Leaders' Questions

Are we all settled down now?

We are only getting warmed up.

It is only tokenism. The Government must get real.

The Government will not win any election on housing.

The Ceann Comhairle has a very calming effect. We all went quiet.

Four years ago Deputy Michael McGrath proposed legislation to set up an independent mortgage resolution office to provide a proper intermediary force between the banks and people in mortgage distress and to ensure the banks would not have a veto over the resolution of mortgage arrears and agreements. He ignored it and month after month since then he has ignored pleas from the Opposition to change the relationship between the banks and people in mortgage arrears and to change the veto the banks have over any debt resolution agreement resulting from any process. There have been up to 586 repossessions since January. That is a 500% increase on this time last year. The majority of these are homes, not investment properties. The Taoiseach will recall that it was Government legislation in 2013 circumventing the Dunne judgment that allowed the repossession train to start. Research has already shown that 1,000 homes have been repossessed. It is now estimated that there are up to 8,000 civil bills before the Circuit Court relating to repossessions.

We are facing a major crisis because of Government inaction in relation to people in mortgage arrears and the anxiety and distress that has happened as a result. That is on top of the homelessness crisis and the appalling fact that up to 1,000 children are in emergency accommodation in this city alone.

Could the Deputy ask a question, please?

I put it to the Taoiseach that he has ignored the genuine calls from this side of the House for an end to the bank veto, and various legislative propositions we have made. When will the Government remove the veto the banks currently have on debt resolution mechanisms? The Personal Insolvency Act has been very ineffective, and it has failed. We hear leaks via the media that something will happen four years from the time Deputy Michael McGrath first tabled Private Member's legislation, which if the Government had accepted, would have paved the way for a far more reasonable approach to the issue. It is a shocking indictment of what the Government has been doing for the past four years.

We have dealt with the issue on a number of occasions already.

No, the Government has not. That is the problem.

The number of mortgage accounts in arrears, that is, all arrears from one day past due, stood at 84,717 at the end of February this year. That is a decline of more than 3,000 compared to the January 2015 figure. The total number of mortgage accounts that have been restructured stood at 106,402 at the end of February. That means people were able to sit down and discuss the distress of the mortgage involved and in 106,402 cases, a sustainable solution for the future was arrived at. The number of mortgage accounts in arrears of greater than 90 days continues to fall, decreasing by 1,730 to 59,138, with a decrease of 482 mortgage accounts in arrears of greater than 720 days, which stood at 28,900 at the end of this year. The numbers in very long-term arrears is a matter of major concern. It is important to note that the latest Central Bank data show the number in arrears for more than 720 days drop for the banks in quarter 4 of 2014 for the first time. The Government wants the maximum number of mortgage holders in very long-term arrears to be able to afford their mortgage, to retain ownership of their houses where they can afford it, and if they cannot, to have viable and easily accessible options available to either stay in the house or to have access to alternative housing.

Deputy Martin mentioned repossessions. The Government does not see repossessions as a policy solution, and every action that has been taken since coming to office has been designed to ensure that the maximum number of people and families can continue to live in their houses. According to the Central Bank report from the final quarter of 2014, of the 429 properties that were taken into possession by the banks, less than one third, or 123, were repossessed as a result of a court order, while the remaining two thirds were voluntarily surrendered or were abandoned. As Deputy Martin is aware, there has been much coverage of the increase in civil bills being lodged by financial institutions. It is important to say that the commencement of the court process is not a signal or an end in itself that repossession will occur. The Minister for Finance has stated that it may often be the case that the process prompts borrowers to re-engage with the lender in the first place to find a solution. Often, those cases are adjourned. I listened to a commentary on the news recently on actual cases which allows both parties time to find a solution and to remove the bank and the borrower from the legal process. It is fair to say that while there are a number of options available involving, for example, the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, or the insolvency agency, such solutions do not work in a number of cases, and accordingly, the Government has committed to bring forward a number of further solutions that will deal with the question of really distressed mortgages where the option can be had for another alternative in respect of those borrowers so that in the vast majority of cases, the option will be there for families or tenants to remain in a house on foot of a variety of solutions.

Deputy Martin mentioned the issue of the veto. The further options that will be brought forward by the Government next week will deal with cases involving serious distress that are outside the scope of the discussions that have taken place to date, following which more than 100,000 cases have been sorted out. However, we remain concerned about the long-term mortgage indebtedness in those cases.

