Thursday, 16 April 2015
May I begin this morning by letting the parents, family and friends of Karen Buckley know that we are all thinking of them at this horrific time.
Yesterday, the Simon Communities briefed us on the worsening crisis in homelessness. There was apparently a meeting yesterday with Dublin City Council and, to quote one of the Simon staff, one could see the whites of their eyes at the extent of the crisis and the lack of response in terms of short-term measures. The Simon Community has said it has never been as bad in Dublin and that the number of homeless families is at the highest level in our history. There are more than 800 children in emergency hotel and hostel accommodation and I understand that we are beginning to run out of hotel accommodation as well. This whole situation has been made much worse by the cuts the Tánaiste has made to the rent allowance and also by the elimination of the mortgage interest supplement. This comes at a time when rents have risen up to 15% or 20% in urban areas. People are being squeezed out of accommodation because they cannot afford it even when they have employment.
We asked the Tánaiste six months ago to reverse the cuts to rent allowance. If this had been done it would have eased the situation somewhat. Is the Tánaiste aware of the particular difficulties concerning the availability of emergency accommodation, particularly here in Dublin? Will she confirm to the House that she will immediately reverse the cuts to rent allowance and to the rent allowance caps to ensure that people can afford to house themselves?
Many individuals and unfortunately some families with children have been affected by it. As the Deputy knows, before Christmas, in conjunction with all of the agencies and indeed with most of the political parties, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, moved a series of special measures to deal with the situation which have been very favourably received - initiatives like the night café and the transport arrangements for people who are out on the street.
As regards the budget, the Deputy will remember from when he was in government that his party managed to destroy the building industry through a bubble and the core of the problem now is a build-up of a shortage of houses for different sizes of families and households. Slowly but surely, following what Fianna Fáil did to the building industry and the 330,000 people who lost their jobs as a result of what it did, we are now in a situation where the supply of housing is increasing.
The Deputy is wrong in his reference to rent supplement. If he had been here in the House when I spoke about this on a number of occasions, he would know that we have introduced a protocol in conjunction with organisations like Threshold, Simon and other bodies who are assisting people who have difficulty with housing. What we are doing now is what should have always been done. We are actually dealing with cases on a case-by-case basis because to simply raise and increase all rent levels, as Fianna Fáil seems to be implying, would be to drive up rent levels for people at work and for students enormously. What we are doing under the protocol is providing for negotiated increases for any individual or family in need of help in sustaining their rent supplement.
Since the beginning of this year we have negotiated 4,000 new rent supplement tenancies through the Department of Social Protection. What we have also done is deal at this point in time with a couple of hundred cases of people who came to the community welfare service. I invite people to go to the community welfare service to avail of the protocol so that a detailed arrangement can be put in place. In that respect, the community welfare service officers have total discretion in negotiating higher rents and an agreed rent if that is an appropriate solution for helping people to hold on to a tenancy.
With the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, we are also looking at the issue of seeking to provide levels of rent certainty for tenants renting privately and through rent supplement. The Minister is looking at that at the moment.
I do not want to make this a political football. The issue might be a matter of mirth for the Government benches.
When an organisation such as Simon, which cannot be accused of being political, tells us that this is a crisis beyond a crisis, it is time to stop laughing in the House and to start to take the issue seriously.
It is fair to note that the money for rent supplement and mortgage interest supplement has been cut by 43% since 2011. The total allocation for housing this year is €680 million, which is down from the €805 million we provided the year the Tánaiste came into government. That is a cut of €190 million. It is time we realised there is a crisis which will only be resolved by providing accommodation and making it affordable. The Government made the choice in the budget last year to reduce the top rate of tax rather than to deal with a greater, more urgent necessity, which is the homelessness crisis. I ask the Tánaiste what the Government is going to do in the short term for the people who are in emergency accommodation and do not know where they are going to sleep. We will wind up in a situation in which people are sleeping in cars. It seems the Government benches think that is a laughing matter.
Emergency accommodation is not a permanent solution to anybody's homelessness difficulties. What the Government did before Christmas, to much praise from some of the organisations to which the Deputy has referred, was initiate an emergency response over a number of areas. While that seems to have passed Deputy Ó Cuív by, it has been widely written about as being very successful. However, it is not a long-term solution. The long-term solution to homelessness and housing difficulties is to build more houses. Unfortunately, when Fianna Fáil was in government, it crashed the building industry. We are now slowly rebuilding it to get homes for families and homes for people. Already this year, we have devoted in the budget for 2015 and over the next three years the largest amount ever devoted to a house building programme in the history of the State. The Deputy will know that local authorities all over the country have received significant allocations to build social houses as well as builders in the private sector developing and building affordable houses. While that obviously has passed Fianna Fáil by, it is actually the way to solve the housing crisis.
