Ceisteanna - Questions

Ministerial Advisers

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the number of advisers appointed in his Department, including press advisers; and the annual cost. [40161/20]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

2. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the number of advisers appointed in his Department, including press advisers; and the annual cost. [42050/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

Under the terms of the Public Service Management Act 1997, special advisers may be appointed to Ministers and Ministers of State. The requirement for specialist policy input and advice is a matter for each individual Minister to consider having regard to the area of responsibility and the support in place in the relevant Departments.

I have put in place a range of appropriate advisory supports to me in my role as Taoiseach. The make-up of my team currently comprises a chief of staff at deputy secretary level, a deputy chief of staff at assistant secretary level, a part-time economic adviser at assistant secretary level and three special advisers at principal officer level.

In line with the provisions of the Public Service Management Act 1997, two special advisers may be assigned to the Government Chief Whip. There is one special adviser at principal officer level assigned to the Office of the Government Chief Whip. The appointment of a special adviser to the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs is a matter for the Department of Foreign Affairs.

As outlined in the programme for Government, a number of reforms have been implemented to ensure openness and co-operation within government. These include the establishment of an Office of the Tánaiste and an Office of the Leader of the Green Party within the Department of the Taoiseach, located in Government Buildings. The special advisers in the Office of the Tánaiste currently comprise a chief of staff at deputy secretary level and four special advisers, three at principal officer level and one at assistant principal level. The special advisers in the Office of the Leader of the Green Party comprise two joint chiefs of staff at assistant secretary level and three special advisers at principal officer level, two of whom are part time.

The programme for Government also outlined that each of the three parties in government would nominate a press secretary. At present, the Government press office comprises a Government press secretary at assistant secretary level, an assistant Government press secretary at assistant secretary level and a deputy Government press secretary at principal officer level. The three press secretaries appointed across the three parties in government will be supported by the Government Information Service.

It should be noted that the appointment of the special advisers listed are subject to Government approval over the coming weeks, following which relevant contracts, including salary scale, statements of qualifications and statements of relationship, will be laid before the Oireachtas.

I thank the Taoiseach for the information. That is some whack of advisers. It is a serious number of them. I can tell the Taoiseach straight up if he were standing where I am standing, he would be giving out yards about this. In the past, when this issue has been raised, the Taoiseach spoke about how programme managers were brought in 30 or 40 years ago by the Labour Party and others. The proportionality is a bit different. The volume here is incredible.

How many vacancies are there at present? Does the Taoiseach have an adviser on issues surrounding Covid health, public health and the vaccination? Has anybody been brought in? This is not something to which I would have objected, to be honest. I just want to know whether the Taoiseach had anybody who would have helped him on this.

We have seen an awful lot about the issues surrounding the recent appointment of judges and the process by which all of it was done. We have been through it and we will go through it again, I am sure, in the coming weeks and months. With regard to the process by which these advisers put on record all of their communications, will the Taoiseach give the House the assurance that all communications from all advisers who work for the Government are available from the Departments in which they work, are accessible under freedom of information and are in no way hidden?

The Government cannot be accused, in fairness, of lacking ambition when it comes to spin doctors and advisers. It is set to break all previous records. In September, we were told there were a total of 64 special advisers costing more than €3 million a year. Now we have seen the Government bring in a new press secretary on up to €160,000 a year. This new spin doctor has come from the Murdoch media empire. He was previously the managing editor of The Sun in the UK, a newspaper renowned for its racism, sexism and, of course, the disgusting lies it told about the Hillsborough disaster. He was forced to apologise for an article that compared migrants to cockroaches and "a plague of feral humans". He apologised for errors in a completely inaccurate and racist article, which had the front page headline that one in five British Muslims had sympathy for jihadis. He declined to apologise for a cut-out-and-keep guide to what terrorists look like. Again, there are no prizes for guessing that cut-out-and-keep guide was racist. It does not bode very well for the Government's professed opposition to divisive politics. How does it square with that? On top of the bill for advisers and refusing to pay student nurses is the decision to restore the pensions of the likes of Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny who are former taoisigh. How can this be justified?

