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Dáil debates

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

2:05 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The commission of investigation led by Mr. Justice O'Higgins was established to determine the veracity of very serious allegations of Garda malpractice made by Sergeant Maurice McCabe. Its establishment followed a long saga of harassment, poor treatment and attacks on the bona fides of Sergeant McCabe. When it emerged, following the conclusion of the commission of investigation, that the legal representative of the former Garda Commissioner was instructed to attack the motivation and integrity of Sergeant McCabe, people felt genuine shock and anger. That was not how it was meant to be. The O'Higgins inquiry was meant to be a new chapter in the way in which the allegations made by Sergeant McCabe were to be treated as well as in the way he was treated as a person. It was supposed to find out the facts of what happened and it was never meant to be an adversarial attack on his credibility and integrity as a person. We have now learned in various reports over the last number of days that the head of Garda HR was told "We are going to go after Maurice at the commission". It is also reported that a telephone call was made on 15 May from the former Commissioner to the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality on the proposed legal strategy.

To be fair, Deputy Alan Kelly has tabled a number of parliamentary questions on this issue of the extent of consultation between the Department and the former Garda Commissioner, the extent and content of meetings and communications, if any, between the Department's officials and the former Commissioner and whether complaints were made to the Department about the legal strategy adopted and how it was adopted. In the normal course, questions like these should receive straightforward answers. The answer from the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, is classic in the sense that he answered a question which he was not asked and failed to answer the questions he was asked by Deputy Kelly. Deputy Kelly has followed up with further questions which are very serious in nature and to which the answers will be serious too. In the context of a Parliament like this, it is very strange that replies are not being given. In an interview at the weekend, the Tánaiste refused to confirm or deny whether she was aware of this adversarial approach being taken at the O'Higgins commission. The Taoiseach said at the weekend that he would speak to the two Ministers. Has he spoken to the two Ministers, what has been their response, and can the Taoiseach bring clarity to this issue? Did the Tánaiste know about the attack on the integrity and credibility of Sergeant McCabe as per the legal strategy of the former Garda Commissioner?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The first thing that should be recognised is that we as a Government are committed absolutely to establishing the facts around these matters and this very sorry affair. That is why we established a commission of investigation in the first place and a tribunal thereafter. I assure the Deputy that those of us here on the Government benches want to know, as much as anyone in the House, the full facts as to what happened here, why Maurice McCabe was treated as he was and whether there was a campaign of vilification led against him by senior gardaí or anyone else.

To answer the Deputy's question, I spoke to the Tánaiste yesterday. She is currently in the United Arab Emirates on a trade mission. She confirmed to me that she had no hand, act or part in forming the former Commissioner's legal strategy, nor did she have any prior knowledge of the legal strategy the former Commissioner's team pursued. She found out about it after the fact, but around the time it was in the public domain when everyone else knew about it as well. The current Minister for Justice and Equality was not a Minister in the Department at the time and he also had no hand, act or part in, or prior knowledge of, the legal strategy being pursued by the former Commissioner's legal team.

The Department of Justice and Equality is a big place with many different people in it but, as things stand, the Department has not been able to find any record of being informed before the fact of the legal strategy the Commissioner was going to pursue. It was told about the approach taken by the Commissioner's senior counsel but that was after the cross-examination had taken place. The Department was not in a position, after the fact, to express concerns about it or counsel against it. The Deputy claims there was a call to the Secretary General on the day of the cross-examination but we have not been able to confirm if that is or is not the case. I think that perhaps it is not and that the assertion may be false but I do not want to swear to it today or until I can find out for certain. There may well have been a telephone call from the Commissioner's office to the Department on the day but it is not unusual for the Commissioner's office to contact the Department of Justice and Equality.

The former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, had no hand, act or part in the legal strategy and had no prior knowledge of it. She and the Department only found out about it after the cross-examination had already taken place.

