Wednesday, 22 June 2022
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Yesterday, the Cabinet approved the defective concrete block remediation Bill. After months of delay, homeowners affected by pyrite, mica and pyrrhotite have sight of the Government's intentions. Tomorrow, the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage will sit for six hours to scrutinise the general scheme of the Bill. We will hear from homeowners, experts and officials. It is disappointing that the full Bill has not yet been published in advance of that meeting and it is concerning that the Government is allowing just three weeks for the legislation's passage. It is a complicated Bill that comes with a price tag possibly exceeding €3 billion and there is a concern that the Government will not afford adequate time for full committee consideration of the Bill over the next number of weeks. This concern is shared by homeowners, and it should concern the taxpayers, who are being asked to foot the bill.
No Deputy wants to delay the passage of the legislation, but surely we all want to get it right. As it stands, the legislation is not fit for purpose. It is defective. Like the homes it promises to fix, it is filled with cracks and holes and stands on weak foundations. It will not provide 100% redress for many homeowners. The formula for calculating costs is deeply flawed. The proposals for addressing cost inflation are wholly inadequate. The exclusion of foundations is contrary to the science. There are no mechanisms for penalty-free downsizing. There is no clarity on meeting current building and energy efficiency regulations. There are concerns that homeowners will be denied demolition and rebuilding even where that is the most sensible option. There are fears that the damage threshold will exclude many affected households. There are concerns that the appeals process may not be fully independent.
Just as the Bill has been delayed, many are worried that the subsequent regulations will be, too, meaning that the new scheme may not be open and available for applications until 2023. I wonder why the review of Irish Standard, IS, 465:2018, which underpins the scheme, will not be concluded in parallel with the Bill, if it will also be delayed and whether it will address key issues such as, for example, foundations and pyrrhotite. These are all genuine concerns expressed in recent days by affected homeowners, families who have lived in the most appalling and stressful of conditions for more than a decade, who have been repeatedly failed by Governments and who are urging all of us to work together to get the Bill right.
Ultimately, responsibility for defective buildings lies with industry - rogue quarries, block manufacturers and, in other cases, contractors - but the Government is also to blame. Light-touch regulation introduced by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the 1980s and 1990s created the context in which such rogue operators could survive and flourish. Thankfully, we now have the opportunity to clean up that mess, do right by homeowners and, crucially, deliver 100% redress.
My question is simple. Will the Minister commit to working with all of us on the committee over the next three and a half weeks to ensure that we address all of these issues and give the homeowners in the affected counties the redress scheme that they desperately need and rightly deserve?
I thank the Deputy for his question and for raising the important issue of defective blocks. As he rightly stated, the Bill is detailed and complex legislation. By the way, it has not been delayed. There has been weekly, if not daily, engagement with homeowners and I have endeavoured to engage with Opposition parties. I wrote to the Deputy directly with many detailed questions a number of months ago that he publicly committed to responding to, which he has not done. That is his wont, which is okay.
Let us consider the scheme's fundamentals. There will be 100% redress. We have upped the cap from €247,500 to €420,000. We have allowed significant additional costs such as storage and rental. We have also removed the barrier to accessing the scheme, for which homeowners were paying up to €6,000 or €7,000 heretofore. Those payments have been refunded to most of those who paid them and we are reducing the cost to approximately €500.
I will of course work with all Opposition parties. I am glad that Deputy Ó Broin is now engaging, although somewhat delayed. This is important legislation and, to be fair to the committee, it has taken a sensible approach to it by ensuring that there will be a meeting tomorrow with the affected homeowners group as well as experts in the field in order to get their views. I have received those views right the way through the process. As the Deputy knows, Mr. John O'Connor, the former chief executive of the Housing Agency and the designated liaison between the residents and me, met the homeowners group on the day last week when I brought the first memorandum to the Government.
