Wednesday, 18 April 2018
We read in The Irish Timestoday that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, told the public affairs director of Heneghans PR firm two months before it was made public that he planned to refer the proposed takeover of Celtic Media by Independent News & Media to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It appears that this information was then passed on to the senior director of the PR firm who passed it on to the former chairman of INM who then relayed it to the largest shareholder of INM, all in advance of it being made available to the other shareholders. This may or may not have been in breach of new market abuse regulations. The public relations executive told the former chairman of INM that the Minister's decision was to be treated as highly confidential. The director of public affairs of Heneghans confirmed that this morning, saying the Minister would have known that he was working for INM. He was asked by the company to find out the Minister's view on the suggested merger after the decision of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commissioner and said:
I ascertained what his reaction would be and I told the client. What they did with it after that is a matter for them.
It is my view that the Minister should come into the House to clarify the matter and confirm whether he did or did not tell the public affairs director of Heneghans two months in advance of making the information public. Has the Taoiseach raised queries with the Minister on the issue and does he have concerns about his behaviour? Why would it be normal practice for a Minister to inform a company what his intentions were relating to a proposed merger before they were publicly announced? Was this not commercially sensitive and price-sensitive information? Why would the Minister make known his intentions? Had he received any other representations about the proposed merger? Did the Minister inform the Government that his office had given a heads-up about his plans to refer the proposed takeover to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland two months it was referred?
I understand the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, will make a statement to the House this afternoon on the matter referred to in The Irish Timesin respect of the proposed acquisition of the Celtic Media group by INM. I have not seen the affidavit and do not think anyone in this House has. As it is a matter before the courts and sub judice, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the affidavit.
The purpose of the media mergers regime is to safeguard the diversity and pluralism of media in the State and foster a regulatory environment that will enable media companies to flourish and ensure a range of diverse views are heard. All proposed media mergers that have been cleared by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, are examined from a media plurality and diversity perspective in line with published guidelines which set out criteria for examining proposed media mergers, including diversity of ownership in the relevant media sector and the wider media market; geographical impact; governance structures; and the financial standing of the parties. The guidelines provide for an initial phase one examination by departmental officials and referral to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland for a more detailed phase two examination where this is warranted in the light of the initial diversity and plurality assessments and factors such as the scale of the proposed acquisition and its geographical reach. In this case the CCPC cleared the proposed merger on 10 November 2016. An application under the media mergers process was received by the Department on 21 November 2016. I am advised by the Minister that his Department subsequently subjected the application to the full rigours of the Act and the media merger guidelines before making its recommendation to him on 4 November. He made the decision on the matter on 10 January 2017 and acted on the advice of his officials at all times.
I asked the Taoiseach if he had made inquiries of the Minister. Does he not find it unacceptable that the Minister gave this information to a public relations firm acting on behalf of INM two months before making a public announcement on it? Does he think it was appropriate and correct to do so? Has he ascertained from the Minister that he did, in fact, do this? Will he, please, say "Yes" or "No" as I want a straightforward answer. Any reading of the situation seems to suggest the inside track is alive and well. It is extremely important that there be clarity and transparency. What is the Taoiseach's view? Does he think it is normal practice for something like this to occur, that a Minister informs a PR firm acting on behalf of one party two months in advance?
The Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, contacted me and my staff last night to inform us that the story would appear in the newspapers today and I have spoken to him since. I still do not have all the facts and nobody does. None of us has seen the affidavit.
The matter is before the courts. It is fair to say it would have been better if this conversation had not happened, but I am satisfied that the Minister did not give any confidential information. There seems to be a misunderstanding of the nature of the process. It is not secret. Guidelines on it are publicly available on the Department's website and the same guidelines were subject to a detailed public consultation prior to their finalisation. Prior to the phase one decision the Minister answered seven parliamentary questions on the matter in the Dáil and was exhorted by outside groups and political parties to use all of the powers available to him to examine aspects of the acquisition.
