Wednesday, 20 September 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions
Cabinet Committee Meetings
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
As I outlined to the House in July, the Government agreed to streamline the Cabinet committee structure and approved the establishment of new committees. Cabinet Committees A, B, C, D and E met last week. The next meeting of Cabinet Committee D has yet to be scheduled.
Cabinet Committee D covers housing, climate action, infrastructure investment and delivery, and the national planning framework. Among other issues, this committee will provide political oversight of our efforts to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis and our transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy.
Providing affordable, quality and accessible housing is a priority in A Programme for a Partnership Government. The previously constituted Cabinet committee on housing met regularly to oversee the development and implementation of the Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness.
On 14 June, I outlined to the House my view that while Rebuilding Ireland is working, it may not be enough. I tasked the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to review the plan and to consider what additional measures may be required.
The first set of measures, with a particular focus on homelessness, was presented following the recent summit with local authority chief executives. Yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, announced a further set of measures in relation to the rental market. Further announcements will be made over the coming weeks. Work continues on implementing the actions already in the plan.
In addition to housing, the new Cabinet committee covers a wide range of infrastructure investment and climate action. These are two of the most significant challenges facing the country and were considered at a special meeting of the Government on 19 July 2017 in Kildare. Following this meeting, the Government published Ireland's first national mitigation plan. Prepared in accordance with the provisions of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, the plan is an initial step to set Ireland on a pathway to achieve decarbonisation by mid-century in line with the Government's policy objectives. The Cabinet committee will help to ensure a co-ordinated approach across all Departments to this transition.
The Government recognises that increasing capital investment in our public infrastructure is also required. Targeted increases in capital expenditure will support the efficient growth of our economy and the delivery of Ireland's climate objectives.
Decisions in relation to this increased capital expenditure will be informed by the review of the capital plan, published last week.
The Cabinet committee will help drive the development and delivery of infrastructure and associated policy through the forthcoming national planning framework and new ten year national investment plan, both currently under preparation. This long-term approach will provide clarity and certainty in planning and capital expenditure, while facilitating a sustainable approach to meeting Ireland's future investment needs.
In the Taoiseach's reply during Leaders' Questions I missed whether he gave a date for the publication of the capital plan and the related planning framework. Is there a date in mind? During Leaders' Questions, the Taoiseach talked about facilitating, and in fact welcoming, a protracted open-ended debate on the capital plan and planning framework. Will the Taoiseach produce some grounding documentation so that we can have a base on which to discuss that before any final decisions are made? I would be interested in the Taoiseach's thoughts on that.
I ask the Taoiseach to put clearly on the record of the Dáil that there is sufficient money available now to build the national maternity hospital. We read in national newspapers a strong suggestion from the Department of Health that it warned that it did not have enough money to build the national maternity hospital and other key infrastructural projects to be undertaken, including primary care centres and a major refurbishment of information technology, IT.
It is important for the people who have invested so much effort in preparing so long for the national maternity hospital that we put it completely to bed today with a very clear and unambiguous statement from the Taoiseach. I must refer to the additional amount of €2 billion sought by the Department of Health. The Taoiseach will know that it is always a nice round figure from the Department of Health when it looks for additional money-----
That is true; it was €1 billion. Everything was in bundles of €1 billion. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach make it crystal clear that these projects are going ahead.
On social housing, I was interested in remarks made by the Taoiseach during the summer about the need for a bespoke agency to drive a housing plan. I suggested a year ago - it was a strongly held view of mine in the latter period of my time in government - that it would be a suitable role for a reconfigured NAMA because it had access to capital and land banks and had negotiated with developers as a matter of course during the years. Will the Taoiseach outline his views on whether it would be a good idea to reconfigure NAMA as a new national housing delivery agency to supplement and complement the work done by local authorities which obviously also have to be prime drivers in these matters.
Six years of failed and flawed policies by a Fine Gael and Labour Party Government and, more recently, a Fine Gael, Independent and Independent Alliance Government have left us with a national housing and homelessness emergency. I want to know more about the references the Taoiseach belatedly made - six years too late - to the possibility of NAMA, instead of flogging land and property as it has done for the past six years, being transformed into an agency to deliver social and affordable housing. I know that the Taoiseach is fond of jogging and will be familiar with the Nike slogan, "Just do it". I am wondering if he will just do it, albeit six years too late. Will he just do it and transform NAMA into what it should always have been, namely, a vehicle to deliver social and affordable housing, using what is left of its land banks and assets?
