Thursday, 23 June 2016
I beg the indulgence of the Ceann Comhairle. I am sure the Tánaiste will want to join with me in congratulating the Irish soccer team and the management on their outstanding success last night. It was a tremendous victory against Italy in Lille. They have done us proud, as have the fans, over the past number of weeks. We wish them and, indeed, Northern Ireland all the best in the last 16 games.
I want to again raise with the Tánaiste the issue of motor insurance premiums, which continue to soar. She knows the facts pretty well at this stage. There has been an increase of 60% in premiums since the beginning of 2014 and in the past 12 months alone, there has been an increase of 35%. The bottom line is that motorists have had enough of these unacceptable and unsustainable premium hikes. This is now a priority issue, not just for private motorists but for the many businesses which are feeling the brunt of these savage increases. Fianna Fáil put this issue firmly on the Dáil agenda two weeks ago through a Private Members' motion we put forward. It was agreed unanimously by the House on that occasion.
The motion called for a number of things but the principal element was the establishment of an independent task force along the lines of the Motor Insurance Advisory Board, which very successfully tackled this issue some years ago. When motions are passed by the House, they represent the will of the Members of Dáil Éireann and, through us, the will of the people we represent. Motions passed by Dáil Éireann cannot simply be ignored by the Government. What steps does the Government intend to take to tackle this issue and implement the measures set out in the motion, which was agreed by the House?
Fianna Fáil acknowledges that there is no silver bullet to resolve the issue. While the Government does not control the cost of premiums, it can influence many of the factors behind the level of increases we are witnessing. The problem is that we simply do not know who to believe and do not have the data to reach reasoned conclusions.
The industry tells us, for example, that the reason behind the premium hikes lies in the area of claims, in the number of claims and the cost of settling claims. However, the data we have does not back that up. For example, the total amount paid out by insurance companies on claims for 2014 - the most recent data we have - was 36% less than the amount paid out in 2011. We need measures to tackle false and exaggerated claims and legal costs. We also need a national claims register and to look at the level of awards being made. We must also review the role of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB. I welcome the fact that some work is being done in that area. One of the main difficulties as I see it is the fact that the vast majority of claims are now being settled out of court and outside of the PIAB process so we do not have any oversight or transparency and we need a national claims register. Insurance premium increases are typically of the order of €200 to €300, with many increases for far greater amounts. That is not acceptable. We need action. What is the Government doing to tackle the issue on behalf of consumers?
I, too, congratulate the Republic of Ireland soccer team on what was a momentous win last night in Lille. The match and that goal will rank right up there with the best of our memories of Irish soccer. I say well done to Martin, Roy, Robbie and the entire team, and, of course the fans, whom everyone will agree have done us proud and lifted all our spirts. I say very well done to them and the best of luck.
On the issue Deputy Michael McGrath raised about motor insurance and the reports and reality of sharp increases in motor insurance being charged to some people, as the Deputy is aware, the Government is concerned about it. Motor insurance is a very important part of the household budget and the kind of increases we have seen have a serious impact. A number of Departments, State bodies and private sector organisations have an interest in the cost of motor insurance. I am advised by the Minister for Finance that he has asked his officials to examine the factors which contribute to the increasing cost of insurance. Deputy McGrath himself set out the multifaceted nature of the increases and the work that needs to be done.
The work is part of an overall review of policy in the insurance sector, which the Department of Finance is carrying out in consultation with the Central Bank and other Departments, agencies and external stakeholders. The objective of the review is to recommend measures to improve the functioning and regulation of the insurance sector. The first phase of the review is focused on the motor insurance compensation framework and that work is nearing completion. The next phase involves examining the factors contributing to the increasing cost of insurance and identifying what short-term measures – as the Deputy said, the matter is urgent – could be introduced to help reduce the cost of insurance for consumers and businesses while also addressing those measures that need more long-term policy implementation.
The issue is a priority for the Minister for Finance. I am sure he would accept the point made by Deputy McGrath on motions passed in this House and the need for follow-up action. I will bring to his attention the fact that Deputy McGrath has raised the matter again this morning.
I thank the Tánaiste for her reply, but to be honest concern from Government is no longer enough - motorists want action on the issue. The Minister for Finance set up a Department-led review of the wider insurance sector a number of months ago and, as part of that, it is looking at issues relating to motor insurance. That is not, however, an independent task force which would be at arms length from the Department, would have an independent chair, terms of reference and a deadline, and whose task should be to examine and identify the root causes behind the level of increases we are witnessing in motor insurance premiums and, most important, to make recommendations as to what we can do to tackle the issue. We have touched on a number of the reasons behind it.
