Leaders' Questions (Resumed)

Cuirim céad míle fáilte roimh na cuairteoirí. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to watch Leaders' Questions on television and I listened intently, as I always do, to what the Taoiseach had to say in response to Deputy Mary Lou McDonald's propositions for the resolution of some of the dreadful difficulties around housing provision. The Taoiseach's answer was not even in response to her questions or to the important issues she raised.

As with his Ard-Fheis speech and other recent remarks, the Taoiseach was talking only to the Fine Gael base and that other section of the electorate that he hopes to win over in the next election. He may say that is an entirely appropriate thing for him to do and if being here is all about getting into or staying in power, that is fair enough. However, it should be a question of how he uses that power and whose interests he serves. If it is a case of governing fairly, building a decent society and guaranteeing people's rights, that is a different story entirely. That should be more important than the Taoiseach's efforts to reposition Fine Gael for the next election.

I acknowledge that the Taoiseach has just said the Government inherited problems created by Fianna Fáil and others but when Fine Gael took over from Fianna Fáil it followed its policies to the letter and managed collectively to destroy the largest Fine Gael mandate in the history of the State, as well as the Labour Party. That is because people elected Fine Gael to do something different from Fianna Fáil and because most people are decent they punished it. Now Deputy Varadkar is Taoiseach, irony of ironies, by virtue of Fianna Fáil support.

All the problems remain and it seems to me that the Taoiseach's narrative is to minimise the scale of these problems to serve his electoral ambitions. It does not seem to matter how this affects those whose lives are miserable because of the Government's bad policies. A very obvious example is how it has dealt with homelessness. The solution is simple: it is for the State to build more homes and to make housing affordable. The levels of family, child and adult homelessness are the highest ever recorded in this State. The Taoiseach's public relations narrative has been picked up by others, including officials whose responsibility it is to solve these problems. The same is true of crèches and health services, the North, rural Ireland and Brexit. I appeal to the Taoiseach not to dismiss my comments in his usual glib way. I ask him to reflect on what I am saying and to consider that his approach will divide our society and fracture it even further. That in time will be desperately bad for everyone, except the Taoiseach's peer group, even if he succeeds in getting back into government in the next election. Surely the Taoiseach is obliged to do more than that. Surely his focus should be on those whose very lives depend on good government.

I thank Deputy Adams. I am glad he was able to join us today. I understand from his Twitter account that he took yesterday off to prepare his Ard-Fheis speech and I can see he is already practicing it here today.

The Taoiseach did not practice his.

He did not need to.

Deputy Adams took most of last week off to travel to the United States to raise funds from very wealthy Americans, which is something we will come back to at another stage.

The Deputy's contention is, of course, incorrect. All of the problems that we inherited from Fianna Fáil do not still remain. Unemployment, for example, is down from 15% to 6% and falling. The public finances are now in a much more stable position and our national sovereignty is restored. There are of course new and other problems, such as Brexit, which the Deputy mentioned, and of course the housing crisis. We will deal with these problems as soon as we can and will put the maximum effort behind all of those. I can guarantee we are doing exactly that.

As I mentioned already in my response to Deputy Martin, we are absolutely committed to increasing the provision of social housing in this State. Some 2,000 new homes will be built directly by local authorities and approved housing bodies this year, rising to just under 4,000 next year. We have invested in the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, providing funds to local authorities to provide services to land, roads, utilities and so on, to enable those lands be released for housing and affordable housing. We have increased the vacant site levy to punish land hoarders, so that land is brought into use. In the Finance Bill 2017, yesterday, we brought in an examination of whether we should tax vacant homes. It is difficult to know whether we can do that because the numbers for vacant homes are unreliable. We have changed the planning regulations to fast-track planning making it much easier for builders to go for bigger developments and as well as that there are the building regulations which are being changed to reduce the cost of building housing. Across Government there is an enormous commitment to getting to grips with the housing crisis.

There is also a factual realisation and understanding that this is not a problem that will be solved easily or overnight. From a point where almost no houses were built in the country for a number of years, we have got to a point where thousands rather than hundreds are being constructed. Next year, there will be tens of thousands. Against a backdrop of a rising population and increasing household formation, however, it will take time for us to get on top of the problem. This does not in any way diminish our determination to do so.

