Leaders’ Questions

Of the 769,000 residential mortgages in the State approximately 71,000 or 9% are now in arrears of more than 90 days and more than 53,000 of these are in arrears of more than 180 days. By contrast, the average in the UK is approximately 2.07%. One in seven mortgage accounts are not being repaid according to the original loan agreement, and this trend is accelerating. According to information from the Oireachtas finance committee, another 47,000 mortgages are in arrears of less than 90 days so the number of mortgage holders in distress is likely to be one in five. The situation is getting worse. It is very difficult for families and households and it has a wider impact in terms of people sacrificing expenditure on health, visits to general practitioners, education, food and heating. All such expenditure is suffering due to the huge debt that overhangs many families. It is also damaging consumer confidence and the wider domestic economy.

The Keane report was published by the Government four and a half months ago. We are still awaiting a formal response from the Government on the implementation of the recommendations in that report. Notwithstanding that we did not think the Keane report went far enough, there has been no action on its recommendations, particularly with regard to establishing, for example, an independent mortgage advice service. On the other hand, we have been constructive on this side of the House. We proposed legislation for the establishment of a debt settlement office but that was refused by the Government. Again, I ask the Taoiseach to be open to constructive solutions. There has been no action taken on the recommendation that an independent mortgage advice service for those in debt be set up. Will the Taoiseach give the House an indication of when the Government's formal response to the Keane report will emerge and lay out the Government's strategy for helping people in significant distress because of mortgage arrears?

I thank the Deputy for raising this sensitive matter in a serious fashion. I have often made the point that numbers of people have lived for the banks and existed for the mortgage. I know many families are under pressure and suffering stress. That is why it has been necessary to take a comprehensive view of what is going on.

The Government produced the Keane report which made a number of recommendations to the Government. An implementation group has been set up in the Department of Finance which is dealing with trade-down mortgages, split mortgages and mortgages to rent. The Government has introduced a pilot scheme in respect of the mortgage-to-rent scheme for distressed households. Mr. Declan Keane proposed the introduction of two new Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government mortgage-to-rent schemes utilising approved housing bodies such as Clúid leasing to local authorities. That work is being assisted by these bodies. It is anticipated that the first transactions under the pilot scheme will commence soon. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and his Department continue to work with the agencies. The Government will run two pilot schemes encompassing about 500 householders, one with housing agencies and the other with local authorities. It is estimated that 10,000 households could be involved eventually. That is the process by which the Keane report will be dealt with, including the other things I have mentioned such as sale by agreement.

On the Personal Insolvency Bill, the Government is determined to proceed in a number of areas that will not require the taking of a judicial route. The Deputy is aware that the Bill is already at Committee Stage and will be brought back to the House in a couple of weeks. The Government will appreciate constructive suggestions and proposals from every Member on this matter. I would like to think this could be done comprehensively and quickly, but that is not possible. I am aware many people are under pressure, but these are the elements of the strategy Government will implement to alleviate the pressure and stress on affected families.

The Taoiseach's response is inadequate. We have long moved past the time for pilot schemes to address what is a huge problem for thousands of families. This is having a debilitating impact, not only on the lives of families but also on the wider economy.

The Taoiseach promised much to the negative equity generation, including legislation to cap the interest charge imposed by lenders benefitting from the interest supplement scheme of the European Central Bank. He promised to prevent banks from introducing penalty interest rates on mortgages and ensure banks would pass on reductions in interest rates. None of this has happened. The Taoiseach mentioned the lending scheme, of which I believe only one person has availed. That is not going to address the enormity of the problem. It is time for action which families desperately need. They are reducing expenditure on health, visits to general practitioners, food and heating in order to keep a roof over their heads and make ends meet. It is the biggest worry for thousands of families, particularly younger families who bought homes at the height of the market. They need help.

Fianna Fáil came forward with the idea of establishing a debt settlement office which would have teeth and force resolutions between banks and their customers. However, it was not accepted. There was a formal vote on Second Stage of the Bill which was then buried. The Keane report does not go far enough, but there is not even a sense of urgency about what he recommended. There is no sense of a plan or a strategic and formal response to its implementation. I urge the Taoiseach to fulfil the commitments he gave to the negative equity generation with concrete actions to help them through a very difficult situation.

The negative equity generation are directly impacted on by this issue. Thousands of people are in negative equity because of reckless lending processes in banks. The Deputy is aware that the Government has downsized the number of banks to two pillar banks, restructured their boards and recapitalised them. I note the comments of the Bank of Ireland which is moving back towards private funding, but I disagree with Mr. Richie Boucher, its chief executive, when he says Government personal insolvency legislation will increase interest rates for mortgage holders who are paying their way. The Personal Insolvency Bill is for those who have a series of difficulties across a spectrum of circumstances. It should be made clear, as the Bank of Ireland is aware, that the banks have been recapitalised to deal with mortgage distress and with circumstances where people are in serious difficulty with their mortgage. The Bill has been designed to deal with people in difficulty.

