Thursday, 29 March 2018
Leaders' Questions (Resumed)
The Tánaiste quoted statistics of 123% of this and 26,000 of that. This is cold comfort to the people who are homeless tonight. He mentioned the Government would build 100,000 houses over ten years, so it will take ten years to clear the housing list in this country, and that is without anyone else coming on to the housing list in the next ten years. The Tánaiste said he does not have the statistics and figures-----
-----on how this new Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme is working. I have them here. I have ten refusals from various local authorities and I have quoted the reasons. My comment was the scheme has got off to a bad start. Local authorities are refusing right, left and centre. All it takes is a phone call from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to find out how many have been approved. I note the Tánaiste has not been able to answer the question and that speaks volumes. He said he does not have the statistics and figures. This is not about statistics and figures. It is about people's lives and the Government is letting them down.
With regard to homelessness we are making some positive progress. For example, rough sleepers are down by approximately 50%. We have put in place much better emergency accommodation and much more comprehensive emergency accommodation, particularly for families but also for individuals. We accept that is simply a temporary solution while the State needs to deliver homes for people through social housing and long-term leasing arrangements. We will focus on this.
The home loan scheme is just getting under way. I do not think the Deputy or anybody else in the House should be asking local authorities to make loans available to people that are not sustainable.
He seems to be suggesting that because there are some refusals there is something wrong. I do not think anybody should be arguing for everybody who looks for this loan facility to get it. Some people may not have the capacity to repay. While of course the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme gives preferential treatment to people under certain conditions, we all have a responsibility to ensure there is repayment capacity so people can actually repay what they borrow. That is what this will be about. We will have a review at the end of the first quarter.
In January, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, claimed he was making progress in tackling the homeless crisis. He said the modest fall in the number of adults and children in emergency accommodation in December demonstrated that Rebuilding Ireland was working. Yesterday, the latest homeless figures from the Department showed a dramatic increase in adult and child homelessness. This is the second month there have been such increases. There are now almost 10,000 adults and children living in Department-funded emergency accommodation and these figures do not include rough sleepers, adults and children in Tusla-funded domestic violence shelters or refugees forced to use direct provision as emergency accommodation after having secured their right to remain.
More than 3,755 children slept in emergency accommodation last night, in hotels, bed and breakfast establishments and family hubs. In February 2016, at the time of the last general election, there were 1,881 children in emergency accommodation. Since then, and on this Government's watch, the number of homeless children has increased by 100%. In the past 12 months, child homelessness has increased by 50%. This Government created a stand-alone housing Department with a Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, launched - with great fanfare - a new housing strategy and claims over and over again that money is no object in tackling the housing and homelessness crisis. Month after month, however, the number of people - including children - without a place to call home increases. The Minister's claim that he is getting to grips with the homelessness crisis is simply not true and his position is becoming increasingly untenable.
The Tánaiste is a family man. Can he imagine his children living in emergency accommodation? I shudder to think of my children living in such conditions. Does the Tánaiste have any idea what two years of homelessness would do to their development? Research by Focus Ireland that was published last December details the physical and psychological impact on children of living in cramped and unsuitable temporary accommodation for months on end. On "Morning Ireland" earlier, the Focus Ireland founder, Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy, said, "I have lost all confidence in this Government's ability to solve the crisis". She said that Rebuilding Ireland has failed and accused the Government of failing to protect tenants at risk of homelessness. Yesterday, the veteran campaigner, Fr. Peter McVerry, said that the Government's housing plans are deeply flawed. He dismissed it as a stack of press statements aimed primarily at presenting a positive picture. In a time of economic growth, people are asking why homelessness is rising so dramatically. The answer is that this Government is refusing to take the necessary steps to end the crisis.
My questions are simple. Does the Tánaiste accept that his Government is failing to tackle the homelessness crisis? Does he accept that what the Government is doing - and what it is not doing - is making matters worse? Will he outline what the Government will now do to get this crisis under control?
I have visited emergency accommodation and have spoked to families and children living there. As an individual and as a father, as well as a politician that has responsibility in this area, it upsets me that we have not managed to make a bigger impact in terms of the number of children and families that find themselves homeless tonight. That is why the determination of the Government to change that situation is stronger than it has ever been.
