Thursday, 16 September 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Tá an scannal mica go fóill ag tarlú agus teaghlaigh agus úinéir tí ag fanacht le scéal. Thug an Rialtas gealltanas dóibh i mí an Mheithimh go mbeidh cúiteamh 100% le fáil acu. Táimid i lár mhí Mheán Fómhair agus níl soiléiriú ar bith faighte acu. On 15 June, thousands of homeowners and families affected by the mica and pyrites scandal travelled to Leinster House and Government Buildings. They sent out a clear message that they will not be forgotten. On the same day, this House passed a motion brought by Sinn Féin on behalf of those families and homeowners. The motion noted the existence of the existing scheme that was unfit for purpose and called on the Government to introduce a 100% redress scheme for those affected by defective blocks. It also called on the Government to ensure those responsible are held to account and that the industry should contribute to the overall cost of remediation. The motion was unanimously agreed to by this House. In response, the Minister with responsibility for housing set up a working group to review and address the issues with the existing failed scheme. That working group was given a six-week deadline to report by the end of July. That deadline came and went, with the Minister giving the working group an extension until the end of this month.
Since that motion passed, the impact of the mica and pyrites scandal has continued to exact a heavy toll on families. Over the summer, several families have watched as their homes have been demolished. One of those, the Price family in Inishowen, saw their home reduced to rubble by a digger. The home of Donna and Mike, and her three children, aged 19, 13 and 9 years, is no longer standing. Others continue to live in the conditions that put them and their children at risk with walls and ceiling crumbling around them. Many of them have shared their lived experience of how this scandal has not only damaged the bricks and mortar of their homes, but has also placed a heavy toll on their mental health and relationships. They cannot be allowed to wait any longer. They are victims of self-regulation, no-regulation and light-touch regulation regimes. They are like the thousands of families and homeowners who live or lived with dangerous fire safety or structural defects. Regimes created by successive Governments are more interested in the wishes of developers than the safety of homeowners and tenants.
The existing defective block redress scheme is not fit for purpose; that is clear. In some cases, the remaining costs are more than €100,000, which is the equivalent of a second mortgage for many families. Affected homeowners, their families and children in Donegal and Mayo and other counties deserve equality with the scheme that was rolled out prior to this one for homes affected by pyrites in Dublin and north Leinster. That is not just the will of the families. That is the will of this House as per the motion that was passed on this issue on 15 June, three months ago.
Will the Tánaiste work with the representatives of the families from The Mica Action Group to deliver 100% redress? Will he tell us if he is personally committed to 100% redress? The Tánaiste will recall in 2008, he travelled to Donegal and had the opportunity to meet with the action group and see the impact on homes. At that time, he told affected families, rightly, that they deserved equality with the pyrite scheme. He said that is fair. Three years on, they do not have equality. Three years on, families like Donna's see diggers rip into their homes where their dreams and memories of raising their children and family are torn into rubble. Will the Tánaiste commit to those words today? Will he lift the burden off so many families? Will he commit to establishing 100% redress for homeowners and families in Donegal, Mayo and other counties who are seeing their homes crumble before their eyes?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of mica in the Chamber today. It is an issue of real importance not just in Donegal, but in Mayo and other counties around Ireland. As the Deputy said, I have been in those homes and met with some of the people involved. Not only have I seen it with my own eyes, but I have felt it in my fingers when I touched those walls. One can see how easily they can break and crumble. I know the devastation it has caused people. I know how much personality, life and love people put into their homes. To see them fall apart, damaged and demolished must be heartbreaking.
The Government is committed to finding a solution to this. It has gone on for too long; the Deputy is correct in that. We came up with a solution we thought would work, which was the 90% scheme agreed by the last Government. For various reasons, the 90% did not turn out to be 90% because of other costs, including rent when people move out of their houses, engineering reports and such matters. I agree that we need to bring forward an enhanced scheme, a better scheme, than the one we put together under the last Government to deal with this issue. We are committed to doing that. I am told, so far, 513 homeowners have applied under the scheme for stage 1 and 382 have been approved. Some 37 have been subsequently approved for stage 2.
