Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

There has been a flurry of pre-election funding announcements coming at us every day, many for the benefit of groups that have been campaigning for many years.

Is the Deputy happy about that?

There is nothing like an election to concentrate the minds in a panicky Government. In that context, I suppose, timing is everything. In real life, time is everything, particularly for the 25 families whose children are suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, SMA. I have spoken about this on many occasions in the Dáil. This week there were some substantial developments, although unfortunately none of them occurred here. Every day counts for these families and every sufferer of SMA. It has been medically proven in virtually every country in Europe bar two - one of which is Ireland - that Spinraza is a drug that gives time and opportunity to those who suffer from this awful condition. Before the drug existed, they had no such opportunities but Spinraza has proven to be a miracle drug in every sense of the word.

I first raised this matter on 20 September, which is now eight months ago. At the time, the Tánaiste sympathised with the children and families, and he may have met them subsequently. He said this was a priority but nothing has happened. I raised the issue again on 13 December, which is five months ago, and on 28 February, which is three months ago. Deputies John Curran, Stephen Donnelly, Lisa Chambers and other Deputies from all sides of the House, including Deputy Ó Caoláin, have raised the topic consistently because timing is everything. I do not lay out those dates to seek some sort of credit but rather to demonstrate the importance of time and what eight months, five months, three months or even three days would have meant to these sufferers if they had access to the drug.

The families have been told time and again that this is a priority and the matter will be dealt with but time and again they have been let down. They were let down last Tuesday as they had been told the matter would be discussed and decided on 14 May but that decision has been kicked down the road. They were let down again on Wednesday when they found out that the National Health Service, NHS, in the UK has approved an access programme for Spinraza and those who need it in the NHS will have access to it. The 25 families here, as well as the adults who need Spinraza, will not get it. When I mention 25 families it may take away from the fact that these are real people. They are Grace, Cillian, Sam and many other children and adults who are going through hell. They are suffering from the condition and the families are dealing with that trauma but now they must deal with this issue as well. I implore the Tánaiste to look at Facebook when he gets the chance to see the testimony recorded on Tuesday by Grace O'Malley when her family got the news that the decision on the drug had been kicked down the road again.

This is enormously frustrating for all of us as there is cross-party agreement on the matter. I know the Government wants to make this happen but we are impotent because some body that does not have to answer to anyone is playing with these families' futures. We in the political system must take charge. Will the Tánaiste please update us on the position with Spinraza? Why, once again, has the decision been postponed? Why do Irish children have to be deprived of this when children across Europe can access the drug?

Like the Deputy, I want to provide certainty to the families feeling the impact of this. I met one of those families and its members were incredibly dignified and very frustrated by the fact that the child in question cannot access a medicine that could make a major difference in the quality of her life.

The Deputy knows how the process works and it is not politicians who make the decisions in recommending drugs or the prices at which they are supported by the State. We have had an assessment process that has been ongoing for some time and there have been consultations with the drugs company, as the rules of the assessment process determine. I had an expectation that a decision would be made this week, as did others, and my understanding is it may now take longer. I have spoken repeatedly about this to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, after questions have been asked here and after speaking to one of the families concerned. He is also frustrated and wants to bring a positive clarity to families.

As the Deputy knows, there is an obligation on the HSE to ensure expenditure of this scale is approved on the back of strong evidence of clinical and cost-effectiveness. I accept that we have created timelines time and again whereby families have built an expectation around a decision and that decision has not been finalised. I assure the Deputy that the concerns and frustrations of the families are fully understood by the Government and the Department of Health. We certainly want to try to finalise decisions and get a positive outcome for the families concerned. However, we cannot change a position because of the frustration around a process, and we cannot move from a HSE structure making appropriate decisions on availability of drugs such as Spinraza and their cost to essentially having politicians making those decisions in a political and potentially inappropriate way.

The process is broken if we and Estonia are the only countries in Europe that have not approved use of this drug. The Minister, Deputy Harris, bypassed this process with his approval of the pembrolizumab drug. The process is broken when nobody is answerable to families or public representatives - those of us with a mandate - on the reason for delays. Delays matter and when somebody has this condition, every hour and every day without access to this drug matters; it is an hour and a day in pain. However, nobody seems to have to answer for this.

When I spoke to some of the families this morning, they anticipated virtually every word of the Tánaiste's response. He spoke about cost-effectiveness but they are looking at what is happening with the national children's hospital and overruns on the HSE's watch everywhere. They are looking at their children suffering because a faceless operation that answers to nobody is not taking responsibility for a decision. A precedent was created with the pembrolizumab drug and it is time for politicians to take charge.

