Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I would like to raise again the issue of housing. I am very conscious that as the light at the end of the tunnel gets a little bit brighter for people, we are beginning to consider what life, and Ireland, will look like once the pandemic passes and the public emergency is over. It is very encouraging that, despite everything people have been through in the past year, they still have that sense of hope and that sense of appetite for a better and fairer Ireland.

Long before the Covid emergency, people faced very many profound crises because of bad politics and bad government. Many of those crises deepened during the pandemic but the one that really stands out is the housing emergency, alongside the mental health emergency, which colleagues discussed this morning. When the Taoiseach came to office, he said that his Government would fix housing. He came to office on the back of an election campaign that was very heavily focused on the housing crisis. However, since coming to office, what we have seen is more of the same, persisting with the same kinds of developer-led policies that created the mess we have in the first place. Any claim of progress that might be made by the Government or the Taoiseach is now cruelly exposed by the shocking numbers of tents we see around the city centre of Dublin and the heart-wrenching image that we have seen of a four-year old child sitting on a crate here in the capital city eating her dinner on the side of the street. It is not the first time we have seen a child eating his or her dinner in similar circumstances.

This is the sharpest edge of the bad policy and bad government that have seen house prices go up and up. Indeed, the CSO tells us that house prices in Dublin have increased by a staggering 96% in the past nine years. These are not mansions, by the way; these are modest family homes. Meanwhile, extortionate rents continue to soar. In fact, rents are so high that many first-time buyers struggle to save a deposit. How on earth could any person save for a deposit when rent is €2,000 or more a month? It is a nightmarish trap in which people find themselves caught. As a result, an entire generation is locked out of owning their own home. This generation have had to put their lives on hold and curtail their aspirations because Government continues to choose policies that make the situation worse.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of things is that it does not have to be this way. We need to build affordable housing that people can actually afford. That means the State leading from the front. It means direct investment and it means dropping the developer-led approach that is still in evidence, for example, in the Government's shared equity scheme. We need to intervene on behalf of renters. We have to ensure that evictions remain banned for the foreseeable future. Above all, we need to ensure that rents are cut and increases in rents are banned.

I ask the Taoiseach to guarantee, and to offer to work with the rest of us to ensure, that we see a cut in rents and any increase in rents banned. Rents need to be frozen.

I have to disagree with the Deputy's presentation of the issue. Fianna Fáil has been in a coalition Government with the Fine Gael Party and the Green Party for ten months, having been out of government for ten years. We have made housing a major priority of Government, with our colleagues. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has applied great energy to a range of measures designed to deal with the housing issue and homelessness. The photograph the Deputy referred to is a very upsetting one, but progress has been made on homelessness in the past ten months. Family homelessness has declined by approximately 42% and homelessness overall by 19%, but more needs to be done. Progress has been made in regard to homelessness but we are determined to do more and to expand the Housing First programme, which has been effective in reducing homelessness, particularly for single adults. That is something on which the Minister is very focused.

We want to create opportunities for people to own their own homes. We also want to create opportunities for people to get faster access to social housing, with the State taking a key role in building, and facilitating the building of, social houses. A total of €3.3 billion was allocated in the budget, which is an unprecedented sum, to make sure we can start to build the largest social housing programme in the history of the State.

Over the lifetime of the Government it will result in 50,000 new social houses being built. We were hit in the first three months of the year, which the Deputy has not acknowledged. We had to shut down construction significantly because of Covid-19 and the third wave. We allowed some social housing to stay open to complete projects. We are very determined in respect of the social housing agenda to build 12,750 new social houses this year. That was the target prior to the shutting down of construction for the first few months of the year. Some 9,500 of those were new-build homes. We are committed and we will do everything we can to accelerate that. We are going to look at a void programme again this year, like we did last year. As soon as we came into office we went straight at it and got close to 3,500 houses back into use through allocation of funding to local authorities for the voids.

