Wednesday, 26 January 2022
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Yesterday, I raised with the Taoiseach the out-of-control cost of living and the never-ending price hikes that workers and families are forced to endure. I must say he came up very short in terms of a complete Government plan in respect of energy cost. It seems he is either unable or unwilling to grasp the scale of the crisis that hard-pressed households deal with every day. They know - even if the Taoiseach does not - a €100 credit will barely make a dent in their colossal energy bills.
I want to move on and ask the Taoiseach about another area that is driving the cost-of-living crisis. Rip-off rents continue to soar on his watch in Government. In fact, since Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael came together in 2016, rents have jumped by a colossal 46%. Last year alone rents increased by over 8%. Today the average rent is now over €1,300 a month and in Dublin the average is a staggering €1,916 per month, almost €2,000. This is extortionate. This has real consequences on people's lives. More than one third of young people in their mid to late 20s live at home with their parents. Homeownership rates are collapsing among those aged between 25 and 54, and is it any wonder? How on earth could anybody save the money for a deposit while forking out €2,000 a month to a landlord? That is before they deal with the sky-high cost of energy, fuel, groceries and, of course, childcare. It is little wonder that we hear stories from renters having to choose between putting food on the table or paying their electricity bill.
Generation rent, as they are called, is the generation cast aside by bad Government policies that continue to favour big landlords and institutional investors over the interests of those in housing need. The Taoiseach's approach is failing. His rent caps do not work for rent pressure zones and in counties where they do not apply, renters are left struggling with astronomical rises. Meanwhile, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, delivered just 5% of the affordable rental homes promised for 2021. Just 25 affordable rental homes were delivered in a whole year. That is a serious failure when renters are being crucified and are crying out for quality accommodation with fair rents that will not break the bank.
The Government has to get real now. It is as simple as that. It needs to turn away from policies that have not worked and embrace those that will. Tá cíosanna as smacht ag cabhrú leis an ngéarchéim costais mhaireachtála a spreagadh. Tá teipthe ar chur chuige an Rialtais. Tá sé thar am €1,500 a chur ar ais i bpócaí cíosóirí tríd aisíoc cánach agus cosc a chur ar arduithe cíosa ar feadh trí bliana. Renters need a break and they need it now. What the Government needs to do is to put money back in renters’ pockets by means of a tax rebate and it needs to place a ban on rent increases for three years. It needs to do this with urgency because renters cannot wait any longer for the Government to act. Let us be clear: unless the Government takes these actions, we will see more people pushed into homelessness, more young and not so young people moving back home to live with their parents and home homeownership will remain a pipe dream for an entire generation.
I thank the Deputy for raising what I have repeatedly raised in this House, and since I became Taoiseach one year and a half ago, that housing is the single most important social issue facing our country at this time. It is an enormous challenge that goes to the heart of cohesion within society and above all of giving younger generations, in particular, the opportunity to own their homes, to be able to buy homes at an affordable rate and to be able to rent at an affordable rate. In addition to that, for those who are not in a position due to income and so forth we must provide a sufficient supply of public housing to enable people to get housing at a social-housing level. That is why Housing for All represents a step change in housing policy. It is a whole-of-Government approach to increasing supply significantly and getting more houses built annually.
We were stymied and knocked back a bit due to Covid-19 in terms of the two lockdowns experienced in 2020 and 2021, but we have bounced back well in terms of construction. The good news is that up to 30,000 commencements have been recorded in the 12 months up to last September. That is very positive news. The momentum is there, as is the pipeline. Supply is important in ensuring affordability and an adequacy of housing availability across all the different models. Housing for All allows for cost rental, affordable homes, social housing, as well as private sector investment which we need. Housing for All estimates that we will need approximately €10 billion per annum of private investment in addition to the State investment of €4 billion per annum. This is an unprecedented approach to housing but we need everybody on board. I was struck by this and said it to the Deputy yesterday. When we sanctioned at Cabinet the O'Devaney Gardens project yesterday, it is an illustration of what is holding back housing policy in this country-----
-----that the most recent attempts, which started in 2008 and attempts were made in 2015 to get that project off the ground, was defeated by politics-----
What the Irish people cannot afford and what the renters cannot afford is Sinn Féin and others - I apply this to everybody - consistently opposing housing projects that will increase supply.
