New Irish Government: What does the new Cabinet mean for seven key sectors?
It has been 20 weeks since the Irish public went to the polls for General Election 2020. Needless to say, much has happened in the interim, but only now do we have first sight of the newly formed Cabinet under a majority coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
In anticipation of the Ministers taking up their new roles, we look at the what they will find at the top of their in-tray and how this may impact several key sectors in Ireland – Tech; Healthcare; Construction; Financial Services; Transport; Hospitality; and Energy & Environment.
National Digital Strategy: The new Minister will take charge of the new National Digital Strategy, with the rollout of the National Broadband Plan a vital element of this package. The Minister will be looking to drive digital transformation in the public service, including greater integration of digital services (establishment of a single digital unit to drive more public services online).
Digital Literacy: The National Economic Plan due before the year end, will seek to drive innovation in workplaces through digitalisation, remote and flexible work practices. More pressing than ever in a post-COVID-19 environment, the new Minister will also be tasked with developing and embedding a Digital Education Strategy, where teachers and students are supported in providing and learning from on-line resources and ensuring that digital literacy forms a part of the primary and post-primary curriculum.
Online Safety Commissioner: An important and much debated piece of legislation, the Minister will be charged with enacting the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill. The Bill will introduce a new Online Safety Commissioner providing oversight of illegal and harmful content online and also seek to implement the EU Audiovisual Media Services Directive.
Cyber Security: Following the publication of the National Cyber Security Strategy only weeks before a general election was called, the new Minister will now have the job of implementing its two key objectives: increase digital literacy among citizens and businesses to better enable the identification of threats online; and develop cyber security capacity in Ireland to better protect citizens, companies and institutions.
Response to COVID-19: Undoubtedly, top of the inbox for the incoming Minister for Health is the ongoing Government response to COVID-19 and mitigating the spread of the virus. Short-term decisions will need to be made on issues such as increasing telemedicine and virtual clinics, ensuring capacity for a COVID-19 rapid response, including bed and ICU capacity and for non-COVID emergencies, PPE and medicine supplies and the rollout of a HSE mobile app for contact tracing.
Universal Healthcare: Over the lifetime of the Government, the Minister is tasked with expanding universal access to health care in a manner that is “fair and affordable”, according to the Programme for Government. This equates to: implementing the new Sláintecare consultant contract and legislate for public-only work in public hospitals; increasing homecare hours and introducing a Statutory Homecare Scheme; extending free GP care to more children and carers in receipt of the Carer’s Support Grant; abolishing in-patient hospital charges for children; and, finally, introducing baby boxes for all new parents.
Mental Health & Well-Being: A health issue which has increasing prominence in political discourse, mental health has also come to the fore during the outbreak of COVID-19. The Minister will be tasked with fully implementing the Sharing the Vision – a Mental Health Policy for Everyone strategy over the term of the Government. This includes reforms such as: the ending of the admission of children to adult psychiatric units; support the expansion of Jigsaw services; fully open the new National Forensic Mental Hospital in Portrane, Co.Dublin; and increase the number of Authorised Officers to support families.
Age-Friendly Ireland: The public policy response to an ageing population is one of the key portfolio items for the new Minister. They will explore how the healthcare sector can expand community-based care, in line with the Sláintecare Implementation Plan. This will include increasing Community Intervention Teams to prevent unnecessary hospital admissions. Similarly, living conditions and options will need to be tackled by the incoming Minister, who is tasked with developing demographic reporting tools to gain a better understanding of the housing needs for older people.
Home Ownership: One of the key issues for voters in the General Election 2020. The new Minister has a clear mandate – increase access to home ownership. The Minister for Housing will bring forward a target for the delivery of affordable homes over the lifetime of the Government. Tools at their disposal to achieve this objective include seed capital to local authorities, expanding the Help to Buy scheme and extending the Serviced Sites Fund.
National Development Plan: Early in their tenure, the Minister will launch a review of the National Development Plan (NDP) to be applied from 2022 and setting out an updated NDP for the period to 2031. It will set an overall strategy for “balanced regional development, clustered and compact growth, and improved connectivity to deliver economic prosperity and environmental sustainability”.
Public and Social Housing: Over the course of the General Election campaign, there was renewed calls for greater State intervention in the housing market. The outcome is a commitment to increase the social housing stock by over 50,000 over the next five years. The Minister will need to explore ways this can be delivered through local authorities, Approved Housing Bodies and State agencies if it is going to be an achievable target.
Planning Reform: From interested parties across the spectrum there will be pressure on the Minister to shake-up the planning process. The Minister will be tasked with introducing a ‘use it or lose it’ condition for all planning applications of 10 units or more. On top of this, there will be a formal review of the judicial review process; the creation of an independent Building Standards Regulator to oversee building control; and the establishment of a Commission on Housing, to examine tenure, standards, sustainability, and quality-of-life issues.
Land Development Agency: The Minister will legislate to establish the Land Development Agency (LDA) on a statutory basis, as a matter of urgency. There will be renewed focus on the LDA to provide homes for affordable purchase, cost rental and social housing through the Agency during the lifetime of the Government.
