Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I again raise the issue of renters, a group of some 300,000 renters across this State which the Taoiseach's Government is failing badly. Ten months ago, his Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage stripped renters of vital Covid-19 protections. Deputy O'Brien's first act as Minister was to pass the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020. This ended the blanket ban on rent increases, notices to quit and evictions, which had been introduced by his predecessor. This ban, which was necessary on public health grounds, led to the most dramatic drop in people losing their homes in a decade.

In its place, Deputy O'Brien introduced a highly restrictive and unnecessarily cumbersome protection for a small number of renters only. If a renter had lost income due to Covid-19, was on a Covid-19-related payment, in arrears, at risk of losing their tenancy and had submitted a written declaration to the Residential Tenancies Board, he or she was protected from rent increase or eviction.

The renter had to meet all five of those onerous tests, however, or else he or she lost all of the protections.

When tenants advocacy organisations such as Threshold and those of us in opposition warned that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien's Bill was too restrictive, we were accused of scaremongering or of playing politics. Figures obtained this week by my colleague, Teachta Ó Broin, from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, prove that far from scaremongering or playing politics, Threshold, the advocates and those of us in the Opposition were right. We now know that since last August, almost 4,000 tenants have received 28-day rent arrears warning letters from their landlords and that 1,100 notices to quit have been issued. Yet, only 475 tenants have submitted this written declaration to the Residential Tenancies Board to protect them from eviction. There are 300,000 registered tenancies in this State and the fact is that the so called protections introduced by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, apply to just 475 of them. That is 475 tenancies out of 300,000. This comes at a time, as the Taoiseach knows, when rents are sky-high and unaffordable for many workers and families. Yet, many have faced rent increases with more increases on the way as landlords roll two years of hikes into one.

It is clear and the evidence demonstrates that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien's highly restrictive protections are not fit for purpose. In light of data, facts and experience, does the Taoiseach accept that the Government's policy has failed renters? Is the Taoiseach willing, as a matter of urgency, to reintroduce the blanket ban on rent increases and evictions for all renters until at least the end of this year?

I do not accept the arguments or assertions put forward by the Deputy. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is working proactively to protect renters and the legislation he introduced did just that. The 475 people who applied did so because they were vulnerable as a result of Covid-19 and they then received the protections that were provided under the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies Act 2020. Those protections are available up until 12 July. I anticipate that the Minister will extend those protections for tenants and renters through legislation up until January 2022. The rent pressure zone, RPZ, framework is due to expire at the end of 2021 and the Minister will also have proposals on that. A rent arrears notice does not always result in an eviction notice, as the Deputy is well aware.

I would also point out to the Deputy that something else we have to take on board is that the number of landlords registered with the RTB reduced by 3,857 in 2020. That is a significant contraction in the market so there is a balance to be struck. The Minister wants to deal with both the rent increase issue and with ensuring protection for renters. The strong advice to the Minister has been that a blanket ban on rent increases of any duration would be the subject of a legal challenge and would almost certainly deter continued investment in the rental accommodation market.

I read Deputy Ó Broin's comments today. He wants the ban extended for another six months so even he in his commentary accepts that there cannot be a rent freeze forever. The difference between what the Deputy is saying and what the Government's position is seems to be six months. The Government's advice and the Minister's advice have been strongly that a blanket ban on rent increases would be subject to a legal challenge and that it does not in itself grow the rental accommodation market either. We need more accommodation, housing supply and affordable housing.

We are making significant progress on the homelessness front. Some 1,364 adults and their dependents exited emergency accommodation or were prevented from entering into emergency accommodation in the first quarter of 2021. The Housing First programme is providing homeless people with high support needs with 539 active Housing First tenancies nationwide. We know that a notice of termination served does not always result in an eviction. A landlord often serves a notice of termination but does not follow through on it or it can be averted or dealt with. We will do everything we possibly can to protect tenants and a range of supports are available to protect tenants, including the legal supports and legislation the Minister has brought in and will extend for tenants to the beginning of next year. The parallel with that will be a continuing focus on reducing the number of people in family homelessness, which has come down by 31% on the total recorded in April 2020. Since the start of 2021, a total of 324 families in Dublin have exited emergency accommodation. Ultimately, we do not want people falling into any situation where eviction becomes the norm. On a range of policies, we have to do everything we possibly can to prevent evictions and to support those who are renting. That is what we intend to do.

