1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [22698/19]
Vol. 983 No. 5
1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [22698/19]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, European Union and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [23993/19]
3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international, EU and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [24205/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The International, EU and Northern Ireland division of my Department covers work on all international, EU and British-Irish and Northern Ireland affairs within the Department, including Brexit.
The division assists me in my international role, including as a member of the European Council, and in my other EU and international engagements, including overseas visits.
The division also provides advice to me on Northern Ireland, British-Irish relations and, of course, Brexit. This includes work to advance peace, prosperity and reconciliation on the island of Ireland, including assisting me in my engagement with the British Government, in institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement and on restoration of the institutions, including the devolved Assembly and power-sharing Executive.
The division provides advice and briefing related to my varied international engagements, including meetings of the European Council and other EU summits, bilateral engagements with Heads of Government of EU member states and other countries and international affairs more generally. The division also works closely with other relevant Departments, notably the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Augmenting the ongoing work of my Department's international, EU and Northern Ireland division on Brexit is the Brexit preparedness and contingency planning unit. This assists a Secretaries General group overseeing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The unit works closely with other divisions in my Department, including the economic division, and with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach two separate questions about the work of this committee. First, we had a debate yesterday about Northern Ireland, one of the very rare debates we have in this House on Northern Ireland. It is unfortunate the Taoiseach could not attend. I am sure there was a very good reason he could not. A Minister of State attended. We need to be clear on the Taoiseach's assessment now. I would be interested in his personal assessment, having talked to the Tánaiste, of the prospects for restoring the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. Is there anything we as a House can do to assist the process? It is critical to have progress on this matter. One of the comments I made in my contribution yesterday - I have made it repeatedly since I first made it well over 12 months ago at the James Connolly memorial lecture I gave - was to call now for us to prepare a new all-Ireland forum. I would be interested to know whether the Taoiseach has had a chance to reflect upon this idea. I think there is now a consensus in the House that we need to think about the future relationship between the North and the South and the future of this island. Is it time we embarked upon this?
My second question concerns the ongoing trauma we see in Britain, with contenders for the position of leader of the Conservative Party and future Prime Minister now making ever wilder promises about either conducting new negotiations for a new deal with the European Union or, more likely, a hard exit from the European Union on 31 October. I will ask the Taoiseach a direct question. Since the latter tragic likelihood is becoming more of a potential reality, is he satisfied that Ireland, particularly Irish businesses, will be prepared for a hard UK exit from the EU on 31 October?
A popular revolution in Sudan has been ongoing for several months to overthrow the dictatorship of al-Bashir. He fell in April, but a military junta is viciously repressing a popular movement of ordinary people demanding democracy. Just in the past week we have seen a massacre in which up to 100 people were killed, bringing the overall death toll to many hundreds more. It is worth saying that while the official line of countries such as the US is to support a transition to civilian rule, key allies of the United States, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are all essentially backing the regime in its vicious persecution of this popular movement for democracy.
What is the European Union doing about this? I point in particular to the Khartoum Process and the need for us to call for the Union to suspend that. Essentially, the Khartoum regime behind this vicious repression and persecution is being given money by the EU to control migration out of that country, leading in particular to incredible suffering and persecution for Eritreans and Ethiopians. They are treated in an unbelievably vicious way by this regime. Will the Taoiseach indicate what he is doing in talking to our EU colleagues and if he would support action by sanction, such as suspending the Khartoum Process?
Our party has long advocated that those who espouse the view that Ireland should be united need to come together and start to plan that process. We have done that in many different guises over the years. More than a decade ago we tabled a motion in the House relating to the preparation of a Green Paper on Irish unity. Our former leader, Deputy Gerry Adams, and I have engaged with all the different parties in the past two years on the need for a sub-committee of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to deal with Irish unity. That has been blocked at this point. Whatever the vehicle, whether it is a Green Paper, a sub-committee or a new Ireland forum, as suggested by Deputy Howlin, it is a secondary point. We need to start to come together to plan what a new and united Ireland would look like, including how all the traditions can be respected, accommodated and cherished in that new Ireland and what we need to do to convince others of the merits of that. I would welcome the views of the Taoiseach on the matter at this point.
