Wednesday, 5 December 2018
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
The housing crisis continues to deepen and to impact on many people across the country. The annual report from Threshold published today makes for depressing reading and illustrates how existing Government policies and initiatives have failed, particularly in relation to security of tenure, substandard accommodation and ongoing homelessness. Threshold has seen a dramatic rise in the number of calls it received from tenants in danger of losing their homes because their landlords claim they are selling their house or must have a deep refurbishment of their house. In 2017, 32% of calls were from renters who had been told their tenancies were coming to an end, up from 18% in 2016. That should be no surprise to Members of this House because every week people are coming into our clinics with letters from legal people and landlords stating the landlord swears he or she is refurbishing the house and will have to evict the tenant or that he or she is selling the house. The crisis in this specific area has been going on for the past two years. To date in 2018, the percentage of calls to Threshold related to notices of termination has increased to 40%. We are all experiencing that.
This is in the context of 73,000 calls to Threshold. Unaffordable rent is a huge issue, as is the sale of rental properties, leading to the hidden homeless and many tenants going back to their mothers. Across this city and the country, it is now commonplace for multiple families to live in a house because of this pattern of evictions. The rent pressure zones have not worked. Despite the 4% cap, rents in Dublin increased by more than 10% last year. As a result, tenants are being evicted into homelessness and the sale or refurbishment of the property is being used to circumvent the rent pressure zone. Threshold and others have called for a strengthening of the legislation to remove these loopholes and for an open register so that people can see transparently the rents that are being levied across the country. When will the Government introduce legislation to give effect to the proposals and recommendations of Threshold?
I recalled earlier the hidden homeless phenomenon. I do not know whether the Taoiseach listened to the "This Week" programme on RTÉ on Sunday last where there was an interview with a young mother, Ms Maria Dunne, who is currently living in her mother's house in Rossfield estate in Tallaght. She has five children and described how she would be homeless unless her mother had given up a room in her home to accommodate them. She described how she and her five children, one of whom is a small baby, were in one room and that her sisters, who also have children, live in the house as well. There are 12 people living in that house. She spoke calmly and eloquently about the practical and emotional pressures her family are under. Maria's story is one that perhaps most Deputies have heard from different people in different clinics and it derives from the central problem that has been identified by Threshold in its annual report. When can we expect the legislation to eradicate these loopholes that are being exploited?
We would all agree that the core to the solution to the housing crisis is additional supply. That alone is not the solution but it is the core to it. We are making real progress when it comes to additional supply. This year, between 18,000 and 20,000 new homes and apartments will be built. That is the biggest increase in the number of new homes built this decade and a significant increase on last year and the year before that. Supply is ramping up and new houses and apartments are being built all over the country. It is not ramping up as fast as we would like but it is very much going in the right direction. That means, to put it in human terms, this Christmas there will be 20,000 Irish families sitting around a tree in houses that did not exist this time last year. In those houses, there will be 50,000 or 60,000 people. That is a significant change on this time last year. We want to see supply continue to increase next year. We have set the target of building 25,000 new homes - houses and apartments - next year and adding to our social housing stock by a measure of approximately 10,000.
In terms of the Threshold report which the Deputy raises, I had a chance to listen to Ms Aideen Hayden on the radio this morning. Threshold is a very good organisation that has done much important and valuable work for tenants since its foundation 40 years ago. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was with Threshold today to launch the report. We will certainly examine the recommendations and reflect on all that Threshold says.
In terms of rent, as the Deputy will be aware, the Government, with the help of his party, has brought in new protections to protect those who are renting. Many people now rent, including nearly one third of people in Dublin, one third of people in my constituency, one third of people in Galway and approximately one quarter of households in the country. It is important, therefore, that we have protections in place for tenants. The protections we have put in place include the 4% rent cap in the rent pressure zones, the requirement that tenants be given adequate notice if they are asked to leave the property they are renting, and an increase of 60% in the budget of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, to ensure it has the resources it needs to enforce the law.
