Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Before we start, I ask Members to be conscious of the time limits.

Ba mhaith liom i dtús báire fáilte a chur roimh an mbeart a shocraigh foireann idirbheartaíochta Shinn Féin maidir le hAcht na Gaeilge agus an amlíne a leagadh síos chun é seo a chur i gcrích. Tá cainteoirí Gaeilge ag fanacht le cúig bliana déag ar a gcearta bunúsacha agus ar aitheantas agus beidh sé acu i mbliana. Guím gach rath ar mo chomhghleacaí, Michelle O’Neill, agus í ag glacadh an phoist mar chomhcheannaire arís tráthnóna.

I begin this morning by welcoming the deal that was struck last night by the Sinn Féin negotiating team in securing a timetable for the delivery of Acht na Gaeilge for citizens in the North. Irish speakers have been waiting for more than 15 years for basic rights and recognition to be delivered. I note that the leader of the DUP, Edwin Poots, has agreed to nominate Mr. Givan for the position of First Minister this morning. I hope that that commitment is delivered upon. I wish my colleague, Michelle O’Neill, the very best as she takes up the position of joint head of Government in the North again this afternoon.

Two significant reports published by the Central Bank and the Central Statistics Office, CSO, yesterday show that house prices are continuing to rise and show no sign of slowing. We have seen time and time again in the context of the CSO’s property price index - this was shown again yesterday - that prices have increased by 4.5% State-wide in the past 12 months. The Central Bank has stated that there is a massive imbalance between supply and demand. The Tánaiste knows that this is as a result of the Government's and Fine Gael’s refusal and failure to adequately invest in housing over the past decade. The Central Bank states that this is likely to fuel significant house price growth in the medium term. This, of course, will have knock-on effects on rents. Homes are increasingly out of reach for ordinary workers and families. This includes many people on decent incomes. I genuinely think that the Government simply does not get it or does not understand the scale of the problem and the level of the anger that is out there.

As house prices continue to rise, it is becoming even more difficult for renters and others to save when so much of what they get in their pay packets is eaten up by rent and other living costs. Many see home ownership as an impossible dream. Regrettably, that is an outlook that Fine Gael and the Government have imposed on so many people. We need to reverse this trend and we need to do it now. We need to start providing people with hope. We must support those who cannot afford to move out of their family homes, those who are paying exorbitant rents and those who are struggling to access affordable accommodation or own their own homes.

Action must be taken now. That means supply-led solutions. The Tánaiste knows that it is not just Sinn Féin that is saying this. Yesterday’s reports from the Central Bank and the CSO follow on from the recent assessment by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, to the effect that the State must and can double capital investment in housing. This is a policy that Sinn Féin has been calling on those in power to adopt for years, only for our pleas to be arrogantly dismissed by Fine Gael and the Government. It is time to implement our proposals. The Government has an opportunity, in budget 2022, to truly make a difference for these ordinary workers and those struggling to buy homes. In the interim, we need to see real action to help those who have been caught in the rental trap.

Will the Government take on board what Sinn Féin and the ESRI are advocating, namely, the doubling of capital investment in the October budget in respect of homes that people can afford? That is the bar that we expect the Government to reach in the budget. Will it even try to do so? We also ask the Government to move to ensure that renters are protected by a three-year ban on rent increases?

I thank the Deputy very much for his question. I start by joining him in welcoming the agreement that was reached last night to appoint a new Executive and a new First Minister, Paul Givan, and facilitate the reappointment of Michelle O’Neill as deputy First Minister. Mr. Givan and Ms O'Neill are now co-equals and joint heads of the Administration in Northern Ireland. Despite the fact that one of their titles may suggest otherwise, they are joint leaders of that Administration and should be treated as such. I look forward to meeting them on Friday should the meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council go ahead.

