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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 9 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 4

Ceisteanna - Questions

Brexit Issues

Neale Richmond

Ceist:

1. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will next meet. [11439/22]

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

2. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will next meet. [12788/22]

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

3. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will next meet. [12804/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

Relevant issues arising in regard to Brexit and Northern Ireland are regularly considered at meetings of the full Cabinet. For example, the Cabinet considered two comprehensive memorandums on North-South co-operation and the shared island initiative in December. The Cabinet committee on Europe also discusses related matters and that committee met last Monday.

In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I also meet with Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues, where required.

I thank the Taoiseach for his detailed response. This is an issue that many of us raise with him regularly. The events in continental Europe at this time and the fear arising from them really put Brexit into context. Nevertheless, I have a few questions for the Taoiseach. Will he outline the ongoing discussions that will continue to take place between Commissioner Šefčovič and the British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, and her team on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol and the importance thereof? Second, and more pertinent to the issues at hand in continental Europe, what efforts are being made between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government on co-ordinating the response to refugee accommodation in Ireland? There is a requirement, I would argue, for an all-island approach. There have been concerning leaks in the British media from certain sources in the British Government that, somehow, the common travel area will impact on the UK. That is something we need to nip in the bud. Ireland's refugee policy is a warm and open one and is tied to our European partners. It will not be dictated to by domestic politics in Westminster.

I welcome the Taoiseach's response. Earlier today, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, of which I am a member, had a meeting with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, at which Brexit and the protocol were major issues of discussion, along with the need to implement the Good Friday Agreement fully. People with all shades of political opinion at the meeting spoke about the need for pragmatic solutions and getting a consensus on the outstanding issues. We have to be realistic and recognise there will be a very demanding agenda for all governments and for the EU given the crisis arising out of the brutality of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

There is an urgency in trying to progress the issues concerning the protocol. In the area I represent, there is, fortunately, a huge amount of cross-Border trade and enterprise. The all-island economy has grown immensely since 1998. People want to ensure that any impediments to trade, business and commerce are removed. That is coming from all shades of political opinion and from all businesses that I have dealings with, both north and south of the Border. Many enterprises are based in both jurisdictions and there is a huge interdependence, as the Taoiseach knows, between the economies on both sides of the Border. It is in the interests of all the people of this island, and of Britain, to ensure the remaining issues that need to be resolved are put to bed as soon as possible and that we can get on with our daily lives, from both a business and travel point of view, and not have impediments to the movement of people, goods or services on our island or between our islands.

The Assembly passed a motion last year calling for direct dialogue between it and the European Parliament.

Assembly Members recognise the need for representation of the views of citizens of the North within the EU institutions. In this regard, Sinn Féin has made several proposals, including on observer status, representation at the European Committee on the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee, the ability of Executive Ministers to participate at Council of Ministers meetings, and the participation of civil servants from the North at relevant Council working groups. Does the Taoiseach agree that the EU needs to create formal mechanisms by which the North's politicians and civil servants can engage with the EU institutions? What actions has his office taken to advance these matters?

The Taoiseach told the Dáil yesterday that he wants a citizens' assembly on neutrality. The programme for Government commits to several assemblies, for which no date has been provided, and a referendum to extend presidential voting rights to citizens outside the State. We are nearly two years into this Government's term of office, so surely the Taoiseach can provide us with some indication as to when this long-awaited referendum will take place.

Has the Taoiseach been informed of the recent U-turn by Stormont on rents? Two weeks ago, People Before Profit proposed in Stormont a 10% rent cut for private tenants right across the North. It was passed. At the time, MLAs from the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party all backed the proposal but since then buckled to the landlords' pressure. They did a U-turn and, two days ago, reversed the decision at Stormont. The proposal would have given renters a much-needed break, but rather than stand up for tenants, Sinn Féin, which has the Minister, buckled under the pressure of the corporate lobbyists. We stand by our proposal for a rent cut and make the same proposal here in the South. It is to oppose the profiteering landlords and cut rents to affordable levels. Does the Taoiseach agree that rents need to come down North and South? Will he take action to ensure it happens?

The Border is like a wall with a thousand blocks. Each block stands for an issue of genuine concern to people North and South. Examples are the differences between cancer services, ambulance services, excise duties and VAT rates. I refer to all the various aspects of the services we consume. The differences separate us and also reduce the quality of people's lives. I call on the Government to audit all these issues and work on making progress towards equalisation so the difficulties will be removed from people's lives

and the height of the wall will be reduced. Unity, on that sunny day when it is realised, will have been much easier to achieve if the North and South have engaged in equalisation regarding a whole range of issues. Will the shared island unit within the Department work on a project such as that?

