Thursday, 8 February 2018
I raise with the Tánaiste the issue of the national planning framework and the finalisation of the current draft as a completed document. It is an exceptionally important framework which will take us forward to 2040 and inform the way investment is made over that period. It is crucial that the document is ambitious, comprehensive and sustainable, but it is also crucial that it is balanced. Unfortunately, the draft framework document cannot be described that way. It neglects many parts of the country and leaves out rural Ireland. It is even the case that many of the Government's own backbenchers, who have stood by and overseen the development of a two-speed economy, are complaining about the national framework plan and the draft document. The two matters on which I wish to touch today are, first, the impact of the draft plan on provincial Ireland and, second, the importance of ensuring the Border regions feature as a key aspect of the final document.
To start with provincial Ireland, I note that we have seen a real lack of regional balance. Areas like the midlands, the north west, Sligo and the Border regions have not been catered for in the draft plan. That is particularly important because all planning from here on will have to drop down from the framework. Areas which are excluded may be starved of investment as a result. Housing in rural areas and the ability of people living there to develop enterprises and to work in their communities are also key. The draft plan gives rise to concerns on these issues also and must be addressed in that regard. We must recognise in the plan that people should be allowed to build houses for social reasons, including to maintain the vibrancy of their communities and to avoid people having to leave their local areas. Likewise, they must be able to create jobs locally.
We must ensure that the final framework document makes the development of our Border regions a strategic priority. These regions have been particularly affected because of the Troubles historically and a lack of political integration since they ended. Of our island's population, 72% are in the Republic while 28% are in Northern Ireland. It is crucial to do this on a cross-Border basis to ensure that our Border regions develop properly. This is not least the case in my own area in Donegal. Donegal County Council and Derry and Strabane Council have worked very closely over the past couple of years to develop the north-west growth partnership and the north-west city region encompassing Letterkenny and Derry. It is crucial that the city region is included in the plan as Derry is the fourth largest population centre on the island of Ireland. We must recognise that in our own planning framework so that it informs our investment decisions in such a way as to ensure that growth is spread out.
I ask the Tánaiste for assurances on housing, enterprise and a proper regional spread in rural Ireland and to indicate that Border regional development will become a strategic priority in the final document.
This plan has been at least three years in the making. The job began when Deputy Alan Kelly was the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, continued when I was there for a year and is being finalised by the current Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. In that period, there have been over 40 regional engagements with stakeholders. I personally chaired meetings in Sligo, Athlone, Cork, Waterford, Galway, Dundalk and two in Dublin to ensure the process was about a national plan which was not dominated by any one coast or city. The whole point of this is to plan for a very different type of Ireland from the one we have seen develop over the past 20 or 30 years in terms of where people live, how they move around and where industry and enterprise can grow and expand. This is about rebalancing the country over the next 20 years when we know an extra 1 million people will be added to our population. If the Deputy wants numbers on that, it is no secret that 75% of the increase must and will be catered for in the plan outside Dublin. Of the population growth, 50% will be outside cities. We are talking about a plan that is big news for rural Ireland as well as one which is very strategic for cities and big towns. Of course, the Border must be part of our thinking.
The input that has gone into the plan will ensure that is the case. The north west must also be strategically incorporated into a population growth story. Currently, there is no city on the Southern side of the Border. Of course, the interaction with Derry is a huge part of Donegal's economy and that of the north west generally.
I assure the Deputy that what people are looking at is a draft plan which was published for consultation in September. Since then, there have been significant conversations and interactions with other political parties and the Oireachtas committee and it is up to the Government to get the balance right in terms of a plan to influence how local authorities and, indeed, many Departments behave and make decisions over the next two decades. It is a plan that will be backed up with a ten-year capital expenditure programme of over €100 billion for the next decade. That will be consistent with the thinking in the plan which will be good for rural Ireland and the cities also. That is what we are trying to achieve.
That is why the issues I have raised with the Tánaiste and sought assurances on must be dealt with and the document must be modified in advance of finalisation and publication. Can the Tánaiste give me specific assurances on the concerns I have raised to ensure there is actually a regional spread, that there is a key strategic priority to develop Border regions and that people living in rural parts of Ireland, who comprise 40% of our population, can continue to live and earn a living in those areas? We need those assurances. Given the importance of the plan and the need to get it right, will it actually come to the Dáil and will the Government seek the approval and endorsement of the House for it? That is crucial and the Tánaiste must give us an assurance on it.
