Wednesday, 29 June 2022
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
Last month I raised with the Minister the shocking increase in the rate of homelessness and he described the position as disappointing, regrettable and concerning. The words "shocking", "shameful" and "unacceptable" are more appropriate because the latest report on homelessness is a damning indictment of Government housing policy. More than 10,000 people are now homeless and for the first time, single person homelessness has hit 5,000. There are more than 3,000 children homeless and growing up in hotels and bed and breakfasts, robbed of a secure childhood. This is happening when there are nearly 170,000 vacant homes in the State.
The Government should be scandalised by this crisis but it is clearly not. It is the same old story. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has failed and is failing; his position is increasingly untenable. What emergency measures will the Government put in place to urgently address the homelessness crisis?
The Deputy will not hear anybody on this side of the House defending any level of homelessness and certainly not the level we are currently experiencing in our country. As a Government, we are responding with the largest investment ever in the history of the State and we will deliver approximately 10,500 public and social homes this year, of which 9,000 will be new builds. As the Deputy knows, we are rolling out for the first time cost-rental homes as well and it is great to see that happening. We will have new affordable housing options coming on stream in July in the form of the first home shared equity scheme as well.
It is a very challenging picture that we face. There is significant inbound migration with people seeking international protection separate from the whole issue of Ukrainian refugees coming to Ireland. That is placing pressure on the system. The answer ultimately is to build more homes and increase supply and that is what we are doing.
Yesterday I raised a constituent’s story with the Taoiseach. While searching for a rented home, my constituent was invited to participate in what he described as a bidding war. The landlord was asking prospective tenants to indicate how much they were willing to pay per month in rent. I am not suggesting that is representative of all landlords by any means but this shocking example is a consequence of a broken housing system, a housing disaster as our President recently described it. My offices and those of my Labour Party colleagues are inundated with people looking for help with housing who cannot afford to get a home, who are languishing on the housing list, people facing eviction and rent increases, older people who are very frustrated because their adult children in their 20s and 30s cannot afford to move out of the parental home. Yesterday during Leaders' Questions, the Taoiseach invited me to provide suggestions from the Opposition. I am happy to give some. Will the Government incorporate our renters’ rights Bill into Government legislation and will it adopt a rent-to-buy scheme?
I thank the Deputy. Any example of a landlord asking prospective tenants to become involved in a bidding war and say how much they are willing to pay to outbid each other is completely unacceptable. It is not something the Government believes should be happening in the market. We are in a situation where, increasingly, small landlords with one, two or three properties are leaving the market. We have to examine the reason they are leaving the market when rents are so high. There are some reasons for that and the Government is going to have to seek to address them. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, has already brought forward several Bills on the rental market and I know he is planning further measures.
The Minister will be aware of the pressing need to develop the existing Bandon relief road. The town has been waiting years for this improvement but at the current pace, it will be years before the project is completed. It is a historic walled town with a strong community of businesses and local infrastructure. Outdoor spaces have really enhanced the area recently. However, large numbers of heavy goods vehicles and other large vehicles are being forced through the town because of the inadequacy of the relief road. That has a serious impact. The planning and design phase of the new road is due to be finished by late 2024. How much longer will it take for it to be completed? The current plans do not address the two river crossings where the traffic bottlenecks or the dangerous junction at Baxter’s Bridge and the Dunmanway Road. This project is being funded under Project Ireland 2040, which is increasingly looking like the completion date. Can the Minister reassure us that is not the case?
I am, of course, very familiar with Bandon and this particular project. It seems like there have been works ongoing in Bandon for a long time with the drainage works and flood relief works. Everyone is anxious to see further progress on the relief road. What I can say is that there is a budget of €30 billion for the Department of Transport in respect of the national development plan out to 2030. There will be significant funding opportunities to advance a whole range of projects. I will make an inquiry in respect of the Bandon relief road the Deputy has raised.
