Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I have made the case to the Taoiseach on countless occasions that the half measures he has introduced to rein in cuckoo funds are woefully inadequate and simply will not work.

Apartments, which are perfectly decent homes, are excluded from the Government's plans. This leaves ordinary workers and families, especially in Dublin but in other cities also, at the mercy of these funds that can snap up entire apartment blocks under the noses of people who wish to buy their own homes. Many others find themselves stuck in a never-ending rental trap, paying ridiculous, eye-wateringly high, unaffordable rents to these funds, which still pay no tax on their rental income. We saw this morning that another US fund, Greystar, is set to snap up 342 homes on Griffith Avenue in Dublin. It is a matter of great shame for the Government that speculators in the housing market, who are exploiting citizens in this State, can buy homes ahead of hard-working families. Not only that, these funds then charge workers and families sky-high rent and pay no tax on their rental income. None of that changes under the Government's so-called plan.

It is scandalous that these tax breaks remain in place, but the decision to grant another tax break to allow and encourage these same funds to buy up homes and then lease them back to local councils, costing well above what it would cost the State to build homes, is mind-boggling. It shows complete contempt for our citizens who cannot put a roof over their heads. It is also an absolute and disgraceful waste of taxpayers' money. The Taoiseach approves of speculators and developers filling their boots while ordinary workers and families are left to one side. Again, this morning, we saw that a fund called Alpha Real Capital is snapping up houses and apartments in Finglas, Tallaght and Blanchardstown. It will lease these properties back to the State for the next 25 years. Not alone that, this fund is not finished yet because it plans to buy €500 million worth of homes to be similarly leased back to councils over the next 36 months. This evening, the Government wants to incentivise this fund, and others, to do precisely that. That is what the Government proposes to legislate for tonight with a last-minute sneaky amendment, hijacking a Bill that is supposed to deal with the extension of much-needed supports to business, simply to placate its mates in the funds industry. The Government intends to guillotine that debate. This is utterly shameful.

The Taoiseach leads a Government that will not solve our problem. Its actions add to our housing crisis, make it worse and dig the hole deeper for workers, families and young people caught in this nightmare. An entire generation of people are at their wits' end, wondering if they will ever escape the rental trap and own their own home. The Government's actions do not help them one bit; it is the contrary. I ask the Taoiseach to stop this, take this disgraceful amendment off the table, ditch this plan and get back to the drawing board. Let us have a plan that will work.

It is important that the proper balance and perspective is considered in this debate. The Government took measures to rein in vulture funds, or cuckoo funds as the Deputy calls them, and funds in general, in terms of competing with first-time buyers and to stop the type of activity we saw in Maynooth, which was the bulk purchases of housing estates in competition with first-time buyers. Measures were taken on the planning side, and with the imposition of 10% stamp duty, to prevent that competition with first-time buyers so that they would have the opportunity to buy houses on estates such as these. When that announcement was made by the Ministers for Finance and Housing, Local Government and Heritage, they indicated in the Dáil debate at the time that the exemption would continue for leasing in respect of social housing. The reason for that is leasing has been a feature of social housing for quite some time now. I have a view on that and we will change it.

We are in a transition phase but the issue the Deputy must address, and she is nodding her head, is that 2,400 social housing units can be provided to families through this leasing right now. The tap cannot just be turned off immediately. We can move and transition to different models, which is what I want and which will be reflected in the housing for all strategy, but is the Deputy saying that the 2,400 families who will avail of the social housing we will provide through this model this year should be left on the street or in unacceptable conditions? This mechanism is for families who are on housing lists. We are not talking about first-time buyers, but families who are on housing lists and urgently need accommodation. We all know how long the social housing lists are. We could turn off the tap immediately but, if we do so, 2,400 families will lose out. These are families who are on social housing lists so the Deputy needs to answer the question about what we do in the next number of months.

