Tuesday, 19 November 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Again today, the media has been briefed by the Government that it will strip the housing powers of county and city councils to speed up the building of homes. Such sentiments have been expressed before and I remember in September 2018 when the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, breathlessly threatened that he would have recourse to emergency powers in the Department to step in and take control of some local authority functions. It was clearly nothing more than bluff and bluster at that time. The briefing and media spin are incredibly cynical and deliberately timed because the Government is feeling the heat on the doorsteps during the by-elections over the housing crisis. To blame the councils is the Government's response to camouflage its ineptitude and failings. The truth is that elected councillors have very little say in the housing planning process.
The Dáil and the Opposition facilitated the Government in the strategic development schemes whereby any project with more than 100 homes could bypass councils without seeking planning permission. What happened with that? The 10,000 units that got planning permission through the scheme never got off the ground. They have not got off the ground yet. That is two thirds of all planning permissions obtained under the scheme. Do we blame the councillors and councils for this? The truth is the Government has placed councils in incredibly bureaucratic straitjackets that have prevented them from getting very modest projects off the ground. Take, for example, the value threshold of €2 million. Any council that wants to build above the €2 million threshold must get permission to do so from central government and it can take 59 weeks for that process to conclude. In the previous budget we agreed with the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and the Minister with responsibility for housing that the threshold would increase to €6 million. There is nothing big about that, given that €2 million would get ten houses and €6 million might get 30 houses. A year on, when back in budget negotiations, we asked what happened to the €2 million threshold and why it did not increase to €6 million. The Minister, Deputy Murphy, could not get his officials to sign off on it.
Then we have the other bureaucracy around cost-effective analysis for projects of more than €20 million. Deputy Darragh O'Brien did some work through freedom of information requests and discovered the basic guidance on cost-effective analysis has not even issued to councils. This has resulted in a lot of projects being delayed and not going ahead.
We estimate that approximately 2,000 housing units have not progressed because of that bureaucratic delay by the Government. The Land Development Agency was announced in 2016 and re-announced in 2018. Incredibly, the legislation to establish it has not yet passed through the House. All of the projects under the agency are at pre-planning design. Not a single house has been built as a result of that particular initiative.
All of this reveals an inertia and lack of urgency at Government level about the crisis in housing - rising homelessness, rising rents, young people unable to afford housing-----
-----and a chronic shortage of social housing. Does the Taoiseach accept that it is cowardly and cynical to blame local councils when central government has been the main culprit in preventing the fast delivery of homes?
First of all, I am not aware of any proposal to strip local authorities of their powers when it comes to housing or planning, and no such proposals have been brought to the Cabinet table. Councils have responsibilities when it comes to housing and planning. Central government also has responsibilities when it comes to housing and planning. Those of us who have served-----
-----in the Dáil, in government and on local authorities will be very aware as to the different responsibilities that local authorities have versus central government. The good news, never mind the Deputy's spin, cynicism and all the rest of it-----
Never mind what I say - listen to the figures of the Central Statistics Office, CSO, which I assume the Deputy does not accuse of being involved in spin. The CSO released its data last week, which showed that over 20,000 new homes had been built in Ireland in the past year, a 22% increase on the year prior to that. They also show an 81% increase in the number of new apartments being built. These are not my figures. They are the CSO's figures, which the Deputy cannot dismiss as spin or cynicism or with any of his usual talking points. These are CSO figures that demonstrate that over 20,000 new homes were built in Ireland last year, a 22% increase on the year before, and there was an 81% increase in the number of apartments built. Take social housing, for example. Somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000 homes are being added to the social housing stock this year, which is more than any year this century. During the boom, during the bust and since all of that, there were never more houses added to our social housing stock than will be the case this year - between 10,000 and 11,000, which is more than in any year this century and the biggest social housing programme in many decades. We are seeing the impact of that. The number of people on the housing lists is going down and house prices are stabilising and even starting to fall in the city of Dublin, which is no bad thing.
