Tuesday, 9 November 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have bent over backwards for cuckoo funds. The catalogue of advantages they have given them include sweetheart tax deals, fast-track planning and reduced apartment design standards. Their support for cuckoo funds pushes ordinary people out of the housing market as they gobble up family homes in bulk and rent those homes back to families at extortionate rents.
Public anger came to boiling point earlier this year when a cuckoo fund was set to sweep up the majority of homes in a development in Maynooth from under the noses of ordinary home buyers. Instead of taking real action to clip the wings of these funds, their response was very limp. The stamp duty increase of 10% is easily absorbed by wealthy funds, which continue to pay zero tax on the hundreds of millions of euro they make from the outrageous rents they charge. Of course, they excluded apartments from the stamp duty increase, which means it is still open season for cuckoo funds on more than half of the homes that are built in this city. They literally hung the flag of surrender over Dublin for these investors. Then the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, dropped the stamp duty increase for funds that bulk-buy family homes if they lease those homes back to local authorities. That decision will see the State hand over €1 billion to cuckoo funds.
That was not meaningful action to put manners on these funds. Indeed, it showed them they really have nothing to fear from the Taoiseach's Government. When it comes to a choice between showing up for those in housing need or maintaining the power of wealthy investors, the Taoiseach has made it very clear whose side he is on.
Now it is a case of here we go again because on Sunday we learned the Taoiseach's Ministers, Deputies Darragh O’Brien and Paschal Donohoe, are looking to dust off the red carpet again and roll it out for these funds. As house prices continue to soar beyond the reach of ordinary workers and as extortionate rents continue to spin out of control, the Taoiseach's Ministers set out on a mission to attract in more of the very funds that wreck the housing market and rob people of an affordable roof over their heads.
There is no public support for this insanity. People want a change of direction. They want a Government that will take the lead and build homes that workers and families can afford to buy or rent. This is where the Taoiseach's focus and that of his Ministers should be, not on cosying up even further with cuckoo funds.
Tá tacaíocht an Taoisigh do na cuach-chistí ag spreagadh na géarchéime tithíochta seo. Ní féidir leis dul ar aghaidh. Tá daoine ag lorg rialtais atá chun tithe a thógáil a mbeidh oibrithe agus teaghlaigh in ann iad a cheannach nó a chíosadh. Did the Taoiseach know about this roadshow and approve of it? Can he tell us whom his Ministers intend to meet? Does he know that? What new sweetheart deals or incentives are they offering to these investors to bring them to Ireland? It is in the public interest that details of the Ministers' proposed cuckoo fund roadshow be published urgently. I want the Taoiseach to commit to this.
Ar dtús báire, arís, níl an fhírinne a rá ag an Teachta. Níl an ceart aici. Go bunúsach, is í an aidhm atá ag an Rialtas ná tithe a chur ar fáil do dhaoine ar fud na tíre, na gnáthdhaoine agus cosmhuintir na tíre. Is í sin an t-aon aidhm amháin atá ag an Rialtas. The Deputy's attempts to portray Government policy as being almost exclusively about institutional investors are very wide off the mark, disingenuous and dishonest. The fundamental tenet of Government policy has been to provide the largest allocation in the history of the State to house construction. Capital housing funding of more than €4 billion will be provided in 2022. That is a fact. We are looking at providing 1,580 cost-rental homes next years by approved housing bodies, AHBs, local authorities and the Land Development Agency, LDA, at 25% below market rate. That is what we are interested in - making sure people can either rent or buy a house at an affordable rate and, in addition, providing very substantial amounts of social housing.
We have introduced the new national first home affordable purchase shared equity scheme, the Rebuilding Ireland home loans scheme and the help-to-buy-schemes. The Government has already introduced five rental Acts to help to deal with rent issues during the Covid emergency. In addition, the Minister is bringing in legislation to reduce the level of rent increases in rent pressure zones, RPZs, to 2%. That has been approved by Government. Again, the aim is to seek to protect tenants in every way possible, including students, having previously dealt with the upfront payments students have to pay. The Government has approved that Bill to cap rent increases in RPZs to no more than 2% per annum pro rata. Project Tosaigh, providing €1 billion, will enable the LDA to deliver approximately 5,000 affordable homes. Budget 2022, as the Deputy knows, provides for the delivery of more than 11,800 social homes in 2022, of which 9,000 will be new builds. In voids alone, 5,500 social homes have been brought back into use over the past 18 months by the Government. A further 1,500 voids are to be remediated and brought back into use next year.
