Wednesday, 28 September 2022
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Sinn Féin has consistently and repeatedly called on Government to tackle the extortionate rents that are crippling workers, families and students. We told the Government the way to do this is by cutting rents through a refundable tax credit equivalent to one month's rent and, crucially, by banning rent increases for three years. We were very clear. Both measures must go together in order to give hard-pressed renters the relief they so desperately need. The tax credit for one month's rent would put a meaningful amount of money back in renters' pockets and a ban would provide renters with the certainty that they will not be hammered by further rent hikes. To work, the two measures must go hand in hand. On countless occasions, I have asked the Taoiseach directly to introduce these measures with urgency Every time, his answer has been "No". Make no mistake: the Government's refusal to act caused already unaffordable rents to spiral further out of control.
After leaving renters high and dry for years, yesterday the Government showed up with a €500 annual tax credit. That is it. The Government completely ignored the other part of the solution, namely, a ban on rent increases. A €500 tax credit is better than nothing. I have no doubt that those tenants who can avail of it will take what they can get as they struggle to pay their rent. Let us be very clear, however. This will not make a dent for people paying average rents of more than €2,000 per month, or €24,000 a year, in Dublin or those paying nearly €1,500 a month, or €18,000 per annum, across the State. Crucially, the tax credit is non-refundable meaning that those without a taxable income are left out. Who are they? The Government has left out students and low-income workers. Incredibly, it has done all of this without introducing a ban on rent increases. As a result, renters have no certainty and no real protection. In the absence of a ban on rent increases, the €500 credit will be wiped out by further hikes. This is true even in rent pressure zones. There is a real risk that without a ban on rent increases, the tax credit will in fact fuel a further rent hike. That is what the Taoiseach said when I raised this matter with him in April. He said there was no guarantee that a credit would result in a reduction in rents. He said it would be inflationary. He said it would add to rent prices. What has changed? The truth is that despite the Government's posturing, it has left the door wide open for more rent hikes, more exploitation and more hardship.
Ní théann beart cíosa an Taoisigh fada go leor. Theip air an chinnteacht atá ag teastáil ag tionóntaí a thabhairt trí chosc a chur ar ardú cíosa. Ní dhéanfaidh a chreidmheas €500 aon rud mar beidh sé caite ar thuilleadh méaduithe. The Taoiseach has messed this up. The renters of Ireland deserve much better than this half-baked measure. I want him to correct it. My question is very simple. Will the Government give renters a real break by putting a month's rent back into their pockets through a refundable tax credit? Will it give renters the certainty and protection they deserve and need by banning rent increases for three years?
Since the Government came into office just over two years ago, we have demonstrated our absolute commitment to do whatever is necessary to protect Ireland's society and economy. That was clear during the pandemic, when we put in place unprecedented supports for people and for employers to keep jobs intact. That is what has happened yesterday with the presentations by the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Donohoe.
The budget needs to be looked at in its entirety. Because of the extraordinary efforts of the Irish people and the careful stewardship of the Government, the economy recovered very strongly and gave us good capacity to navigate the very difficult and expensive winter ahead. It is a pity the Deputy cannot acknowledge those basic facts. Every month, she is in here looking for packages. We resisted the pressure from Sinn Féin during the summer and so forth. As a result - people can see this - we are using resources and the capacity that we have derived from bringing the economy back to help the most vulnerable in our society.
This morning, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council described budget 2023 as sensible. It said that the Government has managed to direct resources to those who need them most and that more money is being targeted towards those people. In other words, it is a progressive budget and a fair budget. That view is supported by the data and careful analysis using the ESRI's switch model, for example. That analysis found the budget to be "strongly progressive". The winter cost-of-living measures alone will boost the net disposable income of the lowest income households by 5% compared with 0.7% for the highest income households. The core budget 2023 package will boost the net disposable income of the lowest income households by 5.8% compared with 2.3% for the highest income households. I say that to dispel the propaganda that Sinn Féin has been articulating since the budget was published yesterday.
