Thursday, 3 June 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
In a report published this morning, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, has called on the Government to double public investment in public housing. It has called for investment in the region of €4 billion annually. It states this would deliver 18,000 public homes to meet not just social but affordable housing need for working families.
Of course, Sinn Féin has been saying this for years. We have outlined how the Government must double capital expenditure on public housing and embark on the largest investment programme in public housing in the history of the State. This is the scale of what is required to tackle the crisis we are in. It is not just us. Fianna Fáil, the Tánaiste's partners in government, voted in favour of a 2018 Dáil motion from the Raise the Roof campaign. Raise the Roof is, as he will know, a grassroots civil society-led movement with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions at its front, and supported by almost all of our housing and homelessness organisations and activist groups. That motion called for a doubling of capital investment in budget 2019 and the delivery of at least 20,000 social and affordable homes that year. Of course, back in government, Fianna Fáil has done what it does best and abandoned that commitment. There was no meaningful additional capital spend in the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage's first budget above the commitments already entered into by his predecessor, Eoghan Murphy. There is only €160 million extra in capital spend for this year - €124 million to deliver an additional 593 social homes and a paltry €35 million to deliver just over 400 affordable cost-rental homes. I said at the time and say again that that budget was underwhelming, unclear and wholly inadequate.
Fine Gael, the Tánaiste's party, has been in government for ten years and during that period not a single affordable home to rent or buy has been delivered by any central government scheme. This will be the first year of ten years of Fine Gael government where some affordable homes will be delivered, but how many? There will be only 90 affordable homes to purchase and just 440 affordable cost-rental homes for renters. Meanwhile, social housing delivery targets remain low while Government expenditure on rent subsidies, including housing assistance payment, HAP, rental accommodation scheme, RAS, rent supplement and long-term leasing is set to hit a staggering €1 billion this year.
After ten years of failure by the Tánaiste personally, as well as by his party, will he, on foot of this recommendation from the ESRI, give a guarantee that budget 2022 will include a doubling of direct capital investment by the State in the delivery of affordable homes for working people - public homes on public land delivered by local authorities, approved housing bodies and other not-for-profit agencies? This is what the ESRI is urging the Government to do today. It is saying this is absolutely necessary if we are going to get a grip on this housing crisis. Will the Government abandon its failed pro-developer and pro-big investor policies of the past, listen to the expert advice and the advice from Opposition and civil society and put public money into public housing on public land for affordable housing for working people?
As is often the case, the best way to respond to the Deputy's rhetoric and ideology is with some facts. These are the facts. We have increased Government investment in social housing tenfold. In 2016, when my party got the brief and Deputy Coveney became the Minister with responsibility for housing, only 600 social homes were built in this county. By 2020, it was more than 6,000. These were homes built by local authorities and approved housing bodies with public money. That is a tenfold increase since 2016. The budget for housing this year is the biggest ever and more than a third of homes built in the State this year will be built by the State. One would probably have to go back to the 1980s, 1950s or 1960s to see that level of State involvement in the housing market.
On a per capitabasis, our investment in social housing is much greater than is the case in Northern Ireland, where Deputy Ó Broin's party has been in government for 20 years and has a very poor record indeed. It is probably the worst record on this island when it comes to housing policy. Our current target is that we should build and provide approximately 12,000 new social homes this year and every year into the future and several thousand more in terms of affordable for purchase and cost rental as well.
On the ESRI report, I have not had a chance to read it, though I have seen the headlines. As I understand it, the ESRI proposes a big increase in capital spending on social and public housing and that we would set a target of approximately 18,000 houses per year. It would not be easy to get to that overnight but it might well be a good target to aim for over the course of this Government. However, I have not seen what breakdown the ESRI proposes. Deputy Ó Broin used the term "public housing" but, as he knows, public housing is much broader than social housing. If that includes public housing, cost rental and affordable for purchase housing, that may well be doable. A target of 18,000 may well be the right figure and may well be where we get to. If it is 18,000 social houses alone, that is a different question. That would be all on-balance sheet borrowing, which is not recoverable and much harder to do. We will take a look at the report; we will give it full consideration. I want to see the breakdown between social and other forms of public housing being recommended by the ESRI.
