Thursday, 19 May 2022
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Níl dabht ar bith ach go bhfuil smacht caillte ag an Rialtas ar an ghéarchéim costais maireachtála. Tchímid go bhfuil méadú de 28% tagtha ar bhillí leictreachais, go bhfuil méadaithe os cionn 50% tagtha ar bhillí gáis agus go bhfuil an costas d'ola chun tithe a théamh beagnach dúbailte le bliain anuas. Tá cíosanna imithe suas 12% agus tá brú millteanach ar theaghlaigh ar ioncaim íseal agus ar mheánioncaim.
There is no doubt the cost of living crisis is reducing the living standards of low- and middle-income households across the State. Inflation in the 12 months to April reached over 7%, the biggest spike we have seen in prices in more than two decades. Workers and families are struggling. They are seeing their energy bills soar and other costs rise. We know what has caused this. Many factors are beyond our control but others are not. Soaring rents and unaffordable childcare are not beyond the control of this Government. In many ways, they have reached such unaffordable levels because of Government policy. The Government can and must respond.
We in Sinn Féin recognise that every household cannot be protected from every price increase but low- and middle-income households must be supported. In this regard, the Government has lost control of the cost of living crisis. Electricity bills have increased by 28% and gas bills by over 50%, the cost of home heating oil has almost doubled and rents have gone up by 12%. Inflation impacts everybody but not equally. Lower-income and middle-income households are hit hardest, as they spend a higher proportion of their money on energy and food.
The most vulnerable in our society are faced with choices they should never have to make over whether to eat or heat their homes. Shamefully, the Government has not increased social welfare rates in response to historic levels of inflation. The pay packets of low-paid workers cannot stretch from one month to the next. Let us be clear. The Government is deliberately allowing people to fall through the cracks. Sinn Féin has for many months consistently called for a mini-budget that would bring forward a comprehensive package of measures to support low- and middle-income households.
This morning the Think-tank for Action on Social Change released its report on inequality in Ireland in 2022. It highlights the fact inflation has impacted low-income households most and has been made worse by Government policy failure in areas such as housing and childcare. It recommends what Sinn Féin has called for for months, that is, an increase in social welfare rates to ensure the most vulnerable in our society are protected and supported. It also calls for an increase in the minimum wage to boost the incomes of more than 130,000 workers. However, the Government has refused to do either of these things.
Sinn Féin has been calling on the Government to introduce targeted measures to protect renters through a refundable tax credit putting one month's rent back into renters' pockets and to ban rent increases. We have called on the Government to reduce the cost of childcare and of home heating oil. These measures can be taken. They are sensible, necessary and what families and workers need at this time. The Government continues to delay, oppose and rule them out. Workers and families cannot afford more delay or inaction. They are looking for the Government to respond to an unprecedented challenge in their homes and lifestyles and to the cost-of-living crisis they face. They are looking for the Government to take the actions we in Sinn Féin have spelled out.
Is the Government planning to introduce further measures or does it continue to ignore the plight of, in particular, those on fixed incomes who have not seen an increase in social welfare rates during these unprecedented price increases?
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I acknowledge that we face a cost-of-living crisis, that inflation is at levels not seen in a very long time and that people are feeling the pinch and more than a pinch. Many are struggling to make ends meet. It is affecting households and families, as well as businesses in terms of the cost of energy. People see it when they fill their car with petrol or diesel, really see it in their electricity or gas bill and increasingly are seeing it in other areas, such as groceries.
It is true that those most affected are those on lowest incomes because they spend more of their incomes on food and energy than those on middle or higher incomes. However, I do not think it only affects those on low to middle incomes. People on average incomes of €40,000 to €50,000 per year, working full time, are also being affected. That is why the Government's approach has been to take action that is universal so everyone gets some help, including those on middle and good incomes. However, we are targeting our approach in order that most of the support is going to those on the lowest incomes. I think that is the right approach. Sinn Féin does not support it for ideological reasons but I disagree on that. It is a universal approach to help everyone and recognise that middle-income families are being hit too, but is targeted to give additional help to those on the lowest incomes.
