Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

To quote President Juncker this morning:

Where there is a will, there is a #deal — we have one! It’s a fair and balanced agreement for the EU and the UK and it is testament to our commitment to find solutions. I recommend that #EUCO endorses this deal.

And so say all of us, but let us not get carried away. There is a long way to go yet. This is only avoiding a drop-off Brexit. It will be a difficult process for our island. I commend the Tánaiste, all the Government officials, Members and everybody else who got us to this stage. There has been a massive political and personal effort by many and on the part of all our negotiating teams. We have been here before and we are once again in the hands of Westminster.

Can the Tánaiste outline his most up-to-date understanding of the position? We are all still digesting the deal. There is a commitment that there will not be any border or customs checks on the island. Can the Tánaiste confirm that? Can he confirm that the Single Market retains its integrity? Can he assure the House that the Good Friday Agreement is intact in the deal? These are the three key questions.

Has the Government, either through the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach or the relevant officials, engaged with the DUP in recent days about its concerns regarding the deal? Does the Tánaiste have any plans at political or official level to engage with it to see if the Government can assuage its concerns, whatever they may be, about this deal? What is the Tanaiste’s view on the implications of the Benn Act which demands a very solid update for Westminster by 19 October, 48 hours from now? What does he see as the likely timeline of the deal getting through Westminster and will it result in Britain exiting the EU on 31 October?

First, I urge caution. While an agreement between the Prime Minister and EU leaders has been announced in Brussels - I expect it be confirmed at the Council meeting later today - that is not the end of the process because it needs to be ratified by the British Parliament and the European Parliament. This is a big step forward. It is a new deal that recognises all the issues we have been raising for the past three years and that will protect people, peace and trade on the island. It will also ensure that there will be no checks of any kind. In that context, there will be no sanitary or phytosanitary checks, no regulatory checks, no checks on live animals and no customs checks on goods being traded between the North and the South. That is a significant achievement. I want to particularly thank the chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his team. They have done a really extraordinary job in putting together a new deal that reflects the new approach of the British Government and the new Prime Minister. Much in this deal is the same as previously. The language and the guarantees relating to citizens’ rights remain the same. The language and commitments in terms of UK contributions to EU budgets remain the same. The approach to the transition period is still clear and intact. The transition period after the UK leaves, if it leaves at the end of this month, will conclude at the end of 2020 unless the it decides to request and trigger an extension of one or two years' duration, which it has the option to do before next summer.

The part of the withdrawal agreement that has changed relates to Ireland. Much of the Irish protocol in respect of issues such as the common travel area, CTA, etc., remains the same. The provisions previously referred to as the backstop have changed. We have always stated that if we could replace the backstop with something else that does the same job on the key issues I outlined earlier in the context of protecting the peace process, preventing a hard border and protecting Ireland’s place in the EU Single Market and the customs union, then we would always look favourably on a new approach as long as the outcomes were guaranteed. I am of the view that they are guaranteed. This deal is worth supporting because it protects core Irish interests.

I want to bring the Tánaiste back. Prime Minister Johnson spoke of not being quite at the summit but of being "on the Hillary Step". He stated that the summit is not far away but that it is shrouded in cloud. That cloud remains in the form of the DUP. In getting to the point we have reached, political relationships on the island have been damaged. They are not what they could or should be. It is important that we, as well as those in London, engage with the DUP on its concerns. Does the Tánaiste have any plans to do that at political or official level between now and Saturday in order to try to bridge the gap in the same way as has been done over the past week in the context of the agreement? Is he confident that Brexit will proceed and that the UK will depart the European Union on 31 October?

We maintain open lines with all political parties in Northern Ireland. I am available to meet in person or to talk by phone any one of those parties that wants to speak to me. We reach out too. Earlier this week, I was in Belfast meeting the Secretary of State. I also had a breakfast meeting of approximately 90 minutes duration with representatives of Sinn Fein a few days ago. I have also spoken to the leaders of the SDLP and the Alliance Party at length this week during several phone calls. Our approach to this has always been to listen to all political parties, including both unionist parties.

Of course we do not always agree, but it is important to say that while we want to reach out and to ensure a deal is something that all parties in Northern Ireland can live with, that does not mean we can change the deal between now and when it is potentially voted on in Westminster, and we should not pretend that we can. The deal is what it is. I expect that it will be put to a vote in the Westminster Parliament on Saturday. The management of that vote from the Government's perspective is a matter for the Prime Minister and his team.

