Leaders' Questions

I ask leaders to adhere to the time allocated.

Today there are 6,000 adults homeless and 1,724 homeless families, with nearly 4,000 children. Since 2012 and 2013, various housing and homeless organisations predicted and warned about a growing crisis, but the then Government was in denial, stating the level of homelessness would not develop and that the issue would be resolved in a timely manner. We know how that worked out. The denial of a crisis is a factor in the unacceptable levels of homelessness among children we are experiencing. The Children's Rights Alliance has published important research today which outlines the negative impact of homelessness and living in emergency accommodation on children and their educational prospects. The report states children who are homeless in Ireland are experiencing exhaustion, hunger and increased susceptibility to illness because of poor living conditions and long journeys to and from school. The CEO of the alliance, Ms Tanya Ward, put it succinctly when she stated:

Children who are homeless lose out on every level of their education because they have no home to provide them with the backdrop that they need to learn and grow. Let me paint the picture of what child homelessness looks like on a day-to-day level and the dreadful effect this has on their schooling. For a child, life in homeless accommodation can be tough. They wake up in the one room they share with their parents and siblings. Some must wake their children as early as 5.30 a.m. to make the long journey across the city to school. Many are exhausted and some fall asleep in class. School attendance is affected. The child is hungry because often there is nowhere to store food or prepare breakfast or their lunchbox. The child doesn't always have adequate washing facilities and sometimes goes to school with a dirty uniform.

Homeless accommodation makes it almost impossible for parents to establish regular routines ... It also impacts on the child's behaviour.

Such experiences should have demanded an urgent, effective and impactful response from the Government, yet, when one looks at initiative after initiative that the Government has announced, one sees target after target being missed. We read today about the serious concerns of the Dublin city chief executive about rapid build housing. It is estimated that two rapid build schemes, one on Fishamble Street and the other in Coolock, announced in 2016, will be completed in 2020. As I said, there are 4,000 children homeless. The lack of delivery is appalling. I could go through all of the initiatives Governments have announced. The repair and release scheme has a delivery target of 800 units, but the delivery has been nil.

The time is up.

The target for the rapid build scheme is the delivery of 1,500 units by 2018; 208 have been delivered to date. Some 6,000 NAMA units were identified for delivery, of which 2,000 have been delivered. Some 400 affordable homes were identified; the number is 0%.

Please, Deputy.

I could go on and on. What is the reason for the the lack of urgency and delivery in responding to the appalling homelessness being experienced by children? Does the Taoiseach accept that the homeless children referenced in the report of the Children's Right Alliance rare being failed by the Government in the quality of its response to date?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. When it comes to the Cabinet, there is no denial whatsoever of the enormous economic and social challenge we face as a result of the housing crisis and its worst and most distressing aspect - family homelessness, with children not being able to go home at night and having to do their homework on a hotel bed. The Government is aware of the seriousness of the issue and determined to do all it can to alleviate it. It is important to double back a little and not forget how it came about. There was a seven-year period during which almost no new homes were built and almost no social housing was built by the Government because we could not afford to do so because of the perilous state of the public finances. There was an almost seven-year period during which the private sector was not producing new homes because of the collapse of the banks and the construction sector. That is the backdrop against which we are trying to deal with this enormous social crisis which involves a deficit of as many as 250,000 homes, on which we need to catch up on in the next period. However, I believe the actions taken by the Government in the past year or two are starting to show results. For example, when it comes to rent controls, approximately half of those who become homeless do so because they have lost their place in the private rented accommodation sector. In the past two quarters we have seen rents increase by or less than 1%. That is evidence the rent controls the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has brought forward are having an effect.

The Minister did not bring them forward.

The number of people living in emergency accommodation is levelling off. In the Dublin area, for example, last month there was a reduction in the number of families entering homelessness.

Not last month.

For the first time, we were taking more people out of homelessness than were entering it.

The Government was opening new hubs.

We are moving away from the use of hotels and bed and breakfast accomodation which are totally unsuitable for families and towards family hubs which are very different as they have cooking and washing facilities and play areas. While it is by no means a long-term solution and an alternative to a house or an apartment, it is a much better temporary solution. There are 500 such places, with another 400 to come.

