Leaders' Questions

I appeal to all leaders to try to adhere to the allocated time. When leaders adhere to the rules of the House, it encourages other Members to do likewise.

The daft.ie report on housing rents makes for very dismal and depressing reading. It is another year of double-digit rental increases. Over the past number of years, the increase in Dublin has been quite shocking and is having a huge impact on people. In Dublin, rents have gone up 81% since 2010. Outside Dublin, that figure is 52% but that includes Meath, where they have gone up 81% and Louth, where they have gone up by about 78% in that seven or eight years. Rents in Cork, Galway and Limerick are up 65%. Alarmingly, only about 3,150 properties are available to rent now, which is 20% down on the number available this time last year.

Behind all these figures there are human stories. Many families are under threat of eviction and are extremely worried, having been given deadlines by landlords to leave their properties because they need to renovate them or give them to family members. Many families are now doubling and tripling up, as we know from our clinics. There are people coming in who are living with their parents or siblings and so on. There are young people getting their first jobs in cities and 40% to 50% of their income is going on rent. The student experience is becoming hazardous. It is almost impossible for students going to cities to attend universities and institutes of technology to get any place to rent at a reasonable cost. By any yardstick, for many families across the country, it is now the dominant measure of the cost of third level education.

Above all, it has an impact on homelessness. There are 9,000 people in emergency accommodation, including 3,000 children. Without doubt, the worsening situation in regard to rents is accelerating and making the homeless situation even more perilous.

All the initiatives undertaken under the various plans have failed. The rent pressure zones introduced in 2016 are ineffective in stemming the rent increases. Housing supply measures are very poor. Housing targets set by the Government have not been met.

A report on the tax and fiscal treatment of rental accommodation, published by the Department of Finance in September 2017, made ten recommendations, short-term, medium-term and long-term. It is extraordinary that not one of those recommendations has been implemented by the Government. There were approximately 212,000 landlords in 2012, whereas now there are only 175,000. There is a problem there. The Government received clear recommendations, yet it chose not to implement even one of them. Why not?

I will have to look at that report again. It was published some time ago.

I would have to see the recommendations and remind myself of them and then respond to the Deputy. In terms of the substantive issue, everyone in this House, and certainly the Government, is very aware of the impact that rising rents are having on many people. In some cases they risk driving people into homelessness. In many cases people are required to pay a huge portion of their post-tax incomes in rent, thus leaving very little money for other costs, whether child care or the many other costs of living. We acknowledge absolutely that rising rents are having an enormous impact on people, particularly those who are struggling to make ends meet.

That is exactly why we introduced the rent pressure zones. Let us not forget what they do. They now cover more than half of people who are tenants and those people now have their rent increases capped at 4% or less. They are not covered in the statistics published today by daft.ie because, as it acknowledges, they cover only new properties and new tenancies. Most people who are renting have been protected by the rent pressure zones and face rent increases of less than 4% as a result of actions taken by this Government and Oireachtas. Those whose rent has not gone up, or has gone up by less than 4%, will be very glad that is in place.

The daft.ie figures do not cover people covered by the 4% cap in the rent pressure zones, people already in properties. They refer to new tenancies and properties and it is a relatively small sample. There will be a bigger sample from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, when its numbers come out. They will cover rents paid as opposed to the asking rent.

The Government is doing many things but there are some major things. One is enhancing the powers of the RTB, turning it into a real regulator with more enforcement powers. Another is taking measures to encourage landlords, and it is important that we encourage them to stay in the private rental sector and that more landlords come into it. That is being done by measures such as restoring mortgage interest relief which had been reduced to 75% during the economic crisis and has been increased towards between 80% and 85% in recent times.

We are getting building again. It is very important that we build again. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government is working on new guidelines, especially on apartment building to make it more economic to build apartments in our cities where housing is most needed. The Deputy mentioned student accommodation and there has been an explosion in the amount of student accommodation in recent years. It is being built and provided throughout the country and that will have an impact.