This is a very troubling story which, undoubtedly, raises questions for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, about his discussion with a person acting on behalf of INM in connection with the attempt to take over Celtic Media. This all happened in November 2016. The Minister gave advance notice to the PR executive, acting on behalf of Independent News & Media, of his plan to refer the takeover to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.
We understand that the Minister, when speaking to this individual, understood he was working on behalf of INM. The engagement between them and the Minister's decision to refer the proposed acquisition to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland was then a subject of an email sent by the PR company to the chairperson of INM, and this email was subsequently forwarded to Mr. Denis O'Brien. This email stressed that the information contained within it should be treated with the strictest of confidence, which is at variance with the Taoiseach's assertion that all this had full public purview and that it was not confidential at all.
We also understand that the PR company in question did not log the engagement with the Minister with the lobbying registrar, as it should have done. As the Taoiseach knows, this is a legal requirement under the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015. This law is designed to protect the public interest and ensure transparency in the lobbying process. The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, of which we spoke yesterday, has expressed concerns about the sharing of insider information and, perhaps, breaches of stock market rules. All this gets very murky in its totality.
There are very serious issues over the concentration and consolidation of media ownership and, by extension, power in this State. We are all conversant with that. I am sure I do not have to remind the Taoiseach that, in the past, interactions between a former Minister and a powerful interest in the media and a proposed acquisition spawned the Moriarty tribunal. Indeed, that tribunal is one of the reasons people distrust powerful politicians and the political process itself.
Let me put a couple of questions to the Taoiseach - ones he has failed to answer so far. He said the Minister contacted him last night to tell him the story would appear in the paper. Am I to take it from that that this was the first time he had knowledge of the conversation between the Minister and the person acting on behalf of INM? The Taoiseach says he has not had sight of the affidavit. He does not need sight of the court affidavit to put to the Minister, Deputy Naughten, the very obvious questions that ought to be put to him.
The answer to the sole question the Deputy asked is "Yes". The Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, is willing to come before the House this afternoon to make a personal statement. I understand that has been agreed for 3 p.m. The Minister will be willing to take questions on foot of that. He informs me the date was 4 January 2017, not November 2016. The information, as I said earlier, was not confidential. It is not unusual for PR companies and PR agents to use information that is not confidential or publicly available and make out somehow that it is confidential information.
Under the lobbying Act, the onus is on the lobbyist to register. It is not a requirement that the politician do so. I imagine the Deputy is aware of that because I doubt that she has ever registered under the lobbying Act herself. It is not her obligation to do so; it is the person lobbying her who is obliged to do so.
I am asking legitimate questions. I would prefer to be in here raising a different issue but we are not. For all the guff about new politics, is this where we are at, with the gold-plated few having access to Ministers and, in part, given the heads-up on decisions the Minister has taken? What way is that to conduct politics? I very much hope the Minister will present himself this evening. I hope he has full, transparent and credible answers in respect of all this.
The story states very clearly that the meeting took place in November 2016. The Taoiseach seems to be contesting that fact.
Almost anyone in Ireland can have access to a Minister. It is not that difficult to have access to politicians or Ministers in Ireland, whether it is through a constituency clinic or simply by requesting a meeting or telephone call. With regard to the lobbying Act, as the Deputy well knows as a serving politician, the obligation is on the person carrying out the lobbying - the lobbyist - to register, not the politician. I have never registered that somebody lobbied me under the lobbying Act and I am not required to do so. I doubt that the Deputy has done so either so therefore her contention is a bit of a red herring.
With regard to the timeline, I am advised that the mergers process went through the full rigour required under the Act and the guidelines afterwards were received by the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, on 21 November 2016. The recommendation was made by officials on 4 January 2017 that the acquisition be referred for a phase 2 examination, and that was approved by the Minister on 10 January.
The scandal over what allegedly happened at INM, where the data of journalists were literally handed over to an outside body, is shocking and deeply disturbing. The matter is in the hands of both the courts and the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, and they will do their work. This case will have serious repercussions and highlights the fragility of the institutions that sustain our democracy. It is a subject that will no doubt feature largely in our debates in this House in the future. What is deeply disturbing is the detail of what is now emerging and how sensitive information was shared by a Minister.