Why do I say all of that?
No. The question is meant to be a propaganda spin, designed to portray Government housing policy as being exclusively about one thing and one thing only, which, of course, is far from the truth. I have outlined the facts to the Deputy. As far as the Government is concerned, and Fianna Fáil has been in government for approximately a year and a half now with Fine Gael and the Green Party, we are very committed to enhancing public housing supply and also providing affordable housing in a very substantive way for the first time ever.
In regard to institutional investment and private housing development, there has to be a private sector dimension to all of this as well. We want private sector activity in the market but the primary intervention from Government is public housing. The provision of record numbers of public houses is what we want to achieve.
We have sent out the mandates to the local authorities to do that. We also want to assist in the construction of affordable housing in order that ordinary people can afford to buy houses, releasing them from the significant rent pressures which many are under.
Maynooth was not purchased. We have banned bulk buying by investment funds. Two recent An Bord Pleanála decisions have supported Government, which means homes have to be sold to individuals.
-----but the Taoiseach's treatment of cuckoo funds and putting their needs over those of ordinary citizens has made an international laughing stock of Ireland. Now the Government is trying to take an entire generation, which is locked out of affordable housing, for fools. There are no fools out there. That is the truth. The Taoiseach had a lot to say, but he did not answer my question so, if I may-----
-----I will attempt to ask it again. Can he confirm the Ministers, Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Donohoe, will meet with and make a presentation to these cuckoo funds? Will that roadshow happen? Did he know about it and did he approve it? Who are his Ministers proposing to meet? What are they offering to these funds to entice them to Ireland? I would like the Taoiseach to answer those questions because those are the important matters that arise when we discover that far from learning any lessons, here we go again, with a Fianna Fáil-led Government and cuckoo funds.
Who is the Deputy taking for fools, given the extraordinary repeated and consistent opposition to housing projects all over the country, denying ordinary people access to housing development after development? Rank hypocrisy is going on in this House for far too long. There is no roadshow to attract any cuckoo funds and-----
I raise the issue of the Minister, Deputy Ryan. It does not relate to his double, strange PCR tests. We know we are dealing with a Covid crisis and, potentially, a Brexit Article 16 crisis. However, if the Taoiseach and his Government colleagues cannot keep the lights on or the houses warm this winter nor plan for industry and inward investment, that is the rock on which they will perish. I have serious concerns about this, which I have repeatedly raised. We are facing a perfect storm in energy supply. More than a decade ago, bad, horrendous politics and a lack of regulation in banking destroyed this country.
I have a deep concern, and I do not say this lightly, about how our energy market has been regulated over the last number of years. I would like the Taoiseach to listen to this and I would like him to look into it.
Information given to my colleague, Deputy Seán Sherlock, shows there were seven amber alerts on 28 October. In September, I asked the Taoiseach if he would guarantee he could keep the lights on. He could not answer that question. Two months later I ask him the same question. There are a number of issues he needs to be concerned about.
Under direction from the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, in May, EirGrid put out a call for 200 MW of emergency power. That will cost €110 million. The plan was for these emergency gas operators to be in place for 22 weeks. The contract was awarded to ESB, but EirGrid messed up the tender. Another company, Tynagh Energy threatened to go to the High Court, claiming that the procurement process run by EirGrid was anti-competitive, so the plan was abandoned. This whole process was raised in the Dáil by the Taoiseach’s Member, last week, Deputy Barry Cowan. I want to acknowledge that he raised the process. There are serious issues here. The Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, who responded to Deputy Cowan last week had not a clue, basically. We need to find out more information about how €10 million was paid by EirGrid to ESB as a down payment for these emergency generators. How did this happen? Was it sanctioned by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan? Where is the money now?
