Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Ceisteanna (7, 8, 9)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit in his Department. [47831/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit. [48733/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the way in which his Department supports the Independent Ministers of Government as outlined in the Statement of Strategy 2016-2019 of his Department. [49131/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (42 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, together.

My Department assists the Taoiseach and the Government, including the Independent members of Government, through the Government secretariat, the programme for Government office, the Cabinet committee structure, and the parliamentary liaison unit. As outlined in my Department's Statement of Strategy 2016-2019, these business units work to ensure Government business is managed to the highest standards. The business of Government is co-ordinated by the Government secretariat, which has responsibility for the preparation of the Cabinet agenda, the circulation of papers, and the communication of the Government's decisions to the relevant Ministers and Departments.

The programme for Government office provides assistance to Government in delivering on its ambitious programme of work through monitoring the implementation of the commitments contained in the programme for Government across all Departments. The office prepares progress reports and an annual report setting out progress made across all of Government in implementing the commitments in the programme.

The Cabinet committee system is an important part of the machinery of Government and a core part of the work of the Department. It provides a co-ordinated whole-of-government approach to issues as necessary. The scope of the Cabinet committee system encompasses the Government's national priorities and the challenges Ireland faces in the coming years.

The parliamentary liaison unit was established to help ensure that Ministers and Departments are properly informed of the responsibilities and procedures in the 32nd Dáil. The unit provides assistance to Ministers and their Departments on Oireachtas matters, with a particular emphasis on assisting Departments with Private Members' business. The unit liaises with advisers to the Independent members of Government to ensure they are informed of Oireachtas issues and to assist them in engaging with the new processes arising from Dáil reform. The parliamentary liaison unit provides detailed information on upcoming matters in the Dáil and Seanad and highlights any new Oireachtas reform issues. The chief strategist for the Independent Alliance and the political co-ordinator for the Independent Ministers in Government are also based in my Department.

The Government press secretary acts as a spokesperson for the Taoiseach and the Government and is supported by the press office in his role of co-ordinating the media relations of all Departments. The deputy press secretary, who is also based in my Department, has responsibility for co-ordinating communications for all the Independents in Government. My Department continues to monitor these supports, enhancing processes as appropriate.

I asked about the parliamentary liaison unit in June in the context of the Bills being blocked by money messages. There are 55 such Bills, including all of those of People Before Profit, which have all passed Second Stage. The Bills include the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill, the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill, the Anti-Evictions Bill and the Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill.

What I am curious about is how the Government assesses what requires a money message. It seems there is clearly an abuse of the money message provision and it is being used for political purposes. There seems to be no consistency or objectivity in deciding what supposedly has a cost. Even though the Bills clearly are not Bills about spending money or raising taxes, arbitrarily the Government declares there will be costs, but there is no consistency in that application. The only rationale appears to be political. I would like the Taoiseach to admit this and that politics rather than actual costs is dictating the use of the money message by the Government.

I will give an example because I asked the Clerk about this. I asked him what Bills do not require money messages. He said referendum Bills do not. I said that was very strange because referendums cost a lot of money. Why would they not require a money message while a Bill to stop issuing fossil fuel licences to oil and gas companies, which would cost the Government hardly anything, does require a money message? This exposes the abuse, and there is no other word for it, but I want the Taoiseach to prove me wrong. There are actually no objective fair criteria for the deployment of the money message other than partisan politics, because some things do not require a money message even though they could well be argued to have a cost and other things do require one even though they clearly would not have a significant cost other than minor incidental costs.

I want to speak about some messages to the Taoiseach in particular in the context of the parliamentary liaison unit. The Taoiseach may be aware that hundreds of women were outside the gates of Leinster House yesterday with the slogan "SAVE OUR BINGO". I have to say I was astonished last week and earlier this week when I heard the Government intended to go to war on the simple pastime of a lot of older women. Some very elderly people enjoy a game of bingo, for the most part in former cinema halls and theatres throughout the country.

Yesterday, the women outside wanted to be able to give this petition, which I have with me, to the Government but they were not able to do so. I will mention one woman whose name is in the petition and whom the Taoiseach may well have met locally in Dublin West. Kathleen Reynolds has a severe disability but nonetheless manages to play table tennis and manages to go every week to a couple of bingo games. As she has said and as have many other women, it is her pastime. Many of the women do not drink or smoke. They go to bingo. I am sure the Taoiseach must have been brought to bingo by his mother or grandmother when he was a child, as many people were.