Sinn Féin's performance on the ground in councils the length and breadth of the country cannot be reconciled with what Deputies are saying in this House. If we agree it is a crisis, and I do-----
It is a crisis, but the most effective way of dealing with it is to get housing supply in place and to give people strength and capacity in terms of incomes and jobs. At least there is good news this morning in that over the coming years the Central Bank is projecting another 167,000 additional jobs. We are responding well to the Covid recession to an extraordinary degree in terms of the jobs that will be created.
We will exceed the jobs target in our recovery plan-----
-----and will do so much earlier than was anticipated last year. Everything that can possibly be done will be done. The Deputy's proposals lack depth and substance.
-----because of the narrative that he has been putting forward. We are going to address this issue on all fronts. It is a very serious issue. We need to provide for it.
I ask Deputies to please adhere to the time limits set down. Can we also please give up the heckling? It does not show the House in a very good light to citizens at home looking in on proceedings.
The Government has failed in terms of supply and affordability. Those are the facts. I will help the Taoiseach to try to absorb the reality. This image shows a storage room. This accommodation would set you back just €300 a month. That is probably considered good value in the Taoiseach's housing market. This image shows a converted hallway in Dublin. This would knock you back €910 a month. That is probably a snitch in the Taoiseach's mind. What about this image? It is from Cork. In this particular rental accommodation, you could touch your fridge if you stretched your feet out of your bed. That is the reality for generation rent. Do not dare talk to me about false narratives or claim that you understand the crisis. You clearly do not. While the Taoiseach is over there scratching his head, I have told him two things he can do that will work. He should put money back into renters' pockets by way of a tax rebate and institute a three-year freeze on rents. If he does that, we and, more importantly, generation rent and renters might believe that he finally gets it.
I just want to make that point. I did not interrupt you. Do not dare to lecture me. I understand the realities of life as well anybody else in this House.
I do not intend to understand it more. I know a thing or two about people being in difficulty and facing challenges in their early lives with regard to the cost of living and their backgrounds.
You cannot have it both ways. You cannot talk to the private sector privately, as Deputy Ó Broin does, and say that you are all for private investment, that the guff and sloganeering Sinn Féin goes on with should not be listened to, and that there will be a warm house for the private sector when Sinn Féin gets into power.
That is the sort of talking out of both sides of one's mouth that has been going on. I am willing to work with all parties in this House because this crisis is too big for politics. It is not enough for parties to exploit a crisis for their own electoral gain.
If people are going to adopt a strategy of frustrating this House by heckling constantly, I will respond by suspending the House. I ask Deputies not to make me do that and to show a little bit of respect.
The report into the south Kerry child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS, is truly shocking. It is very distressing for all of the families concerned. These parents did the right thing and went to south Kerry CAMHS to get professional help for their children. Some waited up to two years to access that service. Instead of helping their children, the service actually harmed them. The treatment of 227 children by a junior doctor, who is not named in the report although he has been named in the media, was deemed risky. Some 46 children suffered significant harm, including lethargy, distress, raised blood pressure, significant weight gain and even the production of breast milk. The trauma these children and their families endured is unimaginable. While this junior doctor's prescribing practices and the inappropriate use of combinations of drugs, including antipsychotic drugs, were clearly appalling, the damage caused to children would not have been as long-lasting or extensive if he had been properly supervised. Of course, he was not. The report details a service that was entirely chaotic. Concerns were raised about this doctor in 2018 but these concerns were not followed up on. In fact, the doctor was recommended for other jobs in 2020. There has been no full-time consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist in south Kerry CAMHS since 2016. There is still no full-time consultant.
This report details endemic problems with south Kerry CAMHS, but media reports today suggest that a review is also to be undertaken in north Kerry CAMHS. I am sure that many families accessing CAMHS across the country now have questions they wish to be answered. It should be noted that there are nearly 3,000 children on CAMHS waiting lists. Most of these have been waiting for an appointment for more than three months.
