Tuesday, 18 November 2014
I do not know whether the Taoiseach read an article by Kitty Holland in the News Review section of The Irish Timeson Saturday. The article laid bare an appalling and shameful scandal concerning the number of homeless children in present-day Ireland, particularly in Dublin. Tonight, 700 children will be sleeping in hostels, hotel rooms or other forms of emergency accommodation. These children are not in their own bedrooms and are not in what they could call their homes or communities. There is only one reason for it: their parents cannot pay the rent. This is a country-wide problem. There are around 118 children in this situation outside Dublin, but it has been particularly acute in Dublin over the past 18 months. In May
2013, there were about 58 adults with children in emergency accommodation - bed and breakfast accommodation, hotel rooms and so on. Fast forward to November 2013, and that figure had doubled to 128 adults with children in emergency accommodation. By May 2014 the figure had risen to 184, and in October 2014, we were looking at 421 adults and around 700 children in emergency accommodation.
That is shameful by any standards, particularly if we are meant to cherish all the children of the nation equally. The fundamental issue in an emergency and crisis response sense is that the rent allowance caps introduced by the Tánaiste have exacerbated the situation beyond belief. Essentially, someone in receipt of rent allowance can pay only a certain amount of rent because of the cap. It has proved catastrophic for the families concerned. These are low income families and the majority of them have not experienced homelessness previously. The anxiety, stress and trauma it causes to parents and their children are enormous. A five year old child was quoted as saying, "I can't draw my house - I don't remember what it looks like....At weekends I don't have friends come to play."
Does the Taoiseach accept this is a crisis and that it demands an emergency response? Will he immediately raise the rent allowance caps as an emergency measure to facilitate people on low incomes to meet the spiralling rents that have increased dramatically in the past 12 months, particularly in the city of Dublin?
A situation whereby children, in particular, are homeless is not one that anybody can condone. The Deputy will be aware that a protocol exists with Focus Ireland, Threshold and the Department of Health-----
-----which have dealt with approximately 150 cases to date and improved the situation for them. The movement is towards a case-by-case management situation. Obviously, there is a reason children or families end up homeless, and part of that has been the increases in rents, where landlords have removed families from accommodation for higher rents. That is reflected in the Government's response and the allocation of €2.2 billion for social housing, together with the moneys allocated for improvements to 1,800 void dwellings in Dublin, which are in the course of being reconstructed, renovated and made fit for families. The city manager reports progress to the Cabinet sub-committee on a monthly basis so that families can be housed. Nobody wants to see this. Everybody is aware that following the complete collapse of the construction sector, the requirement and demand for housing are now at an all time premium, particularly in Dublin. I expect that the construction 2020 proposition put forward by the Government and being followed through by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coffey, will by 2020 result in having the social housing demand eliminated-----
Clearly there is an emergency for many of these cases and nobody wants to see a family out on the street, much less children on the street. The protocol that is in place is working in respect of families-----
That has moved to a case-by-case management system. It cannot deal with all of the cases immediately but it is a priority for the Minister and the Government, and the resources are being made available to deal with that in the best way possible. Until we get to a point where we provide sufficient social housing, we cannot reduce the scale of demand, and that requires flexibility in planning permission, an availability of resources and competent contractors who can get down to business and start providing homes and houses for people who clearly have a demand for them, and have had that demand for a number of years.
The Government is sleepwalking through the crisis. Last year Focus Ireland saw eight families going homeless every month. This year the figure is 50 per month. That is Focus Ireland alone. The Taoiseach referred to the pilot scheme which it initiated. This cannot be solved on a case-by-case basis; it requires a system-wide response. The most effective emergency response is to raise the rent caps. People are currently restricted in what they can pay if they are in receipt of rent allowance. Basically, it is completely out of kilter with what the market is demanding in rents, with the result that thousands of low income families across the country cannot access private rented accommodation. Will the Taoiseach face up to that, accept that the change was catastrophic and recognise that something needs to happen? The rent allowance caps have to be raised immediately and rent control has to be considered if that is an issue. A change to the rent allowance caps would make an immediate difference. The 700 children who are sleeping in hotel rooms or bed and breakfasts tonight cannot wait until 2020 to have this problem solved. One child said she did not want to be in a hotel room for Christmas because it is just a room. There are many more quotes.
Every Government should have key priorities. The Taoiseach chose his own priorities in the budget by looking after people who are in far better conditions than the people affected by the appalling homelessness scandal we are now witnessing. It is within the power of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to do something about it, however, and I urge them to change tack and increase the rent allowance as a matter of urgency.
They have dealt with 150 cases. Deputy Martin will be aware that 73,000 families are in receipt of rental allowance, at a cost of €315 million. This allows for movement through the protocol to a more satisfactory solution for the families concerned. The largest ever allocation, of €2.2 billion, for social and affordable housing has been made available by the Government.
