1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the leader of the UK Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. [24098/19]
Vol. 983 No. 8
1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the leader of the UK Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. [24098/19]
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the leader of the UK Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. [25073/19]
3. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the leader of the UK Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. [25168/19]
4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the UK Labour Party leader, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. [25211/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
I met with the leader of the British Labour Party, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, MP, at Government Buildings on Thursday, 30 May 2019. Mr Corbyn was accompanied by Tony Lloyd, MP, shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and advisers.
We discussed Northern Ireland, Brexit, and the current political situation in Westminster. Discussions on Northern Ireland focused principally on the need to restore a power-sharing Executive and the importance of ongoing engagement with all political parties in the North.
Mr. Corbyn and I also considered Brexit, with both of us sharing serious concerns about a no-deal scenario and its inherent dangers, including the possibility that the UK may end up with no deal by default unless alternatives are pursued. We also discussed the importance of avoiding any return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
We agreed to stay in touch with regard to both Northern Ireland and Brexit.
After their meeting, the Taoiseach and Jeremy Corbyn expressed serious concern about the possibility of a no-deal scenario and the danger that it may happen by default. Those concerns are not shared by members and prospective leaders of the Conservative Party. Boris Johnson described anxiety expressed by citizens, businesses and farmers as "pure millennium bug stuff". A poll of Tory members released yesterday suggests that 59% would prioritise leaving the European Union even if it meant Northern Ireland breaking away from the rest of the UK. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have repeatedly stressed the need for an open border on the island of Ireland and for a second referendum as the second best option. Their first option is for a general election in Britain. During their meeting, did the Taoiseach discuss with Jeremy Corbyn his attitude to a second referendum?
Both the Taoiseach and Jeremy Corbyn pledged to stay in touch with regard to Brexit and Northern Ireland. Has there been any further contact and are there structured contacts between his office and the office of the leader of the British Labour Party in the context of a potential general election happening in Britain? Could the Taoiseach update us on whether there have been any other contacts between Ministers and Front Bench members of the British Labour Party so that if there was to be a change of Government that the real concerns of Ireland would be fully briefed to all of them? We are having our own party-to-party discussions but I think that would be a good thing.
I very much welcome the fact that the Taoiseach had this exchange with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party. It is important that such contact would continue because we need to have ongoing open communication with all of our allies, with every person across political persuasions who understand the real impact Brexit will have on Ireland and the potentially disastrous impact on the island, the economy and the peace agreements of a disorderly or crash Brexit. The meeting was a positive step. Does the Taoiseach intend to continue the contact or was it simply a one-off meeting?
In the course of the Tory leadership contest under way across the water, we have heard different perspectives on Brexit, the backstop and the position of Ireland and no small measure of ignorance as well. It seems that Boris Johnson remains the front runner. As the Taoiseach is aware, he has openly dismissed concerns held by all of us here on this island. Has the Taoiseach had any contact with Mr. Johnson or any of the other leadership contenders? How are the plans at Government level for the prospect of a no-deal scenario progressing?
I also welcome the fact that the Taoiseach met Jeremy Corbyn. Whatever else one might say about the mess in Britain, we would be in a far better position if Jeremy Corbyn was the Prime Minister. He is far more sympathetic to the situation in Ireland, far more knowledgeable about what the reinstatement of a border might mean and he is not somebody who wants to be in a conflictual relationship either with Ireland or wider European society. That marks him out as being a long way from pretty much anybody in the Tory Party.
One of the reasons Mr. Corbyn gained popularity is that he tries to channel in a progressive direction the anger and alienation in British society, the justified and legitimate feeling in large parts of British society, which played a big part in the Brexit referendum, of being left behind because of inequality, poverty, unemployment, alienation and so forth. That is relevant not just to the Brexit debate but also to the wider European situation. Europe has an incredible 112 million people who are at risk of poverty. One in five people in Europe is suffering from mental health issues and there is a massive overlap with poverty, exclusion and so forth. Does the Taoiseach not think that European leaders must take that seriously and address it? Even in the exit poll from the recent European and local elections, and this has been little remarked on, more than 80% of the people who voted in those elections in Ireland said they wanted something done about the gap between the haves and the have nots. This is a problem across Europe and if we do not address it in the way Mr. Corbyn is trying to, the far right will exploit the vacuum.
