Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Maritime Jurisdiction

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving us the opportunity to debate this very serious matter, which I tried to do during the week in other fora. I really appreciate this matter being bought before the Dáil.

On Friday morning last, a Castletownbere trawler, the Lours De Mers, was fishing ten miles outside of Castletownbere. At approximately 8 o'clock in the morning, a Spanish trawler three times the size of the Castletownbere fishing trawler attempted to ram the Irish vessel. Bear in mind that the Spanish trawler was three times bigger than the Irish trawler and was fishing ten miles west of Castletownbere. It was stealing Irish fish as it was two miles inside Irish seas. It was illegally fishing inside Irish seas. The Spanish boat continued not alone to fish but to attempt to ram the Irish trawler.

Before 8 o'clock, the owners of the Lours De Mers fishing boat contacted Valentia for help, expecting the normal procedure that the navy would be dispatched. I do not want to be overcritical of the navy because it might be under-resourced, which is what I have been told. These are the facts of what happened, however: number one, a Spanish fishing boat was illegally fishing in Irish waters, and number two, it was attempting to ram an Irish boat.

I was contacted at approximately 10 o'clock in the morning on the same issue. At 10:37 a.m. I found out that nobody was coming to the aid of the Irish boat. Remember, four Castletownbere fisherman were on this boat. They needed their lives to be protected.

What I cannot understand for the life of me is that if a foreign registered car went up on the footpath on O’Connell Street and attempted to kill people, it would be an international incident. This is an international incident. It was an act of piracy off our Irish coastline and nobody was willing to act on it immediately. It needed immediate action.

I contacted the Taoiseach's office at 10.37 a.m., a record of which I have on my telephone. I also, thankfully, emailed him because he is now denying any communication was made. The emails are proof in themselves, however. That was 10.56 a.m. when I emailed him. I emailed the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, at 10.56 a.m., which came back to me and said it would look into the matter. At 8 o'clock that night, it came back saying there were further investigations into the matter.

At 8 o'clock at night, however, there was still nobody out at sea to protect the west Cork Castletownbere fishermen. There was no assistance to the Irish boat for approximately ten or 12 hours that day. They desperately needed assistance. We need an independent investigation into this matter. It is the only way we can clear up how there was no protection for the Irish fisherman out at sea last Friday.

Again, I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this Topical Issue matter. If somebody, God forbid, falls overboard in the seas off Ireland, a helicopter can be deployed and can be there within ten or 15 minutes. Four fishermen were in dread of their lives from a foreign vessel trying to ram them in Irish waters. The Taoiseach ignored a call and emails from Deputy Collins. I saw the paperwork and the telephone files, which the Taoiseach said on public record, on the floor of this House, he did not get. I saw them. If he prefers to do petty things like that rather than dealing with an issue of people's lives, that says it all for me.

It might be preferable for Deputies not to make adverse comments about the Taoiseach when he is not here to defend himself.

In the first instance, I know this must be very distressing for the four families involved. I acknowledge that in terms of the incident described by the Deputies. Obviously, I know this probably straddles a few Departments in terms of defence and foreign affairs.

It is, however, down as being a matter for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The Irish Naval Service is aware of the incident in question. It has issued a statement that its vessel, the LÉ Róisín, detained a Spanish-registered fishing vessel approximately 95 nautical miles south of Mizen Head. The statement notes that the detention was in respect of alleged breaches of fishing regulations. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has no direct knowledge of the incident, nor would it be appropriate for him to have any involvement directly in the matter.

For the record, the strict legal position is that the monitoring and control of fishing vessels within Ireland's fisheries zones are matters for the Irish control authorities. Under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, all operational issues of this nature are matters exclusively for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, and the Naval Service. The Minister is expressly precluded from getting involved in operational matters such as this. As the regulator, the SFPA is responsible for monitoring and enforcing compliance with the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, and ensuring equality and fairness for all fishers and the continuing sustainability of Ireland's marine resources. The authority electronically monitors all vessels operating within the Irish exclusive economic zone, EEZ, with the support of the Naval Service, which conducts at-sea fisheries inspections. Where instances of non-compliance are found by control authorities, prosecutions may follow, as would any incident of non-compliance with Irish law. Under the CFP, EU fishing fleets are given equal access to EU waters and fishing grounds, subject to allocated fish quotas and the derogations set down in respect of waters up to 12 nautical miles from baselines. Fishing vessels, irrespective of size, must comply with the rules of the CFP, including rules on access and technical rules for fishing and catch reporting.

