Wednesday, 12 July 2017
The rural economy is facing many threats and challenges, not least the Brexit challenge due to its reliance on agrifood and small and medium sized enterprises, SMEs. Broadband is critical infrastructure for SMEs and households across rural Ireland. The Government's performance to date in implementing the national broadband plan has been shockingly slow and ineffective, revealing an incapacity to project manage, execute and deliver a plan of this nature. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, confirmed this as far back as 2015 when he said the Government has lost patience with the pace of the roll-out. The procurement process has been ongoing for a considerable length of time.
There have been many commitments. In 2012, the then Minister, former Deputy Pat Rabbitte, published a plan committing the Government to providing 100% broadband provision well ahead of 2020. In its 2016 manifesto, Fine Gael committed to the provision of high speed broadband to at least 85% of premises by 2018 and 100% by 2020. In 2016, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, said that the contract would be awarded by June 2017. However, now we cannot even get a date from that Minister for when the procurement process will be completed. The decision to allow Eir to proceed with 300,000 households appears to have condemned the remaining 542,000 households to an indefinite wait for broadband. Ronan Lupton of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators summed up the situation when he said that the commercial viability of the national broadband plan is now in question. He said, "We're in Angola with regards to rural broadband and it looks like we're going to stay in Angola".
The reason for the Government's decision regarding Eir, which is a commercial company, must be far more transparent. Does it fundamentally alter the procurement process, given what companies were originally tendering for and the new situation? In the replies the Minister gave to questions in the Dáil he spoke about the next phase of the plan and so forth. However, the deadlines have been missed and the programme for Government commitment is way out when compared to what was said. There must be full transparency on this. Why is the Minister not in a position to give a date for the completion of the procurement process and the awarding of the contract in respect of the remaining 542,000 houses? Otherwise rural Ireland will be condemned indefinitely in terms of the provision of broadband, which will have dire consequences for the retention of investment and attracting inward investment in the future.
The Government believes in an economy that is based on equal opportunity, that is, the opportunity for every individual and family, as well as every region of the country, to join fully in the economic recovery and to experience prosperity. We are seeing economic growth in all parts of the country, as is evident in the statistics. There is jobs growth in all parts of the country and unemployment is falling in all regions. That is extremely important for many reasons. However, we must accelerate the recovery in rural areas and ensure that the areas that have not grown as fast as our cities are able to catch up. Improvements in infrastructure are crucial to enabling them to catch up. That includes improvements in transport infrastructure, which are under way with the Gort to Tuam motorway just one example of a major project, and improvements in broadband, to allow premises, businesses and homes to connect to the high speed broadband network.
Currently, just over 50% of premises in Ireland have access to high speed broadband. We estimate that it will increase to over 75% by the end of 2018 and to between 90% and 100% by 2020-21. Eir has committed to providing high speed broadband to 300,000 premises and it will start on that shortly. In the larger intervention area 550,000 premises have been identified for intervention under the national broadband plan. At present, detailed discussions are taking place around the contracts. They will run until September, approximately, and it is estimated that the companies can put in their final bids at that point. It is a huge contract and we are anxious to ensure we get it right. The Deputy will be aware that there were difficulties and problems in the past with telecommunications contracts, and with such contracts going wrong, so it is important that we get this absolutely right. The money is available to support it and the Government is fully behind it.
We are determined to minimise any delays in providing broadband to all parts of the country. Indeed, at local authority level officers have been appointed to be a single point of contact in respect of broadband, so they can overcome difficulties that in the past and even now could be created by local authorities in providing access to the infrastructure required for the roll-out of broadband.
The Taoiseach must answer the questions that are asked. Eir is not the Government and he should stop trying to claim credit for what a commercial operator is doing. Deadlines have been missed repeatedly and the Minister, Deputy Naughten, has refused to give a date for when the procurement process will be complete and the contract awarded. The Government's commitment in the programme for Government has gone by the wayside. That programme states: "Following the completion of the tender process and the awarding of the contract, targeted for June 2017, the new Government will work with the winners to accelerate the roll out of the infrastructure next year". We are nowhere near that, and there is no transparency around it. Cliff Taylor put it very well in a recent article when he wrote: "At this stage even the National Children's Hospital will be operational before the broadband plan is complete." The degree to which the needs of rural households and businesses are being denied and dismissed is scandalous, given the shambolic approach to delivering on a national plan that was published as far back as 2012. We now face the prospect of it being potentially 2019 or 2020 before we see the commencement of this plan, if at all. We do not know whether the companies that bid for the original process are now redoing their sums as a result of the Government's decision with regard to Eir.
