Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Yesterday, we learned of two more tragic deaths in our capital city. In the early morning, a man in his 40s living in a tent in the shadow of Leinster House was found dead. He had been living there for some time. Later in the afternoon, another man died in accommodation run by a well-known charity. We do not know the full circumstances of these tragic deaths but it is clear that both men were homeless. This brings the number of such deaths reported in Dublin this year to more than 52, which represents a significant increase on the number of deaths of those sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation in 2019. There have also been increases in the number of such deaths reported in the cities of Cork and Galway. I express my condolences to the family and friends of both men. Their deaths are a tragedy.

It would be a mistake to see these deaths as isolated incidents. People experiencing homelessness, who often have acute addiction or mental health needs, are at a greater risk of dying prematurely. The exact causes of death vary. It is sometimes an overdose, suicide or hypothermia or, in rare cases, murder. The interaction of homelessness, mental ill health and addiction dramatically increases the risk of such deaths. Are we doing enough to reduce this risk and prevent such deaths? Is our emergency accommodation system fit for purpose? Are the mental health and addiction supports available to these very vulnerable people adequate? Are we moving people into long-term secure tenancies fast enough? Are we learning lessons from such deaths and improving the supports for vulnerable people in order to reduce the risk of future deaths?

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, announced a review, to be carried out by the HSE and the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, of the dramatic increase in deaths. I welcome the review but it is not enough. Will the Tánaiste commit to putting in place an immediate emergency response and to increasing supports for those experiencing long-term homelessness with the explicit aim of reversing the rise in the number of deaths among people experiencing homelessness in the coming months?

I thank the Deputy for raising this really important issue. I was very saddened to hear of the deaths of those two men in recent days. At any time of year, although particularly in the run-up to Christmas, the deaths of people who are homeless fills us all with sorrow. As I understand it, there have been media reports concerning the deaths of two individuals in Dublin between the evening of 24 November and the morning of 25 November. One of these deaths was of a man who had a tenancy in long-term supported accommodation. The second man was found in a tent in Dublin 2. The circumstances of his death have not yet been fully established. These deaths are tragedies for the families involved and we extend our sympathies to those families and to all who knew them. Out of consideration for the families of these men, people should respect their privacy and should not speculate as to the individual causes of their deaths.

On the evening concerned, the DRHE outreach team worked through the night, as it does every night, to bring rough sleepers into emergency accommodation. A total of 31 people came into emergency beds on that night while 32 spare emergency beds were available to homelessness services in Dublin city. No person should die on our streets because of the lack of a bed. There were beds available and there were support workers on the street encouraging people to come in that night. The death of people who use homelessness services is taken very seriously. As the Deputy has mentioned, the HSE and the DRHE have commissioned a detailed review of all recent deaths in homelessness services. This was agreed on 10 November. Although we already know a great deal about this matter from previous work, it is important to get a more current picture to help us to understand why the number of homeless people who are dying is rising while the number of people who are homeless is falling.

Each case is different and has a personal story behind it. We should respect that and not engage in gross simplifications. I appreciate that the Deputy did not do that. He spoke about the interplay between homelessness, addiction, mental health and all of the other issues that make this such a difficult problem to solve. It is important to ensure that the Government fulfils its duties to protect our vulnerable and to reduce homelessness in our cities and towns. It is vital that we continue to deliver appropriate measures to ensure that all individuals experiencing homelessness are helped to exit homelessness and move into permanent housing and that those with complex health and mental health needs are provided for.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to expanding the Housing First approach, which has been successful to date. This approach is based on understanding that the best way to deal with people's underlying problems, whether these relate to their mental or physical health or other issues, is to make sure that they have a roof over their heads. That has worked quite well so far and further investment will be made in it. The Government is also acquiring more one-bed homes. There is a real shortage of one-bed social housing units in Ireland at the moment. So many of those who are homeless are single men and they need such accommodation in combination with the required support services. As of the third quarter of 2020, 459 people have been housed under the Housing First programme. This is making a difference and we will continue to build on it.

I thank the Tánaiste for his response. We all remember that Mr. Jonathan Corrie died on 1 December 2014 while sleeping rough in a doorway opposite Dáil Éireann. The tragic death of the 43-year-old father of two caused widespread public concern and anger. His daughter, Natasha, told RTÉ in an interview that, in her view, those in power failed her father. She said: "He could have been helped a bit more, like they didn't help him the way they should have helped him." On the basis of the very significant increase in the number of deaths among those who are either sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation, it seems that little has changed and that, in fact, some things are getting worse.