The scheme is greatly improved. It needs to be grounded in legislation. The previous scheme, to which all parties, including the Deputy's, gave a guarded welcome in 2020, was insufficient. I gave a commitment to homeowners in all affected counties and others that may be affected that we would greatly improve the scheme, provide 100% redress not only for a principal private residence, but for one other property that was registered with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, examine the guarantee, which will now be 40 years, and allow a second home grant in order that, if options 2 to 5 are selected - the replacement of the outer leaf, inner leaf or a combination of both - a guarantee will be given by the State and a homeowner will have access to the scheme again. This is important, as is extending the guarantee to 40 years.
Regarding pyrrhotite and infill, the Deputy is raising many of his concerns without having seen the legislation. As he knows, he and other members of the committee will be receiving a detailed briefing in advance of the meetings. That has been arranged. In that space, we will endeavour to work through the process. We need the legislation passed by the summer. There is no question of anyone trying to railroad it through. It has not been delayed. Rather, we have taken on board all of the legitimate concerns and points in order to improve the scheme.
Let us be clear, in that this is a significant Government intervention to the tune of at least €2.7 billion. The Deputy may not have seen that inflationary measures are built into it whereby I as Minister or any future Minister can revert to the House over the next three years and increase the rates by a further 10%. If we see rates going the other way, that will be addressed too.
I want people to get their homes and lives back on track. I am committed to working through this legislation over the remaining weeks of this session in co-operation with Opposition parties, as well as Government Members who have been engaging on this matter, so that we have a scheme that is fit for purpose for residents in the affected counties and other counties.
People living in cracking and crumbling homes are not interested in petty political point scoring. They want us to get the legislation right. Not only have I read the general scheme, but I have had informal briefings from the Minister's officials on the content of the as yet unpublished Bill, so I am as across it as I can be without having read it.
Tomorrow, homeowners from Clare, Mayo and Donegal will present to the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage. They will set out all of the concerns that I have just listed. They will be telling our committee that the Bill, as it stands, will not work. They will urge us and the Minister to address these concerns by way of amendment during the Bill's passage. I am asking the Minister not just to display a willingness to work through the legislation, but to commit to working with us on crafting appropriate amendments on all of the issues that I have outlined and where homeowners and scientific experts have raised legitimate concerns in order to ensure that, when the Bill passes, which I hope will be by the end of this session, it will be the right legislation to provide the right redress to the thousands of affected homeowners.
I assure the Deputy that, as I have done with all Bills that I have brought before the House, many of which I have received support for from Opposition benches, I will work through the legislation and we will consider any amendment to it as we move through the process. It is fair to say that tomorrow's meeting will give an opportunity for residents to put forward their views. There have been guarded welcomes for this scheme from some quarters. Everyone accepts that it is a greatly improved scheme, one that is founded in robust legislation.
The purpose of it coming through the Oireachtas, both Dáil and Seanad, is to seek views from Opposition parties and to look at amendments, which we will do. I was not trying to score any petty political points with the Deputy; I was simply outlining the fact that I endeavoured to engage with him earlier in this process. The Deputy gave a commitment to respond on what the Sinn Féin position was and he did not do so; that is all. Now that the Deputy is engaged I will be more than happy to do that with Sinn Féin, Labour, the Social Democrats, Independents and my Government colleagues. We can work this through to provide the basis for a greatly improved scheme that the Government has brought forward and to get the legislation passed by the summer recess so people can get on with getting their homes remediated and getting their lives back on track.
I want to read the Minister an email I received recently. In the email, the person who contacted me says:
I'm 36 years old, working in a full-time job as an IT professional for a global multinational. I have savings and continue to put as much of my salary away as I can afford. Although I earn above the median income and have a stable job, I am forced to share a house with 5 other full time working professionals aged from late 20s to early 40s. Our rental house is owned by a global hedge fund. For each of us the prospect of home ownership or renting a property of our own is a laughable proposition. I'll be close to 50 by the time I've got enough of a deposit to afford a mortgage. This government, and every government of my adult lifetime, have let me down.