Are any of these press advisers the people who researched a speech of mine from back in 2016 to inform the Taoiseach's earlier attempts at deflection over the student nurses and midwives? Would their time not have been better spent overnight, instead of looking at a speech of mine about FEMPI in 2016, looking at the hundreds of testimonies from student nurses and midwives about their systematic work exploitation with the sick, with those with Covid and with those giving birth? Would those advisers not have been better looking at those testimonies and finding out whether the nonsense the Taoiseach is getting from the HSE is, in fact, the nonsense that we, and the student nurses and midwives, more importantly, know it to be? I would be curious. Who did that research and why were they not busy verifying a far more important issue about the hundreds of nurses and midwives who say they are being systematically exploited and not paid for the work they are doing in the front line?

In response to Deputy Kelly, to his credit, the system was introduced by the Labour Party back in-----

(Interruptions).

It was, actually. The whole of idea of a separate office of the Tánaiste at the time was-----

(Interruptions).

I have no objection to it. I think it makes sense in terms of-----

(Interruptions).

Where there are parties with different perspectives in government, and this is a three-party coalition Government, there is a need to make sure that the policy programme, as per the programme for Government, and the perspectives of parties are brought through. In respect of the offices that have been established for the leader of the Green Party and the Tánaiste, that makes sense in terms of common purpose but also in terms of making sure the agenda is delivered upon in respect of the priorities of each individual party. That is an important point.

In respect of health, the chief of staff has considerable experience in the health arena, as the Deputy will know, both in terms of personal experience prior to coming into a political adviser role-----

(Interruptions).

Hear me out, please. It is also in terms of the person's former capacity as an adviser, when I was Minister for Health and Children. There is also a unit within the Department that has been dealing specifically with Covid, even before I came into the office, and it is being dealt with at a very high level within the Department. Obviously, NPHET provides public health advice to me and to the Government at large. In addition, various advices can be ascertained from key people out there in academia, without having to hire people specifically in regard to that issue. As for communications and the work of advisers, that is FOI-able, and it has to be transparent and open in regard to all the work they do, which is important.

In response to Deputy Paul Murphy, I do not think it is fair to personalise this to the degree that he has in regard to an individual who is not in the House to defend himself. I can assure the Deputy that this is not about spinning anything; it is about briefing properly on what is happening in terms of Government policy and Government initiatives. That is the issue here in terms of the capacity and the competence of the person to be the communications and press secretary for the Government.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's point, it does not take two minutes to check out a speech that he gave in 2016. The bottom line-----

The Taoiseach has not checked out the situation of the student nurses.

We, have actually. An investigation is being established, and the Minister is making sure. I do not know whether the Deputy submitted his testimonies for investigation.

So they can be victimised?

No, I think the investigation should happen because exploitation should not be tolerated and student nurses should not be abused and exploited. They should not be exploited, and any exploitation that takes place, I genuinely believe, should be investigated. If the Deputy has evidence of that, and I have no doubt he may have, it should be forwarded to the authorities. We will protect the nurses and the student nurses concerned, and those issues will be investigated. They need to be investigated because it is wrong and it should not happen.

The Taoiseach should take up the offer to meet them.

The old culture, and old habits, die hard. The whole transformation of nurse education is not something we should just erode and then happily go along with that, which is what the Deputy is really suggesting. He has not dealt with that question at all in any of his comments on this to date. I have to say that.

The Deputy’s speech back in 2016 meant, and People Before Profit’s position was, that the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, should be repealed in their entirety. If FEMPI was repealed in its entirety, it would have meant that with regard to the pension reversals to which Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy referred, those people would have got their higher pensions and would have had their cuts reversed back in 2016, not in 2021. Legally, the Minister had no choice. In 2017, this House passed legislation to say that the latest date that a Minister could delay for this last cohort, whose pensions and pay was cut as a result of FEMPI, was the end of this month. That is the law passed by this Parliament. The Deputy seems to think that the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, should just break the law. That is what the Deputy is saying: that the Minister must ignore the law passed by this House in 2017, which the Deputies were all involved in at the time.