I welcome the fact that we have agreement on an Irish language Act, Acht na Gaeilge, going ahead as well as increased legal protections and rights for Ulster Scots speakers. This should not threaten anyone’s identity and it is supported by the majority of parties and people in Northern Ireland. There is a Welsh Language Act, a Gaelic Language Act in Scotland and an Official Languages Act here. What was agreed last night has been a long time coming. A commitment was made by the sovereign Governments at St. Andrews a long time ago and a commitment was made by the parties in Northern Ireland to each other. I look forward to seeing all of those involved honouring their commitments on language rights and legislation within the next year.

Let there be no doubt that I am somebody who believes in homeownership, as does my party and the Government. More than 65% of people in Ireland own their own homes. We have one of the higher rates of homeownership in the developed world. That is not because of Sinn Féin, it is because of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The problem we face is that that is not a reality for the vast majority of younger people. By younger people, I do not just mean those in their 20s and 30s. The situation has got that bad, I am also referring to people in their 40s. It is our mission over the next three years to turn that around and make homeownership a reality again for many more people than is the case today.

On property prices, the Deputy is correct in saying that they are going up. They went up by approximately 4.5% in the past year. It is worth pointing out that, notwithstanding this, home values in Ireland are still substantially lower than was the case when they peaked 14 years ago. Essentially, what has happened is that the Central Bank rules have been successful in putting a lid on house prices - they are less than they were 14 years ago - but they have caused rents to soar. That is real problem and has created a perverse situation and a real paradox whereby houses are cheaper to buy than they were 14 years ago but many people cannot get adequate mortgage approval to buy homes. They now end up paying more in rent than they would do if they were able to get an adequate mortgage. I welcome the fact that the Central Bank is now reviewing its policy.

I appreciate that this is a complex matter. There is a concern that if we allow people to secure larger mortgages, it may cause house prices to rise. Nobody wants that to happen. At the same time, it may actually drive supply and get developers and builders into the space where they are building properties for amounts that people, if they can get mortgages, can afford. All of that has to be worked out. There is a potential role for Government in all of this. If we look at the model in the Netherlands, for example, the Government there provides partial guarantees for first-time buyers to obtain mortgages for reasonably priced houses in order to protect them against negative equity. Perhaps we can examine models in that regard.

In the context of the Deputy’s question on increasing the budget for housing, we continue to do that. We have increased that budget dramatically. In 2016, 600 social houses were built. In 2019 and 2020 it was more like 6,000.

There has been a tenfold increase in the building of social housing by the State and its agencies in that brief period. Once we had the money to do it, we did it. We will build on that, and the Deputy will see the details of that in Housing for All when it is published.

The Tánaiste never fails to surprise me. The language he is coming out with today is that it is not as bad as it was 14 years ago. Does he know where ordinary people are at in his constituency and in Dublin Bay South? Does he know what people are being asked to pay to buy their own home? There is a serious problem and the problem is not, as he is suggesting, bigger mortgages. The problem relates to what the ESRI, the Central Bank, Sinn Féin and many others have been saying. The issue is not about stimulating more demand, which will push up house prices. The demand is there; listen to ordinary people. It is about dealing with the supply. The ESRI is saying we should double capital investment from where it is today. The Tánaiste should not skirt around the issue.

This is a man-made problem. Indeed, the Tánaiste's Government has created it. Because it decided not to build houses over the past decade in the volume that was required, we have a situation, as the Central Bank points out, where the imbalance between supply and demand is pushing up house prices and the Central Bank is telling homeowners that this is going to continue.

I again ask the Tánaiste whether he will commit to doubling capital investment in this year's budget and giving that relief to renters by freezing rents for the next three years.

I think the Deputy is trying to misrepresent what I said, and that is exactly what he did the last time we discussed the issue of housing in the Chamber. Unfortunately, he was partially successful in that regard. That is a poor reflection on him but also on others who accept his spin too often when it comes to the issue of housing.

