Thursday, 3 October 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Yesterday, we finally saw a proposal from the United Kingdom Government to amend the withdrawal treaty. Now that we have a written position, much of the speculation, bluff and bluster of recent weeks can be consigned for analysis of this position. The context of the position, however, leaves an awful lot of questions. There is a lack of detail and clarity. It is clear that there would be some element of customs checks on our island under whatever context results from this proposal. It is very difficult to see in the proposal where lies the respect and belief which the British Government has always stated with respect to the Good Friday Agreement. Some of the proposals would undermine and weaken the key provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.
Does this proposal protect the all-island economy? Does it guarantee that there would be no hard border? Does it protect the EU Single Market? These are the other three key principles, along with protecting the Good Friday Agreement, that need to be assessed and measured against this proposal. It is Fianna Fáil's view that the proposal fails on all four issues. Despite their vagueness, the direction of the proposals does not seem to be travelling towards protecting those four key principles. They provide for a customs border, a regulatory border and a change in the regime of Northern Ireland.
I understand that a process is getting under way with the EU to analyse those documents. Will the Tánaiste update the House on where that process is this morning? Engagements took place last night between the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Johnson and between the Taoiseach and President Juncker. Have any substantial issues arisen from those engagements that the House needs to know about?
I want to focus on one aspect of the proposal, namely, the position of the Stormont Assembly and the ongoing participation of Northern Ireland in the proposed so-called all-island regulatory body. The detail around that is very vague. What is the Tánaiste's understanding of those proposals? Having listened to the commentary this morning, is it the Government's understanding of the position that one of the political parties in Northern Ireland - it does not matter which one - would be able to veto ongoing participation, notwithstanding what the Assembly believes and the will of the people of Northern Ireland? As currently framed, does the proposal potentially give one party a veto? Is it acceptable to the Government that that would be the case? I want the Tánaiste in particular to give his understanding of and clarity on this key sequence.
I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to respond to what is the issue of the day, despite storms, rugby matches and so on. These are very serious issues. The British Prime Minister has put forward what we regard as a serious proposal. We are taking it seriously and so is the EU. That is why the response will be a cautious one until we have had an opportunity to study the detail of the three documents. These are the letter to President Juncker, the detailed explanatory memorandum in terms of what is being proposed, and the legal text which has been given to Mr. Barnier's task force for consideration. We have had discussions with the Barnier task force already on the detail of that and there is probably discussion happening right now with our ambassador in Brussels. We had a conference call this morning in my Department in which we went through in some detail our initial assessment, which is as follows.
There are some positives in this proposal. The British Government is now proposing, effectively, full regulatory alignment for goods and agrifood products on the island of Ireland. That is consistent with the backstop. There is a whole series of technical issues that I believe will be a problem with this, and which would need to be the subject of discussion and negotiation. There are two significant problems with this proposal that are very clear from the outset, one of which is in relation to customs. If one is insisting on Northern Ireland being in a separate customs territory from the rest of the island of Ireland, then despite this paper saying that the British Government wants to try to avoid customs checks, it raises the prospect of customs checks somewhere, not just in premises and businesses. We believe this will be a real problem.
Deputy Calleary asked if this proposal deals with the commitment for no border infrastructure on the island of Ireland. No, it does not with regard to customs. Does it allow for an all-island economy to function, as we had been given a commitment on in December 2017 and in the withdrawal agreement, with the backstop? No, it does not. The customs proposal is, therefore, a problem.
The second significant issue is whether and how an Executive in Northern Ireland or Northern Ireland could be given a consultative role in how these proposals would take effect. We cannot support any proposal that suggests that one party, or a minority in Northern Ireland, could make the decisions for the majority in terms of how these proposals would be implemented in the future. That would not be consistent with the Good Friday Agreement and is not something that we could possibly support as part of any final deal.
I welcome that commitment. Will the Tánaiste clarify that it is his understanding of the current proposal in its current wording that there is potential for one party to veto this, regardless of which party that is?