The rent tax credit the Government has introduced is €1,500 for 2022. People have paid their rent but they will be able to claim a €500 tax credit on that for this year. It will be €500 for next year, 2023, and on an ongoing basis. The Sinn Féin alternative budget suggests an amount of €1,500. However, based on 400,000 renters, that proposal would have an estimated cost of €600 million. There is a massive hole in Sinn Féin's proposed provision. There is a €300 million black hole in its housing plan. The figures do not add up.
The Deputy mentioned students, for example. Students will have €1,000 knocked off their fees in this academic year. Those who qualify for Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants will have a double payment before the end of the year. There has been very strong support for students to address costs that they would otherwise incur which the Deputy has completely ignored.
For many renters, the income tax reductions will be a very significant additional support. The Deputy cannot just take one item out of the budget and ignore the impact of all the rest on individuals, be they renters, homeowners, those on social welfare or pensioners. We have expanded the supports for pensioners and so forth using a range of measures. Pensioners were completely ignored in Sinn Féin's alternative budget. It favours giving pensioners less for some reason. In all its budget proposals, it favours giving pensioners less than others.
The other key point on rent is that Sinn Féin's proposals would reduce the number of units available for let and the number of houses that would be available to rent every month.
The Government's record in office is that a housing crisis has morphed into a housing disaster.
As a matter of fact, and for the record, since the Government took office, annual rents have increased by €3,600 in Dublin and €2,800 across the State. That is the Government's record. The facts speak for themselves.
I am raising the issue of renters, specifically those who rent, those who are under pressure and those who were looking for the relief that we have been seeking for years, with the Taoiseach as he spreads the largesse. I have put this case to the Taoiseach for years. The Government showed up yesterday with something that is inadequate and flawed, and I want the Taoiseach to correct it. There are three design errors. First, €500 is not enough - not when people are facing the type of rents they are paying. Second, the tax credit is not refundable. This means that means students and low-income workers are excluded. They do not get even the €500. Third, and crucially-----
Sinn Féin ignores the fact that every year fewer people are renting out houses. A ban would have a detrimental effect, in particular over three years. Sinn Féin needs to get real in terms of people leaving the market.
I will suspend the House if this continues. Deputy Ó Broin persistently interrupted the Minister for Housing, Heritage and Local Government earlier when he was speaking. The Deputy should please desist.
There is a 2% limit on rents in rent pressure zones. That is the reality. We have brought in a rent credit. We have allocated €400 million. Sinn Féin would allocate €300 million in respect of a credit of €1,500. The figures do not add up. We have provided €400 million for credits amounting to €1,000 - €500 this year and €500 next year. Sinn Féin only allocated €300 million.
Yesterday, budget 2023 was published after what seemed like the longest lead-in ever. With so many leaks, over so many weeks, we were led to believe that this would be a substantial package of measures designed to get struggling communities through this bleak winter and beyond. Unfortunately, that was not what we saw yesterday. What we saw was money spread so thinly that it will go unnoticed by many, and many of those who will benefit will be struggling already by the time the winter is out. There is little there to address the structural problems that make people so vulnerable to market failure and a real and biting cost-of-living crisis. We should have seen a very substantial budget. Instead, what we got was a treadmill budget, with the Government spending money in order to stand still. The Government has not provided people with any real pathway forward to get us through the bleak winter ahead and beyond.
When we strip away the €4.1 billion worth in short-term measures between now and New Year's Eve, the budget package for next year will, in truth, do little or nothing to transform this country or the lives of those who are struggling. I refer, for example, to the young people trapped in spiralling rent prices who feel forced to emigrate because they see no future here because they cannot aspire to ever owning their own homes. Once January arrives, it now looks like a mini-budget may well be necessary to address the real supports that are necessary for households through this winter and beyond.
Yesterday, the Minister for Finance revealed that his Department has revised its inflation forecast to 8.5% for 2022 and more than 7% for next year. With that in mind, and bearing in mind what I have said, does the Taoiseach agree with my colleague, Deputy Nash, who said yesterday that it looks like we will need a mini-budget in January? Does he agree that such a drastic measure may well be necessary to address the real inequalities that were entrenched in some of the measures in yesterday's budget. I refer, for example, to the tax measures. The reality is that next year, somebody earning €100,000 will be €831 better off. By contrast, somebody who earns between €25,000 and €35,000 will only take home an extra €191. The renter's tax credit will at best pay for just one week's rent for an average person renting in my constituency in Dublin. The €600 energy will not even cover one third of the increasing bills people are going to face this winter. What we saw were thinly spread, short-term payouts yesterday. What we need are structural changes in housing, care, climate, and in work. We saw no ambition or vision from the Government in yesterday's budget. It is not a budget that works for all. It is time for the Government to get off the treadmill and to move us forward with proper, substantial targeted measures that will chart a pathway forward towards an Ireland that works for all of us. Does the Taoiseach agree that the budget has patently failed to do that?
