I wish the members a good afternoon and thank the Chairman. Accompanying me is the Secretary General of my Department, Mr. Martin Fraser.
In the programme for Government, we wanted to strengthen accountability through attendance at Oireachtas committees and I welcome this opportunity to hear the committee's issues of concern and discuss the Government's response. For that reason, I will keep my opening statement relatively short.
Since this Government of Fine Gael and Independent Ministers came to office, 113 Acts of the Oireachtas have been passed. Nine of these were originally published as Private Members' Bills. A further 23 Government Bills are before the Dáil and ten are before the Seanad. We hope to have as many of these as possible concluded by the summer recess. All this work benefits from the input of the committees. I recognise the contributions of this committee's members' as Chairs and the contribution of members of their committees in scrutinising relevant legislation, dissecting the work of our agencies and advising on public policy. This is our second meeting in this format and it is an opportunity to reflect on where we are as a country, and how we are doing in the round.
The country is nearing a position of full employment. There are a record 2.3 million people at work and the unemployment rate is at its lowest in 14 years. The economy is doing well and it is being managed well. As a result, incomes and living standards are rising, and poverty and deprivation rates have been falling for four years, including a 30% reduction in child poverty. We have balanced the books and moved into surplus, we are reducing the national debt and we will make our first deposit to the rainy day fund later this year. However, we must not become complacent. The country has been here previously and we are mindful of the risks to our economic welfare, no more so than in the context of the threat posed by Brexit. Regardless of the form it takes, Brexit will have an adverse impact on Ireland and there will be a need for planning in respect of it on the part of the Government, businesses and citizens, as well as at EU level. Given what is happening in London, the risk of a no-deal Brexit continues to be a significant possibility. That risk is, if anything, increasing as each day passes. We will remain vigilant and continue to work for the best possible outcome while preparing for all possibilities.
A detailed contingency plan published on 19 December, and updated in January, set out the Government's analysis of a no-deal Brexit. The Brexit omnibus Act was signed into law by the President on St. Patrick's Day last. This primary legislation crosses the remit of nine Ministers and comprises 15 Parts to help prepare Ireland for no deal. It focuses on protecting our citizens, helping businesses, and securing jobs and ongoing access to essential services and products. On 8 May, Ireland and the UK signed a memorandum of understanding on the common travel area. This reaffirms our shared commitment to maintaining the common travel area in all circumstances. Irish and British citizens will continue to be able to move freely to live, work, study and access welfare, pensions and public services in each other's country on a reciprocal basis. They will also be able to vote in local and national parliamentary elections in the UK on the same basis as British citizens, while British citizens will be able do the same in Ireland.
At home, we are investing for the future. With Project Ireland 2040, we are making massive investments in our public infrastructure, such as housing, transport, culture, sport, education and healthcare in all parts of the country. At its core, Project Ireland 2040 is about balanced regional development. We are planning for a country with a population of 6 million by the middle of the century, if not before. We need to develop Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway into cities of real scale, growing twice as fast as the capital. We need to develop other major urban centres, such as Sligo and Athlone, and along the M1 corridor, Dundalk and Drogheda, and Letterkenny-Derry. We are also planning for a rural Ireland which continues to experience population and jobs growth with vibrant towns and villages at its core. We expect the population of rural Ireland to increase by 200,000 by 2040.
The shovels are in the ground and Project Ireland 2040 is being implemented. While, understandably, there has been much focus on one particular hospital, there are three new hospitals under construction, one of which, the national forensic mental health service hospital in Portrane, will be completed very soon. Extensions are being built all over the country, including new wings or new ward blocks in Limerick, Waterford and Clonmel, to name but three. The new runway at Dublin Airport is now under construction and the first technological university has been established. There is an ambitious programme of school building projects in every county and major new road projects in the north west and south east, including the N4 to Sligo, and the design contracts for the M20. The M7 upgrade and the Enniscorthy and New Ross bypasses will open later this year, with the Dunkettle and Ballyvourney-Macroom projects moving to construction.