On Saturday week, there will be a massive protest in Dublin organised by a young man from Killorglin, County Kerry, called Kian Griffin, who is a motoring enthusiast. Thousands of cars will be in Dublin to make the point that people want action on the issue.
I ask the Tánaiste to take the message back to the Minister but also to the entire Government that the response from the Government so far is not satisfactory. It has been inadequate and woefully inept. We need far more action from the Government to tackle the issue. We need the Government to implement the motion and set up an independent task force to get to the bottom of the issue because people are facing more increases of perhaps up to 30% this year if they can get a quote at all.
As this increasingly is an issue for both younger drivers and people driving older vehicles, who also are paying higher rates of motor tax, let us deal with it.
I agree with the Deputy in respect of the challenge it poses and the need for action. The review obviously is the first part of the response by the Department of Finance to the issue. An internal review such as is being done is important and the Deputy will agree it is a complex issue. It is important to identify the variety of factors that are contributing to it. For example, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB, is doing its own separate piece of work by looking at the entire quantum and damages that are applied at present to try to bring more consistency into its awards. That also is an important element of it. I take the Deputy's point regarding an independent task force and I am sure that once the review is completed or perhaps in advance of it, the Minister for Finance may consider it. I am sure it is something the Deputy intends to pursue with the Minister and I will bring to his attention his comments today.
I also wish to acknowledge the boys in green and to congratulate them and the management on their historic victory. I also wish to recognise the fans, the girls and boys in green on the terraces. Is it not something that two Irish teams have now qualified for the final 16? Let us imagine what we will achieve when we have a single Irish soccer team.
I wish to raise the issue of homelessness with the Tánaiste by telling her about Áine. She is an 18-year-old young woman and on Tuesday of this week, she presented as homeless to her local council, together with her partner and their four-month-old infant daughter. The council refused to accept she genuinely was in need of emergency accommodation and she was turned away. At 4.30 p.m. that afternoon, she rang the freefone number but no emergency accommodation was available. At 9 p.m. that evening, she again rang only to be told there still was no emergency accommodation. Eventually, at 12.30 a.m., while standing outside Heuston Station shivering and holding her infant child, she was collected by the rough sleepers team and brought to a hostel. Áine's family is just one of ten families turned away from local authorities on that Tuesday, only to be accommodated later through the rough sleepers team. The last of the families was not accommodated until 1.30 a.m. Yesterday, Áine returned to her local council, only to be turned away again. She eventually was accommodated through the freefone service at 8 p.m. As I speak, this young woman yet again is on her way back to her local authority not knowing where she and her family will sleep tonight. The reason families are being turned away from the local authorities is because there is not enough emergency accommodation and staff members in local authorities are being asked to make an impossible choice between families, that is, between those who will have a bed and those who are sent back out onto the street. I could read out the statistics and the Tánaiste will be aware that homelessness is out of control. She will be aware that on her Government's watch, homelessness has increased by 86% in a single year. Does the Tánaiste accept that the Government's response to the family homelessness crisis to date has failed? Does she believe it is acceptable for a family to be turned away, as was Áine with her infant child, and to be left out onto the streets until the early hours of the morning? What will the Government do today, tonight, this week and this month to address the challenge faced by Áine and others? Finally, will the Tánaiste commit to publishing the Government's housing action plan and to scheduling a full Dáil debate on it before Members rise for the summer?
As the Government has stated consistently in this regard, it is not tolerable that in Ireland today, families and children such as Áine's are living in emergency accommodation or are having difficulty accessing such accommodation. That is why this issue is a priority for the Government. That is why the housing committee was established before all others and it did its work and made its report.
We are all extremely conscious of the legacy of the housing bust and we need to work every day to remedy it and especially to work directly to ensure that families are not left in the situation the Deputy describes. Many of the problems stem, as the Deputy well knows, from the chronic lack of supply of housing, which is causing knock-on problems for everyone - renters, first-time buyers and low-income households. Every possible action is being taken in the most speedy manner to ensure that families will get the housing they need. The housing committee has identified a range of initiatives. The Minister has said that he will respond to that urgently. The question of whether the Dáil will debate the report is one for the business of the Dáil committee to agree on.