Regarding access to Ireland's coastal waters, access inside our 6 nautical miles zone is restricted to Irish fishing vessels and reciprocal fishing vessels under the voisinage arrangements between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Those arrangements allow Northern Ireland vessels to fish within the 0 to 6 nautical miles zone of Ireland. In the 6 to 12 nautical miles zone, access is restricted as set down in European Council Regulation No. 1380/2013. Spanish fishing vessels do not have any access to Ireland's 6 to 12 nautical miles zone. A derogation for limiting access to the 6 to 12 nautical miles zones under the CFP will be reviewed as part of an upcoming review of the functioning of the CFP under which the Commission must report to the European Parliament and Council by the end of 2022. However, the Minister has advised that he does not expect the Commission report to recommend that the derogation restricting fishing vessels to the 12 nautical miles zones of member states will be ended.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He said a Spanish boat was detained by the navy. In fact, it was not detained until last Monday, even though this incident took place the Friday before. The report to Valentia Island went in at 8 o'clock on the Friday morning. What would have happened if the Spanish fishers had decided to ram the Irish boat and sink our fishermen? Is there any protection for Irish fishermen when a foreign vessel is illegally fishing in our waters and attempting to ram them? Is there any protection under the Irish flag for the Irish fishing fleet? It seems to me that such protection is not in place at this time, and this particular incident confirms that.

It is not good enough to say the Spanish boat was detained. It should have been detained on the Friday morning. It should have been brought in for engaging in massive infringements, footage of which can be seen on social media, and terrifying the local fishermen from Castletownbere. Those fishermen have worked hard all their lives and invested their money in their livelihoods. They want to fish and fish fair. That is all they want to do. However, it seems to them that foreign vessels are protected first and Irish vessels are considered secondarily.

Will the Minister of State agree to launch an independent investigation into the actions of the SFPA, why the navy was not dispatched immediately, what happened when the call went in at 8 o'clock in the morning, and why it took three to four days to detain the Spanish vessel? I want answers and the people of Castletownbere and west Cork want answers. Every person who is fishing out of Ireland wants answers because their lives are at risk in the current situation. If the Government will not stand over and protect them when they are out at sea, who will protect them? That is the question we need answered but there has been no answer yet. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could furnish the answers to the points I have raised. I want to go back to the people who were terrified on that morning and the others who are worried about their livelihoods and their lives and assure them they are at least protected under the Irish flag and by the Irish Government.

First, I want to say to the people involved and their families that they have protection under the law. That is very clear. All Deputies will appreciate that when an investigation is ongoing into an incident, I, as Minister of State, cannot comment on it or offer any view on what the determination of that investigation might be. I must be independent and I am precluded from getting involved in any such commentary. It is the same in regard to any incident that happens onshore, involving the Garda Síochána, the Director of Public Prosecutions or other independent actors in the State. As I said, this is a matter for the Irish control authorities under the Sea-Fisheries Maritime Jurisdiction Act. I gave details in terms of the actions of the Naval Service in detaining the boat for alleged breaches of fishing regulations. An investigation into the incident will take place, as I indicated.

I will raise the Deputy's points regarding resources with the Minister. However, I must be very clear that there is an area into which we, as the Houses of the Oireachtas, cannot stray in respect of specific incidents and making determinations on them. I cannot get involved in any such determinations. I hear the Deputy's frustration. I want to say to the families involved that I acknowledge that an incident like this is hugely distressing. It is their livelihood we are talking about and we, as a State, have a duty to protect them. I absolutely acknowledge that. The law is robust and I assure the Deputy the matter will be investigated.

I thank the Minister of State. For the information of the Deputy, which he may avail of after the appropriate investigations to which the Minister of State alluded are completed, if a Member is unhappy with the performance of a State agency, it is always open to him or her to ask that agency to come before the relevant Oireachtas committee and give account of what happened or did not happen, as the case may be.

Road Safety

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue on UN World Bicycle Day. In February last year, the European Transport Safety Council published a report on cyclist deaths across the European Union. It revealed that Ireland had recorded the highest annual increase in cyclist fatality rates among all EU member states in the past decade. In fact, our rate had risen by an average of 8% per annum over that period, which was four times the rate of the next worst country. All of those deaths were avoidable.

