Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

For the past months we have witnessed a number of high profile and worrying criminal events across the State that are causing great concern. There has been a raft of ATM thefts on both sides of the Border. There is also insidious evidence of an increase in gang activity and drug related activity in Drogheda in particular. The Garda armed response unit had to be brought into Drogheda. It appears that Drogheda has been left short of gardaí for the past year and criminal activity was allowed fester in the context of that shortage.

Drogheda, as we all know, is a fantastic town. I had the pleasure of visiting it last year during the Fleadh and the welcome was phenomenal. The people of Drogheda took charge of their own destiny by having a very dignified and silent protest calling on criminal gangs to step back and calling for action to protect their town and the people in it.

These criminal gangs and others involved in the drug trade are spreading their malignant activity across the State as pressure comes on them in Dublin. People living in towns, villages and small communities across the country are justifiably concerned about this activity. They are concerned about the poor and slow response to what is happening.

Last night RTÉ carried a report from Longford, a small and proud town which has armed gardaí - once again - on duty on its streets as we speak. There have been two arson attacks, four stabbings and 43 violent incidents there over the past months. People are worried, concerned and fed up. This morning the Garda Representative Association was interviewed on RTÉ's "Morning Ireland" and spoke about gardaí not being able to engage actively with the feuding families as they are operating a fire brigade service, going from call to call. The GRA representative said that the force is operating on a very tight overtime budget and there simply are not enough gardaí patrolling the streets. He believes that the only answer is gardaí on the street in their faces so they cannot behave like that. This is the view of the GRA, which represents the gardaí on the street.

I refer to Longford and Drogheda but are there other towns or communities that will have the armed response on their streets over the next weeks? What is the Government doing to engage actively with these problems before they require that level of response? What is the Government doing to prevent eruptions of gang violence around the country before communities are terrorised and before people are threatened in their own communities? Does the Tánaiste believe that extra resources are needed to tackle this issue in the State?

I thank Deputy Calleary for raising this issue. I am aware of reports about a number of violent and public order incidents that have occurred in Longford recently. I am not in a position to discuss specific details about Garda operations in the area but I can assure the House that gardaí will not permit a small number of individuals - in this case families who are feuding - to put local communities in fear for their safety. Criminal acts of this nature have no place in civilised society and An Garda Síochána is determined to bring the perpetrators of these acts to justice as soon as possible and to protect and reassure the broader communities.

The House will be aware that the Garda Commissioner and his management team are solely responsible for the allocation of Garda resources, including personnel, with regard to new and emerging crime trends. Neither the Government nor the Minister for Justice and Equality are permitted to intervene in Garda operational matters, and we should not. We do, however, have a responsibility to make sure that the resources are available to the Garda Commissioner and his teams to make sure they can respond appropriately.

The Government has made unprecedented resources available to An Garda Síochána. Budget 2019 saw the allocation of €1.76 billion to An Garda Síochána to help it carry out its vital functions. In December 2018 the Government endorsed the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, accepting all 157 recommendations. A four year high level implementation plan was also published, with progress overseen by a dedicated programme office in the Department of the Taoiseach. There is a considerable amount of work to be done, including drafting new policing legislation that will ensure the broader concept of community safety will be embedded in statute. Key to this is policing in partnership with communities, other Departments and agencies that provide essential services and supports to communities and individuals who are at risk. The Garda recruitment campaign is currently under way, which will ensure that An Garda Síochána remains on target to reach the figure of 15,000 sworn members by 2021. The number of sworn gardaí is now in excess of 14,000 with 200 more gardaí having attested on 7 June. A further 200 gardaí will attest before the end of this year.

I share the Deputy's concern. We need to ensure that the Garda is resourced to respond to new criminal threats, be they gangland crime or families feuding. We need to ensure the necessary resources and skills are available from a training and equipment perspective for An Garda Síochána but the allocation of resources and planning on the ground has to some from the Garda Commissioner.

I fully accept that operational issues are for the Garda Commissioner, but when extra gardaí were assigned to Drogheda the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the local Fine Gael Deputy made sure they were there for the press conference and the pictures. The gardaí were assigned after the events took off and after the problem took hold. Today we are referring to Drogheda and Longford, which are two fine communities, but there are communities across the country living in fear of low-level anti-social behaviour up to drug and criminal gang activity. They do not want to be the next towns with armed support units. There needs to be proactivity on the part of the Minister and the Government, while respecting the line and respecting that operational issues are a matter for the Garda Commissioner. We need proactivity from the Government and the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, to respond to concerns in the communities around the country as they see their own communities, families and day-to-day activities being targeted by gangs. These places do not want to be the next towns with armed support units. I put it to the Tánaiste that proactivity at Cabinet level and working with the Garda Commissioner is what we need, not false promises or false issues about legislation.

