Thursday, 17 December 2020
Appropriation Bill 2020: Second and Subsequent Stages
Shíl mé go raibh mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama. Níl an duine sin anseo agus leanfaidh mé ar aghaidh mar sin.
I have no problem with the Bill. It is to put the Vote on a statutory footing and to carry over the capital and I fully support that. I could not let this opportunity go, however, without adding my voice to those voices that said that we need a transformative change in the way that we do business.
Covid-19 was the opportunity to do that. It challenged us to do it, and for a little while I dared to hope that that was what was going to happen. The Government did the right thing and we in this Dáil unanimously supported the measures on the various schemes that were brought in. We had a sense of solidarity that was just something to behold. We did, unfortunately, undo that sense of solidarity by telling 70-year-olds to stay at home and so on, and led them to believe that they had no choice. By and large we inculcated a sense of solidarity, that we were all in this together, that somebody who had Covid-19 was not alone and that we were there with him or her to change things. I had that moment of hope. I also had that moment of hope on climate change that we finally saw the light. As more time goes on I am losing that sense of hope, which I do not like.
We have no choice but to take different types of actions. We have a major housing crisis. I know that the Minister and Fianna Fáil are aware of this but they are still persisting with language in terms of social housing which is not social housing. I want to avoid that word completely and talk about public housing. We need to provide public housing for all our citizens and residents. That is the only way. We have different schemes within that, such as cost rental schemes and local authority houses, but we need to have public housing. Without that message going out to the market, we are going to go from crisis to crisis. It is difficult to watch the amount of public money involved, which is in excess of €1 billion this year, I understand. I knew that figure was coming because I sat on the Committee of Public Accounts for four and a half years and it was a complete education. It was a privilege to be there and to learn and we saw where the money was going. Unfortunately, I always had a sense of frustration because we were looking back at where the mistakes were made. I wondered at what stage we would learn.
We all make mistakes and I am not going to haul somebody over the coals for making mistakes, but it is about the learning from those mistakes. We should have learned by now that the market cannot be left unregulated. The market is not there to provide a home for people, it is there to make a profit. I am sorry if this is old hat but the strong narrative from the Government has to be challenged by the few voices in this Chamber that challenge it in a constructive and positive way. We need public housing. We need the market, of course, and private landlords, but as a help to our housing, not as the main player in the game.
Unfortunately, that is what we have done. That is what happened with the housing assistance payment legislation. Therefore, we need to examine the housing legislation very soon and change the provisions on the housing assistance payment. Rent supplement was a temporary measure to assist people. The housing assistance payment became a permanent solution. Many of my colleagues in the Dáil and I spent a long time as members of local authorities. We were told repeatedly that the housing assistance payment was the only game in town and that there was nothing else. Once a person took that payment, he or she came off the waiting list. I recall being told I was a liar when I said that. At the time, I was a lawyer. I recall saying there might be very little difference between the two but that there was a difference and that I was not lying. The housing assistance payment was considered to be a social housing payment. The recipient was regarded as adequately housed even though he or she was in a private house with absolutely no security of tenure and so on. We are persisting with that model. I realise we cannot change it overnight. There is no way we can do so but at least let us decide that it is not the solution and that we need public housing.
The rain came into two hospital operating theatres in my city in 2017 but one of them has still not been put right. I cannot remember the figure precisely but I believe there were over 6,000 waiting on the outpatient waiting list to be seen by an orthopaedic surgeon. There were thousands on the inpatient waiting list waiting for surgery, in a city that has two private hospitals where nobody waits.
At some stage, we need to decide, and push the Government to decide, what a civilised society is and the best way to inculcate a healthy society. It is by providing basic public services and enshrining them in the Constitution. The right to a home has to be enshrined in the Constitution as soon as possible. It is the most basic right that allows for security of tenure and allows people to participate in society. We need a public health system based on need, not profit. We need balanced regional development.
Various organisations, such as the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, have told us that we need public infrastructure. I do not know how many economists have finally found the courage to say we need public infrastructure. Now is the time to build. Doing so creates employment but it also deals with our problems. That is not happening. In Galway, we are crying out for a hospital. I do not expect the Minister to tell me we are going to get one but I am simply saying it is needed. We have been waiting for an accident and emergency unit for years. Prior to the 2016 election, those who have now served as taoisigh told us it was not fit for purpose. Here we are, in the 21st-century, going into 2021, and we are still waiting for an accident and emergency unit. We are still waiting for two theatres to be put back into action four years after they were closed. A brand-new hospital could have been built in the meantime. We have 180 acres of land at Merlin Park and we have a city that is being choked by traffic. Is as Gaillimh mé agus ní féidir a bheith níos bródúla as an gcathair ná mé ach tá easpa struchtúir ann ó thaobh tráchta de. We are choked with traffic because of bad planning decisions, some of which were instigated by councillors. The planners were very often on the side of the angels in regard to planning decisions. Since then, management has persisted in not coming up with a sustainable solution. We have never rolled out park-and-ride facilities. The population of the city is destined to grow by 50%. In such a city, we have never rolled out park-and-ride facilities. It has been in the city development plan since 2005. I had the privilege, as mayor, of putting it in the plan. At the time, management fought us tooth and nail. The councillors led the way. Fifteen years later, we have no park-and-ride facilities in Galway. We have no integrated school transport system. We have some school transport in the city and some in the rural areas that should be expanded. We are currently telling people not to use public transport, which is most unfortunate. I do not know how we are going to gain their trust again but we should be preparing for that time because of climate change.
Luiagh my colleague from Galway, Deputy Mairéad Farrell, Conamara agus an easpa infreastruchtúir out there. Ros a Mhíl is crying out to be developed. In any planned infrastructure project, it should be Ros a Mhíl that is developed, in partnership with Galway city. Galway city has a planning application for the docks before An Bord Pleanála. Although I am no expert, it makes no sense to me that we are going to develop Galway, which is tidal, at an extraordinary cost, and not touch Ros a Mhíl, which has deep-sea facilities and is in the heart of the Gaeltacht.
We should be considering light rail for Galway. It is a hobbyhorse of mine but I fundamentally believe in it. Two years ago, I stood on the streets of Galway with a dedicated group to address this. No member of the group was political in the sense of belonging to a political party, as far as I know. Twenty-four thousand people signed a petition requesting that a feasibility study on light rail be considered so we could see whether it is possible. If it is not possible, so be it. There has been no action since then. A feasibility study is the most basic thing we should have. If Fianna Fáil is to make a difference in government, it should consider a feasibility study on light rail for Galway city. It should have balanced regional development.
I really appreciate the money that is being given to businesses and employees. The pandemic unemployment payment was the best thing that happened but it has not led to transformative change.
I mentioned Inishbofin either this morning or yesterday. It is struggling to get a primary care centre. On the Aran Islands, through pressure, and rightly so, the airport has now been bought. I pay tribute to both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in regard to that matter but everything has to be fought for rather than having a policy and realising the better way to do things in the long run. From my experience having been a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I believe it is the cheaper way to do things because if we do not proceed in that way, we end up paying millions of euro in fines and in cleaning up. Consider the amount of money we are using to clean up former quarries and extraction facilities and so on. It is unbelievable.
I am glad I have had the opportunity to contribute to this debate.