I also raise the role of the Government with respect to the standoff over Rockall. We know Scotland is subject to the Common Fisheries Policy and that the policy allows Irish fishing vessels to fish around Rockall. We know quota are allocated through the EU to Irish fishermen in that region annually. It is baffling how the Scottish authorities have taken us to this position, as there are now serious threats and risks that our vessels, which are currently fishing in those waters, will be boarded by Scottish authorities, with boats and gear impounded and individuals arrested. Calls have been made for a council to be appointed and located in Scotland. There is also a need to escalate this diplomatically. Has the Taoiseach raised this with the Scottish First Minister and was he aware of the matter at the time of their meeting last month? Has the Taoiseach spoken to her since, and if he has not, does he intend to speak to her? The fishermen deserve no less than that.
When the Taoiseach took office two years ago, he told the House he would conduct a thorough review of the staffing and structure of the Department of the Taoiseach. Based on the information provided, it seems there have been no significant changes to the structure and staffing. Will he indicate if that is correct? The number of major issues having to be dealt with by this division is exceptionally high, although far from unprecedented if we consider points over the years when it dealt with matters relating to the peace process, UN Security Council membership and EU negotiations.
With regard to Northern Ireland, I previously raised the need to return to a more active policy of engagement with groups other than the major parties and the British Government. The most effective activity was never about media events or gestures but ongoing contact about everyday matters. There are still meetings but the level of ongoing engagement with civic society in Northern Ireland is well below what we have seen in the past. Has the Taoiseach reviewed the area and does he have proposals for increasing this activity? The most important action is to work the Good Friday Agreement as for the past number of years, the three strands have not been worked. The Executive and the Assembly should never have been collapsed over the heating scheme and the first recourse can never be the sidelining of important institutions such as those.
With regard to Brexit, the best outcome now would be if something happened in London to cause the withdrawal agreement to be passed. What that may be is as unclear today as it was last March. If it does happen, we will face into immediate negotiations concerning future arrangements on this island. According to the withdrawal agreement, we will be required to make good faith proposals to London or London would otherwise have the right to opt out of its obligations. Given that we were clearly not ready for Brexit on 31 March, I ask, similar to Deputy Howlin, what steps are being taken for us to be ready to meet the requirements of either a deal or no-deal Brexit on 31 October. We clearly were not ready on 31 March.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. As the House will be aware, talks concerning Northern Ireland are under way in Belfast. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is leading the Government's presence in those talks and we are in regular contact. It is fair to say he is more optimistic than before about the prospects of an agreement and he sees it as very positive that these are multi-party talks involving all the major parties and not just the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. He believes it is a helpful dynamic and I agree with the assessment.
We are all very aware that we are operating in a difficult environment with ongoing uncertainty about Brexit and with a new British Prime Minister to be elected in only a few weeks. That is a difficult environment in which to try to secure agreement, and there seems to be major gaps between the main parties, particularly on issues such as the Irish language, sustainability of a new Executive, marriage equality and other matters with which Members will be very familiar.
The suggestion of a new Ireland forum is good but timing is very important. We are again in a particular environment with grave uncertainty around Brexit and we do not know who will be the new British Prime Minister or what the next British Government will look like. We do not know if the talks in Northern Ireland will be successful. It would be best to have the Good Friday Agreement institutions functioning before we move ahead with something like a new Ireland forum. If we went ahead with some sort of forum on future relationships, we would have to assess the willingness of unionists to participate, as well as people who consider themselves neither unionist nor nationalist. A new Ireland forum that does not include the 1 million people who are unionists in Northern Ireland and who are British or one that does not include the many people in Northern Ireland who consider themselves both British and Irish but neither nationalist nor unionist would be much diminished.
That is the exact point I made in my speech yesterday.
I apologise as I did not have the chance to hear the Deputy's speech. Perhaps we agree on the matter. I will take a look when I get the chance.
Deputy Martin asked about the preparedness of business and the Government for Brexit. The Government is, and will be, prepared. Most businesses will be prepared as well but, inevitably, some businesses will not be prepared. I repeat my call from the past to encourage businesses to engage in preparedness for Brexit. Many businesses are prepared but some are taking the view that it will be all right on the night, there will be another extension or there will be a deal. They should not operate on that basis but instead prepare for a no-deal scenario. There is still time to do so and I encourage all businesses and organisations that have dealings with the United Kingdom to do exactly that. We must be realistic and we can only be so prepared for Brexit, particularly if it is going to be a no-deal and hard Brexit. In that scenario, it will be a case of damage limitation and we can only be so prepared for a scenario that could be very grave for our country.
