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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Jul 2015

Vol. 885 No. 3

Leaders' Questions

The past week has been a very difficult one for people in Greece and many people in Ireland. Yesterday saw the callous cut to the one-parent family payment, which will affect 30,000 single parents and their children. Despite being warned that this is a counterproductive policy that will hurt many, the Government has ploughed on with it. This is against the backdrop of the highest number of homeless families ever recorded, with 1,038 children from 490 families being housed in hotels across Dublin alone. The number of homeless families is increasing month on month, despite the Government’s stating it is taking urgent action. Government policies are, unfortunately, making the housing crisis worse, instead of better. The Government has been good on rhetoric and in stating its vision, but it is not taking enough practical decisions to allow families to stay in their homes. Only two of the six banks have passed on reductions in mortgage rates, yet the Government refuses to take any real action to ensure relief for mortgage paying families. Its refusal to increase rent supplement adds to the increasing problems of families who find themselves without a home. The housing charity, Simon, recently surveyed 1,150 properties available to rent in Dublin and found that only 12% were available within the rent supplement cap limits. As a result, housing authorities are allocating emergency accommodation in hotels for families who cannot rent properties. For the first time, families are presenting to the Housing First agency which accommodates rough sleepers. This week Focus Ireland again called on the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, to intervene urgently. By refusing to address the rent supplement caps which have become totally disconnected from the rental market, the Government is standing over a vicious circle for the families affected. Will the Tánaiste agree to increase the rent supplement caps to help address this problem?

The Deputy started by referring to the poor unfortunate people in Greece and what had befallen them. It must come as a relief to everybody in this House that, thankfully, what has happened to people in Greece is not a threat here because in this economy we have had a managed process of recovery. The Deputy also referred to the one-parent family payment. I do not think there is such a thing as a one-parent family payment.

There is none here either.

The basis of the payment in Greece is whatever pensions are available.

The Deputy referred to changes in the one-parent family payment. This is the third year of the changes. For Fianna Fáil’s information, because it will apply to many of the Deputy’s constituents - perhaps he should inform himself on the issue - this year we have had contact with approximately 25,000 parents on a continuing basis, in individual and group interviews, in all Intreo offices, to open up services to lone parents. Already, since February, 1,250 lone parents have transitioned to family income supplement, which boosts their family income significantly. I want the Deputy to be aware of this because I am quite sure many of his constituents have benefited directly from it.

We have a huge issue in building and providing extra units, apartments and houses around the country. The Government has allocated unprecedented levels of funding, from the funds generated by recovery and people going back to work, to building, leasing and renting houses and the transfer to the housing assistance payment, HAP. As in the case of lone parents, when we set up and established 60 new Intreo offices, we moved from the Department of Social Protection simply paying money to people to it having individual interaction with people. I sat down with the most senior people in Simon who came to see me less than a month ago at my invitation in my offices for pre-budget discussions. They told me about their concerns about housing, housing allocations and homelessness. They also told me that they were particularly pleased that the one-to-one service had seen more than 2,000 cases countrywide of people who were worried about rent increases to negotiate the rent on a one-by-one basis with landlords. This was done through the sustainment protocol in operation with Simon and other organisations such as Threshold. That is the way we are approaching the problem. The Deputy should be aware of this. We have rolled out the protocol around the country through the community welfare offices, as requested.

Why are they ringing us?

That is not happening.

I thank the Tánaiste for her response. My question to her was if she would agree to revise and increase the rent allowance cap which she had introduced. She proceeded to preach to me on a number of fronts, but she has avoided answering the question. The unfortunate reality is that in 2012 she reduced the rent allowance cap. She told us she was reducing it to reflect rental market considerations. In the past three years rents have increased by between 20% and 30%, yet today and in the past few months the Tánaiste has refused to amend the rent cap allowances to reflect current market conditions. Instead, she tells us that individual families who cannot find a home within the rent allowance caps should try to deal with the problem on a one-to-one basis and go cap in hand to plead their case with their local authority and the landlord. Those in receipt of rent allowance are not a tool for the Tánaiste to try to affect the rental market. They are people who need housing in the same way as anyone else and who are more dependent and vulnerable than anyone else. It is unacceptable for the Tánaiste to oversee a situation where in many parts of the country people who need to find a home cannot do so within the rent allowance caps. Whenever the situation changes, the rules need to change. That was the Tánaiste’s stance in 2012 and there is no reason she should not now take the same approach. She cannot continue to stand over this situation. The problem of homelessness is growing day by day and it is owing to a lack of action by the Tánaiste that it is continuing. Will she agree to revise the rent allowance caps in the next few weeks to ensure this crisis can be addressed?