Most Members will have much sympathy for the British Labour Party in trying to block or reverse Brexit. Notwithstanding what has been said here, however, the reality is that the British Labour Party's principal tactic so far has been to block the withdrawal agreement. It is a remarkable fact that each of the Tories campaigning to project their Brexit purity last night has voted for the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons. Even Boris Johnson, who now says it is dead, voted for it, yet nobody in the leadership of the British Labour Party has done so at any point. Given the arithmetic in the House of Commons and the fact that the next Prime Minister will be less accommodating than Mrs. Theresa May, it may well be that the only possible route to ratification of the withdrawal agreement is the confirmatory public vote that most members of the British Labour Party support, but which the Tories are blocking.
Did the Taoiseach advocate to Mr. Corbyn that in the choice between the withdrawal agreement and a no-deal Brexit, ratifying the agreement is by far the best outcome for these islands? Did he ask if the British Labour Party would join with us in opposing the imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland, which appears to be the intended route to be taken by the Tories if there is no deal? In this context, did the Taoiseach seek Mr. Corbyn's support in pushing the parties blocking the restoration of the Northern institutions to show more urgency and to recognise the damage the continued suspension is causing?
To discuss the meeting with Mr. Corbyn first, I considered it a very good meeting. It was an opportunity for us to speak and get to know each other a little and for our respective teams to engage and get to know each other. It was a tête-à-tête at first and then there was a meeting of our teams. We had the time to discuss some of the different scenarios that might arise over the next couple of months and for me to get an insight into how the British Labour Party might respond from a position of opposition. We talked about the possibilities of the deal being ratified, of a second referendum and of an election. We also talked about the British Labour Party's proposal for a permanent customs union with dynamic alignment on regulations and about how and if parliament could block no deal. We have not spoken since then but our advisers are in touch. I will be in London next month so there might be an opportunity for a follow-up meeting then.
Ministers mainly engage with other Ministers in the EU member states, but occasionally will meet with opposition spokespeople. The Tánaiste has met Sir Keir Starmer, the Brexit spokesperson for the British Labour Party, on a number of occasions.
Direct rule was discussed. I stated our opposition to the restoration of direct rule in Northern Ireland under any circumstances. In fairness to Mr. Corbyn and his team, they had a good understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, how it ought to work and why it is not working now.
I have not had any contact with the candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Needless to say, the Government will stay out of it as it is an internal party matter for the British Conservative Party, but we are observing events, watching the debates and noting what is being said. I look forward to meeting the new leader, who presumably will be the new Prime Minister, in the weeks ahead. I hope it will be an early meeting, if possible. In the meantime, Mrs. Theresa May is still the Prime Minister and I will meet with her in Brussels tomorrow. There will possibly be a telephone call today but certainly there will be a meeting in Brussels tomorrow. That will give us a chance to talk about Northern Ireland, the European Union and bilateral relations.
Work and talks are still ongoing in Northern Ireland. I had an opportunity to meet with the Sinn Féin leader there, Ms Michelle O'Neill MLA, yesterday and I will be in touch with others in the coming days and weeks. Talks are ongoing and it is probably best not to say too much about them at present other than to state that the Irish Government will do everything it can to support the parties to come together and come to an agreement to get the institutions back up and running, if possible.
On Deputy Boyd Barrett's question about poverty and inequality in the European Union, these are largely domestic issues for national governments but the best way the European Union can respond is twofold: first, by ensuring there is a strong economy that generates wealth and jobs and, second, by pursuing a social Europe agenda. The European Union has been very successful in recent years in ensuring there is a strong economy. There have never been more people at work in Europe than there are now. It varies from state to state but, overall, there has been a significant increase in employment and incomes in the last couple of years. There has been much job creation and Single Market policies, trade policies and the like help to generate employment.
