Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Working Group of Committee Cathaoirligh díospóireacht -
Thursday, 12 May 2022

Public Policy Matters: Engagement with the Taoiseach

Fuair muid leithscéalta ó na Teachtaí O'Dowd, Whitmore, Michael Moynihan, Martin Browne, McGuinness, Kehoe agus Matthews. Iarraim ar na comhaltaí agus ar gach duine i láthair a fóin póca a mhúchadh. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach go dtí an cruinniú leis an Ghrúpa Oibre na gCathaoirleach Coiste. Cuirim fáilte fosta roimh chomhghleacaithe an Taoisigh, na hoifigigh ó Roinn an Taoisigh, John Callinan san áireamh. Déanaim comhghairdeas le John as a ceapachán ina phost úr mar Ard-Rúnaí. Cuirim fáilte roimh Pádraig Ó Conaill fosta agus déanaim comhghairdeas leis fosta.

The purpose of today's meeting, in accordance with Standing Order 120, is to discuss matters of public policy and particularly those raised through our respective committees. As the Taoiseach will be aware, committees undertake detailed work that does not lend itself to consideration in plenary sessions. While our work is intensive, our collective remit is extensive and the approach taken enables Parliament to engage with the partners, public bodies, and the public in general, in a meaningful and direct manner.

As for today's meeting, I look forward to a constructive engagement that will hopefully be of mutual benefit to the Taoiseach and to us as committee Cathaoirligh. We will now proceed directly to the substantive part of the meeting. I ask the Taoiseach to make his opening statement. You are very welcome Taoiseach.

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht an gcuireadh a thabhairt dom chuig an gcruinniú seo agus as ucht an bhfáilte a chuir seisean agus baill an choiste romhainn go léir. I wish to recognise the important role of Oireachtas committees in providing advice to the Houses of the Oireachtas on a range of matters in their sectoral areas, including on legislation, policy and the public finances. The work of committees is an essential support to, and a great enabler of, efficiency and effectiveness in the work of both Houses of the Oireachtas. I would like to thank you, as committee Chairs, for your contribution in this regard, especially given the challenges of the past two years. Today is an opportunity to discuss issues of interest to us all and as I look forward to an interactive engagement, I will keep my introductory remarks brief.

This Government came into office in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic affected every part of our society and at all times, in seeking to protect the lives and health of our people, the Government was deeply conscious of the extraordinary burden that the necessary public health restrictions placed on everyone. The unprecedented sacrifices made by people, and our comprehensive vaccination programme, unquestionably saved lives and reduced illness. The very significant level of intervention by Government, to the tune of over €20 billion, was essential to support workers and businesses, and to protect the economy.

With the pandemic receding, we saw economic and social recovery taking hold last year. Unfortunately, with Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine, we now again face some uncertainty. Our first priority must be to provide protection for those fleeing the war in Ukraine and, as members know, significant work has been and is being done to provide accommodation, income and other supports for people arriving here.

On the economic front, Russia’s war in Ukraine is disrupting international supply chains, increasing energy costs and damaging confidence in the global economy. The Government recognises the impacts on households and businesses, especially with increasing energy and other prices. We have already taken steps to help ease the impact, through grants to households for energy costs, temporary reductions in excise duties and VAT on fuel, as well as substantial, targeted supports for those most vulnerable in receipt of the fuel allowance. We have also taken a number of measures to support heavily impacted sectors, including haulage, farming and hospitality. In total, taking into account also the cost of living supports in budget 2022, we have provided more than €2 billion to help households, families and businesses.

Over the past year, as the pandemic has receded, we have seen recovery take hold in our economy. Employment is now at record levels, accompanied by a strong rebound in consumer spending and in private investment. Growth in modified domestic demand, a good proxy for the domestic economy, was 6.5% in 2021. The year 2021 also saw substantial growth in foreign direct investment, FDI, with the highest employment creation figures ever in a single year despite the challenge of Covid-19. More than half of the new investments announced in 2021 went to regional locations, with FDI employment growth in every region. In 2021 we also saw the highest annual increase in jobs in our indigenous businesses supported by Enterprise Ireland. This job growth took place in all regions, with almost 70% of new jobs occurring outside of Dublin, and particularly strong growth in the north west and south east. We continue to see a strong performance in Exchequer returns, with underlying trends a positive sign of the strength of the domestic recovery.

Our recovery has been supported by implementation of the Government’s economic recovery plan. This plan outlines how we are preparing our society, our economy, and our people to seize the opportunities that are to come, in particular in the areas of green and digital, while striving to improve our quality of life and safeguard our continued prosperity. Overall, despite international uncertainties and the challenges we face, we expect the economy to grow by about 4% this year, unemployment to fall to close to 5%, and a Government deficit of less than 1%, which is a remarkable performance that speaks to the resilience of our economy.

Housing, of course, remains a priority for the Government. In Housing For All, the Government set out our ambitions to transform the provision of housing in this country. We aim to increase the supply of housing to an average of more than 33,000 units per year over the next decade. This is the largest ever multi-annual investment programme for housing, with in excess of €20 billion being made available through to 2026. Supply is absolutely key in this agenda.

Climate action, and putting our environment back on a sustainable path, is also at the very centre of our work as a Government. Climate action can enable us to protect the environment and develop new jobs and new sectors that can thrive in a decarbonised world. No-one should underestimate the enormous challenge we face in halving emissions by 2030 and achieving climate neutrality by 2050. In tackling this challenge, we need to bring people with us through a just transition. That is one of the reasons the Government has committed to enhance social dialogue, to listen and engage deeply with employers, trade unions, and wider social partners, on the profound challenges we face.

Our experience in the Covid-19 pandemic has, I believe, underscored our deep appreciation for our public services, in particular our health service. We owe all who work in our health service a deep debt of gratitude. It is incumbent on us to redouble our efforts to support the transformation of our health service by implementing Sláintecare. In 2022, we will spend a record €21 billion on our health and social care services. This will allow us to reduce waiting lists, increase capacity, protect our most vulnerable, and deliver the right care, in the right place at the right time.

I could continue with many other policy priorities for Government but I am conscious that we have limited time so I will stop here. I look forward to hearing the contributions from all members and to engaging on the issues raised.

I thank the Taoiseach. Before we move on to the next part of the meeting I will do a quick recap on the procedures that we have agreed. We will take questions from cathaoirligh in groups of three. They will be called upon in order of their appointment under the D'Hondt model, followed by non-D'Hondt committees.

Members will be delighted to hear that the next information I will outline is an abbreviated version. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. A time limit of two and a half minutes was proposed, but in a spirit of generosity, and as a reflection of the generous nature of my own personality, we are going to up that to three minutes per Cathaoirleach. Cathaoirligh will put their questions in groups of three and the Taoiseach will be given four minutes to respond to the questions of each group. As our time is limited, we will be using the clock and adhering to the time limits. In the event that somebody is not present, I will move to the names in the group below. As a result, I might call people earlier than indicated. Without further ado, the first person up is Deputy Howlin, Leas-Chathaoirleach of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, but as we agreed in the Standing Orders, he is also the Leas-Chathaoirleach of this committee as well. He has a double function here today. He should lead the way. He will be followed by Deputy Quinlivan.

Gabhaim buíochas, a Chathaoirligh, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. I feel like an interloper because I am not a Cathaoirleach, so I get to do the work without having the remuneration, which is good. The Joint Committee on European Union Affairs has a very broad remit. We have been concentrating on Brexit very strongly in the initial parts of this term, but I do not want to talk to the Taoiseach about Brexit today. Normally, because of the current situation I would have lots of questions about that, but the committee very recently made a visit to Moldova and Romania. As the Taoiseach is aware, they are countries that are at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the extraordinary humanitarian crisis that has evolved after the illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine. The response of those two states has been amazing and hugely impressive. I wish to ask the Taoiseach four related questions in that regard to which he might respond.

Ireland has undertaken to take 500 refugees from Moldova, complex refugees requiring specific supports. We have not been able to ascertain exactly the situation with them. If he does not have the information now, the Taoiseach might be able to indicate to us what progress we have made to date in dealing with the pledge we made and what further pledges in terms of taking some of the 100,000 plus refugees that are in Moldova, a very poor country?

Moldova is also in need of financial support. We have given €1 million, which is a paltry amount. We met the health Minister there and the health infrastructure is under enormous pressure. I know we give considerable sums to international organisations, but the committee was anxious that we would give cash directly to the health systems and other government agencies in Moldova. Is this something the Government has contemplated?

We were hugely impressed by the degree of preparation those relatively poor countries have made in regard to preparing for refugees. What have we done to prepare for a further influx of refugees that is now likely? Has the Taoiseach engaged with those countries to see how we can replicate some of the preparations they have made?

I am going to stay within the time allocated, so my final question is as follows. On the trip to Moldova, we engaged with it on its application, together with Ukraine and Georgia, to join the European Union. They are very realistic about what is required of them and the timelines that might be envisaged. What are we doing to enhance our bilateral relations with those potential candidate countries? We are aware that we do not have an embassy in either Moldova or in Georgia.