We will do more. We will bring in new laws to make the rent pressure zones more enforceable by giving the RTB, the power it needs to enforce them. We will introduce a rent register, as recommended by Threshold, so that people have transparency about the rents that are being paid by others in the same area and know what rents are being charged. In addition, we will double the notice to quit period so that if somebody needs to leave their rental property because the owner wants to move back in, needs to carry out substantial renovations, wants to accommodate a family member in it or for one of the other reasons, the notice period will be doubled giving the tenant much more time to find alternative accommodation. That legislation will be at Cabinet on Tuesday and, all things going to plan, will be published thereafter.
That sums it up. The legislation will be published next Tuesday, a week before the recess. This report relates to 2017 when 32% of calls to Threshold were from people being evicted, a figure that increased to 40% in the first half of 2018. The lack of urgency is incredible.
The Taoiseach mentioned all the apartments that are being built. I invite him to go around Dublin where thousands of student apartments are being built and rented out for €299 a week or whatever. I visited Greek Street two weeks ago and noted the contrast between Dublin City Council's apartments, St. Michan's, which are poor and substandard, and the juxtaposed luxury student apartments built next to the block, which will achieve a very high yield. That is fine. No one has a problem with it but it seems the greatest success story in housing right now is student apartments. That is not dealing with Maria's problem. She is living in a house of 12 people, including her mother and sisters.
The Taoiseach spoke about Christmas for 20,000 families. There are thousands more who will not have that Christmas experience. We can go through all the initiatives his Government has taken in the past two or three years which have not borne fruit. The rent pressure zones have not worked. That needs to be faced up to. The measure simply has not worked and it seems the loopholes in it have exacerbated the problem for many families and created a hidden homeless phenomenon, with many people going back to their parents' homes to living in overcrowded conditions. They are altogether separate from those who are actually homeless.
The 18,000 or so new apartments and homes that I referred to do not include student apartments. If one adds the student apartments to those 18,000, the figure increases by 2,000. If one adds some of the ghost estates that are still being brought back into use and vacant properties being brought back into use, the number of new places to live being built will increase to well over 20,000. Student accommodation is freeing up other accommodation. Students who are staying in student accommodation might otherwise be living in overcrowded accommodation in the private rented sector, with their parents or in digs. Any form of additional accommodation is welcome.
One thing we definitely have to do is reform the planning guidelines. We have done this in the case of apartments because it should not be more profitable to build student accommodation than it is to build one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments for those who are not students to buy.
One of our policies was to change the regulations that made it more economic for developers to build offices and student accommodation than one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartments.
On the daft.iereport versus the RTB reports, it is important to put on the record that the figures on the daft.iewebsite relate only to new properties being advertised on that website. The Residential Tenancies Board takes account of all properties. Rent pressure zones have worked for many people. Hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland have had a rent increase of less than 4% because of the rent pressure zones.
Those increases would otherwise have been far higher. However, it does not apply to new properties coming on the market or to certain parts of the country and that contributes to the rate of increase presented in the daft.ie figures.
Yesterday, I raised with the Taoiseach the crisis impacting on those in the private rental sector and he brushed the concerns I raised aside. I note he is doing the same this morning. As he acknowledged, Threshold has published its annual report, the findings of which illustrate the extent of the plight facing renters across the State. It states:
It became evident in 2017 that some landlords and agents were not adhering to the RPZ legislation or were finding ways to circumvent it. The standardised rents in all RPZs rose, some by as much as 10% in the 12-month period following the RPZ designation.
As the Taoiseach has acknowledged, that is borne out in other reports.
The daft.iequarterly rental report published last month found that the 4% rent pressure zone cap is being breached in every county in the State. The same trend has been recorded in the RTB quarterly index. There have been 20% rent increases in areas such as Limerick and Waterford cities. It is absolutely ludicrous. It is time for the Government to accept that its approach to tackling rent increases has categorically failed. The chairperson of Threshold, Ms Aideen Hayden, stated on the "Morning Ireland" radio programme this morning that she has never seen a crisis like this. She has been working in this field for a long time. She highlighted the fact that vacant possession notices to quit are the single biggest cause of homelessness in the State. I have raised that previously with the Taoiseach.
