Mary Lou McDonaldCeist:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his contact and engagements with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson. [37276/19]
Vol. 987 No. 1
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his contact and engagements with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson. [37276/19]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson. [37373/19]
3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Prime Minister Johnson; the issues that were discussed; and his plans to hold additional meetings and or engagements. [37403/19]
4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Prime Minister. [37444/19]
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Prime Minister Johnson and the issues discussed. [37564/19]
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he discussed the Operation Yellowhammer paper with Prime Minister Johnson when they met or since 9 September 2019. [37688/19]
7. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Prime Minister Johnson. [38502/19]
8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Prime Minister Johnson at the United Nations. [39455/19]
9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on reassurances he sought and received from Prime Minister Johnson regarding the Good Friday Agreement and that there would not be a need for checks or controls at the Border; and if he discussed alternatives to same. [39629/19]
10. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if Prime Minister Johnson indicated when the UK Government will be in a position to produce its alternative suggestions for a possible deal to the EU in order that they can review same before the EU Council meeting on 17 October 2019. [39630/19]
11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with Prime Minister Johnson since he met him in the United States of America; and the issues that were discussed regarding Brexit; if a written proposal will come from the UK to the EU in the near future. [39892/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 11, inclusive, together.
I have met with Prime Minister Johnson twice in recent weeks. We had a meeting in New York on Tuesday, 24 September, when we were both at the United Nations General Assembly. We previously met in Government Buildings in Dublin on 9 September. Brexit was, of course, the main topic of conversation on both occasions.
While we both acknowledged that formal negotiations take place between the EU and the UK through the EU task force, TF50, we agreed that there was also merit in us having direct discussion. We confirmed that we both want to see an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Johnson explained the changes he is seeking while I set out our view that the withdrawal agreement represents a compromise and the best basis for agreement. The discussions were useful, but there is still a very wide gap between the EU and the UK in terms of reaching an agreement. We also discussed Northern Ireland and our shared commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and the restoration of the power sharing institutions in Northern Ireland and the North-South bodies.
While we did not specially discuss the details of Operation Yellowhammer, we both acknowledged the disruption that a no-deal Brexit would cause for Ireland, Britain, and Northern Ireland. Our discussions were not focused specifically on security in the Border region but that is, of course, a major concern for all of us and one of the reasons we need to secure an acceptable agreement. I urged the Prime Minister to accelerate engagement with the European Commission. The UK has yet to put forward any credible proposals and I urge its Government to bring forward formal proposals as a matter of urgency, given the limited time that is now available.
In addition to our meetings, we have spoken twice by phone, on 30 July and 19 August. At our meeting in New York, we agreed to meet again in the near future and that our officials would keep in close contact.
I thank the Taoiseach. If his discussions were directed toward bringing some logic, common sense, or rationality to the British Prime Minister, I am afraid he has failed in his mission. For a British Prime Minister to claim that he or she cares about the Good Friday Agreement and peace and security on this island on the one hand while floating a non-paper which very provocatively - almost maliciously - envisages a scenario that would be deeply destabilising simply does not add up. From here on in, in the discussions the Taoiseach has with the British Prime Minister, he needs to remain very firm and very focused. Discussions between Dublin and London cannot in any way be used as a mechanism to dilute or step back from the bottom-line requirements of this island.
Like the Taoiseach, I have been very clear in my engagements with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and with the British Prime Minister that any proposals for customs checks are unacceptable and provocative because such checks effectively represent a hardening of the Border, which in turn is an abdication of the British Government's general responsibilities in respect of good neighbourliness and economic and social stability, but also in respect of the Good Friday Agreement. I put it to the Taoiseach that it would be very dangerous for us to go down a political or diplomatic cul-de-sac that might pit the Border against the integrity of the Single Market. We should not have to make a choice between the Single Market on the one hand and the Good Friday Agreement on the other.
In the course of the Taoiseach's discussions with the Prime Minister, as he shared his inner thoughts did he indicate the contents of this non-paper, which I acknowledge he distanced himself from this morning?