Why is it that this Government is so determined to prioritise the interests of investment funds over those of people who want to own a home? Last year, when it was revealed that an investment fund was purchasing 135 out of 170 homes at Mullen Park, Maynooth, the Government said it was an isolated incident and was unacceptable. What does the Minister have to say to the revelations in the Business Postthis week that funds snapped up more than 350 houses in the past year? That is nearly three times the number of homes that were going to be sold in Mullen Park. We told the Minister that a 10% stamp duty rate would not be a sufficient deterrent but he refused to listen. He again refused to listen when we raised concerns in February about the activity of a fund called Orange Capital Partners. At the time, the Irish Independentreported that the fund was buying up 300 homes in Dublin, including a number of homes in Portmarnock in the Minister's constituency. The fund did not care how much it paid for these homes. To be precise, it said: "it is irrelevant what we pay for them." The rental market in Ireland is so lucrative that funds know they are guaranteed big profits, regardless of what they pay.
How are first-time buyers and families supposed to compete with funds with bottomless pockets? Is it any wonder that the number of first-time buyers in Dublin has decreased by 30% in the past five years? Irish people are now almost 40 years old before they can buy their first homes. Under this Government, more and more people are being locked out of home ownership. Will the Minister finally listen and act decisively to ban investment funds from buying homes in bulk? Will the Minister include apartments in that ban?
I thank the Deputy and what he refers to as a "revelation" in the Business Postwas no such thing. I brought a memo to Cabinet three weeks ago detailing the measures we brought forward over a year ago to protect first-time buyers against bulk purchases. What the Deputy has neglected to say is that in that period of time planning permissions have been granted for over 16,000 homes with the condition that they cannot be sold on a bulk basis. That is a fact and that has happened in just the space of one year.
I refer to the revelation the Deputy mentioned with the 351 homes. Mullen Park, as the Deputy knows, was not sold to investor funds. Those houses were sold for individual sale, which the Deputy has neglected to say. There were 47,000 house sales over the last 12 months, 351 of which were to investment funds, which is about 0.7% of the overall sales. The measures this Government and I have taken relate to planning going forward and they are working. We have levelled the playing pitch for first-time buyers and first-time buyers are up to the highest level on new mortgages that they have been since 2007.
I support home ownership and I want the person who has emailed the Deputy to be able to own his or her own home. That is why we have supported the help to buy grant, which the Social Democrats opposes. It is a €30,000 tax rebate that helps people to get their deposits together. I wonder if the Deputy will say that in his response to the person who emailed him. Will he also tell the person that the Social Democrats was one of the few parties to oppose the Affordable Housing Act 2021? The Social Democrats opposes cost rental, which is delivering hundreds of tenancies for people on a 40-year minimum basis on secure tenure and at 50% below the market rent. That allows for the direct build of affordable purchase homes, and the Deputy opposed 253 of those being built in Ballymastone in his county of Fingal in north County Dublin. Furthermore, the Deputy is on record as opposing what is probably the most significant measure that will be taken, which is the first home shared equity scheme which we will launch in July. That will help the person who emailed the Deputy to bridge the gap between the finance the person has and the finance needed by the State taking an equity, not by a second mortgage as the Deputy claimed last year when we brought it forward.
We bring forward these measures, including the €4 billion per annum we are bringing forward under Housing for All, because this Government has a housing plan that is published and financed. The Social Democrats, in comparison, has a lack of housing policies and a lack of finance behind any of the measures it wants to bring forward. We are clear on what we want to do and we are seeing commencements up to the highest level since 2007, with over 30,000 commencements in the 12 months to May, the highest quarter commencements and completions. We want to help people own their homes. The measures we have brought forward are targeted to do that. We want to build more social homes than we have ever done before and we are targeting 9,000 new build social homes this year through Housing for All as part of the 90,000 we will deliver between now and 2030.
It is a pity that the Minister spent most of his time making attacks. People do not want to hear attacks back and forth; they want us to discuss solutions. I have a couple of facts for the Minister. First, 82% of planning permissions in Dublin city in 2020 were for build to rent schemes, which are exclusively bought by investment funds so there is no individual purchase in that. More than €100 million was spent last year by investment funds in buying up houses. Last year, not a single affordable purchase home was delivered by the Government; it was only 65 cost rental homes. The reality in home ownership is that the level of it continued to fall last year. Fewer than 6,000 new build homes were available for individuals to buy, which has fallen on previous years. Will the Minister act decisively to ban investment funds from bulk buying homes and will he include apartments in that ban?
