active. A pattern has since emerged of Cabinet committees being, at best, marginal to the issues they are supposed to be handling. The facts demonstrate that in areas such as health, housing, Brexit, Northern Ireland and other areas of public concern, the Cabinet sub-committees have made irregularly. The Taoiseach recently justified this by stating he preferred to have the discussions at a full Cabinet meeting. The implication of that stance is that he prefers to have the discussion without the detail of advanced work circulated to Departments, without key officials present and as part of much fuller agendas and limited time.
These discussions are also sometimes held without putting them on the agenda. That at least is what is implied by the failure of his staff to note these discussions when explaining the Cabinet agenda in different contexts. That includes the press briefings on Tuesday afternoons. Turning to the infrastructure committee, which I think met in January, it is clear it is not on top of the national plan at all or has very little relationship with it. That is evident from the massive overspend on the national children’s hospital, for example. That overspend will have an impact on the wider national development plan and the capacity to deliver other projects is undermined.
This recurs repeatedly with different committees which seem very much out of touch with various crises in different Departments. Will the Taoiseach explain why he thinks it is better, overall, not to have detailed advanced staff work done or key officials present when discussing these important issues? What used to happen at Cabinet sub-committees was a more intensive and specific look at issues. It was not just a case of a glance during a plenary session of the Cabinet.
If I have understood the Taoiseach's response correctly, there has been no Cabinet committee discussion or meeting on health so far in 2019. I am sure the Taoiseach is aware that the Euro Health Consumer Index, EHCI, 2018 was published yesterday. It again found that we have the worst hospital waiting lists in Europe. This is consistent with the latest figures published by National Treatment Purchase Fund earlier this month. Those figures show that hospital waiting lists have reached record levels. More than 523,000 patients were waiting for an outpatient consultation and more than 72,000 waiting for an inpatient procedure.
The situation regarding hospital waiting lists is out of control. The Taoiseach’s Government and his Minister for Health continue with flawed and failed plans. We need sustained intelligent investment in the public health system to tackle these waiting lists. That needs to be done through the full implementation of Sláintecare to ensure there are significant financial and health benefits for the State and patients in the long term. Is the Taoiseach’s Department still involved in the delivery of Sláintecare? What precise role does his Department have?
Have any of the Cabinet sub-committees discussed the issue of the plan to impose a VAT rate of 23% on food supplements? That plan led people to protest outside the Dáil again this morning. Deputy Gino Kenny and I challenged the Minister on this issue a couple of weeks ago. The response was that it was nothing to do with the Government. It was an issue for the Revenue Commissioners. I suggest to the Taoiseach that is nonsense. An EU directive states that food supplements are food. The Revenue has, however, now made a distinction between food and food supplements. After years of applying a 0% VAT rate, it has decided to lash a rate of 23% on those supplements. That will put many people out of business. It will also ensure that those supplements, which the EU considers as food and which are very important for the health of ordinary people, will now be out of the reach of many people.
It is important to state that less well-off people will be hit hardest by this. Rich people will be able to absorb a 23% increase and still buy their supplements. Less well-off people will not be able to access these supplements. The Government is standing back as if to say that this has nothing to do with it. Actually, it does have something to do with it. This is about people's health and about fairness. This is a frankly fairly bizarre interpretation on the part of Revenue. There is a clear directive from Europe stating that food supplements are food. As a result, they should not be the subject of this 23% increase.
I have already raised the issue of food supplements. I have raised it at least three times and, notwithstanding what he stated earlier, I ask the Taoiseach to reflect on this matter further. Fundamental tax policy should not be made by Revenue as if it was not the purview of the Government or this House. I ask the Taoiseach to reflect on that again.
I wish to ask a specific question about the operation of Cabinet sub-committees. The Taoiseach has redesigned the latter from those with which I was familiar during my time in government. Is he satisfied that they are working? The Taoiseach likes a catch-all phrase and, obviously, a catch-all Government website. However, I question the notion that the Government can deal with health or housing or can drive the Garda reform agenda via a general committee. The former practice took a lot of time virtually every Monday, with a long time spent on issues by specific committees. I happen to be an ex officio member of all the Cabinet sub-committees. All the key officials were there and the Government was able to deal with issues. Obviously, experimentation is a good thing, but is the Taoiseach satisfied that the new general committee, in which a number of different topics are amalgamated, are working?
If I heard the Taoiseach correctly, there was one Cabinet sub-committee meeting in January and one in February. This means that, allowing for a month off in August, there are a maximum of 11 Cabinet sub-committee meetings each year. The Taoiseach has told us about his dislike of the system of Cabinet sub-committees. That may be an explanation for some of the matters in respect of which there are real holes in this Government's performance. I put it to the Taoiseach that perhaps he is not getting the kind of detailed information he, as leader of the Government, requires and which the other members of his Cabinet also need. For example, how many Cabinet sub-committees on average does the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, attend? How many are he, the leader of the other party in government, and the two Independents entitled to attend? The Taoiseach presumably meets his Fine Gael colleagues quite a lot. How does he arrange to meet the other Government partners, namely, Deputy Ross's party and the two Independent Ministers? Perhaps the Taoiseach arranges to meet them privately, but he is very busy and I doubt he has that much time to do all of that. This could be the explanation for the problem in housing. Perhaps this is why there is such a blind spot regarding matters such as social and affordable housing, notwithstanding the increases in other forms of housing. We are all genuinely perplexed. This Government has a lot of resources and came into a very good situation. Its failure to deliver on housing, health and an number of other issues is pretty disappointing.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. There are a lot of Cabinet meetings. I very much believe in Cabinet Government, collective responsibility and including all Ministers in decision-making.