InterTradeIreland is doing considerable work in a North–South context but there is a cap on the number of people it can employ. There is a cap on its ability to increase trade North and South. Can we get to the bottom of this, le do thoil?

On Deputy Richmond's points, in essence we welcome the fact that the EU–UK joint committee, co-chaired by Vice President Šefčovič and the UK Foreign Secretary, Ms Liz Truss, met on 21 February. We also welcome the continuation of the technical talks and the meeting yesterday of the Specialised Committee on the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. At the meeting, the EU and UK reiterated the importance of further engagement with business groups, civil society and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland and committed to further joint engagements. Vice President Šefčovič and the Commission continue to have my full support. I hope the British Government will engage constructively so we can find pragmatic solutions.

Deputy Brendan Smith raised the issue of pragmatic solutions given the international crisis we are now experiencing owing to the appalling war in Ukraine. The focus has to remain on addressing genuine problems that have been raised. Reaching an agreed approach to the protocol is an important factor in allowing us all to turn the page and open up a new chapter in a forward-looking constructive EU–UK relationship and partnership. Flexibility and pragmatism, to which Deputy Smith referred, are key.

It is emerging that the protocol is presenting significant opportunities for business and employment in Northern Ireland. I take what Deputy Smith said about his conversations this morning at the committee, indicating that people of all shades of opinion wanted a pragmatic solution to this. Northern Ireland is now the only place in the world that has free and full access to both the EU Single Market and the UK's market.

Invest Northern Ireland is seeing historically high levels of FDI interest in Northern Ireland. Investment announcements have been made throughout the year based on dual market access. Recent figures from the UK's Office for National Statistics show the Northern Ireland economy has outperformed and recovered from the impact of Covid-19 faster than the rest of the UK. Recent polls on attitudes to the protocol show support across communities for solution-seeking and a pragmatic approach. That gives me hope that both sides can reach a conclusion in the best interest of the people of Northern Ireland.

On the common travel area, I take the point that the humanitarian response is our priority. We will engage in ongoing discussions with the UK Government on this. The UK Government is also reflecting on its position given the scale of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding.

On Deputy Farrell's points, the EU has been very open to facilitating dialogue in the context of the protocol discussions through the joint committee but also through working with and meeting all the parties and stakeholders.

With regard to the EU institutions themselves, there is a limit to what can actually be achieved in respect of the agreements arrived at between the EU and UK. We have advocated engagement by Northern Ireland with EU institutions and so on. However, with regard to Council meetings, it becomes far more problematic from an EU perspective. There are limits to what can be achieved in this regard.

The Government is working on a referendum on voting rights. I have referred to this in the context of what is now a debate, involving all perspectives, on the security situation in Europe. A citizens' assembly is perhaps a good forum to have the issues properly teased out and researched and in which to have an informed debate on them.

I am not fully familiar with what Deputy Paul Murphy mentioned. He said he had secured the passage in the Assembly of a 10% reduction in rents but that this has now been overturned. He said Sinn Féin buckled under the pressure of the corporate landlords, which is some assertion. That would be a surprise. On the other hand, maybe there is a sense of realism breaking through because, as we have indicated here, there are realities associated with the private rental market that cannot be ignored. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin Ministers tend to have a greater grasp of the realities and realpolitik associated with what is and is not possible, as opposed to Sinn Féin leadership in opposition in the Republic, who very often put forward ideas their colleagues in the North simply cannot implement. It illustrates that, objectively, one has to be realistic in the proposals one puts forward.

In the Republic, landlords are leaving the market right now. Those with one or two houses are leaving it. There has been a decline in the number of landlords over the past two years. We need more. We need an increase in the number of units in the private rental market to deal with the broader housing issue. We need more social housing, affordable housing and cost rental housing. The latter has great potential but we must increase its scale massively.

I take Deputy Tóibín's point. There is a lot of research under way. The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, will shortly be publishing its comprehensive research on economic opportunities in an all-island context, including opportunities associated with the environment, climate change and biodiversity. The Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and other bodies have undertaken research on aspects of health services, particularly primary care services, in the North and South. We have commissioned some research in respect of the educational curriculum. Interestingly, through the shared island unit, we recently allocated about €37 million for successful collaborations between third level institutions in the North and the Republic. They are to be fully funded by the shared island unit.