What we are going to have, for the first time, is a planning framework and a new national plan which will be based in law through a new planning Bill, which, hopefully, will be concluded by Easter. That will require any future Government to ensure that, in the review mechanisms that are built into this plan, whereby it can be upgraded, changed and improved every six years, there is a requirement to consult with the Oireachtas through the Oireachtas committee system. That is what has happened this time, of course, but, ultimately, a Government needs to finalise decisions in terms of public expenditure and planning, and so on. In this regard, it needs to be guided by the wisdom of the House and, indeed, the committee system and the broader consultation process, which we were obliged to go through and which we have followed, and which will be consistent with the legislation when that is finalised. That is how the legislative obligation we are taking on is going to work.
In regard to what the Deputy has asked for, which is clarity around balance, regional growth and population spread, all of those things will be part of this plan. When it is launched, I think people will be quite excited by what they see.
In 2015, the Central Bank began its formal tracker mortgage examination. Problems had been identified as far back as 2010 by the bank and for years, the Central Bank and the Financial Services Ombudsman failed to grasp the importance of the issue. This left it up to individuals and families to fight for their rights. The State arrived very late to this issue and the Government even later. Permanent TSB for years dragged these cases all the way to the Supreme Court before dropping its challenge. Now, more than two years later, there are still thousands waiting to get their own money back. The banks and, I am sure, the Government will want this issue gone, but it is far from finished. The banks are still at it. We know it is going to cost the banks up to €1 billion. Up to 100 family homes have been stolen from working families by these very same banks, including State-owned banks. More than 33,000 accounts, individuals and families, have been affected by this, with more to come as the banks play silly buggers with the numbers every week.
We are asked to believe three things. First, as tracker mortgages became cheaper for consumers, 11 lenders in the State all suffered a systems error or a lack of communication. Second, the banks just happened to be benefitted by hundreds of millions of euro while their customers lost out. Third, these errors just happened to occur at a time when it was beneficial for the banks. There was no design, no intent, just a set of three handy coincidences, which all happened to benefit the banks. I do not buy it, yet nobody has been held responsible. They come before the committee and they write letter after letter to their customers, apologising, while at the same time taking no responsibility.
Where is the accountability? Why does the State refuse to hold white-collar criminals to account? Lives have been destroyed. Families have been broken up. People have suffered very seriously, including mental health issues and suicidal tendencies. Again, the banks continue to behave in a thuggish manner.
Last night, as I was leaving here, I got a call from an individual who was livid at what he heard the bankers tell the finance committee. He told me he was one of the individuals who lost their homes as a result of the tracker mortgage scandal perpetrated by a State-owned bank. He told me that despite what the bankers were telling the committee, the bank is fighting him tooth and nail in order that he does not get his proper compensation and redress. He told me he is left with no option but to take this issue to the court and he feels let down and betrayed again and again by the agencies that should be there to protect him. This is the equivalent of the State hounding its own victims.
What is the Government going to do to hold individual bankers to account for the crimes they have committed? What will the Government do to ensure this will never happen to an Irish citizen again? What legislation will the Government introduce to make sure these individuals will shake if they think of again taking money off Irish citizens in the way they have done? More than €1 billion has been stolen and not one individual has been held to account.
It has been made perfectly clear in the last number of months that the Government is taking this very seriously. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, has spoken about it over and over again and, indeed, has answered questions from Deputy Doherty on these issues. The Central Bank published its latest update on the tracker mortgage examination in late December. This indicated that in or around 33,700 customers were affected by tracker mortgage failings, which was a total scandal. This includes 7,100 cases involving tracker mortgage issues, which were remediated outside the industry-wide examination. So far, just over €316 million has been paid in redress and compensation to borrowers identified as impacted from the industry-wide examination. The Central Bank also confirmed that the five main mortgage lenders were on course to meet their October 2017 commitments and that known issues around disputed groups in respect of lenders have been resolved to the satisfaction of the Central Bank.
The Central Bank has advised that it is currently pursuing four enforcement investigations and it has stated that it expects all of the main mortgage lenders will face enforcement investigations, which I think is what the Deputy is looking for. Permanent TSB and KBC recently appeared before the Oireachtas finance committee. Permanent TSB indicated that a total of 1,979 customers had been affected and it was also indicated that nearly 2,500 KBC customers remain on the wrong rate. The Government continues to support the Central Bank in its efforts to complete the tracker examination as quickly as possible and it looks forward to receiving a further update from the Central Bank in due course, towards the end of March. The Minister for Finance has made it clear that if we have to introduce new legislation in this area then we will do that, but that will be based on the Central Bank's report and recommendations on how we should take this forward from a legislative point of view.
