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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 12 Apr 2017

Vol. 947 No. 1

Leaders' Questions (Resumed)

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald, who knows the rules, is next. You have three minutes.

Thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for reminding me of the rules.

The people faced the Taoiseach down on water charges. They called a halt to the Government's plans and privatisation agenda and the Taoiseach did not like it one bit.

Yesterday, the Government and Fianna Fáil cobbled together a deal that seeks to subvert the will of the people and their democratically expressed wishes on the future of our water services. The Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services was on the verge of agreeing a report that would have comprehensively addressed the demands for which so many people have protested and marched in recent years. However, the Taoiseach was not having that. The Taoiseach could not listen and accept the will of the people. The Taoiseach still clings to the hope that he will finally have his way.

The antics of the Government and Fianna Fáil to save the Government's rejected water policy have been truly a sight to behold. The political choreography was set. Senior counsel came to the committee and delivered legal advice that completely contradicted the legal advice offered only one week before. Conveniently, the legal advice delivered yesterday was in line with the Government's needs. It tore through the agreed position of the committee and gave the Government and Fianna Fáil a way out. Yesterday, it was confirmed, for once and all, that the Government's confidence and supply agreement is in reality an agreement for connivance and cute-hoorism.

That is very unparliamentary language.

The connivance is provided by the Taoiseach's party in its blatant undermining of the democratic and political processes within the Oireachtas. The cute-hoorism is, as ever, provided by Fianna Fáil, which has flip-flopped once again. Fianna Fáil Members have used their political strength not to be constructive, as they proclaim, but to face down and thwart the will of the people. In a most spectacular U-turn, Fianna Fáil has shown once again that it cannot be trusted.

I thought Deputy McDonald was paying them.

When it comes down to it, Fianna Fáil will look after itself first. That comes as no surprise but many people will be glad of the reminder. The truth is that this debacle has absolutely nothing to do with complying with EU law and everything to do with Fianna Fáil's fear of a general election. Fianna Fáil Members broke their key election pledge to abolish water charges in their totality.

Will Deputy McDonald be paying?

These proponents of new politics call themselves the centre ground. However, they have demonstrated that it is only a brand name for business as usual. There is nothing new about what happened yesterday. It has been happening for decades, and with the same result: the ordinary people get screwed by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. What they call the centre ground is in really the insiders and the political classes. It is those who believe that power and authority are their entitlement.

In this report, Fine Gael has its levy for excess use. This is a way of keeping the back door open for the return of charges.

Deputy, please. I call the Taoiseach to respond.

Fine Gael also has metering. Here are my questions.

You should fit them into the time.

Can the Taoiseach explain what wilful abuse of water supply is? Who are the wilful abusers of this supply?

I call the Taoiseach. You will have another opportunity.

Who are the chronic wasters of water?

You will have a further opportunity.

Can the Taoiseach tell us how they will pay these levies?

Probably with money.

I want to congratulate the deputy leader for cynical outrage in her consistency, at least. She comes in here time after time and talks about privatisation of the water system. I described it yesterday as fantasy and she is at it again today.

It is not fantasy. It is between the Government and Fianna Fáil.

Deputy McDonald's leader and party made it perfectly clear that Sinn Féin supported water charges and that Sinn Féin would pay its water charges.

An Taoiseach, without interruption.

Deputy Adams is not here today. I hope that he is in Belfast making arrangements for the Sinn Féin party to come together with the DUP and form a working Executive. We have other matters to consider besides the kind of carry-on that Deputy McDonald is on about this morning.

The Taoiseach should be considering it. It is his responsibility.

I am glad that the committee, which was set up for a specific purpose, has agreed a report. The process is democratic and Sinn Féin is a very democratic party.

An Taoiseach, without interruption from anybody.

It had other ways of dealing with the middle ground before. They are all democrats, abide by the law and understand that. The committee set up for that purpose has made its recommendation and its report. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government will now proceed to provide legislation to deal with the recommendations that are in that report.

I differ from Deputy McDonald on this. I come from a part of the world where hundreds of thousands of people welcomed and waited for access to water for a very long time and have always paid for it.

Deputy McDonald lives in a world where when the tap is turned on, somebody else has paid for it. That is what she wants.

We all pay for it.