The new equity scheme that Deputy McDonald talks about will help 2,000 people to be in a position to buy their own homes this year, if we can get that through with the legislation. A new affordable purchase scheme with the State directly building affordable homes is another key initiative to help people to buy their own homes. There is a retained and expanded help-to-buy scheme. The Deputy talks about giving people the opportunity to own their own homes and to aspire to that. Yet, she opposed the help-to-buy scheme and continues to oppose the shared equity scheme while making claims about it that are completely exaggerated in terms of its impact. The launch of the Land Development Agency is an important part of policy, as is the new cost-rental scheme that the Minister has introduced, which will create wider options for people this year in respect of the rental area. We want to expand that significantly.

There is a comprehensive programme here. It is unprecedented in scale. No shortage of resources has been allocated across all strands of the housing area. I appeal to the Deputy that on the various local authorities where her party members are represented to stop opposing housing projects. Let us have a consensus across all the parties in the House that we facilitate projects now and get them going. That is important in terms of giving people opportunities. There is no point in standing up in the House and saying we want people to have an opportunity to own homes and get access to social housing if projects are delayed and delayed and opposed and opposed and nothing gets built where projects are shovel-ready. That really is a disservice to people.

A person does not have to walk very far from here to see the scourge of homelessness in the city of Dublin. Indeed, anyone can go into any of our cities or towns throughout the country to see that this is a reality. Rents are sky-high and housing is unaffordable, especially to younger people and people on average or lower wages. The Taoiseach was in government ten years ago. When he was in government he and the Administration of the time wrecked the housing market. The then Government created a property bubble that burst and devastated the country at the time. Ten years later, we see history repeating itself. Developers are taken care of and landlords are taken care of, but younger people and people on low incomes are all left behind. Home ownership remains beyond their reach. Rents are crucifyingly high. I want to ask the Taoiseach again. Does he accept that rents are too high? Does he accept they need to come down? Will the Taoiseach build a consensus with us? Will he act to ensure that we have rents cut and that we ban rent increases? They are straight questions for the Taoiseach.

I will put straight questions to Deputy McDonald. Why does she continue to oppose housing projects? Why does she continue to oppose schemes and initiatives that would give young people an opportunity to own their own homes? You keep on opposing such initiatives and undermining them all the time. There is complete incoherence and inconsistency in the Deputy's approach to housing. She ignores the fact that this year the allocation for social housing was the largest ever. Over €3.3 billion is being allocated to housing this year with a suite of measures being introduced. Homelessness is a priority for this Government. The number of people in emergency accommodation has fallen by 19% in the past year. The number in family homelessness has decreased by almost 42%. We need to do more. Homelessness is a blight on society and we need more supply. We need to match urgency of action with the rhetoric that we consistently hear. I do not think, at times, Sinn Féin matches urgency of action with rhetoric when it comes to getting housing projects off the ground.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the vaccine roll out. There are four components to what I am asking. The public needs to hear some answers as this is obviously the most important issue facing our nation at the moment. On 23 February, the Taoiseach stated to the nation that by the end of June up to 82% of adults would have at least their first vaccination. Fewer than two months later, the head of vaccine roll-out at the HSE, Damien McCallion, who is a very capable individual, said yesterday that he was not in a position to confirm whether the June target will be achieved. He was being diplomatic as usual as is his style, to be fair to him.

Supply is clearly an issue. I acknowledge that and I have always acknowledged that. There have been 12 changes this week alone to the dates of delivery times and volumes. This haphazard approach is worrying. How can AstraZeneca state at the beginning of the week that it would give 45,000 vaccines and then announce that only 9,000 would be delivered? I share the Taoiseach's frustration.

I want ask the Taoiseach directly to give him an opportunity to say publicly whether we will still meet the 82% target or, as is being reported in some media, such as in the Irish Independent today, that reaching the target of 82% is now being pushed to July. Will the Taoiseach confirm that we are still going to reach that target? Will we still get 250,000 vaccines into people per week by the end of this month? That is what was committed to.

There is a second component. When will the national immunisation advisory committee meet in respect of Johnson and Johnson? We have the European Medicines Agency report. Speed is of the essence here and every day counts. Can the Taoiseach inform the House when NIAC will meet in respect of this and on the proposal relating to vaccine intervals and spreading those out?