2:10 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The question relating to the phone call was tabled by Deputy Kelly but was not answered in the Minister's reply. It has taken quite a long time for us to ascertain that the Tánaiste did not have prior knowledge of the legal strategy. In the context of the commitment to establishing the truth about the engagement between the Department of Justice and Equality and the legal representatives or the Garda Commissioner, has the Department submitted all its documentation details of all the contacts between it and the former Garda Commissioner to the Charleton inquiry? The Taoiseach said the Government was committed to establishing the truth so I take it material has been sent by the Department to the Charleton inquiry on this specific matter.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Minister for Justice and Equality informs me that he has written to the Ceann Comhairle this morning in relation to Deputy Kelly's questions and the Department will co-operate in full with any request for information received from the tribunal. I cannot tell the Deputy here today whether it has provided all the information asked for by the tribunal but it certainly will do so.

It is important to get the facts straight in relation to the terms of reference of the tribunal. The terms of reference of the tribunal, mandated to consider the questions put forward by Deputy Kelly, include:

To investigate contacts between members of An Garda Síochána and:

- Media and broadcasting personnel,

- members of the Government,

- TUSLA,

- Health Service Executive,

- any other State entities,

- or any relevant person as the Sole Member may deem necessary to carry out his work;

As the Department of Justice is a State entity it is covered by this tribunal and will co-operate with it in full.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Two reports published this morning confirm what people have known for quite some time, that is, that the Government's housing policy is a catastrophic failure. The overriding message in the reports from Daft.ieand the ESRI is that accommodation has become unaffordable and supply is at an all-time low. As things stand, renting or buying a home is now beyond the reach of an entire generation. Rather than delivering opportunity, the Government's housing crisis has instead delivered extreme stress, depression and hopelessness for thousands of citizens, who work hard and who aspire to a better life but for whom there is very little reward.

Ten years ago, a couple would make sacrifices in their daily lives to save for a deposit for a home but today they make exactly the same sacrifices simply to meet the extortionate rent that is due at the end of each month, if they are lucky. Life goals that were once considered modest and common have all been made impossible and people have told me their relationships are cracking under the strain of the housing emergency.

For many people in their late 20s to mid 30s even the idea of starting a family now falls into the bracket of unaffordability. These are the very real human consequences for those struggling to get on the property ladder or struggling to pay their rent. This is the reality and we hear it every day. The damage that is being done to people, including to their mental and physical health, is devastating. They spend 40 hours a week at work, and some spend more, but they have precious little to show for it. They cannot build a future and they find themselves in an exhausting economic and psychological dead end. So much for a republic of opportunity. It is nothing but a dupe.

I suggest the Taoiseach needs to change track. Instead of trying to normalise homelessness in this State with crude statistical exercises he needs to implement policies that actually work. The Government must increase the supply of affordable housing and introduce measures to reduce the cost of purchasing or renting a home. Just so as the Taoiseach knows, affordable housing means properties at a sale price of between €160,000 to €260,000 in Dublin. This would meet the needs of households earning above the threshold for social housing but below the €75,000 a year mark. It would mean affordable rental tenancies with fair rent. We have repeatedly suggested some solutions that meet these problems. Will the Taoiseach today commit to introducing a new affordable housing scheme that delivers homes on a level that matches the scale of the crisis we face? Rather than throwing renters to the wolf of market forces, will the Taoiseach introduce legislation that delivers real rent certainty by linking increases to the cost of living?

2:15 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is very welcome back. I understand she was on a fundraising trip to the United States last week. I hope that went very well.

In terms of the two reports the Deputy mentioned, the daft.iereport and the ERSI report both add to our understanding of this issue and they are both worth a read and worthy of consideration. I had the opportunity on the way in this morning to listen to some experts on housing speak about the two reports on "Morning Ireland". They came from very different perspectives, from daft.ie, the ESRI and the Nevin Institute. They all agreed the fundamental underlying problem is a lack of supply and the fact we do not have enough houses, apartments and homes for a country with a rising population, increasing employment and changing demographics with more people in smaller households.