I want to acknowledge the great work of the Garda and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, in making our roads much safer in general. When I was growing up, we regularly saw more than 500 fatalities on our roads every year. Fortunately, that figure is now well below 200 and trending downwards all the time. However, there is no reason to become complacent. We should be striving for zero unnecessary loss of life on our roads. We certainly should not be content with having some of the most dangerous roads in the European Union for our vulnerable road users.

A number of countries, including Ireland, have already committed to Vision Zero, which is a project that aims to reach zero road fatalities by 2050. The core principle of Vision Zero is that life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within society. How do we achieve that? First, we need to develop a culture of mutual respect on our roads, setting out very clearly that there is no hierarchy of road users in this country. There is no category of road users with rights superior to others. I am going to say that again for absolute clarity: there is no hierarchy of road users. For cyclists on Irish roads and streets, however, a feeling of inferiority is something they have to contend with every day. They are deemed to be inferior road users simply because they happen to be on a bike, even though, rather ironically, they are using the most efficient, most sustainable and healthiest form of transport known to mankind. There is a reason the most sustainable cities in the world are giving more street space to cyclists every day. A child cycling to school, a nurse cycling to work or somebody simply out for a bike ride to get healthy all need and deserve that safe space on our roads.

I am deeply grateful to Mr. Phil Skelton who has campaigned tirelessly for the creation of that safe space. I am also grateful to the former Minister, Shane Ross, who in 2019 signed into law a new traffic offence, namely, the dangerous overtaking of a cyclist, which carries a fine of €120 and three penalty points. In announcing that offence the then Minister said: "Too many cyclists have frankly terrifying tales to tell of intimidatingly close passes and near misses."

This brings me to this evening's proposal. Right now, we have the opportunity to add hugely to the capacity of An Garda Síochána in policing our roads and streets in ensuring that those roads and streets become safe spaces for all road users, so that those terrifying close passes, those near misses and those tragic losses become a thing of the past. An increasing number of cyclists and indeed motorists are now using cameras on their vehicles which automatically record footage of every journey. Those cameras can become a valuable aid in enforcing all of our road safety legislation. They can become additional eyes on our roads and streets for the Garda and they can provide evidence that can be used in prosecuting road safety offenders. As such, I am simply asking that An Garda Síochána sets up a dedicated portal for the submission of video evidence by all road users and that officers would assess that evidence and bring forward prosecutions if necessary. It has been done successfully and there is no reason why it cannot be done here. Such a portal would set us on that road to Vision Zero, to a safer and indeed healthier Ireland.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter and indeed for all the work he has done as he outlined on cyclists being passed in close proximity and the offence that was put into legislation. Like Deputy Cannon, I have a keen interest in cycling but I would not pretend to be in the same league as him. The Deputy will appreciate that the Garda Commissioner is responsible by law for the management of An Garda Síochána, including personnel matters and deployment of resources. Neither the Minister for Justice nor I have any responsibility for these operational matters. As the Deputy will be aware, the development and implementation of road traffic legislation and policy and the promotion and advancement of road safety falls within the remit of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. An Garda Síochána plays a vital role in enforcing road traffic law and in making our roads safer for all road users, including vulnerable ones such as cyclists. Deputy Cannon outlined how they belong in this category.

I am advised by the Minister that the protection of vulnerable road users is being prioritized in the development of the new road safety strategy, which will run from 2021 to 2030. Protecting vulnerable road users involves an array of measures, of which legislation and law enforcement are only a part. Improvements in infrastructure, such as dedicated cycle lanes, will reduce the danger by keeping vulnerable road users separate from motorized traffic and the Deputy alluded to cities which were taking the lead in that. The Government has committed to investing up to €1.8 billion in cycling and walking infrastructure during its lifetime. The Road Safety Authority, RSA, also engages in public information and education to raise driver awareness of the specific risks to vulnerable road users.

As regards the establishment of a dedicated online portal for the submission of video evidence of potential violations of road traffic legislation, the Deputy may be aware that the current Traffic Watch facility allows for members of the public to report driver behaviour to An Garda Síochána. Matters reported via this facility are forwarded to the relevant district office for investigation. Similarly, citizens may make complaints to any member of An Garda Síochána or through the Garda website. I am advised by the Minister that there are strict standards in legislation relating to photographic evidence obtained by An Garda Síochána. While An Garda Síochána has confirmed that private dashcam footage may be used during a prosecution, its use must be in accordance with best evidential practices and entails ensuring structures exist around continuity of evidence. The Minister has further advised that any decision to allow film by members of the public to be used in evidence in road traffic cases would raise questions of reliability of and possible tampering with the apparatus used, and potential privacy issues. It might also raise questions about why Garda apparatus was held to a standard not required of private individuals, if both were ultimately to be treated as reliable evidence.