As the Deputy knows, so far this year the HSE has approved the use of 23 new medicines and five new uses of existing medicines, representing an additional investment by the HSE over five years of approximately €175 million. It is not as if the HSE wants to deliberately prevent the use of these drugs. We are effectively in a negotiation between the HSE and the company involved to ensure we get a fair price so we can provide these drugs to families who have, understandably, grown incredibly impatient and frustrated because they cannot access them. I appreciate that there is frustration and I have answered questions about Spinraza for many months now. Many colleagues from the Opposition and Government benches are also concerned because they know these families. The process needs to come to a conclusion but we must be careful not to set a precedent that switches the decision-making process based on-----

The precedent is set.

-----critical assessment and make it a political decision when it should be a medical one.

The Tánaiste's time is up. I call Deputy Pearse Doherty.

With every week that passes, the housing crisis continues to spiral out of control. We see rents and house prices rising, social housing need continuing to grow and the number of children and adults in emergency accommodation at record levels. By every meaningful measure, the Government's housing plan is failing, yet every time a Deputy raises the issue of the housing crisis, the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach or the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government comes in here and spouts the line that the Government's housing plan is working. However, I have news for the Tánaiste: it is not. It is failing spectacularly.

On Monday the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, responding to the latest daft.ie report, had the cheek to go on RTÉ Radio and say rents are rising at "a slow rate". I am not sure on which planet exactly the Minister is living but I assure the Tánaiste of one thing: with an attitude like that, it is not in the real world. The average rent across the State is now €1,300. In Dublin, the figure is over €2,000, which is scandalous. When presented with alternatives, however, the Government simply shrugs its shoulders and carries on as normal. Ordinary people are facing a cost-of-living crisis. Whether it be rental costs, rip-off insurance costs, childcare costs or utility costs, they are being screwed over and over again and their concerns are cast aside. "The market will deliver" is Fine Gael's mantra, but the market has not delivered, is not delivering and will not deliver because the housing market is broken, and when something is broken the Government needs to go in and fix it.

A new survey by Uplift shows that 84% of renters feel insecure about their housing situation. This is little wonder when we look at the issue of rent inflation. In every county bar Dublin we have seen inflation of at least double the rent pressure zone caps that the Minister and his Government are so keen to laud. Rents in Dublin rose by 7% last year and it is absolutely bonkers at this time for the Government to be talking about mealy-mouthed measures. That time is over.

I ask the Tánaiste and his Government to cop on finally and accept that the Government's housing plan is utterly failing those most in need. Given the Government's fondness for making announcements on the eve of an election, will it now do the right thing and introduce measures that make a real difference to people's lives? The Government can start with three measures: a tax relief equal to one month's rent for every renter not already supported by the State; the introduction of a three-year rent freeze to give relief to those who are under pressure at this time; and, as we have continually placed on the Dáil's agenda, the introduction of legislation to ensure that landlords will not evict their tenants into homelessness. Will the Government legislate to this effect? These are the kinds of real measures we need to deal with the real pressures many families are facing.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of housing because it gives me an opportunity to share with the House factual data. I refer to the figures published this morning by the CSO showing how housing policy on increasing supply, which is at the core of this problem, is working. The number of new homes becoming available for use in the 12 months to the end of March 2019 was 22,242. This is a 19% increase on the figure for the 12 months ending March 2018. Of these new homes available for use, the number of brand new dwelling completions added to the housing stock in the year to the end of March was 18,828, up 25% on the year ending March 2018. Looking at other trends and indicators, planning permissions, for example, show an increase of 41% on the full year 2017, while commencement notices increased by 32% and registrations by 19% in the same period. Regardless of Sinn Féin's assessment, the CSO figures do not lie. We are accelerating the delivery of housing supply across the country, in particular in the areas where it is needed. The figures are not yet where they need to be. I know that, as does everyone in this House. It is true that we need to be building probably 35,000 housing units a year to meet increasing demand and an increasing population.

Because of a lack of supply, which is a decade-long problem, there are pressures on the rental market which are not normal. This is why we have extended the use of rent pressure zones, RPZs, with the support of Sinn Féin, through recent amendments, and rightly so. We have changed the way in which we calculate the thresholds for qualification as a rent pressure zone, again with the support of Sinn Féin, because that is the right thing to do. We have also increased the protections for tenants in respect of timelines, notice periods and so on. These are all market intervention measures that recognise that there is a problem in that elements of the market are broken and the State needs to intervene to protect tenants. Intervention is taking place, but the core of Rebuilding Ireland, which is a five-year housing strategy that is not even three years in yet, is to increase dramatically the supply of all kinds of housing, including social housing funded directly by the State and affordable housing schemes, supporting and reorientating a rental market in order that we do not have to make these kinds of fixes in the future and driving supply across all levels. We are now starting to see that the numbers are showing that this is working.