The big difference between Sinn Féin and the Taoiseach's party is that we believe people have rights. When I have asked the Taoiseach about this matter in the past, he has said people do not have the right to get things for free. That is a line out of the rule book of right-wing ideology according to Margaret Thatcher. The Taoiseach is familiar with Sam, who lives in Louth and who is 18 years old. Sam has severe autism and complex needs and his behaviour is challenging. His mother is battling for him to receive access to respite care. His family is exhausted, stressed and worried about his future care. Sam's mother has met Ministers and the HSE. She also met the Taoiseach. I have raised Sam's lack of access to any kind of respite services with the Taoiseach previously. However, Sam is still invisible to the Government. Sam has rights and needs. He is a citizen. Will the Taoiseach not become a Taoiseach for all of the Sams in our society and for all of their sister citizens? Instead of being a Taoiseach for the elites, will he not become a Taoiseach for the homeless?

It is my role - and very much my role - to be Taoiseach for everyone in the country and that is exactly the way I intend to govern. This includes increasing funding and facilities for people with disabilities and we have done this. There was a €90 million increase in funding for disability last year and there is a further €75 million to come this year. For the first time ever in the history of the State, there are medical cards - by right - for all children with severe disabilities regardless of their parents' income. This is our record. We have had the first increases in eight or nine years in the disability allowance two years in a row. These are the facts. What we get from Deputy Adams is rhetoric. We are just getting a preview of his Ard-Fheis speech. The strategy of Sinn Féin is very obvious. Its aim is to exploit human suffering-----

That is a disgrace.

-----and exploit this content-----

The Taoiseach does not even know that there is homelessness.

He does not even know what suffering is.

The Taoiseach is entitled to respond.

-----and to try to use that for political gain. Instead of putting forward solutions, what it does is exploit human misery and our country's problems in an attempt to gain votes.

The Government has caused human misery. It is disgraceful.

That is not the type of politics this House will ever see from my party or those on this side of the House.

As the Taoiseach is aware, my colleague, Deputy Kelly, has been raising questions of fundamental importance with the Minister for Justice and Equality over the past week. Deputy Micheál Martin and others put some of these queries to the Taoiseach yesterday on Leaders' Questions. It is unfortunate that the Minister failed to make clear in his responses to those parliamentary questions that neither he nor his predecessor had knowledge or were aware of the legal strategy being pursued by the former Garda Commissioner against Maurice McCabe. That the Taoiseach was able to do so yesterday when asked in this House and subsequently by the media shows it was possible to answer these questions. I cannot see any legitimate reason for the Minister not to have done so.

While clarity has been bought to that aspect of the situation we are still unclear as to the level of involvement or knowledge of the Department of Justice and Equality in the strategy. Yesterday, the Taoiseach said that the Department of Justice and Equality is a big place and that many different people are in it but that as things stand the Department has not been able to find any record of being informed before the fact of the legal strategy the former Commissioner was going to pursue.

I would like the Taoiseach to confirm whether he has spoken directly to the Secretary General of the Department on this matter. Is he satisfied at the absence of sufficient reassurance for him to confirm to the House that the Department was not aware of the strategy to go after Maurice McCabe? Yesterday, the Taoiseach said the Tánaiste "found out about it after the fact, but around the time it was in the public domain when everyone else knew about it as well".

This matter came into the public domain when it was reported on by Mick Clifford and Katie Hannon after the commission had reported in May 2016, which was a full year after the strategy to go after Maurice McCabe was set out by the commission. If we are to accept that the Tánaiste did not become aware of this until the matter came into the public domain, we must believe two things. This House is expected to believe either that the Department of Justice and Equality did not receive any contact from Garda management about this issue, even long after the strategy had been dropped, or that the Department actually had this information but sat on it for an entire year without informing the Tánaiste about it. Which is it?

Before I call the Taoiseach to respond, I wish to point out that Standing Orders are fairly explicit on matters that are the subject of court consideration or a judicial tribunal. Standing Orders provide that a matter shall not be raised in such a manner "that it appears to be an attempt by the Dáil to encroach on the functions of the Courts or a Judicial Tribunal". My predecessors have ruled on this issue and, in certain circumstances, have allowed questions on particular matters that were being examined by judicial tribunals. Such questions were allowed in a context where there was considered to be a public interest in having a limited engagement on certain matters, while having regard to the fact that we should not encroach on the activities and work of the tribunal. We need to be exceedingly careful not to undermine a tribunal that we have established.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I will bear his comments in mind in my remarks. I have spoken to the Tánaiste and the Minister for Justice and Equality. I have not spoken directly to the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality. The information I have, which I believe, is that the Tánaiste had no hand, act or part in determining the legal strategy of the former Commissioner and had no prior knowledge of the legal strategy pursued by the former Commissioner. I am also informed by the Department of Justice and Equality that it was told about the approach taken by the Commissioner's senior counsel after the cross-examination had already taken place. As the Department was informed after the fact, it was certainly not in a position to express any reservations about the legal strategy. This issue has been going back and forth for a couple of days. I have seen newspaper articles on it. Letters have been exchanged. Parliamentary questions have been asked and answered. There have been many briefings to the effect that there is some explosive allegation here. I heard one briefing suggesting an allegation so explosive that it might bring down the Government. At this stage, if the Labour Party has an allegation to make, it should make it clearly in order that we might respond.

