Thursday, 16 May 2019
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
Some 3,000 families throughout the country are dependent on the services of RehabCare and are anxiously awaiting an update on discussions between Rehab and the Government on the funding crisis that is potentially threatening the future of this service. Can the Tanáiste give the House an update on those discussions, when he expects those discussions to be completed and when he will be in position to offer certainty to those families and their communities?
There is an ongoing conversation between the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and Rehab. The immediate result of those discussions is that Rehab has now said that it will continue its services for the foreseeable future and there is no imminent threat of a reduction of services. I understand that the conversations are continuing to ensure financial sustainability into the future. I do not have a timeline but I can ask the Department to come back to the Deputy on this point.
Yesterday the British Secretary of State for Defence, Penny Mordaunt, announced measures to afford British soldiers and veterans protection from prosecution of crimes. Initial reports of this plan indicated that these laws would not be extended to the North but that has since changed. Speaking last night, Ms Mordaunt said that she thinks that the plans should cover the North. Any attempt to create immunity for British soldiers is wrong and unacceptable. No British soldier should be above the law and whether crimes have been committed by British soldiers in Ireland or Iraq by British, those crime should be fully investigated and those responsible held to account.
Sinn Féin has rigorously opposed any attempt to introduce a statute of limitations or immunity for crimes committed by British soldiers in Ireland and we have stood in support of victims and will continue to do so. Any attempt to extend immunity to the North is utterly unacceptable and will not be tolerated there. These measures give a real indication of the British Government's attitude to murder carried out by its forces and its proxies. Does the Tanáiste agree with me that any attempt to provide immunity to British soldiers for crimes committed in the North is completely unacceptable and that the Stormont House Agreement provides the best way forward for dealing with the past and that those commitments need to be honoured?
I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to Government's very clear position on the record on this issue. The Government has noted with some concern comments made by the UK Secretary of State for Defence, Penny Mordaunt, on Tuesday and is seeking clarification. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, wrote in reply to me on 18 April and stated, in relation to the operation of the British Army in Northern Ireland, that where there is any evidence of wrongdoing, it should be pursued without fear or favour, whoever the perpetrators might be. Prime Minister May has indicated in her most recent comments that the measures being developed by the Ministry of Defence would relate only to overseas operations and not to Northern Ireland. The Government expects those assurances and commitments by the British Government on Northern Ireland to be fully upheld. The Government's position is clear. There should be effective investigations into all deaths during the Troubles, regardless of the perpetrator. That is what is provided for in the legacy framework of the Stormont House Agreement and it is imperative that we move forward with its implementation. There are no amnesties from prosecution provided for in the Good Friday Agreement or any subsequent agreements, including the Stormont House Agreement, and the Government has been clear that it would not support any proposal to introduce such a measure for state or non-state actors. We will continue to engage with the British Government on this issue but this is a sensitive time for legacy in Northern Ireland.
We need to ensure that loose comments are not damaging in terms of trust and the willingness of all sides to co-operate to ensure that the legacy structures that have been committed to, agreed by both Governments, and supported by all political parties, move forward in the spirit that they were intended.
In the programme for Government there is much talk about school provision and proper planning. Today I received a reply to a parliamentary question confirming that Pelletstown Educate Together national school will be evicted by the developer in the new tear from its land, and yet the permanent school building has not even received approval and there is no temporary building. Does Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil think that if they put thousands of people living beside a railway line that it is some sort of magic contraceptive? It should not be news that if one builds thousands of apartments and houses, a few years later one may need a primary school. While I blame the developer for his utter greed in turfing people off a potential site, I also blame the Tanáiste, because this huge area of Pelletstown, Rathborne and Ashtown was planned for many years. This has been going on since the 1990s, and we are fighting for schools to catch up with the thousands of housing units. Can the Tanáiste tell people in the Dublin west, Rathborne-Pelletstown, area what he intends to do about this in the new year?
I will have to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to come back on that particular case because I do not have the detail on it. We are adding about 20,000 primary school places every year because of the type of population growth the Deputy is talking about. The Government is investing heavily in doing that but there is obviously a particular case here that needs a specific response from Government. I will ask the Minister, Deputy McHugh, to get back to the Deputy on this issue.
I raise the issue of a new model for affordable rental accommodation under the programme for Government. I also raise the issue of homelessness. I want to tell a story about a girl and to use her words not mine. This is a girl who at the age of 18 lost her mum, aged 39, suddenly. A year later she witnessed her father, aged 41, collapse and almost die from an aneurysm. This left him disabled and living with his eldest sister. This girl is the youngest of four sisters. She is kind, caring, very talkative, loved by many and does a huge amount to help others. She is now aged 29, with two beautiful boys, aged three and 11. She raises them on her own, does her best to support them and keep them safe. This girl lost a 38 year old sister to cervical cancer last year and she took in her then 17 year old niece to love and support. This girl lost a rented house because the owners wanted to sell and now, through no fault of her own, she is registered homeless because rent is too high for her to afford. After having been placed in hostels and city family hubs, she is now split from her family and sleeping on couches belonging to friends and family because the hub is now full and she has been moved on. This girl walks past people on the street every day. She is invisible to them and they do not see her or help her. The Government does not help this family but aims to help the country. This is rubbish.
