Thursday, 14 October 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Yesterday, the plight of private renters dominated Leaders' Questions, and rightly so. The budget did not contain a single measure to ease the burden of sky-high rents. The only mention of the private rental sector was the extension of a tax relief to landlords. In response, the Taoiseach deliberately conflated the social rental sector with private renters. He talked about the housing assistance payment, HAP, and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. Does he not realise that increasing these expensive, short-term schemes by almost 15,000 tenancies next year will actually make the situation for private renters much worse? He said the Land Development Agency, LDA, would deliver 1,000 cost rental homes next year. Does he not realise that this is wishful thinking? The LDA does not have 1,000 cost rental units under construction. This means that the only way it can reach this target is if it purchases from private developers, snatching even more homes away from struggling buyers. He said that funding will be provided to approved housing bodies to deliver 750 cost rental units but the Government could not even deliver the 390 cost rental units promised this year. He also rejected Sinn Féin's proposal for a refundable tax credit for renters, yet he promised this very measure in his election manifesto.
Not to be outdone, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, protested loudly when criticised for his failure to protect renters. Red-faced from his failed policy of linking rents to inflation at a time when inflation is about to pass 4%, he is now promising a 2% cap. Like Fine Gael's 4% cap on rent hikes, this measure will not work. It will not apply to renters outside rent pressure zones and it will not apply to new properties on the market. It will be impossible to police for new tenants in existing rental dwellings. The Minister's call for the Residential Tenancies Board to step up enforcement of the rules rings hollow when the Government will not even provide the board with enough staff to do its job.
The last time I raised the plight of private renters with the Tánaiste was in September. I reminded him that during his decade in power, rents have increased 100%. When he was Taoiseach, the number of properties in the rental market dropped by 20,000. Instead of dealing with the issue, the Tánaiste went on the attack. He avoided, misdirected and misrepresented. He may think that this kind of belligerent approach is good for his satisfaction ratings but it actually confirms that the Tánaiste has no empathy. He lacks that basic human ability to put himself in the shoes of other people enduring hardship. Why would he? He, more than any other politician in the Government, is directly responsible for that hardship, with working single people and couples desperately trying to save for a deposit, separated and divorced people who have lost their family homes, families recovering from Celtic tiger-era home repossession, students forced to choose between sky-high rents and crippling commutes, and modest-income workers approaching retirement and looking nervously to the future.
My question is simple. When will the Tánaiste and Government stop abandoning renters and act to cut rents and ban rent increases?
It is hard to hear anyone in Sinn Féin accusing anyone in the Government of misrepresentation. Misrepresentation, misquotes, telling us what we think and believe, and then criticising us for what it says we think and believe, is a classic Sinn Féin tactic. There is misrepresentation all the time. It is what Sinn Féin thrives on. I think it is beneath Deputy Ó Broin because-----
It is wrong. It is classic of the left-wing populism which Sinn Féin stands for. It is about creating ideas of masses against the elites, simple solutions to complex problems, and demonising opponents. It is not just about disagreeing with people but saying that the people that Sinn Féin disagrees with are lesser people and do not care as much. That is pure left-wing populism. That kind of populism has destroyed politics in many other democracies. Sinn Féin represents that in this country. I hope that will become more obvious to people over the years. It should be possible to disagree with people without questioning their motives or making them out to be uncaring or whatever Sinn Féin's current line is. It is beneath the Deputy. It is unnecessary and I hope he will reconsider that approach. It is the left-wing populist approach. It is the mirror image of what Trump and Brexit have done, and what extremists are doing on the left and right all over Europe.
The housing crisis affects different people in different ways. Some people are struggling to pay rent, other people are struggling to pay mortgages, and there are people in their 30s and 40s still living at home with their parents because they are struggling to raise a deposit to buy a house as that is what they want to do. In the budget, we introduced income tax and welfare packages that will benefit people across society. It will not just benefit renters but all workers and indeed people who are on welfare. We stand over the approach that we took in this budget.