We also understand another tender is now being run for the same power. This is on top of the issues raised by Mick Clifford the Irish Examinerregarding Equinor calling out of offshore wind generation. It is on top of the fact that the marine area planning Bill that is so delayed; the fact that we cannot get solar farms onto the grid; we have not made progress on microgeneration; and new technologies, such as the Silvermines hydroelectric plant in my constituency, has not proceeded.
I want to ask the Taoiseach these questions. Will he now, two months later, guarantee that we will not have any outages of power over this winter? Can he confirm details about the €10 million paid to the ESB by EirGrid for a contract that was then pulled? When was it paid and has the money being refunded?
Finally, can the Taoiseach give some comfort to those renewable energy projects, such solar and offshore, that the regulatory system will be fit for purpose? To date, and over the last five years, it seems that has not been.
The Deputy opened his remarks quite properly about talking about the need for regulatory frameworks and the importance of regulation. That is exactly where we are on energy security. There is a regulatory framework governing the provision of a secure supply of electricity.
The Commission for Regulation of Utilities and EirGrid have advised - as the Deputy knows because I have said this already I the Dáil - that there was a short to medium term risk to electricity security of supply, and that there was an increased likelihood of more frequent system alerts, system emergencies and potential for some electricity customers to lose power in winter of 2021 to 2022 if action was not taken. The Department and the Minister are working closely with the Commission for Regulation of Utilities and EirGrid to take the necessary action to address the issue and to ensure continuous secure supplies of electricity in Ireland for the coming winter and the years ahead.
We know about the two gas stations that were out of commission. They have been brought back into commission. A group has now been established at assistant secretary level, again including the Commission of Regulation of Utilities and EirGrid, to continue to monitor the national response. It has been identified for additional temporary generation. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities and EirGrid are working on that basis to procure additional supply.
On the specific issue that the Deputy raised about the tender that went out, I will secure and provide any information that he requires. I would not jump to conclusions until-----
The issue for all of us in the Oireachtas is that we have vested the statutory responsibility in the Commission for Regulation of Utilities to monitor the security of the supply of electricity and take all measures that it considers necessary to protect security of supply. We have a strong record as a country with regard to the security of the electricity supply. We are doing everything that we possibly can to ensure security not just this winter but more critically for next winter and the winter beyond. This is a challenge across Europe.
We do not technically have an energy problem. We have a great deal of potential energy in this country, given the amount of wind that we have. Our problem is getting it into the grid. There is potential but we do not actually have it. The Taoiseach knows, more than anyone else in this House, about bad politics and regulation failure when it came to the banking industry. We have an issue here with regard to energy. Too many companies are pulling out. We are all for regulation but if the regulation is not working, it creates a crisis, which is what we are heading into. Ordinary working families will pay for all of this because their bills will go up because of this laissez-faireattitude. The Taoiseach has given me assurances that all the information regarding the down-payment of €10 million by Eirgrid, sanctioned by the Minister, Deputy Ryan's, Department, will be provided. What assurances can the Taoiseach give to companies that want to get access to the grid over the next six months to a year that they will be able to do so, through solar, offshore, microgeneration and new technologies? They are frustrated. It will not just affect the heating of the houses or whether lights go on. It will also affect whether industry will come to this country. That is coming down the track rapidly.
The temporary closure of the Huntstown and Whitegate plants were key factors in the alerts that we experienced earlier. Huntstown is back and Whitegate will return in the coming weeks. The possibility of that emergency has been reduced. The Deputy says "we are all for regulation" but I do not hear what the Deputy is suggesting. Should we change the regulatory framework that we currently have?
We have an operating market in place for the security of electricity supply. I have to work with the regulatory framework that I have inherited and is in place. I will do that. We will do everything that we possibly can to reduce any alerts relating to the security of supply. The Deputy has referred to the Maritime Area Planning Bill. That is before the Oireachtas and will be passed before December if we get the agreement of everybody in the House. One of my priorities coming into government was to pass that Bill. I appreciate the Deputy's support in that.
