Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
The lives of an entire generation have been defined by a housing crisis. It is a crisis created and worsened by bad Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael policy. For so many people, the aspiration of purchasing or owning their own home has been reduced to a distant pipe dream. For years, people have been calling out for a government that will take the housing crisis seriously and implement a plan that will once again make housing affordable for workers and families on average incomes.
When the Government took power last June, it claimed it would be that Government. It said it would fix housing and introduce a plan that makes an affordable home an achievable goal for ordinary people and families. Then the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, spent month upon month promising an affordable housing plan. We all waited and waited, only to be extremely disappointed by what he and the Government produced and, more than that, to be very angry because the shared equity scheme that the Minister has come up with does absolutely nothing to make housing more affordable. In fact, it will achieve quite the opposite. It will prop up already unaffordable prices and make a bad situation so much worse. His policy could be described as a continuation of disastrous Fine Gael housing policy but also with strong echoes of the failed Celtic tiger policies of the Taoiseach's party, Fianna Fáil. It will have the effect of maintaining unaffordable prices and saddling working people with more unsustainable debt.
I have raised this issue with the Taoiseach before. I have said to him for some time that this plan is dangerous and I have advised him that it will not work. Of course, I have not been on my own. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the Economic and Social Research Institute and the Central Bank have warned and told the Taoiseach that his scheme will drive prices up. Even the Fine Gael group of councillors on Dublin City Council have begun to see sense and have come out against this scheme. It seems so far that, just as in the bad old days when the Taoiseach was last in government, his Minister seems intent on ploughing on regardless. In the middle of a housing crisis, perhaps only a Fianna Fáil Minister for housing could even think of introducing a scheme that would inflate house prices and put money straight into the pockets of developers, while bullishly ignoring warnings from senior Government officials and experts.
The truth is the Taoiseach's price-inflating shared equity scheme was written and designed by property developers for property developers. When he is trying to make housing affordable, he should not allow developers to call the tune because their job is to maximise profit for themselves. The job of Government is to deliver affordable housing for ordinary citizens. However, it seems that, with Fianna Fáil back in charge of housing, property developers are back in control and ordinary people will literally pay the price for that.
If the Taoiseach persists with this lame duck scheme, home ownership will remain beyond the reach of those on modest incomes. I ask the Taoiseach to scrap this scheme.
Clearly, the Deputy is engaging in a propagandistic, sloganeering approach to housing. In the recent budget, the Government allocated unprecedented resources to a broad suite of measures to deal with the housing crisis. The largest social housing programme was budgeted for in 2021, in terms of public and social housing, including direct builds by approved housing bodies. Yet the Deputy has consistently ignored the largest budget in history that has been provided for housebuilding generally.
We had planned to build 9,500 social homes in 2021. That would be the biggest amount in the history of the State but clearly Covid-19 and the current lockdown will impact on that. We will try to recover ground as much as we can. Fianna Fáil has been in Government for eight months and in that period, from the July stimulus on, we have made rapid progress in relation to housing, in terms of the Land Development Agency Bill, for example. We did real detailed work on that Bill, which will be an extra lever when it is passed, to give effect to the building of social and affordable housing. The Minister published the Affordable Housing Bill on 20 January. It delivers on the programme for Government commitment to putting affordability at the heart of the housing system.
Our only interest is in giving young people a chance to buy houses. If the Deputy takes last year as an example, the number of houses built was not sufficient to deal with the housing crisis. This kind of branding and references to developers and all that is political propaganda because at the moment we do not have the degree of activity that we should have, either in the private sector or in the public sector, which will pick up.
The voids programme alone was an immediate and effective piece of work we undertook from July with nearly 3,500 houses returned for people to access. That was evidence of a can-do approach to this. We will use all measures to improve and enhance affordability but also to get houses built. Ultimately, we need to get more houses built and that will take efforts in the private sector and in the public sector, through approved housing values, all the while focusing on the crisis of homelessness.
