Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Ceisteanna (4)

Brendan Howlin


4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [23185/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

The role of the social policy and public service reform division is to assist me in Government in delivering on the programme for Government objective of public policies and services which drive a socially inclusive and fair society and to assist in renewing and transforming the public service. The division assists the work of Cabinet committees B, E and G and the associated senior officials' groups. Cabinet committee B covers social policy and public services, including education, children, equality and social inclusion, the Irish language, arts and culture, and continued improvements and reform of public services. Cabinet committee E deals with issues relating to health, including the delivery of health service reforms, and Cabinet committee G provides political oversight of developments relating to justice and equality issues, including implementation of the Government’s programme of reform in the areas of justice and policing.

A policing reform implementation programme office has been established within the division as I mentioned earlier. This office will drive the implementation of the policing reform plan entitled A Policing Service for the Future, which was approved and published by Government in December last year.

The division also assists the work of the Civil Service Management Board, which oversees implementation of the Civil Service renewal plan. It has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, advances the Dublin north-east inner city initiative, including through the programme office, programme implementation board, and the oversight group, and it assists the delivery of Our Public Service 2020 through the membership of the public service leadership board and public service management group.

In addition, the division incorporates the programme for Government office, which monitors and reports on the implementation of the commitments contained in the programme for Government across all Departments. The third annual progress report was approved by Government in May 2019. The division also provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues and participates in the relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.

I am not quite clear from the Taoiseach's reply whether there is a specific work programme for the social policy and public service reform division as opposed to a co-ordination role over the various Cabinet sub-committees. I want to ask two specific questions. First, regarding the Freedom of Information, FOI, Act, as the Taoiseach knows, the restoration of the full impact of the Freedom of Information Act was a core part of the programme of reforms we implemented in the previous Government. It is a very important part of the suite of reform measures. There have been recent court decisions that in many people's views have eroded the impact of freedom of information legislation. The Taoiseach may not have had an opportunity yet to look at this, but is there a review ongoing of the current FOI Act with a view to ensuring that the full strength of it that we wanted when we restored it fully will be maintained, even if that means further amending it now?

As the Taoiseach knows, I have taken an interest in the issue of policing reform over a very long time. I met members of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and I had a disagreement with the recommendation of the majority of the commission on one issue, that is, to re-establish a management group within An Garda Síochána again around the Commissioner. I have raised this with the Taoiseach. I know he does not have a closed mind in regard to it but I believe this is a fundamental issue. We are in grave danger of making the same mistakes as were made in the past if we do not have an external group at that core management level.

It was interesting to read this morning that the first reaction of Fine Gael Ministers to the damning report of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council was to have a discussion about how to attack the Opposition. This confirms yet again that the only form of defence the Government has is to attack the Opposition for the Government's own failures. That is an approach which has long stopped being listened to by the public. The extent to which the Taoiseach and his Ministers co-ordinated message points for attacking everyone and accepting zero responsibility for anything was striking. It seems accountability is for the little people and not for those in office.

We all know that by far the most expensive policy demand of any party in recent times has been one made by the Taoiseach, which is tax cuts weighted towards higher earners. He has used his party conferences twice to call for €3 billion in one single tax promise. There is a €3 billion commitment on broadband, notwithstanding the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's opposition who said it did not represent value for money and was way above the original estimate.

There is the €2 billion, and now likely to exceed €2 billion, cost of the national children's hospital, which will go way above the original estimate. There are also all the promises made in the past month to six weeks. The Taoiseach literally threw the kitchen sink at the local and European elections in terms of expenditure commitments and promises, yet he still insists, as he did yesterday and today, that the problem is the Opposition seeking, for example, better conditions to stop the haemorrhaging of the Defence Forces or honest health budgets. Equally, the Opposition is to blame for the Government's chronic failure to deliver projects within budget. Given the scale of what the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has said and what the Minister for Finance said recently, is it still the Taoiseach's belief that €3 billion in cuts to the tax base should be prioritised in the next two years?

At the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government this morning, Mercy Law, the Children's Ombudsman, the Children's Rights Alliance and Focus Ireland gave an utterly damning indictment of the Government's treatment of children, specifically children who are affected by the housing and homelessness crisis, detailing, for example, that 167 families have been in emergency hub accommodation for two years or more. They went through horrible detail to outline the trauma, the stigma and the adverse mental health effects those children are suffering, and will suffer for many years into the future, as a result of the State's failure to provide secure, affordable housing for them. Has this division considered its failure of children in that regard? It is a form of neglect that amounts to abuse of children.

