Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Ceisteanna (6, 7)

Gerry Adams

Ceist:

6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the programme for Government progress report published in December 2017. [5928/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the progress of the programme for Government. [5978/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (27 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 7 together.

The Government published its latest progress report on A Programme for a Partnership Government on 19 December. The report sets out the most recent progress made across all of government in implementing the commitments in the programme and includes measures that were announced in budget 2018 as well. Some of the main areas of progress since the last report include the opening of Luas cross city, which was completed on time and within budget. General practitioner visit cards are being extended to carers. Legislation is pending on this and additional funding for respite care is being provided as well. There is a reduction in prescription charges for patients with medical cards and for those who do not have them. A total of 29 of 34 projects approved under the local infrastructure housing activation fund will activate supply of approximately 17,500 housing units. The draft national planning framework has been published for the final round of public consultations. The national mitigation plan has been published and the national dialogue on climate action advisory group has been established. Ireland's work to secure a successful outcome in phase 1 of Brexit negotiations is another mark of progress, as is an agreed programme of referendums to be held during 2018 and 2019.

My Department has responsibility for certain commitments in the programme, including the areas of Dáil reform, relations with Britain and Northern Ireland, managing the new partnership approach between Government and Parliament and the establishment of a Citizens' Assembly as well. Officials in my Department are working to progress these issues over the lifetime of the Government. Recent work advanced includes supporting the Citizens' Assembly, which has submitted its reports and recommendations on the eighth amendment and the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population. Since 2017, a number of Dáil reforms have been introduced that provide more proportionate speaking time for all Deputies, additional time for Government business and legislation and the staffing for the new parliamentary budget office.

My Department is ensuring a whole-of-government response to Brexit, including contingency planning and Brexit negotiations, supporting the resumption of power-sharing in Northern Ireland and support for a whole-of-government response on policy objectives. This is reflected in the dedicated action plans on jobs, housing and homelessness, rural development and creative Ireland.

The Government has had a number of significant priorities for the immediate period ahead. My Department will assist in advancing these together with other relevant Departments. These include the publication of the national planning framework, developing the Government's response to the Sláintecare report, reform of the justice and health sectors, doubling Ireland's global footprint, Seanad reform, climate change, pensions reform and housing. The annual report on the programme for Government will be published in May. It will set out the progress made on these and other areas in more detail.

A key issue in the programme for Government and the Department of the Taoiseach is Brexit. The progress report in December contained several achievements claimed by the Government in respect of Brexit negotiations. I believe many of these were premature achievements. This morning, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, said that Brexit is a reason for hope and not fear. I believe it is only the hope of a small minority, even in Britain, at this stage. It is certainly swinging in that direction. I have spoken to many in the business and farming communities, people in the agrifood business as well as many people from Britain who have moved over here and who are now living in this country. They are absolutely terrified of the consequences of Brexit for themselves and their families.

On Monday, Copenhagen Economics produced a report forecasting a disastrous impact on our economy from Brexit. The report states that Brexit has the potential to turn back the Irish economy to the economic crash of 2007 and 2008. This follows the British Government report on Brexit indicating the withdrawal will be bad for the economy in the North. Regardless of the outcome reached in the negotiations - we wish those involved all the best - I expect a positive outcome. However, in December those of us in Sinn Féin said that we did not accept what the Taoiseach welcomed as a cast-iron guarantee from the British Government. We took the view that it was not enough. We warned that duplicity would kick in and that is exactly what we are now witnessing. The British Government is attempting to renege on these so-called guarantees. We believe that the Taoiseach needs to stand over the December commitments at this point. The best way to do that is for the Government to join everyone in the House and others in the European Union to seek to have special designated status for the North within the European Union as a means of moving forward. I believe this is a crisis situation that will come at us. My suggestion is clearly the way forward to try to resolve this issue.

We are tight on time.

The programme for Government said that the Government approach to governing would be crucially tested on the issue of housing and how it dealt with the housing crisis. I understand the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on Monday and was a little put out because I was outside protesting.

So I believe, but I did not apologise on behalf of the Minister. I was there with people who come to my clinic and who represent the human evidence of the failure of the Government's policies. I will offer some examples of some of the people who were there. Two young women who are pregnant were there. They are homeless. They are being told by the council that they have to go to Brú Aimsir Hostel, where there are many active drug users. They have letters from social workers saying the suggestion is completely unsuitable for pregnant women. The latest response we have received is that when they are seven months pregnant, perhaps the council will be able to get them out. Most pregnancies fail in the first few months. These young pregnant vulnerable women are being put into a dangerous situation for people in their condition. This is the sort of carry-on that is going on.