Third, I am concerned about the vaccination centres and the volume of vaccinators. This whole issue has been a mess from the beginning. Roles are being constantly advertised. Five times advertisements have gone out looking for more. If we have enough vaccinators, why are we always advertising for more? We now want radiographers, dental hygienists, medical students etc. Some 1,100 have been vaccinated but it has been said that we need between 2,500 and 5,000.

Finally, the front page of The Irish Times on Monday reported yet another new oversight group had been set up in the Department of the Taoiseach. This group is being called the vaccine roll-out group and is to be chaired by the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach. The report said the group was being set up "to avoid some of the serious political and logistical differences that have arose in rolling out the programme." Why is this being set up? Why do we need a new layer of bureaucracy? I have asked previously for a vaccine Minister and that was dismissed. The majority of people would agree with me at this stage. Is this new group really a mudguard set up by the Taoiseach around the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, because of the concern the Taoiseach and his Government have with regard to the governance of the vaccine to date by the Minister for Health?

First, we should acknowledge that the vaccine programme has been very effective. The only qualification we ever put in terms of the roll out of the vaccination programme was one of supply. It is well-known that we have had difficulties, in particular with AstraZeneca, in terms of supply and consistency in matching commitments to deliver with the delivery schedule and the actual supply of the vaccines. Overall, 1.238 million vaccines have been administered. It has had a significant impact on the incidence of the disease in nursing homes and, critically, a significant impact on mortality and severe illness. Likewise, it has had a significant impact with front-line healthcare workers and the over 70s. It has been effective in those over 70 years of age. The portal has now been established and the speed at which people have registered and received dates has been well commented upon in society.

Many families are delighted to see their vulnerable members getting dates for vaccines and getting vaccinated. The key impact on mortality and severe illness has to be acknowledged and it has been very effective so far. The target is still the target. I am not confirming any changes to this whatsoever but here are challenges as to supply. The Deputy has instanced some even this week with AstraZeneca. We saw last week because of decisions taken at European level and NIAC's advice in respect of the AstraZeneca vaccine and its application, which has been narrowed to 60 to 70-year-old, those clinics were cancelled. There is also the Johnson & Johnson decision at European level.

Among the key issues which fall to be determined are the interval between doses, which is being examined by NIAC in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer. There is also the issue of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the response to the decision by the EMA and its assessment in respect of the benefits of the Johnson & Johnson drug outweighing any risks. NIAC will consider and assess the research on that issue. There is then the issue of AstraZeneca itself and its capacity to deliver on its commitments. It has delayed a large commitment from late April to 3 May and it is saying that if it gets certain authorisations around manufacturing in certain locations that that could enhance its capacity to deliver. Its situation has been challenging from the get-go here.

Depending on the outcomes on much of that, the situation can improve significantly. If the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was made available, another 600,000 or so additional vaccines would be available in the second quarter. The issue then would be the administration of vaccines in this quarter. I will return with more information later.

I am aware that the Taoiseach is somewhat nervous about answering these questions but I asked four questions and he essentially ran down the clock and answered one. For the record and for the public watching, the Taoiseach of Ireland has said that at this moment in time there will be no change to the rate of 82% vaccinations by June and 250,000 by next week. The Taoiseach said there was no change. which has the effect of saying that.

The Taoiseach just refused to answer three other questions. I find it amazing that the Taoiseach of Ireland can walk in here and not know when NIAC is meeting because I asked him this directly and when it was going to make its recommendations. These recommendations are absolutely critical. Every day is a day gone. All I am asking is when this will happen. Surely, the Taoiseach must know that. I am not asking what NIAC is going to do but when it is doing it.

Is the Taoiseach confident that we will have enough vaccinators? Finally, what in the name of God is this new group? Why do we have another layer of bureaucracy? This must because of the performance of the Minister of Health, particularly over the past number of weeks.

Absolutely not. It has nothing to do with the performance of the Minister, Deputy Donnelly good-----

Why was it created then?

I am just answering the questions because the Deputy has asked that they be answered. Quite frankly, I wonder what the his agenda is. He should be supporting the vaccination programme-----

-----and not trying to undermine it and to have his moments. We have just heard the Taoiseach say X and Y. I am not interested in that kind of-----

These are diversion tactics. Answer the questions.

