Wednesday, 15 September 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I thank the Ceann Comhairle. It is great to be back in our natural habitat. Cuirim fáilte ar ais roimh gach duine.
This evening we will debate a motion of confidence in the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, over his handling of the appointment of Katherine Zappone as a special envoy, but for now I want to raise a very concerning aspect of this controversy, that is, the Minister's admission that he deleted texts between himself and the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, regarding the appointment. He deleted these texts and failed to send the communications to his Department for filing and storage.
As the Taoiseach knows, these were no ordinary texts. These were communications between two of his senior Cabinet Ministers in relation to Government Buildings. They were official Government information and communications. The Freedom of Information Act is very clear. Communications carried out on electronic devices, such as phones, or by email relating to the official function of a Minister are subject to that legislation.
By way of explanation, the Minister tells us he routinely deletes texts from his phone when he considers a conversation to have concluded. It is not the prerogative of any Minister to delete official Government communications based on personal preference or judgments. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, was obliged to retain those texts under the law. That a senior Minister was so convinced that he had the right to delete Government records is extremely troubling because it goes to the heart of transparency, public interest and accountability in government. Freedom of information is in place to allow citizens to obtain information about decisions that affect their lives and our society. It is fundamental to democracy, journalism and activism, and it is critical in holding power to account. It is essential to good government.
Therefore, a Minister erasing Government records in such a fashion stinks to the high heavens. It is an abuse of office, plain and simple. It is corrosive to politics and insulting to people. This behaviour was unacceptable and it has angered people, not least because it demonstrates breathtaking arrogance. Tá fearg ar dhaoine. Bhí sé seo glic agus bhí sé mealltach. Tá damáiste déanta don pholaitíocht ag an Aire, an Teachta Coveney, agus ag an Rialtas. Is ábhar an-tábhachtach é seo.
This controversy raises further questions around how pervasive this behaviour is in government. This was not sloppy behaviour. It was about a Minister deliberately erasing Government records. I would like the Taoiseach to establish for us today how widespread this practice is within his Government. Who else in the Cabinet deletes texts, documents and communications in this way?
What other Ministers are doing this? Has he spoken to each of his Ministers and has he asked them directly if they have deleted Government communications in this way? Will the Taoiseach tell the House what action he has taken as Head of Government over the past eight weeks to stamp out this behaviour and to guarantee it will cease?
First of all, I welcome the fact we are back in the Chamber to conduct our business as a Parliament and as Dáil Éireann, and I look forward to working with all parties in pursuance of the issues that challenge this country.
I agree with the Deputy that accountability and transparency is of great importance to the House and on issues of substance. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has provided a very full explanation to the Oireachtas committee and has gone before that committee twice in respect of this issue, which I remind people relates to the appointment of a part-time envoy, an appointment that did not go ahead subsequently.
In my view the procedure leading to that was wrong and should not have happened. The Minister has apologised, including to the Oireachtas committee twice, and he has apologised to me as to what and how it happened.
In the broader context, tá a fhios agam go bhfuil muintir na tíre buartha faoi seo ach tá siad buartha faoi an-chuid mar aon leis seo. Níl aon amhras ar bith agam ach gurb iad na rudaí is tábhachtaí atá os comhair an phobail anois ná an víreas corónach, cúrsaí sláinte agus cúrsaí tithíochta. Is iad sin na rudaí is tábhachtaí a bhaineann le pobal na tíre seo agus ní féidir linn éirí as sin. In other words the most important and substantive issues that people mention and are very concerned about are health services, housing, Covid-19 and many other issues. We need a fair, balanced and proportionate response to this issue. The tabling of the motion of confidence is not such a proportionate response from Deputy McDonald or her party, but that is their decision.
The Deputy might also look into her own cupboard in respect of the appointment of people to public positions because appointing its own to a range of public positions is the hallmark of the Sinn Féin approach when in government. The party has made the city of Derry its fiefdom in terms of patronage. This party is not on steady ground when it is attacking others in respect of appointing people to positions. The position in question was a part-time one while Sinn Féin has appointed its own to very senior positions as a member of Government.
On the deletion of texts, any texts relating to public or Government business should not be deleted. I have made that clear to all of my Government colleagues. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, was not acting in bad faith here and he has explained to the committee the circumstances and context in which he took that action. At all times I genuinely believe he has been acting in good faith. I know that when Deputy McDonald has been dealing with Deputy Coveney in respect of Northern Ireland or foreign affairs issues, there is nobody in the House who would argue that he has not acted in good faith and with sincerity and honesty. He can be faulted in certain respects - no doubt about it - in terms of this appointment; he himself acknowledges that himself. As I have said, however, any records pertaining to Government business should not be deleted.
