Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The savage death of Timmy Hourihane in Cork city over the weekend reveals the continuing and worsening homelessness crisis in our society. Our sympathies go out to Mr. Hourihane's family and friends. The nature of his death illustrates the fragility and vulnerability of many homeless people. There is a growing fear factor, whether it is in terms of safety in hostels, in tents or on the streets. This is the sixth death on the streets in Cork so far this year. Nationally, approximately 50 homeless people die every year. An increased supply of secure accommodation is the key step to tackling the scale of this crisis. The more secure a person's accommodation is, the lower is the risk of dying.

The problem is escalating year after year. In 2014, Cork City Council spent more than €100,000 on bed and breakfasts and hotels for homeless people, including many families. In 2018, it spent €3 million on such services, and that figure is growing. Homelessness in Cork city increased by 30% in the year to August, and has also increased in the south west generally. I agree with today's Irish Examiner editorial, which states: "All efforts to confront this toxic crisis have been, on political, ideological, cultural and practical levels, failures." There is no other way of describing it.

I spoke to the Simon Community yesterday. Its emergency centre is overflowing every night. It told me that there were 18 tents in the location where Timmy Hourihane was savagely beaten to death. Ms Caitriona Twomey of Cork Penny Dinners, a well-known and popular facility where many homeless people and families in distress are fed, described Timmy as the warmest, kindest man. She also said that this is a warning to the Government that it must solve the homelessness crisis now. She said people are dying and we need more homes, housing, treatment centres and support services. The Government's response to date has not been of sufficient scale, creativity or urgency to deal with this. Does the Taoiseach accept that Government policies for reducing homelessness to date have clearly failed?

Does he accept there has been a lack of urgency, creativity and scale to address the chronic housing and homelessness crisis and that 50 deaths a year among our homeless community on our streets is a damning indictment of the Government's failures?

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I want to say how filled with sadness I was when I read about the killing of Timothy Hourihane in Cork. On behalf of the entire House, I extend my sympathies to his friends, to his family and to all of those who worked with him down the years. An Garda Síochána is treating this death as a homicide and, therefore, a criminal investigation is under way. I encourage anyone who has any information whatsoever about this suspected homicide to give that information to the Garda. We do not know the circumstances of his death and who killed him. I do not think it is right for us to speculate on that, suffice to say that anybody who has any information as to who was responsible for the killing of this poor man should share that information with the Garda.

As the Deputy knows, I am always reluctant to talk about individual cases. However, much information about this case is already in the public domain. When one reads about it, it is a truly sad story. It is a real human tragedy. Mr. Hourihane was treated for addiction for over a year. After that, he was discharged to the care of his family. He was offered an apartment in Nicholas Street in Cork but never took up the apartment. For that reason, it was passed on to somebody else. He was supported by homeless charities on a number of occasions over the course of the past two years. He is somebody whose family really tried to help him, who was helped by the housing charities and who was helped by addiction services. He was also provided with an apartment, all funded by Government. Unfortunately, this demonstrates how complex the problem of homelessness often is, how hard it can be to help people but how we should never give up trying to help people, no matter what the circumstances.

On the wider issue of homelessness, the Government has acknowledged on many occasions that this is a problem which we are really struggling to solve. Homelessness is a stain on our society. Over 100,000 people now live in emergency accommodation, although the numbers rough-sleeping is much lower than that, probably around 150. No level of it is acceptable, however.

In terms of what we are doing, we are increasing funding for homelessness supports and for homelessness agencies. The budget provided a €20 million increase in funding for homelessness agencies and supports, increasing the budget for homelessness to €166 million. I know full well, however, that this is only treating the symptoms and not the underlying problem. To treat the underlying problem, we need to build much more social housing. We have now embarked on the biggest social housing programme in many decades. This year over 10,000 units will be added to the social housing stock, more than any year this century. About 11,000 units will be added next year. It is making a difference, particularly when it is connected to Housing First where we try to ensure people who are rough-sleeping or have difficulty holding down a tenancy are given the supports they need to hold on to that apartment or house if they are given one.

I do not think the first part of the Taoiseach’s reply was appropriate. I did not delve into any personal situation.

I said the death of Timmy Hourihane revealed the fragility and vulnerability of people who are homeless. I do not believe in blaming the victim of this attack.