Boris Johnson's non-paper proposal for a string of customs posts on either side of the Border has been rightly dismissed by everybody as completely unacceptable. It demonstrates the total disregard, if not contempt, Boris Johnson holds for the economic and political well-being of this country. I find it alarming that the Taoiseach says that this is totally unacceptable and that this proposal could not possibly be considered in the context of trying to do a deal, but that he hints he will do the same thing Mr. Johnson is proposing in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Taoiseach's proposals for a no-deal Brexit are very similar to Mr. Johnson's proposals for a deal, that is to say, that there will be checks somewhere in order to protect the integrity of the Single Market. I put it to the Taoiseach that this is not really good enough. While border checks imposed by Boris Johnson are unacceptable and threaten the peace and stability of this island, so do border checks imposed by anybody in any context, regardless of whether there is a deal.
We need to absolutely, categorically rule out border checks or anything else that will move us towards a harder border or that will damage the all-Ireland economy. The Taoiseach needs to say that very categorically to Boris Johnson, but also to the European Union.
In just over four weeks the latest deadline for Brexit will pass. Anyone paying even the most basic attention will agree that we have so far seen zero evidence that Prime Minister Johnson's Government in London is actually trying to reach a deal or that it is acting in good faith. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the British Government is acting in good faith with regard to wanting to avoid a no-deal Brexit? It seems the Brexiteers care little about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland. With regard to electoral proceedings in Britain, a general election is imminent. It seems the pre-eminent issue for the Tory Party is to dominate the pro-Brexit vote in that election and to marginalise the Brexit Party.
That is its starting point in these negotiations. One of the most striking developments so far concerns the number of areas in which there is a point-blank refusal to explain what is being planned and the impact of various options.
Earlier this year, we came within weeks of a no-deal situation for which Ireland was manifestly not ready. A large amount of work has taken place in recent months. This was completed in other countries before March. We still have no idea what will happen on 31 October if Mr. Boris Johnson and Mr. Dominic Cummings get their way and if Britain crashes out of the European Union. We all saw the leaks of the non-papers yesterday. Everybody knows they are not credible at one level and involve what is, in effect, a hard border. They would take a long period to put in place and rely on technology that is simply not in place. The proposals show ignorance of the reality of our Border and, equally, disinterest in how peace was slowly built on this island. Of equally great concern - Deputy Boyd Barrett alluded to this - is that the emerging reports on the non-papers and the British proposals are a mirror image of what we propose to put in place in the case of no deal. The Taoiseach said there will be checks near the Border, back from it. The Tánaiste has said likewise. He said they will not be on the Border, that they may not be near the Border and that they will be some distance back.
The Taoiseach has said he wants to be transparent with the Irish people. He has had discussions with the European Commission. It is becoming a little lacking in credibility to suggest these are not concluded or that both sides have not some outline as to what will happen. I take the Taoiseach's point that in the context of negotiations and things coming to the wire, he has difficulty in showing all his cards. I can understand that but it seems we are down to a choice. Is that the case? Is there another formula being developed? I refer to a choice involving Northern Ireland staying within the customs union at the point of the exit deal, or no deal. Is that what could form part of the negotiations yet to take place, if they are to take place?
It seems the UK-wide backstop is something the UK Prime Minister has clearly set his face against. Therefore, one is back to the Northern Ireland backstop. There was some talk about a consultative role earlier this month for the Northern Ireland Assembly in terms of regulatory alignment and taking on new EU regulations. That was coupled with the idea of Northern Ireland somehow remaining within the customs union. The British Prime Minister and DUP have publicly hardened their position on the customs union idea, whereby Northern Ireland would remain within the customs union. It seems this is the key area for resolution or no resolution. The choice seems to be falling down to that. Is that a fair assessment? I am basing my views on public discourse and the commentary. I am very conscious, and we should all be conscious, that there is a desire on the part of the British Government to create all sorts of hype and angst between now and 31 October.
