Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I have raised with the Taoiseach time out of number the matter of the extortionate rents that workers and families are paying. They hand over an extraordinary proportion of their hard-earned cash to landlords every month. As a result of this, an entire generation is locked out of home ownership. Let us face it: they do not stand a chance of saving for a mortgage deposit while forking out up to €2,000 in rent every month.

This was the case long before Covid-19. However, the pandemic has hit generation rent hard. Many renters lost their jobs and were prevented from going to work. They have seen their incomes collapse. Many are not back at work yet. On top of colossal rents they now face the prospect of the Government cutting their income supports.

Yet, the bills keep coming thick and fast. Renters are really struggling to keep their heads above water. As if this was not bad enough, tenants could be hit with a hike of up to 8% when the Government withdraws emergency protections next month. This arises because of a loophole in the disastrous rent pressure zone legislation that will allow renters who did not endure a 4% increase last year to be hit on the double with a double whammy this year. Renters are already being fleeced so any increase in these extortionate rents will literally break the backs of workers and families.

I come in here every week and ask the Taoiseach to show up for struggling renters. We in Sinn Féin have made proposals that would make a real difference. We asked the Government to cut rents by putting one months' rent back into the pocket of each renter. The Government said "No". We asked the Government to legislate to ban rent increases for a period of three years and the Government said "No". We asked the Government to stop apartments being bought up by investment funds that drive up rents and the Government said "No". In fact everything that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party do makes life easier for big landlords and investment funds and makes life so much harder for ripped-off renters.

This is not only a social crisis but an economic one. The Taoiseach should know there is real concern within the business community that the lack of affordable accommodation for workers will stifle the chances of making Dublin and other cities living cities that will drive our national recovery. I have been talking to representatives of the chambers of commerce in Galway and Dublin in recent days. They reflect this strongly.

This has to change fast. The Taoiseach cannot allow 8% increases in rents. In fact, he cannot allow any increase in rent. There are solutions. There are things he could do today to protect renters. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, says he plans to bring a Bill to the Dáil in the autumn to replace the 4% increases permitted under the rent pressure zone legislation. This will be far too late for renters. This legislation needs to be fast-tracked now. The Minister needs to bring the Bill before the Dáil before the summer recess. A ban on rent increases for three years must be part of that legislation. The Taoiseach also needs to reinstate the full ban on evictions until the end of the year at least. These are the kinds of things that need to be done now to give generation rent a chance of recovery and a shot at making it.

First of all, I do not accept the Deputy's assertions in respect of the Government's position during the past year and a half, in particular in respect of tenants more generally and protecting tenants. We are doing everything we possibly can to help tenants who need enhanced protection from the State during Covid-19 and we have been doing that. Rental protections remain in place for those most in need of such protections. Any person negatively impacted by Covid-19 who is experiencing arrears, who is at risk of homelessness and who makes a declaration can avail of protections under the Residential Tenancies Board. Those rental protections are a proportionate response because the Government has to balance constitutional issues with the common good.

The targeted ban on rent increases is due to expire on 12 July. The majority of tenants in the private rental sector have not been protected from rent increases since 1 August. We acknowledge that. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will shortly bring proposals to the Government to extend rental protections further beyond 12 July. This is to give more time to vulnerable tenants to recover their financial stability.

I will comment on the broader situation. The Government's policies in respect of housing, housing supply and the construction of more housing are key to helping those who are currently paying exorbitant rents. We want to provide affordable housing to people. We want to provide social housing to those who are currently under the housing assistance payment situation and who are renting. That is our target. It would be important that all parties at local and council level support that by giving the green light to housing construction projects that are ready to go and to stop objecting to them and opposing them. That is the first thing. We need to get housing supply up to improve the rental market.

The Minister is planning to change rental legislation and is planning for legislation to provide long-term security of tenure for tenants at affordable rents. The annual 4% cap was introduced some years ago in the context of rent pressure zones. I am conscious of the issue that the Deputy has raised and I have discussed it with the Minister. The Minister is keen for long-term security and for the issue of the scale and level of increase to be curtailed in future. We have been legally advised and, in our view, the outright banning cannot happen. In other jurisdictions where that did happen, it had negative unintended consequences. During the emergency period of Covid-19 from August 2020 to January 2021 we were able to support tenants. We did that in a targeted manner where we were legally entitled to do so. We cannot break the law from the Government perspective. We take on board seriously the issues that are arising. The Minister intends to bring in legislation to sort this out for the longer term for tenants in terms of security of tenure and affordable levels of increases in rent rather than what has been happening prior to the pandemic.