I am a little disappointed in the Deputy's question because there was no acknowledgement in it that the Government had done anything to help people with the cost of living. That is not fair. We have had packages totalling €2.4 billion to help people with the cost of living. That is considerable and is more than would be the case in any one budget. We had a tax and welfare package that kicked in in January. Sinn Féin supported the welfare and pension increases but did not support the tax element of that. The average couple earning €40,000 each per year, we will say, would be thousands of euro worse off under Sinn Féin in terms of after-tax income than under the current Government. The increase in the minimum wage kicked in in January. We reduced VAT on electricity and gas. We reduced excise on petrol and diesel. We brought in targeted measures to help those who need it most, including the increase in the fuel allowance through two additional payments and the €200 discount per household on electricity bills which people are seeing in their bills at the moment. There is a 2% cap on rent increases, which means rent is going up between 0% and 2% for existing tenancies. We have had reductions in public transport fares, which I think have been widely welcomed, especially for younger people. We have had a reduction in the cost of school transport for families with multiple kids using it. We have had a reduction in the costs of medicine and 92% of childcare services have signed up to free fees. There was not a single mention of any of that in the Deputy's question, which is not fair. It is €2.4 billion and ten or 20 measures, including universal ones to help everyone and targeted ones to help those most in need.
I know I will hear back the usual rant for social media about how we do not get it, yadda yadda, and all the pre-scripted stuff. I would like to see in part of the Deputy's response an acknowledgement that the Government has done something in this area and has provided €2.4 billion worth of relief to help households with the cost of living. Will the Deputy at least be generous or honest enough to acknowledge that in his reply?
The Tánaiste missed the point. We recognise what happened in the budget and the measures taken.
We had to push the Government repeatedly even to move in respect of petrol and diesel. It still did not go far enough. I can tell the Tánaiste, hand on heart, that the people who come into my constituency office and those of my colleagues are not ranting to us when they tell us they cannot make ends meet and are facing serious choices this year in respect of how to heat their homes, clothe their children and put food on the table. They are telling us that they are social welfare dependent. The social welfare rates have not been increased by the Government despite the fact that inflation is running at over 7% and these individuals have a higher rate of inflation. Renters are telling us that they cannot afford the rent increases, not even the 2% the Tánaiste is talking about - in many areas it is far more than that - and are being forced into homelessness. They are not ranting to us; they are telling us their life experiences.
Will the Government respond to the immediate needs faced by low- and middle-income households and families that need additional supports in the form of social welfare increases, rent rebates and a reduction in childcare costs?
There has been an increase in social welfare rates. That occurred in January and was done in response to the fact that we had a return to inflation. There had not been increases in social welfare rates in some previous budgets. Since then, there have been other increases in social welfare. For example, we brought forward changes to the working family payment and we also brought in an extended fuel allowance period and an additional fuel allowance payment. We had welfare increases in January and, since then, there have been further welfare increases, acknowledging the fact that people living on welfare are being hit hardest by the increase in energy costs and now in food costs. That was done. It would, at least, be relevant for the Deputy to acknowledge that fact. Welfare increases occurred in January and there have been two sets of further welfare increases since then. Obviously, people on welfare have benefitted from the €200 per household reduction in electricity bills which is just kicking in now, as well as the reduction in excise on petrol and diesel. These things are happening.
As we all acknowledge, a lot of these inflationary pressures are beyond the control of governments, or at least the Irish Government, because they are driven by international factors. There are areas where we can help and do more, such as childcare and the cost of public transport and we are working on proposals in those areas.
We know that two separate investigations are now under way into allegations of conflict of interest in decision-making of the deputy chair of An Bord Pleanála, Paul Hyde. One of the investigations is being carried out by Remy Farrell, senior counsel, while the other is an internal audit. The terms of reference for Mr. Farrell's inquiry were published by the Government exactly one week ago but they already appear to be out of date as further allegations have come to light. The Ditchhas reported that an inspector's report into the redevelopment of the Player Wills site in Dublin 8 was edited when discrepancies in the initial version were identified by a subdivision of the board chaired by Mr. Hyde. Separately, the Irish Examinerhas reported that in a case relating to a compulsory purchase order for a greenway in Kerry, Mr. Hyde suggested edits to an inspector's report that came before the board. A board member suggesting edits to an inspector's report when those reports are supposed to be independent of the board is highly unusual and very concerning.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hyde is not the only member of the board about whom allegations have now been published. The Ditchhas reported that another member of its strategic housing division voted on at least three planning applications in her own neighbourhood. One of these developments was less than 400 m from her home in Rathmines. According to the code of conduct of An Bord Pleanála, members are not supposed to vote on proposed developments in their immediate neighbourhood. Bizarrely, however, when The Ditchcontacted An Bord Pleanála and inquired as to what constituted an immediate neighbourhood, An Bord Pleanála declined to comment. By contrast, the Planning Inspectorate in the UK is quite clear that its members should not consider developments within a 5 km radius of their neighbourhood.
