Thursday, 13 December 2018
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
The internal battles of the Tory party are not a matter for this House, thank God, but the stability of the British Government and the British economy is. We are all aware of the potential economic and social impact of Brexit. The staggeringly high stakes do not appear to bother many in the British political system. When one reflects on yesterday's events Shakespeare's "...day of sound and fury, Signifying nothing..." is the most apt description. The fundamental position remains the same as it was at this time yesterday, that barring some vague promises the backstop and the agreement as agreed remain. I ask the Tánaiste to endorse that again today.
In the face of the political chaos in Westminster our role must be to stand firm behind our deal and hope that our EU partners stand firm with us. However, in spite of that support we still risk being the meat in the Brexit sandwich, with collateral damage to our economy due to the straitjacket politics of Brexiteers. We must continue to work to ensure the backstop is upheld. We must ensure that we avoid a disastrous hard border extending across the island from Newry to Derry. In contrast to the slow car crash chaos in the UK we must provide clarity and certainty in this country. However, instead of providing that clarity and certainty the Government continues to delay and prevaricate in publishing its plans for the case of a no-deal Brexit. The protracted internal politics in the UK means a no-deal Brexit is moving closer every day. As of today, 29 March 2019 is a hard deal, cliff edge deadline.
Even amidst the chaos of politics in the UK that country has produced detailed plans to address the prospect of a hard Brexit. The UK has more than 100 plans that are constantly being refined and updated. The EU Commission has published 70 updated plans. The Irish Government has none. How many plans has the Government commissioned? When will it publish the detailed no-deal plans so all our citizens can buy into them and understand the consequences of a no-deal Brexit on their daily lives? Can the Tánaiste give a specific date for the plans to be published? Finally, is the Tánaiste concerned that by delaying the publication of those plans the Government will undermine their ultimate effectiveness in terms of preparing the country and, more importantly, the people for what may lie ahead?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue because we will be returning to it repeatedly in the coming weeks and months. First, a European Council meeting is taking place today and tomorrow in which there will be a genuine effort by EU leaders and institutions to respond to the request of the British Prime Minister for more reassurance and clarity regarding the backstop, which has been the focus of so much political attention in Westminster in recent days. However, that cannot happen in a way that undermines the purpose of the backstop or its implementation. Nobody has been asked by the British Prime Minister to change the wording of the withdrawal agreement and nobody is talking about that. What is being considered seriously now is how a political declaration can be put together that is real and provides reassurance for the many in Westminster who need it that the backstop represents no threat to them or the United Kingdom and instead is about providing reassurance on the island of Ireland, consistent with the obligations of the British and Irish Governments in the context of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, that under no circumstances in the future will border infrastructure re-emerge between the two jurisdictions on this island as a result of Brexit.
With regard to contingency, the Deputy knows there has been and continues to be a huge amount of work in preparation for all contingencies. To give an example of some the work we are doing with the European Commission there have been sectoral seminars since 15 November in which all 27 countries are working together with the European Commission. The seminar on 15 November was on financial services and on 27 November it was on citizens and social security co-ordination. Also on 27 November it was on professional qualifications, intellectual property, company law and consumer protection. On 29 November it was on air transportation along with other modes of transport such as road, rail and maritime issues. On 4 December there was a meeting on Irish specific issues with the Commission. On 6 December there was a focus on sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, requirements, tariff rate quotas, customs and import and export licensing. On 12 December the focus was on industrial goods including pharmaceuticals and chemicals. On 20 December there will be a sectoral seminar on policing, judicial co-operation and other security matters. On 10 January next it will be on fisheries, climate, environment and energy.
Let me reassure the public-----
Yes. This is part of a process of preparation that the Government, other member states and the European Commission are undertaking, as well as the preparation we are putting in place domestically. I will be happy to come back to that.
That is pathetic. It is the Andrex puppy response. It is soft and fluffy but has nothing to do with what the Government is supposed to be doing here. Sectoral seminars will not convey to people the impact on their lives. The Tánaiste said there was a sectoral seminar on pharmaceuticals. How will he convey to people the difficulty there might be in accessing pharmaceuticals that come through the UK with a sectoral seminar on access? How will our airplanes fly on 29 March next if it is a hard Brexit and they must fly through British airspace? Will the Government wake up and start engaging with people in the way previous Governments engaged with people on the euro changeover and Y2K, whereby people had an understanding and a capacity to prepare their daily lives and their businesses for the challenges that lay ahead? Sectoral seminars for all they are worth for those who attend them will not make a difference or bring an awareness to people of what is coming down the tracks. The British Government is preparing its people with 100 plans, the Commission has 70 plans ready and the Government has sectoral seminars. That is a great deal of comfort.
