Thursday, 16 February 2017
I note that the terms of reference for the Charleton inquiry have been published and that they will be subject to debate later in the afternoon. Subsequent to events last night and based on the line-up of Ministers in front of us, are we looking at an audition here this morning?
I draw the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, to a commitment the Government made on establishing a commission of inquiry to investigate Project Eagle, from which it seems to be reversing. As the Minister knows, it was reported in 2015 that Project Eagle, a loan portfolio of 850 properties across Northern Ireland, was sold for €1.6 billion by NAMA. There is considerable concern that this was not the true value of this amount of property and that the true value was not sought or delivered. The Comptroller and Auditor General has made some very damning findings in that regard.
There are allegations of political involvement, both in the North and in the South, and representations that favoured one buyer over another, and these have been covered in detail by BBC's "Spotlight" programme. Cerberus, the successful buyer, actually met the Department of Finance before the sale was closed, which I would imagine was completely inappropriate. I ask the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to comment on that. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, actually met Cerberus the day before the closure.
There are reports and records of contact between the Minister for Finance and Ministers from Northern Ireland, particularly the then First Minister, Mr. Peter Robinson, and the then Minister, Mr. Sammy Wilson. It is alleged also that £7 million was involved in fixing the deal and that it was lodged in an offshore account. This is now being investigated by an assembly finance committee.
There are allegations that decisions in NAMA were made without adequate notes being taken or proper management of the apparent conflicts of interest. There was a flawed sales process and an inability on the part of NAMA to show that it got the best value for money for the State. The sale involved so much money that investigations by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the US Department of Justice are under way.
The Committee of Public Accounts is finalising a report on the sale as we speak and has been working on that for the past number of months, but the Government committed on an all-party basis to a commission of inquiry into Project Eagle some weeks ago. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, has demurred from that commitment because he does not feel that there were adequate grounds for a commission.
Will the Minister, Deputy Bruton, commit that the Government will establish a commission of inquiry and will he outline the timeline for its terms of reference?
I thank the Deputy for his question. I was in the House when we established NAMA. One of the aspects that we took considerable care in ensuring was that there could be no possibility of the Minister for Finance of the day interfering in NAMA's commercial activities. I was on the Opposition benches at the time and that was written into the law for good reason, namely, to ensure that NAMA was established on an independent basis and would make its own commercial decisions. That has been the at bedrock of NAMA's operations. Clearly, this means that the Minister for Finance is completely cut off from the way in which NAMA makes decisions about Cerberus, Project Eagle or any other matter in which it has dealings. It is important that the House is aware of this important separation.
As to the idea of establishing a commission of investigation, I understand that the Taoiseach met the leaders of the Opposition and it was agreed in principle that such a commission would be established. As the Deputy averted to, however, we also know that the Committee of Public Accounts is undertaking a report on this issue as a follow-up to the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is appropriate that we would hear the outcome of the deliberations of that committee, which is an organ of this House, before we make a decision in plenary on the terms of reference and the appropriate scope of any commission of investigation. That is the approach that is being taken and it is wholly appropriate. The results will fall where they may and the Government is fully open to such an approach.
If, to quote the Minister, "the Minister for Finance is completely cut off", why did the latter meet Cerberus the day before the deal on Project Eagle went through? Why did he say in the House only a few weeks ago that, in his view, there did not seem to be adequate grounds for a commission? That does not suggest to me that the Minister is "completely cut off". The question is one of whether NAMA delivered the best return possible on taxpayers' money. In the view of the Comptroller and Auditor General, our spending watchdog, it did not. The notion that the Minister could be cut off fails in that instance. In fact, taxpayers have been failed. We need answers.
I welcome the commitment by the Minister, Deputy Bruton that the commission will be established. We expect the Committee of Public Accounts to publish its report within the next fortnight. On that basis, how quickly will the Government move to establish the commission?
To make it clear, there is no question of the Minister having acted inappropriately. He met a former US Secretary of the Treasury who happened to be an employee of Cerberus. He had no hand, act or part in the decision of NAMA, which is established independently under statute to make decisions on its own. Its decisions and decision-making process are what are under scrutiny, as the Deputy rightly recognised. The Minister for Finance has not been involved in that decision-making process, either about the selection of tenderers or any of the other matters about which the Comptroller and Auditor General has raised questions.