This is a girl we all know. She chats on the street and says everything is fine but this girl is far from fine. One will see the bags under her eyes from crying, her severe weight loss, her ill-health and the stress on her face from worrying about where her little family will sleep tonight. This girl is not invisible.
We have spoken about rent pressure zones. They are not working. We have spoken but freezing rent for three years. What is the Government going to do? These are the realities. Class was mentioned earlier. There is no class here. This is about real human beings. This is only one story, and I make no apology for bringing it up today because these are the cases coming into our offices everyday. What is the Government going to do about the housing and rental situation in this country?
On page 23 of the programme for Government, the Government promised to initiate an affordable cost rental housing scheme last July. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, announced plans for a cost-rental project in St. Michael's Estate in Inchicore. There is growing frustration among the local community that nothing has happened in a year. We saw the daft.iereport this week where average rent in Dublin is between €1,700 and €2,200. One would need a net disposable income of €5,500 to €7,000 a month to be able to afford that. Can the Tanáiste give the House an update on the St. Michael's Estate project and tell us where the urgency is in the Government project to have affordable cost-rental for hard-pressed renters?
I raise the matter of rents in the midlands. We do not have rent pressure zone and have no way of controlling rents. If one looks at rents for the last 12 months in County Laois, they have risen by 10.7% while in County Offaly, they have gone up by 8.5%. Inflation is running at less than 1% and wages are at a standstill. I am appealing to the Government to do something about this. There is a real problem here. We talk about top-ups. Nine out of ten of the people who come into my office in Portlaoise are paying top-ups on the housing assistance payment, HAP. There are people who are not getting rent support and who are working and earning €350 to €360 a week. They are paying half their wages or more on rent. They are being skinned and fleeced and it affects their mental and physical health.
It affects their children. I say this to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Tánaiste and the other Ministers present. It puts considerable pressure on people. If one speaks to people working in the mental health services or to GPs in any area, one will see that it is causing great pressure. We have no way of controlling rents. I plead with the Government to do something to stop rents sky-rocketing.
This day last week, at approximately this time of the day, a young man was found dead in my home town of Bray, which is in my constituency. He was homeless and had been living in a tent in the town. He was not the first homeless person to die in Bray. His name was Chris and he was 33 years of age. I attended his funeral on Tuesday and, as we walked behind Chris's coffin, a young person, who has also been homeless, said we should get used to what happened because there will be many more people like Chris. There will be many more coffins unless the Government does something. Does the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government sit down and think of people like Chris? Does he lie in bed and think of Chris and all the people like him throughout the State? On my way to the House, I received a message to say the 12 homeless beds in Bray, which had been opened before Christmas, are due to be closed at the end of the month.
I have been a Deputy for almost four years. I have repeatedly told the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy English, that the vacant housing numbers, both rural and urban, are at most one in 12. Any Deputy who canvasses will verify that statistic. The system is flawed. I ask the Minister to appoint a dedicated housing officer and to carry out a pilot project in my county. County Louth was previously successful in leading the charge with compulsory purchase orders. I have spoken to several housing officers in different parts of the country who have verified nobody is on the ground identifying vacant properties. They rely on people to inform them that a particular property is vacant. I want there to be an officer who will go door to door, like people who are currently canvassing, and identify vacant houses, many of which are owned by the banks. The properties are not being used, often because their owners are waiting for the market price to continue to rise. I challenge the Minister to appoint somebody to do that job in Louth County Council. We will show the Minister he was wrong in his approach to vacant housing.
The delivery of social housing is happening far too slowly. I have some examples of individual cases, although I am sure the Minister has dealt with similar cases. A couple with a seven year old child, sharing a house with their parents and four siblings, one of whom is a 15 year old boy with brain cancer, have been on the list for eight and a half years. A single mother and her children, all of whom live with her parents, constituting eight people living in a two-bedroom bungalow, have been on the list for eight years. In the Tánaiste's home town, a single mother with five children has been on the list for 12 years. She sleeps on the couch and rents a property for €1,000 per month, despite earning only €275 per week.
The Tánaiste spoke about short-term and long-term solutions. When Sinn Féin spoke about a housing crisis in 2011, 2012 and 2013, however, the Government did not want to know. We are not suggesting that the Government is doing nothing now, although it is not doing remotely enough, but rather that it was doing nothing then. That is why we are in this position.
