Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Yesterday, Leaders' Questions went considerably over time. I ask leaders to have regard to the allocated time.

Figures published yesterday by Banking & Payments Federation Ireland show a surge in mortgage approval rates for October, driven by first-time buyers. Behind that figure is a very worrying spike in house prices, which reflects the broken housing policies of this Government and the previous one. On average, first-time buyers are now borrowing €10,000 more than was the case last year. It is worse for other borrowers, who are borrowing €15,000, on average, more than was the case last year. This reflects a very serious hike in house prices, which is a problem at any time but is outrageous in the middle of a pandemic when the incomes of so many people have collapsed.

The continued increase in housing prices is being compounded by Government policy. In July, the Government turbocharged the help to buy scheme, a scheme that disproportionately benefits high-income earners, transfers taxpayers' money directly into the pockets of developers and increases property prices. The Government was warned by the ESRI and others that expanding this scheme would inflate house prices, which would hurt the majority of people who are trying to buy a home, but the Government did not listen. Meanwhile, workers on much more modest incomes are totally left behind. Take-up of Rebuilding Ireland home loans for first-time buyers is down. Applications in 2020 are down by 45% and approvals are down by 50%. Since Covid, shockingly, drawdowns have collapsed by 70%. This is a consequence of the Government's discrimination against workers on the wage subsidy scheme.

A comprehensive, affordable housing plan is urgently needed. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, spent the summer telling anyone with a pair of ears that his affordable housing plan would be published in September. We are now in December and there is no plan. The Government is five months in office and its promise to tackle the housing crisis from the get-go has fallen flat. Homes remain unaffordable for people on average incomes, rents continue to rise and house prices are up for first-time buyers despite the pandemic. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage said last week that he has banned co-living yet, this week, a co-living development was given planning permission in Dublin.

This is not a Government that is serious about tackling the housing crisis. Behind all of the statistics and figures is an entire generation for whom home ownership is now a pipe dream, people who will struggle to keep a secure roof over their heads, people who worry about their rent and people who are in extraordinarily precarious positions, many of whom live in the box room of their mother's home, sometimes with their own children. Their situations, stories and lived reality prove that the Government's housing policies are not working.

I believe that all of this can be fixed, but only with ambition and a very significant change in policy. So long as the Government's housing policy is fashioned for wealthy developers, this crisis will remain as a feature of life in Ireland. This is the truth that must be confronted. When will the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage finally publish his affordable housing plan?

First of all, the Deputy is incorrect and is wrong. We know that Covid-19 has had a very significant impact on the housing situation in 2020. It is true that Rebuilding Ireland home loan approvals have been down this year because of Covid-19 and significantly so in quarters 1 and 2. The pandemic impacted significantly on the building sector because of the first lockdown, and that has followed through. Commercial mortgage approvals, by the way, were down 30% in quarters 1 and 2 of 2020.

The Government, in the budget, has brought in a €3.3 billion investment programme for both social and affordable housing. It is the largest ever scale of investment in housing by the State. The issue will be delivery of construction and getting the projects built. The commitment is to deliver social and affordable housing in various forms. Covid has also created another situation which will ultimately have an impact on housing. That is the enormous increase in household savings throughout the country because of the impact of the crisis on spending in the economy during the past nine months. That is being evaluated in terms of its potential impacts on the market over the coming year.

The Minister provided significant resources in the budget for affordable housing in different formats, not just through the serviced sites fund but also through the local infrastructure housing activation fund and undertaking to deliver a new affordable purchase shared equity scheme for first-time buyers and a new funding model to accelerate the delivery of cost rental homes through the approved housing body sector. Some €200 million has been put into financing the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. The Government is absolutely committed to it and legislation will be brought forward by the Minister in the coming while to deal with the affordable issue. Legislation relating to the Land Development Agency is also progressing and we have put a very priority on it. We discussed the issue at the last meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on housing and we see it as an additional important lever in terms of getting increased capacity.