The issue that is before the Committee of Public Accounts is whether the approach taken by NAMA was adequate. The Minister for Finance has been open with the committee and participated fully in its discussions.
It is clear that we have set up legislation that ensures that NAMA makes its decisions independently of any politician.
That is operating. The Committee of Public Accounts, which is an independent body, has a right to scrutinise the outcome of that and if we, in this House, decide the commission of inquiry, which has been agreed in principle, ought to go ahead, we will make that decision but it is entirely to make sure there is proper public accountability for decisions made, on a delegated basis, by NAMA, which was entirely delegated to make those commercial decisions independent of the Minister for Finance or any other politician.
Last night the shambolic and incompetent Government scraped through a vote of confidence. While the Government might have won the vote it should be very clear that it and the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, do not enjoy the confidence or support of the majority of Irish people. The Taoiseach and the Government remain in power by way of favour from Fianna Fáil and the Independents in the Government. We all know why Fianna Fáil gave its continued support to this clapped-out Government. Deputy Micheál Martin and his crew are very happy for the failing coalition to remain in power, perpetuating crises and injustice in housing and health. A weak Government suits Fianna Fáil until it is ready to pull the plug based on its own narrow electoral interests. We are clear about what Fianna Fáil is at and why it keeps the Government in power. That is not in question.
Could the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, tell me how the Government managed to secure the support of its Independent colleagues? What was the price of the votes of the Ministers, Deputies Shane Ross, John Halligan, Seán Canney, Kevin Boxer Moran and Finian McGrath, for keeping Deputy Enda Kenny, an incredibly incompetent Taoiseach, in power? We know the Independents were promised some unspecified review of Garda operations by international experts, something that already falls within the remit of the Garda Inspectorate. However, there is a suspicion that more was offered to the Independent Alliance members of the Government in terms of goodies for their constituencies. Could the Minister indicate whether that is true? Perhaps it was another cath lab for the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, in Waterford or Stepaside Garda station, for the Minister, Deputy Ross.
The Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny's name is writ large across the turmoil and chaos in which the Government has become embroiled in the past week. Indeed, his name is writ large across every crisis over which the Government presides. Before the general election last year the Taoiseach told the people it was a clear choice between stability and chaos. He was right, and he has delivered the chaos in spades. Through his evasion, spin and incompetence in the handling of the McCabe scandal, Deputy Enda Kenny has proven himself unfit to continue as Taoiseach. It is clear from media reports this morning that Fine Gael members do not trust Deputy Enda Kenny to run the party so how on earth do they trust him to run the Government?
I have two questions for the Minister. Could he give us the details in full of the deal reached with Fine Gael's Independent supporters yesterday? Given that Deputy Enda Kenny does not command the confidence of the people, when will he vacate the office of Taoiseach?
I thank Deputy Mary Lou McDonald for the question. As she is aware, the objective of the Government is set out in the programme for Government and the Independents and Fine Gael have agreed on that approach. It is all about using our steadily improving economy to improve the lives of people and it is built on a very solid set of programmes. We have a very comprehensive plan on housing, which we never had before. We also have a comprehensive plan on rural revival, which we also never had before. We are seeing every day more people getting back to work and more people returning who had to leave these shores. It is due to the policies pursued by the previous Government and continued now, with a new emphasis on fairness, by the present Government.
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald's party has spent its time relentlessly trying to stand in the way of the progress this Government has made. We are now seeing the fruits of that, namely, more investment in education, housing and health. In terms of what is new from the discussions yesterday, the Independents asked that an independent expert from overseas would look at the process we have put in place to improve the oversight of the Garda, and that is right.
