Thursday, 22 September 2022
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Tá teaghlaigh i lár ghéarchéim costas maireachtála agus feictear seo go soiléir i gcuid mhór earnálacha. Feictear go hiontach soiléir é san earnáil chíosa. Chuir géarchéim tithíochta an Rialtais seo glúin amach as úinéireacht tithe. Tá an gnáthchíos anois ag €1,500 sa mhí. Tá daoine ag díol níos mó cíosa i mbliana ná mar a bhídís ag díol anuraidh agus tá tacaíocht de dhíth orthu. Tá Sinn Féin ag moladh chreidmheas cánach dóibh siúd atá ag díol cíosa a gcuirfeadh cíos míosa ar ais ina gcuid pócaí agus coisc ar arduithe cíosa.
The Tánaiste is well aware that we are in the middle of an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis and that every day we are seeing the costs of energy, fuel, childcare and housing go up. Workers and families across the State are struggling and all the while the Government continues to brush aside meaningful proposals that would make a major difference and put money back into people’s pockets.
Nowhere is the cost-of-living crisis more obvious than in the rental market. This is contributing to wider problems in the housing market. Young people cannot afford to save for a deposit, house prices are out of control and there is not enough social and affordable housing being built. An entire generation, because of the Government’s policies, is locked into an unaffordable rental market and locked out of ever being able to afford their own home. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of working people in their late 40s and 50s are living in the private rental sector. They are frightened that they have no way out of that rental market and face a future of pension poverty because of runaway rents. This housing failure is robbing our people of their hopes and dreams for the future.
I know the Tánaiste believes that landlords should be prioritised and their incomes are more important than renters being able to live a decent life. He said as much to the media in August. He said it would be a good idea to introduce a tax cut for landlords, despite the fact that there is little evidence to suggest that such measures will address the causes of the crisis. In fairness, however, he conceded that if he did so, he would do something for renters also. Renters are the people who need to be prioritised. Too often, we talk about rents in terms of percentage increases that we have seen year after year, but if we get down to the hard cash of it, the average new rent in this State is now just below €1,500 per month, with rents in Dublin now over €2,000. Because of runaway rents, new renters will a fork out €1,476 more this year to their landlord than they would have done last year. Renters need relief. As the Tánaiste will know, Sinn Féin has been calling on the Government year after year to provide support for renters. We have proposed for years a refundable tax credit that would put one month’s rent back into renters’ pockets, reducing their rental costs and lifting some of the burden from them. That would make a real difference to so many people. Of course, any support like this must make a difference to the renters who are hard pressed and must not be pocketed by landlords through further rent hikes. That is why this measure needs to be accompanied by a ban on rent increases.
Renters are being fleeced. Runaway rents need to stop. Renters can be supported and runaway rents can be tackled. However, it is the Government’s choice. The budget is just days away. I ask the Tánaiste, on behalf of renters right across the State who are feeling so much pressure and have seen their rents go up year after year without support or action from this Government, if the Government will now, belatedly at this final hour, adopt Sinn Féin’s plan to support renters by putting one’s month rent back into renters’ pockets and banning further rent increases - to reduce rents and to freeze them.
I thank the Deputy for raising the important issue of the very high cost of rent in Ireland, which is out of kilter and disproportionate when compared with our peer countries. I acknowledge that. What the Deputy has said about what I have said in the past is not the case. I have never said that landlords should be prioritised. A little like the Deputy’s leader, Deputy Doherty would not win any truth-telling contests. I did not say that. It is at best at misrepresentation and perhaps a fabrication, and I hope the Deputy will acknowledge that in his further response.
What I am interested in talking about is solutions. There are a number of solutions to the housing crisis that we now face and a number of things that we can do to help renters. Probably the most important and significant thing is increasing and ramping up the amount of social housing we have in Ireland. As the Deputy will know, we are probably going to break records in terms of the number of new social houses provided in Ireland this year. We are getting up to the kinds of figures we have not seen since the 1970s, if not before. Social housing benefits everyone. It takes people off the housing list and also frees up private accommodation for other people to rent and buy, thus exerting downward pressure on rents and property prices. That is why we are investing so much in new social housing and why we will continue to do so in the years ahead.