The point of sectoral seminars is that, as we have said on many occasions, we are working together with the European Commission, which has published 70 papers on behalf of all member states of the European Union. The member states are working together in areas of EU competence linked to Brexit. That is how this works.
With regard to the areas where we must put domestic preparation in place, Fianna Fáil and other political parties have been briefed in detail on this through the stakeholders' group and in any other briefing sessions that have been requested.
We have explained what we are doing in respect of ports, airports and other sectors.
We have been doing that with the people. I have been to Brexpo events in Cork, Galway, Limerick, Letterkenny, Monaghan and Dublin and, with respect, I did not see too many Fianna Fáil faces there.
Next week we will publish a document on contingency. We will bring it to the stakeholders group, which is meeting on Thursday and we will publish it after that meeting. I will happily provide briefings in advance of that stakeholders meeting for political parties, if they want that.
Since the last general election we have been subject to the concoction that is the confidence and supply deal between the Tánaiste's party and Fianna Fáil. Last night the leader of Fianna Fáil confirmed that he has once again bent the knee to renew Fine Gael's deal for another year. On the one hand he is quite happy to come to the House and criticise the Government week in, week out for the Government's very obvious failings. On the other hand he and his party, through the confidence and supply deal, are keeping the Tánaiste and his Government in office. It is a nonsensical position and we hear some of it again this morning.
When it was cobbled together in 2016 the confidence and supply deal was heralded as a new beginning of new politics. It has been anything but. It has proved to be a political con job, designed to allow Fianna Fáil the pretence of being in opposition while it is actually in government in all but name. I believe it has been bad for politics, but more important it has been bad for citizens, not least the tens of thousands of citizens affected by the housing and homelessness crisis.
Rents and house prices are out of control and continue to rise. We see it time and again and I have raised the issue in this Chamber over and over. It is borne out in the Residential Tenancies Board rent index, which was published this morning. It shows that the national average rent is now €1,122 per month. In Dublin the average monthly rent is now a staggering €1,620. Not a single affordable home to rent or buy has been delivered by the Government over the past three years. An entire generation of young people face the prospect of never owning their own home. Under Fine Gael's watch homelessness has reached unprecedented levels, with some 10,000 people homeless. Scandalously, 4,000 children will spend their Christmas in emergency accommodation this year. We are aware that the real number of those who are homeless is a lot higher, closer to the 13,000 figure, as highlighted by my colleague, Deputy Eoin Ó Broin. I put it to the Tánaiste that this is a scandalous record. It is a record that Fianna Fáil seems happy to endorse. What has that party got from these so called negotiations? Absolutely nothing. That is not surprising because together Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have voted down Sinn Féin's proposals for real rent certainty.
Fine Gael opposed our proposal to introduce tax relief for renters and, along with Fianna Fáil, has continuously voted down the Focus Ireland amendment that would stop landlords evicting families into homelessness. Shame on both parties.
We need real and meaningful action to tackle the housing crisis. We need a change in direction and we need that change fast. Now that the Government has the backing of Fianna Fáil for at least another year what are Fine Gael's plans to tackle the housing crisis? What is the plan to deal with the spiralling rents and the fact that many homeless families will now spend their third Christmas in a hotel?
The extension of the confidence and supply arrangement points to the difference between the approach of Deputy Doherty's party to politics and the approach taken by my party and the main Opposition party, which recognise that the State is vulnerable right now. We do not know what decisions will be made in Westminster in the coming weeks, but we have recognised that the challenge we may face as a Parliament and as a country in the first quarter of next year and throughout 2019 will require all of us to work together. To its credit, Fianna Fáil has recognised that. It has said that in 2019, in the midst of Brexit preparations, Ireland does not need a general election. I am glad to say that because of responsible politics from the two biggest political parties in the State the kind of political uncertainty and carnage that is happening in Westminster right now is not going to replicated here. This does not mean that Fianna Fáil will not be in opposition putting us under pressure on housing, health reform and a whole range of other issues-----
-----and that is already catered for. The Deputy may smile but the only contribution that Sinn Féin is making, for example to the discussion on Brexit right now, is to call for a border poll to make tensions even more acute in Northern Ireland than they already are. This Sinn Féin contribution is supposed to be constructive towards the national challenge we face right across the island. While confidence and supply is an unusual arrangement it is difficult for parties that are competitive with each other, but right now it is responding to the national challenge that people outside this House expect us to respond to with maturity and competence. That is what the extension of the confidence and supply arrangement will be about. It does not mean that we will not be battling in this House on a whole range of policy areas and keeping the Government under pressure, which is as it should be.