Last week in this Chamber the Government announced budget 2020 with the support of Fianna Fáil. At that time, I made the point that the housing crisis had become wrapped up in statistics rather than on the people behind those statistics. Late on Tuesday last, just before midnight a group of volunteers who offer food and clothing to Dublin homeless posted a photograph online. I am not sure if the Tánaiste has seen the photograph. It shows a five year old boy eating his dinner from a sheet on cardboard on the ground in this city. Sam is the boy in the photograph. He is five years old and, like any other child, he attends school, but Sam is homeless. Like thousands of other families in this State, Sam and his mum live in emergency accommodation. The Homeless Street Café, the volunteer group that met Sam on Tuesday night, made clear that his mother is trying her best to provide nutritious home-cooked meals for her children, but like so many parents of the homeless children of this State, they live in emergency accommodation that strictly forbids them cooking meals for their children.

This is Sam's life, without a home or the comfort and security that should be a right for every child in this State. This is the life of nearly 4,000 children who, like Sam, have been condemned to this type of nightmare. There is only one place our children should be on a Tuesday night, namely, safely tucked up in their beds in homes with their families. The moral stain of child homelessness in Ireland is creating a lost generation. Children are having their childhoods stolen from them right before our eyes. Homelessness is stunting their development, harming their education and exposing them to hardships that no child deserves and no society should accept.

Behind the statistics with which the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, tries to bamboozle the public, there is a stark and dark reality of our housing crisis, a crisis manufactured by this Government and from which many are profiting from the suffering of others. At the end of August last, more than 10,000 people were recorded as homeless. August was the seventh month in a row in respect of which that number of people were recorded as homeless. There has been a 365% increase in homelessness during a five-year period of unending, uninterrupted economic growth. These figures do not provide the full picture. They do not include the women and children living in domestic violence shelters funded by Tusla, adults and children living in hostels that are not funded by Departments, and those still living in direct provision despite having secured their leave to remain.

This is the republic that the Tánaiste and the Government is building. The Government is failing parents and children like Sam. This is not a republic of opportunity that cherishes all of the children of the nation equally. It is a national shame. How can we, as a nation, accept this? How can the Government stand over it? What does the Tánaiste have to say to Sam and his parents and the many other children like Sam who find themselves in this situation?

First, I do not accept it and nobody in this House should. No five year old child should be eating his or her dinner from a piece of cardboard on the street. We live in a country that does not accept this, and that is why it is being raised in the House today, as it should be.

The budget allocation for homeless services next year is €163 million. When I became Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, the allocation was significantly less than €100 million. Ultimately, we need to ensure that Sam and little boys like him have security, safety and predictability in terms of their parents having a safe tenancy or a home of their own in which to look after their families. This is what we are working towards. It makes me angry that the supports being put in place are not succeeding in ensuring that little boys like Sam do not find themselves in the position Sam was in a few nights ago.

We are making progress in regard to homelessness but, significant numbers continue to come into homelessness. For example, in 2018, more than 5,000 adults exited homelessness into homes, which is an increase of 8% on the previous year. In the first half of this year, 2,825 adults exited homelessness into homes, which is a 21% increase on the previous year. Next year, we expect that in excess 5,000 adults and families will exit homelessness into homes of their own. It is not just about homes, it is also about supports for many families who find themselves in vulnerable positions.

In response to the Deputy's question, this is not acceptable. This will remain a priority for Government until we can ensure that a five year old boy eating his dinner on the street is an absolute exception that angers people. That is how it should be and how it is. This is not necessarily the case in many other countries, but in this country homelessness, particularly for children is not acceptable. We will continue to prioritise it from a policy and spend perspective to ensure we bring it to an end, but that cannot be done overnight. It will take some time. This year, we will add more than 10,000 social housing units to our social housing stock. Next year, we will add more than 11,000. We will continue to provide this number of houses and more until we get on top of the housing pressures that are being contributed to by an increasing population and a broken housing market, which we are in the process of fixing over time.

Sam is not alone. There are other photographs of children who are homeless eating their dinner on the steps of the GPO, the same place where the leaders whose busts are displayed around this Chamber came together and proclaimed an Irish republic and that Ireland would cherish all of the children of the nation equally. The Government has let down those leaders and, more important, it has let down our children. The Tánaiste once again rhymed off statistics, but he failed to mention that child homelessness continues to grow. Included in those statistics are children like Sam who are forced into these situations.