One of the research projects, for example, is a collaboration between Magee College and NUI Galway around maximising human and social capital in the Border area in terms of economic and social development and along the western seaboard in the north west and the west. A lot will come from those individual research projects also.

Departmental Policies

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [11088/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [12792/22]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [12795/22]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

7. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [12799/22]

Aindrias Moynihan

Ceist:

8. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [12805/22]

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

9. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [12806/22]

Cian O'Callaghan

Ceist:

10. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [12959/22]

Mick Barry

Ceist:

11. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [12963/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 11, inclusive, together.

Ireland's well-being framework is the result of a programme for Government commitment to develop a set of well-being indices to create a well-rounded, holistic view of how Irish society is faring. This will help us to do things differently and place an emphasis on quality of life issues, as we recover from the impacts of the pandemic, and sustainably rebuild and renew our economy and society. The framework aims to provide a joined-up way of considering and understanding life in Ireland by bringing different outcomes together across environmental, societal and economic areas. It will also help us to measure and compare Ireland's progress more holistically as we move forward. This work is being led jointly by the Department of the Taoiseach, along with the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. There has also been close collaboration with the Central Statistics Office, CSO, in developing an interactive dashboard at its well-being information hub.

A first report on the development of the well-being framework for Ireland was published by the Government in July last year and was informed by consultation facilitated by the National Economic and Social Council, NESC. A second phase of consultation and research on the framework, as committed to in the first report, was launched in October last year and included the launch of a Government portal providing accessible information on the initiative. The purpose of the recent public conversation, which concluded in January, was to create awareness, to test the framework and the vision, and to get a further sense of people's priorities. It included a comprehensive communications campaign, an online stakeholder event, an online survey and thematic workshops. Specific research is also being carried out by key Departments and the NESC on sustainability and lessons from other countries that have undertaken similar initiatives. A follow-up report will be submitted to the Government in the coming months informed by this second phase of consultation and research, with the objective of embedding the well-being framework into the policymaking process.

On launching the framework's first report, the Taoiseach emphasised that its approach is fundamentally about making people's lives better by better understanding people's lived experiences. Next week will mark Brain Awareness Week. I want to commend the work of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland and the Irish Dementia Working Group, whose members are incredible advocates and activists. Covid presented a unique and distressing challenge for people living with dementia and those who care for them. The Government can and must do more in terms of budgets, staffing and capital investment to deliver the support services and the strategy that the working group has so comprehensively set out for decision makers.

The risk of dementia is five times greater for people with an intellectual disability. This heightened risk requires enhanced efforts by policymakers and clinicians to improve awareness of brain health and the importance of early diagnosis. As Professor Mary McCarron has explained in her work, the toxic proteins that cause Alzheimer's build and accumulate for 15 to 25 years before clinical symptoms present, but cognitive reserve, education, exercise, cognitive stimulation and social engagement at any age will help to slow or counteract these changes. In short, Professor McCarron's message is that it is possible to reduce the risk of dementia, and active promotion on brain health is absolutely fundamental to this objective. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has made some progress but she needs significantly more support from her Government partners if she is to develop adequate memory services throughout Ireland. What action will the Taoiseach take to support this work?

The pre-condition for well-being of the people of this country is for them to have a secure, affordable roof over their heads. One of the standing scandals in that regard, besides the abysmal failure of the Government to deliver new public and affordable housing, is the inability to deal with the utter scandal of vacant and derelict properties the length and breadth of the country. They are sitting there torturing people who are actually in need of housing as they lie empty but could be used to house people impacted by the housing crisis. The measures that the Government has taken to deal with this have been self-evidently not working. The answers to a number of parliamentary questions - as the Taoiseach may have seen, they got some coverage in the newspapers in the last day or two - are pretty stark. There is now €14.3 million outstanding in vacant site charges. There is €7.9 million outstanding in derelict site levies. In 2020, €378,000 was collected in derelict site levies out of €5.4 million that was levied. On the vacant site levy, it is even worse, with €21,000 collected out of €11.8 million levied in just one year. Only seven councils sought to bother to impose the vacant site levy, and 14 councils did not bother to impose the derelict site levy at all. My question is very simple. First of all, judging from these figures, how is it that there is no serious intent whatsoever to actually pursue the vacant and derelict site levies? Is it not self-evidently the case that this is not enough? They are not working and we need much more radical measures, such as robust use of compulsory purchase orders, to get hold of vacant and empty buildings to use to address the housing crisis.

