1. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the last meeting of the Cabinet committee on European affairs took place. [28290/16]
1. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the last meeting of the Cabinet committee on European affairs took place. [28290/16]
The Cabinet committee on European affairs was re-established by the Government on 23 May 2016 and met on 21 June 2016, prior to the June European Council. The next meeting of the committee will take place on 17 October.
The purpose of the committee is to discuss and to shape Ireland's strategic approach to our EU engagement. The committee will continue to work to ensure a coherent approach across all policy areas, particularly on priority issues for Ireland and, above all, to anchor Ireland's influence and interests in Brussels. This strategic approach at EU level will continue to include engagement at bilateral level with fellow member states and alliance building with key partners.
I would add that the EU negotiations on Brexit will be overseen by a separate new Cabinet committee, which met on 8 September. The committee will meet again before this month's European Council in Brussels.
Has the Cabinet committee discussed the growing momentum towards a significant further step in the militarisation of the European Union in the context of Brexit, which has, according to one source who comes from an EU state with a large defence industry, created a "new situation" but that "we are just at the beginning of the process" and that talks could go on for "years to come"? He or she is explicitly talking about that process of further military integration.
We have a joint proposal from Germany and France which proposes the establishment of an EU military headquarters. According to the EU Observer, "The paper added that a core group of EU states could launch the new security policy", and "In one suggestion, it also declared the political intention to create 'an authentically European esprit de corps' by joint training of military officers.", and "spoke of other projects, such as making EU 'tactical groups' ready to go into action, sharing military satellite imagery, and joint procurement of high-end technology". The proposals also included a joint EU defence budget, shared military surveillance and joint procurement. The Italian Government has gone even further, calling for a "powerful and usable European Force that can also be employed in support to Nato or UN operations". That covers France, Germany and Italy.
In the recent state of the Union address to the European Parliament by the President of the European Commission, Mr. Juncker, the points on so-called defence, in reality, militarisation, are quite striking. He stated:
Europe needs to toughen up. Nowhere is this truer than in our defence policy.
Europe can no longer afford to piggy-back on the military might of others or let France alone defend its honour in Mali.
As if that is what France is defending in Mali. Mr. Juncker added:
For European defence to be strong, the European defence industry needs to innovate. That is why we will propose before the end of the year a European Defence Fund, to turbo boost research and innovation.
This is a bloc that currently spends €200 billion a year on investment in research and development of weapons which are designed to kill and maim people. What is important is that Mr. Juncker stated, "The Lisbon Treaty enables those Member States who wish, to pool their defence capabilities in the form of a permanent structured cooperation." This drive towards further militarisation will be carried out under the title of permanent structured co-operation, a provision introduced by the Lisbon treaty. People will remember that the Lisbon treaty apparently had nothing to do with militarisation. The straw man of conscription into European armies was knocked down.
This is happening. They are driving towards further militarisation in the context of Brexit. What is the Government's position? Has it discussed that at a sub-committee? What position did the Minister for Defence take at the meeting in Bratislava at which these matters were discussed?
I thank the Deputy for those questions. Obviously, security is a central issue of serious concern to the European Union as a whole and we need to respond to that in a coherent and pragmatic way, using the full range of tools - diplomatic, economic development, peace support, etc. - available. Strengthening the EU's peacekeeping capacity and support of the United Nations will be an integral part of the effort to support international peace and security and that will be done through the further development of the common security and defence policy, as defined in the European Union treaties. We contribute actively to that, including commanding EU operations in Chad and Somalia, and we are prepared to engage in further development of this in support of international peace and security, as provided for under the European Union treaties.
At the Bratislava meeting on 16 September, the Heads of State and Government of the 27 member states held a broad debate on the key priorities for the coming months. The President of the European Council and the President of the Council of the European Commission proposed a programme known as the Bratislava roadmap and that addressed several areas, including security and defence. Obviously, security and defence will be discussed in the context of the EU global strategy in the coming months. That strategy on foreign and security policy recognises the need to invest more in conflict resolution and to tackle the root causes of instability. We discussed this yesterday to some degree in respect of the catastrophe unfolding before our eyes in Aleppo. What will be involved here will be a mix of coherent EU policies to support international peace and economic development and to help build state and societal capacity on the rule of law, human rights and governance. Strengthening the EU's peacekeeping capacity in support of the UN will be an integral part of that. This will be done through the further development of the common security and defence policy, as defined in the EU treaties.