In response to the concerns expressed by homeowners culminating in the protest in July, a time-bound working group was established to consider all issues raised. The first meeting was on Wednesday 30 June, when the terms of reference were agreed to. The purpose of this group is to review and address any outstanding issues in relation to the operation of the scheme, including, grant caps, homeowner contributions, engineering and allowable costs. Meetings were held weekly until the end of July and the fifth full meeting took place on 27 July. At the request of the homeowner representatives, it was agreed to extend the timeframe of the working group from the end of July to the end of September, which is now approaching. While the working group did not officially meet during August, homeowner representatives continued to meet with the Department Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Housing Agency on particular items. The group is chaired by the Secretary General of the Department, and the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, attended the first meeting. Unfortunately, Mayo homeowners have withdrawn from the working group but continue to liaise with the Donegal representatives who are still on the group. Efforts are ongoing to have the Mayo action group nominate new representatives.
The Department has also received requests from other counties to be included in the scheme. In those cases, the local authority has been charged with providing a list of defects being complained of, such as excessive mica or pyrite, and relate to the quantum. Counties include Sligo, Clare, Limerick and Tipperary. It is fair to say this issue has broadened to beyond Donegal and Mayo and includes many other parts of the country. A submission from Clare County Council has been received. That arrived in the Department at the end of July and is being reviewed.
The membership of the working group initially comprised of three homeowners from Donegal, who were nominated by the Donegal mica group; three homeowners from Mayo, from the Mayo and north Mayo pyrite groups; three officials from the Department Housing, Local Government and Heritage; one official from Donegal County Council; and an official from Mayo County Council. The Government's position is that we will provide whatever support we can to facilitate the working group to report back with its recommendation to the Minster with responsibility for housing by the end of this month. The Government will consider the recommendations from the working group following cross-Government input, in particular from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Attorney General's office. Dialogue continues with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, and Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland with regard to grants for energy upgrades. In addition, an exemption of the local property tax has been granted for homes impacted by defective concrete blocks. Section 18 of the finance Act provides that relief for six years.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Tánaiste for his response. I listened closely to what he said about finding a solution and an enhanced scheme. Allow me to speak about the commitment he made to those families and the working group in 2018. The Tánaiste said there should be parity with the pyrite scheme. That is what is fair and that is 100% redress. In June, the Tánaiste voted in this House in favour of 100% redress. I know nothing is simple. I know i's need to be dotted and t's need to be crossed and the details needs to put down on paper. However, there are countless families suffering with mental health pressures and anxiety, who do not know what the future holds for them and their families. That burden can be lifted off them today by the Tánaiste recommitting that the Government will provide 100% redress to these families, by giving voice to the motion that was passed in this House on 15 June, and by re-articulating the commitment he gave to the families when he was Taoiseach. Beyond trying to find a solution and an enhanced scheme, which could mean many things, will the Tánaiste commit to these families that there will be 100% redress?
The current scheme was agreed in collaboration with local action groups, local authorities and homeowner representatives. The decision to go with a grant scheme as opposed to the type of scheme provided under the Pyrite Resolution Board was done with the intention to give homeowners the flexibility to manage their own projects and to allow them to deal directly with their appointed contractor.
The defective concrete blocks scheme is intended to put homeowners in the position they would have been in regard to their home had it not been for the defective concrete blocks. It was not the intention of the scheme that it would fully cover the cost of a new-build home to 2021 building standards, with all new house components funded by the Exchequer. Grant schemes generally seek a recipient contribution so as to control costs, incentivise the use of appropriate remediation options and promote the reuse of materials where that is feasible. We accept that we need a significantly enhanced scheme. That is being developed at the moment and I cannot make any definitive commitments on that at present. That will be a matter for Government to decide before the end of the month, but I know the Minister is committed to working with the homeowners to find a resolution to this problem. I accept that this resolution is long overdue.