Are we all on the same page?

This is about communication. The question is about the parliamentary liaison unit. The Taoiseach listed a rake of people from the Government Information Service and other offices who are all in the business of communicating and, it is presumed, being communicated with.

The Deputy is stretching it now.

There were more people than we would find on stage in the list of people the Taoiseach gave, yet the women with the bingo petition could not find one person in the busy Government who could come out and accept it. I do not generally do this and I apologise but, being honest, what has got into the head of the Government that it is waging war against bingo at a time when we have an unbelievable homeless crisis?

We have the gist of the Deputy's question.

I share a lot of Deputy Boyd Barrett's views on the money message.

We will not get an answer.

Mr. Justice Simons gave a clear warning in his comments to the court that the Government is on very thin ice, never mind bingo, with regard to the money message.

We will not get an answer.

We need a more comprehensive answer than the Taoiseach has just given us.

Please leave some time for the Taoiseach to answer. I call Deputy Martin and ask him to stay within the confines of the question.

I certainly will, but may I express my admiration for Deputy Burton, who brought all of her experience to bear on a very important issue that generated a lot of activity and concern outside the House yesterday?

There is no harm in it.

I am saying "well done".

It is baffling that the Government is declaring war on it.

As an observer, I must admire the Deputy's capacity to do that.

The clock is ticking and it is costing the Deputy time to admire her.

It is an important issue.

I know. I have played bingo myself.

As a young fellow I sold bingoettes on a Thursday night in the Savoy in Cork and in the City Hall, where about 1,500 people used to play at that time. I understand the centrality of bingo to many people's lives and the Government should make a statement that bingo is not threatened. My understanding is that it is not and that there are exemptions that will certainly facilitate the continuation of bingo. At some stage, the Taoiseach and the Government should confirm this.

It is important to point out that when the parliamentary liaison unit was first set up, the Dáil was informed that it was intended to make sure the Government kept in touch with the Dáil as a whole. That is what was said. Subsequently it was confirmed that it is in fact there to service the inquiries of Independent Deputies who have, or might have in the future, agreements to vote with the Government in divisions.

In the past, the Taoiseach was asked to list the Deputies who are covered by the unit's work. He claimed that he did not know the exact answer. Now the Taoiseach has had time, can he tell us exactly who the unit works with? Are services provided by the unit to anyone other than the four non-Independent Alliance Deputies who voted for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy? I am aware that there was apparently a lot of activity with Deputy Mattie McGrath yesterday. I might be wrong there, but apparently there was a great deal of engagement that came to naught in the end.

Maybe he is a bingo player.

The Taoiseach will also be aware of reports this morning that specific arrangements may have been entered into to get the Minister through the vote. Specifically, there are reports that Ministers may have been busy making promises on individual projects. Considering the Taoiseach's past commitment to transparency on these matters, will he publish the list of projects discussed yesterday with Deputies in the interests of trying to secure their votes?

I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

I asked my question already.

I call Deputy Cullinane.

I can speak again if the Leas-Cheann Comhairle wants me to do so.

I know Deputy Boyd Barrett would. I call Deputy Cullinane.

I wish to speak to question No. 9. The Department of the Taoiseach is obliged to have a statement of strategy. My understanding is that the statement of strategy for the Department will reach its end date this month. We do not know how long this fractured Government has left as we move into 2020. It might be a month, two months or three months. We know that in the by-elections, to use a bingo analogy, the Government got neither a full house nor a line. In none of the four constituencies did Government candidates win seats. I would like to know what the thoughts of the Department of the Taoiseach are for 2020. As stated, it is obliged to have a statement of strategy in place. As the Taoiseach acknowledged in the past 48 hours, housing is one of the big challenges facing this State. It is a huge issue that is pressing down on people. Despite the fact Fianna Fáil Deputies sat on their hands last night and abstained, they were unable to express confidence in the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. This is the big issue. It is one of the major challenges we face, as are health, childcare and a host of other matters. The issue regarding housing is enormous. The statement of strategy, which reaches its end date this month, notes that the Department "has a responsibility to ensure that policies developed uphold the Government’s commitment to develop Ireland in a sustainable way which fosters economic development and social progress". From our perspective, the big issue in the context of social progress is housing. As already stated, I would like to know if the Department of the Taoiseach intends to put in placed a new statement of strategy for 2020 or is the Taoiseach accepting that this fractured Government is dying on its feet and might only have a couple of weeks left as we go into 2020?

