Leaders' Questions

Last week, I raised the issue of home repossessions and mortgage arrears and the numbers of cases coming before the courts. There have been 7,000 repossession orders lodged in the courts as of January of this year, not to mind the 8,000 last year, and it is estimated that over the next two years up to 25,000 family homes could be repossessed.

It is interesting to note that two thirds of those in arrears are actually in employment, demonstrating a capacity, if the banks would only engage with them, to meet their obligations under sustainable resolutions.

Last week, my party colleague, Deputy Michael McGrath, brought forward the Family Home Mortgage Settlement Arrangement Bill in good faith. That Bill would have ended the situation whereby the banks have been in the driving seat and have dictated the pace and nature of resolutions because of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act introduced by the Government in 2013.

The eviction act.

To end that situation and to dilute the power of the banks, we brought in constructive legislation last week but the Government said "No way", that it was not going to accept it and kept its head in the sand in terms of the enormity of the issue. The Government then put forward the line that somehow it was the borrowers' fault and that those in arrears were not engaging with the banks. Two days later, after the Taoiseach denied that there was any need for any change - the Minister for Finance, following the listing of over 200 repossession cases in court in Limerick, came forward and said that to be fair to the banks, they were just getting involved to force people to engage. That was both a dishonest and detached intervention by the Minister for Finance. The banks are not bringing people to court to force them to engage because, as FLAC has pointed out, there is no legal aid or remedy available once they get into court. They are being brought to court because property prices are rising, valuations are rising and the banks can now get their money back.

Can we have a question please?

It was a very detached comment by the Minister for Finance in the context of the extraordinary anxiety and stress for many ordinary families, couples, women and so forth, who were brought before the courts to have their houses repossessed. The problem is growing at an alarming rate. The Minister said he would change the personal insolvency legislation: the service has only dealt with 199 cases to date. Will the Taoiseach confirm that the Government is prepared to change the personal insolvency or other legislation to intervene on behalf of those who are facing repossession of their family home?

I do not accept the Deputy's assertion that the Government blamed the borrowers for the situation that has arisen. Nor do I accept his assertion that the Government has kept its head in the sand with regard to these matters.

This Government brought in the eviction bill----

I agreed with the Tánaiste when we set out our scheme of priorities for the remainder of the lifetime of this Government last July. We undertook to review the personal insolvency legislation and a range of other measures to deal with distressed mortgages. We also reiterated that the Government has no policy at all in the sense of wanting to see people put out of their homes----

The Government has no policy at all to stop it----

The fact is that there has to be engagement and a process by which that can happen.

I spoke to the Tánaiste at some length this morning about this and the Government recognises that adjustments to the personal insolvency framework are necessary. Such adjustments would include increasing awareness of what the insolvency service is about and the assistance it can give to those families whose mortgages are in distress; an independent audit of the quality of the deals recommended by the personal insolvency practitioners; and an outline of the options that are open to borrowers where insolvency arrangements have been rejected by the creditors, that is, the banks as well as the supports available to families who cannot meet the terms of restructured mortgages negotiated within the insolvency framework.

The Deputy will be aware that 110,000 accounts were in arrears at the end of quarter four of 2014, a decline of 26,000 over the course of the year. Of the 100,000 mortgages that have been restructured, the vast majority of those involved are meeting the demands and conditions of their restructured accounts.

I confirmed this morning, as did the Tánaiste, that the Government has almost completed its review of these matters and will bring forward a number of other measures that will compliment the range of options that are there at the moment so that we can deal with mortgages in distress in April.

That means that the Government has looked at the workings and effectiveness of the situation at the moment. We want to see the vast majority of people retain their family homes ---

The vast majority ---

We will bring forward a range of other measures, following that review, in April.

To be frank, that is a meaningless response. The Taoiseach made reference to adjustments and named three items that are not adjustments at all. Making people aware of something is not changing anything. An independent audit of how poorly a system is working is not changing anything, with only 199 cases concluded to date. The third point I could not quite understand, to be frank. The Taoiseach said there were options open to borrowers and he drifted off into an inaudible whisper. I mean it sincerely when I say that I did not catch the third point.

The Minister for Finance insisted that the Government is watching the situation very carefully and is also watching the way in which the insolvency legislation is being applied. He said the Government is very conscious of the policy. It was Deputy Noonan who said that the banks were using the courts to get people to engage with them who have not done so thus far. I brought an example of a case before the Taoiseach last week, where the couple involved were working for over two years to try to get the bank to engage.

Can we have a question please?