This is a substantive and serious issue. Last year the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, admitted to deleting texts in respect of the leaking of a confidential Government document at the time, the GP contract. That scandal came to light on the Taoiseach’s watch and yet here we are, 12 months later, and we have a repeat of that behaviour. It is very clear to me from the Taoiseach’s answer that he has done nothing about this.
I put it to the Taoiseach very directly that he has conceded the point that his Minister, Deputy Coveney, breached the law.
Can the Taoiseach clarify that is in fact the case? I ask him again what he has done or what he proposes to do about that by way of sanction. I ask him again to clarify for us which other Cabinet colleagues behave in this way. Which other members of his Government are also in breach of the freedom of information stipulations, and what will he do about that? The Taoiseach, after all, is in charge.
The Deputy has made an assertion in terms of breaching the law that I have no evidence of. She should play this one straight and fair in her assertions. She is not the person to conduct an investigation into the Minister in respect of the law or the breach of the law, but I have made it very clear-----
No I should not, actually, but I have made it very clear that the deletion of Government records in any shape or form, or in any format, should not happen. I refer to anything that relates to the conduct of Government business. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is bringing forward to the Government a memorandum in respect of a review of the Freedom of Information Act and indicated that during the summer. That will come before the Government very shortly, perhaps next week, in respect of the broader operation and working of the Act.
It has been a turbulent summer for the Taoiseach and his Government, so I am glad to see they actually made it back here. There is a sense of some normality as we finally come back into this Chamber. That is what I want to ask the Taoiseach about. I have a direct question: What has changed since we left this Chamber last year? What has changed for the Taoiseach and his Government in how they will deal with things? We in the Labour Party believe that everything has changed in that year - how we think about things and, collectively, our political ideologies and philosophies. Everything has changed because Covid, quite simply, has been the biggest disruptor in 100 years - in our thought and in every other way. I therefore want to know what lessons the Taoiseach has learnt. I am not asking about the Zappone affair; I am asking him about what lessons he has learnt from Covid and how, collectively, the Government will ensure we change things for the better. I believe the public want to know this. Why? Because their priorities have changed in the past year. I refer to how they look after their families and their communities and what they expect from the State, particularly when it comes to public services. The need for investment in healthcare, education, housing - everything has changed. It has changed for me in respect of my time management, my work-life balance and my need to spend more time with my elderly parents, my wife and my children. I believe it is the same for many people. I 100% get the sense that the public's tolerance for short-termism and for a lack of consistency in political thought and action is absolutely exhausted. They do not have a tolerance for our not seeing through major reforms; they do not have a tolerance any more for a two-tier health system; they do not have a tolerance for an education system whereby students today cannot get accommodation to go to college; they will not have a tolerance any more for a hugely expensive private childcare system; and they will not have a tolerance for people no longer being able to get houses where they are from.
I therefore ask the Taoiseach genuinely what has changed for him and his Government since we left this Chamber a year ago. We know that the great white hope of Sláintecare is now at a standstill. The Government has launched Housing for All and I genuinely wish it the best in delivering that. However, what I am asking the Taoiseach, as we step back in here, is what has changed for him and his Government in how we can deliver for the people. Everything has changed, in our opinion. If the Government works towards the issues I have just spoken about, the Labour Party, for one, will meet it halfway on ending the short-termism and delivering for the Irish people.
How is the Government going to deliver for the people in what has changed in the past year?
First, I agree with the Deputy and take the question in the very good faith in which it was articulated. The world has changed. It has changed most fundamentally and the long-term impact of Covid, in terms of how we live, work, recreate and experience and organise life, will be profound. That relates to all those areas. In respect of the lessons we have learned from Covid, the whole-of-government approach to dealing with Covid, with all hands on deck, is a lesson we need to apply to other key crises in our society. The national vaccination programme, for which we pulled together a national task force, has achieved phenomenal results. That is the biggest change in the past 12 months. Ninety per cent of our people over the age of 18 are fully vaccinated, as are more than 89% of those aged over 16. That now enables us to begin the journey of what some might call a new normal or a new or different way of living in regard to how the workplace develops.
As for the housing crisis, a key issue for many people, that whole-of-government model has to be applied to dealing with housing, and not just at national level between all the Departments. A Secretary General of my Department now chairs a group of other Secretaries General to ensure there is a cross-cutting approach to dealing with the housing issue. There are lessons to be learned from Covid because we did cut through on Covid in respect of a number of issues, which we had to do. Time was not an option. We have to try to inject the same approach into housing.