There are different views among the 28 member states on how to progress the security and defence aspect of European defence. Ireland, along with a number of other member states, favours practical co-operation in support of international peace and security in crisis management. There is a general understanding that to be effective in this and to deliver a proper response to different crises, we need to make progress across all elements of that global strategy and not just in the area of security and defence.
Suggestions have been made about a proposal that has been around for some time that the EU should establish a joint operational headquarters to support the planning and conduct of its civil and military operations. A permanent joint civil military operational headquarters, appropriately configured, could potentially deliver a more effective and responsive common security and defence policy operations in support of UN and international peace and security, a position which this country supports. However, this is a matter for the EU member states, including Ireland, and it is a matter that will be considered in the context of the implementation plan for the recently published EU global strategy for foreign and security policy, and we will participate fully in that.
There are no suggestions for a European army. The Irish protocol to the Lisbon treaty clearly states that the Treaty of Lisbon does not provide for the creation of a European army.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. After eight years of economic and political crisis, the European Union is now faced with a lengthy crisis about its future direction, not only in the context of Brexit but also in regard to its respect for shared values and rules.
In recent weeks, a range of senior politicians, as Deputy Paul Murphy stated, in member states and institutions have begun talking about changes to treaties and legislation. Ireland cannot stay on the sidelines; we need to set out our policies. For example, we should be very clear in telling President Juncker that there is no public demand or benefit concerning his proposal for focusing on military capabilities. What we need is a reform which addresses the core lack of capacity in the European Union which would assist in increasing much needed economic growth. Did the Taoiseach have any direct contact with President Juncker or any other senior person at Council or Commission level on President Juncker's proposals for changes in the EU?
They are part of the discussions that take place all the time.
I spoke at the meeting in Bratislava about the reasons we should be optimistic about the future of the European Union. It will require political decisions of the 27 member states. The European Central Bank can only do so much in terms of interest rates and buying up paper and all of that. There are decisions that must be taken by Europe if we are to move forward as 27 member states with almost 500 million people. The Juncker plan was one in terms of investment in major pieces of infrastructure. Perhaps it has not been taken up to the extent that it should have been and has not applied to smaller countries like Ireland in the way it might have. It is an issue I have raised with him.
We also had the question of public-private partnerships for investment and how they were being assessed by the EUROSTAT independent office. Following difficulties we were having here, I wrote to the President of the European Commission and circulated it to all the other leaders and I am glad to say movement is being made on it. It will allow for off-balance-sheet investment for major pieces of infrastructure, including housing in some countries, which will be to everybody's benefit. These things are discussed on a regular basis. Getting consensus on where we want to be in five, ten or 20 years is the difficulty.
The Taoiseach is aware that we are at least nominally militarily neutral. The concerns raised about military capacity, obscene levels of spending and a growing symbiotic relationship with NATO are points that are well and fairly made and factually based. They have been rehearsed before. How is it, despite the suggestion of lots of people, including us in Sinn Féin, the Taoiseach has never pursued a protocol in respect of the militarily neutral states within the European Union? How come he has never challenged the militarisation agenda? Perhaps he has but I am not aware of it.
Thank you, Deputy.
On the Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit, will the Taoiseach accept that the overriding priority of the civic dialogue he proposes with the Government and Oireachtas must be to advocate on behalf of the remain vote in the North and that it should be the structure and context in which this sub-committee and all other discussions are framed?
We will be discussing Brexit at the next-----
One of our priorities, which I said at the meeting yesterday evening, is the support from Europe for the peace process. We also have a real responsibility here to the many thousands of small firms that export over €7 billion into the United Kingdom. The currency fluctuations are already causing difficulty there. We have to deal with a range of priorities as part of the Brexit discussions. The Deputy will be kept fully informed of that.
I answered questions this morning on the work going on between the Department of Finance, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland to provide a range of supports for small and medium enterprises that export directly to Britain. This morning, Enterprise Ireland has people from all over the world out in the RDS talking about new opportunities in new markets in America, Canada, Europe and places beyond.
We are militarily neutral as Deputy McDonald said. Our participation in the Common Security and Defence Policy is prohibited by Article 29.4.9° of the Constitution. That protection is reinforced by the Irish protocol in the Lisbon treaty which was voted upon by the people and can only be changed by the people. We are very proud that members of our Defence Forces operate as a support in terms of humanitarian or peacekeeping missions in a number of locations. They do so exceptionally professionally but strictly within the confines of the European Union Treaties and the triple lock. That will remain the position.