I do not know whether the Taoiseach lives in the real world because if he talks to any student or family he will learn that rents have gone through the roof. That is what the daft.ie report is telling us. There is no point trying to deny or obfuscate it or put a good spin on it.

The Taoiseach's reply indicating lack of knowledge of this report sums it all up. This was a substantive report undertaken by his Government five months ago. It was published in September, not some time ago as the Taoiseach says. Now he has to remind himself of it. He has to look at it again. These were the measures designed to retain and increase the supply of landlords in the market and he does not have a clue about them. That sums up the complacency around this issue of housing.

It is a national emergency. By any yardstick, it is a crisis in our cities and there is no point in trying to dress it up and say we doing this and that. I can go through all of the targets the Government set itself and it has failed to meet all of them. A total of 800 units were to be provided through a repair and lease scheme in 2017, but the number was zero. This was stated in the Government's own report which was published in September and the Taoiseach knows nothing about it. It is put away because there is too much focus on spin all of the time. Let us have some substance and action and achieve some results and outcomes.

As the Deputy acknowledged, the report was published five or six months ago. I am aware of and familiar with it, but, obviously, if I am to answer questions on specific recommendations made in a report published five or six months ago, I would like to actually read over it once again and see exactly-----


Will Deputies, please, allow the Taoiseach to respond?

He is talking back to me.

The Deputy has chosen to refer to a report published last September. I recall and I am familiar with it, but, obviously, if I am to be asked detailed questions about the recommendations made, I would like to have an opportunity to at least cast my eyes over the report again before speaking about it. In terms of substance and actions, I have already mentioned some of them. First, we have introduced rent pressure zones. Most people who rent are covered by a rent pressure zone and have seen their rents increase by 4% or less. As they are not covered by the daft.ie figures, most are facing rent increases of less than 4% because of actions taken by the Government. We are enhancing the powers and remit of the Residential Tenancies Board to give it the power to be a proper rent regulator and we are also building. The Deputy can see the amount of student accommodation being built around the city in the past couple of years. He can see that house building is being ramped up in the private sector. We added 7,000 units to the social housing stock last year, which was very significant.

On 5 December 2017 the Taoiseach told the House that rent pressure zones were working and that 60% of renters had had the assurance that their rents could not rise by more than 4% per year. He also made the astonishing claim that rent pressure zones had never been designed to cover new tenancies and that they did not apply to them. The latest daft.ie rent report was published this morning. It confirms that in the 12 months since the rent pressure zones were introduced, rents have increased by 10%. This is the seventh report which indicates increases in rent which has been published since the pressure zones were introduced. All four daft.ie reports show rent increases above the 4% cap, but, crucially, the three ESRI Residential Tenancies Board reports which include existing tenancies show rent increases above the 4% cap in each of the three quarters. Therefore, on average it now costs in excess of €20,000 per year to rent in Dublin, while on average it costs at least €10,000 per year to rent outside Dublin. Rents have increased by 65% since 2011 and are now 19% higher than at the peak of the boom in the Celtic tiger period. How are ordinary people meant to afford this level of rent? They include young working people, young couples, students or later in life couples. Does the Taoiseach really believe they can afford such excessive rents? Have their incomes increased by 65% since 2011? Perhaps he might think they should ask their parents for the extra rent.

The rent pressure zones are not working. That is what the figures in all seven reports tell the Taoiseach. They have created a two-tier rental market. Long-term secure tenants have some protection, but those in vulnerable or new tenancies have no protection. The daft.ie report confirms that breaches of the 4% cap are widespread in the case of new tenancies. There is also a growing number of landlords who are charging existing tenants illegal under-the-counter payments above the 4% cap. Landlords outside the rent pressure zones in Waterford, Limerick and parts of Cork are actively encouraged to jack up rents to unsustainable levels within the rent pressure zones. Worst of all, the Taoiseach expects vulnerable tenants to police the system.

