Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
The last fiscal assessment report from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council was published in November 2018. It described the Government's medium-term budgetary plans as not credible. It said the Government's budgetary plans were not conducive to prudent economic and budgetary management.
The next report from the council will be due in approximately three weeks. It will make for interesting reading given what has emerged since the previous report was published six months ago. We now know the overall cost of the national children's hospital has spiralled to €1.73 billion and the Government is prepared to commit up to €3 billion on the national broadband plan. All of this is new information that was not accounted for in the previous budget. We have heard no plan for how these commitments will be funded. In fact, these two projects on their own leave a very big hole in the Government's numbers. We know from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform memorandum of earlier this month as well as from parliamentary questions tabled by Deputy Barry Cowen that the national broadband plan contract would require almost an extra €500 million over the next three years alone to 2022. This comes to a total of €1.6 billion extra over the lifetime of the national development plan to 2027. The extra amount needed for the national children's hospital over the next three years is €385 million. Between the two of these the Government needs to find an extra €900 million over the next three years. The overall shortfall for these two projects is in the region of €2 billion over the lifetime of the national development plan. These are not Fianna Fáil's numbers. These are the numbers from the Government's spending watchdog, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
Again, I wish to emphasise that these are additional costs, above and beyond what was provided for only a few months ago. On top of that, the Taoiseach made a political promise in recent months that he would give a €2.3 billion income tax cut in the lifetime of the next Government, if he was lucky enough to be leading it.
In effect, the Government has made unfunded commitments of more than €4 billion over the next number of years. It seems to me that the Government is committing money it simply does not have, and these commitments are essentially unfunded. All of this is against the backdrop of most economists predicting that there will be a slowdown in growth over the coming years, that the risks we are facing are now on the downside, and that we need to plan accordingly. Most worryingly of all, the Tánaiste's report to Cabinet today states that the risk of a no-deal Brexit has never been greater.
Will the Taoiseach explain to the House, and more importantly to the people, how he is going to fund this shortfall of €900 million in the next three years, and indeed €4 billion out to 2027? If he is to keep his promises, then he has a few simple choices. He can raise taxes, cut spending, borrow more money, postpone or cut other capital projects, or he can simply hope that the booming corporation tax receipts we have enjoyed in recent years continue indefinitely. Which of these options is it?
I thank the Deputy. First, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, is an independent body which the Government set up because we thought there should be an independent fiscal advisory council in the State. It was set up as part of the response to the financial and economic crisis which the Deputy's own party had a very large hand in creating in the first place and mishandling thereafter. Around the middle of June, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, will present the summer economic statement in the normal way. The summer economic statement, as has been the case in previous years, will update our financial projections by taking developments in revenue, employment, expenditure, and so on into account. That will be presented in the normal way in the middle of June, as it has been for many years.
As I have informed the House already, the national broadband plan, NBP, will not have a fiscal impact on 2019 and will have a minimal one on 2020, given the carry-over of the money allocated for the NBP into 2020. However, it will have an impact from 2021 onwards, and we will have to provide for that. We are confident that we can provide for that from revenue. It is also important to bear in mind that Project Ireland 2040 and the national development plan provided for contingencies. I cannot remember the exact figure. I thank there might have been between €5 and €7 billion set aside for a contingency, but that is later in the ten-year period and we will have to look at that too.
When it come to the Deputy's question, what should be the most important news is the labour force survey, which came out at 11 o'clock this morning. That shows that there are now 2.3 million people at work in Ireland, which is more than ever before. There has been a net increase in employment of 80,000 in the past 12 months.
These figures are much better than we expected. Employment is now growing in Ireland at twice the rate it was growing this time last year, and this is evidence of an economy that is doing well and is being well managed. That increase in employment, with more people working than we thought and people earning more than they did in previous years, will have a positive impact on the public finances.
We will have a budget surplus this year and will reduce our debt. The Deputy's party quadrupled it, and we will continue to reduce it. We will establish a rainy day fund, and provided that these good economic numbers continue and we are not blown off course by a hard Brexit, which is a real risk, we will be in a very good position to put together a budget in September.
The Taoiseach has adopted the usual approach of attacking the messenger rather than dealing with the message. He did not answer my question. We have seen the latest forecast from the Department of Finance, in terms of economic growth, tax receipts, and so on, as recently as last month in the stability programme update. The Taoiseach cannot seriously be suggesting that he can find €4 billion in extra receipts and projections from last month's report to the middle of June when the summer economic statement is going to be published. That is simply not credible. The Taoiseach's predecessor had a saying that Paddy likes to know. Paddy does like to know. He wants to know what the story is, because these are hard numbers. They are not Fianna Fáil's numbers, they are the Government's own numbers from its own spending watchdog.