The Taoiseach says he does not claim my assertions but I am not making personal assertions. The figures do not lie so let me repeat them for the Taoiseach. Almost 4,000 rent arrears warning letters have been sent; over 1,000 notices to quit have been served; and just 475 renters have been protected from a total population of 300,000 registered tenancies. The Government's scheme has failed. That is the fact. The Government's job is to protect all renters who are subjected to extortionate rents and huge insecurity at the time of a massive housing emergency that we suffer and endure, not least because of the Taoiseach's previous time in office.

Is the Taoiseach prepared to do what is necessary? Make no mistake but that what is necessary is the reintroduction of the blanket ban on rent increases, which the Government can do. A ban on notices to quit and evictions is also necessary, at least until the end of this year. The Government should give renters some comfort, protection and assurance that their Government acts for them and is not totally consumed by the interests of developers and landlords.

The Deputy has no substance to her policies and she has no solutions to the housing problem. Sinn Féin wants a blanket ban on evictions and a rent freeze for another six months only with no focus at all on what that will do in growing the number of houses that are available to rent. I told the Deputy earlier that 3,857 fewer houses are available for rent in 2020. That is a significant contraction in the market. The Deputy seems to want to push it down even more and make fewer houses available. Sinn Féin does not really have a coherent medium-term housing policy and it seems always to want to exploit the housing issue. We need supply and to build more houses. The cost rental initiative the Minister has introduced, which will provide up to 500 houses this year at 25% below market value, is the type of initiative we need. We need to increase dramatically those numbers.

I thank the Taoiseach; the time is up.

When the Land Development Agency legislation is passed we will have capacity to increase dramatically the supply of cost rental accommodation, along with more affordable housing and serviced sites.

The time is up, please. As I am trying to keep everyone on time, the Taoiseach should please conclude.

I am more into solutions to the housing problem. I am not trying to make it worse, which Sinn Féin is in the proposals it is advocating.

Two reports published today highlight that the State continues to heap disadvantage on disadvantage in the treatment of vulnerable children. The Ombudsman for Children has published a hugely concerning report about the impact of the pandemic on children in general. In the report, the ombudsman describes 2020 as a devastating year for children, which it was. Schools and sports facilities closed while other activities came to an abrupt halt. Children could not see their families or friends. All the normal and joyful events were stripped away.

Vulnerable children's safety nets were also stripped away. The digital divide impacted children's right to education. The number of child protection referrals fell by a staggering 42%, meaning children living in unsafe homes or at risk of violence fell through the cracks. While available supports from social workers and teachers collapsed, domestic violence rates soared. Children with additional needs did not have access to their usual services or routines and very many of them regressed. Children awaiting medical treatment or an assessment of need for disability services have joined rapidly expanding waiting lists. Children living with parents or siblings who are medically at high risk lived in fear of bringing Covid-19 home and causing the death of their family member. Many of these children felt unable to attend school for that reason and 15 months later, many are still not attending school.

Another report published today has highlighted the difficulties faced by children born into disadvantaged backgrounds. The latest research from the Growing Up in Ireland study looks at 8,000 nine-year-olds and their families. The report describes how gaps have widened between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds since the children started at primary school. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds who were early high performers in school were being outperformed by children from wealthier backgrounds by the age of nine. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds had lower reading test scores and more negative self-perception, poorer health outcomes and more socio-emotional difficulties. Those children are being knowingly failed by the State.

The pandemic has caused considerable disruption to every child in Ireland but it has taken a particularly heavy toll on the most disadvantaged children because it has exacerbated underlying structural inequalities that have persisted for far too long. I know that the Taoiseach understands how such disadvantage can rob children of their childhoods and potential. I ask the Taoiseach and his office to take the lead with a comprehensive response to mitigate the damage that has been done to many vulnerable children.

There is no doubt but that the impact of Covid-19 has been severe on children. It is a once in a century pandemic, which has turned everybody's world upside down, but that is particularly true for children. It has led to isolation at a family level. Children born in the past year, for example, have not been able to see their wider families which is important, at a basic level, for socialisation and its importance in the early development of a child. Schools were closed for different periods during the first lockdown and the third wave of the pandemic earlier this year. The Government has done everything it possibly can to support children throughout the pandemic, not least in getting schools reopened last September, which involved unprecedented investment in resources for primary and secondary schools and childcare settings to enable the return of services and schools. A range of supports was provided to enable that to happen. Unfortunately, the third wave interrupted that in the first quarter of the year but, thankfully, we were able to get kids back into school. It is a measure of our society compared to other countries, in that we were in a position to more consistently prioritise education for children above and beyond other sectors of society or the economy. We imposed localised lockdowns in the run-up to September last year. That was not popular but we did it to ensure we could facilitate the restart of education in September and could carry it on through the rest of the year. That was an important policy objective and priority.

