Thursday, 29 September 2022
Ceisteanna ar Pholasaí nó ar Reachtaíocht - Questions on Policy or Legislation
Bank of Ireland has been fined over €100 million for overcharging more than 15,000 customers and 81 breaches of regulations. To date, it has been forced to pay back €186 million it took from affected customers. Bank of Ireland inflicted serious harm on customers and ruined many of their lives. Even during the tracker mortgage examination, it continued that harm, leading to the loss of seven family homes during the period. The cruel irony is that the bank is likely to pass on the fines to its customers. The problem is that not one banker has been held to account in any of the banks for the tracker mortgage scandal, which has ruined so many lives. In January 2017, I passed a motion in this House calling for individual accountability for bankers. The Central Bank called for legislation the following year. It has taken the Government five years even to publish the legislation. Given what has transpired in Bank of Ireland, AIB and other financial institutions, and the fines that have been levied against them, will the Tánaiste agree with me that now is not the time to remove the bankers’ pay cap or allow for bankers’ bonuses? Will he rule both of them out during his time in government?
I thank the Deputy. When I think about this issue, I do not just think about the financial scandal; I also think about the human impact of it, the 16,000 families affected and particularly the 25 families who have lost their homes. What we see today is a €100 million fine, the largest ever imposed on any bank, in addition to €180 million paid in compensation by the bank. To me, that sends a clear message: rip off your customers and you will pay. It is now very clear to the banks that they will pay big fines if this kind of thing happens again.
On the legislation, the Central Bank (Individual Accountability Framework) Bill has been published. We hope to get that through the Houses as soon as possible.
The rules on bonuses and salary caps apply to the banks that were bailed out, not to the other banks. The position on that has not changed.
Tuesday's treadmill budget did not do anything like enough for those who are renting and have no security or affordability with regard to their homes. In my constituency, renters pay an average of €2,000 per month, which amounts to €24,000 per year. For them, the €500 tax credit proposed by the Government, while welcome, is merely a drop in the ocean. Will the Tánaiste agree to bring forward more meaningful and effective measures to help renters, such as a ban on evictions just for this winter alone and a three-year rent freeze? Will he agree to expedite the Labour Party’s renters’ rights Bill, which would give real and meaningful protection to renters currently facing such insecurity and unaffordability?
On the concrete blocks levy, I am aware that the Tánaiste said he wants to recoup costs from the construction sector. We agree with that. However, let us not do it in such a way that it will pass on costs to those seeking to buy homes.
The figures the Deputy gave relate to new tenancies. We will know from the census figures in the next few weeks or months the real average rent paid in all of our constituencies. I look forward to seeing those figures.
The rent credit the Government has agreed in the budget might be misunderstood. It is €500 per renter, not per tenancy. That means €1,000 per couple. If three people are renting an apartment or house in the Deputy’s constituency, it will amount to €1,500. The credit is not just for this year; it can be claimed retrospectively for last year also. Therefore, it is €1,000 for a single renter, €2,000 for a renting couple and maybe €3,000 or €4,000 if several people are renting a property. I do believe that will make a meaningful difference. It is not just a week’s rent; in many cases, it will be a lot more than that.
Poverty is corrosive to the human condition. At its very essence, it is about the basic provisions a person is asked to go without. Some 62,000 children in this country are living in consistent poverty. They go to bed hungry and there is no capacity to buy extra clothes, such as a warm coat for the winter, and there is absolutely no opportunity for them and their families to have a day out, go to the zoo or go to the cinema. I was struck by that fact today when the members of the National One Parent Family Alliance highlighted that for one-parent families the budget was the most regressive since 2012. It states nothing in it is targeted at one-parent families. It called it a short-sighted budget that will leave the poorest children in the State even poorer. That is a sad indictment. The €12 increase in core social welfare payments and a payment of an additional €2 for children will do nothing to mitigate poverty. I have a simple question: why was there nothing targeted at one-parent families in the budget? Other vulnerable groups were targeted. Why not one-parent families?
