Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Fáilte roimh ar ais, a Theachtaí.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an gach duine.

Yesterday was a difficult day right across the island. There were record numbers of deaths were North and South and it is only appropriate to express our sympathy to those who have been bereaved. The mother and baby homes report was also published. We will have an opportunity to discuss that report in due course today.

For now, I wish to discuss the issue of housing. In Fianna Fáil's election manifesto last year, it promised 50,000 affordable homes over five years if in government. It also promised that an affordable housing scheme would deliver homes to buy for less than €250,000. When the Taoiseach appointed Deputy Darragh O'Brien as Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage in July, the Minister promised to have the scheme in place by September. Before the budget, he stated that he would publish the scheme with targets and legislation. However, the budget came and went with no affordable housing scheme launched. We were then told that the scheme would be ready in the autumn, but that deadline was also missed. At its final meeting of 2020, a memo was rushed to the Cabinet. There was no legislation, no target. The scheme has yet to be finalised. All the Cabinet agreed was that, at some point in 2021, the Government will introduce a significantly flawed and controversial shared equity loan scheme. That was not in Fianna Fáil's election manifesto. In fact, it is a policy that was drafted for the Government by the construction industry. Last March, Irish Institutional Property, which represents 14 of the biggest players in the industry, published a shared equity loan proposal. IBEC's property wing, Property Industry Ireland, published a similar proposal last May. The proposal agreed by the Cabinet was almost identical to these. Housing policy being directed by wealthy property developers and big landlords is what we have while ordinary people continue to live out the nightmare that is this housing crisis.

Many young people have given up any hope of ever owning their own homes. Gone is Fianna Fáil's promise to deliver affordable homes for less than €250,000. Gone is its promise to deliver 10,000 affordable houses to buy every year. Instead, the Government is going to saddle working people with large debts so that they can buy unaffordable homes. Its scheme will offer a first-time buyer a shared equity loan of up to €100,000 on top of a mortgage to buy a home to the value of €400,000. Worse still, if the value of the home increases, so does the equity stake. This means that the buyer will owe the State even more. Shared equity loan schemes push up prices. Everyone knows that. Even officials in the Departments of the Taoiseach and Public Expenditure and Reform have advised the Government of this fact. In email correspondence dealing with the shared equity loan scheme that was released to our housing spokesperson, Deputy Ó Broin, Mr. Robert Watt is reported as saying that the property industry wanted an equity scheme because it would push up prices. He was not alone in that regard. Another official stated that the provision might not be targeted at those most in need. A third stated that it would push up prices in a supply-constrained environment.

Why is the Taoiseach allowing lobbyists for the property industry to write Government housing policy? Why has he ignored the advice of his own officials? Why has he abandoned his election promise to deliver affordable homes?

On the first point, we are not allowing anybody to write our housing policies. Generally speaking, I think the budget was a landmark budget in terms of housing, with €3.1 billion allocation and the largest amount of social housing - to be built this year - on record. Obviously, Covid will interrupt that this month. Be under no illusion - we are taking a multi-strand approach to housing.

There is strong investment in social housing in order to address homelessness and deal with the long waiting lists for such housing. We are accelerating our efforts in that regard, which began prior to the budget in terms of getting voids back into operation and providing more than 2,500 local authority houses through investment. This year will be quite dramatic in terms of the social housing output. This will be the result of the prioritisation afforded to social housing in the budget and the allocation of unprecedented funding to achieve that output.

Affordable housing and home ownership are significant planks in terms of the Government's commitment in this area. That is why we are continuing with the help-to-buy scheme and why we enhanced it in the July stimulus package. I know that Sinn Féin opposed this. It seems that the party is opposed to the concept of home ownership in general. It has opposed many motions and voted against help-to-buy initiatives. In addition, it is against the equity scheme before it has even been established.