An extra €500 million for broadband over three years and €1.6 billion over the life of the development plan will be needed, while the children's hospital will need €400 million over the next three years. Between those two projects alone, there is an extra €2 billion, but the Taoiseach saw fit to promise more than a further €2 billion in tax cuts. That is more than €4 billion, but the money is not there. It will not be there in the summer economic statement next month and it is about time the Taoiseach came clean with people by telling them the truth.
I answered the Deputy's question. The summer economic statement will be published in mid-June, as it always is. We will use that to update our financial projections for growth, jobs, revenue and spending. The Deputy mentioned the extra €1.6 billion that would be needed in the coming years to fund the national broadband plan. He should bear in mind that our budget is €60 billion every year and this is a national development plan of €116 billion over ten years. I have explained in the past how we propose to fund income tax cuts. Because of increasing employment and the fact that there are more people working every year-----
-----and because people are earning more every year, we take in approximately an extra €1.8 billion in income tax every year. We are proposing to give about €500 million of that €1.8 billion back to people so that they can have more money in their pockets. That is the right thing to do, in my view. I am happy to answer the Deputy's questions-----
-----but I cannot accept Fianna Fáil trying to put on a mask of economic prudence and economic competence. Last time Fianna Fáil was in Government it quadrupled the national debt and we have reduced it.
It left us with a deficit of 10% of GDP and we have brought about a budget surplus. The figures today show that there are 80,000 more people at work than a year ago, with employment increasing twice as fast as a year ago. We are now heading for full employment.
Over recent years, banks have been selling off loans, including family homes and buy-to-lets, to vulture funds at knock-down prices. To enable these funds to do their thing, the Government has designed a tax system that incentivises the funds to buy even more loans, which the banks are more than happy to offload despite the dire consequences for the borrowers. Many vulture funds are now structuring their arrangements in such a way that they pay no tax at all in this State. Ulster Bank has a particular fondness for selling loans on to vulture funds. Last year it sold a portfolio of loans known as Project Scariff which was worth €1.6 billion but was sold to a vulture fund, called Promontoria Scariff. It consists of about 3,600 family homes and 2,900 buy-to-lets. A company called Cabot Financial Ireland is administering these loans and its actions to date in dealing with borrowers have been absolutely disgraceful. A number of weeks ago, it wrote to its buy-to-let customers who were behind in mortgage payments and demanded that the arrears be cleared within 30 days. I have received correspondence from a number of those mortgage holders which shows that they were in very small arrears, in some cases less than €3,000. The statement they got from the vulture fund demanded full payment, not just of the arrears but of the entire loan. They are being given seven days to make the payment, and to come up with hundreds of thousands of euro in some cases. Some of the borrowers have serious health concerns in their households and the vultures which are sending the letters know about these concerns but they continue to issue the letters and the demands without any regard to what is happening. They are paying no regard to the fact that arrears are less than €3,000 in some cases and they are not facilitating any arrangements with borrowers. It is not just borrowers who are affected by this. As they appoint fixed-asset receivers, the tenants in these houses will be turfed out onto the street and they need somewhere to live. Two sets of lives are being destroyed as a result of this policy and it is utterly chaotic for the families involved. It runs roughshod over any level of common decency in the way vultures and banks should be dealing with customers in arrears.
All of this is a direct consequence of Government policy, which is to roll out the red carpet to these leeches.
They can do this, and will do it, because they know that the Government will do nothing to stop them. That is why they are playing hard, fast and very loose with these customers. Indeed, the record shows that the Government will do everything to facilitate them.
It is precisely because of the actions of Cabot Financial Ireland that people fear their loans being sold to vultures. Does the Taoiseach stand over this practice or does he now agree with Sinn Féin that it is time to clip the wings of the vultures?
I am afraid that I do not have any particular information about the financial transactions that the Deputy referred to or the individual cases that he has outlined, so it is not really possible for me to comment on either of those matters without having the information that he has. What I can say is that the tax treatment of property investment funds is under review. There was a time six or seven years ago when property prices were plummeting and nobody was building new homes and new apartments in the State. We are now in a very different position today. Property prices have recovered. They are still, thankfully, 20% lower than they were 12 years ago, but they have recovered.
We are now seeing new building happening all over the country. It is almost certain that we will build between 20,000 and 25,000 new homes and apartments this year.