In addition, there are the broad macro economic policies pursued by the European Central Bank, ECB. We meet the Governor of the ECB at every European Council meeting; it is a regular engagement. The policies pursued by the ECB to keep both inflation and interest rates low have been very beneficial in terms of alleviating poverty and inequality. High interest rates tend to benefit the better off because they are the people who have the savings. Lower interest rates benefit those who may need to borrow to buy a home or who have debts. Those economic policies are going in the right direction in that regard. There is also the implementation of the Gothenburg declaration, which I was privileged to sign on behalf of the State. That declaration essentially sets out the next steps towards a social Europe in the social agenda being pursued by the European Union. It ranges from employment law, such as the parental leave regulation that is now going through the European institutions, across many other labour rights and laws to other measures being introduced across the European Union to raise minimum social standards. I was involved in drafting that declaration and strongly support it. We must do both.
On our preparations for Brexit, the Government's contingency action plan was published last December. It will be updated and a revised version will be published in July. It sets out comprehensive cross-Government preparations that have been in place since before the referendum. The work continues at both national and EU levels and all Departments have sector specific plans in place. The Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Act 2019 was signed into law by the President on St. Patrick's Day. We have taken further steps to prepare our economy, including the future jobs programme, our trade and investment strategy, Project Ireland 2040 and investing in infrastructure. Engagement with stakeholders is also an important pillar of the Government's domestic response. Within the framework of the all-Ireland civic dialogue, five plenary dialogues and 20 sectoral dialogues have taken place across the country. The Brexit stakeholder forum has met 18 times since its establishment in September 2017, most recently on 29 May. The stakeholder forum brings together the voices of business, unions, State agencies, political parties and leading experts and makes an important contribution to helping to shape the Government's response to Brexit.
In terms of business preparation, dedicated actions to get Ireland Brexit ready were in announced in the budgets of 2017, 2018 and 2019. The budget 2019 arrangements included the introduction of a new longer-term loan scheme of up to €300 million, the future growth loan scheme to assist strategic capital investment for a post-Brexit environment by business at competitive rates for terms of eight to ten years.
5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the annual strategy update report in his Department. [24320/19]
6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the annual strategy update report for his Department. [24992/19]
7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the annual report for 2018 of his Department will be published. [25301/19]
8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the annual strategy update report in his Department. [25592/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, together.
My Department's statement of strategy 2017-20 sets out six strategic priorities, the first of which is providing excellent support services for the Taoiseach and Government. The second priority is ensuring that Ireland has a strong economy, making work pay and backing business. The third is helping to ensure that Government policies and services support a socially inclusive and fair society, ensuring that nobody feels left behind and that the family is at the centre of society. The fourth is ensuring that Ireland maintains strong relationships in Europe and around the world, while the fifth is ensuring the best possible outcomes for Ireland on Brexit across all four priorities identified by the Government. The final strategic priority identified is planning for the future in the context of the many uncertainties arising in the international environment.
The Department published its second annual report under the current strategy a few days ago on 14 June. The report reflects the work done throughout the year to progress these strategic priorities. In 2018, the Department provided a wide range of support services to me as Taoiseach, to the Ministers of State assigned to my Department, the Government and the general public.
My Department works closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit. Brexit provided one of the most challenging and demanding aspects of the Department’s work during 2018. The Department did extensive work on a range of Brexit related issues, including throughout the negotiations, and also established a new unit focusing on Brexit preparedness and contingency planning in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Department also assisted me in a broad programme of international engagements, both within and beyond the EU, including many Brexit related engagements. The Department also engaged with the formulation and implementation of a broad range of Government policies such as Project Ireland 2040, pension reform, housing and homelessness, climate change, health and justice reform programmes, childcare developments, gender equality and disability as well as the north-east inner city initiative.
Additional responsibilities undertaken in 2018 included working on Future Jobs Ireland, the action plan for online safety, the national digital strategy, the innovation district advisory group for the Grand Canal area, policing reform, the interdepartmental group on the security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation and the implementation group on Seanad reform. Departmental staff also provided the essential corporate services underpinning the work of all divisions and ministerial offices in the Department. Press and protocol services assisted with a large programme of events, including visits by Heads of State and senior EU officials, the visit of Pope Francis in August and the inauguration of the President in November.
Central to the Department of the Taoiseach's statement of strategy is the support of an active system of Cabinet committees. In spite of this, the Taoiseach has said that he prefers to bring most issues directly to Cabinet for discussion. The net impact of this is that less time is spent on the issues involved, detailed preparatory papers are not circulated and responsible officials are not present to ask questions. Which of the Cabinet committees, if any, does the Taoiseach believe needs to meet regularly and to be the main place for detailed discussions?