I thank the Taoiseach for coming. As he well knows, Dáil committees do very important and often excellent work. The committee I chair is the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment. We have done a lot of work in the past year or so on issues of corporate enforcement, sick pay legislation and permits among other issues, involving a significant workload engaging with stakeholders to get expert advice, producing well-researched reports, scrutinising and strengthening Bills. As the Taoiseach is aware, a lot of the work goes under the radar, as it should do. Many committees, however, are under huge pressure due to their workload and I would like to request additional resources to support members with administrative support on Private Members' legislation especially, but also with pre-legislative scrutiny. We need additional resources in the Oireachtas Library and Bills Office and to support the work we do in committees. A significant burden is currently placed on existing staff, who already do a fantastic job, but additional resources would greatly help to address this. I would appreciate if the Taoiseach could have a look at that and see if we can get additional staff, in particular in the Bills Office and in the Oireachtas Library, to do more research work, which we all need.

The Taoiseach might be aware that the most Oireachtas committees will have received a letter from the Joint Committee on the Good Friday Agreement regarding part of its terms of reference. It concerns consideration of the extension of the special invitee status of Northern Irish MPs to other Oireachtas committees. At the launch of the National Economic and Social Council comprehensive report on a shared island, which the Taoiseach said was a hugely significant initiative, he said our goal is to work through all-Ireland partnerships to invest for a more connected, sustainable and prosperous Ireland for all. He said we are working intensively now on a whole-of-government basis to make it happen. Surely one aspect of that would be to facilitate any Northern Irish MPs who may wish - I understand some may not wish to attend - Oireachtas committees as special invitees. Does the Taoiseach agree that all committees should try to include Northern Ireland MPs as special invitees? Will he commit to moving this forward, and will he work to ensure that all barriers to the proposals are removed. The situation currently is that committees are being asked to look at it individually and I do not think that is the way we should go forward. We should come up with some sort of solution to this. I understand there is legal advice in that regard, but if the will is there we can get around this. They are my two questions, the first on resources for committees to make sure they can work properly and effectively and, the second, to consider the issue of special invitees to be able to come to all committees if they wish.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. The Joint Committee on Justice is probably one of the most, if not the most, legislatively heavy committees in the Houses. It processes a very significant body of legislation. In the first term, in the first year of the sitting year of the committee, we processed 50% or more of the entire Government legislation published in that term. We have been managing this proactively. We have allocated 50% of our slots and available time to legislation, be that pre-legislative scrutiny or Committee Stage referrals, and from that we have now completed pre-legislative scrutiny of 18 Government Bills that were referred, including stakeholder engagement submissions and oral engagement at committee. We have also processed ten Government Bills through Committee Stage and beyond. We have processed five elective modules at this stage for the committee's own interest, which includes such topics as GDPR; civil liberties during the pandemic and whether the balance was struck; and issues of domestic and gender-based violence. We have upcoming modules on the coroner system and we are considering policy areas on the decriminalisation of small quantities of prescribed narcotics.

There is an interesting broad range of elected modules within the committee as well. In addition to the Government legislation and our own electives, we have also had five Private Members' Bills referred for pre-legislative scrutiny. Of those, the Dying with Dignity Bill in particular took some considerable time and engagement. We received 1,400 submissions from members of the public and interested parties on that, which took some intensive engagement.

Ultimately, the Bill was not considered fit for purpose or ready to progress, due to drafting errors and legal errors. However, it did raise important policy issues. We were glad to have the opportunity to consider it.

The asks to Government are quite straightforward and simple. We have a legislative-heavy workload. We are very much up for the job in getting through it and processing it. I would make some points. One is that there is tendency from the Department to refer a plethora of items for pre-legislative scrutiny at one time. We may therefore get a bulk of Bills referred over the course of one or two days. Then the trail goes cold. We also have an issue with Committee Stage legislation. We tend to reserve a committee slot each month and we have Committee Stage referrals coming through. However, on occasion, the Department has pulled a Bill at short notice when a Committee Stage was scheduled and, because of the timelines and Standing Orders etc. it is not possible then to re-engage another meeting. We hate to see a slot going to waste, particularly when there is such a busy schedule. We stressed to the Department before that a back-up list should be created, whereby if a Bill is not ready for Committee Stage for whatever reason, another Bill should be substituted so that we can make the most of the time and that we can optimise it for all. That has not happened to date and perhaps the Government could look at that.

As a concluding remark, I will give an example of the system working well. The Judicial Appointments Commission Bill recently went to Second Stage in the House, having been published. I noted that it took on board, and the Minister acknowledged in her opening speech, a number of recommendations from the committee. This was probably the first Bill that has gone full cycle in this Dáil in that it came to us for pre-legislative scrutiny, it went back to Government, it was amended and adopted, and then it went to Second Stage. I was very pleased and the committee welcomed the fact it included a number of our recommendations. We thank them. That is an example of the system working well. I thank the Taoiseach for being here today.

First, in relation to Deputy Howlin’s point, we have approximately 29,000 - I can check those figures for the Deputy - Ukrainians who are fleeing war. We did undertake to take in 500 from Moldova. I will check the specifics on that and I will come back to the committee and to the Deputy. I will take on board what he said about financial support. Initially, in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the war, we tend to allocate the humanitarian assistance through the United Nations bodies, through international NGOs, the WHO, the UN, UNICEF etc.

I take the Deputy’s point about the 1 million people going to Moldova. I am very concerned about a country like Moldova and its capacity to absorb what it has to absorb. I will talk to my colleagues in government to see if we can do something more specific to Moldova in relation to financial supports and any other capacity supports that we can help with them with, such as logistical or rapid response teams that might be able to help in certain respects.

There is also the issue of Moldova’s application to join the EU. I am on the side of those who believe that we should accelerate the European perspectives of the neighbourhood. I see it from a fundamentally geopolitical perspective. If you look at what happened in 2004, when we took in ten new states, many of those had different and varying levels of economic and social development. Yet, it is unquestionable now, looking at it from this point in time, that was an overwhelming success. There are concerns more laterally with some countries that joined and about whether they were ready. However, the bottom line is that if those countries were not in the European Union now, they would be vulnerable and they would feel vulnerable to the kind of aggression that Ukraine is experiencing. The European Union cannot complain about Russian meddling in the neighbourhood, be it in the western Balkans or in the eastern neighbourhood, if the EU is not moving purposefully to facilitate the application pathways of countries such as Georgia and Moldova. I take the Deputy’s point that they are realistic about their prospects.

We have taken further steps to engage with those countries on the measures they have taken. We have tended to move on the hotels and on any vacant accommodation that is available. It is now increasingly clear is that many Ukrainian people prefer the multiple occupancy at the moment. They would prefer to stay with their network of people with whom they have come in. They are sometimes reluctant to go into an individual house, for example, if they have been in a congregated grouping for a period of time. They probably get strength from their networks.

The next phase will be to reconfigure a range of properties that have been identified by a team that the Department of Housing, Government and Local Heritage put together. These were former local authority executives who looked at a range of buildings. They have said that these can be more readily reconfigured in the short term to provide locations for families and for people who are fleeing. The pledged aspect of this needs to be accelerated. It has been a slow process. In terms of the Irish Red Cross, many of the properties pledged have not emerged. Yet, there is anecdotal evidence that it could be made speedier. There are all the vetting issues that go with that.

In terms of bilateral arrangements under the global strategy, there is room for us within that European neighbourhood to increase and expand our footprint as we continue to expand our diplomatic footprint across Europe and across the world.

Deputy Quinlivan raised the point of the need for supports for the committees. I would have thought that would have been a job for the Oireachtas Commission. I will check with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform as to what type of bilateral engagement has taken place between the commission and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and about the overall envelope that is allocated. My understanding is that there has not been too much agitation around the envelope, although “agitation” might be the wrong word. I do not get a sense that there have been huge demands. I will be careful what I say now, because I might be inviting demands. Normally the Oireachtas Commission gets a sizeable budget.

It is a not problem with my own committee and I am not saying that. However, I have been approached by other committee members and chairs concerned.

I will follow it up.

They have a problem with Bills and with Library research. There is just not enough staff there.

In the last number of years - I was an advocate for Dáil reform in 2016 and for confidence and supply - we created a budget office. We have created far more resources now in the Dáil than would have been the case. I will check with the Oireachtas Commission and with the Minister about this. Some legislation on this went through before Christmas.

It is a three-year envelope.

My sense was that the envelope has not been as stretched as-----

We will stretch it.

That is what I am suggesting to the Deputies.

Deputy Quinlivan was making a fundamental point. He also made a point about Northern Ireland MEPs. My understanding is that the Oireachtas reform committee is examining that at the moment. I have no issue with that at all. However, there are some legal issues that have to be dealt with and addressed.

My understanding is that the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisor, OPLA, had a meeting on 3 March. We have not heard the outcome of that yet, as far as I am aware. Is there anything the Taoiseach could do, if there are blockages there? People are interested in progressing this. If there are any blockages we should take them all away.

The Dáil reform committee discussed it last week.

Yes, I think it did.

It did.

I fully accept the extraordinary work of Deputy Lawless’s committee and its legislative workload. It has been substantive. I take the Deputy’s point about the loading of legislation and then a valley period and the withdrawal of Bills at short notice. That should not happen. There should be a back-up all of the time to make sure that is a continuous pipeline of legislation. Justice is one area where there is a significant pipeline of legislation. That has always tended to be the case. I am interested in what the Deputy is saying. There are different perspectives on pre-legislative scrutiny, which has probably gone far beyond what people might have envisaged it to be originally. There are essentially two Committees Stages now as well. That lengthens the time for legislation to get through the House. Originally, my sense of pre-legislative scrutiny when it was conceived and agreed in 2016 was that it would be a technical pre-legislative scrutiny to make sure the Bill was literate and that it made sense etc. However, it has become a much a bigger operation now. That is something that will come forward in discussions.

