1. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the membership of the new Cabinet subcommittee to oversee the State response to the Ukraine crisis; and when it will next meet. [21855/22]
Vol. 1022 No. 3
1. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the membership of the new Cabinet subcommittee to oversee the State response to the Ukraine crisis; and when it will next meet. [21855/22]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the new Cabinet subcommittee that is dealing with Ukrainian refugees will next meet. [21863/22]
3. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the new Cabinet subcommittee that is dealing with Ukrainian refugees will next meet. [21866/22]
4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet subcommittee to oversee the State response to the Ukraine crisis will next meet. [22873/22]
5. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet subcommittee to oversee the State response to the Ukraine crisis last met. [24810/22]
6. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet subcommittee to oversee the State response to the Ukraine crisis will next meet. [24814/22]
7. Deputy John Lahart asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet subcommittee to oversee the State response to the Ukraine crisis will next meet. [24816/22]
8. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the new Cabinet subcommittee that is dealing with Ukrainian refugees will next meet. [24935/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together. The Cabinet committee on accommodation and supports for Ukrainian refugees oversees the whole-of-Government humanitarian response to supporting people from Ukraine who have sought temporary protection here.
In addition to the members of the Cabinet committee, the Minister for Justice also attended the meeting on 12 May.
To date, more than 30,000 people have arrived in Ireland fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. Emergency and short-term accommodation for these people is being provided through the international protection accommodation service, IPAS, and over 18,000 Ukrainian arrivals are currently being accommodated by the State. The support of the Irish Red Cross and many other charities and NGOs is an essential part of the national effort. The cross-Government response is ensuring that people arriving into temporary protection are provided with access to social welfare, accommodation, health and education supports as required.
Yesterday, Government agreed that a €400 monthly recognition payment would be made to those who provide accommodation for those fleeing the war in Ukraine to acknowledge the generosity of Irish hosts. The Cabinet committee will meet again in the coming weeks.
I thank the Taoiseach for the update. On behalf of the Labour Party, I express our solidarity with the Ukrainian people and our condemnation of the brutal Russian invasion of which there is condemnation across Ireland. I am conscious of the immense national effort and the work that has been done by many in the public service, the Irish Red Cross and local authorities around the country to support Ukrainian refugees who have come here and to address their need for accommodation.
We have engaged with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and flagged to him a large number of vacant and empty sites in Dublin and around the country. We still do not have clarity as to what the Government is planning to do to activate these empty properties, some of which are centrally located. I previously flagged Baggot Street hospital and the Avalon hostel in Aungier Street in my constituency. Another site that has been brought to my attention is that of the old Jury's Hotel in Ballsbridge, which has apparently been ear-marked for a new US embassy but with 400 bedrooms and currently lying empty. What can we do to ensure the capacity in these buildings will be brought on stream?
If, as we must, we are going to provide refuge for those fleeing the war in Ukraine, we need to do everything we can to relieve pressure on the housing services. A simple measure I suggested to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage when he was looking for suggestions a number of weeks ago was to stop evictions, as we did during the Covid-19 emergency. The numbers of evictions are rising and that is increasing the number of people and families going into homeless services who should not be there. It is putting more and more pressure on our housing services.
Similarly, on the issue of vacant buildings, we wrote weeks ago suggesting specific buildings in my constituency that might be suitable.
We have heard absolutely nothing about what the Government intends to do to put those buildings to use for those affected both by the refugee crisis and the housing crisis.
Will the Taoiseach back the growing calls for debt relief for Ukraine? Even the US Congress has now backed calls for suspending all debt service payments by Ukraine and for debt relief. Ireland has reportedly given around €20 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine but the Ukrainians are spending 300 times that amount, or €6 billion, this year just servicing their odious debt. This means that all of our humanitarian aid amounts to less than 40 hours of servicing that debt. Unless the debt is cancelled, the money is really just going back out the door to the IMF, the World Bank and others rather than actually supporting the victims of this brutal war. We have seen for ourselves how crippling such debts can be and the impact of IMF-backed austerity. So far, however, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has said that debt forgiveness risks impairing the IMF's financial integrity, as if the IMF is about to go bankrupt, which is clearly ridiculous. Will the Taoiseach support debt relief?