We have done two significant things for private renters in the budget. We are retaining the help to buy scheme, which helps people to raise a deposit to buy a house. We have record levels of investment in social housing, cost rental and affordable housing. That is what we did in the budget for private renters. Sinn Féin's approach was different. It offered a rent tax credit of about €1,000 a month, but with one hand it would give renters €1,000 while with the other hand it would take away €20,000 to €30,000 by abolishing the help to buy scheme. Renters who want to become homeowners are much better off under this Government than they would be under Sinn Féin. There is no doubt that renters who want to buy would be better off under this Government than they would be under Sinn Féin. I believe that Sinn Féin is proposing that because it fundamentally does not believe in increasing home ownership. It is not against home ownership entirely, but it does not want to see the percentage of people who own their home increasing. Its model is different. It is the Vienna model. It is the central eastern European model-----
-----which is about people renting for life. It might be the case that rents would be lower. It might be the case that people would have more secure tenancies and that they are renting from a public landlord rather than a private landlord, but ultimately, the model that Sinn Féin proposes is about keeping people renting for life, whereas we propose to help people buy their own home. That is why we are retaining the help to buy grant, of €20,000 to €30,000 in tax back, when Sinn Féin would take that away. A person would need to draw down Sinn Féin's tax credit for 20 to 30 years to match that. That is a truth that people need to hear.
Not only has the Tánaiste's response confirmed that he lacks empathy for the struggle of renters, it also shows that he does not even understand the housing crisis. The Central Statistics Office released two important pieces of information today. House prices have increased by a staggering 10.9% across the State in the past year. That is why people cannot own their home and why, under the Tánaiste's leadership of Fine Gael, home ownership as a percentage of the total housing stock has continued to decline. Saying that he is in favour of home ownership but pushing it beyond the reach of working families is not only foolish but deeply hypocritical. Help to buy is a bad scheme. Some 60% of the people who got it did not need it and it pushed up house prices. Not only is there help to buy, but a toxic pro-developer shared equity loan scheme which will do even worse harm. We also have the latest CSO figures for the harmonised index of consumer prices, which was 3.8% in September and went to 3.9% this morning. What will the Government do to stop skyrocketing rents and help renters?
We would provide 4,000 affordable homes to purchase each year. I have told the Tánaiste that three times. All the Government is providing is 500 affordable homes to purchase. I can say it a fourth time if the Tánaiste did not hear me.
Where is Sinn Féin's empathy for private renters who want to buy? It would give them a €1,000 tax credit per year and take €20,000 off them by abolishing the help-to-buy scheme. That scheme has helped more than 30,000 individuals and couples to buy their own home since it was established.
-----and cost rental housing, which will help private renters. As well as that, we have brought in a rent freeze in real terms, making sure rents cannot go up by more than the rate of inflation. We may modify that again to bring that figure down.
On a point of order, the Deputy, who has demonstrated no empathy for people who want to buy their own home, has accused me of a lack of empathy. I can put up with that. He has also accused me of dishonesty. That is not okay. It is out of order and he should withdraw it.
I did not hear what was said but it is unacceptable to keep interrupting any speaker. It was the Tánaiste on the floor. It is unacceptable, no matter how deeply the Deputy feels on the subject. I ask Deputy Ó Broin to-----
This week most people were deeply disturbed and moved to learn about the plight of Adam Terry, a ten-year-old little boy who is living in agony because he has been waiting for more than four years for scoliosis surgery. Adam is not the only child who is suffering. This week I was contacted by the mother of a six-year-old girl, Rosie. She is desperately trying to get treatment for her daughter. Rosie was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus and has been diagnosed with epilepsy and scoliosis. She is a full-time wheelchair user.
In September 2019, Rosie and her mother met with consultant paediatric orthopaedic surgeon, Connor Green, at Temple Street and he said he hoped to operate on Rosie by that Christmas - that is Christmas 2019 - as a matter of urgency. That surgery did not take place and, more than two years later, there have been no updates from the hospital as to when it is likely to take place. That mother has contacted the hospital on numerous occasions, requested an independent review into Rosie's level of care and, earlier this year, finally went to the Ombudsman for Children. While this has been going on, Rosie's condition has significantly deteriorated. Both of her hips are now dislocated and she can no longer use her postural support equipment which is vital to try to limit the damage being done to her little body by scoliosis. Again I would point out that Rosie is six years old.
Rosie, Adam and the nearly 200 other children like them on waiting lists are enduring torture which is being facilitated by our healthcare system. There is no other way to describe such cruel infliction of needless pain. What does it say about our society and priorities that we allow this to happen? Children's bodies are becoming permanently deformed and they are enduring avoidable excruciating pain because of a lack of timely medical intervention.
It has been more than four years since the former health Minister, Deputy Harris, made a vow that children like Rosie and Adam would not have to wait more than four months for treatment. We all know Covid has had an impact but vital surgeries like these must be prioritised. In February, Mr. Green told The Irish Times:
"My access to theatre is half a day once a week, so I can do one child once a week. On average ... I can operate on [only] 40 children a year." Meanwhile, three to four patients per week are added to his ... list.