I do not want interrupt.

I will pay attention to time. My apologies.

Members will be happy for as much information as possible and the Taoiseach is imparting important information as well.

An tarna dream ná na Teachtaí Funchion, Seán Crowe agus Leddin.

I thank the Chairman and the staff for organising this. I also thank the Taoiseach for coming in. It is good to have this type of engagement.

I know that Deputy Lawless' committee has much legislation but we have had a lot as well. Even just the name of our committee - the Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth - shows the range of topics and wide remit of both the Department and committee. I will briefly run through some of both the topics and legislation at which we have been looking.

We had many of the issues that emerged from the time of the mother and baby homes with regard to the Institutional Burials Bill 2022 and information and tracing legislation. We have now also started looking for submissions for the pre-legislative scrutiny stage of the redress scheme. They nearly all sort of came together, let us say, within the last year or year and a half. We were delighted to be able to actually get through them, however, particularly with Covid-19, and also to able to bring so many witnesses physically into the Dáil even during Covid. We were delighted to achieve that.

Some of the more topical issues we have been looking at include children with disabilities waiting for assessments of need. We have been looking particularly at the report by the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, on child poverty, particularly in the context of Covid-19, and how that was really brought into sharp contrast for everybody. We also had the opportunity, which was brilliant, to hear from children themselves with regard to Covid-19. They were able to Zoom in to the committee to talk about their experiences. Being a children's committee, we want to do more of that. Also, for everybody's information, it is the European Year of Youth. It is something we will hopefully be able to do a little more of, which at this stage will probably be after the summer recess. We also considered the general scheme of the assisted decision-making (capacity) (amendment) Bill.

Some of my questions have been addressed. They are kind of a combination of what Deputies Quinlivan and Lawless asked about regarding resources and the logistical aspects with the Department. A lot of the legislation has come together. I acknowledge some of this legislation has been on the books for a long time and so I can understand how that happens but, for example, ironically, the work life balance and miscellaneous provisions Bill has been referred to us. We are actually under serious pressure to try to get that done and yet that is a piece to which we really should be giving a lot of time. I am not sure exactly whose remit that falls into but there may be a better way of streamlining or planning some of the legislation because committees need to look at topics as well. I know we need to prioritise legislation but it is good for committees to look at topics like, for example, child poverty, and to be able to do really good reports on that. Sometimes, it feels like we get bogged down in all of the legislation and there is not as much time for topics. I imagine that can be an issue for the Department too because a huge amount falls to it, particularly now in the context of everything that is happening in Ukraine. That also falls to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

In the past couple of weeks, we have seen a number of high-profile resignations with Dr. Tony Holohan, Dr. Ronan Glynn, and, in the last couple of days, the chief operating officer, COO, of the HSE signalling their intentions to leave their posts in the coming weeks. We all know the pandemic was an incredibly stressful time for all involved in public health. I would not fault anyone for wanting to step away now that we appear to be coming through the worst of it. However, my fear is that it represents a huge loss in institutional memory in the health service. Is the Government concerned about this? What is the timeframe for filling these posts once they become vacant? Does the Government intend to look outside the public service to fill the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, post specifically?

The other issue is that back in 2019, there was commitment from the Taoiseach of the day to bring cervical testing back to Ireland and halt the sending of smear tests abroad for testing. We all know the reasons why. It is now 2022. All the cervical samples from Irish women are being sent abroad for screening. Does the Taoiseach intend to honour his predecessor's commitment? Does the Government intend to ramp up our testing capacity? Traditionally, we were only able to do approximately 10% of smear tests taken annually. When does the Taoiseach expect the samples to be tested again in Ireland? What target percentage of tests does the Government hope to test domestically into the future and by when? Again, I understand if the Taoiseach does not have those answers; he might come back to me.

I want to get back to some of the previous questions regarding resources. With regard to the national children's hospital, the committee has now, to an extent, been bounced into the issue of trying to bring in people. I welcome the fact that we are getting the opportunity now to open up the issue to the public. We appealed to the Minister yesterday, however, that we just do not have the time to bring in as many people as we have. I know there is a potential decision on this next Tuesday-----

Did the Deputy say the children's hospital?

I am sorry; I meant the maternity hospital. The committee was asking that we would be given the adequate time to try to bring in all the different people who are clamouring at the moment to try to get in. We are meeting today for four hours. We were talking about meeting on Friday for another number of hours. We are really racing against the clock here. It is not of our making. I can understand the urgency of trying to get this across the line but if we are really serious about Dáil scrutiny and dealing with this issue, I am appealing that we need time as a committee. We need resources as well. It is again to back up what some of the other Chairs said; many of the staff are exhausted at this stage in relation to the amount of stuff that is going through committees. We need that additional support for which the members are calling.

Tá fáilte roimh an Taoiseach inniu. Many of the great challenges of the State the Taoiseach mentioned at the outset, including the war on Ukraine and its knock-on effects on the price of fuel, the cost of living and so on fall to the Committee on Environment and Climate Action. I must say, we have a committee that is comprised of 14 incredibly engaged members from across all parties in the Oireachtas. I pay tribute to them for their work week in, week out.

We have undertaken a huge amount of work on significant legislation that is priority legislation for this Oireachtas such as the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 and more recently, the Circular Economy, Waste Management (Amendment) and Minerals Development (Amendment) Bill 2022, which is going through now. We played a big role in proposing the carbon budgets, which went before the Oireachtas recently. We are doing other work around the legislative load around how we face the challenges of our State, particularly with regard to climate, environment, biodiversity, the built environment, grid development and so on. We have had very positive engagement with other committees. I particularly pay tribute to Deputy Cahill, Chair of the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, with whom we have worked closely.

I wish to mention three particular issues. They are not necessarily questions but I would certainly invite a response. They are important issues to think about. In our committee, we set out the huge opportunity for Ireland towards the end of this decade and into the next few decades in renewable energy, and for Ireland to become an energy exporter. There is a concern in the system that unless we start to prepare for that now very seriously and diligently, we may miss the boat on it and other countries will get ahead of us and we will be last. That would be remiss if that was the case.

There is a concern around the aligning of city and county development plans and the work of relevant bodies such as An Bord Pleanála, the National Transport Authority, NTA, the Office of Public Works, OPW, and other relevant bodies as per the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 and how their operations will align with their duties under the Act. That is just something to put on the Taoiseach's radar. It is a very difficult challenge for those bodies to align their operations with the 51% cut and the net zero target and so on. I would not at all pretend that it is straightforward but it is something on which there needs to be a whole-of-government approach and, certainly, leadership from the Department of the Taoiseach.

Equally important is the challenge we have on communications with respect to climate. We saw recently that when the rubber hits the road with climate action we struggle as a country. The committee has engaged with people, and over the past 18 months we have become very educated on the issues. Perhaps we are guilty of not conveying to wider society the challenges that exist. Something to put on the Taoiseach's radar is that a serious effort needs to be made by the Government and all of the Oireachtas to highlight the challenges relating to climate action, whether it is cycle lanes or road projects. The recent controversy regarding turf is related to this.

I want to pick up on Deputy Quinlivan's point on resources. I accept the Taoiseach's comment that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is the appropriate body. He mention the Parliamentary Budget Office. There is a strong case to be made for a similar resource to educate all Oireachtas Members on the issues relating to climate, many of which are extremely complex. The members of all the committees would value such a resource.

I have to accept that Deputy Funchion's committee has had an incredible agenda of major legislation, particularly the information and tracing Bill. The latter will give unprecedented access to birth records and is very important. There was the burials legislation and now we have the payments legislation. There are also other issues. I pay tribute to the fantastic innovation that children are able to use Zoom for Oireachtas committees. We need more of this in terms of citizenship and linking our children and young people to the democratic process. It is a fantastic initiative. If there is anything we can do to assist with this and add to it, I would be more than delighted. Yesterday, I met a young student from Kerry, Daithí Ó Loinsigh, who won a competition to deliver a video to sell to his peers the idea of a career in the public service. I did not think it was the greatest prize of all, but first prize was to interview the Taoiseach. He was happy enough to come in and interview me. We need to do more of this. It is very important. Well done on that.

On child poverty, there were recent data from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, which are quite interesting, regarding the interventions the Government made in respect of pandemic payments and unemployment subsidy payments. Only for those, we would have had a potentially far worse number of families and children at risk of poverty. In fact, in the past year or two there were reductions in the number of people at risk of poverty because of the interventions.

With regard to children with disabilities, we need to have a comprehensive review nationally on where we are going with the various Departments. Before I came into government, I was concerned about how Progressing Disability was progressing and about the relationship between the health side and the education side. We need to be very pragmatic in the context of the interventions and approaches for children. This is one of the reasons the decision was taken to remove disability from the Department of Health and have it dealt with by a separate Department, which is the Department with responsibility for children. Health is enormous given the range of responsibilities. There is certainly more work to be done. I hear what the Deputy said about resources.

More generally on resources, consistent points have been raised by different Chairs. I will ask the Secretary General of my Department to discuss with the Secretaries General of all the other Departments logistical arrangements and engagement with this committee and with the committee Chairs. I will engage with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission on the broader issue of resources.

