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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Vol. 1007 No. 2

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Sinn Féin has been raising with Government the need to tackle the growing power of so-called cuckoo funds for years. We proposed measures to end the sweetheart tax deals that these funds have been gifted by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, but, time and again, Government has voted against these proposals.

Last week, the Taoiseach came to the Dáil and expressed his shock that funds are snapping up family homes in bulk. He said that this was a new development and it was not Government policy. Of course, none of that is true because it is Government policy to attract these investment funds which it does by giving them cushy tax arrangements, which see them pay virtually no tax at all. Last weekend we learned that it is also Government policy to invest in these funds. Money that should have be used for affordable and social housing was being used to push ordinary buyers out of the market, to push up house prices and rents. Far from being shocked, the truth is the Taoiseach knew what was happening and his claim that it is not Government policy to support these funds is absolutely bogus.

Ordinary working people will struggle every day to save for a deposit, they will pay extortionate rents, they will find themselves locked out of home ownership, and, all the while, these investors snap up homes from under their noses and their Government is boosting these funds with their taxes. You could not make it up.

The Government knows it is faced with enormous public anger in the face of a housing emergency. Yet the measures we have heard reported in the media seem to be a case of far too little, far too late. If the Government does not set the stamp duty at a high enough rate, it will not stop these funds buying up homes ahead of first-time buyers and others. For example, the Tories in Britain set the rate at 15%. They discovered even that rate was too low and they have had to raise it again.

If the Government's proposals exclude apartments, we will also have a big problem there because apartments are family homes and cannot be excluded. The reality is that half of all homes built in County Dublin last year would be exempted under the proposals speculated on in the media. Six out of seven homes in the city would be exempted.

The Government cannot wave the flag of surrender and abandon whole communities to investment funds not just in Dublin city but in Poolbeg, Cherrywood, Clonburris, Cork city and beyond because this would consign an entire generation to paying extortionate rip-off rents long into the future, unable to buy their own homes as these funds increase their profits.

Stamp duty needs to be increased. The Government needs to understand that these funds will spread the cost of this over their long-term investments. The Government, therefore, also needs to tax their profits. It must shut down all the sweetheart tax arrangements enjoyed by these investment funds. These deals, designed by Fine Gael and continued by this Government, need to be brought to an end. That is the only way we can ensure that this generation of workers and families will stand any chance of securing an affordable home. Will the Taoiseach outline for the Dáil and, more importantly, for those caught up in this housing nightmare what measurements his Government will now bring forward to stop these funds?

First, I have to repeat to the Deputy that the Government’s fundamental aim is to provide unprecedented funding to facilitate the largest social housing programme in the history of the State over the next five years. That is the anchor of the Government’s housing programme. We want to provide 50,000 social homes over the next five years.

In addition to that, we want to provide affordable homes through a variety of initiatives which the Minister has undertaken, not just in shared equity, or indeed where the State is now going to get involved in a new scheme to support State-built affordable homes, but also by way of the first-ever national cost-rental scheme, which is being introduced by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in addition to a range of other initiatives. The bottom line is that we are not building enough houses or apartments in this country to meet the needs of ordinary people and working people. The Government does not believe that funds should be competing with owner-occupiers or first-time buyers in buying up houses that have already been built. They should not be competing with first-time buyers for badly needed properties. We believe in supporting first-time buyers and owner-occupiers. That is why we have expanded the help-to-buy scheme. Sinn Féin opposed that scheme, which was availed of by 22,000 homeowners. Deputy McDonald seems to believe ordinary people should not get the help-to-buy scheme at all. She opposed it. Sinn Féin also opposed the Land Development Agency Bill, the shared equity scheme, and 16 out of 21 housing developments on Dublin City Council. These are homes that could have been built for ordinary working people.

The flaw in Sinn Féin’s proposition is that it sees no room at all for the private builder or the private sector. The State is now the main actor in housing - of that let there be no doubt - in terms of building and in terms of supporting agencies. We also need to get going as well. This has nothing to do with funds. This is to do with getting private builders to build privately so that we can get the level of housing we require. We need up to 400,000 new houses by the end of this decade. That is not all going to be done by the State on its own, yet Sinn Féin seems to think it is the only option.