The Deputy mentioned disadvantage and the digital divide and what she said is true. My initial feedback was that the online experience was difficult and challenging for schools to operate although it was better the second time around during the third wave. People got to learn more and improve their modus operandi, practices and so on. However, nothing ever replaces the personal interaction between a teacher and a child or a special needs assistant and a child in the classroom. That said, we have now, as part of the recovery and resilience programme and in our submission to Europe, identified a significant investment in technology for education including high-speed connectivity and the deployment of devices. That investment is heavily weighted towards supporting children in circumstances of socioeconomic disadvantage. The Delivering Quality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, programme has been a significant intervention. It was brought in by Fianna Fáil when it was last in government. I have had a long and consistent position in terms of addressing educational disadvantage. I was involved in developing the original school completion programme when I was Minister for Education and Science. That is being reviewed at the moment and we need to refine it to ensure we target the children who are most in need. The digital transformation programme is about dealing with digital disadvantage.

We already have an unacceptably high number of children who are disadvantaged. Those children have been doubly disadvantaged over the past year and we need a comprehensive response to their particular circumstances. I am asking the Taoiseach to take the lead on this because it involves a number of different Departments. These issues touch on education, child welfare and health. All of the agencies with responsibility in those areas need to be brought together to devise an immediate and urgent response to the particular problems that have been caused. I am asking the Taoiseach to take the lead on that.

The Government and I are very clear in prioritising the needs of children. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, will be to the fore in advancing the issues that fall within his remit. The same applies to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley. We will be working together. We work collaboratively through the sub-committees on social affairs and education, as we must.

The Taoiseach needs to take responsibility.

I take responsibility as Taoiseach, as I do all the time in respect of advancing policies that are beneficial to children-----

Will the Taoiseach produce a plan?

-----and that is what we intend to do. There is no question but that Covid-19 had an unprecedented impact on children and we accept that. It was a damaging impact.

Will the Taoiseach produce a plan?

We need action across the board and I am keen on that. We are doing that. We have already published the economic recovery plan, which focuses strongly on children and young people in terms of the allocation of resources to support them in the time ahead.

There are grants for nearly all sporting organisations through the sports capital programme and the large scale sports infrastructure fund, which I welcome. However, one sector seems to fall outside any State support scheme, which is community centres. Many towns and villages across the country have community centres that were built with the support of the State over the years. However, there is no financial support available now for new projects.

I will give the Taoiseach an example of such a project. Newcastle is a community of more than 6,000 people on the west side of Galway city and under the chairmanship of Mr. Seamus Davey, a committee got together, raised over €2,000, acquired a site and secured planning permission for a much-needed centre for the area. The project is now shovel-ready and awaiting funding to commence construction. It has the unanimous support of Galway City Council. The council will commit a minimum of €900,000 towards the €3.8 million building cost of the project. That leaves a shortfall of €2.9 million. There has long been a need for such a facility in the Newcastle and neighbouring Dangan areas, especially since the only hotel in the area, a focal point for the community, closed in recent years. It was demolished to make way for student accommodation. Bear in mind that the population of the area in question is similar to that of towns such as Ballinasloe, Fermoy, Westport and Roscommon that are well serviced with such facilities.

It is also a maturing area. According to the 2016 census, almost one third of the population of Newcastle was over 60 years of age. People in the area need a facility like this within easy reach of their homes. They need somewhere to meet up with their neighbours, enjoy social activities or take further educational courses will become more pronounced as the population matures further. All that is needed is adequate funding for this project. Those involved have ambitious plans to contribute to the health and wellness of the local community, as well as providing educational opportunities and accommodating sporting activity. They are determined to make sure that the community centre is viable in the long-term by means of measures to generate income for the service provider to cover operating costs.

I have been working with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, for the past number of months but he tells me there is no funding available for such a project. I know there are many demands on public funds, but will the Taoiseach give a commitment to set up a community centre fund that will provide financial support to the likes of the Newcastle Combined Community Association in order that it can build the much-needed community centre in question?

I thank the Deputy for raising an issue that is very close to my heart, to be honest, in terms of what I see as an historic gap in the allocation of funding to community facilities. Whereas we have historically and traditionally allocated grants and lottery funding for sports facilities, there has never really been a dedicated capital fund nationally for community centres. It is my view that there should be such a fund. Indeed, a commitment in this regard is included in the programme for Government. I would, however, like that commitment to be even more expansive than it is in the programme for Government. We need to move on this matter. Very often, as a result of the kind of gap to which I refer, the proposers or patrons of various schemes have had to take different circuitous routes to try to secure funding, be it by means of an application for a sports grant made through a sporting facility within a community centre or, for example, via the community development supports available from local authorities.