Separately, there have been further allegations that Mr. Hyde failed to recuse himself from an application that was supported by a report from his brother's engineering firm.
The terms of reference for Mr. Farrell's inquiry allow for the exercise of a certain level of discretion in respect of the scope of his investigation but this discretion appears to be quite limited. The terms clearly debar the investigation of anyone other than Mr. Hyde.
Given the centrality of An Bord Pleanála to the planning process and the absolute necessity that it retains the confidence of the public, can the Tánaiste confirm that the terms of reference for the report of Mr. Farrell will be expanded to include these further allegations concerning Mr. Hyde? Is any investigation being conducted or contemplated into allegations that another member of the board breached the code of conduct of An Bord Pleanála? Can the Tánaiste explain why An Bord Pleanála will not answer simple media queries on matters such as what constitutes a member's immediate neighbourhood for the purposes of its own code of conduct? Has An Bord Pleanála provided any updates to the Government regarding the progress of its internal audit of Mr. Hyde's decisions?
I thank the Deputy. These are very serious allegations and serious allegations need to be taken seriously and properly investigated, but people are entitled to due process as well. I am sure the Deputy will acknowledge that. His questions are specific and deserve an answer. I might ask the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to revert to the Deputy with specific answers to his questions because I do not want to give him an answer here that might turn out to be incorrect. While I have been briefed on this matter, it has been evolving and I might not be fully up to date on it.
What I can say is that a senior counsel has been appointed to provide a report to inform the Minister on this issue. Terms of reference for the report were published by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on its website on 12 May. Remy Farrell, senior counsel, is requested to provide a report to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage in accordance with these terms of reference within a period of six weeks. Pending completion of the report of the senior counsel, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is aware of the allegations that have been made and understands that those allegations are denied by the member concerned. As I stated, pending completion of the report, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further.
The Office of the Planning Regulator has independently written to the chairperson of An Bord Pleanála, requesting him to outline the systems and procedures that An Bord Pleanála has in place to ensure effective compliance with the statutory duties provided for in the planning Acts regarding the declaration of interests and any other information he considers relevant. I understand that An Bord Pleanála has responded to that request and the Planning Regulator is considering the response. An Bord Pleanála is independent in the performance of its functions under the planning Act.
I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. I will narrow it down to two fairly general questions that I think he will be able to answer. First, will the scope of the investigation be widened so that all the allegations that are in the public domain will be investigated? What is his view on that? Should it be widened so that all allegations that are in the public domain will be investigated? It currently appears that a significant number of allegations, including those relating to another board member, will not be investigated. I do not think that is acceptable.
Second, An Bord Pleanála has been refusing to give replies to simple and straightforward questions from the media. What is the view of the Tánaiste in that regard? Does he think An Bord Pleanála should give the media replies to simple and straightforward questions, such as in respect of the code of conduct and how the terms in it, such as "immediate neighbourhood", are defined?
As regards the scope of the investigation and whether it should be widened, that is a matter for the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, to consider. Obviously, he will need to see whether the additional allegations have substance and, on foot of that, will need to make a decision as to whether the terms of reference need to be changed or the investigation widened. That is really a matter for the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, to consider.
As regards An Bord Pleanála, I agree that it should respond to media queries but if it cannot do so for some reason, it should explain why. Sometimes there are reasons why it cannot. It should respond but if it cannot do so, it should give a clear and credible reason for that.
The British Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, has been accused of saying that a no-deal Brexit in Ireland would only affect a few farmers with turnips in the back of their trucks. Some people might say that is just Tories being Tories, but it does give an insight into the ignorance at the heart of the British bad faith when it comes to Brexit and the North of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement is shredded and gutted. The Executive has collapsed. This has happened at a time of a cost-of-living crisis and while 44,000 people are currently on housing waiting lists in the North of Ireland, 270,000 people there are on hospital waiting lists for longer than a year and 670,000 people are in poverty in the Six Counties.
This would not be acceptable in any other democratic society in the world. The North-South Ministerial Council, which was one of the reasons nationalists voted for the Good Friday Agreement, has not met for nearly a year. There is now mounting evidence that confirms that British collusion was involved in the multiple killings of Irish people, North and South, but yet the Tories are ploughing ahead with legislation which would indemnify murderers and securocrats responsible for these killings. On the issue of the human right to life, which is a devolved issue under the Good Friday Agreement, today Brandon Lewis will announce the imposition of some of the most extreme law in Europe onto the North of Ireland. This will be done against the will of the people of the North. It will see thousands of lives lost in the North over the coming years.
