Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Before we proceed with Leader's Questions, I am obliged to read out a health and safety note. Members and all in attendance are asked to exercise personal responsibility in respect of protecting themselves and others from the risk of contracting Covid-19. Members are strongly advised to practice good hygiene and observe the chequer board seating arrangement. They should also maintain an appropriate level of social distancing during and after the sitting. Masks, preferably of a medical grade, should be worn at all times during the sitting, except when speaking. I ask for Members full co-operation in this regard.
As we speak, hundreds of truckers and hauliers are protesting outside the gates of the Dáil because they are being absolutely crucified. These are small and family businesses that are already put to the pin of their collar with rip-off insurance costs, extortionate utility bills and the domestic cost of living and sky-rocketing increases in fuel costs are the final straw for many. Hauliers are essential workers who played a huge part in keeping the show on the road during the Covid emergency. Their protest today is a reaction to the escalating cost of energy and the fuel crisis. The Government needs to show up for them now with an alleviation package that includes an overhaul of the diesel rebate scheme to make it really work for this sector.
People are under real, unbearable and ever-increasing pressure. Since last year the price of electricity is up by 16%, gas is up by 23% and home heating oil by an incredible 71%. How on earth can any family be expected to afford to heat their home with jumps like these? People are overwhelmed but the Government sits on its hands. Indeed, the Government has come along with a hike in carbon taxes which will undoubtedly make things even worse for families and businesses, including those who are demonstrating today. The carbon tax hike needs to be scrapped because it is the wrong move at the wrong time. The truth is that households face a real emergency in heating and lighting their homes and running their vehicles. The weather is getting colder and it is getting darker. Thousands of workers have now been told to work from home so people will have their heating and lighting on earlier and for longer and their bills, consequently, will go up even further. We know that workers and families have been through a very tough 18 months. Many were just getting back on their feet and just about coping. Christmas is a happy time but it is also a very expensive time of the year. People do not need the added stress of enormous energy bills landing through the door in December, January and February. The cost of staying warm is also incredibly stressful for our older people, for whom the cold weather can be especially dangerous. The increase in the fuel allowance simply will not bridge the gap and much more needs to be done.
We know that there are international factors at play in all of this and that big energy companies have passed the extraordinary global price increases on to customers. However, the Government must respond with ideas and actions to alleviate the pressure on families and businesses. Tá billí fuinnimh ag imeacht as smacht. Tá daoine agus gnóthaí faoi bhrú. Tá briseadh iomlán ag teastáil uathu. Iarraim ar an Rialtas an VAT ar bhillí fuinnimh a tharscaoileadh ar feadh trí mhí. There are things that can be done. Recently I asked the Taoiseach to engage with the European Commission and to temporarily waive VAT on energy bills for a period of three months but he refused to answer me on that occasion. I put it to him again that this is a common sense intervention that would make a real difference. It is something that has already been implemented by others in the EU seeking to protect their people from current energy hikes. Will the Taoiseach waive the VAT on energy bills for three months and give workers and families a real break?
First, energy price increases are almost totally driven by global price rises which are being felt in Europe and across the world. The rebounding of international economies has led to supply chain constraints and real pressure on gas and oil prices. That is the fundamental driver here. It is a global phenomenon and is not unique to Ireland in any shape or form.
There is a diesel rebate scheme in operation which was introduced in 2013. It offers a partial excise refund to qualifying operators when the retail price of autodiesel is relatively high. It kicks in at the pumps at around €1.23 per litre, increasing gradually to a maximum rebate of 7.5 cent when diesel reaches €1.43 per litre. In budget 2022, in light of the challenges arising from Brexit and uncertainty facing the industry, the marginal rate of compensation at prices over €1.32 was doubled up to the maximum rate of 7.5 cent per litre. That is being maintained. The Government and the Department is in constant contact with the Irish Truckers and Haulage Association and the industry relative to broader issues pertaining to the industry, including a new strategy, the requirements for the sector going forward in terms of skills, for example, and the energy prices issue. The latter is a serious issue across the board and there is no denying that. As I said, it is a global phenomenon arising from the price of raw materials, exchange rates, taxation and so on.