What about officials?
That is the best way, particularly when there is only a small number of Independents at the table. The best way to include them in decision-making is to make all the big decisions at Cabinet meetings when they are present.
There are no officials to interrogate ideas.
They would not all be present at every Cabinet meeting. The best way to ensure a cohesive Government - with everyone present when the big decisions are made - is to make them at Cabinet meetings when every Minister is present. I really did not like the Economic Management Council, EMC, system which operated under the previous Government. I appreciate that two former members of the EMC are here and they are perhaps protective of that system.
It was an economic crisis. They were different times.
I very much disliked it because it created an inner Cabinet made up of members who made decisions. They bounced them at the last minute on the whole Cabinet, without an opportunity for due consideration. Documents of 20 or 30 pages would often arrive in front of Ministers at 1.10 p.m. on a Tuesday. That is no longer the practice in this Government.
It stopped us from learning about policy in The Sunday Business Post.
It is a vast improvement on what we had in the previous Government where collective decision-making is concerned. Everyone is actually involved in making the decision. People get papers before the meeting happens rather than big decisions being made at the last minute, often following a diktat from the EMC and its members.
Cabinet meets once a week, sometimes more frequently. We will have two meetings next week and possibly a third. That is the way I like to run things. There are also lots of Cabinet sub-committees. We have one nearly every week. It depends on the issues arising. The Brexit committee now almost never meets because we discuss Brexit at every single Cabinet meeting. There is also a separate officials' group. Brexit affects everyone and I want everyone around the table. We spent the best part of an hour on it today and will do so again next week.
There are often areas that do not involve everyone but do involve several Departments, and that is where the Cabinet sub-committees come in very useful. Deputy Howlin mentioned the Garda reform programme. Our response to the O'Toole commission's recommendations went to the Cabinet sub-committee before it went to the full Cabinet, because that did not involve everyone but it did involve a critical mass of Ministers. Last week, the Cabinet sub-committee on infrastructure focused on the inter-agency report on homelessness. That did not impact on everyone but it did impact on four or five Departments which were represented, including the Departments of Health, Justice and Equality and Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We also discussed the advances that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is making on realising the affordable childcare scheme at a Cabinet sub-committee meeting last week.
Different mechanisms are available. Everyone is present at Cabinet; all the politicians who hold ministerial office are around the table with the Secretary General of the Government. Cabinet sub-committees can also come in useful but there is a downside to them. With so many Ministers on each committee plus their officials and advisers, these are meetings of 30 or 40 people. Anyone who attends meetings knows the difference between getting things done at a meeting of ten people and a meeting of 40 people. I also meet Ministers bilaterally. I am in the process of meeting Ministers individually, along with their Secretaries General and their main advisers, in order to review progress and work in the various Departments.
Deputy McDonald mentioned the Euro Health Consumer Index, which was released in the last few days. She neglected to mention that the ranking of the quality of our health services went up by two points. It is major news when we go down but when we go up it barely makes the news at all. It is important to take these things with a pinch of salt. It is a private company based in Sweden. It is not the World Health Organization or The Lancet, but it is still an interesting index.
In regard to waiting lists, the Deputy is quite right. That is an area where we have not made sufficient progress. However there are different waiting lists. The waiting lists for operations and procedures is very much going in the right direction. As of the end of last year, the number of patients waiting for an operation or a procedure-----
That is because of a Fianna Fáil initiative.
-----on a hip, an eye or a cataract or for a knee replacement was at a four-year or five-year low. It went up in January as a consequence of the time lost around the nurses' strike and it will go up in February too for the same reason. In March, it will once again be on a downward trajectory. That means that most public patients waiting for an operation or procedure in Ireland now wait between three and six months, which is a significant improvement on where we were not too long ago. We are not making much progress on outpatients and we need a new approach there. Approximately, 300,000 people have been waiting for more than 12 weeks. I refer to the period of 12 weeks because that is the Sláintecare target. The headline figures on waiting lists often include people who have been waiting for one, two or six weeks. There will always be people waiting one, two or six weeks, but the Sláintecare figure refers to those waiting for more than 12 weeks and that is the figure I always look out for. There are now roughly 300,000 people who have been waiting for more than 12 weeks to see a specialist, but 500,000 appointments are no-shows.
There is a real problem there in terms of planning and efficiency that we have not got on top of. There are potential solutions but many of them are IT-based and other things need to be done too.
The implementation of Sláintecare is run out of the Sláintecare implementation office, which is in the Department of Health, but I will put some officials on that. In the same way as I have officials designated to monitor the implementation of the Garda reform package and the justice reform package, I will assign officials to do the same with Sláintecare.
On the question of VAT on supplements, I answered questions on that earlier during Questions on Promised Legislation so I will not repeat myself-----
I challenged the Taoiseach's answer.
-----but, to summarise, this is a Revenue determination. The policy is that for oral medicines and for fresh food the VAT rate is 0% but for processed food VAT does apply.
That concludes Taoiseach's questions.