The whole theme of the Deputy today is not about a solution; it is about the lack of further protest available to her, because that is all she wants.

The Taoiseach is having a laugh.

The Taoiseach without interruption.

That is all Sinn Féin wants. Its entire political system is based on outrage, cynicism and protest. In this case, our country is moving on.

The Taoiseach is moving on.

I would like to have water meters in every house so that everybody could judge and make arrangements for the safe use of a precious commodity. Deputy McDonald has a different view. She wants everything for nothing. I am quite prepared to be democratic and allow the Oireachtas to deal with the legislation that the Minister will bring forward. If Deputy McDonald's attempt is at outrage today, her attack is silently on the Fianna Fáil party. At least it had the courage to come to a conclusion in the interests of our country and move on.

The Taoiseach should not worry about my outrage.

It is not me that he should be concerned about; it is the outrage of people that I represent-----

The people with the swimming pools?

-----who pay their taxes and who pay for everything.


Deputies, please. Deputy McDonald without interruption.

I notice Deputy Donohoe is laughing. These are people who live in the community that he also represents.

Which I am privileged to represent.

There is nobody looking for something for nothing. That is not the debate here. What is at issue is who prevails in a democratic society.

What we have seen is a textbook example of the Parliament, the Dáil and elected representatives-----

-----conniving to abandon their democratic mandate and, rather than seeking to represent the people, seeking to face them down. That is what they are all about. That is what their new politics - old politics - is all about.

Go raibh maith agat, a Theachta. Ceist.

Who are the chronic water wasters? Who are these people? How will they pay these levies?

The Deputy asked a very important question there. I thought she knew the answer but I am going to give it to her anyway. She asked who prevails in a democratic society. The answer is the majority. That is what democracy is about.

The majority voted for those who promised to get rid of water charges.

The issues are talked out and a decision is made. A decision was made by an Oireachtas committee set up for the purpose of examining the expert review that had made its recommendations and-----

And then overturned.

-----it has agreed a report. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government now has the responsibility to table legislation to give effect to that report. That is the process that is under way. That is called democracy and that is democracy in action. Despite Deputy McDonald's protests, cynicism, false outrage-----

I am outraged, but my outrage is the least of the Taoiseach's worries.

-----despite the fact that she wants everything for nothing and wants to pay for nothing-----

Answer the questions.

The answer to the question is-----

Answer the questions.

He is as watery as usual.

Order, please. Give the Taoiseach an opportunity.

Deputy Ferris knows a lot about paying taxes as well. The answer to the question-----

So did Fine Gael when it was prosecuted for not paying taxes.

The question is: who prevails in a democratic society? The answer is the majority. I am glad that, in respect of this matter, a report has been agreed and that the Oireachtas can now proceed to deal with the legislation to give effect to that, which will provide an opportunity for people who have excessive usage to conserve water. It will also ensure that people will pay a penalty for excessive usage.

The Taoiseach has exceeded his time. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

We know he has exceeded his time. He has to go.

I have to be honest and say I am sick and tired of hearing the Taoiseach or representatives of the Government say it takes time to fix the homelessness and housing emergency. I came into the Dáil in 2011 and brought in with me, probably for the first time, dozens of families and individuals, including children, who were facing housing emergencies at that time. I warned the Taoiseach that his policy of moving away from direct council housing construction towards reliance on the private sector would generate a crisis. Today, again, there are approximately 25 households, individuals, families and children in the Visitors Gallery. They are just the tip of a very dire and desperate iceberg of misery, anxiety, insecurity and suffering because of the abject and total failure of the Government's policies on housing and homelessness.

I want the Taoiseach to look those people in the eye and tell them that his housing policies are working. Tell Sinead and her three year old daughter, who was told a few weeks ago to go 12 km into town with her children to a hostel where there are active drug users. She then had to fight to get into a hotel and last week was taken into hospital with stress because she is still homeless. Tell James and his family - a mother and their five children - who have been homeless for the past six months, whose daughter has special needs and who are being pushed from one hotel or emergency accommodation to another. Tell Richard, who is recovering from addiction and who is only offered hostels where drug use is rampant despite letters from his doctors about his mental health issues. Tell Peter, who is drug free but who is in emergency accommodation with active drug users, whose mental health is seriously at stake and who was recently hospitalised. Tell Carrie, who has been homeless for a year and is forced to share a room with three people who are smoking heroin. Tell Tom, who has been homeless for five years and who had to lodge court papers against South Dublin County Council because it took him off the housing list and took away his time. Tell Amanda and her two children, Sarah and Eamon and their four children, Samantha and her three children, all of whom had HAP tenancies - the Government's great solution and the centrepiece of its housing policy - and who are all now being evicted by landlords who want to pull out of the HAP arrangements.

