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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 5

Ceisteanna - Questions

Brexit Issues

Neale Richmond

Ceist:

1. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit will next meet. [58578/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit will next meet. [60150/21]

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit will next meet. [60117/21]

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

4. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit will next meet. [60328/21]

Christopher O'Sullivan

Ceist:

5. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit is meeting next. [60329/21]

Christopher O'Sullivan

Ceist:

6. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit is meeting next. [60567/21]

Neale Richmond

Ceist:

7. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with Brexit will meet next. [60573/21]

I propose to take questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland was established by Government on 6 July 2020 and had his first meeting on 29 October 2020. The Cabinet committee last met on 4 March 2021 and was scheduled to meet again on Monday, 29 November, but had to be postponed due to the need for a meeting on Covid-19. A revised date has yet to be confirmed. It should be noted that relevant issues arising on Brexit and Northern Ireland are regularly considered at meetings of the full Cabinet. This week’s Cabinet consider two comprehensive memos on North-South co-operation and on the shared island initiative. The Cabinet committee on Europe which last met on 14 October also discussed related matters. In addition to the meetings at the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I also meet with Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues where required.

I ask that Deputies could limit the supplementary replies to a minute and a half so that we can get through everyone. I call Deputy Richmond.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. There are four matters I would like to raise.

Many of them follow on from yesterday's discussion on North-South relations. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach could elaborate on what efforts the Government is making to work with industry, individuals and sectoral groups to prepare for the new Brexit checks that are due to come into place on 1 January. What is being done to continue the excellent efforts to diversify the trade routes in order that we can trade directly with our largest market, namely, the Continent? What impact is Brexit having on overall Anglo-Irish relations? Without getting into too much detail, the political climate in London is a little confusing today and there is a big fear that whatever controversy the British Government faces will lead to it using the dead-cat strategy, such as by invoking plan B on Covid or making yet another threat to trigger Article 16. I ask the Taoiseach to elaborate on the continuing efforts between himself, European partners and the British Government to ensure Article 16 is not needlessly triggered.

Data published last month by the British Office for National Statistics demonstrate the economic benefits of the protocol for the North's economy. In fact, the figures show that the North has performed better economically than Britain in tackling the challenges caused by Brexit. The data from Britain tell a very different story of the impact of Brexit on its economy. Its Office for Budgetary Responsibility has forecast that the long-term impact of Brexit on growth will be worse than that of the pandemic, with the hit to GDP likely to be twice that of Covid. As my colleagues in the North have highlighted, there is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that the protocol is protecting the North's economy through its unique access to the EU's Single Market. The majority of businesses, people and parties in the North opposed Brexit and want to see the protocol not just working for the economy but maximised in terms of its potential. Tory threats to trigger Article 16 have also been firmly rejected by businesses and industry in Britain. The Confederation of British Industry has been categorical in its demand of Boris Johnson that his Government should not go anywhere near Article 16. Businesses in the North and Britain want the Tories to pursue a better relationship with the EU, not deepen the fallout from Brexit, which seems to be their current strategy and is supported by unionism. During the Taoiseach's recent discussions with the British Prime Minister and unionist leaders, was there a recognition of the protections the protocol has provided to the North's economy or its additional potential for the future?

News came on Monday that Ireland is to receive approximately €920 million from the EU's Brexit adjustment reserve fund, with an additional €244 million to be paid in 2025. That is very welcome but we need to ensure that EU funding goes to the traders and sectors that need it most, including those in our fishing sector, businesses dealing with Brexit challenges and, of course, agriculture and food. What plan does the Government have for this money? Can the Taoiseach provide detailed breakdowns for this year and next year? I understand that a portion of the money will go to assist the fishing sector, compensating it for loss of trade and hopefully protecting jobs. How will the public be kept up to date on this? Will there be one big announcement? Has the Government discussed the matter? Has the sub-committee met to discuss it? Can the Taoiseach give some indication of the structure for how this funding will be allocated this year and in the forthcoming years?

