Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Michael Moynihan


1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when the Citizens' Assembly will meet to discuss gender equality. [48829/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin


2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality will meet. [50048/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett


3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach his future plans for the Citizens' Assembly. [50360/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Ruth Coppinger


4. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach when the Citizens’ Assembly is due to commence the consideration of gender equality. [51240/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joan Burton


5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach his future plans for the Citizens’ Assembly. [51525/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald


6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality will meet. [51634/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (66 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

The establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality was approved by Dáil Éireann on 9 July and Seanad Éireann on 11 July this year. The Citizens' Assemblies Act 2019 providing for the use of the electoral register to select members for both Citizens' Assemblies was subsequently enacted and signed into law by the President on 25 July. The membership of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality will comprise the chairperson and 99 citizens entitled to vote at referendums, recruited at a national level and randomly selected to be broadly representative of Irish society. Significant progress has been made with regard to the various elements required to establish the assembly. Dr. Catherine Day, the former Secretary-General of the European Commission, has been appointed to chair the assembly. A secretary has also been appointed and a secretariat team is in place. The immediate priority was to secure the various services required through procurement with a view to holding an inaugural meeting of the assembly as soon as possible. This is now complete and member selection is under way with an inaugural meeting of the assembly scheduled for Saturday, 25 January 2020. The first full weekend meeting is planned for the weekend of 14 to 16 February 2020 and the dates for four further weekend meetings have been confirmed.

As agreed in the Oireachtas resolution, the assembly will engage independent researchers to monitor and record, among other things, the deliberative quality of the assembly. An Irish Research Council call to select a research fellow to conduct this work has closed with a view to an appointment shortly. Consultation and public engagement are also important to ensure a broad spectrum of views is available to the Citizens' Assembly members and to ensure public buy-in and awareness of the work of the assembly. With that in mind, there has been extensive engagement with relevant experts in the field including through consultative round tables, and a public consultation will also be initiated.

The first question is from Deputy Micheál Martin.

How long will we have for each question?

As we are running out of time, I suggest limiting questions to a minute.

It is a minute and a half anyway. What is the problem?

A minute and a half.

Deputies can have a minute and a half.

Could we have a bit longer because-----

No, we cannot. The leaders have to agree-----

We have a long established mechanism that we work it out here.

I was going to make a point about the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality. There are a huge number of issues-----

We are wasting time.

-----that we are not getting a chance to raise.

That is something for the committee to look at.

That is fair enough.

I call Deputy Micheál Martin.

When will we get a chance to discuss this Citizens' Assembly?

Will there be another opportunity to discuss this matter in the Dáil?

The Deputy can ask a question about it today. Her colleague has submitted a question, so I will call her in his absence.

I have also submitted a question. I am just saying that it is very difficult to deal with all the issues of gender inequality in a minute and a half.

We have lost a minute now.

We do our own business. I was once in a Parliament where a minute was considered a long time.

It has always been two minutes. I have two minutes' worth of notes.

It was last week. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is now cutting it.

Perhaps I was too lenient then. I call Deputy Micheál Martin.

It is a bit of a joke that we are only being given a minute and a half to discuss a Citizens' Assembly on gender equality.

The Deputy should bring this up in the proper forum. We are wasting time. Deputy Micheál Martin has a minute and a half.

It shows how seriously this issue is being taken.

That is not fair. These are Taoiseach's Questions, which cover a wide range of issues. I did not introduce this system, but since it came in via the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform, party leaders have been given a minute and a half. Anyone else who wanted to contribute has always been facilitated.

Deputy Micheál Martin-----

It is by definition-----

I was not asking-----

It is not fair to brand this as a particular issue only being given a minute and a half. That is not fair.

It is easy for the Deputy to say. He does not care about gender inequality.

It is not easy. That is not fair.

The Deputy is branding people wrongly and she should not be doing so.

I just asked-----

None of the Deputies is going to get any more than a minute and a half.

If we want to have a discussion on the broader subject, we can have it at the Business Committee

The Deputy is wasting more time than anyone else, by answering for the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Deputies will have another opportunity to discuss this matter.

The Deputy has a habit of creating a row. I am just trying to be helpful-----

Deputy Coppinger should not make any accusations against the Chair.