When Fianna Fáil had finished with the economy in its bubble of greed and speculation-----

The Tánaiste should answer the question.

Let us deal with the housing crisis, please. That is a tired excuse from the Tánaiste. This is her issue and she needs to deal with it.

The Tánaiste should go and listen at the banking inquiry.

When Fianna Fáil had finished with the destruction of the economy - there are quite a few Members in this House who understand what happened in the housing market - housing stopped.

The Tánaiste understood.

More importantly, because the party was well in with a certain type of developer and banker-----

That is ridiculous. Will the Tánaiste deal with the issue? There are people who are homeless in this country.

The Tánaiste should answer the question.

The building of social housing-----

What is the Tánaiste doing for the homeless people?

Sorry, please stay quiet.

All she is interested in is scoring political points. That is all it is.

She is a disgrace.

It is a serious issue. This is outrageous.

The building of social housing was no longer regarded as an appropriate social commitment by Fianna Fáil at a time when the economy had never been stronger or boomier, so to speak. In regard to the Deputy's proposal, first, I am going to go back again on what the solution is. We have to build more units and return to the development of social housing, which the Deputy's party callously abandoned when the people who need social housing-----

What about the rental caps?

She is a liar. Tell the truth.


Will you stay quiet? This is Leaders' Questions. It is not your question; it is his question.

Yes, but she should tell the truth.

A Deputy

She is misleading the House.

Second, as I just said, I regularly meet the organisations dealing with housing issues.

The Tánaiste is doing nothing about it, in other words.

Thank you, Tánaiste. We are over time.

The market in terms of social housing is about 30% of the rental market.

They cannot find homes.

What the Deputy is suggesting is that we should drive increases in rents for people at work and paying their own rent.

The Tánaiste should not use them as a bargaining chip.

Would you, please, stay quiet?

What we are doing is helping families on a one-to-one basis. We regularly text all the people where we have their mobile phone numbers to tell them, if they have any query or difficulty with a landlord - I want to repeat this message here-----

Sorry, Tánaiste, you are well over time.

-----to please contact the social welfare community services and they will get help specifically, as more than 2,000 families have done so far this year in renegotiating-----

She wants them to come, cap in hand, to plead their case.

There is no cap in hand.

There have been no tax increases either.

They just want to take attention away from the banking inquiry.

This week, the Tánaiste will take up to €87 a week from more than 10,000 single parent families. This is the eighth successive cut she has inflicted on lone-parent families. The vast majority of these parents, as she knows, are women. Many are in low-paid and insecure jobs, many more are living in or at risk of poverty, and all struggle to raise their children in challenging circumstances.

In 2012, the Tánaiste promised that this cut was dependent on "there being a system of safe, affordable and accessible child care in place, similar to what is found in the Scandinavian countries". She said very definitively that without affordable and accessible child care, "the measure will not proceed". The average cost of child care is currently €167 a week, and higher again in Dublin. In many communities, child care is just not available. When Fianna Fáil cut child benefit, the Tánaiste said this was anti-woman and her party said it highlighted the lack of influence of women in Cabinet. Yet, here we are, with Deputy Burton in government and second in command, introducing a measure that is both anti-woman and anti-child.

Why has the Tánaiste broken her solemn commitment that, in the absence of accessible and affordable child care, she would not introduce this cut? Will she, even at this late stage, reverse this cruel and unjust decision to push thousands of one-parent families into poverty?