We need to increase funding for mental health and addiction supports, particularly for this vulnerable cohort, as a matter of urgency. We need to end dormitory-style emergency accommodation and we need thousands, rather than hundreds, of Housing First tenancies. We also need adult safeguarding reviews to ensure that we learn lessons from past mistakes. Will the Tánaiste commit to raising these issues at Cabinet? Will he push for an emergency response to the growing crisis of deaths among those experiencing homelessness?

I will certainly raise the issue at Cabinet. It is discussed in Cabinet meetings in the ordinary course of events but I will raise it again when Cabinet meets on Friday or Tuesday.

As we know, the number of people who are homeless has fallen by approximately 20% in the past year. Now, that is only 20%. It means for every five people who were homeless there are now four. It is going in the right direction but it is not enough. Notwithstanding that, there seems to be an increase in the number of people availing of homeless services who experienced a premature death in the past year. That should be a matter of concern. It is always a matter of concern that people who use homeless services die early. They may die considerably earlier than average. It is of particular concern that the number of deaths is rising at a time when the number of homeless people is falling. We need to get to the bottom of that and respond to it as an emergency, as the Deputy describes it.

What is being done? Cold weather arrangements are being put in place at the moment for the winter period, including more bed capacity and 24-hour facilities with meals, continuous placement for families and enhanced rough sleeper outreach. The Dublin street outreach services are provided by Dublin Simon Community and funded by Government. This involves a broader engagement for people who are sleeping rough. There has also been an increase in the mobile health clinic. It delivers weekly services to outreach teams in co-operation with Dublin Simon Community and the Housing First intake team, which is part of the Peter McVerry Trust.

I wish to address the issue of social media. No one can dispute the fact that social media has changed our lives beyond recognition. It has now become the centre of many people's lives, so much so that it is now a medically recognised addiction. In fewer than 14 years it has morphed from being a way of expanding our social network to being a means to destroy people's credibility, reputations and lives at the simple touch of a button. Social media has changed life as we knew it. It has impacted on politics across the world. Some of this change has been positive, but for the most part turning the political system into a free-for-all has proved to be damaging and unsettling.

For the vast majority of politicians, having a presence on social media is almost as vital as having their names on the ballot paper. It is crucial for public representatives to be in touch with people and communities. However, no person, whether in public life or otherwise, should be the target of lies and abuse. This is happening more and more across the world and, sadly, it is also happening here in Ireland.

A clear example of this was the most recent general election. It is widely known that social media platforms were used to target and undermine parties and candidates. Fake profiles were created on social media with the sole purpose of spinning lies and false information intended to cause maximum damage. Reports of certain political groupings encouraging their supporters to target other candidates by posting negative and false comments were rampant. This did not simply happen on the usual platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter. There were chatrooms on a number of sites where keyboard warriors, using monikers to disguise their identities, tore apart the political and personal lives of candidates. For the most part, the comments held as much water as a sieve, but how many voters would have taken the time to check the veracity of the information?

Social media, if left unmonitored, can whip up support for almost anything. Lies and truth compete for the attention of the public. It has happened time and time again throughout this pandemic. Cleverly worded false information has put innumerable lives at risk. Governments across the globe have been accused of using the pandemic to gain control over peoples' lives. Supposedly scientific articles have falsely informed people that mask-wearing is unnecessary. Protests and riots have been organised at the drop of a hat in major cities with crowds screaming demands for freedom from restrictions.

Social media is now the most powerful weapon of our age. It encourages the right to freedom of expression. When will it protect the rights of people who are victimised or misled by lies? This Government has taken commendable action in bringing forward legislation to make the sharing of inappropriate images of women on the Internet punishable by a prison sentence. We must not stop there. We must not forget other victims. Cyber-abuse in all its forms must be legislated for and stamped out.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. This is something that has been on the minds of many people in our country in recent weeks and months, including parents who are worried about their children and individuals who are worried about their reputations.

It is true that social media has been a great innovation. Like all technologies, it comes with positives and negatives. I believe that in many ways social media has changed our lives for the better but it has also changed our lives for the worse. It allows us to connect on a daily basis with people who perhaps in the past we only saw once a week or once a month. It has been helpful in the pandemic, when it is difficult to meet up with people. It allows us to stay connected with people overseas, relatives and friends with whom we would otherwise have lost contact. We are now able to see what they are doing in their daily lives in a way that we could not in the past. It also allows people to organise as residents' associations, political campaigns, groups of workers and groups of businesspeople. That is not a bad thing in itself. It is probably a good thing but it does come with new dangers. Those new dangers include dis-information, misinformation, downright fake news, conspiracy theories and things that would never be published in a normal newspaper or on a television news bulletin. Yet, these things can be distributed online and seen by tens of thousands of people as though they were true with no consequences.