In Newcastle, Mr. Seamus Davey and the community association have been doing the groundwork. The Deputy indicated that Galway City Council has come up with approximately €900,000, which, to be fair, is a substantial amount. What I would favour is a tripartite partnership involving the Government, local authorities and communities to put together the wherewithal to enable either the enhancement of existing community facilities, extensions to such facilities or new facilities in large and developing areas and places such as Newcastle that have large populations. As the Deputy stated, the Newcastle area is home to approximately 6,000 people.

We put together the community enhancement fund, which is primarily for disadvantaged communities. Approximately €2 million was allocated in respect of this fund, which was launched in June of last year. In the second round of funding last August, an additional €5 million was allocated to the Department of Rural and Community Development under the July stimulus package. Again, following through on the programme for Government, I was anxious to give additional money to communities. Community organisations have been very effective in responding to Covid-19. The purpose of that funding was to provide grants for community centres and community facilities. It was targeted at measures that would stimulate local communities while enhancing community facilities. Some 3,000 projects were supported through the 2020 community enhancement programme, including more than 1,400 under the second round, which was targeted at community centres and facilities.

The 2021 community enhancement programme was launched in May, with funding of approximately €4.5 million. That is from the Department of Rural and Community Development and is open to all community groups. Perhaps the scale of allocation there may not be sufficient for the project the Deputy has outlined but it is something on which we can build. As we both agree, there is currently no dedicated stand-alone funding stream for capital works for community centres. The Department of Rural and Community Development accepts the principle and believes that there is benefit in the introduction of a dedicated community centre capital programme to provide large-scale capital grants for significant refurbishment, retrofitting and modernisation works across the network of community centre infrastructure. That work is under way in the context of the review of the national development plan, which is being undertaken by my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. In addition, there is the programming being done in respect of the European Regional Development Fund and the work the Department is doing in that regard. That is something on which we will be working.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. As we all know, however, community centres play a very important role in communities/ They can incorporate day-care centres and offer places where young people and others can meet. I am sure that this does not just apply to Galway and that it is prevalent elsewhere. In the particular area to which I refer, however, there is nothing for the more than 6,000 people who live there. The only facility there was a hotel and that was knocked down in order to make way for new student accommodation erected.

The local people got together and raised more than €200,000, a huge amount of money, to get the project through the planning process to a point where it is now shovel-ready. Galway City Council is 100% on board. It has decided to give those involved with the project more than €900,000. I am sure that if we went to the council we would probably get more money from it. There is a shortfall in funding and the community cannot raise the amount involved.

I agree with the Taoiseach. There should be a group working on this matter. I ask that something be done in the short term, not the long term. Do not kick this ball down the road. This area needs a community centre, as do, I am sure, many other areas throughout the country. I welcome the grant that was introduced during the pandemic, which was used to refurbish and repair many community centres. Unfortunately, as the Taoiseach stated, there is no fund for the building of community centres. Why not make this a pilot project? Will the Taoiseach come back to the House in the short term with sort of proposal to allow us to build this much-needed facility.

I commend the Deputy on an audacious move to secure a pilot project for Newcastle. I will talk to the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, again to see what we can do in conjunction with the local authority and to discover whether we can provide some supports for what has clearly been a project developed, from the ground, up by the community in Newcastle. The community activists and leaders there really have the vision to provide a first-class facility for their community. The Deputy put the matter very well in his presentation to the House. I will certainly pursue that with the Ministers involved to see whether, in conjunction with the local authority, we can do more to make sure that what is a shovel-ready project can actually be brought to fruition.

I thank the Taoiseach very much. Finally, we move to Deputy Nolan on behalf of the Rural Independent Group.

As we all know, the impact of Covid-19 on the delivery of health services in the State has been catastrophic. We also know that waiting lists across nearly all medical specialties have increased significantly and that it will be years before we can finally determine the real magnitude of the crisis that has been created in non-Covid-related areas such as cancer, coronary and paediatric care. It also needs to be pointed out, however, that it was wrong of this Government to decide to close down cancer services during the pandemic while the restrictions where in place. Many medical experts asked for the services to remain open and they should have done.

There was another crisis in the making well before Covid-19 was even heard of and it is one that cannot and should not be cloaked by the focus on the pandemic. I am referring to the scandal that is the delivery of the national children's hospital project. This project was originally budgeted at €650 million. The cost escalated to €1.74 billion, with the most recent estimate now reported to be in excess of €2 billion. In February, the chief executive of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board told the Committee of Public Accounts that the hospital is not likely to be fully operational until 2024. This is a full two years after the original contractual endpoint of 2022.