In the past year, the budget for housing has increased by almost 50%. In the previous year, it increased by 50% as well. Money is not the barrier to the provision of the resources required to deliver a social housing programme. We have committed €6 billion to deliver an extra 50,000 social houses. The issue here is the capacity to be able to deliver the volumes required at a pace that will get people out of hubs and hotels and into homes as quickly as possible. I can promise the Deputy that, in terms of policy initiatives, there is no lack of will on the part of this Government. In fact, the opposite is true. Yesterday, the figures announced showed a significant increase in the amount of homeless families. The number of homeless individuals is down, but that is not what people want to talk about. People want to focus on solving the core problem of homeless families. We have asked the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive to prepare a detailed report about what is happening over a number of months, what trends are emerging and why. If that leads to recommendations to change policy we will introduce new initiatives.
The core policy focus around Rebuilding Ireland is to deliver a dramatic increase in social housing provision, as well as ensuring that we have stable rental markets in the future so that we do not have the kind of property-driven economic implosion we experienced over the last ten to 15 years. The social consequences of the policy mistakes of that period, which we are now trying fix, cannot be allowed to happen again in the future.
In the past year, 2,000 families have been taken out of hotel accommodation and put into long-term tenancies and other, better solutions. We need much more than that, and that will be provided this year. As we progress we will see a dramatic increase in the number of social houses that are provided. Last year there were 2,245 new builds. That is almost double the amount realised in the previous year. We will probably see that figure more or less double again this year, with around 4,000 social houses being built, as well as a whole series of other solutions around voids, acquisitions, leasing and an expansion of the housing assistance payment, HAP, and the homeless HAP. The accusations around inactivity and commitment simply do not stand up.
Not only is the Government not getting to grips with the homelessness crisis, some of its actions and inactions are making the situation worse. The Government ignores the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of families out there who are barely getting by and who are just one rent increase or one financial emergency away from facing homelessness themselves. It was offered 1,800 vacant homes - turnkey properties - to purchase, and it only bought 400. It was told that it had to build 10,000 new social houses every year but has delivered just half that amount. It was asked to support Focus Ireland's amendment to protect tenants at risk of homelessness. With Fianna Fáil support, it voted the amendment down.
Every time the Government is given a solution to the homelessness crisis, it looks the other way. This is why the numbers of adults and children in homelessness has escalated under this Government. It explains why the Government's plan is being condemned by those on the front line. This was the Tánaiste's plan, and responsibility lies with both him and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. Is he not embarrassed? Is he not ashamed? What level of child homelessness do we need to reach in this State before the Minister's position becomes untenable?
In terms of acquisitions, the State purchased 2,266 properties last year, which is an increase of 181% on the previous year. We are focusing on acquisitions on this year also, in conjunction with banks and with others, to make sure that we can increase the number of social housing properties in the short term. A whole series of actions are taking place. We will continue to change policy if necessary, take new initiatives and respond to problems as they arise. Nobody on this side of the House believes that the number of families and children in emergency accommodation, albeit much improved in the past number of years, is acceptable. It is not, and this Government will not stop prioritising this area until the issue is comprehensively resolved, but that will take some time.
I would like to echo the comments made by colleagues on the disgraceful homelessness figures from yesterday.
I want to raise a matter which also affects homeless families. Last week, the upper floors of the 16-storey Metro Hotel were destroyed by fire. While residents were made homeless, thankfully there was no loss of life and no one suffered any injuries. As always, the Dublin Fire Brigade, the Garda and other first responders did an outstanding job. Any serious fire like this, along with the legacy of unsafe and dangerous buildings constructed during the Celtic tiger era renews concerns about fire safety and about the operation of the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations, BCAR, from March 2014. The latter essentially continued the system of self-certification of the disastrous Pádraig Flynn-inspired Building Control Regulations 1990, which permitted so much defective building in this country.
I first alerted the chief fire officer and city manager to the concerns of residents at Priory Hall and estates like Millfield Manor and Longboat Quay and up to 30 other high-profile defective multi-unit estates across the country have been highlighted in the media. From 2007, I continuously raised in this Chamber the issue of pyrite damage to homes and estates. However, the former taoisigh, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen, and the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley, refused to take responsibility for often distraught residents. As building activity ramps up again at long last, will more lax BCAR regulations leave a toxic legacy for the future, particularly in light of the changes to planning and apartment sizes made by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government?
In Dublin Bay North specifically, there are particular concerns about some buildings with timber frame construction. It is alleged that there are gaps at the top of compartment walls, a serious fire hazard; that plasterboards have not been fitted in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions; that service ducts and intermediate floors are not fire-protected and that brickwork and blockwork cladding is not secured to the timber frames. Can the Tánaiste confirm that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is fully aware of how many homes built during the boom are at risk of rapid fire spread? He asked the local authorities for information on this recently. The Minister, along with Deputy Coveney as the former Minister and their predecessors in the role have this information. Can both Cabinet members also outline what steps they have taken to ensure the safety of all the residents concerned?