The other area is cost-rental housing. This programme was started by the former Minister, Eoghan Murphy, under the previous Government but is now for real. We see the huge demand for cost-rental housing and how interested people are in that form of public housing. We need to see that scaled up as much as is humanly possible over the next couple of years.
We also have the help-to-buy scheme, a programme that has helped over 30,000 young people and young couples to buy their first home, often leaving rental accommodation and freeing it up for others. This is something the Deputy’s party opposes, wrongly in my view. I hope in Sinn Féin’s alternative budget it will consider dropping its opposition to the help-to-buy scheme. It is the most important thing we can do for first-time buyers at the moment. Saying to first-time buyers that we will not give them the €30,000 back to help their deposit, but instead we will give them €1,000 or €1,500 to help with their rent is not a good deal. That is what Sinn Féin would do. It would take the €30,000 away from first-time buyers and give them €1,500 a year to help with their rent. That is not a good deal and I hope Sinn Féin will drop its opposition to the help-to-buy scheme.
We also have the rent pressure zones which, as the Deputy will know, for tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands of people, have meant that rent increases have been 2% or lower. That does not show up in areas like the daft.ie index for example, as the Deputy knows, but has been of great relief to many people who are renting in this city and country. It has had negative consequences too. It has probably had a negative impact on supply and has perhaps driven up rents when it comes to new tenancies. That is something that we need to be concerned about.
In terms of budget measures and the Deputy’s suggestion of a credit for renters, that is a budget matter and it would not be appropriate for me today to comment on decisions that will be announced by the Minister of Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, next week. However, as is the case with all proposals, they will be considered and a decision will made by the Government in due course.
We have been having this conversation now for years and I feel that at some stage the penny might drop because every year we see all the statistics go in the wrong direction. When new rents are going up by 9.2% a year and house prices are going up by 14%, how far does rent have to go before the Tánaiste starts to realise the Government’s policies are actually contributing to this problem in the first instance? He talks about social housing, on which the Government will not meet its own targets. He talks about cost-rental housing, on which the Government is only delivering 300 units and is not meeting its targets either. Moreover, these are low targets that are inadequate given what is needed.
Sinn Féin puts forward proposals year after year that will actually help renters. Renters are paying nearly €1,500 more than they were last year and before that, they were paying more than they paid the year before that, and the same in the years before that. There are so many people are locked into a situation and do not know how they will get out of it. The other arm of Government policy means house prices are being pushed up beyond the Celtic tiger peak. There is a very simple proposal that we have been calling on the Government to introduce, and that is a refundable tax credit equivalent to a month’s rent of up to €1,500-----
-----which would put that money back into renters’ pockets, and a ban on rent increases for the next three years. Is that something the Government will entertain because the Tánaiste has been stating publicly that he wants cuts for landlords?
The only thing I have said about landlords - and I stand over it and I have made this very clear - is that if there are any tax concessions for landlords in the budget, there should also be tax concessions for renters. That is what I said and what I meant, and I stand over that comment. If there are concessions for landlords in the budget, there should also be tax concessions for renters. That is what I said and I stand over it.
Any specific decisions are a matter for budget day, not today. There will be meetings today and over the weekend to finalise the budget package. What I will say to the Deputy, and it is important that we are frank and honest with people about what is happening in our country and around the world, is that there are bigger trends at play here, not least demographics and the cost of building new housing. North of the Border, where the Deputy's party has been in office now for a very long time, house prices have also gone up. They have gone up by 20% in two years and rents are rising as well. That is a place where there is a Sinn Féin housing minister and finance minister. It would be very easy for me to repeat the kind of charges the Deputy makes against us-----
Later today, along with our finance spokesperson, Deputy Nash, I and my Labour colleagues will be introducing our alternative Labour budget and our proposals for budget 2023. We are doing so at a time when we are facing unprecedented crises. There is a crisis in the cost of living, and there are exorbitant price increases in food and fuel and in basic household necessities. We are also facing an energy security crisis and a chronic housing crisis, where are seeing so many people being priced out of homes, either to rent or buy. In the face of these crises, and while we are seeing healthy Exchequer figures at macro level, we in Labour are calling for Government to adopt a really serious and substantial cost-of-living package not only to invest massively in the building of new homes and in support for public services, but also to adopt a €4 billion emergency package of measures to help alleviate the real hardship that so many families and households are facing into over this bleak winter ahead, which will undoubtedly be exacerbated by the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war there.
