Leaders' Questions

Yesterday, I heard the experience of one of the 209 women at the centre of the CervicalCheck scandal. About two weeks after the story broke, she got a phone call from her consultant. She was told that she was one of the 209 women whose screening was missed. She met her consultant but could not get any details as to what supports might be available. This morning, for the first time, she was assigned to a local area and she was told that in about two weeks' time, she will be able to sit down with a liaison officer to begin a conversation about the type of supports she might need. It will be two months since this story broke before this woman will even meet someone from the State to talk about what supports she might get in the future. After Cabinet on 11 May, the Taoiseach said

Today the Cabinet agreed a range of actions to provide care and support for all the women affected, and their families. We have also agreed that all outstanding legal actions will be dealt with sensitively utilising mediation wherever possible.

The Minister for Health said "[b]ut what they need is not platitudes, they need actions, and I am determined we are going to deliver those actions."

There was great talk from Government of medical cards, prescriptions, childcare and counselling, but it has not happened. Women are borrowing money to get to healthcare appointments on the other side of the country. They are relying on the good faith of solicitors to take legal advice. One man has been trying, without any success, to get access to his wife's medical records. There has been no central point of contact, no counselling, no multidisciplinary teams put in place and no financial support. One woman involved told me this morning that what there is is fear, anger and confusion. Five weeks on from when this story broke, what supports have been put in place for the 209 women at the centre of this scandal? How many of these women have met with the liaison officer? How many of the promised individual support packages have been put in place? What financial assistance has been put in place and is live on the ground for these women today, five weeks on from when we started talking about it here?

I thank the Deputy for raising these issues. He is right to ensure that everything that has been promised is properly followed through on. I have also spoken to women who were part of the 209. The stories that I have heard are that meetings have taken place and that the conversations with the HSE and social workers involved have been positive. If there are cases that the Deputy is hearing about where that is not the case, we need to hear about them and fix that. The Department of Health and the Government are determined to prioritise support for women who are in this difficult, exposed and pressurised situation. We made a clear decision that the HSE would assign social workers, that in each case, there would be proper co-ordination and reach-out from the HSE as opposed to it expecting victims and patients to reach out to the HSE, that people would be met in their homes and that there would be tailored packages of supports, whether discretionary medical cards, out of pocket expenses or counselling for both individuals concerned and their broader families so that we can help people to cope with the stress and trauma over the last five weeks since the scandal broke. That is the intention and determination of the Government. I understand that those conversations are happening and that the co-ordination and commitment made by Government is being followed through by the HSE. If there are cases or parts of the country where that is not the case, we need to hear about them so we can prioritise a response.

It is not just a matter of individual cases. It is not the case that most of the 209 women are being supported in the way that was promised and that there are maybe a few outliers that have been missed. That is not what we hear. It is not what was said outside the gates of Leinster House yesterday, it is not what was said to me by Emma this morning and it was not what was said to me by one of the women involved in supporting the 209 women. That is not what they are saying. They are saying that in some isolated cases, liaison officers have been appointed. In some isolated cases, a conversation is beginning about what supports are available but it is not the norm. The Government was quick to move and implement actions regarding its own political situation. People have been fired, briefings have been given, the Taoiseach has done his Twitter videos and a full investigation is already under way with someone in from abroad. It is happening already. How is it possible that this Government has the ability to implement an international investigation that is live on the ground and yet does not appear to be capable of bringing together these women and liaison officers? That does not seem to make any sense. Can I pass on a request directly from Emma and some other women involved? It is for an event to be organised where women and families can be brought together to meet the officials, and whoever it is they need to meet to help them to figure out what supports are available and what they can get because they are not getting them.