Sinn Féin has consistently opposed home ownership. It voted against our affordability motions and the help-to-buy scheme. It is now against the equity scheme before it has even been set up. It is nowhere near as dangerous as the Deputy is trying to indicate. Sinn Féin has voted against housing development motions 16 out of 21 times on Dublin City Council. It is time it got off the fence on those issues and started allowing housing schemes to begin. Do not allow ideology and politics to get in the way of houses getting built. Too much of that is going on in Dublin City Council and elsewhere in terms of significant projects that could allow for affordable housing right now, before any scheme, if they were allowed to develop. However, Sinn Féin has constantly opposed such schemes. It really undermines the credibility of the proposition made by the Deputy this morning.
My only interest and the interest of the Government is to get as many houses built as we possibly can. We know, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, that we should be building approximately 33,000 houses per annum to deal with demand and the crisis we have experienced for the last number of years regarding housing and in addition, to create the capacity for people to be able to afford to buy houses.
Sinn Féin is for public housing and affordable housing. We are very clear on that. The evidence of the Taoiseach's housing failures is there for all to see and is very real. It is not propaganda. The suffering and anger of workers, families and younger people, in particular, who cannot afford a home is real; it is not fiction.
The Government's proposed shared equity loan scheme will prop up unaffordable prices, line the pockets of developers and leave ordinary people out in the cold. That is the simple, plain fact of the matter. The Taoiseach can play whatever games he wishes but people know that housing policy has been a disaster on his watch in the past. We are watching now again while he makes more disastrous decisions in slow motion. Therefore, I ask him again to listen to the experts and to common sense, to ditch this lame duck scheme and do the right thing.
The Government will build a number of ladders in terms of creating opportunities for young people who are caught up in a rip-off rental market. We want to liberate young people from that scenario and give them opportunities to buy homes and be in a position to afford houses that will be built. The new equity scheme is targeted and aims to do that, along with the further proposal of a new affordable purchase scheme, with the State directly building affordable houses, and the retained and expanded help-to-buy scheme. A suite of measures is therefore in place. We also want to get people back on site putting bricks and mortar on the ground by tackling planning barriers and Irish Water connection delays. Additional capital money has gone into Irish Water, for example, to get sites ready. That whole infrastructure piece is very important in enabling houses to be built.
The housing crisis needs a broad range of measures to deal with and really get to grips with it comprehensively. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has intervened both last year and this year. The Deputy should be in no doubt, however, as to the Government's determination to do the right thing for people in terms of getting houses.
I wish to raise the strategy announced yesterday on dealing with Covid-19 entitled Covid-19 Resilience & Recovery 2021: The Path Ahead. Unfortunately, though, it is anything but a path ahead. Regrettably, it is a hope-and-see strategy. There is nothing new in it that we did not know about. It is basically a wing and a prayer. It is totally reliant on vaccines. There is no effort at metrics at all. I did not want timelines. In fact, I believe the comments that were made about mid-summer should not have happened. While I did not want timelines, I wanted to give people hope. I wanted to see some metrics that could be defined by the public health teams, namely, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and the Government. However, there is nothing there to give people hope. The people are in despair. I have never in my political career felt the despair as I have over the last number of weeks, particularly given all the communications failures the Government has had.
My real issue is that there are no new tools and nothing in the plan to suppress the virus; it is a case of let us just wait for the vaccines. The reason there are no new tools is because the Government does not have confidence, unfortunately, that it will be able to keep all the variants out. We know there is another UK version, unfortunately, and a Californian version. They all need analysis. The Government will not be able to deal with community transition as quickly as we need it to, and the public health teams simply are not resourced enough.
Many times, Opposition parties make suggestions and the Government challenges them to back it up with their own policies or put forward ideas or proposals. Here, therefore, are seven proposals which are not in the plan: mandatory quarantine, which we will be discussing later today and which the Government is opposing with regard to it being brought in for everywhere; antigen testing, which I have now been proposing for six months in this House; a survey of why businesses are sending so many people into work; serial testing of congregated settings; retrospective track, trace and testing; sick pay; and resourcing public health teams in order that they can act quickly on future outbreaks. None of these seven proposals are included in the document to suppress the virus and give people hope. Let us all just rely on the vaccine roll-out. I pray it is successful.