The Minister, Deputy Coveney's, botched appointment of Katherine Zappone was a scandal for many reasons, one of which was his inconsistent and contradictory statements to the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee. This necessitated two visits to the committee by the Minister so that he could clarify and expand on remarks he had made. It seems that Ministers giving incorrect information to Oireachtas Members is a theme of this Government. On 24 June, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, clearly and unequivocally told my colleague, Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, on the record of this House: "[The shared equity scheme] has been passed by the Central Bank [and] has received approval...". The Minister repeated this claim earlier this month when he appeared on RTÉ's "Prime Time". No such approval of the shared equity scheme was given by the Central Bank. In fact, both the bank and the ESRI, as well as officials of the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and Finance, have been highly critical of it. They have all warned that the shared equity scheme will fuel house price inflation.
Yesterday, hundreds of people gathered outside this House to protest about the housing crisis. We will see more of that in the coming months. I went out to the protestors, as did my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, and it is very clear that they cannot take further house price increases. However, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, announced yesterday that house prices had increased by 8.6% in the year to July. Houses prices have doubled since 2013. The Tánaiste has been in government for all that time. The shared equity scheme was drafted by the construction industry and lobbied for by developers. They remain almost its only supporters. They support it because it will fuel further house price increases. It is in their interest. In the UK, a similar scheme resulted in house prices increasing and a boom in profits for large developers. There was no additional supply in the locations where it was needed. That was despite government spin in the UK.
As if that was not bad enough, we now have a Minister falsely claiming the scheme is supported by the regulator. Does the Tánaiste think it is acceptable for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to come into this House and make false claims about the Central Bank's approval of a Government scheme? Does he agree that we should be able to trust information that is given by Ministers to this House? We hope lessons have been learned from the Zappone debacle. Will the Tánaiste call on the Minister to come in and make a full statement and correct the record as a matter or urgency?
I thank the Deputy. My understanding is that the Minister has already clarified his position and his remarks in regard to this issue. I am sure he will be in the Chamber in the near future. If not today, I am sure he will be in the Chamber next week for some reason or another. All of us from time to time say things that are inaccurate or incorrect, including the Deputy. There is not a single Member in this House who has not said something in an interview, at a meeting or in an email that turned out to be incorrect. All of us make mistakes in that regard. We do so in good faith and when it is pointed out to us that we said something that was wrong, we try to correct it as soon as possible. We need to be appreciative of, and understand, that. I do not think there is a single person in this House who has never had to clarify a remark or correct the record in regard to something they said in an interview, in the Chamber, at a committee meeting or, perhaps, at a meeting in his or her constituency.
I have not been briefed on this particular matter in the past couple of weeks but my understanding is that when it comes to the affordable housing scheme, there are two shared equity schemes - one local authority-led and one that will be led by financial institutions. My understanding, and it could be incorrect - I will say that upfront - is that they do not require the approval of the Central Bank, but what may be required by the bank is approval for individual financial institutions to participate in one of those two schemes. I think that is the context in which the Minister made the remarks. There are two schemes, neither require Central Bank approval but, for one of the schemes, the individual financial institutions would require approval to take part. However, I may be incorrect in that regard.
When it comes to Government actions on housing, one has to see them in the round. Housing for All is a package and if just one aspect of it was picked, of course it would not work, but when all of them are put together, I believe it can work. We have a massive social housing programme, which involves building more social housing in Ireland at this time than ever in the history of the State. That is good for everyone. It is not just good for people who get taken off the housing list and get social housing; it frees up rental properties for other people, thereby helping to control rents, and can help to bring down the general cost of housing. We have a rent freeze in real terms, linking rents to inflation, which will be very helpful for people who are renting at the moment. We have the Land Development Agency, a Government developer, building housing. That is a massive intervention by the State in the housing market and housing system. We have infrastructure funds that will service land with roads and water, making it possible for it to be developed and thus help to control the cost of housing. We also have the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme, which is going to be expanded and will become a local authority home loan. Single people earning up to €65,000 will qualify for a fixed-term, 20- or 30-year mortgage at a low rate, enabling them to afford a mortgage they would not otherwise have been able to afford. When all those things together are taken together, along with the affordable housing scheme, there is a very good plan and the Government is determined to drive it forward over the next couple of years.