I received an answer to a parliamentary question on housing assistant payment tenancies last year. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government claimed in the answer that the figure was 17,000. I asked how many HAP tenancies failed last year. The figure was 2,250. Some 15% of the Government's HAPs last year failed, and they were the low-hanging fruit in the support scheme. A total of two thirds of the Government plan for 2021 is dependent on these tenancies, which are already failing in spectacular numbers. Does the Government not believe it is time to revisit the entire plan?

We need to be brief. Deputy Micheál Martin is next.

For the record, probably the largest and most effective health capital programme began in 1997 or 1998 and went through to 2010. It meant a new hospital in Tullamore but also the transformation of St. Vincent's University Hospital, St. James's Hospital and the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital. Essentially, they were new developments of significant scale.

It is silly and childish for the Taoiseach to say that the Government will build three new hospitals in the next ten years and so the Government is great. It is far more comprehensive than that. Far more is needed in areas like disability services, chronic illness treatment and so on. This may not mean new buildings but certainly a better and more effective targeting, not to mention the significant infrastructural improvements that materialised from the late 1990s onwards.

While there is more to be done, the completion of the motorway network was effective in terms of connectivity and quality of life for many people living in different cities.

On the programme for Government, the commitments on mental health are still not being realised. Deputy Browne has been informed that only half of the 350 posts approved for mental health services in 2015 have been filled and only one third of the 317 posts approved in 2016 have been filled. The Government is falling far short of the objectives set in A Vision for Change. The House was assured more posts would be filled but that has not occurred. All Deputies are aware of the difficulties in accessing child and mental health service units and consultant posts. We need a more coherent and better response from the Government to meet the needs of mental health patients.

I do not know if the Taoiseach is aware of the remark made by the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Boris Johnson, this morning that regulatory divergence is an objective of the British Government. Mr. Johnson's speech is one in a series of speeches by British Ministers that are meant to be part of government policy. In the context of the British Prime Minister enlisting him to help to negotiate the overall final status agreement, does the Taoiseach agree that this is very bad news and a doubling down by the British Government in terms of where it wants to go with this?

The Taoiseach stated that one of the achievements of last year's programme for Government was the opening of the Luas cross-city light rail line. I return to this issue because the Taoiseach did not address it in his reply. The addition of approximately 30 minutes' travel time for commuters travelling from the west of Dublin into and out of the city centre on buses, the workhorses of the public transport system, is a significant disimprovement in the lives of people who, as we know, are buying houses far out of the city. Without a viable public transport system, we will not be able to solve the housing crisis.

The Taoiseach was the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and knew, therefore, that this crisis would occur and chaos would ensue. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, as a former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, also knew it would occur, as did the current Minister, Deputy Ross. In terms of joined-up Government and any confidence that people might have in the organisational ability of the Government to do anything, why should we have much faith in what the Government will announce on Friday when we will have a grandiose plan stretching out to ten years or more and bigged up in terms of volume of money, presumably to feature on posters come an election? While that is fine, if the position of the country is to improve, we must have a viable public transport system. I cannot understand the reason the Taoiseach and his Ministers are not addressing the traffic chaos being caused for commuters, particularly in the central Dublin area, as a consequence of a very good, strong investment in Luas, for which I campaigned for years. The Government has not addressed the problems for which the Taoiseach, his Minister for Finance and the current Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport were responsible. Where is the whole-of-Government approach to the issue?

On Brexit, while I do not like to state the obvious, sometimes it may be necessary to do so. Brexit is not our policy. We opposed it at the time and we are still opposed to it. It is a decision of the British people and their Government and it is not under the control of this Government, any future Government or the House to tell the British Government and people what to do. However, we need to manage the consequences of their decision and always put the interests of our people first. We will navigate our way through Brexit.

I stand over the commitments and guarantees made in the joint report in December. I use the term "commitments and guarantees" because that is the language used in the joint report. What we are now doing in phase two is seeking to ensure these guarantees, particularly the backstop, are written into the legal agreement - the withdrawal agreement - which will be legally binding. I read out earlier the guidelines agreed by the European Council or EU 27 only two or three weeks ago. Deputies will see that the European Union is totally behind Ireland in the demand that the guarantees and commitments written in black and white in the joint report in December be in the withdrawal agreement, the legally binding agreement that will allow the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and have a transition period. While one cannot rule out the possibility that the UK will decide to leave the EU without such an agreement, I do not believe it would be in its interests to do so and I sincerely hope it will not do so. I ask for the support of the House in our efforts to ensure the commitments and guarantees contained in black and white in the joint report - the agreement reached in December - are now written into the text of the withdrawal agreement. I ask people to use their networks and sister parties across Europe to emphasise that, rather than making alternative proposals at this stage, which are not helpful.