I did not make an accusation against the Chair. I just asked if there was more time and the Deputy spent ages explaining.

I refer to the Deputy's last comment.

What was the last comment?

The Deputy can check the blacks.

The current Citizens' Assembly is primarily concerned with issues raised at the Constitutional Convention, the more grandly named previous Citizens' Assembly, which reported approximately five years ago. The assembly on gender equality is due to hold its first meeting in January and we wish it well in its work. This is different in that, unlike previous assemblies that dealt with issues such as the eighth amendment, among others, there is no parallel or detailed proposal for the Oireachtas to engage with the issue or the assembly's outcome. Are there any proposals for a process for considering the assembly's report?

On an administrative matter, this may be the first time a citizens' assembly is due to sit during a period a general election is likely to be held. Will the holding of the election have any particular implications for the assembly? Has it agreed to adopt the precedent of other bodies established by the Oireachtas to suspend public activity during elections?

In the years since citizens' assemblies were adopted on an all-party basis, much evidence has accumulated about what works and how best to put issues to them. Most people agree that the more specific the issue and the closer it is to a direct proposal for action, the more likely it is that the assembly will have an impact and assist in bringing an issue to a conclusion. Our position remains that assemblies should not be used to delay political action on urgent issues. Would it not be a good idea, before near permanent demands are made to put even the most uncertain and complex issues to such assemblies, to carry out a genuinely independent review of what works and the most effective means of using assemblies in the future?

Last month, at the inaugural #WorkEqual conference, the Taoiseach stated that the upcoming Citizens' Assembly on gender equality would specifically focus on pay inequality. To use the Taoiseach's own words, women are all too often "disproportionately represented in low pay sectors". At the same event, a survey of participants from the public, private and NGO sectors showed that better and more affordable childcare would do more to promote gender equality in the workplace than any other single action. Somewhat ironically, low pay predominates in the childcare sector, where 98% of staff are women. The average hourly rate of workers in the childcare sector is €10.96, which is barely €1 more than the minimum wage and €1.34 below what is regarded as a living wage. Unsurprisingly, a recent survey of early years educators revealed that the majority cannot make ends meet, with 84% unable to meet an unexpected expense such as a visit to the doctor, a car repair, or a utility bill. Consequently, more than half of current childcare staff are actively looking to exit the sector and are looking for alternative jobs. Will the Taoiseach ensure that the agenda for the forthcoming Citizens' Assembly includes the provision of universally available, high-quality and affordable childcare in this country?

I also raise the issue of childcare and the necessity of including it as part of the Citizens' Assembly deliberations on gender equality. To say there is a crisis in the affordability and provision of childcare would be a massive understatement. The average cost per week of childcare in this country is €186, but it is €246 in my area. That is completely unaffordable. It is the same as having a second mortgage. The lack of provision of available, affordable places is shocking. It is all very well announcing programmes such as the national childcare scheme, subsidies, or two years of free preschool year after year, but people cannot find places. More recently, small community crèches are suffering the consequences of the backlash against badly-run, often big corporate, childcare facilities. The numbers of places in such small crèches are being reduced and costs are going up to meet Tusla's compliance standards, which is pushing prices even further out of the realm of affordability. This is one of, if not the biggest, contributing factors to gender inequality in this country. What is the Government going to do to provide affordable, universally available and sufficient childcare places in this country?

It is very difficult to squeeze the issue of gender inequality into a minute and a half. I will have to drop the topics of the gender pay gap, unaffordable childcare, and the endometriosis briefing that took place earlier. I will focus on what was newsworthy today, namely, the Safe Ireland report, which stated that nine requests for help from women's refuges are unmet every day. In some cases, those women then stayed in violent relationships. What is the point of Department of Justice and Equality spending money on awareness campaigns if there are no places for people to go when they seek help? I refer specifically to the refuge based in Blanchardstown. On International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 25 November, the refuge held a public meeting at which the CEO of Sonas spoke. She told us that up to 500 families are turned away from that refuge every year, which is in mine and the Taoiseach's constituency. Tomorrow, women from Blanchardstown will come here at 11.30 a.m. to hand in hundreds of letters signed by local people. I ask the Taoiseach to make the time to meet them and to take those letters.

