Tuesday, 14 November 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
My Department's primary role is to support me, as Taoiseach, and the Government in delivering on our programme. During the next three months, my Department will therefore support delivery of significant Government policy objectives, including the development of a ten-year capital investment plan alongside the national planning framework; ensuring that Ireland's Brexit priorities continue to be strongly represented in the ongoing negotiations between the EU and the United Kingdom; supporting the peace process and the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland; developing the Action Plan for Jobs 2018, including specific responses to the challenge of Brexit; finalising a roadmap for pensions reform; implementing Rebuilding Ireland to increase housing supply and tackle homelessness and developing the Government's response to the Sláintecare report. These are just a few of the many policies which will be progressed over that period.
In most of these areas, the primary responsibility lies with the relevant line Department. The role of my Department is to help ensure that policies are developed and implemented in a coherent way across different Departments and to support me in my role as Head of Government. This includes my role as chair of Government meetings and Cabinet committees, attendance at the European Council, the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and other national and international engagements. My Department will also seek to ensure effective communication of Government policy in these and other areas.
My Department is also currently updating its statement of strategy to reflect some of the changes that have taken place in recent months following my election. This includes the establishment of a new configuration of Cabinet committees and some changes in the functions of Ministers of State and of Departments.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response. The key priorities facing the Taoiseach are numerous, as he acknowledges, but the key concerns for citizens are the housing crisis, the crisis in health and Brexit. All of these issues require a robust response from Government. One must ask, however, why a Government would act robustly when it fails to deal with basic facts and, indeed, peddles falsehoods. At the weekend, the Taoiseach made light of a serious problem affecting our society when he stated that Ireland had one of the lowest homelessness rates by international standards when compared with our peers. He was not, of course, comparing like with like in making this inaccurate claim. Other states across the OECD have broader definitions of homelessness. In addition, the OECD data for Ireland the Taoiseach's spin team used were out of date by two years. It is clear at page 1 of the report that different countries count homelessness in different ways. The figures published by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government do not include women and children in Tusla-funded domestic violence accommodation, those who are sofa surfing or those who are involuntarily sharing unsuitable accommodation in overcrowded circumstances. I hope for the sake of those experiencing homelessness that this was just another embarrassing gaffe by the Taoiseach and not an honestly-held belief.
What is required is not the normalisation of the homelessness crisis but the building of homes and making them more affordable. Today's ESRI report, which shows that a 20% increase is likely over the next three years, and the daft.iereport, which shows rents increasing by over 11%, indicate that the problem is being compounded. I ask the Taoiseach to indicate what the Government is doing for people and to address the fact that he believes affordable housing is in the range of €315,000 to €395,000, which he says most people in his constituency could afford. Does he realise that households would have to have incomes of between €81,000 and €101,000 per year to afford that? There are many families and households who get up early in the morning but who could never aspire to that type of income.
It is difficult to credit the Taoiseach's claim that the Department is solving the homelessness and housing crisis as a priority given his comments at the weekend. Will he consider apologising and retracting the inaccurate and outrageous attempt to minimise and normalise a disastrous housing and homelessness crisis? I will remind him that he said "Ireland has one of the lowest homelessness [rates] by international standards compared with our peers - they're the stats, we can provide them for you". This comment coincides with a shocking and outrageous statement by Mr. Conor Skehan, the head of the Housing Agency, who says we need to stop using words like "homeless" and "crisis" and recognise that the crisis is "completely normal". That is shocking. One cannot take seriously the Taoiseach's claim that this is a priority for him or inject the sense of urgency necessary to deal with what is a catastrophic situation if that is the attitude. Will the Taoiseach withdraw those comments? Has he seen the statistics provided by Focus, which actually compare us with like comparators in Europe and which were compiled by Professor Eoin O'Sullivan in TCD? They were put out in the last few days and they show that Ireland actually compares badly and its position is much worse and worsening compared to countries where the data collected are comparable. I suggest the Taoiseach looks at them. They show that in comparison with Norway, Finland and Denmark, we have the worst proportion of homelessness by population and that homelessness has increased dramatically under Fine Gael. We have gone from a position of being better on homelessness in 2008 to being the worst of all of those countries. Those figures are actually comparable.