I am very clear that the focus of Government, without question, is on direct build to own, for social housing in particular. On affordable homes, the State is becoming involved to a significant degree in helping families, or people in general, to buy houses they can afford. Likewise, the cost-rental scheme, which is one of the first of its kind, will enable people to rent at significantly below market value. Only this week, the Government approved the Shanganagh housing project, for example, which is being developed by the Land Development Agency and is before Government at the moment. That project is for approximately 597 houses and includes direct-build social housing, affordable and cost rental. That is the type of action we want.

We need more houses. At the moment, we do not have enough supply. Covid hit us hard last year. In 2020, approximately 1,400 houses were provided through leasing, out of a total of 8,000 or 9,000 social houses built. Over the past number of years, there has been a move in this direction by local authorities. The housing for all strategy will rebalance that significantly in line with our policy of predominantly directly building housing.

Family homelessness, for example, has come down 48%, which is quite significant. Some of the approaches to homelessness by some local authorities have been assisted by leasing. My view is that any model of leasing should be one where the State ends up owning the homes. There will be a move in that direction, but it is important when transitioning to new models that we do not let families who would benefit from social housing in the next number of months lose out. That seems to be what the Deputy is proposing.

Níl sé seo maith go leor. Níl plean an Taoisigh ag obair. Leanfaidh na cistí ar aghaidh leis seo agus tá sé sin náireach. These investment, vulture and cuckoo funds have not been reined in; far from it. The Government facilitates their actions. Not alone does the Government allow them to snap up entire apartment blocks and houses, it incentivises them by giving them a tax break for that behaviour. Do not try to pretend this will work in favour of people caught in the rental trap, or young people or families looking to get a foot on the property ladder and put a stable roof over their heads. No, it will not. It will not at all.

I did not say that.

This is about big bucks and big funds muscling into the property market with the assistance of the Government and, meanwhile, our citizens, families and communities are left with no real chance to ever buy or own their own homes. The most despicable part of this is that, tonight, the Government will sneakily move this through, using the guillotine, with virtually no debate. It is the same old same old, the same old Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the same old crisis and the same suffering for people who live outside the cosy little bubble of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste.

Arís, níl an fhírinne á insint ag an Teachta. Is léir sin agus aiféala atá i gceist aici. Deputy McDonald did not address the point I made. She is into sloganeering this morning because there is a by-election. She is into exploiting the housing issue for her own advancement and electoral advancement. On the ground, all she ever does is the same old Sinn Féin opposing this and that housing project be it in Tallaght, Clondalkin or Fingal.

It is opposing to win votes locally and to court popularity. That is the same old Sinn Féin I have been watching for the last two years. It ruthlessly exploits the housing problem for electoral advancement and is pretty poor at coming up with substance or solutions to the housing problem.

I asked Deputy McDonald about the 2,400 families that could benefit from social housing under this model, which from my perspective is not the ideal model, but we are in transition. I asked the Deputy about those 2,400 families and she ignored it because she is into sloganeering-----

Time is up Taoiseach.

-----the old rhetoric and the nonsense. I have no interest in any fund, none whatsoever. It does not bother me. The only issue I care about is getting people housed. To get people housed, we have to have all hands on deck.

The Government is failing and failing miserably.

We have to produce all forms of housing across the board.

The Government is failing miserably with its eyes wide open. It is shameful

We need direct build affordable cost rental. That is what we have to do. It is about time Sinn Féin came up with solutions and stopped attacking and providing no solutions.

A punch and Judy show.

Can we behave and try to adhere to the rules of the House? I call Deputy Alan Kelly.

My request of the Taoiseach today is a positive one. Eighteen months ago, doctors, nurses, healthcare assistants, laboratory scientists and multiple other workers across our hospitals and primary care system faced a nightmare scenario with regard to Covid-19. Our healthcare workers reported to the front-line of the fight against Covid-19 with little or no personal protective equipment, PPE, at the start of it and they have delivered care for the Irish people through extremely difficult circumstances. In many cases, they had to self-isolate from their families and to pay car parking charges and childcare costs and, often, they did not see their families for weeks. This work brought additional cost on them but they kept turning up for work for our people and the country. As each days passes during this pandemic we become more grateful for the amazing work they have done.