The carbon tax is a very small part of what is going on at the moment in terms of the global phenomenon. It is lacking in balance to throw that into the mix and to suggest that it is the main reason for the significant increase in energy prices across Europe. The carbon tax is part of the climate change agenda and while it is not popular to do things like that, it is the right thing to do for the future of younger generations in this country in terms of dealing with climate change along with a whole range of other issues. Everyone wants to pull decision making in relation to climate change and everyone, including Deputy McDonald, wants to keep deferring decisions that the very best of advice is suggesting are necessary-----
The popular thing to do is to defer because then one will not create any waves but it is not right thing to do for the future of the planet and its people. We need to protect people from rising energy prices and the carbon tax will help us to develop, for example, a really comprehensive retrofitting programme, which is ultimately the best way to reduce energy costs. A lot is happening in terms of retrofitting homes but we will have to do an awful lot more in the future in that regard.
On the VAT issue, as I said yesterday, Deputy McDonald keeps coming up with solutions that do not match what is possible but which sound good and would be popular. She came up with the idea of a zero VAT rate a couple of weeks ago but that simply cannot be done. Ireland is one of only a few EU countries that, by way of a special derogation from the general EU rules, already applies a reduced rate of VAT of 13.5% to energy prices. Under EU rules, reduced rates of VAT must be between 5% and 15% so the zero rate proposed by Deputy McDonald is not possible. Deputy McDonald keeps saying it but I am informed and advised that it is not possible.
Under EU rules, our reduced VAT rate of 13.5% on energy prices cannot be reduced below 12%. If we were to attempt to reduce the rate to 9%, for example, for a few months, the VAT would revert to the standard rate of 23% because we would be opting out of the derogation we currently have. Again, the Deputy needs to put forward proposals that are credible and that can actually be delivered.
I have put forward two propositions to the Taoiseach. First, the carbon tax will have the effect of increasing people's bills. That is a matter of fact. I have also advanced the proposition of waiving VAT on a temporary basis for three months. The Taoiseach has knocked both of those back.
We are all well aware that the energy crisis is global. I am not laying that at the Taoiseach's feet, but it is his responsibility as Taoiseach and that of the Government to respond to the crisis for households and businesses. For example, Lorraine from the Taoiseach's neck of the woods in Cork sent me her bills. She sent me a bill from May 2021 and one from October 2021 for heating her home and in that time her bill has jumped €100. What is the Government doing for Lorraine today and coming into the winter? She has a house full of kids, three or four of them to raise, and they are struggling. There are families like that right across the State. What is the Taoiseach doing for those families, never mind his view on me or what I have to say? He is the Taoiseach. What is he going to do? Has he spoken to the Commission about the VAT option?
Has he explored that fully? Has he put it to the Commission that he wishes to do that? If my ideas are not runners, what are the Taoiseach's ideas? What is he doing for families and businesses now?
We all have a duty in here to be honest with people and not to put forward ideas or proposals that do not have any credibility attached to them and cannot be done.
We have had a discussion across Europe. I want to make the point – if I could do so without interruption, as is a consistent habit of the Deputy opposite-----
I want to make the point that we understand fully the pressures on households. The carbon tax does not apply to electricity bills. That is a separate issue. We are monitoring the situation in terms of household pressures. We did increase the fuel allowance. We did provide taxation measures in the budget to try to help people cope with the costs. The costs are global and are driven by world events-----
Our main focus is not to try to come up with false ideas that would never carry, but rather to ask how we can get household bills down in the short term. That is where the Government's focus is. That is why we have used receipts from carbon tax to significantly increase the fuel allowance and increase the numbers of people who will be eligible for the fuel allowance, all to protect people who need protection.