Separately, departmental staff play a crucial role in providing economic analyses which are independent and are intended to take a wider perspective. They are responsible for briefing the Taoiseach of the day on economic matters and providing the secretariat to the Cabinet committee on the economy. Given the scale of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council's criticism of the Government's control of budgets, how it is responding to revenue buoyancy and the threat of Brexit, is the Taoiseach satisfied that he was aware of these issues before the council issued its criticisms? Were those criticisms a surprise to him, given his regularly stated position that the Government is fully in control and implementing exactly the right policies? The Taoiseach will remember that when his €3 billion tax cut was announced last year, he toured studios raising it as a hugely significant promise. Last week, however, he said it was not significant and was just what others had been proposing all along. Has the Taoiseach's Department provided him with any analysis of the cost and impact of his headline policy?
As the Taoiseach has outlined in his response, a broad range of issues is captured by his Department's strategy statement and the report published recently but I wish to focus on two specific issues. In the Taoiseach's message in the preamble to the Department's 2018 annual report, one of the commitments he makes is to establish a policing reform office in his Department to drive the implementation of A Policing Service of the Future report. The actual report indicates that this has happened and that such an office exists. What has that office done in the past six months? Does it publish reports on implementation and can we follow exactly what this departmental unit is doing so that this House can have oversight of the unfolding reform of policing in this State?
My second question relates to a matter discussed here previously, namely, the security of our electoral process and dealing with disinformation. Has there been any post-election evaluation, or is such under way, of the recent European and local elections in terms of disinformation, external manipulation or input into our electoral process? Can we be assured by the Taoiseach that there is a capacity within his Department to give assurances on one of the most basic bedrocks of our democracy, namely, that our electoral processes are secure?
The Taoiseach set out as one of the pillars of his strategy the idea of a socially inclusive Ireland in which, as he put it, no one is left behind. His Department's annual report mentions the Government's work on housing in numerous sections but the portrayal of this Government's record in that area is wildly at variance with the reality and the facts on the ground. I was perplexed to read this morning that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has attempted to refute the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, Ms Leilani Farha, published earlier this year. Ms Farha was damning in her assessment of the performance of the Government. She said that the Government is facilitating the "financialisation of housing" by providing preferential tax breaks to corporate landlords and standing over weak tenant protections. She was absolutely spot on and I completely agree with her. I now understand that the Government has responded by saying it is important to recognise the positive effects that institutional investment can have on the supply of housing. The Government has actually defended the cost of housing in this State and has gone so far as to say that affordability is not an issue here. My good God, that is beyond bizarre, if I may say so. We are now coming into budget preparations and I am very worried that even with all of the paraphernalia of government, including committees, sub-committees and advisers, the Government is not conversant with the basic reality on the ground which is that housing is wildly unaffordable, the rental sector is wildly insecure and we have record numbers of citizens in homelessness. The Taoiseach, with his strategy to create an inclusive society in which no one is left behind, seems to be wilfully oblivious of the aforementioned facts. What part does reality, realism and experience on the ground play or does it not feed in to the formulation of his Department's strategy and work programmes?
Was the Taoiseach personally disappointed by the recent report of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council which states that, notwithstanding the recovery in employment which has been so good for so many people, there are serious problems with the economy, many of which can be laid at the door of Government mismanagement? I imagine that he must have been bitterly disappointed, particularly when he read the news from his former Department of Health that there is no sign of it being able to return to financial and budgetary stability.
There does not seem to be any sight of our health services being able to return to financial and budgetary stability. Instead, because we have a growing population of older people and children, we have increased demands on our health services. The Government has also parked many proposals. There has been much talk in this Dáil but relatively little has been achieved. For instance, the pension reforms I proposed when I was the Minister for Social Protection have basically been parked until 2022. For workers in their 30s, 40s and early 50s, having a pension is becoming increasingly important given that many of them will never be able to purchase a house. They will need a pension which has been built up during their active working years.