As we all know, the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol is part of the withdrawal agreement. I know from my interactions with businesses in neighbouring counties north of the Border that they are anxious that the protocol works and that whatever difficulties and issues there are be resolved as soon as possible, without any threats of anybody triggering Article 16. They are anxious that the Government, along with the European Union, continues to work towards resolving whatever outstanding issues there are. Professors Katy Hayward and David Phinnemore of Queens University have done excellent work over the past number of years with regard to Brexit. They recently carried out some surveys on people's attitude to the protocol in Northern Ireland. Two of the major issues of concern were the availability of medicine and the need to reduce the customs paperwork for products travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach gave us an assurance some time ago with regard to medicines that those issues would be resolved. All of us want to see that happen. I ask the Taoiseach to give us a progress report on where we are at with the medicines issue, as well as the possibility of having the customs paperwork reduced. It is a particular difficulty for smaller businesses and we want to ensure they will not continue to be impacted adversely by Brexit.

As the Taoiseach knows, Brexit had a disproportionate impact on the fishing sector. The Common Fisheries Policy review is looming. What is the Government's approach to that review in terms of addressing the burden share and quota share issue facing the Irish fleet? I understand that there will be a meeting of the European Council on 12 and 13 December , including marine and fishing ministers, to discuss quota share. Surely that is an opportune time to discuss the issue of burden sharing and the fact that the Irish fleet is not getting a fair share of the quota. It is an opportunity to highlight the inequity of our quota share in species such as hake, haddock and monkfish, which are predominantly caught in Irish waters but of which we have a tiny percentage of the quota. What is the general approach to addressing that quota share issue? I know the Taoiseach is well aware of it from visiting west Cork and meeting stakeholders.

I want to follow up on the question Deputy Connolly asked earlier. As the Taoiseach knows, Deputy Connolly and I are very strongly in favour of the vaccination programme. We think people should get their boosters and we agree about the injunction to protect life and limb. However, there are human rights considerations for the small number of people who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons or who have not yet been persuaded, sometimes because they do not really understand the issue. I just want to draw a contrast with the North of Ireland in this regard. The North is avoiding that issue of discrimination against that small group by giving people options other than the vaccination certificate, namely, testing, in order to allow them access theatres, bars, restaurants and so on. In fact, that is the case in most of Europe. The Government should consider doing that because, even though I am absolutely a believer in the vaccination campaign, that sort of divisiveness and finger-pointing at a relatively small group is not helpful. It smacks of the mandatory approach that the WHO has warned strongly against and which I think is counterproductive. I ask the Taoiseach to consider that so we can end that sort of divisive situation.

I thank all the Deputies for raising these matters. Deputy Richmond raised issues around the protocol and Brexit. All efforts are continuing to be made in terms of preparation. To be fair to the Government, and the previous Government, Ireland has prepared well for Brexit compared to what is happening in the UK. That seems to be evident in the challenges many SMEs have had in the UK in respect of form-filling and all the bureaucratic challenges and barriers that have come up because of Brexit. The Deputy is right about future dates and deadlines and that work continues with all sectors. I was in Rosslare recently to see the preparations and work that have been under way there.

On the matter of Article 16, I understand what Deputy Richmond is saying about the domestic British political situation. In all our exchanges, particularly at the meeting of the British-Irish Council we had with the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, and others, there was a clear sense, to be fair, that they were not going to be motivated by domestic political considerations. There was a sense that they wanted to bring this to a resolution and that they wanted, preferably, to do it in the context of a negotiated solution between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Those expressions of opinion and points were put well and cogently by Michael Gove and subsequently by the British Prime Minister in a telephone conversation I had with him. That is the preferred route of travel and everybody wants to pursue it in that manner.

On the points raised by Deputies Kelly and Brendan Smith, at the British-Irish Council the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers were at pains to point out the challenges Brexit has posed for them. That was particularly the case with the Welsh First Minister due to the reduction of trade in the ports and the potential impact on their respective economies.