The same is true of climate change, which is quite profound. I recently read a global survey that showed the degree of anxiety among our younger generation about what climate change means for them and their lives into the future. The levels of anxiety among young people all over the world are very high - worryingly high, from our perspective - in terms of their health, mental health and well-being. Everybody in this House has to play their part in tackling that issue, and again it has to be cross-departmental and across society.
In respect of our health services, Sláintecare has not stood still. In fact, at last year's budget, about €1.235 billion was allocated purely for Sláintecare initiatives. The comments of the then director, Ms Laura Magahy, to the Oireachtas committee regarding the budget were very clear. She stated:
All the elements such as beds, community staffing, diagnostic care, social care expansion, etc., that were outlined in the budget, which we went through with the committee at our last meeting, have been funded. We are very pleased with that.
That was on the record of the Oireachtas committee at the time. There are other areas that have not yet been developed, and the regional structure is one, but there is a reason for that. We have come through a pandemic, a once-in-a-century event.
I take the Deputy's overall point. The pandemic changes the way we do things.
I deliberately asked the Taoiseach this question today because I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt that there is a learning here for his Government as regards all the areas and how it does its work. It is also important that, as I stand here and ask the Taoiseach that question, I say quite clearly that short-termism has to end. We need to deliver on Sláintecare over the next four to five years. Within five years, I want to see a national childcare service and change in respect of balanced and regional development. Project Ireland 2040, for me, is out the window. Within two to three years, I want to see a living wage; the leaving certificate completely transformed and education made free at the point of entry and at third level; Housing for All, perhaps 2.0, delivered; and a situation whereby we are bulletproof in regard to climate change targets.
When I say the short-termism has to end, how is the Taoiseach going to ensure in all those areas he will change tack and deliver? This idea of "building back better" needs to be put in the bin. What was there before did not work. I hate the phrase. How specifically will the Taoiseach ensure, across government, he will make changes to deliver in this post-Covid, or as we come out of Covid, environment?
First, quite frankly, I hate short termism. Throughout my political life I have always thought to do that which benefits the medium and longer term. That is why I initiated the first ever major public investment in research back in 1999, when I was Minister for Education and Science, with the programme for research in third level institutions, which in itself was transformative for the research environment. That is why I insisted that in the programme for Government we would establish a new Government Department: the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. That is the kind of long-term thinking I engage in. I think that it is better for the public over the long term. I agree with the Deputy.
In health, we need a universal, accessible health care system. I subscribe to that and I will work with the Deputy. Sometimes, when the Government opts for the longer term, it will continually be hit on the Opposition side by short-term political imperatives which can undermine the more medium- to longer-term thinking and strategies. I do not think we can shy away from the work of the Commission on Pensions, for example. We will bring that to the Government shortly and we will publish it. It will need a debate across the House, as does the Commission on Taxation and Welfare. The State is going to get bigger. We have to tackle childcare, as well as universal access to childcare, in a proper national system. I will work with the Deputy on what he outlined.
One of the depressing things about the instance of cronyism involving the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, is that it deflects attention at the beginning of the Dáil term from the issues that people expect us to be dealing with and the crises that they expect us to resolve. One of those issues will be highlighted at 5.30 p.m. this evening by the National Homeless and Housing Coalition. They will gather in a demonstration to appeal to this Government to break from the failed policies it has applied; to address the housing crisis; and to actually deliver the public and affordable housing, the affordable rents and the answers to the homelessness crisis that people are demanding. At that protest, there will be many groups who are affected by the ten years of failure by both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in government to address the housing crisis; those affected by the mica issue; renters who are paying extortionate rents; working people who have no chance of getting on the housing ladder because of unaffordable prices; those waiting a decade and sometimes two decades on housing lists; people who are actually homeless; and many others.
One group I particularly want to highlight in these few weeks is those affected by the student accommodation crisis. It is absolutely dire. We are facing an unprecedented crisis of availability of affordable student accommodation. The student unions in Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Sligo and many other places are now overwhelmed with thousands of students who cannot find affordable accommodation. The disease of unaffordable rents that has contributed so much to the housing crisis in wider society is now infecting our student population and, indeed, our on-campus accommodation. It is completely pricing students out of the market of affordable student accommodation. The consequences are record levels of homelessness among students who are sleeping on couches or in friends’ homes and so on; being forced into hotels where they have to pay up to €400 per week for accommodation; or simply, being unable to find accommodation and having to commute two, three and sometimes four hours back and forward a day because they cannot get accommodation near their college.
Why is this happening? I put it to the Taoiseach that it is because of the failures of Government policy that now replicate themselves in the student accommodation issue. In UCD, which is a publicly funded college, they have increased student accommodation costs by 20% to 30%. In the newly constructed student accommodation, they are charging up to €15,000 per year for accommodation.