I thank the Deputy

Tell Antonia, whose father has motor neurone disease and who - along with her father - is about to be evicted at the end of this month and has nowhere to go.

I thank the Deputy and I call the Taoiseach.

Tell Anna, who is living in a boxroom at her parents' house, sharing with her 14 year old niece, her two year old daughter and a three year old son. The list goes on. I will be writing to the Taoiseach with all of these cases.

I have to call the Taoiseach. We want to get an answer.

The Taoiseach should please tell them what he is going to do for them and that his housing solutions are working for them.

I thank Deputy Boyd Barrett. The very reasons the Deputy outlined for the people who are faced with this situation are the result of an economy that collapsed and a construction sector that vanished. This Government and that which preceded it have set about rectifying matters. We have done a lot of things in terms of having an engine to drive the economy. The people who are going into the 38 houses that are being completed in September of this year in Belcamp have the same stories. The people who are going to occupy the 24 houses in Cherry Orchard in July of this year have the same stories.

The people who are going into the 30 houses on Mourne Road in Drimnagh in June of this year have the same stories. The people who are going into the 39 houses in St. Helena's in Finglas have the same stories. I could give the Deputy their names and their details also. I feel sorry for those in the situation the Deputy has described. I do not know about the situation whereby a housing officer or an individual in a local council would send somebody ten or 12 miles away, as the Deputy has described. He mentioned that particular case before.

There are lists of houses that are currently under construction and for which taxpayers' money has been put up. Money has been given to local authorities to get on with building. Quite recently, €200 million was allocated by this House to obtain access to sites so houses could be built for people such as those the Deputy describes. Nobody wants to see the situation continue. This Government is working very actively on this. That is why there is a senior Ministry for housing and a special unit in the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. That is why an unprecedented amount has been provided to all local authorities to buy, renovate or build houses. We will not have this solved until the people the Deputy mentions and those who come after them, or those who find themselves in particular difficulties, are housed in proper accommodation. That is the intention and ambition of the Government.

I am afraid the Taoiseach is in denial. This is not about the collapse in 2008; it is about a policy decision the Taoiseach's Government made in 2011 at which time he said the new policy represents a fundamental reconfiguration of the landscape of housing support in Ireland. The statement went into detail. The Government was to stop building council housing and rely on leasing arrangements with the private sector. That is the root of the problem. It has been a disastrous failure. The plan of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has not broken from that. It has, in fact, expanded that misguided, disastrously-failing policy, which is resulting in people in HAP tenancies – the centrepiece of the Taoiseach's strategy – now being evicted from the supposedly secure social housing the Taoiseach said the policy would provide for them. There is ridiculous box-ticking with the objective of getting everybody out of hotels by July. Does the Taoiseach know where they go? They go onto the street or into hubs in town that are full of addiction and drug use. The strategy is failing disastrously and the Taoiseach will not admit it.

Will the Taoiseach do what Mr. Edmund Honohan advocated and start a compulsory purchase programme to buy empty properties and buildings to house the people in these circumstances? Will he order NAMA to immediately stop selling off land and property-----

If the Deputy wants to get a response-----

-----and use all its resources to provide social housing?

The Deputy may not circumvent a rule.

Will he ensure that people in the HAP programme have secure accommodation and that local authorities will be obliged to keep them in permanent and secure housing?

I will move on to the next question. I call Deputy Thomas Pringle.

Otherwise, the weasel words mean nothing.

I ask Deputy Thomas Pringle to put his question. If Deputy Boyd Barrett is going to try to circumvent the rules, he should note it is wrong to abuse them.

I went a few seconds over.

I have warned the Deputy.

Deputy Micheál Martin went eight minutes over.

He did not go eight minutes over; nobody went eight minutes over.

I will give the Taoiseach 60 seconds.

Could I have a response?