We can change the law.

No, we cannot actually do that without undermining the entire edifice. That is the point.

We are the Parliament.

Of course, the Deputy pretends that this is a deliberate and premeditated act to look after the high rollers, and he knows damn well it is not. He knows it is not. If he had his way, he would have been doing this in 2016, given that is what he proposed at that time. That is the reality.

They do not have to be paid over €100,000.

Taxation is the way to deal with that.

We have. We have one of the most progressive taxation systems in Europe. The higher that people earn in this country, the more they should be taxed, and that is the reality. That is the fairest way to deal with this, not the approach the Deputy takes, which is just short-term political opportunism, deliberately distorting the truth and deliberately giving false narratives in terms of the motivations of the current holders of office in government, when the current Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform had simply no legal choice. The Attorney General's advice is exactly the same as the previous Attorney General's advice, and the one before that.

Cabinet Committees

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy last met. [40487/20]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Economic Recovery and Investment will next meet. [41796/20]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport last met. [42005/20]

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

6. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy last met. [42008/20]

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

7. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport last met. [42009/20]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

8. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy last met. [42051/20]

Mick Barry

Ceist:

9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy last met. [42079/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 9, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment first met on 8 July. It has met on a total of eight occasions, most recently on 4 December. The next meeting has not yet been scheduled. Membership of the committee is comprised of the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Employment and Trade; the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and for Transport; the Minister for Finance; the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform; and the Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. Other Ministers or Ministers of State will attend when required.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment is responsible for issues relating to the economy and investment. Its initial focus was on developing the July jobs stimulus. It is also overseeing the development of the national economic plan, which is due to be launched shortly. Issues relevant to the transport sector can arise, as required, at a number of Cabinet committees, including the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment.

The Government continues to invest in our national infrastructure. This is evidenced by the commitment of capital allocation of more than €10 billion in budget 2021, making public investment in Ireland one of the highest per capita in the EU. Specifically, the budget 2021 allocation for the Department of Transport is €3.5 billion, which includes €1.8 billion funding announced for sustainable transport, cycling, walking and greenways, and €1.3 billion for national, regional and local roads. This will ensure that our transport network continues to grow sustainably into the future, providing viable and affordable transport options, while also working to meet our climate and environmental objectives. Issues relating to the economy and to transport are, of course, regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are made.

With regard to the forthcoming national economic plan, significant initiatives will be taken in terms of continuing the unprecedented supports the Government has provided for businesses and through income supports across the economy. It is also looking at new areas for economic opportunity in terms of digital transformation, for example, particularly in the public services and our health service, given we need to transform the health service electronically and from a digital perspective.

It is also about investment in the green economy, where there are opportunities to create jobs in retrofitting, for example, in enhanced investment in sewage treatment plants, in enhancing our environment and in alternative and innovative farming in respect of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and in providing funding opportunities for farming with regard to forestry, native species and so on. There is a range of opportunities that will be encapsulated by the national economic plan.

Given the number of questioners can we, please, stick to the allocated time in order to be able to get a response from the Taoiseach? I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

Income and pension differentials are a very serious economic issue. I do not want to spend too much time on this because I want to ask about another issue but the Taoiseach knows, and I ask him to, please, not be dishonest, that when we sought restoration of the FEMPI pay and pension cuts, it was for low and middle income earners. He had four items of legislation which targeted particular segments, including the higher paid pensioners and civil servants, so I ask him not to give us the nonsense that there is not a way to stop obscene increases for people on already obscene pensions in excess of €100,000.

From the transport point of view, I ask about the plight of the taxi drivers yet again. There was a temporary waiver on the ten-year rule for having to get a new taxi for the year 2020 but there are 1,600 taxi drivers who, in 2021, starting with the first taxi driver on 3 January, are required to replace their taxis, which they cannot afford to do because they have lost all the income for this year. They have asked about this and there was a review, a consultation and so on but they have no clue whether they will get a waiver for 2021 and, if they do not get a waiver, they will not be able to afford to run their businesses and replace their cars. Can the Taoiseach, please, give a clear indication to taxi drivers now that the ten-year rule for 2021 will be waived and that those 1,600 taxi drivers and others who are not sure what will happen in the middle of next year will not have to replace perfectly good taxis that must, in any event, pass NCTs and suitability tests?