What has the Taoiseach got against renters? Is he blind to the plight of tenants because so many members of his parliamentary party are landlords? Is it because the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has been captured by large-scale institutional investors or vulture funds or is it because the Taoiseach is so out of touch that he just does not understand how working people are able to keep a roof over their heads?

My questions are very simple. Will the Government now accept on the basis of evidence that rent pressure zones are failing? Will it move to introduce real rent certainty, linking rents to an index, such as the consumer price index, to give struggling renters a break?

I assume most of those questions were rhetorical and therefore do not require an answer. I imagine there are plenty of landlords in Sinn Féin; there are certainly plenty of people in Sinn Féin who own multiple properties, as we all know. So I think that is a pretty cheap shot.

That will please the Taoiseach's parliamentary party.

The purpose of the rent pressure zones was to protect people in existing tenancies from big increases in their rent that may cause them to lose their homes. The majority of people who now rent in Ireland are covered by the rent pressure zones and are seeing rent increases of 4% or less. There are, of course, exceptions to that, for example, in the case of substantial refurbishment and other things. The difficulty that arises is that for new tenancies and new properties, rents are continuing to rise at double-digit rates.

Therefore, what is the solution? The solution is to ensure there is more supply in the rented sector. Today's report from daft.ie shows that only about 3,000 new properties are available for rent. The solution, therefore, must lie in ensuring we have an increase in supply, which is what we are doing. The Deputy can see the amount of student accommodation that has been built around the country in recent years and there is more to come. He can see the ramp-up in the building of social housing by the Government with 7,000 houses and homes added to the social housing stock last year, trebling the number of direct builds by local authorities. He can see an increase in private sector builds with approximately 17,000 new homes built last year. In addition, we are strengthening the powers of the Residential Tenancy Board to turn it into a proper regulator with more enforcement powers so that people are not expected to enforce these rules for themselves.

We need to be careful with any additional measures. I have heard what Dr. Lyons has had to say and what people from the Irish Property Owners Association and others have had to say. There is a risk that introducing rent controls that are too strict or too rigid could be counterproductive and could actually create even more of a black market in rent. We have seen that happening in places with very strict rent controls where people end up paying cash amounts under the table or subletting to others. We need to ensure we do not make those kinds of mistakes. We also need to ensure we do not do anything that discourages people from staying in, or coming into, the private rented sector. Landlords get a very bad press. While some of them deserve it, they do not all deserve it. We need to ensure we reverse the decline in the number of people who are renting out properties and measures can be taken in that regard.

I know the Taoiseach has difficulty with counting when it comes to housing. In fact, given that he cannot even tell us how many new homes were built last year, I can understand why he is struggling with the rent pressure zone figures. He is right that the daft.ie report only considers the asking rents for new tenancies. However, the ESRI-RTB reports look at all tenancies. In quarter 1 of last year, they increased by 7%; in quarter 2 of last year they increased by 6%; and in quarter 3 of last year they increased by 9%. The data on all tenancies indicate that the 4% cap simply for the tenants covered by it, simply does not work.

It is not that we want rent controls that are too stringent; we would just like some that work. My non-rhetorical questions are the ones the Taoiseach avoided the first time. Will the Government accept that rent pressure zones on the basis of evidence are not working? Will it move to introduce genuine rent certainty, so that families are not paying astronomical rents they cannot afford or being forced into homelessness because of the failure of the policies the Government introduced in 2016?

The rent pressure zones are relatively new. We will need a series of data over more than a year and a bit to assure ourselves whether they are working. Let us not forget why they exist. The rent pressure zones are there to ensure we limit rent increases for those who are renting already - more than half of the people who are renting are now covered by them - and are not seeing rent increases of double-digit levels. The Deputy mentioned increases of 4% and 6% - not 9% in one quarter. We will need to see that develop over more time. The Government is always open to new measures and new actions that can assist new tenants and all those who are renting. We need to ensure we do not do anything that is counterproductive. The big concern I have is that the policies proposed by Sinn Féin would be counterproductive because it would result in the entire private market becoming frozen. We would see people essentially doing what happens in other places where there are very strict rent controls, paying extra amounts of rent or cash under-the-counter-----

It has already begun.