I have consistently raised these matters with the Taoiseach, who has consistently given glib responses such as his remarks yesterday about not singling out groups of people such as renters for a tax break. I remind the Taoiseach that the Government, along with its friends in Fianna Fáil, was quite happy to single out one group in the budget for a tax break and that group was landlords. What did we get in the budget? Landlords received 100% mortgage interest relief. There were tax breaks, but they were for landlords rather than struggling tenants. In spite of rents going up and up with no end in sight, the Government chooses to do precisely zero for those who are struggling. That tells it all. It has made the wrong choices and pursued the wrong priorities. While rents go up and up, the Government is found wanting. We need urgent and decisive action to tackle these issues. We need tax relief for renters and a three-year emergency rent freeze.
The Focus Ireland amendment which would prevent landlords seeking vacant possession - in other words, booting people out of their homes in order to sell the property - was put to a vote of the Dáil. It addresses one of the loopholes described by Deputy Micheál Martin .
It proposes a very necessary change in the law. I remind Deputy Martin and his party that Fianna Fáíl voted against that amendment, along with its Fine Gael colleagues in Government. Shame on Fianna Fáil. It is a disgrace for it to have done that-----
Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach to address these issues. I will try again today. When will the Government bring in a rent freeze, a tax break for renters rather than the landlord friends of the Government and the amendment that is necessary to protect people and keep them in their homes when landlords choose to sell?
I answered the Deputy's question yesterday regarding a tax break for people who are renting. Through the Finance Bill and the budget, the Government is providing an income tax or universal social charge reduction for more than 1 million people because we recognise that there are people who are struggling to pay the rent. We also recognise that there are people who are saving for a deposit on a new home and people who are facing significant childcare costs, for example. Rather than an income tax cut for one group of people, we decided to have a package of income tax and USC reductions which will benefit many more people than would the Sinn Féin plan. It is important that the Irish public know that our tax plans will benefit the many, not the few. Millions of people will benefit rather than the hundreds of thousands who would benefit under the Sinn Féin plan.
On the daft.iereport, it is important to note that its figures relate to a sample of rents advertised on that particular website and do not include people who remain in the same apartment or house year on year. That is the reason the figures are as they are. The RTB figures are far more accurate and cover the entire rental market. They indicate that rents are rising too fast, but certainly not at the rate Deputy McDonald described.
For her information, Limerick is not a rent pressure zone. Perhaps it ought to be, but it is not.
We need landlords and property owners in this country. Without them, there would be no properties to rent and people would find themselves paying higher rents or unable to find a rental property. Approximately half of rental properties in Ireland have a mortgage against them. In such cases, the property owner needs to pay the mortgage before gaining an income from the property. As has been acknowledged by Sinn Féin representatives, many people who own a property out of which they moved in order to emigrate or move to a bigger property with space for their family are now selling up. Once property prices rise, such people decide they do not want to be landlords any longer. They sell up and get out of the private rental sector. That is contributing to the problems we are now facing.
We must find an appropriate balance between the rights and protections we afford tenants and those we afford landlords. For example, should a person who bought a house and then had to emigrate to England or Australia during the recession but who is now returning to Ireland to take up a job in the public service and wishes to move back into the house be allowed to do so?
The figures I quoted are not my figures; they were produced by Threshold, the RTB and daft.ie, which all Members will accept are reputable sources. Of course, this is not about figures and statistics. It is about people. Anybody with eyes, ears and a brain can process what is clearly evident all around us and understand the depths of the crisis we face.
The Taoiseach's reply to me this morning is, once again, a complete cop-out. The reality is that the Government was quite prepared to give favourable treatment to landlords in the budget. Although the Taoiseach may not be a landlord, many of his colleagues are.
However, the Taoiseach has steadfastly refused to give the same focus to renters. The Government can make one of two choices. It can continue with this claptrap, this trend it is on, and Nero can fiddle while Rome burns, or it can accept the objective facts.