On the last count, the level of rough sleeping was down by approximately 40%. The reduction is due to the increase in shelter accommodation made available with Government resources. Of course, the underlying problem is housing supply, in which we are now seeing a real increase.

Not in affordable housing.

The CSO figures which nobody disputes and which cannot lie show that last year 14,446 new homes were built. That figure does not include the number of vacant houses - more than 2,000 - being brought back into use. It also does not include the student accommodation being made available, of which there is a lot.

I thank the Taoiseach.

The 14,446 new homes built last year amounted to an increase of 50% on the figure for the previous year. That is evidence that the level of housing supply is ramping up.

The time is up.

We expect 18,000 or 20,000 new homes to be built this year.

At €400,000 for a house.

The Taoiseach is wrong in the backdrop he has suggested.

The Taoiseach and the Government made many announcements of various schemes and the media were fair to them because they reported those announcements faithfully. Some 800 units were to be delivered under the repair and leasing scheme at the beginning of 2017 and zero have been delivered. Some 1,500 houses were to be built under the rapid build scheme by the end of 2018. The delivery to date has been 208. The National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, was due to deliver 6,946 units and only 2,400 were delivered. There was an affordable homes target of 400 by the end of 2018 and zero have been delivered. There has been an affordable rent scheme of €10 million promised since 2015 and zero has been delivered. The home building finance Ireland scheme was announced 12 months ago in the budget and was faithfully and fairly reported by the media. What happened? Legislation to establish the body has yet to pass the Oireachtas. We can go on and on with various announcements of the Government. That is the backdrop. Why has there been a failure to deliver?

The Taoiseach should not get annoyed with commentators and the Opposition if they point out that there has been a clear failure to deliver the necessary housing to get the children I referred to out of emergency accommodation. It is a blight on our society and the Taoiseach does not care enough about it. We have too much spin. That is why we railed against the strategic communications unit because that was about spin over substance and we need substance in delivering houses for children who need it for their proper development and growth in our society into the future.

Let us leave aside announcements for the moment and let us-----

Where was the Taoiseach this morning?

This morning I came off a plane from New York at 1.30, so that is where I was.

The Government jet.

He was down the back of the bus.

Unfortunately the Government jet does not cross the Atlantic. It was Norwegian Air, but to answer the question, let us leave aside the announcement for the moment, let us leave aside the spin, let us leave aside the Deputies railing against that-----

Show me the houses.

-----and let us talk about delivery and the facts. The facts say that 2,000 people were taken out of hotels last year. These were parents and families. In fact, 2,000 families were taken out of hotels-----

They were knocked down by 3,000 going in.

It is always the facts that get shouted down in this House. Some 2,000 families were taken out of hotel accommodation in the past year and most of them were brought into houses and apartments. A total of 14,046 new dwellings were completed last year, a 50% increase on the year before and a 75% increase on-----

How many social houses?

-----the year before that, 7,000 new homes were added to our social housing stock, the biggest in a long time, 2,600 homes that were out of use and vacant were reconnected to the ESB grid, and 1,000 unfinished houses, the ghost estates that Fianna Fáil left behind, were completed and made available for people to buy and live in.

The Taoiseach has spent too much time at high altitude.

Fáilte ar ais. I want to raise with the Taoiseach the comments that he made in New York at what has been described as a private lunch but what I understand was an event paid for by the Irish taxpayer. His remarks, as published, referred to the Irish media. He has confirmed these remarks in part, that he is in sympathy with President Donald Trump and that he believes that Irish journalists have no interest in the truth. No more than the rest of us, as Taoiseach and Head of Government, I am sure he understands that the freedom of the press to report in the public interest without coercion, pressure or undue influence is vitally important and yet he has attacked Irish investigative journalism and he has cited RTÉ in particular. It is interesting that the Taoiseach cites the very programmes that have exposed scandals such as the hospital waiting lists, the disregard for carers and those with disabilities, the failure of the State and the Taoiseach's Government to protect children in care, and the wholesale failure of his housing policy, and we heard again not only about homeless children but also the scandal of a generation that has lost any hope of ever having a secure roof over their heads. The Taoiseach knows that time and again citizens have had to resort to media platforms to get the ear of Government and of Ministers and yet he has a problem with investigative journalism.