All the things Deputy Boyd Barrett mentions are available to local authorities now.

They have been given money to buy houses. They have been provided with money by the taxpayer to build houses. They have been given incentives to get into sites that have been inaccessible for building. They have the opportunity to provide public land that they have in their possession in order that builders may come and build houses for them.

The Government is selling the land.

The root cause of the problem is not what Deputy Boyd Barrett says but a lack of supply of houses. I do not know where the Deputy lives but-----

It is a lack of supply of council houses.

-----he cannot wave his wand out in Dún Laoghaire and build houses like that. It takes blocks, concrete foundations, planning permission and all the rest of it. That is what is happening.

That is why the Government put €5.3 billion on the table for the period between now and 2021 to build those houses so that the people with difficulties to whom the Deputy referred and their children can be housed in proper and fit accommodation.

Go raibh maith agat, a Thaoisigh.

That is the kind of accommodation that is now being provided in the areas I have outlined for the Deputy for the very same kind of people who have the very same kinds of problems. We cannot deal with them all right away.

The Taoiseach has to observe the rules as well. I call Deputy Thomas Pringle.

Work on all of these issues, including rent pressure zones and HAP, is in full flow in the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and is receiving the attention of the Minister.

The Taoiseach has not answered the question for the people in the Gallery. He should tell them how his solutions work for them.

I call Deputy Pringle.

The question was from Deputy Boyd Barrett and the Taoiseach has answered it. Deputy Pringle has three minutes.

Rural Ireland was dealt another blow recently when Ulster Bank announced plans to shut 22 branches between June and September of this year. Two of those branches are located in Ardara and Raphoe in my constituency of Donegal. Once they are closed, it will leave these rural towns without any form of banking facility at all.

Ulster Bank claims the restructuring of its services is required to meet the ongoing cost challenges of RBS, yet this is a flawed rationale. Ulster Bank had a recorded profit of €280 million in 2016 and paid a dividend of €1.5 billion to RBS.

The truth of the matter is that the banks are not interested in addressing the needs of communities. They will always be driven by profit margins, but while private sector banks restructure their businesses and move online, communities still need banking services to survive. How does the Taoiseach expect rural communities to restructure with them? They cannot, and rural communities will suffer as a result.

Banking services are vital to the survival of towns. Reports and studies have shown the consequences of banks retreating from rural communities, not only for customers but also for small business, which Fine Gael loves so much. In the UK, lending to SMEs has reduced by 64%, and the reduction is as much as 104% where the town has no bank left. A town received on average £1.6 million less in lending the year after a closure.

The Taoiseach will reply to me that Ulster Bank is not an Irish institution and the Government cannot intervene. I have already got that from the Minister for Finance. Let me remind the Taoiseach of the consequences facing rural Ireland because the Government refuses to intervene: an ongoing transport crisis, including the latest Bus Éireann dispute, Garda station closures, post office closures, delays in rolling out broadband, continued emigration, and banking closures.

While the Government may not be able to intervene in the latest bank closures, there are issues it can influence. In rural Ireland, we have a network of community banks called credit unions. The Government continues to hide behind the regulator who is doing nothing to facilitate them to develop in a way that can assist their communities and meet the needs of rural towns, for example, funding social housing projects or providing a range of banking services. It is as if, like Ulster Bank, the Government does not care about the needs of rural communities and the Government's policies reflect that in prioritising private sector banks over credit unions.

As well as Ulster Bank's announcement last week, we heard from An Post, in last night's "Prime Time", that it has identified 265 post offices as non-viable. No doubt we will see plans crystalising over the coming months seeking to close these too. Interestingly, McKinsey was consultants to both Ulster Bank and An Post and was the author of their strategies for nationwide closures. No wonder these strategies look so alike.

It is over two years since the Kerr report on the future of the post office network was published. What implementation have we seen by the Government? None. The Government has merely allowed the crisis to deepen. The Taoiseach can avoid taking any responsibility for Ulster Bank and the communities that are being devastated by the bank, but he cannot wring his hands and claim no responsibility for the destruction of the post office network and the continued stifling of credit unions.

Go raibh maith agat. The Taoiseach-----

Will the Taoiseach get the finger out and take some action rather than publish more reports that will only gather dust, running down rural Ireland and forcing more emigration on our communities?