We have the new Cabinet Minister with responsibility for housing, planning and local government and a reformed Department to take on these challenges. The action plan for housing will of course address the issue of homelessness. Local authorities are being given greater scope to respond more quickly to the kind of situation the Deputy has described. They have been given more funding to increase the supply of the kind of accommodation that we need. More than 220 families have secured accommodation under the homeless housing assistance payment, HAP, pilot and there is an uplift under this pilot to 50% as announced in the last budget. That has had a positive effect. The work is ongoing. The crisis is not going to be resolved overnight but the Deputy knows that it is a priority for the Government, as it is for everyone in this House, to take action to address the issue, to give as much support as possible and to provide, in the first instance, temporary accommodation to people who find themselves in the position of the woman that the Deputy has outlined.
What I know is that last month almost 4,000 people across the State were in emergency accommodation. I know and the Tánaiste knows that this includes more than 1,000 families and more than 2,000 children. What we now know is that we have a crisis in the crisis management of homelessness. It is not simply that families are in emergency accommodation, which is scandalous in itself, but in fact now the pressure is such and the crisis so deep that families cannot access emergency accommodation. I have told the Tánaiste Áine's story. She was sent to the streets. Let me emphasise that this is not the fault of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive or the local councils. As I have said, they are left in an impossible situation in which they simply do not have access to enough emergency accommodation. It is of cold comfort to Áine and others that the Tánaiste says that this is a matter of priority. I ask her to demonstrate that. What will she do now, this week and this month to address the issue of emergency accommodation in order that Áine is not similarly sent back out onto the streets tonight?
It should be noted that more than 2,000 sustainable tenancies were secured for homeless households during 2015 which allowed people to exit homelessness. That is very important. The Deputy asked me to demonstrate the Government's commitment. I believe that many of the actions already taken demonstrate that. With regard to providing more emergency accommodation, the increased funding for 2016 that has been made available and is available to local authorities means that they should be in a position to increase the availability of emergency accommodation. We know the amounts that are being spent, for example, on hotel accommodation at present. Again, it is unacceptable and we need to move as quickly as possible from this situation. That is being done.
The programme of rapid delivery housing also demonstrates the Government's intention. Five hundred units are to be provided in Dublin to accommodate homeless households currently in hotels. There is the increase in the homeless funding, as I said, as well as the implementation of a Dublin region homeless pilot for the housing assistance programme. However, I take the point that the Deputy is making. She is highlighting the need for emergency accommodation. If it needs to be increased, and clearly Áine's story that the Deputy has told suggests that it does, the Government will put and has put the funding in place to make sure that happens.
I warmly congratulate our wonderful football team for their outstanding victory last night and I wish them well in Lyon on Sunday.
Last Valentine's Day, during the general election campaign, was the 35th anniversary of the horrific Stardust nightclub fire in which 48 young people, mainly teenagers, died and more than 200 young people, mainly citizens in my constituency, were seriously injured. Over the past 35 years, the Stardust Relatives' and Victims Committee, courageously led by Ms Antoinette Keegan, Ms Chrissie Keegan and Ms Gertrude Barrett, has fought for justice for the victims and the families. The committee has been in contact with the Tánaiste many times in her capacity as Minister for Justice and Equality.
The Keane tribunal report in 1982 severely criticised Paddy and Eamon Butterly, the owner and manager of the Stardust, for their reckless disregard for the safety of the people on the premises but its conclusion of arson outraged the communities on the north side of the city. Despite Justice Keane's severe criticism of the Butterlys and Dublin Corporation and a huge file being sent to An Garda Síochána, no prosecution was ever taken against the owners or Dublin Corporation. Since the late 1990s, the conclusions of the Keane tribunal have been systematically demolished by the finding of new and unassessed evidence. In 2001, for example, a brilliant investigation called "They Never Came Home", after the song by Christy Moore, carried out by Tony McCullough, editor of Northside People, and his colleague, Neil Fetherstonhaugh, found that there were major deficiencies in the electrical and heating systems of the building and eyewitness accounts which had not been taken into account during the Keane investigation. A number of "Prime Time" programmes on the 20th and 25th anniversary of the fire also seriously undermined the credibility of the Keane tribunal. A distinguished local northside scientist, Ms Geraldine Foy, also carried out a detailed investigation in 2004 and collated new decisive evidence. She found the existence of a first floor store room full of flammable cleaning liquids, of which the Keane tribunal appeared to be completely unaware.
