Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

This morning, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, released an important paper on the impact of Covid-19 on the housing supply. It argues that the pandemic will result in a drop in the private sector supply of new homes. This will further widen the gap between supply and demand, making housing even more unaffordable for working people. The ESRI's central recommendation is commonsensical and crystal clear - the State must increase the supply of social and affordable homes. This is the only way to deliver homes more cheaply and efficiently.

Yesterday, the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, published its latest rent report. Despite Covid-19, rents remain unacceptably high. Throughout the State, they have risen by almost 2% since last June. Outside Dublin and the commuter belt, the increase was in excess of 3%. Too many people are trapped in a rental market with sky-high prices. They are put to the pin of their collars with extortionate rents stifling their potential and impacting on their ability to deal with the pandemic.

Last month, Daft.ie released its latest price report. Now, the average house price in Dublin is a staggering €380,000. Even a couple on good incomes are unable to afford a home in Dublin at such prices.

Gheall an Taoiseach go gcuirfeadh an Rialtas seo tithe inacmhainne ar fáil do dhaoine atá ag obair. Le linn an toghcháin i bhFeabhra, ba í an tithíocht an cheist ba mhó a bhí ann. Tá an iomarca daoine gafa i margadh cíosa le praghsanna ag ardú i gcónaí. The Taoiseach promised that the Government would deliver affordable homes for working people. During the election in February, housing was the main issue on the doorstep. People were crying out for affordable homes, with families left behind because of the failure of successive Governments to deliver.

If we ever needed a reminder of the importance of a stable roof over our heads, the pandemic has provided it. During the pandemic, people's homes have truly become their sanctuaries. If the Ireland that emerges after this crisis is to be in any way fair and one that gives people a decent chance and a fresh start, we have to get housing right. Decent, affordable and secure housing is the bedrock on which decent lives are built.

Despite all of the promises made by Fianna Fáil during the election, the sluggish approach of the Government to get to grips with housing is astonishing. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, spent the entire summer telling everyone that the Government's housing plan was on the way. On 7 July, he said that he would announce details of the new affordable scheme in September. On 9 July, he reiterated this on Newstalk and said that new affordable housing regulations would be ready to launch by September. On 12 July, he told thejournal.ie that new affordable home targets would be set out in September. Speaking in opposition to our motion on affordable housing in July, he again promised to announce the details of his new scheme in September.

Today is the last day of September. Hundreds of thousands of working people want to know where the Government's affordable housing plan is and why the Minister has not kept his and the Taoiseach's promise to launch the plan this month.

First, I think it is a good report by the ESRI. I want to say that, contrary to the pandemic increasing affordability issues in the sector, the ESRI is actually saying that, in the short term, affordability may have actually improved over recent months because of, to use its own phrase, "extraordinary fiscal measures [introduced by the Government] in the form of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) and the Temporary COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS)". It does acknowledge extraordinary interventions by the Government.

That said, it does, of course, warn that, in the medium term, there could be a significant imbalance in terms of demand and supply, and we take that very seriously indeed. We already know that Covid-19 has negatively impacted on the building programme because of the lockdown itself. House completions fell by 32% according to the report. We are now looking at an expected outturn of 15,000 to 16,000 houses as opposed to the expected 24,500 because of the impact of the lockdown and the constraints that Covid has brought to the construction sector.

That said, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, was very quick off the mark with the July stimulus, with more than €40 million allocated to bring 2,500 social housing units back into play to be allocated to people on the housing list before the end of the year. That money went out to the local authorities. It was a quick action that had not been called for by anybody in this House but the Government took the initiative to get moving on it and get it done.

I agree with the ESRI that we need to build more social and affordable housing and, in particular, that we need to have a strong social housing programme built by local authorities and approved housing bodies. That is something the Government will be targeting and identifying in the Estimates for next year and the budgetary framework in terms of creating the framework that will facilitate a greater supply of affordable housing in the time ahead. The serviced sites initiative has been slow in getting off the ground, but there are concrete proposals under way which will develop results from that particular initiative.

