Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [33500/21]

Mick Barry

Ceist:

2. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [34652/21]

Peadar Tóibín

Ceist:

3. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met. [34693/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [34760/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [34840/21]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [34843/21]

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

7. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [34845/21]

Paul McAuliffe

Ceist:

8. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing is next due to meet. [34994/21]

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Ceist:

9. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will meet next. [36392/21]

Mick Barry

Ceist:

10. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [36567/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 10 together.

The Cabinet committee on housing last met on Monday, 5 July. The next meeting of the committee is yet to be scheduled. This committee works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of programme for Government commitments regarding housing and related matters. There is significant work under way on these commitments across Departments and agencies, and the committee's current focus is on the preparation of the new multi-annual housing for all strategy.

Progress is also being made on legislation to increase the availability and supply of affordable, quality homes, including the Land Development Agency Bill and the Affordable Housing Bill. This is supported by the provision of over €3 billion for housing initiatives this year, which will fund the delivery of 12,750 social homes, the new cost rental equity loan scheme and the expansion of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, in addition to the serviced sites and the local infrastructure housing activation funds.

To help those in rented accommodation, the Government is introducing reforms to rent pressure zones, by linking the cap on rent price increases to the harmonised index of consumer prices. The reforms will also include an extension of rent pressure zones to the end of 2024.

While Covid-19 has badly disrupted the delivery of new housing, the new housing for all strategy will set out how we will achieve the target of an average of 33,000 new houses per annum over the decade, with a particular focus on affordable home ownership, in addition to tackling some of the challenges to the delivery of new housing supply.

I am aware this matter has been raised with the Taoiseach. The Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is being dealt with tonight and the Government is proposing an amendment to exempt funds from stamp duty on homes they lease to local authorities and approved housing bodies. The Government is providing an incentive for funds to bulk-buy homes and apartments for social leasing that we know is poor value. It is not good enough that the legislation is being rammed through in the way it will be later.

Second, on strategic housing developments, SHDs, the entire mess in this regard was created by the previous Fine Gael-led Government in 2017 but, dare I say it, Fianna Fáil did not oppose it. The termination is a welcome U-turn. There were clear warnings at the time about the problems SHDs would create. There will now be a time limit of 32 weeks for making decisions under the new proposal, not far off what it was meant to be in the first place before the SHD system was introduced. An Bord Pleanála will now have 16 weeks to hear and decide on an appeal. I have raised the matters of An Bord Pleanála and its resources continually in the Dáil. It does not have enough resources. It is making mistakes and losing court cases hand over fist. Will the Taoiseach ensure it has enough resources?

The issues relating to supply are so great that, coming up to the budget, I have to ask the Taoiseach quite directly whether he will introduce a vacant house tax for those buildings and homes that are being left vacant. I am not aware of how much he has been out during the by-election campaign but I have been out campaigning a lot and I have noted that the volume of houses and apartments that are vacant in the constituency that is going to the polls tomorrow is incredible.

Is the Taoiseach's climbdown on the vulture funds the most spectacular in the lifetime of this Dáil? If climbdowns and U-turns comprised an Olympic sport, I suspect Paddy Power would have the Taoiseach at short odds for a medal at Tokyo. Just nine weeks ago, the Taoiseach voiced strong opposition to local authority leasebacks from vulture funds. He said the message should go out loud and clear from the Government, yet tonight his Government will vote to provide a new incentive to the very same vultures and cuckoos. The Government is proposing an amendment that will allow vulture funds bulk-buy without paying the 10% stamp duty where they lease back to local authorities. It is good news for the vultures and cuckoos but bad news for the taxpayer, who will end up paying over the odds for the provision of social housing.

The programme for Government commits to examining the issue of defective housing within the first 12 months of government, having regard to the housing committee's report Safe as Houses, authored by Deputy Ó Broin. The Government's 12-month deadline has now passed and the working group chair was not appointed until March, which means a final report is unlikely before the end of next year. The question now concerns the implications of the delay for families in terms of the budget. As with defects associated with mica and pyrite, latent defects are an outcome from the Celtic tiger era of poor building standards, ineffective building controls and non-existent consumer protection. My colleagues met homeowners in Dublin last month who have been left in limbo, and no tangible solutions have been offered to date by the Government. Families in my constituency, Dublin West, are in the same boat.