I thank the Deputy. This was a progressive budget. That is not just my opinion; the independent analysis by the Department of Finance shows that.
The kinds of measures in the budget that I think will be beneficial for one-parent families are the double payment of social welfare, the increase in the working-family payment, the double payment of child benefit, the increase in the dependant child allowance, the free schoolbooks and the reduction in the cost of childcare. All of these will benefit a lot of one-parent families.
The following groups will get no Christmas bonus, no fuel allowance, no €400 payment and no double payment to help them through the cost-of-living crisis and energy price hikes that people are facing this winter: people on jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit, enhanced illness benefit, occupational injuries benefit, maternity benefit and disablement benefit. How is it fair or just that people on those social welfare payments, who are on reduced incomes, will not get the double payment, fuel allowance or the Christmas bonus? Do they not need help in the face of the winter ahead that is going to crucify them?
The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will be able to give precise information on this today if she has not released it already. The rules for the Christmas bonus are very clear. A person must be on a long-term social welfare payment for a period of time before qualifying for the Christmas bonus. That is not going to be the case for the one-off double-payment that people will receive in October. The rules for that will be similar to those that applied to the pandemic unemployment payment. Very many people, and I do not have exact details, including some of those mentioned by Deputy Boyd Barrett who have only been on a payment for a shorter period-----
Ireland is the only country in the EU without a national security strategy. Development of such a strategy was commenced a number of years ago but there has been radio silence ever since. In light of events in Ukraine and in certain embassies in Dublin and in particular over the past 72 hours in the Baltic Sea will the Tánaiste update the House as to where we are on the development on this strategy? Is it completed? When will it be published?
I thank Deputy Berry for raising this issue and security issues in general. He has been a very strong advocate for funding for security and the Defence Forces in particular. I recognise the contribution he makes in that regard and the fact that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has secured an additional €100 million for the Defence Forces next year. That includes pay, as it should, but it is the biggest increase in defence spending in any budget. I hope it will be seen as a positive. In regard to our national security, the national security analysis centre in the Department of the Taoiseach is drawing up a national security strategy. Work on that is ongoing. It was delayed as the people involved in it had to be diverted to work related to the pandemic. However, planning, consultation and analysis on a draft strategy has continued. I do not have a date for publication but it has been reprioritised in recent weeks given that those staff have been able to spend more time on that than while diverted due to the pandemic, which was the case for some time.
There is absolutely near chaos in the education system due to the situation regarding school buses and tickets. What the Government thought was a great idea has really messed up the whole situation for many people including those with special needs. It is so frustrating that people who have tickets are not using them. The bus companies do not know how many passengers they will have. The Government promised this last November but has not done anything. Early in summer the Government promised to raise the age limit so that people over 70 could continue to drive provided they had the medical certificate. Bus companies are scrambling to get drivers. Some of the drivers are coming up to 70 and the situation is going to get worse. This has to be sorted out. The issue of drivers over 70 needs to be resolved as well as the ticket situation. Bus Éireann had no warning. The situation is bad every year but this year it is a complete mess and is causing trauma for families and most of all children and students and indeed the bus companies and drivers. It is not fair to anyone. It is not being resolved.
I thank Deputy McGrath for raising an important question. The Minister, Deputy Foley, is working extremely hard on this issue. The Deputy mentioned children with additional needs. They are being prioritised in terms of ensuring they have places on school buses. People who have applied in regard to concessionary tickets and also first applications are being looked at as a priority. The Department is working closely with Bus Éireann on this matter.
In regard to the electricity credit scheme which will be a big help to many families, we have a situation in Sligo and I expect elsewhere in that a significant number of Traveller families will not receive the full amount payable of €200 per household, if they happen to share their MPRN connection with other families, as many of them do. If they share with three other families each household only gets €50. Sligo County Council responded to say it is not providing funding for families living in halting sites where there is only one MPRN. It simply does not have the money, that is what it said clearly. I am sure the Tánaiste does not want to see a situation where any family, Travellers or otherwise, do not access this money. I ask him to speak to the relevant Minister, whoever it is, to sort this out because it is discriminatory.