Clearly a chaotic Brexit, including a hard border, is now on the cards. Only an election or progressive alliance of Opposition parties can now stop a no-deal Brexit and seek an extension from the European Union. Last week, my party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin, attended the UK Labour Party conference and met a number of the key stakeholders, including Mr. Jeremy Corbyn. Mr. Corbyn has repeatedly promoted the idea of putting whatever exit deal is negotiated back to the people again in a referendum, which would also keep the remain option on the ballot paper. If the Labour Party is in government in the United Kingdom, a fresh referendum of the people will be held, with the option to remain on the ballot paper. The EU must make it clear that it would enable such an extension to allow the British democratic process to proceed and conclude. Can the Taoiseach confirm that his Government is open to the granting of such an extension? Will he stress this need to our EU partners?
It seems the British Prime Minister, whom I heard demand on the radio this morning that British sovereignty be recognised in any deal, is disregarding the constitutional ambiguity stitched into the Good Friday Agreement. I refer to ambiguity in the sense of having the ability to swap or share identity. That is a real tragedy at this moment. The Prime Minister made much play on the radio this morning of phytosanitary arrangements and of not having checks on animal movements. Could the Taoiseach confirm whether this one area would require further arrangements? Would there have to be some sort of check on animal products coming from Britain into Northern Ireland, whatever about the rest of any potential deal? On a related matter, is there agreement, in regard to that deal, on the common environmental standards needed in agriculture and other areas in terms of the nitrates directive, the water framework directive and the habitats directive? These are all transboundary measures that relate to the agriculture issue. How can it be said the agriculture sector is being looked after if there is no recognition of common jurisdiction in how the environmental rules are managed?
Is there any communication on or understanding of what the Labour Party's proposal might be in the deal it says it might like to strike should it take over control of the House of Commons or the UK Government in the end? Historically, I understand it was supportive of the backstop but then joined the Tory Party in saying it was a key part of the problem with the current withdrawal agreement. Has the Labour Party made it in any way clear to the Irish Government what it would do differently? That might influence what happens in the next few weeks.
We have used up most of the 15 minutes for this group. The third group contains just two questions. Would it be conceivable to take five minutes from that and use it for the Taoiseach's response to this group? Is that agreed? Agreed.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. Once again, I welcome the fact that Prime Minister Johnson has distanced himself from the proposals for customs posts on either side of the Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The withdrawal agreement, in the view of the Government, remains the best way forward but we are, of course, willing to listen to proposals that achieve the same objectives, that is, avoiding a hard border between the North and South, allowing the all-island economy to continue to thrive, and ensuring that North-South co-operation can continue as it does now, with free movement of goods and people north and south of the Border.
In the meetings and telephone calls I have had with Prime Minister Johnson, we did not discuss the non-papers or their content specifically but obviously we discussed the kinds of issues that arise in them, including customs, sanitary and phytosanitary controls, the Single Market and all those issues pertinent to the non-papers, which I still have not seen.
It is a fact that if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a deal, it will do so on World Trade Organization, WTO, terms. There are some enthusiastic hard Brexiteers who want to do exactly that. They want to leave without a deal and on WTO terms but if that happens, it will be their decision, not ours and certainly not that of the European Union. Those concerned will be responsible for any consequences that flow from it. If it happens, as the Tánaiste and I have said, we will not allow ourselves to be dragged out of the Single Market also. Our jobs, economy, livelihoods and industry are all dependent on our remaining a full member of the Single Market of 450 million people in 27 countries.
Perhaps I misunderstood Deputy Boyd Barrett, who seemed to be suggesting that we would allow ourselves to end up in the worst of all worlds and have the UK leave without a deal, involving customs and inspection posts on the UK side, and find ourselves out of the Single Market, facing checks in Rotterdam, Zeebrugge and Calais and tariffs and checks on our trade from north to south and east to west and with the Single Market. We certainly cannot allow ourselves, out of belligerence, to end up surrounded by a border on all sides.