Similarly, around this city, we have private investor-built student accommodation where they are charging €1,000 per month and more for student accommodation. This is, in other words, housing for profit and not for students. It is creating a massive student accommodation crisis. What is the Taoiseach going to do about it?
The Deputy raised the homelessness issue in the first part of his question. The Government's Housing for All strategy has fundamentally changed the State's approach to housing. Some €4 billion per annum will now be allocated to increasing housing supply - social housing, affordable housing, cost rental and private sector housing. We need housing supply to increase under all headings. A wide range of measures will be introduced. The legislative underpinning for those measures has been already passed through the Oireachtas in the majority of cases. Part of the Housing for All strategy is the total elimination of homelessness over the next decade. We have committed and signed up to that. Progress has been made in the past year. Fianna Fáil, by the way, has been in government for only the past 14 or 15 months and has not been in government for ten years, as the Deputy glibly throws out all the time. We need to increase investment in housing to get supply. Supply is the big issue for us.
The number of people in emergency accommodation has fallen by 7% in the past year. The current number of homeless individuals is 8,132, which represents a reduction of 23% from the 10,500 people recorded in October 2019 which was the highest number recorded to date. The current level of family homelessness is 48% below the peak figure recorded in July 2018.
For us, the housing first strategy is the key instrument in dealing with homelessness. We are working with the non-governmental organisations and the approved housing bodies in the homeless area to significantly increase supply. We are providing them with the resources particularly through the housing first approach, which I think most people accept is the preferable way to deal with homelessness in this country. We are very committed to that and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is certainly committed to dealing with it.
Regarding student accommodation, the Minister introduced legislation, the Residential Tenancies Act, to protect tenants, including students. We are also giving the capacity to the institutes of technology to borrow in order to provide additional student accommodation supply for students attending the technological universities and the institutes. For many years they did not have that capacity, which the universities had. We will be keeping a close eye to ensure the third level colleges do not charge exorbitant rates to students.
Obviously, the broader housing issue impacts on this because the more housing we develop, the greater capacity we develop in the market for students to be able to access accommodation at an affordable rate. At the moment we do not have the supply we need. We need to be building far more units across the board than we are currently building. Housing for All sets out a programme to do just that with very significant resources allocated.
We will debate the detail of Housing for All another day. I am a member of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight. According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, there will not be €4 billion of Government expenditure on Housing for All. There will be about €2.5 billion of direct Exchequer funding and the Government is essentially hoping to get the rest from the private sector. I will leave that for another day.
My point is that the reason we have a housing crisis in general, and specifically a student accommodation crisis, is that what is being built is for profit and it is unaffordable. This city is littered with new developments of highly expensive, unaffordable, private investor-built, student accommodation costing €1,000 or more a month.
It is also littered with new hotels which are now being rented to students who cannot find affordable accommodation. Does the Taoiseach know how many additional hotel rooms will be built, which are in the planning system, over the next while? It is 18,000 new hotel rooms. In this city between now and 2023, some 24 new hotels will be built - we have already had many new hotels built - with another 4,500 rooms. All that building capacity is going into building stuff for profit, but not going into building the affordable student accommodation we actually need. Now that disease is spreading onto the college campuses, with UCD building student accommodation for €14,000 a year, which is completely unaffordable, what is the Government going to do about it?
I do not accept the juxtaposition of the tourism industry expanding and developing accommodation, and students. The tourism industry will grow and develop. We want that to happen to create employment and so on.
We do not want students renting hotel rooms. We want proper, purpose-built, affordable accommodation for students. That is what Housing for All aims to do and that is the agenda. The most effective way of dealing with all manifestations of the housing crisis, be it student accommodation, homelessness or the lack of affordability is to build far more houses and apartments than we are currently building. That is the key aim. There is a comprehensive range of measures to do that in Housing for All. The issues will be capacity constraints, making sure that we have a workforce in place to build at the scale of what we want to build.
Those are the challenges and why we have set up a delivery model to make sure that all aspects of delivering Housing for All are attended to and dealt with.
Budget 2022 must be different. We have a once in a generation opportunity, as we work our way out of this pandemic, to restructure our economy. The Deputies in the Regional Group are firmly of the view that this budget cannot just be about closing the gaps that have emerged during the pandemic; it must also implement the strategy and support structures that will ensure that every person in Ireland can grow and be supported in our recovery. First and foremost, we must ensure that we have a tax and welfare system where work always pays. Returning to work must be the most financially beneficial option for individuals and families. This is the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty in families. Every child should have a healthy environment, a home and an education.