The Green Party supports the various calls here today for us to reaffirm that our position in the European Union is to uphold a tradition of neutrality and the peacekeeping work we have done down through the years. Has the Taoiseach come under any pressure to increase the defence budget? Apart from the constitutional arrangements, is there any pressure coming from Europe to increase our spending on defence as part of a wider aim to do that within the Union?
The answer is "No" to Deputy Ryan's question. There has been no pressure placed on us to increase spending. As I said in my earlier reply, we take a very practical view of how we can assist in terms of support and we operate within the confines of the regulations that everybody adheres to.
The Taoiseach in his response said something that is extremely revealing. He basically said he is in favour of an EU military headquarters. I do not see how that tallies with a position of formal neutrality.
How did the Deputy figure that out?
The Taoiseach said a permanent joint civil-military operational headquarters could potentially deliver more effective, etc., and that this was the Government's position.
In principle, the Government is agreeing with the idea of an EU military headquarters. He then tells us there is nothing in here about militarisation when the Italian Government is calling for a powerful and useable European force that can also be employed to support NATO or UN operations. That is a European army. An EU source at the Bratislava event, according to the EUobserver, said everyone mentioned the HQ issue. Did the Irish Government mention it? Did it say it is in favour in principle of the military HQ as is put forward today? A debate on this matter is happening in the European Union. However, it is not a debate between those who are for and those who are against militarisation. It is a debate between those who are for EU militarisation separate from NATO and those who are for EU militarisation integrated into NATO. If Ireland has a neutral position, it should be against both of those positions.
I said a permanent joint civil-military operational headquarters, appropriately configured, could potentially deliver more effective and responsive Common Security and Defence Policy operations in support of UN and international peace and security, a position which Ireland supports. I said further that this is a matter which EU member states, including Ireland, will consider in the context of the implementation plan for the recently published EU global strategy of foreign and security policy.
2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, in Oxford. [28355/16]
3. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach his plans for the North-South summit on Brexit. [28712/16]
4. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the last British-Irish Council. [28715/16]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, together.
I spoke to the Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire, MP, at the British-Irish Association conference in Oxford, where we discussed the future of Britain and Ireland against the backdrop of the UK vote to leave the EU and the particular concerns of Northern Ireland in that context. In addition, we discussed legacy matters and our ongoing commitment to the establishment of a legacy framework as envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement.
The Government believes there is a need for the widest possible conversation on the implications of the referendum result for Ireland, North and South and for North-South relations. To facilitate this conversation, the Government has agreed there will be an all-island civic dialogue on Brexit with the first meeting to be hosted by myself and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on 2 November in Dublin. This is to allow for the widest possible conversation on the implications of the UK referendum result for Ireland, North and South, and for North-South relations.
This event will provide an opportunity to hear the voices of the people affected by the vote, both directly and through their representative groups. It will also provide an opportunity to map the challenges presented by Brexit and how they might impact on different elements of society and the economy on an all-island basis. Invitations will be extended to a broad range of civic society groups, trade unions, business groups and non-governmental organisations, as well as representatives of the main political parties on the island. The main output will be a report and recommendations which will be used to help inform the Government's position on issues related to the UK’s exit negotiations.
I attended an extraordinary meeting of the British-Irish Council, BIC, in Cardiff on 22 July, hosted by the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones. Arising from the UK vote to leave the EU on 24 June, this summit was convened to discuss the implications of Brexit for the council and its members, including those who are not EU member states but whose relationship with the EU is dependent on UK membership. This Cardiff meeting was the 27th to be held since the inaugural meeting of the council in 1999. The meeting was also attended by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, First Minister, Arlene Foster, Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and representatives from all other member Administrations.
The council noted there are several priority areas where implications arise, in particular the economy and trade, the common travel area, relations with the EU and the status of all citizens affected by the change. They further noted the process for implementing the referendum outcome would become clearer in the coming months. During discussions, Ministers collectively reaffirmed the importance of the council as a key institution of the 1998 Agreement and an important and unique forum to share views, enhance co-operation and strengthen relationships among all member Administrations at this time.
I understand that during the meeting of the British-Irish Association in Oxford, the Taoiseach acknowledged a key priority for him in the midst of Brexit negotiations would be the role of the EU in supporting the peace process, including through the special EU programmes body and EU funding. The Brexit referendum will obviously have implications for those programmes that are 85% funded by the European Union. As one can imagine, this has created significant uncertainty for all of those communities and sectors dependent on funding for and the implementation of these programmes.
