Dáil debates

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy McDonald. Tá fáilte romhat ar ais.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Go raibh míle maith agat. Happy new year to one and all.

Today, the Taoiseach takes his first Leaders’ Questions and his Cabinet is mired in scandal. The two Deputies at the centre of these scandals - the former Minister of State, Deputy English, and the current Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe - reportedly received a round of applause for their efforts at last night’s meeting of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party. Last week, Deputy English was forced to resign as Minister of State because he lied on a housing planning application. Tens of thousands of people were not able to build a one-off home because, unlike Deputy English, they were honest in filling out their forms. However, he believed those rules did not apply to him.

The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is embroiled in controversy for flouting election donation rules. There has been a concerted attempt by the Minister to trivialise the matter as an administrative error but you and I know it is far more serious than that. The truth is that in the 2016 general election, the Minister received a political donation from a businessman which he failed to declare, and which was above the amount allowable by law. The businessman who provided the donation of a postering service, Michael Stone, at that time headed the Construction Industry Federation, the organisation that represents developers. Mr. Stone was subsequently appointed by Fine Gael to the Land Development Agency outside of the normal process. This demonstrates again how politics work in Ireland. There is a cosy club culture that sees Fine Gael Ministers slip seamlessly out of government and into roles as financial lobbyists, allows vulture funds to run amok, and sees housing policy written for big developers and corporate landlords. Despite his best efforts, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, cannot escape the fact that he broke the rules by receiving this donation. That is why he failed to correct his election return when the matter was brought to his attention as long ago as 2017. It is why he tried to convince members of the media that there was nothing to see here when he was questioned in November. It is why it took the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, writing to the Minister last Friday for him to respond.

Since then, the Minister has concocted a story that has changed so many times that its credibility lies in tatters. The Minister first claimed that the posters were erected at night but images published by the Irish Independentshow workers - I can only assume employees of Mr. Stone’s - in their hard hats, using the company van to put up the Minister's posters in broad daylight, in the middle of their working day. Yet, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, wants everyone to believe that this was not an unlawful political donation to him from a construction company. Nobody believes that story because it is not true.

Bhris an tAire, an Teachta Donohoe, na rialacha nuair a fuair sé an síntiús seo. Tá a scéal dochreidte. Caithfidh sé an fhírinne a insint. This smacks of cronyism and of favours for insiders. It is time for the Minister to come clean.

My questions are straightforward. What involvement has Mr. Stone had in any other Fine Gael election campaigns or in any other campaigns for the Minister, Deputy Donohoe? Can the Taoiseach explain why Mr. Stone was appointed by Fine Gael to the Land Development Agency outside of the normal processes? When did the Taoiseach first learn of this donation? Was it brought to his attention in November when the media first started asking questions? Does the Taoiseach accept that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, broke the rules when he received this donation?

12:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call the Taoiseach. Fáilte ar ais.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Fáilte ar ais, Teachtaí, and a happy new year to everyone.

Deputy McDonald, I believe Paschal Donohoe. I believe he is a man of integrity and a man of the highest standards. He is somebody I have known for a very long time and I believe he is somebody we can trust, and somebody who I believe. I think, deep down, everyone in this House knows that Paschal is a man of integrity and somebody who tells the truth.

What happened here is that six years ago, a businessman who is a supporter of his paid six people less than €200 each to put up and take down posters. There was also the issue of a loan of a company van, and the amount, the value of that, was below the limit above which you must declare it as a donation. He did not know the full facts. He only knew the full facts himself recently. When he did know the full facts, he amended his return, as he explained on Sunday. He accepts that he should have done this much sooner. He does concede a mistake in that regard and has apologised for it.

We have a system of accountability when it comes to the Electoral Act and the ethics Act here in Ireland and it is now up to the standards commission to examine this complaint. It is not for us to make definitive judgments. We have the standards commission to do that and it will look at it impartially and make a decision. Ultimately, this is a political chamber, a political place, and we all know how votes will fall if there is a vote. That is why we have an independent commission, a standards commission, to take it out of the political cut and thrust. That body will look at the information independently and it will decide whether to carry out a preliminary inquiry. It has not even decided that yet. If it decides to carry out a preliminary inquiry, that will happen; and only at that point will it decide whether it is appropriate to have a full investigation at all. I think it is important that we respect the ethics legislation we voted through in this House and that we allow the standards commission to do its work free from political interference, whether it is from Government or from Opposition.