That changes the ballpark. If one bids for 900,000 and 300,000 are taken out, with no reason given for the change in the Government's approach in that regard, does the plan not change fundamentally? Is it the case that the 542,000 premises will be waiting to infinity for something to happen?
Eir is a private firm and, as such, has identified approximately 300,000 premises where it believes it can provide high speed broadband on a commercial basis at no cost to the taxpayer. That is very welcome. Obviously we wish to ensure that when we use taxpayers' money we do so where it is needed, not where the private sector or a commercial enterprise can do it for us without recourse to the taxpayer. That is under way and it will allow another 300,000 premises across the country to be connected to high speed broadband.
That is very important and welcome. As for the other 540,000 premises, Government intervention will be required and we are determined to do that as quickly as we possibly can. However, we have to follow proper procedures and procurement rules. We hope there will be a number of bidders for this enormous contract and it can be awarded as soon as possible. I assure the Deputy that the Government will minimise delays. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that every premises has access to high speed broadband to enable all of them to take part in the modern digital economy as they wish to do.
Moore Street was the last battlefield site of the 1916 Rising and the final meeting place of some of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic. Those who met included James Connolly, Pádraig Pearse, Thomas Clarke, Joseph Plunkett and Seán Mac Diarmada. Michael Collins, the Taoiseach's hero, also played a prominent role in the battle of Moore Street, as did nurse Elizabeth Farrell. The street is, therefore, of significant importance to the story of Ireland and our revolutionary history. It is an indictment of successive Governments that the site has not been developed as a heritage site or national monument but allowed to fall into dereliction. We may wonder why this is so. It is because the ruling elites in this State have no affinity with the egalitarian message of the 1916 Proclamation and its promise of, and commitment to, equality for all citizens.
Moore Street was to be destroyed and replaced with a shopping mall but this was prevented by public outrage. Last year, during the centenary commemorations of the 1916 Rising - the Taoiseach should consider the irony of this - the relatives of the leaders of the Rising were in the High Court in opposition to the Government's plans. The High Court accepted their case and ruled that Moore Street constitutes a national monument. What did the Government do but appeal the decision of the High Court. Is it not incredible that in the centenary year of the Rising, the Government appealed against a legal ruling that Moore Street, an integral part of the Rising, should be saved?
At the same time, a consultative group established by the Minister also recommended the development of Moore Street as a battlefield site and part of an historical cultural quarter. The group, comprising of Oireachtas representatives, Dublin city councillors, representatives of 1916 relatives groups, Moore Street campaigning groups, street traders and other relevant stakeholders, put forward detailed proposals for the preservation and regeneration of this iconic place. The Minister accepted the report, although she has not yet brought before the Cabinet.
On the one hand, the Minister is appealing a court ruling that Moore Street be preserved while, on the other hand, she has accepted a report recommending the preservation of this iconic site and detailed proposals for its development. While her acceptance of the report has no legal status at this time, the Government's appeal against the High Court decision clearly has such status. Not surprisingly, the developer of the site is not engaging with the oversight group. It now appears the developer is prepared to await the outcome of the Government's appeal which is to be heard in the autumn. That is disgraceful.
Will the Taoiseach stop the Government's appeal against the High Court decision on the preservation of Moore Street? Will he confirm his support for, and take the necessary steps to ensure the implementation of, the report of the consultative group established by the Minister?
I have had the opportunity to visit Moore Street many times in the course of normal life. In particular, a couple of years ago, I went on a tour of the area with some of the representatives of the families of descendants of those who were involved in the 1916 Rising. Deputy Adams will know that there are different views among the different groups of descendants and family representatives on this important issue. Moore Street is an historical site, one of many connected to the Rising, including the GPO, College of Surgeons and many of the other locations where commemorations were held last year.
The State has acquired Nos. 14 to 17 Moore Street and part of No. 18. When all other proposals to restore the buildings failed, the acquisition was facilitated by the National Asset Management Agency as the buildings were under lien to the agency at the time. The Department then took up a tender process that had been initiated by the previous owners for the conservation and restoration of the buildings as a 1916 commemorative centre.