I am proud of the changes we made, which include introducing whistleblowers' legislation, an independent Policing Authority and an independent Garda Inspectorate and strengthening GSOC. It is appropriate at this point that we would look at whether that process, which has been operating for some time, meets best international practice. That is what the Independents have asked for and been provided with. That is part of an approach by this Government to make sure we have solid accountability for our gardaí and other State bodies. That is something this Government is pledged to deliver. As stones have been turned over in recent times, we have seen things we hoped were not there but that is the reality. We are getting to the bottom of those problems and dealing with them very clearly. There is no special deal with the Independents. There is a programme for Government that will improve the lives of the people of this country. Confidence was voted in that Government yesterday. There is a very full agenda that we will continue to pursue.
The Government's record is quite eye-catching - indeed, eye watering. It includes one in eight persons on waiting lists, which is quite something, and childhoods spent in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, hostels and hotels. If the Minister believes this is stuff to brag about, that is, of course, his prerogative. I would beg to differ. I asked the Minister to set out very clearly what the Government has agreed with its Independent colleagues. It is important that he does so. He seems to be suggesting that an inspection of the Garda Inspectorate is what is envisaged. I find that deeply implausible. I suggest that if the Government's Independent colleagues agreed to that, one wonders about the clarity of their thought. The Minister should remember that the inspectorate has delivered 754 recommendations, the vast majority of which have not been implemented.
I also asked the Minister about the position of the Taoiseach. Listening to the Minister's Fine Gael colleagues, it is very clear that confidence in Deputy Enda Kenny as the leader of Fine Gael has run out. That is Fine Gael's business but how can the
Government plausibly suggest that this man should remain as Taoiseach? I have asked a question and I think we need an answer. When will the Taoiseach step aside?
We have a programme for Government to which we are operating. That is the arrangement and that is the truth of it. Deputy McDonald must see that we are improving the situation in health even though we have problems there. We are treating 20% more people in our health service and 2 million people will have operations this coming year as a result of the investment we are putting into that, so there are many people coming into our hospitals, getting good treatment and having their lives improved as a result of the investment we are able to make. The reason we are able to make that investment is that we worked carefully over the past couple of years to get 200,000 people back to work. We are talking about 200,000 pay packets going into homes and revenue into our Exchequer. We are able to invest in education and health. That is the only way we can improve our lot.
I have heard Sinn Féin. It criticises, condemns and expresses outrage about everything but supports nothing. It has opposed every single effort by this Government and the previous one to provide improvements for our community. I quoted Teddy Roosevelt last night. He drew a distinction between the critic, who is abundant on the Opposition benches, and the doer, who gets into the arena and delivers change that has a real impact on people's lives.
I ask the Deputy to resume her seat. She has asked a question in the same way that other leaders have asked questions and has received an answer in the same way others have. That is the process. If she does not like it, she may seek to have it changed but we cannot change it on the floor of the House.
Let me be very clear. It is not the time for questions but I will answer the Deputy's question. I have a role as per the Dáil reform arrangements in respect of ministerial questions. I have no role in respect of directing the Taoiseach or his representative to answer any particular question posed to them in any particular way.
The Deputy might look at the Dáil reform arrangements and Standing Orders that are in place. I call Deputy Howlin.
Every other issue has been buried amid the chaos of the last seven days. The Government has now survived a motion of no confidence. In whatever time it has left, it is important that the Government focuses on some of the crucial issues on which it promised clear action. A new report was published on the private rental sector this week. It showed the largest yearly increase in rents across the country since these records began in 2002. The report from property websiteDaft.iecovered the 2016 calendar year. During that year, rents rose by an extraordinary 13.5%. As the Minister well knows, increases of this magnitude put unbearable pressure on families. They make it harder, if not impossible, for people to buy their own homes. Broken down, these figures show 14.5% increases in Dublin and 12% hikes in Cork. Even outside the so-called pressure areas, we saw rises of 12.5% in rents in Limerick and 10.7% in Waterford. My colleague and our housing spokesperson, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has called on the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, to consider including these in the so-called pressure zones. Of course, he has refused. The Government is basically telling people in Limerick and Waterford that it will do nothing to halt the galloping rents that they are now finding unaffordable.