I thank the Deputy for her interest in the issue. I am glad that parties in this House should actually want to debate how, as a country, we help lone parents to move from a situation where, if they are relying on a social welfare income, they are seriously at risk of poverty. In 2003 and 2004, at the height of the Celtic tiger and Fianna Fáil's rule in this country, lone parents were at a risk of poverty of somewhere between 30% and 33%. Changes in policy mean that has now gone down to 23% because, since we instituted this change over two years ago, this being the third year of the change, lone parents' risk of being in consistent poverty has reduced. It is a very high figure at 23% but, during Fianna Fáil's high years, it had been at 30% and 33%, ten points higher. If a lone parent is not working, their risk of poverty is over 40% but if they are at work, particularly if they have family income supplement, their risk of consistent poverty falls below 10%. I find the 10% unacceptable but I find it infinitely better than either the 33% of Fianna Fáil or the current rate this Government has achieved, and which the Deputy's party spokesperson on social welfare spoke about in his speech the day before yesterday.

Let us be clear on what the objective of this Government is. It is to get a group of people parenting with their children on their own to a situation where their risk and experience of poverty is dramatically reduced. We have done that, as the Deputy well knows from the information she has from the Department, by creating a transition period of over seven years to a lone parent returning to work. That is in recognition, as I told the Sinn Féin spokesman, of the fact we in Ireland do not at this point in time have the kind of child care system to which I certainly aspire.

I did that in the context that, although, as a Government, we are spending €260 million this year on child care and providing for 100,000 children, it is still not enough. I am very ambitious to go further. That is what we are spending and there is a seven-year transition.

In the North of Ireland, where the Deputy's party is in power-----

-----the transition age is five years of age and the supports for families are significantly smaller than they are here, as the Deputy is aware. What we all need in this country is to work together, to work with employers, with education institutions and, in particular, with community organisations to help lone parents, who work so hard to make the transition to paid employment, of a significant amount in order that-----

Sorry, Tánaiste, you are over time.

-----for a lone parent with one child, their income on social welfare is €218. If they get 19 hours of work and move to family income supplement, their income goes up to €400 a week. I would like it to be higher than that but that is a very good start in helping to get people out of poverty.

I thank the Tánaiste for that. She might consider raising her concerns on issues around the North of Ireland the next time she has an opportunity to speak to David Cameron. She has conspicuously not availed of the opportunities to raise those issues before.

What about Northern Ireland? Tell us what Sinn Féin is doing about child benefit up there.

Here is the issue.

Order, please.

The Tánaiste is trying to argue that-----

It is Sinn Féin-MI5.

Is that a voice in the wilderness over there?

Will you stay quiet? Deputy McDonald, without interruption.

The Tánaiste is trying to argue that black is white. She is trying to convince a group of families, who we all recognise are at risk of poverty and who we all recognise work very hard to raise their children-----

The Deputy wants to keep them in poverty.

She is trying to convince 10,000 of them that, by reducing their weekly income by €87, she is assisting them out of poverty.

The Deputy is wrong.

No, that is right. Furthermore, the Tánaiste is attempting to assert that all the parents who have been at their wit's end-----

A question, please.

-----some of whom will be almost in despair at this moment because of this cut, have somehow got their figures wrong. Let me tell the Tánaiste that, in my experience, people raising children, especially on their own, when it comes to their household budgets, do not get the figures wrong because they simply cannot afford to. The Tánaiste conspicuously avoided answering the central question. She concedes that we do not have an adequate child care provision or system. She made the promise.

Yes, I did.

The Tánaiste promised the very thing she is doing would not proceed until we had adequate, accessible, affordable child care. She went so far as to pin her ambition to the Scandinavian model. We have nothing of the sort, yet she proceeds with this, despite all her supposed concern for poverty and lone parents. We all know that child care is one of the major factors in regard to poverty. We also know that if a person cannot get 19 hours-----

Sorry, the Deputy is way over her time.

-----or is not in a position to work 19 hours, he or she is in serious difficulty. Instead of being condescending or dismissive on the issue, the Tánaiste should be aware that people who are watching this broadcast are about to lose €87 a week. Some of them will be forced not to get more employment but to leave employment. What do they see here? They see a Thatcherite stance from the Tánaiste and a position of utter indifference. I call on her to change her mind, keep her word and stop this cut.

I am not aware whether the Deputy has ever had the opportunity to visit a community-based crèche or if she has any familiarity with the work that is done by my Department, where over the past three years there has been a complete revamp of community-based child care and we now have high-quality child care at affordable, discounted prices for people going to work.

