Wednesday, 12 July 2023
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. Inné, rinne an Taoiseach tráchtanna a rinne iarracht locht na géarchéime tithíochta a aistriú ón Rialtas go dtí na hoibrithe agus na teaghlaigh atá gan tithe. Goilleann d'fhocail orthu siúd atá gafa san éigeandáil tithíochta. Is ar Fhine Gael agus ar Fhianna Fáil atá an fhreagracht as an ngéarchéim seo agus ní ar oibrithe agus ar theaghlaigh atá gan tithe. The housing crisis has dominated life in Ireland for more than a decade now and many people are struggling to put a secure and affordable roof over their heads. This social catastrophe is ruining the potential and aspirations of an entire generation. Workers, families and our young people, who could never have imagined they would end up without a home, are living this nightmare through no fault of their own. It is a deeply traumatising experience for people who find themselves in this awful situation.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach twice made remarks that would cause real hurt and anger among those caught up in the housing crisis. The first was at a Government press conference on housing and then later on the floor of the Dáil, where he stated that very many people in emergency accommodation have refused offers of permanent housing. Not only is that remark untrue, it seeks to shift the blame for the Government's failed housing policies away from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and place it onto the victims of this crisis. It creates the impression that those faced with homelessness are choosing to be in this situation. This is not true for those living in emergency accommodation or, indeed, for those thousands of others who are sofa surfing or back in the box room of their parents' homes.
We have had cases, and the Taoiseach knows about these because we have spoken about them in the Dáil, of retail staff who work every single day, every hour that God sends, and still they find themselves in emergency accommodation. What about the nurse sleeping in her car with two children while she desperately searches for a home? What about the teachers evicted from their rented accommodation with no fall back option? These are people who, for more than a decade, have struggled to buy a home, endured extortionate rents and languished on social housing waiting lists year after year with no end in sight.
Can the Taoiseach, just for a moment, imagine how they felt yesterday when he stood here and they heard his remarks not just once but twice? He should apologise for those comments and he should do it today.
Workers and families are not at fault for not being able to put a roof over their heads and the Taoiseach knows this only too well. That fault lies with his Government. On the watch of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, house prices have gone through the roof, rents are out of control and social and affordable housing targets are far too low, and the Government has even failed to meet those low targets year after year. The Government's record is that 12,700 people are homeless and 3,700 children have nowhere to call a home in this State. This is a shameful record on the part of the parties in government and not that of the individuals who find themselves in this situation.
Fine Gael has now been in power for 12 years. For seven of those years, the party has been joined at the hip with Fianna Fáil. The policies these parties have implemented together over the course of the last decade have brought us to where we are today. The housing crisis and all the damage done to the lives of ordinary people is the greatest failure of this Government. Those caught up in the crisis are looking on at a Government with plenty of money and resources but which still cannot deliver the homes people need. Does the Taoiseach accept that he was wrong to try to shift the blame for the housing crisis onto the victims of this crisis? Will he apologise for this remark?
I have just checked. First, the Deputy has misquoted me. Second, he has misrepresented me. I have never sought to blame anyone for the housing crisis or for homelessness, not the people who experience it nor the people who try to help them, whether this is the Government, the local authorities, NGOs or anyone else. The Deputy has misquoted and misrepresented me and-----
Let us move on to the issue at hand. We are experiencing a very deep housing crisis in this State and we have done so now for quite some time. It affects lots of people in lots of different ways, whether it is people who are struggling to pay the rent, people who cannot find their first home to buy or people who have been living at home too long. I know this and I get it. I deal with this every day in my constituency service in trying to help people, as I am sure the Deputy does.
The Deputy wants to do something very simplistic. He wants to just blame it all on the Government. He makes out, for example, that the housing crisis has somehow been created by the Government or Government policy. This is far too simplistic. A large number of countries, unfortunately, are facing housing crises now, including in Northern Ireland. This happens for many different reasons. It is happening in Ireland because we have had a dramatic increase in population, we have smaller house sizes and we had a prolonged period, about seven years, during which almost no new homes were built in this State. This followed a financial crash when the Government was broke, the banks were bust and the construction industry was destroyed. Two thirds of construction workers had to leave the country. This is why we have a huge deficit of housing that we have this State.
This Government, and the one before it and the one before that, has done everything possible to turn this around. We are now, at long last, seeing some real progress. I know it is not enough but it is real progress and it is something I think the Deputy should acknowledge. Some 30,000 new homes were built last year, more than in any year in more than a decade. A record level of social housing is being built now, more than we have seen since the 1970s. The Deputy may not know this, but the proportion of people living in social housing is now higher than it was ten years ago. This is both in percentage terms and raw numbers.