Regarding the points Deputies Christopher O'Sullivan and Kelly made on the Brexit adjustment reserve fund, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has included that in the national development plan and will be allocating it specifically to certain areas for prioritisation. The key one will be fishing - we are very conscious of that - but also included are rural communities, the food industry, agriculture and other sectors that will be most impacted as a result of Brexit and the costs and measures we have had to introduce to deal with Brexit. It is very welcome funding of more than €1 billion that we have secured. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will be providing greater detail in respect of that in due course.

Deputy Brendan Smith is absolutely correct; that is our sense as well. Industry and businesses in the North believe the protocol is working for them. What is interesting is that, if someone is a farmer in Northern Ireland or involved in the dairy industry, the seamless flow North and South is absolutely indispensable to his or her business. Likewise, access to the Single Market for Northern businesses is important, gives an advantage and helps them to export more and, potentially, attract foreign direct investment into the North. That is important, as is access to Great Britain's market, of course, which is the biggest market for Northern Ireland. That is the ideal landing zone for the protocol, but we must do it in a way that, as the Deputy said, minimises the checks in respect of small to medium-sized business.

Real progress has been made in respect of medicines. I would argue that we are close to a position on medicines that should meet the concerns that the British Government and people in Northern Ireland have in respect of access to the latest medicines and those authorised by the British regulatory authorities. The devil is always in the detail and there is some remaining work to be done on that. The same applies to customs and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, checks. The initial assessment from the Commission was that the proposals put forward by Commissioner Maroš Šefcovic would reduce SPS checks by about 80%. The work is ongoing between Commissioner Šefcovic and Lord Frost. We hope they can reach a proper, sensible agreement that will be to the benefit of everyone. As I said yesterday, all the participants at the British-Irish Council were very clear and articulated to the British Government that we did not want any more disruption between the EU and the UK.

Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan raised the issue of fishing specifically, including in terms of the Brexit fund. A proportion of that fund will be available to fishers. In terms of burden sharing, I recently wrote to the President of the European Commission in that respect pointing out the fact that we had too high a burden resulting from the Brexit deal. There is a long road to go. I spoke to the Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries when he came here with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue. There are 27 member states and achieving agreement on these issues is very challenging and difficult, but I know that the Minister will do everything he can to get the best deal he possibly can in this annual round. The fishing review is next year. We have fed our reviews into that and will continue to do so.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of giving people other options. I am concerned about those who cannot have a vaccine because of medical reasons, including adverse reactions. We have followed the voluntary approach here. I am not responsible for writing headlines, but when we raise issues around what is happening in ICUs, that is not done by way of threat or trying to pressurise people. It is just stating the facts as we get them in terms of the impact of the disease and whether people are vaccinated.

Departmental Functions

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the public service, justice and police reform division of his Department. [58549/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the public service, justice and police reform division of his Department [60203/21]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

10. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the public service, justice and police reform division of his Department [60206/21]

Cian O'Callaghan

Ceist:

11. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the public service, justice and police reform division of his Department. [60355/21]

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

12. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the public service, justice and police reform division of his Department. [60569/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 12, inclusive, together.

The public service, justice and policing reform unit is part of the social policy and public service reform division of my Department. The work of the unit supports me, in my role as Taoiseach, on criminal justice, policing, community safety and related matters; incorporates the policing reform implementation programme office, which oversees the implementation of A Policing Service for the Future, the Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland; and supports the Civil Service management board, including the Civil Service renewal programme, and contributes to the oversight and governance of the new public services reform plan.

The unit also assists the work of the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, equality and public services, including matters relating to arts and culture, children, justice, policing reform, community safety, disability, social inclusion, gender equality, direct provision, the Irish language and sport. It has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council, provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues, and participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.

Friday is International Human Rights Day. It will mark the end of this year's 16-day campaign against gender-based violence against women. The global theme for International Human Rights Day is reducing inequalities and advancing human rights. Drawing on Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights", we are reminded that the principles of equality and non-discrimination are at the heart of human rights. These principles are relevant in every sphere of public policy, be it the right to a healthy environment, equal access to vaccines, breaking the cycle of poverty or protection from gender-based abuse, violence or death.