Newsflash - Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council just confirmed to me in the last few minutes that there are no family placements for people who are in need of emergency accommodation anywhere in Dublin. It is the first time this has ever happened. For Niamh and Anthony, a working couple both of whom are working, and their two children who are just finishing up school this week, this is a real problem, as it is for many others. Yesterday, through no fault of their own, they were evicted by their landlord on grounds of sale. They have nowhere - and I mean nowhere - to go. What should they do? I just want to know, very simply, what the Government is going to do for them and the many others. I have 12 other cases involving people who are due to be evicted in the next few weeks, in my office alone. We need an emergency plan now to provide family accommodation for people who are homeless.
Emergency accommodation will be found for people who are in such dire need. I ask the Deputy to please provide the details of that case and the other cases to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, who will take up the issue with the local authority and indeed the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive. Emergency accommodation will be found.
We have heard talk this morning about the housing crisis and what the President said about it. I ask the Government to consider the introduction of a VAT refund scheme for first-time buyers of new or second-hand houses. More than half the cost of building a house is indirect and much of it goes back to the State. It includes 13.5% VAT along with all the other stamp duties, fees, planning and development levies and all of that. I ask that this be introduced in addition to the help-to-buy scheme, which I hope will be retained. The important thing here is to bring in a VAT refund scheme like the one we had in previous years where the money goes back into the hands of first-time homeowners and they can pay it back over a number of years. This would help them with their mortgage.
It is important that we have policy certainty in this area. We want to see the supply of new homes continue to increase. We had about 20,000 units built in each of the last two years. It will be probably around 25,000 this year. We need the figure to grow further. I am not going to add to any speculation as to what the Government may or may not do by way of further interventions in the market. Clearly all matters relating to taxation are considered in the context of the budget.
On Monday last, at a meeting of Cork County Council meeting, the order of business was suspended to discuss another Irish fishing industry crisis in the term of this Government. Fishing boats in Castletownbere, Union Hall and other piers in County Cork are staying tied to the pier as fishermen cannot afford to fuel their trawlers and boats. One councillor stated that he was told by a fisherman that to go out for his catch for the week would cost him €42,000 in fuel. It just did not pay. They watch French and Spanish fishermen fish in Irish waters and their governments have subsidised their fuel by 30 cent per litre through this crisis. Many fishermen have accepted that there is no future in the fishing industry. The Government promised a decommissioning fund but it has been kicked down the road continuously. Can the Minister tell me the exact date the decommissioning fund will be available to struggling fishermen?
I thank Deputy Michael Collins for the question. I am taken by his change of approach to the decommissioning fund. He constantly opposed it in the House previously. I note he is seeking for it to be----
We are engaged with the European Commission in terms of getting approval for the scheme. I hope to have approval soon and to have the scheme up and running as quickly as possible. There is a challenging situation at the moment for fuel and the cost is impacting on fishermen. I am meeting all fisheries representative organisations next week to discuss this issue. I have been in close contact with them. The Deputy will be aware that at their request, I have introduced two three-month tie-up schemes, which have been welcomed by them, to provide income support to fisheries at a very difficult time and against the backdrop of the fuel situation. Excise duty does not apply to marine fuel and VAT can be reclaimed by fishermen. It is very much tied specifically to the price of a barrel of oil. It is challenging situation. I will be meeting fisheries representatives next week to discuss it in detail.
There is a large discrepancy in what childcare providers are paid per child between large and very small childcare providers. Large providers are paid more per child. Usually the opposite is the case, for example, in Department of Education capitation fees, because the more children there are in a school, the cheaper it is to heat the school, provide additional staff supports per child and so on. This significant difference has created a real risk of either corporatisation of childcare in Ireland or, at the very least, small-scale providers not being able to continue. Will that be addressed? I appreciate the matter does not fall under the Minister’s Department per sebut as the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, he has an overview of public spending on matters like this. Will it be addressed?
I assume the Deputy is referring to the early years sector in particular. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, is engaging directly with that sector.
As a Government, we made a step change in investment in the last budget, which will kick in in the autumn. I want to make sure that funding is used effectively for the purpose for which it is intended, which is to improve affordability for parents and to make sure there is a good career pathway for the workers in the sector. Like the Deputy, I got the feedback from the small providers as well. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, who is very much aware of it. He is engaging with the sector and we look forward to seeing the outcome of that.