I think the Taoiseach was wrong in his emphasis in his reply. My presentation was about the wider issue.

When Cork City Council’s budget for homelessness has gone from about €100,000 to €3 million in four years, what does that tell the Government? That was my point. Is it to keep throwing money at the same solutions? It tells me the Taoiseach is not getting the scale of the problem - he has never got the scale of this problem - and do I think the Government ever has. The Government is not building enough secure accommodation. This August, in Cork city alone, the number of homeless on the streets went up 32% on August of last year. The funding is stopping the escalation but is not dealing with the root causes of it. There is a chronic inability to build social housing of scale. There is no question about that. We all know it.

The Deputy's time is up.

There is a lack of urgency around the issue. Existing solutions have clearly failed. That is demonstrable in terms of the numbers. That is the point I am trying to make.

Caitríona Twomey of Cork Penny Dinners is right. We need more homes, treatment centres and support services. At present, the response is not up to scale in terms of the issue we face.

This is a homicide. A Garda investigation is under way. The only person responsible for this is the individual who killed that poor man. I strongly encourage anyone who has information to provide it to the Garda so that officers can carry out their work and bring the person who killed this poor man to justice. That is what should happen.

We are building secure accommodation, with over 10,000 units added to the social stock this year. Most of these are new builds. There will be approximately 11,000 next year. These are secure houses and apartments for people who are on the housing list, for people who are in emergency accommodation, and for people who are rough-sleeping. That is happening. Starting from a very low base, we have been ramping up the building of social housing year on year. We are now at the point where over 10,000 safe houses and apartments are being provided for people on the housing lists and those who are homeless every year. That is at a much higher level than in the final years in which Deputy Micheál Martin's party was in office.

We need to build it up. There are capacity constraints but it is being built up. This is the biggest social housing programme in many decades. This year and next, more social housing will be built than in any year since the start of the century.

The Taoiseach is wrong.

What he is saying is factually incorrect.

Yesterday, the High Court in Belfast ruled that people born in the North of Ireland are British citizens even where they identify as and are Irish. The ruling was made in the case of Emma DeSouza. Emma has fought a long and admirable campaign with the British Home Office to be legally recognised as an Irish citizen only. Emma's case is well known and has become a symbol of the need to protect Irish identify and citizenship in the North. Despite the fact her right to identify solely as an Irish citizen had been upheld at a number of tribunal hearings, the British Home Office dragged Emma through the courts to overturn that decision. She believes, with good reason, that this represents a hardline effort on the part of the British Government to restrict access to EU entitlements for citizens in the North of Ireland following Brexit.

Yesterday's ruling represents a clear effort by the British Government to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. In fact, the ruling tramples all over the agreement. That agreement is crystal clear that those born in the North of Ireland are entitled to identify as British, Irish, or both. However, the British Home Office refuses to recognise Emma DeSouza as an Irish-only citizen resident in the North of Ireland and, in so doing, it refuses to recognise the core legal component of the Good Friday Agreement.

The decision has also exposed the failure of successive British Governments to enshrine the relevant provisions of the Good Friday Agreement in domestic law. The identity and citizenship provisions are critical to the integrity of the agreement as a whole and they must be protected and defended to the hilt. The British Home Office must acknowledge the birthright provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and allow Emma to assert her full rights as an Irish and EU citizen. They must also understand that it is unacceptable to pursue a young woman through the courts for simply being Irish, especially when her position had already been legally vindicated.

More than 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the British Government continues to fail in its responsibilities as a co-guarantor. Those failures must be challenged. The Taoiseach told us that Irish citizens in the North would never again be left behind by an Irish Government and he now needs to follow through on those words and that promise. The Government, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, has a key role to play. The Taoiseach needs to step up and defend Emma, her rights and the rights of all Irish citizens in the North. Can he indicate what the Government proposes to do to defend the Good Friday Agreement in light of this ruling?

I thank Deputy McDonald for raising this important issue, which is of huge significance to people living in Northern Ireland in particular. The Good Friday Agreement is eloquent on this matter in my view. It states that people in Northern Ireland have a right to be British, Irish or both, and accepted as such. That is the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. It is my view that the British citizenship laws are out of step with the letter and spirit of that agreement, making a distinction between how people identify as to their citizenship.