The Taoiseach will be aware, having been on many doorsteps in Dublin West in the run-up to the recent elections, that people are very anxious to get an affordable home. However, the Government has still not clarified what is happening with the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. The Minister responsible has promised that the scheme is continuing but on the ground there is a great deal of confusion as to how people will be able to access this important loan opportunity.
Community policing is meant to be at the heart of policing our communities. In the constituency the Taoiseach and I share, there are 13 community gardaí for a population that is bigger than the population of Limerick or Waterford. It is simply impossible for the Garda to meet the demographic demands of the area and local people do not feel safe. People should be able to feel safe in their community.
The Taoiseach said that one of the key priorities for his Department was to make work pay. I put it to him that he is failing dramatically in that regard. For large numbers of people, getting a pay increase means they lose their medical card and are pushed off the council housing waiting list and into an income bracket where they have no chance of being able to afford to put a roof over their heads. People on council housing waiting lists do not have much chance of getting a council house but they may get one after 15 years. When people who are working, as the Taoiseach wants them to do, receive a pay increase that brings their income over the threshold to qualify for council housing, they lose any chance of ever putting a roof over their head.
I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government yesterday at which representatives of the National Development Finance Agency and the Housing Agency effectively acknowledged there is no national affordable housing scheme. There is a series of sites on which they are desperately trying to provide affordable housing because the market is completely incapable of delivering affordable homes, particularly in Dublin. Even on sites where these agencies have been charged with coming up with affordable rental or affordable purchase schemes, they cannot do so, essentially because Government subsidies are not large enough. That is what emerged at yesterday's meeting. There was no consistency in terms of the affordable scheme. In one incredible example, the National Development finance Agency and the Housing Agency said one of the reasons they could not deliver affordable housing on a site in Ticknock was the prevalence of Japanese knotweed, which was driving up the costs of developing the site. This means site specific issues are derailing the capacity of the State to deliver a national affordable housing scheme that will ensure that work pays. In fact, work is doing the opposite. It is pushing people into an income bracket where they have no chance of ever being able to own or rent a house. Does the Taoiseach accept there is problem that he has not dealt with? What does he intend to do about it?
Question No. 9, the next question, is to be dealt with on its own. I propose that we allow the Taoiseach to use five minutes of the time provided for that question to respond to the Deputies' questions. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am not sure I will be able to deal with all the Deputies' questions in the five minutes provided but I will do my best.
On the balance of meetings as between Cabinet committees, sub-committees and also ministerial meetings, the Cabinet meets regularly, probably more regularly than would have been the case in the past. For example, this week we had two Cabinet meetings, each lasting for almost three hours. This allowed for detailed discussions on climate change on Monday-----
That was a public event.
-----and on a wider range of agenda items on Tuesday. Cabinet sub-committees meet as needed and that is often when we want to have other people involved, whether it be officials, advisers or people from outside Departments. Last week or the week before, the Cabinet sub-committee on justice met, which allowed us to have the Secretary General of the Department in attendance to talk about the reforms being made in the Department of Justice and Equality. The Garda Commissioner was also present. This is done where there is a particular purpose and on that occasion it was done to review progress on Garda reform and on the internal reforms taking place in the Department of Justice and Equality. We will adopt a similar approach with climate change. The sub-committees meet as needed and they are effective. Separately, I often meet Ministers one to one or accompanied by their Secretary General or advisers.
With regard to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, while I do not get the reports in advance, I read them of course. It is advice to which I and the Government will listen. I remember 12 years ago when the European Commission warned that spending was increasing too quickly and that we were overreliant on stamp duty, those in government at the time dismissed those warnings and reacted angrily. The Taoiseach at the time suggested that people should take their own lives. I will not make that kind of mistake and I will listen to the advice we are getting from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council but I also have to listen to other advice.
Was the advisory council's report a surprise? That is what I asked.
While the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council is saying to us that we are increasing spending too rapidly and are overreliant on corporation profit tax receipts, others are saying to us that there are enormous demands for additional spending and we need to invest in our public services and infrastructure. Other people are saying to me that they want to be able to keep more of their hard-earned money. We cannot just follow the advice of any one advisory body. We have to take into account advice from many different sectors, particularly those charged with providing it, including, for example, the European Commission and the ESRI.