The programme for Government also commits to assisting owners of latent-defect properties by identifying low-cost, long-term finance options to enable them to undertake the significant structural and fire safety work needed to make their homes safe. The affected families bought their homes in good faith so they should have better options available other than accessing more debt.

In addition to authoring the report Safe as Houses, Deputy Ó Broin introduced legislation last year based on its recommendations so it is difficult to understand why so little progress has been made by the Minister. Will provision be made in October's budget and will there be a retrospective element to the measures to enable homeowners to proceed with urgent works?

Many in the Opposition have pointed out what a disgraceful move it is to push through this amendment which will incentivise vulture funds to buy up estates if they can lease them back to local authorities.

The Taoiseach asked a legitimate question but no one has really answered him. He asked whether we want to turn off the supply of social housing, as if it is a choice between having vulture funds and not getting social housing. What is the answer to that question? If we need to deliver social and affordable housing, and we do, we should not incentivise the vulture funds to purchase them and then lease them back to the local authorities. We should cut out the vulture middleman and get the local authorities to buy these properties directly. By the way, this is better value, will cost less over the long run and will mean that the State will actually have an asset which can be allocated for both social and affordable housing. Why is the Government not doing that? It is the obvious answer to the question posed by the Taoiseach. He was right to ask it and nobody else has answered it but that is the answer. That would be a long-term sustainable solution and would prevent the turning off of the tap for social and affordable housing until we can get the direct construction of social and affordable housing up to the level it should be at.

I also want to focus on the incredible U-turn in the direction of a big sign saying profits for cuckoo funds. For two days in the Dáil now, the Taoiseach has been seeking to avoid answering the question of what prompted this U-turn. Two months ago, he at last admitted that something had to be done to tackle the domination of Irish housing by vulture and cuckoo funds. He pledged that he would clip their wings. Then, the Taoiseach sneaked into an unrelated Bill an incentive to bulk-buy new housing. Two months ago, the Taoiseach said that councils should stop leasing from these vultures. Today he is proposing a tax break to encourage them to do so. This will not only further incentivise the funds, thereby squeezing out ordinary people trying to buy a home, but it will also see more and more public money that should be going into building public housing instead lining the pockets of these cuckoo funds. What prompted the Taoiseach’s U-turn? Was there lobbying by the cuckoo and vulture funds? Why is he taking a position that so clearly, blatantly and obviously places the Government on the side of the cuckoo funds, the vulture funds and the corporate landlords and not on the side of ordinary people trying to access housing?

Last night, I watched “Prime Time” while I suspect most people here and elsewhere were watching the football. It dealt with the question of strategic housing developments. It was very interesting to watch it because it showed that current policy is clearly a failure of enormous proportions. It is good to see that it is being scrapped in October. However, a plethora of developments have been allowed to go ahead under strategic housing development, including one the programme touched on, which is the Player Wills-Bailey Gibson site on the South Circular Road. All of the proposed apartments, in 19-storey, 13-storey and eight-storey blocks, are being built to rent. The same is true along the Grand Canal between Drimnagh and Bluebell where an extra 4,000 people will be added to the population, which already struggles to access schools, doctors and basic amenities, and where there are no libraries, swimming pools or basic amenities. It is crazy that we plan to add thousands of people into communities and then blame these communities for taking judicial reviews. They do not do this lightly because such reviews are hugely expensive. They do it because their voices have been squashed out. It is good to see that strategic housing developments are being ended but what about the ones that have already been granted? Does the Taoiseach not think it is time for the State to intervene to say we cannot have this? Such intervention should be made, in particular, in terms of the planning. If planning goes ahead without strategic infrastructure being in place, communities are squeezed out. That is why they protest and object. They are not stupid. They are doing it for the benefit of all.