With regard to the women concerned and, in some cases, their partners, the Government's commitment is that the HSE will approach, in an appropriate and sensitive way, those women individually and talk to them in their homes about putting tailor-made packages of support together. That is what we are doing. If people want to have meetings with Department officials or there are concerns about the roll-out of that support and those packages, we can arrange that. The Government is not hiding anything. The Government wants to ensure that the HSE is delivering on the commitments that we have made quickly so that we can provide supports for people and their families through traumatic situations. With regard to court cases, I spoke to the State Claims Agency this morning about the case of Emma Mhic Mhathúna. I understand that the senior counsel representing the State Claims Agency has made it clear that there is acceptance of liability on the State's side with regard to disclosure issues. On the other issues that are being contested that involve Quest Diagnostics, the State Claims Agency and HSE have written to Quest Diagnostics to ask it to change its approach with regard to the request that had been made for assessments of Emma Mhic Mhathúna's children which, as far as we are concerned, is totally inappropriate. We want to see these issues relating to liability and responsibility resolved through mediation, out of a court environment, as quickly as possible. That is what we are trying to pursue.

Yesterday the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, released the April homeless figures and they make for grim reading. The number of children living in emergency accommodation is up by 43 on the figure for the previous month. The number of older people without a home is also up. According to the figures, the overall picture is stagnant. Despite claims by the Minister that he is making progress on housing supply, there is no sign of the homeless crisis abating. Under the Fine Gael-led Government, the level of child homelessness has increased by a shocking 74%. Since the Minister took office, the figure is up by 30%. Under the Fine Gael-led Government, the number of people aged over 65 years living in emergency accommodation has increased by 60%. Under the aegis of the Minister, the figure has increased by 27%. How is it possible that the Government cannot house 128 older people? Could one imagine if it was one's mother or father languishing in emergency accommodation? How is it possible for the Government to allow 3,689 children to live in emergency accommodation, many of whom will spend up to two years in inappropriate accommodation? What the figures released yesterday clearly show is that the Government's housing plan is failing and that the Minister is failing. No amount of hard hat photo tweets will change that fact. There are more homeless adults and children today than when the Government took office and they are spending longer periods in emergency accommodation.

To make matters worse, for the second month in a row, homeless families have been removed from the figures. A total of 297 adults and children in counties Dublin and Meath have simply disappeared. That brings the total number removed from the homeless figures in the past two months to 875. The Minister claims that the people concerned are not homeless, but local authority housing managers disagree. They are living in temporary accommodation without a tenancy agreement, funded from the emergency budget, while the council sources them a permanent home. Mr. Brendan Kenny, director of housing in Dublin City Council, when asked on "Morning Ireland" this morning if the families who had been removed from his administrative area from the April figures were still homeless said: "There is no tenancy agreement. They are still homeless. They are on the homeless list, and they still have homeless priority." However, the Minister thinks it is okay for them to be removed.

Does the Tánaiste accept that despite the economic recovery, the homeless crisis is getting worse? Does he also accept that the Government's housing policy is failing? Does he agree with Mr. Kenny that the families who were removed from the homeless figures in April are, in fact, still homeless and will he commit to ending the blatant manipulation of the homeless figures by the Minister?

I do not think it will come as a surprise to the Deputy to hear that there is an absolute acceptance in Government that we have a crisis that needs a comprehensive response. It is getting it. We have seen massive increases in terms of the financial response from the Government through budgets. We have a very significant and comprehensive plan to deal over time with the homeless crisis. There is, unfortunately, an over-reliance in the short term on the private rental market to try to deal with the housing demands of many families who need the State's intervention and help, but we are responding dramatically in terms of our commitment, both financial and from a delivery perspective, to increasing the number of social houses available. If the Deputy looks at the numbers, last year nearly 26,000 people were provided with a social home by the State across the various mechanisms, or 36% higher than the target set at the start of last year.

I accept that we have far too many people, including children and families, who are homeless. What the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is trying to do is create an accurate picture of numbers and situations of the people who are homeless in order that we can have appropriate responses. Dealing with homelessness is a huge priority for the Government, but nobody has claimed that it can be solved overnight. What we have done in the short term is invested huge amounts of money in improving the quality of emergency accommodation and the appropriateness of emergency accommodation which is a temporary solution, while we find longer term solutions for many of the individuals and families in question. That is why we have invested so much money in hubs, providing extra emergency accommodation and better emergency accommodation.

