Tuesday, 12 July 2022
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Last month, President Michael D. Higgins described the housing crisis as a disaster. I believe that he gave voice to the hard realities faced by those desperately struggling to put an affordable roof over their heads because when people cannot afford a home, it does not just stop there; it has wide-reaching and deep consequences for our society.
Today we read that schools in Dublin report that teachers are leaving and seeking employment in other parts of the country due to extortionate rents and soaring house prices. Schools are finding it very difficult to recruit replacements. One school in Stillorgan, it is reported, recently wrote to parents advising them that six of its teachers were relocating outside Dublin. The teachers' unions are alarmed. They say that difficulties with teacher supply are made worse by the fact that teachers cannot set up home in this city. They say that teachers who commute to Dublin are now considering working elsewhere because of the soaring cost of fuel. The teachers' unions are worried because schools are struggling to get teachers in important subjects like maths and science. Many schools are forced to consider asking teachers who have Gaeilge but who do not have a degree in Irish to teach the subject. The situation has become so bad that some schools may have to consider dropping optional subjects. We now face, therefore, the prospect of another serious problem rooted in the housing crisis. If left unchecked, it will have major knock-on effects. Being unable to afford a home impacts the quality of life of teachers, which then affects the ability of schools to deliver and, in turn, impacts the education of our children. It ripples through everything.
We should not be surprised that this problem is emerging. The average rent in Dublin is now more than €2,000. Average house prices range up to €600,000, which is truly off the wall. How could anyone build a life when facing those costs? By the time a teacher pays the rent or the mortgage repayment, a huge chunk of his or her wage is gone. Add in the spiralling cost of living, the relentless hikes in electricity and gas prices, childcare fees and the sharp increases in the price of food and life in the city has become literally unaffordable. We can see that teachers are left in an impossible situation, and why they are now voting with their feet. Tá múinteoirí ag fágáil Bhaile Átha Cliath mar gheall ar phraghsanna tithe atá ag ardú as cuimse agus ar chíosanna ríchostasacha. Tá scoileanna ag streachailt le múinteoirí eile a fháil. Ní mór don Rialtas gníomhú anois chun deireadh a chur leis an ngéarchéim atá mar thubaiste anois. Those caught up in the housing crisis, including teachers, are crying out for change. The Government cannot allow this problem to escalate and to become, in itself, another crisis.
What is the Government's assessment of this situation?
Does the Taoiseach share the teacher unions' alarm over the situation? What does his Government propose to do by way of response? Does he plan to meet the teachers' unions on this matter?
Admhaím go bhfuil géarchéim ann ó thaobh cúrsaí tithíochta. Is príomhaidhm an Rialtais é i bhfad níos mó tithe a thógáil agus a chur ar fáil. Níl aon amhras ach go bhfuil deacrachtaí faoi leith ag múinteoirí agus ag an-chuid daoine eile maidir le cúrsaí tithíochta. Tá plean cuimsitheach ag an Rialtas chun déileáil leis an ngéarchéim seo. Níl an Rialtas ann ach ar feadh dhá bhliain ach tá an-chuid bainte amach againn le linn an dá bhliain sin.
I have said consistently since being elected as Taoiseach that housing is the number one social issue facing this country. The Government has produced the most comprehensive housing policy, entitled Housing for All. I have not seen any alternative policy formulation either from the Deputies opposite or their party that has the same depth, breadth or detail to deal with a very serious issue concerning housing. Housing supply will be key regarding it. We simply need to build more houses and apartments across the board. The target is to get to 33,000 to 35,000 units per annum. This year the expectation is that we will be on target for approximately 24,600 new houses.
On commencements, 22,000 new units were completed in the year to March 2022. That is the highest number of home completions in any 12-month period since the series began in 2011. A total of 5,669 new homes were added to the national housing stock in quarter 1 this year, so progress is being made. A total of 43,000 planning permissions were granted in 2021, which is a sixfold increase on the number of units granted permission in 2014 and represents the highest number of planning permissions since 2007. More than 30,000 new homes were commenced in the year to May 2022. That is the highest number since records started.
