Leaders' Questions

The extent of the homelessness and housing scandal represents a damning indictment of our society and the Government's inability to come to terms with it. There are about 5,187 adults, 1,400 families and 3,000 children homeless. The impact on the children is quite shocking. Our system to deal with homelessness is close to collapse, if an additional burden is put on existing services which are very stretched. In 2014, Fr. Peter McVerry said it was a national emergency, but it has deteriorated seriously since. It is shocking that only 638 social houses were built in 2016, of which 384 were built by local authorities. Approximately 5,800 private houses were built in 2016.

I will address the various initiatives. Rents are exorbitant. The average rent in Dublin is €1,744 per month and €1,100 nationally. At all levels of the continuum of housing policy, the position is very serious and grave and the initiatives put forward have clearly failed. The development contribution rebate scheme has produced negligible results, while the infrastructural scheme for affordable housing has had very poor outcomes and results. So far seven units have been provided under the repair and lease scheme. On the much-vaunted planning change in repect of over 100 houses, did anybody see the advertisement placed by An Bord Pleanála on 1 August apologising for the delays in planning due to an inability and lack of staff to progress and process planning applications? Above all, there is no overall focus on or plan for affordable housing. Most of those who are homeless will continue to remain homeless for an undue length of time and more people will become homeless. It is reckoned that about 90 people become homeless every month, although the Government does not publish figures any more. Likewise, for the foreseeable future most people will struggle to afford to pay rent and to buy a house unless there is a fundamental shift in policy.

Does the Taoiseach accept that the Government's policies are simply not working and have not worked for the past few years and that there is a need for radical change in the provision of both council and affordable housing? The social housing list includes about 120,000 people and only 600 social houses were built last year. People want to be in a position to afford to buy a house. Does the Taoiseach accept that there is no overall plan to provide affordable housing, either for rent or to buy?

I want to start by saying some words about Jimmy Magee. It was with great sadness that we all learned today of the death of this iconic sports commentator. His commentaries were legendary and based on a breadth of knowledge of sport that was peerless. He also had an innate sense of timing, which often meant that his descriptions of events became as memorable as the events themselves. He was part of the fabric of Irish sport and lived and breathed sport. He would talk about, reminisce and recall sports events with anyone and everyone. Although his voice may now be silent, the wonderful memories created for us by the Memory Man will live on forever.

To answer the Deputy's question, on my own behalf and on behalf of the Government, I very much acknowledge the stress that is being endured by many families and people who are facing homelessness at present who are staying in emergency accommodation. As I have said previously, homelessness is a stain on our society.

When it comes to the larger issue of housing, which, of course, is much broader than homelessness, we are absolutely aware of the need to ensure that more affordable housing is available for people. It has long been the case in Ireland that those in their 20s and 30s can aspire to buy their first home. That is now increasingly difficult, not because house prices are higher than they were ten years ago but because mortgages are more difficult to get and, of course, the availability of new houses and apartments is very much less than it should be. These are issues that the Government is very much attuned to, and issues where we acknowledge that more progress needs to be made in the time ahead.

It is important to point out some of the progress that is being made. Deputy Micheál Martin accurately listed many of the problems. It is important to balance that by mentioning a little about the progress that is being made. For example, today, and indeed every working day, 80 individuals and their families will be housed by the State, that is, there were roughly 19,000 new tenancies last year. We anticipate 21,000 new tenancies this year, which is a significant response to a serious problem. Also, we have had the development of the family hubs, of which the Deputy would be aware. That has allowed us to reduce the number of children and families in bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels by almost half in the period gone by. The hubs provide much better and much more appropriate accommodation for families able to do their own laundry and cooking, etc.