The Government has blocked the solutions that could be delivered and would result in serious changes in society. It blocked the Focus Ireland amendment that would have prevented families and children like Sam becoming homeless in the first instance. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil also recently voted against the right to housing being enshrined in the Constitution. Many families are forced into homelessness because of escalating rents. Again, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have blocked Sinn Féin proposal for a rent freeze. These are real solutions. This Government has no answers. The budget announced last week provides for a €20 million increase in funding for homelessness services, which is an acceptance that the crisis will worsen. It is not a policy or a solution. The Government needs to take on board the proposals we and others, such as Focus Ireland, have been putting forward.

What does the Government propose to do in the here and now for Sam? What does it propose to do for the other children like Sam also eating their dinner outside the GPO? What does it propose to do for the children being given sleeping bags instead of a home or emergency accommodation because neither is available? These are the questions that the nation is asking having become aware of this terrible situation where children are forced to eat their dinner from cardboard on the ground. This is not acceptable. As a nation we want to reach out and provide comfort. This Government needs to implement policies and take action to ensure this never happens again.

Nobody has a moral superiority on this issue. We have and continue to prioritise homelessness and housing in terms of a response. As Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government I introduced the rent pressure zones to limit rent inflation when that was needed. Approximately 60% of rental properties in this country are now subject to those provisions. We have debated in this House some of the solutions proposed by Sinn Féin.

The problem with those proposals is that the majority of Deputies believe they will not work. They make for a good headline on the floor of the House but if we do not believe they will work when they are tested, we cannot not introduce them.

They do not work for the landlords.

Or the private sector.

What we are doing is introducing policies in housing that are delivering where there is a need for delivery. That is in the context of supply right across the board, whether that is social housing, affordable housing, more rental accommodation or the private purchase market. Supply is being increased in all of those areas, in most instances quite dramatically. The idea that all of this can be solved by putting a provision in the Constitution without the homes to back it up is just nonsense.

We are saying that the amount of money should be doubled..

I have no problem with changing our Constitution when it comes to housing but I do have a difficulty with stating that it is going to solve the problems of Sam, the five year old child to whom the Deputy referred.

Nobody suggested that.

We need to put in place practical, emergency solutions-----

Stop relying on the private sector. Let us build social and affordable housing.

-----while we develop medium and long-term solutions to correct the supply problem in the housing market. The Deputy knows this only too well.

The shameful human consequences of the Government's failure in the area of housing are personified in Sam's tragic plight and are well known. I also want to highlight another fairly shameful failure on the part of the Government in not providing a key public service to citizens. I refer to what is happening in the context of public transport and bus services. Anybody who uses buses in this city, particularly at peak times, will know how frequently buses do not arrive or arrive late. In the latter instance, when they do arrive, there are such lengthy queues that people cannot get on. Earlier this week, the National Transport Authority, NTA, produced a performance report on Go-Ahead, the privatised bus service. The privatisation of bus services is the policy the Government has pursued and implemented. It has handed out 10% of routes in this city to a private, for-profit operator and the report shows what the consequences have been. Since it took over 24 routes in 2018, Go-Ahead has consistently failed to meet its performance targets. It got away without being fined for the first few months but now fines are being imposed. On route after route, and overall in terms of its performance, the company is failing to meet the performance targets set for it by the NTA. It is discommoding young people getting to school, workers, people with disabilities and all sorts of other individuals who rely on public transport.

When the Government proposed the privatisation and outsourcing of routes, it stated that this would be cheaper and that the competition would produce better performance. Neither of those things has turned out to be the case. Go-Ahead's tender price - €171 million - was higher than that of Dublin Bus. It cost us more and its performance is way below that of Dublin Bus. We all know that Dublin Bus services could be a hell of a lot better but it must be stated that the privatisation experiment has failed. The Government should acknowledge this and abandon the privatisation agenda relating to public transport. If we want to do something about the climate, make our city work, deal with congestion and improve air quality,then we need better, cheaper public transport. With the privatisation of routes, the Government is going in precisely the opposite direction to that in which it should be going. Private bus services are not cheaper or better. At no level are they working to provide for the public transport needs of this city or the country. Will the Tánaiste accept that we need to reverse the privatisation experiment and put more money into providing better and cheaper public transport for our citizens?

We are putting a lot more money into public transport projects right across Dublin and the rest of country, whether that is in the form of the BusConnects project, light rail systems or whatever. The Deputy approaches this from an ideological perspective.

And Fine Gael does not.

Privatisation is something he can never accept on any level, on anything, whether it is housing, public transport or public-private partnerships to deliver schools.

Essential services is what they are called.

