Tuesday, 18 December 2018
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Everybody in this House wants to see the national children's hospital completed on time and within budget. As we know, the project has gone through many trials and tribulations. The Mater site did not get planning permission and then the site at St. James' Hospital site was identified by the then Minister for Health, Senator James Reilly. When that was announced the cost was estimated at around €485 million. In 2016, after planning permission had been sanctioned, the cost was estimated at about €650 million. We are now told that the projected cost is €1.4 billion. This is despite the fact that on 27 September, and the week before that in reply to a parliamentary question asked by Deputy Cowen, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, said it would be about €983 million. In the space of about six weeks it has apparently gone from less than €1 billion to €1.4 billion, which is extraordinary stuff.
The management of major capital projects is critically important. We have a Minister for Health, we have a Cabinet committee on health, and yet the recently projected cost of €1.4 billion seems to have caught everybody by surprise, including the Taoiseach. It has an impact on other projects within the health service and indeed across the public service in general. The Secretary General of the Department of Health has met the hospital group with a view to reining in costs. At an event in recent days, the Taoiseach himself said that the cost has gone beyond all expectations and beyond what anybody anticipated, and that it would mean other projects or services would be scratched or certainly delayed. We have recently seen a report from the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, which comments very critically on clapped-out equipment in hospitals throughout the country. It refers to 12 year old equipment at the Mercy University Hospital in Cork. It mentions St. Michael's Hospital, Dún Laoghaire.
Breast cancer equipment in Cork University Hospital, which is a centre of excellence, is out of date. The ballooning costs of the children's hospital and the nature of how this has come into the public domain suggests that many of these requirements of hospitals throughout the country will not now be met because of the impact of the soaring cost of the children's hospital and the lack of any controls put in place.
Why the absence of transparency on this? Deputy Cowen has been pursuing this for quite some time, as indeed have many journalists such as Mr. Paul Cullen. Will the Taoiseach confirm that the up-to-date projected cost, including IT and fit-out costs, is €1.4 billion? Is that the upper limit of the cost of the hospital? How did this overrun occur? Were there deficiencies at tender stage? Will the Taoiseach outline to the House what other projects will be delayed or cancelled as a result of the overrun on the children's hospital, and will he specify that in terms of Health and other Departments? Will the Government stop stonewalling on this and provide a detailed and transparent presentation on this entire issue because the public is entitled to know?
I think we all agree that the country's new children's hospital is a project that we all support. We all want to see it built, if not on time and maybe even not ahead of schedule-----
-----and open to the children of Ireland to receive the best quality paediatric healthcare in the world, which is what I believe they deserve. This project is the biggest single investment in healthcare in our history and it allows three rather old hospitals at Crumlin, Temple Street and Tallaght to be replaced by a new state-of-the-art hospital. It will be a hospital with all the best equipment: five MRI machines, ten theatres for children who need operations, outpatient departments, and single rooms for every child to reduce the risk of infection, give them the privacy they deserve, and ensure that their parents can stay with them at night if need be. This is going from antiquated infrastructure that is not up to standard to what will be, I believe, one of the best children's hospitals in the world when it opens.
We are getting there. Deputy Micheál Martin is right to say that this project has a long history. The fact that planning permission was not secured at the Mater caused cost and delays. We now have planning permission secured for the site beside St. James's.
The children's hospital itself comes into existence on 1 January 2019. The three hospitals will be merged under a single governance structure, which is getting right the hospitals' merger across the three sites before they come together in the one building.
The satellite centre at Connolly Hospital is almost finished. I visited it yesterday. It will be open to patients next summer. Tallaght is very well advanced. The enabling works, the site works and the phase A works are now close to completion at the St. James's site.
It has a dedicated board, a paediatric hospital development board, which was set up with the express purpose of making sure that this project was driven by expertise, people who knew how to do big projects. The board is made up of people who have experience in this area and has a CEO who is experienced in this area.