There are measures that we in this country and this Government can take that are in our power to do, even in the face of massive international challenges. We, in Labour, have called for three key measures to be adopted as part of an emergency package of measures to help struggling households and families. Those three measures include, first, to cap childcare costs for families. Every week I hear from constituents who cannot afford the sort of increases in fees for crèches that they are being charged, and from parents who simply cannot access crèche places at all. We are calling for a massive investment by Government in the national childcare scheme to ensure that childcare costs for parents will be no more than €200 per child, bringing us into line with European average costs per month. That is a measure that could be adopted in this budget and could really help alleviate hardship for parents who are struggling. Second, we have called for the introduction of a €9 monthly climate ticket to enable individuals to have unlimited public transport journeys across Ireland. For the price of €9, this climate ticket measure would not only help alleviate pressure on families faced with rising transport costs, but would also ensure that we are going some way to meeting our climate emissions targets in terms of reduction in the transport sector. A similar measure was introduced in Germany. We have called for that to be introduced, even for a six-month period, in this budget. Finally, we are calling for the immediate extension of free GP care to all children and young people under the age of 18. It has been a long-standing ambition of my party. We saw the measure being introduced on an incremental basis previously. However, this Government and the previous government have not done anything to further that ambition and to ensure that parents no longer have to think twice because of cost if they are faced with having a sick child to the doctor. We want to see free GP care extended to all children under 18, and we want to see it done in this budget.
I look forward to reading the Labour Party's alternative budget, hopefully being able to take on board some of the suggestions made. We will have a budget next week. The details will be announced by the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform next Tuesday. People will see a response of scale from the Government to help them with the cost-of-living crisis. That will involve a multibillion euro package. People will see that in their pockets and off their bills within weeks. That will apply within weeks and will be deployed well before Christmas. People will also see a multibillion euro package which will take effect in the new year. It may not be possible to cushion everyone fully from the impact of the cost of living, but it will be our objective to do so for those on the lowest pay and the lowest incomes and for those on middle and higher incomes to help them out in substantial and meaningful way as well. It is important that everyone gets help with the cost of living, but that those who need the help the most get the most help. That will be our approach.
I think that when it comes to any household budget, there are three elements: how much one is paid, how much one gets to take home after taxes and how far the money goes. We need to help on all three fronts. I know the Deputy's party is focusing on the third element, namely, the costs such as childcare, public transport and healthcare. That is fair enough. Those are the kind of areas that we want to help in as well. On childcare, as all of the party leaders and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth have said, it is our objective to reduce childcare fees next year. However, we need to do it in a sensible way. Notwithstanding the new agreement that we have to raise pay in the sector for childcare professionals and early educators, there are capacity constraints in the system. As we know from previous experience in other areas, if the cost is reduced dramatically, demand rises and then we are left with a different problem around capacity. We need to square that circle and get it right. We must ensure that in reducing fees we do not solve one problem and make another one worse.
On the €9 public transport ticket, such a scheme was introduced in Germany. However, what the Deputy did not mention was that it has been abandoned in Germany. After consideration, the Government decided not to continue with it for a number of reasons, including affordability. What we have done is to reduce public transport fares by 20% or 30%. I think we have had a good result from that. There are more people using public transport, but there are not problems with affordability or overcrowding. We will give consideration to extending and maybe even improving on that in the context of the budget next week.
On free GP care, the Deputy rightly pointed out that we made a good start on that. Sometime ago, the former Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, and I brought in free GP care for children under six years. We have managed to extend it to some other groups, for example, people with terminal conditions, children with cancer and people in receipt of the carer's allowance, since then. However, to date we have not been successful in negotiations with the IMO and the doctors to extend it beyond six-year-olds. Unfortunately, that is the reason why it has not proceeded.