In terms of supply, we are increasing the provision of social housing. Between 2,000 and 3,000 social houses will be completed before the end of the year. This is a significant increase on last year and the year before. This will increase to approximately 4,000 to 5,000 next year. In terms of affordability, we have provided hundreds of millions for the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, to make sites accessible and make it possible for developers to build on them. There is a requirement as part of this that a significant number of the units be affordable. We also announced in the budget the establishment of house building finance Ireland. This will make it much cheaper for builders to get finance. This will take some time to get up and running but will be up and running sometime next year. We have also increased the vacant site levy to punish people who hoard land. At Cabinet today, we decided to make an amendment to the Finance Bill to require the Department of Finance to produce a report on a vacant house tax and how this might work. This will be for the consideration of the Dáil. We have also fast tracked planning and we are changing the building regulations. We are seeing results. Planning permissions are up 49% year on year, commencement notices are up 45% year on year and next year we anticipate somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 new homes being built, which is not enough but is a significant improvement on previous years.

The report on rent refers to rents advertised, so it does not cover the rent pressure zones.

Anyone who is surprised that evidence of the involvement of the Department of Justice and Equality exists really has not been paying attention to what has gone on in terms of the crisis of policing in this State in recent years and its roots in the link between An Garda Síochána, the Department and the Minister, a link we sought to break in legislation designed to facilitate proper independent oversight, which, unfortunately, was not supported by the House. The real issue for the Taoiseach is not that the crisis will have a knock-on effect on the Department but rather why that information is being released now through the offices of his former Cabinet colleague, whose party supported Nóirín O'Sullivan 100% - not just in government but in opposition - when revelations in respect of her legal strategy regarding Maurice McCabe had been made. Critically, what is the Taoiseach going to do about this? He has fared pretty well out of Garda controversies but he is now the boss and this is solely a matter for him. He can either choose to be a pawn in the games being played by the warring tribes that exist within An Garda Síochána - with the Department of Justice and Equality mandarins in the background - or he can decide to take decisive action in the context of delivering a modern police service that the citizens and gardaí deserve.

Last week, senior Garda officers who attended a pre-retirement course were shocked to see none other than the acting Garda Commissioner amble in and sit down to listen to what was being said. They thought he was at the helm. This is the same acting Garda Commissioner whose report into allegations of Garda involvement in the heroin trade in the Minister for Justice and Equality's constituency has not been published for three and a half years. As a result, GSOC cannot publish its report because it was previously been prevented from attending the disciplinary action involving these gardaí and has been frustrated in trying to access files. How can there be change without accountability or effective oversight and how long is the Taoiseach going to allow this situation to prevail? The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is flopping around on the outskirts coming up with nice jargon about new uniforms and new words. How in God's name will the chaos be stopped when there is nobody at the helm? What other company with 15,000 members of staff would not have a CEO in place? What job takes that long to fill? When is the Taoiseach going to call for the implementation of the Garda Síochána Inspectorate report and the filling of the vacancy for Garda Commissioner?

2:20 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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The process of Garda reform is much very under way. We have an acting Garda Commissioner who I met last week. He is not retiring and will be in place until we are in a position to recruit a new Garda Commissioner, which we intend to do as soon as possible. Discussions are under way with the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and the Policing Authority to make that happen because it is important that we have a new Garda Commissioner in place sooner rather than later and that this individual will be able to bring in his or her own team. I do not think one person alone can change An Garda Síochána. When I was in Seattle the week before last, I had the opportunity to speak with Kathleen O'Toole who informed me about she reformed and modernised the police service in that city. She told me that it was somewhat similar to what we had in Ireland, with gardaí running IT systems and HR - things that policemen are not really best trained to do - and how important it was that the new Commissioner would be able to bring in his or her own team.

It may be worth informing the House that a memorandum was brought to the Cabinet this morning by the Minister for Justice and Equality to give the Policing Authority approval for the first time to appoint a superintendent of An Garda Síochána who is a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI. This is a very practical example of reform that is under way. For the first time, somebody from an outside police force - in this case, an officer from the PSNI - can be appointed to a senior position in An Garda Síochána, so that is an outside appointment to a senior position. I think we will see more of that in the weeks and months ahead.

I cannot answer questions on behalf of third parties who are not Members of this House or who formerly served here.