The programme for Government commits to legislating for domestic homicide reviews and the Justice Plan 2021 commits to publishing the independent research on familicide and domestic homicide reviews. Work on this study began in 2019. Even allowing for the sad passing of Ms Norah Gibbons last year, we still have no indication from the Minister as to when she expects to receive the final study. It is important to note that it was expected to take months rather than years to be completed. While we acknowledge the independence of the advisory group and its work, surely the Minister should at this point be provided with a date for which the group expects to conclude its work.

I am sorry, but which review did the Deputy mention?

The research on familicide and domestic homicide reviews. It was expected in months but years have now passed. There are some reasons but they do not account for all of the delays.

I wish to mention briefly the Tusla review of refuge accommodation. It had been expected that the review's publication was imminent but it has been mooted that the Minister is considering delaying it. I cannot overstate the alarm that this has caused across the sector, particularly among service providers. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether publication of the review is to be delayed? If so, will he please share with us the rationale for tat? I fail to see any reasonable excuse for a further delay.

People looking to get appointments with the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, on immigration matters are unable to get any. I am inundated with complaints about this matter. I submitted parliamentary questions on it, through which I was informed that the INIS was registering 1,000 customers per week, implying that there was no problem, but I have had repeated confirmations from people that this cannot be true because when they go on, there are no appointments being released. People are going on at midnight and early in the morning but there are no appointments. There is a suspicion that companies, English language schools or others are block booking all of the appointments. I do not know whether that is true. I am simply saying that there is a concern. What is the case, however, is that people cannot get appointments.

With the INIS?

Yes. It is a serious and widespread problem. I see that other Deputies are nodding their heads. This issue needs to be addressed. We are not getting the truth of the matter when we submit questions to the INIS and the Department of Justice. Will the Taoiseach address this matter? I do not know whether he can tell us anything now but I urge him to address it.

I echo that point. There is a serious issue.

I wish to raise with the Taoiseach a case I have raised with him a number of times, that is, the gross and sexist abuse of power by retired Kerry judge James O'Connor. I have brought a number of testimonies to the Dáil of women in vulnerable positions before him on family law matters where he used his position to completely, inappropriately pressurise and pursue them for sexual relationships.

When I raised this with the Taoiseach on 29 September he said: "I am very concerned about it and about what I have read today in the articles the Deputy mentioned. I will give further consideration to this and revert to the Deputy." It is now two and a half months on and I wonder if the Taoiseach has any information to revert with.

I also echo the points made by Deputy Boyd Barrett. I want to ask the Taoiseach about safeguarding and vulnerable adults. I raised this with him previously. I specifically want to ask him about the need for guidelines or legislation to be introduced to require the Garda when they have credible allegations of sexual assault and rape to inform relevant organisations, including where alleged perpetrators work or volunteer, in order to protect and safeguard vulnerable adults. It is not acceptable that when gardaí have knowledge of credible allegations that they fail to pass it on, which leaves vulnerable adults at risk. It is completely unacceptable that homeless people were put at continued risk earlier this year when the Garda failed to pass on information in a timely manner. This should never be allowed happen again.

I followed up on this with the Minister for Justice and it is clear to me that the current practices and procedures are not fit for purpose. The absence of clear guidelines or legislation is unfair to the individual gardaí who do not know what they should do, when they should do it and in what circumstances. Will guidelines or legislation be introduced to ensure that the Garda pass on information when they have credible allegations of sexual assault and rape to relevant organisations in a timely manner? Will the safeguarding legislation that was introduced by former Senator, Colette Kelleher, in the previous Oireachtas be progressed by the Government?

It is unusual for all of us to echo one point, but what Deputy Boyd Barrett said earlier about those appointments is true. It is the case with all of us in here, so I urge the Taoiseach to take it seriously.