-----subletting on to other people who then pay much higher rates. Alternatively very rigid rent controls could result in builders being unwilling to build, and landlords being unwilling to rent out their properties and instead selling them on.

Well-meaning measures can sometimes be very contradictory.

They are massive. Some €20,000 a year.

We need to ensure that any changes that we make are evidence-based.

Last November, the Taoiseach came to Clongriffin in Dublin Bay North with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to lay the foundation stone for an 84-unit social housing development for the Iveagh Trust. Unfortunately these 84 welcome new homes we spoke of on that happy occasion will not be delivered until quarter 2 of 2019. Probably like the Taoiseach and many other Deputies, I meet dozens of citizens and families every weekend who are in great anxiety and distress over the Government's continuing failure to deliver social and affordable housing. I meet constituents who have spent 12, 14, 16 and even up to 20 years on housing and transfer lists and some of these are facing eviction from rental accommodation scheme, housing assistance payment and rent supplement supported tenancies, sometimes on foot of a court order. Other desperate families are approaching two years or more in emergency homeless accommodation. It is also very depressing that homeless families with young children are still being allocated hotel-type accommodation, eight months after the Tánaiste promised me that that practice would cease. Recently, I came across two young people who were living in a car during the current dreadfully cold weather.

Dublin Bay North, as the Taoiseach may know, comprises the largest Dublin City Council housing area, area B, and the southern part of the Howth-Malahide housing area of Fingal county. The social housing statistics prepared by our city and county managers, Mr. Owen Keegan and Mr. Paul Reid, confirm the sense of hopelessness felt by my constituents in dire need of housing. On the last Dublin city waiting lists and allocations report, there were an astonishing 7,114 families and individuals on homeless, housing and transfer lists in area B out of 27,000 citywide. In the 2017 Housing Agency Rebuilding Ireland report, even before the numbers of households on the Howth-Malahide list are added to the city total, Dublin Bay North had the highest housing waiting list in Ireland, even bigger than the whole of Fingal and South Dublin. It is much more shocking that almost 700 of these individuals and families are homeless and nearly 900 have been waiting for more than ten years with a further almost 2,500 waiting more than five years. This is not just a problem for Dublin Bay North, as we have heard again today.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and national and local housing officials but the above data clearly show that Rebuilding Ireland is not working for our constituents. Over the past decade, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have done everything possible to support a dysfunctional, rigged property market. At the same time, it was the Taoiseach's Government and Fianna Fáil which cut Dublin and local authorities' staff by 20% to 35% since 2008. Is it not time to abandon the ideological posturing and commit to a massive emergency programme of public, social and affordable housing as advocated by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and its Charter for Housing Rights? Besides the declaration of a national housing and homelessness emergency, that charter demands a referendum to put the right to housing into the Constitution, robust legislation on tenants' rights, rents and standards of accommodation, a ban on evictions of citizens, families and children into homelessness and a land management policy based on the Kenny report and necessary compulsory purchase orders, CPOs. These demands are echoed by the Campaign for Public Housing which I also support. As part of this programme, will the Taoiseach now establish a national social and affordable housing development and construction company, even initially in the Dublin and other urban regions? I know the Taoiseach was discussing an amendment of the National Asset Management Agency legislation to permit NAMA to have this function. That seems impossible but we need a national effort because these figures are disgraceful.

I do not think anyone in this House doubts the scale of the challenge we face with regard to housing and homelessness. I certainly acknowledge the scale of the challenge that we face. We see some limited progress. The number of people sleeping rough in the past couple of weeks has gone down as a consequence of the additional bedrooms put in by the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, before Christmas. The number of families living in bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels is down from the peak. In the last month for which we have records, the number of families in emergency accommodation is down, but that may well just be a seasonal blip and I would not read too much into it at this stage. It indicates some progress in some areas.