Deputy Calleary has accused the Government of many things but I do not believe it is credible to accuse the Government of not being open to new thinking, better policing and new ways of doing things from a policing perspective. There is a constant programme of reform, reassessment and independent assessment of policing in Ireland - for obvious reasons - over the last years. This continues. The resources continue to increase. The number of gardaí continues to increase, which is needed. This is happening not just in Longford and Drogheda but also in many other parts of the State and in our constituencies, as we know only too well.

The presence of the Minister for Justice and Equality with the Garda Commissioner at times of stress and fear in towns such as Drogheda in response to gangland crime is more than appropriate to reassure people that right at the top of Government we can understand the concerns and the need for a response. The actual response does need to be designed by police officers in An Garda Síochána with the Garda Commissioner's office. If the Garda Commissioner needs more resources or stronger legislation in certain areas he will get both. This is the kind of relationship needed between the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice and Equality, which is a very strong and important relationship.

I wish to raise the issue of online safety, a matter that was raised by my colleague, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald, yesterday, along with members of Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party.

We all know that, despite the best efforts of their parents, children and teenagers are able to access on the Internet and social media inappropriate material which can have a negative consequence for them, their families and society at large. The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, has stated that online safety is the child protection issue of our generation. High-profile cases such as that which has been in the news this week rightly draw the public's attention to this issue. Such cases need to be a call to action. When more and more young people are accessing social media sites, the Internet and different applications, we all have a responsibility but particularly those of us in these Houses, to take action.

Some good work has been done. For example, the action plan for online safety made a positive contribution and it is important to acknowledge that. However, there is other important work that needs to be done. The Digital Safety Commissioner Bill 2017, introduced by my colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, in February 2018, received unanimous support in the Dáil. Since then, however, it has been stuck on Committee Stage. That Bill proposes the appointment of a regulator with real powers in a stand-alone office. The proposed commissioner would give meaningful support to the State in its efforts to combat cyberbullying, the prevalence of harmful communication and material, micro-targeting and online abuse. That Bill is supported by the ISPCC, Cybersafe Ireland and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has also indicated his support for the broad thrust of the Bill and has stated that he is in the process of producing his own legislation. As yet, however, neither the heads or a Bill have been published. He indicated that he will draw on the ideas in Teachta Ó Laoghaire's Bill and from other sources.

We heard from Deputy Howlin yesterday that he has ideas on this issue too. I see from press reports this morning that the British model he suggested may be running into some technical problems. All of us in this House have suggestions and ideas about what needs to be done. None of them is necessarily wrong and some complement each other. It does not matter what we call the legislation, who introduces it or who gets the credit for it, what matters is that we need to do this quickly in order to protect our children.

Let us consider two options. We have available to us a Bill that got unanimous support in this House almost a year and a half ago. It is on Committee Stage. The Government could use that process to feed in all the different contributions and strengthen that Bill if needs be. If it is not in favour of doing that, let us convene an all-party committee on online safety, working with everyone and taking on board their ideas, to get a Bill drafted on an inclusive basis and to bring it before the House before the summer recess. We need to work together on this. We have lost far too much time. Will the Tánaiste support either of these options?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and I appreciate the spirit in which he has raised it, which represents an effort to get us to respond collectively. Government and Opposition have done really good work collectively on some big issues, climate action, housing and other social changes that I am glad to say this country has managed to deliver in recent years. This is another one but it is a very difficult issue to get right. That is why the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, has been very clear in speeches he has made about his commitment to introducing new legislation in this area. The Government's view is that the days of self-regulation online are over and that states now need to get involved in putting in place appropriate levels of regulation to ensure we can protect vulnerable people, particularly children. Media coverage of events that have happened in the past few days are a reminder of that but it has been an issue for some years. Any parent in this Chamber is more than aware of the dangers of allowing a child to even use his or her mobile phone.