Mr. Green said if he operated every day from February to the end of the year he still would not clear his list. That is how bad things are. He said it was "disgusting and unacceptable". Will the Tánaiste give an indication of when Rosie will have her operation? Will he tell us how many theatres and what days is there space available for children in this appalling situation?
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I am sorry to hear about what Rosie is experiencing and what her family must be going through. I thank the Deputy for writing to me about it as well. I have the details I need and will follow it up with Children's Health Ireland during the week and get back to the Deputy about it as soon as I get a reply. My understanding from the Deputy's letter is the surgery was scheduled for 4 October but, on the Wednesday before the surgery, her mother got a phone call to say it was cancelled and they have not got an indication yet as to when it will be rescheduled. That is not a satisfactory situation. It is difficult to prepare a child for surgery, including psychologically. To find out it is cancelled is one thing; not to have another date is another thing again. That is extraordinarily difficult and I will follow it up with Children's Health Ireland to see what can be done.
On the wider issue of scoliosis and waiting lists, the Government severely regrets that children experience long waiting times for scoliosis treatment and we remain conscious of the burden this places on them and their families. Additional funding is committed as part of the budget to reduce waiting lists and improve waiting times. That is €250 million and there is a health budget of €22 billion this years, 50% higher than it was when the Deputy and I were in the Department of Health. It is a major increase in resources.
Officials in the Department of Health remain in regular contact with Children's Health Ireland, CHI, regarding scoliosis services, and CHI has advised that all patients with a diagnosis of scoliosis require a pre-operative work-up prior to spinal surgery. This includes multiple diagnostic investigations and review by a multidisciplinary team. The plan of care implemented for each patient is tailored to best meet the patient's clinical requirements. The cyberattack in 2021 caused significant disruption to the orthopaedic service and all services across the Children's Health Ireland group. As a result, many elective cases were postponed and, without access to a patient's full history and previous diagnostic investigations, it was not considered safe to proceed without all electronic support systems in place. For affected patients with complex needs, in particular, that restricted the patient cohort that could safely proceed with surgery.
Most systems are back up and running across the sites but backloading of information is continuing and this continues to have an impact on waiting lists and the number of surgeries completed. A new orthopaedic consultant with a special interest in neuromuscular conditions started in Temple Street last month, and that should enable the use of additional theatre capacity. Additional capacity is also being provided at the National Orthopaedic Hospital Cappagh. There are additional outpatient clinics and theatre sessions in Cappagh for non-complex, age-appropriate orthopaedic patients, and this should improve access to theatre on Children's Health Ireland base sites for more complex patients awaiting surgery.
Four years ago the Tánaiste's Government gave a commitment that no child would have to wait more than four months for scoliosis surgery. Four years later, what is that target now? I take it the Tánaiste is not in a position to recommit to his earlier target, which was never met. What now is the target for children with scoliosis, who are in agony? How many theatres are available and for how many hours per week to address these shocking waiting lists? In the case of Rosie, we were told her operation was cancelled because there were not beds for children who had operations.
What exactly is the logjam here? Is it a problem of theatre time? Is it theatre scheduling or theatre staff? Will the Tánaiste please shed some light on this matter? Why is it we have such an atrocious situation and we are failing these children so badly?
The four-month target was set by the director general of the HSE at the time, but it does remain the target: four months to outpatients and then four months to surgery. I do not know exactly what the situation is with regard to theatre time or theatre staff, but I will find out and I will get a reply for the Deputy as soon as I can.
Regarding the waiting lists, Children's Health Ireland advises us that as of the end of August, 118 patients were awaiting spinal fusion, a decrease of eight patients compared with the previous year, and 78 were awaiting other procedures, a decrease of nine on the previous year. It has advised that, due to the cyberattack these data are provisional and subject to validation.
It is not an exaggeration to say that budget 2022 ghosted agriculture. By and large, it did not feature. I accept that schemes were rolled over and some small but very welcome investments were made in forestry, organic farming, etc., but there was nothing new. There was nothing substantial for a sector that is supposed to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to reducing emissions. Current programmes will not deliver those reductions. Farmers were waiting for policy options and support in the interim between now and the start of the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, in 2023. If past experience is anything to go by, it can take quite a period of time for a lot of those programmes to bed in.
Farmers have been promised a just transition. What is the evidence of change so far? The evidence is we are importing peat from Latvia. Latvia is in the European Union and it has the same laws as we have. We are importing wood from Scotland. There is a real possibility of significantly increasing the importation of tonnages of beef from Brazil. That is the reality on the ground for farmers.