I want to raise a shocking example of where the State is completely failing to protect the well-being of people. Those living in the shadow of the Aughinish Alumina plant in County Limerick have suffered massively from the toxic pollution from that plant. People have got sick, animals have died and livelihoods have been wiped out by the pollution. When an investigation was done into the health impacts of the plant in the locality, Aughinish Alumina used the notorious lobbyist, Frank Dunlop, as its fixer. Later, 18 medical samples from resident Pat Geoghegan and his family mysteriously disappeared. When the Taoiseach was the Minister for Health and Children, he was on record as supporting an independent inquiry into the missing samples, yet he ended up doing a U-turn and blocked such an inquiry. To this day, the Taoiseach has not explained that U-turn. Mr. Geoghegan has written to the Taoiseach asking for that inquiry. Will the Taoiseach grant the inquiry? Mr. Geoghegan has also asked for the publication of records of any contact between Mr. Dunlop, the Taoiseach and the Taoiseach's officials at the time about the investigation. Will the Taoiseach publish those records?

The well-being framework is about measuring how Ireland is doing in things that really matter to our society. It measures our well-being, education attainment, community involvement and so much more. It is so different from measuring GNP or GNI* or any other economic indicators. The pandemic really highlighted core needs that many people had not recognised up to then, including connections with people and family, taking part in community events and so on. It really highlighted pressure in areas such as mental health and well-being, and spiritual well-being as well. Will the framework focus attention on these various needs as it is advancing and being used? It needs to. Late last year, there was a stakeholder event and a further report was due to be published earlier this year. That was going to be focused on the way it would be embedded into policy formation. Budget 2023 is advancing. Do we have an indication of whether the framework will be available to inform budget 2023?

The excise duty cuts are welcome, but they are a sticking plaster on a wound when we look at the overall cost of living crisis that is now impacting working people and their well-being. The Department of Finance wrote to Deputy Boyd Barrett last week and estimated that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will add 4% to the rate of inflation in this State. That clearly raises the spectre of inflation reaching 10% or more. Does the Taoiseach agree that inflation may now reach 10%?

An inflation rate of 10% indicates to me the advice of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, to workers to submit pay claims of up to 5.5% is being overtaken by events. I suggest that workers now need to submit wage claims of a minimum of 10% and to start balloting for industrial action to show the Government and employers they are serious about defending living standards. Can the Government stop 10% inflation or do workers have to prepare to combat it in that fashion?

I do not know if the Taoiseach watched the recent "Prime Time" programme on wardships and wards of court. Families have spoken about the shocking manner they have been treated in the wards of court system. Wards of court lose their autonomy and civil rights and the right to make decisions. One of the biggest issues they have experienced in the past 15 years is the collapse in the funds that were given to them so they can survive and provide for themselves. Since as far back as 2001, the Committee of Public Accounts and others have been focusing on the need for oversight of those funds. When the law changed in 2005, it again stated there needed to be oversight. Every annual report from 2005 to 2013 stated there needed to be oversight. For some reason, the objective of oversight was dropped in 2018. The families are left with massive questions in respect of why significant sums of money that were given to wards of court so they could pay for all of their life-changing experiences have disappeared as a result of a collapse in the financial system. They want to know who is responsible, what decisions were made and who will be held to account.

Can we take three minutes from the final batch of questions in order to allow the Taoiseach respond on these matters?

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. The first question related to the setting of policy and budgetary priorities. The well-being framework will ultimately help to inform policy, the budgetary framework and budgetary initiatives. Deputy Mairéad Farrell specifically raised the issue of Brain Awareness Week being next week and the issue of Alzheimer's, dementia and so on. I believe the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, has made a significant difference in terms of that issue. She worked hard on it while in opposition and met all the organisations involved. She made rapid progress in a year and a half in respect of responding to dementia and the recommendations of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland and so on, particularly in terms of appointing advisers across the country. That will continue. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, will continue to get the full support of the Government in pursuing that issue, to which she has really committed herself. I remember that while in opposition she, along with then Senator Colette Kelleher, initiated a review of this whole area. It has been a yardstick by which she has worked to implement some of the policies.