Deputy Seán Crowe raised an issue in respect of which there are two factors. I am loath to speak about people's career choices, career pathways and the decisions that individuals are entitled to make about where they want to go. Certainly the Chief Medical Officer and the deputy chief medical officer have been two exceptional contributors to the national cause with regard to Covid-19 in particular and in the context of other issues. There is strong capacity in the public health division in the Department of Health. I wish both of them well. People go to the private sector. The private sector watches talent in the public sector. Very clearly, there was a lot of interaction between the private sector and the public sector during Covid. The private sector has got an insight into certain potential movers and shakers. I am not saying that is the case with these individuals, but it is a reality and we need to take it on board.

With regard to cervical testing, I do not have a specific timeline. We would probably never have had a CervicalCheck programme if the decision had not been made to go outside but that leads to issues with regard to quality control. It is preferable that we move as fast as possible to create our own domestic capacity for testing across the board. Investments are happening and the Minister might have referred to this recently, either at the committee or through publicly issued statements on the investment taking place.

On the national maternity hospital, the Government published all of the documentation. This has been going on for nine years. I watched a small snippet on the television over the past couple of days in which some of the people working in Holles Street were saying that this has been going on for nine years and that they are extremely concerned about how long more it will go on. Over the past 12 to 14 days, I have not heard any clear explanation of the difference between the impact of a leasehold of 300 years and a freehold on the clinical operation and financial independence of the new maternity hospital. I have not heard it. I do not quite understand how a leasehold of 300 years impacts on the independence of the hospital. I cannot see how it does. No one has explained to me yet how it does. I take the Deputy's comments in good faith but there is parliamentary function and Executive function, and the Government has to consider this.

People thought decisions had been taken at the end of the process that involved Kieran Mulvey, when he was brought in by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, to knock heads together. He got an agreement. The most recent public debate on it was when it surfaced during the by-election. We went back and the current Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, negotiated it with his team in the Department of Health and significant changes were made, particularly with regard to the length of time of the lease. It is now for 300 years as opposed to 140. It is many times the expected lifespan of the hospital so the State will get back its investment many times over. We had decided we needed three State or Government appointees on the board but after the Mulvey process it was only one. There is a constitution and an operational licence from the HSE for the hospital. All of these legally not only guarantee but oblige the hospital authorities to provide all lawfully permissible services in the State. This has been exhausted over quite some length of time. No doubt over the coming days it will be also.

A decision was taken last week that the health committee would have a look at this. A week is not sufficient for anyone to look at the huge issues involved in this. This is an appeal that we are looking for additional time to try to cover the issues. We are being asked, presumably by the Cabinet, to air in public the concerns that people genuinely have on this issue.

The Cabinet took a decision last Tuesday week to publish all of the documentation and pause the decision. It is almost two years since the Government was formed and prior to that there were many more years of discussions and toing and froing. The only objective of the Government is to provide a 21st-century hospital for the women of Ireland and a neonatal centre of excellence. The current confined conditions of the neonatal unit are nothing to write home about. There has been exhaustive engagement with all of the authorities. The whole idea is co-location and to co-locate a maternity hospital with a tertiary hospital of the size and scale of St. Vincent's. It has been policy for 25 years to co-locate.

Nobody is objecting to that. I am asking for information-----

There are some who object to it - not the Deputy but some.

Can I intervene?

My apologies.

We have a limited time. We cannot have a back and forth.

I appreciate that.

Deputy Leddin floated a good idea, to which I had not given deeper consideration, that an office similar to the budgetary office in respect of climate could be established in the Parliament. That is not a bad idea in terms of resourcing the Parliament in general. The Oireachtas has to develop a more collective identity on climate change. We attempted to do this in the past. For example, the previous Dáil had an Oireachtas committee on the climate. It did not get unanimity on many issues, and the recent debates are showing that we still have some distance to go. The carbon tax is one issue and the turf issue is an illustration of that.

All the warnings are extremely grim; what is ahead of us is bad. The Cabinet committee was given a presentation during the week which was grimmer again, particularly for the children of our children regarding the world they are going to inherit if we do not do something fairly dramatic as a society to change how we behave. We cannot be saying the bigger countries must do it because every country must do it. There is potential in it economically for us with regard to jobs and so forth, but I am very worried that because it is still intangible and way in the distance for many people decisions will always be delayed. If we get into a state of high dudgeon over what we did two weeks ago, I really worry. We do not have the resources without some revenue streams. There are two reasons for the carbon tax. One is that it affects behaviour, and that is based on international research. Second, it gives us resources to carry out retrofitting and environmentally-friendly farming and to protect against fuel poverty. The money does not grow on trees, and we need resources to address climate change. We will need a consistent stream of revenue in some shape or form to address it.

That is just one aspect of it. There are many other aspects and there will be other challenges coming to the Oireachtas with the carbon budgets and carbon ceilings for each sector. This is going to be very challenging politically. I am not getting partisan on this, but it is going to be challenging all round. It is going to stretch all politicians as this becomes more manifest as we flow through the law.

On wind energy, we have the legislation passed. I am very taken with this. We have to get the wind energy right. It is interesting that many indigenous companies are emerging now in the wind energy area. I do not wish to be local about it but I attended the Cork Chamber of Commerce dinner last week and it was interesting that, for the first time, of the three companies that won awards two of them were in the offshore space. That is a sign, perhaps, that the enterprise base is responding.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to present a couple of the policy issues being dealt with by the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The first is forestry. The committee has devoted a lot of time to forestry and, unfortunately, the sector is under extreme pressure. Afforestation levels are the lowest since 1946 and the failure to meet the programme for Government planning targets has resulted in a missed opportunity to remove 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Farmers have walked away from the afforestation scheme, with just 100 farmers planting land in 2020. This is due to ongoing issues in the forestry licensing system, incompatibility with the green, low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, and linked issues which have seriously damaged landowners' confidence in forestry, none more so than farmers with forestry which is fatally infected with ash dieback and who are left with dying or rotting trees on their land. These farmers have not been fairly treated when compared with comparable diseases in agriculture such tuberculosis, TB, and brucellosis.

Intervention is needed. I ask that everything possible be done to address this issue to try to restore farmer confidence. First, we must ensure a fair scheme is available without delay to those who are suffering as a result of ash dieback. I suggest that farmers with ash dieback be allowed to claim premium on re-afforested land for the 15 years of growth of the new plantation. Following the recent legal review of the forestry licensing system, what changes are expected to ensure we have a system in place that is capable of processing licences within a reasonable timeframe of 120 days, including all support schemes such as native woodland conservation, forest roads and ash dieback? Has the legal review concluded that the thinning of forests is an essential part of woodlands maintenance and that, therefore, a licence to thin should not be required? This is one of the major logjams in the system. To convince farmers to play a key role in climate change mitigation we must first make sure farmers are properly supported.

The other issue I want to address briefly is climate change. We have had joint committee meetings with the climate action committee. It is essential that we meet the targets in the agrifood sector and in agriculture generally. A separate budget has to be put in place for farmers to invest in modern technology in order to meet the targets we have under climate change. The current targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS, budget and its ceilings will not incentivise farmers to do what is necessary. A few days ago the committee met with people to discuss solar panels and the problems they have getting solar panels in place on farms. There is a requirement for planning permission. We have to remove VAT on the panels and deal with access to the grid for surplus electricity. There is a lot of technology at present for the management of slurry, with infrastructure in farm buildings such as rubbers, slats and so forth, and there is ongoing technology on feed additives. However, it will cost money for farmers to put all this modern technology in place. A separate budget for incentives to embrace this modern technology would greatly enhance our ability to meet the targets we have set for emissions reductions under climate change.

I welcome the opportunity to address the Taoiseach on an important matter that has arisen in the Committee of Public Accounts, namely, the national broadband scheme and the failure of the national broadband plan and National Broadband Ireland, NBI, to meet the targets. We all understand there was a Covid-19 pandemic and part of the failure is down to that. We will not dispute that. There is an investment of €2.7 billion in the roll-out of the scheme, and there is no argument that it is badly needed in rural areas. However, there is no sign yet that we are achieving value for money. The target for the first year of the national broadband plan was 115,000 homes to be passed by the end of January 2022. National Broadband Ireland, the company tasked with delivering the roll-out, failed drastically to meet that target and passed just 27,000 homes and premises. Since then, we had the first remedial plan and then there was a second remedial plan, which set a target of 60,000 homes for January 2022. That failed, and the figure I have given shows it passed just under half that number.

This week, the Committee of Public Accounts received further correspondence from the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications informing it that another updated, interim remedial plan had been agreed with a new target of 102,000 homes and premises to be passed by January 2023, which is still way below the original target that was set for the first year. The situation is becoming farcical. This is plan number three and we are not even reaching half of the target that was agreed. The committee also received correspondence from the Department which sets out some of the possible reasons. It refers to blocked ducting and Covid-19. The Taoiseach is aware that in the first part of 2021 communications was not one of the industries that were shut down. Communications continued going and, indeed, NBI was out on the road because its vans were knocking around and they seemed busy.

We understand there would have been some restrictions because of people being out due to being close contacts and so on. I raised concerns in the last Dáil and with previous Ministers with regard to the nature of the contract, the fact there was no competitive tendering and just one bidder, and the fact this involved a big risk for the State and the taxpayer. As I said, €2.7 billion of public money is being invested.

It is clear that targets are being missed. Will the Government apply sanctions if the targets are not met? I have had mixed messaging on that. I was told by Ministers before the contract was signed that there would be but the Minister informed me earlier in this Dáil, when it was sitting in the convention centre, that there were no penalties. Rural Ireland needs to plan and everybody is on the one page on that. However, there is a concern that time is slipping by and I am not totally convinced by the reasons being given, which are in regard to blocked ducting and other things. These are things we would expect. Covid does not account for 13 or 14 months of a delay and reaching less than half the targets that we should be reaching.