That is certainly not a situation we want to be in. If we think about it from first principles, we will realise that there have really only ever been five ways of avoiding a hard border between North and South. The first option is a united Ireland-----
That is the best option.
-----for which there is not a majority at present. The second option is that we join the United Kingdom.
That is a terrible option.
I do not think anyone in this House would entertain that option. The third option is for the UK to remain in the EU, which it does not want to do at present. The fourth option is for the UK to stay in the Single Market and the customs union. This is known as the Norway-plus option and has been rejected by the current UK Government. The fifth option is the backstop or something like it. We still think that the fifth option is the best one to be pursued. We have always been open to the idea that there might be alternative arrangements that would achieve the same objective. We have yet to see such arrangements. If the non-papers that were leaked the other day reflect what is meant by "alternative arrangements", those alternative arrangements look very like a hard border to me.
The Irish Government is absolutely open to a request from the UK Government for an extension, should it come. I think there would be a strong view across the EU that if there is an extension, it would have to be for a very good reason - perhaps to facilitate a referendum or a general election, which would give us a change of policy, more clarity on policy or a parliament that is able to ratify a deal of some sort.
I am not an expert on SPS checks, but I am starting to become one, bit by bit. My understanding is that there are SPS checks into Northern Ireland already because we are treated as a single phytosanitary zone. We want to avoid SPS checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The last time I met representatives of the British Labour Party was when I met Jeremy Corbyn and his team some months ago. They are pursuing their own model, which they call Single Market 2.0. This is a different model for leaving the EU while having a close relationship with the customs union and the Single Market, still having a say in the customs union and aligning to some European standards, but not others like state aid and competition. Again, it is a kind of cake-and-eat-it solution that probably would not fly at European level.
I asked a question about the choices. Is it a question of the customs issue versus no deal? Is that where we were at?
No, because we do not have an agreement on regulatory alignment either.
The Taoiseach has dodged my question.
It is worse than that.
The Taoiseach has avoided my question.
It has not come down to customs as the only issue remaining.
I know, but the Taoiseach could have given a response - even a broad one - and maybe that tells me something too.
This is a nice little chat between the lads.
12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [37277/19]
13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services will next meet. [37375/19]
14. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee E (Health) last met; and when the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services is scheduled to meet. [37566/19]
15. 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. [38479/19]
16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee E (health) last met; and when the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services will meet. [38483/19]
17. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services will next meet. [38489/19]
18. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee at which education policy is discussed; and when it last met. [39893/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 18, inclusive, together.
The role of the social policy and public service reform division is to assist me, as Taoiseach, and the Government in delivering on the objective in the programme for Government to provide public policies and services which drive a socially inclusive and fair society, and to assist in renewing and transforming the public service. Specifically, the division assists the work of the Cabinet Committee on social policy and public services and the associated senior officials group. This committee, which covers issues relating to health, Sláintecare, education, children, equality, social inclusion, the Irish language, the arts, culture and continued improvements in and reform of public services, last met on 10 September and is due to meet again before the end of the year. The division also assists the work of the Cabinet committee on security and the associated senior officials group. This committee, which covers issues relating to justice, defence and policing reform, is expected to meet on 10 October.
The social policy and public service reform division also provides programme office assistance to the policing reform implementation group and the high-level policing reform steering board on the implementation of A Policing Service for the Future, which is the Government’s four-year plan for the implementation of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing. The division advances the north-east inner city initiative, including through the north-east inner city programme office, the programme implementation board and the oversight group. It assists the work of the Civil Service management board, which oversees the implementation of the Civil Service renewal plan. It assists in the delivery of Our Public Service 2020 through membership of the public service leadership board and the public service management group. It incorporates the programme for Government office, which monitors and reports on the implementation of the commitments contained in A Programme for a Partnership Government across all Departments, with the latest annual progress report published in May 2019. It has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council. It provides me with briefings and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues and participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.
Cabinet committee E last met on 22 November 2018. Following a Government decision in July to reorganise the Cabinet committee structures, the Cabinet committee on social policy and public services now covers health and Sláintecare.
