Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4)

Joan Burton

Ceist:

1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met. [51848/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [53033/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, last met; and when it will next meet. [53036/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee B, social policy and public services, will next meet. [1550/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

Cabinet committee B last met on 22 October 2018. While the date of the next meeting of the committee has yet to be finalised, it will likely that it will take place in early 2019. Cabinet committee B covers social policy and public services, including education, children, social inclusion, the Irish language, arts and culture, as well as continued improvements and reforms of public services. In addition to meetings of the full Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I often meet Ministers on an bilateral basis to focus on particular issues. I regularly meet the Ministers, Deputies Regina Doherty and Donohoe, to discuss issues relating to social policy and public services. Over recent times, the Government has introduced various reforms through Cabinet committee B which seek to improve the lives and living standards of those who are most in need or those who are often marginalised by our society. These reforms include the affordable childcare scheme, which is a major priority for this year, the publication of the LGBTI+ national youth strategy, the publication of the action plan for online safety and the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Further gender equality actions have also been driven through this Cabinet sub-committee.

I understand that this Cabinet sub-committee is responsible for the arts and culture. Most people will acknowledge that there is a crisis with regard to the wages and working conditions of people across the nation who are working in the arts sector. There is real concern about how our national theatre is operating. As the Taoiseach is well aware, last week over 300 actors, directors, designers, agents and playwrights took a public stand to express real and built-up concern and dissatisfaction about how the national theatre is being run. We saw the reality of life for artists in Ireland, and how poorly they are paid, earlier this week. It was revealed in the review of pay and conditions, which was published by the Theatre Forum, that many of them do not receive the minimum wage. The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has called for dialogue in respect of the Abbey Theatre dispute. This is an issue that concerns our national theatre. We are all proud of the theatre, which is a unique international institution. It appears to have nothing to say on the commemorations we are facing into this year, including the centenary of the First Dáil and the beginning of the War of Independence. Have these matters been discussed by this Cabinet sub-committee? Does the Taoiseach have a view on these matters? Has the sub-committee made a specific policy directive in relation to the future of the national theatre and the sustainability of working in the arts in Ireland?

I think Deputy Howlin's points are well made. The national theatre's lack of in-house production is a cause of concern for all of us. I look forward to hearing the Taoiseach's response to the Deputy's questions.

We are approaching the fourth anniversary of the marriage equality referendum. The people's decision to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples was momentous and defining. These fundamental rights are still not enjoyed by the LGBTQI community in the North, but that is not what I want to raise with the Taoiseach today. The 2015 referendum recognised the rights of same-sex couples and their children. The Government has been found wanting in its delivery on the rights of these families. LGBT Ireland is holding an event outside Leinster House today to highlight the Government's delay in making progress with long-awaited legislative protections for the families represented by that organisation. The Children and Family Relationships Act 2015 put in place a legal framework to provide for and protect diverse families and parental rights. Parts 2 and 3 of that Act have yet to be commenced. In 2017, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, issued a statement in which he gave a commitment that he would commence Part 2 and 3 of the Act by the end of that year. It is now 2019 and we have not been given a revised date for when legal provisions relating to donor-assisted human reproduction and other important matters will be delivered. Given that the general scheme of the assisted human reproduction Bill 2017 is currently with the Joint Committee on Health, it will be some time before the legislation in question is introduced. Technical amendments need to be made to Part 9 of the 2015 Act to provide for the registration and re-registration of the birth of a donor-conceived child. I thank the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection for agreeing to introduce these amendments through a stand-alone Bill to speed up this process. Sinn Féin will support the speedy passage of that legislation through the Dáil. The continued legal uncertainty for LGBT parents and their children is wrong. The buck stops with the Taoiseach as the Head of Government. What action is being taken to ensure all outstanding legal protections are delivered for same-sex couples and their children?

While I made the main points I wanted to make about the arts sector during Question Time with the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht this morning, I would like to put it to the Taoiseach that we need to urge the Abbey Theatre to engage with those who signed the letter we discussed this morning. It is quite a polarised and complicated debate. All of the different stakeholders need to get together to sort out these issues.

However, at the back of it - this is where the Government comes in - all across the theatre, art and film sectors, which I have been talking about repeatedly for the past year, there is no job security, income security, no rights or entitlements and no jobs. There is just total precarity. The Government needs to address that. In Germany, a person who works in the arts is effectively a public servant and has public service conditions, whereas in Ireland, the land of saints of scholars, we treat artists with contempt. That is the problem and the Taoiseach needs to address it.

Has the Taoiseach's Cabinet committee on social policy and public sector reform addressed the fact that an industrial action by the National Ambulance Service, which will have serious consequences, is due to take place on 22 January? It involves a serious matter regarding trade union recognition whereby the HSE is refusing to engage with the National Ambulance Service Representative Association, NASRA, which is affiliated to the Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, or recognise its right to represent ambulance workers. As a consequence of that, a national ambulance strike will take place on 22 January. The Taoiseach has talked a good deal about urging negotiation in terms of the nurses' dispute. I strongly urge him to contact the HSE and tell it that workers have the right to choose their own trade union and that it should engage urgently with the PNA and NASRA to avert a national ambulance strike on 22 January.