The Moore Street consultative group was set up to bring together all relevant interests after the High Court ruling of March 2016 which stopped work on the State's restoration project. The group reported to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, at the end of March 2017 with a set of recommendations for a way forward for the street based on consensus. The report looked carefully at all relevant aspects, including the variety of State, public and private properties and interests on the street and the need to cement the presence of the street traders. The report signals the potential for a successful outcome to be agreed between the relevant parties that balances the perspectives of all the key stakeholders. The Minister and Government are fully supportive of this approach and we want to see the work that has been done continue in order that we can progress to the next stage and see tangible results and real improvements on the ground.
The next step was the establishment of a new advisory group, which the report identifies as the most effective way to move forward with its recommendations. An advisory group chaired by Dr. Tom Collins was established and its work is under way. Its members are drawn from among the membership of the former Moore Street consultative group. The advisory group's task is to engage with all stakeholder bodies that have a role in bringing the recommendations of the consultative group to fruition. Its objective will be to secure an outcome that is acceptable to everyone and provides an agreed framework for the future of Moore Street.
The Government is continuing with the appeal of the High Court decision, not only because of its implications for the Moore Street site but also because of its implications for infrastructure projects more generally. It would not be appropriate to get into the detail of the appeal in this House as it is before the courts. The work of the advisory group can continue notwithstanding the appeal and the Office of Public Works has taken in charge Nos. 14, 15, 16 and 17 Moore Street.
The Taoiseach's answer is very disappointing. I wonder if he had a "Love Actually" or "Michael Collins" moment when he went down Moore Street. This House is the place for the Taoiseach to give notice that he is stopping the appeal against the High Court decision. He is new to this job and this is probably the final time he will take Leaders' Questions in this session. The vision he has set out runs totally contrary to the 1916 Proclamation. The Republic proclaimed in the revolutionary period has yet to be realised. Last year, we had a hugely popular, public and justifiably proud celebration in commemoration of the Rising. The core values proclaimed at that time should underpin the daily work of Members and any Government working for the future that describes itself as republican.
As is often the case in this State, the court case was taken by a citizen, Colm Ó Mordha. Instead of the State doing this, we have citizens standing up and doing it all the time.
There is no division of opinion. The report of the consultative group has widespread support.
Beidh mé críochnaithe leis seo, a Cheann Comhairle. I asked the Taoiseach to drop the Government's appeal. He copped out and dodged that question and spoke of the importance of history. Does he know that, according to the Minister, the money that will be used to fund the appeal will more than likely come from the 1916 commemorations fund? Public money set aside to preserve our history will be used to destroy our history. As I do not have time to repeat my questions, I ask the Taoiseach to drop the case and confirm his support for the consultative report.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Republic was proclaimed outside the GPO, not on Moore Street. The vision I have put across of the Republic I want to see is one in which every individual and every part of the country has an opportunity to share in our prosperity. That is why infrastructural development is so important. The reason the Government is appealing the case is on a point of law and because of the potential impacts it could have on other developments around the country.
In this case, an entire battlefield site or entire area encompassing a number of streets has been designated. If that precedent were followed in other places, it could make it very difficult for us to embark on the ambitious expansionary economic policy that we have and the building programme we have in many other parts of the country where we need to invest in infrastructure and build new housing, hospitals, primary care centres, schools and third level institutions.
We need to be assured that the implications of this case do not prevent us doing those things in other parts of the country. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, reassures me that the funding for the case, if there even is a bill - of course we do not know what the outcome is going to be - will not come from the 2016 commemoration fund.
"Will we keep her here for the night?" Not one, not two, but three gardaí up to the rank of superintendent swore under oath that they heard me say those words at the protest in Jobstown. Words designed-----
Yesterday in the Dáil, the Taoiseach said that he had been struck by the moment when that was said. He could not have been struck by it because it did not happen. Last Thursday, the Taoiseach made comments on "Prime Time" expressing concern over potentially false statements given by gardaí. Yesterday, he entered the Dáil and put them on the Official Report of the Dáil. We proved, and we can prove again, that they were not said because of a video taken by a protestor. I ask the Taoiseach to retract the comments that he made yesterday and to correct the record.