I am becoming increasingly frustrated by commentary from British politicians of all hues and commentators who do not seem to understand that the Border is not just an economic issue. It is far greater than that. It is about society, this island - so many different things rather than just the economy. In his discussions over the next hours and days, how does the Tánaiste propose to get across, once and for all, the understanding of the importance of not having any border checks on this island and that this is not just an economic issue but far broader and far more important than that?
I believe the Deputy and I are at one on this. I thank the other parties in the House for their co-operation on these issues. We share a concern because all parties in the House understand the complexity of this challenge but also the fragility and vulnerability of Northern Ireland and relationships North and South in the context of what we are trying to do here. Jonathan Powell, a former adviser to Tony Blair in the build-up to the Good Friday Agreement, put it very well in the past couple of days in the British media when he said that people just do not get this. It is not about facilitating trucks crossing the Border in terms of removing checks. It is about something much more fundamental than that, namely, identity. That is what the Good Friday Agreement tries to address in the context of a unionist identity and a nationalist identity, and allowing both to live together in the context of an island of Ireland that functions, with two jurisdictions but with real convergence between the two so that the Border is largely invisible. This fundamentally disrupts that. That is why the customs element of the proposal is a technical problem in terms of the integrity of the EU Single Market and how it would work because it would require checks somewhere. It is also a problem in the context of this identity issue, which we in Ireland understand only too well.
The response from the Barnier task force will be to engage. It is not going to go into some sort of secretive tunnel process, which some people have referred to.
The task force is anxious that there be full transparency in respect of the discussions and how they work. I hope that we will enter a period of serious discussion and negotiation in terms of whether we can work with the UK to move the proposals, which currently are not the basis for agreement, to a place where we can find a landing zone for agreement. We do not have much time to do that. I hope that the British side will be willing to do it.
Yesterday, Boris Johnson presented the so-called workable alternative to the backstop. The reality dawning on most people is that it amounts to little more than a set of dangerous and reckless propositions that play loose and fast with the Good Friday Agreement. Many people living in my constituency and elsewhere in the Border region stretching from Cavan to Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal and who have benefitted greatly from the Good Friday Agreement are very concerned at the prospect of a hard border being put in place. North or South, we do not want a hard border on the island. The all-island economy is under threat and needs to be protected and the Good Friday Agreement must be defended. As far as we can see, what is on the table does none of these things. That is the reality.
There is cross-party support in the Oireachtas and, except for the DUP, a cross-community consensus generally on the island in respect of most of these issues. That was well presented yesterday evening when Manufacturing Northern Ireland, an organisation that represents many businesses in the North, stated:
For us, it's moving from the best of both worlds to the worst of all worlds. Only logical conclusion from this ... is that the UK deliberately wants this offer to be rejected. It's simply an exercise at shifting blame.
The Tánaiste will agree that this is an assessment that many of us did not want to say so quickly, but it is the reality. It is probably a sound assessment. While I accept that the EU and Irish Government did not want to rule the proposals from the British Government out straight away, a sense of reality must be brought to bear. What Boris Johnson has presented is unworkable in its present form. That needs to be said now. It entails time-limited arrangements and provides for a DUP veto. The DUP will exercise that veto because it has always exercised vetoes in the past, which has created many problems.
It is ironic that the British Government has cloaked all this in the language of the democratic consent around the Assembly in the North without recognising that no part of Ireland has consented to Brexit. The people of the North voted to remain. That cannot be said often or hard enough. It is the reality. The proposal to give the Assembly the power to decide the types of arrangement to be put in place and how long they will last will give the DUP a veto. Abusing the petition of concern has caused many problems in the past. The DUP has used the petition of concern to flout every positive and progressive programme of Government that has come before the Assembly in the past ten years. We must recognise that what has been proposed is unacceptable and an abuse of the Good Friday Agreement. Any arrangement that can be voted on, vetoed, blocked or stalled by the DUP is a non-runner for Sinn Féin. Will the Tánaiste dismiss this element of the proposal and make it clear that it needs to be taken off the table and that the proposals, as constituted currently, are not workable?