I wish to raise two issues. The Garda Commissioner expressed serious concerns regarding policing reforms. He told the justice committee that the powers granted to the new Garda ombudsman under the Policing, Security and Community Safety Bill 2021 was "disproportionate, unconstitutional and will not withstand an expensive and time-consuming test in the courts". That is completely at odds with the Government, so what is going to happen? It is very unusual.

Where are we at as regards implementation of the future of policing report and the Policing Authority? We support the minority report. We will not support anything that allows a situation where senior appointments in An Garda Síochána are being made by the Commissioner. That must be done independently. It is the very reason we set up the Policing Authority in the first place.

Since the onset of the Covid pandemic in March 2020, we have all become more conscious of the value of community policing. We saw in our own communities a greater presence of gardaí. That was particularly reassuring for people living on their own or older people. In my home town in Cavan, community gardaí were recently appointed and that has been warmly welcomed by the local community. I see they are out meeting people and getting to know them. Likewise, the local community know the local members of An Garda Síochána better than ever. There should be a greater emphasis going forward to bring back the community policing concept and have gardaí stationed locally.

One of the many downsides of the pandemic has been the increasing incidence of domestic abuse. Sadly, there has been a significant growth in incidences, which is regrettable. Tusla, along with the Departments of Justice and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, has carried out a review on the availability of services for victims of abuse and also the availability of refuge places. Unfortunately, there is no refuge centre in either Cavan or Monaghan. If a person needs assistance, he or she must go to a neighbouring county to get accommodation and that is not acceptable. I would like if there could be increased emphasis at Cabinet committee level on ensuring there is easy and appropriate access to a refuge centre for victims of domestic abuse. We all know that women mainly, unfortunately, are victims of domestic abuse. They are very vulnerable and if they have to travel to a neighbouring county there is no chance of their children being able to go to their local school or preschool. It is very important that we have a proper spread of domestic refuge centres throughout the country and that no areas are left without a service within reasonable access.

Deputy O'Reilly's question about the report on familicide and homicide was first. The justice plan for 2021 commits to publishing the independent research on familicide and domestic homicide reviews, which has been commissioned by the Department of Justice as an important first step in delivering on the programme for Government's commitment to legislate to introduce domestic homicide reviews. This independent study is looking at international best practice in the conduct of domestic homicide reviews with a view to making recommendations on their application in this jurisdiction. It is important to stress that the study is independent of the Department, which is not involved in the work of the study nor is it a member of the advisory group established to support the study.

It is understood that the focus of the study is now on the fair procedures part of the process, which involves allowing any persons or organisations that might be affected by the contents of the draft report, including the families concerned, to be given an opportunity to reply. Invariably, this part of the process can take time, as it involves engaging with multiple entities. However, it is an essential part of the process and must be completed before the report can be finalised. I have been informed that the report is expected to be finalised in the coming weeks and that it will be subsequently published with any recommendations made being considered as a priority. We will keep in touch with the Deputy in relation to it.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of INIS, as did other Deputies. The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, in an effort to be helpful just said to me that it is an international phenomenon and there are challenges regarding it. I will come back with a more comprehensive reply to the Deputy. It is not an issue that is being deliberately orchestrated by the Government or the officials or anything like that. There is an issue that does not just relate to this country. ICT systems are being updated. The best thing for me to do would be to articulate the concerns of Deputies and to come back with a comprehensive reply on the matter.

At some stage Deputy Boyd Barrett might reconcile for me what he said earlier about a human rights prism. He is an advocate of zero Covid and I do not know how we reconcile it with human rights considerations. I get opposite ends of the arguments at different times during the pandemic. I just make that point in passing.

Deputy Paul Murphy raised an issue, but I am not sure how far we can take this.

The Taoiseach said he would revert to me.

I said I would reflect on it. I am not clear where we can take it given the fact that the Garda and GSOC were involved. It is not for me to comment. I commend the Deputy on raising the matter. I know it is in the Village magazine as well, but I think the steps that can be taken are beyond my remit at this stage.

