Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Yesterday the Taoiseach, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, and crucially the Minister for Finance stated that no decision had been made or would be made on the broadband tendering process and particularly that no decision would be made on the last remaining bid. However, in today's Irish Independent we read that the lead bidder for the national broadband plan is preparing to fast-track rural connections next year. The report stated:

The move would mean that the first of 540,000 rural homes and businesses under the State-sponsored scheme would get high-speed broadband in 2019, ahead of the expected 2020 rollout...

A contract is expected to be signed in January, with the subsidy cost and other contractual terms to be finalised in the coming weeks.

It is all in marked contrast to what we were told yesterday in this House. Is this the case? Can the Taoiseach confirm that a decision to proceed has actually been taken behind the scenes? We note that only €74 million was allocated in the 2019 Estimate for the roll-out of this plan, which compares with an industry estimate of anything from €1 billion to €1.5 billion as the actual cost of the plan.

Two discussions seem to be under way in parallel: one in the Dáil where nothing is actually disclosed by Government and where the actual potential cost of the project is not spelled out or detailed in any way; and then in the media, helped by Government and other sources, a different story is spun. There is a need for much more transparency and honesty in the Dáil about the national broadband plan roll-out. We need to ground the plan in some reality and not with repeated broken promises.

Yesterday I asked the Taoiseach a very basic question as to whether the new bidder was a new consortium. His reply was quite remarkable. He said:

The consortium has changed but it is not a new consortium. It is a consortium that has changed in its composition during the process, not a new one.

For the record, the September 2017 consortium that submitted to the tendering process comprised Enet - the leader, Granahan McCourt Capital, SSE plc and John Laing Group. By the final tender in September 2018 it was Granahan McCourt Capital - the leader, Nokia, Actavo, the Kelly Group and the KN Group are all now suddenly at the 11th hour in there. That is a changed consortium. The key question is as follows. Is the Government satisfied that the new consortium has the capacity to deliver this project?

The Irish Times has an interesting article by Eoin Burke Kennedy with substantial questions. Why has the industry in Ireland shunned this particular project given the significant Government subsidy?

The Deputy's time is up.

That is on offer and the market that is up for grabs. Is the Government satisfied that this new consortium contrived at the 11th hour has the capacity to deliver the project? Can the Taoiseach confirm that contracts will be signed in January? Will he confirm that the costs are a multiple of what the Government originally expected?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter, the issue of broadband and the national broadband plan in particular. I restate in the House my commitment to ensure that the national broadband plan happens. We have gone from a position two years ago when this Government of Fine Gael and Independents came into office where only about half the premises in Ireland had access to high-speed broadband.

Who was in government before then?

We are now at 75% and I want us to get to 100% as soon as possible. I appreciate that 500,000 homes, businesses and farms throughout the country do not currently have access to high-speed broadband. There are 1 million people living in those homes and the more people who get connected, the more frustrated the people who are being left out become. I am determined to ensure we get this done as quickly as it can be done and as affordably as possible. I receive reports on the matter from the Department at least every two weeks.

In response to the Deputy's questions, I obviously cannot comment on behalf of industry; the Deputy would need to ask its representatives his question about industry. On the newspapers, I do not write the newspapers. I know the Deputy believes I do on occasion; it is one of his conspiracy theories.

The Taoiseach spins them.

The Irish Independent, no doubt, is staffed by very professional journalists who write their own stories; they do not need me to write them for them.

The Taoiseach would not say that in America

To answer the Deputy's question again, I cannot stand over the veracity of that story.

A final bid, a final tender, has been received by the Department. The Department is now evaluating that with the help of KPMG and some other external experts. We anticipate that the Government will be able to make a decision in the coming weeks as to whether we can accept that tender.

I have seen various estimates of costs. It is important to say that as this is a 30 year project, the cost will be spread over 30 years. It is a bit like a motorway building project, for example. We do not pay for it all in the Estimates this year; the cost is spread over 30 years. That explains why next year's Estimates do not provide for hundreds of millions or billions of euro. It is a bit like a mortgage; one pays for it over a period of 25 or 30 years.