Ms DeSouza is an Irish citizen and does have an Irish passport. This is an issue the Tánaiste has raised with the Secretary of State and will do again in the coming days. I raised it in the past with Prime Minister May and will do so again on Thursday or Friday with Prime Minister Johnson.

Last February, when the issue was raised with Prime Minister May, she acknowledged the serious and real concerns in this area and pledged to review the issues around citizenship urgently to deliver a long-term solution consistent with the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. We continue actively to seek an outcome of that review. As I mentioned, it will be raised by the Tánaiste with the Secretary of State in the next couple of days. I will raise it with the Prime Minister also.

The Good Friday Agreement is not only eloquent but it is also crystal clear on the right of any citizen to be recognised as Irish, as British or as both. As the Taoiseach has acknowledged, Emma is an Irish citizen. She carries an Irish passport, and despite the clarity around her identity and citizenship, Emma has been blackguarded and pursued through the courts by a very hostile and belligerent British system.

I appreciate that the Taoiseach has raised these matters in the past with Mrs. May, that he has raised them with the Secretary of State, and that he will do so again. I put it to him, however, that simply raising the issue is not sufficient. We need a resolution to this matter and it needs to happen in a speedy fashion. Emma is very clear in her understanding of the hostility of the Home Office towards her and Jake, her American-born husband. She has also flagged for all of us the reality that that same British system is seeking to deny, frustrate or rob Irish citizens, and therefore EU citizens, of their citizenship rights in the North of Ireland in a post-Brexit scenario. I ask the Taoiseach to do more than politely raise this matter. I invite him to insist that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, moves speedily to introduce the required legislation through Westminster to ensure that Irish citizens living in Ireland are recognised and respected as Irish.

I thank the Deputy. For the part of the Irish Government, we will continue to uphold the Good Friday Agreement in letter and spirit. We will continue to respect the fact that people in Northern Ireland have the right to be British or Irish or both, and accepted as such. For that reason, we continue to respect and confer Irish citizenship on people in Northern Ireland. With that comes citizenship of the European Union and all the European rights that flow from that - the right to travel freely, or to work or study in any part of the European Union. Connected to that come the common travel area rights to live, work, study, access healthcare, housing, education and welfare in Britain and Ireland as though citizens of both. We are very much upholding our obligations in that regard and making sure that nobody in Northern Ireland is left behind, regardless of which community they come from when it comes to accessing those citizenship rights.

As I mentioned, this is an issue on which we have engaged with the British Government. It has agreed to review and resolve the issue in line with the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. This judgment appears to make a distinction between identifying as British or Irish as opposed to being a citizen. In our view, that is a misreading of the Good Friday Agreement. We will continue to seek an outcome of that review. The Tánaiste will raise it with the Secretary of State and I will raise it with the Prime Minister.

The Deputy is suggesting a stronger approach, namely, that I insist and demand. If that approach was effective, the Deputy would be in government in Northern Ireland. That is not the approach that works in the real world. One raises issues with people in a logical, respectful and consistent way.

And get no result.

Insisting and demanding is how one gets nowhere. That is why her party got nowhere in the North.

That is why you got nowhere.

I would like to start by extending sympathy to the family and friends of Timmy Hourihane.

A sharp clash is looming between the interests of the church and the interests of the State in Cork city. I refer to the decision of the Sisters of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary to withdraw from involvement at Bessborough by the end of the year, to attempt to sell the land there and to effectively evict the onsite services which cater to the needs of vulnerable families, especially women and children at the Bessborough campus. These services include fostering services, psychological services, secondary school services, family outreach services, services for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, and supervised access services. The centre caters for the needs of 50 families every week. Residential accommodation is provided for six vulnerable adults and seven children at Bessborough. Where are these people to go now? Services are provided at Bessborough which will not be found anywhere else in this State. The parent and infant unit is just one example of this. More than 100 people work at this centre. A question mark now hangs over these jobs.

A statement issued by the staff last week said: "The nuns are about to run off with a significant amount of money, leaving none in Ireland to compensate staff or the State for the huge investment that they have made in the family services." This begs the question: is the State going to allow an order of nuns with headquarters outside this State to break up a family centre in which the State has invested €30 million? These are the same Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who ran the infamous Bessborough mother and baby home, who profited from the illegal sale of children, snatched from their mothers, to the US, Canada and Australia and who to this day have failed to account for the whereabouts of well over 800 children who died. Every June for the past five years people from all over the world have travelled to Bessborough to remember the women and children. Will that ceremony be possible if the lands are in private ownership?