The public are in despair, however. I am not sure if the Taoiseach realises that. Therefore, I will ask this of him quite clearly on the floor of the Dáil, seeing as he would not cover it in his document yesterday. What is he doing in a different way to suppress the virus, get down community transmission rates and make sure the variants do not come into this country?
First, I disagree with the Deputy. We have been guided by the public health team all the way in terms of the path ahead. NPHET is very clear that the five-level framework is the correct approach and then we should apply flexibilities in different given situations. That is the first point.
Suppression of the virus, irrespective of form, does not change in terms of what we must do as a society regarding congregation. It does not actually change, according to the public health experts. Social distancing and avoidance of congregation are what drive down virus levels. We should be driven by data, not dates. The Deputy has not specified any metrics this morning in his contribution. The last one-----
I am clear in how we are approaching this. I did not interrupt the Deputy. The bottom line is that two months ago, the Deputy was in favour of the living with Covid-19 document. He said it should not be torn up. A month later, he said it should be zero Covid. The Deputy is changing his mind every single month. I regret that because I want to work with him. I want to work with people. However, the bottom line is that we have to get the numbers down. The Deputy knows that. We must get hospital and intensive care numbers down. That is a clear metric. We must keep community transmission down. As for vaccination, that is important. Vaccination is working already in our hospital care settings. It is having a dramatic effect on reducing infection among front-line healthcare workers. We are one of the few countries which targeted that area in terms of the vaccination programme. It is working and is having a real impact. It will have an impact on older people and those who are most vulnerable. That is why we now have given a higher priority to adults with underlying conditions. Those who are most vulnerable to the disease will be vaccinated first and given protections.
Variants are an issue. We are bringing forward legislation in terms of mandatory quarantining, which will give the Minister the authority to add designated countries to the list, as recommended by the public health team. It must be grounded in public health grounds. The Bill will also have the capacity to facilitate the addition of further countries. The plan references antigen testing. Professor Mark Ferguson-----
I support the introduction of it but the Deputy and everyone in this House agreed that we would take on board expert advice and public health advice. Those authorities have not been as enthusiastic about it because they believe polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing is the gold standard. The Deputy knows that and I know that as the Deputy has been briefed on that in public health meetings just as well as I have. That said, NPHET has stated antigen testing has a role in terms of outbreak settings and so on. Professor Mark Ferguson is chairing a group on antigen testing. That group will be reporting shortly with a view to implementing additional antigen testing. Resources are there for public health infrastructure. Testing and tracing has expanded very significantly in recent months and that should be acknowledged.
I have suggested seven tools but they are not part of the Government's plan. Many of them were suggested previously and they were not taken on board. I find it shocking that the Taoiseach has come in here and said the Government will not provide metrics but that he is asking the Opposition to put forward metrics, given the fact that the Taoiseach is the person who deals fully with the public health advice all the time.
On quarantine, what the Government is proposing is laughable. Some 2,000 Brazilians came into this country. Can the Taoiseach tell the public out there, who are limited to staying within 5 km, that it was necessary for 2,000 Brazilians to come into this country to work in low-paid employment? Was that absolutely necessary?
We are reliant on the vaccines and I have made suggestions on the vaccine roll-out that have not been taken on board. I want to ask one specific question on vaccines. Denmark has said it will vaccinate its country by 27 June. Denmark and Germany bought extra vaccines through the EU framework from Greece and Portugal as those countries did not take them up. Why did Ireland not do so? Can the Taoiseach explain to the House how Denmark and Germany got to buy those vaccines before Ireland and what efforts we made?
We have been doing serial testing in all nursing homes for the last year. We have also been doing it in direct provision centres and meat factories for periods. As we have been doing serial testing in different settings, the concept of serial testing is there.