The pharmaceutical company Vertex is manufacturing what is seen as a game-changer drug for people with cystic fibrosis, namely, Kaftrio. Unfortunately, due to a price squabble between the HSE and Vertex at the moment, there are 35 children with the F508 mutation who are omitted from that. They come in the age category of six to 11 years. This is a life or death matter. One of the families I met had a cousin who died last year and they are looking at their own son now this year waiting for this treatment. I understand that last week Vertex moved beyond the impasse of its price argument. We now need to hear something from Government that it too can meet halfway, this can be agreed and this game-changer drug can be given to these youngsters. Can the Minister offer us some words of encouragement or hope?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue which is so important for many people. I just want to reassure him that the HSE continues to engage in commercial discussions with Vertex. The Minister for Health advises that the matter is being expedited at speed and is receiving all necessary attention. Those discussions are commercial in nature, but the need to bring them hopefully to a successful conclusion is accepted and recognised by Government. I thank the Deputy for raising this.
I wanted to raise again the zero-tolerance strategy published by the Government yesterday, which is the third strategy against domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. In particular, I wish to ask the Minister about the family law reform Bill and the family courts work which I hope is about to be published either before the Dáil recess or in the very early weeks of the next term. It is crucial that we stop the family court system being used by perpetrators to continue to exert coercive control over their former partners and, as Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, highlighted yesterday, that people have access to legal support and advice to help them deal with coercive behaviour that follows them through the court system. Can the Minister provide an update on the publication of the Bill?
I can confirm that the Government approved the drafting of a family court Bill along the lines of the general scheme in September 2020 which has been published and the drafting of the Bill is ongoing. It is quite an intensive amount of work ongoing in respect of that with a view to publishing it as soon as possible. The family court Bill will make provision for the establishment of a family court as divisions within the existing court structures, that is, providing for a family high court, a circuit family court and a district family court, each dealing with family law matters as appropriate to its jurisdiction. It is a priority for Government and we expect to make progress shortly.
As the Minister is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, I have to ask him if he is aware of the misuse of public transport funding that is discriminating against regions in this country? The N2 road alongside the A5 has been considered in several Government documents and plans to be a crucial artery and economic driver for both the central, Border and the north-western regions of the country. However, unilaterally, the funding for the next phase of the Clontibret to the Border section of that scheme was withdrawn this year. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has confirmed that will be revisited at the direction of the Government. However, it seems that nobody in government is willing to make a case. I need to know if the Minister has been examining how this money is allocated and the fact it discriminates against key regions and is actually undermining other agreed Government policy.
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. As I said earlier, the Department of Transport has a funding commitment of €30 billion out to 2030 in the national development plan, NDP. We have a provision within the programme for Government for a 2:1 ratio in terms of new investment in favour of public transport infrastructure-----
-----relative to new road infrastructure. That still provides very significant funding for investment in new road infrastructure, including upgrades of existing primary and secondary national roads. I will look into the issue the Deputy raised and ask the Minister to respond to him.
This morning, new parents in Lucan were informed by letter that the public health nurse service will not be providing developmental check-ups for newborns and infants. Three-month, nine- to 11-month, 21- to 24-month and 46- to 48-month check-ups are all cancelled. The reason given is that the public health nurse service is so understaffed that other areas are being prioritised. Parents in Lucan are furious and I am absolutely furious too. This is such an important issue. Developmental check-ups are vital when it comes to picking up potential issues. It is also very important for peace of mind for new parents. Cancelling these services is totally unacceptable. It is simply not good enough. We need to resolve it as soon as possible. Can the Minister ensure that funding is put in place to make sure that if this is a resourcing issue, resources are provided to deliver these very important services to my constituents?
I thank the Deputy for raising this. I absolutely recognise the value of developmental check-ups for children. As the Deputy said, it provides peace of mind in the vast majority of instances, but also, where there is an issue, early detection and warning is vital when it comes to intervening and making a difference. I do not know the detail of the area and the case the Deputy raised. I assume it is related to recruitment. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to look into this and revert to the Deputy. Certainly, I am not aware of any national policy change, so I can only assume that it is a shortage of staff because of an inability to recruit. We will look into it and come back to the Deputy.