My colleague, Deputy Kerrane, asked the Taoiseach yesterday if it was the Government's intention to ratify the International Labour Organization, ILO, Convention No. 190 on violence and harassment in the world of work. As he did not have an opportunity to respond as time ran out, I would be grateful if he could clarify the Government position today.

Covid-19 has created new challenges for the workforce and exacerbated existing inequities. Remote working has created significant advantages. However, there is a flip side that needs to be recognised and addressed. Research shows that remote workers are at greater risk of being overlooked for training and promotional opportunities. The new EU directive on work-life balance gives workers a right to be flexible and remote working for carers and parents. The concern is that by limiting the right to this cohort of workers, the take-up will come primarily from women. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has recommended that the right to flexible work, when transposed into domestic law, be extended to all workers to avoid unintentional but very real negative consequences. Will the Government give consideration to that?

A call for a new deal for retail and distribution workers has also been launched. Women working in these sectors can earn up to 19% less than their male counterparts. As the Taoiseach knows, Ireland has the third highest rate of low pay in the European Union, with a median wage of just €313 a week for staff in the accommodation and food sectors. Retail and distribution workers account for 19% of all workers in receipt of the housing assistance payment, HAP. Ireland is ranked second worst among OECD countries for housing affordability and equally high costs associated with childcare compound excessive living costs for those on very modest incomes. Furthermore, the absence of collective bargaining rights further restricts the ability of workers and their trade unions to secure fair pay. Economic strategies must incorporate enhanced rights for these workers including the right to a living wage, protections to ensure decent work and, finally, providing for the right to collective bargaining.

There have been fundamental shifts in the world of work and a renewed societal premium attached to front-line services. This needs to be reflected in enhanced terms and conditions, as well as legislative and workplace rights. I ask that the Taoiseach and his Ministers actively and constructively engage on these matters in the time ahead because we need integrated economic strategies that mainstream workers' rights.

I ask the Taoiseach whether the Cabinet has had a discussion on the newly revamped Irish Aviation Authority and the appointment of its new CEO. He is due to take up that appointment on 1 January 2021 but yet he comes from a company that has an appalling record on both issues that his new job will enjoin him to deal with. Ryanair has an appalling record on the treatment of workers and consumers, with many passengers waiting long periods for refunds and thousands left waiting for cancellations to be dealt with. While the revamped authority will look after both consumer rights and the question of safety on our airlines and at our airports, to give this job of CEO of the newly vamped Irish Aviation Authority to somebody from this company is equivalent to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

We also have widespread complaints from the industry, and Ryanair in particular across Europe, of abuse of workers' rights, with the Covid-19 pandemic being used to sack workers and to breach the International Aviation Safety Assessment, IASA, health and safety regulations in terms of having to walk up and down the aircraft aisle to sell alcohol and tickets to passengers, which involves touching off and dealing with passengers multiple times during flights. Will the Taoiseach comment on the appointment, which I believe is a major insult to the aviation workers and passengers alike and tells us all we need to know about Ireland's low regulation and neoliberal approach to this very important industry?

Charles Dickens wrote about a tale of two cities but right here we have a tale of two economies. On the one hand, Goodbody is saying that Irish GDP will be higher this year than last year despite Covid. That is something that is fuelled by the kind of fictitious financial trickery that has seen Kellogg's direct more than €1 billion worth of sales through Ireland. Irish people are not eating €1 billion worth of cereal, despite the coronavirus crisis, but it will pay little or no corporation tax on that nor will it pay it in other countries. In fact, it is getting €100 million in tax credits from the State. While it is the best of times for billionaires, it is the worst of times for many ordinary workers.

The Dickensian nature of this Government is most aptly shown in its Scrooge-like treatment of student nurses and its continued refusal to pay them a living wage. The Taoiseach has made much of saying that it does pay the fourth year workers, who he admits are doing a crucial job and therefore accepts have to be paid. Does he, however, stand over the fact that they are paid less than the minimum wage? Does he agree that, at the very least, they should be paid a living wage?