-----infantile and juvenile politics. What I am more interested in is giving the people-----

He is the Taoiseach of Ireland and the people deserve to know these answers.

-----up-to-date information.

When will it meet?

NIAC will meet tomorrow and the Deputy knows the form. It will adjudicate as it is the clinical adviser to Government and to all of us in respect of the safe use of vaccines. The Deputy is aware of this as am I. Let us not try to create an issue out of that.

The group that we have established, which the Deputy has asked about, is nothing to be concerned about. It is a very simple group that involves the HSE and NIAC because there is a relationship between advice and the operationalisation of that advice in the administration of vaccines.

Why is it that-----

That to me is a simple and positive thing to do. Likewise, the task force feeds into that as well because it is dealing with the supply side, the delivery schedules, and working with the pharmaceutical companies. Therefore, when decisions are made, there is full knowledge all round as to the vaccination programme. There is ongoing informal contact between all of the key decision-makers in respect of the administration of the vaccine programme. It has been a good vaccine programme and is having a beneficial impact on people.

I thank the Taoiseach whose time is up. We move now to the Regional Group. I call Deputy Canney.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I raise one very important issue for many people in Ireland which is public worship. The statutory instrument introduced by the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, in a very clandestine way and without any notice of consultation, has greatly upset the leaders of all the churches, especially following on from the fact that the Taoiseach had only met them two days before that.

Archbishop Eamon Martin has issued a statement saying that it is highly disappointing that despite the reassurance of the Taoiseach to church leaders that he understands the importance of faith and worship, the Government then introduced a statutory instrument. They consider that a breach of trust.

Many people in my constituency, and I am sure in every other Member's constituency, went to mass as part of the daily routine, especially retired people. They probably went to 10 o’clock mass in the morning to a cathedral or church where there may have been 20 to 30 people there. It was part of their socialisation and they probably then went for a cup of coffee afterwards on some days. It was a place to meet and have a chat. They took on board the fact that regulations and restrictions were introduced and complied fully with all of them in the interests of saving this country from the pandemic. When the churches reopened, they were controlled and conducted in a way that was exemplary. A church is a hell of a lot safer place to go to mass where there is social distancing than to go to a supermarket or all of these other areas. The churches took on board that they were closed again after Christmas. People are longing to get back to public worship, to receive the sacraments, and to do it in a way that complies with restrictions and with social distancing.

I am asking the Taoiseach for two things. First, will he look at that statutory instrument, which is really and truly a sword thrown into people who just have religion? It is a wrong way for this country to go. He needs to look at it and repeal it, which is very easy to do.

Second, I ask the Taoiseach to let me know how soon will we see public worship coming back into people’s lives? It is important for their mental health and for their ongoing engagement with their religion, no matter what religion they subscribe to. I think about the people who used to go to 10 a.m. mass every day who cannot do that and are complying totally with what the Government has asked them to do, and rightly so.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I regard religious worship as a very fundamental right in any democratic society. We should acknowledge that the application of very stringent public health emergency legislation imposes many restrictions on personal and civil liberties. We rarely in ordinary times would apply such restrictions more generally on people. A global pandemic is such a context. It is the common good which must prevail in such a pandemic. I have had a number of meetings. I met in October with representatives of the Catholic Church and met with the wider faith groups on 17 November and again with the Catholic archbishops on 19 February. I met with church leaders, particularly those from of Northern Ireland in the context of Northen Ireland and not of Covid-19 restrictions, on 15 April. That meeting was about recent developments in the North and about emerging from Covid-19 in an inclusive way in terms of the left behind and marginalised communities and to ensure that, economically, we would be more inclusive. There were brief references to Covid-19 at the end of that meeting.

It was unanimous that religious ceremonies would not take place under level 5 restrictions. There was no argument about that. In fact, the request made in October by church leaders was that they were annoyed that religious services and ceremonies were excluded at level 3 and they wanted the Government to consider facilitating Mass and religious services generally under level 3, which we facilitated for Christmas. We facilitated that for Christmas. At the meeting in February, two requests were made, namely, to consider allowing religious worship and Mass for the Easter ceremonies and also to look at increasing the number allowed at funerals, which we are doing next Monday. We have decided to increase that to 25, which is still very difficult for families and people who have suffered bereavement. I think that is one of the worst aspects of Covid-19.

