Thursday, 23 June 2022
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
AIB and EBS have been fined €96 million for overcharging more than 12,000 customers and 93 breaches of regulations. Harm ranged from overcharging and breaching contracts to the repossession of family homes. AIB and EBS have caused serious harm to customers and ruined many lives. To date they have been forced to pay back more than €230 million to affected customers but the irony is that AIB and EBS will pass on these costs to their customers.
The fact is that not one banker has been held to account to date in any of the banks in respect of the tracker mortgage scandal. Four years ago, the Central Bank called for legislation that would hold senior bankers to account. Such legislation was introduced in Britain six years ago and in Australia five years ago. Four years later we still have not got the final Bill published by the Government that would hold senior bankers to account. That is unacceptable and shows the lack of priority the Government has in respect of the matter. When will this legislation that is so long overdue be published? When is it likely to take effect?
The scale of the fine that has been imposed by the Central Bank on these two banks shows the strength of our regulatory system and how seriously the unacceptable behaviour in respect of tracker mortgages is being taken by the Central Bank and the State. The legislation Deputy Doherty is referring to has taken some time to draft. It required pre-legislative scrutiny as was correct, and required much work by the Attorney General and my Department. I will be bringing the final proposals to Cabinet next week and the legislation will be published before the summer recess.
This week I was contacted by a woman in Dublin who suffers from the terrible condition of anorexia. She tells me she has no life but is fighting to get it back by getting treatment. A huge obstacle she is facing in getting treatment for this awful disease is that she is on the housing assistance payment, HAP, and cannot find a rented home near the hospital where she is getting treatment. Hers is just one story of the difficulties so many people are having in securing accommodation where they are on HAP.
Research from our Labour Party housing spokesperson, Senator Moynihan, has shown that just 182 homes across the whole of Ireland are available for single people on HAP. Threshold revealed today that four fifths of renters are struggling to find a home at all while 44% of those in rented accommodation fear their tenancy is insecure. We need to see greater and more urgent action from Government to address this difficulty and ensure that more homes are available for those on HAP and also to ensure that we see better provision made for those who are renting and those who are desperate to buy a home but cannot afford to do so.
I thank the Deputy. It is very hard to find anywhere to rent in Ireland at the moment. There are very few properties available for rent. That is true for people who are on HAP and also for those who are not on HAP. It is very hard to find somewhere to rent even in small rural towns where it would have been very easy in the past. It has become a very serious issue. What can the Government do about it? It can increase housing supply through the cost-rental programme which we are accelerating, providing properties to rent at below the market rate; and build social housing. We will provide more social housing this year than any year in the history of the State, which is a very significant intervention in the housing market. Rental properties will be freed up as a result. The third response, of course, is looking at reasons landlords are exiting. For every landlord that comes in, two now leave.
That is a problem and we need to look at what we can do around that.
EirGrid has identified an electricity shortfall of up to 700 MW over the coming winters. This equates to approximately 350,000 homes. This increase in electricity demand is primarily due to the increase in data centre demand. As a result, the Government has approved the procurement of 450 MW of energy electricity generation, which will cost the State €350 million. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, has also stated that this will mean an increase of €40 on an average domestic bill. That means that individual homes will now be paying at least €40 to keep those data centres going. It is clear that the Government’s failure to manage these energy-hungry data centres strategically will now hit hard-pressed families in their pocket.
The Government statement on the role of data centres in Ireland was promised in the first quarter of this year. That target was not met. It was promised for the second quarter of this year. There are seven days left in this quarter. Will the Tánaiste be publishing the Government statement on the role of data centres in advance of the Dáil debate on this issue next week?
Almost certainly not. I have not seen a draft yet, so it is probably not completed. However, we are committed to doing it. We will try to get it done in the next few weeks. It is evident to everyone that in Ireland we need more electricity. We need it for all the new homes being built, all the new business that are being established, all the electric cars that people are going to buy and for data centres in the future. The solution is more supply of electricity - ideally renewable electricity. That is the priority at the moment. My understanding is that investment into additional supply for the next year will mean that we will have enough energy and electricity to get through the next couple of winters. However, it will also be recouped, because anybody who uses electricity has to pay for it. That investment will be recouped.