We are ending the first year in government. On the housing issue, within 12 months we have unlocked public lands for 100% public housing in places where that is needed, we have a new affordable purchase scheme and a new affordable rental scheme, we have protected 50% of new estates for owner-occupiers, we have doubled the obligation on developers on private sites, we have capped rent increases, we have capped deposits and upfront rents to one month, we have supported students by limiting the notice period, we have an immediate 20% interest-free loan for five years with no obligation to pay down the principal in the meantime while affordable supply comes on stream, we have the highest social housing budget and we have ended the SHD process, but we need to keep going. We need to ensure every aspect of the State delivers on housing in the way that every aspect of the State responded to Covid-19. I ask the Taoiseach to work with everyone and with every part of the State to make sure young families, couples, single people and people on the social housing and affordable housing waiting lists get homes by the end of this term in government and to allow us to show people that there has been a change in housing policy and that we can deliver for the people who need us.

I am concerned about local authority housing, particularly in Carlow where there is a lack of local authority builds. I want to speak about affordable housing because the Affordable Housing Bill 2021 is one of the most critical pieces of legislation. I support it and want to work with it to ensure it is there for people, particularly in Carlow and other areas where we greatly need affordable housing. My biggest concern, and I have raised this with the Taoiseach on several occasions, is the threshold to qualify to go on the local authority housing list. Ten years have passed since a review was done.

The other issue I wish to raise with the Taoiseach, and about which I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and his Department, is the level of Government funding to Carlow County Council. We are €2.7 million short in Government funding every year. This has a significant effect on the people of Carlow. Carlow County Council needs between 50 and 70 staff but it cannot get them because it cannot afford to pay them. This means our services are lacking. The staff are excellent and are doing a great job - this is a point I wish to highlight strongly. If a local authority is not sufficiently staffed, it is very hard on the staff who are there. It also has a direct impact on the good people of Carlow for services and resources. I ask the Taoiseach to give Carlow County Council this extra funding because it is the people of Carlow who are really losing out here.

I know that housing is a significant issue for the Taoiseach. I know he is working very hard on this with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien.

A number of issues have been raised by Deputies, particularly with regard to stamp duty. This was signalled some time ago by the Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Darragh O'Brien, in the context of the decision to increase to 10% the stamp duty on investment funds so that they could not compete with first-time buyers. This was allied with planning decisions made by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. Both measures combined to make it far more restrictive and, essentially, to allow first-time buyers to buy houses in estates and so. They have been given opportunity. Of course they could not compete with the funds prior to those decisions being made. At the time it was signalled that the Ministers would be making provision for leasing for social housing.

We need to move to a different model of leasing. First, the State should own in the local context. Second, I would like to tell Deputy Boyd Barrett that I do not believe the State should be competing with first-time buyers to buy houses.

It is better than letting the investment funds do it.

It is not better-----

Please allow the Taoiseach to speak without interruption.

-----because it is squeezing first-time buyers out of the market. The real issue is that we are in transition here. We are a year in government. The housing for all strategy will make this transition from the current leasing arrangements. Some of this is in the pipeline but there is an immediate issue of 2,400 social houses that can be provided through this leasing model.

Allow me to make the point, please. We want those 2,400 families housed. Local authorities in some instances need to develop capacity and land to get into direct building. The leasing we are talking about here is not the dominant form or model for the provision of social housing at all. That gets lost in the debate because one would imagine that every social house is going to be leased and that is not the case. Up to 80% of such houses right now will be delivered either through approved social housing bodies or local authorities.

That needs to increase. We need to go back to the days when local authorities built houses, including social houses. That is what we want. That will require capacity build-up in some of the local authorities, which the Deputies themselves acknowledged, to be fair, in their presentations. Some of the local authorities need to get back to that and need to get it into their heads that that is where social housing is going. The State is saying we have to get involved, through the Land Development Agency and through local authorities, to provide affordable housing also and to provide opportunities. At the moment we are at about 19,000 to 20,000 homes for 2021. The figure was 20,000 last year. That just is not enough.