One garda misremembering this under oath would be an unfortunate error. Two gardaí remembering the same words that were not said would be an incredible, almost unbelievable, coincidence, but three gardaí - the Taoiseach should tell me what he thinks that means. Add to that the garda who swore under oath that he had seen me directing protestors where to stand. When confronted with video evidence proving that I was not directing anybody and he could not have seen me in any case, he responded, "I stand over my statement". Add to that the superintendent who, in his written statement, claimed that-----
I am finished with the examples because they have demonstrated my point. If the Taoiseach wants more, I would be happy to go through the transcript and the video evidence with him, as are the other defendants who are here.
It was followed by the former Taoiseach saying that it was kidnapping. It was followed by the now Taoiseach saying that it was thuggery. It was followed by the Taoiseach's lost colleague, Mr. Noel Coonan, describing it as the same as ISIS. That was echoed by large sections of the media. Now, politicians - not courts - have to deal with the consequences.
The Deputy had a fair trial. It went on for nine weeks. The Deputy's peers heard both sides of the case, the prosecution and the defence. They reviewed the evidence and they acquitted him of false imprisonment. You are not a victim here. You are not the victim of any conspiracy.
For those of us who have seen some of the coverage of it that was broadcast on television, whether it was the anger, the virulence, the words that were being directed at two women going about their course of work on the day-----
-----a water balloon being thrown in somebody's face, all of those things were behaviour that is unbecoming of a Member of this House, unbecoming of somebody who believes in democracy and unbecoming of somebody who has any respect for other human beings. Instead of trying to present himself as the victim and demanding a public inquiry, what the Deputy should do now in the House is offer a public apology-----
-----they are victims. The Taoiseach avoided the question quite deliberately because there is a logical flaw in his position. His position is to say that it would be a serious problem - I agree as it would be a matter of severe importance and public interest - if, in an abstract sense, gardaí would give false statements under oath. I agree that this is an important issue, but there is a logical problem with following that by saying that we will get the Commissioner, Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan, and the Garda management to look into it.
The logical problem, as the Taoiseach knows, is that, first, we do not know how high this conspiracy went inside the Garda and, second, we do know that Nóirín O'Sullivan and the Garda hierarchy have been implicated in scandal after scandal after scandal.
-----who should not have been led in that sort of protest, which is unbecoming our democracy and our politics.
As the Head of Government, I have a legitimate concern about any failed prosecution, whether it is that prosecution or the prosecution of Mr. Seán FitzPatrick or others. Enormous cost goes into such prosecutions. Enormous effort goes into such prosecutions, and at the very least, if a prosecution fails in this way, there should be a review or an examination of the facts. That is something that should occur.
That is the assertion that has been made. I ask that the transcripts be looked at. I do not know these people. I have no axe to grind one way or the other but it has been stated in the House that people told lies in their evidence to the court.
I want to take up the issue of the new research study that was published this morning, namely, Investing in the Right to a Home: Housing, HAPs and Hubs by Dr. Rory Hearne and Dr. Mary Murphy. The study was conducted as part of a Europe-wide examination of how to strengthen social investment. It says that the housing crisis has not yet peaked and is likely to escalate over the next five years. It also states that families can be severely damaged and traumatised from living in emergency accommodation, including family hubs. This study is based on international experience and research into Irish emergency accommodation. Does the Taoiseach agree that families and children should not - as the report and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission recommend - spend longer than three months in emergency accommodation, including family hubs, and that this should be legislated for and there should be a commitment to close all hubs by December 2019? Does he agree there is a danger, as the study says, that the newly established family hubs could become a form of direct provision for poor families?
The report finds that the major reliance of successive Governments, particularly in the context of Rebuilding Ireland, on the private sector to provide social housing has contributed to the problems now facing the State where two thirds of new social housing has come from the private rental sector? The report finds a core tension between Irish housing and economic policy with one trying to address the social housing crisis and the latter encouraging and relying on the private market to deliver investment in housing. The report states that the absence of State investment in social housing negates the rights of the vulnerable. It also states that the housing assistance payment - a payment to households on the social housing list but living in the private rented sector - is not a valid mechanism to meet the right to housing. While the report makes this argument from a security of tenure perspective, it also notes that, from a cost perspective, direct-build social housing presents a far greater return on State investment and thus is a more cost-efficient policy option.