Deputy Micheál Martin wishes to make a brief contribution.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I agree with what Deputies Howlin and Boyd Barrett said. Yesterday, I raised the issue in question in the context of the Abbey, the National Theatre of Ireland. I made the point previously that there has been drift. The initiative of Creative Ireland is more about political patronage than a genuine substantive investment in the arts. A strong tradition was developed over the years of the Arts Council and independent bodies, free from political partisanship or influence, that would decide arts policy. That needs to be restored. There must be a clear national policy direction in terms of what we want from the Abbey Theatre and what we want it to contribute to development of the theatre and the arts in general.

The Taoiseach referred to online abuse. I attended the BT Young Scientists and Technology Exhibition last week. I pay tribute to BT, which is a private company that sponsors and has grown that competition significantly for almost two decades. At the event, I noted the number of projects from young people regarding the impact of technology games such as Fortnite and so on. They are interested in the impact on children's minds, their development, concentration and study and the juxtaposition of the impact of it on reading, etc. This is in contrast to a reluctance on the part of State agencies to do likewise. The ESRI issued an interesting publication this morning on the impact of mobile phones on children under 12 years of age. It is time for detailed assessment of these issues. There can be a good impact and there are many positives emerging from technology. The Taoiseach mentioned online abuse and there are many challenges also that have emerged from technology in that regard. The State has a certain deference to the digital companies and their impact and influence. There is almost a sense of tiptoeing around the significant issues that need to be addressed.

In terms of the Cabinet committee, the Taoiseach might reaffirm a commitment the Government made. During the budget negotiations, we discussed the need to provide 100 additional therapists in order to reduce significantly the waiting times for children on waiting lists for speech and language, occupational therapy, psychology and physiotherapy.

The Taoiseach has five minutes to respond.

In the context of the arts, the House will be aware that the Government gave a commitment to double our spending on arts and culture over a seven-year period. That roughly equates to an increase of 10% or 10.5% every year. We exceeded that in the budget for 2019. There will be a 12% increase in funding for arts, culture and heritage. That is a combination of current and capital funding. That is invested in many ways in the national cultural institutions, in the Arts Council, through Screen Ireland - formerly the Irish Film Board - in Creative Ireland and various other different mechanisms such as the Heritage Council. Part of the programme and part of Project Ireland 2040 provide for a new national theatre to be built and for the Abbey to be demolished. It has already acquired some of the buildings around it, which will allow it to be demolished and rebuilt into a new state-of-the-art national theatre, of which I hope we will be extremely proud. I am sure people have been to the National Gallery since the renovation there. The gallery looks fabulous and what a national cultural institution should look like. I would certainly like to see those Abbey plans advanced very soon in order that we can have a new national theatre. I acknowledge, however, that a theatre is worth nothing without the artists and actors who perform in it. I had the opportunity to meet the chairman of the board of the Abbey Theatre not too long ago. I am confident that the board will want to respond to the concerns of the artistic community. There are differing views, as Deputy Boyd Barrett acknowledged, but I am confident the board will want to respond to those concerns. I expect it will do so. I do not believe it is the role of the Government to interfere in the programmes of individual theatres and I do not believe anybody in the House would want us to do that, but it is appropriate that the board should engage with the concerns.

On the incomes of artists and people involved in creative industries, it is like many businesses or industries, there are many forms of self-employment or many professions. Some people do very well and do very well financially while others are not so successful and do not do so well financially. We have done two things to help. First, we have amended the social welfare code. I did this approximately two years ago in order to allow people who are part-time artists and who are not making an adequate income or earning sufficient revenues from their art to qualify for jobseeker's payments and social protection without the requirement that they be seeking full-time employment. I am not sure how many people have availed of that but it is in place as an option and helps to set a minimum floor of income for the artists in question. We also changed the Competition Act to allow freelance artists to engage in collective bargaining in certain circumstances in a way that we do not allow the vast majority of self-employed people or professionals to do.

Regarding Deputy McDonald's question on health legislation, it is always the case that Departments, the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and Government have to prioritise legislation in the same way as the Oireachtas and the Seanad. It is not possible to do all legislation at the same time, either in government or in the Oireachtas, which, of course, the Government does not control. The priority for the last six months of 2018 was the abortion legislation, and that was passed. The House and the public wanted us to prioritise that legislation. In addition, the governance legislation to re-establish the HSE board is currently going through the Houses. The priority for quarters 1 and 2 of this year is health legislation relating to Brexit. People understand why that has to be prioritised. Brexit is scheduled to happen at the end of quarter 1 so that legislation has to be prioritised, as does the legislation to establish the CervicalCheck tribunal. They are the health legislative priorities for the first half of this year. However, work will continue on the assisted human reproduction Bill. I anticipate it will be published sometime this year and hopefully enacted. It is very complicated legislation. I recall reading all about it when I was Minister for Health. It will require much debate and some difficult decisions to be made because currently the whole area of assisted human reproduction in Ireland is not illegal but it is also not legislated for. There are many questions that will require decisions on our part as to what will and will not be legal, including what forms of surrogacy will be allowed and whether we will continue to allow the practice of anonymous donation of sperms and eggs. I can understand why people would want that to continue but if we are pursuing a child-centred policy, where children have the right to know who their parents are and that speaks to our history, perhaps that is something we should not allow. Therefore, there are many difficult judgment calls and decisions to be made. I imagine that will be teased by some very reflective sessions by the health committee.

We need to move on.