Even if that were the only issue, it would be strong and sufficient evidence for new action. However, another worrying aspect highlighted in the Daft.iereport is that there is now a critical supply issue. The number of homes available to rent at the start of this month was just 4,000. We need a rapid increase in the availability of housing and the supply solution. In the meanwhile, is the Government willing to accept that the rental strategy it set out to this House is not fit for purpose? Is it not now clear that formal rent control, for which we have advocated for some time and for which my colleague, Deputy Alan Kelly, has advocated for a protracted period of time, is the only policy that will have a real impact on the galloping rent increases? Will the Minister confirm his agreement to revisit the whole issue of formal national rent control now?
I believe the real solution to this is increased supply. That is the real focus of the approach that the Government has been taking. It is about real supply coming from social housing. For the first time, we have committed to 47,000 new builds of social housing after a period in which there was virtually no social housing constructed, which created huge imbalances in the marketplace.
We also have to get private sector building going as well. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has created a whole range of initiatives to move that along using council and publicly-owned land to open up new opportunities for affordable housing, starter homes and social housing. That work is in progress. I believe it is encouraging to see in the reports that the Minister has published this week on the progress that has been made that there is a very strong growth in, for example, housing starts, which is an early indicator of the success of the strategy he is pursuing. We will have to see that materialise in completions in due course but I believe there are strong indications that we are seeing a revival of activity in the sector.
The Minister has recognised that there are pressures in the rental market as a result of that lack of supply. That is why he has introduced for a period a cap on rents. That cap provides that there can be only a 4% increase in rents. It also provides that there is a restriction on those who have not had increases for a number of years. Landlords cannot leapfrog rents to increase them in big amounts. Those caps are just coming into force now. We look forward to seeing the rental figures in the future impacted by those decisions. In terms of extending that to other areas, the Minister has indicated that there is an approach to extending it. It will be based on an analysis of the actual marketplace situation in each location. The Minister is fully open to looking at new areas.
As of the date he produced the order in December, Dublin and Cork clearly met that criteria but there is a further group coming up behind those cities, and I have no doubt other areas will be subjected to such caps also if that is established.
The Minister's answer is not good enough. He talks about supply. Of course, supply is the answer but the reality I have just outlined is that there are only 4,000 houses available to rent this month. There is no point in the Minister talking about a year or so. We need to have a rental policy now and that rental policy has to affect every citizen. We do not want a protracted process that involves only people affected now in Dublin and Cork. As far as the Government is concerned, the people in Limerick, Waterford and other areas can take a hike. I ask Minister to reconsider that until such time as the supply becomes available, which I believe it will over time, to ensure that people will not be facing ruinous rises in their rents, wherever they live in this country. I ask him to accept the proposal to put a rent cap in place nationally until such time as the agreed strategy to increase supply becomes effective.
The truth is that the Minister has put in place a framework for putting caps on rental accommodation. He has put in criteria which will be used to decide the areas where there are rental pressures.
It is only where there are rental pressures that those caps are appropriate. He has put that process in place and it is open to any area to set out its case. It will be objectively assessed and the same order will apply-----
That is a speedy process he has put in place and each area can be assessed on the basis of the framework that is set. As Deputy Howlin recognises, it is crucial that we continue to get the public supply, the rapid build, the new initiatives in the private sector and the new student accommodation that will take pressure off rental accommodation. All those elements are proceeding at pace.
The early indicators are very clear that that strategy is starting to get traction and have an impact but it will take time to build. In the meantime, there is the protection for tenants of the rental caps that are being put in place.
Mr. Paul Cullen, the health correspondent in The Irish Times, wrote today that more than 20 Irish patients with severe lung disease are facing the removal of a life-changing drug within weeks following its rejection by the Health Service Executive on cost efficiency grounds. The patients who have genetic emphysema are due to see their use of Repreeza provided through a compassionate use programme end in two weeks. Most of them have been on the treatment for up to a decade and fear a rapid deterioration if the drug is no longer available. An application to have the treatment, which costs more than €100,000 per patient but is provided free of charge, has been rejected by the HSE drugs group.
I want to compliment the Alpha One Foundation, which runs a HSE-funded screening programme in Beaumont Hospital in Dublin. It has said that the treatment has been life-changing for patients. I compliment people such as Professor McElvaney and others who have been doing great work for the patients who suffer from this most severe of diseases.