I also listened to Mr. Brendan Kenny and know that he is deeply committed to trying to solve this problem with the Government. He is saying the figures are far too high, but they have plateaued. They are no longer increasing at anything like the pace we have seen in the past 18 months or so. Over time we will need to provide long-term housing solutions through a dramatic increase in the provision of social housing, to which we are committing billions of euro. In the next ten years we will deliver more than 100,000 new social houses. That is the Government's response and it is comprehensive, as Deputy Eoin Ó Broin knows. In the meantime, we have a continuing crisis, with families and children whom we need to ensure are in appropriate short-term emergency accommodation, while we increase the throughput in moving people from homelessness into sustainable tenancies.

On what Deputy Eoin Ó Broin describes as recategorisation, what we are talking about is how many people are exposed to the vulnerabilities and dangers of homelessness in the context of the provision of emergency accommodation. Many individuals and families are in homes and have certainty in terms of their accommodation into the future. Over time they will need to be housed in social housing, but they are not in the emergency accommodation many understand it to be.

Meanwhile, outside the bubble of Government Buildings, more and more people are becoming homeless. We should not be having an argument over the figures, but behind every one of them is a real person, for example, a mother with a child trapped in emergency accommodation or a pensioner who is unsure where he or she will sleep tomorrow. At a time when the economy is growing, the number without a home should be falling. Accurate data are important and massaging the figures is wrong. That is not just my opinion. Louth County Council told councillors that the families who had been removed from its list last month were still homeless. Waterford City and County Council stated the families who had been removed from its list last month were still homeless. Focus Ireland stated the families in its Limerick facility who had been removed from the figures last month were also homeless. Today the most senior housing official in the State agrees with them. Everybody except the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues seems to know that these families are homeless. Is the Tánaiste saying Mr. Brendan Kenny and his council colleagues have got it wrong, that they are lying and, if not, how can he continue to have confidence in a Minister who is clearly failing to do his job?

It is not appropriate to effectively misquote a senior housing official which is what the Deputy has done.

I quoted him accurately.

No. The Deputy is quoting him selectively. I listened to Mr. Brendan Kenny this morning when he made it very clear that it was the local authorities that were making the decisions on the categorisation of homelessness and that it had not been done on the instructions of the Government.

That is not what Louth, Waterford and Meath county councils stated in writing.

I am sorry, but the Deputy quoted-----

They have stated they were instructed.

A Cheann Comhairle-----

It would be better if the Tánaiste did not engage directly with the Deputy.

It might also be better if the Sinn Féin spokesperson on housing were not to quote selectively a senior housing official who is doing a fantastic job in very pressurised circumstances in order to try to politicise what he said.

The Government is massaging the figures.

It is the Government that is politicising the figures.

The Deputy should let the Tánaiste respond.

That is not what he said this morning. The Deputy then tried to back up the claim with unsubstantiated quotes from local authority meetings in various parts of the country.

They are substantiated by the housing committee. They were before the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government.

That is not what Mr. Brendan Kenny was talking about this morning.

He said they were homeless.

Will Members please let the Tánaiste respond?

Rather than arguing over the figures, there should be an acceptance in this House that we do have a homeless crisis.

What about the commitment to have no families in hotels?

The Deputy should, please, not interrupt.

We have taken 2,000 families out of hotels in the past 12 months.

The Government stated all families would be taken out of hotels.

The Tánaiste's time is up.

It is appropriate when we are dealing with an issue as serious and emotive as this-----

----where we are talking about the lives of real people and real children living in inappropriate accommodation on a temporary basis that we do not misquote senior officials who are doing their best in difficult circumstances.

I have not misquoted anyone.

Yesterday the Taoiseach spoke about dark chapters in our history, but today tens of thousands of adults and children continue to live through a dark chapter and in plain sight. According to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government's homelessness report which Deputy Eoin Ó Broin quoted, almost 6,000 adults and 3,700 children are homeless.