I welcome the Taoiseach. As he knows, the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands produced a report earlier this year on the Pensions Commission recommendations. One of the key issues for the committee in overcoming our pensions challenge over the next 50 years is the introduction of legislation banning mandatory retirement in employment contracts - both new contracts, as well as being retrospectively applied to current work contracts - giving people the option, if they wish, to work beyond their present retirement age. It is the view of the committee members that it would be wrong to force people to retire at 65 and then have to wait until 68 to access a pension.

The committee considered a technical paper produced by the Pensions Commission which pointed out that while increasing the State pension age has the greatest impact on reducing pension expenditure, a substantial increase in the employment rate of older workers would also reduce future expenditure. This paper points out that the difference between increasing the pension age to 68 compared to increasing the employment rate of older workers by ten percentage points over the next 50 years is just 0.3% of GNI*. This shortfall has already been made up thanks to the higher participation rates in our workforce revealed by the CSO earlier this year. Surely, if as much effort was put into removing barriers to facilitate older people working longer as there has been in pushing up the retirement age, we believe it would be within our capacity as a country to increase the number of older people working by an average of one fifth of a percentage point a year.

If we remove the forced requirement to retire at 65, many workers will continue to remain in employment. This is not just because of the changing nature of work, particularly here in Ireland, where we are moving from more manual employment to technology-based or even remote-based employment, which allows people to continue to physically work for far longer, but also because some of the financial realities of living in Ireland today mean people will have to work longer to be financially secure in their retirement.

There is an argument that if we allow people to work beyond their 65th birthday, we are closing off promotion opportunities for younger staff in an organisation. However, the Civil Service has overcome this challenge for senior positions by filling such posts on a seven-year basis, thus allowing new thinking and younger people to compete for such roles. There is no reason that, for a change, the private sector cannot take a leaf out of the public sector book.

My questions are as follows. First, when will the Government make a decision on the pension age eligibility? Second, will the Government introduce legislation banning the retirement age in employment contracts?

I had intended to bring in Deputy Niamh Smyth at this point but I will have to leave her until the next round because there is a lot of content in those questions. I call the Taoiseach.

I appreciate the strong contribution from Deputy Cahill in regard to a whole range of issues, in particular forestry. I am very concerned about this issue. When this Government came in, the licensing situation was very difficult because of a lot of legal actions that were taken against licences, and reforms and legislation were passed to try to speed that up. As to the current indications, first, a new national forestry strategy is being developed that will build on previous strategies and give a strategic framework. In particular, the forestry licensing plan sets a target of about 5,200 new licences for this year, which is 30% above 2021 and will mark an increase in licensing output. The Department is also engaged in a number of initiatives to reduce the backlog of licences which is currently impacting landowners.

The Deputy has previously referenced with me the issue of the thinning of forests and the necessity for a licence for that activity. It is a very fair point and I will come back to him with regard to the legal opinions on that.

In terms of support for farmers and the points Deputy Cahill has raised, I will engage with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform with regard to the ash dieback challenge and how that may be overcome, but also with regard to income streams. I mentioned in an earlier contribution the whole idea that part of the carbon tax will be allocated to farming and that there would be an income stream for environmentally-friendly farming schemes. The Government took a decision on the riparian scheme recently, whereby income supports would be available to farmers and we took away some of the necessity to apply. I accept these would be very small areas of plantation of 1 ha or less by waterways. I am anxious that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine would move with some speed to implement that. We need more urgency around afforestation and tree planting. We have a natural climate for tree planting in this country and we really need to get with it.

The Deputy also raised the issue of a budget for technology, a point he has been articulating for some time. It is something that, again, could be considered in terms of the utilisation of the funds that come in. I have visited companies that produce the rubber slats, in particular the company in Galway, which is internationally renowned. The impacts are quite significant in terms of reduction of methane and there is no doubt that better technology on the farm can reduce methane and emissions. It is going to be an accumulation of all the various strands and initiatives that gets us to the end result and there is no one silver bullet that will enable us to do that. I take on board the Deputy’s idea of a fund for technology.

With regard to the point about solar panels, the Deputy mentioned the three aspects of planning, VAT and access to the grid. The latter is essential and it has not happened as quickly as it should have - I understand there is an issue to be taken up by the Minister in respect of microgeneration. Again, planning restrictions for smaller solar farms should be less. For example, we have a ridiculous situation where schools have to apply for planning permission for a small few panels.

To come back to the point made by Deputy Leddin, we are in the middle of an existential crisis and we need to act. However, of course, as soon as we do that, there will be another chorus of opinion that we should not do that. That speaks to the earlier points about the collective will across parties to get things done in regard to climate. I find tremendous energy within the farming community to respond to this challenge through innovation, and that does not often get said.

I will talk to the Minister in regard to the points Deputy Stanley has raised. First, the contracts were signed some years ago, before this Government came into office. We all want broadband in remote rural areas. Covid did have an impact, as the Minister made clear to me. Some €225 million was committed for 2022 under the national development plan. I can understand targets being missed in respect of Covid-19 but, again, the Deputy has raised certain points and he said it is now the third plan. I will go back to the Minister and then come back to the Deputy in regard to the specifics of that.

National Broadband Ireland, NBI, said to us in its letter of last week that the contractors failed to achieve a number of milestones which were to be delivered in 2021. These are addressed in the updated interim remedial plan, UIRP, and sanctions are accruing with regard to non-delivery of those milestones. That is what NBI stated.

That needs to be followed up on. We cannot continue to let this drift. It is important that they be delivered well and on time. We would appreciate it if that could be addressed.

I have not seen that correspondence, but I will talk to the Minister about the points the Deputy raised.

That is much appreciated.

Turning to Deputy Denis Naughten's questions, I am in favour of what he said. We should take away the legislative barrier to facilitating people in the private sector to work longer. In the year 2000, Ireland was ranked 16th on the European Union league table for life expectancy. This year, we are ranked number one. I did a double take when I saw those figures because I did not expect us to be ranked number one. That will be the story for the next decade in terms of European life expectancy and life expectancy generally, notwithstanding obesity and other challenges. The modern world has to reflect that. The only qualification I would offer is that I have a sense people want to cherry-pick the recommendations of the Commission on Pensions for the more palatable aspects, but are less inclined to cherry-pick the contents of its report for the less palatable political implications. There will be difficulties ahead. The Government will make decisions in the next number of weeks around the recommendations of the Commission on Pensions. I know that the Deputy's committee has reported on that matter and that there are many issues which arise. I note the point he made about the technical paper in which it was pointed out that if the working life age was extended and there was no barrier to people working longer, it would reduce costs.

We will move on to the next set of members, Teachtaí Niamh Smyth, Flanagan and O'Donnell.

l thank the Taoiseach for meeting us. I chair the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media. The big issue for our committee is the publication of the Future of Media Commission's report. Its publication is extremely important on a number of levels, not least for our public service broadcasters and for the print and online media at local, national and regional level as they face major challenges from new global platforms and changing audience preferences in how content is delivered. That Future of Media Commission launched a public consultation in December 2020 and received inputs in the form of more than 800 submissions. It held a series of thematic dialogues which was very important and it was great that happened. From the committee’s point of view, this issue is of great importance. As the Taoiseach will be aware, we spent months upon months dealing with the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill. There is considerable concern among not only committee members but also the stakeholders we have heard from about the future of public service broadcasting, public service content and regulation, and, more importantly, with regard to broadcasting, Internet content and the funding of public service broadcasters. In the background to all of that, we know the impact that has had on democracy, disinformation and media literacy.

As stated, we spent months dealing with the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. We met the stakeholders but all the time we, as a committee, have felt we were doing this with one arm tied behind our backs. In order words, in a vacuum of not having that report. We cannot move forward. I know it is with the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. I understand that there are big decisions to be made. What I hope to elicit from the Taoiseach today is a date for the publication of this report. It is extremely important. I take this opportunity to make three earnest requests of the Taoiseach when the Government establishes this commission. The first is that it would be fully resourced. The second it is that it would have real legal teeth. I have felt some pushback from the Department in this regard. If the commission does not have an individual complaint mechanism in place, it will be futile. I would ask the Taoiseach to ensure that is part of it.

I thank the Taoiseach for joining us. This is an important engagement. I do not often avail of an opportunity to agree with my colleague, Deputy Seán Crowe. He is not here, sadly, to hear me endorse fully his proposal that a greater level of consideration be given to the matter of resourcing our committees. All our committees work hard and assiduously, Often, however, it appears we are working away in our own bubble. The issue of resources is important. Having said that, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence is a committee of some significance. During the past 25 years, however, never have there been such circumstances in which the work of this committee is under the spotlight to such a degree, especially having regard to the change in the European and national landscapes.

Briefly, I would raise a few issues with the Taoiseach. The first is regarding Northern Ireland. How does the Taoiseach respond to an assertion on the part of the UK Government that its intention to unilaterally tear up the Northern Ireland protocol is in the protection of the Good Friday Agreement? That seems to have been contained in official press releases in the past 24 hours.