We should not forget where we are coming from with regard to the crisis we face with housing. We had a seven-year period after a severe economic crisis during which very few homes were built at all. The banks were bust, the construction industry collapsed and the Government was not in a position to build new housing because of the fiscal crisis. In that period, however, the population continued to grow and many new households were formed. We are now playing catch-up and we are catching up. The amount of social housing built by local authorities is being ramped up. There were only 657 direct builds in 2016 and there were 2,045 last year.

The number of social homes built directly by the councils and approved housing bodies has trebled and we are also seeing an increased uptake in construction in the private housing sector. It will take some time before things stabilise and further time before we get on top of things.

In regard to cutbacks in Dublin City Council and the Deputy's reference to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, as best as I can recall, Dublin City Council is controlled not by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael but by a coalition of left-wing groups which have the ability to vary local property tax and commercial rates. Any decision to cut back staffing in the local authority could have been mitigated by decisions taken by the left-wing councillors on the city council, but they chose not to do so.

The Government slashed the councils' funding and on many occasions voted to keep the funding for Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council low. Councillors had no choice. We need more than empathy; we need action. There is no credible delivery pipeline of social and affordable housing in Dublin Bay North or the rest of the country. The statistics in the reports we received recently show that only 322 direct build homes were delivered by Dublin City Council across the city of Dublin in the period 2015 to 2017 and that only seven homes were built by Fingal County Council in the period 2010 to 2015 and only 76 in 2016-17. There are well over 7,000 applicants on the housing list in Fingal County Council, as well as over 400 homeless families. It is no wonder that the European Commission, in its latest post-programme surveillance report, has severely criticised the Government's flimsy and lethargic housing policies. The Commission highlights the almost 20% increase in rents since the crash-era peaks and the pathetic trickle of social and affordable housing. The daft.ie report published today shows that rents in Dublin 13, a key postal district in Dublin Bay North, are in the territory of €1,800 to €2,000 per month. What chance does a person in receipt of the housing assistance payment have of finding a house? The Government proposes to spend €1 billion per year from 2019 on the housing assistance payment. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have spent approximately €7 billion on rent support payments in recent years. Why not just build houses?

Rebuilding Ireland was never supposed to be a plan that would work in six months, nine months or one year. It is a multiannual plan to be funded in a five to six-year timeframe. The nature of a five or ten-year plan is such that it will not work after five or six months or one year. The Deputy asked why the Government does not just get building. That is exactly what we are doing. The number of direct builds by local authorities and approved housing bodies increased from 650 in 2016 to 2,245 last year and that number will increase again this year. The number of voids brought back into use last year was 1,757. The number of houses acquired by local authorities last year was 2,266, an increase on the less than 2,000 acquired the previous year. It sometimes makes sense for local authorities to acquire houses rather than build them because it is quicker and helps to develop more integrated communities. In addition, another 798 houses were delivered through leasing arrangements. Through different mechanisms over 7,000 homes were added to the social housing stock last year, which made a real difference. It should not be forgotten that every working day the Government, through local authorities and approved housing bodies, houses 100 individuals and families. We will continue to ramp up provision until we get to the point of stability and then get ahead of it too.

I want to address the model 2 hospitals and the part they play in the health service. These are hospitals which do not provide emergency services. Model 2 hospitals resulted from the reconfiguration of the hospital system several years ago into centres of excellence as proclaimed by Mary Harney, thus taking acute services away from many county and regional hospitals. In return, the model 2 hospitals were to be developed to provide services such as acute medical assessment units, day care services and outpatient services and act as diagnostic centres to include scans in order that patients would access services close to their homes and within their own regions. Model 2 hospitals, therefore, were to provide services that would be complementary to those provided in the regional hospitals and relieve footfall in them, particularly in emergency departments.

The development of hospital groups was to drive this development forward. Model 2 hospitals are being starved of funding, finances and staff, and they are not being supported by both lay and medical management within the hospital groups.