In the EU, Ireland has gone from having the third lowest level of completions per capita, in 2013, to having the fifth highest, in 2020. Progress is being made, but it is not enough to deal with the huge demand that exists. We are looking at every possible avenue to increase housing supply and build up the capacity of the industry to build more, particularly through apprenticeships, for example. The number of construction apprenticeship registrations in 2021 increased by more than 40% compared with the number in 2019. We are working at every level, therefore, to ensure that the industry has greater capacity and that we build more houses.
On the rent side, we have brought in a series of Bills to protect renters, particularly in rent pressure zones, which will become more important now given the inflation rate of 9% odd. Rent increases have to be limited to 2% in these zones.
On the affordable housing front, the Croí Conaithe cities initiative has been launched. A further initiative will be launched this week in respect of Croí Conaithe towns, which will entail substantial support for prospective homeowners to renovate a house and live in it. Significant support will be given by the State in that regard. The Land Development Agency, established by legislation by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, is working on a range of initiatives to produce more housing. He also launched the first home shared equity scheme. That will be a significant scheme that will help teachers, gardaí and those in a range of other occupations to access homes in an affordable manner. The number of applications has been significant since the scheme was launched. I know Deputy McDonald opposed it but it has been proving very attractive so far to people.
I set out for the Taoiseach a story that I think is very worrying. The teachers' unions are expressing alarm over the fact that teachers are relocating from Dublin because they cannot afford to live here.
They cannot afford the rents. They cannot afford to get a mortgage. These are the facts on the ground. I asked the Taoiseach whether he shared concerns about this. I asked him what is the Government's assessment of this phenomenon. I asked furthermore whether he will meet the teaching unions on this matter. I asked him what he proposes to do to avert what could become a very difficult situation, particularly in Dublin, if teachers cannot afford to live here and if they are under pressure even in terms of the cost of the commute. The Taoiseach did not answer the questions. I ask him respectfully that when he takes to his feet he answers these questions. What is the Government's assessment of this? What will the Taoiseach do about it? Will the Taoiseach meet the teaching unions on this matter?
I did give my assessment. I have made it consistently clear that housing is the number one priority. The Government is two years in office. It has produced a very comprehensive Housing for All strategy designed to ramp up house construction in this country, particularly social housing. We will have a record number of social houses built in 2022.
It will help many people in terms of affordability. The scheme has been launched. Many people are already applying to join the scheme. The help-to-buy scheme has also been very effective for many people who have genuine, challenging situations with regard to affordability. It is not just teachers. It is many other professions and workers as well.
Some words jump out from the study published today on unplanned pregnancy support and abortion care conducted by Dr. Catherine Conlon and her colleagues at Trinity College Dublin. The purpose of the study was to discover the experiences of women who have sought to access abortion under our abortion legislation. The words expressed by women include "awful", "draining", "arduous", "harrowing" and "distressing". This really shows just how inadequate our current legislative structure is to meet the real needs of women in crisis pregnancy and unplanned pregnancy. These are the women we voted to support in 2018 in the repeal referendum when the people voted with a 66.4% majority to ensure women would have access to abortion services in Ireland. Yet what we see from the study published today is that the paternalistic shadow cast by the eighth amendment is still over our system of abortion care provision.
The National Women's Council points out that it is clear from the experiences of the women expressed through the study that significant systemic improvements are required. Women share the anguish and distress of being deemed ineligible for care on the grounds of fatal foetal anomalies, the disempowering impact of the three-day wait and the shock many women have had at the lack of GPs providing care in rural communities. We know that 13 counties in Ireland have fewer than ten GPs willing to provide abortion services. Many counties have no provision at all for women. Therefore they must travel outside the county to avail of services, twice in many cases because of the three-day wait period prescribed in the legislation which is not based on any medical necessity. We know that the three-day wait period in particular causes real hardship for those women who struggle to get off work, those on low incomes and those at the end of the first trimester.
