Tuesday, 20 November 2018
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, is an independent statutory agency operating under the aegis of my Department. The council analyses and reports on strategic policy matters relevant to Ireland's economic, social, environmental and sustainable development. In accordance with the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006, I have certain functions, such as appointing the members of NESC, presenting reports to Government prior to publication or prior to laying them before the Houses, as in the case of the annual reports. The council is funded through my Department’s Vote and my Department also has governance responsibilities in regard to the council.
NESC membership comprises representatives of business and employer organisations, ICTU, agricultural and farming organisations, community and voluntary organisations and environmental organisations, together with heads of Departments and independent experts. This composition means it plays an important and unique role in bringing different perspectives from civil society together with Government. It helps NESC to analyse the challenges facing Irish society and to develop a shared understanding among its members of how to tackle these challenges.
The most recent NESC reports are Urban Development Land, Housing and Infrastructure: Fixing Ireland's Broken System and Moving from Welfare to Work: Low Work Intensity Households and the Quality of Supportive Services. I have brought both reports to Government in advance of publication.
The council has recently adopted a work programme for the year to September 2019, comprising three themes, namely, housing and land: transport-led development; social insurance and the welfare system: towards a sustainable developmental welfare state; and climate change and low carbon transition.
A Programme for a Partnership Government specifically notes there are policy challenges where long-term thinking is required. I hope and trust the council will continue to contribute to policy development, with a focus on the strategic and longer-term view.
One of those key long-term challenges that requires long-term planning is climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy. I know one of the main areas of the work of NESC is in this arena. Last week the European Parliament approved four of the eight proposals comprising its clean energy package for 2020 to 2030. The directives in question originally had binding renewable energy targets in place for each EU member state to achieve but, regrettably, national targets have been removed in favour of an overall EU-wide target. Under the current 2020 targets, the State faces hefty fines for not meeting our 20% energy efficiency and 16% renewable energy targets. Our current shift to renewable energy is not even touching 10%, which we should regard as an abject failure. Without a binding target for 2030, where is the incentive for us to make real, significant changes in respect of climate change policy?
The Climate Action Network Europe has reported in the past that Ireland has played a negative role in climate change negotiations, so it is possible, if not probable, that the Government played a part in removing national targets during negotiations on the important directives agreed just last week. The Taoiseach might enlighten us as to the Government position on this.
As the Taoiseach rightly said, NESC is an important forum where workers' representatives, through their trade unions, meet employers' groups and Government. Over the years it has done an amount of important background research work that informs national policy on areas like public housing and so on. The set of priorities the Taoiseach has indicated for NESC into the future includes, as Deputy McDonald said, the whole issue of climate change. I said recently at our party conference that this is one of the moral imperatives of our time. I genuinely believe that public opinion is light years ahead of opinion in this House, and certainly ahead of opinion within the Government, which talks the talk but, in terms of actually achieving the targets, is pitifully bad.
We will not meet our 2020 target and there is no rescuing that at this stage. However, it is also highly likely that we will not meet our 2030 target, which would be shameful, not only because it is an indictment of this generation and the whole issue of generational solidarity, but also because, economically, it is hugely damaging to us. We will have to make those changes to become a carbon neutral economy. The longer we delay the achievement of those targets, the more expensive it will be, because the fines that will accrue to the State will be extremely severe at that stage.
In terms of the work programme of NESC to inform the Government, will the Taoiseach make it clear in terms of national priorities on the economy and social policy that climate change is a priority, and that carbon reduction and carbon abatement will be practically implemented as a matter of urgency?
Has the Taoiseach read the NESC report on land management produced in April 2018? I ask this because it will explain to him what those of us who will be marching for emergency action on the housing and homelessness emergency on 1 December want and the sort of radical change in policy we are looking for. What the NESC report does is set out examples of what is done in places like the Netherlands and Austria. The contrast with the policies the Government has pursued on housing is stark in the extreme. It points out that in Amsterdam, for example, 80% of zoned building land is in the hands of the state, which does not sell it. Some 30% of Dutch housing stock is social housing, which contrasts with 5% here because of the failure of the Government to build social housing. In Austria, between 2000 and 2014, the austerity years when Irish Governments slashed housing budgets, helping to generate the current housing crisis, the Austrians did the exact opposite. Between 28% and 36% of all housing built in Austria in that period was social housing. It is extraordinary. In the period when we stopped building social housing, more than 30% of all of their housing output was social housing.