Faoin tseachtain seo, tá nach mór 6,000 leanbh ón Úcráin tar éis dul isteach inár mbunscoileanna agus meánscoile. Tá pobalscoileanna ar fud an Stáit tar éis rudaí dochreidte a dhéanamh chun cabhrú leis na leanaí seo, ag cur fáilte rompu agus ag tabhairt leabhar agus cultacha scoile dóibh.
While they have made incredible efforts, taking in additional students has put pressure on schools' whose resources are stretched. Many schools' budgets are already overstretched as they try to make this year's funding cover the extortionate rises in energy costs to keep the lights on. Many schools are having to reach into this limited pot of money to pay for uniforms, school supplies and books for Ukrainian children who cannot afford them. I have received responses from the Minister for Education previously about English language supports but I want to know what additional capitation funding will be provided to schools who have taken in Ukrainian children and young people, for books, equipment and so on.
As the war inflicted by the evil regime of Mr. Putin continues in Ukraine, it is obvious from listening to contributors from Ukraine and those associated with the Ukrainian Government that there is an urgent need to continue to provide humanitarian aid and financial support. The European Union has been very responsive, as has our own Government and that help needs to be continued. I would like to take the opportunity to compliment the schools and communities throughout the country as well as our local authorities and the local development companies who have been very proactive in assisting refugees who have come to different parts of our country. Every assistance is being provided to make sure they get the proper and well-deserved welcome they need.
I ask the Taoiseach to take the time to acknowledge the Trojan work being undertaken on behalf of the State at the City West Hotel by volunteers from the South Dublin County Volunteer Centre and by staff from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, among others. Given that our Fianna Fáil party colleagues, Billy Kelleher, MEP, and Senator Dooley, paid visits to Ukraine in recent months, could the Taoiseach outline whether the Government or any of its representatives have similar plans? Does the Taoiseach plan to travel to Kyiv to show solidarity with Ukraine?
It is right and proper that urgent action is taken to support the victims of this war who have fled to this country. It is also right and proper that this country takes action to support other victims of the war. I want to urgently raise the case of Javid Mamedov, a Russian anti-war activist and socialist who is now in prison after being arrested for a third time for his anti-war stance. He faces a prison sentence of five to ten years. He is not alone. More than 15,000 anti-war campaigners have been detained and many are currently in prison facing charges. I ask the Taoiseach to contact the Russian Embassy urgently to demand the release of Javid Mamedov and all of those other anti-war prisoners.
I have raised with the Taoiseach the issue of Russian money sloshing around the Irish Financial Services Centre, IFSC, in Dublin. A number of companies have been set up in the IFSC to facilitate the circumvention of sanctions. Journalists for The Currency indicate that they have tracked approximately €13 billion of Russian money, while The Irish Times indicated previously that there was €34 billion in opaque Russian-linked shell companies. I asked the Central Bank if it was investigating this but it said "No". The bank is not investigating it and does not have a proactive investigative role in terms of sanctions being circumvented. I asked the Minister for Justice if An Garda Síochána is investigating this but she could not tell me whether that is the case. Here we are, months after this was first raised, not just by me but by others, and we still do not know whether there is any investigation taking place into the possible circumvention of sanctions by shell companies in the IFSC.
Deputy Bacik raised the issue of buildings in the medium term. We will have a look at the Jurys Hotel site and we have been examining any other sites that Deputy Bacik and others have flagged to us. The International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, has been notified of the availability for use of a range of buildings. Local authorities have identified in excess of 500 vacant buildings in their areas and to date, 89 of these buildings have been deemed capable of almost immediate occupation by up to 5,355 persons. The IPAS is conducting a further assessment of the remaining buildings and this is ongoing.
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has asked the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, to develop a proposal in respect of the establishment of an emergency vacant housing delivery unit drawing on expertise from the local government and private sectors to co-ordinate, consult on and direct the refurbishment of buildings. Exemptions from planning requirements will be determined, where necessary, on these buildings. A dedicated director of services staff member, supported by a small team, will be assigned on a full-time basis in all local authorities to co-ordinate the local response between all of the agencies and community groups engaged in support and service provision for Ukrainians.