This morning, Cabinet met and discussed the issue of the escalating costs. We agreed to accept the new overall cost, which is €1.433 billion. That represents a €450 million increase on what we had projected in April 2017. Of that, €319 million is made up of increased constructions, €50 million is VAT and the remainder relates to staff planning, design teams, risk contingency and the management equipment service to make sure that the hospital is properly equipped.
There will be further investigations as to how these costs escalated by so much since April last year, and the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board will be available to brief members of the Committee of Public Accounts and of the Oireachtas joint committee to give them any information that they want about this project and about the reasons behind the escalating costs.
The Taoiseach's confirmation is incredible. On 27 September, with great gusto, the Minister stated, "We are making a massive €1 billion investment in children's health, which is right and proper". Today is 18 December.
The cost of the hospital has increased by approximately €400 million in the space of weeks. Did anybody tell the Minister, Deputy Harris, on or around 30 September that the figure he gave to the House could be €400 million out? It is beyond comprehension. Who is reporting to the Minister, the Cabinet committee on health and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, on this matter? The Minister, Deputy Harris, is quite stoic about this. I have to admire his poker face. However, there must have been some behind the scenes engagement on the increase. The Taoiseach stated that the matter would be investigated. Who is responsible for this and who is accountable to whom? Ultimately, the Minister is accountable to the committee and should appear before it, along with the hospital board. It is extraordinary that in the space of six weeks the estimated cost has gone from less than €1 billion to €1.433 billion.
Was there confidence among the members of the Cabinet during its deliberations this morning that the figure of €1.433 billion is the upper limit? Does it include the costs of an information technology system and the fit-out of the hospital?
The board is responsible for the project and accountable to the Minister. Of course, the Minister and the Government are accountable to the Oireachtas. As I stated earlier, the board is happy to receive a delegation from or meet the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and the Committee of Public Accounts to give further information on the reason for the cost escalation. I repeat that this is the biggest ever single investment in the health of our children.
It may turn out to be one of the most expensive children's hospitals in the world but it will also be one of the best. Its first elements, such as the satellite centre in Blanchardstown, will open to patients next year, while the centre in Tallaght will open the year after and the main campus will open in 2022. Work is very much under way. This project is real. The hospitals will be under a single governance structure as early as January 2019.
-----the gross or agreed maximum price, which contains assumptions on tender price indexes and the cost of inflation which may cause the cost to increase. I will not pretend otherwise.
There is widespread public concern and anger at the manner in which a family was evicted from its home near Strokestown in County Roscommon last week. The video footage of the incident is shocking, to say the least. It shows a private security firm being given free rein to do as it pleased in evicting a family from its home. It is appalling that any family would be subjected to the type of treatment visited on this family last Tuesday. It was an ordeal of thuggery inflicted by a group of men acting on behalf of a financial institution while gardaí watched. That is of significant concern to right-thinking people. What happened in County Roscommon was a disgrace and it was unjustified. It brought to mind scenes from our past when families were evicted and thrown onto the side of the road.
The shocking reality is that those undertaking this type of act on behalf of banks and vulture funds are not authorised or regulated and are not covered by the Private Security Services Act. That was confirmed to my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, by the Private Security Authority. it is time for a policy shift away from satisfying the demands of banks and towards supporting families and communities. Pressure must be brought to bear on the financial institutions using these outfits to turf people out of their homes. They cannot simply shrug their shoulders and pass this off and neither can the Taoiseach. It is extraordinary that we expect door staff or shop security staff to be regulated and comply with the highest standards but that does not apply to these individuals. It is extraordinary that a person fitting a lock to a front door must be regulated but these henchmen and enforcers for the banks can ram down an elderly citizen's door and drag him from his home by the ears without regulation, authorisation or oversight.
The lack of accountability is shocking. Those who are enforcing evictions and acting in a violent and abusive way need to be held to account. There is an urgent need for regulation in this area and it can be done quickly by amending the Private Security Services Act by adding a new category of security personnel to come within the remit of the Act and the scope of the Private Security Authority. This morning my colleague Deputy Ó Laoghaire published legislation to achieve this and it needs to be achieved now. We need to ensure we will not see a repeat of the incidents and nonsense we saw on Frederick Street in Dublin in September where people were wearing balaclavas, or the incidents in Roscommon last week and those that followed it. Will the Taoiseach support the legislation we have published today to ensure these bank enforcers can no longer operate without oversight, authority and regulation which have not applied heretofore?