I am not sure whether the Taoiseach is aware that engineers have identified structural flaws in 17 public school building projects that house 18 schools. This came to light during the summer. Educate Together is the patron body of several of the affected schools, including one in my constituency. These schools are in addition to the 22 schools that were found last year to have had defective builds. It is worth noting that the schools in the most recent batch of defective builds were cleared for use last October and November after limited assessments found no requirement for precautionary measures to be put in place. I understand that following its review of the affected schools, the Department of Education and Skills intends to undertake a wider independent review of its design and build programme. Such a review is very necessary.
I must state honestly to the Taoiseach that I have significant concerns about wider Government public procurement processes and the Department's ability to deliver schools building projects. My personal experience of engaging with the Department on one of the affected schools - Broombridge Educate Together national school - has been a real eye-opener. I have found it impossible to secure basic information from the Department. I have found it impossible to establish what was wrong with the school, what remediation works have been carried out and what further remediation works are envisaged next summer and the following summer. The school in question also houses a crèche. Parents were hugely put out when their children could not enter this childcare facility to avail of its services for many weeks during the summer.
Despite my best efforts, up to and including with the Minister, I have not been furnished with basic information to which any Member of the Oireachtas and any taxpayer should be entitled when such defective work has been done as part of a school construction project. Can the Taoiseach assist me in getting to these basic facts? Wider issues like public procurement and the delivery of these projects also arise in this context. There have been many defects in school builds. I ask the Taoiseach to explain why there is almost a secret of Fatima atmosphere from the Department and the Minister, who refused to answer basic questions during the summer. What is wrong with the building? What remediation has been done? What further remediation is necessary? I would have thought that such questions were very straightforward.
Any social policy worth its name would understand the key importance of treating pensioners with respect and fairness. Even though they are no longer working, we must ensure their rights are upheld and the contribution they have made to our society through their work is respected. Earlier today, hundreds of pensioners protested in the pelting rain as part of a protest organised by the Federation of Pensioners Associations. They believe the Government is failing to respect this country's pensioners, to give them their rights and to give them the level of access to State agencies and institutions that they should have to ensure they are represented properly and treated fairly. The point they are making is that they have suffered with FEMPI and with other changes that have been made by employers and Governments. Their pensions have been substantially affected. Some pensioners have not seen a pension increase for ten years. They have absolutely no right to be represented as a group with the Government at partnership talks, the Workplace Relations Commission or the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman. When their pensions, incomes and quality of life are affected by changes and cuts, they have absolutely no say in the matter.
Will the Taoiseach respond to these concerns raised by pensioners? Will he give them the right to be collectively represented at wage agreement talks in respect of any area where their pensions might be affected and to have the right to collectively go to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman and WRC? Pensions are, in effect, wages deferred. Pension schemes comprise money which was put in by workers while they were working. However, once they have retired and are pensioners, they have no right to access the WRC. That is not right and I want the Taoiseach to respond positively to the demands of pensioners.
Last week, the chief executive officer of Bord na Móna told trade union representatives that the company faced a dire future which will have devastating consequences for thousands of its workers. In his recent speech on climate at the United Nations, the Taoiseach spoke of a just transition. This is the first real test of a just transition, yet his Department and Government are already failing. The National Economic and Social Council, which falls under the remit of the Taoiseach's Department, has been given responsibility for dealing with the transition to a low carbon economy. The promised just transition task force, which was meant to tackle the threats to the jobs of Bord na Móna workers and others, has yet to be established. Will the Taoiseach commit to the immediate creation of a national just transition task force? Will he ensure that all stakeholders are involved so that workers like those in Bord na Móna can be protected?