In relation to the €2 million threshold, the briefings I am given by the Minister are that, even though they can proceed with their own projects under €2 million, a large number of local authorities do not take up that option. They choose otherwise and go through the Custom House procedure. When one goes over a certain figure, issues arise whether we like it or not.
It is the case that the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is the Accounting Officer, is responsible to the Committee of Public Accounts and is responsible to the Comptroller and Auditor General. There has to be accountability for taxpayers' money. That is what it boils down to.
I ask the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to knock on the doors in Cork North-Central, as I have. They will really feel the anger then. There is real anger on the doorsteps because people do not believe the Government's bluster and spin. They might believe its candidate, Ms Verona Murphy, who said that the Minister had a let them eat cake attitude. Her words, apparently, were: "His attitude is let them have cake." The Taoiseach might comment on that.
The real issue is that the people out there are very angry. Parents are angry that their children have no prospect of owning a home. Homelessness is rising. People are ashamed of the fact that this country has such a high level of homelessness and that young children are still in hotels and emergency accommodation.
All they get is a briefing to a newspaper this morning blaming the councils. The Taoiseach's attitude to these issues is-----
-----that he cannot trust local authorities to build more than ten houses without having to get sanction from some official in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government? Is that why we are paying the CEOs of councils large salaries? Is the Taoiseach stating that it would be reckless to allow the councils to spend more than €2 million on projects involving 20 houses?
This is just more of the same from Deputy Micheál Martin. I was in Cork at the weekend, turning the sod on a development of 120 homes, a mixture of affordable and social housing.
-----has returned to his usual display of outrage and faux anger. If he wants a classic example of local authorities not fulfilling their responsibilities, Fianna Fáil councillors in Galway city only the other day voted against 20 social houses in Ballybane. That is a classic example of local authorities turning down money from central government and voting against social housing.
There is something I would like to say because I think it is important, so perhaps it may be possible to do so without interruption. I am really curious to hear Fianna Fáil Deputies raising the housing issue this week. I did not think they would do so, particularly in view of the absolutely paper-thin, nonsensical housing policies put forward by Deputy Micheál Martin at the Ógra Fianna Fáil conference in recent days. Some 600 days ago, we were promised a comprehensive housing policy by Fianna Fáil but we did not get it. What did we get? We got a made-up proposal in a Sunday Independentinterview in respect of a different VAT rate for certain types of housing-----
-----even though anybody who has served in government and anyone in this Chamber should know that this is contrary to the EU VAT directive. What do we get at the Fianna Fáil Ógra conference? A promise to instruct the Central Bank to change the macro-prudential rules.
Deputy Micheál Martin knows that is not possible because the Central Bank is independent. He also called for an affordable housing scheme that already exists and under which houses are already being built at Boherboy in Cork. What we have from Fianna Fáil, 600 days after promising a comprehensive housing policy, is a proposal on VAT that is against EU law, a proposal to undermine the independence of the Central Bank and a proposal to do something that we are already doing.
I am reminded of the old advertisements for Daz and Surf, but I will leave that where it is.
I am sure the Taoiseach will join me in expressing shock and frustration at the reports in the media today which suggest that a large number of previously missed abnormalities have been uncovered in the course of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists' review the results of smear tests carried out under the CervicalCheck programme over a period of ten years. Notwithstanding the limitations of a review which is not blind, these reports are very worrying. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was supposed to report on this over a year ago, as the Taoiseach will be aware. However, this review has been dogged by difficulties and delays and it is only today that any light has been shed on what was uncovered but even today, we do not have the full picture. The initial reports in The Irish Timesthis morning are quite worrying in that sources have indicated that "a large number" of previously missed abnormalities have been uncovered during the review. A large number, possibly hundreds, have been uncovered but we do not know the details as yet. If these sources are to be believed, it is possible that a significant number of women screened under the CervicalCheck programme were told that they did not need follow-up smear tests but later developed cancer. One such woman is Fiona Prendergast, whose case has been covered in the media previously. I am sure it is very difficult for her widower, children, family and friends to read this news today.