The Taoiseach says he does not accept my assertions. Which assertions?

The general assertions.

Is it my assertion that rents are extortionate or that renters are being ripped off? Is it my assertion that renters are struggling or that a whole generation is living with the fear of not making rent and losing the roofs over their heads? Is it my assertion that a whole generation is effectively locked out of any real prospect of home ownership? Are those the assertions the Taoiseach questions? Those are the facts on the ground. Perhaps the assertion that troubles him is my assertion that the Taoiseach should get the finger out and act on behalf of these struggling renters. The Government is supporting institutional investors and big private investor funds. It makes sure they are okay but it has left renters in the lurch. If that was not bad enough, many of these renters now face the real prospect of increases in rent of as much as 8%. That cannot happen. The Taoiseach needs to act now. He cannot put this on the never-never. We have given him the answer to supporting these people and families. The jig is up. People can see exactly the stance the Taoiseach has taken. Now is the moment to act for renters.

I challenge the Deputy's assertion that Government did nothing to help renters during the pandemic. That is the assertion I challenge. I also challenge the Deputy's sincerity and accuse her of a lack of honesty in this regard. Just last week, she opposed plans for 1,200 houses in Donabate. What about renters there who could have got affordable housing or those who could have got social housing from that project? What did the Deputy's party do? It opposed the development. How many more housing projects from which people who are currently renting could have got houses has it opposed? With regard to housing, the Deputy's party has been engaged in hypocrisy on a grand scale. It has no coherent proposals. It just keeps attacking and opposing housing project after housing project. That is the level of sincerity that the Deputy's party and the Deputy as its leader have been articulating for quite some time. It is all about votes. It is all about exploiting an issue rather than contributing to its resolution. We have protected renters during the emergency period of the pandemic. We have done everything we possibly can within the law to do so and we are going to do more but, fundamentally, we have to provide more affordable housing for young people and more social housing. I would appreciate it if the Deputy and her party would get the finger out, start doing something about that for once and support parties on every council across the country to get housing built.

The Taoiseach is clearly very touchy about the subject of his Government's lack of care for renters. The reason for that is that we have a government of landlords, for landlords. I will provide some facts rather than assertions. The cost of renting has more than doubled in the last ten years. Dublin has the fifth highest rents in all of Europe. Rents here are more expensive than in Paris, Berlin or Rome. Irish renters pay an average of 40% of their income in rent, the highest proportion in the world. There is a crisis facing renters in this country. The Government always said - and we have heard an echo of this from the Taoiseach today - that it could not introduce a ban on evictions, a rent freeze or proper rent controls that would bring rents down to affordable levels because the Constitution says "No". When Covid hit and the Government was under massive pressure, it found a way. Now that Covid is receding it is back to normal business for the Government and the landlords it represents.

The eviction ban is being lifted and the rent freeze with it. It is not enough, however, for the corporate landlords to return to their normal increases of 4% a year, which is, in effect, what the Government's rent controls meant. They want to make up for the 4% they missed out on last year. They want a double rent hike - two years of rent increases in the one year. As things stand, from 13 July literally hundreds of thousands of renters are facing rent increases of up to 8%. Jane, who lives in a very ordinary house in Tallaght, has been told that her rent is going up by €160 a month, an 8% increase to €2,140. Philip lives in an apartment in Islandbridge. His landlord is increasing the rent by €107 a month, an increase of 7.7%. Samantha in Dún Laoghaire is facing a 10% increase. Her rent is going up by €166 to €1,780 a month because the last time her rent was increased was in January 2019. Many of these people are the same people who are facing cuts to their pandemic unemployment payments. How are they meant to find this extra money to pay the landlords?

When I raised this issue with the Tánaiste last week, he said "I must admit to not being aware of that" and "I did not envisage that people would be able to apply a retrospective year." When I asked the Taoiseach about it yesterday he said, as he has said again today, that the Minister "is examining the situation". It speaks to the Government being entirely out of touch with renters that it did not know that this was coming. Does the Taoiseach not know any renters? Does the Tánaiste not know any renters? Now the Government says that it is going to deal with the issue but Philip, Jane and Samantha want assurances that the Government will prevent these double rent increases from occurring in July and they want those assurances today. They also want assurances that these double rent increases will be prevented from occurring in August, September or October, the door to this having been opened in what the Taoiseach just said. They want proper rent controls to be put in place to bring rents down to affordable levels.