On a point of order, no one made any alternative proposals.

Sinn Féin just did if Deputy Martin wants to check the blacks.

I ask the Taoiseach to conclude, please.

In terms of the Copenhagen Economics report, it does not quite say what Deputy Martin Kenny indicated it says. It tells us that Brexit will be bad for Ireland and the economy. I do not believe we needed another report to tell us that but this report helps to quantify the issue. It does not say there will be a new recession or economic crisis or that anyone's pay will be cut. What it says is that Brexit will have a dampening effect on growth into the future. Instead of the economy growing by approximately 22% over the next decade, it will grow by approximately 19% in the best case scenario or 15% in the worst case scenario. When one views the issue from that perspective, as laid out in the report, it presents quite a different picture. It identifies the particular sectors that would be worst affected by Brexit. It will not surprise people to learn that agriculture and agrifood is one such sector, as is aviation, but they may be less aware that they also include the electrical-machinery sector.

The report also assumes that the Government will not introduce mitigating measures or do anything to mitigate the consequences of Brexit. We asked the authors to make that assumption and the report was done based on a scenario of no policy changes. However, the Government is making efforts to mitigate the effects of Brexit and I will give three small examples. We have established a €300 million loan scheme to assist small businesses to secure access to credit in order that they can adapt to Brexit and seek new markets. A second example is investment in infrastructure in our airports and ports to prepare for Brexit. Finally, and perhaps most significant, we are doubling Ireland's global footprint by ensuring we have more embassies and consulates around the world and Bord Bia, Tourism Ireland, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland have more suits on the ground and bigger budgets in order that we can diversify and decouple our economy even more from the British market. To take one of the most sensitive sectors, namely, agriculture, the proportion of agriculture exports to the United Kingdom has already fallen from 40% to 35%. This is an example of the good work being done by Bord Bia, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and others in diversifying our exports.

There are four minutes remaining. Do Members wish to continue to address this group of questions or move to the final group?

I am in the hands of Deputies.

The Taoiseach should continue his response.

The questions come so quickly, I do not have time to write all of them down but I take a note of as many as I can. To respond to some of the questions on housing, the Minister seated beside me, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has indicated that if there are particularly sensitive individual cases specifically involving pregnant women, there is flexibility in that regard. If Deputies wish to give him information on such cases, he will do whatever he can to assist, as I understand he has done in the past.

I have not yet heard the speech made by the British Foreign Secretary, Mr. Boris Johnson, nor have I seen the script. However, I will certainly look at it when I receive it. We have had a pattern now for many months of different messages coming from different Ministers in the British Government. When the Prime Minister speaks, I listen because she speaks definitively for the British. I met her only this week and I am sure we will meet again.

Did she tell the Taoiseach about Boris's forthcoming speech?

No, nor did she tell me about any of the other speeches.

She should have done so.

As I said, it is undoubtedly the case that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union involves divergence.

It would not be leaving the European Union otherwise. We want to focus on ensuring we have as much convergence as possible, or maintaining alignment on economic issues and issues relating to trade.

I thought we were getting full alignment.

The full alignment refers to Northern Ireland and it does not refer to the entire United Kingdom. I suspect that when Mr. Johnson was making his speech, he had the United Kingdom and perhaps only England in mind rather than Northern Ireland. Maintaining full alignment in the backstop in paragraphs 49 and 50 only refers to-----

The backstop goes both ways.

It only refers to Northern Ireland from our perspective. Even when it refers to both ways, it is between Northern Ireland and Britain; it is alignment between Northern Ireland and the European Union, of which Ireland is part, and alignment between Northern Ireland and Britain. It is a reference to Northern Ireland and not the entire United Kingdom.

On the Luas cross city project, it is absolutely the case that there are problems causing increased congestion on some days in Dublin, worsening bus times. It will require some changes, such as the re-routing of buses, which is now under consideration. There will possibly be re-routing of taxis as well. There will be signal changes and the Luas service will be made more frequent, with longer carriages. Much of that is under way. It is a long time since I was Minister with responsibility for transport but I know the project very well and I am really glad it has proceeded and is up and running. It happened on time and within budget. Certainly, the scale of the traffic problems that have arisen were not projected at the time, but it was projected that there would need to be changes to bus routes. Some of that has been done and more will need to be done.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 1.50 p.m. and resumed at 2.50 p.m.