We were also told in February that more than 700 claims have been lodged by various contractors against the project, with the amount associated with these thought to be in excess of €300 million. This project has become a chaotic financial albatross and a health nightmare. It will inevitably drain vital and much-needed resources away from other areas of healthcare. How could it not, given the scale of the moneys involved? It is a fact that this project will, at the very least, end up being €1 billion over budget before a sick child is even seen. To put into context what €1 billion euros could do in the area of health, I was informed, through a reply to a recent parliamentary question, that the total cost of implementing the entire national cancer strategy between now and 2026 would be in the region of €840 million.

I am also aware that the total net budget for adults' and children's palliative care last year was just over €100 million. That leaves us with €60 million that could be utilised. It is infuriating that the Taoiseach and his party, and the previous Government, had two opportunities to call a halt to this. In March 2017 and March 2019, the Rural Independent Group brought the issue to the Government's attention and called for a radical reassessment of the project.

First, I want to say to the Deputy that the health service has performed heroically during Covid-19 in dealing with the impact of the disease. The front-line workers right through to the administrators and senior management have worked very hard, night and day, to protect the people of this country. No services were restricted or closed down without the most serious consideration being given to the well-being of patients. Cancer services were not closed down in their entirety. Even during the first phase, they were not closed down. A whole range of issues happened, of course, in terms of screening programmes and so on and that has caused problems and challenges. There will be significant pressure on the health services now in terms of the restoration of services. In fact, hospitals right now are busier than they were even at the highest levels of activity in 2019. In a way, that is a good thing in terms of people coming back. We need to have a substantial programme to deal with delayed diagnoses and make sure we can accelerate programmes of intervention, diagnostics and so forth. That is something the Minister for Health, his Department and the HSE are very focused on. We have allocated significant funding specifically for the restoration of cancer services in the context of Covid-19 and services more generally.

In regard to the national children's hospital, the situation is well known. The Deputy said we had an opportunity to address it in 2017 and 2019, but we were not in government then. She needs to define what she means by a radical reappraisal or approach to this. She needs to spell out what she means because it is not clear.

It is the wrong site.

Does she mean stopping the project in its entirety? That is all done. The site was chosen independently a long time ago. Obviously, the objective now is to build a first-class paediatric hospital for the children of this country and for future generations. There have been very significant challenges in the context of the site and that is no secret. There have been significant issues and the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board is undertaking an ongoing review of the project and is engaging with the Minister for Health and his Department. The Government continues to keep this matter under review. There remain challenges and the relationships between contractors and the development board have been challenging. We are dealing with the matter incrementally and on an ongoing basis. There is no magic wand that we can wave at this stage in regard to the project but we will stoically deal with it on a proper basis on behalf of the citizens of the country.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. Our healthcare staff certainly were commendable and did a fantastic job. This chaos we have is not of their making. However, an expert in cancer care, Professor O'Reilly, has pointed out that we will see higher numbers of cancer patients for the next decade because services that should have been operational, including screening services, were not operational and, unfortunately, there will be delayed diagnoses.

I want to point out to the Taoiseach that when I call for a radical reassessment, I am talking about a very reasonable proposal to carry out an impact assessment and a re-evaluation of healthcare priorities and objectives. It is unfair that hundreds of millions will be taken out of healthcare while children are languishing on hospital waiting lists. I refer to children with scoliosis who need treatment, children who need audiology services and children who need speech and language therapy. It is those children who are suffering.

I appreciate the Deputy's concerns. By the way, I know Professor O'Reilly and he is an exceptional oncologist, if it is the same person we are talking about. Covid has had this impact, not the Government. Governments do not want to close down services willy-nilly. There is no agenda. We have allocated more resources to the health service in 2021 than ever before. Historic amounts have been allocated to health. The winter initiative plan alone, with €600 million in funding that we gave in advance to the HSE in October, and it was critical to facilitating the health services throughout the Christmas period and particularly during the third wave. That intervention was, perhaps, one of the most effective proactive interventions in quite a while. It did not get much attention because of the third wave and all that happened subsequently.

I am still at a loss as to what the Deputy is saying in terms of the children's hospital and a radical reappraisal. We cannot pull hundreds of millions out of that now. The topping out has happened and so forth. The Deputy needs to make a call here. What is she actually recommending to the Government? Is she saying we should pull the project? Is she saying we should reduce the scale of the project? I am unclear on this.

There needs to be an assessment.

I do not know what that means.

The time is up.