We did not do it in schools because it was not advised to do so but we have been doing serial testing consistently and we will expand it again where the public health advice deems it necessary. Sick pay has also been addressed in the context of Covid-19, as the Deputy knows.
It is a bit populist and wrong to speak about 2,000 Brazilians coming into the country in the way the Deputy did. Many of those people are Irish or Irish residents. I do not know the exact details of those people but there has been a Brazilian community in Ireland for quite some time and the Deputy should reflect on that.
Twenty-five people died at the CareChoice Nursing Home Ballynoe, White's Cross, Cork, in January and February. The death toll is one of the highest in the country since the pandemic started. This morning's edition of the Irish Examinertells us that five of the families are seeking a group inquest. These relatives are deeply unhappy with the way they and their loved ones were treated and have many questions that demand answers. These questions include: why was a relative told that a loved one had Covid when they did not; why was a relative told that a relative did not have Covid when they did; why was a relative told that a loved one was doing fine and had just been out for a short walk when the resident in question was wheelchair-bound and had not walked in years; why were residents moved from rooms they had lived in for years; why was a promise of daily communication not honoured; is it acceptable that relatives be left uninformed for days on end in the middle of a Covid outbreak and that phones are left unattended for six or seven hours at a stretch; and is it credible that residents received world-class healthcare in a home where communications were worse than what one would expect in a banana republic? The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation told the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response last summer that the nursing home system had buckled for a variety of reasons. These reasons included competition between clinical governance and financial constraints; outsourcing of 80% of care delivery from the public sector and the emerging trend of corporate and international financial institutions taking ownership of large parts of the sector.
The nursing home at Ballynoe was taken over by the French investment fund InfraVia Capital Partners in 2017. InfraVia owns the Mater Private Hospital, all of the telecom masts on Coillte land and the stadium of Olympique de Marseille and it has interests in the expansion of the metro in Málaga etc. InfraVia does not specialise in nursing homes but in the maximisation or profit. Was profit maximisation a factor in the tragedy that unfolded at Ballynoe? Many relatives seem to think so. In particular, they point to the question of staffing levels, which they believe were not what they could or should have been. There must be answers for these relatives. HIQA, has carried out a recent inspection. Will the Taoiseach join with me in calling on HIQA to interview the relatives as part of this process? Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to instruct either HIQA or the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, to carry out a full investigation here which goes beyond a run-of-the-mill inspection?
Given the number of relatives and staff throughout the country who have questions and criticisms similar to those of the Ballynoe residents, will the Taoiseach support the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response's key recommendation that there be a public inquiry into nursing home deaths and the pandemic? This would be an inquiry that deals with the immediate issues raised by relatives and staff and with the broader question of whether our society can afford to continue with a nursing home system run in the interests of shareholders and the maximisation of profit.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue and I offer my sincere condolences to the families of all those who were bereaved at Ballynoe nursing home. I understand that the particular outbreak the Deputy is referring to commenced on 8 January, which resulted in all 47 residents and 29 staff testing positive for Covid-19. Tragically, 21 residents died associated with that outbreak.
As the Deputy has said, Ballynoe nursing home is one of a chain of nursing homes owned by the CareChoice group. In line with the national protocol, an outbreak management team was convened by the director of public health. That team works with the Covid response team to support private nursing homes during an outbreak through the provision of a range of supports. HIQA has been engaging regularly with the provider prior to and since it was notified of the outbreak on 9 January. It is understood that the provider did not request any additional support or ask for any issues to be escalated. As the Deputy said, following the receipt of the statutory notification of 14 deaths between 7 and 9 February, HIQA carried out a risk inspection on 11 February. HIQA's inspectors review the arrangements in place for visiting, as well as records held on visiting and family engagements. The chief inspector will prepare an inspection report outlining its findings and this report will be published when the full process concludes.
It can take some time for that process to conclude and I will speak to the Minister for Health on this because I take the Deputy's point that the relatives are anxious for engagement and for answers on the issues the Deputy has raised. In particular, relatives have raised issues of limited visiting access, poor communications with staff at the nursing home and there are a number of issues that have been raised which deserve full and comprehensive answers.