Does the Taoiseach see the point? The Government is selling off public land and allowing the private market to dictate, and we have a disaster. However, in other countries of Europe land is kept in public use, strict land management policies apply and a large amount of social housing is built.
NESC has done very valuable work in regard to housing. Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to have a conversation with NESC members or to address or meet them recently? Has he asked, for example, about the affordable housing scheme that was launched with great fanfare by the Government under Rebuilding Ireland? A recent report shows that, of 1,000 applications, only 60 loans were drawn down, and only 20 loans were drawn down in the city of Dublin. We are talking about people who have a joint income of about €75,000 or an individual income of €50,000, for example, skilled tradespeople towards the beginning of their careers. They are being turned down for these loans which the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government launched as a cornerstone of housing recovery.
I happen to agree with the Minister that affordable housing is critical to solving the housing crisis. With all of the expertise that is available from NESC, has the Taoiseach taken the opportunity to have a conversation with NESC as to why, under the Government's housing policy, ordinary people with decent jobs and an income which has passed the test are unable to get affordable housing, in the way their mothers and fathers could get affordable housing?
Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: One of those key lnog-term challenges that rqeuires long-term planning is climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy. I know one of the main araes of work of NESC is in this arena. Last week the European Parliament approved four of the eight proposals comprising its clean energy package for 2020 to 2030. The directives in question originally had binding renewable energy
Fine Gael has taken away the right of people to an affordable home. It is great on the public promotion, but the report shows that its policy is producing minute numbers, with only 60 of the 1,000 promised produced. How can anyone stand over that?
In the last two years, NESC has allocated a lot of its time to trying to prompt a more substantive series of actions on two of the most pressing and critical issues for this country, namely, the housing and climate emergencies. However, it is not clear if its work is having any impact at political level in government. The council has presented its work, and that of conference speakers, on how to achieve a more sustainable impact on rough sleeping, for example, and land use. Two weeks ago, a man sleeping rough in a public park approximately a mile and a half from here became the 27th person to die on the streets of Dublin in less than a year and a half. In response, the Minister of State for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Damien English, claimed that enormous progress is being made and that there will be no issue with the number of beds in this area this winter. This was quickly followed by Fr. Peter McVerry's statement that there are more rough sleepers today than there were last year. He pointed out that the Government continues to miss the fundamental point that beds for rough sleepers would be only used if people feel they would be safe accessing the service. In regard to the Government's most recent claims, he said: "I don't see any evidence of them learning." Does the Taoiseach disagree with Fr. McVerry's point that many homeless people are reluctant to access beds because they are concerned for their safety? Is there not something terribly wrong that people would rather risk sleeping rough than access or enter some of our services? Is the Taoiseach confident that the policies and services are in place to stop this unprecedented level of deaths on the streets of our capital city, in particular this winter?
Last week, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Climate Action I set out some of the institutional arrangements that I believe we need to take up within the State to address climate change. Rather than having an outside agency telling us what to do, we need to use existing resources. The secretariat of the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, could and should have a key role in advising the Taoiseach's Department on its work to tackle climate change. As I understand it, the Taoiseach wants to see an initiative like the action plan for jobs, which is run by his Department, for climate change, which makes sense. The NESC 2012 report on how to get a circular iterative approach to address this issue could give real practical advice and assistance to the Department of the Taoiseach in that regard.
Beneath that, we should give further resources to the Climate Change Advisory Council, chaired by Professor John FitzGerald, to improve the council's work. As recently set out in legislation from this side of the House, we need a just transition commission to assist the members of the National Economic and Social Council in dealing with transition difficulties. We also need a green investment bank and to change the delivery board for the national development plan, which is chaired by the Secretaries General of the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Planning and Local Government, to a delivery board for a climate development plan, co-chaired by the Secretaries General of the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The NESC secretariat has a critical role to play in co-ordinating this work. I commend this approach to the Government.