They have been advised of the result and they are coming to terms with it, but leaks like this do not help to give them any comfort. On the day the Taoiseach issued an apology in this Chamber, they received a letter about Fiona, who sadly died in 2015, telling them that had a referral to colposcopy been made in 2009, it is likely the cancer diagnosed in 2014 would have been prevented.
I want the Taoiseach to know they are watching today, just as they watched his apology last month. As public representatives, we have a duty to uncover the truth about what went wrong with the CervicalCheck programme, but we also have a duty to ensure confidence is maintained in public health services such as the current cervical screening programme. To do that, we need to be briefed on this report as a matter of urgency. It is important for the women and their families that this report is published in full without delay.
Will the Taoiseach request that the Minister for Health publishes this report today and briefs the Opposition on its contents? Will the Taoiseach take immediate steps to ensure that he, the Government and the screening service address the need to restore confidence in the screening programme? Women using this service know, and I know, that no screening programme is perfect but they deserve to have confidence in that service. Will the Taoiseach join me in calling for the leaking of sections of this report and the drip-feeding of this important information into the public domain to stop immediately? It is not fair to these families to have this information drip-fed into the media. We have had numerous apologies and assurances this would not happen again and here we are and it has happened again.
I am sorry to hear about the experience of the family the Deputy mentioned. I am not familiar with the case and I do not want to comment on it for those reasons, but I extend my condolences and sympathies to the family she mentioned. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, RCOG, audit report has not been shared with Government as of yet. I have not seen it and it is not with Government. I agree with the Deputy that we should condemn any leaking of documents such as this to the media. We agreed with the patient advocates and with the 221+ support group that this report would be handled differently from the CervicalCheck audit. Therefore, what is happening at the moment is individual women are being told about their individual results and they are being offered meetings. Some have accepted meetings and others have been happy to receive the information by writing. We agreed that this report would not be published and would not be made available until each of those women had the opportunity to have that meeting first because they are the ones who should hear it first. It should not go to politicians or the media first. We do not have the report and it will not be published until every woman has had the chance to hear about her own results and to have a meeting if she wants one. Once that has been done, it will go to the Minister for Health and then it will be published. At that point a briefing will be provided for the Opposition parties.
It is important to point out a few things about the screening process once again because this will require a lot of explanation and interpretation. We have all heard in this House on many occasions and we all understand that cervical screening is not diagnostic. We all know that but I am not sure we all fully appreciate what that means in practice. In practice that means that if 1,000 healthy women are screened, roughly 12 cases where there are abnormalities will be picked up. In roughly eight cases those abnormalities will be missed and that is to be expected. What happens with the 12 cases is they get early diagnosis and treatment and that is a good thing. What happens with the eight cases of missed abnormalities is they do not get early diagnosis and treatment. They get picked up on a subsequent screen or they get picked up when they have symptoms. That is how screening works. It is a lost opportunity that in those cases it was not picked up earlier but it is not in itself a failing in the screening programme or negligence. That has not fully come across even two years later. In any screening programme, even the best in the world, there will be a very high number of false negatives and abnormalities missed. It does not mean the screening programme is inferior to any other screening programme in the world or lesser. That needs to be explained again and again because I am not sure it is always fully understood.
It does not need to be explained to me. It was me who explained to the then director general of the HSE that the leaflet it issued was somewhat misleading in that it said no screening programme is ever 100%. What does that sound like to the Taoiseach? The leaflet said there may be a small occasion for error.
I say the following as a woman who uses the service. When a woman goes to have a smear test done, she talks to her doctor, who explains it. We understand that no screening test is perfect, that no screening test is 100% accurate and that women are waiting on the letters to come, as are families who are grieving. They will have read in the newspaper today that possibly hundreds of people are affected by this. That is an insult to them and their grief. I fully appreciate that the Taoiseach is a doctor and that he understands this. I use the service and I understand it, and if the other women who use the service did not understand it, they understand it now because they have had it explained to them on many occasions. I am talking about the potentially hundreds of women, as mentioned in the newspaper, who are waiting on the letters.
