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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 13 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 1

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I ask Deputies and the Tánaiste to comply with the time allotted.

Yesterday, the CSO reported that house prices had risen by 4% in the past year and that, since February 2012, property prices here in Dublin had increased by a staggering 98%. In this city house prices have doubled. The same picture can be seen right across the State. The Tánaiste has sat at the Cabinet table for the entirety of this period. This is the Tánaiste's record.

This week has rightly been dominated by the housing issue, which has been described as a social crisis. A report published on Tuesday by the ESRI found that, through a combination of stagnant wages and high housing costs, those aged in their 20s and 30s are likely to be the first generation with lower living standards than the generation before them, an historical first - again, the Tánaiste's record. Home ownership is at its lowest level in decades - again, the Tánaiste's record. This is a result of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael policy, a refusal to invest adequately in social and affordable housing and a decision to hand the provision of housing, which should be a public good, over to the free market and high finance to the benefit of speculators, developers and landlords. As a consequence, the Government has presided over a social crisis, with not one but many generations looking towards their future and their ability to secure a home and start a family with anxiety and despair.

The block purchase of homes in a new housing development in Maynooth by an investment fund under the noses of first-time buyers, who had worked so hard to save for a deposit and have a shot at home ownership, acted as a lightning rod for many more such cases. As I have said before, however, this is nothing new and certainly not an accident. In 2019, six out of every ten new homes in Dublin were taken off the market in sales to these funds. They have been facilitated and encouraged by Government policy through their paying no tax on rental profits, no capital gains tax and little by way of stamp duty. Sinn Féin has been calling for years for the Government to end these tax advantages, warning that these funds were not only pricing ordinary individuals out of the market but driving up prices and rents as well. In 2019, the value of home purchases by these funds grew by 7% across Europe; in this State, in the same year, it grew by 141% - the Tánaiste's record. I expect these funds to continue to snap up houses at the expense of struggling homeowners and homebuyers in the months ahead, just as they have been doing for years, a direct result of the policy of the Tánaiste's party and Government.

The Tánaiste knows well that over seven months ago, during discussion on the Finance Bill, we called on the Government to impose a stamp duty surcharge on investment funds buying up homes in the Irish market. During the passage of that Bill, the Government refused and voted against Sinn Féin's proposal to examine the tax treatment of these funds. Last week, however, when the public's attention was drawn to this issue and the Government's policies and their devastating consequences were laid bare for all to see, the Government told us that it would rush to bring forward proposals to fix the problems and that those proposals would be before us this week.

What policies does the Government propose? Were these proposals discussed at Cabinet? Will the Government end the tax advantage these funds were given by the Government and implement Sinn Féin's proposal to impose a stamp duty surcharge on them?

The Deputy has laid out some facts. Many of them are correct but they are also one-sided. It is true that house prices have increased by about 90% since the trough in 2013, but what the Deputy did not mention - and this is relevant - is that they are still lower than the peak 12 or 13 years ago. We certainly do not want to see them go back to that level. House prices have gone up by about 4% in the past year but we will need to see where that goes. The figure may well be distorted by the fact that we had no building, real estate transactions or house viewings for months, and that may change. It may stabilise or go in a different direction in the next few months. A lot of statistics at the moment are thrown by the pandemic, and we need to bear that in mind.

The Deputy is right that home ownership has fallen off significantly in recent years, but it is still the case that between 65% and 70% of people in Ireland own their own homes. That is a higher percentage than in the US, the UK, Germany, France, Australia and lots of other places. That has nothing to do with Sinn Féin; it has to do with policies pursued by parties that have been in government in the past few decades. The problem we have - and it is a problem - is that home ownership has been out of reach for far too many people in their 20s and 30s for far too long. That is what we have to change over the next three years in government to make that reality of home ownership possible for people now in their 20s and 30s so they can own their homes, just as their parents did.