Second, acknowledging the crisis of confidence in political unionism, a reluctance on the part of the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, to enter a power-sharing Executive and further polarisation heightened by the dialled up rhetoric in the course of an election campaign, has the Irish Government a role in dialling back from some of the more polarised rhetoric? How, for example, can the matter of extreme polarisation be dealt with, particularly having regard to the sensitive and contested issues such as legacy, culture and language? Does the Taoiseach accept that the challenge for Irish nationalism and for British unionism is to respect the integrity of each other’s position? In this regard, let me signal, on behalf of my committee and on my own behalf, strong support for the Taoiseach’s shared island concept and for his work in that regard. If I could be so bold, I ask him to prioritise this work in the context of his remaining months in office because I believe it is extremely important in the search for solutions. I thank the Taoiseach for the engagement he has undertaken.

Third, on the matter of the Middle East peace process, our committee furnished a pretty detailed report last year. It was with regret we noticed the matter was not subjected to any form of Dáil debate. The Taoiseach will tell me that this is a matter for the Business Committee and not a matter for his office. However, I am sure he has some influence with the Whip's office. However, more importantly, does he still see any role for Ireland in the context of the Middle East peace process and has he raised the issue with his international colleagues?

Similarly, last year our committee furnished what we believed was a very important and detailed report on the matter of Covid vaccine equity throughout the world. Again, however, and unfortunately, we felt that we were talking to ourselves. However, now that Covid has moved down the agenda, I remind the Taoiseach of its importance and perhaps an important influential role Ireland might have as an advocate in ensuring Covid vaccine equity on the international stage is kept very much on the agenda.

In respect of defence, the current war in Ukraine has placed European security and defence at the top of the agenda. We see the ever-changing landscape across Europe, even today with Finland, Sweden, Austria and Denmark all re-examining their roles. I put it to the Taoiseach that our long-held status of being neutral or non-aligned is unsustainable. How does he see us moving along from that? I refer to the really important report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, which is a matter of importance to our committee.

Moving along from that, I refer to the important report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, which is a matter of importance for our committee. I know it has not gone before the Government yet. I believe there is an urgency there, as well as an importance. I would ask that the Taoiseach, for example, on the matter of its implementation, might look at what the previous Government did on the matter of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. I ask that there would be an implementation role for the Taoiseach’s Department because without having the influence of the Department of the Taoiseach, it might move down the agenda in a way that might give rise to a source of dissatisfaction for some. The issue of the budget has been mentioned by the Minister, but he will need the Taoiseach’s support and the support of the Government because of the low morale in the Defence Forces. How does the Taoiseach see it?

Finally, there has been mention of a citizens' assembly. I, as a committee chair, do not see that as a way forward. Perhaps the Taoiseach might like to share his view with us.

I thank the Deputy for his impressive double use of the word “finally”.

I welcome the Taoiseach. I am the chair of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications. I agree with my colleagues on the resourcing of committees. The workload for the staff is very heavy. We need extra staff within the committees. The communications unit has to be resourced as well. I support the call for that.

Our committee has done quite a bit of pre-legislative scrutiny. The only observation I have to make on that is that the outline of the contents of the Bill should be provided as part of pre-legislative scrutiny. There should not be a situation whereby we get a segment of what will be in the final legislation with a huge amount of coming through on Committee Stage. Pre-legislative scrutiny should include the heads of the Bill and it should give an idea of the content of the Bill. It should not just be a portion of the content with rest to come later. That would take away much of the confusion around pre-legislative scrutiny. It should include the heads of the Bill and what will be in the Bill. What we are finding is that we are being asked to do pre-legislative scrutiny, but we do not get large segments of the Bill until Committee Stage. That makes it difficult for us to pre-legislative scrutiny. We, as a committee, are required to sign off on something, but we do not know the full contents of the Bill and its full subject matter.

We have done extensive work around a range of areas. When the committee was established, we looked at aviation and produced a report on it. We very much advocated the use of rapid antigen testing in our report on aviation, which was produced in December 2020. It took a while for that to come into being but we welcome that it has. We ask that the national aviation policy review would get under way straight away. Cork and Shannon Airports have fallen behind Dublin. It makes no sense in terms of balanced regional development. They have gone down by 12% while Dublin has gone up to nearly 85%. That needs to be looked at and we ask for that to be expedited.

The national broadband plan falls under our remit. There has been progress on that, but we have to look at where the blockages are. The blockage at the moment is in the inter-relationship between National Broadband Ireland and some of the other providers using some of its infrastructure. That needs to be joined up. I believe that would bring things up to speed.

National cybersecurity falls under our remit. We have held extensive consultations on it. The national digital strategy was launched by the Taoiseach in February of this year. We would ask that the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, would be fully resourced.

We had the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, before the committee. A number of unidentified planes were detected off the coast. Two of those did not have transformers and they could not be identified. They were both Russian planes. Would the Taoiseach support investment into primary radar services?

We produced a report on the national development plan, NDP. We welcome that the public works contract is now being reformed. We are going to work on that. An Post falls under our remit, which is quite extensive. We basically want to see sufficient supports being put in place in that regard.

That covers the range of areas we have looked at. The legislation we covered included the Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) (Amendment) Act, Road Traffic and Roads Bill, the Air Navigation and Transport Bill and the communications Bills. These are the asks of the committee and I would welcome the Taoiseach’s comments on the same.

I know that the Taoiseach has a finite amount of time available to us today. We have one more block left after this. Is the Taoiseach okay with that?

That is good.

On Deputy Niamh Smyth’s point, I fully appreciate the work the committee has been doing in regard to the Future of Media Commission. It is tying that in with the future of democracy and of media literacy. That is extremely important. We would hope to be able to make a decision on this soon. However, I would be upfront with the committee and say that the fundamental issue will be how we fund media into the future. This has been the subject matter of previous Oireachtas committees. It will be a matter for the committee to take on the challenge.

The objective is to have a free and independent media to underpin democracy and the fundamental values we share. We can see from Ukraine what the likes of Russia and authoritarian regimes want to do. We see the proliferation of fake news and the deliberate attempts to manipulate media and news. We need a different funding template for Irish media into the future, which encompasses all strands, such as broadcasting, print and online. That funding template must have complete separation between the State and media in terms of influence, or any perception of influence, by the State over annual funding allocations, etc. That is the view I hold. If funding is to be wholly from the Exchequer, there is always the danger that a future or a current Government could decide in a budgetary cycle to say it is going to clip the media's wings and say it is taking out so much. That would not be satisfactory for the independence of the media, which should be at an arm’s length from the Government.

We see even in the European Union that governments are now influencing their own media and there is a proliferation of what is called "government media" and government media channels. It is important that we avoid that in Ireland. Those are the issues that are exercising the Government at the moment in terms of decisions we have to take and the funding template for media. We want to publish the report with decisions and recommendations that the Government is going to take on this. There is no doubt that on the broadcasting front, public service content is under pressure. The national broadcaster is under financial pressure. I acknowledge that.

On the other side, into the future, there need to be checks and balances from a public expenditure perspective. There are now good systems in place with the Committee of Public Accounts, etc. Hopefully, those decisions will be taken in the next number of weeks.

I agree with the Deputy on the resourcing of the commission. There were comments earlier about a drain from the public service. We will have to get real about pay rates. We are establishing commissions and policing mechanisms that are going to police some of the biggest private sector operators in the world. That will have an impact on how we attract talent into the State side, in order to enable us to achieve the objectives of legislation. There must, therefore, be an open mind on how that resourcing happens and the level at which pay and conditions are set for certain key people who we will require to do this job competently. Fully resourcing the commission will involve that. It will also involve numbers because it will be a significant body. There can be no foot-dragging from the beginning in relation to that. It must also have legal teeth.

On the issue of the individual complaints mechanism, I would ask that the committee would reflect on that too. It is popular to do that. We must make sure that we do not create a scenario that would tie up any future commission in a plethora of individual complaints that would be to the detriment of the more strategic objectives of the commission. It is possible the commission could do nothing other than individual complaints into the future. We, therefore, need to be careful about how that is designed. I am just being honest here and expressing my own thoughts on that because I have not had an opportunity to do so in a public platform.

We need to give very serious consideration to that as well. Nobody wants to have the committee tied up almost from the get-go in terms of that strand, as opposed to the other strands that it needs to work on a policy or strategy front and so forth. There are many examples around agencies that we have created. That is the reality. That would not necessarily be the intention, but that could very well be the outcome.

I hear what Deputy Flanagan said on the level of resourcing. This has been a consistent theme of this meeting. A Secretary General will talk to Secretaries General, but I think it is more of an Houses of the Oireachtas Commission issue as well and what it is seeking from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. We certainly did not get an impression, as I said earlier, that there were any major issues here in terms of the overall envelope for the commission.

On Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom’s assertion, I regret the juxtaposition of any idea that unilateral legislative initiative to circumvent the protocol is about the Good Friday Agreement. I would have an opposite view. Any unilateral legislative by the United Kingdom Government that would seek to undermine or circumvent the protocol would have a very destabilising impact on the Good Friday Agreement and would be very unhelpful. I have communicated that to the British Prime Minister. We had a very frank and honest discussion on Tuesday morning last. I stressed that I felt the best pathway was towards an intensification and a professional engagement between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union in respect of the operation of the protocol to minimise any impacts on the free flow of goods into Northern Ireland. I believe that is attainable and it was close to being attained last autumn. Lord Frost made a very unhelpful intervention when he raised the European Court of Justice the night before the Vice-President of the Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, was publishing his proposals on medicines, sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, and customs. Maroš Šefčovič’s proposals came following detailed consultation and engagement with all of the northern parties and with northern businesses and industry. This was a result of significant collaboration by him. In addition, he engaged with the European member states. He went much further than perhaps some member states would have wanted him to go. It was an awful pity that Lord Frost intervened at that stage to try to derail it, essentially, and put unionism in a difficult position as well. Unionism’s main concerns were on the movement of goods and trying to minimise checks, which I understand. I understand where unionism is coming from and Vice-President Šefčovič does too. The whole idea was to see if we could minimise the impact of the operation of the protocol but the goalposts keep on changing.