I again thank Deputy Cannon for highlighting this issue. I will raise the issues he mentioned in connection with Vision Zero and obviously the alarming increase in fatalities among cyclists with the Minister. These can be prevented because they are vulnerable road users. Deputy Cannon also mentioned a number of jurisdictions which have brought in a portal like this. If he wants to forward details of them to me I will pass them onto the Minister as well.

I thank the Minister of State for that very helpful response. All the good things that happen in this country, the ones which make it a better place to live in with a better quality of life, happen when we see Government Departments collaborating. This happens when a good idea is grabbed with enthusiasm by those leading in the Departments, when it is brought to fruition and made happen. There is no reason why the Departments of Justice and Transport could not collaborate to create the portal I am referring to. I mentioned in my earlier contribution that other countries have already set up a dedicated portal for the submission of video evidence. In the UK, the national dashcam safety portal was established three years ago in response to the ever increasing submission of video and photographic evidence from members of the public. It was set up with the simple aim of reducing road accidents and making the UK's roads safer.

In his response, the Minister of State referred to the Minister having concerns about the quality of the evidence being submitted and the quality of the evidence being submitted using dashcams, be they on bicycles or in cars. That evidence has already been accepted by numerous Garda stations around the country and successful prosecutions have already been brought. The issue here is the inconsistency of the approach when it comes to bringing forward these prosecutions. That again could be resolved by a portal manned by specially-trained officers in An Garda Síochána who have the skills and knowledge to determine whether or not an offence has occurred. When video evidence of unsafe driving is submitted to the UK portal, which is being used by virtually every police force across that country, it is reviewed by a police officer and depending on the seriousness of the offence, a number of options are available to the officer. These options do not always include prosecution; sometimes it a warning letter and sometimes driver retraining.

A competent computer science student could establish this portal over a weekend. Not doing this can only lead us to one conclusion: that we do not really care about the safety of our vulnerable road users. I would really like to think we are not that kind of country. This can be done and it should be done, with the greatest possible urgency.

I absolutely assure Deputy Cannon that we do care. Indeed the commitment in the programme for Government to walking and cycling infrastructure is very significant. I will raise the issues he put forward, especially the other jurisdictions he referenced, with the Minister and obviously with the Minister for Justice also. It is very important to educate people about this as well. I am a cyclist myself and have a huge interest in cycling. I have heard stories and seen anecdotal evidence about the problem. I think "Liveline" actually ran through one sequence of events that happened to a cyclist, in which he was pushed off his bike by a person in a car driving by. It was a completely criminal act that really endangered that person's life. We therefore have a huge amount of work to do in this area but the Government is committed to it. Cycling is sustainable and it improves one's quality of life, health and mental health. Obviously making the roads safer is key and the statistic the Deputy referenced about the increase in fatalities is alarming. I absolutely assure him we are committed. That can be seen in the commitment in the programme for Government. I will absolutely raise this with the Minister and with the Minister for Justice and do my best to get back to Deputy Cannon because he is a keen cyclist and he has done a lot for the area. We can see that in the work done by the former Minister, Mr. Ross, which Deputy Cannon was so instrumental in.

The Minister of State is taking the third Topical Issue debate as well.

School Library Grant

I apologise to the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, he has had a busy evening. I am here to echo previous calls from many quarters, including Children’s Books Ireland, for the reinstatement of the school library grant. This was a grant of €2.2 million which was cut over a decade ago. This is an important issue. Cultivating the skill of reading in our young people we must all encourage. We speak repeatedly about literacy levels amongst disadvantaged students and minorities and in the modern world we speak about digital literacy.

Part of me laments that with our focus on technology and fast-paced society we have neglected the fundamental skill of reading and it being a pleasurable pastime for students.