I suggest to the Taoiseach that if he is genuinely concerned about the Irish media, he might have remarked on the issue of media ownership in New York. He might have also been particularly concerned about the power of Denis O'Brien in Ireland's media landscape. He might have reflected that Mr. O'Brien's dominance has a chilling effect on news gathering and reporting in the public interest and on the ability of journalists to get to the truth. Had the Taoiseach said that, he would have had broad agreement here and from most journalists, but he is not interested in those legitimate issues. He simply wanted to have a go.

From the paid for content scandal earlier this year to the controversy surrounding his €5 million spin unit, the Taoiseach's interest seems to be in spin and optics. Will he tell us who was at this lunch? Will he publish or provide the names? Is there a record of the meeting? What else was discussed? Did he have any other commentary to make on other sections of Irish society and would he care to share those views with us?

It is great to be back and I thank the Deputy for giving me an opportunity to clarify this matter. I strongly believe that the free press is essential for democracy to function. It is-----

That was then; this is now.

-----important and essential work and in a free society and a democracy it is as important as the parliamentary or courts system.

In a democracy, people listen to questions being answered.

That is why I support and the Government supports the work of the news media and I always try to be as accessible and open with the media as I can be. Sometimes there are tensions between the Government and media but that is as it should be. I read the story in the newspaper today and I profoundly regret if anyone in the country thinks that in any way I do not support a free press or respect the work of journalists. A free, fair and balanced media is a cornerstone of democracy and our freedoms and that is why it is so important. At the same time, it should not consider itself to be beyond reproach or above criticism. On many occasions in Irish society we have had times where groups of people or institutions felt themselves to be beyond reproach or above criticism and we know the results and consequences of that.

This was a private event. It was a two-hour lunch. It was done at my request because I wanted to sit down with young Irish people living in New York, to have an exchange of views with them and to hear what their thoughts were on the situation in America and in Ireland. I would like to be able to respect the privacy of that event but that is not possible now. There is no record of it. There was no speech given. It was a back and forth conversation involving about 15 or 20 people, covering a whole range of topics from Brexit to the United Nations-----

-----Russia and many other things. There was a conversation about social media and fake news and it developed from there. I said a lot of positive things about the media internationally and in Ireland-----

About Donald Trump.

-----in particular I acknowledged the role of investigative journalism in bringing about social change. I acknowledged the example of that in the #MeToo movement and the exposure of Harvey Weinstein, and we talked about the role of personal stories as evidenced in the media and how important that was in our last two referendum campaigns on abortion and marriage equality.

I also said that I thought I got a fair hearing from the media in general, and I do, and I said that because of the proliferation of media outlets and journalists, that journalists were under a lot of pressure to produce stories, much more so than would have been the case in the past when there were fewer journalists and news programmes, but of course none of that was reported.

My only reference to RTÉ was in response to somebody challenging me when I said that investigative journalism was not always true and the only reference I made to RTÉ "Prime Time Investigates" was specifically on the issue of the "Mission to Prey", programme when false allegations against a priest fathering a child in Africa were broadcast and should not have been broadcast. Obviously that has been dealt with since.

That is historical. It is ancient. People have been fired over that.

That account of events directly contradicts what those who were at the event are reported to have said. The report reflects commentary by the Taoiseach in which he accuses the media of trivialising matters, and chasing tittle-tattle rather than being concerned with substantive issues. A direct attack on investigative journalism, on RTÉ investigative journalism in particular, is very clear in the recording. The problem is that the Taoiseach is saying one thing, while those who were in attendance say another. Will he tell us how we can fully and finally clarify these matters? The Taoiseach says he is concerned about the health of the media in Ireland. In that context, I would have thought the issue of media ownership would have been the obvious, stand-out issue, but the Taoiseach chose not to address it.

What other issues were discussed? Did the Taoiseach comment on other sections on Irish society outside of the media?

I was there so I am in a position to tell the Deputy what transpired.

It differs from the accounts of others.

