1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met. [16722/19]
Vol. 982 No. 10
1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met. [16722/19]
2. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met; and when it will next meet. [16738/19]
3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [18733/19]
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met. [19962/19]
5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met. [20547/19]
6. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met; and when it will next meet. [21731/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
Cabinet committee D works to ensure a co-ordinated approach in the areas of infrastructure investment and delivery, housing and climate action. The Cabinet committee last met on 31 January 2019 and the next meeting has been scheduled for 27 May 2019. There is significant work under way across each of the areas covered by the committee through Departments, agencies and interdepartmental groups such as the climate action high level steering group and the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. These matters are also regularly considered at meetings of Government and in bilateral meetings with the relevant Ministers.
Significant progress is being made on the implementation of Project Ireland 2040. Through the national planning framework, NPF, it sets out our 20-year vision for Ireland’s future, balancing rural and urban development and linking it with the national development plan, NDP, which encompasses €116 billion in capital investment over ten years to meet the infrastructural needs of our growing population.
Earlier this month the Government launched the first annual report for Project Ireland 2040 and it is clear it is delivering better transport links, facilitating better health and environmental outcomes and yielding more housing. For example, for the first time in decades three new hospitals are under construction, with one nearing completion. A total of 11 primary care centres will open this year and 26 more are being developed. By the end of the year, some 410 school projects will have been completed across the country or will have commenced construction, providing 40,000 additional or replacement school places, 200 modern science labs, 48 new or upgraded PE halls and the replacement of 600 prefabs. In addition, work is under way on several projects that have been promised for a long time, including the upgrade of the N4 in Sligo between Castlebaldwin and Collooney and the new north runway at Dublin Airport. The four funds launched under Project Ireland 2040 have a total of €4 billion to invest across the areas of rural and urban regeneration and development, climate action and disruptive technologies innovation. The first round of funding allocations amounting to just over €300 million have been announced and will leverage further private sector investment to deliver on the aims of Project Ireland 2040.
The Land Development Agency, LDA, another cornerstone initiative of Project Ireland 2040, was established on an interim basis in September 2018 and is working to ensure the optimum management of State land with an immediate focus on providing new homes, including social and affordable housing. Housing continues to be a priority for the Government. We have seen strong growth in housing completions and leading indicators such as planning permissions, commencement notices and housing registration indicate a strong pipeline. In the 12 months to the end of March, almost 19,000 new homes were built in Ireland, an increase of 25% year on year. More than 2,600 homes were also brought out of long-term vacancy and back into use, while almost 800 dwellings in unfinished or ghost estates were completed, meaning the total number of new homes available for use increased by more than 22,000 in that time period. This figure does not include student accommodation. There was also strong delivery of publicly funded social housing in 2018. We are all aware of the significant challenge in meeting housing demand and tackling the ongoing issues in the housing market. For this reason, budget 2019 provided an increase of 25% in the housing budget to €2.6 billion, the largest ever budget for housing. Delivering on our EU climate commitments for 2030 and transitioning to a competitive, low carbon, sustainable economy by 2050 are also priorities. We are investing €22 billion in climate action through the NDP, mainly led by State owned enterprises, to ensure that our future growth is regionally balanced and environmentally sustainable. In addition, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, is currently finalising an all-of-Government climate action plan and intends to bring this to Government in June. This plan will have a strong focus on implementation, including actions with specific timelines and steps needed to achieve each action, assigning clear lines of responsibility for the delivery of each one. It will build on progress made to date and set out the steps which must be taken for Ireland to meet its climate action obligations.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. In recent months, it has become clear that the system of Cabinet committees has been almost completely sidelined. Even on vital issues such as health and housing, the relevant committees meet infrequently. The Taoiseach has justified this by saying that he prefers to have discussions at Cabinet level. In doing this, he has cut out the entire tier of interdepartmental work that underpins Cabinet committees and has removed expert voices from the discussions. As we have seen from the systematic failure to deliver targets on time or within budget, the move to a more superficial politicians-only focus for discussions is clearly not working. Given the utter failure of the Minister for Health to manage either his short-term budget or long-term projects or the fact that Ireland was not ready for a no-deal Brexit in March, despite repeated claims to the contrary, does the Taoiseach agree that his experiment in downgrading the role of Cabinet committees has not worked and should be reversed?