I note the institute proposes we do this by running a bigger budget deficit of maybe 1.5% of GDP a year to invest in our society, in housing and healthcare. I agree with that approach, by the way. I would like to go back to the old orthodoxy whereby borrowing for capital expenditure is more acceptable than borrowing for current expenditure. I am not sure we can do that but I would like to. However, we must bear in mind that at the moment we have a deficit of 5%, so we are already borrowing more than the ESRI and the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, think appropriate. As such, it would have to be explained, or we would have to talk together about how we would manage to get from 5% down to 1.5% and still spend more on housing and other things. As I said, the Government will reflect on the report and read it. I notice that most of the recommendations being made by the ESRI are potentially contrary to other recommendations made by the institute and by the IFAC. It is good to have so many advisory bodies but with so much advice, it is often contradictory. We will take all that into account as we develop the revised national development plan, NDP, which we hope to have ready for July and the housing for all document which will be the Government's new housing policy to replace and build on the Rebuilding Ireland plan.
I have to say to the Tánaiste that this is no laughing matter. Fine Gael has been in government for ten years and not a single affordable home to rent or buy has been delivered by any Government scheme. Why is that? It is because its policy is all about big investors and big developers. It is about sweetheart deals for cuckoos and vultures and sweetheart land deals for big developers where 60% of the homes are to be sold at prices of €400,000. That excludes 90% of the population; that excludes working people. For years we have been urging the Government to double capital investment from the €1.4 billion this year up to €3.8 billion or €4 billion to deliver 20,000 public homes. Our preference is 12,000 social homes and 8,000 homes split between cost rental and affordable purchase.
What world is the Tánaiste living in, where he comes in, smirks and jokes about different advice?
The Government is in charge and controls the budget. Invest the money in public housing on public land so working people can get the homes they can afford instead of giving tax breaks to big investors or sweetheart land deals for fat cat developers.
I thank the Deputy. Again, I can only respond with the facts. A third of all new homes built in the State this year will be social housing and public housing paid for and built by the State. One must go back to the 1980s or the 1950s and 1960s before we could see those kinds of figures replicated. The average home in Ireland last year sold for approximately €275,000 and much affordable housing has been built in the past ten years in Ireland. Perhaps it was not through Government schemes but this has been done through the private sector with the help of Government schemes.
To turn the Deputy's words back to him, what planet is he living on? All we ever hear from Sinn Féin is pure populism. Everything should be free; free housing, free education and free healthcare but at the same time it will abolish all taxes as well. There will be no carbon taxes, local property tax-----
I will raise a very sensitive matter this morning relating to the mother and baby homes. Yesterday I raised with the Taoiseach the decision of Professor Mary Daly, one of the members of the commission, to appear at an academic event in Oxford, having previously refused to come before the Oireachtas children's committee. She appeared at the event yesterday. Devastating revelations and evidence was given about what went on as regards the report and the recommendations from the commission. There is evidence that survivors' testimony given confidentially was not taken on board. This was clear to many once the report came out but we have now heard it from one of three people on the commission. This was discounted for very tenuous legal reasons.
I have a very clear question for the Tánaiste. Does he accept, based on what we now know, that the report must be repudiated? As Dr. Maeve O'Rourke of the Clann Project, a supporter of the survivors, said, we cannot accept this report. It is not valid, fully truthful, a historical record and accurate. The stories that were told in a confidential fashion by women who went through such suffering, with such a stain on our society and country, were not taken on board. This is not acceptable.
