Wednesday, 26 October 2022
Social and Affordable Housing Supply: Motion [Private Members]
Under fierce pressure from below, the Government is implementing a temporary ban on evictions. That is interesting because we were previously told that a ban on evictions would be unconstitutional. Then Covid came and, under pressure, the Government brought in a ban. It said there were exceptional circumstances and, due to the restrictions on movement for public health reasons, it was necessary to bring it in. Now we have another temporary ban on evictions and the Government is saying it can get away with it constitutionally because it is only of a short duration. The key argument for the ban on evictions is that it is a public good. It is in the public interest and the public interest overrides the sectional interests of landlords and their rights. That is a very strong argument for why a ban on evictions could and should be longer than five months. It is a very strong argument for why a ban on evictions should be for the duration of the housing emergency or the housing crisis we have in this country. I am glad the pressure from below has forced the Government into taking this step, but I point out the timidity of the Government on the issue.
Regarding the legislation on the ban that will be debated later, the only point I will make is that there has to be an explicit protection for people who can show an inability to pay their rent in full. I gave the Taoiseach an example last week of a mother with young children who is faced with a choice between heating, eating or paying her full rent. She might decide to pay half the rent or two thirds of the rent for the winter months to prioritise her kids and their welfare. Under the legislation as formulated by the Government, that woman could receive a notice to quit. She would have the right to go to the WRC but there would not be a guarantee that she would win her case - apologies, I meant the Residential Tenancies Board. I have the WRC on my mind today because the Debenhams workers are in there this morning. That woman should be given such a guarantee. To that end, we have submitted amendments to the legislation and I hope those amendments are passed.
I will make a couple of comments on the situation with the Ukrainian refugees and the housing crisis. This has been commented on quite a bit on national radio this morning. The Government and the State have let down the victims of this country's housing crisis. There are nearly 11,000 people in emergency accommodation. It is often wrongly described as us having 11,000 homeless. That is not correct. There are 11,000 people in emergency accommodation but there are tens of thousands of others who are homeless. That 11,000 figure does not include rough sleepers or people in women's refuges. It does not include the huge numbers of people who are couch surfing at the moment, or others.
It is fair to say the State has made some significant efforts around accommodation for Ukrainian refugees, but the key point is the Government and the State are letting down Ukrainian refugees as well. Last weekend, 43 were turned away because of a lack of beds while 35 were forced to sleep at Dublin Airport. The Tánaiste has said there will be no guarantee of housing for people who come in future. People can still come but there will be no guarantee in that regard. They are being let down by the Government and the State. There was a very positive and broad welcome for Ukrainian refugees from the Irish people when they began arriving at the end of February and at the start of March. I believe that sentiment still exists and is strong within society. We saw a brilliant example of that recently in Killarney. Ukrainian refugee families were told at very short notice - 48 hours - that they would be shipped up the west coast to County Mayo. These were people who had kids in school. Some of them were kids in school. They were people who had jobs and good connections in the local community. The local community came out and protested alongside them, highlighted the case alongside them and spoke out. Real congratulations are due to that community. It shows some of the best sentiments within our society.
It is also the case that the failure of the Government and the State to provide housing for all has created a significant amount of discontent, anger and resentment in our society. Many of those who feel that discontent, anger and resentment correctly blame this Government. They know it is the Minister's failure and the failure of the Government. It has created this crisis. One of the Minister of State's partners in government, Fine Gael, has held the reins for nearly 12 years now, although to listen to its members sometimes you would think they were grappling with a crisis they inherited a couple of months ago. Fianna Fáil has either participated directly in Governments or kept Governments in power, de facto supporting their policies, for a period of nearly seven years now. Those people are correct and they are right to blame the Government.
Unfortunately, some of the people who feel that discontent, anger and resentment blame refugees for their plight. If anything, that sentiment is on the increase within society at the moment. To be clear on what I am saying here, Government policy and the Government's failure have created a situation that is lending itself to an increase in tensions between the victims of the housing crisis on the one hand and the victims of Putin's war on the other. All those on the ground know that to be the case and that I am speaking some truth about this. For many reasons, but now for this reason as well, it is urgent that we have a genuine policy of housing for all in Irish society. The Government has been trying to fix this within the framework of the market for years now. It has not worked, it is not working and it is not going to work. That is why we need to break with the policies of the market.
This is why we need an alternative approach. I support the proposal in this motion. It is an important proposal for the establishment of a State construction company. If one looks at the local authority housing estates in Cork city such as Ballyphehane, Garranabraher or Knocknaheeny, there are many successes there. Yes, there are some issues but there are many successes without a doubt. This was public housing. The role of the Cork City Council building unit, which is long since dismantled, was an important part of that. The establishment of a State construction company is an important proposal. I suggest that such a company should not have to compete with the private sector. The private sector should be taken into public ownership, ending the marketplace solutions, and be integrated into such a State construction company. For example, the largest construction company in the State, SISK, employs 2,000 workers. It made €23.3 million profit last year. It was tasked by the Minister of State's Government with building many of the social housing houses that are part of the Government's target. What did SISK do just a matter of months ago? It threatened to pull out of building the social houses unless it got increased payments from the State. What is that? Let us call it by its right name. At a time when we have 11,000 families in emergency accommodation, that is blackmail. It is a threat and it is sabotage. SISK's counterargument would be that there is construction inflation and if they are not compensated their profit margins will be cut and they might even be wiped out. That is not an argument for stopping the building of social housing. That is an argument for having not-for-profit construction and for nationalising that company. While we are at it, we should nationalise all of the major construction companies and integrate them into a State construction company. This includes BAM, John Paul, PJ Hegarty, and others.
I also want to make some points about the defective block levy. It should not be a tax on the product. It should be a tax on the profits and it should be far higher than the tax that was levied on the blocks. The construction industry, the banks, the insurers and the suppliers are the ones who should be taxed from their profits. Of course they have threatened to pass this on as well. Once again, one cannot control what one does not own. If we are going to put all of our resources at the point of attack and go to war on this issue genuinely to build housing for all, for the victims of Ireland's housing crisis and for the victims of Putin's war, those are the kinds of anticapitalist and socialist measures that now need to be taken.