Given that the picture has changed so much, it is now time for us to review the tax treatment of property investment funds. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, is doing that in advance of the budget, which will be in October. That is the prudent thing to do. Tax incentives are brought in at a time to stimulate particular activity but are then removed at a later time when they are no longer necessary. That work is being done at the moment by the Minister and the Department of Finance.
In relation to consumer protections, one of the things that we have done as a Government, with the co-operation of this House, is to extend regulation to property investment funds. That is a positive thing. We have also enhanced consumer protections for mortgage holders so that mortgage holders have the same consumer protections regardless of who owns those loans. In addition to that, the Deputy will be aware of legislation going through the Seanad in the next couple of days to extend protections for tenants; to increase notice to quit periods so that people are given much more time to find a new place to live or rent if they need to; to extend the rent pressure zones and work out how they are calculated differently; and to extend protections to new entrants to the property market in recent years. They are all good pieces of legislation and I thank Members for their co-operation in getting them through both here and the Seanad.
The Government is reviewing the tax treatment because of an amendment that I tabled to last year's Finance Bill, but there should never have been a tax incentive for vulture funds, which bought portfolios worth billions of euro and have not had to pay a penny of tax on the incomes they have received or the uplift in property prices or any capital gains tax.
The Taoiseach does not need the details of the cases that I have outlined to know what is happening out there. Cabot Financial Ireland is doing this right across the board. I have raised this matter numerous times in the Dáil. The fact that the Government has not examined it just reinforces the point that, time and again, the Government facilitates vulture funds as opposed to those who are struggling to keep roofs over their heads.
I asked the Taoiseach a question. A number of customers have arrears of less than €3,000 with this vulture fund, yet it is telling them that it not only wants them to clear off their arrears, but also their loans of €170,000 or €190,000 within seven days, and that if they do not do so, it will come for their houses and appoint a fixed asset receiver. That is what is happening out there. The people who are unaware of what is happening - the renters in the house - will get notice to quit and will join a longer waiting list. Some may end up in emergency accommodation.
It is long past time to clip the wings of the vultures. Will the Taoiseach make a call and inquire of Promontoria Scariff, which is engaged in this type of behaviour-----
Will the Taoiseach lift the phone to the State-owned banks, which are about to sell more family loans to these vultures? These families will be thrown to the wolves again. Alternatively, will the Government do what it has done consistently and sit on its hands and bow down to big business, big money and the vultures and always take their side?
I do not have access to the information the Deputy has. If he would like to pass on that information about the particular issues that he is raising, I would be happy to have it inquired into. However, not having known that he was going to raise this issue and not having to hand any of the information that he seems to have, needless to say I cannot comment on this in any meaningful detail. If the Deputy is genuinely concerned about those people - I am sure he is - I would be very happy for him to pass that information on to me.
I will make sure inquiries are made.
As I have said before, tax incentives are brought in for particular purposes and reasons. We reduced VAT for the tourism and hospitality industry when it was on the floor. When the industry made a full recovery, we were able to remove that tax incentive. We did something similar around home renovations when the construction industry was on the floor and there was no work for construction workers.
The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has said that professional people should live like students in so-called co-living accommodation because that is the norm in London and New York. It is obvious that prices and rents are out of control in London and New York, which are among the most unaffordable housing markets in the world. London and New York have serious housing problems because housing is now an investment for speculation. As we have heard, it is clear that speculative investment in housing is happening here too. The most recent OECD report warns that the Irish economy is vulnerable to a recession due to a disorderly Brexit. I understand the Tánaiste has indicated that the prospect of a disorderly Brexit is even more likely now. The OECD report also warns that the presence of foreign investors in the property market is a particular risk to us. More than half of all investment in commercial property is coming from outside the State. Student accommodation and buy-to-let properties are crowding out housing developments for people right now, for the simple reason that they are more profitable. It is a textbook example of how a free market approach cannot and will not deliver affordable housing. Does the Taoiseach understand that? These kinds of speculative investments are taking construction workers, scarce land and scarce capital. When housing becomes just another investment that focuses on maximum profit, this forces people to pay more and more in housing costs. That is what is manifestly happening.