I have followed developments in the Sudan in the news but the issue has not featured in any discussions at European Council level. It is likely it was discussed at Foreign Affairs Council level so I will ask for a note for Deputy Boyd Barrett on what is happening at European level in that regard.
I spoke about Rockall earlier in the Chamber and yesterday as well. I do not want to repeat what I said earlier. I was not aware of this matter at the time of my most recent meeting with Scottish First Minister Sturgeon. I understand that at official level it was decided not to escalate the matter to our level. In retrospect that was probably an incorrect call but it is not particularly relevant now.
Most of the discussions had been conducted at official level but there had been discussions also between the Tánaiste and his counterpart. Since the Scottish announcement last week there had been very close contacts at Government to Government level. It was discussed at the Cabinet meeting here on Tuesday and also by the Scottish Government at its meeting on Tuesday. We agreed some common lines to take, that is, as the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said yesterday, to resolve this issue amicably by discussion and not to escalate it. We have made a decision that it should not be escalated, rather that it should be de-escalated and that we should try to resolve this amicably by discussions at official level at this stage.
In terms of staffing, I do not have the exact numbers in front of me but there have been staffing changes within the Department. For example, the Brexit unit has been established and expanded. There is a group on justice in particular within the Department that is monitoring the implementation of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. We had a Cabinet sub-committee meeting on that only yesterday and officials in my Department are co-ordinating and examining the implementation of those justice reforms, which are happening at a satisfactory pace.
There is also the establishment of the national security advisory council, and the new national security co-ordinator has now been appointed and took up office only a few days ago.
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [23185/19]
The role of the social policy and public service reform division is to assist me in Government in delivering on the programme for Government objective of public policies and services which drive a socially inclusive and fair society and to assist in renewing and transforming the public service. The division assists the work of Cabinet committees B, E and G and the associated senior officials' groups. Cabinet committee B covers social policy and public services, including education, children, equality and social inclusion, the Irish language, arts and culture, and continued improvements and reform of public services. Cabinet committee E deals with issues relating to health, including the delivery of health service reforms, and Cabinet committee G provides political oversight of developments relating to justice and equality issues, including implementation of the Government’s programme of reform in the areas of justice and policing.
A policing reform implementation programme office has been established within the division as I mentioned earlier. This office will drive the implementation of the policing reform plan entitled A Policing Service for the Future, which was approved and published by Government in December last year.
The division also assists the work of the Civil Service Management Board, which oversees implementation of the Civil Service renewal plan. It has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, advances the Dublin north-east inner city initiative, including through the programme office, programme implementation board, and the oversight group, and it assists the delivery of Our Public Service 2020 through the membership of the public service leadership board and public service management group.
In addition, the division incorporates the programme for Government office, which monitors and reports on the implementation of the commitments contained in the programme for Government across all Departments. The third annual progress report was approved by Government in May 2019. The division also provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues and participates in the relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.
I am not quite clear from the Taoiseach's reply whether there is a specific work programme for the social policy and public service reform division as opposed to a co-ordination role over the various Cabinet sub-committees. I want to ask two specific questions. First, regarding the Freedom of Information, FOI, Act, as the Taoiseach knows, the restoration of the full impact of the Freedom of Information Act was a core part of the programme of reforms we implemented in the previous Government. It is a very important part of the suite of reform measures. There have been recent court decisions that in many people's views have eroded the impact of freedom of information legislation. The Taoiseach may not have had an opportunity yet to look at this, but is there a review ongoing of the current FOI Act with a view to ensuring that the full strength of it that we wanted when we restored it fully will be maintained, even if that means further amending it now?
As the Taoiseach knows, I have taken an interest in the issue of policing reform over a very long time. I met members of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and I had a disagreement with the recommendation of the majority of the commission on one issue, that is, to re-establish a management group within An Garda Síochána again around the Commissioner. I have raised this with the Taoiseach. I know he does not have a closed mind in regard to it but I believe this is a fundamental issue. We are in grave danger of making the same mistakes as were made in the past if we do not have an external group at that core management level.