I put it to the Taoiseach that the State should acquire these lands and the buildings constructed upon them preferably by way of nationalisation without compensation to guarantee the future of the family services and the jobs and to allow real discussion with survivors' groups about what work might need to be done to identify the whereabouts of the more than 800 children who died who are missing. Is the State prepared to intervene to defend this family centre and to guarantee those jobs?

I thank the Deputy. I have read a little bit about this issue but I do not have a detailed briefing on it as yet but I will seek one in the coming days. As I understand it, Bessborough already is in private ownership. It is not in public ownership. The nationalisation of anyone's property, whether they be a private individual, a company or a religious order, without compensation is, of course, unconstitutional. It is unlikely that a referendum would be passed in this country allowing the Government to confiscate anyone's property without compensation whether they be a private individual, a company or a religious order. This will have to be a matter of negotiation involving the owners, the service providers and the Government. Our objective in doing so will be to ensure that services are protected, those who use those services are protected and that jobs are protected as well.

This is a test case. Religious orders are selling up not just in Bessborough but in other locations across the country. They are selling lands and buildings, which is having a detrimental impact on State funded services. We have another example of this at St. Vincent's Convent on the north side of Cork. Therefore, this is a litmus test for the Government. Will it stand up for the interests of our people or will it bend the knee once more to the religious orders? If the nuns sell that land and force the services there to relocate, that would have a big detrimental effect. That centre is more than the sum of its parts. One cannot break up a hospital and distribute bits of it here, there and everywhere and still have the same effect. It is the same with a one-stop-shop family centre such as this.

Nationalisation is not something that is unknown. It was done with the banks when the Government decided to bail them out and put their debts onto the backs of the taxpayers. There would be widespread support among ordinary people for the seizure of those lands without compensation, guaranteeing jobs, guaranteeing the services and opening up a real discussion with the survivors groups.

Attack the religious again.

I thank the Deputy. It is important to acknowledge the fact that, for many years, religious orders of many types provided healthcare, education and social services, long before the State was willing to enter those areas-----

Yes, it is because the State would not.

They are still doing it.

-----and, for a very long time, provided those services in education, health and social services at a discount to the State.

It was easy when they had slave labour.

Even when I was in primary school in Blanchardstown, the church still continued to contribute a certain amount of money to the running of my primary school. We need to be balanced about this and not use this as an opportunity to bash religious orders gratuitously. Yes, they have done a lot of things wrong in the past, but we should acknowledge a lot of the good they did as well, particularly in providing healthcare, education and social services.

That is what Deputy Barry is doing by raising this question.

With regard to the particular question, this, of course, has to be a matter of negotiation. We will do anything reasonable within our power to make sure the family services there, the jobs there and those who use those services are protected.

The entire country is in desperation over the impact of the current national insurance crisis. Our failed insurance market poses a lethal threat to small businesses and consumers. Futures are in jeopardy and jobs are lost. The common denominator is excessive and suffocating premiums. Unjustifiable premiums are causing financial hardship, leading to enormous levels of stress and anxiety. Overzealous and at times impractical health and safety regulations, with associated insurance demands, are quenching community spirit throughout the country. Volunteers are frustrated and disillusioned to witness their free time, their skills and their commitment blown away with insurmountable insurance premiums.

It is no secret that our insurance industry, as structured at present, is crippling many sectors of our society. Similar to the housing crisis, we have an absence of insurance supply, an excess of demand, too little competition and a collapse of affordability. The consumer is a prisoner in a system that is dysfunctional. The consumer is subjected to a legal form of exploitation and extortion. The insurance sector has become expert at manipulating and taking advantage of consumers trapped in a captive market. The consumer is at the mercy of greedy, profiteering multinational insurance consortiums. The public, in a word, is being ransacked by the current insurance regime. In retaliation for excessive costs, everyone, including politicians, have for years been pointing the finger at the insurance companies, solicitors, the legal profession and the Judiciary. Solicitors and barristers are prone to lodging inflated claims in the expectation that, after legal argument, they will succeed in obtaining exaggerated awards.