There are other points I want to make but I will conclude on this. Even Rebuilding Ireland's inadequate targets are not being met. The relevant figures show that just 200 new social housing units were built in quarter 1 of this year. There will be fewer than 1,000 new social housing units built this year, which is less than a third of the Rebuilding Ireland target of 3,200. Of the €1.3 billion budget for so-called social housing this year, just a quarter, approximately €390 million, will be capital investment in the new build social programme. The real test for the Taoiseach, his Government and his commitment to human rights and equality is whether he is prepared to say that enough is enough, that this is an emergency and that no family will spend longer than three months in emergency accommodation. He should put every resource available to the State into undertaking an emergency social housing building programme, beginning in the next month, in order to meet the target of 5,000 social housing units a year. This has to be done and the problem must be faced up to.
The intention of the family hub, of which 15 are advancing or have been delivered in Dublin, with a further three in Limerick, Cork and Kildare, is to ensure that families no longer have to spend time in commercial hotels or bed and breakfast accommodation except in extreme or exceptional situations. Staying in a bed and breakfast establishment or a hotel is not appropriate for families. This type of accommodation is much preferable to the situation we have at the moment with people staying in bed and breakfast establishments and hotels. It is not considered to be a long-term housing solution. It is absolutely not the intention. It is only intended to be a short-term solution while people are provided with houses, apartments or proper accommodation under the social housing support system, whether through rent supplement, HAP or social housing.
In terms of the progress being made on the implementation of the Rebuilding Ireland plan, it is important to point out a few things. Planning permission has been granted for 16,375 new homes in the past 12 months, which is an increase of 26%. Commencement notices have been issued for 14,192 new homes nationwide, which is an increase of 38%. When it comes to housing completions as measured by ESB connections, in the 12 months up to the end of March 2015, it reached 15,684 homes across the country, which is 19% on the previous year. We are, without doubt, seeing an acceleration in the provision of housing and house -building. We are way behind where we need to be but we are now moving in the right direction. In terms of social housing there is a pipeline of 600 social housing projects involving the construction of over 10,000 homes at various stages in the process. There are currently 130 schemes under way on sites nationwide building over 2,400 homes. These include large-scale sites brought forward for mixed-tenure housing such as O'Devaney Gardens in Dublin City Council, Kilcarbery in South Dublin County Council and also in Fingal.
There are 90,000 people on the housing waiting list. There are also the silent homeless living in overcrowded accommodation. There are also those who are in emergency accommodation. The reality is that the issue is not being addressed. We have not even reached the peak of this housing crisis and we are not addressing what we should be doing over the next five to ten years. The fact is that we are not short of solutions. The report outlines many, -as Neary and others have done - in terms of the State stepping up and delivering and leading the supply of social and affordable housing, something it has resolutely failed to do up to now. Instead, it is waiting and encouraging the private market which this report shows will not deliver social or affordable housing. We need to increase our capital expenditure funding to at least €1 billion a year in order to deliver funding to local authorities and housing bodies to enable them to build a minimum of 5,000 units a year. It has been said to the Taoiseach here today that these hubs can possibly become the direct provision centres of the future. He has heard it and he has had to respond to it. He has to deal with this emergency and meet with this group, Rory Hearne and the housing committee to go through this report. It is really crucial that we deal with these issues now and not let this continue.
I have met Rory Hearne on occasion in the past. I recall he was student union president in Trinity when I was a student there and I think he may even have been an election candidate for one of the left-wing groups more recently than that. I met him not too long ago at a running event in the Phoenix Park where he was less than pleasant, to put it that way. It certainly was not the kind of polite conversation I would expect from a university academic.
There are 90,000 people on the housing list but very many, if not most, have houses and apartments. However, these are houses and apartments that are being provided to them through rent supplement or the private rental sector and they want different houses or apartments that are more appropriate to their needs. It is important to recall that of those 90,000 on the housing list, the majority are in houses or apartments, just not the permanent homes they would like to have and which we would like them to have.
The total commitment in terms of the Government to social housing is a commitment of €5.35 billion so it is pretty much €1 billion a year, if not more. That is intended to deliver 47,000 social homes by the end of 2021.