The Deputy asked about the consortium. I said yesterday - the Deputy quoted me correctly - that it is not a new consortium, but the composition has changed, and that is my position. In that regard, it is a little bit like Fianna Fáil, its composition changes from time to time. Its members are not the same people who were here three years ago or five years ago-----

The Taoiseach can talk.

-----and from time to time its leader may change, but they are still the same Fianna Fáil.

(Interruptions).

The private sector companies have delivered broadband to date and not the Government. This is a multibillion euro project. It is not a laughing matter. I asked the Taoiseach a very serious question. This is a new consortium. Is it the new norm that in a major tendering process organised by Government the bidder can change at the last minute? There is an uneasy silence about this. It is being glossed over. It might not suit people to directly analyse and assess this. I believe it raises fundamental questions about how we go about tendering major State contracts. A State subsidy of up to €500 million is involved here.

And the procurement directives.

This is not about changing individuals and so on. It is a fundamental issue. All the original bidders know who is in the competition.

I thank the Deputy. The time is up now.

Is it acceptable at the 11th hour to end up with a completely different bidder with no telecommunications experience? The two major telecommunications providers in the country have shunned the deal.

The time is up, Deputy, please.

That is why it is being assessed independently.

It is the process he is talking about.

I have asked a very basic question. This is a new consortium, not a changed one. It is being glossed over. There is a terribly uneasy silence about it. People are not giving me a straightforward honest answer. Is it acceptable that a consortium changes at the 11th hour?

It is not a new consortium. The leadership has changed and the composition has changed, but it is not a new consortium.

(Interruptions).

Deputies, please.

What is unusual is that we are in this House discussing a tender process and evaluation that is under way. We have had big projects like this in the past.

They may not have been as big as this one but they were big. I refer to the projects relating to the new national children's hospital, the major inter-urban motorways or the schools bundle. I do not recall having a debate-----

The mobile phone licence.

-----about the tender processes relating to or consortiums involved in those projects.

It was never down to one.

It raises a question for me, namely, what are the motivations of the Opposition.

The mobile phone licence.

Are they trying to undermine this process?

To get it done right.

Are they trying to make comments under the protection of privilege-----

It is just to get answers.

-----which others may use to undermine the national broadband project?

That is shocking.

We are entitled to get answers.

Is their plan to try to scupper this project so that people in rural Ireland-----

That is shocking.

The Taoiseach had to sack a Minister because of it.

-----will be denied the infrastructure they need?

Despite the fact that it is still only November, we are now in the run-up to Christmas. Any family with small children would state that is now 27 sleeps until Santa arrives. For many families, the reality of making Christmas happen is one of stress and expense. Regrettably, providing even essentials is beyond the means of many. That unfortunate reality means that many families resort to borrowing money, some from friends, family members, credit unions or banks. However, that will not be an option for others and many of them will resort to borrowing from moneylenders and loan sharks who, in many cases, are unlicensed and charge punitive and frankly disgusting interest rates. They are a scourge on our society.

There is also a licensed moneylending industry in this State whose practices are equally repulsive. A UK-based moneylender, Amigo Loans, has been given a licence by the Central Bank to operate in Ireland. The Central Bank has sanctioned it to offer loans with interest rates of up to 49.9% to people who have been excluded from accessing mainstream finance. Amigo Loans considers that to be mid-cost credit. I would call it daylight robbery. Amigo Loans is not the only entity involved in this game. A fortnight ago, the Centre for Co-operative Studies at UCC published a report on behalf of the Social Finance Foundation. That report indicates that moneylenders in this State are licensed to charge interest rates of up to 187% which, when collection charges are added, rises to an average percentage rate, APR, of 287%. The report also states that a total of 21 of the 28 EU member states apply caps to high-cost credit. That includes Ireland but, ironically, the only cap we apply is in respect of credit unions. We do not apply any cap on moneylenders. That is the reason moneylenders go door to door delivering leaflets at this time of year, preying on the vulnerabilities of people coming up to Christmas and charging these kinds of extortionate rates. Moneylenders are getting rich on the back of hard-pressed people who are simply trying to provide for their families. They can do this because the system in place allows them to do it. This is State-sponsored robbery. There is an urgent need to introduce a cap on the interest rates these types of outfits can charge. There is also a need for more wide-ranging reform of the regulation of moneylenders and the policing of illegal loan sharks.