What is going to be done to ensure accountability for what happened in south Kerry CAMHS? Is anyone other than the junior doctor in question going to lose his or her job or even be formally reprimanded? When will a full-time consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist be appointed to south Kerry CAMHS? Is the Government going to authorise a wider inquiry into CAMHS around the country to ensure the care of children is receiving appropriate supervision and resourcing in order to restore public confidence?
I thank the Deputy for raising this profoundly serious issue. I have read the executive summary of the report - the preliminary section of it. It is shocking and very serious. What happened is unacceptable. It represents a damning indictment of the service. The first principle of medicine is to do no harm. Children were harmed here by a complete failure of clinical performance and oversight and by the entire management of the service. As the Deputy has outlined, the treatment of 227 children was deemed risky by the report, which does not pull any punches to be fair to the consultant, Dr. Seán Maskey, who came over from the UK. The report says that 46 children were harmed significantly. It goes through what is meant by harm. Some children gained a lot of weight. Some were sleepy during the day, had raised blood pressure or produced breast milk. These were the results of overprescribing and a lack of oversight.
It demands a fundamental review, not just of south Kerry but of the overall situation pertaining to child and adolescent mental health. To be frank, it is not a resources issue. The resources are there to make appointments. It seems there have been ongoing difficulties over the years in recruiting senior clinicians in psychiatry to these posts in certain parts of the country and especially in CAMHS. Following the publication of the report, the HSE has apologised and communicated with all the parents involved. My understanding is that there has been an extensive look-back over 1,300 files. I outlined the outcome in that regard. It is important to say that it is not the parents’ fault, because many are feeling guilty. I watched one parent last evening on the "Six One News" say that she was taking on some of the guilt herself regarding what had happened. It is not the parents’ fault, though, because they will go by what is indicated or advised by the treating clinician.
Following the publication of the report, there will be a full audit nationwide of compliance with CAMHS operational guidelines by all CAMHS teams. In addition, a prescribing audit will be conducted in each of the 72 CAMHS teams. It will include a random selection of files proportional to the medical caseload from a continuous six-month predefined period in 2021. I have been in discussions with the Minister of State with special responsibility for mental health, Deputy Butler, in the last 24 hours with a view to seeing what more needs to be done. I have an open mind concerning how we pursue this issue further.
Some of the 35 recommendations included in the report raise fundamental questions about whether the service is actually hopelessly deficient. The whistleblower here, Dr. Ankur Sharma, was a locum consultant psychiatrist appointed in 2020. He has now resigned from the HSE because he said he received no support and was sidelined after he blew the whistle. Again, serious questions are being raised in our State agencies about the treatment of whistleblowers. This of course raises very serious questions for senior management within the HSE and about the culture there. I welcome the Taoiseach’s commitment to a wider inquiry. I ask him to confirm that this wider inquiry will also include an examination of the treatment of the whistleblower in this case. It is important that this happens and that we change that kind of culture, which is too often about silencing whistleblowers rather than encouraging whistleblowing in State agencies.
I am open to discussions with the Deputy and others regarding the best way forward here. I have a sense that over the last ten to 15 years there has been investment in child and adult mental health and that certain services developed in certain areas. From just observing, it seems to have never reached the optimum levels that we would all have understood would be the case when we started down this road of creating genuine child and adolescent mental health services. It must also be said that there are many good practises across the country and many good practitioners and psychiatrists who are angry and annoyed with what has transpired here.
The Deputy is correct, however, in saying this is not just about one in NCHD. There is a systemic collapse here in respect of overall clinical governance and overall management of the service. Any review must look end-to-end at it. Questions were raised, including the fundamental decision to have an NCHD in charge of a community area and so on. People may have made a call at the time, but even that must be interrogated in respect of best practice in future. There is a broader issue around the recruitment of qualified personnel within the mental health arena generally. We must face up to that now. This is no longer just about percentages of funding, etc. It is a matter of getting high-quality services in place and that has proved challenging in some areas.