We stood to our feet in this House to applaud our healthcare workers, while others did so from home. The State now needs to show gratitude in a meaningful way that will make an impact on their lives and show that we are truly grateful. In April 2020, I proposed that as a gesture the State would gift our healthcare workers a €1,000 pandemic payment to honour and recognise their work to slow the spread of the virus and to save many lives. Yesterday, workers in our health service, through the trade unions on the staff panel, the INMO, SIPTU, Fórsa, MLSA, Connect and Unite met collectively with the HSE and the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, to discuss a bonus payment for healthcare workers. They are seeking special recognition of their response to the virus. I do not think it can be denied. However, the State is showing a complete lack of flexibility and humility to our healthcare workers. It is denying them a pandemic bonus and additional leave to take account of the extra work they took on last year. This bonus would help them to deal with the huge extra costs they incurred, particularly in the first four to five months of this pandemic.

We call them healthcare heroes often, which is truly what they are, but tokenism is not enough. We need to demonstrate that financially and-or through additional leave. We need to show them how appreciative we are. In February last, the Tánaiste suggested that they be given a cash payment or additional leave. Does the Taoiseach agree that the payment is just and needs to be addressed? Will the Government table a proposal to compensate the healthcare workers? I do not believe the HSE, at managerial or board level, is against such a proposal. Will the Government give it a mandate to engage with the workers and the unions to negotiate such a proposal? As we are approaching the summer break next week, I ask that the Taoiseach would give us some positive on this matter.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. He has been consistently raising it in the House. I agree entirely that workers across the economy, and without question our public servants and front-line healthcare workers, have made an extraordinary contribution to helping society deal with an unprecedented pandemic which has turned upside down all of our lives. Without front-line healthcare workers we would have been in extreme difficulty in meeting and dealing with the challenge of the pandemic. The sense of community and solidarity in this country as we continue to fight Covid is truly remarkable. We must continue in that way. Front-line workers in particular put their lives at risk. Many were infected with Covid and, as we know, some staff lost their lives. Others are suffering from long-Covid. This reminds us of the need to be ever-vigilant in terms of keeping numbers down. We all recall last January and February and the extraordinary pressures on our front-line healthcare workers because of the dramatic rise in Covid cases and hospitalisations. On top of that - this has to be acknowledged - the HSE took a body blow from the cyberattack which just as we were emerging from that wave of Covid placed significant pressures on staff at all levels within our health services.

The Government understands and recognises the issue. Across Departments civil servants have been under a lot of pressure and they may have made many personal sacrifices over the past 16 months and continue to do so. The pandemic remains a constant challenge to us all and still requires our full focus and attention. We are not out of the woods yet. We have a journey to go, but we are getting there. Government is committed to recognising the sacrifices that public sector workers made. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, has been assessing the situation in terms of the European experience and the balance as outlined by Deputy Kelly in terms of monetary award and annual leave. How we recognise the efforts made by workers, in particular front-line healthcare workers, during this pandemic is being actively considered. As stated by the Deputy a claim on behalf of all public health service workers is before the WRC. We will give that active consideration, as the way to do this. I take on board the points made by the Deputy.

I genuinely accept what the Taoiseach says, but the time for platitudes is over. I know a couple who are working in the healthcare service and have a number of children. Childcare cost them thousands of euro, even with family help and a discount. I know of a nurse who was clamped multiple times and whose neighbours volunteered to pay the fines for her. I could tell the Taoiseach stories all day about the people who have made great sacrifices working in healthcare, but it cost them money. It has cost them financially and they have saved lives. As the Taoiseach outlined, they put their lives at risk.

Countries across the world have given a financial bonus to workers. France has given an average €183 per month pay rise to healthcare workers and NHS workers in Scotland received a £500 bonus. In Canada, front-line workers received a $1,200 bonus. In real terms, will the Taoiseach undertake on the floor of the Dáil today to ensure that the Department of Health will work with the HSE over the coming weeks to deliver a real statement of respect to these workers? The buck stops with the Government, not the HSE.