More generally, in the context of Covid-19, significant supports have been provided to nursing homes by the State during the crisis. Some €90 million was provided last year through the temporary assistance payment scheme, TAPS. That scheme was made available in 2020 and provides a range of supports to the nursing home sector, from PPE to infection prevention, control supports, training and financial supports. About 23 Covid response teams have been put in place in that context. Some €42 million is available for the scheme in 2021 and that will be increased if necessary.
On the broader issue, I have already said that when we emerge from Covid we should have a full evaluation or inquiry not only to learn the lessons but understand, particularly in the context of nursing homes, what happened and how we can improve the design of care for the elderly into the future. I caution that it is not as simple as the Deputy suggests.
I believe there should be a fully qualified social worker allocated to every nursing home in this country for the duration of the pandemic. Will the Taoiseach support that call, "Yes" or "No"? Such a social worker could act as a liaison officer with relatives, ensuring regular professional contact and arranging compassionate visits. The social worker would also act has a valuable pair of eyes and ears, observing what happens in these institutions behind closed doors. What happened in Ballynoe Nursing Home is completely unacceptable. Relatives were not communicated with for days on end and spent five, six or seven hours telephoning in order to find out what the story was with their loved one. I have made a simple proposal. Will the Taoiseach support it?
It is not enough to say that we will assess the situation when Covid is over. There is a need for a public inquiry which deals not only with the immediate issues raised by relatives and staff, but also the question of whether we should continue to have a nursing home system which is run on a for-profit model.
There is no excuse for poor communications between a nursing home provider, management and staff, and the relatives of residents. That should be an obligation of the provider. The provider should ensure there is such communication. Part of the HIQA inspection framework will encompass that dimension of that. That is important. We need answers in relation to the specifics here in this case.
We need to evaluate how the nation responded to the pandemic. Deputy Barry's point about private sector provision and public sector provision in healthcare and elderly care is a separate issue. In the context of Covid, one can certainly derive lessons from it. It is a much bigger issue - we should not pretend it is not - in terms of the broader financing of healthcare into the future, particularly with changing demographics. There will be an enormous bill for the State into the future. It is necessary, but how one organises and funds and provides for that is a huge question in itself and perhaps needs a separate exercise that could be collectively engaged in by the Oireachtas.
Hearts sank across the country with the realisation that the current lockdown restrictions are to be extended into April, particularly now as the evenings lengthen and people get out and about more. The lockdown has brought people a greater appreciation of the recreational tracks and trails that we have within 5 km of our homes. What infuriates us all is the scale of littering and illegal dumping that is taking place in such locations. The public are relying on these amenities, yet thoughtless people are littering with everything from dog-fouling to cigarette butts and coffee cups. Then we have downright criminal behaviour where individuals are dumping everything from bags to van loads of rubbish in these scenic locations. Since the start of the pandemic, some local authorities have seen a jump of up to 30% in illegal dumping of household waste and household clear-outs. Dublin City Council's street cleaning crews have even encountered a bath dumped on Bride Street close to Christ Church Cathedral.
I fully accept that there is no single solution to this particular problem. It requires improved facilities, particularly for bulky goods. If, for example, a couch or a mattress is dumped at a location, it attracts other illegal dumping and soon becomes a rat-infested open landfill site. That is why, in 2017, I provided funding for community clean-ups across the country and, in 2018, under the national mattress amnesty campaign, 11,000 mattresses were collected and properly recycled by local authorities.
We also must improve enforcement of the laws. While amendments to the Litter Pollution Act to increase on-the-spot fines from €150 to €250 have been drafted since 2018, they have yet to be introduced. Facilities and fines are a move in the right direction but unless we hit those who carry out this illegal activity where it hurts - in their pockets - we will never effectively address this growing problem. We must secure convictions and make clear examples of those involved in this crime, which is environmental and economic and has social impacts on the communities concerned.
