Wednesday, 3 December 2014
If the tragic death of Mr. Jonathan Corrie is to mean anything, it has to be a catalyst for change. Anyone who saw the place where he had tragically passed away could not have been untouched. One cannot be untouched by the sense of desolation, loneliness, coldness and sadness he must have experienced in the hours before he passed away on Sunday night or Monday morning. If that does not make us angry, touch us and make us determined as a people to address the issue, absolutely nothing will. The measure of the Government's response and ours as a people is not the holding of an emergency summit, welcome though that is, or a special Dáil debate on homelessnes; rather, the measure of our response will be what changes will be made and what will be done differently to prevent something like this happening ever again. That is where the focus needs to be. The alarm bells on the issue of homelessness have been ringing for some time. In the past two years alone, the number of people sleeping rough in Dublin has doubled. This year the number has increased by about 30% and it is not just a Dublin problem. The annual report of the Cork Simon Community refers to the fact that in the past three years there has been a fourfold increase in the number of homeless people in Cork city. Not only is homelessness an immediate issue but State policy is also resulting in a pipeline of people who could well become homeless in the months ahead. Homelessness is a complex problem. We all accept that it is not all about money. I heard Mr. Mike Allen of Focus Ireland confirm on "Morning Ireland" today that there would not be enough emergency beds in Dublin tonight if every homeless person was willing to take one. What short-term actions is the Government committed to taking to address the immediate crisis and what longer term steps does it intend to take to ensure the pipeline of people who are on the way to becoming homeless will be cut off immediately?
Nobody can disagree with the sentiments expressed by the Deputy. I am sure nobody in this House could describe the feelings of a person who has to fend for himself or herself on the streets of this city or others around the country. How can one describe the feelings of Mr. Corrie in the years, months, weeks and days before he passed away? The same applies to the families who find themselves homeless and who have to move to bed and breakfast accommodation or hotel rooms, or who end up on the streets. The situation to which the Deputy referred has been brought to light by the death of Mr. Corrie, but there has been a categorisation of the different elements involved, from those who are homeless and sleeping rough to those who have become homeless because of rent increases or a lack of space in terms of the availability of rooms, apartments and houses.
The longer term solution is as I outlined yesterday for the Deputy's party leader. The Government has reflected on and made decisions on this issue for some time. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, has outlined the allocation of €2.2 billion for social and affordable housing, including direct provision accommodation by local authorities, voluntary housing agencies and so on, to deal with the issue by 2020. He also set out the timelines and targets for what was to be achieved.
In the shorter term for some months Dublin City Council has been working on bringing back into use over 1,000 rooms and facilities which are, as it calls them, "voided". I understand 265 are being worked on and that targets have been set for others to be brought back into use. I outlined yesterday the number of emergency rooms which would be brought back into use between now and Christmas. In cases in which individual circumstances warrant an increase in rent supplement local authorities can deal with the matter.
The answer in the medium and longer term is not a general increase in rent supplement. We have to deal with the question of supply. That requires taking into account the processes for planning, as well as income streams for contractors and those who will buy affordable housing. We need to be able to drastically increase the supply, which is why the Government has made decisions and allocated money in that regard.
I agree with the Deputy that an emergency debate will not answer this question, nor will committee meetings, but they are part of a process in making decisions to put things into effect. As I said yesterday, in this day and age the vast majority of people in this city and others who sleep rough should not have to do so. Deputy Michael McGrath will be aware that some cases are very complex and that the circumstances that apply in each individual case are different. As he knows, Mr. Corrie was offered accommodation on many occasions, but, as was his right, he chose not to accept it.
I do not get a sense from the Taoiseach's response that he grasps the seriousness of the crisis, how urgent it is and what it means for those who find themselves in this situation. The reality is that the profile of people in this country who are becoming or are about to become homeless is not like it was before; it is not all about drug and alcohol addiction.