I thank the Deputy. The time is up.

A number of years ago, Sinn Féin introduced a Bill that would have capped the interest rates moneylenders can charge but the Taoiseach's party and the Labour Party voted it down. I put it to the Taoiseach that it is now time to introduce a cap on moneylenders to ensure they can no longer get away with their daylight robbery.

The Deputy is correct. It is now less than a month from Christmas, which is a wonderful time for families and children. It is a time for excitement, friends and celebration, but it can also be a very stressful time, particularly when it comes to getting the house ready, buying presents and finding the money to do all of that. I absolutely acknowledge that. To assist people and families, particularly those on low incomes, with the cost of Christmas, we fully restored the Christmas bonus in the budget. In the next week or so, the Christmas bonus will be paid at 100%. That is the first time it has been paid at 100% in seven or eight years. It is a shame that Sinn Féin is not supporting the budget. It should support it. One of the reasons it should do so is that the budget makes provision for the 100% Christmas bonus, as does the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration 2018.

In March, there will be further increases in the working family payment for low income families who are working, increases in the qualified child payment for families on welfare and increases in the minimum wage will come into effect in January. As a Government, we are working very hard to increase pay in a sustainable way, reduce taxes in a sustainable way, increase welfare in a sustainable way and also reduce the cost of living where that is under our control.

In terms of regulation of financial services, as the Deputy is aware, we have a system of independent financial regulation. The Central Bank is the regulator. It is not the Government that is issuing licences to banks, moneylenders or the financial services industry. As far as I am aware, the Deputy is not proposing that the Government should take over the Central Bank and become the regulator. We have independent financial services in Ireland for very good reasons. That is the norm across Europe and it should remain the case.

Regarding moneylenders or people offering high-interest loans, I echo the Deputy's sentiments. It is important that people are very careful in taking out such loans and that, if they do, they are confident they can pay them back. Anyone who takes out a loan is responsible for repaying it. Anyone who takes out a loan has a responsibility to make sure they are able to pay it back.

There are alternatives. For example, the credit unions, working with the Department of Social Protection, offer low-cost loans. We call it the It Makes Sense loan. It is not available in every credit union but is available in many of them. I launched it when I was Minister for Social Protection. It has been very successful and allows people to take out a short-term loan at a low interest rate to meet costs such as Christmas. That can then be deducted from their credit union account or welfare payment.

People can also seek urgent needs payments from their community welfare officers. I would ask people to consider alternatives and, if they do take out a loan, to always consider the fact that they may not be able to pay it back.

I thank the Taoiseach. His Government presides over an Ireland of soup kitchens, child homelessness, mothers queuing for formula and nappies, insecure employment and 300,000 people living in consistent poverty. To be clear, many of those people are at work. They get up at the crack of dawn and still struggle and fail to meet their basic requirements. I take it the Taoiseach is not suggesting that an interest rate of 49.9% is anything other than absolutely extortionate. Whatever argument he might make about the regulation of the financial services sector globally, there is no excuse for a Government standing over such a scandalous situation. That the State sanctions these outfits - ironically, in this case it is called Amigo Loans but I assure the Taoisesch that this amigo is no friend of anybody who borrows from it - and stands idly by and allows that to happen is nothing short of disgraceful.

We have put it to this House previously and we will again that we need a cap. I want the Taoiseach to commit to that and to accept, like me, that this is an outrageous situation. By the way, this is what is called mid-cost credit. Does the Taoiseach regard it as such?

The time is up, Deputy.

Does he regard it as acceptable that people are ripped off in this way?

In the context of the credit union It Makes Sense loan, I suggest that, rather than offering excuses to the House, the Taoiseach might act more vigorously and further resource that approach with the credit unions. It is a good approach-----

The Deputy is way over time.

-----but there are credit unions from which it is not available. There is no point preaching to people to look for alternatives when for so many families there is simply no other alternative bar these vultures.