The Taoiseach's response is to say that we are being divisive to point out the fact that student nurses are working for free. He says we are being even more divisive in trying to rectify that situation by bringing forward a motion. How come it is us that is divisive rather than the Taoiseach and his Government, which is allowing a situation to persist of non-payment of student nurses for labour they are doing while he simultaneously hands over money to judges, former taoisigh etc.?

Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach about the situation in the Arcadia group but he did not have time to reply so I will ask about it again because there are 900 workers whose jobs are on the line and, unlike Sir Philip Green, they cannot sail off into the sunset in a £100 million yacht. The company is in the hands of the liquidator who will try it for another six weeks but that only brings us up to the second week in January. There is a real danger that workers will get no more than the statutory two weeks, despite the fact that there is an agreement in the company for two plus two, that is, four weeks per year of service being the company agreement.

When this issue arose earlier in the year with the Debenhams workers, hope was expressed on the Taoiseach's side of the House that this would be the last group of workers who would have to face a situation such as this one but the Arcadia workers are in that front line now, together with the Debenhams workers.

The programme for Government committed to a review of workers' rights in a liquidation situation. I have asked the Taoiseach about that previously but I am asking again with renewed urgency. There needs to be urgency on the Taoiseach's side too because this is a bread and butter issue for hundreds of workers who are facing redundancy and the dole this Christmas and new year if something does not arise in the next six weeks.

Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke about FEMPI reversal and said that I knew well he was speaking about low and middle income groups. That is exactly what happened. Successive Governments and the Oireachtas reversed FEMPI, first, for lower income groups, then middle income groups, and kept higher income groups until the end, when it was no longer legally feasible not to do it. That is the reality as per the 2017 Act. If Deputy Boyd Barrett had his way with his motion in 2016-----

-----he would have got rid of FEMPI in its entirety, which would have meant that higher earners would have had the full reversal five years ago rather than getting it in July 2021. Those are the facts and the Deputy cannot get away from them.

We simultaneously said-----

The Deputy said it was dictatorial and so on, but he should not try to weasel out of what his actions would have caused in 2016. If his motion was passed in 2016, it would have caused the reversal of the cuts on the highest earners and highest pensions, which he is now railing against.

On taxis and the temporary waiver of the ten-year rule, I will engage with the Minister responsible, Deputy Ryan, to get clarity for taxis, especially in the context of their incomes being significantly reduced by the impact of Covid on hospitality and so on.

Before Christmas if possible.

I will try to get clarity on that before Christmas and will speak to the Minister about it.

Deputy McDonald made a point about the broader economy and the workforce, and the changing nature of the economy. I agree with that. The national economic plan will deal with that when we publish it next week because it is about economic recovery, and also about understanding the changes that are occurring, particularly with technology and remote working. There may also be opportunities for job creation and economic renewal from the green economy and digital transitions. Those twin areas have been accelerated because of the pandemic. As the Deputy said, they will bring profound changes to the workplace, our economy and our way of life. We need to reorientate our approach and policies on that. The transition to a low-carbon economy, for example, will see all sectors of the economy and wider society undergo radical change, and will require significant investment, research and innovation, new ways of producing goods and consuming, and changes in the way we work, use transport and live together. We will have to bring in protections for workers who are working remotely, particularly making sure that their promotional opportunities are not undermined as a result of that.

Technology is profoundly changing our society and economy. It is driving the emergence of a new digital and knowledge-based economy, which is reshaping what we all do and how we do it, and we need to think and act strategically to take advantage of this digital transition. I believe that nowhere requires that more than the health service. Our education system will have to adapt to provide the skill sets required to enable us to avail of the opportunities that will arise. I see significant scope for public sector digitalisation to improve the quality of public services in the country. That national economic plan will be backed by unprecedented levels of investment. I will come back to the Deputy about the ratification of the ILO convention on domestic violence.