I know about this disease first hand, being a very close friend of a patient who has been suffering with it for many years and who relies on this life-saving drug. Some people have another condition, panniculitis, which is combined with the emphysema problem I have highlighted. If this drug is taken from them, they will slowly fade away.
This Government, the Department of Health, and the Minister, who is sitting beside the Minister, Deputy Bruton, should get on to the drugs companies providing this drug. For God's sake, we are not talking about an unimportant issue. We are talking about a drug that will save people's lives. It is saving their lives. It is keeping them alive. If the drug is taken from them, the immediate effect will be that they will lose the power in their legs, they will not be able to breath and will have to fight for every breath. The money for this drug has to be provided but the drugs companies have to be tackled also.
I ask the Minister for Health in particular to go to them, sit down with them and tell them that for God's sake on compassionate grounds they should reduce the cost so the HSE will be able to continue to provide this lifesaving drug. I know people who are at home today and who have already heard Professor McElvaney and others discussing the drug on Radio One this morning. They will also hear it being spoken about here, but what we want to hear from the Minister and the Government is that they will help these people. It is not an huge number of people, but my God their lives are every bit as important as mine or the Minister's any day of the week.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I read the newspaper reports, as did the Deputy. Any drug that improves people's lives is something to be welcomed. I understand the patients have what is described as compassionate access to the drug but the company appears to be suggesting this will be withdrawn from them.
The HSE has a process for deciding what drugs are supplied with the public paying for them. These decisions are made entirely independently of the political process. There is an independent process which I understand is not complete, and whether the drug in question should be supported will go to the HSE's management committee for a decision. It makes its decisions on independent assessment of the impact versus the cost. We have seen previously that companies have been looking for exorbitant costs for some medication. The Minister has taken initiatives with other colleagues in other countries, including the UK, Scotland and Australia, to seek to ensure all health patients on public lists get access to medication on fair terms. This is where the issue rests.
In the same report mentioned by the Deputy, I saw the HSE needs more cost-effective pricing from a company to ensure the drug can be made available to public patients. I appeal to the company to ensure the pricing of such products, which can transform people's lives, is set at a reasonable level so public patients, whether here or in other countries, can gain access to them. The Government has sought to deal with this national issue, but in terms of individual products it is down to the HSE to make that decision. This decision-making process, I understand, is not yet complete.
The Minister knows that in the past a life-saving drug was approved for cystic fibrosis patients. The plight of the patients on Respreeza has attracted far less interest, perhaps because they are older and fewer in number. As well as the approximately 20 patients on the access programme another 40 people with alpha 1 are waiting to receive it should the HSE give approval. I make this plea in the House. This involves the small number of 20 people, but this is how they have been living in recent months: they are only told this month whether they are approved for next month. It is literally like being told, "We are not sure yet whether we will allow you to have a proper quality of life or whether you will start to slowly die". This is an awful thing to have to say about these people, but it is how they are being treated. I beg the Minister for Health to give these people certainty today. Sit down with the drugs companies, call them to order and ask them to have sense. They have a public and moral responsibility to help these poor people. I am not fighting with the Minister, but I am asking him to tackle this work please. Nothing could be more important than saving people's lives and I ask the Minister to do this please.
It is very unfair if the company has given 20 people compassionate access to a life-transforming drug and is seeking to withdraw it from these patients as part of a negotiation to get a better price deal or wider access. This seems to be a very unfair approach by the company. There are responsibilities on the company. If it gives access to a life-transforming product it should sustain it for those people in a pilot programme. Of course there are issues on the wider front, regarding the HSE deciding on the efficacy of the drug and the possibility of extending it to a much wider number of patients.
That has substantial economic cost. The Minister has just negotiated a saving of €650 million for access to new drugs by taking a hardheaded approach to negotiating with companies but these 20 patients should not lose their access to this product so that a negotiation can be concluded on more favourable terms. The approach of Government, to seek international support and put on a united front to get a decent deal for public patients, is the right one.
I am not wrong. The HSE and the company are in negotiation about its longer-term use in the wider public service. As I understand it, the company provided 20 patients with compassionate access to this product as a demonstration of its efficacy. I do not believe that should be withdrawn in the process of a discussion about its longer-term use.