I thank the Deputy. The first judgment call that the Irish Government and the EU collectively have to make is on whether the Boris Johnson Government wants a deal and what the evidence, language, conversations and phone calls between Dublin and London suggest. My judgment is that Boris Johnson does want a deal and that the paper published yesterday was an effort to move us in the direction of a deal. However, I agree with the Deputy that, if it is the final proposal, there will be no deal. There are a number of fundamental problems with the proposal.
It is also true to say, though, that there is a progression towards the space where we need to be in terms of other elements of the proposal. We have moved from a verbal commitment regarding an all-island approach to agrifood and sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, conditions towards a written commitment, with a legal text behind it, to all-island alignment with the rules of the Single Market in respect of all goods, including agriculture. That is a good thing and we need to recognise progress, since it is difficult to find progress at the moment.
As I pointed out to Deputy Calleary, elements of this proposal simply will not be part of any final deal. Of the two most obvious ones, first is the approach to customs, which we believe does not work from a technical and legal operability perspective. However, we will test it more fully with the task force in the coming days. Second is the issue that has been referred to in London as "consent", but whether it is consultation or a role for an Executive in Northern Ireland in terms of how proposals are implemented, we cannot support any proposal that essentially suggests that a minority will determine what the majority has to live with. It is just not going to work. If that is the proposal, it will be very difficult to get an Executive up and running. Why would other parties buy into an Executive if they believed it could essentially prevent solutions linked to Brexit?
These are serious issues that we need to deal with in a serious, calm and competent way through the EU task force and direct conversations with our counterparts in the UK. I will be in Belfast tomorrow meeting the Secretary of State, Mr. Julian Smith, and I am sure that we will have discussions around this space. It is important that we be clear, calm and respectful, but also honest about what is possible and what is not. There is no point in having a series of proposals, even if they all make sense and work, if they can essentially be vetoed by a minority or one party in Northern Ireland to the frustration of the majority.
We have heard what business leaders are saying across the spectrum in Northern Ireland. There is deep frustration. They want solutions that work and on which they can rely. That is what we are looking for, too. Even though yesterday's proposals are not the basis for a final deal or agreement, I hope that they are the basis for a serious discussion and negotiation that can progress those proposals into a landing zone that might work for everyone.
I thank the Tánaiste. Although I understand that the Irish Government has to be open to trying to find a solution, most people looking on would be in the same space as Manufacturing Northern Ireland in believing that the British Government is trying to give the impression of being reasonable while hoping that the proposals will be rejected and it can return to what all of this is really about, that being, best positioning itself for a UK general election. That is a dangerous situation for the people not only of this island, but of Britain, and its conclusion will lead us into a bad space.
Regardless of whether we have a backstop or agreement, there are a range of elements on this side of the Border on which we need to work. An example was provided to me a few days ago. When a person who was born in the North and now lives and works in the South but who has a Northern Ireland driver licence went to get it changed, that person was told it would have to be surrendered and there would be a wait of three months before an Irish one could be provided. If that person is stopped by the Garda, the person will be prosecuted for not carrying a licence. People across the country are dealing with practical issues like this on a day-to-day basis. While the big politics is going on, ordinary people on the ground are having major problems. The Government needs to make a better effort to acknowledge those problems and do something to alleviate them.
We certainly acknowledge the problems. That is what this is all about. We have spent three years trying to address the problems, and the complexity of those problems, in the context of the UK as a whole leaving the EU and all that flows from that. We continue to hold out for the solutions that can respond to the practical problems that people living on the Border and the island generally want us to try to solve. We will be calm and respectful, but very firm, on these issues. This is not about cutting some kind of deal at the last minute. Ireland has been very consistent and transparent in its asks, and we will continue to be as the pressure builds to try to get a deal.