Last week, a woman in her 60s died in an ambulance on the way to hospital. Two hours before this woman died, an ambulance was en route to transport her to hospital. In this case, the ambulance, on its way to the critically ill woman, was stood down and was diverted to care for a man with a back injury. When the paramedics arrived, the man walked out of his home and stepped into the ambulance. When a crew eventually arrived for the woman, she was carried out of her home by stretcher. This was the last time that she saw her home. The description given of the man's injury pushed him up the priority list and pushed her down. He ticked more boxes on the ambulance service's emergency scale. This is a preprogrammed computer system that determines patient priority. It is a computer that decides based on a tick in a box how urgently an ambulance should arrive. If an ambulance is on its way to a call, it can be stood down and diverted to just about anywhere, whether another town, another county or even another province.
For example, a recent shift from the Thurles ambulance base started at 8 p.m. That night crew was dispatched from Thurles to Nenagh, then back to Cashel. The next call was to Ballingarry and they were then sent to Tullow, County Carlow, diverted to New Ross and from there to Gowran and Thomastown. They were then sent back to Carlow town. This involved seven and a half hours of non-stop driving and only one patient to be transferred to hospital. While all this frantic driving was happening, Thurles was left without a service.
This situation is being replicated every week as Tipperary ambulances are diverted to other regions. Last week, for example, the south-east region operated at 50% capacity due to long-term sick leave, exhaustion and lack of staff to fill rosters. Exhausted paramedics rush along the highways and byways of Ireland, their 12-hour shifts stretching to 15 hours and more. They have no food breaks or downtime. A recent study showed 50% of shifts run over their designated finish times. This is dangerous and unsustainable. Social media recently highlighted an ambulance crew who went off the road through fatigue at the end of their shift. Paramedics across Ireland feel ignored and frustrated. Many suffer from burnout and anxiety and morale is at an all-time low. An independent review of the ambulance service is urgently required. It needs to be conducted from the bottom up and carried out without delay.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The concept of a national ambulance service has been developed for a number of years. I am told and have checked that dynamic deployment allows staff in the HSE's national emergency operations centre in Tallaght to see all available resources and prioritise allocation to the higher acuity calls that require an immediate emergency response. Judgment calls are made through a system as to which is the most severe incident and ambulances are then deployed.
That model represents international best practice. It has been highlighted by HIQA as a way to improve response time and national ambulance service performance generally. That said, we hear repeated concerns from Deputies and public representatives locally about situations that have emerged in their localities. It is always important to review how a system and service operates. In 2021, the service received an additional €10 million. For 2022, an additional €8.3 million on top of that is being allocated to modernise and build up the capacity of the service.
There is an acknowledgement in the service that lower acuity calls - in other words, calls deemed to be less serious - have longer waiting times but in the sad case the Deputy has articulated, it seems the woman did not meet those metrics on the face of it, but actually was in a much worse condition.
The service has provided huge backup and been involved in the Covid response. I thank them for that; they have performed heroically throughout the pandemic. Redeployment of approximately 45 paramedics from Covid-19-related work back to emergency ambulance duties is under way. A further 80 paramedics are due to graduate from the National Ambulance Service College this quarter and 200 student paramedics are at different stages of the programme.
There is a strong focus on getting the additional staff in place but the Deputy's point is about a wider review of the idea of the national service with national redeployment, as opposed to having people located in different stations around the country. The professionals and experts in the field of emergency care are of the view that the current service is better in terms of outcomes but the experiences the Deputy has outlined deserve to be put before the National Ambulance Service team and the HSE with a view to feeding into and getting a better service and better outcomes for people locally.
There is just one further point. The community first responders scheme is important as well, and that needs to be grown again. It was stepped down a bit due to Covid, but that also needs to be reactivated, strengthened and expanded.
I do not think the Taoiseach or anybody in the Government has the full facts regarding what is happening. For example, ambulances are criss-crossing the country. You do not have to be a genius to know that this is not efficient or cost-effective. I will give the Taoiseach another example. It has happened in recent weeks that an ambulance was sent from a base in Kenmare to Waterford. An ambulance that left Kenmare, arrived in Waterford and did a call in Clonmel on the way back. It left Clonmel for a three-and-a-half hour journey and arrived back at its base late at night. The crew on board had done a 15-hour shift. There is nothing logical about that. It is ridiculous and it needs to be addressed.