Yesterday, it was announced that homelessness had reached a new record high and for the seventh straight month over 10,000 people were homeless. Even more shocking is the fact that 70 children became homeless last month. This has happened five years after the Government finally admitted that there is a housing crisis. It happened through the terms of four senior Cabinet members and Ministers for Housing, Planning and Local Government and three years after the publication of a plan which replaced four other plans and was presented as a belt and braces initiative which was certain to succeed. It is now two years since the Taoiseach announced the "plan is working" at a Fine Gael Ard-Fheis, a year and a half since he said homelessness was being overcome and a year since he said, with regard to housing, that the "worst thing we could do is change policy." Does the Taoiseach honestly believe that having a homelessness figure that exceeds 10,000 for seven months in a row and having 70 children become homeless last month alone represents a policy which has been working for the past three years? Clearly, he and his right hand adviser, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, have been surprised by these figures; otherwise they would not have spent so much time early last year claiming to have made decisive progress on the issue of homelessness. The Taoiseach did not find the time this week to tweet about or reference the new homelessness figures but he issued a claim that we are starting to see results in regard to house prices. How many people does he project will be homeless at the end of this year? When will the figure be reduced to the level it was when he first said his policies were working?
I again thank Deputies for their questions. I am aware that there are structural flaws in quite a number of our schools and public buildings. These flaws are all of a different scale. In any case, where there are structural flaws in a school or public building, the number one priority, in particular in respect of schools, has to be the safety of children and staff. Any defects will be repaired on a needs and priority basis. I am not familiar with the school Deputy McDonald mentioned but I will advise the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, that she raised it in the Chamber. I do not understand why there would be any need for secrecy about these issues. I have been able to get answers on the schools in my constituency where there have been structural flaws. I do not see why the Deputy should not be able to get answers but perhaps there are things I do not know.
Deputy Boyd Barrett said we should respect our senior citizens and pensioners, and I agree. I am very proud to lead a Government which has increased the State pension to a record high. We have one of the highest weekly pensions in the entire world. It is double or treble what it is in Northern Ireland or across the water in Britain. We have some really successful schemes which have been defended and funded through the years, such as free travel and the household benefits scheme. We are also constantly improving life expectancy, and Ireland is ranked among the highest in the world in terms of people living long and healthy lives.
Poverty among pensioners in Ireland is less than 2% or close to statistical zero. Pensioners in Ireland are less likely to be poor than any other social group in society, such as working people, children, etc. That did not happen by accident. Rather, it happened because for years, and perhaps even decades, parties in government pursued policies that looked out for our pensioners. That is not to say that we cannot do more, because we certainly can, in particular around the quality of our health services and the very long time many older people have to wait to see a doctor.
The Deputy referred largely to occupational and private pensions. They are all different and are paid in addition to the State pension. They are very much linked to how much is paid in, the quality of the investments made by the pension fund, if any, life expectancy and other such issues. It is very difficult to give the Deputy a comprehensive answer on an issue that is so multifaceted and complex.
When it comes to involvement in the WRC, I struggle to see how that would work. When workers go into the WRC to negotiate a pay increase or reduction, as the case may be, or to negotiate job losses, the negotiations concern productivity, changes to work practices and all of those things. It is difficult to see how this would be applied to pensioners. A pensioner could not be made redundant or sign up for productivity or workplace changes in return for an increase or decrease in a pension. It hard to see how that would work.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked about just transition, which is something we are examining quite closely. We had a meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on the environment yesterday to review the progress being made on the climate action plan. In a particular section of the meeting we discussed the midlands, where issues around Bord na Móna will require us to focus on just transition in that region. In many ways, the midlands and Bord na Móna will be the first test of just transition and we need to get it right. It is not just about looking after the Bord na Móna workers and making sure they are treated properly but also about making sure there is alternative employment and payroll coming into the region. That is something on which we need to work. At the moment, we are trying to work through whether we should have a single just transition task force for the entire country or whether it would make more sense to have localised ones where the issues are very different. The issue of just transition for Bord Na Móna workers in the midlands will be very different from a just transition in a different part of the country for a different type of industry. Maybe one size does not fit all and we need localised approaches.
19. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure will next meet. [37374/19]
20. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on infrastructure will next meet. [38480/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 19 and 20 together.