Thank you Deputy.

If the Government gives the HSE the capacity to do this, it will do it. Will you please do that? At this stage, we have - have to - to acknowledge the work and efforts of all these workers. Platitudes, I am sorry, do not work anymore. That does not show respect.

As I said to the Deputy, the Government is committed to recognising the sacrifices that public sector workers, in particular front-line healthcare workers, have made. We are very conscious that across the board extraordinary efforts were made and continue to be made in respect of dealing with the pandemic by workers.

The Government is actively examining this. We want to get the right outcome. The Deputy is correct in saying that it is a Government decision. The Government has to empower the HSE and to give it the resources to enable these decisions-----

It had no power yesterday.

-----and others to be taken.

The HSE said yesterday that it was not even in a position to engage.

This is the umpteenth time I have brought up with the Taoiseach and Ministers in this House the neglect of Rosslare Europort and the lack of any financial input from this Government or previous governments during the 30 years I spent in the haulage industry and the 17 months I have spent in this House. All parties in the House agree that Rosslare Europort is Ireland's most strategic port. All parties agree that it is being neglected, has been neglected and is in dire need of investment. All parties agree that the port has seen a 400% increase in traffic, taking Ireland's valuable imports and exports to and from the EU mainland, since the inception of Brexit. The Government has not provided one penny in assistance. In the teeth of a housing crisis, when the costs of building material imports are rising by the minute, it makes perfect sense for such materials to arrive at the closest point on this island, which is Rosslare Europort. For hauliers, the very serious lack of drivers is causing great problems. Ireland will ultimately end up not being able to compete on a European and world stage as a result. I ask that this be considered with regard to the direct mainland routes that have been made viable by Rosslare Europort's development of them.

We have spent taxpayers' money to make it the most accessible port in the country. The Government intends to spend €500 million of taxpayers' money on a planned upgrade to complete the M11 from Oilgate to Rosslare. Why? From the day I first set foot in this House, I have spoken about the need for joined-up thinking when spending taxpayers' money to give the taxpayer absolute value for money. If we have spent €500 million bypassing New Ross and Enniscorthy and intend to spend another €500 million to complete the M11, surely the Government cannot deny that to establish a wind farm construction base project anywhere but Rosslare would be a waste of taxpayers' money. Giving the taxpayer value for money is what we are elected to do. Giving double the bang for the taxpayers' buck would be a common-sense approach for the Government to take.

Some 30 years ago, the entrepreneur, Liam Griffin, had the foresight to ask the then Government to invest in Rosslare Europort. He outlined the port's potential at the time but that Government did not listen. Is this Government listening now? Upgrading Rosslare Europort is in the country's best interest. It is the kind of common-sense measure that makes economic sense and results in value for money that people want to see from the Government. Does the Taoiseach have that common sense? When will moneys be invested in Rosslare, which is in the country's best interests?

I thank Deputy Verona Murphy for raising this issue in respect of Rosslare. I hope I do have that common sense.

The Taoiseach does not have half as much as I do.

Who could have as much common sense as the Deputy? In the context of Brexit, the importance of Rosslare Europort is very evident. It has given us capacity and flexibility in dealing with the Brexit situation. Another area in which there is potential relates to the development of port facilities to facilitate renewable wind energy generation offshore. We have now developed the maritime planning framework and the maritime area planning Bill 2021. This really sends a strong signal to investors. Government policy is now to have one proper streamlined planning process for offshore wind facilities. That creates opportunities for Rosslare and other ports, although Rosslare is particularly well placed on the east coast in that regard. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is making a lot of progress on the offshore electricity transmission system and the renewable electricity support scheme. We are looking at developments in those areas in the context of Rosslare Europort.