The Tánaiste has listed a number of measures, but even by the Government's own inadequate targets, it is already failing to meet those targets by 3,000 homes. This just shows how out of touch this Government is and how it fails to grasp the reality of the housing crisis unfolding and engulfing and weighing down so heavily on so many families right across the State. It is a Government that is out of touch. It is a case of decision makers who do not understand or respect the depth of the housing crisis. That is the crux of this problem. What we have are the posh boys and girls of Fine Gael-----

(Interruptions).

-----developing policies for people who are struggling.

Juvenile stuff.

The reality is that those on the Government benches will never have to struggle. I ask every one of those heckling me to put himself or herself in the shoes of the mother paying €1,500 in rent per month, paying some of the highest childcare costs in the European Union, being fleeced-----

Sinn Féin does not have a monopoly on compassion.

-----by her insurance company and trying to prepare for her daughter's First Holy Communion at the weekend.

I thank the Deputy. His time is up.

Would a three-year rent freeze and a rent relief of one month's rent each year for the next three years not be beneficial to her? Would it not be appropriate to give her that safety net and legislate to ensure she and her family, her children, will not be evicted into homelessness?

The Deputy's time is up.

This is the type of action we need, not heckling from the Government benches.

When the Deputy gets into the space of name-calling and trying to turn this into some kind of class war debate-----

It is a class war.

(Interruptions).

Please, Deputies.

-----it is proof that Sinn Féin is losing the argument. I assure the Deputy that the largest political party in the country speaks to all types of people in all types of circumstances, and we have them coming into our clinics just like Sinn Féin Deputies do.

We hear their stories and we respond to them through policy. Last year well over 25,000 housing solutions were put in place for people and we are spending billions of euro trying to ensure that what is a broken housing market is fixed as quickly as possible. However, we are not in the business of cheap headlines or short-term fixes that will cause increased problems in the medium term. That is the space Sinn Féin is in. It is looking for populist short-term fixes, as it sees them, but when we investigate, test and interrogate those solutions, it becomes very clear that they will make a bad situation even worse.

We were on about social housing ten years ago but Fine Gael did not want to know about it.

They will drive more landlords out of the market, which I think other parties in this House recognise. It is just as well we have other parties in the House that recognise the difficult decisions-----

The Tánaiste's time is up.

-----that are made and the fact-----

The situation is bad because a third of the members of Government are landlords.

-----that it takes time to fix something as fundamental as a broken housing market.

Fine Gael has been in government for some time now.

That is why we launched a five-year strategy to solve this problem. I think that strategy will be judged very positively at the end of those five years.

There will be a protest by the Raise the Roof campaign at 1 p.m. this Saturday starting on Parnell Square. The campaign includes People Before Profit, many of the other Opposition parties, almost all of the trade unions and almost all of the housing non-government organisations, NGOs. We hope we will all come together along with tens of thousands of people to appeal to this Government to abandon its failed policies for dealing with the housing and homelessness emergency. The housing crisis is inflicting shameful hardship on the tens of thousands of people affected and stealing the future from a whole generation of young and working people. They can never hope to pay the extortionate rents being charged in the private market or afford the extortionate house prices being charged in that same market.

Average house prices in Dublin are now more than ten times the salary of an average worker. House prices in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown are now 15 to 16 times higher than the average salary of a worker. Rents have gone up by 42%. We are at the point now where one in five people is paying more than 40% of income in rent and one in ten is paying more than 60% of income in rent. The real scandal is with the housing assistance payment scheme, HAP. The scheme has totally failed as a supposed substitute for council housing. An incredible 50% of those on the HAP scheme are paying top-ups in excess of the money they receive because of extortionate rents. In my area, 70% of people on HAP are paying top-ups to landlords and they are being told to use their children's allowance payments to make up the difference. The number of children in homeless accommodation has gone up by 247% since this Government came into office. It is shameful.

The Raise the Roof campaign is asking the Government to at least double the budget for the direct construction of council housing and affordable housing on public land. We have not had a single affordable house and the number of directly built council houses last year was just over 800. Including purchases, regenerations and similar actions, the total comes to 4,000 houses. More than 100,000 families, probably 250,000 people, are on the housing lists, with some waiting for ten or 15 years. In addition, there are those who have been knocked off the housing lists because their income is considered too high, despite being too low to rent or buy in this extortionate market. The Government is offering them nothing. What other choice do these people have but to come onto the streets in their tens of thousands to demand a change of policy or to get rid of this Government? We could then bring in a Government that will actually deliver the basic right to have a secure and affordable roof over the heads of our citizens.