As Deputy Boyd Barrett knows, the Derelict Sites Act has not worked effectively in this country and there has been a lack of pursuit of levies and so on. Local authorities will cite various legal difficulties around that. The Government is looking at this afresh in terms of a new vacancy tax and also in terms of a use-it-or-lose-it approach to planning permission. The Minister for Finance has done a lot of work in terms of the current local property tax, LPT, review and consideration of research as to what the level of vacancy is and how that can be dealt with. In addition, there is further work being done in respect of getting a contribution in terms of the shared value of any uplift in value arising out of planning permissions being granted. Some of that would be used in terms of infrastructural investment. A lot of work has been done in this space. Compulsory purchase orders are, by definition, lengthy. They take up an inordinate length of time, it seems to me, in the courts. They again have proved problematic. In terms of the public side, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has worked extremely fast since he came into office to avoid any voids in terms of public housing and ensure they are used. As regards Croí Cónaithe, he wants to use part of that fund to ensure vacant sites in towns across the country could be refurbished with grant assistance to ensure housing is being provided. That is necessary. In terms of Aughinish Alumina and Pat Geoghegan, I recall meeting him back in the period from 2000 to 2004 when I was Minister for Health and Children. My understanding is the EPA had done a lot of research at the time in terms of the implications of Aughinish Alumina and the health assessments and so on and it had not been established by statutory authorities in respect of the impact on health. I met Pat Geoghegan at the time in terms of the impact on both animal health and human health. I do not think it is fair to say an inquiry was blocked but, again, I do not have any recollection of meeting any individuals bar Mr. Geoghegan himself and talking to officials in the Department about that. It was a matter in relation to which the EPA had been doing a lot of work in terms of its role and statutory duty to monitor industrial plants and ensure they meet health and safety requirements and public health requirements. It still remains for baseline public health studies to be done in the context of plans like that. I recall that in other locations baseline health studies have been done. Those have been continued in areas close to industry, monitoring pollution levels in cattle, soil and so on. My sense was the evidential base was not one that was established around that, notwithstanding the very strong personal testimony of Mr. Geoghegan himself, who has pursued this on a lengthy basis.

Deputy Moynihan made some good points in respect of the well-being framework and whether issues around community spiritual health and so on will be considered. They will. Our framework is based on the OECD model but has been moulded to suit the Irish context based on consultations with stakeholders, experts, policymakers and the public. The framework will encompass 11 dimensions: subjective well-being; mental and physical health; knowledge and skills; income and wealth; housing and built area; environment, climate and biodiversity; safety and security; work and job quality; time use; community, social connections and cultural participation, which is the area the Deputy identified; and civic engagement and cultural expression. The initial well-being framework will be refined to reflect recent consultation and further research in the second report, which will be published in the coming months. There are also some indicators now from the dashboard and the CSO and so on, measuring life and progress in Ireland through a set of about 34 indicators. Again, this relates to our performance relative to the OECD How's Life initiative, which is the basis for our framework. This set of indicators was based on the areas that were highlighted as important for Ireland through the NESC-----

Thank you, Taoiseach. We need to move to the next question.

What about 10% inflation?

I will come back to the Deputy on wards of court. He raised an issue. I will talk to the Minister for Justice, who has responsibility over that area.

As to the point raised by Deputy Barry, again in terms of excise duties and the cuts we have made------

Inflation of 10%.

I am not in a position now to say what inflation will rise to. I know there have been various scenarios around that but it is going to rise because of the war, on top of the rate of 5.7% in February.

Economic Policy

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he is planning to update the national reform programme for 2022. [11771/22]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

13. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he is planning to update the national reform programme for 2022. [11774/22]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

14. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans to update the national reform programme. [12410/22]

Cian O'Callaghan

Ceist:

15. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he is planning to update the national reform programme for 2022. [12960/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 15, inclusive, together.

The national reform programme is an important element of the European semester, the annual cycle of economic and fiscal policy co-ordination among EU member states. As part of the semester, Ireland, along with all other member states, prepares and submits a national reform programme to the European Commission each April. This provides an overview of economic reforms and policy actions under way in Ireland, including in response to country-specific recommendations given as part of the preceding year's semester.

Preparation of the national reform programme is co-ordinated by the economic division of my Department with input from relevant Departments and agencies.