The last time we discussed the Cabinet committee on infrastructure we were told that capital projects were being tightly managed and that proof of this was the publication of a major projects monitor, with regular updates. When checked yesterday, however, this major capital projects monitor was still doggedly holding to the idea that the national children's hospital would cost €916 million. There was no provision whatsoever made for the national broadband plan, NBP, and there were no examples of the Taoiseach's often referenced projects which are supposedly coming in well under budget. The only adjustments since early last year refer to projects where the pre-2018 spending was higher than predicted. Given the time and money the Government spent marketing the NDP last year and the public money it keeps spending to aid Fine Gael in targeted electoral areas, the public deserves an honest and comprehensive update on the costs and timelines in the NDP. This is particularly relevant in the context of the memorandum from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the NBP, which states that approximately €1.5 billion will be required for broadband and an additional €345 million for the children's hospital, neither of which have been provided for.
At every stage we were promised that this would be the most transparent and best managed plan ever. How is this compatible with the reality of what has been happening?
Cabinet committee D deals with infrastructure but the runaway costs and fallout over the children's hospital suggest that chaos reigns in the context of infrastructural projects. We have seen many projects cancelled or at the very least, delayed, including one such project in my own constituency, the Drimnagh primary care centre. Has the aforementioned Cabinet committee discussed the possibility of reassessing existing contracts or projects that are near completion to ensure delivery that is on time and within budget in future? This is important, given what we have seen to date.
One specific issue about which many other Deputies and I are concerned is the congestion on the N7. This results in a significant cost, both economic and social, to those who are stuck in their cars day in and day out, sitting in traffic jams between Naas and Newbridge. Have there been discussions about the infrastructure that is required along motorways and national roads to facilitate the roll-out of electric vehicles? What is the Government intending to spend on this area? Which Department will address this issue? Will it be the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport or the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment?
It is a scandal that in this day and age the Government continues to spend money on school prefabs. It spent €100 million over the past six years on prefabricated classrooms. When is this going to end? When will prefabricated classrooms become a thing of the past?
Infrastructure is necessary for the proper functioning of our society but the Taoiseach and Cabinet committee D have failed in this elementary task. They have failed on housing, the children's hospital, broadband and the provision of schools. As a follow-up to the question I posed yesterday on Dún Laoghaire Educate Together, what does the Taoiseach have to say about the fact that more than €100 million is being spent on prefabricated classrooms? In many cases, students and teachers are in such classrooms for years and years. Specifically with regard to Dún Laoghaire Educate Together, the Taoiseach said that a site would be identified by the end of quarter 3. When that site is identified, will money be made available immediately so that the school community is not waiting, like many others, for a decade or more for the physical buildings to be placed on site in order to get them out of the completely unsuitable and inappropriate prefabs that they and many others have to put up with?
On the question of social housing, I will put a very particular point to the Taoiseach. His objective is to achieve social mix and deliver social housing through 10% of private developments being reserved for such under Part V. In light of this, does he think it is acceptable that developers are building that 10%, the social housing element, of their developments to lower specifications than those of the other apartments in the same development? This is what we discovered happening in a major development in Dún Laoghaire called Cualanor. The buildings look the very same on the outside but, when one goes inside, one finds that the specifications are dramatically worse. Soundproofing, the quality of finish, the quality of the kitchens, and the layout of the buildings are to a lower specification. So much for social mix and integration. Does the Taoiseach approve of that? If he does not, what is he going to do about it?