We have a five year housing plan in train and we are meeting targets. We are delivering on output, which is the core problem. Supply is the problem in the rental market, in the house purchase market and in social and affordable housing. In all those areas we are taking forward our plans and we are delivering increases of supply across every sector. This is as it should be. We should be kept under pressure and scrutinised on delivery in that area, and so we will be through 2019.
This is the carnage that has been left behind by the confidence and supply arrangement. I have asked the Tánaiste what the Government is going to do about spiralling rents. In Dublin it is €1,692 more expensive to rent a house now than it was this time last year. Not a single affordable or cost rental house has been delivered by the Tánaiste's Government or by the confidence and supply arrangement over the last three years.
This is more of thestatus quo.The Tánaiste talks of proposals. The Focus Ireland amendment was a sensible proposal. It provided that landlords who received tax reliefs should not be allowed to evict people into homelessness. Who in God's name could refuse to accept that? I will say who. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could, and shame on them for doing so. The people for whom they shed crocodile tears have been put into emergency accommodation because, as legislators, those two parties have failed to accept those proposals and failed to do the responsible thing by supporting amendments that have come before the House.
Can the Tánaiste give any succour or comfort to those who cannot afford a house, who cannot afford their rent and who are living in emergency accommodation that anything will change over the next year or 18 months?
Things are changing but I know they need to continue to change quickly. There are far too many families in emergency accommodation. There are far too many children in emergency accommodation, some of which is not as good as it should be in the context of hotel rooms, this year. I recognise this as a former housing Minister and as a Tánaiste. We are working night and day to change this. That is why this year we will supply social housing solutions to more than 25,000 people and their families. We will continue to accelerate that. We are dramatically ramping up the delivery of social housing. This year we will provide more than 8,000 extra social houses throughout the State through various mechanisms. Next year it will probably be more than 10,000 and the following year it will approach 12,000. That is where we are going. We have a multi-billion euro programme to deliver it. We have also agreed with Fianna Fáil an affordable housing programme to which we have committed €300 million.
There are actions in train. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, will soon introduce new legislation to provide further protections for tenants and to empower the RTB even further. We know from the RTB's report this week that the measures we have implemented to date in respect of rent controls are having a positive impact.
I am implementing the Standing Orders to which all Members have agreed. Three minutes are three minutes and one minute is one minute. There are others who want to pose questions later and we will be running out of time before we reach them. I call Deputy Howlin, who I know will abide by the time limits.
I always do. From January 2008 to October of this year, the consumer price index, CPI, rose by 3%. One might think that the cost of living has only risen marginally in that period but that would be a mistake; the CPI is not a cost of living index. This has been forcefully stated by the CSO for years but the message does not seem to have penetrated the minds of Government officials. The CPI, as its name indicates, is a price index. The goods and services in its fixed basket are not those driving up the cost of living for people who are struggling. The main problem is the rise in rents. The Tánaiste says that the rate of increase is diminishing; well, that must be all right, then. That rise is not distributed evenly across the country. CSO statistics from the RTB confirm rises in urban rents of well over 20% and of over 40% in some cases compared to 2008.
Asked-for rents are 26% higher than at the peak of the Celtic tiger according to daft.ie. Job opportunities are overwhelmingly concentrated in the towns and cities and that is where the rent pressures are most acute. Rent pressure zones are meant to slow down rent increases to 4% a year, but if we use compound over the period of five years, that is 21.7% even where they are working. In many areas, they are not. An increase of 21.7% in five years is not affordable. It is in no way linked to people's increase in wages over that period.
The solution to the affordability crisis in housing, as the Tánaiste has rightly stated, is supply. However, there is another side, and that is workers' pay - people's incomes. Ireland has a far larger share of workers on low incomes compared to other European countries. The Irish living wage is calculated on the basis of the actual cost of living facing people in both rural and urban areas. It is estimated that a single person working on a full-time basis would need to be paid €464 a week in order to meet a basic standard of living. The national minimum wage is €372 per week, €92 short of meeting basic need, assuming the person is in full-time work. A number of sectoral wage agreements are based on the minimum wage and are usually set €1 above it. In short, it is not possible to live on that amount. What workers need is a pay rise. Will the Government agree to accelerate the rise in the minimum wage and sectoral agreements to link with what everyone now agrees is a living wage?