The Taoiseach must throw open the doors of the National Ambulance Service and scrutinise it. We can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening. The current system is failing both paramedics and patients. Together with an independent review of the service, we must also scrutinise the doctor-on-call system and look at the limited number of services provided at local injury units. The entire system is a total fiasco. Ambulances are waiting around with patients in them who cannot get access to hospitals and there are other patients waiting for those ambulances to arrive. A delay in ambulances means a delay in patient services, and that must be addressed.
I will relay this matter to the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. I will discuss it with him, the CEO of the HSE and the head of the National Ambulance Service. It would also be useful it the Joint Committee on Health received a presentation from the National Ambulance Service. I do not know if that has happened, but it would be very useful. It would be an opportunity for Deputies and Senators to present their perspectives and relay the experiences of constituents and people on the ground. There is a lot in what Deputy Lowry says, but we need to hear the overall perspective on what is the optimum model for the provision of emergency care and emergency medical practitioners. This is a key service in terms of those who provide it being first on the scene. A professional paramedic can be critical in terms of the outcomes for any person and must also make the right decisions on the spot.
Baineann mo cheist leis na hárais mháithreacha agus leanaí, agus go háirithe leis an scéim chúitimh atá beartaithe nach bhfuil tásc ná tuairisc uirthi in ainneoin na ngeallúntaí sollúnta ón Rialtas go mbeadh scéim chúitimh ann. Ceangailte leis sin ná an suíomh i dTuaim agus an gá práinneach le tochailt iomlán ansin, agus na hiarsmaí daonna a nochtadh, agus tar éis anailíse a dhéanamh, iad a chur arís le dínit.
My question relates to the promised redress scheme. There is a different name on it, but there is not a sign of it. I ask this question in the context of the finite group of people who are waiting patiently for the Government's action. Notwithstanding their courage and fortitude, former residents of mother and baby homes are becoming more anxious, worried and vulnerable with each passing day, not to mention angry. The Government has a duty to act expeditiously, particularly in view of the background to this matter and the delay to date.
On 19 January last, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, said that the redress scheme would be drawn up by the end of April. An explanation was then given for the delay to the effect that there were many submissions. Again in July, we were told that the interdepartmental group had effectively completed its work. There was still no sign of its report, however. Then we were told it would be in the early part of the new term. We are now in the middle of the new term, and there is not a sign of the report. Will the Taoiseach tell me when details of the redress scheme will be published and accessible to those who are waiting, Uimhir a haon, and; No. 2, what communication has the Taoiseach had with the religious orders regarding their participation in the amount of money needed to fund the scheme?
We have seen the report on television on Sunday night, to be broadcast tonight on RTÉ, in regard to Tuam, which is intimately connected with this question. More than four years ago, an expert team went in and looked at it in response to the commission of investigation, which had a press release saying there were substantial human remains there. The expert team went in and one member is quoted in the documentary as saying: "I have never walked away from human remains in that context." Their work was a scoping exercise to see what was there. They temporarily protected the site for six months and nothing has happened four years later.
We are sitting here today after a series of mistakes and delays. A report from the commission that was in the Government’s offices from October last year was only published in January of this year and was never given to the former residents until afterwards, and so on. There is a whole list of other delays and obfuscations, not to mention the tapes and the press release saying they had been destroyed when, subsequently, it was found they had not been.
I am conscious I am over time, but given that background, it is extremely important that the Taoiseach gives us a date today so we can have confidence and hope.
Ar dtús báire, gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as an gceist seo a ardú ó thaobh máithreacha agus leanaí, na scéime cúitimh agus an tsuíomh i dTuaim. Tá gach iarracht á dhéanamh ag an Rialtas ó thaobh reachtaíochta de do Thuaim. Mar is eol di, foilsíodh é sin, bhí sé os comhair na Dála agus tiocfaidh sé ar ais os comhair an Tí sar i bhfad. Tá Bille eile ann a bhaineann le heolas, the birth information legislation, os comhair na Dála chomh maith agus foilsíodh é go luath sa bhliain.