If it is not willing to do that, it should give any evidence it possesses to the tribunal.

On a point of order, a Cheann Comhairle-----

It is unusual, but I will hear it.

Having regard to the fact that the Deputy asking the question made specific reference to me, I ask the Ceann Comhairle for protection in this House. I will not have my good name and my professional reputation traduced by Deputy Kelly inside or outside the House.

My point of order is that if there are matters that are germane to the tribunal, that is the place for them. I ask Deputy Kelly to desist from engaging in a smear campaign against me both personally and professionally.

That is outrageous.

Deputy Kelly has not said anything in my hearing.

I hope the Ceann Comhairle is going to protect me.

We will try to protect everyone.

Deputy Kelly will take some minding.

Deputy Mattie McGrath would know about it.

I have been a Member of this House for some time. I recall a tribunal of inquiry finding that if people had answered questions here, it would have saved the State both millions and time. It is our job to ask straightforward questions and to hold Ministers to account. That is our job. I have no accusation to make against anybody. I just want the truth.

I have made it quite clear that I had no hand, act or part in this.

The Deputy repeated it earlier.

---quite the reverse.

I fully accepted the statement the Taoiseach finally made yesterday about the current Minister and his predecessor. I said that we now have clarity on that fact if the-----

The Deputy made it clear at the weekend.

The question concerns the state of knowledge of the-----

It did not suit Deputy Kelly's agenda.

How long is the Ceann Comhairle going to allow this?

It did not suit Deputy Kelly's agenda.

The Minister cannot continuously interrupt.

The question I am trying to pursue concerns the state of knowledge held by the Department of Justice and Equality. The Taoiseach told the House that the Department was aware of the strategy after the cross-examination of Sergeant McCabe. That took place in May 2015. The Taoiseach told the House yesterday that the Tánaiste was not aware of this until it came into the public domain, which was a full year later in May 2016. Just for clarity, is the Taoiseach telling the House that the strategy was kept from the Tánaiste, who was then Minister for Justice and Equality, for a full year by her officials?

I welcome the fact that Deputy Howlin has clarified that he is not making an allegation against anyone in this House. I accept the Labour Party's-----

Or anybody else outside this House.

I am very pleased to hear Deputy Howlin, the leader of the Labour Party, say that neither he nor the Labour Party is making allegations against anyone in or outside this House. That at least puts this story into perspective. No allegation is being made against anyone. The answer I have given Deputy Howlin is the one that has been given to me. I spoke to the Tánaiste who told me that she had no hand, act or part in this decision and that she was not aware of it until after the fact around the time it entered the public domain. The Department of Justice and Equality has told me that it was not made aware of it until after the fact. However, the Department is a big place; it is not a person. It is a body with hundreds of staff. Can I put my hand on my heart here and say that there is not one person somewhere who might have been told something by someone-----

What kind of answer is that?

I cannot give the House that answer but what I have been told is that the Department was not made aware of it until after the fact and the Tánaiste did not become aware of it until around the time it entered the public domain. I am answering Deputy Howlin's question as best I can. It is very difficult to answer questions for third parties or unnamed parties.

We will take it that everybody here acts in the best faith.

Absolutely. There is a tribunal here.

Can the Minister contain himself? I call on Deputy Eamon Ryan to bring some calm to proceedings.

I bring news of shame to our country; I do not know if that is calm. A report, the Climate Change Performance Index, has just been published. It was produced by the leading NGOs dealing with this issue across the world. The process relating to the report has been running for a long time. The report indicates that Ireland is seen as the worst country in Europe in terms of climate action and is ranked 49th out of the 60 countries assessed. This is a huge issue for this country and its future, reputation and direction. When the Taoiseach assumed office, he said that he wanted to make climate action a priority. I will explain why this is not true. It is not happening across a range of different areas. Climate Action Network, one of the authors of the report, said at the conference in Bonn which I attended earlier this week that when it comes to the European talks about climate, Ireland is nowhere to be seen except playing a negative role to try to hinder positive actions. That is what is happening in the European process under the Taoiseach's Government.