It still does not justify-----

All I see, however, is sloganeering, having a cut and objecting to this, that and the other in the midst of a housing crisis.

I gave the Taoiseach a proposal.

Deputy Boyd Barrett, please.

Take Shanganagh. Does Deputy Boyd Barrett not accept any bona fides? The Government has just approved the Shanganagh proposal, which involved social, affordable and cost rental housing. This year we will have the first major cost rental initiatives and scheme. I want to expand that so people can rent quite significantly below the market rate, enhancing affordability in the rental market for people, workers in particular. We also-----

A Thaoisigh, if I may interrupt, we are way over time on this question, so if we could maybe just-----

There were a lot of questions, though. I want to try to do justice to-----

I know, but-----

May we have an extra five minutes?

Shall we take an extra five minutes?

We should, to get the answers.

We will take an extra five minutes. That is agreed. If people would stop interrupting the Taoiseach, we might be able to get more questions answered.

When I spoke in the Dáil I said - I still hold to this view - that a limited degree of leasing has some importance. That was the exact statement I made, which no one has quoted, for obvious reasons. In the long term it is not great value for money for us not to own the property at the end. That is my view. I have said that to the Minister. The Housing for All strategy will deal comprehensively with all these issues, but the key approach will be building for social housing, affordable housing, and cost rental and bringing back voids. Deputy Kelly made a fair point. We cannot have derelict and empty houses. A penalty for not building houses or bringing units back into play is on the agenda as well. We have to look at all measures to get supply up. We have to get to a minimum of 33,000 on average per year and more over the decade. There will be some years over this decade when we will have to get to 40,000 because we have now lost the guts of about 10,000 to the pandemic between last year and this year. My only objective is to get more houses built for people as fast as we possibly can using as many avenues as we possibly can that represent the best value for the taxpayer. That is what we will do under Housing for All.

In response to Deputy Paul Donnelly's point about the defects, the Government has a range of measures and schemes relating to defective products and so on but we need stronger mechanisms in place from the point of view of a regulatory framework, bonds, insurance and so on. The taxpayer cannot pay for everything forever in respect of the deficiencies of private sector operators. The taxpayer cannot be the last resort that just mops up everything. A lot of work is being done on the mica and pyrite schemes and other issues such as fire safety.

As for the strategic housing developments, I do not think the legal capacity is there to disapply retrospectively permissions that were granted, but the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has been committed for quite some time to ending those. They are now being ended. Again, what has been striking is how few of them have followed through in being developed in many cases. One of the issues that Housing for All will look at will be how we get projects back on track and developed. There are lots of permissions out there. I am not just talking about SDZs.

Those projects are a disaster.

Generally speaking, lots of projects have not been developed at all and at the moment show no signs of development.

They are an utter failure.

As for the entire environmental approach in respect of compact cities, for example, the agenda there would be to activate brownfield sites to create housing opportunities within cities. However, the costs are proving particularly difficult, and the constant refrain from the sector is that they are not viable from a cost perspective, yet from a public transport perspective and a services perspective it makes sense to try to revitalise inner-city brownfield sites. However, that is proving especially challenging, to be frank, in terms of getting a model in place that would release the potential for the development of large-scale apartments at affordable cost.

They are not for the local people. They are build to rent.

I am just saying what people who are in the field building are saying. They say they cannot do it. I do not know whether they are right or wrong. They say they cannot and those sites have not been built on. That is the reality of brownfield sites. We have not had the development recently that we would have wanted. We will look at how we can get a town centre first approach in towns, but in cities-----

It is the wrong type of development. The Taoiseach should watch the "Prime Time" programme.

The Deputies have to listen too to people who are out there in the field trying to get projects off the ground because all I hear is-----

Yes, people will build to make profit. We need a private sector as well.

That is the point. We do not need houses for profit.

We will not get to 30,000 or 40,000 houses a year if we do not have a balance between State-driven social housing, State-supported affordable housing and private sector development.

We are not going to get there.

It simply will not happen.

(Interruptions).

I have to interrupt now.