Can the Taoiseach do anything to accelerate the process? Will he talk directly to those affected? Fiona's widower, friends and family are watching the debate and want to know what will be done to get the information into the public domain in the proper way, and not drip-fed or leaked. We were told that would not happen again but it has happened today.
This will be put into the public domain but not until every woman who agreed to participate in the audit has had the chance to get her results, the offer of a meeting has been made, and the meeting has happened. I think the Deputy will agree that is the way it should happen. That is why the Government has not received the report-----
We have not received it and it has not gone to the Government. We will not receive it until each of the women has had an opportunity to hear the results for herself. After that, it will be published, but only at that point. Of course, a briefing will be made available for Deputies.
I sincerely hope that, given that this is the second audit and is different from the previous audit, we will all handle the matter better this time, and I count myself among those who need to handle it better this time. When we say it is not 100% or perfect, that does not fully explain a screening programme. For every 100 healthy women who are screened - not just for cervical screening but for other programmes, too - in approximately 12 cases, anomalies will be picked up and can be followed up, while approximately eight will be missed. If looked at it again, those eight cases might be picked up. We expect to see a high level of discordance and of false negatives. It should not be a surprise or shock at this stage for anyone following the issue that there are hundreds of cases of discordance, because there will be. That is not at all the same as negligence or a flawed programme.
Last night, I attended the campaign launch of the People Before Profit candidate in Wexford, Cinnamon Blackmore. It was a good meeting, with many women there, and I heard about the issues that affect the people of Wexford. What jumped out at me was the complete lack of mental health services for children, and the crisis that most of the women in the room had experienced or their families had touched on, a fact that the former Deputy, Mick Wallace, consistently raised in the Chamber. It also jumped out at me that for ten years, until earlier this year, not a single council house had been built in the entire county of Wexford. A third thing was that parents are not able to find secondary school places for their children in Gorey and its environs. The level of homelessness is rising throughout the county of Wexford and tents are appearing outside Aldi and Lidl shopping centres, wherever people can get a bit of shelter.
Fine Gael's candidate in the by-election, Verona Murphy, has doubled down on the hateful rhetoric we have heard from her in the media. Today in the Wexford People, she is quoted as claiming that addiction and homelessness are the result of bad choices. Not only does she blame the poor for poverty, but she also blames migrants for every other crisis that exists. She blames migrants for everything and stated ISIS is infiltrating this country in large numbers, without knowing that the lowest number of migrants and refugees who come to this country come from the Middle East. Her statements are absolutely incendiary and are not just made to get attention.
She is playing the racist card, which has a double impact. It deflects from the things I have mentioned, namely, the crises in health, homelessness and mental health services for children, which will go under the radar because the Fine Gael candidate is playing the race card.
That is compounded by the visit the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, took Ms Murphy on to a centre for asylum seekers outside of her constituency. I happened to visit that centre about 18 months ago when I travelled on the greenway in Waterford. I knocked on the door and was told I could not come in. I produced my identification to show I was a Teachta Dála and, after a long argument with the manager, I was allowed into the reception to talk to a limited number of families. How does a candidate who is not a Teachta Dála have automatic access to a centre like that? Is this about her being able to say, "I'm sorry; I didn't mean it"? If she is sorry and did not mean it, what else has she said that she did not mean? Are we going to engage in the type of electoral politics where the race card is upfront and apologies from both sides of the House are given and accepted left, right and centre? The Taoiseach described the candidate as an outspoken, independent woman who does not toe the party line. How high does the Taoiseach's bar go? When will he address this issue and deprogramme and deselect this candidate? If he does not do so, the increased use of the race card will be on his shoulders, as the leader of this country.
I thank the Deputy. I am glad she was able to gain access to the reception centre in Clonea to meet people and talk to them about their lived experiences. If she had rung ahead, she may have found it even easier to get in. I imagine in the case of Ms Murphy a call was made in advance to ask whether a visit was possible-----
-----and people were told they could visit.