The Cabinet committee on infrastructure met on 10 September 2019 and its next meeting is scheduled for 10 October 2019. The Cabinet committee works to ensure a co-ordinated approach in the areas of infrastructure investment and delivery, Project Ireland 2040 and Rebuilding Ireland. There is significant work under way across each of the areas covered by the committee through Government Departments, agencies and a range of interdepartmental groups such as the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. These matters are also regularly considered at meetings of Government and in bilateral and multilateral meetings with the relevant Ministers.
Significant progress is being made on the implementation of Project Ireland 2040. In May this year, the Government launched the first annual report for Project Ireland 2040 and it is evident the strategy is already delivering better transport links, facilitating better healthcare and environmental outcomes and yielding more housing. For example, the biggest single project completed this year was the M11 Gorey to Enniscorthy motorway in the south east, and I was pleased to be present at the official opening. Project Ireland is also set to deliver another 14 major projects by year end and a further 20 major projects over the course of next year. More than 25 further projects are also due to be commenced by the end of 2020.
More than 200 longer-term projects will be ongoing in 2020, including the national broadband plan, the north runway at Dublin Airport and the national train control centre to improve our rail services.
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 under the funds amounted to slightly more than €150 million in 2019. Second round calls have been launched for the disruptive technologies innovation fund and the rural regeneration and development fund. A further call for the urban regeneration fund will be announced soon and work is continuing on legislation to underpin the climate action fund. The Government will also announce reforms to the oversight and governance of project selection, appraisal and delivery, including an update to the public spending code.
The Land Development Agency, which is another cornerstone initiative of Project Ireland 2040, was established on an interim basis in law in September 2018. It 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 and we have seen strong growth in housing completions and leading indicators such as planning permissions, commencement notices and housing registration. More than 19,300 new dwellings were completed in the 12 months to June 2019, a 20% year-on-year increase. More than 2,500 homes were brought out of long-term vacancy and almost 750 dwellings in unfinished estates were completed, meaning the number of new homes available for use increased by more than 22,600 last year. This does not include student accommodation. There was also strong delivery of publicly-funded social housing in 2018, with more than 27,000 new households having their housing needs met. Good progress continues to be made during 2019 on social housing delivery and other aspects of Rebuilding Ireland.
I ask the Taoiseach simply to scrap the strategic housing development scheme as a complete failure. We discovered from a report published at the weekend that it is essentially a scheme dreamed up by property developers who gave the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and current Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, their recommendations. The Government took those recommendations lock, stock and barrel and stuck them into the housing Bill. Fast-track planning for property developers was supposed to deliver more housing, particularly affordable housing, to help deal with the housing crisis. However, work has not commenced on 10,000 of the 16,000 units that got such planning permission. There has been no effort by the developer to put in commencement notices for 41% of the units. In other words, as some Deputies have been saying to the Government all year, this was a licence for speculation, hoarding and driving up the value of particular sites. There are some such sites in the area I represent, such as the Bartra co-living site and a site where apartments were to be sold for €1 million each, which would do nothing to help the housing crisis. The scheme has been a licence to hoard, speculate and print money for private developers but has delivered almost nothing in terms of actual housing. I am suggesting that it should be scrapped.
Only a very small part of the Taoiseach's response related to Rebuilding Ireland, which is understandable, given that Rebuilding Ireland is a complete failure. The construction of social and affordable homes has been moving at a snail's pace, as has the construction of the private homes to which Deputy Boyd Barrett referred. This week, we found out that, once again, more than 10,000 people are homeless. There has been an increase of 70 in the number of homeless children in the past month. It is clear that the Government's housing policies are not working. We are not seeing the speed we need in the construction of social and affordable housing. Swathes of our working population cannot afford the extortionate rents being charged in the private sector, into which everybody seems to be getting squeezed, and cannot secure a mortgage either. What will the Government do to alter and completely refurbish its Rebuilding Ireland plans which are simply not delivering for Irish people?