We have a plan, which is Rebuilding Ireland. It is working. It is funded to the tune of €5.4 billion over the period of the plan but we acknowledge that more needs to be done. The Deputy will have heard already from the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, some of the additional measures that are taking place. For example, house building itself is ramping up considerably. We expect 2,500 social houses, that is, council houses and apartments, to be built this year. That number will rise to approximately 5,000 next year of which 3,800 will be built directly by local authorities, others will be acquired through Part V and others - long-standing voids - will be brought back into use. We are getting to the point where we are starting to see supply recover but we are very much in catch-up mode, but catch up is what we intend to do.

The Taoiseach's reply, with the greatest of respect, illustrates the disconnect between the Government rhetoric and talk and the reality on the ground. In quarter 1 of 2017, for example, how many houses have the four Dublin local authorities built between them? Nil. Zero are completed. There were 638 last year. The situation is getting progressively worse.

The first decision of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was to abandon the plan by his predecessor, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to end families living in emergency accommodation in hotels by July last. His very first decision was to state he was abandoning that plan. The Taoiseach will forgive me and the rest of the country for being a bit sceptical about saying the Government will reach targets. Only 25% of the 10,000 units so-called "in the pipeline" are on site - it will be 2021 before they come on stream - compared to the already too-low target of 26,000. We have got all the targets, we have got all the commitments but every year the reality falls far short of those targets. I outlined the initiatives that the Government announced over the last two to three years. The Government said these would make an appreciable difference and these would make an impact. They have made no impact. It is negligible.

I thank Deputy Martin. The time is now up.

People are in a crisis. Young couples cannot buy houses. Even the private sector is not building - the whole financial model is not right - but on the social housing front, the Government could have done something. It can do something. It is vital, both on the social housing and the affordable housing side, that there is a significant step-up in terms of house construction that the State can get involved in, and the budget should flag that and should represent and signal a significant increase in council construction and affordable housing.

We are making real progress as evidenced in the fact, as I mentioned earlier, that today 80 people and their families will be housed by the State and that there will be 21,000 new tenancies this year.

They are houses that people have left.

A Deputy

They are not new houses.

They are changing the name of the scheme to HAP.

There are 21,000 additional individuals and their families who are being housed this year.

There are not. They were previously in receipt of rent supplement. They are now in receipt of the HAP. The name of the scheme has been changed.

In some cases they are people-----

(Interruptions).

Please allow the Taoiseach to speak.

He finds it difficult to speak without Mr. Concannon beside him.

(Interruptions).

I see that we are going to have a repeat of the same pattern whereby Deputies will be allowed to ask questions and will be treated with respect but the minute someone gives a reply that they do not want to hear, one will be interrupted right away.

Perhaps the Taoiseach might give an answer instead of a reply.

(Interruptions).

Please, Deputies.

We will have 21,000 individuals and families housed this year. In some cases, people will be moving into newly built council houses, while in others they wil be moving into voids that have been brought back into use. Others will be housed through the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme which Deputy Micheál Martin's party supported, or the rent supplement scheme. There is a significant number of people who are being housed every year. The figures the Deputy gave, in some ways, tell the story of the progress being made. Only two years ago we were in a situation where virtually no council houses or apartments were being built. We got to the hundreds last year. The figure will be in the thousands this year and next year will be up around 3,800. It takes time to ramp up housing supply; it just cannot be done overnight, but it is something which we are committed to doing. Next year we expect between 20,000 and 25,000 houses to be built, of which somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 will be social houses which will get us back to the point - this is good policy - where roughly 20% of new housing stock will be social housing. We have a €5.4 billion funded plan to do exactly that and there will also be other measures.

Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle agus cuirim fáilte ar ais romhat agus roimh an Taoiseach. Tá súil agam go raibh sos breá agaibh agus go bhfuil sibh réidh go mór leis an obair atá romhainn. Aontaím leis an méid a dúirt an Taoiseach faoi Jimmy Magee. Ba mhaith liom mo chomhbhrón a dhéanamh lena theaghlach. Mar a deireann an seanfhocal, ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

The Government's failure in the health sector is especially evident in the unacceptable way citizens with intellectual disabilities and their families are treated. There is a scandalous lack of services for families with children with disabilities. There is an absence of scheduled respite care services, especially for adults with intellectual disabilities and complex needs, including autism. These families believe they have been abandoned by the State. They are living in a perpetual crisis, under continuous stress, with no break because they cannot avail of proper respite services. As I am sure the Taoiseach knows, it gets worse as parents get older, get sick or their loved ones develop more challenging behaviour. Last night on RTÉ's "Prime Time" programmme we heard the story of Adrienne Murphy and her son Caoimh, a 14-year-old boy with autism. His mother was forced to make a desperate public plea to the HSE to provide residential care because she simply could no longer cope. He is in a hospital bed used to treat burn victims, not in a facility dedicated to meeting his particular needs.

Following last night's programme the Taoiseach may deal with Caoimh's case, but what about the others? In my constituency of Louth and Meath East I am contacted regularly by families who are in similar situations. Sam is an 18-year-old with severe autism, challenging behaviour and complex needs, which often result in violent episodes. His mother is battling to access a respite care service. Sam recently turned 18 years and is no longer eligible to avail of respite care services for children. As such, he is now without access to any respite care service. His family are exhausted and distressed and constantly worrying about what might happen if there is a family crisis or illness and they cannot care for him. His mother has met the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris. She has built a campaign but believes her son's needs remain invisible to the Government.

Adam is a 42-year-old who is non-verbal and has high-support needs. His parents are elderly and at their wit's end. They have cared for him for all of his life with very little support from the State. This is another family who cannot secure a residential placement because no funding has been found. There is no real, fit for purpose, way to provide proper services for these citizens. The system is chaotic and disorganised and it is left to the endeavours and ability of individual families.

Budget 2018 provides an opportunity for the Government to make real differences to these families. What measures will Government introduce to ensure citizens, such as Caoimh, Sam and Adam, receive the dedicated services they so urgently need?

The Deputy will appreciate that I am unable to comment on individual cases on which I do not have the details and that even if I do have the details of individual cases it is not possible for me to breach client or patient confidentiality without the permission of the client or patient to do so. That said, in regard to the case of Caoimh, the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, are very much aware of it and met this morning with officials from the HSE and the Department for an update on the discussions on residential placements. The HSE has been working on this case for some time and I understand that there will be further contact today with the young man's mother. We are informed that this is not a funding issue and that a residential placement will be funded once the application has been accepted. The HSE has been providing ongoing care to the family thus far in terms of home supports.

In regard to support for people with disabilities in general, it is important to acknowledge the work that is being done by the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. There was a €90 million increase in funding for services for people with disabilities this year and an increase in the disability allowance for the first time in eight years. Children with severe disabilities, those in receipt of the domiciliary care allowance, for the first time now receive a medical card by right regardless of their parents' income, which acknowledges the enormous cost of health care for many parents with children with severe disabilities. Approximately 10,000 children who previously did not have a medical card now receive one by right and a further 40,000 no longer face reviews.

Decongregation is very much under way. This is happening in my own constituency and, I am sure, in Deputy Adams's constituency. Old institutions, where people with disabilities were kept in Florence Nightingale-style wards, are being closed and those people are being moved into community houses, which is much better accommodation than they had previously. Dedicated funding has been put in place for emergency placements, which is of crucial importance. An issue that had been a big problem in previous years, namely placements for school-leavers, has been improved dramatically. It is important to acknowledge that progress, which is very real and is being experienced by hundreds of people and their families every year.

There is, of course, always more work to be done and we acknowledge that. This week, for example, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, and the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, announced €10 million in funding for pre-activation supports for people with disabilities who might be able to move into employment. As this is an issue Deputy Adams has raised in this House many times, I hope he will take the opportunity to welcome that.