Deputy Smith raised the Irish Aviation Authority. I am not clear whether it is permissible to speak about an individual who is not a Member of the House and who I understand went through normal recruitment processes, although I will check that.

I did not say he did not. I asked the Taoiseach to comment on his appointment.

I do not run the Irish Aviation Authority. The Oireachtas, through the Government, creates agencies with a statutory basis. They go through their proper recruitment processes. We cannot politically vet everybody who goes for a State appointment. The reality is that aviation in this country has provided thousands of jobs and has been one of the success stories of the past 30 years. I know the Deputy will attack what are termed "neoliberal policies", which I do not accept, because the degree of State intervention in Ireland is significant, and that should never be denied with regard to our economic model Thousands of jobs have been created through a successful aviation strategy, which greatly helped our hospitality and tourism industry pre-Covid, with a wide range of other employment from foreign direct investment to our own companies that need that air connectivity. It is not all one-way negativity, as one might believe.

I put it to Deputies Smith, Murphy, Barry and Boyd Barrett that their economic model would not work in Ireland and would create thousands of redundancies if it was ever applied. It is at minimum a flawed economic model. It seems to me that Deputy Murphy wants to single-handedly tear up the education model we have for nursing. He has studiously avoided any reference to whether we should continue with a nursing degree programme as envisaged in the professionalisation of nursing.

Yes, we should.

He seems to think that it is okay to give any kind of work to nursing students, irrespective of the fact that they are on a learning programme. I said about the case that he raised in the Dáil yesterday that it should be forwarded to the HSE as a complaint, because it represents abuse and exploitation of that student nurse. I ask him to send that to the HSE because it should be investigated.

(Interruptions).

The case that Deputy Murphy raised yesterday should be sent and I do not know if he sent it or not. Has he?

Will the Taoiseach meet with them?

We are running out of time now.

I will send it.

The Deputy should have sent it already.

Should I do it with or without their consent?

He should have sought it by now because it is a terrible thing to do.

Deputy Barry has advisers and gets remuneration, as his party does, from taxpayers' money as well.

We are eating into time for the next batch of questions.

It seems to me that the only party that is stepping up to the plate with regard to retail is the State and the Government, through the Social Insurance Fund and statutory redundancy. The Deputy never says that.

I thank the Taoiseach.

I appeal to the Deputies not to lead people up another hill. They are great at doing that but they are short on solutions for workers.

The Arcadia Group workers-----

That is why I am talking about the Arcadia Group. I am not responsible for a British retail unit that decides it is going into liquidation. We will do everything we can to support the workers.

I am asking the Taoiseach a question on behalf of 900 Irish workers.

The Deputy has asked his question.

And I will answer it. That review is under way, as I have said. The objective is to get it completed before the end of the year. The key point is that the Government and State will step up to the plate with regard to our obligations for all redundancies.

The review will be complete by the end of the year. Is that right?

We are not responsible for every decision made by companies outside the State.

On a point of clarification about Deputy Bríd Smith's comments about the person appointed to the Irish Aviation Authority, I listened carefully to what she had to say and I took it that her issue was the employment background of the person appointed as distinct from the personality involved, otherwise I assure the House that I would have intervened.

The Ceann Comhairle has better ears than the Taoiseach.

Covid-19 Pandemic

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

10. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work being conducted by a consultancy firm (details supplied) for his Department. [40645/20]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

11. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the amount his Department is spending on consultancy firms advising on Covid-19 related matters. [40646/20]

John Lahart

Ceist:

12. Deputy John Lahart asked the Taoiseach the functions of the new unit within his Department or assigned officials with exclusive responsibility for collating and analysing data with regard to Covid-19; the data collated by it; if he will publish this data and lay them before the Houses of the Oireachtas; and if he will outline some of the key findings of the research. [41103/20]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10, 11 and 12 together.

My Department has been working across Government to integrate data and insights relevant to the management of the Covid-19 pandemic since it began. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, and Department of Health have provided a great deal of data through the Covid-19 data hub. In addition, economic and other data are relevant to understanding the impact of restrictions, whether supports are needed and if they are effective. My Department, working with the HSE and its contractors, Ernst & Young, the CSO and a number of other Departments, has drawn together existing data outputs to maximise the insights that can be gained.