The objective behind the equity scheme is try to give young people the chance to buy homes and to enhance the affordability of homes. Matters are extremely difficult for them in this regard in the current circumstances and we are conscious of that. We need a balanced approach and a suite of methods to deal with the housing crisis from homelessness in terms of the allocation of specific resources, reducing the amount of emergency accommodation and the number of people in such accommodation, building more social housing through approved housing bodies and local authorities and developing a strong affordable home dimension in order that younger people and those who are working will be in a position to own homes in the localities in which they reside. Work in this regard is under way. The Minister brought the outlines of legislation to the Government. That is being worked on and the various inputs from different officials and different policy perspectives will be assessed. The overall objective is to help people to be in a position to afford to buy homes.

The vast bulk of housing being built is social housing or individual homes. There are no large developers involved in building massive housing estates right now. That is clear from the figures. We need a sense of perspective when language is being bandied about. We need far more activity in the housing market than we currently have if we are to get to the 33,000 to 35,000 houses per annum the Economic and Social Research Institute estimates will be required in the coming years to deal with the housing crisis in a sustainable way.

I am under absolutely no illusions, nor are the Taoiseach's officials, that the proposed shared equity loan scheme will have the effect of forcing up prices and saddling those young people and working families to whom he refers with even more debt. It seems clear that Fianna Fáil has learned nothing from the past and that we are back to the bad old days of developer-led housing policy in which the only people who will benefit from the Taoiseach's shared equity loan scheme are the developers. The scheme will lock in already unaffordable prices and push them up even further. Of course, developers will be laughing all the way to the bank but young people and working families will face huge levels of debt.

The Taoiseach should have kept his election promise and funded local authorities to directly deliver the huge volume of genuinely affordable homes that we need. He could listen to his officials but instead he does what those in Fianna Fáil have always done, namely, listen to the big developers. What big developers want, big developers get. I ask the Taoiseach again why he has ignored the advice of his officials. Does he accept that he has been given the advice that the Government's shared equity loan scheme is dangerous and flawed and will push up prices?

I know what the Deputy is doing. She is engaging in a political branding exercise rather than making a serious intervention on housing and housing policy.

Sinn Féin seems to be opposed to all home ownership initiatives by this Government and by previous Governments.

Fianna Fáil did one thing in the history of this country. It was responsible for the massive social housing programme of the 1930s and right through the decades to the 1960s, in particular, that dramatically transformed living conditions for many people. Others were involved too. Under this Government, we are determined to build 50,000 social houses over the next five years, working with local authorities and approved housing bodies to do that. That will be very challenging but the funding has been allocated to realise that. In addition to that, we are designing an affordability shared equity scheme to target supports at those in need and to limit inflationary risk with regional price caps. This will take appropriate account of house prices and household income.

We have a massive housing crisis and we need to reflect on the fact that various schemes coming before local authorities and so on are being delayed and being voted against. All the while, so many people out there desperately need housing. We need to put some of the ideological rhetoric to one side and concentrate on getting houses built in this country. The rate they were built at last year is not sufficient to deal with the crisis.

In the Taoiseach's reply to Deputy McDonald, he was keen to grab credit for Fianna Fáil for things it did in the 1930s. I hope he will be as quick today to accept responsibility for what Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the institutions of the church and the State did to tens of thousands of innocent women and children who were imprisoned and who suffered gross abuse. The mother and baby homes report alone documents 9,000 victims, although there are undoubtedly thousands of more infants and women not covered by it, which is an issue in itself, who suffered obscenely.

I have not had a chance to go through the thousands of pages of this report but I have read the significant parts. It is my job to read stuff like this. One can only imagine what many of the survivors must feel like, faced with the whirlwind of commentary on the report. At this point, my feeling is that the report and the official political commentary coming from Government are beginning to look like a sham, an insult and a whitewash of the gross crimes that were committed against thousands of women and infants.