I think Deputy McAuliffe-----

No. Sorry, a Thaoisigh.

My apologies.

Members keep interrupting the Taoiseach, which has held up the whole process. We have reached the end of the additional allocated time for these questions. We need, in fairness to the other questioners, to move on to Question No. 11.

May I respectfully say just one thing? Deputy McAuliffe summed up eloquently, with precision and factually a lot of the progress that has been made over the past year, and that will stand on the record of the House.

European Council

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

11. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach the outcome of discussions at the recent European Council concerning EU relations with Russia. [34647/21]

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

12. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach the outcome of discussions at the recent European Council regarding the Northern Ireland protocol. [34648/21]

Neale Richmond

Ceist:

13. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the most recent European Council meeting. [34658/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

14. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the European Council meeting of 24 and 25 June 2021. [34761/21]

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

15. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent European Council meeting. [36197/21]

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

16. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent European Council. [36369/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 16, inclusive, together.

I attended a meeting of the European Council on 24 and 25 June in Brussels. The agenda covered Covid-19, economic recovery, migration, Turkey and the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, relations with Russia, Ethiopia and a number of other external relations issues. We also discussed the fundamental values of the European Union, including LGBTI equality and non-discrimination.

Our meeting began with an exchange of views with United Nations Secretary General, Mr. António Guterres, at which the importance of good co-operation between the European Union and the United Nations was discussed.

On Covid-19, we welcomed the good progress on vaccination roll-out while stressing the need to remain vigilant and co-ordinated regarding the emergence of variants of concern. We reaffirmed our commitment to vaccine sharing.

We also had a first discussion on a lessons learned report prepared by the Commission. European Union leaders reviewed the implementation of the European Union's Next Generation recovery plan. We welcomed the timely entry into force of the own resources decision and endorsed the draft Council recommendation on the economic policy of the euro area. We also met in euro summit format to discuss the economic challenges facing the euro area and reviewed progress on the banking union and capital markets union.

We discussed migration on the various routes and agreed to continue to co-operate with countries of origin and transit. We resumed discussion on relations with Russia and reaffirmed the European Union's commitment to a united, long-term and strategic approach based on the five guiding principles. We welcomed the implementation of sanctions on Belarus. Leaders reiterated the European Union's readiness to engage with Turkey in a phased, proportionate and reversible manner, subject to Turkish actions. We also adopted conclusions on Mali and Libya and condemned the ongoing atrocities and rights violations in Ethiopia's Tigray region. We condemned recent malicious cyberactivities against member states, including Ireland.

I also took the opportunity to discuss implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol and developments in Northern Ireland with a number of European Union colleagues.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. It is important that at every European Council the EU make it clear to the Russian leadership the need for it to demonstrate a clear political commitment to stop actions against the EU and its member states and, importantly, against third countries east of the European Union. We need full implementation of the Minsk agreements. It is important the EU intensifies its co-operation with eastern partners. I can well appreciate that at this time EU enlargement is not a priority due to so many other pressing issues, but it is one that should be advanced as incrementally as possible.

In that context, and from a national point of view, I welcome the expansion of the Irish global footprint, particularly with the opening of the Irish embassy in Ukraine. I hope that the Taoiseach will be able to give a commitment in the not-too-distant future to open an embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia. That would be very important. Ukraine and Georgia have suffered from occupation by Russia and human rights violations. It is not acceptable. These days we have non-military warfare with cyberattacks, disinformation and propaganda. All these issues need to be tackled because they are continuous series of aggressions.

The Northern Ireland protocol is very important. I represent two of the southern Ulster counties. Much of their business is cross-Border and many of our companies are interdependent, as is the economy, North and South. The EU must continue to honour its agreement but we also must ensure that the greatest efforts are made to remove all obstacles to trade because any disruption to trade in Northern Ireland disrupts the economy throughout the entire country.