From information supplied under freedom of information legislation to my constituency colleague who has done important work on this issue, Councillor Cian O’Callaghan of the Social Democrats, it appears that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has been aware of timber frames, insulation and other fire risks for at least a decade. After the Grenfell tragedy, when I raised the issues of high-rise cladding and mandatory sprinkler systems, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, told me about the framework review but the important case study was never published. In February the Minister also told me about his high-level fire safety task force formed to lead a re-appraisal of fire safety in Ireland. When will the task force’s final report be available? The Building Control (Construction Industry Register Ireland) Bill 2017 is before the House at the moment. However, given the track record of developers, surely the proposed construction industry register should not be placed with them but with a new, independent building regulator.
Finally, despite the Minister's assurances to colleagues in this Chamber last week after the Metro Hotel fire, our colleagues in the Services, Industrial, Technical and Professional Union, SIPTU, tell us that the Dublin Fire Brigade has no 42 m ladders and the only two high-rise appliances are both based at one location at Tara Street in central Dublin.
There are a lot of questions there. As for the tenancies that were affected by the fire last week, my understanding is that the individuals and families involved have been accommodated, although some of that is temporary accommodation in a hotel. They are being provided with financial support, and of course the local authority is looking at trying to put long-term tenancies in place for the individuals concerned.
It is important to say that an inspection of all local authority multi-storey buildings is taking place. We are preparing a report on the back of that to ensure that there is a full audit of local authority-owned buildings in Ireland following the Grenfell disaster in the UK. We are expecting to get that report back next month. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government will confirm that, I am sure.
Regarding some of Deputy Broughan's more general concerns, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is very aware of its responsibilities. As the construction sector is rebuilding and delivering significant increased numbers now year on year, particularly houses and apartment complexes, we must ensure that corners are not cut but that we are building safe homes for individuals and families into the future. The Building Control Act 2007 sets out the primary purpose for which building regulations may be made, namely, health, safety and the welfare of people in and around those buildings. The primary responsibility for compliance with the requirements of the building regulations rests with designers, builders and the owners of the buildings but of course we must make sure that local authorities have inspection teams and inspection capacity to ensure those building regulations are met. In the past, that has not been the case, quite frankly, as evidenced by the percentage of inspections that have taken place. However, we have set ambitious targets in that regard and we have put the resources in place to make it happen.
I welcome the assurances the Minister has given about the residents being rehoused. He mentioned inspection but the reality is that it was the Governments of which he was a member for the past seven and a half years that slashed the numbers of local authority fire safety inspectors. As Deputies Coveney and Murphy know, it has been estimated that we need to at least quadruple the number of fire safety officers in this country over the next several years. We may need as many as to 300 personnel. What really infuriates people, as the Tánaiste knows, is that some of the developers who built these shoddy and dangerous buildings during the Celtic tiger boom, under the regulations brought in by the Fianna Fáil Government, are back in business and building again, having been helped by the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, and ourselves. Surely in discussions of the Building Control (Construction Industry Register Ireland) Bill 2017, which has had pre-legislative assessment, that is an issue that should be directly addressed. As a former Minister with responsibility for this area, Deputy Coveney will be familiar with Volume 1 of part B of the Building Regulations, that is, the fire safety regulations that relate to public buildings such as schools, nursing homes, offices and so on. When will the revision of those regulations be available to the House?
That revision is due shortly, I am told. In regard to inspections and inspection capacity, there is a new €10 million inspection fund that will be available to local authorities to make sure they have the staffing complement needed to undertake an appropriate level of inspections. In the past, the percentages of properties inspected have been in the low single digits. We want to get to a situation where about 25% of properties are inspected each year, which would be a dramatic increase. Obviously this involves more staff, more resources and more focus from local authorities. We are providing the funding to deliver on that.
Yesterday the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre stated it was concerned about the way in which trials for rape are conducted. It fears that victims will now be further deterred from reporting rape. The statement also referred to the "opening up [of] a wider debate on the meaning of rape and the meaning of consent". Does the Government share those concerns? Arising from events yesterday, can there now be a transformation in this whole issue and how we relate to it? The much publicised case highlighted what rape is. It is sex without consent. Consent should be looked for. It should be actively sought and not assumed. Submission is not consent. Is there any other crime where a person is expected to yell, shout or ask for help to prove he or she did not consent to something? A person may be frozen. All of these are normal and real responses. They are not consent. Consent should involve active agreement between two people. Anything less is not acceptable.