As I said earlier, the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 provided that rent increases were not permitted to take place during an emergency period from August 2020 to 10 January 2021 for tenants with rent arrears due to Covid who were at risk of losing their tenancies and who made the necessary declaration. The Government made legislative provision to protect tenants during the emergency period. Clearly, the legal capacity to institute a blanket freeze on rents outside of the emergency period is limited by the Constitution. Those are the facts. Having said that, the Minister is going to amend the legislation brought in which allowed for the 4% increases with a view to security of tenure and to the rate. He is going to bring in legislation quickly to deal with the 8% increase with regard to those who are most vulnerable and most at risk. He will respond in that manner.

Again, Government does not represent landlords. I certainly do not and I have no interest in doing so. I do, however, believe that we need an adequate supply. I have seen nothing from the Deputy which contributes to the supply issue. That is a key point in improving the overall housing situation. We did approximately 20,000 houses last year. Covid-19 impacted on construction. We need more affordable housing and affordable rents. We need more cost-rental accommodation. The Minister is providing for the first ever national cost-rental scheme this year. We are providing new schemes of State-built affordable housing so that people who are currently paying rents that exceed what they would pay as a mortgage payment will be able to afford to buy housing. I know that is what people are paying. I know many renters, by the way. I want to change the current situation. It is not acceptable and we are setting about changing it.

As we come out of the first global pandemic in 100 years, we are going to focus 100% on the issue of housing. That is a clear objective of Government. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have sought to protect renters from eviction and excessive rent increases. We brought in legislation to protect renters in that regard. The earlier legislation the Deputy referred to which allowed for increases of 4% per annum in the rent pressure zones is the law. The Minister is committed to changing that law. I fully accept that rents are too high for many people but it is equally important that we give people the opportunity to buy houses and to access more social housing. That is why we have put in place the largest ever social housing programme for the next five years.

This is another example of the Government's argument, the Constitution says "No". The Taoiseach says that we cannot have a blanket freeze on rents because of the Constitution. He says those are the facts. I do not believe they are.

The Government is hiding behind that argument precisely because it represents developers, but let us concede that those are the facts. Let us accept the idea that the protection of private property in the Constitution means that there are limits beyond which we cannot go in terms of rent controls, an eviction freezes and so on. We concede that. Can I take it then that the Government will support the Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Housing) Bill 2020 from People Before Profit on Second Stage tomorrow? This Bill will introduce into the Constitution a right to secure, affordable, dignified housing appropriate to need and, accordingly, delimit the right to private property where that is necessary to ensure the common good. The Bill seeks to remove this excuse and, therefore, say that we can introduce rent controls, rent freezes and a ban on evictions. Will the Government be supporting the right to housing Bill as, for example, the Green Party did in 2017? People Before Profit will be running a major campaign on this issue. The Government will not be able to have it both ways.

Thank you very much. Time is up Deputy.

The Government says that it would love to do this, but it cannot do it because of the Constitution. It should support our proposed constitutional change so that it can do it.

The legislation is being allowed to proceed to Committee Stage, but the Government will bring forward an approach to the insertion of a right to housing in the Constitution. It may be different from the construct suggested by Deputy Murphy, but Government parties are committed to a right to housing in the Constitution and will set about preparing for that in a proper, comprehensive and constructive way. That in itself will not solve the immediate issues or the issues over the next while in terms of building more houses. As I said earlier - I really mean this - there are too many people on councils across the country objecting too many housing projects. We all accept that there is a crisis in terms of housing for renters and people who cannot get housing, be that social housing or otherwise, and there is not enough affordable housing for people to buy. It is a crisis. If we all accept that, then we all need to act accordingly as well. We do not have the luxury of opposing housing schemes that could provide 1,200 houses in a given area or 500 houses in another area-----

Thank you Taoiseach. Time is up.

-----because it does not fit one's particular ideological type of approach. We need a collective consensus approach to getting projects built. Until we get more houses built, we are not going to solve this problem.

I would like to focus my question this afternoon on the national recovery and resilience plan published yesterday afternoon. This plan is being exclusively funded from Brussels. For the first time ever the European Union is centrally borrowing to the tune of €750 billion - a massive amount of money - and distributing that money among member states. I wish this facility had been available to us ten years ago when we needed it most. It would have offset much of the unnecessary suffering and hardship.

I have one concern with regard to Ireland's allocation, which is €915 million. Notwithstanding that Ireland's population is more than 1.1% of the European Union, its allocation is less than 0.75%. I ask the Taoiseach to outline what criteria was used at a European level to determine the allocations for individual member states and to confirm if he is happy and satisfied with Ireland's allocation. My second question is again in regard to the €915 million. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm if it is a grant that does not have to be paid back to Brussels or if it is a loan that has to be paid back over time.