The Deputy keeps on talking about developers and so on. The bottom line is that the output in 2020 will be approximately 18,000 houses, if we get there. Covid has had a very negative impact. Next year, the target could be around 25,000. Up to 12,500 of those houses will be approved housing body and local authority housing. There is no huge private sector out there at the moment in terms of house construction. That is the reality. The approach to housing has to be multipronged and multidimensional. It cannot be a one-dimensional, ideological approach, which the Deputy's party has advocated for too long and that has resulted in a lot of schemes being voted down or delayed. We need supply of housing in different forms. We need the private sector to develop housing, we need social housing developed at an unprecedented scale, which we are committed to and which we have provided the resources for, and we need affordable housing that is supported by the State, which we are committed to doing and which we are going to provide funding to do. Cost rental models and newer initiatives will also be supported and financed.

Our approach is to ensure that at all levels, at local level and at national level, there is a whole collective effort to get houses built and avoid situations such as we had last week where a scheme for 950 houses was delayed for ideological reasons. That is not sustainable if we are genuinely to tackle the housing crisis we face in this country. The Government is only five months in office but I can tell the Deputy that we are very determined to get to grips with the housing issue and resolve it.

I will try to bring the Taoiseach in touch with some glimpse of reality. The people I referred to who are locked out of the housing market do not have massive household savings.

In fact, many of them are struggling just to get by. They pay rent, which has gone through the roof, and they struggle to have any savings. Many of them have lost work and income. They are relying on a proactive approach from a competent Government to deliver a housing package, including an affordable housing plan. Covid or no Covid, the Minister said repeatedly in the summer that we would have an affordable housing plan. That plan has not materialised.

We cannot go to Christmas without that plan being produced for all to see and scrutinise and then to be implemented. Those are the facts. I take no comfort from the Taoiseach's vague assurances that something will happen at some time. Will the Taoiseach tell the House, on 2 December, where this housing plan is? It was promised to us last summer. When will it be published and when will we see it?

I am not saying that people who need affordable housing have massive savings. That is why we are supporting them. That is the reason we put €150 million into the help-to-buy scheme which the Deputy refuses to support and which she attacks whenever she gets a chance. We want to give people support to enable them to buy homes. Approximately €760 million was provided in the budget for affordable housing, there was €110 million in new measures towards a shared equity scheme, €150 million for the help-to-buy scheme, €205 million for the Land Development Agency, LDA, €210 million for the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme and €50 million for the serviced sites fund. That is a comprehensive range of measures.

The bottom line is that, ideologically, the Deputy is not very taken by affordable housing. If she is sincere, I wish to work with other parties in the House. For example, is it not time we got on with the Oscar Traynor Road site, or do we want to put it back for another five years and just come to the House with a load of rhetoric about people waiting to get houses at affordable prices? That is what will happen. The Deputy continues to refuse and vote against schemes throughout the country because they do not fit her ideological frame. With respect, we have gone beyond ideology in the housing crisis. We all cannot have it our own way in terms of the ideal model. The Government is prepared to support social housing at an unprecedented level, as well as affordable housing and cost rental. It is time others worked with us in that regard.

Yesterday, I raised the requirement to have a Minister in charge of the roll-out of vaccinations for Covid-19. In fairness, the Taoiseach said he would consider the issue. I hope he does so by the end of this week. I fundamentally believe we need one. The volume of people who have been in contact with me agree. We must have a situation where somebody working in this eminent task force is not being second-guessed and that he or she does not have to go through the line Minister or line Department and worry about whether the decisions he or she is being asked to make are going to be questioned. Professor MacCraith is an excellent man and can chair the group, but there must be a Minister in charge. He does not have executive authority to make quick decisions. Decisions will save lives, businesses and jobs and will open our society. I accept we must do it properly, but we must do it with as much speed as possible.

Consider what is happening in Finland, France, Denmark and now the UK with regard to their plans for the roll-out. I am not saying our situation is always comparable, but equal haste and thought must be put into this. I am concerned that the task force has only met twice. I do not believe it should be just meeting like that - it should be permanent. We have seen Ministers continuously appearing for weeks, and the Taoiseach has joked about this in the past, with high-visibility jackets during emergencies, storms and so forth. This is the biggest emergency we have ever faced, or will face in our lifetimes. How the roll-out of the vaccine will be carried out requires a national standing group with a Minister in charge.