I think it is wrong to cast aspersions on Michael Stone. I do not know Michael Stone. I have met him. He is the chairman of the north-east inner city task force. Deputy McDonald knows the work that he has done in her constituency to help to improve the lives of people in the north-east inner city. She knows he does that without claiming any expenses or any salary or financial reward. She also knows that he served on the board of the Land Development Agency and did not take any expenses and did not claim the allowance that could have been given to him because he is genuinely somebody who wants to make the country a better place, believes in his community and wants to contribute. That, and for no other reason, is why he is a supporter of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe.

The Deputy asked a question specifically of me. I only heard about this in the last couple of days. I could not tell her for sure whether it was Friday or Saturday but it was only in the last couple of days. I had no prior knowledge of it before that point.

On the other questions she asks, I think she would have to ask them of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, later today. He is willing to answer questions.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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I am not casting aspersions on anyone. I am simply asking the logical, reasonable questions that arise from the recent turn of events.

The story as told by the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, lacks any credibility whatsoever. The facts, as they have been established so far, are that this businessman, Mr. Stone, made a donation to the election campaign of Paschal Donohoe. The fact is that this donation was not declared. It is also a fact that it was only years later, when confronted with the letter from SIPO, that the Minister moved to clarify any matter.

I have asked the Taoiseach, as Head of Government and the leader of Fine Gael, what I think are reasonable questions. Has he asked the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, whether Mr. Stone had any involvement in any of his other election campaigns, including the 2020 election campaign? Did he assist with postering services then?

12:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The time is up.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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What is the Taoiseach's view of a Minister that flouts rules and laws like these?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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My view is that we should allow the standards commission to decide whether an investigation is appropriate, and to make a determination as to whether the rules were broken. This is a political chamber. We all know how this plays out if we allow it to become a party political matter. It should not be. We have ethics legislation and standards legislation. It is set up to be independent of this place. In my view, that body should be allowed to do its work, and we should not be so quick to rush to conclusions in that regard.

I do not know all the details of Mr. Stone's support for Paschal Donohoe down the years. I think I recall him saying to me that he did not help with the postering in 2020, but I do not know that for sure. However, he is a supporter, and I am sure any donations that have been made since then were declared if they were above the limit.

There is a not dissimilar situation here in relation to a €1,000 donation that Deputy McDonald accepted from Jon Dowdall, her friend, somebody who would have been one of her cronies-----

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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Which was declared.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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On her declaration lodged in 2021, she claimed it was a personal donation to her. It has since been claimed by Deputy O'Reilly, Deputy McDonald and others that it was a donation to Sinn Féin. Does the Deputy not now need to correct that declaration? Was the donation to Deputy McDonald, which she took and spent, or was it to her party? There is a difference.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Taoiseach. His time is up.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I do not know if there is a SIPO complaint in about this, but somebody might consider doing that because she has questions to answer in that regard too.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Bacik. Fáilte romhat ar ais.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish a happy new year to all.

What has emerged in the past week about the conduct of not one, but two Fine Gael Ministers is deeply concerning. It raises fundamental questions about standards in public life, standards in public office, trust in politics, the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy. A Minister of State has already resigned without answering any questions and, further, the Minister responsible for ethics reform is now under investigation for undisclosed election donations. It is welcome that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, will make a statement this afternoon in the Dáil and take questions, but it is regrettable that it appears there will be no facility for responses to our questions.

The revelations are all the more concerning when a fringe minority is seeking to sow distrust and attack elected representatives to further a vicious far-right agenda. We all know the power of politics to transform the lives of people but, unfortunately, we know politics can have a dark side too. For many years, our political system was plagued with corruption and grubby deals. For decades, we in the Labour Party fought to stamp out corruption. We called out corruption in the planning system when it took place years ago. We sought to pass ethics laws. We ensured the passage of the right to freedom of information, protection for whistleblowers and a register for lobbyists. We ensured there would be limits on donations and on the power to purchase influence. However, on the necessary further ethics reform, unfortunately since 2016 this and the previous Government have sat on their hands. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have failed to move further with the necessary reforms.

Deputy Brendan Howlin's Public Sector Standards Bill 2015, which would overhaul SIPO and give it the necessary extra powers it has long sought, was last debated in this Chamber exactly seven years ago, on 20 January 2016. It was then stalled and shelved by the Government in July 2020.

When will the Taoiseach commit to introducing that Bill? Who will be responsible for taking it through the House? Will it be the Taoiseach? A Minister of State resigned last week when it was revealed that false information was submitted on a planning application. That cannot be the end of it. As leader of Fine Gael, can the Taoiseach say that this is behaviour his party tolerates? Does hethink it is tenable for a Deputy to remain in his party having given false information on a planning application that he benefited from?