This builds on the existing strong work across Government Departments to better inform the cross-Government Covid-19 response. The objective is to integrate data and insights across a variety of internal and external sources. In addition to the epidemiological update and advice from NPHET some findings include that there is a direct correlation between the number of contacts that people have had and the rate of the transmission of the disease. Differences between wave 1 and wave 2, including the shift in recorded outbreaks from being led by nursing homes in wave 1 to being led by private households in wave 2, contributes to a reduction of 15 years in the median age of identified cases from wave 1 to wave 2.

Excess mortality between March and September is estimated to be between 876 and 1,192. The 65+ age group account for 13% of the population but 92% of Covid-19 deaths. The 80+ age group account for circa 3% of the population but 64% of Covid-19 deaths. Social gatherings of citizens, congregations and specific local events all appear to have contributed to wave 2 outbreaks. The introduction of level 3 nationally did not reduce the 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 people for the majority of counties. Following the introduction of further household restrictions, which we will call level 3 max, from mid-October saw a reduction across most counties. Wet pubs opened in all counties except Dublin in late September. This also coincided with universities opening together with specific sporting events. The 14-day disease incidence rate per 100,000 people started to increase ten days later in every county. This increase was not seen to the same extent in Dublin. The local electoral area, LEAs, in which both University College Cork and the National University of Ireland Galway are located both saw higher increases than the rest of their county when the universities opened. This difference was reduced when the universities went online. Wet pubs also opened in both cities on the same week that the universities opened.

My Department does not have a unit or any assigned officials with exclusive responsibility for collating and analysing data with regard to Covid-19. The senior officials group and the Covid-19 oversight group have worked to provide insights to the Cabinet committee and to Government to understand and assess the impacts of the pandemic and the impacts of the restrictions imposed to manage it. This work has been going on throughout the pandemic with inputs from across Government. Data insights from NPHET, the Central Statistics Office, the Department of Finance and Ernst & Young, EY, which informed the Cabinet’s recent meetings were published on gov.ie. They complement the ongoing public health, economic and social impact assessments which have been undertaken on an ongoing basis over the period, all of which have been published on gov.ie. My Department has not engaged any consultancy firms to advise on Covid-19-related matters.

I thank the Taoiseach and call Deputy Paul Murphy now to speak.

Briefly, to respond to a question asked me by the Taoiseach in the last set of questions, where he suggested that it was not clear to him whether I was in favour of a university model for nurses or not, to be clear I am absolutely in favour and am opposed to the big exploitation of student nurses which is currently going on. We would not be talking about that or the Taoiseach would not be talking about investigating it were it not for the organisation of the student nurses and Solidarity-People Before Profit bringing forward our motion.

I will also re-ask a direct question to the Taoiseach, given that he accepts that fourth year students do work. Does he think that they should be paid more than they currently are? Does he accept that they are currently paid less than the minimum wage and should be paid at least the living wage?

How much money was spent on EY’s analysis and how much did it cost the State? Why did this Government feel it necessary to pay for an outside group of private consultants when we have public health experts? Surely, we have public health experts who are capable of analysing these figures and if not surely we should be investing in building that public health capacity as opposed to outsourcing it in the future.

Finally, after the Government paid for that advice, why did it not take EY’s advice on restaurants, in particular? If one looks at slide No. 27, it has a section which draws on US research from Stanford University and talks about places of interest, POI, categories ranked in decreasing order of associated additional infections. The number one worst category for Covid-19 infections was full-service restaurants. This is for obvious reasons because people are inside and there is airborne transmission so why then reopen restaurants contrary to the underlying data?