I do not agree. I take the opposite view. I have already articulated to the House what the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council stated about the budget. If we apply the ESRI's simulating welfare, income tax, childcare and health, SWITCH, model, the budget gives most to those who need it most. Those in the lowest income cohort are getting the most from the cost-of-living package and the core budget measures for 2023. That is in net disposable income. The lowest income groups will get the most from this budget.
In terms of the structural issues, Deputy Bacik is aware that this is a package of €11 billion. It is not spread thinly. There are some fundamental changes happening in education, and not just in terms of school transport, which is free from this September, albeit there were issues with the greater numbers that applied - up to 21,000 extra. That is €650 saved for many families. We can now add the fact that from September 2023 we are looking at free primary schoolbooks for all children. That is a structural watershed change in terms of how we provide books and education materials to primary schoolchildren.
The primary school pupil-teacher ratio has now been reduced to an historic level of 23:1. This is the third year in a row that the Government has reduced the pupil-teacher ratio, which is a very positive structural change in terms of equality and fairness. The school meals programme is being extended. Close to €100 million is being allocated to schools before the end of this year to deal with the energy costs that they have undoubtedly incurred because of the current crisis.
At third level, students will see a once-off reduction of €1,000 in their college fees this year and €500 next year. All SUSI maintenance grants have been increased by 10% and 14%, with a once-off double monthly payment before Christmas.
The reason for those cost-of-living measures before Christmas, many of which are once-off payments, is to deal with the crisis that has been brought about by the war in Ukraine. The latter is a very serious issue internationally, and we have got to reduce the pressure on people that it has brought about. Those measures will be impactful. We cannot take them all in isolation. One has to combine a lot of the social protection measures. I refer, for example, to the very significant lump-sum payments that will be paid to a whole variety of social welfare recipients and low-paid workers as well. As the programme for Government states, we need to do something in terms of middle-income earners and those on more than the €40,000 threshold because people were going onto the higher rate too early. If one looks at the energy credit, one can combine all of that-----
We in the Labour Party welcome any measures that will alleviate hardship for families and households over this winter. We agree that a combination of measures is necessary, but we have proposed three immediate actions the Government could have taken in this budget to alleviate hardship. I refer to a €9 per month public transport ticket to heavily subsidise public transport for all, a €200 per month cap on childcare fees and access to free GP care for all children under 18. Those are the sort of measures that could have been adopted by the Government in the budget, but that were not. We believe they are the kind of measures that are necessary. In a rich country, no one should be left hungry, cold or homeless facing into winter. This Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael budget has failed that test. We need an Ireland that works for all. We in the Labour Party have put forward serious, substantial and radical proposals that would have achieved that. It is an unfortunate missed opportunity that the Government did not take up that challenge and introduce a combination of measures needed to address the hardships and fear so many people are facing this winter.
To be fair, one would have to acknowledge the very significant moves in childcare, with a reduction of 25% in costs, on top of significant measures last year that culminated in the employment regulation order agreed between the unions and employers in the childcare sector. That was a substantial breakthrough that has been acknowledged by the social partners in respect of improving working conditions within the childcare sector. In addition, in this budget, we are taking meaningful steps to improve affordability for childcare in the context of a reduction in costs of the order of 25%.
In health, all inpatient hospital charges will be abolished and free GP care will be considerably expanded as a result of yesterday's measures. That will include, as was agreed last year although it has taken a long time to negotiate, with the Irish Medical Organisation and others, the provision of GP visit cards to children aged six and seven. Moreover, we have extended even further, on foot of what we did last year, free contraception to women up to 30 years of age. The women's healthcare package is a significant, progressive move that started last year and that is continuing this year.