I would like to make a third point. I agree with the overarching objectives of this programme. It is about decarbonisation, digitalisation and resilience. In the time remaining to me, I will focus on the resilience piece. Over the last 15 or 16 months two organisations in particular have excelled and demonstrated once again that they are critical when it comes to national resilience in the face of the strategic shock we have just been through, that is, An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. Ironically, these are the two organisations that get very little, if any, funding directly from Brussels. This is an opportunity to right that wrong. I note in the plan a commitment for deep retrofitting of public service buildings. I ask the Taoiseach to consider or, at least, not to forget the many old and cold Garda stations and military barracks all over this country. They were formerly owned by the Royal Irish Constabulary, RIC, and the British Army and we took them over almost 100 years ago. They are in deep and serious need of refurbishment. I ask the Taoiseach not to forget about them.

There is another commitment in regard to funding of the technological universities. Again, there are two technological universities that have been consistently forgotten about, that is, the Garda College in Templemore and The Military College in the Curragh Camp, both of which are crying out for funding. Soldiering and policing in the 21st century are tech-heavy professions and they need to be funded. I ask the Taoiseach not to forget about these two institutions. They have served us well over the last 100 years. I ask that any funding available through this stream be directed to those two institutions.

I thank Deputy Berry for the questions. First, the €915 million is a grant, not a loan, although the facility exists for Ireland to submit an application for loan facilities as well from the European Union's recovery and resilience facility. I actively supported the creation of a new European Union initiative, the recovery and resilience facility, at the European Council meeting last year. In my view, it is historic and unprecedented, but correct, that Europe would work collectively in a once in 100 years crisis to borrow money to enable Europe as an entity to get through the Covid-19 pandemic. In that context, as a small open economy, we benefit if the European economy is refloated through exporting goods and services to the Single Market and to more than 450 million citizens. That ultimately is what will drive the Irish economy into the future.

The allocation is provided to member states in two stages, with 70% paid in 2021-2022 and 30% in 2023. For 70% of the total €312.5 billion available in grants, the allocation key takes into account a member state's population, the inverse of its GDP per capita and its average unemployment rate over the five years from 2014 to 2019, all of which are compared to the European average. For the remaining 30%, the formula will replace the 2015-2019 unemployment rate indicator with the observed loss in real GDP over 2020 and the observed cumulative loss in real GDP over the period 2020 to 2021.

Ireland's strong economic performance relative to other countries, plus our population, is the key factor in terms of the amount we have received in grant terms. The recovery and resilience submission is taken as a substitute for the semester process, which is the annual country-specific recommendations issued by the Commission. Ireland has made its submission. The plan has been submitted. It very much reflects the emphasis on the green economy and on digital transformation as key elements.

In terms of the other issues, the Defence Forces built infrastructure programme is in place. It is a five-year plan financed to 2025. On the provision of infrastructure in the Curragh Camp, there are a number of notable projects identified for delivery. The Deputy may wish to note that progression is well advanced on procurement and design of a new cadet school headquarters in the Curragh Camp. It is intended, subject to procurement, to commence construction of this much-needed building as quickly as possible. On upgrade of The Military College, the five-year plan identifies the development of that facility, with a planned construction start in 2025.

I thank the Taoiseach for clarifying that the funding is a grant rather than a loan. That is really important because what we are going through at the moment is not a stand-alone economic crisis; it is a natural disaster that has become an economic crisis. It is important to make a distinction in that perspective.

I note from the plan that there is a potential opportunity for a second round of European Union funding in 2023, which obviously has to be negotiated. I would urge the Taoiseach to push for a second allocation of €750 million, if possible. Ireland should fight as much as possible for its pro rata entitlement. The more money we can throw at this problem the better. We need to inflate the economy and to reinflate our society and get on with our lives.

I appreciate the Deputy's point, but we will not be able to get a similar amount in the second round. It will not be of that scale because the metrics, in terms of the application of the GDP measurement, is going to make it challenging for us.

We will keep open the idea and possibility of borrowing from the facility but, given the fact we can borrow quite cheaply, or I might say at low cost, on the markets at the moment, it is something the Minister for Finance continues to evaluate.

The importance of this recovery and resilience plan is its focus on decarbonisation of the economy. There are significant jobs available now, and will be available, in retrofitting, for example, under the national retrofit programme and in terms of public transport development. The rail project in Cork is a very good illustration of that. The Beggars Bush development will provide a state-of-the-art public building for the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, which will then become an exemplar for other public buildings in terms of how they should be developed. The river basin management plan is also important. Investment in schools will see connectivity provided for 1,000 or 1,100 schools. There is also the national grand challenges scholars programme, which will give substantial funding for research across the country.