To answer the Deputy's question, the Government has dramatically increased investment in social housing. We will do so more, and he will see the details of that in Housing for All when it is published. Social housing benefits everyone. It gets people off the housing list and into social housing, frees up more properties for other people to rent, thus bringing down rents, and means there is less competition for first-time buyers and people who are upgrading. Social housing is a good investment and it benefits everyone in society, not just those who receive social housing.

What the majority of people in Ireland want, however, is to own their own homes, and we have to look at that end of things as well because it is not just one simple solution that solves all these problems. This is a complex area and it requires many different policy interventions. More social housing is absolutely needed and I ask Sinn Féin councillors to please vote for it on local authorities. We do but they do not. The solution involves cost rental and affordable housing schemes but it also involves the building of more private homes that people can buy because that is what the vast majority of people want.

I want to talk about the new national children's hospital, that totem to Fine Gael's legendary fiscal prudence. Between 2017 and 2019, 11 separate reviews and audits of the project were commissioned at a cost of €700,000. An additional report was then sought and PwC carried it out at a cost of €450,000. After 12 reports costing €1.15 million, we have learned that the taxpayer will be very lucky to emerge with any change from €1.7 billion for this project. A further review, by the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board and the Department of Health, has been ongoing since last year, and the Minister for Health was given a draft of it in January. In February, the Committee of Public Accounts was told the report would be concluded within weeks, at which point we would have some clarity on what the budget would be, and we could then expect to discuss that at a meeting of the committee.

There appears to be a new approach now that there is a new Secretary General. A recent letter to the Committee of Public Accounts from Mr. Robert Watt stated, "There is an extremely high likelihood that any discussion on costs or dates, however hypothetical, even from the draft stages of the process, would prejudice enforcement of the existing contract and very likely undermine the role of the Development Board in its ongoing engagement with the main contractor." It is, essentially, telling us to butt out, that it is none of our business. According to Mr. Watt, all of the most controversial information about this project, such as the cost and the timeline, is suddenly too sensitive to publish. What a stroke of luck that appears to be for the Department.

Last year, the Tánaiste told the House that if you want to keep the people's trust, you need to be transparent. He needs to be transparent about this. This is a huge project. When the Irish Independent asked him about the escalating cost of the hospital in 2019, he replied that "nobody will think it a poor investment" when it opens. Does he still believe this? Millions of euro have been spent on reviews and further millions have been spent on consultants and PR companies. Tens of millions of euro have been spent on a botched procurement process and 800 claims have been lodged by the contractor, up from 700 just four months ago. There are children in this country who cannot access basic disability services and others who are awaiting surgeries for scoliosis, yet we are building the most expensive hospital in the world. It is obscene.

Nothing has changed with the spec of this hospital since the estimate was calculated at €900 million. What has changed are the delivery time and the price tag. We desperately need the new children's hospital but did we need to build the most expensive hospital in the world by mistake? Will the Tánaiste practise what he preaches about transparency? Does he have any idea what the cost of the hospital will be or what the timeframe will be? Does he have confidence in the hospital development board to manage the project?

I do have confidence in the hospital board and the Department of Health to manage this project. To answer the Deputy's question, it is my firm view that when this project is complete, few people will think it was a bad investment. Those who have seen the facilities we now have in Blanchardstown and the first phase of that development, namely, the urgent care centre, will see what an improvement it is on the facilities at the Temple Street hospital, for example. The same applied to the Luas, the port tunnel, Terminal 2 and Knock Airport. There were many critics of the investment made in those projects, few of whom even recall today that they were critics. Although when the hospital is built and commissioned, people will change their minds on this, I accept that in the meantime, it will be a controversial story and issue.

On the analysis and costs, the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board has, at the request of the Minister for Health, undertaken an assessment of the project. The board and the Department are nearing the finalisation of this detailed analysis and this will provide the appropriate assurances to the Government that there has been a robust analysis of the way forward to ensure the delivery of a world-class children's hospital. In December 2018, the previous Government approved an investment decision of €1.433 billion for the capital project. Several items are not included in this figure because there is no price certainty for them, nor can there be any for the duration of the project, including construction, hyperinflation and the impact of Covid-19.