Investment funds were invited into Ireland back in 2012. We should be honest about the fact that Ireland was a very different place in 2012. Home values were plummeting, hundreds of thousands of people were in negative equity, hundreds of thousands of people were in mortgage arrears, there were ghost estates all over the country, nothing was being sold and nothing was being built. Money from investors in Ireland and overseas helped to turn that around. However, things have changed now. I get that. The Government gets that. Home ownership has been out of reach for far too many people for far too long, and that requires a change of policy, one that prioritises first-time buyers and families who need to upgrade to bigger homes. For this reason, next Tuesday the Cabinet will consider proposals to do exactly that. They will be brought forward by the Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Darragh O'Brien, and we will act quickly in that regard. Funds do, however, have a role to play. We have to build about 350,000 new homes over the next ten years at a cost of about €120 billion. There is no way the State can finance all of that on its own. We need the private sector and public sector working together and we need public housing and private housing.

Before I finish I want to say this, and I really do feel this way. Sinn Féin, the Deputy's party, speaks with a forked tongue when it comes to home ownership. This week and last week, Sinn Féin has tried to present itself as a champion of first-time buyers and families who want to upgrade, of homeowners, but the policy of Sinn Féin is the absolute reverse. Its constant mantra is "public housing on public land". That is no good to people who want to own a home. It is no good to first-time buyers or people who need to upgrade. In Sinn Féin's actions it demonstrates this all the time. Sinn Féin councillors all across Dublin and around the country have voted down mixed developments. The stated reason for their voting them down is that some private housing would be built on those sites. They did not want a single home that somebody could actually buy outright. Yes, maybe some affordable schemes and, yes, social housing, but they have consistently voted against housing on huge sites across Dublin and around the country, exactly because homes might be built on them that people could buy.

I have read and studied Sinn Féin's affordable housing policy. It is very different from the one put forward by the Government. It is a leasehold arrangement. You never get to own the house. It is never freehold. That is a totally different vision. It is a Sinn Féin vision. It is an ideology that is anti-enterprise, anti-private property and, therefore, anti-home ownership.

"Leo always delivers" was the text message that sparked what is now the criminal investigation into the leaking of confidential documents. The question many people are asking, however, is when Leo will deliver for the renters and for people who want to own their own homes in this city and beyond, and when Leo will deliver to make sure the wings of the vulture funds are clipped. The Tánaiste suggests that this was back in 2012 and 2013. In 2019, six out of ten homes sold in Dublin were bought up by these vulture funds under the Government's nose. The Government was told about this. I told the Minister with responsibility time and again. The Government voted just seven months ago to keep the sweetheart tax arrangements for these funds in place. The Government continually refuses to implement Sinn Féin's proposal to double capital investment in social, affordable and cost-rental accommodation.

Last night, the Government voted against freezing rents and reducing rents by providing a refundable tax credit, which would take some of the pressure off people who are suffering as a result of its policies. The Tánaiste sat at the Cabinet table for ten years. In that time, house prices have doubled. They are out of the reach of generations. Rents are through the roof. Has the Tánaiste any idea of what type of proposals will be brought forward, or will he just make another attack and blame the Opposition for the policies that he has implemented for the last ten years?

I do, but I am bound by Cabinet confidentiality and I am not in a position to discuss them with the Deputy until they are agreed by the Cabinet next Tuesday. The Deputy knows that well, so he should stop the theatrics. The Government is making progress on housing. It is not enough, and I accept that. Family homelessness is at its lowest level in five years. The Deputy did not acknowledge that. Individual homelessness is at its lowest level in four years. The Deputy also did not acknowledge that. We are now in a position where the State is building approximately 6,000 social homes a year, and more depending on how one calculates it. Nearly one third of all homes built in Ireland last year were built by the State. We have to refer back to the 1980s or even the 1950s or 1960s to see such high proportions.

However, I acknowledge that we are not delivering for people when it comes to home ownership. That requires us to re-examine our policies and make some changes. We are going to make those changes. The Deputy should not pretend that Sinn Féin is somehow on the side of first-time buyers or families who want to buy a home or upgrade. Sinn Féin is against private enterprise, private property and home ownership. It demonstrates that all the time on county councils where it votes against housing developments precisely because private houses might be built as homes for people to buy.