When I was young I can remember many teachers I was lucky to have who encouraged the avid reader in me. My preference was for medieval and modern history and I subsequently became a history teacher. Getting people reading at a very young age, ingraining that love for reading in them, not only helps in moulding them as people but also provides an escape for them. Critically, international studies have found a significant link between reading for enjoyment and educational achievement. An OECD report from 2002 found evidence that reading for pleasure has a greater impact on a child's success than the family's socio-economic status and could be an important way to help combat social exclusion and raise educational standards.

I understand the limitations in what the Minister of State can say this evening about this matter, which would have budgetary implications, albeit relatively minor in nature. The reinstatement of this programme would cost approximately €2.2 million or €4.52 per school student. The reality is the lack of funding is quite apparent. Most schools I have taught in as a teacher had no library or one that was run entirely with the goodwill of teaching staff and was dependent on donations of second-hand books or money to buy books.

A survey of school libraries a decade ago indicated the majority of schools, or 53%, did not have a library and did not intend to buy books from the school's capitation grant or its own resources. Unfortunately, with many schools, large sums of money are diverted into keeping the place clean, bums on seats and the show on the road. The luxury of books is not foremost in the mind of school management.

I listen to Ryan Tubridy's radio show most mornings on the way here to the convention centre or Leinster House, and to be fair to him, he is a great advocate for reading. He regularly raises it on his radio show and we all watch the toy show slot every year with wonderful kids who clearly enjoy reading. As part of his bedtime routine, my two-year-old son looks forward to reading through a few books before sleep instead of playing with toys or anything else. He refuses to go to sleep until he has had two or three books read to him.

At nine, children with more books at home or on loan from a library are 30% more likely to read than children from lower income and lone parent families that typically have less access to books. Schools and the role they play in educating, socialising and moulding our young people are the one area where all are equal and can have access to books. The reinstatement of this grant should be considered as reading should not be a pastime for the few. Reading should be for everyone and literacy should not be taken for granted. It should be funded adequately and encouraged in every household, school corridor and classroom.

I thank the Deputy for those words of wisdom.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter of library funding, which is very important. He set out a very strong case for the reinstatement of this funding stream.

The Department of Education has responsibility for primary and post-primary education and is charged with facilitating individuals through learning, to achieve their full potential and to contribute to Ireland's social, cultural and economic development. The Minister for Education is very conscious of the importance of library services and the value of these in the context of the supports available to schools. However, responsibility for the support and provision of library services rests with the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys.

Under the programme for Government, the Department of Education is tasked with the development of a successor literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy for all learners in early years, primary and post-primary schools. Development of the strategy will be done in consultation with all education stakeholders and other Departments and bodies, including the Department of Rural and Community Development, which has responsibility for library services.

Deputy O'Sullivan has set out a very strong case. I have contacted the relevant Minister, Deputy Humphreys, as libraries come under her remit. Under the 1971 Act the responsibility was with the Minister for Education. I have raised the matter with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and will pursue it for the Deputy, who has set out a strong case, as I said. He has direct experience of this, as he comes from an educational background, and he has also told of reading to his child. I know the challenges of trying to read to a two-year-old at night as well, although it is a very rewarding experience.

It is so important for society to see children growing into and liking books. The Deputy articulated the cost as being approximately €4 per student. It is a relatively small cost and I hope that as our priorities evolve, this can be prioritised in the context of a new strategy. I will do my best to relay the exceptional case made by the Deputy tonight.

I thank the Minister of State for the response and doing the work for me in that he contacted the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, as well. I appreciate his proactive work.

Our public libraries are great facilities for all our kids and they play a role in making books available to all our students across cities and counties. I am speaking about libraries in schools specifically because, as I said, if kids are surrounded by books they are more likely to take up a book themselves. It is common sense but it is a fact.

We repeatedly emphasise the importance of literacy and improving literacy levels. We are lucky that in Ireland we have among the highest literacy rates in the world. We should be proud of that and maintain those levels. It is why this minor programme, at €2.2 million in the overall context of a budget overseen either by the Minister for Rural and Community Development or the Minister for Education, is worth pursuing. In a school with 300 students, it amounts to a cost of approximately €1,200 or €1,500. It is a fairly minor cost. It is irrelevant to me whether the funding comes from the Department of Rural and Community Development or the Department of Education once the provision is made. It could even come through the school grant system that is up and running. It would not be an issue for me.

It should also be said in the context of Covid-19 that the provision of books, reading and allowing kids in particular to explore alternative realities or fantasies gets them off computers or Xboxes, etc. There is also a link to children's health and mental health and well-being as it provides an escape for them.