We all need to be careful in this House not to say too much about individual cases without knowing the facts. If the Deputy read the newspapers today and followed the coverage of the story, he would realise the facts behind this individual case seem to be about much more than an elderly farm family being evicted from their farm. The case involves many years of debts and arrears, VAT fraud, tax evasion and many other things. Therefore, we should be careful not to assume that in any individual case there are no reasons behind it.
To answer the Deputy's question, as matters stand, under the Private Security Services Act 2004, anybody who engages in private security work is obliged to comply with the law and behave in a lawful manner. While doormen, those who fit alarms and provide security at events are required to be regulated by the Private Security Authority, those executing eviction orders are not. It is perhaps the case that when the law was enacted by the Oireachtas in 2004, that was overlooked. We accept that it may well be wise and a good idea to amend the law to cover the regulation of security agents by the Private Security Authority. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, said as much yesterday and will do some work on that issue. If it is the right thing to do, as I believe it is, we will regulate those who are providing security services, or whatever the correct term for them is.
It is important to point out that the eviction order was executed following a High Court hearing. Nobody likes to see anyone being evicted in any circumstance. Nobody wants to see it happening, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. However, the High Court does not issue eviction orders lightly. In Ireland 116,000 mortgages have been restructured. Some 116,000 people have sought help and had their mortgages restructured, yet only 400 eviction orders have been executed in the last year. Some 100,000 mortgages were restructured and only 400 eviction orders were executed last year. The High Court has a very high barrier in allowing eviction orders to be issued. I refer to repossession orders in the first place and eviction orders thereafter. The court does not issue them lightly. It is important that we bear that in mind because we live in a society in which many who wish to buy a home struggle to obtain a mortgage. Many who have a home make mortgage repayments at higher rates than those in other countries. We need to bear in mind the facts beyond that. Some 100,000 people have had their mortgages restructured, while there were just 400 eviction orders. The High Court does not issue eviction orders lightly, nor are they executed lightly.
The Taoiseach talks about the facts. Last week he responded that he had watched the video of me questioning some of the bankers. Perhaps he might confirm that he watched the video of the bank enforcers and how they behaved with the family in question. No family, regardless of circumstances, should be treated in this way. It is not the Revenue Commissioners that are evicting families.
That banks' enforcers, these thugs - I call them thugs - can enter somebody's property, cut down locks, break down doors, take somebody out by their ears, kick somebody on the ground and push them out of their own home and property while gardaí watch on is not acceptable. We have raised this issue with the Taoiseach countless times. It is not just bank enforcers who are unregulated. We have rent receivers who are unregulated. Why are they doing this and why are the public so outraged? I commend the public for standing up in solidarity with the family and people facing eviction and against thuggish behaviour we saw last Tuesday. Why are they doing this? It is because the Government has completely abandoned these communities. It has rolled out the red carpet for the vulture funds. It allows thousands of sales of restructured performing mortgages to take place to vulture funds outside the code of conduct of the Central Bank. Time and again it has allowed the banks to ride roughshod over ordinary people.
I agree with the Deputy that we need proper regulation in this area, as the Minister for Justice and Equality acknowledged yesterday. He has established an interdepartmental group to examine the issue, with a view to it reporting to him in January, which is only in a few weeks' time. As I said, I agree that we need regulation in this area. I also agree that nobody ever wants to see people evicted from their homes, particularly at Christmas time. Where evictions occur, they should only ever happen in rare cases after the court has heard both sides of the story and issued first a repossession order and thereafter an eviction order, as I understand happened in this case.
I am very concerned that the Deputy has had nothing to say about what happened afterwards, when 20 or 30 people arrived in a cattle truck and armed with baseball bats. They injured three or four other people, set cars alight and caused an animal to be shot dead. I find it very concerning that the Deputy has nothing to say about this. He has made two contributions and not condemned-----
I condemn violence and thuggish behaviour by anyone under any circumstance. Let there be no doubt about that, but in two contributions - in fact, now in three contributions - Deputy Pearse Doherty has dismissed the fact that tax evasion is a serious offence.