The OPW will lead on the design, development and delivery of any accommodation to be produced through modular volumetric construction, including associated site-enabling works on available and suitable State land. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will establish a clearing house to address contractual, operational and compliance issues associated with planning permission which has been granted but not yet activated. Much work is going on in respect of a lot of buildings that have been identified. Quite a number of religious organisations have put forward buildings as well, including former convents and monasteries, which are in use by refugees, particularly those from Ukraine.
I assure Deputy Boyd Barrett that every effort is being made to prevent evictions. The Minister has taken a series of measures to try to reduce and minimise evictions but the reality is that when more than 30,000 people come into a country within three months, fleeing war and the agony and trauma of war, the response has to be different from the normal response. That is why such a significant amount of accommodation is being procured by the State. We are trying to provide sufficient and adequate accommodation for Ukrainians who have fled the war. In addition to that, the work of the Irish Red Cross on houses that have been pledged is also ongoing to provide additional support.
Why not stop evictions?
The reconfiguration of buildings is important. The real issue here is to get scale and volume through existing buildings that are not being used, to get them refurbished, if necessary, and back into use.
In response to Deputy Paul Murphy, I met the Prime Minister of Ukraine recently at Shannon Airport but he did not ask me for a declaration of support for debt relief. He indicated to me that he was travelling to Washington to meet the IMF and various organisations to discuss how to support both the current budgetary needs of Ukraine and also the reconstruction effort in the event of the war coming to an end. I will be guided by the Ukrainian Government in respect of how it wants to progress this, working with bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank.
There is very strong international support for Ukraine from the G7, the European Union, the United States, Japan, Canada and many others. I have no doubt that will continue and that phase by phase throughout this war that will continue. The Prime Minister did seek some additional supports around the international aid that is flowing in, and that there would be a more proactive partnership with the Ukrainian Government on the ground in term of the deployment and disbursement of those resources.
Aontaím leis an Teachta Ó Laoghaire agus ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le scoileanna na tíre as an méid oibre atá déanta acu ó thaobh leanaí ón Úcráin de atá inár scoileanna anois. Tá suas le 6,000 díobh, is dócha, anois ag freastal inár scoileanna. Is iontach an scéal é sin agus caithfimid ár mbuíochas a ghabháil le húdaráis agus foirne na scoileanna, na múinteoirí, gach duine atá ag obair sna scoileanna agus na tuismitheoirí dúiche mórthimpeall. Níl aon amhras ach go mbeidh áiseanna á lorg ag na scoileanna. I dtús báire bhí sé práinneach iad a thabhairt isteach go dtí deireadh na bliana seo ó thaobh na scoileanna de ach beidh an Meán Fómhair ag teacht agus beidh gá a bheith feasach faoi sin, déileáil leis na scoileanna agus a fháil amach cad atá uathu. I mention the establishment of the schools and the challenges. I think we are looking at the next academic year. We are making certain provisions but obviously the priority was to get the students places in schools. Certainly the next academic year will be important in the context of resources.
On Deputy Brendan Smith's question, there is absolutely an urgent need to continue with the humanitarian aid. I fully appreciate the efforts the Deputy has made, and the efforts of all those in the House, in progressing this issue. On Deputy Lahart's point, I call out and support the very strong volunteerism, in particular that which he mentioned, namely, the South Dublin County Volunteer Centre, Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and public servants in general who have responded above and beyond the call of duty since this war began and this crisis developed.
I also salute Senator Timmy Dooley and Billy Kelleher, MEP, for visiting Ukraine early on during the war through the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE, group. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has been to Kiev as well. We will consider that issue also. Again, we work with Ukrainian Government doing whatever we can to provide support.
I will pursue the issue raised by Deputy Barry if he could send on the details of the case to us.
I will do.
Often an aspect of the war that is missed is the number of Russian citizens who have raised concerns about this war and who have been jailed for, literally, voicing dissent against the Russian Federation Government. It is quite shocking in terms of the anti-democratic impulse now going through Russia.
On Deputy Tóibín's question, first of all, action will be taken against anybody circumventing the sanctions. There is a role for the Central Bank in relation to that. It has done significant analysis in that regard.