Some 1,733 families, including 3,821 children, are on the homeless list. One family, comprising a husband, wife and five children, were based in Tallaght where the children attend school. The family were eventually housed in bed and breakfast accommodation in County Meath because they could not find rented accommodation anywhere near the school. They drive to Tallaght every day to drop the kids to school. I asked the parents what they do all day and they said they sit in the car. They asked me what they could do but all I could tell them was that they must wait. That is the answer I have received from South Dublin County Council because the family have not been on the list long enough. When they have called the council to inquire about the list, they have been told there is no list. They have waited for three years. The father is suicidal. While I do not believe that has anything to do with the family's homelessness, the mother cannot leave him alone for five minutes. The family are in crisis and there are many more like them on the list. We seek answers. What does the Minister say to what I have outlined?
Every day I meet members of the public who struggle because of the crisis in housing and homelessness. They are people in emergency accommodation or sleeping rough, young families and couples seeking to buy their first home and people who cannot afford the rent they pay or who spend far too long commuting, which damages their quality of life because they cannot find homes near where they work. I also meet elderly people looking for security in old age who do not have their own homes. Of course, as the Minister with responsibility for housing, I am aware of all such concerns.
If Sinn Féin had ideas and a plan worth implementing, it would receive the support of the House. We are a minority Government, which means Opposition Deputies can, if they have the ideas and the programme, secure that support and have their ideas implemented.
I do not need guidance. If the Minister, Deputy Madigan, would like to take the Chair, she is welcome. Will Deputies who were so persistent in asking questions do the courtesy to the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to let him answer?
With all-party support, the Government is bringing forward important reforms for the rental sector. Rent pressure zones will now apply to 2021. We are changing the qualifying criteria, where areas that do not currently qualify for rent caps will now be subject to them, as we receive data from the Residential Tenancies Board. For the first time in law, we will include large, institutional landlords in those rent cap regulations, which is an important improvement to ensure that tenants are treated the same irrespective of their landlord.
Other points about landlords and evictions were raised. I have met non-governmental organisations on numerous occasions, as has the Taoiseach, and they ask why landlords are allowed to evict tenants because they are selling the property. If we changed the law and told landlords they must keep the tenants in place when the property is sold, what about the person who buys the property? For example, it could be a young couple or family who must then evict the tenants because they want to move into the home they have bought. Families evicting families will not solve the problem but rather will move it to someone else who is not a professional landlord.
On vacancy, 42 sites that were previously vacant and on the vacant site levy are under construction. I told every local authority to form a vacant house strategy and team, and all 31 local authorities have reported back on that work. The council may have told Deputy Breathnach that it does not have a vacancy officer but it is the council's responsibility to put one in place.
In the 12 months to March, more than 2,500 homes came out of long-term vacancy, that is, vacancy of more than two years, and back into use because of the work of local authorities, housing bodies and others bringing their homes back into use.
On those in emergency accommodation or who are sleeping rough, we now have a national director and national plan for Housing First and we are creating Housing First tenancies, which follow international best practice for getting people off the streets and into secure accommodation, and keeping them there. Last year, 5,000 individuals and households came out of homelessness. They were either prevented from going into it or came out of emergency accommodation. More than 27,000 households were supported by the taxpayer. It is important work but there are thousands more people we need to help, which is why we continue to drive on with Rebuilding Ireland to get that work done.
St. Michael's Estate is the final point I wish to address.
This is a very important development not only for St. Michael's Estate and its surrounding community but also for the country. It is the first large-scale cost rental project. It was objected to locally by people. We do get objections that cause time delays.
We are working and I was out there one evening a couple of months ago to speak the community group. We are trying to manage this sensitively with the local community group and this does add extra time. The National Development Finance Agency has already done the financial modelling on affordability and what it would mean depending on what salary someone might be earning. The European Investment Bank has already made a commitment to fund the project and we will bring forward the plans to it. We are progressing them as quickly as possible.
On a number of occasions, I have raised the Annalee View respite service in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency. It is the only facility we have. It is a five bed facility. It had been used very frequently by families in the Cavan and Monaghan area. More than six months ago it closed. There are now reports from the HSE that the house has an oil leak and will be completely closed for the foreseeable future. This affects 400 families throughout Cavan and Monaghan. Deputy Ó Caoláin and I attended a public meeting held by the parents' action group and we heard from the parents about how they feel ignored and neglected. They are completely justified in those feelings because the HSE has failed abysmally to replace that service. I have put this question to the relevant Minister. What is the plan to put respite services back in place in Cavan and Monaghan?
I know the Deputy has raised this issue previously and I cannot remember whether I told her I would get the Minister to speak to her directly on it. I do not have the details on individual respite places for Cavan and Monaghan but I will ask the Minister's office to come back to the Deputy on it.