I thank Deputy Harkin. I am not aware of the details around that issue but I appreciate her raising it in the Chamber. I will figure out who the right Minister is and have him or her come back to the Deputy directly.
Government has acted decisively by announcing a package of measures worth €4.4 billion from which people will benefit in the coming weeks, if not immediately. Budget 2023 helps hard-pressed individuals and families at a time when they are feeling the strain of rising costs. The introduction of the temporary business energy support scheme, TBESS, a €1.25 billion programme of financial aid for businesses hit with soaring energy costs is without doubt a hugely significant intervention. How quickly will we get the first payment issued to businesses currently struggling? Speed is of the essence for this programme. Will the Department conduct a national communication plan for all businesses impacted? Will the Tánaiste confirm the eligibility criteria for entry into the scheme?
We have to legislate for it first and get State aid approval. It will be back-dated to September. We anticipate we can legislate, get State aid approval and have the scheme up and running by the end of the November. That is when people will get the payments and we will back-date them to September. It is open to any business that has seen an increase of 50% or more in the unit cost of energy or gas. It is not the total bill, it is the unit cost of energy or gas comparing the billing period this year with that of last year. Almost all businesses will qualify. A very small number are on a very low long-term tariff but that is not the norm. Almost all businesses will qualify and will be able to claim up to 40% of the increase up to a maximum of €10,000 per month per business.
The family of an eight-year-old girl, Brianna, was left devastated when her surgery for scoliosis was cancelled for the second time. This transcends politics. We need to fix this problem. This is about decency and right and wrong. That young girl left the hospital not with her surgery completed but in a wheelchair. She was in tears. We were left with images of young girl crying her eyes out because this Government has not provided the capacity. This goes back to when Deputy Harris was Minister for Health, and indeed previous Ministers for Health made commitments. We do not have the protective capacity. She left because there was no hospital bed. That is a capacity issue. It is a disgrace and a stain on all of us that this happened. We really need to sort it out.
I appreciate the sincerity of Deputy Cullinane in raising an individual case here but without having any of the information it is not possible for me to comment on it directly. I can guarantee that the Minister and the HSE are doing all they can to improve services when it comes to scoliosis and paediatric spinal surgery in general. There have been real improvements in waiting times. There are also setbacks from time to time but it is a very high priority for Government and for the Minister, I can guarantee that.
It was great to have the budget on Tuesday. Many people contacted me to say it was very good and they were happy with much of it. One of the areas I welcome was the €110 million promised to a range of health funded bodies including nursing homes, hospices and section 39 organisations. My understanding is that it is a once-off payment. How much would be ring-fenced for section 39 organisations that deliver great services across the disability services, older person services and mental health services? When I meet with the team in Holy Angels Carlow or BEAM Services in Bagenalstown, Delta in Carlow and the Cairdeas Centre in Tullow the main issue that comes up is the building and funding for staff.
What also comes up are the terms and conditions affecting section 39 agencies which are quite different from HSE section 38 agencies. What is the update on that? I am aware the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is committed to working on this.
I thank the Deputy for raising the question. The first part of the Deputy’s question was on the winter fund and the Deputy quite rightly said there is €110 million within that. Of that, the disability sector is receiving the lion’s share of €65 million, which is a once-off payment which will be dispensed before the end of the year. Nursing homes will be receiving €35 million and hospices will also be receiving funding. The Department of Health is working out the arrangements as we speak.
Page 51 of the programme for Government acknowledges that the impact of Covid-19 has been particularly difficult for older people. When will the Government commence a full public inquiry into the deaths of residents and the quality of care in nursing homes during the pandemic and the systemic failures in the sector?