Gabh mo leithscéal a Theachta Kelly. Tabhair dom nóiméad amháin. Caithfear cloí leis na srianta ama. Tá sé i bhfad níos éasca nuair a oibrímid as lámh a chéile.

I wish to raise a sensitive issue. John O'Meara is my neighbour from Toomevara in County Tipperary. He is a self-employed agricultural plant contractor. He has three young children, Aoife, Jack and Tommy, aged from nine to 13 years. His partner, Michelle Batey, was 42 years old. She was from Nenagh and was a bank clerk with AIB. She was a couple of years behind me in school in Nenagh. Michelle got breast cancer in March 2018. She spent her 40th birthday receiving chemotherapy. She recovered. After the cancer they had plans to get married because they knew they needed to do so to protect their future together. However, before they could do that, sadly, Michelle contracted Covid-19 on 18 December last year and passed away on 31 January this year. There was great shock and sadness in the community in Nenagh in which I live.

As they did not get around to getting married, the State provides little or no support to John and his family. If he had lost his livelihood while cohabiting with Michelle, he would have been assessed for jobseeker's allowance on her income. Now he is not entitled to a widower's pension even though both of them worked all their lives. Article 41 of the Constitutions states: "The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society ..... The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority...". That definition of the family is founded on marriage. However, the family unit and how it is constituted in our country has changed fundamentally. The way people live their lives has changed. Many couples in Ireland will choose not to get married or some will just not get around to it, like John and Michelle, unfortunately. More people cohabit. The Ireland we live in has changed. The last census recorded over 150,000 cohabiting couples and over 75,000 of them living with children, an increase of 25% since 2011.

The Tánaiste is probably aware that the Citizens' Assembly has called for Article 41 to be amended to protect private and family life, not limited to a material family. Our laws and supports have not caught up with the way people live their lives in 2021. There is a major gap in our social protection system. If a couple is cohabiting, the Department of Social Protection will assess both of them and their means when carrying out a means test for a social assistance payment such as jobseeker's allowance or carer's allowance, but it does not provide any eligibility for social protection payments when one of the couple dies. That cannot continue.

Will the Government change the law on social protection payments to provide supports to cohabiting couples and surviving partners where one of the partners dies? Is the Government committed to a referendum on Article 41 and when does the Tánaiste expect this to take place? Finally, and most importantly, what comfort can the State give to my neighbour, John O'Meara, and his family, and, indeed, many other such families?

I thank Deputy Kelly for sharing that story. Often, it is only when we look at individual and real life examples that we understand how our policies and laws affect people and, sometimes, how they must change. I express my condolences to John, his family and the wider community in Nenagh.

If I understand what Deputy Kelly said correctly, John does not qualify for the widower's pension, which is a social insurance based payment, because it only applies to people who are married. They were not married. As every Member knows, the Constitution can only be changed by referendum. While laws can be changed, they cannot be changed retrospectively. However, having heard about this example, I will ask the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, to examine the social protection law and see if, in the future, there could be changes for people who are long-term cohabitants. I do not believe that would be unconstitutional. It would be possible to examine and consider that, and I will ask her to do it.

As regards change in the Constitution, the Government has received the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality. As Taoiseach, I established the Citizens' Assembly in the aftermath of the referendum on the eighth amendment. I am very impressed with the report it produced. As is normal after a Citizens' Assembly makes its recommendations, they are considered by both the Government and the Oireachtas. We will want to do that in the near future. As far as I am concerned, the definition of family in Bunreacht na hÉireann, the 1937 Constitution, is out of date. It is based on a traditional, more Christian or Catholic view of a family, which is not wrong. It is a man and a woman, although that was changed to allow two men and two women. However, it is based on two married people, as it were, with children. That is what constitutes a family under the Constitution. If that were ever true, we all know it is not true any more. There are many different forms of families in our society, and there is great diversity in what family means. I believe we should update, modernise and change that definition. As is always the case with a constitutional reform, we will have to do some work on what it should be redefined as, because that is never as straightforward as it may seem. That would require a proper consultation with the Oireachtas.