I think everyone across the country will welcome the Tánaiste's commitment that in the budget in just five days' time, we will see from Government a response of scale, and in the Tánaiste's words, "a multibillion euro package". However, what we need to see is also an ambition of scale and a real ambition to address these crises that are confronting so many households and a real ambition to take the necessary radical measures that will be required to sustain families, households and businesses through a bleak winter. They are the sort of measures that we saw turned around swiftly by Government in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are the sort of measures we are going to be calling for in our budget proposals this afternoon in order to build an Ireland that works for all. Currently, there is a sense of a two-tier Ireland. There is a sense that while some people are doing well, for many and increasing numbers of households there is simply this paradox of plenty, where Exchequer figures are positive but they are not feeling it in their own pockets. What they are feeling is deeply pinched and squeezed by rising costs. That is why we are focusing on social wage elements and the need to ensure that we are bringing down costs for families and households. We are really hopeful that radical measures will be taken in this budget by the Government.
I will be brief. We probably need to take a dual approach to this. There is an international inflation crisis that is driven by monetary policy, the war in Ukraine and high energy bills. We need to respond to that reality by helping people with their bills. We need to help put more money in their pockets and also help to reduce energy bills in particular. As a country, we had a high cost of living long before this current inflation crisis. There are areas in which the cost of living in Ireland is out of kilter not with Mediterranean countries or countries in eastern Europe which are very different to ours, but countries similar to ours in northern Europe, in childcare, healthcare, public transport and rents. This is an opportunity not just to deal with the immediate inflation crisis, but also to bring down some of those costs where we have been out of kilter with other northern European countries. I believe we should take that opportunity now.
Nearly 100 years ago, Ireland's national poet, W.B. Yeats, wrote that this was no country for old men. If he was writing today in the face of a cost-of-living and housing disaster, he might well write that this is no country for older people, younger people, working people, people with disabilities or the vulnerable. It is a country for profit-hungry energy companies, big corporations and property vultures - for the greedy and obscenely wealthy. I think it is that sense that is going to lead thousands of people out onto the streets this Saturday to assemble at Parnell Square and march to this Dáil before the budget to demand relief and protection from the cost-of-living and housing disaster that people are suffering. The older people might be there because any pensioner, or for that matter any person on disability, who is solely dependent on State payments lives below what the Central Statistics Office, CSO, says is the minimum weekly disposable income necessary not to live in poverty.
Let us think about that. The vast majority of people who get State pensions or disability payments in this country, and students who receive student grants, live below the rate that is officially believed to be necessary not to be living in poverty. That is the situation faced by our older people, younger people and vulnerable people.
I spoke to students in UCD yesterday. They all said they intend to leave the country because they feel they have no choice. They said they do not want to go but they can never hope to own their own homes. They simply cannot afford the rents. They do not want to face a future of uncertainty or pay the extortionate cost of rental properties where they have no security.
Workers have seen the real value of their wages drop by €4,000 or €5,000 in the past year and a half. Section 39 workers who look after people with disabilities and vulnerable people have been forced out on strike because they have not received pay restoration. Meanwhile, corporate profits have tripled in the past ten years. The profits of real estate investment trusts, REITs, have tripled in the past four or five years. The wealth of the very richest in this country is growing exponentially. What has the Tánaiste to say to those who are coming out onto the streets to assure them this will be a country for young people, old people, working people and vulnerable people after the budget?
I thank the Deputy. He paints a bleak picture of the country in which we live. One would not think that the United Nations - not me but the United Nations - considers Ireland to be one of the top five or ten countries to live in the world. That is based on health, education and economic well-being. One would think from the remarks of the Deputy that we were seeing a massive outflow of people from our country. In fact, the reverse is the case. The CSO, which the Deputy mentioned earlier, has indicated that the population of Ireland increased by 89,000 last year. That is an extraordinary increase in population. That includes tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the war, but that is not the half of it. Many more are coming from the UK, the European Union and other parts of the world to work in this country. Ireland is seen by them as a country in which there are great opportunities for employment and advancement. Those same figures crucially show that more Irish citizens returned to Ireland last year than left. That has been true for a number of years now. The impression the Deputy would create is a different one. People are entitled to their opinions but they are not entitled to their own facts. This is a country that is ranked in the top ten in the world as a place to live. Some 89,000 people have moved to this country this year. More Irish people return to Ireland every year than leave. Those are the facts; the Deputy is welcome to his opinions.