Because of the refusal of the Tánaiste’s Government, the previous Government he was part of and the previous Government before that to raise the income threshold for eligibility for social housing, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, recently pointed out that since 2011, when the Tánaiste entered Government, the number of households eligible for social housing support has dropped from 46% to 33%. To put it another way, had the Government maintained the threshold at the previous level, 260,000 additional families would be eligible for social housing and, critically, for housing assistance payment, HAP, than currently are. I heard the Tánaiste talk about the social wage earlier on. This is a stealth cut of social housing support to hundreds of thousands of people. Weekly, more and more are losing all their years of waiting on the social housing list and their entitlement to housing assistance support. When will the Tánaiste give us a report on the review that he has been sitting on since the end of last year on raising the income thresholds for eligibility for social housing, which has been promised by this Government?
That is with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage at the moment. Obviously, there is a cost to the Exchequer in raising those thresholds. It is something that will have to be considered in the context of the forthcoming budget. As the Deputy knows, I am somebody who broadly believes in the concept of indexation as a principle, not just for tax credits and tax bands, but also for social welfare, pensions and entitlement to things such as medical cards and social housing. One can argue about whether you index to inflation, earnings or house prices, but as a basic principle, we should index thresholds. That applies to housing as well.
Rachel Barry was brutally abused as a child while she was in foster care in County Galway. She disclosed her abuse and that of another child in 2007, but despite this, other children were left in the same foster home for years. The children were eventually removed from the home when the other child confirmed the abuse. This was an incredible failing on behalf of the State.
I asked Tusla how many times it reported suspected child abuse to the Garda over the past decade. It told me it has no statistics in relation to this. I asked for statistics on the number of children who allege that they were sexually or physically abused while in care and, again, it does not have any figures. It does not have data either for the number of children who have become pregnant in care and no data in relation to the number of children who were referred to STD testing while in care. Why does Tusla not collate this vital data centrally?
I honestly do not know the answer to that question. I will make inquiries with the Minister in Tusla about it. It seems to be the kind of information that should be collated. It is a relatively new agency, but I would have thought that at least in recent years it would have been able to collect that kind of data. It is important to have it for lots of reasons. I will make some further inquiries about it.
I am wondering if there is any possibility of some legislation to reform the entity of so-called Uisce Éireann, Irish Water. The town of Clonmel serves roughly 20,000 people. There are water outages on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. I salute former official Jimmy Harney and others and present officials trying to get a source from the River Suir and a treatment plant. Indeed, there is a landowner willing to sell the site. However, there is no movement from Irish Water. It does not have a penny to do anything. The business people, ordinary families, hospitals, everybody else and every industry is out of water on a daily basis, or on a weekly basis certainly, and sometimes for whole weekends and weeks. Heading to the driest period of the year, August and September, I shudder to think what will happen to the people. It is just not fair and it is not viable for them to continue. It has a huge impact on their lives and business. They are going around to neighbours and elsewhere to get a shower. It is just pathetic at the moment. We need some kind of reform and accountability from Irish Water.
I met with the CEO and senior team of Irish Water just in the past two weeks. As the Deputy can imagine, these issues are brought to my attention all the time. Often, smaller towns around the country that need to expand cannot because waste water services are not available. There is industry that cannot be built because water is not available. In some cases, housing developments cannot proceed because water services are not available. In fairness to Irish Water, it pointed out to me that it has a pretty massive capital programme under way at the moment of about €1 billion a year. The capacity to go beyond that is actually limited, given the availability of materials, staff and so on. It has a very ambitious capital programme and it is being implemented. I just appreciate that it is not happening quickly enough for a lot of people.
The number of renters having to leave their homes is staggering. Last year, 3,038 households renting were served a notice to quit, mainly because the landlord was selling. This is the highest number of tenant evictions in a single year since the foundation of the State. Renters are living in fear and insecurity. They are terrified of losing their homes and facing the impossible task of finding somewhere else to rent. A quarter of all children are growing up in an insecure private rental sector. That is 281,000. For a child, stability and security are fundamental to develop and grow.
I want to just give two quick examples. A couple in our office last week was looking for accommodation. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, agreed that they could self-accommodate. They were on the phone and the officer was on the other phone. The hotel was looking €460 for a room, which was available. However, the DRHE refused to pay that sort of money. In another situation, a woman with two teenagers will be homeless next week. They have been on the radar of the family support unit for the past month. The family support unit advised that they were eligible for homeless HAP and advised an emergency accommodation for one bedroom would be provided, if even one bedroom was available. They said their services are currently at capacity. There is no room in the hubs. What will the Government do about this? Emergency measures with immediate effect need to be taken.