They are, of course, factors in many cases but not all. The reality is that the rental sector is completely dysfunctional and in crisis. The policy of the Government of not allowing an increase in rent caps is resulting in many families not being able to rent privately and no council houses are available for them. Such families are living in emergency accommodation and many of them are, in effect, homeless. That is what it happening. None of us knows what is going on in the mind of somebody who is homeless, but I have listened to those who are at the coalface, represent people who are homeless and are dealing with them day in and day out. They have said this is a national crisis. The Government could reconsider the issue of rent supplement caps, but it has dismissed the idea. A change would allow many people who are locked out of the private rental accommodation market to access a home, but the Government has refused to do this. Will the Taoiseach, please, explain why?
Rent supplement plays an important part in the provision of accommodation. There are 71,800 persons in receipt of rent supplement, of whom 19,000, or 26% of the total, were awarded it this year. At the end of November, approximately 29,000 rent supplement recipients were on the live register, representing 8.2% of the total number. The Government committed funding of €344 million to the rent supplement scheme in 2014. It is not true to say money has been not been forthcoming. The current limits came into force on 17 June 2013, introducing some increases in Dublin and Galway. The limits in Dublin were increased by a weighted average of, I understand, about 9%.
The current review of the scheme has practically been finalised. Deputy Michael McGrath knows the answer to his question. If rent supplement is increased across the board, the only beneficiaries will be landlords.
If it is done without increasing the supply of houses, it is meaningless. The local authorities have the right to increase rent supplement in individual circumstances where they believe it is appropriate.
I already pointed out for the Deputy the numbers in receipt of rent supplement this year and the fact that €344 million has been allocated for this. If we increase the rent supplement generally across the board without increasing the supply of houses, we do not deal with the fundamental issue, which is supply.
One second please. "To get a job you need a base and you need a good three square meals a day as well, to be honest, and you need some good sleep - and you won't get it on the street so you just can't grab a job on the street when you're in a sleeping bag." Those are the words of Jonathan Corrie two months ago. I am glad to see the unemployment figures have dropped to 10.7%, but that is still too high. In these kinds of cases, we will never deal with the situation until we have a proper supply of accommodation.
The emergency accommodation, the void and empty units are all being considered now. I hope the meeting tomorrow will bring about some focus from all of the agencies working in this area.
On 12 November I raised with the Taoiseach allegations made by a whistleblower from within the ranks of the senior Civil Service. The whistleblower in question was the authorised officer appointed to examine a scheme of tax evasion through Ansbacher accounts. He has come forward with allegations of tax evasion by senior political figures and of obstruction in the investigation and exposure of these wrongdoings. The whistleblower says his investigation into Ansbacher accounts, offshore accounts and tax evasion was terminated by then Minister, Mary Harney in 2004, once Mr. Desmond O'Malley was discovered to be one of the holders of these accounts.
The whistleblower further alleges that other senior figures from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael also held these very secret Ansbacher accounts that were administered by the late Des Traynor and a Mr. Pádraig Colleary, formerly of Guinness & Mahon. The whistleblower reports, as I said, absolute obstruction to his efforts to complete his investigation. He further reports that agencies of the State have failed to investigate all of these matters thoroughly, including tribunals of inquiry.
On 12 November, the Taoiseach directed me to the Committee of Public Accounts and said that was the proper place to have these matters investigated. That committee was advised last night that it will not be permitted to investigate these matters, neither the issues around alleged tax evasion nor allegations of political obstruction, or even indeed corruption.
What next? Can the serving civil servant complete his investigation? I know that he has made that request of the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton. Will he or the Taoiseach permit that? What of any Garda investigation? I know the Minister, Deputy Bruton, very belatedly passed on a witness statement to the Garda Bureau for Fraud Investigation. Will the Taoiseach be in contact with the Commissioner to ask about progress in that case and about any possible arrests or prosecutions? The Taoiseach sent me in the direction of the Committee of Public Accounts, but these very serious matters will not be heard or investigated there. What does the Taoiseach propose as an alternative action?
As the Deputy pointed out, the Committee of Public Accounts received legal advice from the Oireachtas yesterday evening. The position has already been outlined by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. By the way, the issues raised by the whistleblower came about as a result of a welcome reform made by the Government allowing for protection of witnesses making disclosures in matters like this. The delay was pointed out by the Minister, who has since sent on the documentation required and requested by the Garda fraud investigation unit.
It is not for me to contact the Garda Commissioner -----
----- about the documentation received by the fraud investigation committee. They know exactly what their powers are and will act upon the witness statement sent to them.
