I join the Taoiseach in expressing condolences to the four bereaved families in north-west Donegal on their recent tragic loss.
I also wish to express my total solidarity and that of my Independent colleagues with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, whose members must begin the first of their 24-hour strikes tomorrow. As others have said, looking at nurses’ pay scales and the ongoing problems of recruitment and retention of nursing staff in our health system, it is little wonder that 95% of INMO members voted for the action. The Taoiseach should take any steps necessary to prevent this strike from happening.
Last week, as the Taoiseach will be aware, the European Medicines Agency said farewell to London and the staff are now moving to Amsterdam. Their departure reminds us once again that we are now only 59 days away from Brexit. I think we were all heartened over the weekend by the comments of the Tánaiste and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs that the agreed backstop will not be renegotiated. We also saw over the weekend the clear wishes, as expressed in various polls, of our people North and South that no kind of hard border will be allowed to return to this island. I note that the Tánaiste has indicated that a codicil might be added to the political declaration regarding the backstop. Can the Taoiseach confirm that the 21 articles of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement will be fully adhered to, especially given the presence of Articles 17 and 20? Can the Taoiseach also confirm that no works of any kind are taking place anywhere along the Border on roads or lay-bys to facilitate the installation of any hard border apparatus?
Events at Westminster tonight and over the next four weeks will, I hope, produce a much softer Brexit than that which we rightly fear. Like other Deputies, I am grateful for the work of our civil servants and indeed the Government in producing the contingency action plan last December and for the heads of the omnibus Bill last week. I think the Taoiseach told us that the full Bill will be ready in three or four weeks. The 17 sections prepared by the nine Departments seem fairly comprehensive, although I notice that areas such as fisheries, which are not covered in the withdrawal agreement, are still missing. Are all the relevant sections of the December contingency action plan and the 87 European Commission preparedness notices all addressed in the omnibus Bill or must we wait for the secondary legislation? Constituents have noted that, given a possible no-deal Brexit, much of the proposed contingency legislation – on health, education and pensions, for example – protects the rights of UK residents and citizens in the Republic. Is the Government aware of any similar UK contingency legislation being prepared to protect the rights of our people in the North and in England, Scotland and Wales?
The Taoiseach told me, a few months ago, that bilateral negotiations on legislation with the UK would have to take place regarding the common travel area, which many legal scholars say, of course, is just based on precedence. Will those bilateral discussions involve all the other crucial areas in order that there is full reciprocity for all our people on this island?
Will the Taoiseach seek derogation from state aid rules to offer support such as the future growth loan scheme to our exporters? Given that we are a significant net contributor to the EU budget, have the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance begun the negotiation framework for a financial support package for Ireland as the member state which will be by far the most impacted by Brexit?
I am glad the Taoiseach has told us that the Minister for Finance has done some costings, which he is prepared to produce as those of us in opposition have been calling for. Is it the case, even with a much softer Brexit – and let us hope it is not a no-deal Brexit – a second budget will be needed for 2019?
Everyone in the House will acknowledge that it takes less time to ask questions than it does to answer them, and I think I counted approximately 11 questions, but I will do my best to answer as many as I can.
I acknowledge the recruitment and retention of nurses and midwives is a problem and an issue. We are struggling to recruit in large parts of the public and private sectors at the moment. It is, in part, a feature of the fact that we are almost approaching full employment. It is also a feature of the fact that, when it comes to healthcare in particular, we live in an international labour market in which people with healthcare skills are highly sought after. England, Scotland and most of Europe pay less than Ireland does, but even parts of the world that pay more, like the Middle East and Australia, are also struggling to recruit healthcare staff. It is not just a simple issue of pay.
Notwithstanding that, there are 3,000 more nurses and midwives working in our health service now than three years ago. Comparing like with like and month with month, 800 more nurses were working in our public health service last December than the December before that. The impression that is sometimes created to the effect that there are more nurses leaving than coming in is not correct.
There are a hell of a lot more vacancies than there are applications.
More people are joining the health service than leaving, with approximately 5% leaving the profession every year.
The Taoiseach is including agency staff in the statistics and that distorts the truth.
The turnover rate is 15% in Australia so people are three times more likely to leave the Australian health service than the Irish public health service. Those figures come from the Public Sector Pay Commission and are independent and can be accredited.
As I understand it, a codicil is a legal amendment after the fact to a treaty or agreement. We have seen no proposals from London or anywhere in respect of a codicil. I am conscious votes will happen in the House of Commons later. I was in touch by phone with Prime Minister May earlier and we intend to speak again after those votes happen. We will take it from there in terms of the next steps.
I can confirm that there are no works happening on or around the Border to facilitate the imposition of physical infrastructure. Any works that are happening are road repairs, I imagine, or improvements to roads.
To maintain the common travel area and all the benefits that flow from it, which are about much more than travel, we will need a memorandum of understanding, MOU, with the United Kingdom, which we have been working on for some time, a convention on social security which the Minister, Deputy O’Doherty, and Secretary of State, Ms Amber Rudd, have worked on, and legislation in both countries. We have shown the House the heads of legislation which covers our side of that and that will be published on 22 February. The UK will have to do something similar.
I mentioned the issue of bilateral arrangements and discussions with the UK. Our distinguished journalist, Mr. Fintan O’Toole, says that geography is destiny. Is it the case that other countries that will be impacted by Brexit, like The Netherlands, France and Denmark, are beginning to make bilateral arrangements for a no-deal Brexit? The French Government is making arrangements with regard to UK-French trade and travel and the Dutch are also taking steps with the UK to protect their agrifood sector.
While the comments Ms Sabine Weyand made yesterday are welcome, do these bilateral moves by some of the other 27 member states echo recent slippage in the unanimous support I thought we had among the EU 27 for Ireland’s backstop and the Good Friday Agreement? I refer to recent comments made in the Bundestag and by the Polish and French Governments.
The Taoiseach earlier referred to the quarterly report of the Central Bank of Ireland on the macroeconomic implications of a disorderly Brexit and it makes sombre reading.
Our growth in 2019 and 2020 would be totally wiped out. Hopefully, in that context, we will be spared a disorderly Brexit. Is the Taoiseach telling us the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform have fully estimated the cost of Brexit and the likely impact of a Brexit with the United Kingdom in the customs union after 2020? Have they quantified the financial support Ireland needs and would expect from the European Union after 29 March next following a no-deal Brexit or after 31 December 2020?
Bilateral arrangements or agreements are something we have to be very cautious about. There has been enormous European unity across the 27 member states. Where states engage in bilateral agreements, it needs to be done with the knowledge of the European Commission. For example, when it comes to the common travel area, it is something provided for in the withdrawal agreement and the treaties already. We will need to put in place legislation. The House has seen the heads of the Bill with regard to rail travel between Dublin and Belfast. France will have to do something similar with regard to the Channel Tunnel.
With regard to the budget, it is not our intention to – nor do we feel we need to – revisit the budget. The projections being released by the Department of Finance later show that a no-deal, hard Brexit will cause the economy to slow down very sharply but not to the extent that we go back into recession. We are not projecting a return to recession. Employment will continue to grow but not fast enough to keep pace with an expanding labour market. Under our projections unemployment will rise, therefore, and instead of running a surplus this year, we will run a deficit in the region of 0.5% of GNP, which is manageable. It will put us in a different position financially but one we can manage and one we have put the country in a good position for. There are other people who, not too long ago in this House, argued that we should spend more and finance it through borrowing. Our decision not to do that has been proved right. At least now we will be able to afford to borrow to mitigate against the costs of Brexit if we have to.