I was not trying to score any political points. I was just stating the facts of the Social Democrats position and of what we are bringing forward as a Government on affordability measures because we support home ownership, social housing and social housing delivery. We have a plan that is fully funded on a multi-annual basis to do that and that plan is starting to take hold. There is no question that we will turn this around in a year or two but the plan is starting to take hold. We are seeing direct build affordable homes in the Deputy's county of Fingal, in Cork and right across the country, hundreds of which will be delivered this year. Hundreds more cost rental homes will be delivered and the first home shared equity schemes will begin, which will be a significant measure to help those who need that assistance from the State by bridging the affordability gap for them. The planning measures we have brought forward are working and I have just given the Deputy the facts on that. Some 16,000 new planning permissions have been granted with the condition that the homes cannot be sold to funds. Let us be realistic when the Deputy talks about this revelation. We are talking about 0.7% of homes that were sold over the last 12 months. Let us not try to make an issue that does not exist. We support home ownership and we need supply across all areas, including rental, social, affordable and private, and that is what we are determined to do.
In its first ever inspection of hospital overcrowding, the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, found that there was a risk of a grossly overcrowded emergency department in University Hospital Limerick. It found that one of the patients was waiting on a trolley for five days and that people were travelling from the mid-west to Dublin to access accident and emergency departments. Emergency departments have record levels of waiting times, with most people waiting for roughly 13 hours. Older people are waiting 19 hours for admission into accident and emergency departments. Patients in Tallaght University Hospital are waiting 24 and a half hours for admission and there were 8,600 people on trolleys in May. The Mater Misericordiae University Hospital and the Midland Regional Hospital, Mullingar have told patients not to come near them because they are under such pressure with overcrowding.
According to the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine, up to 350 people are dying annually due to overcrowding in this State.
According to a response I received from the Minister for Health to a parliamentary question, there has been a jump from 79,000 to 105,000 adverse incidents taking place in hospitals across the country. That is a jump of 32% of people who have suffered ill health as a result of mistakes happening in hospitals. Extreme incidents have risen from 373 cases to 579 and include death and incapacity. These are happening because of the massive fact that overcrowding is gripping our hospitals. Why? It is because of the lack of capacity. We have seen the number of hospital beds fall from 20,000 to 14,000 and the number of ICU beds is 200 fewer than even the HSE states there should be.
If one tries to register for a GP in counties like Meath at the moment, one cannot get such a registration for love nor money. If one has a GP, it will take a fortnight to get access to an appointment. So far this year, 400 doctors have emigrated to Australia. The health service is a disaster and a car crash and it is happening under the Minister's watch.
What is the response of the HSE? It states it wants to close Navan accident and emergency and five ICU beds that go with it, and send the 25,000 patients to a queue in nearby hospitals to wait for hours for life and death treatment. One does not have to be Einstein to work out the response to overcrowding is more capacity, not less.
The man in charge of the HSE, Paul Reid, is paid €411,000 per year. The number of people in the HSE paid more than €410,000 has doubled in a short period of time. Now we hear the Government will give a 10% to 15% pay increase to public servants earning this amount of money. Is there no level of productivity related to the amount people get paid? Is there no link between the outcomes of people's work and the amount they get paid in the HSE? How can the Government proceed with pay increases to these civil servants at a time when we have such a crisis in the health service?
The Deputy will understand what the health service has been through over the past two years and the incredible commitment of our professionals in accident and emergency departments, right through our wards and back room and management teams. They have had two exceptional years trying to keep our people safe and manage this country and the health response through Covid. The Deputy's comments calling the health service a disaster are reprehensible and he should withdraw them. The commitment that has been shown by our health professionals has been incredible.