My colleague, Deputy Brady, made a presentation to the European Parliament standing Delegation for relations with Palestine last week to brief parliamentarians from across the EU on the Dáil motion on the annexation of Palestinian lands by Israel. Michael Lynk, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory also attended. Ireland is recognised for the role it played in the anti-apartheid campaign during the 1980s. There is urgent need for a similar campaign now in response to Israel's apartheid policies. The Human Rights Watch report, A Threshold Crossed, starkly documents how Israeli authorities methodically privilege Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians. It states: "Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy." Palestinians are dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated and subjugated by virtue of their identity, all of which amounts to crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution. The Taoiseach has stated on a number of occasions that the occupied territories Bill banning trade with illegal settlements in the occupied territories is not compatible with European law; others disagree. Will the Taoiseach provide the Government's legal advice or at least commit to providing the points of European law which he has been advised are incompatible with the legislation?

The European digital green certificate is due to come into operation on 19 July. It is a moving issue on which a significant number of people anxiously wait for news of its delivery To keep people updated, will the Taoiseach tell the House whether the timelines will be met? Will it be paper-based? When will these start to be posted out? Will it be Monday? I will not hold him to it but what percentage of people does he expect will have them next week, before 19 July? There will be issues, but does he predict that a large number of people will receive them next week?

My next question relates to long Covid at European level. In late 2020, the UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, NICE, published guidelines on and recommendations for long Covid care. On 6 May, the European Commission announced plans to back a new generation of improved Covid treatments, especially for people suffering long Covid. Was this considered by the European Council? This is an issue that will have to dealt with on an ongoing basis. The longer-term health impacts have been completely underestimated. Has this been acknowledged at European level? Has there been discussion on what will be done about it and about treatments? How will it even be defined? This is an entirely new issue. Has it been recognised and discussed at European level?

Nobody can say the Taoiseach is not accountable to this House on his participation at European Council meetings. In the past two weeks, there have been pre-European Council statements, post-European Council statements and today there are further parliamentary questions.

Will he give the House further information on his discussions with the Romanian president on plans to purchase 1 million Covid-19 mRNA vaccines from Romania? I understand there is an agreement in principle to purchase. What developments have since taken place? When might the vaccines arrive here? What are the logistical issues to be worked through? Have the authorities in Denmark been contacted to see how their purchase is working out for them? What other EU states have been contacted regarding the purchase of vaccines and what was the response? Is the Commission happy with this practice?

What has Ireland's commitment been to COVAX to date? How much have we contributed through Irish Aid, the World Health Organization, Global Health and the EU generally? Can the Taoiseach indicate the figures involved and how much financial support we are giving to COVAX through these various organisations?

Following the attempt at ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and the conflict and military brutality from Israel that provoked, the Government agreed to pass a motion that acknowledged illegal settlements were taking place on Israel's part, but it voted down an amendment I tabled that sought to characterise the situation as it is, not simply as illegal settlements but as an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing by an apartheid state, and consequently the state of Israel needs to be treated as the apartheid South African regime was with sanctions and boycott. In the past week, there have been more instances of the point I was making. Early on the morning of 29 June in the Silwan area, south of the Al-Asqa mosque, a town of 15,000 people, 40 Israeli military vehicles piled into the area in an attempt to demolish 96 homes of Jerusalemites. They used a bulldozer to knock down a butcher's shop. Israel has introduced a new law that essentially prevents those Palestinians from resisting the demolition of their homes. This week, there was also the spectacle of Naftali Bennett, the Israeli Prime Minister, trying to prevent Palestinians who marry Israelis from gaining Israeli citizenship. Is this not proof that it is an apartheid state and a state involved in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, as I said?

I take Deputy Brendan Smith's point on Russia. There was a good meeting and a good discussion including at a prior Council meeting for some time. The point has been made that the five principles that govern the EU's approach in the relationship include the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and strengthening relations with eastern partner countries, which was reiterated at the latest Council meeting. Several member states articulated the need to reach out and engage with eastern partner counties and, indeed, other countries of central Asia. Strengthening EU resilience to Russian threats is a key principle as well as selective engagement with Russia on certain issues such as counterterrorism, climate change and support for people-to-people contacts. Those are the five principles that govern member states and the EU generally in its relationship with Russia. The need for a unified approach across the EU is also important. Ireland supports an openness to selective engagement in certain areas, particularly climate security, Iran and Syria, but we believe that the pacing of that engagement is key. The recent behaviour of Russia in many areas has been unacceptable. That is the position at the moment and there is further work to be done. The High Representative, Josep Borrell, produced a good, comprehensive report on the status of the relationship with Russia right now and where he sees it going forward.