As I said, I encourage people to look at the existing alternatives. Low-cost loans are available from the credit union through the It Makes Sense scheme. I appreciate it is not available in every credit union, but one need not go to the closest credit union nor be a member of a particular credit union to avail of that loan. For people who qualify, there is the possibility of getting an urgent needs payment or an exceptional needs payment if necessary.

I would also consider the interest rate that the Deputy suggested to be high rather than mid-cost and, therefore, I agree with her in that regard. We will examine any legislation she may wish to bring forward. We need to strike a balance here. People ultimately have personal freedom and if we restrict people from taking out loans, that is a restriction on their choice and freedom.

People living in poverty do not have a choice.

Perhaps it is the case that we must restrict people's freedom and choice on occasion to protect them from being exploited.

Being poor is not a choice.

We need to ensure we get the balance right.

I also wish to speak about the different experiences that people will face as Christmas approaches. As the Christmas lights go up, it should be a time of excitement, happiness and joy, particularly for children and families. In truth, it will be a tale of two very different Christmases, depending on where one is positioned in Irish society and, in particular, whether one has a roof over one's head. Imagine the situation faced by Elaine and her three children, for example, who visited my office in the past few weeks and who are about to be evicted, having exhausted all appeals through the Residential Tenancies Board and with nowhere to go. Another family with three children, who would rather not have their names mentioned, face eviction before Christmas, while the father of yet another family, who visited me this week and who are living in emergency accommodation in Wicklow, must take his children to three different schools in south Dublin, sit in the car all day waiting for them to finish school and then drive back to Wicklow every day. Other families are experiencing their second or even third Christmas in emergency accommodation. It is shameful that people are being evicted in the midst of this situation and that children must go through a second or third Christmas like this. For others, however, it will be a bumper Christmas.

I wish to draw the Taoiseach's attention to this property supplement from a newspaper which states: "Strong residential investment deals. Over 1,600 apartments sold. Total value €610 million." The vast majority of these, of which approximately four are in my area, are National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, properties that were sold or are being sold to real estate investment trusts, REITs, or wealth asset management companies. The average price is approximately €380,000. The most recent one to be sold in Dún Laoghaire, comprising 214 apartments, cost €95 million at an average price of €440,000 per unit. The article helpfully goes on to state how that block will generate approximately €5 million in rental revenue for the new purchasers. These properties are being sold by NAMA. They are publicly owned and they are being sold to Kennedy Wilson, REITs and other wealth asset management companies which in some cases, to add insult to injury, will then lease them back to local authorities at extortionate prices, boasting about the amount of profit they are making. At the same time, families will suffer a miserable Christmas in emergency accommodation or face eviction.

We face a large demonstration on Saturday which will call for an end to evictions into homelessness. Should the Government not take emergency measures to ensure no kids or families are evicted as Christmas approaches? Will it do anything to stop NAMA selling thousands of properties that could be used to provide secure, affordable, permanent homes for these families who are suffering trauma and hardship as Christmas approaches?

I acknowledge that Christmas is, and can be, a stressful time for some families, particularly those who are living in emergency accommodation or looking for a new place to rent. I can imagine the concerns parents must have in the run-up to Christmas when they are asked by kids how Santa will visit if the hotel room does not have a chimney, or where the Christmas tree will be put. I totally understand the Deputy's concerns and, whether he believes it or not, I share those concerns. I also think about those families in the run-up to Christmas.

Figures on emergency accommodation will be released this week. I do not have them yet but I understand from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, that they will show a fall in the number of children and families in emergency accommodation and a reduction in the number of families presenting as homeless in Dublin. On the other hand, they will show an increase in the number of individuals who are in emergency accommodation. Those figures will be available later today or tomorrow.

The only solution to this is supply. While it is not the entire solution, it is at the centre of it. We are seeing a real increase in the supply of new homes across Ireland. By the end of this year, we expect 18,000 new houses and apartments to have been built, and that is not just a number. Behind it are 18,000 people, that is, 18,000 families getting keys to a new house or apartment for the first time this year. Some 18,000 families, therefore, will be in a new home this Christmas which they were not in last year. We need to recognise the progress made in that regard. There will also be an increase of approximately 8,000 in the social housing stock this year, more than half of which are new builds by local authorities and affordable housing bodies, while the rest will be acquired through Part V leasing and acquisition. That is a significant change and increase compared with the situation last year.