Aontaím gan amhras go bhfuil ceist na tithíochta ar an ábhar is tábhachtaí i gcúrsaí sóisialta na linne seo. Is é sin an fáth go bhfuil sé mar phríomhfheidhm ag an Rialtas níos mó tithe poiblí a chur ar fáil do dhaoine atá ag feitheamh chun dul isteach go dtí na tithe éagsúla. Caithfimid níos mó tithe a chur ar fáil agus beimid chun níos mó infheistíochta a chur ar fáil chun na tithe seo a chruthú. Tá sé sin ríthábhachtach ar fad.

I also point out that the impact on the labour market, as the ESRI has shown, is unprecedented. We will be looking at the construction sector as a mechanism to create additional employment over the medium term in the context of the impact of Covid-19 on employment. Housing construction, both social and affordable, will help to underpin jobs in the construction sector and, indeed, increase the number of available jobs. That is why there was very substantial funding made available in the July stimulus for additional apprenticeships to be provided by giving incentives to employers to hire more apprentices, which is working, and to create a whole range of skill courses to provide for additional skill needs to meet the need to build more social and affordable housing. We agree that there is such a need.

Níl aon phlean ag an Taoiseach. Is í sin an fhírinne. Tá a lán le rá aige ach níl aon phlean aige. He cited the extraordinary income support measures that were introduced by Government. Of course, the Government has cut the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy and it has left tens of thousands of the lowest income workers out of the schemes. Please do not brag or hide behind those initiatives.

We were promised and the people were promised a scheme and a plan for affordable housing. We were promised we would see it in September but we have not seen it yet. To judge by the Taoiseach's response, I can only conclude that no such plan exists. If it does, will he tell us whether it is the Government's intention to publish it today? This policy of mañana, mañana and putting everything on the long finger seems to be one of the hallmarks of this chaotic Government, but it is not good enough. It is not good enough for people who, as we speak, do not have a secure roof over their heads, people who worry about rent, people who are in an extraordinarily difficult and precarious position, people who live in the box room of their mother's home, sometimes with their own children. Mañana, mañana is not good enough. Talk and sound are not good enough from the Taoiseach or the Minister. Has the Taoiseach an affordable housing plan? Where is the plan? We have not see it in September. When will we finally see a plan for affordable housing?

The Deputy has a lot of talk and her party colleagues talk a lot, but what is absent, in my view, is any coherent plan in terms of employment, affordability or housing. They talk a lot about those things but, in my view, much of it is without substance. If one reads the ESRI report comprehensively, it uses the phrase "extraordinary fiscal interventions" in reference to the Government's actions, which Deputy McDonald just condemns, attacks and undermines. She has done so from the very beginning, in a very unrealistic way, and she continues to do so.

As I said, €40 million provided in July alone for 2,500 units was very quick off the mark. Deputy McDonald could not acknowledge that and had to come out and condemn it because that is her stock-in-trade. She will condemn anything that emanates from Government whether it is positive or not. That is the Sinn Féin approach, followed by seeking to undermine Ministers one by one. That is what the Deputy's party does. Alternatively, what the Government is doing is of real substance in terms of economic interventions from July onwards, not just in terms of the fiscal interventions but also in terms of the capital programme in July, which was very comprehensive and substantial and will underpin the construction sector into the future, from apprenticeships and right across the sector. In terms of social and affordable housing, we are committed to delivering it. Historically, we did it before as a party and we are committed now to delivering social and affordable housing. That will be clear both in the budget and in the time ahead.

As I said yesterday, I welcome the fact that the acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ronan Glynn, has given clarity that Covid is going to be with us at least for the next six to nine months and we need to plan for it. The economic forecast yesterday presented a very bleak picture as regards unemployment for the next 12 months, particularly in regard to unemployment in the domestic economy and for young people. It is very worrying. The unemployment rate for the year is expected to be approximately 16%, which is worse than during the financial crisis a decade ago, falling to 10.7% in 2021. It is going to hit local economies especially hard because they are depending on the domestic economy, whereas the multinationals are not particularly dependent on it and they are the ones that have kept the country going to some extent as regards unemployment.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the hospitality, tourism, entertainment and food industries. I want to know specifically what the Government is going to do for the people working in those industries because they are bearing the brunt of the crisis more than anyone else. I say this with some knowledge as I used to work in Fáilte Ireland, which I have referenced a number of times before. The issue for me is that it looks like we are going to have continual local lockdowns of counties depending on the way things develop. That is something we can assume will happen. It will have a huge impact on these sectors because from day to day, week to week and month to month, people working in hospitality, including in pubs and restaurants, people driving tour buses, accommodation providers and those working all across the tourism sector, will not know if they are going to have an income. They will not know what their income is going to be and they will have very little notice of any lockdowns. By the way, that is not necessarily anybody's fault. I am saying this to be constructive and not to make a political point. It is not necessarily anybody's fault. We see that there are 100,000 people claiming the PUP in Dublin, which is an increase in the numbers, and most of them are in the hospitality, tourism, accommodation and food sectors.