The Government's approach to antigen testing is just not good enough. In the midst of a fourth wave of the virus, after two years, the health service is clearly under enormous ongoing pressure. The Government tells us our best weapon to stem this surge is personal responsibility. People are trying. Most of them are doing their best. Why is the Government not giving them the basic tools they need to win this fight? There are too many missed opportunities and mixed messages to even mention. Why has the Government yet to roll out a system of subsidised antigen testing? We were all under the impression that the Cabinet would agree a scheme yesterday but, incredibly, it has been reported that the Cabinet did not even discuss Covid yesterday. The biggest threat the country is facing did not even get a mention. Last night, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, said a scheme for subsidised antigen testing may not be brought to Cabinet until next week. The lack of urgency and failure to respond at speed to a rapidly escalating emergency is truly shocking, or at least it should be shocking.
The CEO of the Irish Pharmacy Union, IPU, Darragh O'Loughlin, shed some light on this delay on "The Tonight Show" last night. He said it was very difficult for the IPU and the HSE to put a plan in place to roll out antigen testing when the Government has not made decisions about what it wants to do. Nobody knows when exactly or to what extent the Government will be subsidising the tests because, he said, that decision just has not been made. It is standard in any negotiation for each side to know what it wants and what it is negotiating for, yet according to Mr. O'Loughlin, the Government has not the foggiest idea what kind of subsidy scheme it wants to put in place.
This is a mess. We know antigen testing is not a silver bullet, but it is a vital tool in this fight, one that many people simply cannot afford to use currently. There is a strong case for antigen tests to be free. Will the Taoiseach stop the wrangling about subsidies and just get the tests out to people so they can use them as required and in line with public health advice? Why is the Irish Pharmacy Union in the dark about what the Government wants them to do? What kind of subsidy is the Government prepared to put in place? When will it be available and why is the Government so slow to respond when we all know that speed is of the essence?
First, I take the opportunity to thank the Irish people for responding to the current situation. All of the research is indicating, in particular in the past week or two following our announcement, that people are adjusting their behaviour significantly, which is ultimately the way to reduce the current pressure on hospitals and in regard to Covid-19. I watched what the WHO had to say in terms of the overarching issues. Every week, there is a magic bullet somewhere that people keep raising, but fundamentally we are dealing with a very transmissible Delta variant. We have reopened society and the economy to levels that we have not witnessed since the beginning of the pandemic. There is a winter seasonality issue as we move indoors all across Europe. The WHO is predicting well over 500,000 deaths across Europe. We want to protect life and limb. There is a range of other issues that Dr. Butler of the WHO has indicated. He said the booster campaign should focus on the immunocompromised, the elderly and those working in healthcare. We are making very good progress now on all of those key target groups – the over-80s, residents in long-term care facilities, the immunocompromised and the over-70s. There has been a dramatic administration of boosters to approximately 630,000 people.
Antigen testing is an important supplementary tool, which I believe in. It has been rolled out much more significantly in the past six months than in any previous period of the pandemic. As Deputy Shortall is aware, every close contact is given free antigen tests. They are sent out to people. Approximately 3,000 antigen tests are given out to close contacts per day. In the agriculture sector alone, 101,000 rapid antigen tests have been done. In higher education, close to 25,000 antigen tests have been used in a pilot project. The HSE has also run pilot projects in the early learning and care sector. There has been a much broader use of antigen testing generally and free antigen testing will start in schools on Monday for classroom pods where cases are identified. The expert group recognised that there should be a subsidised model. There has been advice from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, who has advised caution on how that is rolled out.
The Deputy raised the Irish Pharmacy Union. It has an interest in the matter from a number of perspectives. We want to work with as broad a range of stakeholders as possible to get a distribution of antigen tests for routine testing and to reduce the costs for people. That must be in parallel with constant, consistent communication on the proper use of antigen testing.
The Taoiseach really did not shed much light in that response. Two weeks ago, the CMO advised that anybody engaging in so-called high-risk activities, most of which simply involve going out or meeting with other people, should do an antigen test twice a week. That was the most recent advice - that if people are out and about and mixing, they should do an antigen test twice a week. Antigen tests are very expensive. The Minister for Health said initially that it was his intention to make antigen tests available free of charge. The Taoiseach said more recently that there would be a subsidy scheme. When will the Government decide on the subsidy scheme? There is a real urgency about this. We are in the midst of an emergency. People want to use all the tools available to them. The Government must support them to do that. It is not only about personal responsibility, but also ensuring that the Government plays its part as well. When are we going to get a decision at least on subsidised antigen testing? Do we have to wait another week? Why can the Government not inform people this week?