As I have said, the port has responded very well to Brexit and to the impacts of Covid-19. The shipping operators have demonstrated their capacity to respond quickly and to move capacity to where it has been sought by businesses in Ireland, in the United Kingdom and on the Continent. Due to Brexit, Rosslare Europort has seen the largest growth of any port in the number of direct European services with sailings increasing from three a week to 14 return journeys, or 28 journeys in total, weekly. The strategic development plans of Iarnród Éireann and Rosslare Europort for the port include a planned investment of €42 million in customer facilities, port infrastructure, freight facilities, port assets, new technology and linking the new entrance to the port with the proposed new port access road. Clearance works commenced in late 2020 and are scheduled to continue over a number of years in a number of phases. Rosslare Europort is reporting that these works are well under way.

I have already instanced the development of offshore renewable energy generation. The Department of Transport met with Iarnród Éireann and Rosslare Europort on 1 July to explore the potential for European Union funding for the port under the Connecting Europe Facility, CEF, which provides funding for offshore wind energy facilities. The first call for applications under the CEF is expected in September 2021. There is potential for up to 50% of eligible costs for studies and up to the 30% of infrastructural work costs to be funded. Iarnród Éireann and Rosslare Europort are looking at the funding opportunities under the CEF. It is their intention to apply for funding for eligible works and studies in September. The Government will be supporting them in that regard. The Irish Maritime Development Office is carrying out consultations with the renewables sector. There is a lot of interest in this space. I will come back to the Deputy on this in my supplementary response.

I thank the Taoiseach. I understand he may hope to have common sense but he must take on board what is at stake here for the country. This port is regarded as probably the most strategic port not only in Ireland but in Ireland and the UK. It services Northern Ireland and has kept it in the Single Market. Northern Ireland businesses access this port. It has never received a shilling from any government, including this Government, in over 40 years. I spoke with Glenn Carr, the manager of Rosslare Europort, and he told me there is a meeting. That meeting is only to say that the money that can be accessed from a European fund is being looked at. Everything is too slow. In March of this year, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, told me that a process was to be set up which would outline where submissions regarding wind farm projects and wind farm construction base projects were to go. Nothing has happened on that front. We do not have time. I reiterate that the taxpayer should, and must, get value for money. We can get double the bang for the taxpayers' buck by investing in Rosslare without making matters subject to competition.

That meeting is important because it can open the door and create a pathway for an application for significant funding, which would be backed by the State, from the CEF. The Department of Transport has been in touch with the European Commission seeking to negotiate changes to the criteria for this facility which would allow for EU funding for basic port infrastructure with a view to improving connectivity and for port infrastructure for offshore wind generation in the CEF's next programme, which is to run from 2021 to 2023. That programme will be adopted this month and this will allow ports, including Rosslare Europort, to apply for CEF funding. As I said earlier, we are very conscious of the potential of Rosslare Europort. Some investment in infrastructure has happened because of Brexit, as the Deputy will know. The key point is that the post-Brexit scenario has been positive for Rosslare. The offshore wind issue also presents significant potential.

We in Ireland, along with much of Europe, imported the idea of lockdowns from China. However, in China hospitals were built in 14 days in response to Covid-19. The HSE's capacity census last year showed that ICU capacity in Ireland increased from 255 beds to 280 beds in the nine months from April to December. At the end of last year, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, announced that capacity was to be increased to 446 beds, including an increase to 321 beds by the end of this year. However, capacity has only been increased by nine beds to date this year.

I would like the Taoiseach to explain what we are doing to increase hospital capacity. The Tánaiste announced earlier this week that our hospitals are under pressure. I do not remember a time when they were not. ICUs operate, generally, to capacity and one would rarely have a time like now when 40 ICU beds are free. Yet we are being frightened again that our ICUs will come under pressure and we will have to endure more restrictions and, potentially, lockdowns. What are we doing to increase capacity? I appreciate the Taoiseach cannot develop ICU beds overnight and it takes time. However, we are not talking about 14 days, like China. We are more than 14 months into this and progress is slow.