I do not know what the plan is with regard to the Citizens' Assembly report. With other reports, we set up a dedicated committee to examine the recommendations. Perhaps we should do that, but that is not for me to call here today.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. It is a very sad case. I have been working with John to try to help him through the various issues he must deal with and some of the bureaucracy involved. In his situation, he does not qualify for widower's pension. He does not qualify for one-parent family payment because it is means tested on the preceding year. He does not qualify for jobseeker's payment because he had to give up his job and was self-employed. It is a catch-22. He can work and not mind the young children, but he is not going to do that. He has to look after his children, particularly in this difficult time. There are, and will be, thousands of people like him. There are people in his position this week. If a couple is divorced, there is an entitlement to the widow's pension, but that is not the case if a couple did not get around to getting married. I welcome the Tánaiste's comments, but this must be changed. In addition, when the Tánaiste speaks to the Minister, will he consider if some form of interim payment could be allowable in circumstances where it can be shown that couples were together for a considerable period of time?

Social protection is an area that is very much defined in law and by regulation. There is little or no discretion for Ministers in that regard, with the exception of exceptional needs payments. He might have already applied for that, but perhaps not. That might be one option as an interim solution. Without knowing the details of the case, I do not wish to comment on it in detail, but it appears that he will qualify at some point for the one-parent family payment, which will provide a payment for him and his dependants. He will also be able to work part-time.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to set out the case in detail in writing and I will be happy to take it up with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and see what options there might be.

Palestine is burning. There are 72 people dead now in Gaza, 16 at least of whom are children and the death count is rising. This follows on from the mass expulsion of Palestinians in east Jerusalem, which amounted to ethnic cleansing, the brutal assault on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the far-right lynch mobs now roaming the streets of Israeli cities looking for Palestinians to attack. We have a situation where young people in Gaza, where 50% of the population is under the age of 18, have now experienced four military assaults in their lifetimes.

Meanwhile, we have reports this morning that the Israeli military are drawing up plans for a possible ground invasion. What is the Government going to do about this? I am aware that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, called in the Israeli ambassador and made known to him that the actions of the Israeli state are unacceptable to Ireland. I also am aware that the Irish State has sent observers to the scenes of the mass evictions in east Jerusalem. Do these actions go far enough? I believe they do not. Is it enough to merely call in the ambassador? The ambassador is the representative of a state that is pursuing a policy of systemic racism. The ambassador should be expelled and I put it to the Tánaiste that this should also be Government policy.

The Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill proposed to ban the importation of Israeli goods from the occupied territories. It is relatively modest legislation that has won the support of many human rights groups. Yet the Government has refused to include it in the programme for Government. I put it to the Tánaiste that the Government should reverse that position and implement that Bill.

Last but not least, there is an arms trade between Ireland and Israel. Since 2005 some €15 million worth of military imports have been made to this State from Israel. Since 2011, Ireland has exported €6.5 million worth of military or dual-use hardware to Israel. By dual-use I mean hardware that can be relatively easily converted to a military use. For all I know or the Tánaiste knows, some of that hardware is being used right now to shed the blood of innocent Palestinian civilians.

My questions then are on the ambassador, the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill, and on the arms trade. What is the Tánaiste and his Government now prepared to do?

I thank the Deputy for staying within his time limit.

I thank the Deputy for his questions. The Government is committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East of a democratic Israel living side-by-side with a democratic Palestine, peacefully co-operating together. Like the Deputy, I have been to the region, have met people who are Israeli and Palestinian and I admire their culture very much. It is impressive to see the state that has been built down the years by the Jewish people in Israel and all of us abhor Hamas and what it has done in terror and in the violation of human rights of women and LGBTQ+ groups in particular. None of us would like any of our comments to be in any way construed as support for Hamas in any way and I am sure that the Deputy in his further remarks will agree with that.

Like everyone in this House, however, I believe the actions of the Israeli Government are indefensible. Annexation, expulsion, plantation and the killing of civilians, deliberately or in terms of collateral damage, are not the behaviours of a democratic state in the 21st century and it is simply unacceptable that a democratic state or any state should behave in this way.