We need to challenge the attitudes and the sexist culture that is leading to these views being held. Does the Government agree that such a conversation is now needed in Irish society and that it could start among the young? If so, is the Government now willing to fund a sex education programme in our schools, where the issue of consent is at its very core? Does the Government now agree that we need to look at sexual crime in this State, and to spend the money needed to conduct another report along the lines of the sexual abuse and violence in Ireland, SAVI, report into its scale? Does the Government agree that if we are really worried about the low level of reporting of rape, measures must be taken to make the process easier for victims?
We must end the average waiting time of 33 months before a case will get to court. What level of fortitude do we expect from rape victims? We have to give representation to victims to help them deal with such an adversarial court process. How is it acceptable for a complainant's clothes to be passed around the jury as evidence of their consent? How is the sexual experience of any complainant relevant and why is it brought up in more than a third of cases in the Irish State? Why has the Government not acted on provisions on sections of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which would afford vulnerable witnesses and children protection against adversarial cross-examination, for example through video-link? Consent was defined in that Act. Many of us lobbied for it to be defined in it. However, no training has yet been given to judges, lawyers or even juries.
As we speak, people are gathering in cities and towns around this State. They are gathering in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Carlow and all over the State to stand with victims of rape and sexual assault at 12.30 p.m.
The protests arise from the #MeToo movement and the culture it has generated among young people. Is the Government going to take this as seriously as the people who are gathering?
I can assure the Deputy that the Government is taking this issue very seriously. It is almost impossible not to have noticed, read about or listened to descriptions of a trial that was taking place in Belfast in recent weeks. That came to a head yesterday when it concluded. It raises many concerns at all sorts of levels but it is important to reinforce, for anybody listening today, the point that the trial was in a different jurisdiction. It would not and could not have developed in this jurisdiction in the way it did. Therefore, it is important for us all to reassure victims of sexual abuse in Ireland that, while we need to focus all the time on improving our legal and judicial systems, their approach is very different from that taken by the courts in Belfast in recent weeks. In this jurisdiction, for example, there is a legal prohibition on the identification of a rape accused before conviction. The public, although not the press, is excluded from the court from hearings. There is also a very strong protection of the victim. There is clear punishment, with a maximum sentence of up to three years, for breaking the law in that area.
We have sought to introduce legislation to ensure that we try to protect victims of sexual abuse and ensure that, when there are court hearings, the anonymity of people who are being accused and, of course, people taking cases is protected. Even after a trial, a victim's anonymity is protected. We need to send a signal out that we should not be drawing conclusions about what might happen here from what happened in a different jurisdiction if people are brave enough to come forward. There is undoubtedly a chill factor that comes from the coverage we have seen of the trial we witnessed in recent weeks. As policymakers, we need to respond to that and make sure there is an appropriate response here, but we also need to point out that this is a different jurisdiction from the North and we need to be careful we do not draw parallels between two court systems.
The only difference in the two jurisdictions is the fact that the defendants were named and the trial was so public. Certainly, that led to very salacious reporting by the media, which militated against the complainant. There is no question about that. All the other elements are exactly the same.
On "The Tonight Show" last night, a solicitor made the point that 80% of rapes are not even reported, and 5% of cases get to court. Of those 5%, only 19% result in successful prosecutions. Where it is contested, the rate is only 7%. Unfortunately, the Tánaiste did not answer my central question, on the issue of consent between people. That is what was contested in the case in question and in most cases.
Is the Government willing to initiate an education programme and a discussion in society and put the money behind them? The British Government, for example, initiated a rape awareness campaign where people were encouraged to ensure consent had been actively sought. This is a considerable and pressing issue in society. I estimate that there will be thousands of people protesting today. This matter is taken very seriously by this generation.
Yes. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 did introduce a statutory definition of consent to a sexual act. It states a person does not consent to a sexual act if he or she allows that act to take place due to the application of force or threat, or the use of force. There is a series of detailed definitions to respond to the concern the Deputy rightly raised today. Of course, we need to assess the definition and ensure it is sufficient.
With regard to sex education, the Deputy has proposed legislation in this area. It is important to say that consent is explicitly covered as part of the curriculum for both junior and senior cycles in post-primary schools today. That does not mean we are doing enough on sex education; I do not believe we are. In fact, one of the ancillary commitments in regard to the debate on the eighth amendment is that the State will put more money into sex education. We will do that. Regardless of what happens in the referendum, I suspect we will do that as a Government. I am sure the Minister concerned will happily work with the Deputy on the ideas she has in this area. I assure her that resources will not be the issue in trying to improve sex education in Irish schools.