I thank the Deputy. I am afraid I do not have detailed information on that issue. I know this is an issue that has been raised several times in the House and my colleague, Deputy O’Dowd, is very vocal on it. I might come back to the Deputy with more information when I have it, because I am not sure what the status of those inquiries are at the moment.
I raise with the Tánaiste the issue of the format of letters currently going out to people on rates valuation. First, the format is very misleading. The multiplier is not included on the front page and the valuation is. For example, a man contacted me this morning who thought initially that he had a €1,200 rate to pay. When the 0.227 multiplier for Kerry is applied, however, it was down to approximately €272.
Similarly, yesterday, a very hard-working woman contacted me and thought that she would have to pay up to €30,000. It was, in fact, a figure of approximately €6,500.
Two thirds of people in Kerry are seeing a reduction in their rates, which I welcome. That means, however, that one third are seeing an increase. First, I ask that the format of the letters is changed and, second, that for anyone whose rates are being increased that increase would be deferred, at least, until we are out of the current crisis.
I thank the Deputy. I know revaluation causes a great deal of stress for business people. I have been through it in my constituency, as others have. It works out cost-neutral in the round. Some businesses see increased rates and others see decreases in them but it works out even in the round. I believe if we were to defer the increases for those whose rates are being increased, we would then see a loss of income for the local authorities and that would have consequences and that would be the difficulty there.
The point the Deputy makes on the format of the letters is very valid. If he passes on a few examples, I will ensure the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, sees them and perhaps he can make some changes there.
I ask the Tánaiste to condemn the blatantly racist anti-Traveller comments by Fianna Fáil Councillor Michael Crowe. The Galway councillor was on Galway Bay FM on Monday where he was opposing a house in Renmore being allocated to a Traveller family because of what he described as their vastly different cultures. He even went on to effectively justify the burning down of a different council house because it was going to be allocated to a Traveller family. It was absolutely blatant and disgusting anti-Traveller racism and it should be condemned by the Tánaiste, and also by the Taoiseach, given that Councillor Crowe is a Fianna Fáil councillor.
I also ask the Tánaiste if he recognises that this is just a very ugly side of an anti-Traveller racism which appears to be quite prevalent across the establishment parties at local authority level where, for example, every single year the one type of funding that is not drawn down by many councils is funding for Traveller accommodation.
I can absolutely assure the Deputy that this Government and I personally oppose racism in all its forms. I say that not just as somebody who is biracial but also as somebody who served on a local authority and never once voted against Traveller accommodation or social housing. I dislike the Deputy’s attempt to try to tar us all with the one brush there, which is unfair.
On those particular comments, I have not heard them and it would not be right for me to comment on comments I have not heard. I will listen to them and will, perhaps, come back to the Deputy at a later date.
Over the past number of months, like many other Deputies in the Chamber, we have met different sectors in respect of the budget. One of these which stood out clearly to me to be struggling was the hotel sector. In west Cork, I met the owners of the Emmet Hotel, the Fernhill House and Gardens Hotel in Clonakilty, and the Celtic Ross Hotel in Rosscarbery. These are brilliant, grand, family hotels in west Cork, which all represent tourism in the hotel sector there.
One part of the discussions we had was on the great struggle for them to keep their doors open due to added costs, energy, staff, wages, etc. These hotels did no business during the Covid-19 epidemic. They are not like the few rogue-trading hotels in our capital which have bled people dry in recent times. The hotel owners in west Cork are telling me that family members will have to work in these hotels for free if they are to keep their doors open. The Minister for Finance in this week’s budget said that the 9% VAT rate will end in February, when it will increase then to 13.5%. This will have a very severe negative effect on tourism in west Cork and throughout the country, an industry, I may add, which creates thousands of jobs.
In the interests of protecting much-needed tourism jobs, will the Tánaiste fight to keep the VAT rate at 9% for the next 12 months at least?