The report and some of the Taoiseach's comments yesterday seem to very consciously seek to diminish the culpability of the institutions of the church and the State and to disperse responsibility for the crimes that were committed onto society as a whole. There should be apologies for that as well immediately. Some of the passages in this report are offensive: in trying to shift the blame away from the institutions of the church and State, in trying to create a hierarchy of the severity of abuse between one institution and another; and in the constant refrain of there being no evidence of abuse. Is 9,000 children dying in proportions way beyond the number of infants who were dying at that time in society as a whole not in itself evidence of abuse? Was it not in fact an imprisonment sentence for every single woman who was forced to go in there? The report says there was no evidence of illegal adoptions when in fact we have evidence. There seems to be a systematic attempt to not treat as evidence the testimonies of the survivors.

I thank Deputy Boyd Barrett. The time is up.

I hope the Taoiseach will explain to us what the apology is for. Will it be a sincere apology? Will it be an apology that results in actions that give justice and redress to the survivors of the mother and baby homes?

I thank the Deputy for his contribution. For my own part, my remarks and my statement yesterday in no way sought to diminish the role of the churches, or indeed the State, and any reading of them would confirm that. I spoke about the perverse moral code overseen by the church that in my view was responsible for this in terms of its attitude to sexual morality, for example, which was at the heart of forcing mothers into mother and baby homes. I will deal with this in substance in the statements later and in the apology. I just want to be very clear. I am somewhat concerned that people are endeavouring to present my statement yesterday in a certain light, and that is not accurate. I equally believe the State clearly failed and I will be dealing with that too. What happened was shameful and was shocking.

On the report itself, I would not describe it as a sham and as an insult; the Deputy is entitled to do so. While he might wish to do so for a reason, the Deputy needs to be careful in using the phrase, "there seems to be a systematic" approach. There is not. I had no involvement, good, bad or indifferent, with the commission. I did not meet any member of the commission. I did not meet any of the commissioners. That has to be accepted in good faith. There has been no involvement between the Government and the commission. The commission is fully independent in the discharge of its duty and it is wrong and is wronging the commissioners to say what the Deputy has said.

On reading their report and their recommendations, the commissioners are very clear that the mothers should not have ended up in the county homes or in the mother and baby homes. They have unearthed a comprehensive amount of material. They have also given voice to those who were forced into the homes, to those who resided in the homes and children who experienced life in the homes as well. Obviously, I will deal with this at greater length shortly.

I just want to be clear that nothing I said yesterday or today in any way is an attempt to diminish the responsibility of church or State.

I thank the Taoiseach. The time is up.

No doubt the commission brought out a whole range of issues and actions speak louder than words. The most important work we have to do in this House in the immediate future is the implementation in terms of the legislation which the previous Dáil was not in a position to get through.

The most important action that can be taken is to put the survivors' needs, wishes, feelings, sensitivities and objectives at the centre of this process and to date that has not happened. In fact, they were further insulted with the leak that came out at the weekend. As for being given this report only 24 hours before there is to be an apology, we do not even know what is being apologised for.

I am sorry to say that some of the phrases in the executive summary are unacceptable - they should be withdrawn - in trying to displace blame and responsibility from the institutions of the church and State and somehow disperse them onto something called "society as a whole". There was an element of that in what the Taoiseach stated yesterday and he should apologise for it.

It is not acceptable. These were gross crimes.

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

Every single woman who went into these institutions was in effect a prisoner. It was officially sanctioned. There was criminal negligence on the part of the institutions of the church, Government, local authorities and so on at the time.

Deputy, the time is up.

There needs to be an honest owning up to that. The survivors need to be put at the absolute centre of this. Even the webinar I heard yesterday was a bit of sham in terms of the disappointment the survivors felt.

Deputy, you have made your point.

It will be a survivor-led response to the commission. The commission was independent. No politician had any hand, act or role in the deliberations of the commission itself. The Deputy needs to accept that. I hope he was not implying that when he used the phrase "systematic attempt". It is important that this sort of thinking does not gain ground. That is not fair and it is not right. It is not fair to the commissioners in particular.

How would the Deputy define society? We are all society. All of us are part of a society in how we interact with the State and the church. The influence and control of the institution of the church and religious orders were central to this in terms of the response of families. What screams out of the report is that the priest was sent for, the doctor was sent for, the nun was sent for.