As the Deputy is aware, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is very active in this area and has issued a very strong statement on behalf of the Irish Government condemning the actions of the Israeli Government. We are members of the UN Security Council and we intend to use our position there as best we can to try to get a common UN position on this, which is never easy. As the Deputy is aware, the Israeli ambassador has already been called in by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, for difficult discussions on this issue. We will try to co-ordinate any further action at EU level, which is the best way for us to take any particular action.

On the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill, the view of the Government based on the Attorney General’s advice is that it is unconstitutional because it is a trade competence, which is an EU matter and is not a matter on which we can legislate for individually. Second, it could be discriminatory unless it was applied to other occupied territories, such as Crimea, for example, which I have yet to hear the Deputy ever condemn and he may wish to do so in his further remarks.

On exports, we have a control of exports regime that prevents us exporting arms to certain countries and we have a sanctions regime in that regard. If the Deputy wants to pass on any particular information to me, I will be happy to examine it, as this is legislation which falls under my remit. I have the power to impose certain sanctions and to ban certain exports and if the Deputy has something in particular in mind or has details that he wishes to give me about Irish products and services that might in some way be assisting the Israeli Government in its actions, I will be happy to look into that.

The Tánaiste is like a Kerryman. When a question is asked of him, he asks a question back. I will take the opportunity then to give a reply before posing my questions again.

The Palestinian people are an oppressed people and have a right to organise their self-defence, including armed self-defence. They have the right to fight for their own national and social liberation. The firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas is something that I do not support. It has resulted in the deaths of seven people, including a five-year-old boy. It is futile and counter-productive. I have no truck with the right-wing policies of Hamas, which oppresses the Palestinian people themselves in Gaza. A mass struggle is what is needed. There will be no peace without a mass struggle against poverty, occupation and the rule of capital. I am for an independent, socialist Palestine with its capital in east Jerusalem and for socialist change in Israel and the entire region.

In conclusion, the Tánaiste is talking about working within the framework of the European Union but does he not recognise that the European Union itself has a very significant arms trade with Israel? Is that something he is prepared to speak out against and totally oppose?

I thank the Deputy again and I welcome his criticism of Hamas and of its ideology. I note that he has yet to say anything about the other occupations that exist around the world and I often wonder why so little is said about them and so much about this particular one. That does not, however, in any way take away from the fact that what is happening in Israel and what the Israeli Government is doing are indefensible. As I said earlier, annexation, expulsions, plantations and the killing of civilians must be roundly condemned by all of us in this House and I know that we do that.

Action is likely to be co-ordinated on this at an EU level and I am sure that it will be discussed at the General Affairs Council and among Prime Ministers. Any action that is agreed by the European Union on the matters that the Deputy has raised is one that the Government will support.

I first want to associate myself with the remarks that the Tánaiste has made just now on the treatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli Government.

The commitments made to our national recovery include one of the largest tranches of capital investment ever announced in the State. Some €10 billion is to be spent on capital projects this year with Government projections indicating upward momentum in capital spending, with an additional €15 billion to be spent by 2025. This is great news for every child in substandard classrooms, every patient in substandard hospital settings and commuters on substandard infrastructure. This money must positively impact every Irish person. Getting to this position is a political and social achievement brought about by national sacrifice, by seeing through a decade of financial hardship and hard choices accepted by our population.

Few Governments in the history of our State have ever been in a position to give the people of Ireland the services they deserve in the schools, universities, hospitals and clinics, the housing and municipal infrastructure, and the investment in the arts, sports, roads, cycleways and railways.

Indeed few Governments have also had the ability to address so positively the challenges that climate change is presenting to our society and ultimately to our economy.

This money needs to be spent wisely and well. That will require political discipline, oversight and scrutiny, as well as tenacious and vigilant project management. I contend that the methods of oversight used thus far are not up to the task. The Committee of Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General, good as they are, are no match for the scale of ambitions and responsibilities in spending this money. Covid spending has taught us strong lessons regarding the difficulties in making good investment decisions when urgency and large capital outlays combine. We will be back in the ha'penny place in no time if we fritter away this money on political codology, vanity projects and, possibly, stroke politics.