The State needs to respond but this is an international challenge that lots of countries are grappling with. The Minister has opened up a consultation process for stakeholders on a series of questions with a view to trying to bring forward comprehensive legislation. I do not think he will be concerned whether Deputy Ó Laoghaire's Bill is used as the basis for that or whether it is new legislation. This is a cross-party issue. We would welcome the input of others who have been working on this. We worked with Deputy Howlin on the Bill he produced and the Government has shown a willingness not to get party political about who brings forward the legislation. The issue is that we have to get it right. Rather than try to get this done before the summer without perhaps having as broad a consultation as necessary to get it right, we need a slightly longer timeframe to consult with all the political parties, non-governmental organisations, NGOs, academics and industry interests involved in this area in order that we can by the end of the year bring forward legislation sponsored by the Government but supported, I hope, by many other parties.

I welcome the Tánaiste's comments but clarity does not come from speeches, it comes from legislation. The problem is that there has not been collective work on this. Deputy Ó Laoghaire produced a Bill. We are willing to have it strengthened by anybody and everybody. Let us get this right and bring all the ideas together. The Bill has gone through pre-legislative scrutiny. Deputy Ó Laoghaire has asked the Minister to sit down with him and discuss the Bill. The Minister has not even responded.

I have approached this matter from the point of view that in this House we have the collective wisdom, ability and motivation to get this right. We have a Bill that is at an advanced stage. We are open to dealing with all and hearing the various views on how to strengthen it. That is possible. There is a committee dealing with that legislation. Let us use that and if we cannot, let us set up a committee on online digital safety and take all the views together so that we get this right.

The Tánaiste is right to say there is an international aspect to this but the State has failed to ratify the Budapest Convention. The latter would give gardaí more powers in respect of online safety, access to data and so on, particularly in the context of child pornography.

I have asked two specific questions from the point of view that I have already introduced legislation and worked with the Minister to get it over the line and we have another Bill that we are working on with the Minister to do likewise. Let us do the same with this Bill. We have wasted 18 months. The Tánaiste stated that there is a public consultation process but that finished two months ago and the report relating to it has not been published. Is the Tánaiste open to allowing the Bill progress and letting us take everyone's feedback on board? Is he open to the establishment of an all-party committee on online safety in order that we might take an inclusive approach to this matter?

I do not want to speak directly for the Minister. He is interested in results and in getting the right Bill enacted as soon as possible. He is not interested in trying to get something done quickly only to find out a few months later that we have missed something. I will certainly ask the Minister to meet Deputy Ó Laoghaire, who is interested in this area and has done a lot of work on it. I am familiar with the issues with which the Deputy is trying to deal in his legislation but I do not have the detail of it all.

The Government wants to work with Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, Fianna Fáil and all of the other parties in this House to try to get this right. It is a significant concern for families, parents and young people around the country. Many vulnerable people are being targeted online whether through cyberbullying or exposure to extreme content, pornography or violence or something else and we recognise that we need to respond to that. We have a Minister who is very open to it and who wants to work with all in this House to make that happen.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the democratic programme of the First Dáil, the Children's Rights Alliance is running a campaign to ensure that the values of that important programme are upheld, No Child 2020. The idea is that no child be left behind.

We do not have to tolerate the extent of child poverty that exists in our country. One in 11 children is living in conditions of consistent poverty according to the Central Statistics Office, CSO. When the former leader of the Labour Party, Tom Johnson, drafted the original Democratic Programme, his vision was of a new role for the State to meet the basic needs of working people, the majority of whom lived in appalling poverty in 1919. The Democratic Programme gave special mention to children, saying that it was the first duty of Government to make provision for their well-being, paramount among the provisions made by the State of the means and facilities for children’s education and training. The Democratic Programme also called on the State to ensure that no child wanted for shelter, clothing or food. The document also highlighted the importance of healthcare and the participation of children in a free Ireland.

The Children’s Rights Alliance has taken just five basic issues for today that it believes could be quickly and realistically addressed to make a significant gesture to honour the centenary of the Democratic Programme and address the real issue of reducing child poverty. Those five asks are that every child has a hot nutritious meal every day; has access to affordable and quality healthcare; has access to free education; can participate in arts and culture in his or her community; and lives in affordable and quality housing. Does the Government endorse these five basic issues as the minimum that the House can set as an objective to achieve for every child in the State on the centenary of the First Dáil? What specific actions does it propose to put in place to ensure that we honour the centenary of the First Dáil by fulfilling these wishes for children?