The Government is listening to what is being said by all of the organisations, political parties and people who will be at the Raise the Roof campaign protest on Saturday. We understand the pressures and frustrations many families are facing because the general rental and housing market is not delivering for people in the way it needs to. We are changing that. That is why almost 5,000 social houses are being built on 291 sites throughout the country. We will add 10,000 units to the social housing stock this year.

This idea that we are just letting the market solve the problems over time is simply not true and not borne out by the facts. We will spend €2.4 billion on our housing budget this year. That is by far the highest ever spending on housing in Ireland. We will provide 27,000 or more housing solutions for people who need the support of and intervention by the State. I have stated that there is an over-reliance on the private rental market to provide solutions for people under pressure every time the Deputy has asked me these questions. That over-reliance is putting the rental market under pressure and that is why the only solution is increased supply across all segments of the housing market. We will add an extra 50,000 housing units to the social housing stock over the lifetime of the Rebuilding Ireland plan. I remind everybody that was the figure that the all-party housing committee asked the Government to deliver and that is what we are seeking to do. We also have in place agreed plans and funding for affordable housing schemes, which are starting. We also need an environment that attracts investment into the housing market in respect of high density, affordable apartment living in the cities, as well as more conventional family homes. That is happening, as the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures this morning confirm. More than 22,000 houses came into use in the past 12 months. This year, we hope to add an extra 25,000 housing units to the overall housing stock. Between 20% and 25% of these new-builds will be social houses.

I understand the frustration and we are hearing it and responding to it. People who paint a picture of a Government that is not listening and is not plugged into the housing pressures many families across Ireland are feeling do not understand what we are doing. Housing is a massive priority for this Government. The proof of that is where we are spending money and the amount of new legislation and policy change implemented in this area. That will continue. We understand the situation. We live in a democracy. People should protest if they feel strongly about something and make sure they are heard by the Government. We are, however, hearing the message and taking action. We are spending much more money changing policy and legislation to fix the housing market and it will be fixed over time.

We now have the lowest number of available rental properties ever. The vast majority of those that are available are completely unaffordable. I was talking to a taxi driver this morning who has been approved for a mortgage by his bank. It is for €250,000 in west Dublin. He said he can forget it, however, as he will never get a house because the average house price in Dublin is now €445,000. I will tell the Government what its policies are doing and I will start with what is happening with strategic housing developments. In one such development in Dún Laoghaire, Bartra Capital is planning to build 200 units, not rooms or homes but 16 sq. m boxes with fold-out beds for which it will charge rents of €1,300 or €1,400. The development will be given fast-track planning approval. That is what is actually going on.

I was down on Mayor Street in Spencer Dock today where working class families have been overwhelmed by Kennedy Wilson, Johnny Ronan and all the boys who are back building and charging rents of €3,000. Local people told me their kids will never be able to afford those rents. Working class people are being socially cleansed from the city centre to make profits for the boys who are back in town. That is what the Government's policies are facilitating. They are not delivering affordable housing to purchase or rent or the council housing we need to put a roof over the heads of ordinary people.

This debate descends into working class people versus, supposedly, other classes of people whenever Deputy Boyd Barrett raises it. Our job as a Government is to recognise that all types of families and people from different backgrounds and incomes have housing needs. Some of those people, including some in the city centre of Dublin, need the help of the State to be able to live and work in a way that is sustainable and makes sense for them. We are trying to increase the supply of all types of housing to rent or buy and to make affordable housing available. That is why we are examining models such as the cost-rental model in city centre areas.

Rightly, the Deputy raised the pressure of there being fewer rental properties available now than at times in the past. If the proposals the Deputy and others have been making were taken on board by the Government and implemented, however, we would have fewer properties again. That is the reality. In our efforts to solve one problem by alleviating pressures, we create another problem in shutting off the appetite for investment in the kinds of properties we need. Our job is to respond to all of the pressures and challenges at the same time by spending significantly more money to provide social and affordable housing for those who need it in the city centre and elsewhere while also creating an environment in which private money is available to deliver the numbers that are needed, namely, 35,000 to 40,000 housing units across all spectrums on an annual basis. That is where we need to get to. I am afraid the Deputy's policies do not take us there.

I wish also to address the housing crisis and homelessness but to come at it from a completely different angle. I propose a solution which, in addition to attempting to solve the housing crises, seeks also to address town and village sustainability. I have spoken about this before, including to the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Michael Ring, and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, but, unfortunately, it has not gained any traction. It is a solution which deserves closer examination.