The new all-of-Government climate action plan due out in the next few weeks will, I am sure, morph into the national energy and climate action plan we have to put together for the European Commission. In carrying out the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action, certain things became clear. The first is that no climate assessment whatsoever was carried out in the formulation of the existing national development plan, Project Ireland 2040, which was only approved last June. The modelling which has been done since shows that even if all of the most optimistic projections in those plans were to be delivered, they would only result in one third of the level of emissions reductions we need by 2030. There is a gap of something like 100 million tonnes. The leaked version of the document featured in The Irish Times in recent days shows marginal change that will not really shift that gap. I do not understand how Government could be considering the continued use of oil and gas-fired boilers in new homes for the next six years. Their use needs to be ended sooner. The objective of increasing the number of refurbishments to 50,000 is welcome, but we do not have the workers to achieve it and, in itself, it would not close the gap we need to close. We need to close a gap of 100 million tonnes cumulatively in the non-emissions trading scheme sector between now and 2030. Will the first draft of the plan show on a per tonne basis, 1 million tonnes or 500,000 tonnes at a time, where exactly those real, realisable and realistic emissions will come from? That is what we need, not just PR but precise projections. Will that level of detail on where the actual emissions reductions up to 2030 will occur be included when that plan is published?
I thank the Deputies. As I have explained to the House in the past, I engage with Ministers and officials in all sorts of different ways, including through Cabinet meetings, which the Attorney General and Secretary General to the Government attend, Cabinet subcommittee meetings, at which a greater number of officials are present, and meetings with Ministers and officials.
With regard to the Project Ireland 2040 website, I will ask the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, once again to ensure that it is updated. I apologise to Deputy Micheál Martin for the fact that it was not updated as it should have been. We do not need a website, however, to know what is going on. I am happy to fill the House in on what has been achieved in the year or so since Project Ireland 2040 was launched. Projects which were promised by Opposition parties for a very long time when they were in government and projects which have been demanded by Opposition parties that have never served in government are now being delivered. There are three hospitals under construction. The campus for the National Forensic Mental Health Service to replace its facility in Dundrum is almost finished in north County Dublin. The national children's hospital, which was promised for decades, is being built. The first element of that, which is in Blanchardstown in my constituency, is ready to be handed over and will be opened in a few months. The new National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire in Deputy Boyd Barrett's constituency is, at long last, under construction.
Projects that were promised by other governments for years and which have been demanded by people who have never been in government are being delivered by this Government. Eleven primary care centres will be opened this year and 26 more are in development. Quite soon approximately 130 will be operational. In education, as I mentioned, by the end of the year, 410 school projects will be completed or under construction, which will include 200 modern science laboratories and 48 upgraded PE halls. These projects will replace the 600 prefabs which were mentioned earlier in the debate. With regard to transport, works in Enniscorthy and New Ross will be finished by the end of the year and the N4 in Sligo is under construction. We expect the projects at the Dunkettle interchange, Ballyvourney and Macroom, and a few others to go to construction later in the year. The long-promised new runway at Dublin Airport is under construction. The vast majority of these projects are happening on budget, including the schools programme, the roads programme and the Irish Water investment programme.
I was asked about electric vehicles and the need to provide a much better network of charging points throughout the country if we are going to decarbonise our fleet. That needs to be done. We have tasked the ESB with leading on this, using its own resources rather than Exchequer resources. We have also tasked the ESB with increasing the proportion of our electricity generated from renewable sources from 30% to 70% by 2030. This is ambitious but achievable. That is two pretty big asks of the ESB, asking it to deliver the electric vehicle charging points we need and to double our capacity to produce renewable energy over the next ten or 11 years. Those who suggest that the ESB should take on additional tasks need to consider whether it would have the capacity to do more than we are already asking it do to, which is quite a lot.
On social housing standards, I expect any social housing being constructed by the public or private sector to meet current building standards with regard to fire safety, energy standards, soundproofing and everything else. If it does not, there should be consequences.
On climate action more broadly, I have only seen one draft of the document. I am not sure which draft ended up in The Irish Times.
It has been well leaked to The Irish Times. Perhaps the Taoiseach should read it.
As I have said, I am not sure which draft ended up in The Irish Times.
Of course the Taoiseach knows.
That is another conspiracy theory.
Come off it. Does the Taoiseach think we are idiots?
No, I just think the Deputy is a conspiracy theorist.