Based on some of those discoveries, I called for a new commission of investigation on the 25th anniversary in 2006. I am renewing that call today. In July 2008, the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who lived across the road from the nightclub, appointed Mr. Paul Coffey to carry out a study of the papers of the Keane tribunal and to look again at the evidence. Although Mr. Coffey's report exonerated the young people in that it found that arson was not the cause, Mr. Coffey did not ask for a new commission of investigation. However, he said in his draft report that he accepted that a new inquiry was necessary. During the 2011 general election campaign the Taoiseach, accompanied by former Deputy Terence Flanagan, gave a commitment to the Stardust Relatives' and Victims Committee that there would be a new commission of investigation but over the past five years, the former Minister for Justice and Equality, former Deputy Alan Shatter, and the Tánaiste have stonewalled on this. The Tánaiste can bring closure to this matter, just as happened in the case of the Widgery report and the Hillsborough disaster. She can ease the awful pain that hundreds of families in my constituency have suffered for the past 35 years.
As the Deputy is aware, I have met with members of the Stardust victims committee and heard their concerns about how this tragedy has been investigated. There have been a number of reports to date. I have put in place a process in the Department of Justice and Equality whereby the committee can liaise directly and intensively with officials in the Department who have given a huge amount of time to this issue over recent months. The reason we have done that is to ensure that a comprehensive submission outlining all of the material the committee wishes to have considered in this regard is brought forward. Significant progress has been made in that process and I hope the committee continues to engage with it.
The programme for Government contains a commitment that full regard will be had for any new evidence that can definitively prove the cause of the Stardust fire and I am committed to working with the families should they wish to continue to engage with us on this process. In the course of the engagement, they are bringing forward a range of matters relating to the cause of the fire and also relating to support for the work of the committee which they have identified and which they feel they were not given previously. The committee brought forward a range of issues, and I will not go into detail about them now, relating to support from the Government for the work of the committee.
We are certainly committed to continuing to engage in the process. If evidence emerges that the Government and committee are convinced is new evidence, we can progress it further. That work is ongoing.
There is a motion in the name of Independents 4 Change, our group and AAA-PBP before the House that I think has widespread support. I remember Deputy McDonald standing beside me at the 35th anniversary commemoration. There is widespread support for the Government to put its name to that motion and set up the commission.
Over the years, I have heard the mantra about new evidence from the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, and the Tánaiste. Surely the litany of private investigations and outstanding investigations by journalists, some of whom I mentioned, such as Rita O'Reilly of RTE, and others, have over the years created a category of new evidence that was not assessed at the time and was not brought to the attention of the Keane tribunal. There were deficiencies in the forensic examination by An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice, so it seems to me that this mantra does not work anymore.
I mentioned the Widgery report and Hillsborough. There seems to be a great reluctance on the part of this Government and previous Governments to review the work of a tribunal but Tony Blair set up the Saville inquiry, which brought forward its report in 2010 that exonerated the people of Derry in respect of the whitewash of the Widgery report. We know about the long struggle of the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough to get justice. A new inquest was held a few months ago which produced a verdict of unlawful killing. Antoinette Keegan and her colleagues have carried on a very similar struggle for justice and deserve a similar response from the Government. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, who is sitting beside the Tánaiste, represents the area, as does the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, also represents the area.
I received a lot of support in this regard from my former party, starting with the former leader of the party, Dick Spring. Former Deputy, Pat Rabbitte, called it a case of corporate manslaughter and spoke about the possibility of unlawful killing. I ask the Tánaiste to set up a commission of investigation to bring closure to the families.
I recognise what the Deputy said about previous injustices. One should always look at the evidence, have an open mind and not rule out the possibility of a further inquiry or commission of investigation in appropriate circumstances. That is why we have been engaging with the committee over recent months analysing very carefully and taking very seriously the evidence it is presenting to see whether the evidence would lead to a further investigation. It is being looked at very seriously but I think the Deputy would agree with me that given that a previous Government asked for a second report and received a very detailed report that drew certain conclusions, one must consider it very carefully. Obviously, we are all aware of the scale of the tragedy but we are engaged with the committee and will continue to be. The programme for a partnership Government says that if there is new evidence, the issue can be considered and looked at again.
I would also like to be associated with the congratulations to the Irish team, the managers and the terrific fans. I wish them well on Sunday in Lyon. We will also be able to settle an old score by coming out with a win.
No matter what the outcome of the EU referendum in the UK is, and I hope for a Remain vote, Ireland will continue to be a member of the EU. If the debate in the UK has highlighted anything, it is that there is a growing disconnect between EU institutions and ordinary citizens.