In many ways social media is the public square and should be treated as the public square. The things that people are not allowed to do in a public square should not be allowed on social media either. We know what these are. We are all in favour of free speech. We allow people to speak freely, but there is a limit to that. There are things that people cannot say in the public square, because if they did they could be sued for libel or defamation. The same things apply to a disguise. We allow people to disguise themselves, to dress up, as it were, in the public square, but not if they do it with a view to causing harm to others. That is fundamentally the principle we should apply to social media. If a person is allowed to do something in the public square, then it is okay. If a person is not allowed to do it in the public square, then it is something we need to take action against.

How are we taking action? As Deputy Lowry mentioned, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, is bringing forward legislation to make imaged-based sexual abuse a criminal offence. This will build on some work done by Deputy Brendan Howlin. The idea is to turn this into a legal protection against people using intimate images to harm or threaten others.

We are also going to bring in legislation to establish an electoral commission. It is long overdue but very much needed. This will allow us to regulate online political content. The third aspect is the legislation being brought forward by the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Martin. It relates to an online safety commissioner and giving a new office and role to the media commission. The plan is to give the online safety commissioner the power to order platforms to take down content that they have not taken down where it is harmful.

When the term cyberbullying is used, most people think it refers solely to children and teenagers. This is a misconception. The harassment and abuse of adults, particularly public figures, can be equally cruel and damaging. Those involved in high profile roles in media, entertainment, sports, medicine, teaching, politics and even the church are considered to be immune to the vitriol thrown at them on a regular basis. There is an illusion among some people that well-known individuals are unaffected by name-calling and hateful comments and should somehow be able to handle it.

I believe our House has a role to play. Political leaders must act to curb the crude, vicious and scurrilous attacks on political opponents. Many of these social media warriors are out of control and need to be reined in. A pattern develops where the same cowards repeatedly pop up to peddle hateful, offensive and malicious commentary. This brand of political support should be banished. Any party or organisation with a morsel of self-respect would not tolerate or condone this shameful activity. Our country requires further legislation and regulation to deal effectively with these messengers of disruption.

The Deputy is spot on. Public figures, whether in media, sport, politics or business, have to have a thick skin. Public figures put themselves out there and have to accept that they are going to be criticised in a way that average or everyday people would not be, but there is a limit to that. Cyberbullying, whether of children, adults or public figures, is wrong. The best thing we can do to counteract it is to apply a basic principle. Is what is said something that would be tolerated if it happened in the public square?

Could somebody say what is being said in the street and do so without consequences? The other issue is how we can legislate in this context. We plan to legislate for an online safety commissioner as part of the media commission. That online safety commissioner will have the power to order platforms to take content down where it is harmful. We will have a job to do in this House to define what harmful means, because one person's harmful is another person's opinion. We must bear that in mind. We must also bear in mind that this is the World Wide Web and that Ireland is only one country out of 200. There are limitations to our extraterritorial remit, but many of these companies are based in Ireland and that gives us more influence than most countries.

The vast majority of us in the State have been trying to live with Covid and support the measures put in place to save lives and livelihoods. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of everyone. Some financial organisations are only too happy to prey on misery and distress, some of which has been generated by the Covid pandemic. This is particularly true of those vulture funds that have initiated a vicious cycle of ruthless activity involving the forced sale of hundreds, if not thousands, of farms across this State. Indeed, earlier this week Declan O'Brien of The Farming Independent reported that there has been a renewed upsurge in forced farm sales by these funds. This has involved the adoption of an extremely aggressive approach by these lenders since the end of the Covid-19-related moratorium on forced sales. The same report also noted that personal insolvency practitioners and farmer organisations, such as the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA and the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, have been sounding the alarm on this issue for years. Yet, nothing has been done by the Government.

The picture emerging from across this State is absolutely horrendous. I have taken calls from some very distressed constituents. This matter is of profound concern to many farmers who are trying their level best to engage with lenders regarding debt management and repayment. As I understand it, personal insolvency practitioners have also sounded alarms on this issue. They have stated that some farm sales are even being forced through without any prior notice being given to the farmers involved. I am aware of one case where a farmer was informed by his neighbour that his farm was up for sale online. That is disgraceful. We need Government action on this issue.