Will the Taoiseach provide us with an update on the work in which officials have been involved between the Northern Ireland Executive, the special EU programmes body and the European Commission? Did the Taoiseach discuss with Mr. Brokenshire the implications of the British Chancellor's autumn statement in November? The British Government has only given assurances in the case of funding for Structural Funds for those projects approved before the autumn statement. How confident is the Taoiseach that the British will deliver on these assurances? Is he confident that outstanding letters of offer from the Government will be published before the Chancellor's statement?
Did he have an opportunity to discuss the legacy issue with the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? His meeting predated the row between Mr. Brokenshire and the Ballymurphy families? The British Government's approach to legacy matters has been unhelpful, to say the least, and hurtful. Did the Taoiseach discuss with Mr. Brokenshire the failure of his predecessor, Ms Theresa Villiers, and of the Cameron Government to co-operate with the legacy process agreed at Stormont House two years ago? There are some 97 deaths awaiting inquests. There is a suggestion that the North's Attorney General might be preparing to refer even more murders for new inquests. The North's Lord Chief Justice has called for urgent action on the issue. He has proposed a £10 million, five-year plan to clear the backlog in legacy inquests. Did the Taoiseach discuss with the British Secretary of State the refusal by his Government and the DUP to fund legacy inquests?
Will the Deputy conclude as I want to accommodate other Members?
These issues are relevant to the meeting in question.
I know they may be but I want to accommodate other Members.
It is a bit berserk having such a limited time. Can I have answers to those specific questions?
The Deputy is not going to get answers to them all just now. She read out a substantial list of questions there. I did not have time to discuss all those matters with the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire. I did discuss with him what he might do under the legacy issue. I pointed out to him that, while it was never assumed it could happen here, this State under my direction submitted to the coroner's inquest in Belfast whatever information was on files here in respect of the Garda Síochána arising from the Kingsmill massacre. I spoke to him specifically about Ballymurphy. I met the Ballymurphy families in Government Buildings some time ago and it was a very fine meeting. I also visited those good people myself in Ballymurphy to see at first hand the locations where their loved ones were murdered.
I told the Secretary of State that this State providing information to the coroner's inquest on the Kingsmill issue was an example of what should and could happen under his stewardship. While he was very new in his job at the time, I spoke to him briefly in respect of the Border and said that I agreed with the British Prime Minister that there would be no return to a hard Border, a fact which she publicly announced in Downing Street, and I emphasised the importance of that.
On the EU-funded PEACE and INTERREG programmes, on 24 June, the day of the Brexit referendum, officials from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform were in touch with their Northern Ireland counterparts and the European Commission, as well as with the special EU programme body, to underscore the Government's commitment to the programme and discuss how they would continue to benefit from European funding.
The matter was discussed at the plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council that took place in Dublin Castle on 4 July 2016 and at a sectoral meeting of the special EU programmes body that took place in Iveagh House on 7 July 2016. I know that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Northern Ireland Minister of Finance, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, agreed to write jointly to the European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Creu. That work is continuing and I am aware that officials of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are continuing to engage with the Minister of Finance's officials, the special EU programmes body and the European Commission to establish the basis on which programmes will be allowed to continue to be implemented. Both the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister of Finance have also been in touch.
While there are complex financial, technical and legal issues that need to be worked through, I assure Deputy McDonald that, in this regard, the Government's commitment to the successful implementation of the programmes is total. They are an essential and critical part of what we need to discuss in changing circumstances arising from the peace process and the support from Europe for these very important programmes, not just here but indeed in Scotland.
I very much welcome the initiative to establish the summit and to look at the trade issue first. Will the Taoiseach consider using that sectoral approach and having one on the free movement of people, one on security issues and one on the environment? It is a potential way that could evolve given it is so difficult because there are so many issues at play here.
What we are facing is probably the most protracted and difficult negotiations with the British Government. The only example I can think of is the Home Rule negotiations at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century. It is at that level of complexity. Added to that is the fact that, like them, we have deep divisions in Northern Ireland where it looks like it will be very difficult to get political agreement on whatever approach we want to take as an island.