We are also seeing a big increase in the number of first-time buyers and this is very encouraging. Each week, 700 people are getting mortgage approval and perhaps 400 to 500 people each week buying their first homes. We have not seen this happening in the best part of 20 years.
Instead of the Deputy misrepresenting and misquoting me, and trying to put words into my mouth and accusing me of blaming people I have never blamed for anything, he should at least acknowledge some of the progress that has been made in the past couple of years.
This is the fact. He can deny it all he wants. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was shifting the blame for the housing crisis from the Government, whose responsibility it is, onto the shoulders of the victims.
Under their watch, we have never seen homelessness as bad in this State. Some 3,700 children woke up this morning with nowhere to call a home. This is their legacy. We have record levels of homelessness and it is increasing every month. We have targets for social and affordable housing that are far too low and even then the Government misses them. We have an entire generation of people who believe that they will never own a home in this State and this is why they are deciding to pack their bags and go to Sydney, and different places in Australia, to London and to Canada.
-----and has seen this crisis deepen as rents continue to go out of control, as house prices are out of control and as those in emergency and homeless accommodation have never been higher in the history of this State?
Those comments were made in response to an individual case given by another Deputy. There are many individual cases and everyone has their story and everyone's story is different. That is the truth of it. It is a simple fact that there are people on the housing list who have refused offers of accommodation and, in some cases, multiple offers of accommodation. Often, this is for good reasons.
One of the reasons we have choice-based letting now is that people will have more choice regarding the offers they get. This has been a big success and something that was introduced by the last Government.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCeann Comhairle. This week, as the focus has been on other matters in the news, a hugely significant story has gone relatively unmarked. According to the UN, the first week of July was the hottest week on record globally ever. Indeed, June 2023 has blown away all temperature records for that month. The science is clear. All that we hold dear is threatened by the climate crisis. Unless we as a species choose to live more sustainably, we face extinction.
I refer to the choice to live more sustainably because it is a choice. Political choices are made every day and are what can save us from climate and biodiversity breakdown.
I welcome that just in the past few minutes MEPs have voted to adopt the Nature Restoration Law in the European Parliament and in particular, MEPs voted against the shameful attempts by the European People's Party, the Taoiseach's own political grouping, to force a boycott of the Nature Restoration Law. I welcome the fact that Fine Gael MEPs voted not to block the Nature Restoration Law. We understand from them that they faced down pressure from within the EPP and they have said that they prefer to engage with the process. Their choice is a welcome departure from the very dangerous rhetoric we have seen from their EPP colleagues, and notably the EPP president, Manfred Weber.
I ask the Taoiseach to clarify and confirm his own commitment to the vitally important Nature Restoration Law. Does he condemn the rhetoric of Manfred Weber who is the president of the European People’s Party, the Taoiseach's own party in Europe, and does he agree with the Labour Party’s sister parties and the Party of European Socialists who have really driven the Nature Restoration Law, along with their Green Party colleagues in the green group? They have said that Mr. Weber has engaged in disinformation on the law and has courted the support of the far-right in Europe.
I wanted to seek clarification on another important Government climate policy which relates to just transition and supporting a transition to a low-carbon economy in a way which leaves no one behind. Mary Robinson said at COP 27 that just transition requires a series of just transformations, a rising tide to lift all boats to tackle the inequality and injustice while building a sustainable future.
The Taoiseach's Government has previously committed to establishing a just transition commission to design an inclusive response to the climate and biodiversity crises. Last night, the National Economic and Social Council called for the speedy establishment of the commission and the Taoiseach welcomed that but I understand that there are real concerns that the project to establish this commission has been stalled and, indeed, trade union and civil society representatives have written to the him this week warning against any further delay in establishing the commission. Will the Taoiseach use his powers under the National Economic and Social Development Office Act to set up the just transition commission without delay and will he ensure that it is based on social dialogue in keeping with the International Labour Organization, ILO, just transition principles? We want to see its terms of reference place that emphasis on social dialogue to ensure that the real and meaningful just transition is reached?
I thank the Deputy. I am happy to confirm my and the Government's support for an EU nature law. We have seen an extraordinary loss of biodiversity in Ireland, Europe and around the world in the past few decades. For me, it was brought into sharp focus by one of the David Attenborough documentaries I watched where he pointed out that 97% of all animal life on earth by weight is us and the things we eat. That only left 3% for nature. That is one of the reasons why I and this Government support a new EU nature law.