The general consensus was that we would pace the engagement but also see what the best model for engagement with the European Union is.

On the global footprint, I take the Deputy's point on Tbilisi. I will engage with the Minister for Foreign Affairs in respect of that. As he says, we are making progress on the Ukraine.

In terms of Deputy Paul Donnelly's points on the apartheid situation, it was interesting that when I met the UN Secretary General en marge of the meeting, he praised Ireland's contribution to the Security Council and Ireland's persistence on the situation in the Middle East, in particular in Palestine. The general international perception of Ireland is of a very activist, progressive and interventionist approach to the Middle East. That sometimes does not get articulated in the House. We should maintain the unity of purpose in terms of the broad principles that should govern our approach to a two-state solution and the ending of injustice. I accept the points that have been made by Deputies Donnelly and Boyd Barrett on the ongoing discrimination against Palestinians, which is unacceptable.

Deputy Kelly raised the Covid travel certificate. We are broadly on track in terms of the issuing of the certificates. We are making good progress in respect of that. Our objective was to sign up for 19 July. There will be a comprehensive presentation on the operationalisation of the system from the Irish perspective. We will operate the new digital certificate from 19 July for travel originating within the EU and EEA. What is particularly important for those travelling is to ascertain the status of how other member states are going to apply the certificate. That is important. People must check. On the way back in, people who are not vaccinated will be required to have a PCR test if they do not have proof of recovery from Covid.

We will broadly align ourselves to the EU approach to non-essential travel into the EU from third countries. There are ongoing discussions between the European Union and Great Britain as well as the United States of America. It would be desirable in respect of those two countries that we would have a unified, consistent approach and clear safety protocols for safe travel and public health advice. There will be a more comprehensive presentation on the issue in due course, but significant progress is being made in regard to it.

Deputy Kelly's point on long Covid is very well made. I am concerned about long Covid. Some of the debate that gets articulated regarding Covid from time to time is about the fact that it is okay because younger people do not go to hospital. I find that very annoying at times. Some 10% of all cases can develop into long Covid, which can have a significant negative effect on people for some time. The full implications of it have to be worked out. Europe has developed the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, HERA, group, which will probably develop into the HERA institute. It combines researchers, biotech companies, manufacturers and the medical authorisation agencies, in particular the European Medicines Agency, EMA, to deal with all these issues, both therapeutics and in terms of vaccines, where a lot of progress has been made.

Deputy Haughey raised a number of issues. We have agreed in principle with the Romanians to secure additional vaccines. We asked all EU states and we have got a very welcome response from Romania, which I appreciate. I had discussions with the Romanian President, and the arrangements are being worked out now between the two respective health systems. We have been in touch with other EU states in respect of that and the discussions remain to be brought to a conclusion.

We have been very strong on COVAX. Our view generally in the debate with the European Commission in terms of the global supply is towards giving additional resources to Africa, for example, to improve its production and manufacturing capacity. The European Union has pledged €1 billion to Africa in respect of additional capacity.

I am afraid the time is up.

I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett that what is going on in terms of the discrimination against Palestinians is unacceptable. There is no question about that. Ireland continues to call out Israel in respect of that.

I thank the Taoiseach. The time is up.

We consistently seek to get an alternative approach.

Citizens' Assembly

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

17. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on progress towards implementing the citizens' assemblies committed to in the programme for Government. [34836/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the expected timeline and order of citizens' assemblies committed to in the programme for Government. [36219/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 and 18 together.