What we are doing on rent supplement, which the Deputy will remember from his time as a Minister, is providing that when people go back to work, they go off rent supplement. We have now got unemployment down to just 10%. When we came into office, we inherited an unemployment rate of nearly 15% from Fianna Fáil in government. The numbers of people on rent supplement is going down for two reasons: the numbers of people going back to work, which is a great credit to them and a great development and recovery for the country, and because we have developed the housing assistance payment. We are slowly but surely moving very large numbers of people and the budget that goes with that to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government where the rent supplement of old will be handled by local authorities. The value of that will be that, as with a council house rental, the adult family members involved will not be inhibited from going out to work. We want everybody in the country to be able to get back to work. Thankfully, we are now putting builders back to work. The construction workers whose jobs Fianna Fáil destroyed will build the homes that families need.
Since taking office, the Tánaiste has made eight separate cuts to the one-parent family payment. Across the State, over 30,000 lone parents are receiving letters from her Department. As their youngest children turn seven, they are being taken off the one-parent family payment with the result that thousands will see their weekly incomes fall. Of these parents, 6,400 are set to lose up to €36.50 per week while an unknown number of working parents will lose as much as €87 per week. These are real people who are struggling to get by, yet the Tánaiste is pushing them into poverty.
Let me tell the Tánaiste about Mandy. Mandy is the parent of three children whose partner died a number of years ago. She works in a low-paid job and receives the one-parent family payment. She is not eligible for the family income supplement because she only gets 14 hours work per week. She has asked her employer for more hours, but has been refused. Last week, Mandy received written confirmation that, as her son has turned seven, she will be moved to jobseeker's allowance in July. As a result, her weekly income will be cut by €87, which is a 20% drop. I remind the Tánaiste that when she introduced this change in 2012, she said it was dependant on there being a system of safe, affordable and accessible child care in place similar to what is found in Scandinavian countries. Does the Tánaiste remember saying that? She said she would only proceed with these measures to reduce the upper age limit to seven years in the event that she got a credible and bankable commitment of such a system of child care by the time of the budget. She said that if that was not forthcoming, the measure would not proceed.
There is no Scandinavian child care system available to Mandy or the thousands of other lone parents whose incomes the Tánaiste is going to cut this July. Why is the Tánaiste punishing Mandy and thousands of parents like her? Why is the Tánaiste forcing her three children and many other children into poverty? Why is the Tánaiste taking money from the pockets and food from the tables of some of the poorest families in the State? In light of her Government's failure to deliver a Scandinavian child care system, will the Tánaiste honour her commitment of 2012 not to proceed with the cuts to the one-parent family payment?
Our current system, which we have had for quite a period, involves inviting Mandy to go onto social welfare for somewhere between 18 and 22 years as opposed to moving towards a system which Sinn Féin has operated in the North for a long time as part of the Government there. In the North, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, when the youngest child reaches five years of age, a person parenting alone is encouraged to take up a range of options, including education, training and work experience, with a view to helping that parent to get employment. While our social welfare system and payments are very much higher than those that Sinn Féin pays in government in the North, the critical thing for families parenting on their own is to ensure that as the children get older, the mother, in particular, or a father parenting alone, has the opportunity to get back into work, education and training.
In relation to lone parents who are already working, I note that we are in contact with employers through the Labour Market Council to improve their hours. In that regard, the Deputy can give us the details of the case she raises.
If, as the Deputy says, her hours go from 14 hours to 19 hours, depending on the particular circumstances, she will come out with somewhere between an extra €50 and €150 per week in terms of family income supplement. That is the outcome we want to see. Some 13,000 one parent families have already transitioned to the jobseeker's transitional arrangement. The Deputy said that she would go on to the jobseeker's arrangement. That is not correct. She will go on to the jobseeker's transitional payment-----
----- which means that there is no compulsion on a lone parent whose child is between seven years of age, unlike in the North where it is five years of age, and 14 years of age. All of the options in terms of education, training, community employment and other participation will be available. If the lone parent does not want to seek any of those opportunities, there is no compulsion.
Sinn Féin's vision for young lone parents who have a child at, say, 25 years of age is to say to that parent and the child that they are going to be dependent on social welfare until the child is 18 or 22 years of age.
----- in particular younger lone parents, in, unfortunately, what might become welfare dependency. We have spent as a society billions extra on lone parents. That is important because they are at a greater risk of poverty than almost any other group. Yet, with all of that spending, notwithstanding additional spending made by the previous Government during the boom, the actual outcomes for lone parents and their children disimproved.
If the Deputy gives us the details, we will be happy to see if we can assist to help her constituent to increase her hours and make a very significant improvement in her income through the family income supplement.