Obviously, we have to get competent contractors on the ground to build the housing. I have already mentioned the allocation for improving, renovating and renewing voided dwellings in Dublin. Work is currently underway in this regard and I am assured by the city council that units will be allocated on an expeditious basis so that families do not have to wait, as they did previously, for nine or ten months after a place was renovated or brought to a state where it is fit for people to live in comfortably. The Government is well aware of the scale of this issue. The Supreme Court made a ruling in respect of rent controls.
Hard-pressed families are waiting for and worrying about the water bills that Fine Gael and the Labour Party are preparing for them. The Taoiseach will recall that he rammed through the water services legislation and used the guillotine to suppress debate. He even caused an unprecedented walk out of Opposition Deputies. Despite his stated commitment to political reform, he consistently failed to provide important information to the Dáil, governing instead by press release. He makes important announcements outside of this House. He does not govern by democratic debate in the Oireachtas. He created a fog of confusion. The briefings with conflicting figures causes additional anxiety for households. Last week he refused to answer straight questions and the Tánaiste, when questioned by Deputy McDonald, also refused to answer straight questions. Why does the Taoiseach and his Ministers persist in refusing to make themselves accountable to the Oireachtas when they are clearly able to leak information to the media?
Will he take this opportunity to clear up one matter? I presume he will not give us the details on his water tax proposals.
If, as the Taoiseach claims, the Government does not envisage the privatisation of water services, will he support the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (No. 3) Bill 2014 put forward by Sinn Féin, which seeks to ensure the right of all persons to sufficient, safe and accessible water and that water services and infrastructure remain in public ownership? If that is his position, will he support our Bill?
Last week the Tánaiste gave Deputy Mary Lou McDonald, who I do not see in the House today, a very direct answer to her question. Whatever planned diversionary tactics Deputy Adams and his colleagues came up with at their meeting last week were employed here. The Government will not support the Bill produced by Deputy Brian Stanley because the first part of the Bill would create a constitutional right to water without taking any account of costs or implications for private property rights and without any specific requirement for people to pay for that water. It is not properly considered and it is not thought through.
The second part of the Bill would create a constitutional requirement that water services and infrastructure remain in public ownership. Existing legislation already provides a statutory prohibition on the disposal of Irish Water and its water services infrastructure. In any case, it is not deemed appropriate to amend the Constitution to provide for a prohibition on the privatisation of a utility company.
Furthermore, some uncertainty could arise for privately owned group water schemes, which receive considerable State funding, as to whether their status is changed or not.
The Water Services Act 2013 provides for the establishment of Irish Water as a subsidiary of Bord Gáis Éireann and specifies that it should conform to the conditions set out in the Act and be registered under the Companies Acts. Section 4 of the Act provides that Irish Water be registered as a private company limited by shares under the Companies Acts. Section 5 provides that one share of Irish Water shall be issued to Bord Gáis Éireann, which is now Ervia, with the remaining shares allocated equally between the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister for Finance. As Ervia is a fully State-owned company, Irish Water is accordingly in full State ownership. Section 5(6) prohibits each of the three shareholders from disposing of its shareholding in Irish Water and thus places a statutory prohibition on the privatisation of Irish Water. It will never be privatised and no party in this House would ever put that down as part of its programme. These are the reasons that we will not support the Sinn Féin Bill.
Nobody knows more about diversionary tactics than do the Taoiseach and his Government, particularly on this issue. If we want an explanation for all their twists, turns and contradictory statements, it is that they have underestimated the determination of ordinary citizens - people who never were on a protest in their lives - to come out against the plan to charge them for water. The Taoiseach has been forced to back down. His Ministers have come into this House and criticised previous Ministers. After six years of pursuing austerity policies, the Government just did not envisage the level of resistance we have witnessed. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets. Others who cannot participate support the very basic position that they should not have to pay again for water. People are not asking for the Taoiseach just to reduce the charges, bring in sweeteners or give more of the types of briefings he has been giving to the media. They want him to scrap the water charges. That is it.
The Taoiseach says he will not support the Bill we are introducing, which embeds the right to water in the Constitution. Yet Labour Party Members in the Seanad supported this proposal. What will the Labour Deputies do when it comes to a vote in this House? Can the Taoiseach not review what he has said, support the people's right to water, scrap the water charges and embed this right in the Constitution?
Deputy Adams asked whether I will support the legislation put forward by his party. The answer is "No" and I have given the reasons. The Deputy commented on the situation in general. Only a few weeks ago, he was advocating the payment of water charges and saying he would advise supporters of his party to make their contribution to investment for the future. The Deputy changed his mind when he heard the sound of marching feet. Of course, Deputy Adams is very much a man who needs to see that his party keeps its word. Yesterday evening, members of the Garda Síochána spoke to public representatives of his party in Sligo and were given a specific assurance that public roadways would not be blocked and there would be a peaceful protest, which is perfectly legitimate. That was not what happened when the opportunity arose. If Deputy Adams gave his party members instructions, they did not carry out those instructions.