The reliance on financial investment also pushes down standards. We have seen this in the ludicrous co-living proposal, which attempts to normalise cramped living conditions and erode public housing standards that we have spent most of our lives trying to improve. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has become an apologist for those who wish to push down the quality of housing. As I have said, we have spent decades trying to have decent standards for people. All of this shows that the Government is out of touch with the reality of the lives of the vast bulk of working people. Not everyone is privileged enough to go from college into a well-paid professional job, and quickly earn enough to be able to put down a deposit on a family home. The Minister's assumption seems to be that co-living would be an acceptable option for someone on this gilded path. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the kinds of jobs that are available to most people. While I welcome today's jobs figures, I remind the Taoiseach that one in four of the workers to whom he has referred is on less than two thirds of median earnings, or little more than €23,000 a year after tax. Working people need affordable housing. I have a simple question for the Taoiseach. Will he admit that the strategy that has been pursued by the Minister and his Government colleagues is not working? Will the Government change direction in favour of a State-led housebuilding programme, like that which has been outlined in some detail by my party?
The type of development to which the Deputy has referred probably accounts for less than 1% of the new homes being built in the country at the moment. There could be as few as half a dozen developments of this type this year and next year. It is important to put this in context. The type of housing may be a choice for some people. We live in a country that has an increasing population, which is a good thing. Our population is approaching 5 million, if it has not reached that level already. We live in a country where new households are being formed all the time. As people get married and start families, they need their own homes. We also live in a country where there was almost no construction activity for seven years. As a result, there is an overhang of demand for housing that was not met for a long period. In my view and in the Government's view, we need new housing of all different types and sorts, and lots of it. We need social housing for people who are on the housing list, many of whom have been on that list for far too long.
We need new homes for people to buy because the vast majority of people still want to be able to own their own home, and indeed 70% do. We need new places for people to rent involving cost rental models and private models. The solution does not lie in any particular model, whether it is State or private sector. It is going to require all of those things - State-led development, private sector-led development, and co-operation between the State and the private sector. That is how we will produce the volume of additional housing that we need in Ireland to cater for the demand that built up during those seven years and the new demand that arises every year.
We are making some real progress. Last year 18,000 new homes, comprising houses and apartments, were built in Ireland, which is the highest number in a decade. We know from figures released by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, in recent days that new home building is up another 25% this year so far. We will certainly see somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 new homes being built in Ireland this year. We need to go higher again the year after and higher again the year after that, but it is simply not the case that there was ever a Government policy or measure that could get us from a situation where only 4,000 or 5,000 homes were being built in Ireland to 35,000 in a year or two. We have to do it in the only way that it can be done, in a stepwise manner, rebuilding the construction industry and rebuilding the social housing programme. That is what is being done. Last year, for example, around 8,500 new homes were added to the social housing stock-----
-----which is a very significant number. About half of those were built by councils and affordable housing bodies and the other half were acquired from developers, leased, or brought back into use having been voids. We need to go higher than that again. We are aiming for 10,000 this year and 11,000 or 12,000 the year after. This is the largest social housing programme that we have had in this State for decades but there are constraints and we should be honest about that. There are a limited number of carpenters and plumbers, there is a limited amount of building materials and a limited amount of serviced and zoned land in the State.
We can only increase supply as fast as we possibly can and that is what we are doing, through State-led and private sector-led development, as well as the State and the private sector working together.
The Taoiseach's reply is just mind-numbing in its lack of ambition. If we had gone into government in 2011 with that attitude to the economic crisis, we would still be in the morass. The Government has to be determined. The notion is that we cannot do enough because we do not have enough land. Is that what the Taoiseach is saying to us?
The Government must have the ambition to do it. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government wants to demolish standards whereas many of us who worked in local government, where many in this House started, have spent our lives trying to get away from such a thing. We are now talking about people sharing bathrooms or having no bathrooms. Co-living-----
We are going backwards now. We are reducing standards so that people can live on top of one another. We are creating the social crises of the future instead of deciding that we are going to fix the problem with the same determination and absolute will used to address the economic crisis from 2011 onwards. I do not believe that the Taoiseach understands the issue and I am convinced that he does not have the will to solve it.
During that five year period, Ministers from his party controlled the housing Department and Deputy Howlin personally controlled the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform-----
During that five-year period, when the Labour Party was responsible for both public expenditure and for housing, the social housing budget was slashed to almost nothing.
Last night, I attended a protest against evictions at Dillon's Cross in Cork city. The residents of six flats were given notices to quit by July. These people had paid their rents and had not broken their leases. The previous landlord died late last year and the property had been inherited by a nephew. This nephew no doubt noted that the rents were relatively low. He handed out the notices to quit and announced that refurbishment was needed. I have no doubt that, after refurbishment, the rents will double or treble. One of the residents, Brendan, went to the council housing department and was advised to look for a house or apartment share in the private rental sector - co-living I suppose. Brendan is 42 years of age and said that he would not and, in fact, could not share. He was advised that if that was the case, he should check out the Simon Community.