The Tánaiste said, "if we have to introduce new legislation". The bankers stole up to €1 billion from 33,000 families in the State, they took their homes off them, they crippled them financially and emotionally, they broke up families, they sent people to the edge, and the Tánaiste tells me, "if we have to introduce new legislation". Not a single banker will be held to account. The enforcement procedures of the Central Bank will slap them with a fine and the bankers will place that fine onto the pockets of their customers in increased charges and increased rates. Today, as we speak, KBC and Ulster Bank are still telling us brazenly that they have thousands of customers on the wrong rate. Permanent TSB tells us everything is fixed, yet its customers tell us they are on the wrong rate. Bank of Ireland is fighting its own employees because it put them on the wrong rate. Victims have been failed by the Central Bank, the Financial Services Ombudsman and the Government and they have to go and take the risk to fight these banks in the High Court.
We brought forward class action legislation in this House and, thankfully, we will have the support of other Opposition parties. The Government opposed it, however - it opposed giving a chance to the victims to stand together. I will bring forward legislation next week, which will make it a crime for bankers to lie to the Central Bank, which they have done. This means they will face a term of imprisonment. Will the Government oppose that also?
We are in a process here. The focus is to try to get people their money back, first and foremost. The Government strongly supports the Central Bank in the work that it needs to do to make sure that this does not happen again and to make sure that people who have suffered financially, not only get their money back, but get appropriately compensated also. The Minister for Finance has introduced changes to make sure this can happen. However, that does not mean this is the end of the process. What the Deputy is calling for is in advance of the next update, which we need to get from the Central Bank to know where we are in regard to ensuring the banks follow through on the commitments they have been forced to make by the Central Bank and, indeed, the Minister for Finance in the context of the meetings he has had with the banks.
This process is not over. The first thing we must do is to focus on ensuring that people get their money back and are adequately compensated. That is the primary focus of both the Central Bank and Government.
The efforts to provide a legal basis for the December agreement reached between the UK and the EU are clearly running into the sand. That fudge has been subject to back-pedalling by many elements within the British Government since it was announced. At the time, the Taoiseach described the commitment as politically bulletproof, rock solid and cast iron. However, efforts by the EU to put a legally-binding framework in place are, as an Irish official has put it, irreconcilable with the stated British position. In the past week, the UK has clearly said that it will be leaving the customs union but that it wants a new customs arrangement. Yesterday, the full details of economic impact assessment by the UK Government became public. Northern Ireland will be hit by at least 2.5% of GDP or up to 12% if there is a no-deal Brexit. Most accept this to be an underestimate. Britain's Brexit cabinet committee also met yesterday and we are told that Northern Ireland and the Border led to sharp division. It is reported that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary want the closest possible alignment between the UK and the EU after Brexit to avoid a hard Border. However, according to the Financial Times, a pro-Brexit Minister described this approach as absolute rubbish. No agreement was capable of being reached.
If in coming weeks, the UK does not set out details of its preferred deep and special partnership that it has spoken of, I understand that the EU will proceed to a Canada-style trade deal. In such a scenario, we are looking at a hard Border on the island of Ireland. It has been difficult to find out exactly what Ireland is looking to achieve in phase 2. This week I tabled parliamentary questions to the Taoiseach for oral answer asking what economic impact assessments each Department has commissioned on Brexit. I have tabled written questions to every Department on the same basis. The Department of An Taoiseach, whose second most senior official is our representative on the Barnier team, refused to answer the question and transferred it to the Department of Finance. When I asked the Taoiseach to tell us what contributions, positions or changes his Department had sought to be made in the EU proposals, he transferred that question to the Tánaiste's Department. It is unacceptable that the Department which is the principal lead in this area is so reticent in the context of putting forward Ireland's position on phase 2 and the preparations that are under way in the very challenging event of a hard Brexit.
Has every Department of State commissioned an economic impact assessment on the sectors under its remit under the various scenarios and will the Government make these public? Can the Tánaiste say what Ireland is seeking in phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations? Specifically, is the Tánaiste still confident that the December agreement which was announced is committed to by both the EU and the UK and will be fully implemented?
I thank the Deputy for asking this question as it gives me the opportunity to clarify a number of matters. First, I certainly do not speak for the British Government so I cannot give the Deputy an answer in terms of the British Government's position, that is something it must decide for itself. I and many others have called for clarity from the British Government as soon as possible as that would make it far easier for the EU negotiating team to plan for the structured negotiations that need to take place in the future.