We acknowledge that there are two areas that will require additional investment in the years to come: first, respite, because respite provides a life line for families, giving them the break that they need while their loved one spends a period in respite and, second, the issue of people with disabilities who are living with parents who are now in their sixties and seventies and getting on in years and are understandably concerned about what will happen to their son or daughter with a disability who is still living with them when they pass on or they become unable to look after him or her. They are two areas that will require additional investment in the years ahead. However, it is important to acknowledge those many things done in this year alone to improve the lives of people with disabilities and, of course, their families.

With respect, Taoiseach, it is not good enough. It comes down to what one believes in. One either believes that citizens have rights or one does not. A person with a disability has rights irrespective of the disability. Society must be shaped to meet those needs. This cannot be left to individual Ministers regardless of how well-intentioned they may be.

The Taoiseach spoke earlier about a republic of opportunity. What about a republic of equals? What about the pulse of our people, which is about access to decent public services, the right to a home, the right to a health service and, particularly the right to proper services to citizens with disabilities? The Taoiseach is a doctor and he is bound to know the stress caused to the families concerned. I was greatly moved by an elderly woman I met recently, whose son, who she has cared for all his life, is approaching 50 years of age. Every night, he walks up and down the stairs continuously. She cannot get a break.

Surely that should be a great priority for the Government, that they have a place in the Taoiseach's republic of opportunity. I want these issues to be dealt with and only use those cases as examples. Do these citizens have a right to equality? Can we also have an "Equality Yes" campaign for them? The Taoiseach has said what he and his Ministers have done. Will he advise us of the measures that will be brought forward in the forthcoming budget to provide these citizens with the care that they require?

We all believe in equal rights for people with disabilities. I will give the Deputy an example of what the Government has done just in the year gone by to improve the rights of and the support available to people with disabilities. We all believe in supporting the families concerned, whether it be through the provision of medical cards, increases in welfare payments, employment opportunities or services. We all believe in these measures and maximising the opportunities for people with disabilities. The Deputy's party has been in and out of government in Northern Ireland for most of the past 20 years, but let us consider the payments made to people with disabilities there.

Does that excuse the Taoiseach's conduct?

Let us consider the service deficits in Northern Ireland in terms of the cutbacks social care trusts are making in Northern Ireland. I do not accuse the Deputy of being uncaring or heartless because of the challenges faced in Northern Ireland, nor do I accuse him of abdicating his responsibility to look after people in Belfast or Derry.

I am not the Taoiseach.

A Deputy

That is a relief.

I have talked about the real progress made already and commit to making further progress in the years ahead.

The Labour Party and I want to be associated with the Taoiseach's remarks on the passing of Jimmy Magee who was a man of humour and knowledge who brought both enlightenment and entertainment to us all. We will certainly miss him.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the forthcoming budget. With there being fewer than three weeks to budget day, it is important that we have an honest debate in this Chamber about the choices we face. During the past few days we have had the opening salvo in a phoney war between the Government and Fianna Fáil. On Monday the Taoiseach made it clear that he would like to increase the threshold above which people pay income tax at the higher rate. This proposal, designed to give no benefit at all to the poorest half of the working population, would clearly be regressive and its impact would be marginal. For someone earning €40,000, the gain would be the grand sum of €4 a week but only for the richest half of the working population. I hope it is clear that this bad idea should not manifest itself in the budget. Fianna Fail's view is that instead the 5% rate of the universal social charge, USC, should be lowered. Again, it would be a regressive measure, albeit marginally less so than the Taoiseach's proposal. It would benefit more people but only to the extent of €2 a week. It would be a tragedy if these were to be the only options with which we would be presented which would deliver a paltry dividend as against using the same sum of money, a modest enough €200 million, to make a real difference in the provision of services. Reducing college fees by €1,000 would cost €74 million; cutting class sizes in both primary and secondary schools would cost only €22 million; raising the wages of all those who work in the child care sector to a living wage would cost €63 million; and eliminating waiting lists for home care packages would cost €18 million. These are four substantial changes the Taoiseach could afford to make rather than giving a token amount to people who could really live without it when there are such pressures on services.