Brendan is not the only one of the residents facing eviction into homelessness. Under this Government, more than 10,000 people are officially homeless. Two thousand years ago, a revolutionary Palestinian carpenter named Jesus Christ entered a temple, overturned the tables of the money changers and denounced the profiteers for organising a den of thieves. This country is crying out for a Government which will cleanse our modern-day den of thieves - the greedy landlords, get rich quick merchants and vulture funds, such as Ires REIT whose profits nearly doubled last year and which pays no corporate or capital gains tax. The Taoiseach and his Government refuse to act. They refuse to ban economic evictions and evictions into homelessness. They refuse even to put a moratorium on evictions until such time as this crisis has passed. Instead, the Taoiseach and his Government support the new European Commission directive which will restrict the rights of member states to impose their own regulations on vulture funds.
This is not a surprise. Four members of Cabinet are landlords, as are five Ministers of State. Nearly one third of members of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party are landlords. Fine Gael will not act against its class interests. This Friday, voters will have a chance to deliver a verdict on the Government's performance on housing. Fine Gael deserve a hammering at the ballot box.
It deserves to be given its notice to quit. If Fine Gael is not prepared to protect people being evicted from their homes, is it not right and proper for the people to evict Fine Gael and the Fianna Fáil Party that supports it from the council chambers of this country this Friday?
The people will make their decision on who they vote for on Friday. However it turns out, we will all have to take stock of the result. I am quite confident, however, that once again the parties with which the Deputy is associated will get 1%, 2% or 3% of the vote. The Deputy talks a lot about the 1% but he is the 1% when it comes to public opinion in this State.
To come back to the serious aspect of the Deputy's question, I am very sorry to hear about the case he raised. I do not know the details of it but I am sure what he says is true. I am very sorry to hear about it but I also know that there are many good stories. Some 5,000 families were lifted out of homelessness and provided with secure tenancies in the last year. Some 18,000 families are now living in houses that did not exist a year ago. There are many good stories of people who are being lifted out of homelessness and people who are getting homes for the first time. As I mentioned earlier, 9,000 families were provided with new social housing last year.
Government is working hard on the issue of tenants' rights. We appreciate that the rights of tenants need to be enhanced. That is why we are being active in this area and legislation is going through this House and the Seanad. This will do a number of things to provide more secure tenancies for people who are renting, for example, by extending the notice to quit period. People who are asked to leave by their landlord will be given much more time to find somewhere else to live and rent. That is a big change which will be welcomed by most people. We are also enhancing the resources of the RTB to allow it to take enforcement action against rogue landlords where they mistreat tenants.
We have extended the rent pressure zones to other areas and to new tenancies. As a result of the rent pressure zones, hundreds of thousands of people have had no increase or an increase of less than 4% in their rents in the past year or two. We have also brought in strict criteria on refurbishment so that we do not have rogue landlords using refurbishment as an excuse to increase the rent. These important pieces of legislation and regulations are being introduced by the Government at the moment. I am disappointed that Deputy Barry's party cannot support them.
The Taoiseach talked about extending the notices to quit and no one will oppose that. However, why does the Government not ban notices to quit for economic evictions, for evictions into homelessness and for people like the people who have this threat hanging over their head in Dillon's Cross in Cork city at the moment? The crisis is not the fault of one man; it is the fault of the Government, the market and the system. However, the one man that the Taoiseach put in charge of solving it, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government sitting across from me now, is both out of touch, as was shown by his comments yesterday, and incompetent. Fine Gael has given us some rare talent down through the years. We had John Bruton who put VAT on children's shoes, Richie "ruin", the minister for hardship, and Phil Hogan who threatened the entire population with having their water supply reduced to a trickle if they did not obey his diktat and pay the water charges. However, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, arguably tops them all. Again and again, he defends the landlords, the markets and the indefensible.
Listening to the Fine Gael benches makes me think the Dáil is like a swimming pool - all the noise is coming from the shallow end. I repeat my question. Is the Taoiseach not in the remotest bit tempted to give this man the sack?
We have a serious housing shortage. We need to deal with that and we are dealing with it. It is very disappointing that the Deputy's only contribution is to engage in personalised attacks, not only on the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, but also on two former Members of this House, one who is not here and one who passed away not that long ago. That is just a cheap shot. It is beneath contempt and shows the lack of seriousness-----