One of the bizarre things about this discussion on Covid-19, whether it is spin doctors or consultants as is the case with this question, is why the Government just does not go and do the research. The Government tells us we have to do the research when presenting the Taoiseach with the evidence around the exploitation of student nurses and midwives. It is beyond bizarre. For the record, and the Taoiseach’s consultants or press people could do some research on this, in Britain student nurses used to get paid £15,000 with no fees, as a bursary while they were students. The Tories cut that and in the years following a massive crisis of recruitment and retention ensued which is still persisting in the NHS. Even the right-wing Tory, Boris Johnson, has reintroduced significant cash payment bursaries and the waiving of fees for student nurses and midwives in degree programmes. If the Taoiseach wants the answer to the question that he asked, we want degrees with payments for placements and no extortionate fees if one wants to recruit and retain the nurses that we need in the health service.

I call Deputy McDonald. I ask her to be brief as we are running out of time.

I will be. The Taoiseach did not clarify what that Ernst & Young study cost, nor did he clarify the wider point on the total amount of money expended by his Department on consultancy firms advising on Covid-19 related matters. I for one would like to hear clear, concise answers to those questions.

First, in response to Deputy Paul Murphy’s comments on fourth year students, I have stated that that rate is being reviewed with a view to it going upwards. The review will be finished by the end of this month and will determine that students in fourth year are paid for the 36-week internship during which they are in hospitals. I reiterate that model has worked and in respect of the point made by Deputy Boyd Barrett, the actual numbers applying for the degree programme is very healthy and is oversubscribed every year.

On the data analytics, the HSE has retained EY which has worked with our Department on this, along with separate work by the Central Statistics Office, NPHET and by different Departments in respect of the economy, including the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. The data analytics was additional to this and was helpful and informative. The Government is committed to this. I do not have the costs here with me on EY’s contract with the HSE but these can be ascertained.

On investment in public health, the Government has committed to substantial investment in that area and to a doubling the number of people working in public health. The funding for this has been provided in the budget and the Government is also committed to creating public health consultant posts. That is going through a particular process right now.

On Deputy Murphy’s point in respect of restaurants, not all of the international experience is applicable to the Irish context. That said, we have always said there is a balance to be arrived at in respect of the decisions that we make in lifting restrictions. NPHET’s advice was perhaps to allow an additional household to visit and not to open restaurants. We took the view that we would retain the restriction on the visits to households until 18 December and to open restaurants. We believe that there are a number of dimensions here. People need to get out of their homes in some shape or form. We have had people under very severe restrictions for six weeks. It is not possible to keep people under restrictions for too long a period.

With regard to economic activity, it is important that people have an opportunity to go back to work, particularly for a key period of the year when they and the businesses concerned have an opportunity to earn and keep the enterprises viable, thereby securing employment in the sector into the future. Otherwise, there would be continued wholesale unemployment. Many in the restaurant sector would be out of work as a result of the continued closure.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's point, we are revising the allowances and also the bursaries. I do not accept his point that what is occurring is beyond bizarre. As I said, there is a very healthy number of applications to the nursing degree programme. It is oversubscribed every year.

For future reference, I understand and accept that these sessions are discursive and that any of us can go off on any sort of reverie, but where the Taoiseach is asked on the Questions Paper a very clear-cut question on costs associated with his Department - in this instance, costs of consultancy in respect of Covid-related matters - I, for one, expect that when he answers on the floor of the Dáil, he should either state there was no money expended or state the amount spent, regardless of whatever else he says. That is the least we can expect. We expect clear answers to cut-and-dried questions.

On a point of order, Standing Order 54(1) states: "A member of the Government shall, in replying to a Question asked on notice ... address each and every request for information contained therein." Question No. 10 has only one request, namely to ask the Taoiseach-----

We do not need to rehearse the question.

Question No. 11 inquires as to the amount the Taoiseach's Department is spending on consultancy firms. The question was not answered in a written response he had in advance. He said in response to repeated questions in the House that he can go and get the information. He had notice of the question. He has advisers working for him finding answers to various questions that are not even asked-----

Please, Deputy, we are way over time. On the legitimate questions, does the Taoiseach want to make a brief response? After that, I will suspend the sitting.

I said in my reply to the House, "My Department has not engaged any consultancy firms to advise on Covid-19-related matters." The contract is between EY and the HSE, on general areas. The firm was asked to do some detailed work specifically on the data with the HSE and my Department, but the contract is with the HSE.

That is very clear.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2.03 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.