If there is a private sector element to any project that involves the State, the Deputy sees that as just unsupportable from an ideological point of view. It is a blind spot. What we are doing in public transport is trying to provide the best possible public transport for people. We are looking at certain routes in respect of which competition can lead to the provision of the best possible services.

If the companies that win those contracts are not performing to the standard set down in the contracts to which they have signed up, there are consequences and so there should be. There are plenty of private bus operators that are doing a really good job. There are also plenty of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann services that are really good. When providers, public or private, are not delivering what they need to deliver, we have to pull them up on it. The issue for the Government is the delivery of the service, not whether it is public or private. That is how we are approaching the delivery of public transport. The vast majority of public transport in Ireland is being provided for and supported by the State. That is the way it should be but there is absolutely nothing wrong with certain routes being opened up to competition. Bus Éireann or Dublin Bus can actually compete for them if they want but if somebody else is providing a different proposition that gives better outcomes for commuters, we should be encouraging that. We should be encouraging private sector investment to deliver those solutions, which is what we are doing. If certain companies are not delivering what they promised in the context of those contracts, there is a consequence to that built into the contract which may result in fines.

Our policy is to have free public transport and better public transport. That is incompatible with private sector investment because private sector investment is about profit. The Government has not put more money into Dublin Bus. In 2008, €85 million in subvention went to Dublin Bus and we had 1,200 buses. Today, there is €41 million going to Dublin Bus and we have 1,115 buses. There is less subvention, fewer buses, more people needing and using those buses, higher fares and poorer performance. Then the Government makes a bad situation worse by privatising it. Since Go-Ahead has come in, it has admitted that its poor performance was related to higher than expected driver resignations. I wonder why that is. Might it have anything to do with the poor conditions and pay of those bus drivers? There have been 4,000 complaints in respect of just 10% of the routes since the beginning of this year against Go-Ahead bus services. By the way, the company also had a very poor performance in the context of service provision in Britain, where the privatisation of public transport has been a disaster. How can we get more people into public transport if it is privatised, for profit, if fares are too high and if performance is as a bad as we are seeing from Go-Ahead?

When the Deputy talks about free public transport, there is no such thing.

There is in Luxembourg, Estonia-----

In those countries there is no such thing as free public transport. The State decides to pay for it or subsidise it if it wants to do it.

Whether that is through a private sector company that is delivering the service or a public sector company does not make any difference. Free public transport, if we choose to subvent and support it, will be a policy and budgetary choice. It is not free just because we decide to declare it free. Someone has got to pay for it.

Either the consumer pays for it or the State pays for it, whether it is being provided by a private sector company or a public company.

The taxpayer pays.

Deputy Boyd Barrett should not present this as something that it is not. I will come back to what I said before.

Who buys the tyres?

It is the outcomes that matter in the context of a delivery of efficient public transport, whether buses, trains or whatever.

I do not hold a candle for any company that is providing a service here, whether it be State or privately run. We have a regulator to do that job. If people do not meet the standards that have been set for them, there needs to be a consequence. As I have said to the Deputy before, there are many private sector bus companies in the country that are doing a great job, as indeed are Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus on many routes.

A deal has now been agreed between Boris Johnson's minority Government and the negotiators on behalf of the EU. It is still unclear whether this deal will pass through the British Parliament. We should remember that Theresa May's deal with the EU was put to the British parliament three times and failed to get approval. It seems to be the case that the DUP are saying "No" to this deal and it is still not clear if Brexit will take place or what type of Brexit it will be.

What is clear is that the deal being pursued by Johnson, and the deal which his predecessor Theresa May failed to get done, is a hard Brexit. Nobody should be under any illusions that the Brexiteers are making compromises or softening their stance in any way. Brexit is a means by which they will initiate a race to the bottom on regulation, food standards, and workers' rights, and Europe will continue its neo-liberal agenda. Brexit is a thoroughly reactionary Tory agenda to turn Britain into a Singapore off the coast of Europe. It will be a disaster for working people.

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn are absolutely correct in opposing this reactionary Tory scheme. I just heard on the radio a half an hour ago that Deputy Howlin is going into a meeting in Europe to try to convince Jeremy Corbyn to accept the deal. The only possibility of avoiding no deal or a hard Brexit is a British general election with, it is to be hoped, the Labour Party being elected. The Labour Party has committed to negotiating a soft Brexit, with the UK staying within the Single Market and customs union. It is prepared to put that deal or the option to remain to a popular vote. To see the right-wing media, including the BBC, trying to pretend that they do not know the position of Labour Party is farcical. It has clearly said that it would negotiate a soft Brexit and put it to a vote. For the people in this country, North and South, the position of the British Labour Party is the best option we can hope for.

