Thursday, 5 December 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí (Atógáil) - Leaders' Questions (Resumed)
During the debate on the motion of no confidence in the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and his housing policy, I had another reason for expressing no confidence in him. Three years ago, a Bill passed Second Stage in this House without opposition, the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Water in Public Ownership) (No. 2) Bill 2016, which seeks to enshrine public ownership and management of public water services in the Constitution. It is sponsored by the Right2Water Deputies in the Dáil. The Bill has been trapped in committee for three years, first by the Tánaiste, when he was Minister, and since then by the current Minister, Deputy Murphy. The excuse given over and over is that the Minister is waiting for an amendment or amendments to the Bill from the Attorney General but, after three years of hearing this, it is just not credible. The intention of the Minister, in my opinion, is and has been to bury my Bill in committee. The Minister does not have the guts to come into the Dáil and argue against and vote against the Bill. His purpose is to leave open the possibility of privatising our water services at some point in the future.
This is yet another disgraceful example of the disregard for basic democracy and the decisions of elected representatives of the people.
I am really concerned now that the Bill will not see the light of day given the Minister's continuing inaction. The Right2Water unions are in the process of contacting all parties and groupings in the Dáil about this issue. Thousands upon thousands of people are hugely concerned and angered that Fine Gael is trying to bury the Bill. The very reason communities stopped the installation of water meters was the deeply held understanding that every meter that went into the ground was another step towards privatisation. Local authority workers in water services want a referendum and support my Bill. The Joint Committee on Future Funding of Domestic Water Services supported a referendum to keep our water in public ownership. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions supports a referendum on public ownership. There is no opposition to the Bill in the Dáil on paper. The Government, however, is still trying to bury the Bill and drag it into the next election.
Again, I call on the Minister, Deputy Murphy, to bring forward the amendment or amendments that he said, in a letter to the committee last July, would be ready by this autumn or, as I said, have the guts to come into the Dáil and argue against and vote against the Bill.
We as a Government are investing more in the infrastructure of our water than I think at any time in the history of the State. We take it exceptionally seriously. That is why the previous Government attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to introduce a reliable and consistent funding stream to invest in something that is absolutely crucial for day-to-day living. I think we all recognise that. That boat has very much sailed. The mantra of many people in this House, however, that the idea behind that sustainable funding stream was that we could privatise the service, was an absolute myth and was never borne out by anything close to resembling reality.
When the Minister, Deputy Murphy, tells Deputy Collins he is working with the Attorney General to try to come up with responses to her Bill, I have absolutely no doubt that that is true. I do not agree with what she is trying to do, and there are probably other Members of the House who do not. At the end of the day, however, we are a minority Government. If there were consensus among everyone else in the House to do what Deputy Collins wants to do, we would not be having this conversation. Her Bill would probably have already passed. I know that the Minister has attempted to be as constructive as possible over recent years in respect of the Deputy's Bill and will continue to do so. I am not sure whether she has a date for the next step of the Bill. I will relate to the Minister her upset and disagreement with his response to her over recent months and come back to her with a response later.
I did not ask about funding. Water is a human right. We have worked with the Minister, Deputy Murphy, on this on the committee. We have met the Department twice, once ourselves and once with a barrister. The Minister has recognised this. We tried to get the Bill to Committee Stage in April and the Minister, because he had not got the Attorney General amendment, urged the committee to postpone that meeting. He got six members - three Fine Gael, two Fianna Fáil and one rural Independent - to postpone that meeting. He said in July, in a letter to the committee, that he would have the working amendments to bring before the committee by this autumn. I have the letter from the Minister here. This still has not happened. After Christmas we will probably have at a maximum 40 working days left in this Dáil. The Government, when it wants to, as with the liquidation of IBRC, can bring in legislation overnight. Why has the Minister taken so long to bring forward the amendments he said he would bring forward? I believe he is trying to bury the Bill. He will not do that, as far as I am concerned and, I hope, as far as the Opposition and the rest of the Dáil are concerned.
I have been nominated by myself. This Government is, as we all know, presiding over a housing and homelessness emergency. This is no accident or error. It is the result of a deliberate policy of this Government and previous Governments and commenced by a Fianna Fáil Government. The policy sees housing as a profit-making commodity and sees the market as the solution to this emergency. As each and every member of the public knows, it has been an abject failure and is spreading misery right across the country. We know from the October homelessness figures that a new record has been created: 10,514 persons homeless, one in three of whom is a child. These children are being irreparably damaged by Government policy. In recent days we have seen two reports from housing charities. The Simon Communities have told us there has been an increase in 26% in the number of people turning to their services in the past 12 months. There are now 16,776 such people, up from 13,304 the previous year. Simon also says it provided emergency accommodation to 1,738 people in 2018, up 79.5% on the previous year. Threshold has reported that there would be double the number of homeless people in Ireland but for its interventions. It says the organisation kept 11,500 people in their homes in 2018.