The proposals that the Ministers, Deputies Darragh O’Brien and Donohoe, will be bringing forward will deal with the issue of investment funds competing with first-time buyers and owner-occupiers. Further discussions will take place later on some of the proposals. We will need the support of parties in this House to facilitate the passage through, most likely tomorrow, of the decisions that the Government will take on this matter. We want to see the legislation through tomorrow. I hope we can count on the support of Sinn Féin in that regard.

The Government perspective is very clear. Housing is a number one issue. We need to provide more and more houses. We need more supply. I do not see in the Sinn Féin policy any substantive, coherent approach to increasing that supply. Our Government’s entire effort and objective is to solve this problem. Sinn Féin’s objective is to exploit it for its own electoral and political gain. I see nothing constructive coming from that party, either at local or national level, in terms of getting houses built at a significant scale out there.

The reality for the Taoiseach is that he caused this problem.

He caused this crisis and he is sustaining it. The reality is that, as a consequence of his policy, these investment funds come here. Not alone do they come here and snap up family homes from under the noses of home buyers but, in fact, his Government invests in these funds to the tune of hundreds of millions of euro. His Government's policy allows these funds, some of them the biggest residential landlords in the State. I will give one example. IRES, one of the largest residential landlords in the State, turned over €75 million in income from rental. It paid no tax. Not one cent of tax was paid on that. That is the Taoiseach's policy. That is what he has brought. That has brought hardship to people across the land. I asked him about these funds specifically because this needs to get sorted out. I invite him to stop the spoofing and the posing and to commit to the following: stamp duty at 17%, corporate tax on the profits on these big funds and residential landlords-----

Time is up, Deputy, please.

-----and capital gains to apply. End the sweetheart arrangements and make absolutely sure that protection is afforded to every residential unit. Houses, apartments, duplexes-----

Time is up, Deputy, please.

-----all of them are homes and all of them need to be kept away from these vultures, these cuckoos, these funds that the Taoiseach-----

Deputy, please. The time is way up.

-----has invited in to wreak havoc in the lives of our citizens.

With the greatest respect, I did not invite anybody in because I was not in government when these funds were invited in. The Deputy knows that but she keeps up the great political lie that Sinn Féin keeps articulating in terms of trying to pretend that Fianna Fáil was in power for the last ten years when it was not. We are now in government with Fine Gael and the Green Party for the last ten months and we have identified housing as a major priority and capital is needed in the country to provide housing and apartments. The Deputy and Sinn Féin are doing the spoofing because they are perpetrating a great pretence that Sinn Féin and Sinn Féin alone through the State can provide every single house that will be required for the next number of years and every single apartment. The Deputy knows that is not the truth. She also knows it is not the truth to say that Government is involved in every single decision making process within the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF. Its funding has been designed to try to get certain projects that would never otherwise have happened over the line and get them built in terms of a rental market.

I thank the Taoiseach. The time is up.

We need a home ownership market, we need a social housing programme and we need a rental market as well, but I see nothing in the Deputy's proposals.

Why will the Taoiseach not answer the question?

I see nothing but bluster and empty rhetoric because, when it comes to it, what does Sinn Féin do on Dublin City Council and other councils? It opposes projects that could have delivered 700 houses in different localities around this city.

Never mind my party; you're the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach has no answers.

Taoiseach, please. Deputy McDonald, please.

It is complete hypocrisy how you perform on the housing programme.

The Taoiseach has no answers for an entire generation. There are no answers, only spoof, from the Deputy from Cork.

Deputies, please.

We might expect answers. It is called Leaders' Questions. We expect answers from the Taoiseach.

It is, but we cannot dictate the nature of the reply------

That is why the taxpayer pays his salary.

-----as Deputy McDonald is well aware. I appeal to Deputies, please, to adhere to the time limit. They are well aware of what the time limit is and, when they are asked to desist, please, would they desist?