Thank you, Taoiseach.

I can deal with that more comprehensively later.

As it is our first day back, I wish everybody a happy new year.

As the important issue of the mother and baby homes is being raised later, rather than labour the point, I want to raise another issue of national importance. Utter disruption has ensued since 1 January at ports, within businesses and the supply chain. Does the Taoiseach intend to allow the disruption to continue to the detriment of Ireland? Food is being destroyed. Businesses are failing. Jobs are and will be lost. The consumer will pay a hefty price in their shopping basket if this is to continue, particularly those on low incomes. Will the Taoiseach tell the people how the Government intends to prevent this happening?

Last year customs dealt with 2 million declarations. Now it expects to deal with 20 million declarations. That is 54,794 a day. If one adds to that the ENS, entry summary declaration, and the PBN, pre-boarding notification, declarations, that figure trebles to 164,382 computer entries daily. There are only 500 Customs and Excise staff. It is currently taking four hours to do one declaration. That is why the boats to the UK are empty. That is why the shipping routes to Fishguard are cancelled. That is why our shelves are emptying.

The Government said it was disappointed in the numbers of people applying for the grant to train staff to handle customs documentation. Those who did apply were turned down by Enterprise Ireland, a fact denied by Departments last year. The problems we are facing today were notified to the Government of the day as far back as 2019 through the then Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney. No notice was taken then either.

Customs and Excise readily assured this Government that things are moving steadily and trade is slow. It is but it is the fault of Customs and Excise. The Revenue system has failed twice. That has seen foodstuff going rotten in trailers and has kept drivers away from their families, sitting in ports for up to five days. In addition to Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is carrying out sanitary and phytosanitary checks. This is another utter mess requiring 24 hours' notice.

Will the Taoiseach explain why the EU has removed most, if not all, UK food producing companies from TRACES, the trade control and expert system, thereby making it impossible to generate the required health certificates to bring food, animal or plant-based products into Ireland? This will lead to more empty shelves, as well as loads that will not arrive or be turned back. Will the Taoiseach explain that?

I thank the Deputy for the question and for raising the issues. I also wish everyone a happy new year and may 2021 be better than 2020, in particular in respect of Covid-19. We sympathise with those who have lost someone, in particular most recently, as a result of Covid.

The Deputy's question relates essentially to the impact of Brexit. We have been very clear for quite some time that Brexit essentially means that the seamless trade between the European Union and Great Britain is a thing of the past. That is a reality. There will be delays at ports, as importing goods from Britain is now much more complex, as the Deputy has said. We are going from 2 million customs declarations to 20 million customs declarations. The UK has left the Single Market and the customs union and this creates additional burdens. There is also some evidence emerging that many UK companies were not as prepared as they could have been for the realities of Brexit and the various additional checks and controls. The State's agencies are working flat out and they are working together to try to ensure the checks and controls are completed as efficiently as possible. This is a 24-7 operation and more than 1,500 additional staff are working in the State agencies on this. We announced a number of new measures. The Deputy referenced the Ready for Customs support scheme. We are anxious that companies take this up. We have been trying to push for a greater number of applications and greater engagement with Enterprise Ireland on this particular scheme. Higher numbers could have been accommodated in it.

Hundreds of containers are getting through customs every day and the numbers are gradually increasing day on day. Two thirds of imports for businesses, which have engaged with the full suite of Revenue customs procedures, are being green routed directly out of the ports on arrival. Some are coming in without the paperwork correctly done and this is just the reality. People will have to adjust to the new realities that Brexit has brought about.

The key message we have for businesses is to work with Revenue and other agencies that are available to help them. There are regular meetings between Departments and stakeholders, including with retailers who are not reporting any major shortages. This afternoon, there will be a technical briefing, which the Deputy might be interested in, by officials for Oireachtas Members to deal with any queries Members receive. We know shipping operators have increased capacity on direct routes to Europe through Cherbourg, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge and Santander and ferry operators have also increased frequencies of sailings.