Project Ireland 2040 will enable every part of the country to grow and share in our national prosperity. The first allocations have also been made from the four Project Ireland 2040 funds: 84 projects have been awarded €86 million under the rural regeneration and development fund; 88 projects received approximately €100 million under the urban regeneration and development fund; €75 million was awarded to 27 projects through the disruptive technologies innovation fund; and €77 million was awarded for seven projects in the first phase of the climate action fund.
We are also preparing for the world of the future with Future Jobs Ireland. In the coming decades, artificial intelligence, AI, virtual reality-augmented reality, VR-AR, robotics and autonomous vehicles will change our world as much as the Internet and mobile phones did in the recent past. We need to be ready to benefit from the new jobs and new wealth that will be created.
If we are to have the kind of economy and society that I believe we all want in 2025 – low-carbon, high-productivity, high-tech, family-friendly, globally-traded and competitive - we need to create the environment where that is possible now. Every generation needs to shake up its enterprise and jobs model - otherwise it stagnates - and we are working to change the way we work. Education is central to that. For 2019, we allocated €10.8 billion to the Department of Education and Skills. This is the highest such allocation in our history. It is a big number but in practical terms it means: 5,000 extra teachers hired in two years; the lowest pupil-teacher ratio ever in primary schools; €1.8 billion to assist children with special educational needs; more special needs assistants, SNAs, than ever before; new subjects such as physical education, PE, and computer science; more students attending higher education from non-traditional backgrounds; and new school buildings, extensions and refurbishments all over the country. By the end of this year, we will have added 40,000 extra or replacement school places, and built 200 modern science laboratories and 48 new or upgraded PE halls, and replaced 600 prefabs.
Construction is now also well under way on new facilities at Grangegorman for Technological University, TU, Dublin. I am very keen to see a new TU created next in the south east, in Munster or both.
Delivery of the national broadband plan represents a significant intervention by Government in promoting rural development. A digital divide exists between urban and rural Ireland and that contributes to an economic and social divide. We can close it now or we never will do so. The plan aims to ensure that every home, school and business has access to high-speed broadband, almost all by means of fibre. Earlier this month, we approved the appointment of a preferred bidder. National Broadband Ireland, the preferred bidder, will supply broadband to the one quarter of Irish people and premises that currently cannot access high-speed broadband. It guarantees a level playing field for 1.1 million people, 500,000 homes, 100,000 businesses and farms and 600 schools, getting the same speeds for approximately the same price.
Despite some real progress to date, I am fully aware that many problems persist in, for example, the areas of housing and homelessness, healthcare and climate change. Last year, 18,000 new homes were built in Ireland. That is the highest number in a decade. We know from figures released by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, in recent days that new home building is up another 25% this year so far. We will certainly see between 22,000 and 25,000 new homes being built in Ireland this year. This does not include student accommodation or vacant homes being brought back into use. The construction industry and the social housing programme are being rebuilt bit by bit. Last year, for example, 8,500 new homes were added to the social housing stock, which is a very significant number. About half of those were built by councils or housing trusts and the other half were acquired from developers, leased or brought back into use having been vacant but we need to go higher than that again. We are aiming for 10,000 this year and 11,000 or 12,000 the year after. This is the largest social housing programme we have had in the State for decades but there are constraints and limitations such as the availability of construction workers and delays in planning, tendering and construction. This, and nothing else, is holding us back from accelerating the social housing programme further. In fact, the housing budget this year is €2.6 billion, the biggest budget for housing ever. It will rise again in 2020.
We are also spending €146 million on homelessness services this year. It is making a difference. Last year, more than 5,000 adults and their dependants exited homelessness. More people are being lifted out of homelessness than ever before but, unfortunately, we have yet to stem the tide of people becoming homeless for the first time or sometimes a second time.