There are many reasons to believe the economy and public finances are being managed well. If we consider employment levels, more people are at work than ever before and unemployment is at its lowest level in 14 years. That is a major achievement which is very much down to the hard work of the Irish people and also the right policies being pursued by the Government.
We have a budget surplus. We had one last year and we will have another this year. It is a long time - more than ten years - since we had a budget surplus for two years in a row. Debt as a proportion of GDP is being reduced. Debt quadrupled under the last Fianna Fáil-led Government as opposed to the most recent Fine Gael-Labour Party Government. It is being reduced significantly as a percentage of GDP and probably in cash terms this year also but that is to be confirmed. We have also set up a rainy day fund which now stands at €1.5 billion. The European Commission, the guardian of the fiscal rules, has said this year's budget was within the parameters of the fiscal rules. The rating agencies are restoring our triple A ratings and the Central Statistics Office has indicated that incomes will rise by between 3% and 3.5 % this year, which is significant. It has also stated that deprivation and poverty rates are falling and that child poverty has fallen by 30% in the past three or four years. These are significant developments, which should be given as much of an airing as the report of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council receives, or at least some airing.
In terms of income tax policy, I was asked about my ambition for the next five years. My party's policy as opposed to Government policy is to have a five-year programme to reduce income tax.
Was that analysis carried out by the Department of the Taoiseach?
I am starting to answer the Deputy's question. He will have to let me answer it. The analysis was not done by my Department but we got a costing from the Department of Finance. The ambition over a five-year period is to make sure that people who earn the average income do not pay the highest tax rate. Ireland is unusual in that people earning the average income pay the highest tax rate.
They cannot afford to buy a house.
The average person in Ireland working full-time earns €47,000 a year now and they pay the highest tax rate on some of their income but I want that to change. It cannot be done in one budget or in one year. It can be done over a five-year period.
Will the House agree that to allow the Taoiseach to answer all the questions raised-----
What is the point of doing that? We have had five minutes of the Taoiseach broadcasting-----
-----fiscal policy without answering any of the questions raised.
I do not mind-----
Should we move on to the next question or does the Taoiseach wish to continue answering the questions?
He has had five minutes to answer them.
Let us establish if the Taoiseach wants to-----
I would be happy to continue to answer the questions but I can also move on to the next question if Deputies wish.
They want to move on to Question No. 9.
9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone call with the Australian Prime Minister, Mr. Scott Morrison. [24993/19]
I spoke with the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Scott Morrison, on 10 June by telephone to congratulate him on his recent re-election as Prime Minister. We discussed bilateral relations and the deepening ties between our two countries, particularly our people-to-people connections and our trading relationship.
We also discussed global economic trends. I updated the Prime Minister on the latest developments on Brexit, which is a cause for concern for the Australian Government and Australian firms in the United Kingdom.
We briefly discussed the proposed EU-Australia free trade agreement, which is at an early stage of negotiation. Both the Prime Minister and I are keen to see the negotiations continue to progress.
The Prime Minister commented positively about Ireland's endorsement of the UN Development Programme, and the work of the joint referendum commission on Bougainville's independence from Papua New Guinea, which is chaired by the former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern.
Finally, I invited the Prime Minister, who is of Irish ancestry, to visit Ireland, and he extended a reciprocal invitation for me to visit Australia.
I read the Taoiseach's tweet after his conversation with the Australian Prime Minister in which he stated that he congratulated the Prime Minister that morning on his election and had a good call discussing Brexit, bilateral relations, Bougainville and the EU-Australia free trade agreement. I would like to get details on exactly what was discussed.
The Taoiseach stated that there was a reciprocal invitation. As a matter of interest, does the Taoiseach plan to visit Australia this year? In relation to the EU-Australia free trade agreement, the Taoiseach stated they both were well disposed to it. Did the Australian Prime Minister indicate the timeline he envisaged for its ratification there or any difficulties that might arise from the Australian side? Did they discuss the treatment of Irish emigrants in Australia, the changing pattern of emigration and the greater restriction now on migrants, particularly Irish migrants? Did the Taoiseach have a view on that and what view did he express?
Finally, just so that I can understand it, does the Irish Government have a view on the upcoming vote on the potential independence of Bougainville Island, which is currently part of Papua New Guinea? Did the Taoiseach express a view to the Australian Prime Minister?