The Taoiseach reminded us yesterday of the commitments given before Christmas. They were clear. People talk about fudges, but we are not talking about a fudge, we are very clear about the commitment that was given before Christmas in the context of no political agreement, on a broader trade and new relationship deal that can solve the Border issue on the island of Ireland and in the context of not being able to agree mechanisms to deal with the Border on a bilateral basis. The UK has committed to maintaining full alignment with the customs union and single market to ensure that now and in the future the all-island economy and North-South co-operation can continue. We intend to ensure that commitment is maintained and have very strong solidarity within the EU and within the EU task force on what that means. To use the European term, we will not be back-sliding on that commitment.
It is very important. Yesterday, I spoke at a conference in Louth on cross-Border business and Brexit, which was jointly hosted by the Newry and Dundalk chambers of commerce. There were over 300 people there. They need certainty on a fall-back position or a floor below which we will not fall in terms of Border questions and the future in the context of Brexit. We have that floor and that fall-back position; it was negotiated before Christmas. I hope we will not have to use it because I hope that we can resolve these issues with a broad trade agreement but it is difficult to see how we can avoid using it if the British Government is determined to pursue a strategy that results in the UK leaving the Single Market and the customs union in an absolute way. That is why there will be ongoing discussions with the British Government. I will have a meeting with a member of the British Government, as I had last week in London. We need to understand their thinking. We will continue to contribute, as we do almost daily, to the Barnier task force in terms of mapping out Irish issues in these negotiations which are complex and challenging.
To be very clear, the negotiations which were concluded before Christmas are very clear on the issue of the Border and many other areas. We want to ensure that there is no pull-back from those commitments in the broader negotiations as they move ahead.
I am sure that the Tánaiste will agree that now is the time for specifics and clarity. What does the Tánaiste mean when he says the Government hopes it does not have to use the fallback position? If the stated position of the United Kingdom is to withdraw from the customs union, and that includes Northern Ireland doing so, and the Republic of Ireland is in a different customs union, what British Brexiteer Ministers are saying is that if the Irish Government imposes a border, so be it, or if the EU imposes a border, so be it. The Tánaiste knows that it cannot be acceptable to the EU to have no checks if there is not what he describes as full alignment. Does the Tánaiste expect that, in the case of Northern Ireland, there will be full alignment on everything from animal welfare to duties to standards? Will everything that applies in the EU also apply to Northern Ireland? Is that the Tánaiste's understanding of full alignment? Does he believe at all that this will be implemented by the British, particularly as it would mean - unless the entire United Kingdom applied it - that there would be a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK?
It is important to understand the process. We are moving from a political commitment that was made before Christmas to a legal document that will be a draft withdrawal agreement. The EU is looking to draft this before the end of the month. It has been made clear, and the discussions are focusing on ensuring that the political commitments made by Britain in the context of citizens' rights, financial contributions and the Irish issues, will be part of a draft legal document on which both sides can agree. That process is ongoing. I do not think we can draw any conclusions about how this will look until we have clarity on what the British Government is seeking.
The European Union has made it clear that it will be finalising its negotiating guidelines by the end of March but that these can be altered, amended and changed up to that point.
That, essentially, is the window that is available to the British Government to decide and clarify exactly what it is looking for beyond the kind of language that we have heard to date which is general in nature.
Plans are well under way for a national demonstration on 7 April on the housing and homelessness crisis and the shambles of this and the previous Government's policies that created the crisis. Groups such as the Peter McVerry Trust, Focus Ireland, Simon Community, housing and community groups, trade unions and many of the Opposition political parties are mobilising for that protest and demanding a radical change from the failed policies that have been pursued for the past seven years and which have created the housing emergency that now faces the country.
There are many aspects to the failure of the Government's policies, mostly turning on the Government's refusal to return to a local authority-led direct programme of council housing construction to deal with the housing crisis and its continued reliance on the private market instead, which cannot deliver and bodies external to the State and the local authorities. The latest evidence of the shambles of the Government's policy is the decision of the CSO, after consultation with EUROSTAT, to reclassify approved housing bodies as being on-balance sheet, meaning that it will have an impact on the general Government balance and Government debt. The fantasy of having off-balance sheet vehicles to deliver social housing rather than the local authorities doing it directly has now been exposed. The consequence of this, as the Irish Council for Social Housing has said, is that the 15,000 new social houses supposed to be delivered by approved housing bodies are now in jeopardy. The tier three approved housing bodies are now in jeopardy and we do not know what impact it may have on Government debt and the general Government balance because of the madness of the fiscal rules that prevent the State investing directly in building the council and public housing we desperately need.