We have recently seen that the census data has been collected and reviewed this year. The population has increased, towns have grown bigger and our communities have expanded. I want to ask the Minister about An Garda Síochána numbers. Over the weekend, I met with residents in Tullow, County Carlow, who told me previously they had three sergeants and 21 gardaí. Now, there is now only one sergeant and 12 gardaí, despite the increase in Tullow's population. This is unacceptable. I will provide another example. Comparing the constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny and the constituency of Waterford, for every three gardaí in Waterford, there are only two in Carlow-Kilkenny, even though Carlow-Kilkenny has a higher population. Again, this is unacceptable. Carlow has grown so much, but the Garda manpower is not there. When will we have more recruitment and when will it take place?
I recognise the value in having a visible Garda presence in communities. I am sure that is something that the Deputy and her constituents are seeking in Carlow as well. In the last budget, we provided funding for the recruitment of 800 additional gardaí. There is a recruitment campaign currently under way. The allocation of Garda resources is a matter for the Garda Commissioner, but it is absolutely the Deputy’s right to make the case to the Commissioner as to why Carlow should be getting a greater allocation of gardaí, and in particular, gardaí who are graduating from Templemore.
We all know we are dealing with disastrously high rates in relation to rentals, particularly in towns such as Drogheda and Dundalk. It will hardly be a big shock that since news of the increase in the housing assistance payment, HAP, discretion level to 35% was first talked about that the local authority, namely, Louth County Council, has been inundated with calls. Can we get an actual date? We are being told it is next month, but is that the first of the month? If it is not, we need to get that information as soon as possible. I also put on the record once again that we need people in HAP tenancies to be able to go into payment plans if there is a case of arrears, because it is leading to instances of homelessness in my constituency.
I do not have a date to hand, but I will ask the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, to confirm that date. I am sure his Department will be in touch with local authorities about operationalising that decision, which was a very positive one. It reflects the market reality that is present at this time.
I want to ask the Minister about the carer's allowance. Will he commit to an urgent review of the carer's allowance with a view to abolishing the means test element of it? In the meantime, will the Minister and Government commit to increasing the weekly rate of carer's allowance to €325?
Our carers are really struggling, as they have been for some time. The fact they save this State €20 billion needs to be taken into consideration. If our carers are not supported, then the burden is going to come back onto the Government. We need to do this review and increase their allowance to €325 per week. Will the Minister agree to this?
I fully agree with the Deputy about the incredible role our carers play. We can never properly recognise the work they do. In the previous budget, we did make the first changes in the means test in about 14 years, which was a step forward. All of this will be considered in the lead-up to the budget. Of course, there are issues arising from the Pensions Commission that are directly relevant to carers, and that matter is also under active consideration at the moment. It is an issue that is close to my own heart and we are anxious to make progress on it.
After a very long process, the Cork County Council development plan 2022-2028 was recently adopted by the elected members. The Office of the Planning Regulator has now stepped in and recommended changes to housing density in the Carrigtwohill area. It wants very high density in a rural area. The Minister has issued draft directions to the county council and there is a process going through at the moment. Is the Minister bound at the end of the day or has he the flexibility to adhere to the recommendations made by the members in the plan? Does he have to go ahead with these very high density apartment blocks in a rural area, which in my view are unviable?
My understanding is the planning regulator makes recommendations to the Minister, who considers those recommendations and makes a determination. It is fair to say the views of the Office of the Planning Regulator would be a very important consideration for the Minister in making the final decision but, as I understand it, it is a final decision for the Minister.
I presume the Minister's Department will be reviewing imminently the mid-year public capital expenditure profile. The Minister will recall that, last year, at my request, he engaged with the Fianna Fáil councillors in Cavan and Monaghan on the need to provide additional funding for the non-national road network. I would strongly urge again this year, in the event of an underspend in Departments or statutory agencies resulting in a reallocation of funding, that priority be attached to further much-needed investment in regional and local roads and laneways. A reallocation to local authorities during the summer can bring benefits to many communities and households. As the Minister knows, these roads are of the utmost importance, especially in rural Ireland. The local authorities will have the construction capacity to spend more money once they are notified in good time, and such taxpayers’ funding can be put to good use in the best interests of many communities in every county.