There are many vacant properties in our towns and villages which could be brought up to standard or redesigned to a standard whereby they could be offered to families who wish to relocate voluntarily from areas of high pressure and housing shortage to get out of homelessness and unsustainably expensive accommodation while starting a new and structured life in our rural towns and villages. The community would benefit by having villages and towns rejuvenated with children attending local schools. Local services and businesses would be supported by those people who chose to relocate. To give a recent example, our housing association in Kilmihil in County Clare offered a house to a man who lives in a council house in a high pressure area. His health was failing and he wished to relocate back to the village where he had connections. He was giving up a three-bedroom council house which he did not need as his family had grown up and moved away. He benefitted from moving back to his local area and the local authority was benefitting by having that house available for a family. As such, two families benefitted from this. The local authority also benefitted.

If one such solution were offered in each county per year, it would mean 52 families benefitting. If ten villages in each county offered a voluntary relocation solution every year, which is quite feasible, 520 families would benefit while allowing other families to move into the vacated accommodation. To make such a scheme work and to scale it up from the example I have described, a central point of contact must be established within the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Through that contact point, communities could give notice of wishing to participate in a scheme like this and local authorities could engage together to allow such a scheme to proceed. It would also allow the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the Department of Rural and Community Development and housing agencies to co-operate to facilitate people who wished voluntarily to relocate and get out of the homelessness crisis. It would benefit them and other families as well as the communities to which they moved. Will the Government give serious consideration to the establishment of that central point of contact?

These are good ideas. Some of the kinds of things about which the Deputy talks are happening. For example, the Department introduced a scheme whereby local authorities could provide grant aid to people who own homes to upgrade them and make them suitable to rent or lease to the local authority. That scheme had limited success and must therefore be reviewed and tweaked. More generally, I note that in the last 12 months, over 2,500 vacant homes have been brought back into use, largely with the support of local authorities and approved housing bodies. Funding is available to allow local authorities to target towns and villages strategically, upgrade them and provide social housing options for relocating families from other areas. We have a very active town and village renewal scheme which is being led energetically by the Minister for Rural and Community Affairs, Deputy Ring. I was with him in Castletownroche this week where we discussed the impact of town and village renewal nationally. A great deal is already available to local authorities and villages and towns if they want to put plans together to provide more housing. There have been some good examples of that. What Deputy Harty requests, however, is a central point within the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to look at this area strategically and in greater detail. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to respond to the Deputy directly on that. There is a space for people who want to relocate out of Dublin, Cork, Galway or Limerick where there are pressures on the housing lists to towns and villages which may not be too far away. The management of that is something the Department is willing to look at. However, there is nothing to stop local authorities using their initiative on those kinds of solutions in towns and villages and to look for funding from the Department to take action today. Perhaps, there could be a bit more co-ordination in that regard. I can ask the Minister to talk to Deputy Harty about it, if that would be helpful.

I thank the Tánaiste. That is the very point. Co-ordination is needed. I understand the various grants that are available to upgrade accommodation in towns and villages but there is no national co-ordination point or programme to take things to a higher level and which would be proactive rather than reactive. That is the point I am trying to make. There needs to be a programme which is advertised and promoted. It requires local communities to participate and to want to get involved. I have been speaking to the Peter McVerry Trust and understand it is willing to identify people on its books who would choose to relocate. I am sure Focus Ireland and other housing agencies and local authorities in general would readily identify people who would wish to relocate, to actively promote that programme and to allow them to make contact with local communities where they would have some generational contact. Everybody in Dublin is only one or two generations away from some part of rural Ireland and they still have connections there. They may wish to move back, reignite those connections and be accepted into a community. If one scales this up, two families benefitting in ten villages across 26 counties amounts to 520 families and, probably, several thousand people. It is only a small part of the solution, but it would make huge inroads.

We all recognise that the pressures on the housing market will not be solved by one silver bullet. It is about a combination of lots of solutions which are tailored for different sectors and circumstances. We have changing demographics in Ireland and over the next ten to 20 years, we will see a doubling of the number of people who are 65 years of age and over. That will place major pressures on the kinds of housing we need to design into the future. The approach we have taken to date to the potential of rural towns and villages includes the announcement of a €1 billion fund for rural regeneration. Every six to 12 months, a new round of funding is made available to towns and villages to allow them to tailor their own solutions from the ground up. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has sent me across a note to the effect that the Department is currently reviewing how best to facilitate people who want to move from areas with long housing lists and severe housing pressures to other parts of the country where the opposite may be the case. Those areas may wish to see increases in population and have vacant properties available to facilitate that. I will ask the Minister to send Deputy Harty a briefing note on that.