What we know about the donation in 2016 to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is still limited. We still need to know more. It appears that a company and its owner picked up the costs of his election postering without his knowledge, which is a highly unusual arrangement to say the least. How can the Minister be clear that this was a donation to the party and not to the candidate to help his re-election? How can we trust what has been disclosed to date, in particular the commercial value Fine Gael has put on the donation? Where is the evidence the Taoiseach has to back up the revised disclosure? Can he tell us how the commercial value was determined? Is it common practice in Fine Gael for businesspeople to pick up postering costs for individual candidates?

12:25 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It is important to state, as a matter of fact, that the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, is not yet under investigation by the standards commission. A complaint has been received. That body will consider the complaint. It will then decide whether there should be a preliminary inquiry and, on foot of that, it will decide whether there should be an investigation. It is important that people do not claim that the Minister is under investigation when that is factually not the case. That may change but it is not the case today.

On the cost of renting of van, renting a van is an easy thing to do. When I first heard about this at the weekend, I looked up what it costs to rent a van. Anyone can see what it costs to rent a van for the course of a day, or a few hours, as the case may be. It is well under €200.

People run their election campaigns in different ways. I do not know how the Deputy runs hers but, at least during the past couple of general elections, I have always run mine through the Fine Gael Dublin West party account and not through a personal account. I appreciate other people do things differently, especially if there are two candidates from the same party in a constituency, where it might be done through a different mechanism. However, I have done it through a constituency account. I imagine that is what the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has done as well.

It is important to say that this donation was one that the Minister did not receive in person, nor did he give the donation in person. It was a third party that paid people to put up some posters for the Minister. It was a third party that gave a donation and gave money to a fourth, fifth and sixth party. The Minister was not aware of it. I imagine plenty of people in this House are wondering whether it is possible somebody could have done something similar in their circumstances. Maybe that is not the case but say, for example-----

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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It is not the case.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I will give a small example. During election campaigns, we have all seen taxi drivers bringing people to polling stations. As a taxi is a commercial vehicle, was that declared? There are many things that need to be figured out in this instance. That needs to be taken into regard. If somebody from another jurisdiction helped out for a day or two, and was given a few bob by a third or fourth party to help to cover his or her petrol or diesel expenses, that is something that should have been accounted for as well. We need to bear-----

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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That is not true.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Yes, it is.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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That is not true.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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We need to bear-----

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The value of this is €5,000-----

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----all of that in mind.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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-----to put up posters and take them down.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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The Taoiseach should answer the question about Deputy English.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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On the lobbying Act and the legislation that was brought in, I acknowledge the Labour Party's contribution to making reforms in this area. During all of that period, it was in government with my party. We brought in the lobbying Act, an effective ban on corporate donations, a freedom of information Act, and whistleblowers' legislation which is now being strengthened by this Government. This new Government will also strengthen the ethics Act as well.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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With respect, the Taoiseach has not answered any of my questions. Indeed, his response has shed no clarity and perhaps obscured things further. The crucial point is that we cannot see any return to the bad old days, when politics in Ireland was plagued by corruption, grubby deals and cronyism. We cannot see that. We need to be sure that will not happen again.

I repeat my question. In respect of the former Minister of State, Deputy English, is that behaviour, namely, the submission of false information on a planning application which resulted in a benefit to the individual, tolerated by the Taoiseach's party? I cannot put it any clearer than that. What action is the Taoiseach taking on that, as leader of Fine Gael?

Did the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, receive a written acknowledgement, as required by SIPO guideline 1.3.4, confirming that this was a donation to the party and not to the candidate? What evidence is there that the employees were paid personally rather than through a corporate account to put up the posters? Is it acceptable to the Taoiseach that there was such a long delay between the Minister apparently becoming aware of this inadvertence or error in disclosure and the rectification of that error, which came only as recently as the past few days? Is that delay in rectifying the disclosure acceptable to the Taoiseach?