It would be nice to implement the Keane report overnight. The focus of the Government is on dealing with the range of mortgage difficulties in the best way it can. I do not have all the answers, but I am confident the Keane report, the Personal Insolvency Bill and the impact of the budget and the Finance Bill in stimulating the indigenous property market will lead to progress in this regard. It is wrong to suggest, as I saw in a newspaper today, that the Personal Insolvency Bill will cause interest rates to rise for people who are paying their way and facing challenges in their mortgage. That is not the intention. The banks have been recapitalised to deal with cases in which the holders of a residential mortgage are in serious distress. It is a matter for the banks and lending institutions to sit down with individuals and work out the best prospect.

The Deputy and I both want to see everyone hold on to his or her house, in so far as that is possible. The schemes mentioned have to begin in some form or another. The pilot schemes are starting with 1,000 householders and will eventually provide for 10,000. We must analyse them to see if they have the right structure, if there are weaknesses in them and if they meet the demands and requirements of the people who have mortgage problems and move on to achieve the best effect.

I understand the urgency with which the Deputy makes the point, to which I am sympathetic. When the Personal Insolvency Bill has been subject to a full range of comments and proposals from Members of the Oireachtas, the Government will deal with it as quickly as possible. This is difficult and complex, but it is necessary to get it right.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an ráiteas faoi jabanna nua i nDún Dealgan i gContae Lú.

Céard a dúirt an Teachta?

Sin scéal maith. Tá mé ag rá go gcuirim fáilte roimhe. Ar chuala an Taoiseach sin agus an dtuigeann sé mé?

Ar chuir an Teachta fáilte roimh rud éigin? Seo an chéad uair ariamh.

Tá sin go maith. Maith an fear.

Fáilte agus "go raibh maith agat". Maith thú.

A dháilcheantar féin.

Please proceed, Deputy Adams. Time is of the essence.

For the benefit of Members, I have welcomed today's announcement of jobs in Dundalk.

Fewer than 7% of households liable for the household charge have paid the tax and we are already half way towards the Government's deadline of 31 March. I understand its plan was to use the €160 million generated from the tax to fund local government services. Clearly, that is not going to happen.

Níl sé seo chomh trom ar údaráis áitiúla timpeall an Stáit ná orthu siúd atá ag déanamh iarracht a mbillí laethúla a íoc. Sílim go ndearna an Rialtas meancóg sa chás seo. It is low and middle income earners who are bearing the brunt of austerity, be they people struggling with mortgages, increases in VAT, excise, motor tax and the universal social charge. These are all taxes which are hitting the poorest the hardest.

Does the Taoiseach accept that this unfair and flat tax is destined to fall? I suggest he get ahead of the curve on this issue by axing this tax and instead introducing a cap on wages in the public sector of €100,000, as Sinn Féin proposed in its pre-budget submission. Will the Taoiseach accept that he has got it wrong on this one, and will he drop this unfair tax?

Wonders will never cease. I did not think Deputy Adams would ever come in here and welcome something. Well done. I hope that all the young men and women in Dundalk who go to Deputy Fitzpatrick's office and every other office and make their claim for acceptance on merit to PayPal-----

Is Deputy Fitzpatrick going to hand in the job?

-----will be part of the new economic resurgence in that part of the country. Tá a fhios agam go maith cé atá i gceist agat.

I was talking to somebody from London the other night who has two houses. The person pays £172 per month for one house and £280 per month for another. The average household in Northern Ireland pays £1,259 for household charges. I accept that a flat tax is not the way forward here, and that is why this is a temporary measure. The Minister has asked for an expert report on best practice, whether it be residential property or valuation on the site. When that comes back, the Government will consider the range of options and decide what is equitable and what is payable. Clearly there are differences in the scale and location of houses and so on. This is a temporary charge of €100, which is €2 per week. The money will be used to provide the usual services such as libraries or lighting for footpaths.

When Deputy Adams tells me that his is the only party on the entire island of Ireland, perhaps he might indicate how it is that his own party members are willing to accept a charge of £1,259 in Northern Ireland while he complains bitterly about the €2 per week charge here.

I am always bemused sometimes by the Taoiseach's answers.

Always or sometimes.

It is because of the way he strings them together. This is a flat tax. I am sure the Taoiseach knows that. Flat taxes are unfair. Less than 7% of the households liable for the tax have paid it. The Government has one month to bring some sense to this.