As I said to begin with, I commend Children's Books Ireland, which is funded under the arts bursaries and grants, on the work done on the area. I can leave this with one final and startling statistic. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals recommends an average stock of 13 books per pupil or 17 books per pupil aged over 16 but most Irish schools fail to meet that threshold. The Department and the Government should show impetus and stop depending on teachers to put their hands in their pockets to provide something the Government should be doing.

As I have said, Deputy O'Sullivan makes a very strong case. The budget for the Department of Education is approximately €8.9 billion this year, which is an increase of 5%. With such a strong budget, one hopes something could be worked out. We will try to press the case for the Deputy.

Teaching children and giving them this skill as opposed to them watching television, etc. can last for their lives. We hope it brings them closer to culture and broadens their minds. The Deputy has set out a very strong case.

I will raise it again, as I committed to do, with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and with the Minister, Deputy Foley.

As I listened to the Deputy and the Minister of State speak on this, I was minded of the hugely important work of one of our leading psychologists, Dr. Maureen Gaffney, which looks at the importance of early access to books by young children on their progression in life.

The fourth important item has been submitted by Deputy Thomas Gould, who wishes to discuss the special article published today by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, calling for increased borrowing to increase public housing delivery.

Housing Provision

Today the ESRI published a report detailing the need for the State to take a new approach to housing. The approach outlined is to borrow money and build houses. Sinn Féin has been calling for this strategy for years. While the ESRI's calculations are on the conservative side, it still found that the most effective and viable option to solving the crisis is to borrow and to build.

In my maiden speech at Cork City Council in 2009 I warned the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors that the State was in a housing crisis. They laughed and said there was no such thing as a housing crisis. Yet, here we are 12 years on and the ESRI estimates a need to build 35,000 new homes every year to come on stream if we are to meet our targets. This year, between the Government and the private sector, the best guess that the Government will deliver is 15,000 homes. This leaves a deficit of 20,000 homes, a deficit that has been building for years because of a lack of investment by a Fine Gael Government, and a Fine Gael supported by Fianna Fáil Government.

I will outline what we are looking for over the lifetime of this Government. If Sinn Féin was in power we would deliver 100,000 homes in five years, 60,000 of which would be social homes, 30,000 affordable purchase homes, and 10,000 affordable rental homes. We would put an end to the reliance on the private sector and private developers. If Deputy Eoin Ó Broin was the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, he would provide people with homes.

There are more than 5,000 families and people on the Cork City Council housing waiting list. This does not include those on housing assistance payment, HAP, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, or rent supplement, who are not properly housed. The waiting lists are so long that when people ring me about their applications for social housing I must tell them that their young children will probably be teenagers before they get housed. People are waiting eight, nine and ten years, and even longer, before they get even an offer of a house. A child should not have to spend his or her entire childhood waiting on a permanent, secure home. Children of Cork and across the State are growing up in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation. This is because Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael allowed this to happen. These parties created the housing crisis.

Yesterday, the Tánaiste is reported to have assured his Fine Gael Party colleagues that the local property tax will be reduced for people with homes worth €1 million. Is the Government so out of touch that they think reducing taxes on the very wealthy is what is needed right now, when children are growing up waiting on a home? Does the Minister of State not accept that the Government must now finally change its housing strategy and recognise that the Sinn Féin strategy to borrow and build is the only way we can solve the housing crisis? The ESRI has come out and virtually said that the Sinn Féin strategy is the only way forward to delivering houses. This is a housing emergency. We have had a Covid -19 emergency and we threw all the money needed at it to resolve it. Now we need to do the same with housing. We need to put the investment in there to deliver the houses that are needed. This is for the people.

I thank Deputy Gould for tabling this Topical Issue matter. It is a very serious issue. I remind the Deputy that the best way to build houses is, if he could advise his colleagues, to stop objecting to houses. The Deputy quotes the ESRI, but it is very interesting that he does not quote the ESRI on the property tax, which is a progressive tax the Deputy is also against, and he is against carbon tax. Yet, the Deputy is advocating what the State should borrow. That is called "fantasy economics".