I acknowledge this is an issue Deputy Smith has consistently raised, and I recall our meeting with local authority members for the Cavan-Monaghan area last year. It is also the case that, given the current cost of resurfacing works and with bitumen, an oil-based product, being particularly expensive, the work we did in reforming the public works contract, including in respect of energy, will be important to make sure we have a comprehensive road resurfacing and maintenance programme over the course of the summer. I recognise the importance of the non-national road network. The Deputy has made the case for improved funding for local improvement scheme, LIS, projects in the past, as well as other local and regional schemes. I will engage with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, in regard to funding.
I refer to Private Members’ motion No. 152 on the Order Paper, which seeks the direct intervention of the Government to address a humanitarian crisis faced by eight families in the Ballagh and Lisphelim area of south Roscommon due to the increasing water level in Lough Funshinagh, a situation that is deteriorating daily due to the current heavy rainfall. The motion seeks the establishment of a cross-departmental task force to address emergency climate adaptation measures to protect homes nationwide by reforming the present legislation, without which the only option that may be open to families facing the threat of flooding, where works impact on a designated habitat, is to have the homes demolished and the families relocated. In the middle of a housing emergency, the very last thing we should be doing is demolishing homes. Will the Government commit to bringing all State players together to address the present legal impasse to flood alleviation works?
I thank Deputy Naughten for raising this issue, which I know has quite a history to it. I assure him of the work that is ongoing within the Government to make progress on this. As many of the issues fall within the remit of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, who has responsibility for the Office of Public Works, OPW, has referred these matters to the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, for his early consideration and has highlighted that OPW officials are available to discuss these matters with his Department and with other key stakeholders.
Under the direction of the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, senior officials from the OPW met with the CEO of Roscommon County Council and the senior engineer on Monday, 20 June, just last week. The meeting focused on identifying possible approaches to a viable solution to manage the flood risk at Lough Funshinagh, and further meetings are being scheduled to follow up on the points discussed. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, has assured the council of his and the OPW's continued support for the council as it works to find a solution to manage the flood risk at Lough Funshinagh.
As the Minister well knows, a national review of specialist cardiac services has been going on on the never-never since 2019. I have in my hand a confidential briefing provided by Professor Philip Nolan and his group to others, dated 8 March 2022, which leaves a gaping wound in the north west of the country, where there is no recommendation for the provision of a cardiac catheterisation laboratory facility. To do that, in line with international best practice, when somebody has a serious incident, that person should have percutaneous coronary intervention within 90 minutes to survive. That is a physical impossibility in the north west. It used to be Fianna Fáil policy, when I was there, for the provision of a cardiac cath lab. I want to know if the Government's position will be that of Professor Philip Nolan and his review group, who seem to think people should either move closer or die, or if the Government will commit to funding immediately the provision of a cardiac catheterisation laboratory facility at Sligo University Hospital.
I will ask the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to revert to Deputy MacSharry directly on this issue. We all acknowledge that when it comes to responding to a cardiac incident, time is paramount, but so too is the quality of the service. I have heard what the Deputy had to say in regard to a cardiac cath lab and the requirements at Sligo. I will ask the Minister to come back to the Deputy directly on that.
On the same issue, during the week Deputy Harkin and I had a Topical Issue matter on the issue of a cath lab for Sligo. I know all of the Deputies in the constituency are extremely annoyed and frustrated with this situation. A private company, InHealth, was providing a two days a week mobile service, but that will be withdrawn as of tomorrow. The whole people of the north west will have no cardiac service in the region, which is a disgrace. We also have a copy of this review from Professor Philip Nolan, with the map showing where Sligo and Donegal are but with everything heading towards Galway. It simply is not possible for people in the north west who have a heart attack or a serious problem to access a service that is only in Galway or Dublin. It is unacceptable and that point needs to be clearly made to the Minister for Health. The Deputies from the area wrote to the Minister for Health seeking a meeting about this and we have not had a response yet.
As I said to Deputy MacSharry, I appreciate the importance of this issue. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, to respond as a matter of urgency, given the latest developments on this issue.