Of these, 4,005 homeless adults and almost 3,000 homeless children were based in the four Dublin local authority areas, with up to 40,000 Dublin households in all on housing waiting lists. Homeless campaigners like Mr. Anthony Flynn of Inner City Helping Homeless have seriously questioned the veracity of these figures and point to the exclusion of almost 800 applicants from homeless lists in March and April. Another analyst, Mr. Mel Reynolds, has challenged the accuracy of the Minister's direct build figures and we know that more than 6,000 households were removed from housing lists after the last Dublin city housing assessment. Is it not time to have an independent assessment of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government's housing statistics, perhaps carried out by the Central Statistics Office?

Dublin Bay North is the worst affected constituency in Ireland. This year, Dublin City Council housing area B, which comprises much of Dublin Bay North, has 7,345 households on waiting lists or in emergency accommodation, a higher figure than for all of Fingal, all of South Dublin or for any other Irish local authority area. When the Fingal part of the constituency is added, Dublin Bay North has a housing and homeless problem greater than all of the Cork constituencies combined. In response to this housing emergency, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government have only offered very belated, confused and almost totally ineffective solutions which, combined with profound lethargy from the management of our two local authorities, has produced intense suffering for many of my constituents. The Government is not getting there. There is no way it is getting there in terms of tackling homelessness.

Last Saturday, a mother and her very bright seven year old daughter came to meet me. This child is distressed by the prospect of homelessness. She and her mother are facing their second eviction in just under two years, this time from a housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancy. Like other parents, the girl's mother is deeply concerned for the welfare of her child and herself, given the huge stress and disruption caused by constantly moving home and the very poor prospect in Dublin Bay North of a stable, forever home with a local authority or voluntary body. Of course, that child is just one of the many thousands of children awaiting rehousing or in emergency accommodation.

Yesterday, Focus Ireland, the Simon Communities, Barnardos and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul rightly drew attention to children in hidden homelessness. All of this is happening against a background of surging and uncontrolled rents of up to €2,000 per month in Dublin Bay North which produces the regular evictions which make families homeless. The Tánaiste broke his pledge to end the practice of sending children and families to hotels by 1 July 2017. He broke that promise, did not deliver enough family hubs and certainly did not deliver the required housing. I have repeatedly asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, about Government action to prevent children becoming homeless, given the adverse effects on them.

It is egregious public relations nonsense for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to say that homelessness is stabilising. The Tánaiste, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will be held to account in the next general election. I know that the Tánaiste will give me the same old mantra he gave to Deputy Ó Broin in response, but after nearly eight years of failure and inaction, is there now any prospect of an emergency public housing programme? The Government has said this is a crisis, so where is the crisis response? We need serious rent controls and truly affordable mortgages.

The Deputy has asked a lot of questions. We do have rent controls for the first time in the history of the State. I introduced them and this Government made that happen in Christmas week, 2017.

They are not working.

As a result of those rent controls, we are seeing some limitations in rental inflation. Approximately 67% of rental properties in the country are in rent pressure zones. There are issues with regard to student accommodation which the Minister has agreed to examine in co-operation with Opposition parties. On the issue of family hubs, if memory serves me correctly, we have spent about €50 million on them so far. We have seen 300 people move out of hotels and into family hubs. While the hubs are not ideal accommodation, they are a significant improvement on what we had previously. Families now have a bit more dignity and privacy, can do their own washing and cooking and can behave as families should, together. They are in the hubs on a temporary basis while the State improves the throughput times for people moving from emergency accommodation into more permanent housing.

I do not believe that family hubs are a long-term solution but we were faced with a dramatic increase in homelessness over a very short space of time. The Government has had to respond to that in terms of dealing with people in very vulnerable circumstances . It takes time and significant sums of money, to which the Government has committed, to increase capacity within local authorities to deliver a significant, increased and accelerated social housing delivery programme. In the meantime, we have to deal with families and individuals. Unfortunately, for all sorts of reasons, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people entering homelessness although one encouraging indicator in recent months is the reduction in the numbers presenting as homeless. This is an encouraging sign but we are far from being out of the woods in terms of solving this issue. It is a huge priority for the Government and will continue to be thus into the future.