I agree with the Deputy on the cost-of-living crisis. It is something that affects everyone in our society, including people who are young and old, people who are working, pensioners, people in receipt of social welfare payments, people on middle incomes and people in business, who are concerned about the future of their businesses in the years ahead. That is why the Government needs a response that helps everyone. We also need a targeted response that helps those who need the help the most.
As I indicated in my earlier replies, any household budget has three elements, namely, how much the people in the household get paid, whether that be pay from a job, welfare or pension payments; how much they get to keep after taxes and statutory charges; and how far the money goes. It is our objective in this budget to help people on all three fronts. That is what we intend to do. The Deputy will hear the detail of that on Tuesday when the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, make their announcements.
According to the CSO, approximately 54,000 people left this country last year. I suspect we will see those numbers rise. It is true that marginally more came in but that is still a significant outflow of people. It was not my opinion I was sharing. I was sharing the opinion of the young students I was talking to yesterday in UCD. I met a group of postgraduate students who said they have to exist on miserable stipends, which makes it difficult for them to conclude their doctoral studies. There is a problem. Young people, in increasing numbers, feel they have to leave because that generation has been locked out, crucially, from the ability to buy a home or afford rent. They are faced with the disastrous housing crisis that the Government has failed to deal with, while REITs and property vultures have seen their profits triple. Corporate profits have also tripled. Old people are frightened as we face into the winter. That is why they will be out on the streets. We will see at the weekend whether this is my opinion or the opinion of many tens of thousands. What is the Government going to do to assure those people that there will be a future of affordable houses and rents and that they will be protected against the profiteering of energy companies and property vultures?
More Irish citizens returned than left. The difference was marginal but more returned than left. The impression the Deputy would create is a different one. He would create an impression of a country that is seeing its citizens leave in large numbers and not return in greater numbers.
People will see the Government's response to the cost-of-living crisis on budget day. As I mentioned, there must be three elements. We must increase pay and pensions, reduce the amount of tax people pay to allow them to keep more of the money they earn and reduce the cost of living in areas such as childcare, healthcare, public transport and rent. That is what we are working on. We will be working throughout the weekend to finalise that package. To answer the Deputy's question, we do intend that some of that will be funded by a windfall tax on energy companies because it is not appropriate that energy companies are making massive profits they never intended to make and never in their wildest dreams thought they would make. We will be taking some of that back.
I wish to raise an important issue in respect of which clarification is needed. The Teaching Council is the body with the statutory authority and responsibility for the regulation of the teaching profession in Ireland, including the registration of teachers in the State. Upon registration with the Teaching Council, post-qualification professional practice is applied as a condition of registration for all primary and post-primary newly qualified teachers. Until recent years, the traditional route to fulfil this condition for primary school was probation. The Droichead process, which replaces the traditional process, consists of school-based induction, which is underpinned by reflective practices, mentoring, professional conversation and additional professional learning activities, such as observation, cluster meetings, the Taisce professional learning portfolio and the hours taught. All of these activities address the needs of newly qualified teachers as they begin their careers.
According to Droichead, a primary teacher will normally undertake the Droichead process when employed in a permanent, temporary or substitute capacity as a mainstream teacher. A teacher is teaching all the hours of the primary school curriculum, including Irish, for the entire school day. A teacher's tenure at the school may afford him or her the opportunity to meet minimum duration requirements. Yet limitations are being placed on teachers as to what roles qualify for Droichead. A newly qualified teacher may complete Droichead in one of the following roles: a special class teacher in a mainstream school; a teacher in a special school; a full resource teacher of people with low-incidence disabilities; or a full-time learning support teacher. The restrictions involve teaching the same cohort of pupils. The teachers need to complete a block of 60 consecutive days in eligible settings. At a time when we are crying out for teachers, these requirements are excessive.