It told me it did not have a role. The Governor told me.
We are over time.
9. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Taoiseach the extent to which he expects the shared island dialogue concept to progress in the aftermath of the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. [21990/22]
10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recently completed ESRI shared island report, A North-South Comparison of Education and Training Systems: Lessons for Policy. [22878/22]
11. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will outline the vision for the shared island dialogue following the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. [24219/22]
12. Deputy Mark Ward asked the Taoiseach when a citizens' assembly will be convened on a united Ireland. [24813/22]
13. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach his plans for the shared island policy following the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. [24817/22]
14. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will outline the vision for the shared island dialogue in the wake of the Assembly elections. [24775/22]
15. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will outline the vision for the shared island dialogue in the wake of the Assembly elections. [24778/22]
16. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach the agenda for the shared island dialogue concept in the wake of the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. [24815/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 16, inclusive, together.
Through the Government's shared island initiative, we are engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future and to deliver tangible benefits for the whole island, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
The shared island dialogues are also a key part of the Government' s approach. We have brought together more than 1,300 citizens and civic leaders so far, from across all communities, traditions and regions, to discuss how we work for a shared future on this island in practical and meaningful ways.
Nine shared island dialogues have been convened to date, the most recent on tourism and sport at the end February this year. Excitingly, we are now in a position to move to in-person events which I have no doubt will enrich the conversations and connectivity in the dialogues. A key focus for us this year is regional engagement. A dialogue on rural and community development is being convened this week by the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, taking place in Monaghan.
A citizens' assembly on a united Ireland is not planned. The Government's focus now, and our commitment through the shared island initiative, is on working with all communities and political traditions, to take up the significant opportunities of deeper co-operation and connection on the island, and to build consensus on key issues for our shared future, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
I congratulate the Taoiseach on his initiatives under this particular heading. This has obviously become difficult in light of the fact that a co-signatory to an international agreement has withdrawn and has decided unilaterally to disregard and tear up the agreement. To what extent is it possible at this stage to inveigle UK authorities of the urgent need to restore an international agreement to what it implies, which is an international agreement?
Roimh fhoilsiú na tuairisce seo ar an gcóras Stáit Thuaidh agus Theas, tá go leor ceachtanna ar féidir linn a fhoghlaim ón gcóras atá acu sa Tuaisceart. We are in a cost-of -living crisis. This summer, and each summer, one of the biggest bills families are faced with is the cost of schoolbooks on return to school. Families are spending hundreds of euro on schoolbooks each year. It is a programme for Government commitment to expand the free schoolbooks scheme. We are now two years into the Government's term and, aside from a small pilot, there is no progress towards free schoolbooks. Free schoolbooks have been available in the North since 1947. We are 75 years behind, and counting. Four generations of children and young people in the North have been given access to education that might not otherwise have been accessed. This is access that our young people have been, and still are, denied. Will the Taoiseach's Government commit to rapidly expanding the free schoolbooks scheme to every school across the country?
I thank the Taoiseach for the update on the shared island dialogue in the wake of the Assembly election. I reiterate the point that I know is shared by so many colleagues, which is our grave concern and alarm about the unilateral action the British Government is proposing to take, or indeed threatening to take, on the protocol. Its cynical attempt to describe it as a measure to protect the Good Friday Agreement will, in our view, damage the institutions.
We are very concerned, as I know all Deputies are, that if the British Foreign Secretary moves ahead with this naked political posturing, then it would be a breach of international law and has the potential to seriously undermine efforts to normalise the post-Brexit trade landscape on our islands. A unilateral action will not help resolve this. I should say that I spoke with the British ambassador this morning and put that view to him. I am glad to hear that formally, the British Government is saying it wants and would prefer a negotiated solution. It wants to see the Executive up and running again. Has the Taoiseach had direct engagement to ensure we reach that negotiation point and condemn utterly the unilateral action?
I welcome the publication by the shared island unit and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, of the new research areas for 2022. I wish them well on their research.
Separately, yesterday was the 48th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. I know the Taoiseach attended a ceremony to commemorate these terrible events on Talbot Street. Will he continue to press the British Government to give access to any documents in existence that would help establish the truth behind these appalling tragedies?