When I last raised this, the Taoiseach said that maybe we should look at something different and that maybe the perpetrators should leave. With all due respect, I think the women would have thought of that without the Taoiseach raising it. It did display an ignorance about being in a violent relationship and the dangers facing women. Why has €20 million been given to the entire sector nationally, a figure that is just slightly greater than that given to the greyhound industry, when the Taoiseach knows that up to four or five times more people seek help than actually get it? We also need more outreach services for schools and prevention and a rape crisis centre for Dublin West. Why will the Government not increase the funding for this sector?

As the founding chair of the Blanchardstown rape crisis centre, I would welcome any assistance the Taoiseach can give to this very important refuge that is built to a beautiful standard, as I am sure the previous speaker is aware, and that offers much-needed support to women and particularly their children. Consequently, I hope the Taoiseach can put that on the agenda.

What is the Government's position with regard to the Citizens' Assembly recommendations on climate change, which have been available since April 2018? I will address two specific issues. One is air quality in Ireland. There is a significant amount of air pollution. Emission levels in Dublin West have been exceeded recently on more than six occasions, which is a terrible outcome. We know from the work of the Asthma Society of Ireland that there is an asthma epidemic in this country, yet the Taoiseach is sitting on his hands when it comes to the issue of smoky coal and is finding a phony reason to long-finger it. Why does the Taoiseach not reassemble and recall the Citizens' Assembly on climate change to get it to say what the people of Ireland want?

The assembly also recommended the expansion of public transport. We know, however, that it is almost dangerous for a pregnant woman to travel on trains into town from Dublin West and Maynooth at certain times because it is so crowded. Could the Taoiseach look at recalling the Citizens' Assembly on climate change to get it to continue its work because it was a mechanism to reach agreement? The Taoiseach has opened a can of worms with regard to how he is addressing the smoky coal issue. It needs to be banned and people with asthma need to be given relief and clean air.

I start by thanking the assembly members for taking part in the process. We look forward to their recommendations. Their work will play an important role in shaping policy and political decisions that are necessary to end gender inequality. Having said that, much of the research and analysis that will come from this process is already known to us. For example, we know that women on average earn less than men. The latest figures for the European Union tell us that women in Ireland earn 86 cent for every euro a man earns. We know that the older one is, the larger that gap is. We know that women workers are disproportionately represented in low-paid sectors such as childcare, health, education and retail and that under 7% of company CEOs are women. They are not just problems we have today. They are problems we take with us throughout our careers and into retirement. In terms of cold hard cash, women earn less money so they consequently have less money to invest in their futures. The EU average pension gap between women and men is a massive 35.7%.

There are, of course, decisions the Government can make today that would start to address poverty in work for these women. Fine Gael and the Independents could introduce a living wage across the public sector. We know that women disproportionately populate the lowest-paid public sector grades. Aldi has committed to a living wage. It boggles the mind that the Government cannot do the same. The Government could also increase the national minimum wage. The Government has collectively refused to comply with the Data Protection Commissioner's instruction on the public services card in a really awful manner. If the Taoiseach is serious about this, there is a number of steps he can take right now.

I am not sure how we got from citizens' assemblies to the public services card and the minimum wage and all the way back again but I will do my best to answer as many questions as I can in the time allocated to me. When it comes to the proposed citizens' assembly, the model the Government has in mind is to follow the same process as we followed with regard to the Citizens' Assemblies on the eighth amendment and climate change. The assembly will sit and report, that report will be referred to an all-party Oireachtas committee specifically established to examine the recommendations of the citizens' assembly and the Government will respond to it. We will need the agreement and co-operation of the House to do that. Deputy Micheál Martin asked a very valid question about what we would do during a three to four-week election period - whether the assembly should sit or not. I am not sure whether it should sit but it is a pertinent question about which I will consult with officials. I will also consult with the chair of the Citizens' Assembly as to whether she thinks it is appropriate that the assembly should sit during that three to four-week period----

And party leaders.