I confirm that no promises were made to Independent Deputies in return for votes on the confidence motion and there is nothing to publish. However, Independent Deputies and plenty of Opposition Deputies are in touch with Ministers all the time looking for help on issues and we try to help them as best we can.

As the Deputy stated, the statement of strategy will expire at the end of this year. We will have an election next year so the most appropriate thing is that the new statement of strategy should be for the new Government. Hopefully, it will not be for a new Taoiseach but that is a matter for the people to decide in May.

On Private Members' Bills, it is worth pointing out that, under this Government, the current Dáil has allowed and facilitated the enactment of more Private Members' Bill than any previous Dáil in the history of the State. Nine Private Members' Bills have become law. In the previous Dáil, the figure was only four and it was zero in the Dáil before that. No Dáil in modern Irish history has been so willing to facilitate the enactment of-----

That is because of my reforming zeal at the commencement of this Dáil. We drove Dáil reform.

-----Private Members' Bills. I pay tribute to Deputy Micheál Martin's reforming zeal and self-congratulation in that regard. It is also worth saying there are 300 Private Members' Bills in the system. Most of them do not require a money message. Probably only about 50 of the 300-----

The Government blackguarded it.

-----require money messages. In some cases, money messages have not even been requested. I have seen suggestions that there are 40 or 50 Bills awaiting money messages. However, a money message must be requested first and the matter is then processed by the Department before a decision is made. It is all covered under Article 17.2 of the Constitution, which states that a Bill which involves a cost to the Exchequer cannot be enacted without a money message being agreed by the Cabinet and signed by the Taoiseach. We have a memorandum of understanding as a protocol that outlines the grounds on which a money message can be refused. Essentially, there are four grounds. First, if it requires money that has not been voted for by the Oireachtas. For example, the Cannabis for Medicinal Use Regulation Bill 2016 would establish two new Government agencies. It is not just about medicinal cannabis but it proposes to establish two new Government agencies. The cost of establishing two such agencies-----

We said we would delete those sections.

-----would be substantial. The second ground relates to whether a Bill is unconstitutional. Some legislation put forward is unconstitutional. On the advice of the Attorney General, I cannot grant a money message for legislation I know to be unconstitutional.

The Taoiseach has 30 seconds to get the bingo answer in.

The third ground relates to whether the legislation is contrary to European law or international treaties. Again, I cannot sign a money message for legislation that is contrary to European law or to international treaties to which this country is a signatory. The fourth ground relates to circumstances where the Government is introducing legislation that supersedes a Private Members' Bill. It is common for the Government to agree that a certain Bill has a good idea behind it but that it is flawed in some way and that it will, in conjunction with its own team, experts and the Departments, with all of their resources, put forward legislation which is better and which does much the same thing. The National Minimum Wage (Protection of Employee Tips) Bill 2017 is an example in this regard.

I answered two questions on bingo earlier. However, out of respect for the Deputies, I would be happy to comment on the matter again. I have been to bingo with my-----

I am sure the Taoiseach has.

I have been there on the odd Sunday night in recent times not too far from here. I am happy to confirm once again there is no threat to bingo halls or bingo nights. The change in the law is to require operators to give 25% of the money to charities, as they are supposed to. There are some large, profitable and commercial bingo halls that have not been giving any money to charity at all or that have only been giving paltry sums. The law will require that 25% of the proceeds of the bingo halls go to charity. I do not see why anyone should be against that. I can understand why the operators are against it because they would rather keep the money but they are wrong in that regard. The 25% to which I refer should go to charity. I hope Deputies will vote for the legislation and call out the operators because some of them have not been giving that money to charity, even though they are required to do so.

My Department receives petitions all the time. They can be delivered to the office at the entrance to Merrion Street Upper.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2.07 p.m. and resumed at 3.07 p.m.