----- and the inference that there is anyone on this side of the House or anywhere else, but more important outside of this hallowed Chamber, who wishes to spend their life reliant on social welfare. Mandy works. Did the Tánaiste hear that? This mother is at work. She gets 14 hours, and she has looked for more. She is not getting those additional hours. Unless the Tánaiste is going to intervene directly with Mandy's employer and on behalf of all the other Mandys to ensure they qualify for family income supplement, they are in real difficulties. Those difficulties are to the tune of 20% of this woman's income. The Tánaiste's answer is a smart answer.
The Tánaiste should attend herself to matters here. Some 56% of lone parent families are materially deprived. A staggering 28% live at risk of poverty. That is twice the rate of two parent families.
A huge problem for these families, as Deputy Nash knows, is the availability of affordable and quality child care. Child care can cost as much as 52% of the take home pay of a lone parent. The Tánaiste gave an absolutely categoric commitment in 2012 when she introduced this cut that it would not go ahead in the absence of a Scandinavian child care provision. Never mind having a Scandinavian child care provision, for Mandy and all those like her, there is virtually no child care provision. I am asking the Tánaiste to stick to her word and put it to her again that she should honour the commitment she made in 2012 not to proceed with this cut to the one parent family payment in the absence of available and affordable child care. Will the Tánaiste keep her word to these families?
That is what they are used to in their own venue but they will not silence me. We are free citizens in a free Republic. The Deputy should remember that. We are lucky to be able to stand in this House and speak freely. I would be pleased if the Deputies would allow me to do that.
The previous Government, during the period of the boom, raised lone parent incomes very significantly. Unfortunately, the outcome in terms of reducing poverty levels for lone parents was not very good. In fact, the situation grew worse. Worse still, the impact on the outcomes for children of lone parents who grow up in a largely jobless household can be quite poor. Lone parents and the people I know, all down the years, who have parented on their own are just as bright, smart and intelligent as the rest of the population.
We introduced the jobseeker's transition payment. More than 13,000 lone parents have already transitioned to that over the past number of years. I do not know if the Deputy knows that.
The impact of that has been a very significant increase in the number of lone parents who have gone on to take education and training with the support of after-school child care which has been funded and with the further development of community based child care. As the Deputy well knows, many lone parents take advantage of this child care, which is delivered at a very high standard and quality. Since I became Minister, I have completely revamped the training structure for people working in community-based child care and getting FETAC level 5 and 6 qualifications. Many of those people, by the way, are themselves people who have been parenting on their own.
The shortage of skilled workers across multiple sectors in Irish industry ties into a failure by the State agencies to produce adequately trained staff for businesses which are expanding and desperately and urgently need staff.
In some cases, industries must recruit from outside the country owing to the lack of qualified staff at home. The Construction Industry Federation published a statement this week about the threat posed by skill shortages to the growth potential of a number of sectors. The Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland has also expressed concern about the failure of State-funded apprenticeships and training courses to meet demand in its sector. The car business has raised concerns about the lack of mechanics, qualified technicians and skilled personnel. That sector is experiencing a considerable recovery and seeing significant growth in employment opportunities, but car dealers have had to seek to employ people from abroad to fill vacancies. According to the motoring executive, an extra 4,500 people have been employed in the sector in the recent past and there is the potential to create a further 5,000 jobs during the next few years. In County Kerry a couple of firms that recently sought to fill vacancies for qualified welders and fabricators failed to fill them. One firm needs up to 40 highly skilled welders, but regrettably the agencies are not providing suitably qualified people to fill such positions. The quality of training has been substandard. We, therefore, need to up the tempo, as the quality of training has not been in line with industry's needs. For example, there is a major shortfall in various categories of chef and in-house worker in the hospitality and hotel industries, respectively. We are falling far short of meeting such needs adequately.
I wish to raise a couple of issues in dealing with this subject. Why is the Government being so unresponsive to the needs of industry by not offering courses relevant to the jobs market? The Tánaiste mentioned the pick-up in the housing sector, but surely it is apparent that we are not meeting requirements for plasterers, carpenters, bricklayers, painters and decorators. Where are the incentives for employers to provide meaningful training for potential staff? I can see none, to be honest.
Recently, the National Youth Council of Ireland commented on the JobBridge programme. People do not feel like they are a part of productive teams. In many cases, they believe they are being used. The programme should be revamped. As the economy grows, surely we should be providing high quality and well trained interns and apprentices and allowing young people to contribute to the good news stories about the pick-up in the economy.