These are people who cannot pay. It is not as if they have the money and have two houses. They cannot pay. I asked the Taoiseach to accept that this was a mistake and to find some other way of raising this money. I made a suggestion to him, but of course he ignored the suggestion. Many people are asking how the Government can increase the pay of special advisers, or pay €17,000 in attendance money to so-called super-junior Ministers to attend Cabinet meetings, when it should be a privilege to serve in the Cabinet.

Is the Taoiseach seriously suggesting that at the end of this process, tens of thousands of citizens will be hauled before the courts over a charge which they cannot pay, while not one banker has so far faced due process? I ask the Taoiseach to accept that this was a mistake and to change it.

I agree with the Deputy's second last comment. I would like to think that the process of law will take its course. My understanding is that very significant amounts of documentation have been forwarded to the DPP. This is clearly an independent office and information has been forwarded both by the Director of Corporate Enforcement and by the fraud squad, and it is a matter for that to be pursued in due course. Whatever decision is made by the DPP, it would be my hope that persons who should be before the law should be brought before the law and that the law deals with them.

A total of 110,000 householders have signed on for the property charge. The Deputy says that people cannot pay. This is a €2 charge per week. It is a flat tax but that will not the case in future, because some people can obviously pay more than that.

All he is missing is a cap and a badge.

The Minister is waiting for a set of proposals on the best thing to do.

He is like a sheriff with a six-gun.

Go raibh maith agat, Mattie.

There are waivers for those in receipt of mortgage interest supplement, social housing supports or rent supplement, and for those in categories 3 and 4 of unfinished housing estates. There are exemptions for those who do not need to declare properties that are part of the trading stock of a business and that are not sold and that have not generated an income. There are exemptions for local authority properties used for social housing, voluntary co-operative properties, properties owned by the Government or by the HSE, properties owned by charities, properties where commercial rates apply, and properties which people have to leave due to a long-term mental or physical infirmity, such as those who have to go into nursing homes.

There are waivers and exemptions for all these people. In this respect, the Deputy did not answer-----

What about people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own?

-----the question I asked him. How can he instruct his members in Derry and across Northern Ireland to agree to a charge of approximately £1,400 per year? He comes down here from County Louth, where we had the privilege of making an announcement about 1,000 jobs in Dundalk today, and tells us that people cannot pay the charge in this jurisdiction. When we add in the waivers and the exemptions, a significant number of people who are under pressure-----

They cannot pay. The Taoiseach knows that.

The working poor cannot pay.

Dr. Liu Xiaobo is in his third year of an 11 year sentence in China. His crime was to write a charter seeking democracy, freedom of speech and religion and an independent judiciary. Over Christmas, Chen Xi was sentenced to ten years in jail in south-west China for the crime of writing articles on the Internet seeking political reform and human rights. At the same time, Chen Wei was given nine years in jail for articles critical of the Communist Party of China.

Amnesty International asked the Taoiseach to raise the cases of these three prisoners of conscience and others with the Vice President of China, Xi Jinping, during his three day visit to Ireland. Did the Taoiseach raise these cases or any other cases? What response did he receive? When he was entertaining the Chinese Vice President, was he aware that as the second most senior leader in the Chinese Government, he is personally responsible for a regime that routinely brutally crushes all democratic rights of its people, stands over the disappearance and torture of thousands of citizens, presides over a brutal regime of super exploitation of workers, many of whom are employed in companies contracted by western multinationals, where no free trade unions are allowed, and crushes the self-determination rights of the people of Tibet?

There was a sharp intensification of repression last year in China. Was the Taoiseach aware that many people link that to the preparation for a leadership change? Many people also think that this is what brought the Vice President of China to the US, Ireland and Turkey, as a preparation for his elevation to the highest office in that country.

Did the Taoiseach not think it shameful and a cowardly abdication of his responsibility to stand against the crushing of human rights, when he made a speech yesterday to the China Trade and Investment Forum, in the presence of the Vice President of China, and with a total of 2,247 words, could not find a single word to demand publicly an end to this brutal repression and the crushing of the rights of the Chinese people to democracy and freedom?

Lastly, the Taoiseach routinely chastises a certain party across the Dáil floor for allegedly consorting with shady characters of unsavoury reputation, and did so only last week. Does he estimate that a Government which systematically brutalises and crushes-----

I thank Deputy Higgins. He is over time.

-----the rights of its people would merit such a description or is it all right if they do trade deals with him?

Deputy Higgins prepared well for this one. I was responding to a Member of a party opposite in respect of comments made when I said what I said.

The speech, to which Deputy Higgins referred where he counted all the words very carefully, was made in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham. It was to a group of representatives of over 350 Irish companies together with Chinese company counterparts and was strictly on the basis of business opportunities which will create jobs and economic growth in this country, with opportunities for Irish firms to export to China and also in respect of investment in this country. That contribution was strictly on trade, economic growth and opportunities.