Dr. Noel Browne was the first Minister for Health in this country. He is a hero of mine and of the Labour Party. His sole role was to get rid of tuberculosis, TB. He helped to do that. The current Minister must do the same with Covid-19. The plan is due to be announced on 11 December and I do not expect the Taoiseach to have all the answers about what will be announced. However, I ask him to confirm that the following areas will be covered: the vaccines procurement process; storage; the order in which people will get it; the rules on how it will be administered; and the rules on how society will reopen. Various companies and organisations are advertising, for example, Longitude is now being advertised for next July for 120,000 people. If somebody arrives there without a vaccine, will the person be allowed to enter?

There is also the public health campaign. An issue that is important for me is the IT system that will deal with this. I come from an IT background. The only unique identification code for citizens in this country is the personal public service, PPS, number. We must have a database that can be interrogated with regard to who gets the vaccine, who does not get it, underlying illnesses, age and so forth. I presume the announcement on 11 December will outline what we are doing in all these categories.

I set up the task force. This is an issue of national priority that goes to the top of the Government and I will stay on top of this until everything is resolved. To be clear, much of the experience and expertise resides in the Department of Health and the HSE. They have been involved in a range of previous vaccination programmes with the national immunisation advisory committee and so forth. One must draw upon the large amount of residual expertise and experience there.

For the information of the House, Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna sought market authorisation yesterday from the European Medicines Agency, EMA, and Ms Emer Cooke, an Irish person, briefed health Ministers this morning. The agency will assess the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by 29 December at the latest, and perhaps before that. Notwithstanding what happened in the UK yesterday, the responsibility of that authority is huge in terms of recommending a vaccine as safe and effective. We should not create a pressure zone on the regulatory authority to do the right thing here. I say that generally. That is important.

The work of the task force is proceeding at pace. Yesterday saw the delivery of up to nine ultra-low temperature fridges to the country. The trucks are stored in Citywest. The Deputy is correct - we know what the essentials of this will be. Logistics is a key work stream that is being worked on. On the IT infrastructure, an entire database will have to be created with regard to who gets what. There is work on the workforce that administers the vaccine. Due to the scale of this, it will be more than the normal workforce that would administer the vaccine. There is also surveillance, monitoring and interpreting the data subsequently in terms of how it is working, the outcomes and so forth. There is the sequencing of who gets the vaccine first, in what order and how that happens. Of course, communications will be a vital strand. Then there is the overall governance and oversight of the operation.

With regard to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the infrastructure is already coming into play with the ultra-low temperature storage fridges that have arrived into the country. They will be commissioned by the middle of next week. Then they have to be distributed within five days from the central depot when a vaccine ultimately arrives here. The view on Moderna is that the EMA is looking at early January for a meeting to assess its market authorisation application.

I appreciate the information the Taoiseach has provided to the House. This is not in any way about politics, and I mean that sincerely. My party believes we must up our game here. The Taoiseach will be aware of the adage, "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail", from his fellow Cork man. We cannot have that. We must get it right. I fully support the Taoiseach in this regard.

However, with regard to the information he provided to the House, I believe information will have to be provided continually and not just as a result of me asking a question on Leaders' Questions every week.

I honestly think a Minister should be in charge of this group. I urge the Taoiseach to do that, and not because it is coming from the Opposition. I will not be running around saying that he followed what I suggested. It does not matter. This is way too big for all that political rubbish. We need a standing group that will be able to communicate and deal with all of the issues. For instance, if private companies say they want to vaccinate all their staff, will they be allowed to do so? Can people buy the vaccination privately themselves? What about the interrogation of the infrastructure from an IT perspective? All of that needs to be put in place very quickly. We need somebody in charge who is going to make all those executive decisions. We do not need to have a situation where others who are working for the group and doing their best will be worried about it.

I thank the Deputy. His time is up. I call the Taoiseach.