The recent cyberattacks on the HSE and the Department of Health are monstrous crimes. They are attacks on the most vulnerable in Irish society. Patients are already struggling with never-ending waiting lists that have been worsened by Covid and ongoing restrictions but shockingly, on top of this, key life and death treatment is again put on hold due to this odious crime. The Government has a duty of care with regard to safeguarding and protecting the health of citizens and their personal data. This responsibility is particularly important in Ireland as we are a data island. Some 30% of the data that exist in the EU are located here. If one is going to mine data, the place to go is Ireland.

What is the record of the Government with regard to protection from cyberattack and safeguarding personal data? According to a reply I received this week to a parliamentary question, Tusla, for example, had 362 breaches in the past year, which is practically a breach for every day of the year. Incredibly, the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, has been rudderless for the past year, with no director put in place.

The NCSC is also homeless. It does not even have a permanent residence from which to operate. The Government sees the role of the director of the NCSC to be so important that it has set the wage for that individual lower than a backbench Opposition Member.

The former chief executive officer of the HSE, Tony O'Brien, stated this week that the HSE's expenditure on IT security is approximately a quarter of what would be expected compared to other health systems. That is a phenomenally difficult thing for any Government to have to deal with. The person who was head of the HSE in recent times is saying that the Government is spending a quarter of what it should be spending on cybersecurity. The NCSC has been given a budget of just €5 million. Let us think about that. Last year, the Department of the Taoiseach spent €16.5 million on PR alone. The NCSC has a staff of 25, with no dedicated premises or director and a budget amounting to one third of the Department of the Taoiseach's budget on PR. How can the Government claim to be fulfilling its duty of care with regard to Ireland against cyberattack? After the British NHS suffered a similar attack in 2017, it cost that government £92 million directly to deal with the cost of the attack. It also cost the British Government £210 million to strengthen its cybersecurity in the three subsequent years.

When will patient treatment return? How much will this cost in terms of citizens' lives and health, and taxpayer funds?

I thank the Deputy for raising what is a very serious issue indeed. The first point I will make is that this is an attack on our health service by criminals. There should be no truck or any quarter given to criminals of this kind who undermine patient safety, and seek, by their actions-----

The lack of security is undermining patient safety.

Let us give these people no truck. There should be a collective national effort to articulate one single simple message. What you are doing is outrageous and wrong. It is morally wrong-----

The lack of security is outrageous too.

-----to put patients at risk in this manner.

That is the Government's position on this and I would hope the Opposition's position also. I am responding to Deputy Tóibín's point. I would appreciate the opportunity to respond.

You are taking your time about it.

It is a very serious issue.

Answer the question.

Please desist.

I have three minutes and my time is being interrupted by an unseemly intervention.

He does not want to answer the question. Bluffer.

All of the right people are in the right place in responding to these criminals. Cybersecurity is not something new. Every state, system and private sector operator is facing cybersecurity threats and attacks on an ongoing basis. That is my first point.

My second point is that in the last budget alone we trebled funding for the NCSC. We trebled funding for it. More than that, it has not been rudderless as Deputy Tóibín stated. That is a wrong phrase to use. It has not been. There is a vacancy that is being filled. The person could not take it in February, having been vacant since November. It is not without a home. We need less of that sort of melodramatic presentation. That is grist to the mill to those who are attacking the system. We have very good capacity within our system in terms of the quality of the personnel available to deal with this issue. It has been dealt with in the correct manner: contain the problem, remedy, restore and protect. That is what we are about with both the NCSC, and the HSE in terms of restoring services. The chief executive officer of the HSE has long experience in this field from different employment he was in. Our overriding objective is to get service up as quickly as we possibly can for patients. We must do it methodically and properly in a way that is robust against further attack. That is why, unfortunately, it will take time to get services fully restored, but we are prioritising key areas, as Deputy Tóibín knows.

I prefaced my statement by saying where the responsibility lies for this attack. It lies with the criminals who were involved but the Government has a duty of care and responsibility to the patients of this country for the delivery of healthcare and protection of their data. Its duty of care is far more to this country, given that this is an island of data. Right now we have hospitals where operations are being cancelled, people are running around with paper documents and staff are acting as runners between hospitals and GPs.