The Tánaiste sat beside the former Minister, former Deputy Zappone, but I have no idea what she was at. It is quite clear the construct of this commission was flawed from the beginning. These survivors - their lives, stories and honesty - needed to be reflected in the report but they were not. It is not like people were not asking questions over the years. In fairness to a former journalist, Mr. Conall Ó Fátharta, he asked all these questions numerous times over nine years and never got the answers. The commission did not spend half its budget and it did not, in interim reports, indicate these issues. It is completely flawed.
I ask these questions on behalf of a number of people who have always been in touch with me on this matter. Does the Tánaiste accept this report must be repudiated and the work should be done again? We may be able to use aspects of it but the report must be done again. Does the Tánaiste accept the construction of this commission was fundamentally flawed from the beginning, limiting the quality, comprehensiveness and accuracy of the report? Does he accept that Professor Daly appearing at the Oxford event yesterday has essentially retraumatised the survivors? Will the Tánaiste please stand up to represent those women and families who have been affected and give them hope that we can, as a country, do right by them once and for all?
I thank the Deputy. I want to be careful with my remarks because, as the Deputy said, it is a sensitive issue. I know many survivors have been very upset by what they read today and yesterday, coming out of this academic seminar in England.
The Government decided we should carry out an investigation into what happened in mother and baby homes and, as the Oireachtas, we united to agree terms of reference for that commission, which has made its report. To my mind, what happened after that was not acceptable. Essentially, the report was left on the desks of the Government and Oireachtas Members alike. The commission's members did not engage with the Oireachtas or the survivors either to explain the report, tell us how they came to their findings or answer any questions. That was not the correct course of action on the part of commission members. That has now been compounded by the fact that one of the commission members felt it appropriate to do exactly that in an academic seminar. That was disrespectful to the Oireachtas and particularly to survivors and their advocates.
It is now necessary for the commission members to come before an Oireachtas committee as they have been asked to do. They should do so without delay and allow us, as Oireachtas Members, to hear from them why they came to the findings they did and answer appropriate questions. This should be done in non-adversarial way. It should happen now. They should also have a similar engagement with the survivors. It was done previously for reports of this nature, including the Ryan, Scally and McAleese reports. Perhaps they did not have the same legal structure but the same essential process was followed that people commissioned to make a report by the Oireachtas were willing to explain that report to the Oireachtas and the people who were the subject of that report, namely, the survivors and those involved. Given that this academic symposium happened yesterday, I can see no excuse or valid reason for the commission members not to be willing to do this without delay.
I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. He went much further than the Taoiseach yesterday and I respect that. There are two aspects to this. Calling on the commission members to appear in front of the Oireachtas children's committee should absolutely happen but we know we are limited in whether they will or will not do that. They should do that. However, there is a more fundamental issue here on which the Government must reflect.
Given the evidence at yesterday's symposium, this report is fundamentally flawed. The simple fact is that evidence given by so many women who went through such trauma has not been countenanced or used. It is not part of the report and what these people went through did not form part of the recommendations. We suspected that and now we know it. It is a hard fact. We need those members to give evidence in front of the committee but this Government must put forward proposals for a new commission to finally give some justice for these women. They all deserve it, so please do that.
Only the commission members can clarify how they treated the evidence and testimony given by women survivors to the confidential committee. If they discounted it entirely, it is a serious problem and it would put a question mark over the validity of the report. If, however, they took it into account, it amounts to a different question. The Deputy and any fair-minded person in this House would appreciate there is a difference between evidence and testimony on one hand and proof and the establishment of fact on the other. Evidence can be true and testimony can be valid but it does not constitute proof or a fact unless it has been open to challenge, dispute, contradiction-----
-----and meet a burden of proof. This is not my report or that of the Government. The report came via a commission set up by all of us in the Oireachtas. It was given to an independent commission to do.
In light of what happened in Oxford, it behoves the members of the commission to do the right thing, to speak to the Oireachtas, to speak to the survivors, to explain their report, to explain their findings, to tell us how they came to the conclusions they did and to take any reasonable questions in a non-adversarial manner. That is the very least they should do at this point.