For the most part, people who make claims have a legitimate case and, when proven, they are entitled to reasonable and adequate compensation. However, in Ireland, we have cultivated a litigation culture that too often appears to reward the chancers and fraudsters. The glaring weakness in claims procedure is placing a huge financial burden on the insurance companies and, ultimately, consumers. The industry has numerous agencies and oversight bodies, which are lamentably ineffective. The Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, has made commendable efforts, with initiatives intended to reduce costs and bring fairness and transparency to the sector, but the harsh fact is that he has been obstructed and stifled by vested interests. Given the broad range of practices, the professionals who work the system have a huge financial interest in protecting the status quo. The current system creates a level of coexistence and self-interest that is difficult to penetrate and break down. Sweeping reforms are urgently required. The current situation is unsustainable and there is a need for urgent action to assist the beleaguered consumer.

I thank Deputy Lowry for raising this important issue. I know that the cost of insurance is a huge issue for citizens, businesses and voluntary organisations. We have made some progress in recent years in stabilising the cost of health insurance through lifetime community rating, keeping the cost of home insurance down and reducing the cost of car insurance, which is now down approximately 25% on its 2016 peak. However, we have a huge issue when it comes to reducing the cost of public liability insurance for business and voluntary organisations.

The most recent step the Government has taken to improve the situation is the Judicial Council Act, which is now law. That Act allows for the establishment of the judicial council, which in turn will establish a personal injuries guidelines committee. That committee will draw up new guidelines as to the appropriate awards to be given to people who suffer injury as a consequence of negligence or a failure of duty of care on the part of others. These new guidelines will replace the book of quantum. While we cannot interfere directly in any way with the deliberations of the judicial council and its committees, the objective is to bring the kinds of awards people get for injuries in Ireland more in line with those in other countries. We then expect the insurance industry to respond by reducing premiums.

There is an engagement at present between the Chief Justice and the Attorney General on ensuring that the judicial council is set up before the end of the year. A sum of €1 million has been provided in the 2020 budget for this. This should be more than enough to run a relatively small new public body. I know that the Chief Justice is doing what he can to identify steps which need to be taken to ensure that the council is in a position to hit the ground running once established. I hope that once the new guidelines are in place, and even before then, judges will recognise the importance of having reasonable guidelines and awards that are in line with international norms because high payouts have a real-world impact. This is not just about the plaintiff in question; it is also about the wider impact on society. Very high payments coupled with very high premiums in Ireland are having a real impact. They are causing businesses to close, jobs to be lost and sporting, leisure and musical activities that take place in other countries to be unviable in Ireland. That is wrong, and we need to consider the wider social and economic impact of high awards on people in general.

It is also important to realise that the public is angry at the scale of the profits being made. The scale of profits suggests that the insurance industry has lost its sense of service. Previously, one's insurance broker or insurance agent was a trusted guide; now they increasingly resemble a group of profiteers. What we are looking for is real and substantial insurance reform. The public is looking for timelines and wants to know when there will be effective action. It is important to remember that the worldwide trend is towards significant reductions in premiums. Ireland stands out because the opposite is the case, with alarming increases annually.

Regarding the Government's proposed judicial council, I suggest that the Taoiseach send, with respect to the separation of powers, a polite but stern message to the Judiciary because it is moving on this issue at a pace that could at its kindest be described as stately.

We all share the objective here, which is to reduce the cost of insurance for citizens, businesses and voluntary organisations. We need all players to make a contribution to this objective. I ask the Judiciary to proceed without delay in establishing the judicial council, setting up a personal injuries commission and replacing the book of quantum with a schedule of awards that are more realistic and more in line with those of other countries. We also need the insurance industry to play its part in bringing down premiums and reducing its profit margins. We also have the Garda involved in stepping up its activities relating to the investigation of fraud. The Government has asked the Law Reform Commission to undertake a detailed analysis as to whether we could establish constitutionally sound legislation to cap or limit the amount of damages a court may award. We expect public consultation on that matter later this year. It will be interesting to see what the Law Reform Commission comes up with because if the other reforms do not work, we need to consider the possibility of legislating in this House to limit and cap awards. We should not rule out a referendum down the line if the existing reforms that are planned do not work.