The bank ultimately brought them to court without engaging with them. It is an insult to those people when a Government Minister or the Taoiseach says they are only being brought to court because the banks want them to engage because they have not done so to date. That is not the truth. There are lots of people out there who are at their wits' end. These are responsible people who want to keep a roof over their children's heads, who have been engaging with banks but the banks have not been engaging with them or making any realistic attempt to bring about sustainable resolutions. If the Taoiseach is to do anything, he should stop insulting people who are going through the trauma and anxiety of these court cases. For them, it is not fun. This is not, as the Minister implied, some tactical manoeuvre that the banks are engaged in.

In short, if one looks at the language emanating from Government, it is "watching" this, "monitoring" that but in essence it is doing absolutely nothing to deal with the escalating problem of repossessions and mortgage arrears.

I think Deputy Martin is getting desperate.

It is not Deputy Martin who is desperate; it is the people.

(Interruptions).

Stay quiet please. It is not the Deputy's question. He should stay quiet for a change.

As we see the economy begin to improve, all that the Deputy is left with to attack are the remnants of the disastrous policy that his party followed when in government. The Deputy says that the Government has done nothing but there are more options on the table for people in mortgage distress than in most other countries----

Only 199 cases have been dealt with.

(Interruptions).

Please Deputies. A question was asked and it is being answered.

The personal insolvency service has not been dealing with as many cases as we would like to see but contrary to Deputy Martin's view, I think it is very important that when people are in mortgage distress they know the range of options and assistance available to them. It is also fair to look to the situation that has arisen in the context of people who are looking for credit whereby the Credit Review Office gives an independent view and has given directions to banks to overturn decisions. The Minister for Justice and Equality of the day brought in an amendment so that when cases went to court, an independent review of the options put forward by the practitioner would be possible before a court case situation arises.

That is nonsense.

That is something that we have to look at. What are the options open to a family where the value of their house is written down to the current market value but they still cannot meet the repayment conditions? These are real-life conditions that were created by a Government that did not care.

Egged on by Deputy Kenny at the time ---

We are down to 37,000 cases in arrears for more than 720 days and we want to see the vast majority of those sorted out. Far from following Deputy Martin's assertion that nothing is being done, we will bring forward a number of other measures to deal with these kinds of cases in April.

The Taoiseach cannot specify those measures now.

They will be designed to help people----

Why can the Taoiseach not specify them now? We had a debate on this issue last week. Why did the Government not outline those new measures in the House then?

----who are having problems with their family homes. This all goes back to the Deputy's own outfit which did not give a damn about what it did.

Those kinds of glib soundbites got the Taoiseach elected but they will not get him re-elected.

I call Deputy Adams.

There was a big fundraiser in Limerick last Friday. On the same day that the repossession cases were going on in court, Fine Gael-----

I said Deputy Adams; Deputy Collins is not Deputy Adams. He should let Deputy Adams ask his question.

----was courting big business. The repossession cases were going on and----

Deputy Collins, please.

That is the truth.

I am not interested in listening to you; I am interested in hearing Deputy Adams's question.

Since the Stormont House Agreement was reached at Christmas, Sinn Féin has been engaging positively in party leaders' meetings at Stormont to ensure its full implementation.

However, it became clear last week that the DUP was intent on reneging on commitments in that agreement. Martin McGuinness discovered that it was the intention of the DUP to provide only partial protection to current recipients of benefits and no protection whatsoever for future recipients contrary to the Stormont House Agreement. In our view, it intended concealing this until after the welfare reform legislation was passed.

I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that this is not part of the Stormont House Agreement. As a result, Sinn Féin and the SDLP had no option but to prevent the Welfare Reform Bill going through the Assembly. Martin McGuinness has made it clear that it is our focus to resolve these problems. Our record has been very consistent. The late Ian Paisley said that Sinn Féin kept every promise it made. Despite refusals to honour the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements, including the absence of Acht na Gaeilge, a bill of rights, a civic forum and an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane, Sinn Féin has not given up on the process and we will not give up on the process.

It is clear, however, that political institutions must deliver for citizens, particularly disadvantaged citizens and those with disabilities. That is more important than other considerations. Does the Taoiseach agree that a resolution to the current difficulties will only be found by everyone adhering fully to the terms of the Stormont House Agreement?

I certainly agree that this is a serious matter and that, prior to Christmas, the discussion was about whether the institutions would survive. The opportunity for both Governments to become involved as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement together with the dedicated work of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Sherlock, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the parties brought about the Stormont House Agreement.

I am interested to hear Deputy Adams say that the Deputy First Minister discovered that the DUP was not going to implement the agreement that was arrived at. It should also be noted that the Minister and Minister of State from this Government were not party to the detailed discussions about welfare reform that were an element of the agreement being arrived at. I am not sure how the Deputy First Minister discovered that the DUP intended to renege on the agreement if this is the case. Was it through a memorandum, comment or paper provided by the DUP saying that it intended to renege on the agreement?