What the Taoiseach needs to understand is that the only reality people will face with Brexit is a 50% increase in the cost of a shopping basket, particularly low-income earners. The Taoiseach tells me we have an increased capacity in direct ferry services, which he said was not required when he endorsed an Irish Maritime Development Office report. That report was categorically held up by every Minister in the House to state no more capacity in the direct service was required, only that I had input to the service to ensure it happened. We still do not have enough capacity on the direct ferry service. There has been no input by the Government to the request of those who need help in this particular area. We need more boats and we need antigen testing at the ports. I would prefer if the Taoiseach did not quote the rhetoric he is getting from State agencies to somebody who has been involved for 30 years and is dealing with the entire sector literally on her own because nobody in the Government is listening.

It is not the end because it is the Brexit transition period, it is the beginning. When the shelves are empty I hope the Taoiseach will come into the House and apologise to the people in the same way and say he is not able to do anything about the direct shipping service. I ask the Taoiseach to give Rosslare Europort the €200 million out of the €1 billion contingency fund. It is now required. The infrastructure that is now providing for the country to continue trading is under pressure. I ask the Taoiseach to take this very seriously.

The Government did not bring about Brexit.

There are issues in terms of rules of origin that will impact on some food products and these result directly from the legal framework governing trade. There are also some significant anomalies in respect of certain goods that are manufactured in Europe by companies that have their main bases in the UK in terms of supplying the UK and Ireland. That has happened in the context of a number of products and because these are reboxed or whatever in the UK, there is a difficulty in accessing the Irish market. In some instances, those products would be subject to higher charges. These are the realities of Brexit. This is not something we caused. We have to deal with the consequences of it and try to iron out some of these anomalies. Those are the realities.

What about Enterprise Ireland giving money to the people who wanted to-----

A range of supports have been given to people. An additional 1,500 public servants-----

(Interruptions).

Enterprise Ireland is giving money to many employers but we want more to apply. We have said that.

I thank the Taoiseach. The time is up.

They did not get it.

An awful lot of them got it. Come on.

I said local-----

Please, we cannot have a-----

As the Deputy is aware, we have provided a range of business and agricultural supports and loan and grant schemes to support business to get ready for Brexit and so on.

I want to ask the Taoiseach a question on a very important subject, that is, the proposal by his Government - Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party - with regard to its new year ban on the sale of all smoky fuels, including coal, peat briquettes, turf and what people would call "wet wood". I want him to clearly outline what exactly the is proposing to do, the legislation, if any, it is proposing to bring before the Dáil and what exactly it will be saying to the people of Ireland who rely on this type of solid fuel to keep themselves warm. Water, heat and light are basic requirements of any human being trying to live in this country. The Government proposing to take away that source of heat by banning the sale of the fuels to which I refer would be outrageous, unfair and wrong. I want the Taoiseach to explain the position to the people today. This matter was first reported on in the middle of December. A reporter with The Business Post, Daniel Murray, wrote a very good article on his knowledge of what the Government would be bringing before the Dáil at the start of this year. I want the Taoiseach to explain what is involved here.

I also want the Taoiseach to explain another matter. In the context of the horticultural industry, I believe the decision to attack and shut down the peat industry in the way the Government has and, effectively, to close down Bord na Móna, which is what is happening, will be looked on in the future in the same way as the decision to close down the beet industry. Beet used to be an excellent cash crop for farmers and the decision to which I refer is now widely recognised as being wrong. By closing down the peat industry, the Government is affecting the horticultural industry. There are many small garden centres, large-scale operators and medium businesses that all provide valuable employment. The latter need peat for their activities and they are asking what exactly is going to happen to them in the future.

I have a number of questions for the Taoiseach. What legislation, if any, does the Government intend to bring before the Dáil in order to ban the sale of coal, peat briquettes, turf and wet wood? Private contractors who work for Bord na Móna have been in contact with me to say that they do not know whether they will have work harvesting peat in March. They were contracted in the past to work for Bord na Móna. Will they have work this March? These people have borrowed hundreds of thousands of euro and invested it in the machinery and plant they use in the harvesting of peat in the work they do as sub-contractors for Bord na Móna. Bord na Móna is telling them that-----

I thank the Deputy.