My question is straightforward. Will the Taoiseach accept that, having regard to the tight fiscal space available, that this year there is insufficient space to cut taxes? Will he give a commitment that instead, for at least the coming year, he will devote whatever resources are available which will be modest enough in the grand scheme of things to making a meaningful investment in public services that would make a difference to the people?

I should first state clearly that the budget has not yet been written or agreed to. It is still under negotiation, particularly among Ministers. The phoney debate, if there is to be one, is the one the Deputy wants to have, which is that budgetary policy is solely a trade-off between tax reductions and spending increases and, of course, the phoney debate that assumes that spending increases always result in better services which he and I both know is not the case. The truth about the budget is something different. It is that because of the way the Government has handled the economy-----

This Government.

-----and because of the growth in employment and salaries in the past year or so, we can do three things in the budget and we intend to do them. The first is to balance the books. For the first time in ten years, we will produce a budget which will balance the books. That may not be a politically popular thing to do, but it is the most important thing to do because when an economy is growing, we should balance the books and pay down our debt. We will do both because we will not repeat the mistakes of the past made by other parties, although we will learn from them.

The second thing we will do is increase spending on public services and infrastructure. We estimate that when account is taken of the full-year cost of measures previously announced and commitments made, as well as the additional fiscal space, public spending will increase by approximately 4.5% next year. That equates to a spending increase on services and infrastructure of between €1.5 billion and €1.8 billion. We will do that and also find some space for tax relief. We think that is the right thing to do because 2 million people work hard, of whom 1.4 million pay income tax and USC. They produce the wealth that allows us to do all of those other things and I believe they deserve a break in the budget. For that reason, we will find some space to give them an increase in their take home pay and a tax reduction that they deserve which, in turn, will allow them to spend more on their families and more in the economy, thus creating employment for others.

With regard to the statistic the Deputy used for the richest and the poorer halves, he should bear in mind that 30% of people have been taken out of the USC and tax net. We have taken 30% of the 50% to whom he referred out of the tax net altogether. Is it not right to say to people who are in the middle income bracket and still pay USC and income tax and who very often believe they pay for everything and get very little in return that there should be something in the budget for them also?

The Taoiseach might acknowledge that I know something about forming budgets. It is, bluntly, a matter of taxation and expenditure. That is what all budgets come down to. I refer to the notion that the Taoiseach should dismiss the lowest paid in the country. Is it the case that they have got their bit? The line seems to be that the Government has taken them out of the USC net and that is enough for them. The 30% on the lowest incomes who are getting by will get nothing because they are not part of the coping classes on which the Taoiseach's focus groups are focused. He talked about learning from the mistakes of the past. If we have learned anything from them, it is that one cannot be all things to all men and women and that one cannot spread a bob for everybody and make a meaningful difference. If resources are scarce, the only progressive thing to do is to ensure we have quality public services which make a difference to the people who depend on them. I have instanced some examples, but many things could be done on the capital side. I will instance them again for the Taoiseach when we get closer to the budget, but let us have the debate, not a phoney war or kite flying by the Government and Fianna Fáil to test the temperature. Let us have a real debate in this House about what should the priorities be for the next year and the years beyond.

It is always a sign that one is on weak ground when one has to misrepresent somebody's position to make an argument. I merely pointed to the nonsense of the Deputy's point about having tax reductions for people who do not pay tax or who at least do not pay income tax or USC.

I am arguing against tax cuts.

It is not possible to reduce USC or income tax for the 30% of people who pay nothing------

The money should be used instead for investment in services.

Please, Deputy.

We again have this continual pattern. All of us here listen with respect to the questions being asked.

And then the Taoiseach twists the words used.

The Taoiseach is very thin skinned.

The minute Deputies get an answer or have to hear some facts, they get upset.

The Taoiseach will have to get used to this.

I am not sure they are facts.