First, I would say that, yes, we have to support people and we are, right across the board, in terms of Covid-19 and in terms of very significant expansion of the PCR testing, for example, with 210,000 tests in the last week.
There tends to be every week, and that is the point I would make. As I said, there has been a significant expansion of the use of antigen tests, given out freely by the Government. At the end of Friday, 19 November, for example, about 61,000 fully vaccinated asymptomatic close contacts were registered for the delivery of free antigen kits, 100,000 were used by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and so forth.
I would again say, standing back from this, that the fundamental variables that will really change this are actually reducing socialisation, which people are doing, and the booster campaign, which is going to have an impact in terms of the prevalence and continuation of the disease. That is the key approach to this, in my view.
I have lost count of how many times I have raised the issue of reviewing the income thresholds for eligibility for social housing over the last four or five years. Whether it is the last Government or this Government, the stock response is that “it is under review” or “the review will be completed shortly”, and we have been told that for four or five years now. Of course, the result, let us be clear, is that thousands of people every year who go over the income threshold, who do not have the income to pay for the massively inflated rents and house prices, are thrown off the list and cannot afford to get anything through their own resources. The failure of successive Governments, including the Taoiseach's, to address this has reached absolutely unbelievable, incredible proportions.
This is an email I got this Monday:
I just received this email from [a local authority - we can guess which one] requesting that I move out of homeless accommodation that I am in. There is weeks to Christmas and that is what I have just received. I'm so upset and stressed by this now. How can they make me homeless from homeless accommodation?
That is the second case I have been dealing with. I brought one other to the attention of the Minister and he is looking into it, in fairness, but this is an unbelievable situation. The woman in question is the mother of a young child. She is a care worker, working, actually, in a State agency where they desperately need people to work because they are chronically understaffed but, because she did additional work for this chronically understaffed State agency working with vulnerable children, she is now off the housing list.
The letter from the local authority is brilliant:
Dear [I will not mention her name]
I am contacting you in relation to your temporary agency homeless placement at [I will delete the reference]. Homeless services have been made aware by housing allocations that you do not qualify for social housing support as your application has been deemed over the income limit. You must make arrangements to move on from emergency accommodation with your own resources.
This is just beyond belief. People are now not just homeless; they are punished for working and trying to improve their situation and get themselves out of that situation, but where they still clearly do not have their own resources to pay the rents - which in my area are an average of €24,000 to €26,000 a year of after-tax income - they are out of homeless accommodation in the teeth of Christmas. This is happening around the country. It is partially worsened by a change in the calculation method by the statutory instrument in March of this year, which based it on average income of the previous year, but also because of the failure to lift the income threshold. What is the Taoiseach going to do about this?
I believe the income thresholds in terms of eligibility for social housing should be increased. As part of Housing for All, that is being examined, along with other issues pertaining to social housing as well, because the Government has a very large social housing programme under its remit. We want to build record numbers of social houses through the approved housing bodies and direct builds from local authorities every year for the next ten years, particularly in the first five years, from this year onwards.
We have provided significant resources to deal with homelessness. I would say to the authorities and those involved on the ground to use common sense and practicality. If somebody is homeless, we do not say they are no longer available for our services. That is the first point I would make. I know the Deputy raised a case yesterday and I asked that he might give that to the Minister. I will engage with the Minister on this. Practice should be informed by the spirit with which we approach homelessness overall, which is to ensure that families in particular and people generally are not without a roof, particularly in winter time.
The Housing First strategy, for example, has proved to be an enormous success. To be fair to the NGOs - the Simon Communities, Focus Ireland and others - which came forward with that idea, learning from what was going on across Europe and globally, it has been a spectacular success in terms of the number of homeless who avail of the Housing First programme and who are still in housing. It is working, so we want to roll that out.
If someone who is homeless gets a job, for example, there has to be an interregnum or a period there. We should facilitate the person coming out of homelessness basically, and that would be my approach.