However, I think it needs to be said loud and clear that the only motivation of the Government is to protect life and to protect people from severe illness. There is no other motivation. The Government is not anti-religious. It is not out to suppress religious worship. Any suggestion to the contrary is deeply offensive, wrong and unfair. We are motivated by public health and the guidance and advice we receive from NPHET and public health. The regulation to which the Deputy is referring is a general regulation that covers all indoor gatherings. Internationally, indoor gatherings have proven to be responsible for a lot of spread of Covid. We will be looking at this situation next week. I stated in my address at the end of March that we would look at religious services in the context of the month of May.

I thank the Taoiseach. Nobody is accusing him or the Government of being anti-religious. We fully understand the reasons for these restrictions being put in place but I believe that categorising religion with the opening of museums is a bit off. There is something wrong with that. Religious ceremonies play a vital role in society and so many people in this country have religious beliefs, whatever religious belief that may be. I understand there is a predicament here but it may come back to the handling or communication of how the statutory instrument was introduced and how it has affected people's attitude. I am concerned that people across the country are very exercised about the fact that they are playing their part for this country in every way they can and have proven to be a success in that regard, as evidenced by the way the numbers are going at the moment. I compliment everybody for doing that. However, I ask the Taoiseach to think about that statutory instrument and maybe to clarify it for the religious orders.

I appreciate that the Deputy did not make that assertion but other people have made it and I wish to make it clear that is not the agenda of the Government. The purpose of all of these restrictions, and they have been very challenging for people, is to get to a stage where we can open up, where we can get the level of cases down so low that we can return to religious worship safely, for everybody's sake. Next week, we will be making an announcement in terms of what we can do. That will depend on the public health advice that we will receive but also decision-making in terms of what we believe to be the correct thing to do. We have said we will look at religious services in our announcement next week for the month of May. We will be doing that. We understand fully that there are many people across the country for whom attending religious service is key. It is key to their spirituality, well-being and faith. We understand that fully and we understand that people dearly want to return to that and to have those opportunities. As I stated, the purpose of the restrictions is to enable that to happen. We have learned many lessons throughout the pandemic. We have made good progress. The people have responded very well and the numbers have come down.

I previously raised with the Taoiseach on Questions on Promised Legislation the issue of a worker on the front line, who has been at the coal face since March 2020, risking her health and well-being and those of her family. McCauley's pharmacy put that worker and many of her work colleagues on the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, without their knowledge. She and her colleagues received notice from Revenue early this year, stating she had a tax obligation from March to September 2020. That means she has effectively taken a pay cut of more than €2,000. Workers were told they owe anything from €1,000 to €2,500 tax liability, which is essentially an effective pay cut of up to three to five weeks' pay.

The temporary wage subsidy scheme was introduced to assist companies to keep their workers on the payroll throughout the pandemic and to keep companies open. The logic of the scheme was positive in terms of the initiative by the Government. The criteria for the TWSS were that it was for companies experiencing significant negative economic disruption and that were able to demonstrate to Revenue a minimum of a 25% decline in turnover, in which case the State would pay up to 70% to 85% of the workers' net wage, to a maximum of €410. Employer's PRSI was reduced from 11.5% to 0.5% and Revenue dropped tax liability on the workers' gross pay.

Many workers were receiving their net pay without realising that their employer was availing of the TWSS. I have been contacted by other workers employed by McCauley's pharmacy, as well as many other workers. One of those who contacted me works for a US multinational company with three plants in Ireland, while another works for a different US multinational manufacturing company which he states gained €15,000 by putting him on the scheme while he faces a €2,500 tax bill. He states that the unit in which he works posted profits of more than €1.5 million in 2020. The TWSS section of the Revenue website has an A to Z list of hundreds of companies that have applied for the scheme, which translates into thousands of workers, effectively. These workers are outraged. They are front-line workers who have been deemed essential workers and they are now being taxed on their net pay. This is wrong. Revenue has established on its website a facility for companies such as McCauley's pharmacy to pay their workers the tax liability yet this is not happening. I do not think the Government introduced the scheme in order for workers to receive an effective pay cut and employers to benefit from the scheme at their expense.