For the first time in 15 months there is a sense of optimism in the country. While this optimism is tinged with caution, it also brings with it a sense of anticipation and a feeling of hope. This is particularly so for SME’s across the country. These small and medium enterprises, SMEs, will form the backbone of Ireland’s recovery from the combined impact of the Covid pandemic and Brexit. In every corner of Ireland these businesses have shown a remarkable ability to challenge and overcome the obstacles they have faced. Failure to do so is not an option for them. The shared strength of every SME is their fierce determination to survive and succeed.
Before this pandemic, 250,000 SMEs were a major source of jobs and enterprises. A significant number are in retail, hospitality and in the service industry. They operate small enterprises that collectively support the economy in urban and rural areas. Their day-to-day running is dependent on the availability of business services.
Since the start of this pandemic, in addition to their inability to trade due to Covid restrictions, several of these businesses have seen the demise of banking services in their local areas. This was a major blow to many of them who were dependent on daily or weekly dealings with the banks. This blow was somewhat softened by news that post offices would offer limited banking services. Now, due to the failure of swift and urgently required action at Government level we learned on Tuesday that the post office network is on the verge of collapse as their appeal for help has gone unheard.
This is not a new story. This has been roaring down the tracks at us for many months. Postmasters have been warning of looming closures for a long time. They have repeatedly cited 1 July as the date by which Government assistance could save them. They have constantly questioned when the additional range of Government services promised in 2018 would come on stream. The fact that the provision of offline Government services is still being considered three years later has done nothing to help post offices as they stumble towards disaster. Now, with less than one month remaining, the writing is on the wall and a crisis is looming.
Of the 920 post offices across the country, 875 are operated by independent postmasters. From 1 July they face a reduction of an average of 20% in payment rates. This will render their businesses unsustainable. This will, in their own words, result in the "unrestrained closures" of post offices. It has now become a battle against the clock for survival. An emergency meeting of postmasters is likely to sanction work stoppages.
How has this situation been allowed to reach this point? Why has the post office network been pushed to the wire at a time when the recovery of our State is centre stage? When will the Government provide urgent financial assistance to post offices?
I echo Deputy Lowry's remarks on our small and medium enterprises, many of which will reopen over the next weeks, hopefully getting back to full capacity. It is little remarked, but it should be said more often in this House and in other places, that small and medium enterprises account for more than half of all employment in all parts of the State. More people work in small and medium enterprises in Ireland than in the multinational sector and the public sector combined. This is why the Government has put so much effort into assisting them through this pandemic in the past year.
The House will be aware that An Post is a commercial State body with statutory responsibility for the postal network and postal services. Decisions relating to the size, distribution or future of the network are matters for the company. It is longstanding Government policy that postal services should be delivered by An Post on a commercial basis, or at least a break-even basis, and not be subsidised by the taxpayer.
An Post is continuing to undergo a vital transformation as part of its strategic plan. To implement this plan, the cost of which is some €150 million, the Government provided a long-term low-interest loan of €30 million to the company in December 2017. This was to support and protect the renewal of the post office network and the continued fulfilment of the five-day-a-week mail delivery service. The subsequent deal agreed between An Post and the Irish Postmasters' Union in 2018 centred around a renewed vision for the post office network, a revised postmasters' contract, and an acceptance that new business lines were required with a focus on financial and new government services, along with capital investment for the renewed and existing offices.
The implementation of the plan has been delayed by Covid-19. As an essential service, An Post and post offices remained trading throughout the pandemic but they have been affected significantly. Despite the challenges, An Post reports a strong underlying performance in 2020 and is well positioned to deliver on its strategic objectives on 2021 in future years.