But it is important that we get it right. It has to be a law which works with farmers and not against them, one that respects rural and coastal communities, and has to be a law that does not conflict with climate action and with the things we want to do in installing wind power, solar power etc.
As a Government we have signed up to a version of that law agreed by the European Council. Around the European Council table there are many EPP Prime Ministers and I happen to be one of them. The original proposal put forward by the Commission was too far-reaching and is not the one that we agreed to as a Government. We agreed to a different version, the Council version. I know that it needs to be understood - I know that Deputy Bacik understands this but people who do not follow European politics as closely may not - that there are different versions of this law. It is still only a draft law and much negotiation must still be carried out. It is important that we get it right and that we bring farmers, rural and coastal communities with us because if we try to impose things on them that they will not accept, it will backfire, and backfire badly. That is why we have taken a constructive approach and are not just blindly accepting the original proposal from the Commission but actually saying that we wanted a better law. That is what we succeeded in negotiating round the European Council table, with negotiations led by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, by the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and others.
I, quite frankly, do not agree with some of the statements made by the president of the EPP. We do not agree on everything but it is important to recognise that the EPP is a big political organisation. The original proposal made by the European Commission, probably the greenest Commission we have ever seen in Europe, has an EPP President in President von der Leyen. One has differences of opinion within political parties. That happens in Ireland and it certainly happens at European level also.
We are doing some work on the just transition commission at the moment but I cannot give the Deputy a date for its establishment just yet but I will follow that up and come back to her.
I welcome the Taoiseach's words of support for the Nature Restoration Law and indeed his comments on community engagement. That is the issue with the correspondence he has received this week from representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, from the Environmental Pillar, Irish Rural Link, Social Justice Ireland, Friends of the Earth, and others, who are concerned about the delays in establishing the just transition commission. Indeed, if we look at the great work of the citizens' assembly on climate action and biodiversity, it also talks about the need for community engagement. That is why we need to see that commission set up without delay and to ensure that it does engage meaningfully with the community. We know that communities which have the most to lose from transition need to be consulted with, invested in and supported. We have also seen this reflected at international level where the ILO is talking about just transition having to include consultations, exchange of information and forms of dialogue between the social partners and governments.
How will the Taoiseach be responding to the civil society groups and trade unions which have corresponded with him this week on the just transition commission and can he give a commitment - I know he said he cannot give a date - that the commission will be established within a particular timeframe and that its terms of reference will be clear on that need for social dialogue?
I have not actually seen that correspondence yet. I will have to see it and I will then confer with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and other Government colleagues. I will ensure that I do see it and that we will respond to it as soon as possible. I absolutely agree that social dialogue is crucial. Everybody wants climate action and actions to be taken which help to reverse the decline in biodiversity. Once these actually happen or are proposed we then run into significant opposition and that is why it is important that we try to bring people with us and have social dialogue.
I want to discuss with the Taoiseach the School Leavers Ability Project: creating expectations, exploring choices and supporting transitions. Initially, this School Leavers Ability Project started in 2018 and for the following three years it was funded by Pobal. In the past three years it has been funded through the dormant account fund but that funding will be coming to an end in December of this year. A very small team has been set up in Cumas New Ross which has four facilitators who have helped students with a diagnosed disability to transition from school leaving into PLC, post-leaving certificate courses, colleges, day-care services and-or employment. This both assists individuals and their families with an individualised service that supports each of them to make choices for their future.
The team works with mainstream schools in Wexford and they extend it out to special educational schools in the counties of Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny and Carlow, primarily within the community healthcare organisation, CHO 5 area, where possible. Teachers observing their students from Wexford, in the CHO 5 area as well, are primarily responsible for the referrals and have attested to the essential service that it has been over the past four and a half years.
As it stands the service and its team have facilitated 556 individuals, including 339 who have exited the programme successfully by taking employment or going to college and 227 are currently actively being supported. The programme was originally meant to cater for 40 people and that funding has not increased even though the numbers have increased exponentially. The policy context of the programme involves co-ordination of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Transforming Lives report of 2016, the HSE's New Directions policy and the Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities 2015-2024.