And party leaders as well. I was asked whether there has been an independent review of what does and does not work and the pros and cons of citizens' assemblies more generally. That was done. A report was submitted by Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, which gives her advice and experience, having chaired an assembly. It is a very good report on the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of citizens' assemblies that is worth reading. It is a very good piece of work for which I thank her in addition to her chairmanship of the previous assemblies.

I am not sure if any Government prior to this one has done more to make childcare more affordable or to improve its quality. I will give a few examples. Everyone now has two years of free preschool through the early childhood care and education programme. We have introduced paid parental leave and paid parental benefit for the first time, extended unpaid parental leave, increased maternity benefit and changed the rules, particularly around women whose children were born prematurely in order that they can have more maternity leave. We have increased paternity benefit, provided capital investment for childcare and in the past few weeks, have introduced the national childcare scheme. We will publish the initial figures from that tomorrow but I can tell the House that over 14,000 children have already signed up for that scheme. It means increased subsidies for those already receiving subsidies and for the first time, some middle-income families qualify for subsidies. These are families with a gross income of around €100,000. I think this is only right because people on middle incomes pay the most income tax and they should benefit from these schemes as well. I envisage the Government increasing the subsidies in the years ahead for everyone but also ensuring that more middle-income and middle-class families can qualify for these subsidies as well, because it would be wrong to expect them to pay very high amounts of income tax and USC but be unable to benefit from these schemes. This is very much the direction of travel in terms of policy. Regarding pay and terms and conditions in the sector, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, is very much of the view that there should be a sectoral employment order for this sector to set minimum standards and wage levels. There is a process by which that can be followed. I believe the terms of reference of the assembly cover the issue of childcare. Obviously, neither I nor the House can change the terms of reference now but the fourth term of reference is to recognise the importance of early years parental care; to seek to facilitate greater work-life balance; to examine the social responsibility of care, including women and men's co-responsibility for care, particularly within the family; and to examine the gender pay gap scrutinising structural pay inequalities that result in women being disproportionately represented in low pay sectors. The terms of reference are very wide.

Regarding domestic violence, two refuges are opening or re-opening in the near future. One will be in Rathmines and while I cannot remember where the other one will be, it is outside Dublin. This will bring us almost up to the level recommended by the Council of Europe. I think we were 28 short. The new refuges will bring us to being about three short of the recommended level. Two different measures are recommended but on the first one, it brings us almost to that level so we probably need to open one more. I will give the House the figures on funding for domestic violence services funding. This is done through Tusla's domestic, sexual and gender based violence services. The budget in 2014 was €17 million. It went up to €19.5 million in 2015, although €2.5 million was transferred from the then Department of Environment, Community and Local Government. In 2016, the figure increased to €20.6 million. The figure in 2017 was €20.1 million and in 2018, it was €23.8 million. As the figure for this year is €25.3 million, there has been a €1.5 million increase this year. I can give a breakdown as to how that was used.

Separate to that, a lot of money goes through the Garda budget. The Garda is establishing special victims units in every division at the moment, most of which, although not all, are up and running. That is important but is counted as part of the Garda Vote, as opposed to the Tusla Vote.

On the question of climate change, there was a Citizens' Assembly on the topic, the report of which went to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action, and then the Government produced its climate action plan. We now report quarterly on how that is being implemented. The first report has been done already and the second will be coming soon.

I responded earlier to the question about smoky coal. The air quality in cities is largely down to diesel cars and not particularly down to the burning of solid fuels. That goes back to a decision made by a previous Government to encourage people to buy diesel cars. That reduced greenhouse gas emissions but it made our air quality worse. We have been trying to unwind that policy mistake for the past two years.

Turning to the issue of railways, there will be a 34% increase in capacity on the Maynooth line in 2021. The necessary rail carriages are now on order but could not come fast enough.

What about funding for the Blanchardstown refuge?

There are two more groups of questions to be answered. Questions Nos. 7 to 11, inclusive, relate to Israel and Palestine. We have already used up half the time designated for questions and another group of questions deal with the infrastructure committee. As we can only deal with one of those groups of questions, which group would Deputies like to take?

Let us take the questions in sequence.

We should take the questions in order.

We will take the next questions in sequence which are Questions Nos. 7 to 11, inclusive, and, if there is time left, we will take more questions. If there is not time left, those questions will have to roll over until tomorrow.