Deputy Cian O'Callaghan raised safeguarding of vulnerable adults. He makes very consistent and fair points in that regard. I know that work is being done in Garda vetting, for example, and extending it to cover workers in the homeless sector. In the light of recent issues, the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, has acknowledged the need to address the vetting of people working with the homeless and this might require a review of the legislative provisions.

As part of an overall approach to the reform of and extension of the Garda vetting regime, the Minister for Justice has set up an interdepartmental group to examine vetting legislation and arrangements. The group is examining a number of issues, including the inclusion of homeless outreach services. Its recommendations would then shape any amendments to the vetting legislation and processes, including those required to commence periodic re-vetting. The group is specifically examining any amendments that may be required to remove any doubt that outreach and other services for homeless people who are vulnerable are covered by the vetting regime.

In response to Deputy Brendan Smith's point, I am pleased that someone in the House is praising the Garda. I agree that the community Garda system is an outstanding one and we need to see more of it.

I do not have time to go into the full detail of the implementation of the future of policing report in response to Deputy Kelly. I dealt with it in the House two weeks ago on Question Time. The Government is going full steam ahead with the implementation of the report.

What about the Commissioner?

The Commissioner gave his views at an Oireachtas committee.

What are the Taoiseach's views on that?

Given yesterday's exchanges, I think we are in favour of people being allowed freedom of expression.

That is not an answer. It is ridiculous.

I only have seconds left.

We must move on to the next questions.

Departmental Functions

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

13. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [58550/21]

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

14. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [60110/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

15. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [60207/21]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

16. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [60210/21]

Cian O'Callaghan

Ceist:

17. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [60356/21]

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

18. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social dialogue co-ordination unit of his Department. [60570/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 to 18 together.

The social dialogue unit, part of the economic division in my Department, co-ordinates and supports the Government's overall approach to social dialogue through a variety of mechanisms. These mechanisms includes LEEF, the labour employer economic forum, which engages with representatives of employers and trade unions on economic and employment issues insofar as they affect the labour market. The LEEF has met regularly to facilitate discussions with Government on issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic and our economic recovery. The most recent plenary meeting, which I chaired, took place on 28 October.

Social dialogue through the LEEF process played a crucial role in ensuring workplaces are safe during the Covid-19 pandemic, and a subgroup of LEEF was responsible for preparing, updating and overseeing a work safely protocol which has provided guidance to employers and workers on the steps they need to take collectively to ensure workplaces are safe during the pandemic. The most recent update of the protocol, along with a LEEF guidance note, was published in November. Under the auspices of LEEF, there has also been significant progress on other issues such as the introduction of statutory sick pay, remote working and establishment of a high level review of collective bargaining. There are also LEEF sub-groups dealing with issues including aviation, childcare and the shared island initiative.

The social dialogue unit in my Department also supports my engagements with representatives from the environmental pillar, the community and voluntary pillar and the farming and agriculture pillar. This has included a series of meetings between myself and key Ministers with those groups earlier this year. This was an opportunity to discuss how social dialogue can be strengthened, as well as current issues of concern to those sectors. Social dialogue between Government, trade unions and other representative groups also takes place through structures like the national economic dialogue, the National Economic and Social Council and the National Competitiveness and Productivity Council, through many sectoral groups and with Ministers and Departments directly. The Government is keen to build on these structures, including through a national dialogue on climate action as part of the climate action plan.

As we manage the economy through these challenging times, the Government will continue to engage with representatives under the aegis of LEEF, as well as other stakeholders, and work to strengthen the structures and practice of social dialogue across all areas.

One of the social issues that has captured the hearts and minds of our people over the last year has been the plight of families with homes crumbling down around them in the west of Ireland. The Government has taken action in the last week to address this but I have to raise with the Taoiseach again this issue of the sliding scale. I have correspondence from the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to Donegal County Council. The Taoiseach said we have to take the politics out of the sliding scale and that it is a matter for the Society of Chartered Surveyors of Ireland, and that it is agreed by all that it sets a benchmark for what it should cost per square foot to rebuild a home. In the correspondence from the Minister to the cathaoirleach of Donegal County Council, he clearly said: "The grant calculation methodology will be based on the cost per square foot (psf) of rebuilding the existing home, with costings to be set by me in consultation with the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland." The concern is that the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage officials will stick to this scale, which has no relevance whatsoever, according to the chartered surveyors, quantity surveyors and engineers. The Taoiseach knows that. I ask him again please to remove the sliding scale and then we will have a scheme that the families can work with in the west, which is the place we all want to get to.