It was interesting to read this morning that the first reaction of Fine Gael Ministers to the damning report of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council was to have a discussion about how to attack the Opposition. This confirms yet again that the only form of defence the Government has is to attack the Opposition for the Government's own failures. That is an approach which has long stopped being listened to by the public. The extent to which the Taoiseach and his Ministers co-ordinated message points for attacking everyone and accepting zero responsibility for anything was striking. It seems accountability is for the little people and not for those in office.
We all know that by far the most expensive policy demand of any party in recent times has been one made by the Taoiseach, which is tax cuts weighted towards higher earners. He has used his party conferences twice to call for €3 billion in one single tax promise. There is a €3 billion commitment on broadband, notwithstanding the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's opposition who said it did not represent value for money and was way above the original estimate.
There is the €2 billion, and now likely to exceed €2 billion, cost of the national children's hospital, which will go way above the original estimate. There are also all the promises made in the past month to six weeks. The Taoiseach literally threw the kitchen sink at the local and European elections in terms of expenditure commitments and promises, yet he still insists, as he did yesterday and today, that the problem is the Opposition seeking, for example, better conditions to stop the haemorrhaging of the Defence Forces or honest health budgets. Equally, the Opposition is to blame for the Government's chronic failure to deliver projects within budget. Given the scale of what the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has said and what the Minister for Finance said recently, is it still the Taoiseach's belief that €3 billion in cuts to the tax base should be prioritised in the next two years?
At the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government this morning, Mercy Law, the Children's Ombudsman, the Children's Rights Alliance and Focus Ireland gave an utterly damning indictment of the Government's treatment of children, specifically children who are affected by the housing and homelessness crisis, detailing, for example, that 167 families have been in emergency hub accommodation for two years or more. They went through horrible detail to outline the trauma, the stigma and the adverse mental health effects those children are suffering, and will suffer for many years into the future, as a result of the State's failure to provide secure, affordable housing for them. Has this division considered its failure of children in that regard? It is a form of neglect that amounts to abuse of children.
On a similar note, I would like the Taoiseach to comment on another aspect of the State caring for children, on which I tabled questions recently, which is that the national children's hospital, as well as the scandals of overruns and so on, will have a private clinic. This massively over cost national children's hospital, paid for with public money, will have two-tier healthcare. We will have the public healthcare and then what one can get if one can afford to pay for private healthcare. Does the Taoiseach believe it is acceptable to have two-tier healthcare in the new national children's hospital?
I thank the Deputies. On the Freedom of Information Act, I am not familiar with the particular court decisions. If my reading of it was correct, some of them may even be on appeal so it might not be resolved as yet. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, as the line Minister, has responsibility for the Freedom of Information Act rather than me.
If the Deputy wishes to expand on his concerns later or offline I will be happy to hear them and his perspective, acknowledging his experience as the Minister who restored the Freedom of Information Act, which had previously been gutted by others.
The Cabinet committee on justice met in recent days. Good progress has been made on the policing and community safety Bill. The legislation is the vehicle to implement the structural reforms proposed by the O'Toole commission in its report. That involves strengthening GSOC, for example - which I think everyone supports - and turning it into a Garda ombudsman commission. It also contains proposals that were made to establish a Garda board and to also establish a new policing community safety oversight commission, PCSOC. As I said to everyone at that committee meeting yesterday, the important thing for me is the objective and the outcome. If that means departing from some of the recommendations made by the O'Toole commission for good reason, my mind is open to that. The House will have an opportunity to debate that when the legislation comes in. It was intended to replace a rather cumbersome structure involving an inspectorate, an authority and GSOC with a new, more streamlined structure. However, it could be argued that the new structure is just as cumbersome, as it involves a board, PCSOC and some other bodies.