-----which states that many people who are in homelessness and relying on hotel accommodation may be turfed out from that accommodation as Christmas approaches. We raise these matters with the Taoiseach and we get nonsense and cop-outs and claptrap about Christmas trees. What is the Taoiseach going to do for renters? What contingency plans are in place for people who may face being thrown out of the hotel accommodation on which they are relying?
The Deputy will recall that concerns were expressed in the run-up to the papal visit that people would be thrown out of hotels and find themselves on the streets unable to find hotel or bed and breakfast accommodation during that period, but that did not happen. It did not happen because we had dealt with the issue and we will deal with this issue also. The Deputy will know from previous years that the number of people in emergency accommodation during the December period tends to go down because many return to their families or move in with them during the Christmas period. It is something we will manage. The Deputy is, however, correct that this is about people. I, too, read a story in the newspaper today. It was a very heartwarming story about James McClean who I know is a republican and also a very able footballer. He is paying out of his own pocket to accommodate homeless people in the city of Derry. That is really admirable for him to do. He must be a very generous person. Derry is the city that has a Sinn Féin MP and a council in which Sinn Féin is the largest party.
It is in Northern Ireland where Sinn Féin is supposed to be in government. Deputy McDonald comes into the House to make out once again that her party has a monopoly of compassion.
The Deputy does not. If she really did care about homeless people, she would get busy in dealing with homelessness in Derry where there is a Sinn Féin MP and Sinn Féin is the largest party in the council. It should be at Stormont. According to Simon Communities, there are 200,000 people homeless in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin does not want to do what I suggest because it does not really care. It just wants to weaponise-----
I do not want to weaponise a scandal. The scandal of homelessness continues unabated in our jurisdiction, the jurisdiction for which the Taoiseach has responsibility. One hundred and fifty-six rough sleepers were counted in Dublin, up from 110 in the spring. We do not know how many families in emergency accommodation will be displaced from hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation rented by the State that will close during the Christmas period. Whatever facts the Taoiseach trots out, the Government is not delivering in the supply of housing.
The Taoiseach's predecessor said he had a performance monitoring system for all Ministers and their Departments. Does the Taoiseach have such a monitoring system? Is he satisfied with the performance of all his Ministers. In particular, is he satisfied with the progress being made in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government? Does he stand over it? The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has made a number of high profile commitments. Photographs have been taken and statements issued, but where is the legislation?
Bills introduced two years ago by the Labour Party and the Green Party to curb the use of micro-plastics were rejected at the time but subsequently accepted in principle. Two years on the Minister has launched the heads of a Bill, but we have yet to see the legislation arrive in the Oireachtas.
My colleague, Senator Humphreys, spent two years seeking the regulation of short-term lettings. In September the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, finally agreed to legislate in this area, but where is the legislation? We have been promised a rental register, for which Threshold was calling again today as a tool to expose massive hikes in rent. The Taoiseach has repeated the promise. Promises have been made, but there has been no action. We were told about a new land agency and that draft legislation which was promised months ago would be before the Government in November. Has that happened? We were told that new height regulations for the building industry would be published. Developers are still awaiting them and those concerned are holding back in making planning applications until they see them. Where are they? In September we were told that Waterford, Limerick and Cork would have directly elected mayors. There is to be a plebiscite held in each of these areas next year to allow for the mayors to be elected, but where is the supporting legislation to tell voters exactly what the mayors will do? Are people expected to vote for a pig in a poke?
I could go on, but my question is whether the Taoiseach is satisfied with the performance of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. Does he stand over and accept the performance of the Minister's Department? Will he undertake a review of all of these matters? Will he publish that review in order that the House can judge whether it should continue to have confidence in the Minister?
It is my understanding that the Deputy already does not have confidence. As I believe he voted to demonstrate it, I do not know what he means when he talks about continuing to have confidence. He has already made the decision not to have confidence, but I do have confidence in the Minister. I have confidence in all of the Ministers who serve with me around the Cabinet table and I also have confidence in the Ministers of State.