-----as far as it can see, the Government is pulling the plug on this industry and leaving those contractors and their employees high and dry.

In terms of the overall context, it had been both the general and majority view of this House, as articulated at various Oireachtas committees, and of the Government that we need to address the issue of climate change and that we also have to have clean air for the health of the people of the country. I ask the Deputy to confirm that this is also his view.

The introduction of the smoky coal ban in 1990 by the then Minister, Mary Harney, was a radical move that dramatically improved the health of the citizens of Dublin and other cities. It is an issue that we need to engage with in this House because there are some towns around the country where reports from experts on respiratory health are categoric about the damage being done to people's health because of smoky coal. I do not think that we should give any succour to the smoky coal sector any more in any shape or form. The fact that we are now in 2021 and that ban has not been completed is an indictment of society. That is my view.

I will ask the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to communicate with the Deputy about other fuel types. He is developing a clean air strategy which will be open to public consultation and is situated in the context of climate change policy more generally. Within that is the concept of just transition. It is not our objective to run down Bord na Móna, but the opposite. Our objective is to make Bord na Móna the agent and a key stakeholder in achieving our climate change objectives in the future and creating new forms of employment, rewetting our bogs and allocating additional resources to the areas in which Bord na Móna worked so effectively in the past. The retrofitting scheme was initiated in the midlands and surrounding counties as part of the just transition programme. Nothing will be forced on people immediately. There is no legislation for this session. We need to embrace the climate change objectives of the country, of this House and of Europe. Climate change is a reality. I have no doubt that it is the existential threat to our society. Part of addressing that is the protection, conservation, nurturing and restoring of our biodiversity. That is key.

It is no wonder that I worry, unless the Chamber has an echo and the Taoiseach did not hear me properly. I did not want to talk about Mary Harney and the smoky coal ban. That was a thing for cities where thousands of people are concentrated. I am talking about people who predominantly live in the country and the only source of heat in their homes is timber, turf and perhaps peat briquettes. I asked the Taoiseach very clear questions and he answered none of them. He ignored the horticultural industry. Does he realise that thousands of people work in that industry and are waiting to hear what the Taoiseach has to say today? All they heard him talk about is Mary Harney and something that happened 20 or 25 years ago. Will the Taoiseach please try to deal with the questions that I asked? I also highlight that fuel poverty is recognised by the Department of Social Protection, and I thank it for the work it does in trying to address the problems faced by people suffering from fuel poverty. Will the Taoiseach comfort people by telling them that he will not ban the sale of coal, peat briquettes, turf or wood in the future? Not to do so leaves the situation unclear and allows people to worry. The Taoiseach cannot compare people living in the countryside with something that happened in Dublin 20 or 25 years ago.

I do not think what the Deputy says is fair. I instanced that as an illustration of an important policy that we should continue with to have air that people can breathe so they can have healthy lives. That should be a fundamental objective of all of us in this House. It is not just about cities but also towns. Last year, the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, expanded it to quite a number of towns and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, wants to continue with that. On the broader issue of other fuels, a clean air strategy is being published.

There will be opportunities for public consultation and for the Deputy and others to make submissions. However, I do have concerns that the Deputy is not embracing the principle of clean air. I hope I am wrong in that regard and I take it that the Deputy is. Clean air is important for people and the avoidance of carcinogens in the atmosphere, as much as possible, is very important in terms of our broader health. The impact of poor quality air on respiratory health is enormous, particularly on children and their future life chances and lifespan.

I will engage with the Deputy on the peat issue. There are issues around that but we will do everything we can to help those working in the industry. I take the Deputy's point on fuel poverty. That is why a significant proportion of the fund that will be generated out of the carbon tax will be allocated to offset the impact of fuel poverty.