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has just concluded a renewables strategy. In it, he says we should have no ambition to increase renewable power between now and 2030. That is the official Government position. We think we could easily accommodate an increase of 75% in this area, which would send us up the international league tables. If we did that, we might start holding on to some of the Apple investments that are now reading the tea leaves and heading off to Denmark - not just because our planning process delayed its project but because it senses that this country is not serious about the matter. That is a significant issue for the development of rural Ireland, including Mayo and Galway.

The position regarding transport is the same.

The Government has just published the national planning framework which states that we want to cut emissions but is doing absolutely nothing about it. It is all roads and the same old model of sprawl and growth outwards. That is what it is actually doing. The Citizens' Assembly did a wonderful job looking at the issue. The sense of dismay in the assembly at the lack of leadership was absolutely tangible. It supported the recommendation from Alan Matthews that we should turn Irish agriculture towards a better and more profitable system. The Taoiseach's Ministers immediately debunked it and said "No". Last week, I asked the Minister for Finance what price he applies to carbon in the projects in his new capital plan. He said €7 a tonne when the better people, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank, have set it at €40 and €50 a tonne. In every area the Government is failing in climate action and it is starting to come home to roost where we are shamed in the world. Our green reputation is in tatters. The Government is spending a fortune on Origin Green branding but is doing nothing about it in reality. What will change? What leadership does the Taoiseach intend to show?

The report the Deputy refers to has only been published in the last hour or so. Neither I nor my staff have had an opportunity to read it. I am informed it is a ranking assessment published by three NGOs. It is not an official report and has no status other than as a commentary on individual countries' climate policies. In this respect, the commentary, while it purports to assess countries' national and international climate policies, provides little information on the basis for the compiling of the ranking. With regard to Ireland's performance against emission targets for 2020 under the EU effort-sharing decision, the Government has been very upfront that Ireland expects to miss these targets. Ireland will not be alone among EU member states in that regard. The latest projections of greenhouse gas emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency indicate Ireland's emissions in sectors covered by our EU targets could be between 4% and 6% below 2005 levels.

The projected shortfall in our targets in 2020 reflects both the constrained investment capacity over the past decade due to the economic crisis and the extremely challenging nature of the target. It is now accepted that Ireland's 2020 target was not consistent with what would have been achievable on an EU-wide cost-effective basis. Notwithstanding this projected shortfall, Ireland's first statutory national mitigation plan, which the Government published in July 2017, provides a framework to guide investment decisions by Government in domestic measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The plan sets out what is being done and what it is planned to do to further the national transition objectives set out in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act. This first plan will not provide a complete roadmap to achieve the national transition objectives. It begins the process of the development of medium to long-term options to ensure we are well-positioned to take the necessary actions in the next few decades.

The national planning framework is a draft. I do not accept the Deputy's characterisation of it. The national planning framework goes against continued sprawl. It argues for a major increase in population in our existing cities in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. It calls for a population increase of 40% to 50% in Limerick, for example, a city in which there has been virtually no population growth in recent years. Why does it call for that? It is because it makes sense from a planning and climate change point of view to have more people living more densely in urban settlements. It means less commuting and driving and more people walking and using public transport.

If the Taoiseach was serious, he would heed the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly that the spending on transport, which is currently two thirds roads to one third public transport, should be reversed the other way. What the Taoiseach just said might turn into reality, but it is fiction. The Taoiseach constantly accuses other Members of the House of not being up to speed on the brief and of reading out what they have done. The Taoiseach has just read out the public service response to this. There is nothing new or different in it. There is no ambition. I thought the Taoiseach meant what he said on the first day and was going to do something about it. There is nothing happening.

The Taoiseach said this is just an unofficial report but they are experts in the field who are reading what anyone could read, which is that our emissions are rising and that we are in Europe negotiating to get lower emissions targets. The Taoiseach is always blaming high targets. It will come home to roost because this is the new, clean industrial revolution that the world is moving towards and we are not. We are selling ourselves as a green nation. We can only do that for so long before the reality catches up with us. The Government needs to change the national planning framework. The mitigation plan is nowhere near good enough. It will be legally challenged and that challenge will be successful because we signed up to Paris and we are doing nothing about it.

The Taoiseach needs to start changing things.

I appreciate the Deputy's passion on this and his comments. He did not ask a question. As he is speaking about a report that was published in the last hour, I am afraid I can add no more. This is Leaders' Questions, by the way.