The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, in consultation with NewERA, is now reviewing a proposal for An Post to support the post office network in line with their plan and we expect this process to conclude shortly. In addition, the Government established the offline services group in March to explore the potential of a one-stop shop approach to the delivery of Government services and to examine the feasibility of directing more businesses to the post office network. A report on that is expected in July.
I thank the Tánaiste. It is important that we get on and expeditiously implement the agreements that are in place.
Vodafone recently conducted a study that focused on 500 SMEs in rural and urban areas. The report underlined that 43% of these businesses state that they could not have remained productive without having invested in technology. It also showed that SMEs see the future success of their businesses dependent to a large extent on the use of technology and upskilling staff in basic or enhanced training. At this time Ireland is ranked fourth lowest in Europe in digitalisation. Only 19% of small businesses are considered to be highly digitalised. The reason for this is lack of high-speed connectivity. The pandemic has shone a glaring light on this anomaly and its urgent need to be resolved.
Will the Tánaiste consider reducing the threshold for access to the online retail scheme to businesses with fewer than ten full-time employees? There are many small businesses in Tipperary and around the country that are deprived of the advantages of this scheme due to the threshold being too high. Many small businesses have three, four or five employees and it would help them enormously if the scheme could be adjusted.
We always knew it but the pandemic has accelerated it: that the future of our economy is going to be green and is going to be digital. The world has changed in the last year or two. We have probably come on ten or 15 years in terms of the digital transformation. People who never bought things online now do. People who went to the ATM regularly have not been for months. People who never before shopped online now shop online and get deliveries as a matter of course. It has changed and it will not change back. This has consequences for post offices and for traditional banking and it has consequences for traditional bricks and mortar retail. I do not believe these things will ever go back to the way they were before. The world has moved on and people have moved on.
To assist the digital transformation there are a few things we want to do. We are investing in broadband. It is a huge contract of €3 billion. We want to get this accelerated. I announced this week that my Department will have a new €85 million digital fund to help businesses to move online and embrace digital and we have more funding for the trading online voucher and the online retail scheme, referred to by the Deputy. We will give consideration to widening access to this fund to smaller businesses. The Minister of State, Deputy English, is looking at this at the moment.
Given that more than 50% of the population have received their first vaccine, I would like to think that we are now in a post-pandemic place and looking forward to what lies ahead for us. I have concerns, however, that I will highlight. I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that it is currently very difficult to get staff in construction, haulage, hospitality and in many other industries. Surely the apprentice scheme needs to be escalated and a system put in place. Industries such as haulage have huge concerns around getting drivers into the future, due to the delays at the ports. It is the same for other industries.
My next concern is around the 2040 plan.
The 2040 plan was introduced by the Tánaiste's Government in July 2018. I want the people of Ireland to know the Tánaiste, and Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, his coalition partners in Government, are now responsible for 33% of the escalating costs for people in rural housing due to the shortage of materials coming into the country. I want them to know that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party are responsible for 33% of extra costs. Imported goods since Christmas, including steel, timber and hardware goods, have risen by between 30% and 40%. Rather than stating the obvious, such as that the goods are coming from eastern European countries and we cannot control the prices, start with the obvious. For example, simplify the process in Dublin Port when bulk goods arrive into Ireland. There are huge delays in the docks getting general cargo through. There are four systems that must be dealt with, namely, customs, agriculture, the HSE and Revenue. None of their systems speak to each other. Huge delays in the docks cost thousands of euro per day. Everything is chock-a-block there. This needs to be looked at as a matter of urgency. I have spoken on many occasions about the bureaucracy caused by Brexit. Surely, six months in, we would think there would be a better system in place.
In his remarks to another Deputy, the Tánaiste said more than 50% of the people in Ireland are employed by SMEs and 37% of people live in rural Ireland. If the Tánaiste was serious about protecting the SMEs and rural areas, he would have accepted the amendment from the Rural Independent Group but Fianna Fáll, Fine Gael and the Green Party voted against it. Now the knock-on effect is 33% more costs for people because of the panic in place to try to get applications in because of the 2040 plan. If the Government had accepted the amendment tabled by the Rural Independent Group it would have helped with the current chaos.