As I understand it, several of these forced sales have been denied through the application of protective certificates under the personal insolvency legislation. This is not a new issue. We need much more action from the Government. We cannot allow this ruthless activity on the part of vulture funds to continue. In 2018, farm organisations, including the IFA and the ICMSA, warned the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, that there was an urgent need to put in place a greater degree of enforcement by the Financial Regulator in respect of the protections offered to farmers. The 2018 IFA submission noted that "Vulture funds take a short-term approach to the loans acquired and are not generally interested in working out a long-term debt resolution with the customer". This generates real and lasting damage, as the sale of assets damages the underlying viability of family farms. This is a particular problem for farms where the value of security held is often far in excess of the debts. Here we are, almost three years later, with a hard Brexit overshadowing Irish agriculture and a reformed fair deal scheme for farmers still not finalised and yet there is no movement on this issue. Where are the protections for farmers against vulture funds? What is this Government going to do to stop this ruthless aggressive activity?

It is important to say at the outset that people have a responsibility to repay their debts. If people borrow money, they have a responsibility to pay it back. That is true for mortgage holders, farmers and business people. If people do not pay back their debts, they are causing social harm. Farmers not paying back their debts means that is harder for other farmers to get credit and that they have to pay higher interest rates when they do. Business people not paying back their debts also has an effect in that it will be harder for other business people to get credit and that they will also have to pay higher interest rates when they do. People not paying back their mortgage debts also makes it harder for other people to get mortgages in the first place and it will also mean that they will also have to pay higher interest rates when they do. We need to be frank and honest about the fact that people not paying back their debts causes social harm to others. It is not just a case of not paying money back to the banks or other financial institutions.

Having said that, I believe strongly that people who make an honest and reasonable effort to pay back their debts as best they can, whether that means over a prolonged period or by means of a restructuring of the debt, should be facilitated. Nobody wants to see anybody losing a home, a business or a farm. Generally speaking, the courts are sympathetic in those circumstances. I do not see how a sale of a farm or a business could occur if there had not already been repossession hearings in a court, because that would have to happen first. Courts in Ireland do not grant repossession orders lightly. The number of such orders granted is very low. It must be borne in mind, therefore, that many protections already exist. I encourage people to engage with personal insolvency practitioners and banks and financial institutions to try to find a solution to their debts, where that occurs.

I am shocked by the Tánaiste's lack of understanding of this issue. These vulture funds are ruthless. I know farmers who are doing their level best to engage with the financial institutions, but these vulture funds are faceless entities. I am shocked that the Government is happy to let them run riot and cause misery and distress to people. I am not for one second saying that we should not get people to pay their debts. There are, however, people who are genuinely trying their best and they are not being afforded space or fairness.

Solutions were put forward on this matter. My colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath, was involved in tabling legislation relating to vulture funds several years ago. The IFA has also stated that the first thing needed is regulation of the vulture funds. The Tánaiste is stating that such regulation is not needed. I do not think he understands the gravity of the situation in rural Ireland. As the IFA has observed, it is simply unacceptable that farmers who gave security to long-standing institutions and pillar banks can have that security sold to faceless entities that may not be answerable to anybody. I am asking the Tánaiste to ask the Minister for Finance if he will roll out meaningful protections for farmers, because there are no real protections. That Tánaiste and his Government cannot stand over this ruthless land grab.

Regulations and protections are in place. Perhaps those regulations are not strict enough or those protections strong enough, but we are of course always open to hearing proposals that might strengthen protections for borrowers or the regulation of financial institutions. We have done that in the past and it is something we remain open-minded about into the future. It must be borne in mind that all of these circumstances and individual cases are different. Often, the story which we hear is not always the full story when we look into it. If people have borrowed money, they have a responsibility to pay it back and find a mechanism by which they can do so. Ultimately, people not repaying their debts cause wider social harm to others and we must be honest about that aspect.

Talk to Brian Hayes.

I received number of emails recently regarding the severe difficulties being experienced by private nursing homes in recruiting and retaining staff, especially healthcare assistants. This issue is especially acute in small, rural nursing homes. The simple reality is that private nursing homes are not able to match the HSE in the context of pay and benefits, as well as, recently, more aggressive recruitment by the HSE and HSE-funded agencies. This is placing intolerable pressure on private nursing homes.

I am a strong supporter of home care packages and I believe that we need to invest significantly in that model of care. For many different reasons, however, we will continue to need the very important services of the nursing home sector. I am not in the business of trying to increase profits in the sector. My objective is to try to ensure decent wages and proper benefits for staff as well as an accessible, affordable and quality service for those who need it.