On the report which Deputy Mícheál Martin presumably read in a newspaper or online, I assure him that it is not accurate as is so often the case when it comes to leaks and gossip. The Government's first response to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, report which was published earlier this week was to listen to it, listen to criticism, to heed the advice and respond to it. I recall 12 or 13 years ago, when the Deputy opposite was a member of Government, that the European Commission issued stark warnings about spending increasing too quickly - it was increasing at twice the rate it is now - and our over-reliance on stamp duty. The Government's response then was to ignore it, to attack the European Commission and criticise anyone who questioned its economic policy. I will not make the same mistake as Taoiseach, which is why we are listening to what IFAC said and we will take its criticisms on board. There are many reasons to believe that the economy and public finances are being well managed. There are more people at work than ever before; unemployment is at a 14-year low; incomes are rising; the minimum wage has increased by 25% in the past couple of years; according to the CSO, living standards are improving, child poverty, deprivation and poverty are falling; the budget is in surplus for the first time since 2006; and the national debt is falling, where it had quadrupled under a previous administration. The European Commission stated that we are compliant with fiscal rules and the rating agencies all give us a AAA rating. It is important to say that IFAC's criticism was not about our tax policy and the rather modest reductions in income tax and the USC last year at all. In fact, today the ESRI recommended that we do exactly what I proposed, which is to index tax credits and bands. I never said that would be done over two years but over the course of a full Government. I encourage people to read the ESRI's recommendations published today.
What about the €3 billion the Taoiseach promised?
It recommended that we index tax bands and credits and that we index social welfare payments. That would cost more than what I proposed in my policy. The ESRI recommends what I proposed and IFAC did not criticise my proposals on tax. IFAC criticised the Government on spending, which increased by approximately 6% last year, when we should have kept it down to 4% or 5%. This is where the Opposition has been hypocritical in its response to the IFAC report because it constantly demands additional spending, more than we have allowed for. In its budgetary policy, Sinn Féin wants to spend more, have a bigger deficit and finance it all through borrowing. What would IFAC say about that? Every week, Fianna Fáil demands additional spending. The Deputy is right. This week it is on the Defence Forces, but it does not have a particular interest in or regard for the Defence Forces, as it will be another group next week and another again the week after. It is entirely reasonable for me to call out the Opposition in this regard. If IFAC has concerns about the Government increasing spending too rapidly, one can imagine the concerns it would have if Fianna Fáil was in Government and implemented its policies, namely to spend even more and faster, just as it did when last in government.
5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the economic division of his Department. [23186/19]
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has economic experts employed in his Department. [23901/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 6 together.
The economic division in my Department assists me, and the Government, in developing and implementing policy to deliver sustainable and regionally balanced economic growth and quality jobs, promote effective planning and delivery of infrastructure, including housing, and to ensure a whole-of-Government approach to data protection and broader digital issues.
There are 24 posts in the economic division, including one assistant secretary and three principal officers. It has units dealing with economic policy, economic infrastructure, regulation, and climate change, and digital issues.
My Department also has a dedicated unit on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. This unit, working closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has lead responsibility in this area, focuses on cross-Government co-ordination, planning and programme management, as well as communications on Brexit preparedness. It works closely with the economic division, and has a current staffing complement of ten.
The economic division includes officials with a range of relevant economic qualifications, including specialist staff recruited as part of the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, IGEES, as well as at least five staff with either PhD or Masters qualifications in economic or other relevant policy disciplines, as well as others with extensive experience dealing with economic and related policy issues.
The division assists the work of two Cabinet committees and associated senior officials groups.
Cabinet committee A deals with issues relating to the economy, labour market, competitiveness, productivity, rural development, digital economy and pensions.
Cabinet committee D works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery and ongoing development of policy across the areas of infrastructure investment and delivery, housing, and climate action.
The division also leads Ireland's participation in the annual European Semester; prepares the annual national risk assessment, which provides an opportunity to identify and consider strategic risks on a structured basis - the 2019 draft national risk assessment was recently published for consultation; and liaises with the Central Statistics Office.
The division also leads the Future Jobs Ireland initiative in partnership with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. This aims to ensure we are well placed to meet future challenges facing the economy with a focus on quality, sustainable jobs and making sure Ireland is geared to secure the new jobs and new wealth of the future.
It focuses on innovation and technological change, improving SME productivity, developing skills and talent, increasing participation in the labour force and assisting the transition to a low-carbon economy.
A unit within the division works with the Minister of State with responsibility for data protection to ensure a cross-Government approach to data protection and broader digital issues. It provides the secretariat to the interdepartmental committee on data issues and to the Government data forum.
It is also currently leading, in collaboration with other relevant Departments, the development of a new overarching national digital strategy to enable Ireland to maximise the societal and economic benefits from digitalisation.
The division also provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy issues.