Having made these points, I certainly do not regard the European Union as any sort of workers paradise and I sincerely hope for a left Labour Government in Britain that can raise the banner over Europe for the many and not for the few, and initiate a cross-EU movement to reverse neo-liberal policies.

Trillions of euro have been made available to bail out the banks and prop up the bond markets, money that has, by and large, ended up in property and other forms of speculation. What if these trillions had been invested across Europe in public housing, public health, public transport, other public services, an effective climate change plan, and full employment with a four-day week, a living wage, state pensions, and a welfare payment to keep people out of poverty? Would the Tánaiste agree that whatever comes out of this situation, whether is no deal or a hard or soft Brexit, we can move on then to discuss how to build a better and more democratic future for the people of Europe?

I thank the Deputy for the question. I completely agree with her in the last sentence of her statement about a more democratic and better European Union for everybody. In the context of this deal, I have been very careful not to endorse party political positions in the context of UK politics when it comes to Brexit. Our role has been to negotiate through our chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, with the British Government and with whoever the British Prime Minister happens to be at the time to get the best deal possible to protect Irish interests. That has been our focus and the outcome today reflects that.

The main change in the political declaration that the Deputy referred to is to the future EU-UK economic relationship, where the current UK Government has opted for a model based on a free trade agreement, FTA, which is not what Mr. Corbyn would like, but that is what Prime Minister Johnson has advocated. The political declaration provides for an ambitious FTA with zero tariffs and quotas between the EU and UK. It states that robust commitments on a level playing field should ensure open and fair competition. That is a must for the European Union. The precise nature of the commitments will be commensurate with the ambition of the future relationship and take into account the economic connectedness and geographic proximity of the UK. What that means in simple terms is that if we are going to have a close trading relationship facilitated by an FTA in the future, which has no tariffs and has no quotas applied, which I certainly hope will be the case, then the EU will insist on this being a level playing field as to how those goods are produced and the standard around that. These relate to some of the issues the Deputy has referred to. Otherwise, it is not fair trade as regards competition or equivalence, if one wants to call it that, which is the term often used.

There are two documents today that are going to be agreed between the British Government and the European Council. One is the withdrawal agreement, which is the legal text of a future international treaty, and which I referred to earlier when raised by Deputy Calleary. The second is a political declaration, which is like a political signal of intent for the kind of relationship that the UK is seeking from the EU in the future with some of the conditions around how that might be managed.

The Tánaiste made a point about the EU-UK relations and a level playing field and provisions having been agreed. How is that going to be policed? Where is the detail and the text available on this, which I would like to see and read?

I have just seen an announcement a minute ago from Jeremy Corbyn who says that, from what we know, it seems that the Prime Minister has negotiated an even worse deal than Theresa May's, which was overwhelmingly rejected. He said that the proposals risk triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections, putting food safety at risk, cutting environmental standards and workers' rights, and opening up the NHS to takeover by US private companies, which he said is a sell-out deal. I agree with him. The best outcome for Ireland is a general election in Britain and a Labour Government negotiating a Norway-type agreement with the EU, and a referendum on that deal with an option to remain. We have to remember that this has been negotiated by a neo-liberal European Union with a Tory Government which has not got the interests of workers at heart. That is why I asked the Tánaiste the question about democracy and economic equality in the European Union.

The first thing I want to reject is the assertion just made by the Deputy that EU negotiators have not negotiated in the interests of the Irish people. They have taken an extraordinary amount of time to understand the complexities, vulnerabilities and exposure on this island to the potential downside of Brexit. This whole process has been held up to try to resolve those vulnerabilities in a way that everybody can sign up to, in a way I hope that all parties in Northern Ireland will support in time, and in a way all parties in this Chamber will be able to support as well as they study the detail of what has been agreed. I do not want to let that charge stand unchallenged. Michel Barnier and his team have shown an extraordinary willingness to understand our island in all of its complexity and history, and have factored that in to what is a very complex 800-page document that is being published today.

The second thing is that I would caution against getting involved in the British political debate between parties, which debate will undoubtedly not take place on the back of this agreement. As a Government, we have stayed out of that because our job here is to negotiate on the EU side in a way that can protect our peace process, our relationship with the United Kingdom into the future, and our place in the EU and its Single Market. I believe the deal today achieves those ends.