Deputy Pearse Doherty has said nothing about the thugs who climbed on the back of a cattle truck - 20 of them - who broke into property, injured three people and killed a dog-----
The report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland is a strategy to transform policing in Ireland. The report rightly notes that many people have very good relations with An Garda Síochána. We want to preserve everything that is right with An Garda Síochána. There is, equally, a need for large-scale, once in a generation reform and change in how the force is structured and operates. It is important we get this right. At first glance, there are many things in the report with which everyone in this House, and certainly in the Labour Party, would agree.
I welcome the centrality of human rights, the role of policing in promoting human rights and enhancing capacity in areas such as security intelligence. I also welcome the clear focus on front-line community policing, for which I have long called. What is proposed here is a new district policing model where all personnel at district level should be considered to be community policing. Community policing is not just a label to be applied. It involves a different approach to policing and close engagement with communities and with citizens.
One of the features of the report is that it envisages drawing clearer, cleaner lines between the functions of An Garda Síochána and other public bodies. There is, however, one suggestion in the report that runs counter to the logic of independence and separation of function. I refer to the recommendation that the Garda Commissioner should again be in charge of appointing senior personnel in An Garda Síochána and that he or she should also be in charge of setting remuneration policy within the force. I believe fervently that this is wrong. One of the most important reforms already made to An Garda Síochána, in the ten years we have been trying to make reforms, has been creating an independent process for the appointment of senior police officers.
We recognised that the appointment of senior people had become far too incestuous. It led to perverse outcomes such as senior staff often being more loyal to the Garda Commissioner than to the public. This created an unhealthy inner circle at the core of An Garda Síochána. It is a power this House removed and I believe passionately that it should stay removed. All of my experience, in and out of government, leads me to believe an independent appointment process for senior gardaí is the single most important reform that should be retained.
I understand a minority report within the review body came to the same view. Those members of the commission were against this measure. I ask the Taoiseach at least to discuss it openly with us all. I do not believe every single recommendation needs to be accepted. This is of such fundamental importance that I ask him to reject the notion of returning senior appointments to the Garda Commissioner.
I thank Deputy Howlin and acknowledge his long-standing interest in reform of An Garda Síochána. I also acknowledge the work he did in driving that forward in the previous Government. We had a chance at Cabinet this morning to discuss the recommendations of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. That was chaired, as Deputy Howlin knows, by Ms Kathleen O'Toole. We have agreed to accept the 157 recommendations, 136 in full and 21 in principle. There are some difficulties with those 21 recommendations. We are accepting them in principle but, for example, we do not agree that the Garda Commissioner could set pay because pay policy is centrally bargained. We could not have the Garda Commissioner setting pay and then not have school principals or hospital managers doing the same. We do have difficulty, therefore, with aspects of the report and there is some work to do.
It is a good report and a good opportunity to reform our police service to make it better than it has ever been. I believe now is a good opportunity because we have new leadership with the new Commissioner, we have a plan for reform from the O'Toole commission, and we have the resources in the form of an increasing budget for An Garda Síochána as well as increasing numbers of gardaí.
We are in a good place to bring about Garda reform and improvements in our policing service, particularly community policing. Part of the structural reform put forward is about strengthening GSOC, turning it into an independent police ombudsman with more resources and authority to investigate complaints about gardaí. It involves putting elements of the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate together into a new oversight body called the policing and community oversight safety commission, PSOC. This will ensure it is not a case of oversight being diluted but of creating a new oversight body.
Crucial to the recommendations is that the Garda Commissioner should be allowed to become a true CEO of his or her organisation. Some people feel that in recent years it has been hard for the Garda Commissioner, whoever it is, to run the Garda because of accountability to the Garda Inspectorate, the Policing Authority, GSOC and the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Justice and Equality. It is hard to do one’s job when one is accountable to five different bodies at different times. In any organisation, the chief executive officer is accountable to a board within the organisation. The O'Toole commission recommended we move to the type of structure where the Garda Commissioner can become a true CEO and run his or her own organisation but does not have a free hand to do whatever he or she likes. The commissioner will still be accountable to the Garda board and then to the structures above it.