Until the analysis work is complete, it would be premature to speculate on any definitive budget or timeline updates. I confirm that no revised estimate has been shared with the Government. Since the analysis relates to a live contract, it is commercially sensitive and must remain confidential to ensure that the contractual relationships are not adversely affected and that the Government gets the best price at the end of the day. Relevant stakeholders will be updated when the analysis is complete.

I do not disagree that the hospital is needed, but I want to quote something else the Tánaiste said. On Newstalk in 2019, he stated: "It's scandalous that the Government - or rather the Government's agents - got the estimate ... so wrong." Nobody is disputing that the hospital is needed. Indeed, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who is sitting behind the Tánaiste, wrote to the Minister for Health seeking an update and clarity on this. There is widespread concern about the escalating costs and the escalating number of claims.

We were given an assurance that the hospital development board would appear before the Committee of Public Accounts and the Joint Committee on Health. There does not seem to be any clarity on this. What seems to have changed is that there is a new Secretary General in place, who is giving cover in respect of the board's appearance at these committees, saying that even a hypothetical discussion of this matter will prejudice the project. Have the vacancies on the board been filled? If not, an under-strength board is hardly what is required for a project of this size that has been out of control.

Regarding the claims made by the contractor, the contractor submitted more than 800 claims for additional money for this project. The board is disputing and defending those claims. It has been extremely successful in discussions and arbitrations in ensuring most of the claims made by the contractor have been rejected and, in some cases, reduced very significantly. Indeed, there are now four cases before the High Court, which forms part of the management process. As those matters are before the High Court, I cannot say much more about them. Suffice to say, the board is defending the State against claims and has been very successful, at least so far, in defending our interests against the contractor in that regard.

When it comes to the issue of vacancies on the board, there is a campaign on stateboards.ie for a new chairperson. Applications closed on 14 May and the Public Appointments Service, PAS, will work through them in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Mr. Tim Bouchier-Hayes has taken on the role of interim chair. On 23 February, the Minister appointed two new members to the board from an existing PAS panel. There are three vacancies and a panel selection for ordinary members of the board will be established as soon as the new chairperson is appointed.

It is a basic human right in a civilised, modern society to have a safe, clean, uninterrupted water supply. It may be construed that I have a conflict of interest because my company sometimes works on repairing and replacing water mains. However, in many parts of Kerry, especially mid-Kerry and the Killarney area, residents, businesses and hotels are faced with a constant barrage of outages day after day. Residents in places like Barleymount, Aghadoe, Laharan, Pallas and Beaufort, from the Gap of Dunloe and all along the board of works road from Beaufort to Gearagh Cross, people are tormented. People in the areas of Faha, Listry, Foynes, Milltown, Castlemaine and Farranfore are suffering outages day after day. Even New Street in Killarney town had one the day before yesterday.

The long and the short of it is the shambolic condition of the pipe network is the cause, much of which is obsolete and contains asbestos that needs to be replaced. Many of these asbestos pipes have exceeded their 35-year lifespan, which means they should be replaced. The large asbestos pipe on the central regional water supply from Lough Guitane through Killarney to Tralee, supplying our hospitals and more than 60,000 customers, is in a precarious condition and needs to be urgently replaced. More often than not, it breaks in Farranfore on the N22. If it were not for our excellent Kerry County Council water repair crews, under Freddie Bartlett and others, who use their vast experience, intelligence and expertise to repair the pipes as quickly as possible, save as much as water possible, build up the pressure and restore the supply to customers, the situation would be very much worse.