I raised this issue first in 2013 with the then Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte. Since then, many people have raised the issue. It is hard to get around the contradictions. Cybercriminals are operating a generation ahead of an island nation that hosts 50 international cybersecurity companies and 6,000 of the world's best cybersecurity experts. Yet there is no permanent home for the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, there is no director at the moment and the investment is paltry with regard to the responsibilities the centre holds. When will the Government invest properly in this?

I said even during the last budget debate and, since I became Taoiseach, I have been very focused on the international cybersecurity threat. We have significantly increased funding for the NCSC and, within the HSE, both capital and current funding have gone up dramatically in recent years. Current expenditure has gone from €45 million to €83 million of ICT spend within health; capital expenditure has gone from €85 million to €120 million in 2021, which is an illustration-----

That is not cybersecurity funding; it is ICT.

The overall point is we are consistently increasing funding. This is an ongoing battle, as the Deputy knows. Cybersecurity will not go away any time soon. We will constantly review increasing resources and capacity over coming years to deal with these criminals, who are fundamentally responsible for this attack on patients and our health service. It is important that all those with responsibilities on social media or public media more generally do not facilitate these criminals in the publication of any material they have illegally secured. Our fundamental objective is to restore services as quickly as we can.

Arís, baineann mo cheist le cúrsaí tithíochta agus leis an ngéarchéim tithíochta. Tá an t-ábhar seo ardaithe go mion minic agam ag an leibhéal seo, i gceisteanna don Taoiseach agus i ngach díospóireacht sa Dáil. Arís inniu, tá an cheist á ardú agam maidir leis an ngéarchéim tithíochta go náisiúnta agus go háirid i nGaillimh, áit a bhfuil daoine ag fanacht níos mó ná 15 bliain le teach a fháil.

I raise the housing emergency once again. Like other Deputies on the left, I have raised it continuously any chance I get. I have participated in every debate on housing to bring to the Taoiseach's attention what is happening. I will attempt to do that in the next two minutes. I ask the Taoiseach not to come back and tell me, as he told the leader of Sinn Féin, about rhetoric and bluster. I am allergic to it. I want an acknowledgement that the support of the previous Government and, going back further, Fianna Fáil-led governments, has led to the housing crisis. If the Taoiseach has had a moment on the road to Damascus, I welcome that. If he now says we need public housing on public land as an integral part of the solution to the housing emergency, I welcome that.

The Simon Communities of Ireland Locked Out report for April 2021, 18th study, provides a three-day snapshot. Of the areas studied, six had no properties available. Galway city had two within the limits of the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. The Government's policy, and that of the previous Government, is predominantly HAP. Galway has a major housing crisis. People are waiting 15 years. A task force was set up in April 2019 and, notwithstanding good updates on Galway, it has not produced a single comprehensive report to say what the problem is and what is needed. We have any amount of land in Galway up to 2023, when it will run out. In the meantime, all those parcels of land are being developed by developers. We have the docks, maximising the value of the land there.

There is 17 acres that they are going to sell off to the highest bidder or to the Land Development Agency. We have Ceannt Station, with valuable land in the middle being developed by a developer. We have the Dyke Road. We have land at the airport. We have land at Nuns' Island. They are all being developed without a master plan. Can one imagine that? Each developer is developing its own site with a little tiny bit of social housing or affordable housing but no master plan or recognition of the emergency. There is so much that I could say but I will stick rigidly to my time. I am telling the Taoiseach that there is a housing emergency in Galway. I am telling him that the market-based approach is not working. We need a commitment to public housing on public land as an essential ingredient in a solution.