The result of the recent Australian elections appear to have surprised everyone, including the winners.
Ireland and Australia have always had a very positive relationship and, hopefully, this will continue. Of course, we disagree on many substantive policy issues, with climate change now being the most significant. In the list Deputy Howlin read out earlier, I did not hear that mentioned. The dependence of the Australian economy on mining and the estimated cost of climate mitigation have unfortunately caused the National Party to use climate change as a wedge issue and it seems that the cost of the Australian Labour Party's proposals were one of the many reasons it lost. Did the Taoiseach take the opportunity to ask the new Prime Minister if he will use his new term in office to re-engage more actively with action on climate change? Australia, of all countries, should understand the importance of co-ordinated international action on the environment, given how important the actions on CFCs have been in limiting the damage to the ozone layer over Australia.
The Taoiseach mentioned the Australian Prime Minister's Irish ancestry. Of course, there are many Irish people living down under - some voluntarily. They are on the adventure of their lives. Some may come home; some may not. Others, of course, were forced down under in the course of the recession, when the economy went bust and when many people literally lost their shirt. There are many families across the country, my own included, who have family down under as a direct consequence of the gross mismanagement and crashing of the bus by previous Governments headed up, most notably, by Fianna Fáil.
Be that as it may, I want to take this opportunity to welcome the recent announcement by Government that there will be a Bill to pave the way for a referendum to extend presidential voting rights to Irish citizens living in the North of Ireland and the diaspora. This should not be a controversial issue. It is an opportunity to redefine how many people think about the Irish nation. It offers a chance to treat all citizens equally, regardless of where they reside. Critically, it affords to those people to whom I referred, in Australian and in other places, who were forced off this island and out of their own country some democratic engagement and ongoing claim to the democratic political system at home. I would welcome a commitment on the prospective date. What date has the Taoiseach in mind for the referendum? It is important we have clarity on that.
To follow on from the previous point, we are now reaching crisis point in terms of the lack of tradespeople in this country to help us resolve the housing crisis and to develop the ambitious retrofit programme we need to meet climate change targets. We have a desperate shortage of trained craftspeople, a very significant portion of whom are in Australia. Did the Taoiseach ask the Australian Prime Minister why all these young well-trained people are in Australia? Did the Taoiseach ask about what they are doing there that they are leaving our country and going to Australia? As Deputy McDonald stated, part of the reason is because people want a bit of an adventure. That is fine. I have no problem with that. Young people want a bit of an adventure, to travel the world, etc. However, many of them are economic refugees. In the case of many of them who might be considering coming back here, I suspect a considerable part of the answer as to why they are not coming back is that they cannot afford to live here. What are we doing wrong?
Young people coming out of apprenticeships or coming out of college are flocking to Australia when we need them here. Is there anything we can learn? Does the Taoiseach recognise it is a problem and that we need to do something immediately to get some of those young educated and skilled people back before it becomes a major problem in this country?
I am sure the Taoiseach was particularly thrilled at the election of a fellow conservative in Australia. Like Ireland, one of the big challenges that faces Australia is climate change. We are all aware from Irish people, including relatives, living in Australia of severe forest fires in the vicinity of many of the big cities. Much of the election, in the case of the National Party, centred on the issue of mining and climate change proposals to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The Australian election was probably won on quite Trumpian grounds. The Taoiseach spoke earlier, in his long ramble, of the fact that he had published a climate change policy. When he was talking to the Australian Prime Minister, did he discuss climate change because the issue we have most in common in terms of threats to our way of life is the danger we face from climate change? I appreciate that the document the other day was full of laudable aims but there was not a great deal of delivery. The Taoiseach wheeled out one adapted bus for the Cabinet to take to Grangegorman. How desperate does the Taoiseach have to get for publicity?
Time is up. Maybe we could give two minutes to the Taoiseach.
In fairness, we really only needed one bus. There only were six or seven Ministers present. We hardly needed six or seven buses for six or seven Ministers.
They all would have fitted in an electric taxi.
There was plenty of space.
They could have got a minibus.
Why could they not have done it from Government Buildings?
They did not have to go anywhere.
They could have walked. That would have been the most carbon neutral measure.