The Celtic Media Group publishes a number of well-known titles. It was announced in September 2016 that INM planned to buy the group of seven newspapers. It was part of a trend of consolidation in the print industry, which has been under long-term stress, as we have discussed many times here. INM already has a dominant position in the Irish media landscape, and it sought to make these acquisitions. There were concerns over the control of so many outlets resting in one company, all but controlled by one significant shareholder.
In January 2017, the Minister publicly announced he was referring the deal to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, sought a full review of the proposed merger and a recommendation from the authority within 80 working days. However, in June 2017, INM announced the takeover would not go ahead. That was before the Minister would announce his decision on the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland review. The Irish Timesreports today that the Minister told a lobbyist from INM in a telephone conversation of his intention to refer the takeover to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland because of "the overall ownership of print and broadcast titles by Denis O'Brien". This telephone call with a former Government press secretary, Mr. Eoghan Ó Neachtain, now director of public affairs at Henaghan PR, occurred two months before the Minister acted. It is an extraordinary revelation that the Minister provided key information to a lobbyist for INM considering he refused to engage with the NUJ on that very same issue. In effect, it appears that the Minister might have prejudiced his statutory functions under the competition Acts in regard to approving media mergers. He might also have unwittingly shared insider information that was passed on subsequently to a shareholder. Unlawful disclosure of insider information is a criminal offence under Regulation 6 of the European Union (Market Abuse) Regulations 2016.
The Taoiseach said the Minister is going to make a personal statement. This is not a personal matter. It is not encompassed by the rules of the House on personal statements. I ask that the Minister make a full statement on his departmental role and be subject to questions in the House this afternoon.
It does not appear to me that this is sensitive information or confidential information. It may be the case that the PR executive or the lobbyist claimed it was, but that is part of what lobbyists do. They often take information that is publicly available or easily available and present it as being confidential in some way.
The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and Broadcasting Authority of Ireland act and make their decisions independently. The Minister has clearly stated all previous decisions were based solely on the advice provided by his officials. He has reiterated that he had adhered to that approach in this case as well. What he said was that he would follow the advice of his officials.
The Minister has agreed to make a statement to the House later and will take questions on it.
I am sorry but I must clarify that, procedurally, the device by which a personal statement is handled does not allow for the taking of questions so the matter would have to be ordered in a separate fashion.
The Taoiseach said he was informed for the first time of this yesterday evening. I ask exactly what communication was made to him in order that we can prepare ourselves for questions that we might pose later in the afternoon.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment rang me, I missed the phone call and I rang him back. We could not get each other because we were at different events yesterday evening.
In what is a pretty well worn pattern, we had yet another announcement, which was the umpteenth announcement, yesterday by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government that purportedly will help to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis and, in particular, the issue of private rented accommodation. Twice yesterday during Taoiseach's Questions, I asked questions in an attempt to interrogate these proposals because they are nothing more than another half-baked, futile exercise in closing the door after the horse has bolted. They are pure tokenism, which will do nothing to address a housing and homelessness emergency that is spiralling out of control. I hope I might get the answers today from the Taoiseach that I did not yesterday.
What is the point of bringing in legislation, even with criminal sanctions about which I am happy, which will limit rent increases to 4% annually when rents are unaffordable anyway and the level of rent is such that nobody on a low income or dependent on housing assistance payment, HAP, or even those on a reasonable income such as teachers, nurses and so on can afford them? Average rents in parts of Dublin are €1,800 per month. In south Dublin, average rent is almost €2,000 per month, which means someone needs €24,000 a year to secure an average rental property. That is impossible. What will the Taoiseach do about that? This is only if someone can secure accommodation at those rents given landlords will not even look at those on HAP. I am dealing with constituents who have come to my office with lists of between 80 and 100 properties that they have viewed trying to find accommodation that they can afford but it is impossible. All this leads directly to homelessness. None of the loopholes relating to substantial refurbishment and moving relatives in for the sale of properties, which are being exploited by vulture funds and landlords, is being addressed. Landlords are using them to evict people. Nothing has been done about affordability. Emergency legislation is needed. Earlier this week, a scandal was revealed yet again. The Sunday Independentrevealed that Christian Carter who had previously been caught with 70 people in a five-bedroom house in Cabinteely had seven other properties with up to 30 people living in some of them following an investigation by the newspaper.