First, I am allergic to bluster and political rhetoric as well. There is sometimes no shortage of it on Deputy Connolly's side of the House either. Furthermore, I have been committed to public housing all my life. All of my political life I have supported the provision of public housing in whatever capacity I have served, and in building local authority houses. In this Government that was formed in the past ten months there is a very strong commitment to a large social housing programme. The funding has been provided, with €3.3 billion alone provided in this year's budget for housing. The issue now is to get the houses delivered and to get them built and in addition to get affordable housing built. Níl aon amhras ach go bhfuil géarchéim uafásach maidir leis sin. Admhaím é sin. Is é sin an fáth go bhfuil sé ina chéad aidhm ag an Rialtas i bhfad níos mó tithíochta a chur ar fáil ná mar atá againn anois mar níl a dhóthain á tógáil againn faoi láthair. Supply is a key issue. The council in Galway has responsibilities in terms of working towards the creation of a master plan. The whole purpose of the Land Development Agency is to create a facility whereby we can use public land for the provision of housing. Deputy Connolly's view seems to be that it should be 100% public housing. I do not necessarily agree that it should be 100%. I have no issue with mixed development on any housing site, either State-built or State-supported affordable, which should be facilitated on public land. Overall, we need to get more houses built than we are currently building.

Last year about 20,000 houses were built, the majority provided by the State. This year the target was about 25,000, of which 12,750 are to be provided by the Government. There is no great private sector out there at the moment. It seems the majority of private sector housing built last year was stand-alone single units across the country. There is a fundamental issue of getting more houses built overall across the mix between public sector housing, public provision and private sector provision. I do not mean funds or anything like that: I mean in the normal traditional way where houses were built that were affordable for people to buy as well, because I believe in home ownership. I do not know whether Deputy Connolly does, but I believe in home ownership and people's right and aspiration to be able to purchase houses at affordable prices. That is something I support. That is a huge challenge right now. It seems to me the fundamental problem facing the country is one of supply. To that end, the Government is committed to housing being the number one priority as we emerge from Covid-19 and to applying the same type of approach that we applied to Covid to get this housing issue sorted.

The fundamental problem is that the Government and previous Governments have commodified housing. They have decided it is a commodity to be sold and traded. Each Government one after the other has had housing policies backing that up to ensure that ordinary people would not be able to buy a house or rent a house. In Galway the task force has told us that the rent crisis has risen 97%. The Taoiseach should listen to that. It is more than 97% higher than in 2012, and we have two units, to use the language of the Government, available within the HAP limits. The Government's policies and ideology have led to a housing crisis from as far back as 2009 when it stopped construction. I was in Galway when we stopped construction. Many devices were introduced to keep things off the balance sheet, as opposed to saying housing is a fundamental human right. We need 100% public housing on public land. I make no apology for it.

Within that, we would have a mix. As I am over time, I will stop in mid-sentence. Maybe the Taoiseach might stop and actually reflect on what we are telling him.

I belong to a party that, since its foundation, committed itself to the provision of social housing. It cleared the slums in the 1930s from Dublin, Cork and other cities, and has always remained committed to the provision of social housing. That is the party I joined. It is my commitment; it is my philosophy. The Deputy has falsely presented my ideology. My ideology is not the marketplace and it is not to commoditise housing. I have just said we are committed to providing unprecedented funding to try to create the largest social housing programme in the history of the State. That is what our objective is as a Government. In addition to that, we are providing affordable housing for people who aspire to buy their homes. We will support them through the State supporting it through a variety of initiatives that the Minister has announced. We are also providing the first national cost rental programme, which will provide housing for rent at 25% below the market rate. These are important initiatives for people but to make it all happen, we need more supply. We need to get more builders out there, building more homes and building more apartments, and we need capital to do that. The State will not be able on its own to do it all, and that reality needs to sink in.

I raise with the Taoiseach the issue of the building of a sewerage scheme in Kilcummin, east Kerry, north of and bounding Killarney. The people in Kilcummin have been trying to progress this scheme since 2000. Work was to begin around 2006 or 2007 but the contractor was found not to be able to deliver. Thus, Kerry County Council decided to tender it out again and a new form of tender was demanded by the Department. Kerry County Council was unsure, the contractors were unsure and, anyway, the Department of Finance stopped it and withdrew the scheme in 2008 because the country was gone bust, as the Taoiseach knows well.

Promises were being made continuously, year after year, to deliver this scheme. There was money available to upgrade the road, but the road up to Kilcummin could not be resurfaced because it was anticipated the sewerage scheme would be coming down any week or any month. As it was supposed to happen very soon, the road resurfacing kept being deferred until last year, when, for the first time, the truth was told that the scheme would not go ahead in 2020, even though it was promised.