Following on from Deputy Brendan Smith earlier, what is the Taoiseach's view regarding the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill introduced by the British Government yesterday? As the Taoiseach knows, this is a revised proposal. In my view, this proposal still constitutes a de facto amnesty and is not in accordance with the Stormont House Agreement. Will the Taoiseach be conveying our concerns about this legislation to the British Government as a matter of urgency?
People Before Profit will be facilitating a vote on the national maternity hospital tonight. We think the Government's decision to retain influence by a privately owned religious charity in the national maternity hospital is really an insult to the women of Ireland and to all those who suffered in Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes. It also shows scant regard for the need to separate church and State as part of trying to achieve a united Ireland. How are we seriously suggesting that a united Ireland is something that will be attractive to people North and South if we do not separate church and State in terms of healthcare for women and healthcare generally and, indeed, education?
The shared island we stand for is a secular and socialist island. An essential point of that is no involvement of the church in terms of healthcare and education. That is a very basic thing yet the Government signed an agreement and lease with St. Vincent's Healthcare Group, where the first line of the constitution literally is about the mission of Mary Aikenhead, who was the founder of the Sisters of Charity, which was responsible for the running of the Magdalen laundries, thereby completely contradicting that idea.
The Taoiseach was very coy earlier in response to Deputy McDonald about how he will vote tonight on a motion that goes exactly against what the Government did. The motion from Sinn Féin, which we support, states that it should be a public maternity hospital on public land and so on. The Government did the opposite of that yesterday. What is the Government position? How will the Taoiseach be voting tonight?
One of the many benefits of the Good Friday Agreement has been the development of the all-Ireland economy. That economy has evolved without any political sloganeering, waving of flags or fanfare. I welcome the research on economic and social opportunities on an all-Ireland basis under the shared island initiative.
The Taoiseach may recall that at the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I mentioned that within those studies, there should be a subset with particular reference to the development of enterprise in the central Border area. We need additional enterprise centres and workspace because of the huge cost for start-up businesses and small enterprises in putting appropriate infrastructure and workspace in position. Cavan and Monaghan county councils and local enterprise offices, along with their colleagues north of the Border, are putting together proposals with regard to the need for funding on a cross-Border basis to develop enterprise centres. I hope that can happen because economically, we are the most vulnerable part of the Border region and we need new industrial infrastructure.
Once again, we are dealing with a British Government with Liz Truss and Boris Johnson and unilateral threats to undermine the Irish protocol. Our only hope is that the British Government is engaging in a farce it is not really too hopeful of seeing through, just to keep some of the Conservative Party happy. That is obviously not good enough, however. It gives succour to the DUP, which is in the middle of cul-de-sac politics. We really need to deal with that. What has the Taoiseach's engagement been with the British Government? Beyond that, we need to ensure that the research for the shared island unit is expanded, that we look at the potential for Irish unity, that the shared island dialogue is also expanded and we deal with the constitutional issue. That is the only thing that we need to do.
The Taoiseach has been left with little time.
Deputy Durkan and a number of Deputies raised the issue of the British Government decision yesterday and announcement of an intention to bring in legislation to circumvent and undermine the protocol. That is unacceptable. I made it very clear that unilateral action is not the way to progress issues pertaining to the protocol. We have always accepted that legitimate issues have been raised with regard to the protocol. We have also been very clear, and I was very clear to the British Prime Minister last week, that the European Union has made very progressive and advanced moves in respect of the protocol, particularly last October, which were not reciprocated adequately. I have asked and made the point that the only way to resolve issues pertaining to the protocol is for substantive and professional negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom Government. Those should commence without delay.
In addition, the Assembly should be convened without delay. It is unacceptable in any democratic society that once the people have voted, the parliament for which they voted does not get established. If we think about it, it is just unacceptable that in the immediate aftermath of an election, the people cannot have their parliament convened. That should happen immediately.