The Deputy raised a broad range of issues. Regardless of whether it is the centenary of the First Dáil, we should be looking after our children. The requirement to do that is a big priority in the Constitution. If a country cannot look after its most vulnerable and its children, it has to ask itself some straight questions. We have areas where we have made huge progress. Even during the recession, Governments continued to prioritise expenditure in education. We will continue to do that and we will improve the quality of education and the resources that are available to teachers. Hot meal programmes in schools, particularly DEIS schools in areas where income may be challenging for families, are also important. On the arts, for example, I am sitting next to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, who has responsibility for Creative Ireland, the new arts policy, which has a children's element to it.

Housing is perhaps the most challenging area of domestic policy for this Government. We have far too many children in emergency accommodation. The Government is determined to change this because it is not acceptable to have families and children in emergency accommodation for long periods or at all. That is why we are spending so much money and time on a social housing building programme. We will assist over 27,000 individuals and families this year with their social housing needs. Clearly, there is still more to be done to get on top of that issue.

I agree with the Deputy on all the principles he has outlined but, as he knows because he has been in government, the practical response, cost, policy changes and legislative protections are what are required from Government to make these things a reality. In many of these areas, Ireland is an international example of how to get things done but we still have work to do in some areas, particularly with the housing challenges, which are a hangover from a deep recession that was driven by a collapse in the property industry.

As the Tánaiste knows, the Children’s Rights Alliance is a broad amalgamation of organisations and bodies which are interested in the welfare of children. It has looked at all the issues that face children in this State and asked for just five focused aims to be achieved. I am asking the Tánaiste if we can just address these five items as a priority in this House? Can we set ourselves the target of doing these five things for children? I grant that some of them are easier than others. Access to the arts is very important and the passport for the arts for children who, in many instances, can never avail of the arts and which is in place in other European countries can be emulated here. That is not a big ask. There are more difficult matters, including ensuring that every child has affordable and quality housing. That is a bigger ask. If we set ourselves the task of addressing all of these issues, we could do so. It would be a fitting memorial to ensuring that, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of our first free Parliament, we do so representing the values of those who sat here 100 years ago. Will the Tánaiste agree to commit the Government to look at these five issues and to see, on a cross-party basis, how far we can advance them all before the end of this year?

These are important areas and the Government is committed to all of them. Nutrition and a hot meal every day is the first matter. On access to healthcare, we know there are some challenges but we are investing heavily in overcoming those obstacles. Huge progress continues to be made in education and the arts. On the difficult issue of housing, we had a five-year housing plan, which was very ambitious when it was launched, and it is now delivering. It is not where it needs to be yet but we are getting there. I assure the Deputy that the concerns that have been outlined by the Children's Rights Alliance on housing for children and families is a big priority for the Government.

Another area where we need to protect children is against online exposure, which we talked about earlier, and that will be a big priority for us too. These five areas are all central to the way in which the Government needs to respond to the interests of children but there are other areas which we also need to pursue.

The abysmal failure of the Government's housing policy is well known and acknowledged at this stage. There are 100,000 households on the housing lists, some waiting a decade or more. There are extortionate rents in Dublin running at an average of €1,600 per month, which means someone would need to be able to spend more than €18,000 a year on rent to afford that. House prices are completely unaffordable, costing an average of €383,000 in Dublin. One would need to have saved €40,000 and have a salary of €100,000 or more to afford that. In my area, average house prices are €570,000 which does not even bear thinking about. One in five of our population is paying 40% or more of income on housing, one in ten is paying 60% or more and one in 20 is paying an incredible 75% of income on housing.

These failures are well known but the Government often asks if we have any solutions. I want to propose a few solutions that presented themselves from developments this week. As we speak, the city government in Berlin has proposed a five-year rent freeze because rents have gone through the roof and become unaffordable. The Government says this is not practical but it is being done in Berlin. Could we not do what is being done Berlin and freeze rents? This is the major reason people are being driven into homelessness and emergency housing. As they are also planning to do in Berlin, could we regulate vulture and cuckoo funds which are wrecking the housing sector and driving prices and rents through the roof? More than 11% of housing sold in 2018 was bought by vulture and cuckoo funds, worsening the housing crisis as they profiteer from it.

There are more than 200,000 empty houses in Ireland.

There are 360 vacant sites which could be built on. The Economic and Social Research Institute has stated loopholes mean there should be a hell of a lot more sites on the register. It is asking for something we have demanded for a long time, namely, an aggressive vacant site and property tax that would force such sites and homes into use for people who desperately need them.