With the British general election taking place early in May, there is an opportunity to work this out as mature politicians. The essence of politics is called into being here. This can only be dealt with by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister who must explain to the other parties what this row is about. I would like to find out the nature of the discovery that the Deputy First Minister was able to make. How was he able to discover that the DUP suddenly intended at a certain point to renege on an agreement entered into in December? I agree with the Deputy that this should not have happened and can be rectified. It can only be rectified by the politicians hammering out what it is they agreed upon and being very clear about it in the interest of the people of Northern Ireland.

I am disappointed that the Taoiseach does not know how Martin McGuinness discovered it because the Taoiseach's officials were fully briefed on that over the weekend, so he should know. Martin McGuinness discovered it because we were given papers - we believe by mistake. When he discovered this, he spent several days last week, including during our Ard-Fheis, trying to meet the DUP. The DUP failed to engage with us but it was fully informed about our concerns. These are red line issues because the essence of mature politics must be protecting the disadvantaged - those who need the protection of society. That is the core of this agreement.

The Taoiseach may recall that in 1998, just after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Senator George Mitchell said that this was the easy bit and that the hard bit was implementing it. That has been our experience. I have been critical at times of the Government's handling of Northern Ireland issues but at the same time, I know that they are very challenging and require a constant focus with the British Government on the ongoing process to ensure in particular the need for everyone to fulfil commitments. In the absence of such clarity, every effort must be made to ensure all agreements are faithfully implemented. Does the Taoiseach agree that the resolution of the current difficulties will be only be found by everyone adhering fully to the terms of the Stormont House Agreement?

The Stormont House Agreement means particular conditions being adhered to. I do not have in front of me the difference between the detailed discussions on welfare reform conducted before Christmas before the agreement was arrived at and the details that apply now for welfare reform since the agreement was put together. There seems to be a discrepancy somewhere in the mathematics if this is what the row is about. Obviously, the Government was not party to the detailed discussions prior to Christmas about what welfare reform would mean for people but there seems to be a change in the figures that apply. I think one must go back to that point - what was laid out in detail in papers before Christmas and what has brought about a change in those figures that affect people with social welfare payments in various forms in Northern Ireland.

This is a very serious political matter. These institutions have paved the way for many years since the Good Friday Agreement. It has not been an easy journey in many respects. This row was brewing before Christmas. All of the parties and the two Governments got involved and agreement was reached on a set of figures with details about them. The agreement was signed off, accepted and welcomed by everybody. There now seems to be a difference in those figures. What has happened? I think the Deputy First Minister needs to go back and discover why this drift in these figures occurred, if it happened.

If they were set out before Christmas and signed off, accepted, commented on and welcomed by the Deputy First Minister, more fulsomely than by Deputy Adams, what has happened that the figures are now different from those he accepted and agreed to before Christmas? The political discussion must deal with that. We do not want a situation where the parties walk away when it comes to the first difficult decision. They welcomed this before Christmas and signed off on those conditions. They must go back to where that welcome applied in the first instance.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach marked four years of this Fine Gael-Labour Party neoliberal Government. Today, that same agenda is creating huge uncertainty among Aer Lingus workers, their families and the communities who depend on Aer Lingus for employment and connectivity. This anxiety has been created by the Government refusing to reject decisively the bid by IAG to buy the Government's shares. It is a decision that could see us relinquish any public control over the airline and this island's aviation bridge to the rest of the world, leaving foreign-owned private companies whose only concern is profit with full control over access in and out of this country.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport has sent IAG off with a little tut-tut to come back with a better price in the next few weeks, but the consequences for this country will last far longer than it will take to spend the bag of silver the Government will get for any sale of Aer Lingus. Not only would this country lose a profitable company, something the Government spends a fortune sending IDA Ireland out to find, there are massive implications for north Dublin, Cork, Shannon and the Limerick regions which are struggling in the recession.

We are told relentlessly by the media that poor little Aer Lingus will not survive alone, but poor little Aer Lingus has been making healthy profits for years. In 2013, it made an operating profit of €61.1 million. The Taoiseach might tell some of his young Deputies like the Minister of State, Deputy Harris, if they can contain themselves for a moment with the flattery and attention from this multinational company, that Aer Lingus does not need IAG.

Pearls of wisdom.

IAG needs Aer Lingus. That is the view of the Aer Lingus pilots and many others.

A question, please.

Aer Lingus has a jewel that other airlines want to get their hands on, namely, the Heathrow slots, which have been valued by Deloitte at €925 million but are invaluable to this country. Would the Taoiseach agree that the cast iron guarantee that the Government is seeking on connectivity is pathetic and would be non-existent after five years-----

Sorry, Deputy; would you put your question?

-----as would be all of the jobs in airline catering, flight maintenance and many other areas? The brand itself would likely be integrated very quickly-----

Sorry, Deputy. Would you put your question? Thank you.