The charges the Deputy makes against certain people are not for me to answer here. There is a process in train, which was availed of under the legislation by the whistleblower and the documentation required and requested by the fraud investigation committee and the Garda has been forwarded to them by the Minister. They will make their decisions and follow through on that.
The Committee of Public Accounts, of which Deputy McDonald is a member, received its own legal advice from the Oireachtas yesterday in respect of its powers.
It is not a case of me making allegations against anyone. I emphasise that these are allegations, but they come from a credible source. The whistleblower alleges Des O'Malley, Ray McSharry, Gerard Collins, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, an S. Barrett, Richie Ryan - a former Minister for Finance - and others -----
The Deputy knows quite clearly, if she bothers to check the record and take advice from the Clerk of the Dáil, that she cannot name names of people who are defenceless to contradict her. There is a long established principle in this Chamber. I know the Deputy is only new in the Dáil, but I ask her to brief herself clearly on what she can and cannot do in a democratically elected Chamber.
Thank you. The difficulty is this: the whistleblower alleges matters of serious concern associated with senior public figures, some of whom are still in receipt of State payments, by way of a pension as we speak. The whistleblower has told us clearly that he -----
-----has gone to every length to have these matters explored and investigated. He now fears this will never happen. My question is this. Given the serious nature of these allegations against named persons and, perhaps, the more serious allegation that there was a connivance to avoid or even to cover up the exposure of these matters, and given that the Committee of Public Accounts is not permitted to investigate these matters, what does the Taoiseach propose to do? These are serious allegations. Will the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, allow the person in question to complete his investigation? Or will the Taoiseach and Government, given the seriousness of these allegations, propose another mechanism for the full examination of these issues, for the full examination of agencies of the State who in the view of the -----
A law was introduced for whistleblowers to bring forward certain matters of information they feel are relevant, important and in the public interest. The law is framed to protect the whistleblower, which is an important reform and a central element of the law that must be maintained. The whistleblower must be protected.
The fraud squad investigation unit made a formal request for a witness statement to be forwarded to it by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.
The Deputy is well aware of the reasons it was delayed. The Minister pointed out why it had been delayed and confirmed that the witness statement, as requested, had been forwarded to the fraud investigation unit, an arm of the State with particular and specific responsibilities and powers. I expect it to follow through and act on the witness statement forwarded to it. Clearly, the advice given to the Committee of Public Accounts is that this issue is outside its remit. I am sure that is the formal legal advice to it, although I have not seen or read it. The Deputy is a member of the committee. There is now an opportunity in the process of the law for the fraud investigation unit to act on the witness statement forwarded to it by the whistleblower and sent through the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation for its examination. This is not an opportunity to send it on a journey from which it will never come back. This was a formal request from the fraud investigation unit that has now been acted on. The witness has had his statement forwarded, as has been confirmed.
The Government is dealing with a number of legacy issues that were neglected by previous Governments. Progress is being made, which makes it all the more vital to get it right. The concerns and issues I want to address are those which arise for the ladies who suffered the most appalling procedure of symphysiotomy. Many of us have met them; we have listened to their stories and had a debate here when some of them were present in the Visitors Gallery. I acknowledge the work of Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin who chairs the Oireachtas group in this regard.
The ladies in question had so many expectations and hopes the payments scheme would lead to justice for them, but, most regrettably, that is not their view of the scheme that has emerged, in which they have identified serious shortcomings and defects, the most serious of which is that the scheme is not in keeping with the concluding observations and recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. For example, there are oppressive timeframes. There is a deadline of 20 days, from 10 November, which, in exceptional circumstances, to be decided by the assessor, can be extended by a further 20 days. This is very different from the scheme for hepatitis C and residential institution survivors. In addition, there is no right to appeal to the courts when the assessor decides a sum, the levels of payment fall far short of what has been awarded in the few cases decided through the courts and there is no reference to a thorough and independent investigation of the practice of symphysiotomy.