In regard to this debate, I want to move to a situation where parents are parents, regardless of their relationship status. It is time this country moved on and acknowledged all parents as equal. If the Deputy takes the time out of her busy and important schedule to visit community crèches, she will find a high level of child care is provided, very much in line with what I have seen as best practice in other countries and which follows detailed programmes.

Do we have a Scandinavian model?

We are over time.

I am ambitious. The Deputy may not have had the time to visit, but I am ambitious to see child care in this country improved for all parents, because parents who are married deserve to have access to good child care as well.

Do parents deserve to suffer this cut?

Instead of addressing the issue of all parents, this debate focuses on people with a particular relationship status. What about a couple, man and woman, both of whom are out working? Is child care of no concern to them? We want good child care-----

My concern today is that the Minister is taking money from the pockets of lone parents.

Sorry, we are over time.

Sinn Féin has a concept of a welfare country. Let me tell the Deputy about welfare. Jean McConville had 12 children and what did Sinn Féin's associates in the republican------

The Government does not give a damn. They are hypocrites.

I must ask the Member to please adhere to the Chair.

There is growing concern regarding the workings of NAMA and whether the taxpayer has been well served by it . The Taoiseach seems content that all is well, but I know many people who think otherwise. The Tánaiste is an accountant and might have more concerns than the Taoiseach. There have been disturbing allegations around the largest ever sale of property in the history of the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland loan portfolio, Project Eagle, involving more than 850 properties with a par value of €4.5 billion, was sold to US private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management for less than €1.5 billion, a surprise winner of the tender.

In June 2012, following consultation with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, and Mr. Sammy Wilson MLA, NAMA reappointed Mr. Frank Cushnahan and Mr. Brian Rowntree to the Northern Ireland Advisory Committee. Two weeks later, a report by a Northern Ireland auditor's office seriously questioned the stewardship of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which led to the resignation of Brian Rowntree and Frank Cushnahan. The report found breaches of housing executive guidelines in the sale of at least 27 land deals, the executive board being given wrong or no information relating to key property deals, favoured property speculators being allowed to buy land well under market value, expressions of interest from other parties not being declared or considered, and at times no reasons being offered for some off-market sales.

These two individuals stayed in NAMA, one of them up until the summer of 2014. Does the Tánaiste think this was a good idea? Back in 2009, the Tánaiste proposed an oversight committee for NAMA, with the purpose of informing the public about what is happening in NAMA. In the past four and a half years, has the Tánaiste at any time considered putting that idea forward again? Given this has not been done, does the Tánaiste believe now is the time for a serious look at how NAMA operates? We need an independent inquiry to see if the interests of the taxpayers have always been the top priority for NAMA.

I am not familiar with the details of the particular case the Deputy outlined. The issue of the oversight of NAMA and proper procedures is important because NAMA was, in effect, a kind of bad bank for the explosion that happened in the Irish property market when construction and the financing of it fell apart.

In regard to the arrangements made for NAMA, I suggest that if the Deputy has not already done so, he should submit a detailed question such as this to the Minister for Finance. I do not know whether any of these questions have been raised with NAMA or whether the Deputy has raised his concerns with NAMA. However, as the Deputy knows, the Comptroller and Auditor General has oversight of NAMA and closely oversees the work it does. When the arrangements regarding NAMA and the banks, following the collapse of the banks, were established, a decision made by the previous Government was followed by the current Government. That decision was that the governance and organisation of NAMA's affairs would not be run directly out of the Civil Service and, in particular, would not be run directly by politicians. I believe this was the correct decision and that it is better that it is run as a business.

NAMA was also set up with a specific legal structure which was debated at length in the House. This was further strengthened by the current Government in the context of oversight by the Comptroller and Auditor General. As the Deputy knows, the Comptroller and Auditor General reports directly to the Committee of Public Accounts, of which a member of the Opposition is Chairman and at which members of all groups and parties are represented. Any issues concerning NAMA are significant, but I do not have a direct answer for the specific query raised by the Deputy. The structure of oversight and governance, along with the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts, seems to be the right avenue through which to address the issue.