Today Dr. Rory Hearne and Dr. Mary Murphy from NUI Maynooth added their voices to those of Fr. Peter McVerry, the Mercy Law Resource Centre, MLRC, and the Simon Communities on the necessity to insert the right to housing into the Constitution. Dr. Murphy pointed out - this is related to the NAMA question - that states within the European Union that had such a constitutional imperative had gained flexibility within the EU fiscal rules. This is very relevant in the context of our capacity to deliver housing, if what she says is true. Will the Taoiseach heed the advice of the academics in the area of housing, the MLRC, the Simon Communities and Fr. Peter McVerry, and pass our Bill tonight which seeks a constitutional amendment to insert the right to housing into the Constitution?
We are all now aware of the stats, as they are called. There are 90,000 homeless households, including 3,000 homeless children, while three homeless citizens died over the summer. It all comes down to an ideological question. Sinn Féin believes every citizen has the right to a home. we believe it should be a constitutional right, but the Taoiseach's Government does not share that belief. It is clearly of the view that this fundamental right should be subject to the whims of the market. In other words, the profit motive dictates the way in which the Government deals with the homelessness crisis. In my constituency and across the north east the number of homeless children has increased, but the Government has ignored the gravity of the issue. There is a special need for the Government to limit the grounds on which landlords can evict citizens; we should be keeping citizens in their homes. This week's Residential Tenancies Board quarterly rent index report found that rents in Dublin were 10% higher than they were at the peak of the Celtic tiger. The Government is failing to protect renters. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have opposed motions we have introduced to introduce rent certainty, with rent reviews being linked with the consumer price index. I welcome the decision to extend the rent pressure zones to include Drogheda which should have been included in the first instance. Will the Taoiseach tell us if the return of the bedsit was discussed by the Cabinet committee? Will he also explain why the Government does not accept that a citizen has the right to a home?
Last week we had a very curious situation when the Taoiseach announced that NAMA would be taking a role in providing housing but subsequently said nothing had been decided. It was the latest in a lengthening list of policy announcements, both anonymous and claimed, by the Government which are not actually announcements. Will he explain the status of his statement about NAMA? Has the issue been considered by the Cabinet committee or the wider Cabinet or is it just something that was inserted at the last minute to try to grab a headline? The Taoiseach knows that for nearly two years we have been pushing for a significant role to be played by a changed NAMA in helping to make up the huge deficit in social housing. It is extraordinary that 4,000 units offered by NAMA last year to local authorities were turned down. That is extraordinary when there are 3,000 children in emergency accommodation in hotels. We do not have the luxury of being able to turn down the offer of 4,000 houses. Will the Taoiseach indicate why he has suddenly reversed course on this approach?
We do not yet have a date yet fixed for the publication of the new national development plan, but it is intended to publish it before the end of the year - most likely in November or December. There will, of course, be additional capital allocations which will be assigned to Departments on budget day. They are additional allocations for the years 2019, 2020 and 2021. The existing capital plan, with which the Deputies are familiar, runs to 2021; therefore, there will be additional allocations for Departments announced on budget day, but the ten year plan will not be published until the end of the year.
I am very pleased that planning permission has now been granted for the national maternity hospital. The project will go to tender as soon as possible. The amount provided in existing capital plans is €150 million, but, obviously, it is only when something goes to tender that one will know how much it is going to cost. It is absolutely my intention, without offering a blank cheque to anyone who might tender for the project, to make sure it will goe ahead. Deputy Brendan Howlin will recall that when we were working in government together, there was a discussion back and forth on the national children's hospital, how much it would cost and how we would fund it, but no one ever doubted that we would fund it. It is under construction and Deputies will know-----
There is, but that is for the national children's hospital, not the national maternity hospital. Deputies will know that while we have extended and renovated a lot of hospitals, no new hospital has been built from scratch since 1997. Next year I anticipate that we will have at least three new hospitals under construction - the national children's hospital, the new mental health and forensic hospital and the national maternity hospital. Perhaps we might build even more after that.
My principled view is that social housing should be built by local authorities and approved housing bodies, not by NAMA. Local authorities are in place to build social housing and they are now getting back into that business. Approved housing bodies have been doing it for quite some time. They are the best vehicles to build social housing. What I said in my speech in Clonmel was that we were examining the role of NAMA with a view to giving it a new role in the provision of housing.
NAMA will soon complete the job it was asked to do. It will be able to repay all of the senior debt over the coming months.
No, a decision has not been taken because many of the details have yet to be finalised. There has been a great deal of discussion with NAMA by the Departments of Finance and Housing, Planning and Local Government. Any change in the remit of NAMA would require primary legislation, which would have to come before the Houses for debate, and consultation and discussion with the European Commission because, as Deputy Howlin will be aware of having been in Government at the time, NAMA was established under particular conditions to be off-balance sheet, to which we must have regard. It is not a case of just doing it because were we to do so we could quickly find we do not have the finance to build any houses and that would not be particularly useful to anyone.