We also do not need a situation where the communications on how we are going to implement all of this will be done once or twice a year in the Dáil.

That is the reason I established a task force.

The Taoiseach is going to be busy.

There has to be proper line accountability, right to the Minister for Health in the first instance in terms of supervision.

It is under the Department of the Taoiseach.

I set up the task force and it will report to me. It will report on 11 December. Generally speaking, I prefer to let it get the job done, get it sorted and dot the i's and cross the t's. The task force can present the plan and we will then operationalise it. The HSE will be a key driver of the operationalisation of it and the Department of Health will have oversight of that, as will the Minister for Health. As I have said, in terms of sequencing, there is a significant experienced team in the Department of Health that has overseen many immunisation programmes over the past decade or so.

They were of a different scale.

This is of a different scale. That is why we have brought in external expertise and those people are represented on the task force. It is important to draw on those strands that are then clearly accountable to a Minister. It is easy to nominate someone and put him or her in charge but he or she would not necessarily have the line accountability or authorisation over officials or agencies. That is an issue that will have to be sorted. I accept the Deputy's overall point. He is making a constructive contribution to the debate. All of us in the House-----

I thank the Taoiseach.

-----will have a significant role to play on the communications side to make sure that there is a good national collective take-up of the vaccine.

I thank the Taoiseach very much.

There is a fair degree of caution and concern among the public about what is likely to happen over the next month or so in respect of Covid rates. In that respect, I feel that a lot of the public health messaging is quite weak and needs attention and reinforcement. I prevail upon the Taoiseach to try to get that right because people still do not know what the arrangements are going to be over Christmas. They want to make arrangements and plans at this point and they still do not know what exactly the guidelines and regulations will be covering that period.

I wish to raise an issue with the Taoiseach that I have raised several times over the past nine or ten months. There is potential for a significant increase in the rate of the virus in the area of international travel. We have talked about this several times. For some months we have been in a situation where there is essentially no oversight of the guidelines on international travel. The advice is that one has to self-regulate for a 14-day period and there is no oversight of that whatsoever. We know that text messages go out and there are occasional calls, all with the intention of giving public health advice but nothing to do with oversight or monitoring of that. We also know that there is very little back tracing, so we do not have any reliable data on the extent of the importation of the virus.

In light of the changes to travel arrangements, I wish to ask the Taoiseach about three areas. On the question of people having to have a test before they come here if they are coming from an orange country, or being able to have a test within five days of coming from a red or green country, what is the oversight arrangement for that? I asked the Tánaiste about this a few weeks ago and he said that it may need legal underpinning. Does it need legal underpinning and what is being done about that?

My second question relates to situations where people come here and opt to have a private test after being here for five days. If they test positive, what will the arrangements be for ensuring there is adequate tracing of contacts?

The final area I wish to ask about concerns the revelation in recent days that significant problems are being caused by a lack of communication between the North and here. The loophole that exists whereby people who come through Dublin Airport, or other airports in the Republic, do not have to follow any particular guidelines at all is known as the Dublin dodge. There are implications for us here, but serious implications for the North as well. We know that the Northern Ireland Minister, Mr. Robin Swann, has expressed serious concern about the lack of co-ordination there. We are heading into a period where there is going to be a lot of travel over Christmas and the new year. What safeguards will the Government put in place in that regard?

As a general point, I do not accept that the public health messaging is weak right now. I think people fully understand what is required between now and 18 December. I have seen increased mask wearing on the streets, which indicates that people are taking on board the messaging. After 18 December, people are fully aware of the communications. There will be a very comprehensive two-pronged communications strategy, #savechristmas, but also one that is devised for young people by youth advocacy groups, #antiviral, which will be a very comprehensive one on platforms accessed by young people.

In response to the point the Deputy raised on source tracing, next week on 8 December the HSE will commence a new strand of source investigations. It will go back seven days to get to the location where a spreader event began. That capacity exists and the HSE has been working on this and preparing for it. That will be important as an extra tool that is available to the HSE and the public health teams to identify super-spreader events, or events where the virus spread would have originated.