I thank the Deputy for his question. When I meet with hoteliers, and I do very regularly, the two issues they raise with me most are, first, the struggle they have to recruit and retain staff. We are helping that through the work permit system, providing training and other options, and by making work pay better. Some of the things the Deputy will have seen in the budget will help in that regard.
The second issue raised is energy bills. The Deputy will know how we are going to help with that through the temporary business energy support scheme, TBESS.
On VAT, the decision in the budget is that we are extending that concessionary 9% rate until the end of February.
I raise a concern around the Health (Assisted Human Reproduction) Bill. This concern has been escalated to me by medics who have studied the draft Bill.
First, I take the opportunity to say that I am so pleased with this week’s announcement that we will be providing public funding for publicly available IVF for the first time ever.
As I said, it has come to my attention that the Health (Assisted Human Reproduction) Bill may be medically and scientifically out of date and could have unintended consequences. The reason is that provides for treatment for those with a specific need. Today, people without specific needs can and indeed do avail of fertility treatments. Who do I mean by that? I mean same-sex couples, who avail of surrogacy, and women, particularly single women, who choose to preserve their fertility by freezing their eggs. It is essential that all fertility treatments currently available remain legally permissible, and both publicly and privately accessible, once the Health (Assisted Human Reproduction) Bill becomes law. Can the Tánaiste provide that reassurance today?
I thank the Deputy. First, I understand a sum of €10 million has been allocated in the budget to provide IVF services. The provision of State funding for IVF services is long overdue in my view. There is some help already through the tax system but it is not enough. I am glad that money has been provided. A big job of work is to be done in establishing the criteria as to who qualifies, how many cycles, and so on. That is a big body of work and I hope the Department of Health does not waste any time in getting that done.
The legislation is still going through the Houses at the moment. I saw some press reports about the issue of women who freeze their eggs for many good reasons. We will have to examine the legislation to ensure we do not inadvertently cause something to be unlawful when it is not the intention that it would be made unlawful.
Thurles is one of the towns that has been chosen for the settlement of Ukrainians in modular units. I raise the issue of the services needed in the town so that we can properly accommodate our new occupants. GP services in the town at the moment are under extreme pressure. We have no primary school in the town with DEIS status and only one such post-primary school. I have raised these issues with the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, and he said it is the responsibility of other Departments to provide these services.
When the Ukrainians come to the town, and they will be most welcome in Thurles, we need the proper back-up services in place before they arrive, so the GP services are able to cater for them and our education system is able to provide the proper education for them, without putting anyone else at a disadvantage. It is essential that those resources are put in place for education and GP services to cater for the extra inhabitants.
I thank the Deputy. I appreciate the Deputy's sincerity in this matter. We should not forget that we are experiencing war in Europe. For the first time in nearly a century, we see the horrors of a war of this scale on our Continent. Some 5 million people have had to leave Ukraine, and roughly 1% of those have had to come to Ireland.
That is 50,000 people, however, which is a lot of people. Our response is never going to be perfect. We can just do our best, provide the best accommodation we can and provide the best public services we can, and, crucially, provide access to education and to the labour market so Ukrainians who come here are able to work, as I know a lot have already. I know a lot of communities, particularly in the north inner-city of Dublin and also in some rural parts of Ireland, have accepted a lot of Ukrainians and have welcomed them. It is important that those communities who have welcomed people from Ukraine should be assisted and rewarded for doing so, and that is certainly the intention of Government. The response is going to be imperfect. This is the first time we have seen a refugee crisis like this affect Ireland and it is never going to be perfect, unfortunately.
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage published a review of income eligibility for social housing support this week, which is a choice time, given that the budget would of course dominate the news cycle. The result of this report is that thresholds for social housing will rise in only five of the 31 local authority areas. This should be extended to all local authorities. I know of many constituents in County Wexford who work full-time but are sleeping on couches, going to work from bed and breakfasts or living with their elderly parents, and I even know of one person who is sleeping in a shed, all because they are barely over the income threshold for support for their housing need. When is the Government going to realise the scale of this awful social problem and act to raise the income thresholds in County Wexford and in other local authority areas? People who are barely over the threshold are trapped in a financial twilight zone and need help now.