Yesterday, the budget announcement regarding the defective concrete blocks levy smacked of an ill-timed, ill-judged decision. It is expected this levy will raise €80 million annually. It will commence on 3 April 2023. The levy will result in a 10% increase in the cost of concrete, concrete materials, sills, lintels, hollow-core floor slabs and concrete blocks. At a time when thriving inflation within the construction industry is creating havoc for young people who are trying to build their own houses and for local authorities that are trying to build social housing, this will add to the overall cost of the building of all infrastructure in this country. The levy will bring in €80 million net per annum, according to the announcement yesterday, but it will not penalise people who did wrong; rather, it will impose an additional cost on people who are trying to build or buy their own homes and trying not to be a burden on the State.
I ask the Taoiseach to think about this matter on the basis that the Government is putting additional inflation into the construction market. It is going to add further costs to all public works contracts by increasing the cost of a vital component that is used on every building site and in every civil engineering contract in this country, as well as in housing construction. It baffles me to think that this is being introduced at a time when we are trying to curb inflation. There is no doubt that every concrete supplier in this country will add the cost to their sales; they will not take it on themselves. It is wrong for young people and the taxpayer to be asked to pay for this when the cost of building a house has risen by €40,000 or €50,000 in the past 12 months. The Government is proposing to add at least another €2,000 onto that additional cost. It is a penal levy on young people and others trying to do something on their own.
Again, I do not think it is fair to look at that in isolation. I would point out the enormous supports the Government is giving to young people in respect of affordable housing. More than €1.3 billion of investment will support an overall package of measures to deliver thousands of affordable houses next year by helping people buy and rent at an affordable rate, such as the first-home affordable purchase shared equity scheme that has been introduced, with €50 million allocated to that. There will be close to 1,000 cost-rental homes, most of which will be delivered by approved housing bodies, and further funding has been given by the State to enable that to happen. There is also the Land Development Agency, LDA, investment of €600 million for 2023, which will support the targeted delivery of 1,400 cost-rental and affordable purchase homes, and the €250 million for lending under the local authority home loan scheme, under which more than €471 million has been lent out in recent years. All of that is helping and the State is getting involved, not to mention the help-to-buy scheme, which has supported 35,000 buyers to date. The State is in there, supporting people in terms of affordability.
In the context of the concrete levy, the Deputy will be aware that when the Government took a decision in November 2021 in regard to a range of actions to deal with the defective blocks issue, everybody in the House wanted the most comprehensive of packages to deal with the problems caused by mica specifically. The cost of that at the time was estimated at about €2.8 billion, which the Government agreed to take on. Similarly, the pyrite interventions have since 2013 probably cost close to €1 billion and there is another €500 million or €600 million to go on that scheme. Yesterday, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage brought forward a memorandum to Government on apartment defects that outlined the scale of the issues, with up to 100,000 apartments potentially impacted. He will bring forward proposals on a scheme before the end of the year to help people remediate these units and to help the homeowners concerned. All in all, if we take the three schemes into account, we are looking at an intervention by the State of somewhere between €4 billion and €6 billion on these issues. The view was taken at the time of the mica intervention - this was signalled at the time - that some element of sustainability would have to be built into this in the form of future revenue streams to meet this enormous cost into the future. Hence, there was the idea of a defective concrete products levy. I accept the Deputy's point that not everybody in the sector engaged in this, but in the insurance industry, levies came in for many decades to deal with rogue behaviour as well. There is a challenge there for everybody in terms of meeting the needs of the homeowners.
The Taoiseach mentioned mica, pyrite and apartment defects. The core problem here is that we do not have effective building control. Until we bring in a system of proper building control, we will continue to put billions of euro into the rectification of problems with innocent people's properties. I do not believe the cure for this problem is to put a levy on young people who are trying to build houses. Ironically, the public purse will be used to pay the additional costs on public sector contracts arising from this levy. The Government will pay out money for the additional costs on houses to local authorities to build them. I agree that help is there and I welcome the fact that the help-to-buy scheme has been extended for another year, although it should be expanded to second-hand houses. Leaving that aside, there is something fundamentally flawed with bringing in this levy at this time. It will do nothing to cure the problem we have and the rogue operations that are there. That is where the problem lies, and it is where the solution lies as well.