A survey was conducted across the stakeholders which included individual users as well as parents and guardians and professionals such as teachers. The comments are unbelievably positive. User comments included: "Put me in touch with employability and supported me to get work"; "Very helpful for discussing options in college and PLCs"; and "Explored options after school and supported me with travel and training". One of the professionals said:
This allows 1:1 time the teachers don't always have the resources to implement. There is a clear gap between school and adult services and the project helps to bridge that gap.
That programme is funded through the Dormant Accounts Fund to the tune of €160,000; that is just to support Wexford. If it were to be rolled out throughout the CH05 area, a proposal has been sent to the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, it would cost in excess of €300,000. The HSE CEO, Bernard Gloster, was in the facility on Monday. He was impressed and I am sure that he will also make a submission. I ask the Taoiseach to support the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to promote this. Surely, we cannot have an end to this funding given that it is such a specialist service.
I am not familiar with the particular service or programme but from what the Deputy has told me, it seems to be very successful and it seems to be a very good one. I am told there is another transition pilot programme for school leavers which involves 20 schools in Dublin and elsewhere looking after children over two years. I will certainly take on board what the Deputy has said today. I will speak to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and see if there is a way it can be funded. I am sorry I cannot give a better answer than that. I am happy to follow up on it.
I appreciate that there would not be a better answer. It is more about considering the impact if the funding is not renewed. The other two-year programme the Taoiseach mentioned is probably similar because this one starts in the second last year of school. I am greatly concerned about the people who have entered the programme; if the funding ceases in December they will not be able to complete it. In essence 556 people have been supported with a relatively small budget and a small staff, and over 60% of them now are in jobs or careers. Without the programme they might have just entered day services and probably would not have the confidence to attain employment. With four and a half years' experience it would be an absolute crying shame if it were not to be refunded. We can sit down and discuss the extent of that funding but it absolutely must be sustained where it is and maybe rolled out more extensively in the future especially as the country is awash with money.
I take this opportunity to wish you all well. It is not that we will not be working we - will all be working very hard - but it is the last day that we meet for an engagement like this, so enjoy the recess.
The Deputy has my assurance that I will make some inquiries about it and speak to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the other relevant Ministers. As we know, often when something is funded from the Dormant Accounts Fund, it is only funded for a short period of time and then it can get picked up and funded and on a more sustainable basis by another body. As I am not fully across the programme, I do not make any commitments here but I will definitely follow up on it.
I have heard the Taoiseach has visited west Cork twice in the past two years. Last year he went as far west as my parish in Goleen, passing my own door on the way to Schull and the last weekend he went to Bandon and Courtmacsherry. In contrast to the recent visit by the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, who is sitting next to the Taoiseach, my biggest regret is that the Taoiseach did not contact me about these visits as I would have welcomed him to west Cork and shown him the positive moves communities are making. I also would have asked him to meet communities that are struggling. Last year in Goleen, he posed for photos outside the most south-westerly post office in Ireland, which had closed its doors just three weeks before his visit and will never reopen again as it was not viable as many interested people told me.
The Taoiseach went on to Schull that morning and posed for photos outside the newly proposed marina which would have been a game-changer for the Mizen Peninsula. A number of years ago members of the community were taken to the office of a then Fine Gael Minister where they posed for photos with senior Ministers congratulating them on getting the money, only for the same massive funds to be redirected to the constituency of another Minister who was struggling politically at the time.
When in west Cork last week, did the Taoiseach meet members of Cork County Council to discuss the AIRO report, an independent report commissioned by Cork County Council showing that for decades it has been the local authority receiving the lowest amount of funding in the country? This is the funding for roads, local improvement scheme, LIS, projects, urban-village renewal as well as rural regeneration funds and many more.
On his visit did he meet the thousands of frustrated users of cars, lorries, tractors and other vehicles who daily drive on the most appalling roads in west Cork? These people in west Cork get up early in the morning. They pay their car tax, their insurance and their income tax in the expectation of having a half-decent road. There are roads like the bog road in Schull falling into the neighbour's field, and roads like the roundabout beside Dunnes Stores where a car going into a hole will need to be pulled out of it. There is the Skibbereen to Leap road where if the front or back wheels hit the holes, they will burst a tyre or damage a rim.
On his two trips to west Cork, did the Taoiseach visit the unfinished southern relief road in Bandon the completion of which is now decades behind? Did he look at the much-needed northern relief road in Bandon? Did he call into the people of Innishannon and apologise to them for not working with me on their relief road for which I and others in this Dáil have been begging? Did he call to the people of Bantry and apologise to the people in Bantry and Beara for not pushing for the relief road for Bantry? These projects lie decades behind. There is no movement but promises from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil politicians at each election. We are left without a sod turned or a cent given.