My constituency of Waterford has suffered as a result not having had political clout for most of the history of the State. In saying that, I am conscious that my election as a Deputy comes from the anger in Waterford and the south-east region at not having the services that are normal in other parts of the country. We have been losers in the race to the Cabinet table, having only had three senior ministries in the past 33 Dáileanna. Maybe we will get our elbows in at Cabinet again, but I would prefer if we evened up the game.

The real problem is that we cannot see where money goes. The simple act of presenting historical capital expenditure on completed projects in the form of regional and county-level analyses would transform our national understanding. I believe such a reporting standard needs to be made a national priority. The country can have mature conversations about capital allocations and equitable investment priorities but, in so doing, we need to have oversight and adequate understanding of how decisions on capital spending are made. I hope this is something the Tánaiste can consider implementing.

The Government is engaged in a huge programme of capital investment in public infrastructure under the banner of Project Ireland 2040. It is €10 billion a year, money which we may struggle to spend this year because of the delays in construction but still a massive budget of €10 billion a year. It is the biggest ever investment programme in public infrastructure, creating jobs all over the country and providing new public infrastructure for citizens. It is social housing, for which there is a budget to provide 9,000 or 10,000 houses a year, new schools, hospitals, healthcare centres, sporting infrastructure, community infrastructure, renewable energy, retrofit and the national broadband plan.

Like all other parts of the country, Waterford benefits from this investment, such as through the investment in the North Quays, of which I know the Deputy and I are great advocates, the investment in University Hospital Waterford where the Dunmore wing is now open and the second catheterisation laboratory is at long last under construction and the national broadband plan which will be of particular benefit to rural parts of Waterford. The greenway has been built and is a huge asset. In the not too distant future, we will have the technological university of the south east, centred in Waterford city. These are significant investments by Government that I believe will help to transform the region, particularly Waterford city, making it the capital of the south east and attracting investment, jobs and population. That is the vision we have in Project Ireland 2040 for Waterford city and the south-east region.

In terms of the Deputy's remarks regarding transparency, I think he is probably right. This is a significant budget of €10 billion a year. There may well be, and I think there is, a case for further transparency as to how the money is spent and how we make sure it is spent well. I know the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, will welcome any proposals the Deputy has in that regard. I would like to see Government doing detailed analyses of that because one thing such analyses would show is that the idea of having a Cabinet member at the table is probably overrated in terms of the amount of capital investment that a particular city or constituency gets. Maybe things used to work that way but they do not do so any more, particularly with the public spending code in place. Some of the analyses that are done by interest groups and academics are misleading. For example, they will exclude any investment less than €20 million or less than €50 million. Of course, in areas with low population and rural areas, investments tend to be of smaller amounts. They are spread more widely. That creates the false impression that urban areas are doing much better than rural areas. Also, it does not fully take into account, for example, the value of nationwide investments such as road maintenance, research grants or the national broadband plan. I know different countries use different models. There is a state agency in Australia that is in charge of capital development there. There are lots of good ideas and I would certainly welcome hearing about them.

I would be quite happy to sit in on Cabinet meetings to see whether not being at the Cabinet table has an influence. I believe reporting from Departments is inadequate for the House to discharge fully its responsibilities of budgetary oversight. The Government needs to do more in demonstrating equitable investment decision making and providing the evidence that supports it. I point out to the Tánaiste that Dublin has one quarter of the population yet it receives approximately half of all capital investment. I also point out that I recently tabled parliamentary questions regarding €998 million of capital investment by the Higher Education Authority in the past decade but the Department was unable to provide me with a breakdown of projects supporting that spend. We do have an issue in this regard. I certainly look forward to engaging with the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy McGrath, and maybe coming up with further initiatives that I hope would help us to share the burden and to shed light on these decisions.

I broadly agree with the remarks of the Deputy. We do, of course, have systems to monitor capital spending, not just the Committee of Public Accounts but also the Comptroller and Auditor General, although that is largely retrospective, and also the Project Ireland 2040 delivery board. There are mechanisms in place. Could there be greater transparency or can they be improved? I think they can and I would very much welcome any suggestions from the Deputy in that regard.