This will require significant legislation and that specific change will require a debate in the Dáil. We will certainly be happy to hear the views of Opposition parties because that change can only be made with a majority vote in the Oireachtas and not just by a decision of the Government.
I warmly welcome the bulk of recommendations and I welcomed the process when it was inaugurated. It really is a transforming moment for which we have waited a long time. There is one net issue, however. The report stated that the right mix of skills can be achieved by giving the Garda Commissioner the freedom to design his own team. It cannot be right for whoever is at the apex of the Garda Síochána to design and select the management team of An Garda Síochána. That is not how any Department works. The Secretary General of a Department does not pick all the senior civil servants. The CEO of an agency of the State, be it IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland or the Environmental Protection Agency, does not pick the key personnel to be appointed. It made a profound difference when we handed the function of appointing the most senior gardaí to an independent commission. To go back on that would undermine this really important raft of reforms. Eddie Molloy is somebody who I have relied upon for intuitive and knowledgeable advice for many years. His minority report is worth reading. Will the Taoiseach reflect long and hard on this one net issue?
As I understand it, none of this will actually change. The new framework will not be in place until 1 January 2021. That is quite some time away. It will require primary legislation, which will have to be scrutinised and considered by the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality, the Dáil and the Seanad. This is an issue which we can tease out. We want to get this right.
My understanding of the commission’s recommendations, having discussed the report with Kathleen O’Toole, is that the idea the majority of members are putting forward is that we-----
It is not a case of hand-picking appointments and promotions. There will be a Garda board in place. One will see many organisations in the public and private sector with a CEO and a board. The CEO does not get to hand-pick key staff. That has to go through a board and there has to a proper recruitment procedure where people can apply for jobs.
One development we want to see, of which I know the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, is in favour, is more people coming in from the outside. We have a division in the Garda between sworn gardaí and Garda civilian staff. We want to put that together into a single organisation. We want to have in Garda top brass and senior management a mix of people, some who are sworn policemen and others who are experts coming in from other parts of the public service and outside.
I do not condone violence from any source.
The Central Bank's residential mortgage arrears and repossession statistics for the second quarter of 2018 show that accounts in arrears for more than 700 days now constitute 42% of all accounts in arrears.
At €2.5 billion, they represent 91% of outstanding arrears balances. Non-bank entities now hold 61,446 mortgage accounts for principal dwelling houses and buy-to-lets combined. Of this number, 47,820 relate to principal dwelling house mortgage accounts.
These numbers provide us with some important context for the sad events that unfolded in Roscommon last week. Video of the event shows two elderly brothers and their sister being violently dragged against their will from the only home they have had for 64 years by private security agents all the way from Craigavon in County Armagh. Much has been made of the physical violence surrounding the event but remarkably little has been heard about the financial and emotional violence heaped on the tens of thousands of families right across the State by both the banks and the so-called vulture funds. They have the terrorised the old and infirm not with baseball bats but with bailiffs and sheriffs. The registrar and county sheriff system have too often been allowed to act with impunity, inflicting misery on ordinary people and families in mortgage distress. Private investment funds have launched their attacks through the letter box, with menacing and demanding letters and late-night phone calls. They have driven fathers to suicide and left children devastated by loss on many occasions. I am aware of many examples and I am sure the Taoiseach does as well. These investment funds have imprisoned mothers who have tried to stand up to them in the courts despite having no legal representation.
Is this not a violent assault equal in gravity and distress with the events of last week? It is. Only last week I had to write to Start Mortgages after representations were made to me on behalf of an elderly couple in County Laois. Start Mortgages is pursuing the couple despite being notified through medical certs and otherwise that the husband is suffering from a terminal illness and is wheelchair-bound, and despite their attempts to engage constructively to repay the debt. There has been no meaningful engagement from Start Mortgages.