I turn finally to affordable housing. This week, I attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. The National Development Finance Agency and the Housing Agency pointed out that, effectively, there is no affordable housing scheme. They noted that it is being done on a site-by-site basis and they simply cannot come up with formulations to make it affordable. In one of the few pilots that was promised to be delivered three years ago in Enniskerry, not a single house has been built but there is talk of rents of €1,200 a month. The two bodies acknowledged that it is not affordable. Could we not have an affordable scheme based simply on the principle that only one third of one's income would be required to pay rent, with rents set on that basis? I have presented a few practical proposals to which I would like the Tánaiste to respond.

It is good to hear some practical proposals but many of the proposals the Government has put into practice are working. Independent reporting, such as the Goodbody report published in recent days, has revised the forecast and indicated there will be between 21,000 and 22,000 new builds this year. Added to that, the number of vacant properties and derelict stock that will come back into use means approximately 25,000 new properties will come onto the market for use this year. That is very much in line with where we said we needed to be in the Rebuilding Ireland plan. We will push on now beyond that and get up to well over 30,000 in the coming years. In the number of planning permissions, which is a real indication of the appetite to build new properties and get them done, there have been significant increases. The number of commencement notices has increased by 41% as of April. That is a steady increase and acceleration of where we have been in recent years.

The core problem, as the Deputy recognised, is supply. One of the reasons we have such reliance on the private rental market for social housing solutions is supply, which is why we are building significantly more social housing than has been done for many years. We will continue to do that and will add approximately 10,000 social housing units to the stock this year. The core issue we need to resolve, which, to be fair to the Deputy, he raises all the time, is the delivery of supply in multiple sectors, namely, social housing, affordable housing, affordable rent, cost-rental models and a more conventional purchase market, for both apartments and family homes. All those things are progressing. The figure on the housing lists is now 70,000, which is down 20,000 because it was at 90,000 for some time. Since Rebuilding Ireland was started, the output of new homes that have been delivered and are available to the market and families is 52,000. There have been 42,000 new builds, 7,000 properties were vacant and are now filled, while 3,000 unfinished properties that were in ghost housing estates are now completed and have families in them.

That is progress. It is not yet fully where we need to be but it is significant progress. If we continue to make the kind of progress we have made, in accelerating output of supply, many of the other issues the Deputy understandably raises, such as the pressures that individuals and families are under, will be solved. If there is focus not on the delivery of supply but instead on freezing rents overnight, if landlords are driven out of the market because certainty is not given through allowing for modest inflation and so on in the marketplaces, we will not receive the kind of investment we need.

In Berlin, there is a five-year temporary emergency freeze until the problem is resolved. There is no reason we could not do that and it would not necessarily drive people out of the market. It would be temporary and would recognise the emergency.

On the issue of housing lists, let us be clear. If the numbers on housing assistance payment, HAP, and rental accommodation scheme, RAS, transfer lists and so on are included, the figure rises to 100,000. RAS and HAP tenancies are very precarious. Many of the people in emergency accommodation come from RAS and HAP tenancies. They are not secure forms of housing.

On supply, let me ring the alarm bells. The Construction Industry Federation appeared before the housing committee yesterday and stated categorically that the supply targets will not be met. The industry cannot deliver housing that is affordable to people, people are not buying it because they cannot afford it, but it cannot be delivered any more cheaply. That means the State must intervene and deliver affordable housing on public land.

I reiterate a question the Tánaiste did not answer. Where is the affordable housing? The few pilot programmes will not be affordable. We were told at a meeting of the housing committee this week that Japanese knotweed in Ticknock will prevent the housing being delivered at affordable levels. We do not have a national affordable housing scheme based on income affordability.

There is a €310 million affordable housing programme, which was agreed in the previous budget. It will take some time to deliver but it is progressing.

It is important not to stigmatise HAP and RAS. The whole point of HAP is to provide more certainty than was previously the case with rent allowance payments. Approximately 300 new HAP tenancies are put in place per week, which provide affordable accommodation in the private rental market. We want more people who seek conventional social housing to be able to get it but the only way we can ensure that will happen is to deliver on the build programme that is under way. It is well funded and resourced. We are spending billions of euro building a significant increase in the social housing stock. It is happening and we can see it in our cities and other parts of the country.

The Deputy calls for State intervention as if it is not already happening. We have introduced rent pressure zones, which are the alternative to rent freezes because they limit rent inflation, and we have extended the powers of rent pressure zones to include cuckoo funds in respect of the rent they charge after the initial rent is set. We are intervening in many areas in the housing market but we need to be careful our interventions are not counterproductive, as many of the interventions the Deputy proposes would be.