Ennis General Hospital is the only hospital in the Mid Western Hospital Group that provides a medical assessment unit service seven days per week, yet the management of the group is proposing to close the unit and reduce the seven-day service to a five-day service. This has much more to do with medical politics than the delivery of care to patients. Effectively, it is a failure of the group to deploy resources properly. Considering that the Mid Western Hospital Group is unable to open its own medical assessment unit on weekdays, not to mind weekends, it defies logic that it would now propose to close the only seven-day medical assessment unit within the region, namely, that in Ennis. This will curtail services within the hospital in Ennis but it will also transfer considerable pressure to the accident and emergency services in Limerick because the patients who would occupy the medical assessment unit beds will now end up in the regional hospital in Limerick. Medical assessment units are part of the integration of the primary and secondary care elements of our health service, and discontinuing them will break that continuity.

Sláintecare addresses these issues and provides solutions. It demands that there be accountability and responsibility for decisions. Decisions should be made not for medical or political reasons but for patient care. Will the Taoiseach ensure that the existing services in Ennis will be maintained on a seven-day basis and that all model 2 hospitals will be expanded to provide medical assessment facilities on a seven-day basis nationally?

It is not quite correct to say model 2 hospitals are being starved of funding. I may be wrong about this but I believe every hospital, be it a model 3 or model 2 hospital, saw its budget increase last year and the year before. Therefore, the Deputy's statement is probably incorrect. I would imagine that the Minister, Deputy Harris, can provide the numbers to back me up.

I have never been fully comfortable with the idea of crudely dividing hospitals into model 3 and model 2 categories because different hospitals have different roles in different places. The hospital in Roscommon may have a very different role from the hospitals in Ennis or Nenagh, although they are all model 2 hospitals. Roscommon hospital, as the Deputy knows, has never been busier. It has seen major additions to its functions and patient numbers in recent years.

Ultimately, the whole point of establishing hospital groups was to give hospital groups autonomy and give them decision-making power regarding how best to deploy resources in their regions between the community and the hospitals, and among the hospitals. As the Deputy knows, Sláintecare refers very much to ensuring autonomy and ensuring decisions are made at local and regional levels and do not come from the Minister's office or the Taoiseach's office.

As the Taoiseach quite rightly says, the difficulty is not uniquely related to the Mid West Hospital Group. Roscommon has been striving to extend the opening period of its medical assessment unit from five days per week to seven days per week. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, has been pursuing this since he entered government. Unfortunately, he has not been successful so far.

Medical assessment units and model 2 hospitals are critical to health care delivery. Not only do they deliver medical assessment services but they also deliver day care, theatre services and diagnostic services. In Ennis, the theatre is idle for in excess of 50% of the time it is manned. The CT scanner there is operated for three hours per day on a five-day week basis. Therefore, it is operated for 15 hours per week. It does not work at weekends. This is a complete waste of resources. Model 2 hospitals have the capacity to develop and take pressure from our acute services. They have the capacity to supply services that are essential to patients without their having to go to accident and emergency services, which would clog them up and add to trolley queues.

I am informed by the Minister for Health that funding has now been extended to Roscommon hospital to extend the period of service of its medical assessment unit from five days per week to seven days per week. I imagine there will be a lag period in making that happen as staff are recruited and rosters are changed but that is very much under way.

The Deputy is absolutely correct. Model 2 hospitals and hospitals that do not have emergency departments can play a very effective role in providing for elective surgery and day cases, access to diagnostics and giving GPs direct access to these hospitals through medical assessment units. The fact that they do not have emergency departments means that they can plan care much better because they do not have to deal with the unpredictability as to whether 30 or 40 patients will need to be admitted from the emergency department on a given day. They can plan their work much more than hospitals that have emergency departments. Ultimately, decisions on resource allocations should not be directed by my office or the Minister. That is very much in line with the recommendations made in the Sláintecare report which states such decisions should be dealt with by the HSE and the hospital groups.