I want to know what is going to be done for those people. We cannot continue to have a situation where they are put into lockdowns and are unable to provide a service. They do not know if their county or area will be next and they do not have a stable income. Will the Taoiseach consider a full restoration of the pandemic unemployment payment on a sectoral basis for these sectors and industries, namely, hospitality, tourism, accommodation, food and drink? We need to plan for something like that. For more than a year, the Labour Party has called for an Irish Kurzarbeit modelled on Germany's short-term work scheme for these sectors so that there can at least be retraining going on while there is a PUP-type payment. Will the Taoiseach consider a sectoral payment for all of these areas over the next six months? If all of these people are worried about their county going into lockdown, we must have a mechanism to keep them going, keep income coming in and ensure there is continuity in regard to employment in the sector.

I thank Deputy Kelly for his question and the issues he has raised. There is no doubt that the impact of Covid-19 on the economy has been very severe in 2020, and especially on the domestic side of the economy. Regarding the multinational sector, it is worth saying this, and the Deputy will acknowledge it and get it, but a lot of people in the House do not get it, that Sinn Féin and the far left have never acknowledged or accepted the extraordinary impact the multinational sector has had on our economy. It is 250,000 direct jobs and 450,000 jobs dependent on that sector. It has been significant in enabling the country to try to get through this unprecedented global pandemic and its impact.

Deputy Kelly is correct in identifying the hospitality, food and accommodation sectors as those that have been particularly impacted by Covid-19. It is no-one's fault other than Covid-19 because the virus thrives in congregated settings. The virus also affects the other related sectors of music and entertainment, or wherever people gather and audiences are required, because the virus thrives there.

The Deputy will be aware of the whole variety of supports offered already, from restart grants to microenterprise loans and so on. Many businesses, however, do not want to take on any more debt. We get that. Hence the various general VAT reductions. We will have to look again at more sector-specific approaches or look at how we can keep as many businesses and enterprises in the tourism sector viable and intact over the medium term. That is the challenge and we are working on that. We are reflecting on how best to do that across the board to see what is the most effective way of retaining viability so that when Covid is over, businesses can re-emerge and get going again in creating employment in the tourism and hospitality sector.

On the food and beverage industry, if we go into a level three lockdown in other counties, they cannot exactly serve food and drink outside between October and February. We need a plan here for when accommodation providers and tour operators lose their bookings, and we know all about the events sector too. I ask the Taoiseach to put sectoral changes into the budget for these specific industries. I also ask the Taoiseach to consider what extra can be done when lockdowns are put in place. It is obvious now that we will have to consider more localised lockdowns rather than county-specific lockdowns, something we would support. I agree that we cannot add on debt, but we need to look at a scheme such as the Kurzarbeit scheme in Germany, which is very successful. I ask the Taoiseach to consider such a scheme during his budget considerations, because I do not believe we can get through the winter, and I say this with a lot of knowledge. We will lose a whole sector or a large percentage of the sector if we do not plan for the next six months and our budget has to do that.

That will be considered. The scheme referred to by Deputy Kelly is being looked at. There is also the broader issue of how we sustain our hospitality sector over the medium term, acknowledging and accepting that Covid-19 will have a significant impact on our economy for the full 12 months of 2021. If we accept that it has a specific impact on the food, accommodation, beverage and hospitality sector, then we have to look at other ways of helping the sector and the enterprises to come through, to preserve as much employment as we can in the sector, and to support people as effectively as we can. It is the one sector that is taking a greater hit than others.