This is, as the Deputy said, a very big problem. It is driving homelessness in some cases. What is happening is traditional landlords who might have one or two properties are leaving the market. For every one that comes in, two leave. This is a big problem. The reasons why that is happening may not be all that comfortable for us to absorb fully. What are they saying? They are saying huge numbers of new regulations in recent years are making it very hard to be a small landlord, the 2% cap on rent increases is making it hard to continue, particularly when interest rates are likely to go up over the next couple of years, and that the very high burden of taxation is an issue too. These are things we have to be honest and upfront about and develop solutions to so that we can reverse this trend of landlords leaving the market and people losing their homes as a result.
There have been many discussions in the House about the cost of fuel and the way it is impacting on society and on the challenges many families are facing. I would point to two statistics. In 2008, the price of oil was €187 a barrel and the price at the pumps was €1.30 a litre for petrol. Today, it is €107 a barrel and the price at the pumps is €2.11 a litre. Why is there such a difference, given it was exceptionally high back then and it was at what we would call a reasonable price today? Is there something the Government can do to examine this - for example, to take a number of years and see why the price of crude did not result in the enormous increase at the pumps that we are witnessing today?
I thank Deputy Moynihan for raising this matter. As he will be aware, in 2008, the price of oil was at a very low point because of the impact of the global financial crisis and other factors that meant the price was at a very low level. The House will be aware the Government has done an awful lot to reduce the price of fuel, and the excise reduction we put in place of 15 cent and 20 cent is the biggest excise rate reduction we have done in our modern economic history. What I will do, given the point the Deputy has raised, is to get my Department to work with the Department with responsibility for energy to put together a short note to explain the changes to which the Deputy has referred.
Deputy Emer Higgins and I published a Private Members’ Bill in regard to the regulation of home care providers. In fairness to the Department of Health, it is progressing with the drafting of legislation and new regulation in this whole area. One of the issues it needs to put in place is an IT system for the HSE in regard to the management of home care because it is currently all paper-based. Funding was set aside for this last year but my understanding is that the IT system is still not in place. Can this issue be dealt with? Many people are being provided with home care but having a paper-based system is not the most efficient way to manage its provision.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It is not a funding issue. Funding was provided in both the national service plan in 2021 and 2022 to progress the home support management system. The Minister of State with responsibility for mental health and older people is aware that an IT system is an essential foundation to drive reform of home support and to make it more efficient and responsive to people's needs. In this regard, the identification and procurement of an ICT system is being progressed by the HSE. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, met with the national director responsible for this project recently and the urgent requirement for an ICT solution for home support services was the subject of the meeting. A further meeting between the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, Department officials and the HSE to progress this is scheduled for tomorrow.
From early August, the North East Doctor on Call service will implement a reduced a service where out-of-hours care to patients on a face-to-face basis will be provided until 10.30 p.m. on weekdays and 10 p.m. at weekends but, thereafter, there will be no in-person appointments or home visits provided. The changes are as a result of acute doctor shortages and underfunding of the service by the HSE. The HSE has been aware for some years of the issues facing this service and has provided some funding, but it is not sufficient to address the issues. North East Doctor on Call has tried to engage with the HSE to try to find a resolution to continue to provide this vital service but the HSE has refused to engage. Will the Tánaiste ask the Minister for Health to intervene in this situation and ask the HSE to engage with North East Doctor on Call so we can maintain the service?
In the distant past, I used to work in North East Doctor on Call, seeing patients in an old prefab right across from the emergency department in Navan Hospital and also the cottage in Drogheda. It was a very good service, I have to say. I think that, as much as possible, these services should operate 24-7, for reasons we will all understand. I understand this is principally a funding issue, although the availability of doctors is an issue too. We have asked the Minister for Health to engage on this with the HSE to see if it can be resolved.
I would like to raise the issue of the lifetime loans being offered by some financial institutions. I recently raised the issue with the Minister for Finance by way of parliamentary question. I am asking for clarification on the number of lifetime loans being issued in this State. The Minister advised that the Central Bank regulates the product but it does not publish the data. I find this extraordinary. Perhaps the number of lifetime loans is so small that it is not a matter of concern but we do not know as the figures are not published. It does not tie in with the level of advertising the industry is conducting. Almost every time I turn on the radio, it feels like the products are being advertised day and night. According to one provider’s website, the cost of repaying a modest €75,000 loan taken out by someone at the age of 60 and repaid by the time the person is 85 is €292,000. Given the short- to medium-term economic outlook here and the implications this will have for older people, will the Minister for Finance contact the Central Bank asking for statistics on lifetime loans to be published?