The Minister's Government is deliberately excluding low-income families from local authority housing waiting lists. This condemns these families to paying exorbitant rents and excludes them from the housing assistance schemes. The limits for local authority housing waiting lists have not been increased for years. I will give the Minister an example. In Tipperary, a family of two adults and two children on €27,501, which is €8,500 less than the average wage, cannot get on a local authority housing waiting list nor can they get a mortgage. If they were able to get a mortgage, the maximum they would qualify for would be €96,000-odd. House prices in Tipperary have increased by 10.8% and now stand at €183,688. They then face renting. The average rent in Tipperary is now €853 per month, or €213 per week. That is an average, so for bigger towns such as Clonmel and Nenagh the figure is much more like €1,000 per month.
Many families now pay in excess of 40% of their income on rent. Many families are paying more on rent than they would on a mortgage, if they were able to get one. That is absolutely mad. Threshold gives us the example of a three-bed house in Limerick-----
It is fair to say I do not agree with the last statement the Deputy made. Let us look at the facts and the figures. The 64,000 houses that have been built in the past three years, the houses that are under construction now, and the 30,000-plus houses that are in planning application with all our county councils and An Bord Pleanála show that Rebuilding Ireland is working. The people, including thousands of families, taken out of homelessness in recent years show that our policies are working. This is notwithstanding the fact that the challenges still exist and present daily. That is why we have adapted and modified Rebuilding Ireland over recent years in response to the lovely charities the Deputy named. Simon, Threshold, Respond and all the other agencies that work in specific areas of housing and homelessness do enormous work on behalf of the State for the citizens of the State.
We are happy to support financially all of these agencies that do so much work. It was detailed yesterday. Threshold and Simon issued their reports yesterday. Respond had a briefing for everybody in recent days. They show that they are dealing with very large numbers of people. They also show the response to those large numbers of families and individuals who are asking for help and getting help. That is exactly what taxpayers' money should be doing. It should be helping agencies that have specific expertise, alongside all of our local authorities, in providing houses for people who need houses.
It is not just at a social housing level. There are solutions at every single level. The Deputy has talked about modifying the rates at which people can apply for social houses. Maybe that needs to be done by local authorities but we also have the council home loan scheme, the Rebuilding Ireland scheme and the affordable housing scheme. There is a response at every single level to people who are at different income levels in the country to provide houses. Agencies with expertise are doing a super job. That all feeds into the 64,000 houses that have been built in this country in recent years. Some 24,000 houses are being built and 33,000 houses are in planning.
"Live horse and you'll get grass" comes to mind. The Minister burying her head in the sand and saying that everything is fine and that everything will be fine is madness. It is not sustainable. It breaks the social contract between the State and its citizens and it is already creating serious difficulties. It will create much more serious difficulties in the future unless it is stopped. Surely the recent record homeless figures and the chaos in the rental sector alone would indicate that we have a housing and homelessness emergency. We know that the rental market in Ireland provides no security of tenure, is completely unaffordable and is generally of poor quality. We know that 57% of notices to quit are found to be invalid and that the biggest reason for notices to quit properties is that the properties are being sold. As a result, tenants are being evicted and invariably find themselves falling into homelessness. That has been indicated by all the agencies. Surely it is time to cry "Stop" and to declare statutorily a housing and homelessness emergency.
We have people who were in negative equity arising from the great recession for donkey's years who took only sheer delight in being able to sell their house when that negative equity receded. That is why we have a huge outflow from our rental market that needs to be addressed. That is why we have had more legislation on rent controls and rent regulations in this House over recent years than we have had in the past 30 years. We have had a number of organisations and local authorities working successfully with us. Wayne Stanley was on the radio this morning telling us not only of the great achievements of Simon in the past year but lauding the fact that the policies are now working. It is certainly not perfect and of course there are still challenges. The Deputy heard Mr. Stanley saying that he has offered us advice on how we should tweak things to make them better. That is the good thing about Rebuilding Ireland. The facts speak for themselves and the number of houses being built for citizens is growing year on year. The plan has been modified to take into account the advice that experts are giving us and we will continue to do so until we reach the stage where we are building 35,000 houses every year to make sure that everybody who wants a home in this country can have one.