Debates here on the issue, particularly on the Government side, tend to take an uncritical view of those institutions. They are portrayed as universally good, which is at odds with the views of a very large number of our citizens. Irish people are not stupid - they recognise that we are a small nation and cannot survive on our own but they also see we were left to carry the can for 41% of the European banking crash. The crippling debt has not only been imposed on us but on our children and grandchildren if it goes unchallenged.
Irish people can also see that the current refugee crisis and the way people are being treated is at odds with the founding principles of the European Union, one of which is human dignity. There is a deference shown in debates and a mindset that we are somehow subservient because of our size, location and level of indebtedness. We have to throw off that mindset and start approaching the European Union confidently and with a critical eye. The arguments made for both the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty were predicated on how much we were going to receive in return for passing those referenda. It was only when the first Nice referendum failed that the National Forum on Europe was set up to address the growing disconnect between our citizens and the institutions.
We are now at a critical turning point not because of the prospect of Brexit but the issue of TTIP, which looms large. I urge that we approach this with a very critical eye. TTIP represents a profound transfer of power and a fundamental change to the democratic process that once entered into will not be possible to reverse. It is a tipping point. I have been shocked by the lack of debate on this issue in this Chamber, in the media generally, and by our national broadcaster. We need to be questioning and we need to look at the evidence of similar trade agreements that include dispute mechanisms like the one in TTIP. If we are to take a critical position, which I hope we do, we need to be brave and stand over that position even if we are the only ones to take such a position.
Last night on the football pitch, we saw our team throw off the shackles of the small island mentality and their belief saw them through. We need to take a leaf out of that book on the political stage because we can punch above our weight.
Is the Tánaiste aware that in jurisdictions where trade agreements include this mechanism, such as Canada, the number of claims has risen dramatically? One can see the scale on a graph and the costs are paid from public funds. Has the Tánaiste properly evaluated the new price tag on democracy and regulation? Has she properly considered the new special privileges that will be granted to foreign investors and how those new rights do not come with corresponding responsibility? Does she accept that the possible introduction of TTIP will represent a tipping point for democracy as we know it?
At this point, it would be unwise to speculate on the outcome of the referendum in the UK. Polls appear to show that it will be a close finish. The Government's position is very clear on our preferred outcome. I agree with the Deputy that the debate in the UK has thrown into very sharp relief the citizens' views on the EU, both for and against. It will impact the debate in this country and elsewhere in future in terms of the type of debate we will have and the many issues it has thrown up.
The Deputy mentioned the refugee crisis and the response of Europe to it. It has been a very complex situation. Ireland will have the full resettlement programme in place by the end of September. The relocation programme is now starting to be much more active than it was before. We will have increased numbers of Syrian refugees arriving here and we will be in a position to take up the many offers of help from the public which have been made to the Red Cross. Hopefully we will be able to take up the offers in the coming months as more refugees arrive in Ireland but there was a very slow start right across Europe.
Regarding the point Deputy Catherine Murphy made, that, of course, will have to be approved by the Oireachtas and there will be a full opportunity for debate in the Oireachtas. It is being negotiated in an transparent way. We certainly want to have as full a debate as possible on it. There is no agreement. There is a long way to go. There are certainly benefits that would, I believe, far outweigh the negatives but certainly there will have to be much further engagement. No doubt the points Deputy Catherine Murphy raised will form part of the debate here in the Oireachtas at the appropriate time.
My questions were primarily focused on TTIP and the changes that it will bring about. Looking at some of the evidence from Canada on the approximate tally of winners and losers, the big winners are extra large companies, the very rich individuals, the investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS, legal sector and large companies. The big losers are the respondent countries. This is information that came from Gus Van Harten, professor of law at the York University of Toronto in Canada, who visited recently and participated with the environmental pillar.
On the evidence that is being looked at, is the Government looking at evidence from other countries where this mechanism has been in place because the graph for claims is significant? If the people will be included in a decision that will be made on their behalf, the offer of us going, as parliamentarians, over to the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and looking, and not being able to reveal what we see, is not an acceptable approach.
Of course, the evidence will be looked at and the relevant committee will have an opportunity to have further discussion on this. I have two points to make in its regard. First, all existing regulation, for example, on the environment, labour and food, will be protected. Second, it is important to note that the right of Government to regulate will be protected. Those are two important points in its regard.