As stated, I believe the British Government wants to get a deal, but I would forgive anyone for being sceptical. Ireland has not been treated well at different periods during the negotiations because the policies, proposals and approach of the UK has shifted towards Ireland at different times. That said, we need to work with the negotiating team and that is what we are doing. There is a serious proposal now on the table. It will not be the basis of a final agreement but I hope it can be a stepping stone in that direction.
However much we reject Boris Johnson's letter and his proposals, the Tánaiste has stated that it is a more serious effort to negotiate. Could we take it that, up to Hallowe'en, that this House will be kept informed at every turn in the negotiations?
I mainly want to ask the Tánaiste about his previous portfolio. As he is aware, yesterday, the Raise the Roof-Homes For All coalition stood outside Dáil Éireann. This time last year, the House passed a motion which called for affordable rents and security of tenure, ending eviction into homelessness, doubling national housing investment, the creation of a legal constitutional right to housing and the declaration of a housing emergency. Fine Gael was the only party to vote against the motion and to refuse to do anything about it in the past year.
While we have had an expansion of housing output at a snail’s pace, we still have homelessness and the deficit in housing supply is now embedded into our culture and society. As the Tánaiste is aware, for most of this year almost 10,000 people have, disgracefully, been homeless. Like many other Deputies, week in and week out I meet families in my constituency who are in great distress and who live in emergency accommodation, in overcrowded conditions in family homes, who sofa surf between the homes of relatives and friends and who even live in cars and vans. In my constituency, which is Dublin City Council's housing area B, more than 5,000 households are waiting to be rehoused, with nearly another 3,000 on transfer lists. In the Howth and Malahide areas of Fingal, there are another 2,000 in the same predicament. Yet, the monthly housing supply reports from the city and county councils provide just a trickle of accommodation for those families in desperate straits. The same is true of many other constituencies. The vast bulk of Dublin City Council's housing output, 70%, which is the same as last year, will be for housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancies. We know that very few people in HAP tenancies go on to social housing. The Tánaiste's colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, told the Simon Community recently that his responsibility is to secure a budget that will see more homes being built and more housing output for the remainder of 2019 and into 2020. The Tánaiste has sated that Rebuilding Ireland needs an injection of adrenaline to get housing supply moving.
Like Deputy Boyd Barrett, I was not surprised either to learn from Killian Woods' article in The Sunday Business Post that two thirds of the fast-track housing approved by An Bord Pleanála has not been built. In my constituency, there is a major proposal to build 2,000 housing units but 1,200 of them are build-to-rent units and fewer than 200 will be social homes. My experience from watching the planning process and making submissions for almost 30 years is that developers' stories of planning delays are total fiction. Hundreds of planning permissions were granted in recent decades. Developers built 250,000 homes in just three years in the early 2000s. The planning process worked well enough; we did not need the changes. The Government must take action urgently, particularly on Tuesday next.
We will keep the House informed on the Brexit issues. Next week will be really important, not just because we will be dealing with the budget, which is, understandably, being put together on the basis of a pessimistic outlook due to the fact that we need to be cautious but also because I hope to see progress in terms of the British proposal developing into something that is fit for purpose. We will keep the House up to date on developments.
In many ways, I share Deputy Broughan's frustration with regard to housing. It is not acceptable to me or to this Government that more than 10,000 people who are homeless and living in emergency accommodation. We again increased, by 25%, funding for homelessness in last year's budget. The amount involved now stands at €146 million a year, which is predominantly spent through local authorities to make sure that we can provide people with the emergency supports that they need. However, that is not the solution in the context of housing. The solution in that regard is to increase supply right across the country, particularly in places where the greatest pressure exists. That is why we, when I served as Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, looked at how we could get adrenaline into the house-building system. It was a system that was fundamentally broken across multiple areas. We looked at planning, infrastructure, finance, capacity and location. I looked at how long it was taking, on average, to get planning permission to build an estate comprising more than 100 houses. From memory, the figure was about 75 weeks. We put in place a new system, which I would argue is just as robust in terms of testing the quality of planning applications and making the right decisions. The planners in An Bord Pleanála make the decisions. They consult with local authorities as part of the process. They have refused quite a few planning applications through that system because they demand high standards, but they do make decisions more quickly. We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of planning permissions that have been sought and in the number of permissions granted. We have also seen a dramatic increase in terms of commencement notices. Up to June, there were 24,226 commencement notices for new houses being built. That is a 30% increase on the situation 12 months previously.