Also included in that €27 million was a figure for a further bailout of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society. The main criteria for access to the fund were inconsistent and prohibitive. They set the bar so high that only the banks would be eligible. On closer scrutiny it is now obvious from responses to freedom of information requests that neither the banks nor the five other successful lenders met the qualification criteria as set down by SBCI.

Furthermore, the three main banks did not set up a special purpose vehicle, SPV, or produce projections as per the criteria. This resulted in no transparency as to where the money was going and the purpose for which it was used internally in banks. Apart from the three established banks funded by the SBCI, five other private non-banking companies were successful in securing SBCI funds. Of these five, four are only involved in leasing and property finance, and not working capital. Coincidentally two of the new non-banking lenders which received SBCI funding of €91 million are headed up by former senior executives of failed banks. One of these new companies was also handed an equity injection of a further €30 million by the NTMA, which is the parent company of SBCI.

From work by various accountants it is now apparent that the majority of companies in receipt of this fund are using the funds to improve the liquidity of their balance sheets as opposed to lending to SMEs. We need to establish if SBCI is operating in contravention to the Acts.

2:30 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. He will appreciate that I am not au faitwith the inner workings of the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland. I will certainly raise the matters the Deputy has raised with the Minister for Finance because it is essential that any public body should operate solely within the legislation passed by this House to provide for it.

The Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland has a mandate to deliver access to finance for Irish enterprises, particularly SMEs, to correct failures in the Irish credit market while encouraging competition. The SBCI does not aim to maximise profits but aims to provide cheaper funding on better terms to small business. It began lending in March 2015 and from then until the end of June 2017 the SBCI has lent €855 million to 21,000 Irish companies employing 100,000 people. The average interest rate it offers is 1.15 percentage points lower than the average market interest rate on loans to SMEs.

All sectors of the economy benefit from SBCI financing, including manufacturing, agriculture, food, retail, health care, transport and construction. The majority of SBCI loans are used for investment purposes and SMEs supported by the SBCI are based in all regions of the company - some 85% of the lending has been to businesses outside Dublin.

It does not lend directly but does so through partner finance providers, known as on-lenders. It currently has three bank and five non-bank lenders. These are AIB, Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank, Merrion Fleet, First Citizen Finance, Finance Ireland, Bibby Financial Services Ireland and FEXCO asset management. Some 23.2% of its funding has gone to the agricultural sector and, as I mentioned, 85% of it is outside Dublin.

Photo of Michael LowryMichael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
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There is unease over the lack of transparency of this scheme. There is a strongly held view in financial lending circles of favouritism towards the pillar banks and that the conditions of eligibility to the fund are structured in order to suit the big established players in the market - a view that the existing terms and conditions and format are anti-competitive and have a detrimental impact on those lenders which cannot reach the unrealistic and unobtainable criteria set out in the scheme.

In view of the enormous sums of money involved, representatives of the SBCI should be given the opportunity to appear before the appropriate Oireachtas committee to ascertain what oversight, measurement or assessment of the operations of the fund have been conducted by the Department of Finance and to find out what benefit has accrued to the SME sector. What kind of return is evident in terms of stabilising troubled small companies, protecting jobs and enabling growth in job opportunities in the SME sector? We need a review to understand if the SBCI is delivering on its remit generally. Is the State getting value for the expensive administration overheads of the SBCI?

2:35 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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In terms of the breakdown, the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, has committed €881 million to its on-lending partners. The vast bulk of that, €400 million has gone through AIB, followed by Bank of Ireland, €200 million; Ulster Bank, €75 million; Finance Ireland, €51 million; First Citizen, €40 million; Bibby Financial Services, €45 million; and FEXCO, €70 million. It is certainly the case that the bulk of the lending has gone through the very large pillar banks.

The Deputy's suggestion that the SBCI appear before the finance committee or another appropriate committee to account for itself and the work it is doing is an appropriate one. I see no reason that should not happen or that it would be unwilling to appear before the finance committee but that is a matter for the Chairman and members of that committee. I know the very thorough work it did around the tracker mortgages. I am sure it could do some good work around this as well.