Public Finances: The Minister has taken charge of this portfolio at a crucial time, as we emerge from severe disruption to economic growth across the board. The challenges are stark and big decisions on the best approach to an investment-led recovery will need to be made. The Minister has been tasked with borrowing at affordable rates to fund the deficit and in doing so, prioritising investment in capital spending. Much will be revealed in the next Budget.
National Economic Plan: On the same day as Budget 2021, the Minister will set out a National Economic Plan charting the Government’s longer-term, “jobs-led” recovery plan. The National Economic Plan will: implement an upskilling and reskilling programme; update the Future Jobs policy framework; develop approaches whereby the State partners with financial institutions and large corporations to support SMEs; and review the Companies Act and make any necessary changes to simplify and improve receivership, examinership and liquidation laws.
Insurance Reform: The Government has committed to prioritise reform of the insurance sector with particular emphasis on motor, public liability, and employer liability insurance. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Recovery and Investment is the lead body driving the issue of insurance reform. Reforms that will be pursued include, expanding the National Claims Information Database to employer liability and public liability in order to track the level of claims, and working to remove dual pricing from the market.
Taxation Measures: Between the coalition parties, an agreement has been made not to increase income tax or Universal Social Charge (USC) rates. Similarly, in Budget 2021, there will be no change to income tax credits or bands. The incoming Minister will also need to withstand international pressure if Ireland is to maintain its 12.5% Corporation Tax rate in the short-term, as detailed in the Programme for Government.
Cycling & Walking: A key contribution of the Green Party to the Programme for Government, the Minister will have at their disposal a €360 million annual budget for cycling and pedestrian projects. This will enable every local authority, with assistance from the National Transport Authority (NTA), to adopt a cycling policy in accordance with the local environment. The Minister’s office will also conduct a review of road traffic policy and legislation to prioritise the safety of walking and cycling, and to introduce legislation around e-mobility, including the legalisation of e-scooter use on roads.
National Infrastructure: Essential road and public transport maintenance and upkeep budgets will be fully protected, and the new Government has committed to a 2:1 ratio of expenditure between new public transport infrastructure and new roads over its lifetime. However, in terms of large infrastructure projects, the focus has shifted to the delivery of Metrolink, Luas and other light rail expansion, DART expansion and Bus Connects in Dublin, Cork, Galway, and Limerick.
Public Transport: A review of fare structures to ensure that public transport is as accessible as possible will be one of the first items in the Ministers ‘in-tray’. There was be an examination of the Sustainable Rural Mobility Plan, including the role of Local Link in rural areas. The Minister is tasked with expanding the service to attract three times as many passenger journeys within nine months.
Decarbonisation of the Network: Public policy is increasingly looking at how it can incentivise the use of electric vehicles (EVs) and encourage a shift away from petrol/diesel vehicles. The Minister will need to perform a balancing act when legislating to phase out diesel and petrol cars from Irish cities from 2030. This will be coupled with an EV strategy to ensure that charging infrastructure is adequately rolled out in a timely manner.
Reigniting Tourism: COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on tourism and the first item on the Minister’s ‘to do list’ is to consider any recommendations from the Tourism Recovery Taskforce. The Minister will be exploring ways to introduce new tourism specific funding supports (within the confides of State aid rules). The Minister will also be tasked with producing a Sustainable Tourism Policy document and, in advance of this, an Interim Action Plan.
Supporting Restaurants: There will be a July Jobs Initiative to help businesses and to boost job creation and job retention efforts. This aims to help some of the worst hit sectors such as tourism and hospitality. Through the Recovery Fund additional measures that may be needed to support the hospitality sector will be considered in the short-term.
Town Centres First: Modelled on a policy developed by the Scottish Government, the Government has committed to a strategic approach to town centre regeneration by utilising existing buildings and unused lands for new development. The Minister is also mandated to conduct a full review of the regulations and policy framework governing our night-time culture at national and local level, including the staggering of trading hours for pubs, late bars, clubs, and restaurants.
ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT
New Green Deal: As part of the agreed Programme for Government, the new administration has committed to an average 7% per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030 and to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. One of the Ministers first jobs in the post will be introducing the Climate Action Bill, which will be introduced in the Dáil within the first 100 days of government.
Just Transition: A popular term of jargon nowadays, the Just Transition fundamentally describes the implementation of public policy that delivers opportunities to sectors and regions most affected as the energy mix is reformed. The incoming Minister will advance the work of the Just Transition Commissioner tasked with examining issues such as: the exit from peat in the Midlands; a new Climate Action Fund; and resetting Government’s leadership on environmental issues.
Climate Governance: The new Minister will not have it easy from the beginning, with the agreed Programme for Government committing to: adopting five-year carbon budgets, setting maximum emissions by sector, a legal requirement; establish the Climate Action Council on an independent statutory footing; and ban the sale of new and the importation of second-hand petrol and diesel cars from 2030 – all in the first 100 days.
Energy Mix: The Minister has been set a target to deliver at least 70% renewable electricity by 2030. The first step on this journey is the creation of a “whole-of-government plan” looking at the necessary skills base, supply chains, legislation, and infrastructure to enable the transformation. The Minister will also set out a plan for utilising offshore energy on the Atlantic Coast, with the aim of achieving 5GW capacity in offshore wind by 2030.