I thank the Deputy. In a few months time, provided the virus does not surprise us again, we will be in a very different place as an economy and society. We will see a really rapid recovery in our economy due to Government investment, pent-up demand and deployment of the €12 billion or €14 billion in savings now in our banks above where we were in 2019. We will find ourselves in a place in a few months time where we will still have hundreds of thousands of people in receipt of welfare payments of working age but at the same time hundreds of thousands of vacancies in the labour market, particularly in areas such as construction where we need to build so much, from houses to public infrastructure, in areas such as care where we need so many more people to work and in areas such as technology, digital, pharmaceuticals and others. This will be an enormous skills challenge and the Government is wise to it. We have 10,000 apprenticeships, 10,000 work placement schemes, 50,000 new education opportunities and a new Department driving the agenda and making sure we match people to jobs and that they have the skills necessary.
With regard to the cost of materials, I cannot accept the Deputy's contention that somehow the Government, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party are to blame for the rising cost of steel, timber and building materials because it is just not true. It is an international phenomenon. It is on the front page of international newspapers, including the Financial Times. The cost of all of these materials has increased throughout the world. Perhaps delays at the port may be contributing to it in some way and I am happy to look into that and see whether we can improve it but this is very much a global phenomenon. If the Deputy read the international press he would know this. Why is it happening? There are many different reasons. Government spending is rising throughout the world. Not just this Government but other governments throughout the world are engaging in a construction boom or building infrastructure and this is driving up the cost of materials. The disruption of the pandemic has resulted in fewer materials being produced in some parts of the world. As well as this, there are delays in distribution. Of course, there is also cheap money. Central banks are printing money and giving out cheap loans to business and government. When this happens we have inflation and the price of things that cannot be printed, such as steel, property and building materials, increase. This is what is happening. Yes, it is a big problem and if there is anything we can do about it in terms of improving matters at the port we will, but to suggest that somehow it is caused by three political parties in Ireland and that we have the power and influence to increase global steel prices really is absurd.
The first thing the Government did wrong was the felling licences, the second was the carbon tax and the third was voting against the amendment tabled by the Rural Independent Group on the 2040 plan, which would have delayed the process of houses. Now people are panicking and this is putting more pressure on supply and demand. I thank the Tánaiste for his thoughts but I do not want empty promises. As with everything else, the Tánaiste always says he will get back to us but it does not happen. On the truth of the matter, I will give two instances, one to myself and one to another business. When £600 worth of uniforms for the hotel industry came into this country Revenue looked for €400 duty. I have stuff coming in to help with outside dining for customers and it has been held up in the port for a week due to one side not talking to the other. These businesses are due to open for outside dining on 7 June. This is the reality. The Government does not have a clue about the reality because it seems to be in a bubble.
Let me burst the Deputy's bubble again. The Government is not responsible for Brexit. Brexit is something that happened when the people in the United Kingdom decided they were going to leave the European Union and it has consequences. It has consequences in terms of checks on imports into this country and on the taxes that must be levied.
It is a definite feature of the House that when people have to hear the truth or the facts they get animated and start shouting. Apparently, according to the Deputy, we are responsible for Brexit and the taxes that accrue as a consequence of it. Quite frankly, businesses have a responsibility to make sure they know what the rules and regulations are. We provide a grant to businesses of €8,000 at year to help them figure out customs. I would be interested to know whether the business referred to by the Deputy has availed of this. It has had two years to do so and it should have.
When it comes to the price of steel and materials, as the Deputy should know it is a global phenomenon and is happening throughout the world for the reasons I have explained. When it comes to the felling licences issue, I absolutely accept we have a problem and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is working on it as hard as she can and she will come up with a solution. It was down to a court case and not one that we wanted.