What are the Taoiseach's future intentions for this unit? Will it be underpinned by legislation or is it just a kind of social partnership by another name? The labour employer economic forum, or LEEF, as it is called, is one of the key groups supported by this unit and it is currently examining proposals for a bonus for front-line workers. It is 18 months since this was first brought up. The Taoiseach has been completely inconsistent on this. We do not know where he is at in this regard. Following an earlier request from a Deputy, I have no idea what the Taoiseach meant by his reply. A tax free voucher of €500 has been floated and there have been multiple proposals for bank holidays, whether it is 1 February or another day on the other side of St. Patrick's Day. Will the Taoiseach please inform the House what is the status in regard to recognising these workers? What is the Taoiseach planning? Once and for all, will he give some commentary to the public out there on what the Government is thinking on this? At this moment in time, there is complete confusion.

I remain baffled as to the hesitation, reluctance and inaction that the Taoiseach is demonstrating when it comes to the issue of ventilation, air quality and air filtration. He said earlier today that he would do anything to protect life and limb, yet we know that providing minimum standards in terms of air quality and systems that can purify the air could potentially have a dramatic effect on the ability of this disease to transmit in the particular settings and particular types of buildings where it has been prevalent, such as school buildings of poor quality, nursing homes that are old and often not well ventilated, hospitals and so on.

The ICTU supports our Bill and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, has been saying this for a long time about the hospitals. I do not understand. It is a win-win for the Government. We could significantly reduce the impact of other measures and potentially get beyond this grim situation we are in if we took this issue seriously. The Taoiseach was talking about health and safety in workplaces. The amount of resources that would be required to do this would be a tiny fraction of the amount the Government is having to spend on income supports, yet the Taoiseach seems to be slow, reluctant, hesitant and dismissive. I do not understand it. Perhaps the Taoiseach could explain.

For a brief moment, the value and essential nature of workers, those who are on the front line doing the work, had to be recognised in the pandemic. Chief among them, or certainly up there, were supermarket workers, who universally were accepted to be keeping our shops open and providing an essential service when most things were locked down. Even their employers were forced very briefly somewhat to recognise that, for example, with a 10% pandemic bonus from Tesco for its workers. However, as soon as they could, that was quickly forgotten. A few months later, the pandemic bonus was gone and then Tesco went on the offensive. It attempted to push through a very bad deal for workers which would scrap their Sunday premiums, convert a defined benefit pension into a defined contribution pension for new entrants and maintain a two-tier wage structure. The workers have resoundingly rejected those proposals, voting an incredible 88% “No”, and have organised on a rank-and-file basis to fight for the kind of improvements they want to see. My question to the Taoiseach is whether he believes that employers like Tesco and others should recognise the contribution of their workers by providing decent wages, terms and conditions.

I want to follow up on the previous question I asked. To be fair, the Taoiseach may not have fully understood me. The question was not one about Garda vetting. It is welcome if Garda vetting is being extended and, in particular, that must include staff in privately run emergency accommodation for homeless people, which is essential. With regard to what happened earlier this year to homeless people, the alleged perpetrator there was fully Garda vetted, so this is not an issue of Garda vetting. The issue is that the Garda vetting did not offer any protection to homeless people. What happens in other jurisdictions is that the police force, if it has credible allegations - if it is investigating live allegations and has credible evidence - then moves quickly to inform employers or other organisations that there is a real risk to people who are vulnerable and at risk. That did not happen here. We cannot countenance a situation where that could happen again. I ask for that to be looked at and, in particular, for the safeguarding legislation advanced by former Senator Colette Kelleher in the last Oireachtas to be advanced quickly by the Government, which was the intention in the last Oireachtas, I understand.