Rents in Ireland are high, particularly in Dublin, and they have increased considerably over the past couple of years. They fell quite a lot during the recession and have increased very much over the past couple of years. Nonetheless, while it may come as a surprise to the Deputy, people are paying them. There are few vacant rental properties because people will not pay these rents; the reverse is the case. We do not have enough rental properties available for people to rent. The legislation the Government has brought in is intended to contain the increases in rents in order that people do not face double digit or significant hikes if they live in rent pressure zones, RPZs. According to the statistic produced by the Residential Tenancies Board most recently, average rents increased by just over 1% in the previous quarter. Rents had been increasing at a high rate. In 2016, for example, rents in Dublin increased by 8%. However, the average increase was in the region of 5% for 2017, with an increase of 1.1% in the final quarter. The rent controls for the RPZs that were brought in more than a year ago are working and are having an effect in containing and reducing the increases in people's rent.
I am not sure what Deputy Boyd Barrett is proposing. He seems to be proposing legislation whereby the Government would intervene and slash rents. We all know why that would not be a practical solution. That would not provide an additional property for any person in the State. If anything, the Government coming in to slash rents would create other problems. There would not be additional supply, which is what we need now. Fewer people would be willing to let their properties and get involved in the buy-to-let sector if a socialist government was to come along and slash rents and control the rents being charged. There would also be many accidental landlords, for example, for whom that rent is how they pay their mortgage. They would be put into mortgage arrears and huge financial difficulty. The Deputy's solution would make matters worse, as is always the case.
People are paying rents, like Tara Nic Chormaic, the nurse who wrote an open letter about how she cries at the end of a 39-hour week because she has €6 left after she pays her rent. That is how people are paying while others cannot even get these properties. I am proposing as an absolute minimum a complete rent freeze. A 4% increase on an unaffordable rent of €1,900 or €2,000 a month is not payable by people on HAP or by teachers, nurses and ordinary workers. What will the Taoiseach do about that? I would go further, as is the norm in many European countries, and have rents set by local authorities based on square metreage at affordable levels. What is the point in the Minister's proposed legislation given the RTB only has 55 staff and cannot even enforce the current legislation? The Taoiseach is saying they will launch investigations, which is just nonsense.
We need to stop rent increases, bring rents down to affordable levels and stop vulture funds sitting on empty properties. As I told the Minister earlier this week, Cerberus is sitting on 27 empty properties in Sandyford while Apollo Global Management is sitting on empty properties in Dún Laoghaire. Nothing is being done about this. These speculators are dictating what is going on in the housing market. If the State takes those properties back for public use, that is how the Government will secure additional properties.
I do not see how a rent freeze would work. We have brought forward rent certainty and rent controls which ensure nobody in most of the country - 60% of people are now covered by rent pressure zones - will faces a rent increase of more than 4% in any given year. I have demonstrated how that is having an effect, with the average increase in the last quarter being just over 1.1%. It is not quite a rent freeze, but it is an increase of in the region of 4%. There are uplifts when it comes to the housing assistance payment, HAP. If somebody is facing homelessness, an uplift of between 20% and 50% can be provided for to make sure the person can afford to pay the rent. We have a HAP finder to assist people in finding available properties. The real problem both for people who want to buy houses, including their first home, and those who need to rent is the lack of supply. The Deputy's solutions would make the position much worse with the Government coming in and setting rents in particular areas and slashing them. Fewer people would then be willing to let properties. Fewer people would be willing to buy properties, with a view to letting them. Loads of people, particularly accidental landlords who are just about getting by and for whom the rent is just about covering the mortgage, would be placed in arrears and the position would be made much worse.