The Deputy is right to point out that I have political responsibility for this jurisdiction, but he should not forget that there was a time, not that long ago, when he and his party had political responsibility for it. Sitting beside him are Deputies Jan O'Sullivan and Kelly who, together, held the housing brief for five years. Deputy Kelly promised to abolish homelessness by 2016 and introduced measures that most people now accept probably made a bad situation worse.
Does the Deputy have confidence in his deputy leader? Does he have confidence in Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, given her performance and that of Deputy Kelly when they held the housing brief together for five years?
It appears that Deputy Howlin is applying some pretty unfair double standards in that regard because the situation emerged and got worse during the tenure of the two former Ministers. It is unfair to target the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, personally when the Deputy is not willing to express a lack of confidence in his own colleagues. Let us not forget that 40% of the Labour parliamentary party held the housing brief for five years.
The Government is delivering on the issue of supply. As I pointed out, we will have built more new homes and apartments this year than in any other in this decade. Between 18,000 and 20,000 new homes and apartments have been built this year, but we acknowledge that it is not happening fast enough. We are going to do everything we possibly can to get around the constraints and reach our new housing targets of 25,000 next year and 30,000 the year after. They are the numbers we need to reach in order to get on top of the crisis.
The Land Development Agency has already been established under law. We established it using a statutory instrument. It has a CEO and started its work.
We are absolutely committed to producing the micro-beads legislation. The Minister has been in contact with Deputy Sherlock to discuss how we can co-operate to bring it into law.
On directly elected mayors, we always said there would have to be a plebiscite first. There will be a plebiscite and it will be held in May.
Long before the people vote on the proposition in May, they will understand what they are being asked, just as they understood what they were being asked in the referendums on the eighth amendment and blasphemy.
I am not interested in rewriting history or the rules of collective Cabinet responsibility; rather, I am interested in addressing the issues of today. It well suited the Taoiseach to take the credit for the progress made when he was sitting at the Cabinet table with us. Let me put to him the issues for which he is now responsible in a recovering economy, not one that is in freefall. We have heard today that notices have been sent to families by Túath Housing in south Dublin, telling them that they will have to leave at the end of an 18-month stay in transitional housing. They are not counted in the Government's homelessness statistics, but they face a return to homeless accommodation as they have been unable to find private accommodation or afford the private accommodation that might be available. These are the issues I expect the Taoiseach to address. I expect him to explain the position rationally to our national Parliament, rather than think he is on the back of some lorry electioneering right now. There are people in desperate straits who need a straight answer from a Taoiseach who should have answers for them.
The straight answer to that question is that Túath Housing is a housing association. It issued a notice to quit to people with 18-month tenancies, but none of them will be evicted to emergency accommodation. The Deputy has that assurance.
There is an urgent need to provide a replacement hospital for the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, where conditions are completely unacceptable. It is one of the busiest hospitals in Europe. Staff and patients must contend with extremely overcrowded, cramped and poor conditions in a building that clearly is not fit for purpose. In choosing a site at St. Vincent's University Hospital for the new national maternity hospital it seems that the issues of ownership and ethos were not even considered.
Given the complexities and financial exposure of the old-style model of healthcare in this country, whereby services were essentially outsourced mainly to religious bodies, what is needed now is a modern model of public and secular ownership of our healthcare facilities. Instead, the Minister for Health seems to regard the ownership and ethos of the new hospital as a matter to be decided by two private religious entities, namely, Holles Street and St. Vincent's. A private deal was done between these two entities without any regard to the public interest. The idea of a very valuable hospital asset funded by the taxpayer being gifted to a private entity is outrageous. That this private entity is a religious one is entirely unacceptable and flies in the face of the clearly expressed public opinion in this year's repeal referendum.