I want to clear something up with the Tánaiste. I accept that people come in and make mistakes. Nobody is infallible. However, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, came in yesterday and made a very brief comment to the House, with no reference to the statement he made about the Central Bank. It is essential that the record be corrected. This is not just some mistake. It was doubled down on by the Minister going on RTÉ's "Prime Time" and telling the country the Central Bank had approved the scheme. That is not the case. The record needs to be corrected and we need to be able to trust what we are told in this House.
Yes, we do have to look at a housing programme in the round. Indeed, the current housing programme that has been announced is reversing some of the measures that were taken by the previous Government. Some of the announced measures are going to be introduced into the future rather than now. Of course we need to build social housing.
I am informed that the Minister has written to the Ceann Comhairle to correct the record. I am confident he will do whatever is necessary in that regard.
What this is fundamentally about, and I think we will all agree on this, is helping people to buy their own home. I believe in home ownership and this Government believes in home ownership. Ireland is still a country where 65% to 70% of people own their own home. That is not the reality, however, for lots of people, particularly younger people and even those who are not that young. The question is what can we do. We have a lot of people who are paying €1,500 or €2,000 a month in rent, which are very high rents, and just about managing to do so, yet they cannot get a mortgage for a lower monthly figure than that. We need to help them in two ways. One way we are going to help them is with the local authority home loan, where people get a long-term, fixed-rate and low-rate mortgage they cannot get from the banks, thus enabling them to get an adequate mortgage to buy houses that are available. We are also going to help them with the shared equity schemes. I know people will say this could have an inflationary effect on house prices but what is the alternative to that? It is to leave them renting, and that will have an inflationary effect on rents.
I wish to raise with the Tánaiste a very urgent, serious problem that has erupted for the people of Bunane, Kenmare and on the west Cork side, Glengarriff and Bantry. A serious problem has arisen whereby Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, proposes to close the N71 Caha Pass tunnel between Cork and Kerry for ten weeks from 4 November. Everyone appreciates the work it proposes to carry out to stabilise part of the roof of the tunnel. That work needs to be done but the timing is wrong. We all know that the country was closed down for a very long time and we are disappointed that the work was not carried out then.
I attended a meeting organised by the Bunane Community Council at Stephen O'Sullivan's premises, Molly Gallivan's, as did many other public representatives. The meeting was also attended by a massive crowd of business people, farmers and concerned individuals from the Kenmare, Bunane, Glengarriff and Bantry areas of west Cork as well. It was pointed out clearly that business, tourism, agriculture and every other aspect of life have been closed down for almost a year and a half and that they hope to be busy for all the month of October and the early part of November. Molly Gallivan's already has 22 buses booked for October. It was also pointed out that 30 or more cruise liners came into Bantry Harbour last October and it is expected that they will return next month. The spin-off from them would help Bunane, Glengarriff and the Kenmare area if they could go back and forth through the tunnel. This is the only option for buses, as the only other way to connect Bantry and Kenmare is eastwards to Macroom in mid-Cork, which is more than 35 miles one way. The manager of Kenmare mart told the meeting, as did many farmers from the Bantry, Skibbereen and Goleen areas, that the main trading time for selling sheep and weanlings is October and early November. My ask on behalf of the local community is that the time for beginning the works should be pushed out towards the end of November and that the timeframe for the works to be completed would be reduced from ten weeks, as this is way too long. There are a few pinch points in the roof of the tunnel already, preventing coaches of the maximum height from getting through the tunnel.
I know this is an important issue locally in Kenmare, Glengarriff, Bantry and in other parts of south Kerry and west Cork. My colleague, Deputy Griffin, is on the case as well. As the Deputy will appreciate, I do not have any control over the timing of the works on the tunnel, as it does not fall under my remit, but I understand the case being made to defer the works for a few weeks. I am not sure whether that is possible, but I understand why people are calling for that. It is ultimately a matter for TII and the local authority, but I appreciate the importance of this and the fact that the Deputy raised it here today.
It makes common sense to not start the works until the end of November. The men working on the tunnel will be inside the tunnel so the weather will not matter to them.