I also thank the fire brigade, which has had to be brought in recently to replenish water supplies in the Killarney and Aghadoe areas. It cannot be right that the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, and local authorities want these crews to move across to Irish Water. These crews include engineers, technicians and general operatives who have given valuable service. It is not fair or right to put them under such pressure to move across to Irish Water. Many of them have worked for 20, 30 and even up to 40 years repairing water supplies for Kerry County Council. I value the experience they bring to the water service because I worked with many of them going back in time. I understand the value they add to the water network system.

I appreciate we need to invest more in our water network. We are currently preparing the national development plan, NDP, review, which will set out the level of public investment in all forms of infrastructure between now and 2030. It is the update, or refresh, of Project Ireland 2040. We expect to complete that in the next few months. As part of that, we are giving consideration to additional funding for Irish Water.

However, there is a difficulty, though not an insurmountable one, in that Irish Water is a State agency on the public balance sheet. When it comes to allocating money for Irish Water, it has to compete with the health service, education and justice for capital funding. The model we previously proposed was that it would be a publicly-owned utility, a semi-State company like the ESB, for example, which would be able to borrow against its own balance sheet and assets using income from charges. That would have created much more money to invest in water and we could have done much more than we now can do, but that decision is made and the ship has sailed on that issue.

I appreciate the point made by the Deputy. We will do our best to find additional capital for Irish Water over the next couple of years but there is an opportunity cost associated with it. That money cannot then go into housing, public transport, health or education. While we may be able to borrow at the moment at very low interest rates, we still have a borrowing limit. We expect the European Central Bank to start unwinding quantitative easing around March next year and fiscal rules to be reimposed in 2023.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. It is very clear that Irish Water is underfunded and the pipes need to be replaced and updated. It is costing a bomb to keep repairing the breaks that are going on. The break in Farranfore costs, I believe, €35,000 each time it happens. That is a massive sum of money.

I will also highlight that people in other rural areas of Kerry, such as east Kerry, Scartaglin, Castleisland, Lyracrompane and Fieries, cannot afford to pay for group water schemes. The user cost is approximately €8,000 or €10,000 per house but, lo and behold, because Irish Water is stranded for money, it is looking for €2,000 more from each house on top of the group water scheme cost that Kerry County Council charges. This is not fair; it is double charging. People cannot afford it. They have to drop their request or application for a group water scheme because of this additional cost Irish Water has recently demanded of them. It has stopped five, six or seven group water schemes going ahead.

I am not sure if that was a question but I heard the points the Deputy made. They were very fair points and very well made. On the particular issues relating to Kerry, if the Deputy sends me more details about them, I will be happy to take them up with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and provide him with a more detailed reply.

The Tánaiste knows as well as I do that when one fights hard for something one does not give it up easily. The Tánaiste fought hard for the leadership of Fine Gael; he will not walk away from it. All my adult life I, and tens of thousands of women in this country, have fought very hard to be free from the shackles of the Catholic Church over our reproductive rights. We won that fight three years ago when we won the repeal referendum.

My question today is about the proposed new national maternity hospital. A recent statement from the Religious Sisters of Charity claimed they will have no involvement in the management of St. Vincent's Hospital Group, the new private charity named St. Vincent's Holdings, but this is technically incorrect. The nuns may no longer have any involvement in the day-to-day management of the hospital, but they may be able to appoint directors and are entitled to appoint the successors of the new holding company.

The Religious Sisters of Charity say they have gifted the St. Vincent's Hospital site to the people of Ireland.

I ask if the people of Ireland are obliged to accept a gift from nuns who were involved in the Magdalen laundries, in mother and baby homes and in running a hospital that refused to provide sterilisation, vasectomy or any reproductive rights to women and men. They can take their gift. If they want to give a gift of land for a new national maternity hospital, they should gift it to the State. The women of this country and those of us who fought so hard should not go forward with a new national maternity hospital that is still dominated by the ethos of the St. Vincent's group.