Across the board, the Minister has taken measures this winter in terms of homelessness. In the winter 2021 Dublin rough sleeper count, for example, there has been a fall in numbers this year so far of about 25% from the spring 2021 count, and a reduction of 45 individuals when compared with last winter.
The Deputy’s fundamental point is around the income thresholds. I think they should be increased but there is a review going on, not just of the income thresholds, to be fair, because we have to have a sustainable social housing programme right through the next decade. One thing we want to do in this Government, something I was committed to before I come into government, is directly build far more social houses than we have done in the past, and affordable houses as well. I am glad Dublin City Council has agreed a plan for Oscar Traynor Road, for example, and the 853 houses will make a big difference to the issues we are talking about.
First, will the Taoiseach give me a commitment that homeless families will not be evicted from homeless accommodation because they get a job and try to earn a bit of extra income? Will he give me that commitment now and issue that instruction to local authorities?
Second, can I just point out that if they had been housed as they should be, or even got a HAP tenancy, they would not be evicted and their rent would rise with their income. People do not get evicted from a council house because of their income, but if they are homeless, they get removed from the list and evicted from the homeless accommodation because they have increased their income. It is beyond belief. Urgent action needs to be taken.
Why has the review not been completed? The Taoiseach knows and I know, and it is hidden in what he said. The Department is terrified that if it raises the thresholds, more people will be eligible for social housing and then the numbers on the list will rise, which will not look terribly good for the Department. That is not acceptable. Once upon a time, ordinary working people of moderate and medium incomes, or even slightly higher incomes, were able to go into social housing, and there was nothing wrong with it. This will end up with social housing apartheid because the Department does not want to let people on the list in order to massage the figures.
I have no interest in that kind of carry-on - none - because this gets produced or this gets produced. The bottom line is that I want to get people housed. That is all I am interested in. I have said to the Deputy that I believe it should be increased. I do not think the Department is either, to be honest with the Deputy.
What we are interested in is getting houses built. Some 1,200 new tenancies for homeless people have happened already in terms of the Housing First strategy. These are people who had a history of rough sleeping and who needed additional supports. The Minister, to be fair to him, has kept a weekly oversight of the homeless strategy. Real progress is being made in regard to it and we will continue to keep that focus.
Also, in terms of making sure that where people who are genuinely homeless right now and their circumstances-----
I have made that statement and that is my strong view. We have a lot more to do but if we want to get rid of the scourge of homelessness, all of us in this House need to give up opposing schemes left, right and centre for the sake of it.
Earlier this year, the Alliance for Insurance Reform made a presentation to the Department of Finance which outlined that as many as 35 sectors were either struggling to get insurance or could not obtain insurance at all. That list continues to grow. Throughout the summer months, numerous businesses offering a myriad of activity to all ages were forced to close. They had either completely failed to get insurance or the cost was such that it made no economic sense for them to continue.
The most recent casualty of the prohibitive cost of insurance is the horse sport sector. While the outside impression of horse sport might not garner the same level of public support as crèches, children's activities and playgrounds, its demise should not be determined by money-grabbing insurance companies. The horse sports sector is a vast industry overall. Horse sport is a major employer in rural Ireland and an intrinsic part of the fabric of Irish life. A 2014 study carried out by University College Dublin, UCD, found that the Irish horse sport industry contributed in excess of €708 million to the economy each year and provided the equivalent of 12,500 full-time jobs. National hunt horses, by definition, emerge from the hunting field. So too do most national hunt jockeys and many showjumpers, event riders and others.
Insurance companies are stating that due to the number of claims being made, no commercial underwriters are willing to renew liability insurance to cover hunts in Ireland. Failure to provide liability insurance for hunts means landowners cannot allow hunting to take place over their land. No access to land means no hunting. Commercial insurance companies have come to the conclusion that liability insurance for risk-taking sports is a no-win game for them. This is because of the way liability claims are handled in the Irish legal system. While hunting is one of the first horse sport pursuits to be affected, it will not be the last. Removing access to riding facilities, be they hunting facilities, riding schools, pony clubs or tracking trails, will inevitably undermine the resources and knowledge base of the equine world in Ireland.