We know that last year more than 200 women had to travel to Britain to obtain abortions because the law here does not meet their needs. The old Irish solution to an Irish problem phenomenon has not gone away. Every woman who takes that lonely journey represents a failure by the Government and the State to deliver on the mandate the people gave us in 2018. Will the Taoiseach confirm when the review of the abortion legislation will be published? Will the Taoiseach confirm that the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and the Government will ensure the review will address the inadequacies in the legislation, as illustrated by the evidence gathered by the team at Trinity College and the experiences so graphically expressed in the report by women describing how they had fared in seeking to access abortion care here?
We heard about awful scenarios relating to women who were awaiting diagnosis as to whether an anomaly was "fatal enough" to enable a termination after 12 weeks. Some of the definitions in the legislation are deeply problematic not only for women and their families, but also for doctors and medics who face criminalisation under this legislation if they do not get it right.
I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very important issue. The background is very clear, as she will be aware. In May 2018, the Irish people voted, overwhelmingly, to repeal the eighth amendment. The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 was introduced in December of that year, in line with the amendment and the debate. It is important to make that point. An all-party Oireachtas committee worked through the complexities of the legislation. There is a requirement under that Act to ensure a wide-ranging review to examine the effectiveness of the operation of the legislation. That is under way. Ms Marie O'Shea, BL, has been appointed as the independent chair of the review. The Unplanned Pregnancy Support and Abortion Care Study, which was conducted by Trinity College Dublin, is part of the review provided for in the legislation. That part of the review is being carried out by Dr. Catherine Conlon and is seeking to generate an in-depth understanding of the experiences of women who have accessed abortion care services since the commencement of the Act. It will be part and parcel of, and fed into, the review. It is expected to have the entire review completed by the end of the year.
The majority of terminations of pregnancy, up to nine weeks, take place in the community setting. There are approximately 413 termination-of-pregnancy providers in the community. This includes 403 GP contractors and ten women's health contractors. The HSE is saying it is satisfied that there is a good geographic spread. We need to wait for the review to be fully satisfied with that analysis, but that is what the HSE is saying.
In terms of maternity services, I am not satisfied. Eleven of the 19 maternity hospitals provide termination of pregnancy services. A number of other maternity hospitals are expected to introduce these services before the end of 2022. The Minister has provided additional funding for women's health and the national maternity strategy, to be fair. That is resulting in a significant increase in consultant posts in our maternity services, which is helping to overcome the barrier of conscientious objection in some locations. All 19 maternity hospitals offer a range of services with regard to termination of pregnancies, including supporting women with any post-termination complications, provision of ultrasound scanning, where required, and the management of fatal foetal anomaly cases. It is important that reviews of this kind happen. It is a significant and disturbing analysis. It will be fed into the overall review and then that will be brought to the House for decisions to be taken.
I thank the Taoiseach for confirming the date. He said the end of the year is when the review will be complete and that is useful to hear. I acknowledge that the legislation that we passed was, indeed, done on a cross-party basis and many of us banded together to facilitate the passing of that very important change in the law. However, as the Taoiseach acknowledged, there are still certain inadequacies, which could be addressed even pending the publication of the review. Geographic coverage and availability of services throughout the State, both through GPs and, indeed, hospitals, should be improved upon, even without awaiting the outcome of the review.
I welcome the announcement the Taoiseach has made today on safe access zones, but it is somewhat overdue, given that we had sought those back in 2018. They were promised in late 2018 by the then Minister and we have been awaiting them since because women are still being intimidated in seeking to access services. While inadequacies remain and women cannot access services, locally, in their own area, we know that the legislation is still inadequate to meet the real needs of women. We look forward to the publication of the review and the making of evidence-based changes necessary to improve women's access to services, but some things could be done now to ensure women get better access to service here.
It is important that we examine the review in its full context and take on board all of the research that will be undertaken to feed into the review. There is further work to be done.
I am satisfied the Minister is bringing forward the general scheme of a Bill on safe access zones. That is important, but getting it legally right was also important, as was getting the template right from a legal perspective.