Deputy McDonald is free to make up and imagine anything she likes but I can say what transpired because I was there. The only reference to RTÉ was in relation to the "Mission to Prey" programme, and a lot of people around the table were not aware of it. Perhaps some of them believed that investigative reporting was always true so I gave an example of a case where it was not, and where a story became more important than the truth. That happens and we should not be afraid to say it. In private, we talk about stories that were sensationalised and, as politicians, we should not be afraid to say that.

The issue of media ownership did not come up. Had it done so, I would have been happy to discuss it and I have discussed it in this House on previous occasions.

Small businesses in rural Ireland have been haemorrhaging since Fine Gael came to power. Not only have Government policies failed to support rural economies, an anti-rural sentiment has emerged from its cosy relationship with Fianna Fáil, resulting in a sweeping tide of depopulation and rural retreat, devastating counties like my constituency of Donegal. Thanks to this anti-rural sentiment, post offices, Garda stations, GPs and bank facilities are retreating from towns across rural Ireland. This has had a devastating impact on businesses struggling with new and existing challenges arising from the recession, which in turn devastated local communities. I am not talking about businesses ready to export or IDA-sponsored companies but local coffee shops, hairdressers, butchers, furniture shops and newsagents, businesses that will never be primed for export. These are the businesses that are largely left outside Government supports, yet they are the drivers of local economic growth, creating sustainable local employment across rural communities and helping to maintain rural populations as a result.

Measuring the health of this sector gives an indication of the overall health of the national economy. For this reason, I carried out a survey of small businesses across Donegal and received more than 100 responses. The results were striking and confirmed our deeply held suspicions of current Government policy, which is simply that Fine Gael does not care about rural Ireland. Over 80% of the businesses I polled were concerned about depopulation and the effects that the retreat of rural services will have on their businesses. I raised this with the Minister with responsibility for small business only to be told that endless amounts of money was being poured into tourism development. While support for tourism is most welcome, it fails to target the catalyst for rural economic growth which is local trade. My survey showed that nearly 80% of small businesses rely on local trade while only 13% rely on tourism. I ask the Taoiseach not to quote the unemployment figures for me and tell me they have dropped in Donegal because the Minister did that. It is emigration that has reduced the unemployment figures in Donegal, not economic growth.

The message could not be clearer. Small businesses survive when local businesses are thriving, but the Government's policies have ensured that depopulation continues to be the trend, undermining local trade as much as it is undermining the sustainability of rural towns and villages across the country. Before he spells out a list of what the Government has done for rural Ireland, will the Taoiseach tell me exactly how he intends to curb depopulation, increase local trade and provide real and substantial supports for small businesses across rural Ireland?

I appreciate that unemployment falls for many different reasons but I do not think it is correct to say unemployment is down in Donegal as a consequence of emigration because, based on the census, the population in Donegal is up. If I can dig the figures out from the folder showing the number of people in employment in Donegal, I will give them to the Deputy. I am sure the number of people in employment in Donegal has increased in recent years.

The Government and I acknowledge the very important and vital role of small business in all parts of our country, particularly in rural areas, when it comes to creating jobs and generating important tax revenues we use to build a better society. I will give some examples of the kinds of things the Government is doing. We reduced the VAT rate from 13.5% to 9%, which was of particular benefit to small businesses such as those in the service industry and hospitality, for example, restaurants, hairdressers and barber shops, all owned and run by the same people. There are many people in this House, especially among the parties of the left, who want to reverse it and increase the rate by 4.5%. It would be a mistake and doing it in one fell swoop would do real harm to small business and to employment, particularly in rural areas.

We have seen huge investment in tourism and the Deputy knows, as well as I do, the extent to which Donegal has benefited from the tourism boom, with record numbers of people coming to visit Ireland to enjoy what we have to offer in terms of tourism. In many cases they go to attractions which have been greatly enhanced and improved by Government capital investment. I refer to places such as Sliabh Liag, which is every bit as beautiful and wonderful as the Cliffs of Moher and where we invested to improve access so that more people can visit and enjoy it. There have been particular supports around the local enterprise offices, which were established in years gone by and, as was acknowledged by a Deputy opposite, have been responsible for creating many jobs in Roscommon. I am sure they do the same in Donegal.