The impact of this development is not linked to the hobby world. In recent weeks, it has resulted in the loss of insurance cover to the hunts that hold point-to-point meetings in Tipperary and across the country. Point-to-point racing is a product of hunting and is organised by the individual hunts. Without the hunts in Ireland, there will be no point-to-point meetings. Without point-to-point racing, there is no national hunt racing. The result will be that a major Irish agricultural industry involving the breeding, training and racing of national hunt horses will effectively disappear. Can the Government facilitate a short-term solution to this via the commercial insurance market and implement a long-term solution by means of an amendment to the liability legislation?
The Deputy has raised an important issue. Other Deputies have raised it in the context of the broad cost of insurance and the need to get it down across the board. The Deputy has specifically raised it in the context of the equine industry, particularly in terms of insurance for equestrian activities. As he pointed out, up to 14,000 jobs are created in the horse sport sector, predominantly in rural Ireland, according to an economic study carried out in UCD. The importance of that leisure sector to rural Ireland cannot be understated because real jobs and a whole ecosystem emanate from that in terms of the leisure sector, competition, sports horse breeding and so forth.
We are aware that high-risk activity sectors, including equestrian pursuits, are experiencing issues around accessibility and affordability of insurance. The latest national claims information database report shows that the public liability market in Ireland has been loss-making for several years and therefore has been unattractive to insurers. In addition, large insurance claims arising from incidents have an effect on premium prices across specific sectors. However, following recent intensive engagements with the insurance industry, I understand from the Department of Finance that some providers are considering the possibility of entering the equestrian sector. The Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, is available for consultations on this, given his responsibility for the broader area of insurance. I suggest that an engagement with him could further elaborate on that point.
The Department of Justice has recently completed a review of the Occupiers' Liability Act 1995, including the duty of care, notice and waivers, and the Minister for Justice has noted the Government's intention to bring forward legislative proposals to reform the law in this area. The planned rebalancing of the duty of care, with a view to applying a common sense approach to risk, is of particular relevance to equestrian activities as it will help to address so called slips, trips and falls. The introduction of the new personal injury guidelines set reduced levels for personal injury compensation awards in Ireland and changed the amounts of general damages to be awarded by the courts and the Personal Injuries Assessment Board, PIAB. Early data from PIAB demonstrated that award levels have declined by an average of 40%.
Insurance reform continues to be a major item of government. A sub-committee of Cabinet deals specifically across different Departments, and exclusively, with the issue of insurance. The office to promote competition in the insurance market has been established and is chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming. Its objective is to assist in reducing insurance costs and increasing the availability of cover by promoting competition in the insurance market.
A wider solution to the issue of liability claims awarded by the Irish courts is needed in the long term. I notice that recent measures have resulted in reports that insurance payouts have reduced by 40%, yet the insurance companies remain staunchly rigid when determining risk. As a direct result of lack of insurance cover, horse sports face the immediate threat of extinction. This will have a serious social and economic impact on everyone involved in the sport.
Insurance companies have made massive profits for the past two years. A lower claim base caused by reduced activity due to Covid restrictions has given them a financial bonanza. They have intensified their cherry-picking and as a result, increasing numbers of sectors cannot get insurance cover. This is having enormous consequences for our economy and the cultural and sporting life of the nation. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure his Minister of State with responsibility for insurance intensifies his efforts to get some result on this from the insurance companies.
The Government is focused on a multifaceted approach, introducing different Acts and reform of PIAB. The personal injury guidelines that were recently introduced are already having a significant impact, as the Deputy and I said, but that has to filter down to the cost of insurance. The insurance companies have an obligation in that respect and they need to step up to the plate because the various measures committed to have been delivered in terms of legislative change, of which there is more to come, and also in terms of the personal injury guidelines and reform of PIAB. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, is working on legislation to reform PIAB. The Government is, therefore, taking a multifaceted approach. The Government cannot directly intervene in the insurance market and States are prohibited from doing so under the EU Solvency II Directive on the insurance framework.
We have to create the right conditions and environment, and competition, within the market to ensure that we can drive prices down.