We should also be conscious that others who are perhaps not covered had different experiences with how the Act operated, which were not good either. Those views should be taken into account as well and have to feed into our considerations. I do not want to go through individual cases but a case I came across certainly left me concerned about the operation of the Act, especially in respect of fatal foetal abnormality. These are complex issues at the best of times. However, the law of the land should apply and should be adhered to, particularly through the HSE.
The Taoiseach has been scathing of those of use who intend to vote no confidence in the Government this evening, suggesting it is negative and cynical and asking why we do not concentrate on positive proposals. This week, the Government has an opportunity to prove it is interested in positive proposals. The reason I have no confidence in this Government is that as we head into the summer recess it has done nothing to take on board positive proposals to deal with the utterly dire housing and homelessness crisis and the rental crisis blighting hundreds of thousands of working families and ordinary householders.
Tomorrow, People Before Profit have a Bill to reduce rents to affordable levels and link rents to people's income and their ability to pay, in other words, to have real rent controls, which the Government has failed to introduce successfully. Will the Government support our rent reduction Bill to bring rents down to 25% of median income? Why do we need such a measure? We have 320,000 renters and average rents nationally are currently €1,400 per month, which is totally unaffordable for huge numbers of working families. In Dublin they are €2,000 per month on average. That is €24,000 per year for an ordinary family. That is absolutely unaffordable. In my area, the average rent in the past six months was €2,600. The consequence of the Government's failure to control these rents is that we now have record numbers of families in homelessness, including children, as we head into the summer recess, and it is getting worse every week.
As if all that is not bad enough, in a report by Killian Woods in the Business Post at the weekend we discovered who is benefiting from this misery and these extortionate, unaffordable rents. Of the 91 applications put in for strategic housing development build-to-rent apartment blocks, 21 were lodged by investment entities based in tax havens, including the Isle of Man, Guernsey and the Virgin Islands, where the identities of the investors and shareholders are not even disclosed to the local authorities. These are tax dodgers - corporate tax dodgers - benefiting off the misery of people who are paying these extortionate rents. If the Taoiseach is serious about wanting positive proposals, I have a simple question for him. Will the Government support our Bill tomorrow to set rents at affordable levels? This has recently been done in France and other countries, by the way. Is the Taoiseach serious about people suffering from the rental and housing crisis or is he just spoofing?
It is no surprise to me that Sinn Féin and People Before Profit together will work very hard to have a motion of no confidence passed. They are working hand in glove on many of these issues in opposition to the Government. I put it to the Deputy that People Before Profit's economic platform, and Sinn Féin's, is one that would undermine the capacity of many working people to afford a lot of things because-----
The truth hurts, Deputy Ó Broin.
The Deputy is not the leader of his party and should allow Deputy Boyd Barrett to speak. I know Sinn Féin wants to take over and subsume People Before Profit into Sinn Féin but the least he can do now is to allow Deputy Boyd Barrett to have his say.
The point I am making is that the Government has delivered an exceptionally strong economic recovery, with the fastest jobs growth in the European Union. The bottom line is that 2.5 million people are employed. That is significant in the context of people's capacity to deal with exceptional cost-of-living issues. Rent is too high in this country. Deputy Boyd Barrett's Bill would make matters worse.
It is a simplistic response. It is classic People Before Profit to produce legislation that will not work. The Deputy knows it will not work but it is popular, populist and non-implementable.
There would not be a landlord left under the Deputy's proposals. The Bill is also ill-defined. It refers to nominal medium disposable income. Could the Deputy start to define that?
The Bill is technically illiterate in its propositions. It is also economically illiterate. There is no question that it is unworkable legislation. That does not bother the Deputy. His whole approach, coming from the far left, is destabilisation and keep producing and being popular. We have to work with real life, which is difficult for people. Rent is very high. Supply is key to resolving the matter. We will build a record number of social houses this year.
That is important. We have significantly increased the discretion to local authorities, for example, with regard to the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. It has increased by over 35%.