Work on this year's programme, which includes engagement with stakeholders, is now under way.  Last year, in line with guidance from the European Commission, Ireland's national reform programme was integrated into the 2021 national recovery and resilience plan, NRRP.  This was required to access funding under the European Union's recovery and resilience facility from which Ireland was allocated €950 million in grants.  The NRRP was approved in September 2021 and implementation is now under way.

The Taoiseach will be meeting with European leaders in Versailles to discuss the impact, including the economic impacts, of the war in Ukraine.  Many people in Europe quietly want to use the war in Ukraine to boost up military spending and make our relationship to NATO a closer one and yet the Taoiseach uses excuses about Europe to say he can do nothing about rising fuel and energy costs because Europe would not allow it.  Europe is happy to co-ordinate on militarisation but not so happy to co-ordinate on protecting working people in Europe and in this country against the rising cost of fuel and energy which is going to immiserate them.  Should the Taoiseach not be going to Europe, as part of this European semester process, to say that we need radical emergency action and we want the licence to introduce controls on the price of energy and gas, and not just petrol and diesel?  What about gas, heating oil and all of the things that were immiserating people before the war in Ukraine and will do so to a greater extent as that war unfolds?

The national reform programme talks about students.  What action is going to be taken to ensure that English-language students from outside of the country are protected and are not allowed to be scammed again as has happened?  There have been scandalous cases whereby Latin American students have lost their life savings, thousands of euro, to travel companies like Travel Now.  It got the students to pay upfront on the promise that when Covid-19 restrictions lifted, the company would have paid for a place for them. When the students subsequently contacted the English-language schools, they were told they had no record of this.  Many students have been scammed out of thousands of euro.  The reason for this is that the Department has failed to ensure its own rules are enforced.  The rules are enforced for the students - they must have an attendance rate of 85% - but not in the case of the rules that state very clearly that the money should be placed in an escrow account so this sort of scam cannot happen.  This is not what has been taking place. As a result, companies are able to walk off with hundreds of thousands of euro from unsuspecting students who have lost their life savings.  Will the Government act to enforce the current rules so that this cannot happen any more?

Accessing the almost €1 billion in funding under the NRRP requires the State to undertake multiple reforms.  Priority No. 3 of these reforms includes commitments on anti-money laundering and aggressive tax planning.  I have repeatedly raised the issue of billions of euro of Russian money going through the International Financial Services Centre, IFSC, over the past two years. A fortnight ago I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of opaque shell companies.  These companies are used for aggressive tax planning by firms accused of money laundering which have funnelled billions of euro from the IFSC to Russia.  When I mentioned this to the Taoiseach, he mentioned securitisation but these accounts are not securitisation vehicles.  If changes to our financial regulations and tax codes are not necessary, why has the EU demanded that Ireland implement reforms on money laundering and aggressive tax planning?  The NRRP clearly states that the State must "enhance the supervision and enforcement of the anti-money-laundering framework as regards professionals providing trust and company services." If we want to show solidarity to the people of Ukraine, we must take real action on this.  Will the Taoiseach commit to ending the use of anonymous company ownerships through trustee structures and ending the ability of these companies to operate from the IFSC for the purpose of aggressive tax planning through section 110 of the tax code? At a minimum, will the Taoiseach ensure the Minister for Finance undertakes a cost benefit analysis of section 110 to ascertain whether it is consistent with current reforms to the international tax regime?

I am very struck by Deputy Boyd Barrett's comments.  He said that the EU wants to use the war in Ukraine as an excuse to militarise and increase defence spending.

That is exactly what it is doing.

No disrespect, but what planet is the Deputy on?  War has happened.

It has been pushing to do this and now it is using the war as an excuse to do it again.

Russia has invaded Ukraine in a savage way. It is bombing civilians. It has torn up the multilateral rules-based order with no regard for UN universal values of territorial integrity, sovereignty and democracy.  Russia is afraid of democracy and wants to kill democracy in Ukraine. Deputy Boyd Barrett is saying that Europe is using this as an excuse to militarise.  Europe did not want this war.  The European Union did everything it possibly could to prevent this war as did President Macron and Chancellor Scholz.  When one is dealing with authoritarian regimes that do not apply democracy or democratic principles to how they conduct their countries and states, it creates vulnerabilities.

We sell arms to some of these countries.