The Tories and the DUP have totalled the Good Friday Agreement and the democratic rights of the people of the North. The Government is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. It is safe to say that the Government is not co-guaranteeing anything at the moment. We believe it is beyond time that the Government fulfil its responsibilities. The Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty. The Government should be exhausting all international legal avenues to see its implementation; it should seek the suspension of MLA salaries while the Executive is suspended; it should harness the full extent of White House and EU power to put pressure on the British Government; it should seek the reconstitution of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference; it should at this stage be pushing for joint authority while Stormont is collapsed; and it should seek a legally defined role for the Assembly in the North to activate an Irish unity referendum. I welcome the stronger language of the Minister for Foreign Affairs this week. It was a breath of fresh air because the British do not understand subtlety. We also need actions. What actions will the Government take to defend the Good Friday Agreement and the democratic rights of the people of the Six Counties?
I do not know whether the Secretary of State, Liz Truss, made those remarks or not. It is obviously for her to confirm or deny them. However we all know that Brexit, even with the deal that we have had, has affected people. It has affected businesses adversely with many consequences, although I think without the deal we have it would have been much worse. In respect of legacy, the Irish Government is very concerned about the proposals that have been put forward by the British Government in regard to legacy, amnesty and the non-prosecution of people who were involved in killing people in Northern Ireland, whether it was in terrorist offences or people from the security services. We had the Stormont House Agreement. We think that agreement should be honoured in regard to legacy. We are very much of the view that whatever is done in regard to legacy in Northern Ireland, should be done with the support of the parties in Northern Ireland and crucially should involve consultation with and the agreement of the families and victims groups. This is because many people are still grieving years and decades later because of what was done to them by paramilitaries and security forces. It is they who should be at the centre of this.
In regard to the actions that we are taking, the Government is acting on two tracks. As part of the European Union we are trying to negotiate with the United Kingdom in regard to the protocol, trying to come up with solutions that maintain the protocol in place and the benefits that arise from it, but in some way help to assuage and ease the concerns that unionists and some business people in Northern Ireland have. We are working on that track in terms of how to modify and improve the protocol and trying to respond to some of the concerns that have been raised.
In particular, led by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, we are trying to engage with the British Government and the parties in Northern Ireland with a view to forming an Executive. Getting the Assembly up and running is very important and does not require an Executive to be formed. That should happen. An Executive should happen also. I was involved for three years in negotiations around Brexit. What was missing was a functioning Northern Ireland Executive, a First Minister and a deputy First Minister who could speak on behalf of Northern Ireland. What we have now is five or more parties, each with its leader, each just speaking for his or her party or maybe for one community or part of one community. As nobody in Northern Ireland has the authority to speak on behalf of Northern Ireland, it is important that we have an Executive in place in order that the Executive, First Minister and deputy First Minister can be involved and can be across any changes that might happen to the protocol. That is currently absent. That is really regrettable. The decision not to participate in the Executive is entirely down to one party.
On the legacy issue, Aontú published a Bill last week, the commission of investigation (collusion by British state forces) Bill 2022, which would constitute a commission investigation into British collusion into the murders of Irish people North and South. With the mounting evidence that exists we believe it is important that a commission investigation be held. There has never been a comprehensive investigation in regard to British collusion in this country. Victims and survivors are entitled to know. Many of these families are getting older. Time is running out for them. There is an urgency about this. Our Bill would empower a commission of investigation to compel witnesses in the South of Ireland. It would also have the power to take evidence from outside of this jurisdiction. It would have the power to consider information that has been published in state investigations internationally. It could help to fill key gaps in the understanding of collusion. Should a similar Bill be constituted in Stormont, it would allow for witnesses to be compelled on the island, North and South. It is time to go beyond just those two steps of negotiating through the EU and negotiating on Stormont directly with the British Government. We need to pull other levers that are in our ability to solve this. I encourage the Tánaiste to support the Aontú Bill on the commission of investigation.
There has been the Smithwick tribunal of which Deputy Tóibín will be aware. I have not seen the Bill on the commission of investigation so we will certainly examine that when we have had a chance to see it. There are a number of files and investigations still open, as the Deputy knows, in regard to offences that occurred in the past, as well as collusion.