The Taoiseach and his Tánaiste embarrassed themselves yesterday on the issue of the cost of living. Incredibly, the Tánaiste cited a 3% increase in the minimum wage as an example of the Government protecting workers from the ravages of inflation. How can the Tánaiste make such a comment when he knows lower-paid workers are the ones hit hardest by inflation and that inflation is increasing at nearly twice the rate that the minimum wage increased? At a time when Germany is increasing its minimum wage to €12 an hour, the Taoiseach’s Government has effectively cut the wages of the lowest-paid workers in this country. Shame on you, Taoiseach.
He also voiced opposition to wage increases in line with inflation here yesterday. He tried to deny it, but he did. Instead, he said that workers would need to be compensated by an increase in the social wage. Does the Taoiseach expect working people to have any confidence in his words when he decided to compensate them for about 15% of their increased energy bills, while leaving them to dig deep for the remaining 85%? The Taoiseach’s words might be taken a bit more seriously if he were to introduce free childcare for all, legislate to cut rents, bring in free public transport or abolish fees for third level. Anything less than measures such as these and the Taoiseach’s comments about the Vincentian model will be seen merely as waffle and guff.
Workers at Glen Dimplex in Northern Ireland have won a 13.5% pay increase. Unite the Union has won 25 pay increases at, or above, the rate of inflation in Northern Ireland and Britain. How did it do that? How did it successfully defend workers' living standards? It was not by politely asking employers maybe to grant pay increases, as the Tánaiste did yesterday. The union did it by organising, by balloting for industrial action and by taking industrial action where necessary. That is the example which must be followed here now. The bosses can well afford it.
Let us talk about profit inflation. The Musgrave Group made pre-tax profits of €98 million in 2020, while Facebook made after-tax profits of €623 million. I could quote hundreds more examples like that to the Taoiseach, if I had the time. A rise in wages leads to a cut in profits and not to a rise in prices, as the Taoiseach falsely implied here yesterday. Within one month, therefore, will the Taoiseach introduce an emergency package of measures to compensate ordinary people fully for inflation? Will he revisit the question of the minimum wage now that inflation is double the rate of the increase? Will he also voice support for workers submitting pay claims which, at the very least, match the rate of inflation?
Again, people at different times can distort what gets said. I warned against a wage-price inflationary cycle, but not against wage increases, which have occurred in the Irish economy and that have been linked with productivity and other factors. The latest data from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, show that average hourly earnings rose 3.8% in the third quarter of 2021, from a year earlier, and were up 7.6% from their pre-pandemic levels in the third quarter of 2019. We could go through the annual average wage inflation over that period as well, but that is not relevant now. It may be academically, but the reality now is that prices are increasing significantly because of the global energy crisis and supply chain issues arising out of the impact of Covid-19. I was simply pointing out yesterday that the global situation has to be taken on board. It is not the Irish Government that has cut anyone’s wage or income.
The Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland is clear that the wage increases so far are linked to increases in productivity, which is a good thing for the economy. If we were to have wage increases greater than the increases in productivity, that could lead to businesses having to increase prices and so on, and that is in no one’s interest. What I said yesterday is that we must work intelligently through this. That is why the Government worked in the budget on tax relief and on specific, targeted social welfare measures that would help low-income families in particular. In addition to those social protection measures, however, we also took other decisions concerning the cost of living that would impact families in particular.
Reducing paediatric hospital charges, increasing eligibility for families to access GPs for six- and seven-year-olds, and reducing the drugs payment scheme threshold are very targeted measures that make a real difference to families in certain circumstances. It is the better, more intelligent approach to deal with the unprecedented inflationary cycle that we are currently experiencing. The Central Bank believes that it will peak in 2022 and that we should hopefully be out of it by 2023.