The people of west Cork are sick of being treated like second-class citizens when it comes to funds from the national purse. West Cork is sick of getting crumbs from the rich man's table while pristine tar is laid on top of pristine tar in and around our capital. When in west Cork, did the Taoiseach meet the council or National Transport Authority, NTA, to discuss simple passing bays that could be created between Bandon and Clonakilty, Clonakilty to Skibbereen on the N71, or Bandon to Ballineen on the R586, thus preventing drivers being held up behind lorries or tractors for half an hour some days?
After two visits to west Cork, has the Taoiseach addressed the AIRO report carried out by Cork County Council or has he progressed any of the bypasses I mentioned? If so, I ask him to tell me the progress now.
My diary is published.
It was a real pleasure to have a chance to visit west Cork again. It is surely one of the most beautiful parts of the country. I was really glad to meet people in different parts of it and talk to them on this occasion. I got to visit Bandon, Clonakilty, Timoleague and also Courtmacsherry. While I did not meet the people the Deputy mentioned, I met a number of councillors who impressed on me the need to find more funding for road maintenance and restoration. In Senator Lombard's office in Bandon, I met with business groups from the town. They specifically raised the issue of the relief road. These are issues on my agenda.
The issue of road maintenance and restoration is not a problem unique to Cork or west Cork. It is coming up all over the country that the budgets allocated to local authorities to repair and restore roads are not going as far as they went in previous years because of inflation. We acknowledge that. In recognition of that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, allocated an additional €22 million for local and regional road maintenance in the past week or so. We are examining whether it is possible to find more money within the transport budget to do that. I do not know if that is possible yet but it is something we are certainly considering. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is working on finding additional funding for local improvement schemes which are very important for rural laneways in particular. The budget for that has increased considerably under the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, in recent years.
I was briefed on the Bandon relief road project when I met the business leaders in Bandon and I have agreed to follow up on it. Every year we have a budget of about €250 million for new roads. The Deputy will be familiar with the works at Dunkettle which are almost complete. There has been huge investment there and it will benefit people from Cork city and west Cork. It is never the case that there is enough funding to advance every project that we would like to advance, but there are projects that we will be able to advance in the future.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. He does not seem to grasp the crisis I am talking about. He is always welcome to west Cork, one of the most stunning parts of our country. However, it is not Jurassic Park, where you drive in and drive out waving and smiling. We live there with the unfinished bypasses and those that have not been done at all. We live with no simple passing bays being built on the N71 or the R586. It is not going on for two or three years but for decades. The Taoiseach keeps mentioning one bypass but it is two bypasses for Bandon. I am shocked Senator Lombard did not sit the Taoiseach down with Cork County Council officials and arrange a meeting to talk about the lack of funding in the AIRO report.
I ask the Taoiseach one more time to take up my offer. I invite him to west Cork to discuss the roads funding crisis for bypasses and passing bays immediately so the people of Goleen, Ballydehob, Schull and Skibbereen, all the way into Clonakilty, Bandon and Kinsale, can have the same type of road structure most people have throughout the country. We do not have it and are decades behind for bypasses in Bantry, southern and northern relief roads in Bandon and in Innishannon. It is on the Taoiseach’s watch. Will there be moves on any one of those bypasses?
I will be happy to come back to the Deputy in detail on the specific projects he raises. I know from my visit to west Cork in the past couple of days there has been huge investment in the area. The Deputy knows in the town of Bandon the amount of work that has been done to install flood relief. We all remember the floods in Bandon. Under the previous Government and this one, millions of euro have been invested in flood protection works. Also in Bandon, I saw the work being done to upgrade the main street. I think about €30 million has been put into that town by this Government in recent years, which I know the Deputy neglected to welcome but I am sure he does welcome it.
I heard very encouraging news from the councillors I met there on the uptake of the derelict buildings grant. I think there have been about 500 applications in County Cork alone for people to take on, refurbish and renovate derelict buildings and bring them back into use. That is really encouraging because we want to bring old buildings back into use. There has been huge investment under the LEADER programme, the town and village scheme and the national broadband plan. I am glad to see that is working. I absolutely acknowledge more investment is needed in west Cork and around the country in coming years, but that investment will only be possible if we can pay for it and we will only be able to pay for it if we continue to have a Government made up of parties that supported the economic policies introduced in this country over the past ten or 12 years.