Increasing the supply of public, social and affordable homes is priority for this Government. It is the number one priority for the Government, which the Taoiseach has clearly stated, to deliver the housing and the housing policies to ensure that everyone has access to a home, whether it be social, affordable, a home to rent or a home to buy.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to deliver 50,000 new social homes with a focus on new-build homes. Local authorities will be central to increasing the supply of new-build social housing and my Department is working closely with the local government sector to ensure that they have capacity to deliver this ambitious programme. We will ensure that local authorities have the required technical expertise to initiate, develop and deliver new housing schemes, with a particular focus on project management. The Deputy will be aware that Cork has borrowed to deliver significant development on the St. Kevin's former hospital site, and other huge sites in the Deputy's constituency.

In 2021, the Government's commitment to increase the supply of public housing is underpinned by a record budget of €3.3 billion to deliver our housing programmes. In addition to the Exchequer investment in housing programmes, the Housing Finance Agency, under my aegis, is on hand to advance funds to local authorities and approved housing bodies for use in the delivery of housing. Under difficult circumstances, the Housing Finance Agency has had a net loan book increase of €545 million in 2020. We must consider this in the context of the backdrop of Covid-19.

Despite the restrictions, 2020 was a record year for approved housing body business with loan approvals of €1 billion. Gross loan advances of €773 million in the year brought the total loan book to a record €5.2 billion, making a significant and invaluable contribution to housing delivery in Ireland.

The Minister of State accuses me and Sinn Féin of quoting the ESRI when it suits us, but is this not what he is doing? The ESRI stated that the Government needs to double its expenditure on housing if we are to solve the housing crisis. That is what it stated. Does the Minister of State not accept that as a bona fide fact, or does he say that the ESRI and Sinn Féin are incorrect? There can be no doubt that Sinn Féin's housing policy is the only way to solve the crisis.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would rather spend €503 million every year on private landlords for HAP, RAS and rent supplement, making landlords, speculators, vulture funds and the private sector super rich. That is the Government's policy. Sinn Féin's policy is to deliver public homes on public land.

The Minister of State mentioned the St. Kevin's site. It is unbelievable. I sometimes ask myself whether these Ministers have ever been around. In 2011, 2012 and 2013, I proposed building on the St. Kevin's site. In 2009 and 2010, I proposed building on the old Whitechurch Road site in Cork and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael blocked us every step of the way. Ten years later, the Minister of State is coming in here to tell us to look at the great work the Government is doing. If they had done the work when they should have done it ten years ago, as I and other Sinn Féin people proposed, we would not be in the middle of a housing crisis.

To let the Minister of State know how far behind he and the Government are, Cork City Council has launched a website on which people can lodge their interest in a new affordable housing scheme on Boherboy Road, which the council announced two years ago. It is still waiting on the Government to let it know how much it can sell them for. Cork City Council has six, seven or perhaps eight affordable housing projects waiting to go and the only thing holding them up is the Minister of State and the Government. Sinn Féin will deliver houses.

As I said, to deliver houses people cannot be objecting to building them so the Deputy may have a look at his policy in this regard.

On a point of order, in January 2020 Fianna Fáil councillors voted against social housing in Cork.

Can we hear the Minister of State without interruption?

One of them was the Taoiseach's brother.

Can we hear the Minister of State without interruption?

I hear the Deputy quoting selectively about a decade ago as to why these houses were not built in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Ask the Taoiseach's brother how he voted.

What he fails to note is we were under an IMF programme. The State was spending 50% more than it was taking in income. We were locked out of the markets. Any borrowing was as high as 14%. Two local authorities in Dublin and the local authority in Westmeath were piloting the mortgage-to-rent scheme because we were saturated with debt in our local authorities. The Deputy ignores all of this when he speaks about the period 2009 to 2012, inclusive. This is one of the core underscores of the crisis. The State did not have the capacity to deliver but it does now and it is delivering with that record budget for the Department.

I did not quote the ESRI, the Deputy did. When it comes to property tax and raising money in the State, the Deputy takes the populous route. He does not look at it and he walks away from it. It is a progressive tax. When it comes to carbon tax and protecting our environment, the Deputy will not look at it. He walks away again. He speaks about restrictions day in and day out and banning travel into our country but he will not vote to extend the emergency provisions. The hypocritical stances of many Deputies we have seen in the House over the past ten days are incredible.

Answer the question on housing please.

I will not accept that from a party which objects-----

The question is on housing.

-----day after day and week after week. We have a record budget. We are in the business of building houses for all of our citizens. We will do this and we will deliver on it.