While there are many ways to measure poverty, for me, the most basic measure is hunger. No child should go to bed hungry. A child will never reach his or her full potential if that child sits at a school desk hungry. According to the study by the State agency, Safefood, one in ten of our population lives in food poverty. The best way to boost incomes of poor families is by removing cliff-edge barriers to work embedded in our tax and welfare codes, for example, by removing the anomaly where workers who earn in excess of €352 a week face a high marginal PRSI rate of 23.6% on additional income up to €424 or by introducing a sliding scale of welfare payments so that people do not find themselves better off out of work than in work.
We have all been contacted by employers who are finding it difficult to fill positions or where employees are refusing overtime or will only work three days a week. The fact is that both individuals and families are deterred from returning to work or accepting additional hours for fear that they will be penalised by the welfare system and related supports. For example, the income limits for social housing have not increased in a decade, while property prices have doubled over the same period, forcing people to turn down work or face the prospect of homelessness. This has to be turned on its head and our tax and welfare system must actively support people to return to the workforce in any capacity. Work must always be a better option than welfare and the first place that we should start is with a radical overhaul of the working family payment, both with regard to the exclusions and the rates of support, to always make it financially better for families to access employment regardless of their make-up.
I thank the Deputy for the question. I accept that work is always the best option and there is an onus to facilitate and incentivise opportunities for work in the economy. The successful reopening of the economy and sectors of society over the past six months is having a significant impact on the numbers of people at work. For example, the number of people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment is down to 114,000 this week.
That is down from a peak of 602,000 last year, which is very good progress. Employment opportunities have been created. We need to do more. I take the Deputy's point in respect of the cliff-edge nature of payments; he referenced the PRSI rate for those earning between €18,000 and €22,000 per annum. Those measures were originally introduced to avoid an even sharper cliff edge that was present prior to their introduction. We established the Commission on Taxation and Welfare to deal with the broader tax and welfare systems and the interplay between them. Issues such as that will fall under the remit of the commission. It has been asked to review how best the taxation and welfare systems can support economic activity and income redistribution while promoting employment and prosperity. The commission is where many of these issues will, hopefully, be dealt with, and recommendations will come from it. In the interim, in the context of the budget, the Ministers for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and Social Protection will periodically review the existing measures and will look at anomalies or traps that could perhaps discourage or act as a disincentive for people to take up employment or move to full-time employment, for example.
I take the Deputy's point in respect of the income limits for social housing. Those thresholds are low. I have asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to look at them. They are under review. We have large numbers on the social housing list but the idea that people are not able to progress in work or get an increase in salary because that would marginally rule them out of eligibility for a social house needs to be relaxed. We need to take a more holistic approach to that issue. That is my view. There are complications around the implementation of it. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and his Department are looking at the issue that is there.
The Deputy raised the issue of liability around social insurance contributions. He knows why that was brought in in 2016. As I said, both Ministers will keep those thresholds under review in the context of the forthcoming budget. This year's budget for the Department of Social Protection is €25 billion. There are exceptional items in it because of the Covid-19 pandemic but it has been an unprecedented year in respect of the social protection budget.
It is not all about reform. There are many supports to help people transition from welfare but they are of little use if we cannot get that message out. We need a single government interface that shows how starting work or increasing hours can increase income. Building on the Department of Social Protection's benefit of work estimator, we need an individualised income calculator that is much clearer on eligibility for a range of entitlements, which often causes confusion. We must make sure that a work always pays strategy is not focused on encouraging people into low-paid employment but about giving them the skills for today's economy so they have the ability to earn more and progress in their careers.
The welfare website must also provide a user-friendly interface that outlines the supports and options for education and retraining. Work always pay must be about giving people real hope and the opportunity to access education and employment and reversing these unacceptable levels of poverty.
I do not disagree with the Deputy. The pathways to work strategy we launched in July is very heavily weighted towards, and focused on, skills and upskilling. The key to work is more on the skills side than on the cliff edges and anomalies side. We have to do everything we possibly can to provide people with the wherewithal on skills education to enable them to access a wide range of employment opportunities. The apprenticeship programmes, including, for example, the national action plan on apprenticeships, is yielding results. There are incentives in that for employers. We want to get to 10,000 new apprenticeship registrations per year by 2025. We are on target to achieve that. The Department of Social Protection, SOLAS, working with the education and training boards, ETBs, and the further education sector, is the key nexus in terms of the skills, work and return to education agendas.
We need to provide more flexible learning models and modules for people to access with a view to gaining employment. That is the key, in my view, to enabling people to get work that is sustainable in the future and allows progression.