Project Ireland 2040 is also coming and enormous investment will flow from that programme into rural areas, in housing, healthcare, broadband and schools. Of particular benefit to rural areas will be the investment in the regional road network, which is very much in need of improvement. The A5-N2 project will soon start to connect the northern part of Donegal to Northern Ireland and the Border counties and Dublin and is a vital infrastructure project to which I am very committed.

Investment in broadband is also vital. When this Government of Fine Gael, the Independent Alliance and Independents came to office, only 57% of premises in the country had access to high-speed broadband, but by the end of this year it will be close to 80%, which will rise to 100% in the years ahead when we sign the broadband contract.

The Taoiseach did not mention any of the things the businesses in Donegal mentioned, which include the closure of post offices and the closure of Garda stations, that is, the things that are having an impact on their businesses. The Taoiseach spoke about the reduced VAT rate which has been in existence throughout the lifetime of the decline of rural Ireland but has had zero impact on it. Local businesses are struggling and they are dying on their feet because people are being sucked out of rural areas. Unless we deal with that, we will have empty rural areas and there will be nobody to avail of the VAT reductions to which the Taoiseach refers.

Over 80% of the people I surveyed said they had not heard of any Government initiatives. Small businesses struggling to keep open have not heard of any response from the Government. Many of them say they have never been asked about these things, which I found startling. Given that Fine Gael is the so-called party of small business, I would have thought it would have asked them what would work for them, but maybe they do not want to hear the answers, which are to keep the shops open, keep the Garda stations open, keep the post offices open and keep the rural areas vibrant and alive.

I am glad the Deputy acknowledges that Fine Gael is the party of small business because it is.

I welcome that acknowledgment. I can guarantee the Deputy that public representatives listen to those engaged in business all the time. There is not a single Deputy or Senator in the Houses who has not spent time or does not engage, perhaps several times a year, with his or her local chamber of commerce.

I have been provided with the figures for County Donegal. There are 58,353 people in employment, which represents an increase of 9.5% since 2011. There has been an increase of almost 10% in the number at work in County Donegal since 2011.

The population has decreased.

We know of many examples of big investments happening in the country. They include, for example, Abbott in Donegal town and Pramerica in Letterkenny which at this stage must employ more than 1,000 people. We will see more of such investments. Project Ireland 2040 and the national planning framework, which is associated with it provide for population growth of 75% outside the greater Dublin region. In particular, they identify major growth centres, one of which is Letterkenny working with Derry.

As we head into the summer months and preparations for the forthcoming budget start in earnest, I seek an assurance from the Taoiseach and the Government that one section of society will be looked after - the people of middle Ireland whom he likes to describe as those who get up early in the morning. No matter how early they get up, those not on the lower edges economically or at the upper levels, find life a constant struggle. Often referred to as the squeezed middle, they bear the biggest burden of demands on their income and receive the least amount of help from the State. They could be called the forgotten middle because that is what it feels like for them. They are the ones who go to work every day and pay their taxes which are higher than they were a decade ago. They are the ones who carried the country through the recession to reach the point we are at today, but they are getting nothing back. Their rent payments are soaring; their insurance bills have gone through the roof and their school and childcare costs have gone up. Fuel prices are probably at their highest ever level; medical costs are rising, as is the cost of electricity. Some are living with their parents, often with three or four children, while trying to save for a deposit on a house. They cannot find a house in the current market scramble which could be made even worse by the activities of the Housing Agency in buying large blocks of houses in private estates. They are the people who do not receive State benefits or grants to help their children to attend third level education, despite fees having increased by 131% since 2005. They are more or less being ignored by the Government which has most of its focus on other sectors of society to the detriment of those in the middle who make the greatest contribution to the economy. Once an Irish worker earns €34,550 a year, he or she pays half of every euro earned above the figure in direct taxes. Almost half of every €10 above that figure is taken in income tax, the universal social charge, USC, and pay-related social insurance, PRSI, leaving them with just over €5. It is all building to being a problem for the country in the future. The Irish Tax Institute has warned, for instance, that the income tax regime is hindering us in the global race for talent. I acknowledge that some slight progress was made in the last budget, inlcuding a small reduction in income tax for the self-employed and a minor reduction in the universal social charge. There will be greater fiscal space in the next budget to do more. My question to the Taoiseach is how will he look after those in middle Ireland next October in a way that will make a real and substantial difference to them?

