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Programme for Government

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 21 July 2020

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Ceisteanna (5)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the timeline for the implementation of the programme for Government. [16789/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (35 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, as agreed between the parties in government, was approved by the Government on 27 June 2020.

The programme for Government sets out policy and legislative proposals for the full term of the Government across several missions, namely: a better quality of life for all; reigniting and renewing the economy; a green new deal; universal healthcare; housing for all; balanced regional development; a new social contract, building stronger and safer communities, better opportunities through education and research; a shared island; at the heart of Europe and global citizenship; and reforming and reimagining our public life. It also contains a chapter on the functioning of the Government.

Since the formation of the Government, we have been working hard to implement these commitments.

The Cabinet committee on Covid-19 and the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment have met and the July jobs stimulus will be published later this week.

The Cabinet committees on health, housing and environment and climate change are due to meet before the end of the month. Work is under way on the priority action in each area.

Significant legislative measures have been published and are being progressed through the Oireachtas. They are focused in particular on supporting the economy and businesses.

I have had initial discussions with IBEC and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on the challenges ahead.

I visited Northern Ireland and met the First Minister, Ms Arlene Foster, and the deputy First Minister, Ms Michelle O'Neill, as well as other parties. The North-South Ministerial Council is due to meet next week.

As I have stated, I spoke to a wide range of European leaders in preparation for the European Council meeting which took place last weekend and at which the historic Covid-19 recovery fund was agreed.

The programme for Government sets out an ambitious programme of work to recover our economy, rebuild our society, renew our communities and respond to the challenges we face nationally and internationally. We have already made a substantial start on delivering on the programme.

On one level, the programme for Government contains everything. It is motherhood and apple pie. Some of us have criticised it because, when one looks at the detail, it is vague and aspirational and does not make tangible commitments in the key areas in which people demanded change at the general election. That is where my question is focused. For example, the section entitled "An Age-Friendly Ireland" sounds great and appears broadly nice, but it is totally aspirational. We need to look at what is actually happening. There was a disaster in nursing homes in the context of Covid-19. There were significant infections and fatalities because our system of nursing home care is completely dysfunctional. A report published by HIQA found that more than 50% of nursing homes were below standard.

I refer to the situation involving two nursing homes on Merrion Road. I wish to send a shout out to the workers and residents in the homes and their families. The homes in question are situated on land that is directly or indirectly owned by the Sisters of Charity and both are closing down because, essentially, a religious organisation decided that the land on Merrion Road is very valuable. It probably wants to flog the land to developers. The Sisters of Charity unilaterally ended the lease for the Caritas Convalescent Centre and shut down St. Mary's Centre, leaving the elderly residents, their families and the workers high and dry. By the way, these nursing homes did not have Covid cases. These were the good ones.

This situation is indicative of the dysfunctionality in this area of policy. The Sisters of Charity are deciding to end care provision in these nursing homes. What is the Government doing about this? What tangible measures are going to be taken in the aftermath of Covid to ensure that the State is in charge of ensuring that we have the capacity we need in nursing home care? What will be done to ensure that the State has genuine control in that regard, that the sector has the resources it needs and that workers and residents in nursing homes are properly protected? Specifically, what will the Government do about the scandal that is unfolding on Merrion Road? It is just one example of dysfunctionality in the sector.

A similar point could be made in respect of the specific commitment in the programme for Government to protect tenants during Covid-19. It is now unclear whether many tenants will be evicted on 1 August when the temporary ban ends. Where is the tangible action on the things people asked for?

The Taoiseach will be aware that earlier this year the Israeli and US Administrations announced an intention to further annex the West Bank and East Jerusalem by seizing an additional 30% of that landmass after 1 July.

The Taoiseach will be very well aware that this would hollow out the existing state of Palestine. It would fatally damage any remaining prospect of a sustainable two-state solution as provided for under the Oslo Accords of 1993. There are commitments in the programme for Government which read very well. However, I put it to the Taoiseach that they are not sincerely made. I put it to him that he has allowed one party, namely, Fine Gael, to defy the will of the Oireachtas in the ongoing failure to recognise the state of Palestine as per the 1967 border. That decision was made in 2014, six years ago. The Taoiseach has also allowed Fine Gael to face down the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018, even though he and his colleagues in opposition supported those measures.