The Citizens' Assembly on gender equality was established in January 2020 and submitted its final report to the Oireachtas on 2 June. The assembly agreed 45 priority recommendations covering a wide range of areas set out in its mandate. These include recommendations on politics and leadership, care giving and childcare, domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, pay and the workplace and social protection, and the Constitution. The final report of the assembly sets out those recommendations in context and is for consideration by the Oireachtas in the first instance.

Following delays caused by Covid-19, this assembly adapted its methods to comply with public health guidelines and resumed its work with online meetings last year. An independent researcher was appointed by the assembly to monitor and record, among other things, the perceived deliberative quality of the assembly. This report will assist in decisions on the use of virtual meetings for future assemblies. I am informed the researcher has now submitted her report to the Citizens' Assembly and I understand it will be published by the end of the week.

Under the programme for Government, the Government aims to establish a Citizens' Assembly in 2021 to consider the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin. This assembly will be established with a new chairperson and new members. Consideration is being given to the appropriate methodology for future citizens' assemblies, but any decisions in this regard will be guided by the experience of the gender equality assembly.

The programme for Government provides for the establishment of citizens' assemblies to consider biodiversity, matters relating to drugs use and the future of education. Officials from my Department are engaging with officials from relevant Departments on the approach to be taken with regard to these assemblies. It is envisaged that they will be established after the Citizens' Assembly on the Dublin mayor has completed its work, but the specific timing of each assembly has yet to be confirmed.

Citizens' assemblies do very valuable work in guiding policy and giving a sense of the direction the public would like the Government to take; however, their establishment must have careful regard to public health constraints, which can add to the complexity and the time it takes to operate them safely and effectively. Although the timing of the assemblies outlined in the programme for Government may not yet be confirmed, there are ongoing and new initiatives being carried out in each important area: biodiversity, drugs and the future of education.

The last time we discussed this issue, we had an extensive discussion on the outcome of the most recent assembly on gender equality. I also inquired of the Taoiseach about his priorities, as a number of assemblies are proposed. In his reply, he might indicate what his priorities are.

The programme for Government commitment is stated as being one on the future of education, but I would also expect that to examine the role of the church in education. For a number of years, the Labour Party has called for such an assembly. It should not just address the role of the church in education but also in healthcare. There is a range of complex constitutional and ethical questions that must be resolved, so I ask that the Taoiseach would consider that one of the assemblies would be on the role of the church and religious institutions in both healthcare and education. Society has changed so much. We have seen the complex problems with the National Maternity Hospital, and how the historical role of the church in providing social services and education has given rise to issues, with the desire of the public being for secular health and education free from religious influence. We cannot keep dealing with these issues on a case-by-case basis. The Taoiseach would probably agree with me on that. We need a framework to deal with all of these issues. It would be remiss of me not to ask the Taoiseach about the national maternity hospital. It has been two weeks since the issue was debated here and nothing seems to have been progressed. Where are we at as regards the discussions on this with the Minister? Is the Government going to power on with the current proposal or is there a proposal to acquire the site? Could the Taoiseach update the House?

Unfortunately, we do not have any time for the Taoiseach to respond, so perhaps he might correspond with Deputy Kelly on those important questions.

We have 30 seconds. I seem to be the only person left, so it is a bit discriminatory.

All right. The Deputy can proceed.

I would be broadly in agreement with the Deputy's point that the world has changed and society has changed. It is not just the church and education and social services; it is also what happens post the church leaving certain sectors of society. I am particularly conscious of the disability sector and section 38 organisations more generally, capacity issues and relationships between the State and such services, where the State does not have the lever. I am moving on this. This argy-bargy going on, saying we are not taking extra classes and we are not taking extra places for children who need places, cannot go on. We need to have the proper framework that the Deputy has suggested to evolve into a newer situation. The national maternity hospital is a classic illustration of that. It is what it is now, and there is ongoing engagement with the Minister on it, but I stand back from it all and say that the State is funding this 100%, so, to me, there are obvious and logical conclusions to that. In the future, I do not want to preside over anything like that. This has been going on for years but, in other developments, if we are providing services, we own the services and we control what is happening there.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.