Obviously, I fully support Deputy Niamh Smyth's appeal but the issue I need to raise is one the Tánaiste addressed earlier during Leaders' Questions It is with regard to the anguish and stress that parents of children with spinal muscular atrophy must cope with as day by day they watch their child denied what is potentially a life-saving drug. With the advent of the approval of Spinraza for reimbursement in England and Wales, we are now one of only two countries in the European Union that has yet to take this decision. The other is Estonia. To be quick, the Tánaiste is the Deputy Prime Minister of the State. If he will not intervene otherwise, as he has explained earlier, will he at least reflect the frustration that he claims he has himself with this process and urge a conclusion with approval for Spinraza reimbursement issuing immediately?
Let me be blunt on this. I want a conclusion to this process for the families concerned but I want it to be the right conclusion for them, as does the Minister for Health. There is a process under way that must conclude. Absolutely, I share the Deputy's frustration with the length of time it is taking. We are trying to get the right outcome rather than making early decisions that would be negative ones.
Yesterday and previously, I and others raised the issue of the escalating demands by insurance companies in respect of renewal of premiums. I suggested that perhaps the Financial Regulator might get involved because there appears to be no basis whatsoever for the level of increase now being imposed on people. Attributing the need for this to increased payouts is not the answer because an increase of up to 1,000% is taking place in some cases. Is there any progress on the possible input of the Financial Regulator?
Certainly the issue of insurance has been a big priority for the Government for quite some time. Multiple pieces of legislation are now moving forward or in gestation to try to make sure we deal with fraudulent claims in a comprehensive way to ensure we will not see the type of disparity we see today with regard to payouts following court cases. When we compare our benchmark with the UK there are a number of areas linked to insurance payouts and consistency that the State wants to deal with in legislation. It is very much under way.
An application was submitted 12 months ago to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport applying for capital funding to extend the runway at Waterford Airport, at a cost of €5 million to the Exchequer with matched funding of €7 million from the local authorities and investors in the south east. The Minister, Deputy Ross, signed off on a Government memo that paved the way for Exchequer funding. I believe he circulated a memo to all other Departments inviting observations. Is there any update? The sooner funds are in place the sooner work can begin on this vital infrastructure for the south-east. I believe the Ministers, Deputies Murphy and Humphreys, support it.
All of us in the south east have been pushing to have the airport extended. It has received substantial moneys in recent years, even when there were no flights. Since 2016, more than €1.1 million has been received. The Minister, Deputy Ross, was in Waterford a number of months ago where he met the airport board, members of Enterprise Ireland and businesses in Waterford. They all put forward the case for the extension of the runway. As the Deputy is also aware, two private investors and a number of councils have put forward moneys that total €7 million. The latest development is that this has been brought to Cabinet. No decision has yet been made by the Government but it will be brought to the Cabinet shortly.
I want to raise the recent report of the Department of Education and Skills on the review of career guidance in education. This is something that is very important to everybody on this side of the House because it was part of our confidence and supply negotiations. It is also something we have dealt with at the education committee. I was concerned to read in the report that no provision is included for career guidance in special schools. We have 140 special schools in the country. This came to light through the committee's stakeholder engagement. Quite a bit of lobbying has been done by other agencies to make sure they are included. As we all know, career guidance is incredibly important for all of our young people and the role of the career guidance counsellor is very important. Young people in special schools leave school at the same time as their peers in mainstream schools. They have dreams and aspirations. They are absolutely capable of getting and holding down a job, doing an apprenticeship and studying. The fact we are leaving them out is important. I ask the Tánaiste to speak to the Minister for Education and Skills and the Cabinet to ensure special schools are included for career guidance teaching.
I will raise that with the Minister. I assure Deputy O'Loughlin that anything we agreed to in the confidence and supply arrangements has been followed through on and will continue to be.
With the indulgence of the Ceann Comhairle, I will respond to a question asked earlier because I have helpful information for Deputy Brady who asked a question about 12 homelessness emergency beds in Wicklow. As he knows, those beds were provided under the winter emergency initiative. I am told by the Department and the Minister that there is no problem keeping them open if the decision is made locally by the local authority that it wants to do so and if there is a continuing need for those beds. The money is not the issue and the Department is happy to facilitate keeping those beds open if the need exists. I want to put this on the record.
I am raising this issue again with the Tánaiste. We received more letters this morning from the carer's allowance section of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection indicating that decisions will be made in 16 and 18 weeks for those families who care for their loved ones in their own homes and who have applied for carer's allowance. Commitments were given in recent weeks to the effect that a reduction in waiting times would occur but nothing has happened. Will the Government take this issue seriously? It is having a detrimental effect on families that are making decisions regarding care for their loved ones and saving the State many millions of euro in the process.