In those circumstances and given that the British Government has been following a deluded and deeply flawed path to try to become an unregulated state, a pirate state that will try to get the best of both worlds, is it not time for us as a friend, because one can only say this as a friend, to tell it the approach it is taking will be deeply damaging to all sides? Is it not time for us to say to the British Prime Minister that the British Government's disregard for the island of Ireland question in the way she presented her intention to trigger Article 50 is a very bad sign and that she must stop and take a different approach if we are going to get some sort of outcome out of this process that will not be deeply damaging to the people of Great Britain and Ireland, North and South?
My question relates to corporation tax rates. After the Brexit referendum, the former British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced plans to slash the UK corporation tax rate from 20% to below 15%. On BBC Radio Ulster on 5 July 2016, the Minister of Finance, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, referred to this in light of the plans by the Northern Ireland Executive to reduce the corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland to 12.5% by 2018. The Minister said, "I think he has put a horse and carriage through our policy." He then referred to the need to consider a different strategy involving reducing the corporation tax rate even further.
In this House, we often speak about the race to the bottom and Sinn Féin Deputies often raise their voices against it, but here we have a Sinn Féin finance minister positively embracing the race to the bottom, slavishly copying British Tory Party policy and promoting the notion of a bidding war whereby tax for multinational corporations would be slashed at a time when profits are sky high and public services are crying out for investment. Was this issue raised at the recent British-Irish Council and, if so, what was discussed? Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to the House that he will not enter into a bidding war of this type?
Quite a number of issues were raised at the British-Irish Council. I cannot recall this issue being raised but I will check the minutes of the meeting for Deputy Barry. I can confirm that it has been very clear for a very long time and enshrined in European treaties that tax matters are matters for the individual competence of each country. We set out our corporation tax rate at 12.5% many years ago and we are not changing that. It is not going up and it is not going down.
However, in recognition of the right of any country to move its tax rate, we did support a situation whereby the much higher British tax rate might be lowered in Northern Ireland to make the island of Ireland a more attractive economic entity in its overall context for foreign direct investment. The former British Prime Minister devolved that authority to the Northern Ireland Executive if it wished to implement it and that is what it decided to do. In the run up to the referendum, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said that the British Government might reduce the corporation rate in Great Britain to boost the economy. We are not entering any bidding war. Our rate is 12.5% and will remain so.
I asked the Taoiseach whether he would consider further strands. They could vary.
I already made the point that this was not a result that we wanted but it is one we must accept because it is a democratic decision of the electorate of England, Northern Ireland Scotland and Wales. We will have differences of opinion with the British Government regarding matters that will probably arise in respect of Brexit, but we are committed to the common travel area and no return to a hard Border and we want to maintain the trading links we have with Great Britain. A total of 200,000 jobs here are dependent on exports to Britain and similarly from Great Britain. We will remain a member of the EU. I discussed this with Deputy Ryan yesterday evening. Clearly, we have a lot of negotiating to do to protect our vital national interests and we intend to meet that challenge head on.
5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met. [28622/16]
6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met; and when the next meeting is scheduled. [28718/16]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 6 together.
The last meeting of the Cabinet committee on housing was held on Wednesday, 28 September 2016. The committee will meet again later this month. The committee meets regularly to oversee the implementation of the Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness, which is a priority for Government.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply and welcome the fact that he has given a clear commitment that the Cabinet committee will meet regularly regarding this very important issue. I represent two very rural counties and the largest number of representations received by me, and I am sure by my fellow public representatives, day in and day out relate to housing. Unfortunately, there are individuals and families in rural and urban Ireland living in bed and breakfast accommodation and hotel rooms, which is far from satisfactory.
There has been quite an amount of public commentary about possible incentives relating to housing in the forthcoming budget. Have impact assessments been carried out on the various incentives that might be introduced? If they have been undertaken, do such assessments give a clear answer that such incentives will considerably increase supply? The programme for a partnership Government also contained a commitment to planning reforms that would be undertaken immediately and implemented incrementally. Has there been any progress on that?
In the previous Dáil, we often heard the Taoiseach talk about the provision of additional much-needed housing stock using modular builds. Unfortunately, that did not happen. The previous Government identified modular building as a key way of increasing housing stock quickly and at affordable rates. As it turns out, the houses have not been provided and they will not be nearly as cost-effective as was originally thought.
The Taoiseach is well aware of housing assistance payment, HAP, provisions and the fact a person is removed from the social housing list when they go on the HAP scheme.