I recently met members of the Irish National Teachers Organisation, INTO, who highlighted the issue of teacher-pupil ratios, which have a significant impact on children's development and learning. Why are we making newly qualified teachers jump through hoops to do further training, inspections and supervision when they have already carried out placements and supervision during their qualifications? Any primary level teacher who gets any teaching time should be able to count it towards his or her qualifications as part of the Droichead framework. That is a big issue for some people. These restrictive requirements are putting extra pressure on newly qualified teachers to find a job that qualifies for Droichead. They prevent those teachers taking full-time roles, such as supply teacher roles, as they do not qualify under the rigid classroom and qualification requirements.
During the Covid-19 emergency, the Teaching Council confirmed that newly qualified teachers who secured posts on supply panels for the 2021-22 academic year may complete Droichead, the induction framework for newly qualified teachers. However, that is not the case post-pandemic. As I said, any primary level teacher who gets any teaching time at all should be able to count it towards his or her qualifications as part of the Droichead framework.
I thank Deputy Fitzpatrick for raising this important issue, which is a matter of great interest to newly qualified teachers, in addition to school management and school communities. As teachers returned to their classrooms a few weeks ago to meet their students after the summer break, we were once again reminded of the significant and valuable role teachers play in our communities. For the first time in a long time, teachers and students returned to classrooms without the need for masks or social distancing. Teaching and learning returned, as did fun and laughter.
The Teaching Council is the body with responsibility for the profession. It has 37 members, 16 of whom are registered teachers elected by other teachers. It has established standards for post-qualification professional practice as set out in Droichead, an integrated professional induction framework for newly qualified primary and post-primary teachers. These standards have been developed with representatives of teachers and experts on teaching in order to continue to develop a very high-quality and qualified teaching workforce.
The Government is committed to ensuring that all graduating teachers maintain high levels of pedagogical and content knowledge in order to provide excellence in teaching and learning experiences for all students. The Droichead programme is an important part of that commitment. The main objective is to assist the professional learning of newly qualified teachers during the induction phase, thus laying the foundations for subsequent professional growth and learning for the next phase of their career.
I know a newly qualified supply teacher who has a one-year contract. That teacher covers nine schools in rural Ireland. She is doing exactly the theory needed for Droichead but it is not being accepted. Teachers are human beings too who also suffer from mental health issues. They need clarity. The development and learning of our children is the most important thing. The situation at present is that scores of schools in my area just cannot get qualified teachers.
Teachers spend a lot of money getting qualified. During their training, they go into schools and do everything that is required of them. It was done during the Covid-19 pandemic. I do not see any reason they cannot carry on as before. We need to keep our children highly educated and we need to look after these people who have sacrificed a lot through going to college and studying very hard. I believe that teaching is a vocation. I ask for clarity. The Government should intervene in this matter. We have many newly qualified teachers who want to teach but they are being stopped from doing so. The Tánaiste is telling me that a supply teacher I know who is covering nine rural schools should not be included in Droichead. It is an absolute disgrace. I spoke to the Minister for Education last night regarding this. I plead with the Tánaiste and the Minister to intervene.
Other than in exceptional circumstances, schools should deploy newly qualified teachers in a mainstream setting. However, in certain circumstances, a newly qualified teacher may complete the Droichead process in an special educational needs setting. As a general rule, paid employment in a permanent, temporary or substitute capacity is eligible. During the past school year, the Teaching Council put in place some special arrangements relating to Covid, on an emergency basis, to alleviate the impact of the pandemic on schools. These short-term measures were put in place from December 2021 until the end of the 2021-22 school year, and included extending Droichead to newly qualified teachers working on supply panels and covering principal release days.
Following a recent review by the Teaching Council, and due to the easing of Covid restrictions, the Teaching Council has advised that these measures have now ceased and are no longer available. However, newly qualified teachers who are affected by this decision are asked to make immediate contact directly with the Teaching Council, which will liaise with them in respect of their particular circumstances and will do so in a sympathetic and sensitive way. The council is working with the Department to help schools and newly qualified teachers employed on supply panels to enable them to complete the Droichead process.