What is the status of the broadband contract? Has it been signed? When will it be signed? We were led to believe some months ago that it would be signed in September, but it is now October. Are there state aid issues, as was recently reported, in terms of other providers claiming they can operate within the area that was out for tender? What is the position with the broadband contract? What is the likely timeline for signing the contract? It was the Government's decision to pursue this course. Fianna Fáil does not agree with that decision, but I wish to know whether the timeline is on track with what was outlined some months ago by the Taoiseach.
On the national children's hospital, it was recently reported that it will cost more than the high cost to which we were alerted earlier in the year and that there will be time delays. I ask the Taoiseach to provide clarity in that regard. As the Cabinet committee on infrastructure met on 10 September, it must be fairly clear what are the likely increases that have been documented. Surely, the Cabinet committee discussed these and the Taoiseach is aware of the cost increases. What are the delays in terms of the timeline for the completion of the hospital and the implications for other paediatric hospitals?
Will funding for the A5 be provided for in the budget next week? There has been much discussion of Brexit in the House and its effect on the island as a whole. All Members are aware of the impact Brexit will have on the north west of Ireland. Derry is Ireland's fourth-largest city but there is no rail or other proper transport infrastructure between it and Dublin. Partition has been devastating for that part of Ireland and Brexit looms large and threatens it further. Will funding for the A5 be made available in the budget?
Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about the strategic housing development scheme. I sometimes get the housing schemes mixed up because there are so many of them, but I think that is the scheme which allows a developer building 100 units or more to go straight to An Bord Pleanála rather than the two-step process involving going to a local authority first and then, if necessary, An Bord Pleanála. The scheme was logically designed to speed up the planning process such that homes could be built more quickly. As the Deputy mentioned, permission for 16,000 units has been granted under the scheme. Construction has commenced on 6,000 of the units. Construction has not commenced on 10,000 of them, but we do not know on how many of those work will commence in the coming months or years. We need to see that develop in the period ahead. We also need to consider the counterfactual question of whether homes that went through the old process are being commenced or built more quickly.
What is the point in having fast-track planning if nothing is fast-tracked?
The scheme was introduced in order to fast-track planning.
That has not happened.
It is not happening.
Instead of a two-step process, there is a one-step process. The logic behind the scheme is that it allows houses to be built more quickly. It makes sense to look back three or four years after any policy change is made or new scheme brought in and consider whether it worked. Deputy Boyd Barrett is assuming that there would be a different result in respect 10,000 units that have not been commenced under the scheme had they gone through the old process. One would have to compare schemes that went through the old process to see whether that is the case. That analysis will be carried out. It was always the intention to review the scheme after some years to see if it had worked.
I do not agree with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's contention. At long last, the social housing programme is really catching up. During the crash, almost no social housing was built for six or seven years.
That was Fine Gael's decision.
Approximately 10,000 social houses are now being added to the social housing stock every year. Between two thirds and three quarters of those are new builds by local authorities rather than purchases or leases from developers.
On the national broadband plan, the contract has not been signed but we have appointed a preferred bidder. Imagine has challenged the maps and that has caused a delay. Deputies will be aware that Imagine provides a service in many parts of rural Ireland and has challenged the intervention area. We anticipate being able to-----
To whom was the intervention area challenged? Was it challenged to Europe?
The challenge was initially made to the Department. The Department was then required to consult the European Commission for reasons relating to state aid rules. We anticipate that the contract will be signed by the end of the year, which will allow the first homes across rural Ireland to be connected to high-speed broadband next year.
September becomes the end of the year.
The Government is absolutely committed to the A5 project.
It is one I strongly support linking, not just Derry to Dublin and the rest of the country, but it is also really important for Donegal. The money will be there when the project starts but currently it is stuck in a Northern Ireland process. Once the money is there, the project will start.
What about the new children's hospital?
What about it?
Will it involve a higher cost than that to which we were alerted last year?
The Taoiseach can answer that if he is in a position to do so.
I do not have any new information on that. I have no doubt the developer-----
Could the Taoiseach check that for me?