I have no ideological bias between private or public care. I want a quality service, fit for purpose, which represents value for money. On the issue of value for money, the Comptroller and Auditor General published a report this year on the fair deal scheme. That report states that the weekly average fee in 2018 for public nursing homes was €1,564, while for private nursing homes, it was €968. As care standards overseen by HIQA are the same in all nursing home settings, this means the staff in private nursing homes bear the brunt when it comes to cost savings because the homes have to make a profit, otherwise they close their doors. This is completely unacceptable. In July 2016, the Tánaiste, then Taoiseach, published the terms of reference for a review of the fair deal scheme. That report remains unpublished. Why is this? Will the Tánaiste publish it now, or will he ask the Minister for Health to do this?

The report from the Comptroller and Auditor General stated the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, which is responsible for the determination of fees under the fair deal scheme on behalf of the State, did not provide his office with a model to inform how the fee is determined under the fair deal. There is no clarity on the models of funding. If the scheme is called "fair deal", it should be a fair deal for all involved - the residents, the nursing homes and the staff who work there.

I have looked at the programme for Government and I am not excited by what I see. What proposals can the Government bring forward to ensure the sustainability of this sector?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. Like her, I thins there will always be a role to play for nursing homes. We want more home care and more people being able to stay in their homes for longer and that is the plan and the direction of travel. This is why so much additional funding has been provided for home care in recent years with a 40% increase in the past couple of years and a further increase next year. There will always be people who need a nursing home and who need residential care and this needs to be provided for. Like the Deputy, I have no ideological bias as to whether that is provided by the public or private sector, so long as standards are high and that people are cared for properly.

On the fair deal review, I had thought that was published ages ago. I may be wrong. If it was not, I will check into that.

The fees paid by the State to the nursing homes under the nursing homes support scheme are negotiated between the NTPF and nursing homes individually and that is done on a confidential basis because it is commercially sensitive. The NTPF tries to make sure that reasonable costs are covered and that a reasonable profit is possible for those nursing home providers.

It is difficult for private nursing homes to compete with the State and with the HSE for staff. This is because in the State sector the pay is generally that little bit better and there is the possibility of a public sector pension, which is very valuable, and the leave arrangements can also be beneficial. We need to bear in mind that the nursing home sector is very profitable. I know that this year may have been an exception but, in the round, the nursing home sector is profitable. It may be the case that there are a lot of nursing homes around the country that have the capacity to offer better terms and conditions for their staff by reducing their profits. We need to be frank about this too.

There is a difference between public and private nursing homes. They are not directly comparable. It is generally the case that those public nursing homes under the HSE tend to care for people with higher care needs. We often see figures comparing one sector with the other and saying that the cost of providing care in a HSE nursing home is higher than that in a private nursing home. This is often because the public nursing homes tend to take people with higher care needs, so it is not always directly comparable in the way some people try to compare it.

I thank the Tánaiste. I hear what he said and he made some valid points. When the former Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, addressed the Nursing Homes Ireland annual conference last year, however, he spoke about the changes in regulations and said that these changes had been "stressful" and "have come at a cost and you haven’t been remunerated for that cost." The Tánaiste's own former Minister for Health has recognised this. In my constituency in Sligo, public nursing homes cost 60% more; in Leitrim, 68% more; in Roscommon, 76%; and in Donegal, 81% more. I spoke to nursing home owners who said that especially in the context of Covid-19 their income has dropped. They, rightly, had to go from double rooms to single rooms. Their income has not dropped by 25% or 30%, however, so they have not been able to access State supports such as the employer wage subsidy scheme or the restart grant. They have had help with personal protective equipment, but it is proving especially difficult. The Tánaiste is correct that we do not want a model where enormous profits are made in the sector on the backs of workers but we have to find a way that the smaller rural nursing homes in particular remain sustainable and provide that service.

The Government acknowledges that nursing homes have been badly affected by Covid, that income is down and that costs are up. In response to that, we established a Covid-19 temporary assistance payment scheme. That was set up back in April. Applications opened on 17 April. The core concept of the scheme is that the State will provide additional funding to nursing homes that require it to contribute to their additional costs associated with Covid-19, and to the costs of dealing with mitigation and outbreak management where that occurs. Eligible costs include both additional payroll and non-payroll Covid-19-related costs. The scheme was originally to operate only for three months to the end of June but it was extended to the end of September. The scheme is now being further extended to the end of 2020 and for the first six months of 2021. This additional funding will run through at least until the middle of next year.

I appreciate what the Deputy said about smaller nursing homes, especially in rural areas, which because of their scale may have higher costs. This needs to be taken into account also. If she has individual cases she would like the Minister or me to look into, to the extent that we can, we would be happy to do so.