That they will no longer be on the social housing list discourages people who are in urgent need of housing from availing of the HAP scheme. While there has been some commentary on the transfer, in reality people are removed from the traditional social housing list when they avail of the HAP scheme.
The action plan which the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, recently published does not give clear targets for how many social houses will be new, that is, how many new builds will arise from the action plan. There is a great need to increase social housing considerably. Only 9% of Ireland's housing stock is social housing compared with the EU average of 17%. We have a considerable way to go to reach the EU average. Could progress be make quickly on restoring to habitable condition houses that have been left vacant by local authorities? This should be the quickest way of bringing homes back into use for the many families which are desperate for accommodation.
The committee met nine times, on 12, 20 and 26 May, 2, 9, 15 and 30 June, 7 July and 28 September. The committee will meet as appropriate. If it is necessary for it to meet every week, it will do so. The State must deal with the issue. Due to the total collapse of the construction sector, the senior Minister with responsibility for housing and construction, Deputy Coveney, has produced the most comprehensive construction plan for housing ever produced by the State and backed by resources. We want to deal with the homeless and rough sleepers as a matter of urgency. They are symbols of the failure to deal with people on the streets who, in the vast majority of cases, should not be there. The Minister wants, by the middle of next year, to end the situation of having families in emergency hotel accommodation. It is an ambitious plan, but we intend to meet it.
Good progress has been made in implementing the plan. The HAP homeless pilot in Dublin has been extended. A Housing Agency rolling fund of €70 million has been established to purchase vacant properties from banks. The Minister will give all the details of this in a few minutes. There are plans to provide further family and child welfare support for homeless families. A housing delivery office has been established within the Department and a dedicated housing procurement unit has been established within the Housing Agency to assess vacant houses as they arise and make offers to buy them. New planning application process legislation has been published to expedite several priority reforms in planning and tenant protection. A call for proposals has been issued to access the €200 million local infrastructure housing activation fund, which should lead to approximately 11,000 to 15,000 extra houses being produced.
The latest data show that 4,248 adult individuals used State-funded emergency accommodation nationally during a week in August 2016. The August 2016 survey identified 1,151 families in emergency accommodation nationally, a 63% increase over the year. This included 2,363 dependents. I am setting out the scale of the challenge the Minister faces.
I will detail the key social housing actions. We will provide 47,000 social housing units delivered by 2021, supported by an investment of €5.35 billion. Some 26,000 of these units will be new builds. There is the accelerated housing assistance payment and the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, private sector housing fund to deliver increased housing supply, which is where the big focus is. There will be mixed tenure development on State lands and other lands, the housing delivery office has been established and there is extensive support for local authorities and approved housing bodies. I referred to this in reply to Deputy Danny Healy-Rae earlier. There are to be streamlined approval processes. The Minister is moving through the right of local authorities to expedite planning applications, and major planning applications for more than 100 units can go straight to An Bord Pleanála.
While 26,000 of the 47,000 social housing units will be new builds, 11,000 will be acquired by local authorities and approved housing bodies directly from the market or the Housing Agency, with a portion of these being newly built units. Some 10,000 will be leased by local authorities and approved housing bodies, which will include an estimated 5,000 units to be sourced from the NTMA special purpose vehicle, SPV. A further 5,000 units are to be secured from a combination of the repair and leasing initiative under long-term lease arrangements by local authorities and approved housing bodies from a range of different sources not including Part 5.
The Deputy asked how many vacant properties the €70 million Housing Agency fund has bought. Under the new acquisitions programme, it will use a rotating fund of €70 million. It is estimated that the mechanism will deliver 1,600 units over the period to 2020. Some 700 properties have been referred to the Housing Agency for potential acquisition and, as of 22 September, the agency has made a bid in respect of 96 of these, of which 49 have been accepted. These are in addition to the 171 properties the Housing Agency has acquired on behalf of local authorities from the two pillar banks under its existing acquisition programme.
It is a very extensive challenge. It is a massive programme and, in so far as the direction can be given through the Cabinet sub-committee, it will meet as necessary. The third quarter report will be published in the coming weeks and the Minister will supply the Deputy with all the details necessary.
The Simon Community survey found that 87% of rental properties are beyond the reach of people who depend on State housing benefits. This was raised earlier. It also found that less than half the number of rental properties are available than were available in May 2015. The Simon Community is deeply and rightly concerned about the ongoing reduction in the availability of homes to rent, which is down by 19% from August 2015 and by 55% since May 2015. The report is the first since the Minister introduced changes to the rent supplement payment in July, and it strongly suggests that the Minister's changes have had little or no impact.