Recent statements by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and the Ministers, Deputies Stephen Donnelly and Eamon Ryan, say they intend to proceed with the Mulvey plan. That plan was welcomed by the former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, in 2016. We should remind ourselves that predated repeal and repeal changed everything. Unless the Government is intent on trashing the outcome of the repeal campaign, a couple of questions need to be honestly and firmly answered. Even if those answers include a guarantee of full reproductive rights, including gender alignment, abortion and vasectomy, we still do not believe the nuns and we do not necessarily believe the Government because the facts speak for themselves. The constitutional make-up of the new St. Vincent's holding group still allows for the voluntary organisations in the publicly-funded healthcare premises to maintain their private Catholic ethos. I do not believe the nuns. I do not disrespect them by saying that but I have to believe people based on their history and the level of trust they have given to us.

Will the Tánaiste present the current draft of the legal framework to the Dáil for examination? Will he acknowledge that the Mulvey plan was made redundant by the repeal referendum and must be scrapped? Will he act to take the new maternity hospital into full public ownership?

I thank the Deputy. At the outset, I would like to state that I believe we all respect and value the role played by the Religious Sisters of Charity in providing healthcare and education down the years when the State did not. We all support the building of a new national maternity hospital at Elm Park. We need it and women need those modern facilities. Holles Street is a great hospital but it belongs to 200 years ago, not to today.

There are problems in going forward with this project. The Deputy and I agree on this more than she may believe. The hospital will be owned by the State. The governing constitution, memorandum and legal documents for the new hospital guarantee that all services currently available in Holles Street, including terminations, abortions, sterilisations, will be available in the new hospital.

There is not a concern around that but the Government has a big concern about two other aspects. First is the ownership of the land the hospital will be built on. That is not being gifted to the State but to a private charity. It is proposed that there be a 99-year lease to the State. We have a difficulty with that. We do not think the safeguards around that are strong enough. The land would be owned by a private charity rather than the State and only a 99-year lease would be provided. Second, we have a difficulty with the governance of the proposed new hospital. It will be a voluntary hospital. That is okay. There are many such hospitals and they work well. However, the board will not be appointed by the Government. That is a real difficulty because a hospital that is almost fully funded by the State should have a significant number or majority of members of the board appointed by the Government.

That is the problem we face at the moment. There are two things we are happy enough about: owning the hospital and the guarantee that all procedures legal in the State will be provided in the hospital. There is a difficulty about the ownership of the land it will be on. We are not happy with the lease proposal or the governance arrangements. We are working through those things at the moment.

I cannot accept the guarantee that full reproductive rights, including gender realignment, will be available because the constitution of the new holding company states that its core values are identical to those of the St. Vincent's hospital holding group. That constitution needs to change. I accept the Tánaiste is concerned about some of the things we are concerned about. Ideally, the State should purchase the site by compulsory purchase order, fully pay for it, build it, staff it and run it without any interference from a charity to which the nuns can appoint directors. That is the only way out of this.

The Mulvey report on which this is premised has been outdated by the repeal result. That changes everything. People in this country feel so strongly about it that there is a mounting campaign, which will be outside the gates of Leinster House on 26 June, which is Saturday week. I invite everybody who is concerned about our future rights to full choice and no less to be there. We still have not had a review of the abortion legislation and that leaves many questions unanswered.

From the point of view of the Government, it is an absolute requirement that the constitution and the memorandum and articles of association, memo and arts, for the new hospital must specify that any procedures and treatments legal in the State are available in that hospital. There can be no ambiguity about that. That includes sterilisation, IVF, assisted reproduction and terminations. I will look into the issue of gender reassignment. I was not aware that was done in maternity hospitals. I thought it was done in adult general hospitals. It may be a separate matter.

The Government is working on this. I agree that the ideal scenario would be ownership of the site. However, in terms of design it is an integrated building with the existing hospital, rather than a separate building. That makes it tricky but I agree that would be a better option than what is being proposed, which is a 99-year lease with certain guarantees. That is not adequate in the view of the Government at the moment.