That said, there are serious challenges with regard to waiting lists. Part of that is due to the restrictions that were in place on access to our hospitals during the two years of Covid. The Deputy neglected to say that. Let us be real and realistic. The HSE has a budget this year of €22 billion. Waiting times and waiting lists like we see are not acceptable. That is why the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has brought in specific plans and sent an expert team into University Hospital Limerick, which the Deputy referenced. Each hospital will bring forward plans supported by the HSE on reducing waiting lists and managing emergency departments, EDs. We must recognise where our health service has come from and the incredible work the health service professionals on the front line, including GPs, have done over the past two years to get us through the pandemic. Do we have challenges there? Of course we do. There is no question whatsoever but there are challenges there. We are determined as a Government, and the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, supported by his colleagues, is determined, to make progress in this space. Resources are not an issue.
To answer the Deputy's question on the FEMPI legislation, this was an agreement made by Government and supported by most parties in the Dáil to unwind FEMPI. The percentages the Deputy gave are incorrect. There are 1.7% to 10% increases for the about 1% of the public service who are left, most of whom are hospital consultants. The Deputy has been in here before bemoaning the loss of hospital consultants and professionals who are going abroad. Is he now saying we should rip up an agreement and not pay that 1% of workers, many of whom are the healthcare workers he mentioned today, while we are in the process of negotiating a new public sector pay deal? Is he for real? Does he think that is sustainable? The Government will stand by the agreements we make. We will see this through and are doing the right thing on behalf of our people.
Make no mistake, Minister, this disaster is an indictment of the Government and not a reflection on the health professionals who carry the weight and burden of Government mismanagement on their shoulders. That is the truth and do not try to deflect it.
The Government entered into pay talks with low- and middle-income earners in the public service and the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, is offering them a 2.5% increase in salary. He is telling low-income individuals they will have a pay increase, potentially, of a quarter of the current rate of inflation in this State, while those earning more than €150,000 will get a pay increase over the rate of inflation.
Let the Minister not tell me he cannot change the law. That is what governments do. They have the right to change the law. Top civil servants like Robert Watt and Paul Reid earn the largesse of this Government. There is never a problem with chasing inflation or with the national debt when it comes to them. There is generosity from the Government's pockets, but for people on salaries of €30,000 or €40,000 the Government shuts down the idea of proper pay increases to meet the rate of inflation. If the Government continues, Paul Reid will get a pay increase of potentially €50,000, on top of €411,000. How is that fair when the health service is in the crisis it is in?
-----and record levels of staff. The Deputy is asking the Government to renege on an agreement that is in place. I have great regard for our public and Civil Service. We have fantastic people working across the sector and, particularly over the past two years, those who wanted to see it have seen the value of that and of ensuring we resource our public service.
The Deputy and Aontú are saying they would rip up an agreement that has been supported by the Dáil previously, by most parties. We are looking at a pay increase of between 1.7% and 10%. Is the Deputy for real in saying he would rip that up if he was in government and bring in legislation to renege on an agreement while we are in the middle of trying to negotiate a new public sector pay deal? Hopefully, Aontú will never get into government.
During Leaders' Questions last March, I called on the Taoiseach to clarify if Government had conducted any assessment of the impact of disability respite services following the commitment to provide disability-specific accommodation to citizens fleeing war-torn Ukraine. I have not received an answer three months on and still await one. Today, however, I ask if the Government has conducted any similar assessment of the State's capacity to deliver housing to its own citizens, in light of the enormous rise in inward immigration, international protection and asylum applications.
As I understand it, the numbers arriving into Ireland are now at the rate of 1,500 per month. I am conscious this is a difficult and sensitive issue and we must tread carefully if we are to avoid blame being targeted at those who least deserve it. However, I am convinced that if we do not learn to find some way of exploring in a grown-up, pragmatic and constructive way the links between unsustainable levels of inward migration or asylum into this State and housing, then we will never find a meaningful solution to an already overwhelming crisis.
Government can produce all the strategies it likes around housing and it can commit to implementing White Papers, ending direct provision and ensuring that nobody, regardless of nationality or origin, is left to sleep on hotel floors but all of this is utterly meaningless if we do not find a way to make the immigration and asylum system more robust and fairer to everyone, citizen and non-citizen alike.