On a similar note, I would like the Taoiseach to comment on another aspect of the State caring for children, on which I tabled questions recently, which is that the national children's hospital, as well as the scandals of overruns and so on, will have a private clinic. This massively over cost national children's hospital, paid for with public money, will have two-tier healthcare. We will have the public healthcare and then what one can get if one can afford to pay for private healthcare. Does the Taoiseach believe it is acceptable to have two-tier healthcare in the new national children's hospital?

I thank the Deputies. On the Freedom of Information Act, I am not familiar with the particular court decisions. If my reading of it was correct, some of them may even be on appeal so it might not be resolved as yet. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, as the line Minister, has responsibility for the Freedom of Information Act rather than me.

If the Deputy wishes to expand on his concerns later or offline I will be happy to hear them and his perspective, acknowledging his experience as the Minister who restored the Freedom of Information Act, which had previously been gutted by others.

The Cabinet committee on justice met in recent days. Good progress has been made on the policing and community safety Bill. The legislation is the vehicle to implement the structural reforms proposed by the O'Toole commission in its report. That involves strengthening GSOC, for example - which I think everyone supports - and turning it into a Garda ombudsman commission. It also contains proposals that were made to establish a Garda board and to also establish a new policing community safety oversight commission, PCSOC. As I said to everyone at that committee meeting yesterday, the important thing for me is the objective and the outcome. If that means departing from some of the recommendations made by the O'Toole commission for good reason, my mind is open to that. The House will have an opportunity to debate that when the legislation comes in. It was intended to replace a rather cumbersome structure involving an inspectorate, an authority and GSOC with a new, more streamlined structure. However, it could be argued that the new structure is just as cumbersome, as it involves a board, PCSOC and some other bodies.

On the report which Deputy Mícheál Martin presumably read in a newspaper or online, I assure him that it is not accurate as is so often the case when it comes to leaks and gossip. The Government's first response to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, report which was published earlier this week was to listen to it, listen to criticism, to heed the advice and respond to it. I recall 12 or 13 years ago, when the Deputy opposite was a member of Government, that the European Commission issued stark warnings about spending increasing too quickly - it was increasing at twice the rate it is now - and our over-reliance on stamp duty. The Government's response then was to ignore it, to attack the European Commission and criticise anyone who questioned its economic policy. I will not make the same mistake as Taoiseach, which is why we are listening to what IFAC said and we will take its criticisms on board. There are many reasons to believe that the economy and public finances are being well managed. There are more people at work than ever before; unemployment is at a 14-year low; incomes are rising; the minimum wage has increased by 25% in the past couple of years; according to the CSO, living standards are improving, child poverty, deprivation and poverty are falling; the budget is in surplus for the first time since 2006; and the national debt is falling, where it had quadrupled under a previous administration. The European Commission stated that we are compliant with fiscal rules and the rating agencies all give us a AAA rating. It is important to say that IFAC's criticism was not about our tax policy and the rather modest reductions in income tax and the USC last year at all. In fact, today the ESRI recommended that we do exactly what I proposed, which is to index tax credits and bands. I never said that would be done over two years but over the course of a full Government. I encourage people to read the ESRI's recommendations published today.

What about the €3 billion the Taoiseach promised?

It recommended that we index tax bands and credits and that we index social welfare payments. That would cost more than what I proposed in my policy. The ESRI recommends what I proposed and IFAC did not criticise my proposals on tax. IFAC criticised the Government on spending, which increased by approximately 6% last year, when we should have kept it down to 4% or 5%. This is where the Opposition has been hypocritical in its response to the IFAC report because it constantly demands additional spending, more than we have allowed for. In its budgetary policy, Sinn Féin wants to spend more, have a bigger deficit and finance it all through borrowing. What would IFAC say about that? Every week, Fianna Fáil demands additional spending. The Deputy is right. This week it is on the Defence Forces, but it does not have a particular interest in or regard for the Defence Forces, as it will be another group next week and another again the week after. It is entirely reasonable for me to call out the Opposition in this regard. If IFAC has concerns about the Government increasing spending too rapidly, one can imagine the concerns it would have if Fianna Fáil was in Government and implemented its policies, namely to spend even more and faster, just as it did when last in government.