I did not twist Deputy Brendan Howlin's words; he twisted mine. He has tried to make out that I said there would be nothing in the budget for the 30% of working people who do not pay USC or income tax.

That is what the Taoiseach said.

The Taoiseach has become very sensitive. He had better take a chill pill.

The kinds of things that are included in our budget and economic policy for people who are on such low pay that they do not pay any income tax because we have taken them out of that net are increases in the minimum wage.

This Government and Members on these benches increased the minimum wage twice since the Deputy left office.

It will be twice in two years.

The Government raised it by 10 cent.

Next year it will rise by 30 cent.

We have also agreed wage increases for example, and only last week there was agreement from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Bear in mind the Deputy is the man who said Fine Gael could not negotiate a pay deal and that we did not understand the unions. Last week we saw agreement for the negotiated pay deal with ICTU, which will see pay increases in 2018, 2019 and 2020 for all public servants, particularly those on the lowest pay.

What other things can we do? We can expand social insurance benefits. In the next couple of weeks, for example, social insurance benefits will be extended to people who pay pay-related social insurance. There will be a restoration of treatment benefit, for example, which was cut by the then Minister for Social Protection - a member of the Deputy's party - but it was restored by me when I got that job.

The Taoiseach was not there at the time I suppose.

Where was the Taoiseach then?

May we have order please?

The Taoiseach will need a thicker skin for discussing Cabinet responsibility.

In the last couple of weeks we have begun the process of bringing in affordable child care for all families.

When thieves fall out.

The subsidy is worth approximately €1,000 per year for families who pay for child care.

I told Deputy Howlin not to take the job at the time.

The Taoiseach needs to a bit thicker-skinned.

It is very attractive to be a coalition party.

For those who pay tax and the universal social charge, USC, we will reduce their tax and USC so they can have more money in their pockets. For those who do not earn enough to pay USC or income tax, we will improve their lives by improving social insurance benefits and costs such as child care.

I congratulate Mr. Michéal Donoghue, the Galway senior hurling manager, and Mr. Jeffrey Lynskey, the Galway minor hurling manager, on the remarkable double they recently achieved.

Hear, hear. Come on Galway.

It is a pity we did not get Sam to the west also.

What about the Déise?

Perhaps it will be next year. I congratulate Dublin as well on the three in a row.

What about the Kerry minor footballers? Four in a row.

Yes. The Deputy can bring that up on Leaders' Questions the next time. On 23 February 2015, Apple announced to major fanfare its biggest project in Europe to date, a €1.7 billion investment in two data centres to be located in Athenry, Galway, as well as in Denmark. It had plans to create hundreds of local jobs in construction and operations, providing amenities for local schools and residents, as well as running the plants on clean and renewable energy from the outset. Nearly three years on, the plant in Denmark is set to be up and running before the end of the year, as per Apple's projected schedule, while the plant in Athenry has not even secured full planning permission yet. Apple announced last month new plans to build a second data centre in Denmark at a cost of more than €800 million, which will also run entirely on renewable energy. Apple considered 19 countries before settling in Ireland for one of the data centres and there was great excitement about job creation possibilities, opportunities for small, local businesses and communities, as well as the spin-off benefit of other multinational companies coming to Ireland on the back of such a successful global company choosing Ireland as its base. Last week, Bloomberg reported that Apple is reconsidering its decision to locate in Ireland as it is concerned that even if the Commercial Court approves the application in October, there could be further objections down the line to further delay the project.

There is a serious worry that the second Danish plant could be a replacement for the plant planned for Galway. It is scheduled to begin operations in the second quarter of 2019. There is a bigger underlying issue of concern as Ireland is sending a signal to other large multinational companies looking for a European base that planning in Ireland can be mired in delays, with large infrastructural projects being held up for years on the back of minor objections. The fear is that any multinational company examining Apple's experience in Galway may not consider Ireland. We will be bypassed for a country with progressive planning laws, where governments do everything possible to create inward investment.