On evictions, the Deputy will have seen the figures. I do not have the exact number but I think there were approximately 300 evictions this year. Evictions happen for all sorts of reasons and not all of them are evictions into homelessness, although some are. They can also be related to anti-social behaviour and people who live on a street where neighbours have caused havoc will understand why evictions are sometimes sadly necessary. The courts tend to take a sympathetic view of families if an eviction order is sought. We will bring forward legislation, which is being championed by the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, to strengthen the power of the courts to refuse eviction orders and eviction requests where they relate to a family.

For those who face eviction before Christmas, those words are not much consolation. If the Taoiseach recognises this as an emergency, why does he not save those children and families the trauma and hardship they face by immediately instigating emergency legislation that states they will not be evicted and that there will be no evictions while this emergency continues, particularly not in the winter months or facing into Christmas? In other European states, it is against the law to evict people at this time of year, but that will happen here.

It infuriates me when the Taoiseach talks about supply. He did not answer the central question about the article, which is evidence of the supply. Public property is being flogged off to vulture funds. Some 700 of the properties are in my area, Dún Laoghaire, and they would resolve the emergency homelessness crisis there. In Lucan and Santry there are hundreds of apartments that we had in our hands and that could be used to house those families who are in the hubs and who face eviction but we are flogging the apartments off. In the docklands, rents of €3,300 a month will then be charged and will go to Kennedy Wilson, an American vulture fund. Why does the Taoiseach allow that to happen? Why does he allow public property be sold to people who charge extortionate rents and evict people who cannot pay them, when that property could be used to house the families who are in the hubs, on the waiting lists and facing eviction? It is a scandal.

I cannot see the newspaper the Deputy held up from here. He is making the assumption that all of the properties in question are vacant. That may not be the case. Those properties might be fully or partially occupied and I am sure the Deputy is not suggesting that the people in those apartments should be evicted to make way for others.

The ones being sold are empty.

It is not the case that they are public property. NAMA owns the loans not the properties and it is disingenuous to make out that a property which is held as collateral against a loan owned by NAMA is public property, something I have seen a few times. That is not the case. In the past week or two, some of the Deputy's fellow travellers in his party had to admit that a property was not owned by NAMA and that the latter just owned the loan.

That is ridiculous semantics.

It is not semantics, it is the difference between facts and disingenuity because it does not suit the Deputy's argument.

The closure of the rural post office network is happening across the country, with perhaps the single exception of Dublin. A Programme for a Partnership Government refers to: supporting the post office network and expanding and developing services delivered through post offices; expanding social welfare contracts; the provision of Government services through the network; the development of banking services by means of a community banking structure; and the development of post offices one-stop shops or hubs for Government services. That makes perfect sense in maximising the national asset that we have in our rural post office network and in supporting rural communities. These are communities that have had post offices since the foundation of the State, yet the Government is decommissioning these services in rural Ireland. Nowhere in A Programme for a Partnership Government is it suggested that there should be a closure of 390 post offices, which is what will happen during the lifetime of this Government. The Government is going to allow this happen.

Rural communities are not seeking handouts. An Post and postmasters are not looking for handouts in order to preserve their services, they are looking for what is committed to in A Programme for a Partnership Government. Fianna Fáil referred to the public service obligation prior to the budget. Perhaps this has also been discussed in the context of the confidence and supply agreement. The post office network is not looking for handouts, it is seeking to provide services that are meaningful to the population that will support rural communities.

This matter has reached crisis point. Some 50 post offices are due to close in January. A total of 159 will have closed by the end of the first quarter of 2019 and 390 are earmarked for closure under the An Post programme. This is not what was expected from the Government. Such is the level of demoralisation, there is difficulty in attracting postmasters to run post offices which are deemed viable by An Post.