12:35 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Of course, what the former Minister of State, Deputy English, did in respect of his planning application 14 years ago is not acceptable - not to my party, not to this Government or not to anyone. That is why he resigned.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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He did not resign from the Taoiseach's party. He is still in the parliamentary party, getting rounds of applause.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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He resigned and no longer holds office in this Government. Party matters are separate. We have a party disciplinary process. That is not a matter for this Chamber.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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It is a valid political question.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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With regard to SIPO and the Minister, Deputy Donohoe's, explanation of affairs, he has agreed to answer questions in the Dáil this afternoon. If SIPO carries out an inquiry and asks him to produce any evidence, he will have to do that. He accepts that the delay in putting his affairs in order was a mistake. He acknowledges and apologises for that. He should have made changes to his declaration when he became aware of this a few months ago. He deeply regrets that he did not because we would not be in this position today had he done so. Lots of people in this House, from all parties, have amended their declarations retrospectively when they became aware of omissions. The Minister deeply regrets that he did not do that at the time.

With regard to responsibility for policy on these matters, he is recusing himself from that until all of these matters are resolved. We intend to transfer responsibility to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael McGrath, by means of transfer order. He has been working in this area for the past two and a half years and knows it already. It makes sense for him to have those powers transferred to him.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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If the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, affair raises worrying and alarming questions about the relationship between politics and big business, the trip the Taoiseach will be taking to the World Economic Forum at Davos after Leaders' Questions, where he will spend a few days swanning around with some of the world's richest people and most profitable and wealthy corporations, also raises even bigger questions on a grander scale about the relationship between politics and the gross inequalities in wealth we see in this country and across the world.

Some very nasty, sinister and hateful forces on the far right want to blame the problems in our society on desperate and vulnerable refugees fleeing war and poverty. It may be better for them to focus on what is really the epitome of the problems we face in the world, that is, the world's billionaires and multinationals discussing the future of the world, particularly in light of the Oxfam report, which reveals the absolutely gross, grotesque and growing inequality that exists between the super rich in this country and across the world and the vast majority of people, who are crushed with the cost-of-living crisis and housing crisis and who are impacted by the crisis in our hospitals and in many of our public services. The facts revealed in the report are shocking. It states that the number of people in this country who have more than €50 million in personal wealth has doubled since 2012; the number of people worth nearly €5 million each has doubled in the same period and now comprises up to 20,000 people; the richest 1% of our population now have more than a quarter of all the wealth; and the richest 10% have more than 64% of all the wealth while the poorest 50% have just 1.1% of the wealth. These are grotesque and growing inequalities.

Will the Taoiseach now consider something we have called for a long time and that Oxfam is now calling for, which is the introduction of a wealth tax? Oxfam says that a modest tax on those who have wealth in excess of €4.7 million would raise more than €8 billion in extra revenue in one year.

Imagine what that would do to alleviate the crushing blows of the cost-of-living crisis, to address the housing crisis-----

12:40 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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-----and to resource our hospitals to deal with the dire crisis we are facing in our health services. Will the Government now introduce a wealth tax to start to redistribute some of the huge wealth that exists in this country but which is not being shared equally with the people of the country who generated this wealth?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I am sorry to disappoint the Deputy, but I will not be spending a few days in Davos. I will be there maybe for a day and a half. I have my responsibilities here and they take precedence. I will, therefore, only be there for about a day and a half. There is a busy programme of meetings and media engagements. The advantage of Davos, quite frankly, is that there are so many politicians, world leaders and business leaders in the one place for two or three days that it would be remiss not to be there. I will be able to have maybe ten or 15 meetings in the course of the next day and a half which would otherwise take weeks to organise. This is the advantage of the meeting. I know some people believe it is part of some form of world government and we are all going off there to make decisions on behalf of the elites that secretly run the world. I guarantee that if that was the case I would go for the whole thing, but I will not because I have other things to do.

Regarding the Deputy's question, we already have wealth taxes in Ireland. Our income tax system is regarded as being one of the most progressive in the world. Less than 1% of people here pay more than 20% of income tax. We have the local property tax, and the bigger and more valuable a person's property, the more property tax the person pays. Those who have modest properties pay modest amounts and those who have no property pay nothing at all. We also have a capital acquisitions tax. This is a tax on inheritance, for example, and gifts. Oxfam points out in its report that two thirds of countries have no inheritance tax at all if moneys are passed on to people's direct descendants. In Ireland, it is 33%. We also have a capital gains tax, which is a wealth tax on the share of businesses, property and shares, for example. Our tax there, again, is 33%, while the average across the world is only 18%. This gives a good example of the kind of wealth taxes that already exist in our country.