In respect of international travel, the Tánaiste did reference legal underpinning. The Government is looking at ways for the arrangements that have been made in terms of testing and other measures to be made mandatory, or for the legislation to act as a deterrent to people who might try to avoid having to take a test or adhere to the guidelines. It has been a challenging area, although it must be said repeatedly that travel has reduced dramatically over the year by 96% or 97%. Fewer people are travelling year-on-year. Many Deputies in this House, including from Deputy Shortall's party, have lobbied us on the aviation sector and spoken about how empty the airports are. We have put in a package to try to keep them going and to keep their liquidity intact, because international connectivity is vital to Ireland. The situation is being examined by the Government and legal advice is being taken on what additional measures can be taken to underpin legally the guidelines that we want people to adhere to in terms of testing.

On people coming into Dublin Airport and travelling to the North, we have worked very hard at co-ordination between North and South and with the North-South Ministerial Council. The two CMOs have engaged regularly on a whole range of issues. From a public health perspective, the Border has presented challenges. Of that, there is no doubt. As the Deputy knows, the various levels of restrictions have not been in exact alignment at various periods-----

I thank the Taoiseach.

-----which has also been problematic in terms of the spread of the virus on both sides of the Border but in particular close to the Border itself.

The Taoiseach's response does not inspire confidence. There is a lot of nervousness about the real dangers of the importation of the virus, but the Taoiseach has not provided any reassurance at all. We are into December now and we are likely to have a big increase in travel over Christmas and the new year. What the Taoiseach is saying is that at this point the Government is looking at whether there is a need for a legal underpinning of the regulations. That is really late in the day. It is not sufficient for the Taoiseach to say that we have tried in regard to the North.

There must be a system whereby there is co-ordination of at least the passenger locator form North and South. Otherwise, we are very exposed as there is a major loophole, with as many people as so wish being able to come through the airports in the Republic of Ireland, with no checks on where they have been and where they are going.

Mr. Robin Swann MLA has been pleading with our Minister for Health to take action and achieve co-ordination in the area. The response has been for the members of the Government to throw their hands in the air, shrug their shoulders and say it is very difficult or challenging. It is not good enough and we need action from the Government to limit the inherent dangers in the next month arising from travel.

It is mandatory to correctly complete the passenger locator form and we are looking at further potential mandatory obligations. As far back as the summer I spoke to the Northern Ireland Executive about the dangers of travel. We did not have the same exponential increase in the Republic as they did in the North after the summer because we were very slow in reopening travel in this country. I took much criticism at times for not reopening travel more liberally during the summer.

The story for the Republic right through to now is that we are the best-performing country in the European Union in keeping the virus spread down. That did not happen by accident. It happened because we have taken a conservative approach, relative to other countries, in reopening society and the economy.

Travel this Christmas will be more than 90% down on last year. It is the reality. That said, extra measures will be taken at airports not just with passenger locator forms but with follow-up checks with those who have travelled in to ensure people are residing where they said they would or have notified a change of address. Random checks will be rolled out across airports and ports by immigration officials, who will select a proportion of appropriate arrivals to see whether they have supporting documentation for either essential travel or a negative Covid-19 PCR test in their possession.

The position with forestry licence appeals has progressed from being a crisis to complete chaos. Forestry owners in this country are beside themselves with worry and anger. At the year's end, we are without a satisfactory resolution to this ongoing problem, and despite legislation and relaxation of regulations, we are still looking at a period of up to two years for the backlog of appeals to be cleared.

I was happy to support the legislation brought forward by the Minister of State, Deputy Hackett, which would expedite the process for future applications. However, the problem remains in respect of the backlog. The Irish Farmers Association, IFA, has sought an amnesty to deal with delays. This proposed emergency solution is an attempt to deal with the scale of the problem. Without urgent action of this nature, we are consigning the sector to abject failure. What makes this crisis all the more frustrating for those involved is that it is a home-grown problem. The solution rests with the Government making proactive decisions such as an amnesty or dramatically increasing the staffing within the Department to process the backlog.