I am not at all.
I do not think he is an idiot in the slightest.
The Taoiseach is throwing the kitchen sink at everything.
In terms of achieving our objectives for 2030, we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 2% a year. That was done last year, for various reasons. There was a reduction of approximately 7% in CO2 and of 2% in greenhouse gases more generally. We need to sustain that for the next ten years if we are going to meet our target for 2030. The plan will set out as much detail as possible with regard to how that will be achieved.
7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F, national security, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [17458/19]
8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F, national security, last met. [17714/19]
9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F, national security, last met; and when it will next meet. [21732/19]
10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F, national security, last met. [21781/19]
11. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on Cabinet committee F, national security,; and when it last met. [22087/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 11, inclusive, together.
The committee last met on 1 April 2019 and was attended by Ministers and senior officials from the Departments of Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Justice and Equality, Health, Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Transport, Tourism and Sport, Housing, Planning and Local Government, and Defence, and officials from An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. The role of Cabinet committee F is "to keep the State's systems for the analysis of, preparation for, and response to, threats to national security under review and to provide high-level coordination between relevant Departments and agencies on related matters". Cabinet committee G provides political oversight of the programme of policing reform.
The last time my colleague raised a question of this nature, it related to a proposal of the Taoiseach's regarding a strategic threat assessment centre. I do not know whether there has been any progress on that or whether it has been discussed. Was there discussion about the Defence Forces being below strength and the disillusionment and low morale among its members? Is the weakness of the Defence Forces taken into account when looking at national security? Has the committee looked at last week's leaked proposal of the Public Service Pay Commission to reinstate some of the allowances? I do not know if this leak has been confirmed. The proposal will not go far enough, but it may at least start to address part of the issue. I presume the national security committee relies on the Defence Forces, if representatives are in attendance, and on An Garda Síochána to carry out its work. I know those within both organisations would carry out their work diligently in the event of any national emergency, as they do at all other times. When morale is low and when people are leaving the service, however, I presume it is much more difficult to plan for national security.
The brief visit of President Trump next month appears to have been confirmed this morning.
I have been very clear in my party's attitude to President Trump and his policies. However, the US is a country with which we have strong relations and connections. It is correct for the Taoiseach to meet him should President Trump wish to visit here. I find it ironic that people who have no trouble meeting and defending a dictator, who has suspended parliament and is starving his opponents, believe we should boycott the American President.
That said, Ireland is a free democracy and people must be given the opportunity to protest if they wish. Will the Taoiseach guarantee that reasonable provision will be made for the right of people to protest against the visit? The Taoiseach should raise with the President the fact that Ireland is supportive of and firmly committed to the European Union and that we do not like the current policy of the US President and Government which seems to be undermining the role and status of the European Union. That was evident in his recent embracing of Hungary's Prime Minister, Mr. Orbán, which was a clear snub to the European Commission and the EU generally. That matter should be raised. Will the Taoiseach ensure that the security arrangements are appropriate to our traditions and that we do not accept any unreasonable requests in this regard?
Separately, during the European Parliament election campaign, it has become clear throughout Europe that the effort to undermine free democracy continues. The very close connection between the Putin Government and the extremes of both right and left is more obvious than ever. While it took a long time, the Government eventually stopped opposing our calls for measures to counteract anti-democratic interference in Irish elections. Will the Taoiseach commit to speeding up this work to ensure we reduce the risk of the types of abuse seen elsewhere? At a minimum, will he demand and, if necessary, legislate for complete transparency in online political advertising for which Deputy Lawless has long campaigned?
I put it to the Taoiseach and Deputy Micheál Martin in all seriousness that President Trump is a threat to our national security and global security. Any sane and sensible person would say that is true. He is brazen in his attempts to sabotage efforts to deal with climate change. He is brazen in his campaign to arm brutal dictatorships like the Saudi regime. He is brazen in legitimising the illegal annexation of territory which belongs to the Palestinians in Jerusalem and land that belongs to Syria in the Golan Heights. The list of Israel's crimes goes on. Is it not the case that at every level President Trump is a danger to the world? Is it not simply giving licence and legitimacy to his toxic politics which encourages the growth of the far right across the world? Is the Taoiseach not concerned that elements sympathetic to that far right agenda in Ireland and to President Trump will be emboldened by his visit? If the Taoiseach cannot see that, he is not being honest in looking at the impact of President Trump globally.