I acknowledge that Deputy Devlin has raised this issue with me on a number of occasions. He is raising an important matter regarding how consumers can be protected as they take out loans that could stretch across the duration of their life, given the cost can be uncertain and can grow. I recognise the very legitimate point he is raising. He is also correct that the Central Bank regulates them. When I requested the information in regard to the number of such loans, I was informed it is not published. Given the Deputy has raised it again, I will raise this with the Central Bank in the coming days and will see if we can get some information to indicate whether a low number of these loans are being taken out or whether it is a matter that needs greater focus and scrutiny. I will get back to the Deputy on it.
Cost of living increases leading to possible inflation, with the potential to recur again and again in the time ahead, continue to be a concern for the general public. In this regard, might it be possible to set up a unit to identify the cause or causes of this? For example, some appear to be as a result of price gouging and some are probably genuine, but there is an urgent need to differentiate between the one and the other. Might it be possible at this stage to set up a particular unit in a Department to monitor what is going on and to inform the general public?
That is a good idea and definitely worthy of examination. My Department has responsibility for consumer affairs and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, falls under our remit, so I will talk to my officials about that to see if there is something we can do around price monitoring. I should say that it is clear to me that the drivers of inflation are multifactorial. Some of it is down to monetary policy and the amount of money printed in recent years, combined with very low interest rates by central banks, what is happening in Ukraine and the snapback effect from the pandemic in terms of demand. There are a lot of factors but, in some cases, it may well be price gouging and profiteering, and we should have a mechanism to identify that. The Deputy’s suggestion is very welcome in that regard.
There are acute challenges with regard to public transport in the late-night economy and they need to be addressed. Last week, the Tánaiste pointed to Uber and Lyft as a possible solution. He said they are just not available in Ireland in the same way and maybe we need to look at that again to see if we can liberalise that. Those comments caused significant concern, not least with the National Transport Authority, NTA, which stated it would undermine the regulated taxi market, that we would lose both drivers and vehicles from the regulated market and that it would have a negative impact on customers and services. I agree with that. Will the Tánaiste confirm that that is his position, his party's position or the Government’s position? Does he not agree that a far better approach would be to address the challenges in the taxi sector, such as fuel costs, the fare structure and the ten-year rule, and to expand all late-night public transport options, rather than this lurch to the gig economy?
I think that sometimes there is more than one solution to a problem. I very much support late-night and 24-7 public transport. The Deputy will be aware new services are coming online and for the first time we have 24-7 public transport services. Improving conditions for taxi drivers can help as well.
I do not think we should rule out giving consideration to additional solutions. Like the Deputy, I travel the world. When I have been in cities in other parts of Europe and America, I have used services such as Lyft and Uber which are high-quality and affordable services with good cars. People are more than willing and happy to provide that service. It seems a little unusual to me that Ireland is one of the few countries that makes that almost impossible. Perhaps we need to consider that.
In 2019, medical cannabis was recognised as a medical intervention. That was underpinned by legislation by the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. Nine months ago the medical cannabis access programme commenced. Many of us who campaigned for that programme were joyous. Since then only 12 patients have been prescribed medical cannabis under prescription for the first time under the health service. This is far too restrictive. People who need access have to go to the black market, some go abroad or worse still, as I am told in the many weekly calls I receive, have to go without. Many of us welcomed this programme but it is far too restrictive. Looking at the same model in Denmark, thousands of people have access to the medical cannabis access programme there. The review is due this year and I do not think the current programme criteria are fit for purpose.
I will speak to the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, on that issue as I am not as up-to-date on the issue as I would have been in the past. Certainly, 12 people seems a very low number. I appreciate that many consultant neurologists have doubts about the clinical efficacy of cannabis as a treatment for certain illnesses. While it is not for us to tell doctors what to prescribe and when, it nonetheless seems a very low number and I will definitely raise the issue with the Minister.
On 17 June last, the rich states, including the EU, killed a vaccine waiver despite the fact that President von der Leyen of the European Commission said that vaccines will be our common good. She said that two years ago. The EU Council president last year said that immunisation is a global public good. The reality is that only 18% of the poor countries have received the first vaccine compared with 80% of the affluent countries. What are we in Ireland going to do to play our part, irrespective of what the EU has done, to ensure that vaccines are available to the poorest and most deprived in our world?