I want Deputy Higgins to understand that I raised the question of human rights with the Chinese Vice-President, as did the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore. I was not contacted by Amnesty International. I heard its spokesperson on radio calling for individual issues to be raise. I did not raise individual issues with the Chinese Vice-President. I raised the question of human rights with him. I noted the comments on the improvement in the human rights position announced from Washington. I noted the comments that were announced following the EU-China high-level group in respect of human rights. I put forward the clear position that this country has always been a proponent of human rights around the world and, as President Clinton stated, is one of the few countries that can legitimately say that, since the United Nations was founded, it has personnel in some locations around the world dealing with underdevelopment, issues of social rights etc.

The Chinese Vice-President responded to my invitation to come here on his way back from Washington to deepen and strengthen the links between Ireland and China and to focus specifically on the question of opportunity for investment by China, both in Europe and in Ireland, and for investment and exports to China by Irish companies. Strengths in each location were identified. The Vice-President pointed out a range of locations in China where investment would be invited and a range of specific issues where he would like co-operation and investment from Ireland. Clearly, this leads to serious opportunities for business in our country and we will follow up on that.

This was not a meeting specifically about human rights, but both the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and myself, on behalf of the Government and the people, raised the issue directly with the Vice-President. He made the point in his response that no country has a perfect human rights record. That is understandable. I note the improvement, both in the economy of China where 200 million people have been taken out of poverty and in the progress that is made on human rights in general, and I support that.

Are we to take it that the Taoiseach accepts that not having a perfect human rights record covers and excuses-----

That is not what the Taoiseach stated.

-----the routine detention of thousands of persons for demanding human and democratic rights, jailing them, torturing them and sending them away for years?

Does the Taoiseach accept that he should separate out this kind of violation of the most basic human rights from issues of trade? If the Taoiseach were talking to representatives of trade associations, would it have been appropriate to raise that any Irish firms that go to China should insist, unlike Apple and other Western multinationals, on total rights, including trade union rights, for Chinese workers? Would it be appropriate to raise that? How on earth can the Taoiseach stand up in this company, in front of the second most senior leader in this most repressive state, one of the most repressive and brutal in the world, and blithely ignore the plight and repression of those people?

I thank Deputy Higgins.

Is it the case now that as China takes up the position of an economic superpower, almost equalling the United States-----

Come on, Deputy, please.

-----that we can expect the same obsequiousness, in the media, in the Government and elsewhere, as we had towards the United States, President Bush, etc., in the wake of the Iraq invasion?

I thank Deputy Higgins.

Is that the blind eye that now will be turned to human rights in favour of doing trade deals?

Why did the Taoiseach not raise-----

Deputy Higgins is way over time.

-----specific issues, for example, the case of Liu Xiaobo, who was even recognised with a Nobel Peace Prize? I ask the Taoiseach-----

Come on, Deputy Higgins, please.

-----to electrify the demand for human rights internationally by, before going to China, demanding from the Chinese Government that he get to visit Liu Xiaobo-----

I thank Deputy Higgins.

-----or some prisoner of conscious really to draw attention to what is going on in China.

We could send Deputy Higgins.

That would be doing something good for humanity.

I ask Deputy Higgins to resume his seat.

We could be doing something to be able to point out that CRH, Glen Dimplex and 140 more Irish companies now employ 10,000 Chinese persons in China and they do so on the basis of giving them an opportunity to have a job and to contribute to the economy there which is also of benefit to Ireland's economy.

I also referred in my discussions with the Chinese Vice-President on the situation in Syria, and the rape, mutilation and savagery that is going on there and the human rights in respect of those people. I commented that I would hope the words of the Chinese Foreign Minister would be taken to heart in respect of making some impact in ameliorating that position.

Deputy Higgins is not the sole saviour of human rights in this House. We all have a responsibility here. In my responsibility as leader of the Government, I took the opportunity to raise this with the Vice-President of what is the second largest economy in the world, made no bones about that and was very clear in respect of Ireland's position. With 1.4 billion people, I am quite sure the difficulties that many of those citizens experience are challenging. They are a cultured people with a long tradition.

I commented on the noted progress that has been made by the Chinese authorities in the improvement of the human rights record and the Vice-President pointed out-----

It got quoted last year. The Taoiseach is out of the loop.

-----the numbers who have now emerged from poverty, the new consumer movement in China, the number of those who have free access to the Internet and the number of bloggers on the Internet from China who have the freedom to express what they wish.

They are jailed for it. Come on.

In respect of visiting the noble person that Deputy Higgins mentioned, I do not think that I will have that opportunity.