In terms of Deputy Ó Laoghaire's comments, again, we have developed our systems here. We have a free book scheme, which has been expanded, and we will continue to work on improving access to it. Our outcomes are stronger. The Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, programme in particular was singled out by the ESRI as particularly important. That was introduced in the early 2000s and has had a huge impact in school retention. The most recent announcement by the Minister, Deputy Foley, again copper-fastens the work that was done by the Governments in the early 2000s in respect of DEIS. The degree to which it has had an impact was clear from the ESRI report.
I dealt with some of Deputy Bacik's comments in terms of the British Government's approach. I will make a general point, and Deputies Haughey and Brendan Smith also raised this, that the whole basis of the Good Friday Agreement and peace process was on both Governments working together, underpinned with working with all the political parties in the North. The current British Government has digressed from that in spirit it seems to me. That is manifest in the legacy proposals and it is manifest now in terms of the protocol. Brexit created a context; the protocol was designed to try to deal with the unique situation with Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. Issues were raised that can be resolved; I have no doubt about that. Those issue can be resolved but there needs to be a proper engagement with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which involves both Governments working lock stock together with the political parties to achieve progress into the future.
In terms of my attendance yesterday at the commemoration of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and Justice for the Forgotten, I pay tribute to them. We are continuing to seek access to all documents from the British Government and doing anything we can here in terms of facilitating the Operation Denton report and the work of Jon Boutcher in that regard. I have equally already articulated my concerns in terms of legacy. Again, that unilateral approach is not acceptable. I have met the victims groups and they should be uppermost in our consideration. I do not believe there should be any amnesty for anybody who committed murder in Northern Ireland or for anyone who was involved in any atrocity. All parties to atrocities should be accountable and if prosecutions can take place, they should.
Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy raised the issue of the maternity hospital and brought that up in the context of a shared island.
There is no church involvement in the new national maternity hospital. The church has divested itself from St. Vincent’s Holdings CLG, so there is no church involvement. It will be a secular hospital and all lawfully permitted services available in the State will be provided in this hospital into the future. There is full public ownership through the 300-year lease, which is not conditional, a term Deputy Bacik used earlier. The only condition on the lease is that we build a maternity hospital and maintain it-----
It goes back to the permitted use.
The articles in the lease are not in any sense an imposition on the State, nor could they be described as such whatsoever.
A leasehold is conditional ownership.
We are running out of time.
We are where we are in terms of ownership, voluntary hospitals and so on, which is historical. The idea was to co-locate a maternity hospital with a neonatal centre of excellence, adjacent to a tertiary hospital. That is what gave rise to Holles Street teaming up with St. Vincent’s hospital into the future.
Will the Taoiseach please comment on enterprise in regard to the shared island initiative?
We are looking forward to, I hope, working with city deals and regional enterprise parks in the north west, between Derry and Donegal, to be funded through the shared island initiative. The all-island economy has done very well and is doing quite well under the protocol. The protocol has proved to be advantageous for Northern Ireland and we are very anxious to maintain that economic development in the North.
We move to the final round of questions, although the clock has eaten into it.
17. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [22874/22]
18. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [22896/22]
19. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [24819/22]
20. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Social Affairs and Equality will next meet. [24820/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 17 to 20, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, including sport, equality, arts and culture, as well as children and youth affairs and public services, including matters relating to justice, policing reform and community safety. These commitments and other matters include poverty and disadvantage; examining area-based initiatives to build stronger communities; progress to a living wage over the lifetime of the Government; addressing food poverty in children and ensuring no child goes hungry; expanding the Dublin north-east inner-city model to comparable areas experiencing disadvantage; introducing a scheme to regularise undocumented migrants, which was announced last December and is currently open for applications; advancing proposals to deal effectively with the issue of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence through a third national strategy; ending the direct provision system and replacing it with a new international protection accommodation policy; extending paid parental leave, allowing parents to spend more time with their baby during his or her first year; establishing Childcare Ireland to assist the sector in delivering high-quality childcare; legislating to require publication of the gender pay gap in large companies; responding to the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality; publishing a new national action plan against racism; progressing implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, including more visible community policing; introducing a new policing and community safety Bill to redefine the functions of An Garda Síochána; and introducing hate crime legislation.
The Cabinet committee last met on 19 May and will meet again in the coming weeks. I have regular engagements with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments. In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments on various social policy issues since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020.