It was not just that agriculture was overlooked when it came to new supports. The sting in the tail is when it comes for example to the reduction in the flat rate VAT, from 5.6% to 5.5%. While 0.1% does not sound like much, it means €7 million to farmers.
It was also the fact that €49 million in carbon tax receipts that was supposed to go into agriculture have been deferred to social welfare. Is there no policy or programme to support the agricultural sector in decarbonising? A statement from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine tells us: "The needs of the Department of Agriculture for 2022 were met without recourse to carbon tax. This is simply a matter of scheduling." The needs of the Department may have been met, but the needs of farmers were not. There is a narrative out there that we wait for the CAP and it will sort out all the problems. I am running out of time, but I will outline one fact: 25% of the basic payment on which farmers rely is now for eco schemes under increased requirements. Farmers are being asked to do more with less.
Deputy Harkin raises a valid question on the ring-fencing of some of the carbon tax for green schemes and farmers, but I do not think it is the full picture in terms of the budget. What we agreed to when the Government was formed was that a proportion of the carbon tax would be ring-fenced for social welfare to increase the fuel allowance. We did that and we stand over it, but also that a significant proportion of the carbon tax would be ring-fenced for climate action. That includes retrofitting, most of which is happening in rural Ireland, but also for farmers as well. Farmers will benefit to the tune of €1.5 billion this decade directly from the proceeds of the carbon tax. I stand over that commitment. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, repeated it yesterday in his speech here in the Dáil, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, stands over that too. The sum of €1.5 billion in carbon tax proceeds will go to farmers this decade. A decision was taken to start that in 2023 in line with the new CAP. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, can explain the details of that, but it does make sense to do it at the start of the new CAP period in 2023. Farmers will get the full €1.5 billion between 2023 and 2030. I reiterate that commitment here today.
In terms of the budget as a whole, it contained €4 billion for farmers: €1.86 billion through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and €1.2 billion through EU schemes. It is a 2% increase on 2021 and an 11% increase on budget 2020.
As Deputy Harkin indicated, all the major farm schemes are protected, and that is real money to real farmers. There were a number of new measures, for example, €4 million was allocated for the establishment of the national food ombudsman and the food regulator. That is an important body we want to set up. It is being done very much at the request of farmers and will have a role in ensuring farmers get a fair price for beef and the other products they sell to the market.
In tax, the stamp duty relief for young, trained farmers and stock relief was renewed. The budget for Teagasc has been increased by €7 million, which is important as well in terms of science and research into agricultural issues. As well as that, it is important to bear in mind that farmers are workers and members of society too, and they will benefit from many of the changes made in the budget. Farmers pay income tax, so they will benefit from the reductions in income tax announced in the budget. Many farmers are in receipt of welfare payments. Some are pensioners, some are carers and some receive farm assist. All of those payments increased in the budget. Some will benefit from the healthcare changes such as reduced medicine costs, for example. Many have students going to college who may benefit from the increase in the student grant or the fact the distance changes are being made, which is quite important for rural Ireland too. Others have children in childcare, and they will potentially benefit from the freeze in fees. It is true to say that there were new measures that will benefit farmers and rural Ireland in particular.
The Tánaiste is correct that the families of farmers are all members of society and they benefit from some of the changes in the budget, but it was promised that there would be a ring-fencing of a certain proportion of the money from the carbon tax for agriculture and we are being told farmers will get it but not yet. My question still stands, which is whether the Department is ready to roll out programmes so that this money can be spent.
The Tánaiste states there was a 2% increase. I am not an expert on looking at budgets, but when we look at the appropriations-in-aid, in fact, the spend in 2022 is 2% less than the spend in 2021. There has been an increase in administration, animal welfare and other areas. When it comes to farmers having money in the back pocket, there is nothing specifically for them in this budget.
My final point relates to carbon tax. If we look at the ESRI report, it tells us on page 22 that rural households face significantly higher prices than urban households when it comes to carbon tax. In the same budget, we see that what was supposed to be ring-fenced is not going back to the sector.
A large portion of the carbon tax proceeds will go towards increasing the fuel allowance and a lot of people in rural Ireland will get that increase. In fact, they are getting it this week, and if not this week then next week. A lot of the retrofitting that is happening is in rural areas too. The same goes for the rewetting of bogs and so on. A very large amount of the money that is raised from the carbon tax is going back into rural areas.