Given its role, the division works closely with colleagues in the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, and with colleagues in other Departments which have lead responsibility for specific policy areas.
This is an economic question. The Taoiseach attacked the Opposition without discernment, I notice. Everything good is done by the Government and everything bad by the Opposition. I will take no lectures from the Taoiseach on economic management. Mine was the only party that opposed and voted against the ruinous bank guarantee that led us into incredible difficulties, which were borne by the people of Ireland for such a long time. I know a record of economic good management accrues to my party and I take credit for that for my party. We established the IGEES, which was an idea that I had, to get the best graduates and to deploy them across all Departments, so they would have the capacity for proper economic evaluation across government. We championed the reform of the budgetary process.
The Taoiseach needs to be more discerning in his general criticisms.
Real criticisms are being levelled at the Government, which the Taoiseach needs to take seriously and not only by lip service. He has given significant promises for tax reductions in the context of the real demand for service improvements because of the incapacity of the State for the bones of a decade to invest in service improvements on the scale required. This means we must prioritise. Does the Taoiseach accept that we need to prioritise in the short term the improvement of public services to deal with demographic issues and deficiencies in public services over the coming times in areas like housing, social care and childcare as opposed to any commitment to tax reductions? Is that not the right and prudent way to go?
I wish to point out to the Taoiseach that under the confidence and supply agreement, Fianna Fáil has facilitated the past three budgets and has not taken an approach of wild expenditure commitments. Fianna Fáil has been highly responsible, as the Minister for Finance has confirmed. The Taoiseach might take note of that and have the generosity of spirit to acknowledge it because there would not have been a Government or an Oireachtas otherwise. We would have an election every year if such an approach were not taken based on policy.
The Taoiseach is not being honest or truthful on the budgetary framework. The bottom line is that the Taoiseach cannot square the circle in terms of what is available to spend and the promises that he has made. The bottom line is that housing and health are in dire straits. There is no question about that. They will need additional supports.
The fact of the matter is that it was the Taoiseach who made the tax pledge of €3 billion more than a year ago because he thought there would be a general election last year. Let us make no mistake about it. It was the Taoiseach who made promises in advance of the local elections, not anyone in the Opposition. The Taoiseach said, without even consulting in advance, that he would spend €3 billion despite the fact that the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said it was madness. Essentially, that is what he said. He did not use that language but anyone can read through the memorandum. It is a damning indictment of the Taoiseach's stewardship of these issues. The Secretary General said the circle cannot be squared.
The national development plan is becoming a fiction. The Secretary General said the Government would need €345 million for the children's hospital in the next two years and a further €1 billion for the broadband plan. The circle cannot be squared. We need some honesty in terms of the budgetary framework. Is it not the case that the Government cannot produce the hundreds of millions of euro that would be required to go anywhere near the Taoiseach's tax pledge, made more than a year ago, and still meet the housing and homelessness crisis as well as the health crisis?
You are over time, Deputy.
This morning, Fred Barry indicated that we could be talking about several hundred million euro more for the children's hospital on top of what we already know about.
Deputy Boyd Barrett is next.
These are serious issues that need honest consideration and not the sort of approach whereby the Taoiseach blames the Opposition every chance he gets.
More money needs to be spent on housing and health to address the crisis in both of those things and in many areas of the public service too. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council representatives said - I am on the committee - that if the Government is going to do that, then it must find extra sources of revenue. Those of us in People Before Profit are unique in that in every single budget submission we have put forward proposals for substantial extra revenue that could be raised by looking at closing tax loopholes that benefit the corporations, increasing employers' PRSI, as well as introducing wealth taxes and taxes on property speculation. We know vast sums of money are being made in that sector.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about affordable housing. We have a situation in the country now where people who are working in reasonably well-paid jobs do not have a prayer of being able to buy a house. Often this applies to couples. Cuckoo funds are swooping in and buying built-to-rent blocks. They are pushing out any prospect of people who are working on reasonable earnings ever being able to own a home. These are people who in the past would have got mortgages. Instead, they are living at home with their parents in overcrowded conditions. This is rampant throughout the country. This is because the Rebuilding Ireland home loan mortgage scheme is not properly funded, the Government has not delivered affordable housing, and the Government is allowing cuckoo funds essentially to control the construction market and everything that is built. Thus there is no affordable housing for people who are working hard and paying their taxes. They are seeking a reasonable expectation of being able to put a roof over their head, either rented or purchased, but the Government is failing in that regard. Do we not need extra resources going in? Do we not need the State to provide affordable housing or to provide extra resources to the Rebuilding Ireland mortgage scheme?