Last week, the Taoiseach told the Dáil his Department needed to provide a counter-balance to the media, which he believes do not cover enough good news. The Taoiseach said 80% of news was negative and that it should really be approximately 50% at most. There will be a new strategy, the third in two years, and I am interested in how that new commitment will be reflected in it. The Secretary General is supposed to be chairing an interdepartmental group to ensure that the new strategic communications unit will not be politicised. However, the unit has begun to spend money on advertising and branding before the oversight group has even started its work. After a lengthy delay, we have received replies to a number of freedom of information requests we submitted concerning the unit. It will surprise no one that the head of the unit is most frequently in contact with the Taoiseach's political staff. In fact, emails between the Taoiseach's chief of staff and the head of the unit have been withheld on the basis of a claim that they are part of the deliberative process. Can the Taoiseach explain why the head of a supposedly non-political unit seems to have more contact with political staff in the Department than with his Civil Service peers? My overarching concern is what I see as the creeping politicisation of the State service in pursuit of a party political goal, which is something that must be guarded against at all costs.
I echo what other Deputies have said on the housing crisis, which is a scandal, and what they have said about attempts to normalise it. I do not go for international comparisons or statistics because, every week, I meet people who are in appalling circumstances, from homelessness to the inability to get a house, having to stay with their parents and right along the continuum. It is everywhere and is a huge blight on our society and on our values as a country. We should not, in any shape or form, try to trivialise it or use language that understates the reality of the housing scandal for so many families and so many children in our community. We judge ourselves by our own standards and by what we believe to be best - nothing else. It is a very sad day when there are so many people in such dire circumstances in respect of housing, whether it is because of their rent or homelessness itself.
I agree with others that the major social issues facing the Taoiseach, the Government and all of us are housing, homelessness and the health crisis but I want to deal with another issue, namely, the approach of this Government to Brexit. Most of us were a little bit taken aback last week when the Taoiseach told the House that it was his view that sufficient progress would likely be made in advance of the December European Council meeting to allow matters to move on to the second phase of negotiations. The Taoiseach is the first prime minister of the EU27 to voice such a view and, in light of the ongoing and accelerating chaos of the British Government, that is a surprising view. What will the Taoiseach's approach be, strategically, to the next European Council meeting? Is what he said still his view and if he is still optimistic, can he let us know the cause of his optimism? If, as he said in Enniskillen, we must make preparations for the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, what are the preparations he is making? Are contingency plans being made with Revenue? He stopped that happening earlier but is it now his view that we should recommence that process? Is it his strategic view that Ireland will not allow matters to proceed beyond phase 1 until such time as we have, in writing, a solution on the Irish Border question that meets Ireland's unique needs?
We spoke about housing and homelessness earlier on Leaders' Questions and I do not wish to repeat anything I said. I simply draw Deputies' attention to my remarks at the time. International statistics always come with a health warning and different countries collect statistics in different ways and have different definitions, whether for unemployment, GDP and pretty much everything. Some countries have a wider definition of homelessness and others have a lesser definition. The reason we have a body like the OECD is that it compares like with like, to the extent that it is possible. Deputies are very happy to use OECD statistics on other occasions and I am not going to be selective about it. I am willing to use OECD numbers whether they are good or bad. In a recentThe Irish Timesarticle I read of a person living in one of the family hubs with her family, who was so satisfied with the accommodation she did not now feel homeless yet our statistics regard her as homeless. On "Morning Ireland" this morning I heard that some people believe that children in their adult years and who are living at home with their parents while saving up for a deposit should be considered homeless but I would not agree that somebody living with his or her parents was in the same category as somebody sleeping rough, with both considered homeless. I was asked a definite question about Ireland being among the highest for homelessness, which it is not. Nobody is now making that assertion. It was not an attempt to do anything or to normalise anything or play it down but a simple answer to a straightforward question, something I am often accused of not doing. I am certainly not interested in debating statistics here with anyone. I have heard other people doing it in the past few days but I have not got involved.
The question was about statistics. I am interested in talking about solutions.
The leader of the Opposition has been in correspondence with my Secretary General about communications and I believe the latter has written a reply on the matter. I have not been party to that correspondence, which is from a unit in the Department, but I am sure Mr. Fraser has replied in full. The unit will be covered by public sector rules and no political work will be done. As is the norm for heads of sections in all Government Departments, they talk to politicians and their staff regularly.
Contingency planning for Brexit is being carried out for all scenarios but it is just scenario planning. We are certainly not designing customs forms, nor would it be within our remit to do so as it is an exclusive competency of the European Union. We are not looking to hire Border staff or anything of that nature and any planning operates on a contingency basis. Deputy Howlin again made the assertion that I stopped Revenue making planning arrangements.
It is not true. I have read this story in the newspapers but as is often the case, such as it was with the "bonkers" assertion of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, just because it is in the newspapers again and again does not mean it is factually correct. I made no such order.