The work on HAP has been significant in terms of the response of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to the issues that were raised when people sought greater discretion for local authorities to apply to the scheme.
I guess that is a "No". The Government will not be supporting a Bill to reduce rents to affordable levels. That is not overly surprising from parties that are dominated by a disproportionate number of landlords relative to the population. Approximately €13 billion has been spent through HAP, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and leasing since 2001. That money in various rent supports and rent allowance has gone into the pockets of landlords. We now discover - and I note the Taoiseach did not respond on this point - that entities based in tax havens offshore in the Virgin Islands and whose identities are undisclosed are benefiting from this crisis. The Taoiseach is saying it is unrealistic that we control rents. Of course, when we called on the Government to stop evictions, the Government said it could not do it. The Government then stopped evictions during the pandemic because it had to. What happened? The number of families going into homelessness reduced. As soon as the Government allowed evictions to restart, the numbers of families going into homelessness went up and are now at record proportions. The truth is that the Taoiseach has no solutions but tries to dismiss ours when all of his Government's have failed. When will he listen to the hardship and suffering that people are enduring and take on board some proposals that are aimed at ameliorating that suffering?
He is tabling the Bill on the basis of politics and to be popular. He proved that with his opening line when he asked who is against reducing rent. Nobody is against that.
The Deputy produces legislation, puts it up on the wall and then claims the Government is voting against reducing rents. The Deputy can claim his party is voting for it and they are, therefore, the virtuous ones. That completely ignores the reality on the ground in terms of the non-implementability, to coin a phrase, of the Bill. It is not doable. It is as simple as that. We have rent controls in the rent pressure zones. What is doable is to build the largest ever number of social houses this year, which we will. We will have to do that every year for the next five to ten years. We must build far more affordable and cost rental homes. We have to maintain HAP, which is a strong subsidy for people who are renting now.
We cannot eliminate HAP right now because there would be thousands and thousands of people without homes if there was no HAP. It is a substantial rent subsidy to people on low incomes, which is as it should be right now.
That is the reality of where we are right now. We have to deal with that and build more houses. As we build more houses, we can reduce the dependency on HAP. However, we simply have to get far more supply. To be fair-----
Let us be honest. The Deputy's party and others on local councils up and down the country have opposed housing programmes and projects. The Deputy has opposed them because it did not fit his utopian ideal as what constitutes a housing development.
My first day in Leinster House was 25 years ago when I was a member of the Defence Forces security detail charged with protecting the campus. I admit to spending a little bit too much time in the Visitors Gallery looking down at proceedings. Little did I know how events would transpire and I would actually end up here today.
It is on that basis that I want to welcome the additional funding that has been announced this morning for our military. It is very important because it is desperately needed. I welcome the increased funding for infrastructure and capability development but, particularly, I want to welcome the increased funding for military pay for the people who are on the lowest pay grade in our Defence Forces. Those are the people who have less than three years’ service.
We all appreciate that our defence community has no access to the Workplace Relations Commission. It is denied access to the Labour Court and to any type of industrial action whatsoever. It is uniquely vulnerable from that perspective. Therefore, it is the Government’s job to intervene regularly to ensure a level playing field from a military perspective. To be fair to the Opposition as well, it is also the Opposition’s role. I want to put on record my gratitude to all Members of the House from all sides, both Government and Opposition benches, who have campaigned so passionately over this issue for the past number of years.
It is good to see at least a moderate increase and improvement announced this morning. Is the plan perfect? Of course not. However, is it progress? Yes, for sure. It builds on progress that has already occurred this year, particularly allowing reservists to travel overseas and for PDFORRA and Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, to associate with Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU.
How will we know if the plan is working? There is only one metric that matters and that is headcount. The strength of our military is the lowest it has been for 50 years right now at fewer than 8,300 people. It has not been this low in half a century and we need to get that number up. There has been a net loss of 203 people already in the first five months of this year. That is ten people a week. That is not turnover; that is attrition. No organisation can put up with that level of attrition.