First, as I said, I am very happy to say the live register now stands at 10%, given that at the height of the crisis it reached 15.1%. The arrangements for helping people to find work have changed significantly. First, I am delighted to say apprenticeships have restarted, including in the wet trades in the construction industry. I met the CIF on a number of occasions in recent times to talk about the need to get the system of apprenticeships in Ireland under a revamped model going again. The Deputy may have seen that in recent times the ESB, Irish Rail, the OPW, Bord Gáis, eircom and a number of other major companies have all restarted apprenticeships, including in the skilled areas he mentioned. What is important is that we continue to build on this. The newly reformed Apprenticeship Council of Ireland has issued a request to interested persons, industries and businesses to bring forward proposals for additional apprenticeships and traineeships not covered by traditional apprenticeship skills. In countries such as Germany and Austria, for instance, the latter being a small country like Ireland, there is a range of apprenticeships available in retail to banking, administration and different areas of the technology sector. The model is extremely well developed.
I regularly meet people from industries in Ireland. We also have in the Department of Social Protection a labour market council of key employers. We will shortly move to an account management system of key staff in the Department who will connect directly with the 500 biggest employers in Ireland with a view to ensuring some of the vacancies that arise to be filled can be targeted and filled by persons on the live register. If we need to provide additional training or specific training to help them to fill those jobs, we are doing so. If the Deputy has a specific example in mind in County Kerry or the south west, I would be happy through the local Intreo office-----
I can assure the Deputy that they will have my full attention, as will everywhere else in the country. However, there has been a problem for a long time in towns such as Tralee where there are many young men not working. What Deputy Tom Fleming is saying about the construction industry is correct. We need to ensure as many of these young men as possible have an opportunity, if that is their wish, to be involved in the construction business as it returns. That is a choice many of them want to make.
We are revamping apprenticeships. Just last week, as the Deputy probably knows, the OPW opened a special apprenticeship training course in County Kerry covering traditional but very important skills such as stonemasonry and other specialist construction skills. The Deputy may actually have attended its launch.
It is a well known fact that we have one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe, at approximately 25%. If we take into account the thousands who have been forced to emigrate, the figure would be well over 30%, which is unacceptable as we are letting down a large cohort. This represents a major potential long-term loss to society. We must acknowledge that young people are our greatest resource. Every effort should be made to facilitate and channel them into training courses that properly meet the demands of industry. This will involve upskilling and reskilling to respond to the needs of the economy in general. We must also provide incentives and encouragement for the many emigrants we have lost in order to attract them back to Ireland. The experience they have gained will be valuable for the country's future. If we do not develop the right skills, employers will begin to question why they have set up shop in this country. This is already happening and in vogue. It is apparent that we must boost the number of people with intermediate skills, as opposed to those with university degrees, if we are to fill the gaps in the labour market and provide good and sustainable jobs for the long-term unemployed. Co-ordination and cohesion are required between, for example, the Departments of Social Protection and Education and Skills.
I am sure they are working together, but this must be brought to a higher level, to include, in addition, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. There is a huge shortfall in the number of computer programmers in this country. The courses in universities are not adequate to meet the demands of modern industry, with outdated technologies and so on being taught. We need to get our act together and ensure we produce graduates who are able to avail of sustainable job opportunities.
The development of a regional economic strategy means that in the case of Kerry, for instance, we will see the Kerry Technology Park expanded and developed. There are a lot of IT-type industries and technologically-based service businesses which will be attracted to Kerry. The chambers of commerce in the county, including the Tralee chamber, members of which I met with recently in the town, have very ambitious plans and are working with IDA Ireland to achieve them. The latter now has regional officers in place, rather than having people from Dublin coming down occasionally. The regional officers are there to attract industrial, business and commercial development and foreign direct investment into areas like Kerry and the regions in general.
Another important aspect of our work in this area is our use of the embassy network, IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland to make contact with the emigrants, many of whom are very young, who went abroad when times were difficult. Now, having worked abroad, they could well fill the vacancies that have arisen here in a context where some areas are actually experiencing a skills shortage. All along the western seaboard, we are seeking to engage with people who emigrated but now want to return home. This is a very important part of public policy. Emigrants are beginning to return home in significant numbers and recruitment companies are focusing very specifically on them.
My colleague, Deputy Arthur Spring, has been involved in a number of Kerry-based initiatives to draw foreign direct investment into the county, build on what is there already, and develop the Kerry Technology Park and the Institute of Technology, Tralee so as to have a complementary development of courses at both technician and graduate level. In regard to apprenticeships, I certainly hope we will see, under the education and training boards and with the support of SOLAS, an increase in the number of apprenticeships across the country. For the 20% or so of our young people who do not want to go down the third level route directly, apprenticeships, traineeships and work experience are a very valuable way of getting them into employment. It is greatly to be welcomed that youth unemployment has fallen very significantly nationally.