What does the Tánaiste have to say about this? Is this not further evidence of the bankruptcy and folly of refusing to return to old-style local authority-led council housing provision and to develop an emergency programme in that area? Everything the Government does that is not about that is failing to deliver or, in this case, running into deep trouble which is jeopardising, yet again, the fantastic plans of the Rebuilding Ireland programme.
I am afraid the Deputy's approach on this issue is coloured by ideology, and that is the problem. Some of what the Deputy is saying is true. We need to gear up local authorities to build many more social houses. That is happening, but it cannot happen overnight. There is no silver bullet that will solve the social housing in the immediate term.
What we are doing is dramatically increasing the number of social housing projects that local authorities are delivering and we are funding them. We have seen a dramatic increase in public funding for social housing through local authorities.
We are also funding projects that approved housing bodies are delivering and we are putting substantial funds into acquisition programmes. We are working to purchase properties that are derelict. However, there will not be one silver bullet that solves this problem, and certainly not one that is driven by an ideology that the State has to own everything. It will be a combination of all of those matters.
In the meantime, while we are delivering many more new housing units and bringing housing units that are vacant back into use, there is a reliance on the supported rental accommodation in the private sector to deal with the thousands of families that need State intervention. Over 25,000 social housing solutions were financially supported by the State last year. We want to change the emphasis in terms of that support to increasing the number of social houses that people can access, and we are doing so. When I became Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government a number of years ago, good foundations had been laid by the previous Minister and I built literally on the back of those. In 2016, fewer than 100 social houses were built by local authorities. Last year, over 2,000 were built. Next year, the number will probably double, and the year after, it will increase again significantly until we are up to figures for social housing delivery, between approved housing bodies and local authorities, of somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000. That is where we need to be.
To come in here and pretend that we can throw all this away and say, "Let us just build social housing", without the capacity to do that or the sites ready to go, or the processes in place that can deliver that immediately, is misleading and pretending that we have some kind of ideological objection to building social housing through local authorities which we do not have.
We are working directly, with management and with local authorities, to ensure that we are providing the financial resources to deliver an extra 50,000 social houses over the lifetime of the Rebuilding Ireland plan. This is a dramatic increase of almost one third in the social housing stock in Ireland. That is what we are doing. We will deliver that across multiple different plans which is what the complexity of the Rebuilding Ireland plan is all about.
What the Deputy does not like is that it is actually starting to work. We are seeing a 50% increase in planning applications-----
I am afraid the Tánaiste is the one who is driven by blind ideology.
In the past couple of weeks, I had to deal with somebody who has been on the housing list for 19 years and who has just been evicted from a HAP tenancy, which is supposed to be one of the Tánaiste's housing solutions. She will now be driven back into another HAP, which is insecure. The Tánaiste is claiming that is a housing solution; it is not. The problem is the vast majority of the Government's plans to deal with the housing crisis are an accident waiting to happen because they are reliant on a private sector that cannot deliver.
The Tánaiste did not respond to something that is being discussed as we speak where the Secretary General of the Department of Finance is answering questions at the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government about the fact that another pillar of the Government's housing plan is now in serious trouble. The magic formula of using off-balance sheet rather than local authority funding has run into big problems because the CSO and EUROSTAT are classifying it as on-balance sheet. This affects the level of Government debt and the general Government balance and, as I said, puts in jeopardy 15,000 of the approved housing body units that are supposed to be delivered under the Government's plan.
That is what we are doing. I have this conversation with the Deputy regularly across this floor. We are doing what the Deputy is calling for and we are gearing up the local authorities. We are not limiting the funding that is available to them.
The local authorities are at capacity in terms of delivering. In fact, we are putting pressure on management in virtually every local authority, certainly, in urban Ireland, to deliver more than they are currently able to deliver.
Finance is not the obstacle in terms of delivery in most of those projects, rather it is capacity. We are using all our capacity, whether it is through approved housing bodies, AHBs-----
-----acquisitions, vacant property initiatives etc.
In terms of what is on and off-balance sheet, we are not relying on off-balance sheet investment. It is true that there are elements of the plan that look to try to deliver housing off-balance sheet.
If that comes under question, we must deal with the consequences of that, but the main thrust of our social housing delivery plan is very much on balance, which is why the Department has seen such a dramatic increase in funding. No Department has seen funding increases like those of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government over the past two or three years.