As I understand it, the proposal for a constitutional amendment will be referred to the finance committee, where it can be given full and due consideration. I believe that is appropriate. I am sceptical of the claim that a constitutional right as exists in other countries provides some sort of flexibility when it comes to the fiscal rules. I would like to see that in writing from a European body, not an academic. If I did see that in writing from a European body I would certainly be interested. As in the case of all capital spend, not only housing spend, there is capital smoothing provision under the European rules which allows for only one quarter of it to be counted in the first year. I would be interested in any European document that states that there is some sort of exception made if a country has a right to housing in its Constitution. I would also be interested to know whether countries that have a right to housing in their constitutions have a homelessness problem, which I suspect they do; whether they have people on housing lists, again I suspect they do; and whether they have people who cannot afford homes, which I expect they do because a right in a constitution does not build homes. Developers and local authorities build homes and this, I believe, is where the solution lies and not in rights that may not be realised on the ground. I would be interested to learn if those countries have a homelessness problem. I expect we will find out that they do.
The wording of the proposed amendment put forward by one of the parties opposite appears to suggest that there would be no limits on eligibility such that everyone in the State would be entitled to social housing, which I imagine would be akin to what was done in eastern Europe in the Communist countries, whereby everyone would be required to live in a government-owned apartment block. I would have a difficulty with that.
I would like to ask a brief supplementary question in regard to my Question No. 3. The Taoiseach touched on the issue of bed capacity in our hospitals, which has been an issue of much focus, and he mentioned additional hospital build. In terms of acute hospital bed numbers, is the Taoiseach of the view that we have the required bed capacity or do we need more as per the broad spectrum of opinion now and, if so, will Government be providing additional acute beds within existing hospitals or in new hospitals?
In regard to NAMA, having a bespoke organisation like NAMA that is already off-balance sheet provides a great advantage. I would not re-open a discussion with the European Commission on keeping it off-balance sheet. I believe it is possible to alter the focus of NAMA without having to seek fresh permission to keep it off-balance sheet. I would be very concerned that would not happen if we went down the road proposed.
I have two questions which the Taoiseach neglected to answer. Was the return of the bedsit discussed by the Cabinet subcommittee and will he explain the position of Fine Gael or the Government on the principle that I have expounded, that a citizen has a right to home?
To be helpful to the Taoiseach in his consideration of the question I asked, the proposed amendment to the Constitution seeks to define the common good as specifically including the right to secure and affordable housing and further requires the Government to prioritise the allocation of resources and its policies to vindicate that right. There is no compulsion to live in social housing as he suggested. Somebody has misinformed the Taoiseach. Given that I have clarified the matter, and bearing in mind, as I said, that the Mercy Law Resource Centre, Peter McVerry, the Children's Rights Alliance, academics and just about everybody who knows anything about housing have been saying for the last ten years that this would help clear the way for securing housing and removing obstacles to the provision of housing for everybody who needs it, would the Taoiseach have a problem with inserting that proposal into the Constitution?
It will have to be completed before the capital plan so that it can inform what health investments may be required in the years ahead. The review is not just about beds, it is also about types of beds. There is an active debate in health policy circles on whether we need more acute hospital beds, or not. Some people say we do. They point to overcrowding and waiting lists as a reason for additional acute hospital beds. Others would point to the fact that on a per capitabasis, the NHS has as many hospital beds as we do yet it does not have the type of overcrowding or waiting lists that we have because it uses them more efficiently and it does a lot more outside of hospitals.
Yes, and as such it should need more beds than we do. These are the complexities that always need to be considered in health policy. We will need to examine what can be done in primary care rather than hospitals and how we can use our beds much more efficiently that we currently do. It is evident they are not being used as efficiently as they might be.
On the return of the bedsit, the issue was discussed at the Cabinet subcommittee. No decision was made but the proposal is under consideration. I gave my view at the committee, as I have done in the media. I do not favour any diminution of safety standards or fire standards, which some people have tried to conflate with the issue. I would not be interested in entertaining that.
I absolutely believe that every citizen has a right to a home. Whether that right should be a constitutional provision is a different question. Before we put anything into the Constitution we need to consider what the consequences of doing so might be. We have previously put into the Constitution measures which have been interpreted by the courts in a manner other than was intended. We need to tread carefully when it comes to our Constitution because changes to it take power away from this House and puts it in the hands of the courts, which is something we should always be very cautious about doing.
In saying that a citizen has a right to a home, I am not saying that everyone should have a free home because I do not believe that is possible. I do not believe that everyone should be housed for free. It is appropriate that people would contribute to the cost of their accommodation. In fact, I believe that is the only way to deal with the problem. Also, I do not believe it is possible for everyone to home the home of their first choice. These are the kind of complexities that always need to be considered.