The new company, to be called the National Maternity Hospital at Elm Park DAC, will be 100% owned by St. Vincent's. Under Article 44 of the Constitution, a religious order can control what it owns, and this right has been upheld by the Supreme Court on a number of occasions. Therefore, irrespective of any assurances or the fanciful idea of a golden chair, the reality is that St. Vincent's will own and control the new national maternity hospital. This reality has now dawned on the Minister for Health who, we are told, is now seeking a public interest director for the board of the new company. I ask the Taoiseach to consider that we will have a new public hospital, to be funded by the taxpayer and operated using public money, and the Minister is pleading for one director on the board to protect the public interest. Apart from the fact that this constitutes an admission that the Mulvey report got it completely wrong, is it not pathetic that the Minister has put himself and taxpayers in this position? Will the Taoiseach now request the Minister to pursue the State purchase of the site at Elm Park in order that this much-needed hospital may be built as an entirely public and secular hospital, thereby protecting the public purse and ensuring that women have access to all health services provided under the law of the land, which should not be governed in any way by Canon Law? Alternatively, will he agree to compulsorily purchase this site and get on with the job?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. It is an issue in which I have a real, personal interest. The national maternity strategy, which was produced when I was Minister for Health, provides for us to co-locate all our maternity hospitals adjacent to or on the campus of adult hospitals. This is the best way to provide modern maternity care. If a pregnancy goes wrong, all the adult services a mother needs, for example, an intensive care unit, vascular surgeons and cardiologists, will be available if she needs their specialist input. Thankfully, this is a rare occurrence, but it does happen. This is why it makes sense to co-locate all our maternity hospitals on the sites of adult hospitals, just as we have done in Cork, for example, and as is the case in Galway.
If we were to start from scratch, we would perhaps do things differently, as is often the case. We would find or purchase a site and build on it a new adult and maternity hospital and defund, close down or abandon those sites currently owned by voluntary hospitals. However, that is not a practical solution. What we have are two voluntary hospitals with existing staff and an existing legal structure, namely, Holles Street and St. Vincent's. We are looking to bring Holles Street onto the site of St. Vincent's and, to the extent necessary, integrate the two hospitals.
It is important we get the governance right, and I am with the Deputy on that. We are working towards a solution whereby the hospital will be owned by the State; the State will control the land on which the hospital is built; the staff will be public servants; the ethos will ensure that any procedure which is legal in this State, including abortion, in vitro fertilisation and tubal ligation, will be available; and the laws that apply in the hospital will be those enacted by this Oireachtas, not Canon Law.
No one is arguing with the need for co-location. The Taoiseach has made a number of statements, including that the site will be controlled by the State. This implies it will be owned by the State. In that case, does he agree with the proposal I put to him that he should give an undertaking that the site be purchased by the State and, if this is not possible, that it be the subject of a compulsory purchase order? This Saturday, the Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women's Healthcare will stage a demonstration on O'Connell Street to express its extreme concern about how this issue is shaping up. The campaign is supported by a wide range of non-governmental organisations, political parties, trade unions, etc. The Taoiseach needs to give an assurance today to those who will be out on the street on Saturday that their fears will be allayed. The only way of doing so in law is by the State actually owning the site as well as the building. Will he give an assurance today that this will be the case? That is the only way we can protect people's right to access healthcare.
I am glad everyone in the House agrees with the principle of co-location, but saying one agrees with something and wanting or demanding something are very different from delivering it. As someone who has spent a good bit of time in government, I understand this more and more. We are not starting from scratch. We have the Coombe, the Rotunda and Holles Street, voluntary hospitals that have existed since before the foundation of the State. It is not a simple matter of closing them down, laying off the staff, getting rid of the board of the NMH, extinguishing its legal identity and setting up from scratch again somewhere else. We are moving existing hospitals to new sites. I have laid out to the Deputy what the Government is trying to achieve in these negotiations, which are still under way, namely, that the hospital will be owned by the State; the land on which it is located will be controlled by the State; the staff in the hospital will be public servants; the ethos will ensure that it is not a religious ethos; any procedure, including any women's health procedure, that is legal in this State will be provided in the hospital; and the laws that apply will be those enacted by this Oireachtas, not Canon Law.