On the clean energy package, I am not across the details of it. I imagine it was handled by either the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, or the current Minister, Deputy Richard Burton, or perhaps by their respective officials. The advantage of EU-wide targets is that they allow for burden-sharing. In other words, where some countries are doing well and others are not the targets can be offset against each other. One country might meet its targets in one area but not in another area and another country may meet its targets in the latter area but not in the first area, in which case the targets can be offset against each other. Often these negotiations are done through the big blocs, with the EU negotiating on behalf of all of us with China, India, America and so on.
CO2 emissions are lower than they were notwithstanding a significant increase in population but we are nowhere near close to reaching our target of a 20% reduction by 2020. With the reduction likely to be closer to 1%, it is evident that we will not reach our 2020 targets but I do think we will meet our 2030 targets. I am determined that we should do so for renewable energy and CO2 emissions. Project Ireland 2040, by way of investment in energy -renewables and grid - transport and the insulation of homes and public buildings, will bring us about one third of the way towards this achievement. Other measures will make a difference too. For example, a carbon tax, if we get it right, can make a difference, as can other changes. We need to put them all together, particularly changes in agriculture.
On the NESC report on land management, I have read it. It is a very good report, which informed the Government decision to establish the land development agency, LDA, which is modelled on similar agencies in The Netherlands and Austria. The LDA follows on from the successes of the models in The Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, Austria and its purpose, as the House will be aware, is to develop publicly owned land for housing of all sorts, including social, cost rental and private housing because housing of all types is needed in Ireland. The LDA is also tasked with acquiring privately owned land and other land banks that may be developed and zoned into the future, which flows from the advice of the NESC report and is in line with the model in The Netherlands. The LDA staff have visited The Netherlands to examine its model with a view to replicating it here. Cost rental is huge in Vienna. The House will be aware that the first cost rental project is being developed on Emmet Road. It follows the Austrian model. The LDA is modelled on The Netherlands model - a Government agency taking a much more active role in developing housing and acquiring and putting together land banks for development.
We estimate that in 2018, excluding ghost estates that are being brought back into use, student accommodation and reconnections of abandoned homes, approximately 18,000 new homes and apartments will be built in Ireland. We know 5,000 alone were built in the last three months. Of those, 4,000 are social housing, that is direct builds by local authorities and affordable housing bodies. This indicates that in terms of new build this year between 20% and 25% are social housing, which is the percentage of social homes for which Members opposite have been advocating. This is where we are at this year. We are just not there in terms of quantum. We want to get to a build of 35,000 per annum, of which 10,000 to 12,000 or between one quarter and one third will be social-public housing. I am sure Deputy Boyd Barrett will be horrified to hear that what he is describing is Fine Gael policies.
In The Netherlands they partner public land with private industry and provide a mix of housing.
On rough sleeping, the latest count as Deputy Micheál Martin will know records a decrease of 40%. However, a new count is due soon and I have no idea what the outcome of it will be. We all understand that rough sleeping is a complex social phenomenon. It is not just about housing, it is also about mental health, addiction, alcohol, drugs and family break-up. Often, people have been in trouble with the law and many are non-EU migrants as well. It is a very complex social problem. These are people with enormous needs who need a lot of help. I had the opportunity to visit Merchant's Quay last night to get a better feel for the kind of services it provides and to meet some of the people who use those services, many of whom are rough sleepers. When one gets a feel for the diversity of people who sleep rough - I have also been out with Safetynet to meet people who are sleeping rough, living in tents and so on - and when one gets a feel for the individual stories one understands why they may not wish to accept a bed or accommodation. There are lots of different reasons for it, which are individual reasons in different circumstances.
However, we are doing a lot of work with Peter McVerry Trust on Housing First, which is a programme whereby we assist rough sleepers into housing and give them wrap-around supports so they are able to hold onto the housing. We know that when many rough sleepers get an apartment or other accommodation, for various reasons they are not able to hold onto it. We have seen a lot of success with Housing First. If housing is provided to people who have been sleeping rough and the supports around them continue to be provided, there is a much better chance they will stay in their housing. This is a partnership we have with Peter McVerry Trust and, I think, Focus Ireland, and it has worked very well.