In the last few weeks, I have been contacted by scores of parents who cannot find a childcare place in Cork, and it is one of the biggest issues coming into my constituency office and across the State. When I contacted Tusla to try to get a scope of the issue, it was no wonder parents were finding it difficult. The agency told me 73 childcare services had closed in the past five years in Cork city and county and that there are 384 fewer childcare places in the city than five years ago. When families do find a place in a crèche, they face fees of €800, or often more than €1,000, for just one child, while for two or three children the figure will be well in excess of that. Meeting these costs is a huge weight on families' backs that is holding back parents and predominantly women in their careers. The childcare sector in Cork is haemorrhaging highly qualified childcare professionals because they have been treated so badly by successive Governments, working for little more than the minimum wage.
The Taoiseach's Government needs to address this issue urgently to upscale the supply of affordable childcare.
Childcare is a massive issue for parents in every constituency. Ireland has some of the most expensive childcare costs in Europe and we need clarity on how it is proposed to reduce fees for parents, to improve pay and conditions for staff and to improve the availability of places for children. In Limerick on Monday, I visited two brilliant childcare and early years education services, namely, Northside Family Resource Centre and Our Lady of Lourdes Childworld in Rosbrien. I was asked whether the Government's new funding model will build in recognition of places offering early childhood care and education in disadvantaged settings and whether there will be a delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, style mechanism for childcare settings where there are added needs and where additional resources may be required. In principle, we need to see rapid action on this from the Government because there is so little availability of childcare places and so many parents are struggling with the fees.
I raise a financial issue. As the Taoiseach will know, on 1 May, Carlow became a university town and county and the south east got a technological university, but that brings many challenges. Carlow County Council has applied for €12 million in funding for a project to extend the library in Carlow because we need the services. The library is too small and is inadequate for the expanding services now that university status has been awarded. We have received stage 2 approval and we have proceeded to stage 3. Carlow County Council has a “cultural quarter” in the town centre, which includes Carlow College which is to be integrated into the technological university, and the expansion of the library with this new project. The capital funding for the library for this year is gone, as I understand it, but a new strategy for capital library projects is going to be announced by the end of the year. For regional development and finance for Carlow and because we are doing so well, I ask the Taoiseach to look at this favourably.
The Taoiseach is familiar with the case of Pat and Nuala Geoghegan, who have for more than 25 years been highlighting serious concerns about the health and environmental impacts of the Aughinish Alumina plant neighbouring their farm. They have raised serious questions over a previous investigation into this in the late 1990s, in particular highlighting 18 medical samples that mysteriously disappeared.
I have copies of a previously unpublished letter from the IDA and of notes from a previous meeting the agency had with Aughinish over this. They clearly show that the IDA, with absolutely no environmental or health expertise, not only took Aughinish’s side but sought to influence the outcome of the health investigation. They refer to the importance of the jobs involved and restate the IDA had been assured by the company that there was nothing to see there. I have a letter showing these notes were circulated to those conducting the investigation into the health problems despite it containing no scientific or health information, clearly an attempt to use economic arguments to influence the health investigation and to bias the whole thing.
Pat and Nuala Geoghegan are in the Public Gallery. Will the Taoiseach support the call he supported previously for a public inquiry?
Tomorrow at 1 o'clock, outside the gates of Leinster House, the newly established cost of living coalition, which involves pensioners' groups, students' unions, political parties, trade unionists and so on, will hold a protest over what they believe, and I think they are right, is the Government's failure to address the cost of living crisis, which is crucifying workers, pensioners, students and the least well-off in our country. Whether it is rents gone out of control, childcare costs, college fees, the cost of food items or heating and energy costs, they believe, and I think they are right, that the Government has not done enough to control the cost of living or deal with the profiteering by landlords and energy companies. What does the Taoiseach have to say about measures he will take to address the cost of living crisis to those who will protest tomorrow?