On Monday last, there were 278 people on trolleys in hospitals in Ireland, 63 of them in Limerick. This Monday, there were 293 people on trolleys, 60 of them in Limerick. We know that sort of overcrowding is a recipe for disaster in the event there is another wave of Covid. If we look to other countries, like Israel, where the success of the vaccine roll-out was lauded, there has been another wave. There will be more and more waves but all I hear is that we are putting all our eggs in the vaccination basket and doing, apparently, very little to develop our healthcare capacity. I am not saying we should not do both but what is the Government doing to increase healthcare capacity? We have grandiose promises from the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and there are three former Ministers for Health in the Cabinet, including the Taoiseach, who have delivered plenty of grandiose promises but no additional capacity.

I would like an update on capacity and what will be done about it, as opposed to what will be promised.

I thank the Deputy for his question. All health systems across Europe and the world come under pressure in a pandemic. That applies through wave after wave in different countries. The acute hospital system, as the Deputy says, continues to be in a challenging position, particularly with the significant backlog of non-Covid care arising from the demand for Covid care in the early part of the year. The ransomware attack of 14 May exacerbated that, particularly in terms of the front line.

The Government has really moved on healthcare and the allocation of resources across the system. Budget 2021 saw an extra €4 billion added to the health budget. It is the largest budget increase in the history of the State. That funding signals how determined the Minister and the Government are to funding expansion and improvement across the board in our health and social care services. That is a 20% increase. Some €1.67 billion of that went towards Covid-related care supports, including the vaccination programme, but there was significant additional funding to address capacity issues and the deficits by funding more beds and employing more staff.

The €600 million winter initiative has made a significant difference to the capacity of the health service. Without it, we would have been in real trouble over the Christmas period. I am glad we took the initiative early last autumn to sanction that. Had it not been for that level of investment in home care packages, community diagnostics and acute capacity, we would have been in far greater difficulty during the winter period. Some €236 million in revenue and €40 million in capital expenditure was provided as part of the winter plan in budget 2021 to fund general acute beds on a permanent basis in our acute hospitals. This funding has provided an additional 834 general acute beds to the system over the number available on 1 January 2020. We need more information from 6 May but, because of the ransomware attack, it is not readily available. In addition, 73 sub-acute beds have been provided under the winter plan. Funding of €52 million was provided in budget 2021 to allow for 66 permanent critical care beds to be put in place to bring permanent baseline capacity to 321 by the end of 2021. Baseline capacity at the beginning of 2020 was 255. The HSE has advised that 41 of those 66 beds are staffed and open on a permanent basis, bringing the national total to 296. We want to get to 321.

The number of beds open on any day can fluctuate due to a variety of factors, including the use of surge capacity. The HSE also has capacity in the private sector arising from agreements with private hospitals on additional needs that will emerge. There have been real tangible gains on capacity increases.

I have no doubt money is being spent. The Government is throwing money around like confetti. Our borrowings are entirely unsustainable. However, it is not having an impact. The Taoiseach said 296 critical care beds; Dr. Colm Henry, the chief clinical officer of the HSE, said 289 last week. Either way, it is a long way short of the number promised by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. In addition, we provide 6% of our budget to mental health. I suggested mental health was suffering because of Covid and the restrictions. I was pilloried for it but it seems, unfortunately, that it is suffering. Yet our funding to that remains low. Above all, the barometer is the number of people on trolleys. That number is still at an all-time high. Whatever the Government is doing and whatever money it is spending, it is not having the impact we need. There were 60 people in trolleys in Limerick last Monday. That is not good enough at any time, especially in a pandemic, when we know there will be more waves to endure and we cannot restrict and lock down indefinitely.

We need to give credit to the health system. It stood up strongly to a difficult wave in the winter period. The investment in the winter initiative plan was key in enabling us to have a better flow through hospitals even before the wave came. November and December were better months than in previous years for flow through hospitals and the home care packages were key to that. The 5 million extra home care hours provided had a significant impact on flow through acute hospitals. The overall health service plan provided for about 16,000 additional recruits. The biggest challenge is getting a sufficiency of staff quickly in all areas indicated. Recruitment remains a big challenge. The HSE put forward that it could recruit 16,000 people. It is moving in that direction and over time will get there but getting the levels of staff that have been provided for is an issue.