Let us please start dealing with the facts. We introduced a change to the planning system in recognition of the fact that we had a housing crisis and we had to start getting homes built. One cannot get homes built unless one gets planning permission to allow that to happen. Changing the planning system does not solve everything. I accept that the 16,000 planning permissions that have been given through the new fast-track system have resulted in 6,000 homes being constructed so far but two thirds of those decisions were made in the past six months. The first decision through the new system only happened in January 2018.
One cannot instantly deliver houses, one must obtain planning permission first. We have a new and better system to do that and we need to deal with the other issues too, which are part of the Rebuilding Ireland strategy.
The facts are simple. When the Tánaiste met the developers about the strategic housing development, did they tell him that they had hundreds of extant planning permissions and that they just were not building because they were hoarding the land in order to flip it and make the best conceivable profit? Is that not the reality? It used to take eight weeks for a local authority to make a decision and then four weeks for An Bord Pleanála. The system used to work. We built 400,000 houses. Previously, we built more houses than the UK built and that could be done again, but the Government is not doing it. Unfortunately, that is the reality. Fine Gael has shown that it cannot be trusted with housing. Gene Kerrigan has stated that we should not leave housing to developers. The time has finally come to get the Land Development Agency or a new national housing executive into action with local authorities and to start building houses with the aim of having 35,000 to 40,000 homes being produced year in and year out. That is the kind of production that we need. I asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government when we would have equilibrium in the housing market. He could not tell me whether it would be 2030 or 2040. That will be the case if Fine Gael stays in power.
We have taken the level of delivery of new homes from approximately 12,000 to well over 20,000 this year. That happened in the space of three years. We need to get to a figure of more than 30,000 per year, given the current and predicted population growth in this country. To do that, we need to build a lot of social houses, which we are doing. We will add more than 10,000 to the social housing stock this year.
I suspect it will be about 12,000 next year and that needs to continue. We also need to ensure we have a building sector delivering affordable private homes for people to buy across the country. That means working with builders, understanding the market and trying to ensure we make the appropriate policy decisions to make that happen. If people are sitting on and hoarding land, we are now fining them with the vacant site levy, which increases annually.
We are doing as much as possible within the legal parameters. Deputies should understand that if they were part of the debate on this issue when we introduced that legislative measure. We are, therefore, doing much on the provision of public infrastructure by ensuring public funding is in place, for example, though the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, which I hope people understand. It is making sites work and getting houses built. We are doing things in the area of finance-----
-----and capacity and we have done much on planning. This does not happen overnight. We are seeing a dramatic increase in house building, planning permission applications and commencements and-----
I highlight the lack of vital infrastructure projects in County Kerry. We have been waiting for many years for these projects, despite promises year after year. The village of Kilcummin has been waiting at least 15 years. A project was promised several times but the road to the village has been delayed for at least ten years because we have been told repeatedly that the sewerage scheme will be constructed the following year. Scartaglen was third in line for a project back in 2008. The village does not have a sewerage treatment plant and nor does Currow. The county council is drawing sewage in Currow into an old tank and bringing it to the treatment plant in Killarney. Castlecove, beside the sea, has no treatment plant either and nor do the towns and villages of Caherdaniel, Kilmoyley, Knockanure, Cromane, Beaufort and Currans.
We are also waiting for sewerage plants to be upgraded, including the one in Kenmare. It is possible to get planning permission to build a house in the town, but then it is stated that commencement of the building work will have to wait until the sewerage treatment plant has been upgraded. Similar treatment plants in Glenbeigh, Abbeydorney, which is in a shocking state, Kilflynn and Rossbeigh also need to be upgraded. Castleisland, meanwhile, has been waiting for an extension to the sewer for 33 years. One third of the town is not connected to the sewer. That is the honest truth. In the kind of weather we are experiencing now, people with septic tanks have to empty them once a month.