There is a vulnerability now in the security architecture of Europe.  Germany believed in trade and in good relationships with Russia over a long period of time, certainly since the early 1990s, and had been very consistent in that.  Unfortunately, I do not believe that has been responded to by the Russian Federation over time. The latest manifestation of that is the wholesale war on Ukraine.  We already had a taste of it in 2014 with the invasion of Crimea. People like the Deputy and others in this House were very silent about it in 2014.  I refer not so much to the Deputy but to the main party opposite, which was quite silent at the time. When I raised it in this House during European debates at the time, Sinn Féin did not want to know about it.  The point I am trying to make is that the very unfair tendency in the debate is always to blame the EU.  The Deputy’s whole contribution sought to blame the EU and not Russia.  Russia has caused this war.  It makes complete sense that Europe would now reflect and look ahead.

We have been protesting about Putin long before the Taoiseach.  Our comrades are anti-war protestors in Putin’s prisons at the moment.

Democracy is important, but it is now in recession and is receding vis-à-vis authoritarianism.  Europe wants to defend its Single Market, its economy and the quality of life of its people.  There are no warmongers that I have ever noticed in Europe or in the European Union that I have seen-----

Is the Taoiseach joking me?

----- in the past number of years.

Are the ones selling arms to Saudi Arabia not warmongers?

I was there as Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Come on. Give me a break.

Europe’s predominant role is an interventionist one which is trying-----

Of course it is shocking because it does not fit the Deputy’s world view.

It sells arms to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia.

The immediate focus of the Deputy’s approach is always to attack the European Union and not the aggressors, the despots or the authoritarians.

We are the ones who resist them.

That is his response all of the time.  He attacks the war by Russia but suggests it is all the European Union’s fault. That seems to be the Deputy’s fallback position.

We did not say that.

That is the essence of the Deputy’s presentation.  Europe goes to great lengths to intervene to prevent conflict and, where there is conflict, to provide humanitarian assistance. The EU is probably the biggest provider of such assistance in the world to less developed states and to areas of conflict.  Enormous sums of money are allocated. Similarly, the recovery and resilience facility coming out of Covid-19 is providing enormous sums of money. For the first time ever, Europe has collectively borrowed and has given enormous sums to countries to enable them to come through the Covid-19 pandemic.

  I share Deputy Paul Murphy's abhorrence of students being abused in the manner he outlined. Those who have perpetrated these scams are fundamentally responsible for them, without question.  The enforcement of it is something that should be followed through.  Any swindling or untoward behaviour should be reported to An Garda Síochána.

Yes. An Garda Síochána must follow through and hold those people to account if people’s money has been taken from them in respect of products.

If the Department enforced its rules, it could not happen again.

I will talk to the Department on this because it is very bad for the individuals concerned. Their money is being stolen and they are not getting what they thought they would be getting.  It is very bad for the country’s reputation also.

  On the financial services issue raised by Deputy Mairéad Farrell, I gave figures last week in the Dáil in respect of the overall story of those Russians. I do not have the figures here with me now.  I have only about one minute left and I do not want this to be portrayed as the Government not giving the full story.  I gave a much more comprehensive picture last week of the Central Bank’s examination of Russian-sponsored funds.

Approximately three companies are coming under the sanctions regime in respect of that. This country fully implements and works with any European or global tax frameworks or anti-money laundering initiatives as well.

The issue is the opaque structure.

More generally, the financial services sector in this country grew from the late 1980s and the 1990s. Approximately 50,000 people are working in that sector now.

I worked in the financial services sector. This is specifically about section 110. They do not employ people under section 110.

That is never said in this debate. The implication in all the assessment is that somehow the Government wants to excuse bad behaviour because of the 50,000 staff. That is not the case. We have no truck with anybody who wants to abuse, in any shape or form, either the IFSC or any tax framework. We have no truck with that whatsoever.

They can do it under section 110; that is the issue.

Regarding section 110, anyone who takes funding out of those funds is taxed in that respect. My point is that when the crisis breaks out in Ukraine, the assertion and the immediate focus of attention is that suddenly the financial services are covering for or hiding people who engage in bad behaviour.

It is section 110.

That is not the case. We have no interest and we do not want it to be a haven for anybody who is enabling the Putin regime.

In fairness, this is not something I am raising now since the Ukrainian situation arose.

I know, but we did-----

It is section 110, specifically. I am not saying that it is all the fault of the entire financial services sector. I worked in financial services, so I am not saying that. It specifically relates to section 110 of the tax code. Can we at least have a cost-benefit analysis?

Yes, of course. I have no issue with that.

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Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 2.12 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.12 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 2.12 p.m. and resumed at 3.12 p.m.
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