This is not about Galway or Apple but rather it is about Ireland. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to this House and the multinational companies across the world that Ireland's planning laws will be changed to ensure this scenario will not be repeated? What is the Government proposing to do to inform and modernise planning laws to ensure we do not have a repeat of what happened with Apple's application in Galway?

In continuing the sporting theme, we should also acknowledge the phenomenal success of the Cork camogie team on its victory a few weeks ago.

All Members look forward to seeing the Dublin ladies Gaelic football team achieve a footballing double for the blue city this weekend.

Ireland is often referred to as the data capital of Europe. There are currently 27 data centres in the country and the Government is very keen for the Apple data centre in Athenry to go ahead. It involves a capital investment of €850 million which will provide 300 construction jobs and 150 on-site permanent jobs. It will be one of the biggest capital investments in the west of Ireland, matched only by the Gort to Tuam motorway. Planning permission was originally granted by Galway County Council in September 2015 and affirmed by An Bord Pleanála in August 2016. However, as Deputy Grealish mentioned, the planning permission is currently subject to judicial review in the Commercial Court. The Government looks forward to a speedy decision in that case.

I met the vice president of Apple approximately two weeks ago. We discussed Athenry. She reaffirmed Apple's commitment to going ahead with the project. Notwithstanding that another data centre is going ahead in Denmark, provided planning permission is granted Apple remains committed to the Athenry project, which I very much welcome. However, the Apple representatives made it very clear to me that they are frustrated at the planning and judicial delays and while that will not affect this project it will colour decisions that they might make about future investments and, therefore, I share the Deputy's concerns in that regard.

The Government is considering a change to the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act to include data centres as strategic infrastructure, thus allowing them to get through the planning process much more quickly. In July, my Department established a high-level working group comprising the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the IDA, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, EirGrid and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. It will develop a strategic policy approach to the development of data centres in Ireland, including the possible designation of areas for suitable development as data centres and also the identification and resolution of planning issues and infrastructure requirements including the energy requirements of data centres.

The Government is very keen for this project to go ahead. I am reassured by Apple of its commitment to the project but the Government acknowledges that planning issues and delays in the courts undermine the case for future investment and it intends to act on that.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. I also met with Apple executives after planning permission was granted, in particular by An Bord Pleanála. I was the only politician to attend and speak in favour of the project at the An Bord Pleanála hearing. Several Apple executives met with me in that regard and at that time they gave a commitment that Apple would build the facility in Athenry, although that was before the judicial review was instituted.

Ireland has always been an attractive location for multinationals. As a nation, we have prided ourselves on our progressive policies and well-educated workforce which have brought over 1,000 US companies to Ireland and led to more than 200,000 people being directly employed in multinationals and thousands more indirectly employed in support companies. Companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and medical device companies such as Medtronic, Boston Scientific and Merit Medical have been very successful as a result of their Irish operations. As can be seen from the issues encountered by the proposed Apple development, our planning laws now pose a very serious threat to Ireland's future investment potential. It is essential that the planning laws are addressed and a signal sent to the rest of the world that Ireland is very much open for business and that a situation such as this will not happen again.

I agree with Deputy Grealish. It is important that Ireland has a planning process that allows people to give their views on any planning application but it is also important that decisions are made speedily. It is frustrating to see so many of these important decisions being held up in the courts by means of judicial review. That does not only affect private sector projects such as this as important public infrastructure projects are also often held up in the courts. Any change to how the courts operate is difficult to put in place and can require constitutional change but in terms of the planning laws the designation of projects such as this as strategic infrastructure would allow them to receive planning permission much more quickly.

On my travels around the country over the summer I had an opportunity to visit Athenry, take a look at the site and meet with Councillor Peter Feeney and Deputy Ciaran Cannon. I know the strength of support for this project in the community in Athenry and that residents there see it as a real benefit to them.

We will work very hard as a Government, without interfering in the courts, to bring this project to fruition.