As I said previously, the priority in the budget will be to increase spending on public services and infrastructure. These are areas in which everyone can benefit. Everyone in society, no matter who he or she is, will benefit from greater investment in infrastructure, whether it be housing, healthcare, schools, broadband or actions against climate change. They will also benefit from improvements in public services such as education. The priority will be to increase resources and spending on public services and infrastructure. However, in the budget package we will and should - the Deputy is right - find space to ensure we do something to improve the living standards of hard-working people, the people the Deputy mentioned who get up early in the morning, work late, work shifts and work weekends, the people who are just about managing and very much in middle Ireland.

On the types of thing we anticipate doing, we will be following on what was done in previous budgets. For example, in the last budget we were able to reduce the cost of prescription charges for everyone, not only those with medical cards but also those who received a refund under the drugs payment scheme. We will be examining ways to do so again to reduce the cost of prescriptions.

In the last two budgets we improved access to childcare and early childhood education. Everyone is now guaranteed free preschool for two years for their children. That benefits everyone. In addition, there is subsidised childcare for the same length of time. We will also examine ways to improve it. We can help people in many ways and reducing the cost of accessing services can be as important as a pay increase or a tax cut.

As always, the self-employed will be prioritised. The Deputy will be aware that we have increased the earned income tax credit for those who are self-employed. We will be examining if the resources are available to do the same again. In recent years we have extended benefits in return for PRSI contributions to persons who are self-employed. They include, for example, access to invalidity pension and treatment benefits for the first time. One thing struck me during the recession when I was knocking on doors and meeting people who were self-employed. Often they had worked in construction as fitters, for example, or architects and had lost their jobs when they were entitled to virtually no social protection because somebody else in the household had an income which very often had been the second income. As a result, they were entitled to nothing. That is why we extended invalidity pension to persons who were self-employed. We are looking at ways to also extend jobseeker's benefit in some form to the self-employed.

The Deputy is right that there is real unfairness and a real anomaly in the tax system under which people on very modest incomes pay income tax at the highest rate. That is not the norm in other western European countries. It means that somebody on an average income who receives a pay increase, a bonus, an increment or works extra hours will lose more than half in tax and USC.. The first thing we had to do - it was the right thing to do - was reduce USC to take nearly 1 million people out of that net entirely. We have done that in the past few years, but the priority now, having taken so many low paid workers out of the income tax net altogether, is to provide relief for those on middle incomes by increasing the point at which people pay at the higher rate.

While I acknowledge the Taoiseach's response and what has been done, it is simply not enough. These are the people who bailed out Ireland during the economic crisis. They paid higher amounts in income tax and the universal social charge was introduced. They also pay the local property tax and most of them paid their water charges, but they believe they have been forgotten and not reaped the rewards for their hard work. On the surface, many of them have good jobs and salaries, but they struggle to make ends meet and are time and cash poor. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to the people he personally described as those who get up early in the morning that they will be looked after properly, not just given small tokens here and there when the budget is brought forward in October?

The short answer to the Deputy's question is yes. Part of my mission in politics is to make sure everyone will experience an increase in his or her standard of living. In that context, we should not forget all those who receive very little by way of support from the State. I refer to people who pay a lot of tax but do not qualify for any or many of the benefits the State provides because of means-testing and so on. That is the reason I have a particular interest in removing that real unfairness in the tax system. The average person working full-time in Ireland earns about €44,000 a year, yet at a figure of €36,000 he or she hits the higher rate of income tax, which is far too soon. I would like to see fewer people pay at the highest rate of income tax and want to see people pay less of their income at it. It is a real disincentive and needs to be improved. However, we must do all of this in the context of prudent management of the public finances. We want to balance the books and reduce the national debt. The economy is growing well and fast. We are approaching full employment and I want to make sure we will not repeat the mistakes of the past. I will not fund increases in public spending or tax cuts through additional borrowing, even though some would like us to do so.