I add my voice to the calls of Deputy Paul Murphy and others for a full review of what could only be described as the very dodgy dealings at Askeaton, County Limerick. I am new to this case and have been reading up on it only over recent days, and it is clear the public interest has not been served by the investigations into the missing samples, the freedom of information documentation that confirms those samples had been tested, and the question as to who, what, when and why those samples and the subsequent results went missing. The Taoiseach was intimately involved in this case as Minister for Health and Children. Will he accept the case has not been satisfactorily resolved and commit to reopening an investigation into the matter?
I thank the Deputies for raising these issues. Deputy Ó Laoghaire asked about the issue of childcare. In the last budget, very significant additional funding was allocated for childcare with a focus on enhancing pay and conditions for those working in the area. Discussions are to take place between employers in the childcare area and representatives of workers with a view to reaching a joint labour committee agreement. My understanding is that September is the deadline for that but I can double-check the timelines. The allocation in the budget for the latter part of this year and the full year of 2023 was very substantial because there is no question but that childcare is a big issue for many people. The costs are very significant and place great pressure on many young families. There is also the issue of retaining people in the childcare sector and encouraging people to pursue career pathways in that field. That is why the Minister took the decision to seek resources in the last budget round in respect of the career pathway aspect, conditions and making the situation more attractive for those working in childcare.
Deputy Bacik raised the same issue although she added a point on specific offerings for disadvantaged areas. I will discuss that with the Minister. There are already some provisions in that respect but a DEIS-type approach to childcare in disadvantaged areas is something that we could pursue and which could support communities. We already offer significant support but we will certainly examine the Deputy's proposal.
On Deputy Murnane O'Connor's point, these are exciting times in Carlow, particularly with regard to the decision that the grounds of Carlow College can be made available to South East Technological University. That is significant. The Deputy's more immediate request related to Carlow County Council's application for a new county library, costing around €12 million. This is progressing. It is on stage 3. I will engage with the Minister in that regard because a modern library would be worthwhile infrastructure for the general population of Carlow and not just because of what is transpiring at third level.
On the Aughinish Alumina plant and the campaign of Pat and Nuala Geoghegan, I have not gone over all of the documentation recently but, if my recollection is correct, there was significant work by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. I do not have the documents Deputy Paul Murphy says he has with regard to the Industrial Development Authority, IDA Ireland. The issue was examined from a health perspective and by the EPA at the time. These are issues that should be examined by independent agencies with expertise and competency in the field. That campaign has been going on for a long time and there have been quite a number of reports and reviews.
Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke about the cost of living. The Government has responded to the cost-of-living issue in a very significant way. I do not agree with the Deputy's analysis of the Government's response. More than €2 billion has now been provided if you take into account both the budget and more recent efforts. We hiked the weekly fuel allowance and paid an additional lump sum of €125 in March. A further special payment of €100 will be paid to 370,000 households in receipt of the fuel allowance. As a result, the fuel allowance paid in the full season from 2021 to 2022 totals €1,139, an increase of €404 or 55% on the previous year. We have reduced the excise duty on petrol, diesel and green diesel until mid-October, saving motorists between €9 and €12 each time they fill their tank. We have reduced VAT from 13.5% to 9% on gas and electricity bills until the end of October resulting in estimated annual savings for households of €50 and €70 respectively. We have given households a €200 energy credit and will cut the annual public service obligation levy of €58 to zero by October 2022. We have launched a national retrofitting scheme that provides free energy upgrades for those at risk of energy poverty. We have introduced new grant rates that will cover approximately 80% of the typical cost of attic and wall insulation. We have reduced caps on school transport fees for multiple children and cut public transport by 20%, with an additional 50% cut in fares for young people. We have lowered the threshold for the drugs payment scheme to €80 per month, benefiting more than 17,000 families. We have brought forward the working family payment increase announced on budget day from 1 June to 1 April. We have agreed to abolish the inpatient charge of €80 per night for all children. We have capped annual rent increases at 2% and launched a cost-rental scheme with homes available at 40% to 50% below market rents. We have also introduced significant support packages for the hospitality industry, including the 9% VAT rate, and for the haulage and tillage sectors. I could go on. Significant efforts have been made.
Deputy Carthy raised a similar issue to that raised by Deputy Paul Murphy in respect of Askeaton. As I have said, there have been a number of reports and reviews and these can be re-examined but that is the position as it stands today.