It is interesting to note with regard to private coaches and other coach travel taking a big hit that it is hoped the significant allocation yesterday by the Cabinet of more than €100 million to fulfil the public health recommendations for school transport may help that sector. Education did not particularly welcome the fact that it was €100 million, but it could help the coach and bus sector to get through this. We have to be innovative in how we can get other things done while supporting this sector for when Covid is over. Retraining and the human capital programme are also significant.

I welcome the establishment of Future of Media Commission, which I have called for on a number of occasions over the years. There have been recent job losses in the sector due to lost advertising revenue as a result of Covid, and many more titles, broadcasters and jobs are under threat. This comes at a time when it has never been more important that the public can rely on trusted sources for their information at local, regional and national level, and indeed via online platforms.

I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that it is essential that the make up of the commission is inclusive. The last thing we want to see is a worthy initiative such as the establishment of this commission falling short because there are gaps in expertise. It is also essential that the terms of reference of the commission are broad enough and cover all the key issues without being too unwieldy.

The sustainability of the media sector is impacted by Covid-19 but it has also been hugely impacted in recent years by the loss of advertising revenue to social media platforms and digital search engines. I would have thought this aspect would have been thoroughly considered, particularly given that some of these platforms do not themselves generate content but rely on the work of others for content.

The terms of reference provide for the commission to look at Irish public service broadcasters as well as other broadcasters in addition to the print media at all levels, and to look at a sustainable future. That is the central tenet of the work. There are, however, other aspects that impinge on the sector's sustainability, including Ireland's defamation laws. While everyone is entitled to his or her good name, the balance of our defamation laws often protects the individual at the expense of society. I would have thought the commission would have been asked to consider this important aspect, not least because it has a chilling effect. Issues that are in the public interest on occasions are not aired because of the risk of ending up in the High Court, which has the potential to put further jobs in the industry at risk. It often takes significant courage on behalf of an editor to air stories. What we saw that recently in the past year with The Sunday Times and the very successful book written by Mark Tighe and Paul Rowan that is out at the moment articulates that very well. Many sports journalists were frustrated over the years that they could not write those stories. Had they been able to write those stories, one wonders if the FAI would be in the position it is at the moment. It just demonstrates the point.

A defamation case was successfully defended last year, which was in the courts for three weeks. The courts are not always available to citizens but they are certainly available to those with deep pockets and a zest for litigation.

The NUJ has looked for trade union and print industry representation on the commission. Others have looked for similar representation for the digital news media and the university sector. Will the Taoiseach consider expanding the make-up of the commission? Will he extend the terms of reference to include social media platforms and our defamation laws?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issues. A strong, vibrant and independent media on all platforms is central to our parliamentary democracy and to freedom of speech. The Future of Media Commission is platform agnostic in that sense. It is not taking a preferential view of one platform over another. It is being asked to look at public service broadcasting into the future and how that should be underpinned, public service media, which are important, how to ensure ring-fenced editorial independence into the future, and financial sustainability, which is in its terms of reference. The Deputy is correct when she says that advertising revenues plummeted when the pandemic hit. Yet, we still depended on all media to be an enormous assistance to society and to the State in the public health messages that emerged during the pandemic, from local radio to print media to television and social media.

There has been very significant innovation in terms of online journals and online media platforms like The Currency, Joe.ie and The Journal, among many others. Therefore, we must look at what the future holds. There is a lot of expertise on the commission.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to review and reform our defamation laws to ensure a better balance while protecting freedom of speech and access to justice and to cover the points that the Deputy has correctly identified. No one likes the current situation because our defamation laws have a chilling effect on quite a lot of journalism and on democracy itself. A separate look at that would probably be more effective and efficient. The Future of Media Commission has a lot on its plate already. The public service dimension is urgent in terms of the financial underpinning of it. What has been happening over the last number of years is not acceptable and we need to come to a decision, not just at Government level but within the Oireachtas, collectively, on how we financially underpin good public service broadcasting and media. If we believe in it as a core value of democracy then we have to put aside partisan party politics with a view to doing the right thing for the future of our democracy and for future generations. This is particularly important in a world where there are lots of competing demands around media, a lot of generation of false facts, fake and misleading news and utilisation of algorithms to distort public information processes. These practices are very extensive, as recent revelations have shown, and one of the most effective ways to combat it is through a robust, independent, financially sustainable and editorially free media.