In order to ensure a long-term supply of affordable rental homes in our cities, a different form of not-for-profit rental is required. That is cost rental. There are currently two cost rental projects being piloted - at Enniskerry Road in south Dublin and Emmet Road in Inchicore. Cumulatively, these two projects will provide 380 cost rental homes. If it works as a model, we can scale up across the State.
In healthcare, this year will see the highest ever level of health funding in the history of the State at approximately €17 billion. We also have a €10 billion capital programme over the next ten years to renew our buildings, our equipment and our ICT. As I mentioned, we have three hospitals under construction. A fourth is on the way, with the national maternity hospital due to go to tender later this year. While there has been an understandable focus on the national children's hospital, it is worth pointing out once again that it will take up less than 20% of the capital budget for health leaving 80% for all other projects across Ireland. For example, 11 new primary care centres will open this year adding to the 125 that are already operational.
In 2014, we reversed the previous Government’s policy on reducing hospital bed capacity. While being a slow process, by the end of this year, the number of hospital beds will be back above 11,000 for the first time in ten years and while too high, the trolley count this year is lower than last year. Waiting times for operations and procedures like cataracts, tonsillectomies, hip and knee replacements, angiograms and scopes are down by about half since the middle of 2017.
The Sláintecare implementation team is up and running. As we know, this is a ten-year all-party vision to introduce universal healthcare in Ireland, free or affordable healthcare for all, much speedier access to healthcare and a decisive shift towards prevention, primary care and community care, with much greater local and regional autonomy.
Following an open competition, Paul Reid has taken up his role as director general of the HSE. A new HSE board is being established to strengthen the management, governance and accountability of the HSE.
An agreement has also been reached with the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, on a major package of GP contractual reforms that will benefit patients, make general practice a more attractive career option for doctors and help bring about positive changes at primary care level. It represents a 40% increase in funding for general practice over three to four years. A new contract has also been agreed with staff nurses and midwives. It now needs to be implemented.
As we know, climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today so the Government warmly welcomes the report of the Joint Committee on Climate Action published in March. The committee worked constructively over the past few months to achieve a broad consensus on what needs to be done. The recommendations have informed the Government's climate plan, which is being finalised by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton. It will align with other work we are doing to build a strong economy and a society in which nobody feels left out, one that has the family at its centre, with modern infrastructure in place in a country sure of its place in the world. The plan will set out how we intend to meet our climate targets and a range of actions in energy, agriculture, transport and buildings, as well as in other sectors. While it is not often commented upon, Ireland already performs well in some areas such as recycling, exceeding our EU targets. We are now up to 30% in the context of renewable power. We can also do well in respect of greenhouse gas emissions.
Under our national development plan, we are investing approximately €21.8 billion over the next ten years, some by way of the Exchequer but mainly through the semi-State organisations, which will bring renewable energy from 30% today to 70% by 2030. There will also be investment in the installation of electric vehicle infrastructure, which will be led by the ESB, building insulation and the electrification of more of our railways. Just this week, Irish Rail began procurement of 600 new electric or hybrid locomotives. There are also more buses. The first low-emission vehicles went into service in Dublin this month. No high-emission buses will be purchased for our cities henceforth.
Regarding justice reform, the third report of the effectiveness and renewal group was published in February. It shows the substantial progress that has been made throughout this transformation. We are also working to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland in five areas: leadership and accountability; people; structures and operations; independent oversight; and partnerships. We will strengthen the human rights compliant culture within the Garda; develop a new digital strategy; review Garda discipline; and continue workforce modernisation and civilianisation. We also want to improve the working conditions of Garda personnel through the deployment of ICT to reduce paperwork and by resolving long-standing issues such as rostering, the uniform and wellness.
This is just a small part of the work Government is doing. We are on track but there is much more to do.
The chairmen of Oireachtas committees perform a significant role in our parliamentary democracy and they have had a very much enhanced role in this Dáil. They help us deal with some of the biggest challenges faced by our country. I look forward to hearing their questions and engaging with them on the priorities of their respective committees.