The Government has also taken measures in respect of the cost of energy through the rebate, which is a €200 million cost. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan has introduced that. The Government has approved the legislation which will reduce electricity bills by €113. We acknowledge that these measures just contribute to easing the burden of inflation on many families. We will continue to work across the different areas to see if we can reduce that impact. We would also like to engage with the social partners and others in terms of adopting an intelligent way to deal with this inflationary cycle that retains the best of what the economy has going for it right now. The economy is producing jobs, which ultimately are the best protection against low incomes and so on.
The Taoiseach referred to a 3.8% year-on-year wage increase for workers. What is the rate of inflation? It is more than 3.8%. It is 5.5% and it is rising. The price of diesel is up 26%. The price of electricity is up 21%. Rents are up 8.3% and a lot more than that for many renters. What we have in Irish society is a de facto wage cut for workers. The Taoiseach is standing over that. I do not hear him saying anything that is going to bridge the gap for workers; €100 off the energy bills is not going to cut it.
Let us have a discussion as well about other wages. Robert Watt has €81,000 of an increase. Paul Reid earns €426,000 a year. Peter Jackson of Paddy Power made €8.7 million last year. Albert Manifold of CRH made €11.2 million last year. Three Bank of Ireland executives made more than €1 million each last year. That was signed off by the Department of Finance. The Government is telling workers to suck it up and accept wage cuts at a time when these massive wages are being paid by the top people to the top people. The Fianna Fáil way and the Fine Gael way seems to be one law for them, and one law for the ordinary people. What says the Taoiseach on those points?
The figure I was quoting was 3.8% in the third quarter of 2021 from a year earlier. That was the rise in earnings then. Wages were up 7.6% from their pre-pandemic levels in Q3. The average inflation for that period was about 2.4% and actually was -0.3% throughout 2020. However, the Deputy is correct. We all accept that the CPI prices were up by about 5.5% in December. Electricity prices are up 22%. We know that. Gas prices are up 28% and home heating oil is up 53%. Petrol and diesel are up 34%. Food prices have not risen to that extent except for bread and cereals, which is problematic. The problem is that energy prices feed into higher costs of production and distribution, which ultimately creates pressure in terms of inflation. I say to the Deputy that we have already taken measures in the budget to try to protect those who need the protection the most, to target that. We are going to continue to look at ways of trying to reduce the burden, particularly on the energy side of it, on the people. We took steps yesterday in that respect.
I want to raise again with the Taoiseach the savage increase in the cost of fertiliser. I did this before back on 3 November last. I want to know what the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Taoiseach and the Government have done to get the price of fertiliser down to an acceptable or reasonable price for small suckler farmers in south Kerry and for dairy producers and tillage farmers in mid and north Kerry. This time last year urea was €330 a tonne. It is now €930 a tonne. Nitrogen was €240 and is now €690. Pasture sward was €350 and is now €700; and 18:6:12 is now €790. One farmer had a bill of €7,000 last year, but it will be €17,000 this year. Farmers will go broke and fast, especially small farmers in Kerry.
The main driver of the increased fertiliser costs in the EU and here is the massive increase in natural gas prices due to the green agenda to decarbonise electricity generation and also the EU policy to protect EU fertiliser producers by imposing levies on Russia and other countries supplying fertiliser into the EU. I am calling on the Taoiseach to intervene with the EU and get these levies abolished. Last Wednesday I attended the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and with others asked Fabien Santini of the EU Agriculture Commission what could be done to help our farmers in Kerry and around the country. From his reply we understand that each member state will be allowed to provide unique farmer support through relaxation of the state aid framework. This facility is only allowed until June this year. At that meeting, the Green Party Deputy Brian Leddin outlined his pleasure at the increased cost of fertiliser to force crippled farmers into organising farms.
Is the Green Party preventing the Taoiseach from helping the farmers? If the Taoiseach cannot do something about fertiliser costs, in order to survive farmers will have to increase the cost of their products to the consumer. Otherwise, they will go bust. We all have been told recently that the cost of groceries to the housewife has gone up by €780 in the last year. This figure will go up by double or more in the coming year because of the farmers' increased cost of production. Are housewives and consumers prepared to pay the extra cost of food as a result of the badly thought-out policies of the Green Party and this Government?