I want the Taoiseach to act in good faith. I want him to make real and give real meaning to the programme for Government commitments, for example, by honouring our commitment to recognise the state of Palestine. That needs to be done now. If the Taoiseach is going to uphold international law, face down any prospect of any level of further annexation and, critically, face down the ongoing breach in international law by the occupation itself, he needs to act to ensure that the occupied territories Bill becomes law and is placed on our Statute Book.

Putting the occupied territories Bill on our Statute Books would not change anything in terms of Israeli Government policy right now, if we are honest. What is important is that I do think we have to take a stand in respect of any proposals by the Israeli Government to annex more lands, as has been proposed but has not happened yet. There is significant opposition to that. The provisions in the programme for Government are well made and sincerely made. I have had an interest in this for quite a long time now myself, and when I was last Minister for Foreign Affairs I took action. I went to Gaza and met with the UNRWA. One of the most practical things the State has done along with the European Union for quite a long time has been supporting UNRWA with a huge investment in education in Palestine. That is important. It never gets said in here. Where practically we can improve things, we should do more. The issue of recognition of the Palestinian state is on the agenda of the programme for Government, to have other language in there, as the Deputy knows, in terms of timing and the optimal time to do it and in consultation with other EU member states. There are important considerations.

I take it that the Deputy is sincerely committed to this but I would suggest that the next time she or her party is in Capitol Hill, they might raise it.

I am not sure they do. They might raise it with Congress representatives or Senators there. Sinn Féin has a sort of dual approach to this which is very strong here, but when it comes to the United States, I do not get any sense that they raise this with the same degree of commitment as they do here in the House. That is my sense of it. I have raised it with US Congress members and Senators. They have raised the issue with me and I have given my sense of it. Israeli Government policy is wrong. It is not conducive to the establishment of a two-state solution or better relationships. Ultimately, people have to live together and share that territory. Policies that have been pursued in recent times work against a proper, long-term accommodation between Palestinians and Israeli society. This Government remains committed to the two-state solution and to doing everything it possibly can to achieve that and to opposing measures that will work against it, such as those the Deputy has outlined in respect of the proposed Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory.

If there is time, would the Taoiseach come back on my question?

The Taoiseach can come back in the next response but his time has expired.

I will give him a bit.

Can I suggest that we finish out the Palestinian conversation and then Deputy Boyd Barrett gets his questions answered?

Was Deputy Boyd Barrett in first?

It is best that we stick to Standing Orders and the Deputy will get the response to his question.

That is not strictly in accordance with Standing Orders, but how and ever.

Maybe Deputy McDonald should read them.

In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett's point, there are two dimensions. Our system has evolved. The Deputy mentioned himself that those particular nursing homes were Covid free. We need to put on record that quite a lot of nursing homes in Ireland did well in preventing Covid from spreading within them. I do take the Deputy's point that in the initial response, all the emphasis was on the acute services, for understandable reasons in terms of protecting ICU capacity and so on. There was a very significant spread of the virus within nursing homes which caused loss of life. That has happened in other societies. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. To be fair, since then over recent months, a lot of support has been put behind nursing homes in terms of personal protective equipment, PPE, engagement with the HSE and clinical oversight. That is important. The testing has been really systematic and the HSE has organised to do testing of nursing homes and staff of nursing homes on a regular basis. I would favour the development of home-based care. There will always be a need for nursing home care but we need to resource home-based care significantly as well, and to enable people to avail of the fair deal scheme in the context of home-based care. I will follow up with the Deputy in respect of the exact situation in St. Mary's and Caritas.