The Deputy asked a lot of questions. His party understands the housing challenges that we face very well. Housing was a Labour Party brief up until the middle of 2016. We are talking about challenges that have emerged because of a recession. Housebuilding essentially stopped in Ireland with the exception of one-off developments across the countryside. We went from building 90,000 housing units to building about 6,000.
That is why this Government introduced rent pressure zones, which have proved to be effective in terms of slowing down rental increases for existing rental tenancies. There is clearly an issue in respect of new rental tenancies that are coming in. There is a distinction now in the numbers that the RTB has published between the two, which is useful. There is a need to continue to build on the protections that we have for tenants. However, we also need to be honest about other elements of the data we have seen this week. We are seeing a declining number of landlords. Without landlords, we do not get properties that are available for rent. Ultimately, this is about trying to ensure that as supply increases - we need to continue to accelerate that supply delivery - we protect tenants as best we can but we must also ensure that we do not drive landlords out of the market.
That is a balance. Undoubtedly, our priority has been to protect tenants at a time when rental prices have been increasing too rapidly. However, we have to be cognisant of the fact that we have a very unusual rental market in Ireland in which the vast majority of landlords only own one property and are effectively not professional landlords. That is why we need a strong RTB and it is why we have legislated to give it more powers. We will legislate to give it more powers again to make sure that landlords are not abusing the lack of supply in terms of price gouging. We will continue to do that and will listen to other political parties in this House that have constructive proposals in that regard, as we have done to date. Ultimately, the pressures on the housing market generally and on the rental market in particular are as a result of a lack of supply which we are addressing as part of a five-year strategy which we are only halfway through.
In respect of sectoral wage agreements, as the Deputy knows, we need to ensure that the Government commits to wage increases, particularly across the public sector, in line with what we can afford and in line with agreements that have been made. To accelerate that or to raise expectations without having the Estimates to deliver it in terms of budgets would be highly irresponsible. That is why a really important element of the confidence and supply agreement, for example, relates to wage agreements and ensuring we can follow through on them in a way that is affordable to the State but is also as generous as possible to the working public.
The Tánaiste obviously does not agree that workers need a pay rise. It is good for the economy. We have looked in very great detail across several countries. There is always resistance to increases in the minimum wage from employers in other sectors, but in every case it is good for the economy because it puts more money into circulation. We have a very unbalanced wage structure in Ireland. We have good equalisation through social welfare and taxation but the base pay is grossly unequal by any European comparison. I ask the Tánaiste again, acknowledging that we really need to raise the level of pay to the most vulnerable and lowest paid workers, if he will undertake to start in the public service. We have established that, right now, a living wage is €11.90 an hour. Will he undertake to seek to achieve that for public sector workers so that at least in the area of work which the Government controls directly, we can be confident that people are earning a living wage?
As the Deputy will know, because he was involved in some of the decisions, over the past seven years there have been four minimum wage increases. We continue to look to the future in terms of further increases.
We now have a pay commission that makes recommendations independently with unions and employers giving input into that process. When we get recommendations for increases in the minimum wage, we implement them. That has been the record of this Government and we will continue to do that.
We have tried to ensure that when the Low Pay Commission makes recommendations, it takes into account all the issues the Deputy has raised on the floor of the House today and other inputs. It makes recommendations to Government and we have implemented those recommendations. The important thing is that the country continues to be as generous as it can be as we move away from the recession we experienced a number of years ago. As the economy grows and expands and as we approach full employment again, of course, people have an expectation that their quality of life will improve on the back of that. We need to ensure we do not get into a boom-bust cycle again by making commitments that put the country under significant financial pressure. Getting that balance right is important, as Deputy Howlin, of all Deputies will understand.
Ireland's development aid programme has a considerable reputation. That programme does invaluable work because it makes a difference, it is poverty focused, it is about community empowerment, it is directed at the most marginalised and it has been untied. With the new White Paper coming, how committed is the Government to policy coherence, particularly when we are seeing examples of policy incoherence? I will give one example on tax. During a previous Leaders' Questions, I outlined a number of steps where each positive step we took on tax transparency was accompanied by a "but" - a backward step. The policy incoherence is giving the aid but then not following through on the tax justice of the developing world.
At a recent event in Dublin, the Rwandan ambassador made the point that $63 billion in illicit flows leaves the developing world. That is more than the foreign direct investment and aid going into those developing countries. Policy coherence would mean Ireland taking meaningful steps on tax justice. The Tánaiste may say that we got rid of the single malt, which is positive but it does not go far enough. What was needed was to take the steps the BEPS process has designed to tackle the underlying problem and prevent replacement structures emerging.