To go back to 2013, the Government of the time, including Labour, promised €1.2 million for that scheme. Promises were again made in early 2019 but I have told the Taoiseach what happened in 2020. Lo and behold, Irish Water announced last Thursday that the scheme would go ahead in late 2022, with tenders going out at that time but the sting was in the detail because three roads, involving almost 40 houses, are to be cut out of the scheme. The reason Irish Water gave was that these people did not apply for the scheme. Nothing could be further from the truth as they were never asked to apply. It gave another reason, that costs have increased, which is the truth. There is no point in it trying to blame the people.

The Taoiseach is here in his bubble every day, talking about building houses with one policy or another, and he is saying that funding is not a problem, and telling people to build in villages or towns, and not to build one-off houses out the country. The planning regulators are putting every obstacle in their way. Kilcummin is the largest parish in the country, with all streams and rivers from this area going into the lakes of Killarney. There are two nursing homes and 210 houses being accommodated, leaving out 40 houses. There are several villages in Kerry without sewerage schemes - Kilcummin, Currow, Scartaglin, Castleisland and Beaufort. Several schemes need to be extended or brought up to standard at Castleisland, Brosna, Kenmare and Fenit.

Commercial or housing developments are being halted because of these inferior schemes.

Please, please, we cannot have the litany of the saints.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue, particularly for the residents of the area and those who stand to benefit from the Kilcummin sewerage scheme. The sanctioning of the scheme is important. The Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, was very keen to allocate substantial resources to waste water treatment plants and to water infrastructure more generally because it is an important infrastructure for house construction as well as for water quality. It has been a long journey, as the Deputy has outlined, but the scheme has now been sanctioned. It has got the green light. The Deputy has said that the tenders will go out in 2022. I read about this in terms of the exclusion of 40 houses from the tender. I think it was raised at Kerry County Council recently or by local councillors. I will engage with the Minister and Oireachtas Members. I know that the Minister, Deputy Foley, will also be interested in this. We will talk to Irish Water to get submissions from the residents and see if something can be done here because when we put in infrastructure we want to make it comprehensive. We do not want to have to go back again in a few years' time to upgrade or redo it. I will have the matter investigated. I had not realised the Deputy was raising this specific issue today. Generally, we are allocating a lot of resources to our water infrastructure. We want to see good jobs done in terms of quality and in terms of covering as wide an area as possible.

The Government will have to fund Irish Water properly to develop these schemes because it is a case of live horse and you will get grass. It will not work. Leaving out the roads of Clashnagarrane, Knockataggle and Rahanane, which the village is actually built in, is absolutely ridiculous. The Taoiseach mentioned the Minister, Deputy Foley. I am saying to her that the five Deputies from Kerry need to meet. The municipal members of the Killarney municipal area want to meet the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, about this. We will not take no for an answer. It is clear that in the first place, these roads were envisaged and these houses were to be catered for, but now they are being left out of it because of money. At the same time, the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, are here. I am not being critical, but they are saying that funding is not a problem. If it is not a problem, they should make the funding available for this scheme and allow all the houses to be catered for.

God damn it, Taoiseach, you are going on for 21 years and the people of Kilcummin are honest, hard-working people and they deserve the scheme.

Thank you very much, Deputy.

We need to protect the lakes of Killarney, a Cheann Comhairle.

Thank you. Mind yourself there.

As I have said, the money is not the issue in funding water infrastructure. Very significant allocations were made in the budget this year. Deputy Kelly is endeavouring to interject. He might have some experience of this scheme going back. I will engage-----

These houses have been left out.

I know that. We will work with Irish Water.

Deputy Kenny's house is going to be left out.

Former Taoiseach Kenny's house is going to be left out if this continues.

You are really calling on all the shots now, Deputy Healy-Rae.

That is the truth. He comes there every summer and he is welcome.

You are using every degree of leverage you can for this scheme. I have often gone through Kilcummin and we might be down there again in the summer, Covid restrictions permitting. I will talk to the Minister. We will talk to Irish Water, see what the issue is and see if we can get it resolved. You have made your point, which is valid.

We might have an official opening of the place in due course, when the scheme is finished.