I did have a look at the report from Oxfam. It is interesting. I will look at it properly again when I have a bit more time. I do have two questions about the report, not for the Deputy but perhaps for others. One is around the methodology. Is it net wealth or gross wealth? We all know from past experience that some people who are billionaires on paper, or appear to be billionaires, are actually fur coat and no knickers. They have a lot of money and assets on paper, but they also have a lot of debts and liabilities and their actual net wealth is negative or small. It seems this report takes their gross wealth, and this would make it somewhat inaccurate to me. The second thing is that the report specifically refers to eight Irish billionaires. When we look at the names of those eight Irish billionaires, however, and most of them would be names that are familiar to me and the Deputy and most people in this House, most of them do not live here, do not have their business based here and do not keep their assets here. Why does the Deputy think this is? It is precisely because we have a tax regime that taxes wealth much more so than other countries.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Yes, the Taoiseach is right. There is no conspiracy; it is naked, brazen greed. The Taoiseach's answer does not explain how the number of people with more than €50 million or the number of people with up to €5 million in personal wealth has doubled. It does not explain how corporate profits have trebled in the last ten years while ordinary people are suffering. Let me give the Taoiseach an example, just one of dozens that I encountered over Christmas and the new year, of a woman and her husband with an income of €500 per week from invalidity pension and half carer's allowance. The husband has Alzheimer's disease. When they got a housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancy, he was working. Five years later, the rent has increased and those people now pay €275 a week of a contribution to rent from the €500 they have in total. They cannot make ends meet. Her rent was due on 13 January and she cannot pay. She has a gas bill of €700 unpaid and a new one to arrive later this month. Apparently, when she looked for an exceptional needs payment, she was told "No" because she had received two payments last year. This is the reality that ordinary people are facing. What Oxfam pointed out was that the gross and growing inequality in wealth had a lot to do with what it called "greedflation", profiteering by big corporations-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy. His time is up.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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-----taking advantage of the cost-of-living crisis to enrich themselves at the expense of families like this.

Would a wealth tax not be a way to address that gross inequality?

12:50 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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When it comes to that €50 million figure, I wonder is that a gross wealth figure or is it a net wealth figure and how did Oxfam know how much people owe, what their debts are and what their assets are.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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It is in the Central Bank report.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I would wonder about the accuracy of that and whether or not it is gross wealth or net wealth.

One thing the Deputy is right about is we have seen a major increase in corporate profits around the world and Ireland in recent years and as a consequence of that, we in Ireland have benefited from massive receipts in corporation profit tax from those companies.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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That family is not benefiting.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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On a per-head basis, we get more in in corporation profit tax than almost any other country in Europe. Only Luxembourg is maybe up there, with one or two others. Our low-tax regime on corporations means that we taken in billions of euro more than other countries do. That is money we use to help people, such as the people the Deputy mentioned, with the €600 energy credit that the person the Deputy mentioned will benefit from being taken off their bills, the increases in welfare payments of €12 a week kicking in this month-----

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Paying their gas bill.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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-----the reductions in income tax kicking in this month and the 25% reduction in childcare costs kicking in this month.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Taoiseach.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I could go on. Provided we continue to encourage enterprise and tax it, we will have the funds to do more.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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At the start of this year, 76-year-old Mary Hughes was in Roscommon hospital and was transferred to Portiuncula after suffering a seizure. Mary passed away on 4 January at Portiuncula hospital after waiting more than seven hours for a bed before finally being admitted to a ward. Mary had been forced to leave a bed in Roscommon hospital to go onto a trolley in Portiuncula hospital. Her daughter, Edel, spoke to the Roscommon Heraldand she said:

My poor mother went to Portiuncula unwell, and it is not so much a case that she died because of it, it is more her passing was not as peaceful as it could and should have been. The crisis increased her suffering and ours. The system is hurting people beyond belief.

Sadly, this is one of many personal stories emerging around this country.

If we delve down into the numbers of patients waiting on trolleys to date in 2023 and analyse this as a percentage of the number of beds in each hospital, which I believe is a far better reflection of the pressure that each hospital is under, Portiuncula hospital, with just 157 beds and an average of 22 patients on trolleys each day this year, has a 40% greater demand on its beds than the headline-grabbing university hospital in Limerick and a whopping 325% greater demand on beds than Galway university hospital. We should not be surprised because not one additional bed has been put into the hospital since the emergency department was closed at Roscommon hospital in 2011 even though Portiuncula has taken the bulk of the Roscommon referrals.