The hidden homelessness campaign is a legitimate one but the NGOs involved are not suggesting that people who are in overcrowded conditions on a temporary basis should be categorised as homeless. That is not what they are suggesting. Their campaign is about raising awareness of the extent of overcrowding in Ireland. This is also a driver for the need for more and more social housing and a more balanced and affordable rental market, which is what the State is working on right now.

It is Government policies over the past eight years which have produced the homelessness problem and got us into this terrible crisis. The Government is relying on profit-driven private developers and landlords. In terms of Government projections out to 2021, up to 60% of units will become available through HAP. We have almost no Part V units, for example, in Dublin Bay North. The delivery of social housing is the key point.

The Government does not have a serious pipeline of new social homes and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has refused to create one for the people to whom I refer. In Dublin Bay North in the period between 2015 and 2017, delivery has been pathetic. Dublin City Council built fewer than 90 new homes throughout the city in 2015 and 2016. Only 81 Part V homes were delivered for the whole city in the 2015 to 2017 period. In the Howth and Malahide ward of Fingal, there was zero construction, new build acquisitions or Part V units in 2015 and 2016. The projections for 2018 are for only 333 direct build housing units for a city with a housing list of 20,000. Almost everything on the list is scheduled for completion in quarter 2 or 3 of 2019, after the general election. Some of the large sites that we have at Santry, Newtown, Belmayne, Belcamp and so on have been in the planning process for up to 20 years. We need a new delivery structure for an emergency social housing programme, either through a State company as proposed by the Nevin Economic Research Institute or a housing executive for the Dublin region.

The Government is failing and will be held to account for that. There will be far fewer current members on the Government benches after the general election because of housing.

I am happy to be held to account for my role in to trying to fix the housing crisis.

The Tánaiste ran out of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.

(Interruptions).

In time, the policy changes we have made as a Government will be highly effective. I share Deputy Broughan's concerns about the number of people who are homeless today. That number is a reminder of the job that we need to do. I will not accept, however, the pretence offered by Deputy Broughan and others that we do not have a pipeline of delivery for social housing because that is simply not true. We must consider what has been delivered in recent years.

In 2016, adding local authority and approved housing body delivery of new builds together, the total was only 657 social housing units. Last year that figure jumped to just under 2,300 units. The figure for this year will be significantly higher again as will the figure for the following year. We are going to get to a point where we are delivering between 7,000 and 10,000 social houses per year. The funding is in place and the delivery pipeline exists now. The reason I am so critical of Deputy Broughan on this issue is that the information is available and published. It is possible now to see what each individual local authority is committing to this year.

The figures do not add up.

If the Deputy took the time to look at that, perhaps his questions would be more accurate.

I wish to raise the question of ensuring that our education system reflects the diversity of modern Ireland in the context of yesterday's debate on the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill.

While I welcome the fact that this House voted to remove the baptism barrier as an important first step in improving access to education, I am disappointed that the Government and Fianna Fáil voted down a number of amendments that sought to take the teaching of religion and faith formation out of the school day. It is wrong that children are segregated in the classroom and it is unfortunate that the Government and Fianna Fáil did not support those amendments.