I think the Deputy is referring to a decision to reband some local authorities and to move some council areas into a different band, but there is a wider piece of work being done by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, at the moment and he hopes to have that work concluded by the end of the year. That relates to increasing the housing limits and income thresholds across the board. We, as a Government, agree that they need to be increased because incomes have risen and because house prices have risen. The Deputy will see in the budget that, for example, we increased the income limits for the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant so more people can qualify. The same principle applies in housing in that, because incomes have risen and because house prices have risen, we need to adjust upwards those income limits. However, I cannot tell the Deputy exactly by how much because I do not know. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will be in a position to make a recommendation on that, ideally by the end of the year.
It was quoted in today's Irish Independent that at his parliamentary party meeting last night, the Tánaiste said that legislation would be required for the new 10% levy on building blocks and concrete and that further consideration would be afforded to this proposal at a later stage. Unlike some, I believe some type of levy may be required to address mica redress and apartment defects, but I believe now is not the time. Will the Tánaiste clarify what is meant by a further consideration and if this may include a temporary deferral?
To be clear, there are no plans for a deferral. It is the intention of the Government that this levy will apply from April of next year. It does require legislation and it will be in the Finance Bill. The legislative process is the opportunity for us in the House to properly debate it and make sure we get it right, which is very important. The devil is often in the detail when it comes to a new tax. Certainly, if people have realistic alternatives that they want to put forward, we will listen to what they have to say. I think it is right that the construction industry bears the cost, not the general taxpayer, but any levy that we impose on the construction industry will in some way be passed on, and we need to be realistic about that. I heard Deputy Doherty say earlier that the fines the banks are going to pay might in some way be passed on to customers. If we put a levy on construction industry profits, which is a potential alternative, does the same thing not apply? No matter what we do, there is going to be some element of it being passed on to customers. We just need to be honest with ourselves about that.
Last week, a revolutionary report commissioned by the Clare Public Participation Network towards an anti-poverty strategy for Clare was commended by this House and by the Minister, standing where the Tánaiste is now. Among many other findings was one that as of July 2022, there were 52 GPs in Clare who were part of the General Medical Services scheme. As this works out at roughly four GPs per 10,000 of population, Clare is 25 GPs below the national average. The programme for Government committed to strengthening general practice and emphasised sustaining rural practice. In this respect, why did the Government not increase the allowance and modify the allowance of the rural practice support framework in its budget? What will it do instead to encourage rural general practice? While I welcome the strides made this week on GP visit cards, they are meaningless if they cannot be used in many parts of rural Ireland.
There is a disparity and an inequality when it comes to where GPs are concentrated. More of them are in urban areas than in rural areas and more of them are in better-off areas than in less well-off areas. That has been the case, unfortunately, for a very long time.
We have increased the rural practice grant and we have also provided dedicated funding for GPs who operate in disadvantaged urban communities, and that was only done in the last couple of years under the previous Government. I agree that we need to see what we can do to encourage more GPs to operate in rural areas. In the modern world, many do not want to operate single-handedly, and I understand that. GPs now want to work in teams and groups; that is the way the world has moved and we need to acknowledge that. We also need to make sure that out-of-hours services are adequately resourced in order that people are not on call too frequently, which inevitably wears them out over the years.
Given the Government's announcement in regard to a further extension of GP care without fees, there is an opportunity now to have an engagement with the Irish Medical Organisation and to look at some of these things in the round as to how we can make general practice more economically viable and more sustainable, and provide better services to people. I would point out that the number of GPs being trained has increased dramatically over the years. It was 120 not that long ago and under the Minister, Deputy Harris, it increased to maybe 250. The plans are now to go up to 350, which is the level we need to be at.