When I raised this issue with the Taoiseach previously, he advised me to send details of the worker's specific case to him even though I emphasised it was affecting the majority of workers in McCauley's pharmacy. I sent him those details. On 15 March, I received an email from the Department of the Taoiseach, stating that the case was being forwarded to the Department of Social Protection. It was then forwarded to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. The silence since then has been deafening. I am putting it to the Taoiseach that he should not allow these workers to take an effective pay cut. He should do the decent thing, instruct Revenue to change tack and instruct employers to pay the tax liability or, otherwise, scrap the tax.

First of all, the purpose and objective of the scheme was to preserve employment and the viability of companies. Without the scheme, a lot of jobs would have been lost and, more importantly, the capacity of companies to re-emerge after Covid, or as we emerge out of Covid, would have been impaired very considerably. Jobs would have been lost if these schemes were not put in place in the first instance. Significant sums of money have been provided by the State and the Government to provide for the EWSS, the TWSS and CRSS schemes as well as a range of other supports to ensure the viability of companies and firms. That is the number one point which benefits all employees and thousands of workers as well as the companies as entities themselves. This is not something that was introduced to disadvantage workers. I would argue that, in the round, it has not disadvantaged workers because in many cases it will secure their jobs into the future as we emerge from Covid. Our big concern at the outset was that many companies might not survive Covid. In the national economic recovery plan that we will be launching towards the middle of the year, part of the agenda there will be to protect and help companies and strengthen them.

In terms of the tax treatment, we do not interfere with Revenue but we are trying to facilitate workers and ensure that no one is hit with anything large overnight or in a cliff-edge situation. In terms of the issue raised by the Deputy, the tax situation applies in terms of one's income and the various thresholds that apply.

The Deputy said people "put" workers on the scheme. The whole thing was intended to protect the workers and their employment, as opposed to people being made redundant and perhaps falling back on the pandemic unemployment payment which I do not think was ideal. It has been challenging because the pandemic has now gone on for well over a year. Our overarching priority was to preserve employment, in the first instance, and then to see how we could help people in terms of the fall-out of Covid on their individual income levels and future employment needs. If certain companies and entities do not make it through, we must consider what we can do to create further employment opportunities. The resources that have been provided by the Government and taxpayers have been enormous, and on a scale never witnessed before in the history of the State.

I said in my introduction that the fact the scheme was introduced to protect workers' jobs and keep companies floats was positive. There was nothing wrong with the scheme. I do not think the Government introduced it in the knowledge that workers were going to have a pay cut effectively. The Taoiseach mentioned the Revenue Commissioners. Revenue was prepared to wipe off the tax revenue from a worker's gross pay. That was gone and companies were allowed to pay their workers the net income. That is now being taxed. It is outrageous.

It was reported in "Shopfloor", the Mandate trade union newspaper, that its members called on McCauley's to do the right thing over the Covid tax bills. I am asking the Taoiseach to instruct Revenue to change tact and tell these companies to pay their workers' tax liability through the facility on the website of the Revenue Commissioners. That is simply it. They have been given an option now. We know that other companies have paid those tax liabilities, including McCabe's pharmacy, KN Network Services and other companies. This has to be a case where a company is responsible for those liabilities. They have gained a huge amount and managed to keep their companies afloat. Some of them, in fact, may even be making profits. It is the responsibility of the Taoiseach to ensure that happens because otherwise these workers will, unfortunately, take strike action.

The TWSS is under the care and management of the Revenue Commissioners, who are independent of Government in the administration of the scheme. More than 644,000 jobs have been directly supported over the period and many more indirectly.

That is brilliant.

It is a sizeable and significant intervention. The value of payments made to date is approximately €2.9 billion under that scheme alone. The Deputy is making the case that Revenue will determine people's tax liabilities in respect of the income they receive.

And workers are suffering for it.

Revenue has made arrangements with employers in some instances where employers may have overestimated and drawn down too much initially and so forth. That is an issue that Revenue will have to continue to work on.

The Taoiseach's response was very weak.