The policy incoherence is also seen in trade treaties in the imbalance between what the developed country gains and the minor gains for the developing world. For example, the Ireland-Ghana tax treaty prevents Ghana taxing the capital gains of mines, factories and large businesses owned by Irish companies. No spillover analysis was done prior to the treaty, which allowed for that and other examples of unfairness.
It is shameful that because of our aid reputation, countries in the global south want to trade with Ireland because they trust us. I know our ambassadors and other embassy staff are working on these trade relations. Are they on that page of policy coherence? I know there is a role for the private sector, but the danger is that it is moving away from this coherence. How committed is the Government to including binding human rights agreements, rights standards and environmental standards when negotiating these treaties? Where stands the Government in implementing our business and human rights policy?
When we discussed the EU-Colombia trade agreement, we were assured about these human rights agreements and yet since then there have been land grabs, forcible displacement, exploitation and intimidation of workers. We have had the scandal of the Cerrejón mine, the role of the ESB and the fact that CMC, the Coal Marketing Company, is registered in Dublin.
If the Government was committed to policy coherence, it would implement our business and human rights policy. Where will the White Paper stand on policy coherence?
The Deputy has asked many good questions. The White Paper is more or less complete. I am reading drafts of it this week with a view to finalising a new Irish Aid development strategy, which will contain much new thinking as well as build on many of the good things the Irish Aid programme has been doing for decades.
We are also planning for a significant monetary increase to support our overseas development programme. The latest budget provided an increase of €110 million on the previous budget allocation across broader overseas development aid.
As the Deputy would expect, the new White Paper will prioritise areas such as gender equality, reducing humanitarian need, climate action, climate resilience and strengthening governance in different parts of the world. There will be new areas and a new focus on increased funding for areas such as education for girls, new initiatives on sexual and reproductive health and rights. We will have new funding streams relating to women's economic empowerment. There will be a focus on building a new institute for peace support and leadership training here in Ireland. There will be a greater emphasis on island states and climate resilience linked to that, given that Ireland is also an island state.
There has been a long and detailed consultation process in finalising a new strategy, which will have increased funding over the next decade. It will have new areas responding to the obvious challenges that get debated in this House regularly. I look forward to the Deputy's commentary on that. Of course, we need to try to ensure that domestic policy in Ireland is consistent with what we are trying to do elsewhere, whether that is from a climate perspective, a gender perspective, a reproductive rights perspective or whether it is transparency in taxation to ensure that large multinationals pay their fair share of tax. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Taoiseach have been clear on that. There is an ongoing international debate on how tax reform should take place and Ireland is very much part of that.
I acknowledge the consultation process that took place. Surely the strategy for development aid should be to get to a point where it is no longer needed. For aid to have a sell-by date, the developing world needs to have the capacity to lift itself out of poverty. That means that as well as giving the aid, we should also support them in their capacity to collect taxes from the multinational companies that are making a fortune in developing countries. It also means being fair to them when it comes to the tax and trade treaties to which we are party. To me that is real policy coherence. The Government could end our opt-out from Article 12 of the OECD multilateral instrument, which is a measure against tax avoidance. The Government could insist that our tax treaty partners sign up to Article 4. It could insist on binding human rights and environmental safeguards.
Policy coherence is not a dreamy romantic ideal. It can be realised and it is a stated aim of the Lisbon treaty. The incoherence is in giving the aid but not taking the steps that could end the need for aid. We will wait and see what is contained in the White Paper. However, it is more than just having the words; it is also about the action.
The aid programme is all about action. The Deputy knows a considerable amount about the Irish Aid programme because she takes an interest in it. Anybody who takes the time to visit some of our programmes, particularly in Africa, but also now increasingly in the Middle East, will know it is all about action and getting to the people who need it most. That is why we can more than justify a significant step-by-step increase over time in the funding we provide for that development aid programme between now and the end of the decade.
I share the Deputy's hope that aid will not be needed in the future, but at this stage it is a dream and a long way away from a reality. I can be corrected on this, but my understanding is that approximately 134 million people are currently reliant on international aid. There are millions of people in refugee camps and millions on the move. They are economic migrants and migrants fleeing conflict. I suspect there will be an increasing focus on those incredibly vulnerable people.
Unfortunately, there is a broader link. This is not just about economic development, it is also about stabilisation and post-conflict management, matters upon which Ireland will be focusing.