I also said to the British Prime Minister that the British Government cannot continue to say that the European Union is being inflexible, is not moving and now we must have a change of the mandate, whatever that means. That is not true. There has been consistent movement from the European Commission but it has not been reciprocated. As a result of the lack of reciprocation, there has been a growing erosion of trust on the EU side. No matter what is produced on the EU side, it does not get reciprocated. There is an absence of clarity around what the British Government’s landing zone is in respect of these negotiations and there has been a continuing and consistent lack of clarity as to what the British Government’s landing zone is in respect of the protocol issue. It seems to change and now we are into a new iteration of this with the idea of a unilateral legislative initiative in the application of the protocol in British domestic law. That would be a breach of an international treaty, which would have very significant negative repercussions for the European Union’s relationship with the United Kingdom and, indeed, with ourselves as well.

In my conversation with the British prime minister, I reiterated that unilateralism is not good here. The Deputy will know from his experience that what had underpinned the peace process before, leading into, and post Good Friday Agreement has been both governments working together. That has been the anchor of the peace process and of the journey we have all been on collectively. There have been great gains as a result of the two governments working to anchor that. Unilateralism flies in the face of that key point. It is extremely important that unilateral actions are avoided because they will only work to the detriment of the situation. We both agreed that it was very important and imperative that the institutions would be restored and that the democratic mandate given to the elected representatives by the people of Northern Ireland would be upheld in the form of taking seats in the Assembly and forming an Executive.

I spoke to all party leaders in the North. They all said to me it is their view that restoration of the institutions should happen. The DUP was very straight up in saying it wants the protocol issue resolved before it goes into the Executive. The leader of the DUP made it very clear that taking up the role of deputy First Minister was not an issue or an impediment to taking up office. I take all leaders in good faith. If there is a will, there is a way. I believe sincerely that there is a landing zone for resolving the issues. One example is the medicines issue. That was highlighted way back as a big concern and issue. There were some legitimate points raised on the UK Government and unionist side. It was comprehensively dealt with. It is an illustration of progress that can be made. However, that was all done on the EU side, obviously in engagement with the UK Government. Nothing ever comes back, and that is a problem.

On resourcing and the heads of the Bill, I will talk to Deputy O’Donnell again some time perhaps on that. The pre-legislative scrutiny could go on for quite a significant time as well if we were just at head of Bill stage. I take what he said in that some aspects are missing. I understand that point.

It makes it difficult.

I hear what the Deputy is saying on aviation. We are very anxious to get regional balanced development and Shannon Airport is particularly important in that regard, as well as Cork Airport. Hopefully, in the post-Covid environment, we will see a significant pick-up in traffic and international connectivity in particular.

I hear what the Deputy is saying about the national broadband plan and the interrelationship between NBI and the providers.

That is the key.

We are working very hard on national cybersecurity. I did not get a chance to address Deputy Flanagan’s earlier point because it was kind of an extensive contribution on European defence, but on the security defence issue, cybersecurity comes under that remit. We cannot deal with cybersecurity on our own. In fact, cybersecurity can only be dealt with on a collaborative basis. When we had a terrible attack on our health service, other countries came to give their own experiences - Poland being one and the Ukrainian Government being another.

I was in Estonia recently, where Ireland is now a participant on the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. It is named NATO but it was set up by Estonia way back. An increasing number of countries have joined it to learn collaboratively about cybersecurity threats, preparedness and all of that. More of that will be required into the future. We have beefed up our national cybersecurity team and will continue to do so. The national digital strategy is part of that. In addition, I will support primary radar services. Again, as Deputy Flanagan said along with Deputy O’Donnell, the Commission on the Defence Forces dealt with aviation, sea and conventional forces, as well as the cybersecurity piece. The Government will have a series of meetings on defence issues and the Commission on the Defence Forces’s report in terms of the resources that will be required and how we map that out and timeline that. It is clear that we need to enhance our defence capability for protection purposes.

We need a broader debate on the neutrality issue, in response to Deputy Flanagan’s points, through a citizens' assembly. Although he may not feel it is not optimal, I accept fully and respect his position on that. However, I feel, at the moment with the war in Ukraine, as much unity of purpose we can retain in the country can tackle that is preferable to having a debate on the neutrality question, which could divide people right now, when we need as many people as possible working to the same agenda in respect of our humanitarian response to the Ukraine war and supporting Ukraine’s application for EU membership.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach. An dream deireanach ná an Teachta Bacik agus an beirt Seanadóirí, Carrigy agus Cassells.

I thank the Taoiseach for engaging with us as Cathaoirligh of the committees today. I am delighted to be here in my role as Cathaoirleach of the relatively new Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality, which, of course, is a time-limited committee. I thank the Taoiseach also for his engagement with our committee to date and his continued engagement.

We were established in December with a nine-month timeframe from the date of the first public meeting. We held our first public meeting on 3 March and the deadline for our report is, therefore, early December. We have a wonderful secretariat and a very engaged membership and, of course, our work is focused on the 45 recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality, which we regard as establishing a blueprint for the achievement of a more equal Ireland, a genuinely gender-equal Ireland.

We have approached our work in a modular fashion dividing up those 45 recommendations into a number of modules with a view to preparing what we see as an action plan for Government in December, that is, a plan to bridge the recommendations themselves and Government implementation of them.

We model ourselves on former Senator Catherine Noone's Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which, of course, was established following the Citizens' Assembly on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and which provided a practical report as to how to implement the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly. It is in that spirit that we view our work. We are not reopening the substantive policy issues that the Citizens' Assembly reviewed. Rather, we are looking at how their recommendations may be implemented.

We have finished two modules and have almost concluded a third module. The first module we considered was the recommendations of the assembly on constitutional change - recommendations 1 to 3, inclusive. We have also concluded hearings on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence recommendations and we are reviewing currently recommendations on norms and stereotypes in education.

If I could focus on the constitutional recommendations, and I asked yesterday in the Dáil about these in the context of the Taoiseach's questions on citizens' assemblies, the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality made three recommendations relating to the Constitution. The first proposed a referendum to strengthen the equality guarantee in Article 40.1. The second sought to expand the definition of the family in Article 41 to cover non-marital families. The third sought to amend Article 41, specifically, to take out the sexist language currently within it and to offer gender-neutral protection for carers.

My direct question is whether the Government will commit to holding a referendum or referendums in 2023 to give effect to these recommendations. I should say that, as a committee, we are engaging closely with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, on this and have sought that he and the Government might make that commitment. Indeed, we will be providing the Minister shortly with a position paper setting out a series of options for wording because we want to move the debate on.

We are conscious there is a general political will to have these referendums. The Taoiseach has indicated that too. There is a positivity in Government to this but it is really how we get to the point where we have got a wording that we can build a consensus around and that we go to the people on.

Finally, more broadly, at present we are seeing quite a number of new citizens' assemblies, either established or proposed. It is positive because these are useful and valuable mechanisms for achieving a deliberative form of democratic decision-making. I am an advocate for them, but what we heard from Dr. Catherine Day and, in particular, from the individual members on this Citizens' Assembly, was the need to ensure that citizens see their recommendations taken seriously by legislators and Government and, indeed, brought into effect and implemented, and that, without that sort of direct linkage between the report of each assembly and changes in policy, we may see less faith in the power of the Citizens' Assembly and, indeed, less good will among citizens towards engagement with them. I thank the Taoiseach for his responses on those.

I welcome the Taoiseach. I am here as the Chairperson of the Joint Committee on Autism. First, I thank the Government for its support in the setting up of the committee and, indeed, for nominating me as Chairman of that committee. Like Deputy Bacik's, it is a time-limited committee limited to nine months. Currently, we are working on the work programme and plan to sit in public session from June onwards.

We plan as a committee to look at policy, the implementation of policy and the legislation relevant to people with autism. We will be meeting in public and hearing from people with autism, their families, their friends and their representative bodies, as well as Departments and Government agencies, and Ministers also.

The Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, and a working group is currently developing an autism innovation strategy in line with the programme for Government. My question is, should the strategy address such issues as long waiting times for assessment of needs, limited access to assessment, and intervention of services and support for children in schools to ensure full inclusion in education? I welcome the recent comments from the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, with regard to supports at third level through his Department. We have serious issues. In a Commencement matter I raised this morning in respect of Athlone alone, there are eight families that do not have a place for their child in September and who are looking at a return journey of over 100 km each day to secure a place for their child. The strategy should also address support for people with autism to ensure meaning employment. A recent survey by AsIAm stated that 85% of persons with autism are unemployed or underemployed. How could the strategy benefit the lives of people with autism and their families?

I welcome the Taoiseach and thank him for his time and his engagement here today.

In the Seanad we are currently assessing and going through the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022. We spent another three hours last night in the Chamber going through some 200 amendments on this Bill. It is extremely important legislation - probably one of the most significant in a generation - because we will regulate an unregulated sphere. At present, it is the wild west.

The Taoiseach spoke earlier about a free and independent media and he was quite right. As a former journalist, it worries me that so many of our citizens now rely on social media as their news outlet. The Taoiseach referred to a free media. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as free news. It costs a great deal of money to produce news content. I fear for that industry. That is why I welcome the Taoiseach's commitment that the future of media report will be published soon. As matters stand, the funding model or business model is broken and we need to talk seriously about how that will be fixed.