I was in Geneva for the World Trade Organization talks last week. As the European Union negotiates on behalf of Ireland in these talks, decisions were made at European Commission level rather than at member state level. We did however manage to come to an agreement on a waiver in respect of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS. It may not be the agreement that many people wanted but the World Trade Organization works on the basis of unanimity and consensus. Many countries, such as the UK and Switzerland, were particularly resistant to going any further. We would have gone a bit further. That is the agreement we have and now we need to implement it. It was interesting to hear what ministers from developing countries such as India had to say. They were saying that supply is not particularly the issue any more. India has 2 billion vaccines available but the issues now are less about the supply and more about the delivery systems on the ground to give access to people. That is where we can help, through aid programmes, through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and other initiatives.
On Tuesday, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Teresa Ribera told journalists that the effort to reform the Energy Charter Treaty will fail to ensure alignment with the Paris Agreement and the objectives of the European Green Deal. On the same day five young Europeans, went before the European Court of Human Rights to challenge their governments' membership of the Energy Charter Treaty as a dangerous obstacle to action in regard to the climate crisis. This treaty protects fossil fuel investors and will prevent a transition away from fossil fuels and ensure huge compensation pay-outs while we are trying to achieve our climate targets. In the face of climate breakdown and the threat of this treaty to the Paris Agreement and the objectives of the European Green Deal will the Irish Government join Spain in seeking an end to the Energy Charter Treaty that is blocking climate action and to any other treaty that will also block climate action?
To be frank, I am not fully apprised of the detail of that treaty. It probably falls under the remit of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, so I will make sure that he knows it was raised and I will ask him to come back to Deputy Costello directly.
I was struck by the Tánaiste's comments on the slow evolution of our thinking around children's rights since Austin Currie first took up that cause in 1994. Last week Members received a wake-up call that we need a similar change of culture in respect of safeguarding adults from abuse. We still have a culture which is often dismissive of such concerns and unwilling to intrude in some of the affairs involved. It points to only one twentieth of the actual cases of abuse of prevalence being reported due to fear of reporting, fear of retaliation, narrow investigative powers by agencies with limited silos to look into these cases and lack of positive responsibilities on bodies to be alert and to safeguard adults. Will the Tánaiste agree to have a cross-Government response to this? It raises difficult issues for new legislation on matters such as coercive control outside of partners, personal autonomy, data sharing necessity which is not being provided for, or access to independent advocacy. It is an area we need to address urgently.
I concur with Deputy Bruton's remarks. Some good work is being done around the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) (Amendment) Bill 2022 and the advocacy services linked to that. That is a very narrow area of the issue to which Deputy Bruton refers. He is talking about a wider area so I will talk to Deputy Bruton about it in more detail offline and see what we can do.
Yesterday some of us met four mothers from the Clondalkin Autism Parents Support Network, CAPS. They shared what can only be described as their harrowing struggles to get their children the support they need, such as diagnosis, educational supports, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy. Their view is that the State has failed them. Having listened to those stories it is very hard to disagree. What struck me is the feedback that when children receive a diagnosis, get a place in an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit and the wrap-around support that they need, they absolutely thrive. That is all these parents want. However, there is a fight to get a diagnosis, to get therapy and educational support, that constant fight causes stress and strain. How do we support rather than add to these family's pressures?
There is a busy weekend ahead in Dublin. What immediate action can the Government take to address the fact that 72% of Dublin taxi drivers do not wish to work the peak hours on Saturday evenings and Sunday evenings, and to ensure that action can be taken in the next couple of weeks to address this? The solution of the National Transport Authority, NTA, simply to increase the fares by 12% and shove this onto the passengers and customers who are waiting an hour or 90 minutes to get a taxi in the first place, is both unfair and unimaginative.
Twelve months ago this week, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, published the public consultation process for the domestic, sexual and gender-based violence policy of the State. Would the Tánaiste accept it is a political and societal imperative that this policy is published as soon as possible so that not just the Department but Members of the Oireachtas can begin the process of implementing the findings of the publication, in order that we can collectively do our best to eradicate this scourge on our society?
I will respond in reverse order. I thank Deputy Farrell for raising this issue. I understand that publication will happen in the next number of weeks, hopefully before the recess. In relation to Deputy Richmond who raised the real problem we have at the moment in regard to people being able to get taxis and get home safely, I am not sure there is much we can do for this weekend or for the next couple of weeks but the solutions are probably threefold, namely, more 24-7 public transport, better terms and conditions for taxi drivers and new solutions such as ride-sharing, for example, which seems to work very well in other jurisdictions. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, to answer the question in regard to autism.
In regard to the Clondalkin Autism Parents Support Network, I am happy to meet those involved if that would assist in terms of educational supports and obviously I will speak to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, as I do on a regular basis about the assessment of need and therapeutic supports.