The Minister, Deputy Bruton, announced on Monday that he plans to increase the provision of what he claims to be multidenominational and non-denominational schools. I have concerns about his decision to get the education and training boards, ETBs, to head up this process. The areas where these new schools will be located have been identified by the ETBs. Given that the ETBs will be bidding to become patrons of these schools, I think there is a definite conflict of interest here. My real concern about how the ETBs' view of multidenominational education is based on a view that has been expressed within the Department of Education and Skills regarding what multidenominational education means. I have been in correspondence with the Minister and the Secretary General of the Department. That correspondence has revealed the Department's frankly bizarre definition of what it understands to be multidenominational education. When the Secretary General was asked recently about the role of religion in schools, he stated that "[i]t is not unreasonable to expect in a multi denominational school that where the composition of the pupil body demands a Christian ethos to continue, that this is given expression in the life of the school." That is an extraordinary statement for the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills to make. It displays a complete misunderstanding of what multidenominational education is supposed to be. Surely the Tánaiste can see the conflict here. The idea that a State-run multidenominational school should adopt the ethos of the majority religion is fundamentally undermining of the core tenets of multidenominational education. Does the Government stand over the definition of multidenominational education that has been articulated by the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills?

There has been extensive consultation between the Government and the Opposition spokespeople on the legislation mentioned by the Deputy. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Bruton, on the work he has done to build consensus across the House on an appropriate way forward through Committee Stage, etc. It has not been straightforward. The approach that has been taken represents a fundamental change for the better in Irish education policy. It is important to recognise that as this legislation progresses and the debate on individual elements of the legislation continues. Of course people will have different opinions on the legislation, the core thrust of which should be welcomed and has been welcomed by most Members of this House.

The Deputy also asked about the role of the ETBs. It is important to say that the ETBs are locally based and have local representatives who are working with local childcare communities. We want to ensure appropriate and accurate surveys of parents are done. It makes sense as a practical approach to work with the ETB system to that end. I do not believe the ETBs will show any bias at all. The ETBs are managing the collection of data from surveys of parents. I think it is well capable of being trusted to do that. This initiative is designed to promote the transfer of patronage without closing schools and to ensure that process happens in a streamlined way that does not interrupt the education of children. I think that process needs to be supported from a practical point of view.

I am not sure it is possible or appropriate for me, on the floor of this House, to get into a definition of what is meant by multidenominational as an immediate response to a question that has been asked by a Deputy. I would need to know the context of that definition and the quote that has been provided by the Department. Perhaps the Deputy could provide that context. Then I could provide a more informed answer than I would if I gave an answer off the cuff today.

It is regrettable that the Tánaiste has dodged the question completely here. I have raised this matter with the Minister for Education and Skills in parliamentary questions in recent weeks, but he has avoided the question entirely. I have read a quote in which the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills sets out his understanding of what multidenominational education is. Any fair reading of that quote would suggest that how the Secretary General sees multidenominational education is the exact opposite of what multidenominational education should be. Does the Government agree with the Secretary General's definition? If this is the view of the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, something needs to be done about it. We cannot have the senior person of the Department dictating what the policy for the future of our schools is going to be if he has such an outdated, outmoded and ill-informed view of what multidenominational education is. Will the Tánaiste tell us that he agrees with the Secretary General's views, or disassociate himself from those views? It is an important question.

Before I call the Tánaiste, it is probably not appropriate to ask the Tánaiste or any Minister to comment in the Chamber on a statement by a Secretary General. It appears to me that it might be more appropriate for the Oireachtas committee to invite the Secretary General to appear before it and engage in discussion there-----

-----as distinct from asking the Tánaiste to comment on the circumstances.

The Deputy can ask the question, but I am not going to give an answer that is not properly informed. I have not spoken to the Secretary General concerned and I am certainly not going to disassociate myself from him in the context of the positive work that the Department of Education and Skills has been doing in this tricky area. The Government supports diversity of educational patronage. Seeking new multidenominational or non-denominational patrons is part of what we are doing. Removing the right to use religion as a basis for selection when schools are facing choices in terms of future students is something we are addressing comprehensively in this legislation. Ensuring the right to opt out of religious programmes in schools is now going to be respected. We are going to put systems in place that can deliver on that. It is important to say that the previous initiative by the former Minister, Ruairí Quinn, which was welcome at the time, produced just ten new patronage schools across the country. We now have a new approach that is designed to accelerate the delivery of much more diversity of patronage of primary schools across the country. I think we can achieve that with the current approach that is being led by the Minister, Deputy Bruton.

It needs to be an honest approach.