I understand that, within the next number of weeks, the CAP strategic plan will have to be submitted to the European Commission and, I presume, that goes to the Government for approval before submission to Europe.

As we know, since we joined the then EEC in 1973, the Common Agricultural Policy has been of huge importance to our farming and agrifood sector, to the rural economy and to the overall national economy. Thankfully we have record levels of drink and food exports today and they are critical to the creation and maintenance of employment throughout the country.

To the credit of the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, he has been engaged in a widespread consultation process but there is one proposal on a reduction in pillar 1 funding by 25% and a transfer to pillar 2. It is extremely important that farmers who are regarded as being in the productive sectors, be they dairy, beef, sheep or tillage farmers, continue to get the necessary supports. We all know that prices can be cyclical and income can depend on weather each season as well. Over the years the Common Agricultural Policy has been a hugely important factor in trying to keep farm incomes reasonable, although unfortunately they have not always been good due to external circumstances. It is important that in finalising the Common Agricultural Policy we take cognisance of what has worked for the Irish farming and agrifood sector over the years. I have said for many years that there has been a lazy and at times ill-informed narrative on farming and its importance, as well as its contribution to environmental standards. Our farmers work to extremely high and demanding standards, and rightly so, both from an environmental point of view and also from the point of view of farming practices, as do our processing sectors. The necessary support that has been provided over the years must continue.

On the last point, I will talk to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about the strategic plan. The Deputy is right about the need to do everything we possibly can to focus on what works and on food security in particular, which will remain a big challenge globally. That must be reconciled with the climate issues. Food security is still important and Ireland is probably one of the most carbon efficient production systems in Europe, both in dairy and beef. That should not be forgotten.

On Deputy Cian O’Callaghan’s point, we will examine former Senator Colette Kelleher’s legislation. However, we have a different legal system from those in other countries. If the Garda is in possession of knowledge or material that may not add up to a prosecution or that it has not passed to the DPP then that could be problematic in terms of the rights of the individual. The issue is not that simple but it merits close examination because we have to learn from experience as the Deputy has outlined.

On Deputy Paul Murphy's points, good terms and conditions are the most sustainable way to build and grow business and to build a loyal workforce that is productive. That goes without saying. There are labour relations and industrial relations processes that can facilitate the negotiation of good pay and conditions. Some employers are better than others, and that is particularly true in the retail sector. I have spoken to some traders and companies in the retail sector and they have been complimentary of the extraordinary efforts their workers have made over the last two years in particular.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of ventilation. The Minister for Education has taken on board the expert advice she has received. Within the Common Agricultural Policyital allocations to schools there is the facility to purchase HEPA filters if they are needed in certain settings. There is also a technical team in the Department that will work with schools in certain situations where schools may need more than just HEPA filters.

It is not just schools.

Widespread guidance has issued to employers and intensive care facilities have good air quality and so on. Ventilation is important and that has always been advised from the beginning of the pandemic. There have been arguments about the specific types of ventilation and I gave the Deputy SAGE’s perspective on HEPA filters yesterday, for example, which was interesting.

Deputy Kelly raised the social dialogue. LEEF has a lot of streams to it and it is going well. The aviation stream, construction and collective bargaining are all going well. Much good and substantive work is being done under the auspices of LEEF on substantive issues. We are building up the engagement and dialogue with the environmental NGOs and partners, with agriculture and I initiated an engagement on fishing as well. We will be bringing forward proposals on the recognition of front-line emergency workers in respect of the pandemic.

Deputy Mac Lochlainn raised the mica issue and I said that we wanted to take politics out of this issue. The Minister is adamant about the role of the Society of Chartered Surveyors. He has made that clear, most recently in his conversations with the representative bodies of homeowners. We want to do the right thing by homeowners and we want to make sure we can comprehensively assist them in getting their houses rebuilt or repaired, whichever is optimal for them.

Sitting suspended at 2.06 p.m. and resumed at 3.06 p.m.
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