I suggest the Deputy should get one of the Technical Group's representatives on the committee to raise the issue with the Comptroller and Auditor General. If the committee wishes, it should then examine the issue. In previous cases regarding issues arising in organisations, that mechanism has worked well.

I remind the House again that the naming of persons outside of the House is regulated by Standing Orders and by rulings of the Chair. It is not the practice to name people in the House.

Am I to take from what she said that the Tánaiste is happy with how NAMA has worked? The oversight mechanism she proposed in 2009 has not happened, but does she not feel it would have been a significant benefit? She did not address that question.

The Tánaiste said it would be better if politicians were not involved in this episode.

We have had politicians involved and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, and Mr. Sammy Wilson, MLA, were involved in the reappointment of the two men concerned. One of them was reappointed for a second time in 2014, despite the damning report of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. I find that difficult to understand and I also find it difficult to accept that the Tánaiste would be okay with that.

The legal firm acting for Cerberus Capital Management, which purchased the Northern Ireland loan portfolio for €1.5 billion, was Tughans of Belfast. It has been reported that during a routine audit-----

This is not an inquisition. This is Leaders' Questions. Will Deputy Wallace put a question please? He is out of time.

It is about taxpayers' money.

It is reported-----

Deputy Wallace cannot use the Chamber to make cases against people who are not here to defend themselves. Deputy Wallace knows the regulations as well as I do and he has been reminded often enough. The Deputy should please stick to the Standing Orders or else I will have to cut him off. He should ask his question.

We are talking about billions of taxpayers' money.

There are other places to make such charges but not in the House where people are not here to defend themselves. I do not know anything about those people but there is a rule and I have to apply the rules. Deputy Wallace should please adhere to them.

I am not telling anything that was made up.

I am asking Deputy Wallace to adhere to the rules of the House. If he wishes the rules to change he should bring them to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Would Deputy Wallace please put his question to the Tánaiste?

Does the Tánaiste have any concerns that a routine audit of a solicitor's firm that looked after the deal showed €4.5 billion of assets were sold for €1.5 billion, with a massive loss for the taxpayer? The routine audit showed that £7 million sterling ended up in an Isle of Man bank account-----

Deputy Wallace.

It was reportedly earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician or party.

Will Deputy Wallace give all those details to An Garda Síochána? That is what it is there for.

Does the Tánaiste not think the matter should be looked at?

In terms of this House and under the Constitution, the Comptroller and Auditor General has a specific role, including in regard to the oversight of NAMA. There have been three special reports on NAMA's activities by the Comptroller and Auditor General and they have been broadly positive in their assessment of how NAMA is managing what is a very complex business. I regret that NAMA ever had to exist and that good builders such as Deputy Wallace and the people who worked for him ended up in the crash that followed losing a huge amount of employment and a huge amount of money, but that is what happened when the economy was run into a brick wall. It is very difficult to give a definitive answer on the recovery value of anything which previously had a certain value and which lost its value following the crash.

The Comptroller and Auditor General has done a series of reports on NAMA. I am not clear on whether Deputy Wallace is basically saying he does not accept the Comptroller and Auditor General's reports.

Its remit is limited.

There is a remedy available to Members of the House because the Comptroller and Auditor General is answerable to the Committee of Public Accounts. We have seen the committee examining reports the C&AG has brought forward on several organisations. I cannot answer individual statements the Deputy has made on particular cases. If what he is saying is correct, he should go to the Garda, the board of NAMA and the C&AG, but I do not wish to comment on the specifics because I am not familiar with them. Is Deputy Wallace saying he has no confidence in the ability of the C&AG process and the Committee of Public Accounts to investigate the issues?

The Tánaiste is the one answering the questions.

If that is the case, it is regrettable.

Does she have confidence in NAMA?

I believe we need an independent inquiry.

In a few years time the Tánaiste will be in before another committee for the NAMA tribunal.

Yes, it is outrageous.

Before I come to the Order of Business, I wish to refer to another matter. I know people in Baltimore are grieving at this point in time and I wish to express the sympathy of the House to the families who have been bereaved in the drowning tragedy there - the Ryan family and that of Niamh O'Connor.