I agree the problem lies with the rogue behaviour. The core issue is people's bad behaviour in providing such defective materials. It fundamentally comes down to trust in people who build houses. I think everyone would have to acknowledge the scale of the intervention, which is a generous intervention by the State because we want to help people keep a roof over their head given their first investment in their house or apartment is one they made in good faith. The levy will not, in any shape or form, ever raise the kind of revenue the State will spend on dealing with the impact caused by whoever was involved in or responsible for the supply of defective materials. The revenue raised by this will go nowhere near the cost that will be incurred by the taxpayer. Equally, a clear message has to go out that such behaviour has costs.
Only three weeks ago, the Mental Health Commission report on the mental health unit at Bantry General Hospital instructed the closure of one quarter of its beds; a loss of seven beds in total. This would have been a devastating blow to mental services in west Cork that serve from Kinsale to Ardrum and parts of County Kerry.
The report by the Mental Health Commission recommended the closure of the beds following an inspection of the hospital. However, more astonishing is that the same issue of non-compliance was raised in 2019 and 2021 after an inspection and no funds were made available to carry out urgent works in this time.
The Taoiseach visited Bantry General Hospital on 29 August last. I for one will always welcome a leader of our country to such an outstanding hospital. However, senior people in the hospital asked me days before the Taoiseach came what the purpose of his visit was as the injury room he opened was nine years previous. I, like others, held out hope that on the day the Taoiseach came to unveil the plaque he would announce an exact date for work to start on the endoscopy and stroke units, two desperately needed upgraded services in Bantry. While the Taoiseach did say they will have to be built, he came and went without a date, leaving no hope to many people.
Fast-forward 15 days after his visit, when he promised extra services in Bantry General Hospital and we heard the announcement that one quarter of the mental health beds were to close in Bantry General Hospital, thus sending shock waves throughout west Cork. This decision is now being appealed by the HSE.
When the Taoiseach visited Bantry General Hospital on 29 August last, did he visit the mental health unit in the hospital grounds? I am sure he did not. Worse again, when the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Butler, visited Bantry General Hospital on 10 July with the Fianna Fáil circus, did she visit the mental health unit in Bantry General Hospital? If both the Taoiseach and Minister of State did not, all I have to say is shame on them for turning their backs on the mental health unit. Questions are being asked. Did the Taoiseach already know that the mental health unit in Bantry General Hospital was in trouble? If he did not know it, surely, the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health should have some idea of what is going and should, at the very least, have called in to speak to the incredible staff who do Trojan work in the unit. I will read a quote from the Minister of State, who said during her visit to the medical side of Bantry General Hospital that:
We often hear of the apparent downgrading of ... [Bantry] hospital and headlines about how the HSE want to close it. Judging by this visit, ... [this] could ... [not] be further from the truth.
Fast-forward eight weeks from her visit and we almost had the destruction of the mental health unit under her watch due to the incompetence of many.
The Taoiseach has been made aware of the crisis in the mental health unit at Bantry General Hospital over the past few weeks in the Dáil. He had the chance to find out what went wrong and what will now be done to deliver for the many people of west Cork who genuinely suffer mental health issues. During the formation of this Government, I, along with my Rural Independent colleagues, sat around the table with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, and Green Party leader, Deputy Ryan. I asked for two things only. I made it clear that I wanted two things for west Cork. One was a ministry for fisheries, which the Taoiseach failed to deliver, and we saw where that got us. The other was a cast-iron guarantee that Bantry General Hospital would never be downgraded under the terms of this Government. The time has come and we have now seen this has not been delivered. Will the Taoiseach give the people of west Cork a cast-iron guarantee in the Dáil today that this Government will give adequate funding to the HSE to retain all 18 beds in the mental health unit in Bantry General Hospital?
Deputy Christopher Sullivan raised the issue of the decision of the Mental Health Commission to put a restriction on the registration of the mental health care and recovery approval centre at Bantry General Hospital, reducing the centre's total number of registered beds from 18 to 11. As the Deputy knows, the HSE has appealed that now and it is in the district court. I will come back to that in a second.