In the context of the restorative recognition scheme, I can say to the Deputy that the interdepartmental group set up to develop detailed proposals for the scheme, taking into account the recommendations of the commission and going beyond that, has made recommendations. It was informed by consultation with survivors which took place during March and April, with a very strong response received to that consultation process. The Minister then considered that further and made proposals. The development of the scheme is a key priority for us. The Minister will be bringing a scheme to Cabinet shortly and there are consultations with the leaders of the parties now, and with the other Ministers, and I expect that this will be brought before Cabinet fairly quickly now, within the next number of weeks, if not sooner.
We are anxious to get the balance right and to devise and approve a scheme that would be responsive to the survivors of mother and baby homes and county homes. I accept the delay is one to be regretted but, nonetheless, since the decision was made by Government to develop such a scheme, the Minister has applied himself to this very diligently, has worked with the groups concerned and has interacted with Government Departments and with external bodies as well from a human rights perspective. We do understand the importance of this and it will come to Government very shortly.
In regard to Tuam, as the Deputy knows, the Minister and I would view it as imperative to afford the children buried at Tuam the dignity in death that has so long been denied them. He did prioritise the drafting of the proposed Bill. It is a very complex piece of legislation. That said, it went for pre-legislative scrutiny by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, in January 2021. Numerous submissions were made to the joint Oireachtas committee and a number of people gave powerful and moving testimony. The committee published its report on the legislation in July. The Minister is now carefully considering the recommendations from that process. His intention, following that consultation, is to publish the Bill by the end of the current parliamentary session and bring it through the legislative process as quickly as possible. He is going to do that.
Third, I just want to make the point on the proposed legislation on birth information and tracing. Again, that legislation was published. It is quite radical. It is a major evolution in the legal situation.
The Minister has written to the committee as the Bill is still in pre-legislative scrutiny before the committee.
We need that expedited and all three aspects would be welcome if we could get them over the line.
While I welcome that the Taoiseach talked about it being in the next few weeks, I have heard that since January so I ask him to forgive my reluctance to believe that. On the scheme, we have had ample time to learn from previous schemes. In the redress institutional scheme we created an offence such that if somebody disclosed what they got, they committed a criminal offence. Then we set up the Magdalen scheme and the Ombudsman told us there was maladministration. Then we set up Caranua, which was an insult to the Irish language because we talked about a new friend when it was the old enemy in disguise. We go on perpetuating the abuse, delay and obfuscation. I want an exact date for when the redress scheme will be published. I want the Taoiseach to answer me about Tuam and the archaeologists. The specialist forensic archaeologists protected the site for just six months and four years later, that site is not protected. We know from the sterling work of Catherine Corless that there are 796 death certificates but we do not know if that number of children and babies are buried there. We do not just need to excavate the site to rebury them, which is extremely important; we also need to excavate to examine. It is time we grew up in this country and analysed and examined what happened so that we can look and learn from it.
The legislation was published and it went through pre-legislative scrutiny. It is intended to complement the Coroners Act 1962, in that it does not seek to undermine the authority of the coroner and prevent or prejudice any coronial investigation into what happened at Tuam. The Minister has acted assertively and proactively on the Tuam site with legislation. To be fair, what is envisaged is somewhat unprecedented but he is going ahead and doing it. Likewise, in respect of the birth information and tracing legislation, this is the first Government to produce such radical legislation in terms of access to information without hindrance and that no one can prevent. No one person can prevent access to any information sought and that would mean an awful lot to an awful lot of people out there. It has been in pre-legislative scrutiny in the Oireachtas for a fairly lengthy period and the Oireachtas joint committee is meeting people and so on. That is important legislation.
On the Government's intervention by way of the restorative recognition scheme, that will be before Cabinet within a matter of weeks. We were not hearing that all year because we could not. That was because the interdepartmental group had to deliberate on it for quite some time, which it has done and the scheme has come to Government. There are serious issues that have to be addressed by the Government in respect of the scheme. We will do so and the scheme will be back in the House.