Every day of the year, families are being hounded or terrorised by debt collection practices in the State. These can only be described as vicious, cruel and inhumane. They are being supported by a hands-off approach that gives a de facto blessing and the guise of legality because gardaí stand idly by. I am not blaming those gardaí. Courts are handing out court orders with no indication of how these orders should be enforced. They must change or otherwise we are simply giving a blank cheque to these firms to act in any way that they see fit with the blessings of the court backing them. A third force is meanwhile coming in from Northern Ireland. I call on the Taoiseach to take action and do what Deputy John McGuinness's committee recommended, which is to give powers of compellability and allow committees to bring these people before them at least.
I acknowledge that the Deputy raised a sensitive matter in a very appropriate and reasonable manner. I recognise that he has put on the record his condemnation of violence from any source, as I do.
It is important to acknowledge that mortgage arrears are going down in Ireland. Five or six years ago there were hundreds of thousands of people out of work and unable to pay their mortgages, leaving those mortgages in arrears. As the economy has recovered and more people are back at work, and as incomes are rising again, mortgage arrears are decreasing. A corps of people nonetheless may never be able to repay what they owe, and those people need our help. We have put in place systems to help them, specifically the Abhaile scheme through which people can get legal and financial advice to help them restructure their debts. There are 116,000 mortgages in Ireland that have been restructured and 87% of those loans are performing or being repaid. There is help there and the 116,000 families in Ireland that have had their mortgages restructured are proof of that.
We can take the mortgage-to-rent scheme, where a party may give up a home but remain in it. A person who cannot pay a mortgage would surrender the property to the lender but he or she may stay in it and pay rent. There are now 424 families who have retained a home by being willing to give it up but to rent it thereafter. The 116,000 people who have had their mortgages restructured and the 424 families who have signed up for the mortgage-to-rent scheme are a much greater number than the number of eviction orders being executed.
The number of such orders being executed is actually going down. It was 400 last year and the previous year while it was 900 the year before that. Courts hear both sides of the story and rarely issue a repossession or execution order unless there is good cause and other avenues have been exhausted. I would say to people that if they genuinely cannot pay back their debts, they should seek the assistance that is available. Many people have done that and have been able to either settle their debts to their satisfaction and stay in their homes or have their loans restructured.
I am surprised by the Taoiseach's reply. While meaningful efforts are being made in many cases, there are many cases - we all know of them - involving business people, farmers and family home owners who are trying their best to deal with the banks but the banks will not entertain them and drag out the process forever. We must send a clear message to the people who carry out these violent evictions with cruelty and impunity. They are a third force and should not be in this State. We are a sovereign state and have An Garda Síochána and the Army, who serve us well. Nobody condones violence from any source and I certainly do not condone it, but the fact remains that people are being driven to the brink day in and day out by the menacing behaviour and lack of engagement from the banks. They see a different person in the bank every time they visit it. What happened in Roscommon was people were responding to enormous desperation and the perception that all the powers of the State and the courts are doing nothing to shield them from the brutal regime of evictions. The Taoiseach said that the courts do not issue repossession and eviction orders lightly. I hope so but laypersons cannot represent themselves in court. They are intimidated, bullied and treated very badly. Above all, we do not want a third force from Northern Ireland or even from here. I raised this issue with the Government in 2015 when it happened in Carlow and I have raised it umpteen times with the Taoiseach. Will the Government change the legislation to ensure that these people are sent back to where they belong and back to their former paramilitary past if that is what they want.
I agree, in light of the events we have seen in recent weeks, that we need to extend regulation to these private security firms. It is already the case that a doorman or somebody fitting an alarm needs to be registered and is regulated. I agree that we need to extend regulation to these private security firms to make sure they act in accordance with the law. There are options for people who genuinely cannot pay their debts and the money they owe. The Abhaile service offers free legal and financial advice and there are court mentors available who will go into the courts with people and assist them. The proof of that can be seen in the 116,000 individuals and their families in this State who have had their mortgages restructured. Almost 90% of those are able to pay their bills. That is the right way to go and that is what I would encourage people to do.