The rural water programme was to be put in place to bring us from 2019 to 2022. We are still waiting for that to happen and this year is nearly gone. A contractor is in place in Glenflesk, finally, but we are waiting for approval from the Minister's Department to sanction the €1.3 million needed for the project to progress. When we put all of those projects on a list, it is shocking to see the way that Kerry has been let down over the years. This involves the Government and Irish Water, but the commitment needs to come from the Government. There is a Minister with responsibility for the environment and we are talking about the environment and protecting it every day. Kerry has been let down in this regard. Many of the villages I named are falling down because they cannot expand. It is not possible to get planning permission. Scartaglen, a grand village in the middle of everywhere, is zoned but people cannot get planning permission for a development there because there is no public sewerage system. I ask the Tánaiste to do something about this situation.
How politics works now is that we now have Irish Water. It is planning to spend €1.9 billion on wastewater projects in the next five years. About €10 billion has been spent over the last two decades on water infrastructure generally and we need to continue to spend heavily so that villages, such as those mentioned, can grow and expand if that is appropriate from a planning and zoning perspective. We need to work with and talk to Irish Water regarding how it prioritises expenditure to ensure we are facilitating the right types of developments in the rights parts of the country where there is housing demand. That conversation is ongoing between the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, his Department and Irish Water to ensure we can deliver on the capital plans needed in Ireland. Those plans have to be consistent with the national planning framework and Project Ireland 2040.
We will have to accommodate between 1 million and 1.5 million more people in the Republic of Ireland in the next two decades. That requires the building of many houses, as well as other infrastructure. Irish Water needs to be part of those discussions in Kerry as well as other parts of the country, and it will be. Irish Water is already undertaking a significant capital investment programme. It will be possible for it to do that in a more efficient way than it was done in the past through local authorities because of economies of scale. That is how these decisions are made now. If Deputy Danny Healy-Rae wants to send me individual requests, we can try to revert to him with answers from Irish Water.
I do not apologise to anyone for raising this matter today. Irish Water will state that it is only obliged to bring its existing treatment plants up to an acceptable standard. The company will tell me, others and the local authority that it has no obligation to build new treatment plants. That is where we are. I ask the Tánaiste to talk to Irish Water about that. He is the Tánaiste of the country and Deputy Eoghan Murphy is the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government.
How are people in places like Kilcummin, Scartaglen and all of the places I named previously going to prosper? How are they going to build houses if there are no sewage treatment plants? That is a fact. Caherdaniel and Castlecove welcome thousands of tourists every year. Tourism is the only business in the area and these places do have not have treatment plants. The local authority tells us that there is no obligation to build new treatment plants, only an obligation to bring the ones in place up to an acceptable standard. At the same time, the plants in Kenmare, Glenbeigh and even Killarney need to be upgraded. There is a lack of funding and a lack of will to ensure the provision of vital infrastructure that is so badly needed in our county.
I know some of the towns and villages mentioned by the Deputy well, in particular Caherdaniel. It is one of the most beautiful parts of this island. Irish Water has to prioritise how and where it spends funds. Sometimes that means investing in upgrading existing facilities and at other times it will mean the construction of a brand new treatment plant. It has to prioritise those areas with pressures for developments. It will spend close to €2 billion in the next four or five years on wastewater treatment facilities. That is a significant amount of money and I expect there will be significant expenditure in County Kerry. Money will also be spent in other parts of the country. I could name many rural villages that need new wastewater treatment facilities.
Unfortunately, we did not see investment by local authorities when they were in charge of water systems. That was because they did not have money in many cases. We now have a different system of delivery which is more efficient and makes more sense. It is going to take time to address much of the infrastructure that is not fit for purpose. There have been many good examples of investment by Irish Water that has been effective and has facilitated significant development. There must be an ongoing discussion between Irish Water and the Department so we have consistency between the national planning framework and water investment.