Wednesday, 4 November 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
The housing, infrastructure and digital unit is part of the broader economic division of my Department. The unit assists me and the Government in developing and implementing policy across relevant areas. This work is focused in particular on delivering commitments in the programme for Government, co-ordinating issues which cut across multiple Departments and ensuring a whole-of-Government approach to relevant issues.
The unit supports the work of the Cabinet subcommittee on housing, which oversees the implementation of commitments in the programme for Government regarding housing matters. Significant work is under way on the delivery of these commitments through Government Departments, agencies and interdepartmental groups, which have been and will continue to be brought forward for discussion at the Cabinet subcommittee and in the Government.
Budget 2021 was an important step forward, providing for an overall investment of €3.3 billion for the delivery of housing programmes in 2021. That included provision for 12,750 new social homes to be delivered through building, acquisition and leasing programmes. The unit also supports the implementation of wider public investment through Project Ireland 2040, which falls under the Cabinet subcommittee on economic recovery and investment. To ensure momentum continues in the delivery of public infrastructure, we committed an extra €500 million of capital expenditure as part of the July 2020 stimulus package.
The overall capital allocation for 2021 is more than €10 billion, making public investment in Ireland one of the highest per capitarates in the European Union. This huge investment will progress the delivery of flagship projects such as BusConnects, the national broadband plan and many more. Work has also begun and is being led by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the review of the national development plan, the investment arm of Project Ireland 2040, as mandated in the programme for Government. This will take full account of challenges such as climate change, and will doubtlessly reflect new challenges we will face from this pandemic.
Given the growing importance of digital matters in national and international spheres, the unit also contributes to cross-departmental work on digital and data issues relevant to Ireland's interests.
The unit is also responsible for publishing the national risk assessment, which has provided a high-level overview of strategic risks facing the country since it was first published in 2014. While an updated national risk assessment has not been prepared this year due to Covid-19, it is intended to resume the process in 2021.
The unit also provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy issues appropriate to its area of work on an ongoing basis.
As the Taoiseach is aware, five more people experiencing homelessness died last week. These deaths were not only tragic, they may have been avoidable. So far, 50 people have died this year. This means that by year end the number of people experiencing homelessness who have died on our streets will have doubled in 2020. Does the Taoiseach agree that this alarming increase in deaths requires urgent intervention at Government level? Has the Taoiseach brought this matter to Cabinet, and if not will he do so? It is my own strong view that an urgent intervention is required and that this has to include an acceleration of the programme for Government commitments.
The Government must enable local authorities to end the use of congregated or dormitory-style accommodation and to expedite expansion of the Housing First model. It is clearly time now to introduce adult safeguarding reviews. I believe there is agreement across the House on the solutions but we lack urgent action. The challenge of all of this is not new, but the significant increase in deaths should be a cause for alarm for every single one of us. In my constituency there is a proliferation of congregated homeless accommodation, but there is no wrap-around service in these settings for those with addiction or mental health issues. This lack of support has an impact on the entire community. Services are overstretched and waiting lists mean that people fall not just through the cracks but through chasms.
It is unacceptable that we do not have a system of adult safety reviews in place for when a person who is experiencing homelessness dies as a result of violence, addiction or suicide. Those who die are usually known to the services and yet no effort is made to understand how these same people met untimely deaths, despite these interactions. We have to learn from these tragedies so we can minimise them in future. We are aware that people who experience homelessness are at much greater risk of harm, addiction and significant mental health problems, and yet there is still no coherent State response for this small group of people who desperately need us to step up. Will the Taoiseach prioritise these matters and bring them to Cabinet with the intention of delivering a whole-of-government strategy to tackle the increasing number of people in homelessness who meet avoidable deaths?
I want to ask the Taoiseach about the Land Development Agency. In my area, the councillors on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council are going to be asked to vote for the disposal of public land to the Land Development Agency, supposedly to build social and affordable housing, which we and others have campaigned for on the Shanganagh Castle site for a long time. There is, however, absolutely no statutory basis to the Land Development Agency, LDA. I do not know why on earth that councillors in Dún Laoghaire or anywhere else would vote to hand over public land, which could be used for public and genuinely affordable housing, to an agency that does not have a statutory basis but which seems, essentially, geared up to privatise parts of public land. This is supposedly to deliver some public and affordable housing but in reality could be a back door to privatising parts of those many public sites that should be developed for public and genuinely affordable housing. We also have no idea what genuinely affordable housing will be via the LDA. I do not see why we need the agency.
Will the Taoiseach clarify when the LDA will be put on a statutory basis or when will we even get to discuss these things? Why on earth should any public land be disposed of to this body until it is absolutely clear what the agency is going to do and that there will be no question of privatising public lands that should be used to help address the massive housing crisis that persists in this country due to the chronic lack of public and affordable housing, which is the responsibility of successive governments that have landed us with the housing crisis we now face?