I read the article in the Wexford Peopleand I do not think the Deputy characterised Ms Murphy's comments on homelessness exactly as they were described. In fact, in the article she described her experience of being homeless. I do not know how many people in the House have had that experience, but she has. She described how she left home very early, became homeless, fell out with her family and slept on a couch for a period of time before emigrating to the UK. She went on to describe how, later in life, she did her leaving certificate, studied at night to do a law degree and built her business. That is the story she told and I do not think that came across in the way the Deputy described it. However, when it comes to what Ms Murphy said about migrants, as I said before, and I mean this, what she said was very wrong. Her comments were ill advised, misinformed and absolutely wrong, and do not reflect the position of my party. It is right that she has retracted those comments and apologised for them.
I asked a question which the Taoiseach did not answer, namely, how high his bar is when it comes to his candidate playing the race card. In the same interview, Ms Murphy claimed that ISIS may have infiltrated three year olds who come to this country. My nieces and nephews live in the Taoiseach's neck of the woods and do not experience racism in their schools in Mulhuddart and Blanchardstown. The race card will be played in order to deflect attention from the mortal sins of the Government, which has made a complete hames of the housing crisis and has utterly failed to address the health crisis. People are screaming for mental health services and places in schools. We have never had as much wealth in the country. Ireland is the fastest growing economy in Europe, and this issue is being used to deflect attention from the Government side of the House. I again ask the Taoiseach how high his bar is when it comes to his candidates using racist language. Would he not immediately say that this is not on and that the candidate has been deselected? Furthermore, Ms Murphy needs to be deprogrammed, which will take longer than the two weeks which will elapse before the by-election takes place. What Ms Murphy said is utterly shameful. I have listened to and appeared on television programmes with her. When it comes to the Irish Road Haulage Association she is forensic in her information, thoughts and ideas.
Now she is spouting lies which will scapegoat minorities. Should that escalate, as leader of the country, it will be on the shoulders of the Taoiseach. I ask him to please answer my question. How high is his bar against racism in his party?
I thank the Deputy. I probably know a little bit more about experiencing racism than perhaps Deputy Smith does.
I do not know if the Deputy is saying my bar is high or low, but it is certainly not something tolerated in the party I lead. I rang her yesterday-----
I rang Ms Murphy yesterday and spoke to her about this issue. I told her that what she said was not on. She reflected on that and at that stage she had already withdrawn the comments and apologised for them. We know in this House that there are hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are migrants. They make our economy stronger, help run our public services, and enrich our society and culture. A very small number come from Iraq and Syria, and most of those-----
Does the Taoiseach agree that the situation with the redevelopment of O'Devaney Gardens, a former council housing estate, is a fiasco? It was a fiasco from the start and it a fiasco now. It is an incredible situation given the scale of the housing and homeless emergency we face. This site, with 14 acres of prime land owned by the State and suitable for up to 800 housing units, has been left derelict for more than ten years. The original public private partnership, PPP, project collapsed when the developer realised that the €100 million in anticipated profit would not be guaranteed given the collapse in house prices after the 2008 crash.
The PPP model failed because it was based on the premise of massive profits for private developers. It is this failed model, however, that the Taoiseach's Government and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, are insisting on imposing not just on the city council but on the community from O'Devaney Gardens still waiting for the redevelopment of the area they want to live in as council tenants. Make no mistake, the problem here is the Minister's right-wing, neo-liberal bias against public housing.
The Minister wrote to Dublin City Council in October threatening to withdraw State funding for the project unless councillors voted for a deal with a developer, Bartra, that would give 100% of public land in return for 30% of public housing. Rather than stand their ground, councillors from Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, the Green Party and Social Democrats have effectively caved into the Minister's blackmail and tried to repackage the deal with Bartra as something it is not. Let us be clear what this means. This is the same deal that for the developer means 14 acres of prime land, close to the city centre and a Luas line, for free. The State will pay for infrastructure, a saving of €10 million for Bartra, while the absence of development levies will mean another €5 million saved. If the State came up with the €120 million for the 30% of the developer's 70%, which is highly unlikely now having listened to the Minister's comments, the total cost to the State would then be in the region of €250 million.