I think I picked up Deputy Howlin as saying that I criticised the Opposition without discernment, but if he looks back over the record, he will find that I actually was discerning. I specifically mentioned Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin but not the Labour Party, which I acknowledge has a good record in Government in terms of managing the public finances. This was the case not only under the stewardship of Deputy Howlin but under that of Ruairí Quinn and the rainbow coalition Government too. The Labour Party has been less keen to demand extra spending than other Opposition parties. I specifically mentioned Sinn Féin, whose policy is to spend more, run a bigger deficit and do it through borrowing. That is absolutely reckless. I called out Fianna Fáil for the weekly demands for additional spending in different areas. That is ongoing and we will see if that continues over the next five weeks.
I have made proposals when it comes to tax policy. Essentially, I have proposed the equivalent of indexation. Incomes rise every year. If we do not increase the tax bands and tax credits in line with that-----
That is not what the Taoiseach said.
It is actually, so Deputy Martin should check it.
It would cost €1 billion.
More and more people end up paying the higher rate of tax and that is not fair or right. It is costed at approximately €500 million per year to do that for the tax bands.
How can the Taoiseach square the circle? Where is the money going to come from? The Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has a different view.
I am coming to that. It is the norm in other countries. It is the policy default position in many countries. Those countries index tax bands and tax credits. This is something that has been recommended by the ESRI. The ESRI has a report out on the issue today.
The Taoiseach knows that is not going to happen.
How is it done? According to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, the fiscal space this year is in the region of €3 billion. In future years it could be higher or lower depending on what happens with Brexit. A total of €500 million out of €3 billion fiscal space is approximately 20%. I was asked whether I would prioritise public services and infrastructure over tax reductions. Yes, I absolutely would. A tax package of approximately €500 million per year from a fiscal space of €3 billion represents a 4:1 split in favour of public services and infrastructure over tax reduction. In fact, it is a little to the left of what the Labour Party and Fine Gael Government did. We had greater tax packages in the last two budgets than we have had in the past or as I propose for the future.
Most of that expenditure is already accounted for.
I should say again that what I suggested and proposed as policy was to be done over the period of a five-year Government and not in this budget or necessarily in any one budget.
I stand over the Government's record when it comes to reducing income tax and USC. We have done both in the past three budgets and I make no apologies for that whatsoever. We have reduced the USC to take more low-paid people out of that net altogether and ensure that all people pay less. We have also raised the bar at which people pay the highest rate of income tax. I believe people pay that rate too soon in Ireland. In other countries this does not apply to people earning €35,000 or €40,000 per year. The average salary now in Ireland for someone working full-time is €47,000 per year. In most countries such people do not pay a marginal rate of 40% or 50%. They only pay that when they earn far more. People on average incomes in Ireland get a pay increase or an increment and do some overtime but lose more than half of that in income tax. That is unfair.
Even the Tories are criticising Boris for that view.
That is something I want to change.
The Taoiseach is not being honest. How does he square the circle?
I will outline what we have done in the past three years, if we add it all up. Income tax and USC reductions have been worth approximately €1,500 per year to the average household. That was a good thing to do. It might not be a vast amount of money, but for a large number of people it is the equivalent of a monthly mortgage repayment, a month's childcare or a month's rent. That would not have happened otherwise. The average household would be that much worse off had it not been for the tax packages in the past three budgets.
The House facilitated that.
As I mentioned before when referring to housing, approximately 18,000 new homes were built in Ireland last year, including houses and apartments.
We expect 22,000 or more to be built this year, and many of those new homes and apartments are affordable. They are not designated as such under an affordable scheme, but they are affordable. There are counties in Ireland, particularly outside of Dublin, where the average house price is €100,000 or €120,000. I accept that that is not the case in Dublin or in other urban areas, but there are large parts of the country where housing is affordable. Dublin and some urban areas are different and that is why we need a dedicated affordable housing scheme.
Where is it?
It is very much on the way. The Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme is continuing to accept applicants. People are drawing down the money, and it is not all drawn down yet.