We move now to Deputy Harkin of the Independent Group.

I want to raise the issue of the complete downgrading of Sligo from the perspective of policing. Approximately 18 months ago, there was a complete U-turn on building a new Garda station. The OPW had purchased a new site and plans were drawn up to build this badly needed Garda station. Even though all that money was spent and promises were made, a complete U-turn saw the entire project scrapped and a completely useless refurbishment programme set in place. Yesterday, Garda management in Sligo, the OPW and the local authority housing section met to discuss the suitability of the station. It is my understanding that there was general acceptance at the meeting that the footprint of the existing station is insufficient. Double the space is needed and the only way the existing station would be suitable is if certain facilities, such as disability access, were cut back. Up to now, it was rank-and-file gardaí saying this but it is now my understanding that it is also the position of Garda management.

To add insult to injury, we also have a situation where there is no armed response unit in Sligo. I checked the situation yesterday and found that from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., an armed response unit, if needed, would have had to come from Ballyshannon, if it was not already engaged in north, south, west or east Donegal. From 7 o'clock last night to 7 o'clock this morning, if an armed response unit was needed, it would have had to come from Galway, some 140 km away. That is assuming it was not needed in counties Galway, Roscommon or Longford, in which case a unit would have had to come from Cavan. It is totally untenable that for 12 hours out of every day, sometimes in the daytime and sometimes at night, if an armed response unit is needed in counties Sligo or Leitrim, it has to come from Galway. In the case of towns like Manorhamilton, for example, that is a distance of 160 km.

It seems the message from the Government to the people and the Garda in Sligo is that policing there is being downgraded. People need answers from the Taoiseach and his Government as to why this is happening.

I thank Deputy Harkin for raising this issue. We have provided substantial resources to An Garda Síochána. Some of the issues she has raised are operational issues. Garda management, I am told, keeps the distribution of resources under continual review in the context of policing priorities and crime trends to ensure their optimum use. As the Deputy knows, the Garda Commissioner is responsible by law for the management and administration of An Garda Síochána. That includes the deployment of resources and personnel matters. Allocation of Garda resources is made in the light of operational demand, which includes the deployment of personnel across the various Garda divisions.

A total of €1.952 billion was allocated to the Garda Síochána in 2021, which is an unprecedented budget. Obviously, Covid-19 is a factor in that and has placed considerable strain and stress on An Garda Síochána, the members of which have responded magnificently to the challenges of the pandemic. I want to acknowledge that. The budget for 2021 will allow for the recruitment of up to 620 new gardaí and an extra 500 Garda staff. Substantial resources have been allocated.

On Sligo Garda station, I do not have the details in respect of the sequence of events the Deputy outlined. Other Deputies, including Deputy MacSharry, have been in touch with me on this issue. I will talk to the Minister for Justice and ask whether we can get a report back on it. We believe and accept that all facilities have to be fit for purpose for An Garda Síochána to operate within. There have to be quality buildings. There are obviously challenges and the capital programme is there to improve and enhance. This is something we believe in. I will talk to the Minister in regard to this issue. As I said, all other matters are, in essence, operational matters for Garda management and the Garda Commissioner.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response and for undertaking to speak to the Minister for Justice. It is the case that many of these decisions are operational. However, I have a letter from the Minister dated 16 February telling me that a review of the decision to build a new station in Sligo determined the project to be no longer justified. What does that mean? Back in 2017, more than 150 gardaí walked out of Sligo station because of deplorable working conditions. How bad was it for that to happen? This is not a politician saying a new Garda station is needed. It is the gardaí themselves and Garda management saying it.

The Taoiseach stated that approximately €2 billion is allocated to the Garda Síochána. To where has that money been allocated? He said there will be 620 new gardaí. I can tell him they will not be accommodated in Sligo Garda station because it is bursting at the seams. This decision needs to be revisited now.

First, I accept the Deputy's commitment to this issue. As I said, I will discuss it with the Minister. Fundamentally, Garda management is responsible for the deployment of resources and it may have a particular perspective on the facilities. I will seek a report on this matter and the background to it from the Minister. As I indicated, very substantial resources of close to €2 billion have been allocated to the Garda. By any yardstick, that is a very significant increase and represents a demonstration of the Government's commitment to resourcing An Garda Síochána in challenging times. I do not get involved in the operational allocation of that funding, be it capital or current. I will engage with the Minister in regard to this specific issue.