This will also impact on the availability of fodder and increase the price of it. Farmers have been wrongly attacked and vilified by the Green Party and many others in this Chamber and outside of here, and are being blamed for everything even though they produce good healthy food of the highest quality while at the same time maintaining the highest environmental standards, abiding by all the Department and European regulations.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I would point out that close to €10 billion in total between European Union and Exchequer funding will support over 120,000 farm families over the next Common Agricultural Policy period between 2023 and 2027. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue has worked very hard on behalf of Irish farmers to get the best package possible in the context of the common agricultural strategy over the next number of years. In addition to that, close to €4.5 billion has been paid out to farmers since June 2020 through various schemes like the basic payment scheme, the areas of natural constraint scheme, the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme and the beef scheme. Average family farm income increased during 2020 and again in 2021 for the third year in a row, reflecting good output prices.
However, the Deputy is correct when he says that there is very significant concern on the cost side in 2022 for farmers in the context of what he has outlined, the price of fertiliser. The high price of natural gas, which is a key ingredient in fertiliser production as the Deputy knows, has caused very significant disruption in production in the international fertiliser industry. This is a global problem and issue. Large increases in energy prices are a Europe-wide phenomenon. It is a combination of global demand for gas as economies recover from Covid as well as lower flows of gas from Russia. Given that Europe receives a large amount of its gas supply from Russia, the geopolitical impact of the current build-up of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border may even drive gas and fertiliser prices up further.
The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, has raised these rising costs at the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting.
He has called on the European Union Commission to consider all options to ease the pressure on farmers at this time. That includes monitoring the evolution of markets linked to agricultural impacts, particularly in relation to fertilisers; the question, which I think the Deputy raised, as to whether the imposition of anti-dumping duties on fertiliser imports continues to be appropriate, given the current crisis; and for this matter to be examined as a priority. The Minister has raised that with the Commission.
This is nothing to do with national politics or the particular political perspectives that parties may have in respect of climate and so on, but side by side with that, the Minister is working on giving supports through a number of measures, including soil fertility, greater use of clover and multispecies swards, to reduce dependency on chemical nitrogen fertiliser. That work is under way. That will help but the bigger issue is to try to deal with the current crisis in gas price increases that is feeding into the fertiliser problem. It is a very significant issue. I know that the Minister has asked Teagasc to develop a roadmap for assisting farmers in the short term as well as offering some long-term solutions.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply but I am not satisfied that we are helping farmers with their current plight. I am asking him to ensure that the anti-dumping levy is withdrawn. That would account for at least €40 or €50 per tonne. I am asking the Government to subsidise the cost of the fertiliser. If we look far enough ahead, we will see that the current situation will increase the cost of food as well. If the cost to the farmer of what he or she produces increases, who will pay for it only the consumer? The Dáil has heard all day from other parties and Members that the cost of living, including the cost of diesel and everything else, has increased. The cost of food will go mad if the Government does not do something about it.
The current situation will also create a fodder crisis at the end of the year. Farmers cannot afford it. I will give an example of a man whose bill was €7,000 last year. It will be €17,000 this year. That is savage for a small farmer trying to survive. If farmers cannot grow grass, they will not produce grass, milk or grain, so it-----
I do not doubt the seriousness of the issue that the Deputy has raised. It is very serious. It has to be dealt with on a Europe-wide basis. The Minister is engaging with the European Commission and his colleagues at the European Agriculture and Fisheries Council to see what can be done. In addition, we have, through the carbon tax revenue, ring-fenced significant funding for a new ambitious agri-environmental scheme to be rolled out under the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, programme. That new agri-environmental scheme will target in the region of 50,000 participants with a maximum payment of up to €10,000 to individual farmers. We will also use revenue over the period in other ways to support materially and in a real way farm incomes, but we have an issue that all goes back to the energy issue, the flow of gas and gas supplies across Europe and globally. That is at the core of this. I have no doubt that the Minister will continue to work with his colleagues on the Council and with the Commission on trying to reduce the pressure on farmers as a result of this.