I protested outside the Russian embassy when the Russians were engaged in bombing the hell out of Chechnya, and I did not see Deputy Micheál Martin there.
I have condemned the Russian President.
So have I. Please do not have backhanded or dishonest-----
No. The Deputy is wrong.
Similarly, I would be very critical of the measures taken by the regime in Venezuela. That does not mean I think President Trump and the US military are part of any solution-----
What does that have to do with it?
-----to dealing with the problems that exist in Venezuela. It is up to the Venezuelan people to sort out the crisis in Venezuela and not President Trump and the US military.
I wish to make a point. I was not referring to Deputy Boyd Barrett at all.
I thank the Deputy for that clarification.
It was mainly people on the Sinn Féin platform who had a very strong support for Venezuela.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. I was asked about the establishment of the new national security analysis centre. By the end of quarter 2 of this year we anticipate having the following actions done: the appointment of the director of the national security analysis centre, which position has been advertised; identification and securing of premises; procurement of IT systems; staffing of the centre; and the signing of memorandums of understanding with the partner agencies, which are Garda intelligence, Army intelligence and the National Cyber Security Centre. This is very much a co-ordinating role bringing together the work of Garda intelligence, Army intelligence and the National Cyber Security Centre, but not seeking to undermine or control the work they do.
On the Defence Forces, I understand that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has received the Public Service Pay Commission report. The Minister is considering it and intends to bring it to Cabinet in the next couple of weeks. I understand it proposes increases in certain allowances that are unique to the Defence Forces, which may assist us in retaining more people in our Defence Forces - the Army, the Naval Service and the Air Corps. These will be in addition to pay restoration and pay increases that are already well under way.
The visit of President Trump has been confirmed. Of course free speech, free assembly and the right to protest are essential in any democracy and must be provided for. When we meet in Shannon in early June, it will be an opportunity for us again to discuss some important issues. I can once again explain why Ireland is so much in favour of the European Union and why we are committed to membership of the European Union. I will again try to make the case for a strong European-American partnership in trade, the economy and security. I am sure we will also discuss Brexit. Once again I will try to explain our perspective on Brexit and also our commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
On the electoral process and disinformation, we established an interdepartmental group in December 2017 to consider issues arising from recent experiences in other democracies with regard to the use and misuse of social media by external, anonymous or hidden third parties. The group's membership included Departments and organisations responsible for the relevant policy areas. Its first report was published in July 2018 and found that the risks to the electoral process in Ireland are relatively low but cannot be discounted. However, the spread of disinformation online and the risk of cyberattacks on the electoral system pose more substantial risks. This is in line with the European Commission's findings and recent international experience.
The report included a number of recommendations to close gaps and to offer a way forward. The report was brought to Government where it was noted. It was agreed to follow two next steps: the regulation of transparency of online political advertising and the expediting of the establishment of an electoral commission, which is long overdue. The report recommends that these matters be considered in the first instance by way of a consultation involving relevant stakeholders across industry, academia, political parties, the media and civil society.
A public consultation on the regulation of transparency of online political advertising was launched on 21 September, inviting submissions from all interested stakeholders. The submissions received provided the basis for the open policy forum on the issue held in December. The aim of the forum was to identify policy solutions that respect the right to freedom of expression and relevant EU law while promoting the transparency necessary to open political discourse in a democracy that would protect electoral processes from hidden influences and disinformation, and build trust in a democracy. The forum featured participation by a variety of speakers, including from the media and political spheres, online companies and digital platforms, the advertising industry, academics, civil society and the European Commission. The group, taking into account the discussions of the forum and the submissions received from the public consultation, is considering the next steps that need to be taken on the issue.