The longer this position is allowed to continue, the greater the damage to the industry. There are contradicting reports on the number of licences currently caught up in the appeals process. The IFA states there are 4,500 licence applications delayed, whereas a figure of 2,000 was recently quoted by Department officials. The IFA and many involved in the industry believe the Department's estimate completely underestimates the applications in waiting. They see this as a glaring anomaly as part of an effort to downplay the seriousness of the issue.

The delays in issuing licensing is demoralising and heartbreaking, and it is causing huge frustration and enormous financial pressure. Forestry farmers are enraged by the fact that they are not permitted to start work, pending a decision on their appeal. The Government must step up in a meaningful and effective way to halt this injustice and bring forward further measures to alleviate the hardship on the industry. Current problems have eroded confidence, with the result that few new forests are being planted.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has established that this year has seen only 1,900 ha of new afforestation, which is a staggering 35% reduction in comparison with last year. It is evident that national targets are alarmingly off course. We are underachieving in the sector, and the reasons for this poor performance can be associated with the costs and red tape involved with planting and managing a forest. There are too many disincentives to planting.

The Government must intervene to secure the future of forestry in Ireland. Will it consider an amnesty to allow clearance of the backlog and return the sector to some normality? The industry needs a fresh start and new initiatives to revitalise and restore confidence in a sector that is vital to our national interest.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter, which relates to significant employment throughout the country. It was inherited by the Government and has been brought about by massive serial objections to forestry licences all over the country, which created paralysis in the system.

As the Deputy said, he supported a forestry Bill that was enacted in October, which brings the forestry licensing process in line with the planning process under the Planning and Development Act 2000. A detailed project plan is being put in place to address licensing files. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, with its Minister, is investing heavily in additional resources to deliver the implementation of this plan. The Deputy referenced an amnesty or the dramatic increase in departmental staff, and this staff increase is happening. I will engage with the Minister on increasing staff numbers more if necessary.

Ten permanent forestry inspectors are joining the Department to assist with licensing, with four starting this week, and these will be supplemented by another four temporary forestry inspectors. Meanwhile, 16 ecologists are working on forestry licensing, with more to be hired. Additional administrative staff have been put in place along with the recruitment of a new project manager.

October and November were the months with the highest rate of licence output to date this year, with almost 600 new licences issued. Felling licences issued represented in excess of 1.4 million tonnes in timber volume, which is almost as much as the previous five months combined.

The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, has also significantly resourced the forestry appeals committee, with four such committees now set up and hearing appeals. Previously there had been just one committee. Last week the Minister appointed an independent chair, Ms Jo O'Hara, the former director general of Scottish Forestry, to advise the Minister on the implementation of the Mackinnon report. This is a key commitment of the programme for Government, which was to review the approval processes for afforestation in Ireland.

The Minister has also established a reform of the forestry programme implementation group, which had its first meeting last week. I assure the Deputy that no effort is being spared to resolve these matters and our response is beginning to pay dividends in increased output. There was a very significant backlog leading up to this. The Government is committed to a well-functioning, environmentally sustainable forestry sector. We must maintain the momentum and focus while continuing to grow output so a significant part of the regional and rural economy can develop.

One other aspect of this is forestry owners, who are required to have forests certified to access the market. They have been refused access to panel builds in Tipperary and elsewhere around the country with uncertified timber. This is a market requirement that will have real implications for small forest owners throughout the country.

Forest management certification can lead to restructuring of existing forests over time through implementation of the required management plan. This would take community concerns into consideration. Certification on existing forests would deliver for local communities as well as for forest owners and the industry. Forest owners will need certification to sell their timber in the immediate future.

The forest service in the Department has recognised the issue and allowed for primer grant aid to be put in place. Unfortunately, this has not been acted upon and the grant has not been paid. Does the Government intend to initiate a programme of primer grant aid for the sector?

That is an important issue. I will speak to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and ask him to engage with the Deputy on the primer grant aid for smaller growers. The wider matter of small growers must be addressed proactively and positively by the Government. I will engage with the Minister in that regard.