I want an independent media and do not want it to be hamstrung by our defamation laws. I accept that there is a commitment on this in the programme for Government. I ask the Taoiseach to tell us when he thinks that commitment will be fulfilled by way of legislation. That said, I would have thought that asking the Future of Media Commission to look at this area would have enriched rather than diminished its work.

Financial sustainability is related to advertising revenue and there is no doubt that the amount of advertising revenue that is now diverted to social media platforms, some of which do not generate content, is an obvious issue for the commission to examine because financial sustainability of media cannot be guaranteed without income sources. Obviously RTÉ is our primary public service broadcaster but I hope that the commission will not primarily focus on the sustainability of RTÉ but will have a much wider remit. I do not see how that can happen if it does not look at advertising revenue, particularly in print media. Practical experience of the day-to-day problems in the sustainability of local, regional and national titles would have enriched the work of the commission and I am surprised that the make-up of the commission does not include that type of expertise.

The commission has a very wide agenda already and it would not have been correct to include defamation as well. Defamation in itself can be complex and needs a separate process involving the Department of Justice and Equality, the Minister with responsibility for media, Deputy Catherine Martin, and the Government as a whole. Defamation needs to be reviewed and we will follow through on the programme for Government commitment.

The Deputy said that some social media platforms do not generate content but quite a lot of them do generate their own content. It is a new media platform which many use and for some it can be very liberating and productive. People who may never have gotten an opportunity to contribute through traditional media fora get such an opportunity online. There are some fantastic blogs and journals and that has to be acknowledged.

I have no issue with that.

Yes but I just wanted to say that the commission deals with that. It also deals with the financial underpinning of media into the future and the changing media landscape. Public service broadcasting is still a very important part of that, as is local radio. We have seen the best of the media during the pandemic itself, which should reinforce our commitment to do something about the financial underpinning of all of that because the current licence fee and collection regime is not fit for purpose. That will be the big test for the Oireachtas in terms of how we want to underpin media into the future from a financial perspective.

We have a ridiculous situation in many parts of the country today whereby a person caught on CCTV cameras in the act of dumping illegally cannot be brought to court on the basis of that evidence. Illegal dumping has gotten completely out of control all over the country in the past few years and it will get worse unless drastic action is taken urgently. I sent pictures to the Taoiseach's office on Monday to show him what is happening in just one case on the outskirts of Galway city. I could send him hundreds of examples of cases, as could all Members in this House. People arrive late at night and just dump rubbish on the side of the road or in a farmer's field. I am talking here about van loads of rubbish, not just a few bags. It is then left up to farmers, local communities and local authorities to clean up the mess, at huge cost. These people keep coming back and keep dumping because they are getting away with it and they know that they will not be caught because gardaí and the local authorities do not have the resources to catch them.

This illegal dumping is destroying our countryside, towns and villages and most importantly, our environment. I have seen rubbish, including empty paint cans and dead animals, in streams and rivers that feed into the lakes that supply our drinking water. The craziest aspect of all of this is that councils are being prevented from using CCTV footage to prosecute people carrying out this dumping because of a ridiculous ruling by the Data Protection Commissioner, DPC. Galway County Council is one of the local authorities that was specifically ordered not to use CCTV images by the DPC, following an audit. To add to the craziness, many other local authorities around the country continue to use CCTV footage as evidence in court cases because they have not received a similar order from the DPC as of yet.

I have always said we should hit illegal dumpers where it hurts and it must hurt them hard. A specialist taskforce must be set up to deal with this epidemic and it must have power. When I last raised this issue with the Taoiseach in July, he promised to talk to the Minister responsible about setting up such a taskforce. If a vehicle or van loaded with rubbish is stopped and the person driving it has no waste disposal permit or if he or she is observed illegally dumping, gardaí and local authorities must have the power to seize the vehicle and a substantial fine in excess of €5,000 must be paid before that vehicle is released.