Returning to the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022, the main thrust of what the Bill would achieve, of course, is the establishment of a media commission and the establishment of an online safety commissioner, for which there is a pressing need. I cannot stress enough the need for this because of the amount of online abuse and online hate. Yesterday, we were discussing abuse in sport with the CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport, Mary O'Connor, herself a much decorated sportsperson. We asked Ms O'Connor directly, in terms of abuse, were the social media giants doing enough to stamp out abuse and she said categorically, "No." Ms O'Connor spoke specifically about the impact it was having on young female athletes - body shaming - and the impact on them leaving sport as a result. These are the consequences of an unregulated sphere in social media. These are the devastating impacts on young girls.

The special rapporteur, Professor Conor O'Mahony, came before us at the committee. Professor O'Mahony spelled out frankly for us that we need to intervene and that it is having a devastating impact in the area of online abuse. In the area of the proliferation of gambling, massive giants make multibillion euro profits. Senator Malcolm Byrne and I have tabled a number of amendments, including one that would make directors of these companies personally criminally liable. When that was published and when the media covered it, why was there a circling of the wagons by these companies? They have no fear of fines. The proposed fines in the legislation are a pittance to these guys. Facebook Ireland makes €40 billion in revenue in this country alone.

The money generated in shiny glass offices in the docklands cannot be a shield against proper accountability and proper scrutiny. As Ms Mary O'Connor said yesterday, not enough is being done to protect young female athletes in this country. We need to protect them. Those shiny glass offices can be shattered and I have plenty of rocks. I praise the Government and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Martin, for bringing this legislation forward, as it will be the first time we will tackle this issue, but it needs to be strong enough so these guys have respect for this State and its laws and the young people of this country, in particular, are protected.

I thank the Senator for that final and important intervention and for his passion in this area. The Taoiseach's time is in his hands. It is out of my control now.

Am I correct that Deputy Bacik started or was it Senator Carrigy?

I think it was me.

I apologise. The first point is I appreciate the work she is doing and the fact it is timebound. I wish her every success. We will do everything we can to be supportive of the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality. On the constitutional issues, again, several Ministers have briefed the committee on the matters under their aegis. On the referendums that may arise from the ctizens' assembly, and officials across Departments are working to develop proposals, she is correct to say wording will be key, as I know from my Oireachtas experience. We have to be clear and we have to try to make sure there is not mission creep, or it does not become a broader agenda in respect of all sorts of issues people would like to include, or the difficulty will be we may never get agreement. In other words, the perfect can be the enemy of the good in respect of these issues. I will be making fully sure we understand the implications and so on.

We are supportive of and would like to move on the recommendations on the referendum contained in the citizens' assembly but wording will be key. The timing is getting on for late autumn, if we are honest, because I am a believer in having a proper lead-in period for explanations. Sometimes, the time we give to the Referendum Commission can be tight relative to the campaign and the vote. Personally, I have not been a great advocate of holding all the referendums together because it runs against the idea of giving the fullest information and the widest debate among the public. Wording will be key and developing a consensus on that wording across the Oireachtas will be very important. I look forward to working with the Deputy in that regard. We are open and positively disposed to having referendums in respect of those issues identified by the citizens' assembly and that will be fine-tuned, if I heard the Deputy correctly, by the committee, which will move into an implementation phase. We welcome the idea of an action plan for implementation and the Government will work in parallel with that.

On future citizens' assemblies, we have said there will be two more on issues many Members are anxious to have assemblies on; a public one on drugs and drug abuse and the policies and strategies to combat that and another on the future of education, in addition to a citizens' assembly on neutrality, as I have discussed, if that is agreed. That broader issue is a potential one as well. There is a balance. It is interesting that the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment, chaired by former Senator Catherine Noone, worked, but there was quite a significant difference between the recommendations of the citizens' assembly and what the committee eventually came up with, although it was at least a base on which the committee worked to get agreement. It was not easy to get a pragmatic resolution from that committee. It is quite interesting if we look at who voted and in what direction and so on, but we will not say any more about that. It was done and it was a good outcome, ultimately.

Deliberative forms are good models. We always have to respect the rights of directly elected representatives of the Oireachtas in respect of decisions and our parliamentary democracy, but deliberative democracy is an important strand to our wider democratic framework. We heard earlier from Deputy Funchion that children were able to Zoom into the committee she chairs, for example, and give evidence, which is a further extension of that idea of participation and engagement with the Oireachtas. So far, these deliberative forms have been a healthy influence on democracy. We have an opportunity for the committee to follow through on this and demonstrate it even further. We can also follow through on the two assemblies currently running on biodiversity and the mayor for Dublin, in line with the Deputy's point, and put their recommendations into action fairly quickly.

The Joint Committee on Autism chaired by Senator Carrigy is, again, time-limited. There needs to be a focus on autism at post-primary level. As Minister for Education, in 1998 I was involved in recognising autism for the first time as a special category in education. It had not been recognised for pupil-teacher allocation ratios up to that point. I am concerned post-primary has not moved at the same pace as primary at all. There should be an obligation on all post-primary schools to be open to taking children with autism. It is more resource intensive and perhaps they cannot take in as many children. That is why the opportunity should be shared. In some districts at present, it is left to one or two schools to take in young people with autism. It needs a centre. It is not just about a unit within a class; it needs a full centre within the school. There are some very good examples of where it is fantastic and very well done, but every second level school should be obliged to take in children with special needs right across the board, especially those with autism. We can learn more and it is working very well in some schools.

Assessments are also a very big issue. I said there needs to be greater harmonisation between health and education. The assessment issue is now a very significant one in the context of recent judicial decisions. The 2005 Act has never been implemented in a comprehensive way. We also have to look at the models very carefully because some of them are not sustainable at present. What I mean by that is we need to be far more flexible in how we assess. There is an issue at the moment with capacity in the public sector to do what is expected regarding the demand. There needs to be a review of assessment in light of recent court decisions and how we combine assessment, intervention and identifying the correct programmes for each child in terms of where he or she is on the autistic spectrum. We need a very varied programme to facilitate and accommodate that. Each child is different in many respects and each child will need an individual education plan and programme. Primary schools and specialist schools are very up for this. The progressing disabilities services programme is working to create centres but, on the other hand, there seems to have been a dilution of therapists in special schools, which should not have happened. The multidisciplinary approach within schools can work and at present we should make sure special schools, at a minimum, retain multidisciplinary teams. That would get rid of a lot of frustration for many parents, where they cannot get access to anything at the moment, which is not satisfactory.

There has been a lot of progress on employment but we can do an awful lot more to facilitate employment for young people with autism. There needs to be greater supports. Many supports are there but they are not fully utilised, such as financial incentives to employers and so on.

Senator Cassells raised the matter of the online media regulation Bill. The Government has brought in that legislation and is very anxious to deliver it. There is increased regulation across Europe on this and there is no doubt social media is a key platform. I will make the point individuals have to behave as well. What we are seeing on social media is shocking. I do not understand what is going on in the world of sport where after every game or every match some vile commentary is uploaded to attack a sportsperson.

It reflects very badly on the individuals who do that. The companies say they are developing algorithms and all sorts of mechanisms to try to deal with this and head it off at the pass. There must be strong regulation. It is a very worrying situation, especially for children and young people. It is damaging to the health of children and young people. We must protect our children and young people from the abuse and from the very negative influences on them. The online media regulation Bill will be a key factor in that.

I commented earlier that we need to get it right. We need to ensure we have a commission that works. It must work. There can be a tendency to do what will play well. I do not mean that in the context of what Deputy Bacik said. A number of bodies we have brought into the regulatory or appeals side have become snowed under by the volume and there is no satisfaction. The public are making complaints. Let us take the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. I am not blaming it or any other body but speaking just as a Deputy and forgetting about being Taoiseach for a moment, would I recommend someone go to GSOC with a complaint? It would depend on the gravity of the complaint and so on but I would have to forewarn the person that this could take years. We need to weigh that up in whatever architecture we create.

It is not just resources.

It is not just money.

I agree. It is our constitutional framework and it is everything else. However, we need to be honest with people as well. We can create all the mechanisms but if they become a function of a body that does not work subsequently then it fails.

The simple solution is often the best way.

Yes, I suppose. We in the Oireachtas repeatedly get calls for commissions of inquiry and commissions of investigation. That is very much a failure of existing bodies that should be doing this work habitually and regularly. If one were to count all the commissions of inquiry we are being asked to set up, the costs would be enormous but all those costs are resources that are taken from somewhere else. I find in childcare and children I am worried about what resources we are making available to the child at risk today. There is a balance somewhere along the line. I do not have all the answers on that but I share that as this is the right forum in which to do so.

That is why we need to arm the new online commissioner with the powers.

The Senator is speaking like a Meath full back of old.

He had to get the last kick of the match.

From a Corkman. We took a few kicks in our time.

Mick Lyons, I would say, would have had a few. I am putting his name on record here.

It is indelibly embedded in our folk memory.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach as a chuid ama linn inniu. Scrúdaíomar níos mó ábhar agus gabhaim buíochas dá chomhghleacaithe freisin: John Callinan agus Pádraig Ó Conaill. Tiocfaimid ar ais ag deireadh an lae fa choinne an chéad bhliain eile. Gabhaim buíochas agus bain sult as.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.04 p.m. sine die.