In June 2020, I wrote to the then Minister for Health, the chief executive of the HSE and the Secretary General of the Department of Health pointing out the desperate situation in Portiuncula, which at that point had lost one in ten of its beds due to the Covid reconfiguration at the hospital. At that stage, the hospital had put forward a proposal seeking two modular buildings, one of which was to provide the space needed in its emergency department to deal with the present demands that were being placed upon it. Thirty-one months later we are still awaiting a decision from HSE estates as an average of 42 patients a day lie on trolleys in that hospital. We need to see this project proceeded with - the modular emergency department - as a matter of urgency. I am asking for the Taoiseach's intervention and for his intervention in similar proposals in other hospitals that can ease the current crisis that we are facing.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. I want to say at the outset how very sorry I am to hear about Mary's experience of our health service. For most people, their experience of our health service is very good - that is what they tell us in patient experience surveys - but I know for some people it is very bad. Mary, sadly, is just one example of many others that all of us could recount to this House. It is not acceptable that she experienced that.

We know that overcrowding in emergency departments and delays in getting to a ward result in reduced patient outcomes. We know from international research from the UK, Western Australia and other parts of the world that it can result in higher mortality also. This is what makes it a very serious situation.

We are working on this as a Government. In less than three years the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, has added more than 1,000 beds to our acute hospital system, including community beds. We have 6,000 more doctors and nurses working in our health service than we did three years ago. We are doing a lot to keep people out of hospital in the first place with, for example, more funding for general practice and community intervention teams. There are also record levels of funding for home care so that people can get out of hospital when they are well. That is still a work in progress and there is much more to be done in this regard. We are catching up on period when there was very little investment because the country could not afford it.

In the coming years I will work very closely with the Minister Deputy Donnelly, and with the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and the whole Government, to see what we can do to speed up health capital projects. Too many of them are taking too long. Some happen pretty quickly, and I am impressed with what happened in Kilkenny and the Mater, but some are going on forever and it is not okay.

I accept the point the Deputy made that overcrowding in a small emergency department in a small hospital can be worse, and I have seen it. I have been to small emergency departments such as in Naas and Portiuncula where ten or 11 patients on trolleys block up the corridors and the whole space in a way that would not be the same in a large emergency department with a lot of floor space. The point the Deputy made is valid in this regard.

The budget allocation for the hospital has increased to €85.6 million from less than €70 million five years ago. The outpatient department will be relocated to a new modular build on-site. That will allow the existing outpatient area to be converted into a 12-bed ward with eight single rooms and two twin rooms en suite. This area will accommodate service users requiring isolation rooms and end-of-life care. I am told that could be ready for occupancy later this year.

The Deputy will also be aware that enabling works have started on a new 50-bed ward block. This will provide 50 en suite single rooms allowing for the relocation of two medical wards from existing buildings and general improvement in the services to patients. We believe that could be open next year. Saolta University Health Care Group has also advised us the ward block could accommodate additional development, and enabling works have been completed with that in mind.

1:00 pm

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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What will need to see is pressure taken off the emergency department and we need that modular building. I am asking the Taoiseach for his intervention on this. He is correct that the second modular building at the hospital was to facilitate the relocation of the outpatient department and provide those ten additional single beds to replace some of the beds lost to Covid reconfiguration. This project was to be completed as part of the 2020-21 winter initiative. These beds will not be available until this summer. As the Taoiseach said, a 50-bed ward block is being constructed at Portiuncula University Hospital. This is thanks to the intervention of the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, on my behalf. Sadly, these are only replacement beds. What we need to see at the hospital is more beds. Again at my instigation, provision has been made to facilitate a further 50-bed ward block at the hospital. I ask the Taoiseach that plans be expedited to proceed with this extension while the builders are on-site.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. As he knows, the Minister for Health is with us this afternoon and will certainly speak on it later. We will work together to do anything we can to speed up increasing capacity in Portiuncula University Hospital, which is all the more necessary since the reconfiguring of Roscommon University Hospital and given the fact that Galway University Hospital is so congested.

As I mentioned, the outpatient department is being relocated. This will provide a new 12-bed ward. Work is ongoing with the design team on a prefab extension to the emergency department to give it more space. We are awaiting an updated draft of the plan for the prefab so it can be expanded.

We mentioned the 50-bed block earlier. It will open next year. The development of a further 50-bed ward would involve significant reprovision and reconfiguration of the campus and, so far, no capital submission has been made on this. It is something we are open to.

The population of the region is only going to increase and get older, and it is unquestionable that we will need further capacity in addition to the 50-bed block that is being built now.

1:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That concludes the first Leaders' Questions of 2023. Before proceeding to the Order of Business, I understand the Taoiseach has an announcement to make for the information of the House on the appointment of Ministers of State.