The other issue is that now that the tunnel is going to be closed at that time, the works that should have been done many years ago to raise the roof from 3.5 m in a few places to 3.8 m. must be done urgently. Deputy Griffin is interrupting me and hurting the people of south Kerry and west Cork while I am speaking to the Tánaiste for the few minutes that I have. That is fine, but if he had told the Tánaiste the story, he would not need to be talking to him now. What I am asking now of the Tánaiste and Minister for Transport is to not start the works until the end of November and most certainly to raise the roof of the tunnel to make it passable for every type of vehicle going from one county to the other. TII must not leave the tunnel in the state it has been in for hundreds of years.
I hear what the Deputy is saying and I understand the case he is making on behalf of his constituents. Just before this, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was here for transport questions. Unfortunately, he is not here now so I cannot refer this to him, but Deputy Griffin and I will speak to him later in the day and make contact with TII and see if it is possible. There may be very good reasons as to why they cannot defer the works, but I do not know that as I am not across the project and I am not a tunnel or road engineer. I appreciate the fact that the Deputy has used his slot here to raise this issue. Therefore, it must be very important to him and his constituents. We will endeavour to make contact with the Minister for Transport to see if his suggestion can be followed.
I am going to make a statement now. Deputy Griffin is completely out of order. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae had the floor and he was asking his question on Leaders' Questions. Deputy Griffin is completely and utterly out of order.
The resignations of Professor Tom Keane, chair of the Sláintecare advisory committee, and Laura Magahy, executive director of the Sláintecare programme, to reshape the health service have now been followed by the resignation of Professor Geraldine McCarthy, chair of the South/South West Hospital Group, who in a letter to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, expressed concerns about the lack of progress in implementing Sláintecare reforms. These developments may be followed up by further resignations from the advisory committee, which has been left in the dark regarding what is going on and the reasons for the resignation of Professor Keane. Liam Doran was on the radio yesterday morning expressing those concerns.
One does not have to be a genius to see there are serious frustrations among those tasked with overseeing the Sláintecare reforms. It seems to be the case that this crisis is as the result of opposition at the top of the HSE to the creation of six new regional health bodies, which would result in the devolution of powers from the executive. The regionalisation of services is essential to Sláintecare and the integration of hospital and community healthcare and to respond to the financial public health needs in the regions but Paul Reid, who runs the HSE, stated last year that regionalisation was not a priority and it seems the Minister agrees.
I was a member of the Dáil committee, along with the Minister, that produced the Sláintecare report. It was well understood by the committee that the proposed reforms, in reality a revolution in how our healthcare would be delivered, would meet with serious opposition whether from the Department of Health, the HSE, elements among the medical profession and the numerous vested interests in private healthcare. That is why two key recommendations dealing with the implementation of Sláintecare were included in the report. One was that the implementation oversight body would not be placed in the Department of Health but in the Taoiseach's office and, second, that there would be special funding of €600 million a year for five years to support its work.
In 2017, when the Government, of which Deputy Varadkar was the Taoiseach, accepted the Sláintecare programme, neither of these two recommendations were implemented. The oversight body was placed in the Department of Health and no specific funding was allocated. I believe this was done deliberately. The political commitment to implement Sláintecare as envisioned by the committee report was simply not there and still is not. Dr. Michael Harty, in 2019, came into the House on Leaders’ Questions and explained very succinctly why Sláintecare was not being implemented properly.
Does the Tánaiste agree that what needs to be done now is to move the implementation body to the Department of the Taoiseach immediately? The Taoiseach's statement that the Department does not have the staff to run the health service is ridiculous. Nobody is asking it to do that. It is about giving the implementation body the clout of the Taoiseach's office to deal effectively with opposition.
I thank the Deputy. I want to add to the words of others in expressing my regret at the fact Professor Tom Keane has stepped down as chair of the Sláintecare committee, albeit six weeks before his term was due to end. I met him in Ireland and in Toronto. He is a fine man and I am sorry he is no longer part of this project. Obviously, I regret the fact Laura Magahy has resigned as the programme director.