I did not just mention bank repossessions and the bank veto, they were the main part of the question I put to the Taoiseach, but he chose to ignore them until the very end of his reply. The statistics revealed yesterday showed there were more than 586 repossessions since January, and 383 of those related to homes. We know from research by Mr. Seamus Coffey in UCC that 1,000 court-enforced repossessions have taken place already. We also know that 8,000 civil bills are before the courts as we speak. It is not good enough to say that the banks only take people to court so that they will engage in the process. Banks take people to court because they load the trigger and they can pull the trigger whenever they want. It puts the person who holds the mortgage in an impossible position and causes enormous distress and anxiety. I have dealt with cases where people had engaged. The Taoiseach takes the side of the banks at all times, as does the Minister for Finance. The Taoiseach is doing it again today.

It is a bankers' charter.

The Taoiseach said the banks bring people to court because they have not engaged prior to that, but many people engage before they get any legal letter, and they still get the legal letters, with all the anxiety that goes with that.

Could Deputy Martin ask a question, please?

For four years the Taoiseach has been asked to end the veto the banks have over the entire process. The Bill that introduced personal insolvency practitioners did not work. The Taoiseach called them in to hear from them approximately six months ago. Something must happen to change the status quo. Is the Taoiseach going to change the veto the banks have over the entire process - "Yes" or "No"?

I reject Deputy Martin's assertion that the Government continually takes the side of the banks.

The people know it.

That is entirely false. It is beneath Deputy Martin to say that.

How is it beneath me?

Be that as it may-----

The Government's record speaks for itself.

That is Deputy Martin's usual populist line. I remind Deputy Martin above all people, when he speaks of four years ago, that the mess he left behind was the cause of all of this.

People should not be allowed to forget that. When Deputy Martin is in Carlow and Kilkenny he should tell them that his Government put €34 billion into Anglo Irish Bank.

They voted for two elections four years ago. Did they?

That money is lost and Deputy Martin was the cause of losing it.

Did the Taoiseach get a ten-year term?

The Taoiseach voted for it.

Part of that was responsible for the total collapse of the construction sector. That relates to the questions Deputy Cowen asked of the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, just before I came into the Chamber.

The Taoiseach has not dealt with them anyway. I can tell him that. There was one in Mayo in three years.

I asked the Taoiseach about the bank veto.

The Taoiseach should look after his own back yard.

I reject Deputy Martin's assertion that I am an advocate for the banks.

The Taoiseach is digging.

My comments all along in respect of banks and the way they have treated people have been that it is not satisfactory, but it requires-----

The Taoiseach did not say that earlier.

The Taoiseach sounds like the Leader of the Opposition.

-----in the 109,000 cases that were sorted out that people were able to sit across a table and work out an agreed solution to those cases where mortgage distress applied.

They have a big stick over their heads.

The people on the housing list are bunched.

I said to Deputy Martin that the Government will introduce a number of further options next week to deal with distressed cases, in particular those that are in long-term arrears, such as I have pointed out. I will not give the Deputy the details now as the Government will announce them next week.

Why not? Why could the Taoiseach not announce them last week?

I call Deputy Adams.

Because I had other things to do.

It is just all spinning. It is not because the Taoiseach had other things to do.

The Taoiseach thinks it might get him out of a hole in the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election.

If the economy-----

It is more news management. It is all spinning.

Would Deputy Durkan listen? I called Deputy Adams. Would Deputy Durkan stay quiet?

I am sorry. I could not help it.

Is the Kilkenny man back on board? Is he canvassing?

Go raibh maith agat, a-----

I call on Deputy Durkan's neighbour to stay quiet as well.

I am sorry, a Cheann Comhairle. I was just inquiring about Deputy McGuinness.

A Deputy

He is back from Lanzarote.

Go raibh maith agat arís, a Cheann Comhairle.

He is far more popular in Kilkenny than Phil Hogan is.

I note the absence again of the Labour Party.

Or than Deputy Martin is in Fianna Fáil.

I do not know whether the Labour Party has taken up an abstentionist policy on Leaders' Questions, or perhaps its members are embarrassed. The sorry saga of the Taoiseach's efforts to impose an additional water tax on households and his establishment of the now totally discredited Irish Water is a metaphor for how this Government functions, or indeed does not function. There was no need to impose an additional water charge in the first instance, but the Government did so. There was no need to pay €85 million of taxpayers' money to consultants but the Government did that as well.

The Government could have listened to suggestions from these benches, but instead it forced through the Water Services Bill. Back then, the Government threatened to reduce household supplies to a trickle. Popular anger grew and the protests got bigger, so the Government did a partial U-turn. It also failed with that. In the meantime, in the background the Siteserv scandal was being covered up by the Government and a subsidiary of Siteserv was given a lucrative contract for installing water meters across the State. All of this happened on the Taoiseach's watch.

Now we learn from the media that the Government is discussing draconian and unprecedented new powers to deduct water charges from citizens' wages, pensions and social welfare payments. Is it not time to go back to the drawing board? Will the Taoiseach now, belatedly, scrap the water charges?