People in Bantry were quite happy that morning in August when I visited. I got a good welcome there. I do not think I left with people having no hope, as the Deputy suggested. People were quite confident about the endoscopy unit and further investment, which we have allocated through the HSE.
The Deputy has a great habit of moving on the issue. It is no longer about that the investment is going to happen; I must now come down with the actual precise date on which the builders will be off the site and so on. Be that as it may, I have a good record with Bantry General Hospital. As Minister for Health, I put very far-reaching investment into that hospital, which has stood the test of time in terms of the service it provides for that wider region. We have always maintained it is a key hospital for a vast hinterland right down to the Beara Peninsula given its geographic location and acknowledged the necessity of various interventions. It works very well with Cork University Hospital, CUH, and within the south-west hospital grouping, which is important in terms of the right treatment at the right time.
In respect of the decision by the Mental Health Commission, the Deputy knows that is an independent body. From time to time in the House, we ignore the reality of decision-making by a body such as the Mental Health Commission. On other occasions, we will ask those regulators or those bodies to go in and give a very objective assessment of facilities. Sometimes, we do not like it because it leads to decisions that are awkward or challenging. It does at times drive standards and quality, however, and therein lies the tension. It does create huge issues for the HSE and the service. That is why the HSE is appealing the decision; it is not in the position. The HSE maintains that it cannot afford to reduce the number of beds and it will challenge the interpretation of the regulation of 2022. It believes it could have broader implications for other approved centres in the community healthcare organisation, CHO, areas and, indeed, nationally. That is where it lies right now. These issues must be resolved. The bodies that make decisions cannot just be ignored and the advice they give cannot be ignored either.
Investment continues in mental health, however. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, secured significant additional resources in yesterday's budget to continue to invest in mental health facilities. Deputy Collins asked if I visited the centre. It is an acute and enduring mental health centre; it would not have been appropriate for me to do so given the privacy needs of the patients.
I thank the Taoiseach very much for his reply. I have actually visited the unit and I did respect the privacy of the patients; I stayed at the door and spoke to the staff there. I have gone in to see patients because I have sometimes been asked to do so. The Taoiseach said an independent body makes that decision. That is fair enough. However, the independent body made that decision in 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. It continued to make that decision and no funding was given. The Minister, Deputy Butler, received an extra pittance. I am not inspired the Taoiseach's answer. He is giving me further doubts that the full 18-bed mental health unit will be up and running in Bantry General Hospital as it should be. It is now 25 years since the mental health unit was opened in Bantry. The unit in Bantry had shared bedroom facilities in line with the standards 25 years ago, but the standards have changed and the unit in Bantry has not received the funding from the HSE or the Government to make the necessary changes. The Taoiseach during his term in office has failed to give a start date for the endoscopy and stroke units in the hospital. If what I heard were true every time it was mentioned that a block was put down for that endoscopy unit, by God there would be ten of them in west Cork already.
The Taoiseach has a chance to redeem himself here. I will ask him once again. Will he give me a cast-iron guarantee for the people of west Cork that funding will be provided for urgent work for the mental health unit in Bantry General Hospital to keep the 18-beds that are there at present? The Taoiseach is right about Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan, whom he said raised the issue in this Chamber. He was with the Taoiseach that day in Bantry General Hospital, however. They both walked beyond the Bantry mental health unit and shamefully turned their backs on it. It is time to deliver.
I do not think the Deputy should call into question the integrity or honourable motivation that Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan applies to this work. He has been a very strong advocate for Bantry General Hospital and continues to be.
It does mean something to the people who work in a hospital and so on that Government Members visit and listen.
Deputy Collins knows the endoscopy and stroke units are happening. Much design work has to go into all these projects. They will happen, just as other investments happened in Bantry General Hospital. The stroke units have been very effective across the country and they will make a big difference. The endoscopy suite will also make a big difference. They are welcome developments in themselves.
As regards mental health, it is very important that investment would go into the acute facility. Equally, however, investment must go into community mental health. A strong primary mental health capacity and community mental health capacity is very often far more effective because it prevents the need for people to be taken into acute units. I met many mental health experts who argued that if we rely more on acute services it reflects a failure prior to that at primary and community level. Therefore, as we build up and modernise the acute service-----