Over the weekend, Michael O'Toole of the Irish Mirrorreported that there has been a phenomenal rise of 700% in one category of immigration alone. In an article in The Irish Timesheadlined "Housing supply buckling under extra strain of asylum seekers", Harry McGee reported one Fine Gael Deputy describing the impact of the UK Government's Rwanda policy as "a runaway train coming down the track at us, and we have no way to stop it". All of this means that Ireland's capacity to provide even the bare minimum of emergency accommodation and shelter to its own citizens and those genuinely fleeing war is being severely undermined.
We can no longer bury our heads in the sand when it comes to these issues. Our political system must find a way to talk maturely and openly about these issues without fear. The Minister will be aware that, in May, the Government was warned that the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees posed a risk to social cohesion and integration, particularly in deprived communities. That risk will be massively increased and will continue to grow and become more widespread unless we seek to ensure that our barely functioning immigration system is brought under control. Does he agree that it would be a lose-lose scenario for everyone involved and particularly for those who have now been homeless for some time if we did not bring this under control quickly?
Government has been very clear, particularly regarding our response to our friends from Ukraine. We will take in as many Ukrainian citizens fleeing the brutal war foisted upon them through no fault of their own as we must. We will not introduce any caps in that regard. Our housing response is in addition to Housing for All. Let us be very clear; there is no blurring of the lines here. I referenced that earlier on. We have the most significant housing plan in the history of the State involving €4 billion a year in Exchequer investment. It will deliver 300,000 homes between now and 2030. We are on track to deliver-----
Deputy Nolan has walked a very fine line here this afternoon. What she is effectively calling for is a cap on immigration and asylum seekers in this country. Let us be clear. I am calling that out. That is what she is calling for. We will not support that. We will not support a cap on Ukrainians coming here who have fled a war foisted upon them through no fault of their own. As far as I know, all parties, with the exception of the Deputy and her colleagues, support that approach. Does it pose challenges for us? Of course it does. Do the Irish people realise that? Yes, of course they do. This is a welcoming country. Over our history as a people, we have had to seek safe harbour all across the world. We were treated very badly in some of those countries. We are not going to allow that to happen here in Ireland. Our Housing for All plan is robust and will deliver the houses we need. The provision of longer-term accommodation and housing for Ukrainians and, indeed, those from the Middle East, Africa and other places who are seeking safe harbour is in addition to that. Does the Deputy want to draw a distinction between different groups who come here? Is that what she is asking me to do?
May I respond please? The Minister's comments are absolutely outrageous as is the reckless policy he has in place. I will make my points very clear. Is the Minister saying that we welcome everybody in only to leave them sleeping on hotel floors for years? That is what he is saying. That is how reckless his Government has been. How dare he misconstrue what I have said. I asked him very direct questions. We have a housing crisis. The situation is unsustainable. It would be lovely to be able to give everybody a house. The Minister has said that himself. Is he suggesting that we can do that? Is he suggesting that it is fine to have people on hotel floors for years, because that is what he is saying to me? The Minister needs to come down off his high horse, face the reality and the facts and listen. He has been on his high horse since the first representative of a party asked him a question this morning. He is entitled to answer the questions of those of us in the Opposition and we are entitled to pose them. I want to clarify that I do not want to see anybody who is fleeing war or genuine persecution sleeping on a hotel floor for years. Neither do I want to see families in Laois-Offaly left without accommodation, languishing on a housing list for ten years. How dare the Minister answer me in that way and misconstrue what I have said here today. The Minister would be better off doing his job because he is failing miserably. He is failing Irish citizens. He is failing his own people and the immigrants as well.
Here we go again. I would encourage people to read the record of what Deputy Nolan said in her opening question. People will be able to make up their own mind as to whether she is drawing a distinction between our own Irish people and those who are coming here to seek safe harbour and refuge. We will not put a cap on the number of people coming here from Ukraine.
To bring this back to some form of reality, our housing plan is now taking hold. There were more than 30,000 homes completions in the 12 months to May, the highest number since 2007. We will deliver more than 9,000 new-build social homes right across the country this year. I have been in Laois-Offaly and have seen the developments that are happening there. We are bringing forward affordable housing for people for the first time in 15 years. We will do that as well as-----