-----as has been the pattern with other takeovers. I put it to the Taoiseach that selling off the remaining public stake in Aer Lingus would be economic and social treachery. Will the Government right the wrong that Fianna Fáil did ten years ago by privatising Aer Lingus in the first instance? Will it throw aside its ideological attachment to privatisation and not only refuse to sell off the 25% stake but establish full public ownership of Aer Lingus in the months ahead?

What will we buy it with?

Sorry, Deputy. Would you resume your seat? You are way over time.

If the Government can invest taxpayers' money in the banks, surely it can invest taxpayers' money in a strategic asset such as Aer Lingus-----

The whistle has gone.

-----which links us with the US and Europe.

Sorry, Deputy. Would you obey the Chair, please?

Do not forget about the Aer Lingus pensioners.

This is an important matter. Deputy Coppinger appears to be of the view that the Government should acquire Aer Lingus in its entirety. This would cost about €1 billion. The Deputy will be aware that the Government rejected the bid from IAG.

In 2012, the Government decided that consideration could be given to the sale of the shares held by the State in Aer Lingus in the context of the sale of a number of assets that might be disposed of if the price and conditions of any such sale were in the best interests of the people. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, is very clear on that. Issues such as the Heathrow slots, connectivity to the United States and operations at Shannon, Cork and Dublin Airports are matters of genuine concern and interest to workers, their families and other people in localities and environs of Dublin, Cork and Shannon. It is already public knowledge that there will be a further meeting between officials of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and IAG this week. Obviously, the Department will inform the Minister of the issues presented by IAG during that discussion. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has not made, and is not in a position to make, a recommendation to the Government. The conditions set out by Government in regard to Aer Lingus are clear. This airline was privatised a number of years ago under a different Administration. The Government now holds a 25.1% stake in Aer Lingus on behalf of the people. The conditions set by it in terms of consideration of any offer are clear and have not been met in any discussions that have taken place to date.

The taxpayer spends billions in supporting the so-called enterprise and employment sector in this country. It appears to me from the Taoiseach's response that the Government is well disposed towards selling off the remaining public control of Aer Lingus. This means that very shortly thousands of jobs not only in north Dublin but in Cork, Limerick and the Shannon area will be jeopardised.

I am not sure if the Taoiseach read the article by the economist Paul Sweeney last Friday in which he made an excellent case not only for the retention of the State's 25% shareholding in Aer Lingus but for the Government to seek to buy, for example, Ryanair's shares, which will most likely become available soon. The case was extremely well made that the Government should snap those up. How is regional development to be protected if a private company controls Aer Lingus? As it stands, any scale-down of operations in, for example, Cork Airport would have a devastating impact. Owing to the recession and the withdrawal of the Shannon stopovers, Limerick is on its knees. There are huge issues at stake.

It is a pity there is no member of the Labour Party in the House to hear this debate.

There are a couple of us here.

Deputy Lyons is minding the shop.

There are two members here. Deputy Higgins is blocking Deputy Coppinger's view.

Sorry, Deputy Coppinger. Would you put your question, please? Thank you.

Will the Taoiseach say why the Government is so ideologically opposed to maintaining its stake in Aer Lingus or re-nationalising it?

Deputy Coppinger mentioned multinationals. First, multinationals employ huge numbers of people in her constituency.

So does Aer Lingus.

The Deputy should bear that in mind when commenting on investment from abroad. Second, the Deputy stated that Aer Lingus is a publicly owned company. It is not. The Government holds a minority shareholding in Aer Lingus, the details of which I have pointed out to the Deputy. Third, the Government has announced a specific regional development strategy covering a range of areas. Limerick is not on its knees; it is fighting back strongly. I was in Limerick on Friday for the announcement of a further 300 jobs at Northern Trust, bringing overall employment at the company to over 1,000 by 2017. The Government decision through which the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport gave Shannon Airport its independence is an indication of what Shannon can and will achieve in the time ahead. I do not accept the Deputy's comment at all.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, prior to bringing a specific recommendation to Government, is required to obtain clarity on the issues relating to Shannon, Cork and Dublin, the Heathrow slots and guaranteed connectivity across the Atlantic.

There is no guarantee.

What about the Aer Lingus pensioners?

The Deputy will understand that Dublin and Shannon airports are among the few airports at which one can get pre-clearance for the United States, which is a major feather in Ireland's cap. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, will continue to monitor this closely. The outcome of the meeting this week between officials of his Department and IAG will be brought to his attention. We will keep this matter under close scrutiny in the context of the conditions set out, including-----

So Aer Lingus is to be sold?

-----whether the price is acceptable, whether the conditions are acceptable, and whether it is in the interests of Ireland and of its people.

As pointed out by others, one has to look carefully at the consequences of not considering seriously whatever final opportunity or option might be presented.