On EU level initiatives, the European Commission and the European External Action Service prepared a joint action plan on disinformation which was adopted in December. The action plan focuses on issues associated with disinformation activities and creating an integrated approach among EU institutions and member states. As part of its operational measures, the action plan has called for the formation of rapid alert systems anchored in each member state by a national contact point. This was established on 18 March and has three key functions: a clear system for alerts and notifications on disinformation, the ability to share analysis and trends, and the facilitation and exchange of best practice and lessons learned.
12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A on the economy last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [18734/19]
13. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if rural issues are allocated to Cabinet committee A on the economy; and when it last met. [20553/19]
14. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the economy will next meet. [21770/19]
15. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A on the economy last met. [21782/19]
16. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A on the economy last met. [21850/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 16, inclusive, together.
Cabinet committee A covers issues relating to the economy.
This includes rural issues under the action plan on rural development, covering the period 2017 to 2019.
The Department of Rural and Community Development has commenced work on the next phase of rural development policy from 2020 onwards. It will seek to strengthen rural economies and rural communities, particularly in light of the emerging issues such as Brexit, climate adaptation and new technologies. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Michael Ring, is keen to ensure the best possible engagement with rural communities in the development of the new policy and has asked his officials to organise a series of consultation events with stakeholders in May and June.
Cabinet committee A covers issues relating to jobs, the labour market, competitiveness, productivity, the digital economy and pensions. Of particular relevance, the committee has overseen the development of Future Jobs Ireland, which was launched in March. It will oversee the implementation of this initiative.
As with all policy areas, rural issues are regularly discussed at full Government meetings, including two weeks ago. It is at these meetings that all formal decisions are made. The most recent meeting of Cabinet committee A took place on 12 November.
Cabinet committee A concerns the economy. In this instance, it is all about Brexit. Has the Taoiseach talked to Prime Minister May in the past week or so about the recent options she has suggested she will put to the parliament in Westminster? What does she hope to achieve from that? What other measures might she be considering that may help Ireland and its economy in the event of Brexit?
The Taoiseach has resumed the policy, last seen in the run-up to the 2016 general election, of commenting regularly on how everything is brilliant in society and how the Government is responsible for everything positive. Whenever anyone raises any concerns, he goes straight into his hyper-partisan model of behaviour, the type of model that has reduced Westminster politics to its current sorry state. In a difficult situation, the Taoiseach only ever played the man and never the ball. We saw this again yesterday with what I would term his frankly pathetic refusal to address Deputy Michael McGrath's point about the implications of dramatic over-expenditure on a range of projects.
It is only a couple of months since Fine Gael's messaging priority was to announce in the Dáil that it would expose every promise by the Opposition and demand full fiscal information. Now, we are in the position in which the Government has adopted a kitchen-sink strategy to campaigning, whereby allocations of billions of euros are being announced and Ministers are refusing at point blank to explain where the money is coming from. The Taoiseach has even gone so far as to involve our European Commissioner in the unprecedented breaking of the tradition of the Commission refusing to make funding announcements during campaigns. There was plenty of time before the campaigns. We have been lobbying hard on behalf of the suckler cow herd and beef farmers.
When will we see the exact list of projects re-profiled due to the major over-expenditure on the children's hospital and the broad fiscal impact of the broadband decision? As the Taoiseach will be aware, the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform listed a range of projects, including schools and primary care units, that would have to be delayed or cancelled if the full cost of broadband had to be paid and if the €345 million for the children's hospital was to be found. Is it still the Taoiseach's position that the Brexit-related hit on the public finances, the additional funding for the hospital and the broadband plan, and the overruns in the health service will all be managed without anybody noticing?