Deputy Pringle will have another minute. The Taoiseach to respond.

Deputy Pringle has set out the situation in so far as Ulster Bank is concerned. Deputy Pringle has not referred to the very substantial rural development programme that has been published by Government across all Departments which includes a direction for the provision of 135,000 jobs, out of 200,000 to be created over the next number of years in areas outside the greater Dublin region, including the Deputy's area.

Deputy Pringle is clear on his remarks about the post offices. The Deputy might like to know that between 2004 and 2010 there were 345 post offices closed. He did not refer to any of those at all. In the past five years, there have been 37 post offices closed. No post office will stay open unless people use it.

The Government has made a decision that there should be basic banking facilities made available in post offices, and we are working on that.

After they close.

The assessment of the Minister of State, Deputy Ring-----

Before he threw the towel in.

-----of a pilot scheme for hubs to operate on the basis of four post offices to be determined was accepted by Government.

The credit unions are regulated by the Central Bank. Two reports on credit unions were produced. The Government has implemented them and is fully supportive of the credit unions all over the country. It is not true for the Deputy to say that the Government has no interest in rural Ireland - far from it. In fact, many of the major policies of this Government are focused directly on giving opportunity and incentive to rural Ireland, not least the recent announcement by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment regarding the roll-out of national broadband. The review of the capital programme for the next number of years, which will provide opportunities for infrastructure throughout all parts of the country, including the Deputy's area, is under way. As a result, I do not accept at all his suggestion that the Government has reneged or is reneging on its commitment to rural Ireland. Every single regional sector has shown a growth in employment.

In respect of the Deputy's opening remarks about the way people do their business now, he should appreciate - as I am sure he does - that €14,000, I think, is now spent online every minute by people doing their business. The way people do their business has changed and it will not go back to the way it was. I cannot speak for Ulster Bank, but we do support the credit unions and the opportunity to provide basic banking facilities in post offices and to give them whatever services can be given. Post offices will not survive unless they are used by people. They cannot be locked away if everything is dealt with online. If they are social centres, which they are, and very important for communication, they must have a range of services that people will use and want to use because that is the lifeblood of business as well.

Regarding the rural action plan, there is much plan and no action. Three months after its announcement, we face the possible closure of 265 post offices, reduced bus services and the scuppering of the national broadband plan by the Taoiseach's Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. How does this reflect on the Government's action plan? It shows that no action is taking place. People cannot use post offices if the latter cannot provide services. That is the bottom line. Two years on from publication, the Kerr report has not been implemented. All the Government does is open up more consultations. Nothing actually happens, and that is the problem. The Government needs to take action. I have met the Registrar of Credit Unions. The Registry of Credit Unions gives the perception of being helpful but it does nothing except place obstacles in the paths of the credit unions. The Taoiseach's Government can change that policy and engage with and direct the registrar to be a facilitator of the credit unions providing services, not a blockage in their path. The Government can take action but, unfortunately, is not doing so. It can take action to strengthen the post office network and the credit unions and allow them to facilitate and help people and business in rural areas but it is too slow in dragging out the roll-out of these plans.

I thought the Deputy might take the opportunity to say that people with the challenge of cystic fibrosis in rural Ireland are very encouraged today by the decision made by the Minister, the Department of Health and the HSE in respect of Orkambi and Kalydeco.

That is for another day-----

They live in rural Ireland as well.

The Deputy mentioned Cockhill Bridge in Inishowen, which is now in receipt of several million euro as a consequence of interest in rural Ireland. The specific actions and the programme for Government commitments regarding post offices include encouraging social welfare payments at post offices, and the Minister has confirmed that tender. The point is-----

Why did the Government take them away?

-----how many of all the social welfare recipients in Donegal want their payments paid into banks as distinct from post offices? If we are serious-----


-----about our post offices, people must use them.

I thank the Taoiseach. His time has expired.

They have that right and that choice. We support the roll-out of the pilot scheme presented at Cabinet by the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, and adopted by Government for four hub post offices to be determined as a pilot scheme.

The Taoiseach will have to avail of another opportunity.

We support also the introduction of the roll-out by An Post of the e-payment accounts system, which will help businesses in post offices. We will also advance the model of community banking that has been so successful in other countries.

That concludes Leaders' Questions.