Prosecutions can only be secured with unequivocal evidence and video evidence is by far the most effective tool in this regard. That is why funding has been provided to local authorities since 2017 to enhance CCTV and drone monitoring of illegal sites. However, we cannot progress this because of a decision taken by the Data Protection Commissioner that local authorities are not in a position to collect and use this data in securing prosecutions. This anomaly needs to be addressed urgently in the interests of protecting communities across the country.
I thank Deputy Naughten for raising the issue. I acknowledge his long-term interest in this issue and the measures he has taken in the past in different capacities to deal effectively with it. The Deputy is correct in saying that illegal dumping is a scourge on the landscape and offenders should and must face the full rigours of the law. Penalties for illegal dumping are significant. There is a maximum fine of €5,000 on summary conviction and-or imprisonment for up to 12 months, with a maximum fine of €15 million in the Circuit Court on conviction on indictment or imprisonment for up to ten years.
Ireland's waste action plan for a circular economy, published in September of last year, commits the Government to implementing a range of measures, including to tackle the problem of illegal dumping. One of the commitments contained in the action plan is that "All waste enforcement legislation will be "data proofed" to ensure that all available and emerging technologies can be fully utilised in a manner which is GDPR compliant."
In September 2020, as the Deputy has said, the Data Protection Commissioner wrote to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications concerning data protection issues with the use of CCTV cameras for litter and waste enforcement purposes. The Data Protection Commission, DPC, is engaging with the County and City Management Association, CCMA, on the practical issues raised by the DPC. The Government is working to address these issues and the issues raised by the Deputy. This has seen the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications work on the draft heads of a circular economy Bill. Output from discussions between the CCMA and the DPC, as well as commitments on the waste action plan, are being examined for introduction in the Bill. Critically, this could help to ensure that the processing of personal data may be carried out by local authorities tasked with enforcing litter and waste law in order to protect the environment from the scourge of illegal dumping, while at the same time respecting the privacy rights of citizens. The upcoming circular economy Bill will also consider further changes to fixed penalty notices.
This is a significant issue that has emerged. It is the Data Protection Commission's view that although the Litter Pollution Act and Waste Management Act provide local authorities with powers to prevent, investigate, detect and prosecute littering and dumping offences, the Acts do not provide for processing of images of members of the public using CCTV footage. That advice is, as I said, being considered by the Department and is subject to internal legal advice.
This is an issue because the bottom line, from a public policy perspective, is that we want to stop illegal dumping and we have to use all the tools available to deal with that. I trust that in the forthcoming legislation this issue will be addressed in a way that enables local authorities to have full access to the technologies and powers necessary to stop this appalling behaviour where the landscape and streetscape of our country are being blighted by such wanton acts.
This anomaly in the legislation must be addressed urgently, as it is effectively allowing an open season for illegal dumping, including fly tipping, at a time when our citizens are reliant on these tracks and trails. The plan is to address the anomaly in the circular economy Bill. This will help to ensure that the processing of personal data, including video evidence, can be carried out by local authorities with an objective of trying to stop the scourge of illegal dumping. As the Taoiseach knows, however, the pandemic will be over by the time the councils have the tools to enforce the law. I ask that he facilitate the early passage of the Labour Party's Bill in Seanad Éireann, which would close off this loophole and include an amendment that would facilitate the practical implementation of the current law, which allows for the confiscation of vehicles used in this activity. Unless we act immediately and hit those people who are carrying out these acts of economic and environmental treason where it hurts them the most, we will all suffer.
I know the Minister is anxious to progress the legislation, resolve this issue, give capacity to local authorities to use the latest technologies, with respect to the right to privacy, to deal with illegal dumping, and use the full range of anti-dumping measures available to the Government. Working with community organisations across the country, additional funding was allocated through the anti-dumping initiative. That was a further €3 million, which will facilitate approximately 300 projects across the country involving local authorities and community groups. Further funding of €1 million per annum was provided to support the activities of the waste enforcement regional lead authorities and €7.4 million per annum to the network of 150 local authority waste enforcement officers. The fundamental issue around the data protection issue and CCTV utilisation needs to be resolved.