I restate the commitment the Government has made: €1.5 billion in proceeds from carbon tax will be ring-fenced for farmers for agricultural schemes between 2023 and 2030. It will come online with the new CAP. The Government has taken a decision that the right time to do that is when the new CAP comes into place in 2023 and we have all the new schemes. We are just rolling over the existing schemes at the moment. That €1.5 billion will start flowing into farmers' pockets and yards in little over a year from now.
Foetal anticonvulsant syndrome is a condition that affects children born to women who were prescribed the anti-epileptic drug Epilim during pregnancy. Children exposed to this drug in the womb have a higher chance of genetic malformations compared to the general population. An additional 40% of children exposed to Epilim experience developmental delays and have a three to five times greater risk of developing autism and ADHD. In comments made at Epilepsy Ireland's national conference, a neurologist described the impact of Epilim as much worse than thalidomide and much more widespread. Indeed, we know following a statement from the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, in 2019 that between 153 and 341 children born in Ireland will have experienced a major genetic malformation due to unnecessary and avoidable exposure to Epilim. The HSE also estimates that 1,250 families have been impacted since the 1970s in Ireland.
Progress on identifying how this could have happened seemed to be taking place when, in November 2020, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, issued a statement in which he committed to prioritising an independent inquiry. This followed a meeting with Epilepsy Ireland and the Organisation for Anticonvulsant Syndromes Ireland. However, it was only last week that the draft terms of reference were drawn up, with no indication as to whether the format of the inquiry will be non-statutory or statutory. If it is non-statutory, the parents of women and children want and deserve to know why, especially given the public interest and the potential recommendations which could be made to help to prevent an issue like this from happening again with future medications.
These families have already been through enough, and I think we can agree on that. They must see meaningful action taken from an inquiry, not just a report on a shelf. These families need to know what services are being put in place to help them. Can the Tánaiste outline exactly what services these families can avail of? Will he commit to doing everything possible to assist these families, who need urgent and immediate assistance beyond the promised inquiry and beyond a report on a shelf?
I thank the Deputy. I know this is a very important issue. It affects some of my constituents and some of the Deputy’s. I have read up on it but I have not had an up-to-date briefing for quite some time, so I am reluctant to answer the Deputy’s questions in full for fear of giving her misinformation. I will ensure that my office is in touch with the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, today to see if we can get her a more detailed reply in writing.
In terms of the format of the inquiry, there are advantages and disadvantages to the statutory and non-statutory approaches, as the Deputy knows. The Scally report, for example, was non-statutory but was done quickly and, I think, was done very well. A statutory one would take a lot longer but would have the advantages of particular powers of compellability and being able to make particular findings that could not be made by a non-statutory one. I am not sure what the Minister decided in that regard.
I also hear the question the Deputy has asked in regard to the services being made available to these patients. Again, I will be in touch with the Minister for Health about that and will make sure the Deputy gets a detailed note on it.
I thank the Tánaiste for his constructive response and his commitment to seek further information, which I am sure the families will appreciate. I want to point out that the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, did commit to convening a stakeholder group to see what can be done and, certainly, to stamp out the risks associated with Epilim. It is vital that the stakeholder group be established immediately because this is something that could run alongside an inquiry. In addition, back in 2018, the recruitment of four epilepsy nurses was committed to. That would also be very helpful, particularly for the purpose of the implementation of the pregnancy programme, so we need to have that recruitment also. These measures will go some way to ensuring that no family will be affected by Epilim in the future.
I also want to point out that it is very concerning that approximately 1,600 women take this drug in Ireland, yet an Epilepsy Ireland survey in 2020 found that one in six women are still unaware that the drug can in some cases cause serious birth defects and learning and developmental problems in children. This highlights an urgent need to get this matter moving and an urgent need also to support so many of those who are affected by this drug.
I thank the Deputy. We will all acknowledge that Epilim is a very effective medicine in controlling epilepsy but, of course, if anyone is pregnant, they need to be made aware of any risks when it comes to any medicine they may take and what risks may affect their child. It is always a difficulty when treating pregnant women that the medicine they often need to control their condition can potentially have a negative impact on the child they are carrying. That makes it a difficult call to make. It is really important that the decision is not just made by the doctor and that the patient is fully informed as to what the risks and benefits are in continuing the medicine and what the alternatives are, and that should happen if it is not happening.
I will come back to the Deputy on the issues around the recruitment of staff and the stakeholder group. Certainly, it is the case that we could have a stakeholder group at the same time as an inquiry, and it is not that one would prevent the other.