We are now approaching the sixth anniversary of the tragic death of Jonathan Corrie outside the gates of Dáil Éireann, a victim of the housing and homelessness crisis. At that time everyone promised that the death of Jonathan would be a wake-up call and that the Government would finally realise that urgent action was needed. The Taoiseach himself condemned at the time the inaction that had led to the homeless crisis, but on his watch as Taoiseach the situation is even worse. In the past ten days alone, five people experiencing homelessness have died. These were five needless and preventable deaths on the Taoiseach's watch. Already, before the winter hits, more people have died on the streets of Dublin than in any other year in recent memory.
The eviction ban worked during the start of the pandemic and then the Government lifted it. It has been reinstated with level 5 restrictions, but the Government seems hell bent on delivering misery for people at Christmas by removing the eviction ban again, promising a flood of eviction notices coming together with Christmas cards. Those facing high rents, precarious housing and homelessness are fed up with tea and sympathy and with thoughts and prayers. They need a permanent eviction ban, a Housing First policy, and investment in building public and genuinely affordable homes.
Five homeless people died in the State in the seven days to the end of October. There needs to be a bit of anger and a bit of outrage in this Chamber about what is happening. This is an absolute scandal. There used to be the time when if a homeless person died on the streets it would be national headlines and a national talking point. Now we have a situation, as was rightly said, on the Taoiseach's watch where five homeless people have died on the streets in the space of seven days and it is not a major talking point in society. Where is the action from the Taoiseach and his Government?
Caitriona Twomey, who runs Penny Dinners in Cork, while not in any way commenting on these specific cases but making a general point, has pointed to the issue of mental health in the pandemic as being really important:
This (the issue of suicide) hasn’t leveled off since March and the government is going to have to take it seriously [and referring to the local situation] The good people of Cork can only do so much. Our government needs to step up. We need to protect people who fall into places where they feel the only option is 'out’.
Ms Twomey raised the specific idea of investment in teams of workers who are mental health professionals to be on the streets to deal with people one to one. What will the Taoiseach do about the crisis we face on this issue?
On the issues raised by the Deputies, in the budget, unprecedented levels of resources are being targeted at the homelessness issue. My sympathies do go out to the families and all those connected to those who have died, and especially the people who were homeless who passed away in recent times and over recent weeks. Our focus and priority is homelessness and the prevention of homelessness, with a holistic approach to dealing with the homelessness situation that involves not just housing but also the health services. When I was the Minister for Health and Children I was involved in making sure there were health services on the ground and in the centres along with those who were providing homeless services at the time.
We are committed to Housing First and to making sure it is actively pursued, but also to developing a fully holistic integrated approach involving health, housing and other services to help those with addiction challenges, for example, which is very important. We also need to make sure there are supports in place when people are allocated housing provision. That is something to which we remain committed. I have spoken to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on this issue and I suspect there is no correlation between legislation pertaining to evictions and what has happened with deaths. Deputy Paul Murphy made that point but I do not think that is the case.
The eviction ban remained in place throughout the summer for anyone who was under any pressure as a result of Covid and when we were not in level 5. After going back into level 5, the original eviction ban that applied during the first lockdown has been reapplied because one can legally do that in the context of a comprehensive lockdown like level 5. It is constitutionally unsound outside of such a severe lockdown. Those are the legal facts which the Deputies continue to deliberately ignore to develop a propaganda war against the Government on this issue. We are committed to helping deal with the homelessness issue. The Government has been in place for four months now and it is going to continue to prioritise this issue.
Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about the statutory basis for the Land Development Agency. We need more housing. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in less housing because of the first lockdown and so we kept construction going during level 5 because we need to build houses. We need affordable houses, social houses and houses built in the private sector as well because we are not building enough houses. Due to the first lockdown we will come in below target at the end of 2020 for the number of house builds the previous Government had targeted. Every effort is being made to pull back and to achieve as close to that target as we can.
I have worked with the Minister on the matter of the Land Development Agency and prioritised it as Taoiseach. I want this agency to be put on a proper statutory footing. It has gone to the Government and there are complex issues involved but they can be dealt with and addressed. I have engaged with the Attorney General, who is engaging with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to get this legislation through. If we are genuinely supportive of the need to end homelessness, we must support projects. There are people on councils who have opposed every project since time began, it seems to me, and will continue to do so. They will always find a reason. We need to support projects now. I have no issue with social housing on public lands. We should pursue that but giving statutory underpinning to the Land Development Agency is designed to achieve that across the board. That should happen and we should let it happen. Let us get housing built.