I have replied to the Deputy on this question on a number of occasions. The Government does not intend to drop the establishment of Irish Water, with its capacity to borrow for investment to fix the many problems that have been associated with the water supply and wastewater throughout the country over a long period. The Government has a requirement. I recall the Deputy stating in public that he intended, as a legislator and a citizen, to pay his water charges. He was very straightforward about that. However, for whatever reason, he then changed his mind and said he would not pay it.

It is about time the country confronted a situation that has been inadequate for many years. We must deal with it. There is a lack of water of sufficient quality in many places and a lack of investment to deal with wastewater. There is clearly a difference between those who can pay but say they will not pay, and those who cannot pay. The Government clearly recognises that. We cannot have a situation in which huge numbers of citizens understand that they must make a contribution for the water supply, which is now very moderate at €1.15 or €3 per week, for which they register and pay and for which they will be in receipt of support from the Department of Social Protection, while others who receive the same water supply say they will not pay when they clearly can. There will be a compliance regime to deal with that. It is grossly unfair to expect one neighbour to pay while the other neighbour takes the view that he or she should not pay. Again, I distinguish between those who can pay but will not and those who cannot pay. The compliance regime will be in place to deal with that, so everybody can invest and contribute to having a country that has high-quality water supplies and high-grade capability to deal with wastewater, which is affecting our reputation in many places.

The Taoiseach's compliance regime, as he christens it, will penalise ordinary hard-working families, pensioners and vulnerable citizens, who have already borne the brunt of the Government's austerity policies. The latest plan, concocted by a Labour Party Minister who is greatly concerned about his legacy, also sets a very dangerous precedent. If a company such as Irish Water can take money from people's private bank accounts or pensions, where will this end? Will this legislation apply to Bord Gáis, the ESB and Eircom? What will stop a private company such as a car dealership from seeking an attachment order?

This latest contortion in the long-running efforts to impose water charges is a direct contrast with the Government's compliant and subservient attitude to the banks, which refuse point blank to deal fairly with families in mortgage distress. The Taoiseach refuses to introduce legislation to oblige them to do so.

A question, please.

He has no problem with legislating for a compliance regime for pensioners, social welfare recipients or workers, but not for the banks. He is prepared to introduce this unprecedented, pocket-picking legislation against those citizens, but he refuses to legislate to protect citizens against the banks or to safeguard taxpayers' money. Will the Taoiseach explain that? Tá mé críochnaithe anois. Will the Taoiseach explain the two sets of values? Is Fine Gael the bankers' party? Is this Government the bankers' party? Will the Taoiseach explain why there is one set of values for dealing with ordinary citizens, for which he is prepared to legislate in the way he has put forward, although he refuses to do that in respect of the veto he has given to, and copperfastened for, the banks?

As I told Deputy Martin, the Government will introduce a number of further options next week to deal with banks and distressed mortgage holders, where clearly there has been a problem for some time. The Government's priority is to ensure that the vast majority of people hold onto their homes and have the opportunity to remain in their homes by following a number of options, which will be presented next week.

On the Deputy's question regarding vulnerable citizens, one of the first actions of this Government was to reverse the decrease in the minimum wage which was introduced by the previous Administration. We have exempted 420,000 people from USC payments entirely-----

Stick with the topic.

-----and we will increase that to 500,000 this year, and we have reduced the USC requirement at the lower levels. Also, with regard to reducing the tax burden, the Government has started to provide that whatever flexibility people have won will go to the most vulnerable categories of citizen.

The difference between water and essential services such as gas, electricity and telecommunications is that the latter can be cut off, but the Government has legislated to provide that the water supply cannot and will not be cut off. Every citizen will get a water supply. There is a requirement to pay for it, however, as well as for the investment to create it and maintain it and the investment necessary for future services. That is the reason the Government listened carefully to people and that the rates are now €3 or €1.15 per week. The Government understands that there are vulnerable people who cannot pay-----

They do not have it. That is what being vulnerable means. They do not have €3 or €1.

-----but there are many people who say they will not pay when they can pay. That is the difference, and there will be a compliance regime to ensure that everybody is compliant.

Empty threats.

The legislation provides that the water cannot be cut off. It is an essential and important service for life, but clearly a contribution is necessary.

So the Taoiseach picks their pockets.

Where it can be paid, it will be paid.