My point, arising from what happened with Covid-19 in the nursing homes sector and from the Caritas and St. Mary's situation, is that we have a completely fragmented nursing home care sector. Some of it is good and some of it is not so good, but we are in control of hardly any of it. The nuns in this case seem to have turned into property magnates and to have lost any interest in the workers or the residents in the nursing homes. They just decided to close it down because it is valuable land and they can flog it, and that is allowed. This should be part of a cradle-to-grave national health service, yet its fate is decided by the Sisters of Charity, who have just become big business and see property value as more important than nursing home care, which was what was being delivered, and a good standard too, but the workers are just gone and the residents and their families are left high and dry. That is not acceptable. We need intervention. The State should just take that land and make sure those nursing home places and jobs are protected. That is the lesson more broadly of the Covid crisis. Paul Reid said it at some of the briefings the Taoiseach attended. When we asked him what was happening in the nursing homes, he more or less said he did not know because the HSE only controls 20% of them. That is the problem. They need to be part of a national health service so we know what is going on and we have the power to step in and ensure consistency, standards, proper resourcing and oversight.

Quite irrespective of what anybody on Capitol Hill might think, and our position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is well recorded and fully understood everywhere, the fact is that we have the power here to recognise the state of Palestine. As the Taoiseach knows, that matter was settled and agreed by the Oireachtas six years ago. I am saying to him to do it, and to do it while there still is a Palestinian state to recognise. On the issue of the occupied territories Bill, the Taoiseach knows full well there has been a strong pushback against this legislation because it would be groundbreaking and would bring about a change in diplomatic, political and legal terms in respect of the issue and the economy of the occupation which the Israeli state has carefully fostered. The Taoiseach knows the Bill is a game changer that would very much shape and confront Israeli policy. In taking leadership on this matter, Ireland would lead the way for others to follow suit.

We have to act on this. There is no point of us being of good sentiment and being well-meaning and wishing the best for the Palestinians when the Irish State stands back and allows an ongoing occupation, and even the prospect of further annexation. We can lead on this. If I was sitting in the Taoiseach's seat I would be telling Deputies of the date on which the Palestinian state would be recognised, as per the collective view of the Oireachtas. I would not have allowed Fine Gael, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, or anyone else, to face down the occupied territories Bill. That is what happened. One of the negotiators from the Green Party, when asked what happened to the occupied territories Bill, answered in two words: "Simon Coveney". The Taoiseach cannot stand over that and nor should he.

The answer is that it is not legally possible to do it.

The Deputy asked a question. The advices are there on the issue. There are quite substantive comprehensive advices, which I have seen. Let us be clear about the Bill. I met with its advocates. I identify with the principles behind the Bill and support them. No one, among the international people I have met, ever suggested that it would be a game changer. Let us keep it in perspective and keep some reality about this. No one said it would be a game changer.

That is dishonest.

The problem is very little internationally is impacting on Israeli Government policy, if the truth be told.

Very little is being done with our clout internationally.

Israel enjoys strong support from the United States Government on a continual basis. That is why I suggested that the Deputy should raise it more vociferously. My sense of it is that Sinn Féin goes silent when it comes to Capitol Hill. I take it that the Deputy is sincerely behind the issue but-----

The Taoiseach should do his job and not worry about Capitol Hill. He should worry about here and what is done here in the name of the Irish people.

The Taoiseach, without interruption.

I am not worried at all but the Deputy knows there is an inextricable link with US policy underpinning and supporting Israeli Government policy.

The Taoiseach cannot change American policy, he can change Irish policy.

We have put it in the programme for Government. A former Minister for Foreign Affairs from Fianna Fáil, the late Deputy Brian Lenihan senior, was the first Minister in Europe to recognise the right of Palestinians to a homeland. We are very committed to this. This is about strategy and how to do it best; that is what this is about. I would like Israeli Government policy to change and for there to be a two-state solution but we will work within a framework that can enable us to do that and we will continue to support Palestinians in their basic entitlements to housing, education and healthcare as we have done consistently over many years, and per capita above many others.

To respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett, many State-owned healthcare centres have had huge challenges with Covid-19, some worse than nursing homes in the private sector. Some of the significant clusters happened in some elderly care settings within the State system. I agree it is wrong to sell and close down those nursing homes but the State does not have the constitutional or legal framework to stop people making decisions of that kind. The Deputy knows that and yet he says we should go in and stop it. It is easier said than done.

They should not control the health service.

We must change the model of caring for our elderly. That is what the programme for Government is committed to in home and community based interventions as well as long-term nursing home care, for which there will always be a need.

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