Will the Taoiseach deal with the crazy issue concerning the DPC and the non-use of CCTV footage? Will he set up a taskforce to deal with illegal dumping involving An Garda Síochána, local authorities and all stakeholders before our countryside, towns and villages are completely destroyed? Will the Government introduce solid legislation to give power and funding to local authorities and gardaí so that they can seize the vehicles of those involved in illegal dumping and introduce a fine in excess of €5,000 before culprits get seized vehicles back?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I have the photographs here that the Deputy sent to my office during the week. They are quite shocking in terms of the appalling levels of dumping in which people are engaging. Illegal dumping is an attack on our society, our communities and our pristine landscape and there should be zero tolerance for that type of behaviour. The fines are quite significant for those found to be responsible for the unauthorised disposal of waste. There is a maximum fine of €5,000 on summary conviction and-or imprisonment for up to 12 months, with a maximum fine of €15 million in the Circuit Court on conviction on indictment and-or imprisonment for up to ten years for more serious breaches.

The Deputy raised the issue of the use of CCTV data. As he knows, the Data Protection Commissioner provides guidance concerning statutory obligations placed on those who use CCTV systems to collect personal data and the rights of and redress mechanisms available to individuals whose personal data are collected by such means. My understanding is the Data Protection Commissioner has written to the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications concerning data protection issues with the use of CCTV cameras for litter and waste enforcement purposes. Apparently, it is the view of the Data Protection Commissioner that although the Litter Pollution Acts and the Waste Management Act provide councils with powers to prevent, investigate, detect and prosecute littering and dumping offences, the Acts do not provide for processing of images of members of the public using CCTV footage. This advice is currently being considered by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his Department and is subject to legal consideration and advice.

In my view, privacy rights should not apply to people who are dumping illegally and if legislation is required to correct this, then it will be brought about urgently. I spoke to the Minister this morning. I understand the need for privacy and for property rights to be protected. On the other hand, we can overdo this. I think CCTV should be used to catch illegal dumpers and to prosecute them, and there should be no issue around that. In my view, most people applying a bit of common sense would say that is obviously what should happen because we all know the wanton dumping going on, which is shocking and needs to be stamped out. CCTV evidence should be available to be used in evidence against people who are doing this on a consistent basis, as the Deputy said.

If legislation has to be brought in, it should be brought in very urgently. I know the Minister's Department is looking to get legal advice in this regard but it is unsatisfactory that such a situation arises and that, essentially, councils are hamstrung and not in a position to pursue people who are flagrantly abusing the law.

There was a case a number of years ago in Galway where they were able to use CCTV. One culprit was brought to court, but he was only fined €200 and he was seen a couple of days later dumping illegally. Strong legislation is needed. I firmly believe the only way we are going to hurt these individuals and get them to stop is to strengthen the legislation and to seize the vehicle there and then. We need to take the vehicle from them when it is observed they are dumping illegally and that is proven. Seizing the vehicle is the only way we are going to stop them.

The pictures I sent to the Taoiseach's office were taken less than 1 km from the outskirts of Galway city. It is appalling what is happening and it is not just about Galway because it is happening around the country. If we do not stop this illegal dumping, our countryside is going to be destroyed, including our environment. I ask that the Taoiseach would strengthen the legislation and hit them where it hurts. The vehicle should seized and we should give the local authorities and the Garda the resources to do that. Hit them where it hurts, take the vehicle from them and let them pay a substantial fine before they get the vehicle back again.

I agree with the Deputy in terms of the appalling impact illegal dumping has on our community, our landscape and the environment, and it needs to be dealt with in an uncompromising way. However, the laws are strong enough in that area, for example, under current waste legislation vehicles involved in the carrying out of suspected unlawful waste activity can be seized and, if it is successfully prosecuted, such vehicles can be disposed of as the competent authority sees fit.

This morning I asked the Minister responsible, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to look at this and I will also ask him if the powers and capacity of the local authorities can be strengthened to make sure there is no legal doubt about the utilisation of CCTV in terms of gathering evidence to investigate and detect illegal dumping, and to prosecute those responsible for illegal dumping. No one in society wants to condone that or facilitate their evasion of prosecution on technical grounds.