The sum of €250 million is what council officials estimate it would cost to build 100% public housing on the site, with cheap loans from the European Investment Bank, EIB. There is something seriously wrong here. Is it plain stupidity? I do not think so. Is it corruption? That was certainly a feature of the past, but not today. To me, that leaves ideological bias and political cowardice. Meanwhile, 10,000 people, 4,000 of whom are children, are living in homeless accommodation and thousands upon thousands of people are waiting for housing in this country.
I thank Deputy Collins for raising this important issue. We have a housing shortage and everyone knows that. The solution to the housing shortage is to build more homes-----
-----of all forms. These include private houses for people to buy, because most people want to own their own home, and that is a good thing; houses for people to rent, because some people need or have to rent at various points in their lives; and social housing for people on the housing list and who need social housing. This is a perfect site for that type of housing. It is very near the city centre and places of work, so it makes sense that that site should be made available-----
-----to all of the public for a mix of housing, and that is what is planned. There is no ideology from this side of the House regarding housing. We want more housing of all forms. Those who are ideological about housing are those who vote against housing developments for one reason or another, such as there being too much of this type of housing or too little of that type of housing. They are the ones who are ideological, the people who vote against housing. On this side of the House, we want housing of all forms-----
We are focused on delivery, while the Deputy is focused on ideology.
What is planned in the O'Devaney site has now been adopted by Dublin City Council by 38 votes to 19. Nearly 800 new homes will be built on this site, 50% of which will be homes for people to buy, 30% of which will be social housing for people on the housing list and 20% of which will be affordable purchase units. That is going ahead.
My understanding is that in advance of the vote some councillors, representing the so-called "Dublin Agreement" group of Fianna Fáil, Labour, the Social Democrats and the Greens, entered into a side agreement with the developer to purchase 30% of the units at O'Devaney Gardens at a market price for affordable rent. However, that deal had no status and no validity. What the local authority has done is voted to go ahead with a scheme of 800 new homes involving a mix of private, affordable and social housing. I hope they go ahead with that as soon as possible because people need those houses.
Why would the Taoiseach not want more houses when he can give over to a developer public lands and have that developer potentially selling those homes in the private market for €420,000? This is public land.
It all sounds very good but the fact of the matter is the Government's policies on solving the housing crisis are simply not working. The dogs in the street know that the Government cannot solve the problem unless it engages in a major programme of public housing. We are in a housing emergency. We have debated time and again in this House the crisis that people are facing.
I had a young couple in yesterday. Living separately, they have a young son of three years of age. They are living separately because they are trying to save for a mortgage. They are finding it very difficult to do that. They cannot get private rented accommodation. It costs approximately €2,000 per month for a two-bedroom house in the area. They cannot afford a mortgage. They are still separated as a family because of that.
As the Taoiseach will be aware, there needs to be a major programme of public housing to solve the problem. The Government's plan is not working. We have sufficient public land to build 100,000 public housing units. There can be mixed tenure and mixed income with traditional public housing and the European cost rental model giving people affordable rents and long-term security. That is the mix we need. From my point of view, it is not an ideological issue. We need housing that people can afford and the Government is not providing it.
It is an ideological view that public lands should only be used for one form of housing, ie, social housing. I believe that public lands should be used for the benefit of all of the public.
Yes, for social housing for people on the housing list but also private housing for people to buy because people growing up in Dublin 7 and Dublin 1 want to be able to buy a place near to where they grew up-----
To reassure the Deputy, and as I informed Deputy Micheál Martin earlier, this year between 10,000 and 11,000 homes will be added to the social housing stock in Ireland-----
-----with two thirds to three quarters of those being new builds. More homes will be added to the social housing stock in Ireland than in any year this entire century. During the boom, during the bust, we did not build as many social houses as we are now. This is the biggest social housing programme in a generation.