We could have taken the Luas, which I, as the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, was privileged to be part of connecting, and of opening a year or two ago. The last time I went to Technological University Dublin, Grangegorman, I was happy to travel on the Luas that I was involved in connecting to the technological university that I had been involved in creating so it was-----
The Taoiseach started the development of the Luas - that is a new one.
-----very appropriate. Again, I wish to inform the House that at some point there had to be a first hybrid bus. There are three. Six will arrive in the next couple of weeks and they will be on the Lucan route. There are 600 on order so this is climate action happening.
On my telephone call with Prime Minster Morrison, it was a very short call of fewer than ten minutes. This question and answer session about this call is actually longer than the call itself. Only a limited number of topics could, therefore, be discussed in quite a short call. This is the second time we have spoken. We made arrangements to meet in New York in September at the UN. I do not have any plans to visit Australia this year. We did not discuss the treatment of Irish migrants in Australia. It is a matter that I have discussed with the Australian Ambassador.
On the issue of a referendum on voting rights, it is intended that that will take place in October or November. It requires a timeline. Everyone knows how referendums proceed, in that legislation has to be brought through the two Houses, a referendum commission has to be set up, and there are many points along the way where timelines have to be met. To meet timeline of October-November, Second Stage of the Bill will need to be taken in the House before the summer recess, which we intend to do. I hope there will be cross-party support for this.
Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned the skills shortage in construction, which he is right about. The shortage of labour and of people who have skills in construction is one of the things constraining us when it comes to building homes and new public infrastructure and retrofitting, for example. That, in itself, is driving up the cost of construction, which is also a problem.
We have many people in apprenticeships. I will need to double check but I think there are now more people in apprenticeships than ever before, which is a big turnaround in the last year or two. We are also issuing work permits and work visas so that people from outside the European Union who have those skills can come to Ireland.
On migration, the Deputy might be interested to know that we passed the tipping point a year or two ago. There are now more Irish citizens coming back to Ireland than there are Irish citizens leaving. It is always the case that people will go in both directions and it is a good thing people have the chance to live and study abroad. However, I think we passed that point last year, where for the first time in a decade there are more Irish citizens coming back to Ireland than leaving. That, in itself, says something because every country has its problems. One of the problems Australia has, for example, is the very high cost of housing, particularly in Sydney. The fact that there are more people coming back to Ireland than leaving says something good about our country in the round.
I was asked about our position on Bougainville. The Irish Government's position is to allow the people to have a vote in their referendum and to decide for themselves as to whether they want to be independent or to remain part of Papua New Guinea, PNG. The UN Development Programme, UNDP, is actively assisting the peace process there, including the work of the joint referendum commission. Prime Minister Morrison mentioned in our telephone call that former Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, is the chairman of that commission. We are very pleased that he has taken up that role and, in my view, he is very qualified to do that. The commission has brokered agreement on the text to be put to the people of Bougainville and that vote will take place at the end of 2020. The Governments of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville appointed the former Taoiseach in late 2018 as independent chair of the joint referendum commission overseeing the peace process, given his experience in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland peace process, and electoral issues. We did not have a role in this appointment but we endorse the work being done by the referendum commission and the EU is a key player in this regard. We also assist the work of the United Nations Development Programme, which endorses the referendum process, as do we. We are considering whether we should provide some funding to the UNDP in Papua New Guinea. I imagine we will come to a favourable decision on that very soon.
I was asked about the EU-Australia free trade agreement, FTA. Ireland is fully supportive of an ambitious and balanced EU-Australia FTA. Negotiations are being led by the European Commission but are at a relatively early stage. Some progress has been made. We would also like to see the EU and Australia reach a comprehensive and balanced FTA at the earliest opportunity while realising that there will be discussions on sensitive issues ahead, particularly on agriculture and agrifood, although that is less of an issue than it was in the past, given the enormous demand in China for agrifood products from Australia. I am hopeful that both sides will engage constructively to arrive at an outcome that is mutually beneficial to all our citizens. A successful outcome will allow Irish and Australian exporters to take advantage of new business opportunities that an agreement will provide. In addition, an EU-Australia FTA will send out a positive message in the context of current threats to global free trade and will provide an important boost for Irish and Australian business.