One of the marks of Fine Gael in government has been its utter failure to tackle properly the issue of social housing and homelessness. The Taoiseach once promised to end homelessness by 2016. That was five years ago, and the situation has deteriorated. Recently, the number of rough sleepers on the streets of Dublin increased to 168, the highest number ever recorded. In the Taoiseach's previous remarks, he referred to homeless people or rough sleepers and said the vast majority should not be there. I do not know what he means by that.
I meant some rough sleepers do not want to go into accommodation.
I am glad the Taoiseach has clarified that. It was an alarming thing to say. No family or individual should be homeless or raising their children in a hotel room or bed and breakfast accommodation. I am sure we agree on this.
It is a priority of the Minister to deal with it.
There has been a 32% increase in those recorded as sleeping rough during the past year. This happened on the Taoiseach's watch. Two weeks ago, we saw the re-launch of most of the same proposals that were announced in July, in the Government's action plan for housing. There were many promises but there was very little sign of real progress. While the announcement of 200 additional emergency beds for rough sleepers is welcome, these are emergency beds, not a permanent solution for the trauma of those who are rough sleepers or homeless.
The Government decision to create an additional 300 Housing First tenancies is, at best, a modest expansion and is nowhere near sufficient when set against the fact that there are more than 2,000 homeless single people. The Government's decision to provide €70 million in funding over three years for the Housing Agency to purchase 1,600 vacant units is not good enough. According to census figures, there are more than 189,000 vacant units in the State, more than 40,000 of which are in Dublin. To allocate €70 million over three years to purchase only 1,600 of them is miserly and not nearly enough.
The most recent figures from the Residential Tenancies Board reveal that rents are increasing faster than inflation. It found that, across the State, rents increased by just under 10% in the second quarter of this year. The index also showed that significant increases were not confined to the Dublin region. In Dublin, rents are now 3.9% higher than they were at the previous high point in 2007.
The absence of rent certainty is causing major distress for households. The Taoiseach will recall that, last June, Sinn Féin tabled the Rent Certainty Bill, which would have saved working families up to €2,000 per year. To its shame, if it has any, Fianna Fáil backed its partners in government, namely, Fine Gael, to vote the Bill down. The Government is due to publish its housing (miscellaneous provisions) Bill in October. Will the Government reconsider its position and introduce into that legislation the rent certainty measures outlined by Sinn Féin and, sadly, voted down last June?
The most fantastic document that I have read in recent years emerged from Sinn Féin yesterday on how to sort out all of the problems of Ireland - no interest in water conservation - and provide money for every single problem that has ever existed. Absolutely brilliant. I am not sure who Deputy McDonald expects to believe that. In any event, as the deputy leader of her party, she is fully entitled to produce any policy document she wishes, but I wish that it was based on-----
Really? How kind of the Taoiseach.
The Taoiseach, without interruption.
-----some measure of reality. The Ministers, Deputies Coveney and Varadkar, increased the rent supplement and the HAP in July. The challenge here is to deal with supply. There is a series of schemes to bring vacant properties back into good use for families. We had a situation where any vacant property in Dublin was being completely gutted and refurbished as a brand new build at excessive cost. That was changed to be a practical component whereby one provided a decent house - well insulated, warm and comfortable - for families. That is an issue that is part of the provision of many more houses that were vacant for a long time and are now being brought back into use.
There are 220 extra beds being provided for rough sleepers on an emergency basis, bringing the total to 1,800. I do not want to see anybody on the streets this Christmas, and there was no one on the streets last Christmas except those few people who wanted to be there and who, as Deputy McDonald knows very well, have a variety of complications, difficulties and challenges and never wanted to be in accommodation - hostel, rental or whatever - in the first instance.
They were not going to hostels. That is an entirely different issue.
We have exceeded the time.
Last year, there were 74 social houses built in this country. "7" and "4".
Who was in government last year?
I ask the Taoiseach to conclude his response.
A plan of Deputy Kelly's.
By the end of this year, there will be 1,500 and the Minister will bring forward-----
Who was in government last year?
That was the Government's plan for €3.8 billion.
-----his full rental proposals, which will be vastly more realistic and comprehensive than what Sinn Féin has proposed.
We will see. The jury is out on that.
An endorsement of the former Minister, Deputy Kelly.