I think it is important, though, to set out some facts. In contrast to what the Deputy said earlier, €1.235 billion - that is €1,235 million - was allocated to Sláintecare initiatives in 2021, that is this year. I am reminded of Laura Magahy's positive comments to the Oireachtas after the previous budget in respect of the funding delivered by Government to the programme. In her own words, she recognised that €1.2 billion was provided for Sláintecare initiatives this year by this Government. In the most recent progress report on the first six months of the new Sláintecare implementation strategy, the report, which was produced by Ms Magahy, shows that of the 112 deliverables in the first six months, 84 were on track, 25 were in progress with minor challenges and three were experiencing major challenges. Out of 112, 85 are on track, 25 getting there and three behind. This is not my opinion. This is the opinion of the former director herself - €1.2 billion and the vast majority of actions on track - and I think it is important to put that on the record.
A lot has been done on health reform in the past year or so. More than 800 beds were added to our hospital system, the equivalent of two medium-sized hospitals being added to the system, which is extraordinary, with 6,000 more staff, 250 more consultants, thousands more nurses and midwives, an increase in our critical care bed capacity of nearly 50, which is extraordinary when you understand the depth of that, GP access to diagnostics, e-prescribing, something which was talked about forever and is now a reality, remote and virtual clinics and a dramatic reduction in the waiting lists for home care. If anyone is suggesting that reforms have not happened, money has not been spent and progress has not been made, that would be very untrue and very unfair, in my view.
In regard to the RICOs, regional integrated care organisations, something I very much support, establishing them is Government policy to slim the HSE at the centre and to establish more regional autonomy. The Government agreed to that in 2019 but, in fairness to the HSE, since that was signed off by Government, and it was in recent weeks or months of the previous Government, we have had a pandemic, we have had a cyberattack and we have had people working from home. Anyone who has been involved in restructuring an organisation knows how difficult it would have been to proceed with establishing new structures when people are not even in the office and they are working from home in many cases, unable to reapply for new jobs, interviews, redundancy schemes and all those complicated things that have to be put together when we do restructuring. Even leaving aside those difficulties, it had a cyberattack which crippled its services for months and it had to deal with a pandemic. I think the HSE has done a fabulous job in this pandemic in so many aspects of what has been done.
I do not think anyone should point the finger at staff. What Covid- 19 has demonstrated is how universal public healthcare can be delivered from the point of view of access for everybody to public healthcare, to vaccinations, to PCR testing, to GPs and to hospital care. That is not in question here. However, that Covid care is a model for how Sláintecare has to be implemented. Covid-19 was pushed by Government and politically driven. We had an advisory group, NPHET, and we had staff willing and able to put themselves upfront to deliver on those services. That is we have to see in Sláintecare but we have not seen that.
The Tánaiste said that the money was put in, and it was €1.2 billion in 2019 or 2020, but Sláintecare specifically states €600 million a year, starting in 2018, and that it must be in the Taoiseach's office to deliver it politically. That is where we are lacking, but we do not really know because we have not been able to find out why Laura Magahy or Tom Keane resigned. I know the Minister is meeting Laura Magahy. Are the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach going to meet these people to find out what went wrong and then implement what they need to drive the programme forward? We will not get two better people to do this and it is a shame they are gone.
I thank the Deputy. I understand the Taoiseach is going to meet them and the Minister for Health has or is about to meet with the advisory council. I am not pointing any fingers here. The Deputy is the one who has been pointing fingers. I do agree with her that Covid care is a very good example of how we can run a health service well in the future. What she may not know, or may not wish to acknowledge, is that a huge amount of what has been done on Covid care in the past year or two has been done in the form of a public-private partnership, with a large degree of outsourcing: private contractors, private hospitals, GPs who are private contractors providing these services, private labs and private recruitment services that were used to bypass the cumbersome public systems that slow down recruitment.
If what we have done in terms of our response to Covid in the past year or so is a success, and the Deputy has acknowledged it is, I think she needs to perhaps consider why it worked so well, why it was done so quickly and why it was able to stay on budget.
Before we move to Questions on Promised Legislation, I took the unusual step of standing up on my first time in the Chair on the return. I do not wish to repeat that. I have asked a Deputy to consider that he was completely out of order and I would ask that this does not happen again. I do not wish to stand up. The Deputy had the floor and he was tabling his questions. I will not tolerate baiting across the floor during Leaders’ Questions or at any time. I am going to move on.