I wish to raise the restriction by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, which prevents many people who wish to exit onto national secondary roads from getting planning permission. This is adversely affecting applicants especially along the N72 from Rathmore to Killarney and from Killarney to Killorglin. We are talking about 22 of the 25 miles. In 2012 the Department authorised the National Roads Authority, NRA, now TII, not to grant permission to planning applicants to access the national secondary roads if the road from which they emerge onto the national secondary road is not in the charge of the local authority. This is very unfair. These roads and junctions are every bit as safe as those that are in the charge of Kerry County Council. Sons and daughters of farmers, landowners and people who have lived and worked their holdings for generations need to build homes for themselves on their own land to be near their ageing parents and to be near their cows in order to milk and calve them. They need to live on the farm on which they work but they are being denied the right by the TII rule. I ask that the TII restrictions be lifted where there is an existing exit onto the N72 serving these holdings, in order that the next generation will be allowed to continue living at home. No extra traffic movements would be created as they would be happy living in their parents' home.
My contention is that if a farmer is forced to build or buy a house at a remove from the farm, he will most definitely generate more traffic movements going to and from his outside home to his farm and his ageing parents who are in his care. Many of these local roads are public rights of way serving several holdings, houses and farms. They are the same in every way as those that are in the charge of Kerry County Council. However, Kerry County Council does not now have the funding to take them in charge. These people who pay every tax and abide by every regulation are being blocked from getting planning permission by TII. I wish to stress that what I ask is that where there is an existing exit onto the national secondary road and where the site distance at the junction complies with the regulations, planning be allowed for the landowners' sons and daughters.
The problem for all those who cannot get permission in respect of their own land is that they have no hope of getting planning anywhere near their own holdings because all the areas surrounding Killarney - Mucross, Kilcummin, Aghadoe, Fossa and Beaufort - are designated as areas under intense upward pressure. That means there can be no planning for outsiders. The only option left is Killarney town, where land is making €1 million an acre and where houses cost €500,000 to €600,000 or more.
I thank Deputy Danny Healy-Rae for raising this important issue. As he will be aware, the Government, the party I lead, and, indeed, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, who is responsible for planning in this area, support the right of people to build rural housing on land that they own in order that they can live in their communities or live near their parents, as the case may be. However, we have to get the balance right between proper planning and people's right to build their own homes on their own land.
What we want to avoid when it comes to national roads is too many traffic movements on and off the road. We want to avoid additional entrances and exits because that can slow the traffic, which is an irritation for everyone and which can also create road safety issues with lots of vehicles coming onto and off busy national roads. I agree that there should be a distinction between existing entrances and exits and new ones. I suppose it requires a commonsense and pragmatic approach, and that should be done on a case-by-case basis. Where there is an existing entrance or exit, that is different and it should be treated differently to somebody who wants to create a new one.
I am grateful for the Tánaiste's reply. That is the point that I am trying to make. Where there is an existing exit, where it is safe and where it meets all the sight distance regulations, I am asking that we review the regulations that are in place because there is a complete blanket ban in place all the way from Rathmore, west of Killarney, around Killarney itself and from Fossa back to Killorglin. It is ridiculous that farmers' sons and daughters cannot get planning permission to build houses for themselves and put a roof over their heads. If they have to live away from the farm and buy a house somewhere else, they are certainly generating more traffic back and forth to the farm, in and out to the farm and back to the houses they are living in. This does not make one iota of sense.
I am all for road safety. In many of these places we are talking about, for instance, over and along Ballaugh, there is two miles of a straight road where there is no problem in seeing the traffic coming. It is the same back along Dungeel into Killorglin. There is plenty of sight distance there, and it is wrong to refuse these people.
I thank the Deputy again for raising the issue. I will take it up with the Minister for Transport and TII. Blanket bans on national secondary roads are too extreme. I am a former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. National roads are variable. Some are big dual carriageways. Others are quite small and would be classed as regional roads in other countries. Blanket banks are too extreme. I agree that where there is an existing entrance rather than a new one, it should be treated a bit differently for the reasons that the Deputy outlines, namely, that those traffic movements would probably be happening anyway. That is why I think a pragmatic case-by-case approach should be taken rather than a blanket ban. As I say, I am not across the details of the particular road to which the Deputy referred. I will talk to Deputy Griffin about the matter and, as already stated, I will raise it with the Minister for Transport and TII.