We are very conscious of the issues here because they have been raised by many people around the country. There are implications in respect of the proposition contained in the Bill. In order to strengthen what is already referred to in the Constitution and for the reasons I have outlined to the Deputy, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will bring forward primary legislation to strengthen and bolster the position in so far as the Constitution is concerned, so that Irish Water will be retained in public ownership and will never be privatised.
The Taoiseach said at the weekend that the protests were about more than water. I believe he is right. In February 2011, we were told that by the end of this Government's term in office, Ireland would be recognised as a modern, fair, socially inclusive and equal society. Cuts to rent supplement, child benefit, back to school and footwear allowance and respite care grants are just a few of the measures which have ensured that did not happen. Water is a very important issue for the Irish people and the whole concept of Irish Water goes against the grain of the idea that water is a human right.
Much play was made at the weekend over the disturbances at the protest which took place at the event the Tánaiste was attending. Do I agree with objects or abuse being thrown at the Tánaiste? No, I do not. Do I agree that the protests were generally peaceful? Overwhelmingly so. The fact is that the protests taking place in recent months have overwhelmingly been peaceful. This protest is not led by any political party or any groupings of politicians. It has been led by the people. It is a grassroots movement based in communities. People have no problem paying for water through a progressive central taxation system. People are interested in conservation of water. In fact, they are more interested in that than is the Government. What have Ministers done about harvesting water, implementing controls on tap pressure or introducing double cisterns in order to conserve water? They have done nothing about any of these. What has the Government done about the fact that sewage is going into the sea at Duncannon and the beach has lost its blue flag? For nearly four years, the Government has done nothing about that.
We have had a lot of talk about democracy in recent days. If the Taoiseach is so interested in democracy and so convinced that he still has the people with him, why does he not call an election? Will he dissolve the Government and call an election today? His Government has lost its mandate to govern.
The Government no longer represents the majority of the people and if the Taoiseach thinks otherwise, let him go to the country and let the people decide.
The answer to the Deputy's question is "No." The Government's first action on its election was to reverse the cut to the minimum wage which applied to so many people who were on lower incomes.
The Government increased the level at which people paid the higher rate of tax, taking thousands out of the income tax net. It reduced income tax at the highest level. The return in income tax which will take effect in pay cheques in January will, in one year, far outweigh the contribution to be made to Irish Water.
Deputy Mick Wallace referred to protests. I would have thought the Deputy, as a man of the people who has stood on many building sites, would dissociate himself completely from what happened over the weekend: homophobic remarks, taunting, vicious language and kicks and belts given to completely innocent people. If that is what he stands for and they are the people for whom he speaks, he has lost the support of the people. People with different political agendas descended on the Tánaiste’s car like hounds after a fox and it was disgraceful. Deputy Paul Murphy addressed the nation and said it was fine and peaceful and happened behind the Tánaiste’s car. He would not like to be hemmed in by a baying mob for two and a half hours. He should have the courage and gumption to apologise unreservedly to the Tánaiste for what he caused over the weekend in Jobstown.
The Government, through the people's sacrifices, has brought about an income tax reduction for the first time in years. Starting in January 2015, the reduction will far outweigh any water charge during 2015. It will be repeated in 2015 for 2016 and beyond, if the people decide to re-elect the Government. This is where we need to be, investing for the future. I agree that access to water is a human right, but does Deputy Mick Wallace believe it is right that people should have to boil water for ten years and that people all over the country should have to put up with inferior infrastructure when what is flowing through the pipes is unfit for human consumption?
It is time to fix all of it and invest for the future. That is the purpose of Irish Water, to be able to borrow off Government balance sheet and provide for the future for the very many people who do not have the facility now.
The Taoiseach said he had listened to the people. Had he done so, the Government would not have been back-pedalling for the past two months. It would have abolished the water charges and consigned Irish Water to the dustbin of history, where it belongs. It is a structure that will not work properly and if the Taoiseach does not abolish it, somebody else will. It is not fit for purpose. It was structured without consultation with local authorities; it has spent a fortune on consultants and was a waste of money.
The majority who walked recently in respect of Irish Water and water charges carried out their protest in the way one would expect, perfectly legitimately and peacefully. They made their point and the Government has listened to the concerns and anxieties they expressed.
This was not a peaceful protest and, as I witnessed last night, not in keeping with what the leaders of the protest group said to gardaí. Tomorrow the Minister will announce the formal Government decision on these matters. We have listened to the people and will act accordingly. The Government has provided €2.2 billion in next year’s budget for the provision of social housing, for which there is a serious demand, and measures to stimulate the construction sector.
I deplore the Deputy’s comment on the person appointed as chairperson of the independent policing authority. That person has an outstanding record, is beyond repute and will make an outstanding chairperson of the interim policing authority.