How can the Taoiseach speak of a republic of opportunity without offering rural Ireland a hope as his policies reduce services within rural communities? Rural transport is not being developed, rural medical services are being allowed to diminish, rural financial services delivered by An Post are being diminished and rural broadband is not being rolled out. This Government is not addressing the sustainability of rural communities. Even at this late stage, will the Taoiseach call a halt to the closure of our post offices and the destruction of our post office network? It is not good enough for him to shrug his shoulders and state that this is a commercial decision when the social consequences for rural communities are so far-reaching.

The Government wants a post office network which is extensive enough that everyone will be within reasonable distance of a post office, which we believe can be achieved. However, the network must also be viable. The best way to ensure that it is extensive and remains so is that it is viable. The Government does not close post offices. In most cases, postmasters are retiring and are accepting retirement packages they have negotiated with An Post, which is a semi-State company. In many cases, there is no one willing to take on that contract because it is not viable. Where it is viable, the post office will remain open and if there is a shop or other service nearby which is willing to take it over, that will be considered. It is not just being left up to An Post, there is an independent review mechanism to assess viability.

Times are changing and we need to reflect on that and be realistic. Footfall at our post offices is decreasing. There are many fewer unemployed people in rural Ireland and, as a consequence, there are fewer people collecting jobseeker's payments from their post offices. More people who retire do not collect their pensions from post offices. Instead, they have it paid directly into their bank accounts because that is how they had been paid over previous decades. As we extend broadband to more rural areas, more people will access public services, bank and pay for their television licences and motor tax online. The solutions which are often put forward can be contradictory because the more we extend services such as broadband to rural areas, the fewer people use the post offices. We need to be realistic about these things.

When it comes to investing in rural Ireland, it is important that we invest in the technologies of the future which is why we are so committed to ensuring that the national broadband plan happens, why we launched the rural fund on Friday last, which will be major investment in improving the public realm in rural Ireland and modernising our towns and villages so that they are more attractive for people to live in, and investing in enterprise and tourism so that we can bring new jobs to rural Ireland. The best way we can give rural Ireland a good future is by investing in new technologies, jobs and services.

The viability of rural post office is under threat but that is because of Government inaction. A Programme for Partnership Government outlines a process which would expand services in rural post offices. Of course, rural Ireland is changing and people are moving to online services, but the post office is much more than online services and facilitating social welfare payments.

The Taoiseach referred to the independent appeals process. It is a sham. I am not aware of any post office that has successfully gone through the independent appeals process. The only criteria used relate to whether there is a population of greater than 500 in an area or whether a post office is greater than 15 km from the next nearest post office. Communities are spending vast amounts of time developing business cases to support their view that their post offices should be retained and in respect of the level of services that they would like to be delivered in them. All those appeals are being rejected purely on the grounds of population size and distance to the nearest post office. Times are changing and An Post needs to change. The programme for Government, to which I keep returning, included a process through which post offices would change; they would be given extra services, would act as Government hubs and be utilised. A national asset of 1,100 post offices should not be thrown away purely on the basis of an economic model which does not allow for the sustainability of the communities that will lose their post offices.

I do not think that the Deputy is quite correct about the appeals mechanism. I will check but I am pretty sure I read in recent days that a number of appeals had been upheld. I may be wrong about that so I will double-check.

The Deputy is correct.

We want an extensive post office network which means a post office for any community with a population of more than 500 and ensuring that everyone is within 15 km of a post office. We must also ensure that any island with a significant population has its own post office. There is scope for additional services and this is happening. The Deputy will be aware that post offices are now offering foreign exchange services and some offer banking services, which is very welcome. We are also piloting and progressing digital assist for people who are unable to use the Internet or who are uncomfortable doing so. Digital assist will enable them to access those online services at their post offices.

That will only work to a certain extent. It will make some post offices viable and we want to do that, but we also need to accept there will be some post offices that are not viable precisely because the world has changed, there are many fewer people in rural Ireland who are unemployed and pensioners in rural Ireland, generally speaking, want to receive their pension into their bank account, because that is the way they are used to getting paid. People turning 66 are quite young these days. We also need to recognise that as we extend broadband to more and more parts of rural Ireland, those services that people say can save the post offices, like motor tax, banking and all of those things, will be increasingly accessed by people in their own kitchens, using 4G or high-speed broadband.