The focus now needs to shift on three other allowances. First, the specialised instructors allowance was taken away as result of the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, cuts that have yet to be returned. Also, the military service allowance needs to be done, but also the patrol duty allowance. Because it is in his constituency, the Taoiseach would be aware that there is a major problem with the Naval Service at the moment. We get many calls from Cork, which I am very happy to take of course. Strictly speaking, they may not be my constituents, but they certainly are my people.
Does the Taoiseach accept that there are unique industrial relations circumstances in our armed forces as part of our military community? As a result, it requires regular, direct intervention by the Cabinet to ensure there is a level playing field for our troops and their very important families.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. It is fair to say that since he was elected, he has been a very strong advocate for the Defence Forces. He has been advocating on its behalf to many Members in this House, including Members of Government. His advocacy has been consistent and genuine, obviously, given his own experience. I did not realise the vicarious influence, if I may say, of just being here looking after us many years ago had and the clear impact in ending up as a Member of the House through spending that time in the Gallery. The Deputy must have been attracted to what was going on to make him want to become a participant.
Today at the Cabinet meeting, the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, brought forward a memorandum. We met with the commission on a number of occasions. I have met with the commission and the commission chair. It is a high level action plan. It will entail multi-annual funding increases, commencing in 2023, to reach a defence budget of €1.5 billion by 2028. It will involve - the Deputy was correct when he said this is key metric - increasing the number of personnel, which will be an enormous challenge, by nearly 2,000 over the current establishment figure of 9,500.
The other key aspect of this is that there is an urgent need for human resources change and a cultural transformation of our Defence Forces. When I spoke to the chairperson, he was adamant about that. There are many practices that need dramatic transformation. It will take time. That is as important a part of the commission's recommendations as the ambition to go to a higher level of provision and defence capability. The report says we should go to level 2, as outlined in the report. I do not think we have any choice but to do that in terms of the level of ambition. It is a realistic level of ambition that we can get to. When we get to that level of ambition, we can review. We need radar systems and we need to have a greater understanding of the risks and so on, given our maritime size, and also in terms of how that relates to our naval strength and what is going on in the air around Ireland and so on. These are all issues on which we need to be stronger in terms of capability, intelligence and understanding.
In terms of the pay structures, there is a recommendation to provide immediate access to the seagoing service commitment scheme to direct-entry personnel in the Naval Service. We will follow through on the removal of the requirement for a private, three-star, or able seaman to mark time for the first three years at that rank. The payment of the full rate of military service allowance applicable to the rank of all private, three star, or able seamen personnel, replacement of the existing seagoing allowances with less complex seagoing duty measures and introduction of long-service increments to the pay scales of all ranks are all recommendations that have been made on the personnel front. It is something we are going to pursue. The Government will be keeping a hands-on approach through the Department and I, as Taoiseach, will be following through in terms of implementation with the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response. There is a supplementary matter I wish to raise, relating to the €1,000 pandemic bonus payment. Not a single member of the Defence Forces has been paid the bonus yet, even though hundreds of them are eligible, entitled to it and have been told it is coming. It still has not arrived, however. We have heard that, rightly, 75,000 people in the HSE have been paid the bonus. That is fantastic and I say "Well done" to the HSE for paying its own staff, but there are members of other organisations that looked after contact tracing, testing and vaccination who are eligible for this allowance yet still have not been paid. Not only has it not been paid, no member of the Defence Forces has applied for it because there is no mechanism in place to so do. I would be grateful if the Taoiseach were to take that up with his relevant line Ministers to see if he can ensure prompt payment for our troops.
I acknowledge that members of the Defence Forces played a crucial role in our testing, tracing and vaccination programmes. In recognition of their input and unique role during the pandemic, the Government announced that they would benefit from the Covid-19 recognition payment along with other front-line workers. It is disappointing that this payment has not yet been made to members of the Defence Forces. The HSE is managing the payments to all recipients of the payment. Some 90,000 healthcare workers have already received it. The Department of Health is due to meet formally with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform shortly to review this and see how we can accelerate payments to those who have yet to receive them.