If this House has any purpose at all - I suspect the public sometimes wonders whether it does - it is to see crises coming down the line and act to prevent them. This month in 2013, at a meeting of the finance committee, I suggested to representatives of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and the Government that the moves to bring large global property investors into Ireland pursued by the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, would very likely lead to the return of the boom–bust cycle in property and to more property bubbles. The council and the Minister dismissed this as very unlikely at the time. Yesterday, the OECD, which is not a left-wing think tank, confirmed that bringing in those investors has recreated the conditions for the property bubble that we warned about six years ago at that meeting. What does the Taoiseach think about that warning? Does he believe the Government might put up its hands and say it may have made a mistake and that inviting the investors in may not have been the best idea, that the investors may not have assisted in having a sustainable housing sector, and that they may be, as the OECD is suggesting, contributing to the housing crisis and the unaffordability of housing, which is now an economic problem? It is not just a social crisis; it is now an economic problem and an existential threat to our economy in terms of our not being able to house our workers. We do not have anywhere to house the additional workers we need. A large number of people, never mind those rotting on housing lists and those whose incomes are just above the threshold under which they must be to get on a housing list, are totally lost. Their rents are more than the repayments on an extremely high mortgage, and getting a mortgage is completely impossible. As the OECD pointed out, the only way out of this is credit, which would be dangerous. We are in a complete cul-de-sac. The only way that cul-de-sac can be unblocked is if the State intervenes heavily in the housing sector to provide not-for-profit housing that individuals can afford.
I hope it is now evident to everyone that the economy is performing very well again this year. We know this from the labour force survey figures released by the CSO yesterday. It shows there has been a net increase in employment of 81,000 in the past year. There are now 2.3 million people working, more than ever before. The unemployment rate has fallen below 5%, representing a 14-year low. Long-term unemployment has fallen below 2%, to 1.7%. These figures are much better than we expected. Employment is now growing at twice the rate it was this time last year. That is an extraordinary economic performance, notwithstanding the risks and headwinds we are sailing into. It shows an economy that is doing well and that is being well managed. There is no better test of a Government's economic competence than employment rates, incomes and living standards. These are all very much going in the right direction.
The improved economic figures will have an impact on the public finances. We are confident that we will, once again, record a budget surplus this year. We will, once again, be able to reduce our national debt this year and we will be able to make the first deposits to the rainy day fund, provided that the economic performance is sustained and that Brexit does not blow us off course. That is an enormous uncertainty, even still.
It is intended that, in the middle of June, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, will make the Summer Economic Statement. That is an annual statement that has been made to the House probably for five or six years. It will set out the revised numbers and projections for growth, revenue and expenditure. It will also set out the surplus.
On my meetings with the UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May, I last spoke to her in Paris last Wednesday. She gave me a rough outline of the announcement she made yesterday in terms of a new plan to secure ratification of the withdrawal agreement. It is likely that I will meet her again in Brussels next Tuesday, when Heads of State and Heads of Government are due to meet again to discuss the outcome of the European elections. I am not sure whether she will attend but, if she is, I will certainly make sure to speak to her once again.
The OECD's economic outlook, published yesterday, highlighted in a section on Ireland the risk of a boom–bust cycle developing if it is associated with a surge in credit growth. We know that the previous boom–bust phenomenon was largely credit driven. People were investing and spending money they did not have or earn. It was money that was borrowed. That is what we need to guard against very much in the period ahead.
At present, there is no evidence of inappropriate or excessive credit growth in Ireland. On the contrary, net mortgage growth to households grew at a modest 1.4% in the year to December 2018 but we do need to guard against the risk of a return to excessive and easy credit. I note that many who predict another crash are the same individuals who call for more credit, borrowing and debt. That should be borne in mind.
I am not calling for more credit.
The macroprudential rules are specifically designed to reduce the likelihood of a boom-bust cycle re-emerging. The report, in particular, warned of the increased vulnerabilities of the Irish commercial property sector, given the increase in foreign investment. The Department of Finance is very much aware of this issue and monitors it closely. Indeed, it was one of the reasons we increased stamp duty in the budget two years ago in order to slow growth in the commercial property sector and to encourage growth in the residential property sector and in civil and public infrastructure, and that has happened. It should also be recognised that there are advantages in accessing foreign as opposed to domestic bank funding, most notably, the reduced risk to our own domestic banking sector. The OECD outlook noted that growth in Ireland is expected to remain robust, notwithstanding several risks, including Brexit and those related to the construction sector, which I mentioned earlier.