All of us who have listened know about the inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment the ladies in question suffered. It is made all the worse by the fact that it was a treatment that was needless, a treatment about which they knew nothing and a treatment in which they had no hand, act or part during the entire procedure. The pain did not finish with the procedure; it continued and continues to this day for them. It is vital, therefore, that we get the scheme right for them in the interests of justice. How can the Taoiseach say they are receiving justice when 99% of the survivors are objecting to the scheme? Will he support their call for it to be withdrawn and replaced by one that meets the recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Committee?
This is an issue of great personal concern to the women who had to go through this procedure. The Deputy is right on that point. I know Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin is one Member who has raised this issue on many occasions.
The options were stark. Every individual would have the opportunity to go to court to be involved in an adversarial conflict, the outcome of which could not be determined in advance. To avoid this, the Minister appointed a justice of the court to look at what the options for a scheme might be. She made very particular recommendations for payments of €50,000, €100,000 and €150,000, without the necessity of having to go to court but leaving open that option, if it were to be the choice of any woman involved. The figures were not determined by the Minister; they were brought forward by the justice in her fine report. The intention was to provide an option for women who had gone through this procedure to apply and receive prompt payment as determined and outlined by the justice in her report. That does not take away from their right, if they do not want to accept payment under the symphysiotomy scheme, to take a court case.
I know that there are a number of groups involved and that one particular group does not accept the terms of the scheme, while others do. It is a choice that was followed through on the principle that the Minister had decided we should have a scheme because this matter was sensitive and personal and had to be dealt with. The justice set out a scheme that, in a non-adversarial way, will deliver the payments promptly to the women involved. It is their right, individually, to accept or reject them.
As Deputy Marueen O'Sullivan will recall, we had the same in the case of the Magdalen scheme, when there was a lot of legal advice that people should take a different route and ended up in adversarial positions, in particular, women who had been through very difficult circumstances. That scheme, again determined by a justice, worked out well and payments have been followed through, with the provision of other facilities also. This scheme was determined and set out by the justice in her report, with the payments to be made promptly, while keeping the right for any individual woman to say: "I do not accept that. I want to take my case to court."
I have to make the point that 99% of the known survivors do not accept that the scheme is meeting their need for justice. On that aspect, there is no reference to the perpetrators of this most cruel treatment. If a survivor accepts the payments, she has to waive irrevocably all rights and entitlements and "indemnify and hold harmless" the people responsible for imposing this suffering on them. I do not know how we can expect survivors to be willing to accept this, as it goes against what the United Nation's Human Rights Committee advocated. The chairperson of that committee said:
I simply don’t understand how the State can look the other way at what seems to have been a systematic assault on people who weren’t in a position to resist or even give consent in many cases. We called for prosecutions explicitly and I would hope, I have to hope, that the recommendation won’t be ignored.The ladies in question are not getting justice and it seems that the State is complicit in allowing the individuals, groups and institutions that were involved in this treatment to escape any sense of justice. I do not know what the Taoiseach thinks about restorative justice, but it is a very powerful tool. The ladies in question are being denied restorative justice and, if they take the payments, they will be denied the opportunity to go to court. They are being put in a very difficult position. At the very least, can there be a withdrawal of the waiver because there is an understanding that it is unlawful and a three year entry period for those who want to make a claim?
The Deputy quoted from the letter, but the State is not looking the other way. Actually, in response to claims made in the House by many Deputies, the State has responded by asking a justice of the court to look at the nature and scale of what was involved and set out a scheme to allow for prompt payment, depending on the nature and scale of the procedure women had to go through, while keeping the right and entitlement of every individual to have her case taken to court. Justice is determined by the courts on some occasions. I recently met Louise O'Keeffe who had her case taken to the High Court and the Supreme Court and who eventually, after 16 years, had had a determination made by the European court. The rights and entitlements of the women who went through the symphysiotomy procedure are not infringed by the scheme set out by the justice.
It is their opportunity, right and option to apply and have a prompt payment made to them relating to the scale of the procedure they went through. I do not know what purpose would be served by the extension of the waiver for three years if they do not lose their right to take their case to court if they wish. They know about the scheme and have voted on it in some cases. Two groups accepted it and a majority of the other one does not, which is its right, but the scale of payments are there and they do not lose their right or entitlement to have their case taken to court if they wish. I hope that they make a determination personally as to whether to apply under the scheme or take a longer and more adversarial route to court.