The annual commemoration of the Easter Rising was held this morning at Arbour Hill, and with its centenary approaching there will be much discussion and debate on its values and ideals. One principle from the Proclamation is worth mentioning: that the Irish Republic is a sovereign, independent State. It says, "We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies ...". We have had many threats to our sovereignty in the past, but I wish to mention a threat to our sovereignty today, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP. It has been presented to us in glowing terms and we have been told it will raise EU GDP and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. However, grave concerns are being raised by politicians, trade unions, civil society and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, throughout Europe and elsewhere. The aim of TTIP is to remove any regulatory barrier to profits and the profit-making potential of multinational and transnational companies. It will have massive implications for workers' rights, food safety, banking, the environment, and agriculture, to mention a few areas. However, I wish to focus on education. Including education in TTIP has the potential to do irreparable damage to the education system in Ireland. The investor-state dispute settlement, ISDS, mechanism will give foreign investors a right to sue a sovereign state, with a democratically elected government, for a loss of profit resulting from public policy decisions. Secret decisions made in boardrooms overseas would have more control over our education system than the Minister or the Department of Education and Skills. It will open the door to a proliferation of private and for-profit schools and colleges.

An American congressional report on the for-profit education sector found that there was a 64% student drop-out rate. It also found that 17% of funding in the area of education was spent on instruction. We know there is considerable pressure to expand the scope of the education commitments in the TTIP. I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that education is excluded from the agreement. I wonder whether he has had any discussions with the Minister for Education and Skills on this matter.

The TTIP is currently under negotiation. The opportunity that exists for Europe and the United States, which are the two biggest trading blocs on the planet, to reach a series of trade agreements is nothing new. It has been talked about for over 20 years. If agreement can be reached, the opportunity exists to create approximately 2 million jobs on either side of the Atlantic and to set down the standards for world trade for many years to come. This is not without difficulty. Obviously, each side has a number of concerns that are very close to its individual policy positions. Each side is finding it difficult to change or deal with those concerns, which have been outlined by various European countries and by the United States. My feeling is that if TTIP is not dealt with by the end of this year, it is unlikely that it will be concluded in the lifetime of the Obama Administration. There are two good teams working on this across a whole range of sectors. The perception that Europe was afraid to table the difficult issues and the United States was afraid to table the difficult issues is not actually true. Issues such as tariffs and procurement are being tabled and new offers are being made. Quite a number of chapters of TTIP remain to be considered. I would say, in respect of the education system, that we have a unique advantage in this country. When one speaks to investors from abroad, one hears that one of the outstanding qualities of Ireland's attractiveness is the flexibility of our education system-----

What about the language schools?

-----and the creativity and ingenuity of our young people. That is exemplified by Science Foundation Ireland's investment in so many areas that measure up to challenges that other countries have not been able to meet. I think that is an endorsement of the confidence of our young people and, indeed, of the tutors, teachers, parents and students in our education system. I would not like our public education system, which has stood by this country for a very long time and has turned out exemplary students of exceptionally high quality in so many cases, to be a victim of the TTIP negotiations. Ireland wants to maintain its system of education, which is able to measure up to these issues. Obviously, the team negotiating the different elements of TTIP will have to give consideration to the point raised by Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. Ireland will be very vigilant in ensuring that nothing that would in any way damage our capacity to continue to operate at the highest level of educational standards will be tabled and agreed.

Under similar trade agreements, countries have been sued for massive amounts of money by particular multinational and transnational companies. I was in the education system as a teacher for many years, so I know what our education system is about. I think we have to be concerned about the possibility of increasing commercialisation and privatisation of our education system if TTIP includes education. Approximately two weeks ago, I attended a seminar organised by the Irish Federation of University Teachers and the Teachers' Union of Ireland at which the topic of higher education as a public good was discussed. Concern was expressed at the seminar, and the feeling was that our colleges, institutions of education and universities have to be independent in order to encourage, enable and facilitate independent, challenging and innovative thinking. That will be threatened and undermined if education is part of TTIP, because the ability of the Government to frame public education policy in a way that ensures the public good would be limited. We are all public representatives. Surely our driving force is to serve the public good. How can we possibly be involved in concluding a trade agreement that undermines and jeopardises the public good? At the very least, can the Taoiseach allow for a debate in this Chamber on all the implications of TTIP? Some presentations were made at the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, but there is a need for a full debate here. I am asking for that to happen.

The Government will not stand for a situation whereby the education system in this country is privatised. It is clear that there are private schools operating among this country's universities, colleges of technology, colleges of further education and secondary and primary school systems, and that is perfectly allowable.

They are subsidised by the State.

We have no intention of going along with any proposition that would privatise the education system. We have been served very well in difficult times over the years by an education system that has been capable of changing direction to deal with new challenges as required. There will be an even greater requirement for that in the future because of the rate of change in so many areas at present. As someone who is involved in the system, Deputy O'Sullivan will understand that the confidence and capacity of our education system and students to deal with those changes is second to none. I am very optimistic and pleased about the response I see on a regular basis from students who meet and beat these challenges in terms of their peers around the world. No proposition with any potential to privatise the Irish education system has crossed the Government's desk. This Government will not stand for that.

What about the debate?

Of course I will allow a debate.